By Eric Jayne
A favorite TV show from my youth was ALF. The popular NBC sitcom, which ran from 1986 to 1990, was about a three-feet tall furry, wisecracking Alien Life Form (“ALF”) who crash landed his spaceship in a suburban family’s backyard garage. The family protects ALF from the military and nosy neighbors throughout the series while ALF tries to make sense of life on earth.
One of my favorite scenes from the show is where the family patriarch, Willie, clears up confusion about a $10,000 balloon payment being for their home mortgage and not for an actual balloon. He also helped ALF understand that they are not selling their garage as they prepared for a garage sale. “So you understand what a balloon payment is?” Willie asks ALF. “Yeah”, responds ALF. “And you know what a garage sale is?” asked Willie. After ALF confirms that he does he asks “Now can you explain secular humanism again?” To which Willie says “No”. Here's a YouTube link to the full episode (the scene happens in the first 3 minutes with the opening credits wedged between the exchange)..
I share this 1980s sitcom exchange because in a light-hearted way it illustrates why I choose not to identify as humanist. As a former Christian who overcame a lot of bible-based instruction, and as someone who is an active proponent for separation between religion and government, I like my non-belief in God and other supernatural forces to be simply and clearly identifiable. Not only does the word “atheist” provide simplicity and clarity, but, as far as I can tell, "atheist" and "secular humanist" are basically the same thing.
The Council for Secular Humanism website defines secular humanism as a comprehensive lifestance that “goes beyond” atheism by addressing issues related to values, meaning, and identity. For me, atheism, iteself, offered such a bold and powerful viewpoint that when I finally reached the atheist conclusion my already humane values, meaning, and identity crystallized. No longer did I need to make sense of eternal punishment ordered by a benevolent and perfect god (who created an imperfect corporeal world) for the "crime" of not believing in Him. Thanks to atheism I was free to think and form my worldview without consideration for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent figure from ancient Mediterranean folklore.
The Council’s website further explains that secular humanism is a naturalistic philosophy that proclaims supernatural forces do not exist and that knowledge is best achieved through the scientific method. It’s also reported that secular humanism provides a cosmic outlook, primarily meaning that humanists accept evolution and reject the notion of creationism. Of course these are things that directly fall in line with atheism as well.
A consequentialist ethical system is the last defining component for secular humanism. As explained by the Council’s website, this ethical system "is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority." I’m certain that the vast majority of those under the atheist banner also reject the notion of divine authority and recognize that right and wrong--good and bad, moral and immoral--should be determined by the consequences that are produced.
Unlike secular humanism, the definition of atheism is limited to a lack of belief in God, gods, and any supernatural beings. Secular humanism does indeed go beyond atheism—but in definition only. In practice it’s virtually the same thing. The most significant difference between the two is that secular humanism emphasizes the typical results from reaching the atheist conclusion. The only meaningful difference between atheism and secular humanism is a simple matter of how one chooses to identify.
As a social worker, a church/state separation activist, and a former Christian who overcame years of religious instruction, I want to challenge the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with godlessness until there's vast agreement in our socieity that decency and god belief are mutually exclusive, and that religious dogma is an improper tool for building an equitable society.
I want to volunteer at food banks as an atheist. I want to donate holiday gifts to underprivileged families as an atheist. I want to do business as an atheist. I want to deliver social advocacy in my community as an atheist because demonstrating kindness and good citizenship as an atheist is how atheism (the foundation of secular humanism) will gain more acceptance among our neighbors, colleagues, and family.
I am an atheist instead of a secular humanist because for me being an atheist is a more effective and empowering thing to be.