When people begin to feel the draw of a secular outlook, the social advantages of traditional religion begin to make themselves evident. After all, it’s hard to keep going to church if you “convert” to atheism, but perhaps the bulk of your relationships are through church. What to do? And in fact, it’s not just the relationships that keep people going to church when their conviction falters. They love the music, the sense of transcendence, the progressive politics (you know, if they go to that kind of church), and so on. Compared to all that, atheism looks a little… anemic. Isn’t atheism insufficient? Don’t you need something more?
“Atheism: noun – (1) the doctrine or belief that there is no god; (2) disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings” (dictionary.com).
The dictionary definition says it all. Atheism is not a positive belief system. It is simply disbelief in the existence of God or gods. That’s it. So yes, of course atheism is insufficient–if what you’re in the market for is a total life philosophy. You could be an atheist and a nihilist; an atheist and an absurdist; an atheist and a Buddhist; an atheist and a pagan; an atheist and a humanist… Atheism in and of itself is not a complex worldview. No one is saying that it is.
Atheism is the moment you have to pass through to get over traditional religion, if that’s your background. I was raised evangelical Protestant. So I had to reject my religion before I felt the need for anything else. Atheism was a part of that rejection. Of course, it’s also a part of the something else, but certainly not the whole of it. That something else, for me, is humanism.
Humanism, as I understand it, is a worldview founded on the belief that meaning, purpose, and value are human constructs. We value things, we create meaning, and we do so because doing so makes us find our lives worth living. That is, we think that the world is ours to create and recreate in our image. We acknowledge no metaphysical overlords, and no legitimacy to human power that isn’t a transparent exercise of competence in the coordination of disparate interests.
Humanists contend that deep satisfaction is to be found in extending our sympathy to all human beings, and even to all sentient beings. We dream of a society in which everyone has a chance to develop deep loving relationships, satisfying interactions with family members, and receive the respect of all, whether stranger, ruler, or what have you. Of course, we’re not all on the same page about how to get there, but we are drawn by the beauty of positive-sum social interaction, by forms of life in which pleasure and joy are shared.
We love music, food and wine, coffee, beer, sex, mountains, oceans, cartwheels, kites, kisses, bare feet, beaches, sunsets, sunrises, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, hard work, hard play, hammocks, meeting new people, laughing, telling jokes, surprising our loved ones, raising children (if and when we want to), learning foreign languages, meditation, self-overcoming, and every life-enriching experience known to humankind. We say an unequivocal “YES” to life, and to self-determination. We long to sink our teeth into every potential experience yet to be imagined that promises joy, pleasure, and satisfaction. We are committed to enjoying the simple pleasures of our animal life. Eating, sleeping, loving.
And finally we believe in living with both eyes open. This means calling out politicians on their bullshit. It means confronting the comforting falsehoods of dying religions and superstitions. And it means acknowledging the meaningless cruelty of existence, for those unlucky enough to be cursed by the fates. We believe the only harm in suicide is the loss experienced by our loved ones. And we believe it is possible to build a society in which no one is ever driven to suicide by the cruelty or carelessness of others.
Humanism is atheistic through and through, but it is not atheism. Atheism is just not believing in gods. Atheism, by itself, is insufficient if what you’re looking for is a worldview. Of course, if all you’re concerned with for the time being is whether or not a particular religion is true, then atheism is of course quite sufficient. It provides an answer to your question. But if you have more questions than just the one, allow me to commend humanism to you.
For further reading, consider Corliss Lamont’s most excellent The Philosophy of Humanism (available for free here).