Before I tell you why I prefer the label humanist to atheist (literally, “not a theist”), I have to ask, what is a theist? Easy, you answer, someone who believes in a god or gods.
A majority worldwide, and over 70% of Americans believe there is one God, and they generally agree they are worshiping the same God, but in different ways, ways they often believe will give them a good result in this life and/or an afterlife.
So really, when we ask a person what they believe, we are usually more concerned with, and they are more likely to answer with something that reflects their religion of choice or birth. “I’m a Christian. Jesus is my savior.” “I’m Jewish. one of the Chosen People.” “I’m a Muslim, praise be to Allah (God).” And in the United States, where most are Christian, “I’m Catholic.” or Episcopal, Baptist, etc. with all the distinguishing beliefs that each carries.
Theists not only believe in a higher power, but usually subscribe to a specific shared set of beliefs regarding that higher power and the possibilities of an afterlife, and how one should live one’s life in order to fulfill the higher power’s wishes or demands.
There is also a fairly large group of people who one might call unaffiliated or agnostic who will say they believe in or at least don’t disbelieve in God or a higher power or say they are “Christian,” only meaning that they believe Jesus existed and was special and agree with the concepts associated with him. They generally go along with God or Christ being a force for good, and maybe if they live a good life, they’ll probably have a good result if there is an afterlife. Of course people move between agnosticism and belief and change beliefs in the course of their lives.
What does an atheist believe? The short answer is whatever hum (the non-gender pronoun hum can mean he, she, him, her, etc.) wants. Since hum does not subscribe to one of the world’s religions, hum does not have a set of rituals to follow, like praying at certain times, attending meetings on certain days of the week to talk about shared beliefs or receive instruction on them, eating or not eating certain foods or following certain rules or laws written in ‘sacred’ texts and interpreted over hundreds or thousands of years by scholars or visionaries, or powerful leaders.
Many theists wonder if an atheist feels free to steal, kill or rape freely without fear of retribution. Rest assured, we live in the same world you do and follow the same laws which are enforced in the same way. There are many who make the case that atheists, because we have to think through what we believe to be right or wrong as we consider where our natural instincts or desires lead us rather than referring to an ancient text or asking a clergyman, are more moral than the many throughout history who have at times followed their religious leaders to commit atrocities.
When I think about what I believe, I’m not thinking about what I don’t believe. That list is very, very long, and extends to all kinds of supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theories, from a burning bush that is not consumed and talks to Moses to paranormal activity or ability such as ESP, ghosts, or psychic abilities. Essentially, I’m a skeptic.
Humanism sprang up in the early 20th century and, according to Wikipedia, “rejected revealed knowledge, theism-based morality and the supernatural.” Sometime later religious conservatives began to refer to it as “Secular Humanism,” to distinguish it from some religious, non-fundamentalists who adopted humanist principles.
As a humanist (I prefer no capital H, because it’s just a label, not a religion or organization), I believe that no one has the answers to “life’s persistent questions,” which Guy Noir, a character of Garrison Keillor’s, seeks. I believe that this is the only life we have and our goal as humans should be to make the most of it: learning, loving, laughing, creating. I believe that through science, we have the potential of solving problems and making our lives better. I value kindness, taking care of the planet, being a force for good. I acknowledge that not everything is known, and therefore many things are possible, such as that there is a remote possibility life or memory may continue in some form after death and even that there could be a “higher power” that in some way influences life on earth. That doesn’t make me a theist, or even agnostic, but it allows me to be a humanist.