Public atheism has a new face. Your uncle Richard has been replaced by your cool cousin Alice. She’s bursting with fun facts about nature and history, but is also a well-rounded human, happy meeting other humans and smiling a lot. (Uncle Richard sometimes smiles, but it’s usually a by-product of sneering at the flawed footnote of an enemy.)
But don’t call it atheism, Alice Roberts’ creed. Far too negative! In keeping with her human-ness, it’s called ‘humanism’. 'Atheism is defining yourself by an absence of something,' she told an interviewer. 'Humanism is a positive choice to base your morals on your own human capacity'. To explain this further, she has just co-authored The Little Book of Humanism with Andrew Copson.
Whereas atheism attacks religion as false, humanism declares it unnecessary (and quietly adds that it is also false and largely harmful). You don’t need religion to be moral. Humanism, says Roberts, is the 'idea that humans can be deeply moral beings without having some external source of goodness to either impel or encourage them to behave well. Living a good life comes from you, from employing your own human faculties of reason and empathy and love'.
The book emphasises that this is a venerable old tradition, extending 'throughout history'. In the interview, Roberts underlined the point: humanism 'is not a new idea, but has a deep history going back thousands of years'.
I’m not so sure about this. Were there many scientific humanists two thousand years ago, dissenting from all local cultic traditions and signing human rights petitions? Our idea of humanism is tied up with the moral universalism that emerged in the modern West, and has Christian roots (as I recently argued in my book God Created Humanism). I also wonder whether the wonderful niceness of Alice Roberts is, as she thinks, entirely of her own making. I think her Christian parents have something to do with it, and their Christian parents too, and the whole semi-Christian culture that formed her moral assumptions.
And I wonder whether this thing called humanism has any real coherence. Here’s one definition she gives: humanists ‘look to scientific evidence and reason to understand the world. And they place human welfare and happiness – as well as the welfare of other sentient animals – at the heart of how they choose to live their life.’
This would be fine if it were true, or largely true, that religious believers discounted science and reason, and gave not a hoot for the wellbeing of others. The awkward fact is that plenty of religious believers are also clever and nice like you Alice – in fact you have more in common with a British Christian than you realise.