Living Without Religion 
 > Table of Contents 
 > > Repertory 
 > > >  The Trouble With Humanists  

The Trouble With Humanists
How atheophobic attitudes among humanists compromise the fight for freedom of conscience

David Rand

This article originally appeared in the review Humanist Perspectives, no. 185, summer 2013. It is also available on the web site of Humanist Perspectives.



  1. In American universities in the early 20th century, it was common practice for black fraternities to apply the so-called “brown paper bag test” to new applicants, excluding them if their skin colour was darker than the bag. Recently, the casting of a brown-skinned woman to play the lead role in the biopic “Nina” has brought this discriminatory practice — known as “colourism” — into public scrutiny, especially since Nina Simone herself was dark-skinned and fought adamantly for equal rights regardless of skin colour.
  2. Back in the early 1970s, I once met a very closeted gay man who exclaimed: Just because I have sex with other men “doesn't mean I'm a goddamn faggot!”
  3. A colleague of mine, a woman from North Africa, recently explained that she supports the idea of asymmetric polygamy, i.e. that a man may have several wives but a woman must have only one husband.
  4. A few years ago, the host of a humanist radio program commented on the air that “A humanist is an atheist with morals.” If you do not see a problem with this, consider the statements “A white person is a human being with a brain” or “A gentile is a human being with morals.” Anyone who made such a declaration would be immediately vilified as a racist or an antisemite. But when a humanist denigrates atheists, no one seems to mind. (For the record, my response to this was “No, an atheist is an atheist with morals.”)

What do the above four anecdotes have in common? The first involves blacks (or, if you prefer, African-Americans) practising racism against other blacks, the second a gay man making a homophobic remark, the third a woman supporting gender inequality, and the fourth an atheophobic comment made publicly by a humanist (and thus atheist). In all four cases, persons who belong to a group targeted by widespread societal prejudice behave in a way that indicates that they themselves have assimilated the prejudice and are re-expressing it against their own group. Thus we have internalized racism, internalized homophobia, internalized misogyny and internalized atheophobia.

The problem of internalized homophobia was so widespread and deeply entrenched in the 1970s (and still is in some quarters) that a major booklet exposing and denouncing it became a pivotal document of the gay rights movement of the time: With Downcast Gays, Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression by Andrew Hodges (biographer of Alan Turing) and David Hutter. This work was even translated into French by a gay student group at the Université Laval in Quebec City.

Today, we require a similar effort to expose internalized atheophobia, a phenomenon which is widespread among non-believers, including humanists. Are you unconvinced? I will explain further, but first we should review some basic principles in order to put the situation in context.

First Principles

The central problem posed by religion (by which I mean supernatural religion) is its claim to be the most important, indeed the only, arbiter of morals and ethics. Religions, particularly the various monotheisms, claim to “own” morality. The mythological “God” of monotheism is the most widespread, deeply held and dangerous of all supernatural beliefs. Atheism means the rejection of theism and, if it is consistent, rejection of supernatural beliefs in general. Thus, atheists abandon the religious definition of goodness as that which conforms to divine will (Divine Command Theory) and instead propose a meta-ethics based on real-world human concerns. In other words, atheist ethics is humanism and humanism is atheist ethics. (For example, defines humanism as “the denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.”) Even if you insist on drawing a clear distinction between humanism and atheism (I do not), it remains obvious that atheism is the essential core of humanism, without which humanism collapses into vacuity.

Thus, as churches and other religious institutions see their dogmas, influence and revenues threatened by an alternative to their divine-based moral system — their bread and butter — they self-servingly promote atheophobia, the fear and denigration of atheists and atheism. And of course, the major issue here being morality, the most explicit expressions of atheophobia involve maligning atheists by alleging that we are immoral and/or amoral. Various other stereotypes are also pitched in support of this prejudice: that atheists are intolerant, bellicose, closed-minded, dogmatic, etc., or that atheism is itself a sort of “religion.” We non-believers have a duty to counter and refute this propaganda.

The Legacy of Paul Kurtz

The late philosopher Paul Kurtz has been widely celebrated, and legitimately so, for the very substantial contribution he made, over several decades, to the criticism of religion and the promotion of humanism. However there is a less praiseworthy side to Kurtz's legacy. He often displayed an attitude of antipathy towards atheists and atheism and occasionally made rather dubious declarations, for example that he and his fellow secular humanists were not “angry atheists.” That immediately raises two questions: What is wrong with being an atheist? And what is wrong with being angry? Anyone who is not angry about the free ride that religions generally get and the damage that they do is not paying attention. (I would also criticize the strategy chosen by Kurtz and his colleagues of thoroughly separating criticism of religion from scepticism with regard to other supernatural or paranormal claims, but that is beyond the scope of this article.)

In Free Inquiry magazine Vol. 33 No. 1, in a review by John Shook of a collection of Kurtz's writings, this antipathy is explicitly, and perhaps inadvertently, revealed. Shook writes that Kurtz was “an atheist voice offering something more than strident anti-religious bombast.” He asserts that “disbelief, by itself, is just as disabling as any religion.” Further, “Kurtz's secular humanism wasn't a simple declaration of war on religion, a manifesto of hatred against the religious, or a utopian scheme for aloof atheists.”

What Shook presents is an absurd caricature of the atheist — bombastic, aloof, hateful, intellectually stunted — in order to paint humanists as somehow superior to the straw man which he thus creates. In particular, the assertion that disbelief is as bad as religion is beyond absurd. It is a religious argument, used to dismiss atheism in order to deflect the solid arguments by which atheism challenges belief. In reality, disbelief is a liberating stance, because it allows one to filter out unsubstantiated, dangerous beliefs, the most widespread of which is belief in the god of monotheism.

John Shook's hostility toward atheists and atheism eviscerates humanism and foolishly conforms with long-standing religious prejudice. That prejudice is called atheophobia.

Unfortunately, there is nothing exceptional about Shook's views. Although this example is from the USA, I have chosen it because it is particularly explicit and recent, and because it represents the attitude of Paul Kurtz (although I suspect that Kurtz himself would have been more nuanced) which has had and continues to have a great deal of influence among humanists the world over. I have heard many Canadian humanists make similar declarations, denigrating atheism in much the same way that religions do, implying that atheists are intolerant, unfair, and somehow “less than” humanists.

I have observed two principal lines of reasoning that many humanists advance in an effort to dissociate themselves from atheists and convince themselves of their superiority. Neither holds water.

On the Importance of Being Negative

The first is that atheism is too “negative” and that we should be positive. Imagine a movement that fought for racial equality but never mentioned its opposition to racism, because that would be too negative! Or consider an organization whose mandate were to promote sexual health but which never mentioned the importance of stopping the contagion of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases because one must emphasize only the positive!

When promoting a particular point of view on a major social issue, in order to be clearly understood, common sense dictates that we must aim not for positivity but rather for an appropriate equilibrium between positive and negative. We must explain both what we propose and what we oppose. With respect to religion, that equilibrium, in my opinion, is secularism, which involves aspects both positive (protection of freedom of conscience) and negative (exclusion of religion from state institutions). Indeed, there are few if any qualities which are completely positive or completely negative. For example, tolerance and acceptance of sexual diversity necessarily involve an intolerance and rejection of homophobia, and indeed legal repression of its more extreme forms such as discrimination in employment.

Some people will use any excuse, no matter how silly, to avoid saying they are atheist. I remember one humanist who rejected atheism because “all -isms” must be avoided! I got no response when I pointed out that the word humanism ends in the same suffix. Another humanist would not call himself an atheist because he “refused to be defined by a negative.” In matters of religion, it seems to be that being defined by a positive would be more dubious, because we first need to assert our rejection of the most widespread and dangerous model, monotheism. The necessary first step is negative. The word “atheism” is syntactically negative, but its implications are rich and very positive. The word “humanism” is syntactically positive, but it is founded on a negative: the rejection of moral systems based on alleged divinity.

I suppose that if one is writing ad copy to sell laundry soap, or trying to pick up a sexual partner in a bar, then being positive may (or may not?) be the most effective strategy. But we are not selling soap; rather we are processing truth claims. Religions make many such claims, and they often conflict with the claims of science. In this context, being negative is arguably more important that being positive. There are infinitely more false hypotheses than true ones, and we need to filter out as many of the false ones as possible. Indeed, scientific knowledge advances more often by falsification than by verification, rejecting theories which fail to fit observed reality and retaining those which continue to fit.

The Spurious Identification of Atheism with Communism

The second line of reasoning which humanists use to distance themselves from atheism is its frequent (and spurious) identification with communism. This misconception is not surprising given that Marxists were at one time almost the only group which honestly embraced atheism. Various derivatives of Marxist communism have many crimes to answer for, but they cannot be blamed for the fact that other atheists lacked the courage to leave the closet and provide another image of atheism. Furthermore, religious spokespersons are only too happy to cultivate this misconception, especially since the degeneration of communism into several regimes with atrocious human rights records. Promoting atheophobia is what religious institutions do in order to protect their power and influence.

But in reality, the atheism of communists is irrelevant. They were also resolutely internationalist and anti-racist; should we therefore renounce internationalism and anti-racism? Regardless of what the religious — and apparently some humanists — would like us to believe, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that human rights abuses were caused by or made more probable by the atheism of communist regimes. Do you really think that Russia today is more “moral” than it was under the Soviet regime? And if so, is that because power and influence have been restored to the Russian Orthodox Church? Furthermore, communist regimes have not been consistent in their attitude towards religion. Stalin, for example, brutally persecuted various religious sects as well as dissident communists within the Soviet Union, yet he revived the Orthodox Church after the Nazi invasion and was willing to build alliances with religious groups outside the country.

Consider for a moment what the implications would be if I am wrong. Let us suppose that atheism does in some way open the door to human rights abuses or even barbarism. If so, then the religious are right and we can forget about secularism because we would need religion for civilization to survive. But no, many humanists would surely protest, we can replace religion with humanism! Does this mean that humanism is some kind of religion? Or at least a replacement for religion? What is this magical quality possessed by humanists which makes them immune to the dastardly tendencies ascribed to atheists? Is it because they claim to support freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly? Well, the constitution of the Soviet Union made the same claim.

Sometimes I wonder if there are, among humanists of a certain age, large numbers of guilt-ridden ex-Marxists. That would explain a lot.

On one occasion, a humanist who rejected the designation “atheist” asked me, “Was Stalin a humanist?” The question was obviously rhetorical, so I did not bother to answer. But if I had, I would have said something like, “Well, roughly, yes.” Although educated in a Georgian Orthodox seminary, Stalin claimed to be a Marxist (although anti-Stalinist Marxists would surely challenge that claim). Marxism and humanism both belong to the Enlightenment tradition and they overlap considerably, in particular in the early works of Marx. Does this imply that humanists are to blame for the crimes of Stalin? Of course not! And neither are atheists. The oft-repeated assertion — almost a mantra — that communist atrocities were committed by “atheists, not humanists” is a rather mean-spirited form of denialism: instead of addressing the issue, one simply scapegoats the despised other — the other in this case being atheists, a group which is already the target of intense unjustified prejudice, and a group to which humanists themselves belong!

Communist regimes generally took power in less developed countries where democratic traditions were weak or absent. The Marxist theory of “scientific socialism” (the expression is actually from Engels) involves much speculation about the future and should, according to Karl Popper at least, be considered a pseudo-science as it is not falsifiable. Although Marxism is not a religion (because it has no supernatural elements), communist regimes at their worst can be characterized as “para-religious” in that they imitate some of the most dangerous aspects of monotheism: dogmatic adherence to authority, cult of the leader (god), promises of future utopia (heaven) to be earned through self-sacrifice in the present, etc.

Soler's Analysis of the Legacy of Monotheism

In a seminal work on monotheistic violence, the French biblical scholar Jean Soler explains that ancient Hebrew thought, which is the basis of Christian and Islamic theology and thus has enormous influence even today, differed radically from the philosophy of ancient Greece and China. The Hebrews saw the world in strictly binary terms, with two opposing and mutually exclusive poles: good and evil, clean and unclean, us and them. No intermediate position was possible. Soler calls this “monobinarism.” But the Greeks and Chinese saw the two opposites as poles on a continuum, sought some position of balance between the two poles, and recognized that each pole often contains aspects of its opposite. (This does not imply that the best option or the “truth” is always halfway between the two poles.) The obsession with positivity, which I criticize above, is encouraged by the “monobinary” mindset.

More importantly, Soler hypothesizes that the “monobinary” world-view is a major cause of the intolerance, dogmatism and totalitarianism which are hallmarks of the three monotheisms. Indeed, Christianity took religious intolerance to such an extreme that it led to the invention of totalitarianism when Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and brutally repressed all other religions. Soler further hypothesizes that this same mentality was a major underpinning of modern totalitarian regimes such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and that their rationalization of violence echoes the promotion of violence reported in the Old Testament, violence which was considered necessary and even virtuous according to the one and only god/lord/leader.

Referring to the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Soler writes:

“...the will of the one and only God — divine Providence — is recycled as 'the direction of History.' And woe unto the 'reactionary classes who would attempt to reverse the direction of the wheel of History,' write Marx and Engels. Because History has a predetermined direction and a goal: the building of a classless society, a concept which takes the place of the messianic era expected at the end of time. To attain this objective, which will bring universal peace to humanity, the mission which historically was that of a tribe, the Jewish people, is transferred now to a social class, the proletariat.”

In light of these considerations, we should criticize communists for being insufficiently atheistic. The greatest crime of 20th century communism, in my opinion, was its betrayal of the atheist humanist values which it purported to embody. Anyone who supports a totalitarian regime emulating the biblical model is unworthy of the term atheist.


The bottom line is this: the prejudice against atheists and atheism has no legitimate basis and persists only because of the continued influence of the religious mindset, especially that of monotheism. The denigration of atheism takes many forms, but generally they can be summed up in one of two methods: (1) give atheism as narrow a definition as possible where any positive qualities are concerned — such as science or ethics — and claim that atheism does not include them; or (2) give atheism as wide a definition as possible where negative qualities are concerned — such as totalitarianism or nihilism — and claim that atheism leads to them.

A fair and balanced assessment of atheism is that it starts from a simple observation — the vacuity of theism — but its implications are wide-ranging, indeed rich, and these include humanism.

The prevalence of atheophobia among humanists has serious consequences. Such humanists fall easy prey to fashionable nonsense such as multiculturalism, which accords greater priority to particular ethnic and religious identities than to universal principles and rights. Having assimilated the myth of atheist “intolerance,” they become lax with respect to religious privilege and overly deferential towards religions. Indeed, the reason religions promote this myth is to attempt to cow their critics into silence, and many humanists take the bait, rushing to be as “nice” as possible towards believers. They tend to adopt a very uncritical attitude towards the more moderately religious, who nevertheless must be recognized as enabling the fundamentalists and extremists by insisting that religious beliefs be considered respectable and necessary.

An example of this confusion can be found in an editorial several years ago in Humanist Perspectives #163 which rejected Christopher Hitchens' call to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state. The editorialist was so terrified at the prospect of offending the religious with any talk of “walls” that he implicitly repudiated secularism.

We all want to be liked. When confronted with entrenched privilege, critics of that privilege risk becoming targets of those with something to lose. To confront the problem of religious power and influence, we must have the courage to risk being disliked.

In a letter in HP #176, one reader opines that “atheists appear equally certain of things as do theists. … To get committed to one belief system … is merely to seek certainty where none appears to exist.” I fear that this decidedly religious attitude — that atheism is just another belief system — may still be prevalent among humanists.

Fortunately there are many other humanists, especially in recent years, who assume their atheism fully and do not indulge in the atheophobic habits which I criticize here. However, it is no coincidence that their numbers have increased at the same time as various explicitly atheist associations and authors have become vocal and well known. Otherwise, atheophobia among humanists would undoubtedly be even stronger.


The stigmatization of atheism and atheists does a great disservice to humanity by directly or indirectly strengthening religious ideologies, helping them to remain powerful and compromising efforts for secularism. The fact that some non-believers foolishly continue to do so is evidence of the intellectual confusion and political timidity which are widespread among them. Humanists must embrace the atheism which is the kernel of our philosophy, and we must do so fully, openly and unapologetically while making every effort to challenge atheophobia, especially within our own ranks. Anyone who promotes atheophobia or allows it to persist is unworthy to be called a humanist.