Home > Atheism, News > ABC gets it wrong again: Atheism and Humanism, forms of civil religion?

ABC gets it wrong again: Atheism and Humanism, forms of civil religion?

A piece over at ABC’s Religion and Ethics page, yet again misses the point.

Luke Bretherton’s article “Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions”  begins by discussing humanist programs to educate children on being happy, fulfilled people without a god or gods, but this is all preamble to ask the question:

What we see shaping up is a battle for the souls of children. But in the process we need to ask a question about what is happening to the “soul” of humanism and atheism? (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

Of course the real issue, is that atheists and humanists are attempting to get involved with morals, and education, this can not do of course, as we will see later. For now a glaring problem and it’s one we see often – the author forgets to define his terms. After all there are types of humanism that are consistent with religious ideals, as we see here:

Humanism in the Renaissance sense was quite consistent with religious belief, it being supposed that God had put us here precisely in order to further those things humanists found important. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 171, 2008)

Similarly with atheism too – in which Buddhists are technically atheists.

I guess we are left to simply assume what Bretherton means – but that shouldn’t be our job, and if you’re making an argument about such touchy subjects, one might like to guide their readers by what they specifically mean. Allow me not to fall into the same trap:

Humanism: Most generally, any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and either optimistic about the powers of human reason, or at least insistent that we have no alternative to use it as best we can… Later the term tended to become appropriated for anti-religious social and political movements. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 171, 2008)

And atheism:

Atheism: Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 27, 2008)

As we see, the definition provided above of humanism does not preclude religious belief – instead one is left to wonder if what Bretherton is really discussing is secular humanism, which we can rely on its biggest proponent, Paul Kurtz to define for us:

The secular humanist paradigm has six characteristics: (1) it is a method of inquiry, (2) it provides a naturalistic cosmic outlook, (3) it is nontheistic, (4) it is committed to humanist ethics, (5) it offers a perspective that is democratic, and (6) it is planetary in scope. (Kurtz, What is Secular Humanism? Pp. 21-2, 2007)

But definitions and truth matter little to polemics, so Bretherton continues, erroneously stating:

What the new programmes for children mark is the turn from the critique of religion to the construction of humanism and atheism as forms of civil religion: an instrumentalised religion that provides the social and moral basis of the political order.

The paradox is that in the process they are becoming one more sectarian dogma. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

It’s not entirely clear just what Bretherton defines religion as, he makes no attempt to – so it is hard for any real criticism to be made. My main concern with this kind of equivocation is: it is merely meant to insult his atheist/secular humanist audience by equating them with the very thing they don’t accept, which is petty – particularly so given the paucity of any real substance in the article (viz. his inability to even get his definitions right). One might be led to ask from the above statement, does not this re-imagining of the word ‘religion’ mean that anything becomes religion? And if that’s the case, what does that mean for his own belief in a god or gods? And the religion he presumably believes in and thinks is true?

No, this relativistic use of the word ‘religion’ to include 1 response (atheism) that rejects such and another that is ambiguously labelled (secular/humanism?) shoots the author in the foot.

Aside from the word game Bretherton is playing, we also see that he has misunderstood atheism and (secular?) humanism, he’s so tied up, one may surmise, in his religion providing a source of morality, that he deems anything that attempts to provide a prescriptive worldview (as in the case of secular humanism) as the same? It is also not clear how atheism or (secular?) humanism are becoming: “one more sectarian dogma”?

Perhaps we should continue, to see if Bretherton teases out what he really means:

But here we need to distinguish atheism and humanism. Arguably, humanism has always sought to provide an alternative to traditional religions through creating an anthropocentric civil religion. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

And as we see from the above definitions, Bretherton has missed the point, how has humanism, in the non secular humanist sense, attempted to offer an alternative to traditional religions when it has often been compatible with religious belief? This is unclear at best, contradictory at worst.

No help there, Bretherton, returns to the issue of morals:

There is a long tradition of wrestling with the problem of how to provide a moral basis for political and economic relations without Christianity that spans Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, John Toland and Comte.

However, unlike many contemporary humanists, these thinkers were aware of the pathos at the heart of this task: it involved replacing one religion with another. The task was necessarily one of setting up a compelling religious alternative to Christianity or de-christianising and remodelling Christianity so that it could serve as the basis of a civil religion. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

There are plenty of contemporary philosophers of Christian (John Stuart Mill) and atheist persuasions (Michael Martin, J.L Mackie) who have spilled much ink over the search for a system of morality that is non religious. It would appear to be a contradiction in terms, as well as completely arbitrary to label specific attempts at non religious morality to be religious. It’s not clear just why Bretherton feels the need to label everything ‘religion’, but he’s working hard to do so, perhaps for fear his religion is losing it’s grasp on morality and ethics?

Now, Bretherton turns his eye toward atheism claiming that

Atheism had no such pretensions. Its aim was to rid us of the need for religion. Yet in its move to remodel itself as a civil religion it has become what it claims to reject. The disdain of a Marx or Freud for religion has given way to the shrill competitiveness of the “New Athiests.” (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

This is obvious, baseless assertion. It is clear Bretherton misunderstands the very definition of atheism from the get-go, but it is here his misunderstanding is realised – atheism had and indeed has no ‘aim’, it is a lack of belief in a god or gods, this is it, there is no agenda there, no politics and it is certainly no ‘religion’. How do we know this? It has no dogma, no tenets, no authoritarians, no holy texts, no worship practices, no supernatural beliefs – none of the hallmark characteristics of a religion. He continues:

The sense in which religion and by implication atheism was simply a passing stage on the way to a new rationalistic outlook freed from religious baggage seems to have dissipated. Instead, a new confessional atheism has emerged, one ready to hawk its wares in the religious marketplace and compete for the souls of children.

Rather than a critique of religion from which the religious can learn, we find a “wannabe civil religion” that depends for its appeal on the continuance of the very thing it claims to replace. It has become an alternative rather than a critique. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

He talks of atheism as if it some worldview that prescribes a way of thought, rather than a response to a single claim! We might also ask what unbelievers are meant to do with their children? How they’re supposed to teach them about science, morals, history etc,  free from the effects of the religious? And how tyrannical it is of  Bretherton to criticize and straw man the efforts of unbelievers toward realising a world where they are on equal footing with believers, where their children can play, and grow, and think, without the tendrils of religion being forced upon them (think I’m over-exagerrating? See here, here, here, here, here, here).

Of course all children should be given the right to experience religion, any religion (not simply the Christian one), but they should also be given the right, and the knowledge of systems that are not religious – the choice – we leave up to them. This does not compute to Bretherton – what must it be he asks himself? Well it’s a false religion of course – atheism – with its false idols of science, and it’s clergy: “The Gnu Atheists” coming like the bogey man to take away all he cares about? Please – this is clear projection.

It’s not an atheists job to “critique religion so religions can learn” (though some do enjoy it, myself included), atheists, secular humanists, Buddhists, Muslims etc don’t want to have to drag your religion kicking in screaming into the 21st century, that should be up to you to manage. Bretherton concludes:

Rather than a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism has become Pepsi to the Coke of religion. To paraphrase the New Testament: what does it profit atheism to gain the whole world and lose its own soul? (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

Bretherton’s stunning lack of understanding is almost laughable – in what world exactly does he mean to prescribe to atheists his sign off line here?  The religious language used is palpable, it’s not hard to see just why Bretherton deems every philosophy, worldview, or response to a claim as a religion – it is clearly all that’s on his mind.

Atheism, and this goes out to any atheists reading – is about a lack of belief in a god or gods – that’s it. Whatever you choose to positively believe (naturalism, materialism, secular humanism, hell Islam, Buddhism etc) is up to you. You decide what religion, or non religion you accept – or reject – and you do not need to be told what you follow and what you believe.

It’s been said it’s better to teach a child how to think as opposed to what to think – I personally believe in this statement – and will endeavor to do as such if I ever have children (which isn’t likely). I also understand I live in a country where you can be a loud and proud atheist, and suffer little to no consequences. People in other countries where it is downright dangerous to be an atheist need the kind of support criticized in this article,  hence my vitriol and tone.


Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 27, 171.

Bretherton L. (2011). Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions. Retrieved October 4th, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/10/04/3331539.htm

Kurtz P. (2007). What is Secular Humanism? Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 21-2.

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