Am I A Humanist? Definition vs. Allegiance

I don’t know whether I’m a Humanist.

I haven’t read any of the
Humanist manifestos,
but a while back, a podcast that I listen to had a show about
humanism, and discussed the main points of Humanist Manifesto III, the
most recent one. I agreed with points that were discussed, such as
that knowledge of the world comes from observing the world, and that
moral values are something that we humans have to work out for

But I don’t know whether I’m a humanist because I don’t know whether
it’s a matter of definition or of allegiance.

To take a simple example, if you drive over the speed limit on a given
road, you are a speeder. It doesn’t matter whether you knew you were
speeding, or whether you think of yourself as a fast driver. It’s a
simple matter of definition: if you were driving faster than the
posted limit, you’re a speeder, end of story.

On the other hand, take
Scout law,
which says that a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous
kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. But a
person who is all these things is not automatically a Scout. A person
first has to consciously join a scouting organization. Scout law is
then either a set of ideals to live up to as a member of the group, or
conditions for membership. In other words, Scout law is not a
definition, but a matter of allegiance: “if you want to be a Scout,
these are the things you’ll have to do”.

The turning point in my deconversion was the moment when I realized
that “an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in any gods” is not a
matter of allegiance, but simply a definition, and that it applied to
me. That whether or not I wanted to be one of “them”, I was.

And now I don’t know: am I a humanist simply by virtue of agreeing
with the Humanist Manifesto, or do I also have to declare myself a

If a Boy Scout came to his troop leader and said, “I’m not cheerful or
thrifty. I guess that means I’m not a Boy Scout”, the expected
response from the troop leader would be “Well, you should try to be
cheerful and thrifty”, rather than “Huh. I guess not.” Likewise, if a
Catholic told his priest, “I’ve just realized that I don’t believe all
of the tenets of the
Nicene creed;
I don’t think Jesus was God’s only son. I guess I’m not a
Catholic after all”, the priest’s expected response would be to
convince his parishioner that no, Jesus is God’s only
begotten son, and not “Huh. I guess not. Well, good luck, and see you
in church if you change your mind.” (Not to say that the latter never
happens; just that it happens less often than the former.)

The big difference between the Scout example and the Catholic one is
that Scout law concerns actions, and the Nicene creed concerns
beliefs. I can control my actions, but I can’t control what I believe.
I can say that I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, but I can’t make myself believe it. For
that, I need evidence. Or some reason to believe.

The reason why definition vs. allegiance is a problem is that, for
better or worse, labels tend to become banners. It must be something
in the way the human brain is wired. If you say “I’m a libertarian”,
what people hear is “I’ve allied myself with the other people who call
themselves libertarians.”

Conservatives are fond of quoting surveys that say that most Americans
consider themselves conservative. And liberals are equally fond of
quoting surveys that show that most Americans agree with some set of
liberal principles and policies. Conservatives are treating these
labels as allegiances, while liberals are treating them as

The same thing happens when evolution proponents say, “Look, you think
that a god created life on earth. That makes you a creationist”
(definition), and ID proponents reply with “Oh, no, we’re not with
them!” (allegiance). (Though in fairness, they usually play
the No True Scotsman Creationist card, by claiming
that Creationists™ believe in a young earth, and IDists don’t.
Or not necessarily. Or that they’re not saying. Or that the dog ate
their history book. In other words, they try to turn it into a matter
of definition to avoid an undesirable allegiance.)

Perhaps one reason this problem comes up is that we humans don’t
always rely on definitions: when someone says “I’m a libertarian”, we
think of the other people we know or have heard of who call themselves
libertarians, and infer a common set of traits from that sample.

And this is why theists and American jingoists have had such success
in turning the word “atheist” into an insult: they keep bringing up
the examples of Stalin and Pol Pot, who a) didn’t believe in any gods,
and b) committed atrocities. The two become linked in the public’s
mind, and “atheist” becomes a dirty word. Using this approach, one can
turn “human” or “man” into dirty words, and indeed, some opponents of
environmental activism and anti-feminists argue that they have. It’s
also one reason the word
was coined: to avoid the baggage that comes with the word “atheist”.
A friend of mine recently said that she tips well in restaurants
because she’s actively trying to promote the idea that scary
black-clad pagan lesbian weirdos are nice people. Matt Dillahunty, of
Athiest Experience
fame, has said that he tries to drive courteously, since he has a lot
of atheist bumper stickers on his car.

So, getting back to my original point, there seem to be two questions
that need to be answered: 1) Do I agree with the points listed in the
Humanist Manifesto III? If they constitute a definition, and I agree
with them, then I’m a humanist. 2) Do I want to associate myself with
other humanists? If I call myself a humanist, people will associate me
with others who sport that label, and do I want to be seen as a member
of the same group?

But perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to Jeffrey Sinclair:
“Ignore the propaganda. Focus on what you see.”

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2 Responses to Am I A Humanist? Definition vs. Allegiance

  1. Eamon Knight says:

    Being a member of the Humanist Association of Ottawa, I guess I’m a humanist by affiliation. I’ve never read any of the Manifestos, though I think I mostly agree with the short lists of “humanist principles” I see from time to time, so I guess I’m a humanist by belief as well. More or less. I mean, it’s not like there’s a creed or anything. I hate labels, anyway. Like your closing quote says….


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