No, I have not forsaken three quarters of a lifetime’s atheism and found myself a god or a guru. But I would like to set out my reasons for being profoundly unhappy – as I have been for 25 years – about belonging to a movement with the general label “humanist”.

Until the 1940s what is now called the humanist movement was known as the freethought movement. In its broadest sense it did and does encompass a spectrum from militant irreligion through rationalism to groups of agnostics, some of whom regarded themselves as religious. The older word, “freethought”, aptly described the common denominator of these disparate organisations, namely, that they attracted people who insisted on the right to follow their own line of musing and reasoning, specifically on religious matters, instead of accepting some dogmatic, supernatural creed.

The word “humanist” began to catch on in freethought circles in the 1950s, perhaps because it had connotations of the Renaissance and the university. (The Renaissance humanists changed stylised, rather rigid mediaeval forms of art and literature to naturalistic representation and more free expression; they also encouraged a reawakened interest in scientific inquiry. At universities the word humanist had long signified a student of the liberal arts, classics and philosophy, as distinct from engineering or “hard” sciences. The 1950s and ’60s also witnessed a boom in secondary and tertiary education, so “humanism” had – or seemed to have – an educated, refined image which old working-class secularism allegedly lacked. The generic term “rationalism” had sometimes been used for the broad freethought movement, but some of the new humanists found rationalism an arid word, connoting an exclusive devotion to reason, despite the fact that sensible rationalists avoided any claim that reason was the only good in human life.

By the 1960s, however, “humanist” in a new sense had come into its own. During the period from 1959 to 1966 a large number of new humanist societies were formed, especially in Britain, and some rationalist organisations cashed in on the vogue word and changed their names to “humanist”. For a while, “humanist” was flavour of the month. But fashions are fickle things, and the popularity of humanism has waned since the 1960s just as that of secularism did after the 1880s.

I do not wish to decry the 1960s. The period had its faults, such as the narcissism of the “me generation” and venal gurus who pandered to mass naïveté. But it was also a period of relative prosperity and full employment, of new-found freedom for the young; a time of optimism, unselfish idealism, experiment, protest and worthwhile change. I am glad I was young then, rather than now.

If humanism is no longer a band-wagon word, there is little pragmatic argument for its retention as a name for the freethought movement in general. My main contention, however, is that humanism is now more of a liability than an asset.

The people who promoted the word humanism in the 1960s had their merits. They knew what was politically relevant at the time and how to campaign on particular issues. However, they often seemed to have a horror of anything they perceived as “negative”. Hustlers and some politicians show the same tendency today. Humanist had a “positive” ring to it, despite the fact that what unified the movement was its disbelief in supernaturalism and its rejection of authority in philosophy, two thoroughly negative – but valuable – features.

I strongly assert that the search for and maintenance of truth, which is often negative, is more important than contrived efforts always to seem “positive”.

My principle objection to humanism is the implication by its promoters that freethinkers do – or should – “believe in Man”. I dissent from this on two grounds. It is reminiscent of “I believe in God”, and I contend that the freethought or rationalist movement should not be promoting an ersatz religious mode of thinking but offering a radical departure from it by saying that the whole concept of “believing in” (in the dogmatic religious sense) is erroneous. Belief, for a freethinker, should be tentative, and open to amendment and reasoned argument. Atheists rightly regard “Jesus saves” as a flatulent slogan; “Man is the measure of all things” is immodest, unscientific bunkum, and it is high time someone said so.

The cult of Man with a capital M is only a slight improvement on the cult of God. It still leaves a lot to be desired, women for instance. If the Christians’ idea that they belong to the same exclusive club as the creator of the universe sounds to us infidels as monstrous conceit, I can only add that I find almost as pompous and egotistical the notion that man is some marvellous pinnacle of evolution; that because Homo sapiens has produced Einstein and Michelangelo we can forget about the Nazis, the Crusaders and the Khmer Rouge; or that a Gothic cathedral, an air-conditioned office block or the mausoleum of some ancient megalomaniac justify our destruction of the world’s forests, some of the most biologically valuable and breath-takingly beautiful places on earth.

Worse still, the adulation by some humanists of the human intellect (unique as it appears to be) encourages the old-fashioned nonsense that men and women are specially set apart from other living organisms and, worst of all, that the human race has an evolutionary destiny (formerly God’s permission) to conquer and subdue nature.

“Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things” wrote Swinburne, my favourite poet. The words are marvellous rhetoric, intended to shock mid-nineteenth century piety, but today, if taken seriously, they would be a recipe for an ecological nightmare. If any other species of animal had caused a quarter as much destruction of life (including annihilation of whole species), degradation of landscape, fouling of the seas and pollution of the air as humanity has, we would have declared such an animal – however smart and intelligent – to be dangerous vermin and would be spending vast resources on destroying it.

It seems to me to be callous and smug to adulate Humanity with a capital H. Yes, we can devise elaborate instruments and drop them on the planet Mars. Meanwhile, half the members of our own species are starving or nearly so. Another half, women, are often treated as drudges and serfs. Intelligence does not necessarily produce wisdom or goodness. It took brains and education to design the gas chambers at Auschwitz; skill to timetable the cattle trucks.

In addition to “Man’s inhumanity to man” there is humanity’s massive, cruel exploitation of non-human animals for food, clothing, experiments and what passes for amusement. Protests against exploitation of animals have come from many quarters, but within the freethought tradition from Shelley and Henry S. Salt. More than half a century ago Britain’s National Secular Society added a better deal for animals to its aims and objects. Yet not so long ago (this article was first written in June and July 1987) a humanist said to me, “I don’t think animals have anything to do with humanism.” We were talking about the concept of animal rights. I certainly want nothing to do with that sort of retrograde human chauvinism.

Unlike humanists I am not very proud of my membership of the human race. Yet I hope I am a good freethinker; I would like to think I am a reasonable rationalist; and I am very sure that secularism offers a happier prospect for humanity than the hells on earth created wherever religious zealots obtain power.

More than a hundred years ago the militant freethought movement started a campaign to make the public aware that it was possible to limit family size. It was probably the most valuable thing the movement has ever done. Freethinkers promoted birth control because they realised that resources for human consumption were finite. They hoped that small families would reduce poverty and give ordinary people more control over their lives. It is not surprising that religious conservatives have always opposed birth control: they know – consciously or instinctively – that over-breeding in a human population makes for political and economic instability, poverty and anxiety, just the conditions in which supernatural religion flourishes. Orthodox religion is a more cynical business than some humanists imagine.

I want the world to be a place fit for my grandchildren, where they will have space to move, freedom and time to think, wilderness to admire; a world where people can live in harmony with plants and animals. I do not want them to be forced to elbow their way through an overcrowded, stressed, war-riddled civilisation that has degraded the face of the earth into either ugly cities or vast, intensively farmed monocultures. It would only be a matter of time before such a society destroyed itself.

If we want the first sort of civilisation in the future, rather than the second, we may have to forgo a few fancy gadgets or devise more sensible alternatives; we will need to control our human numbers, put world poverty and land misuse before national privilege, nuclear war-toys and space research (without blunting our scientific curiosity), and change the emphasis of our throw-away, consumer society. Above all, we will need a more sensitive, perceptive view of the role of the human race on this planet, one which will understand the right of other animals to breathe free in the air we at present pollute, one which will appreciate the value – practical and aesthetic – of plants, trees and wilderness.

In creating a better world the freethought movement, if it gets its priorities right, has a useful part to play. The movement can promote a reasoned, scientific approach to problems; can ensure that human beings have more personal control over their minds, bodies and lives; can support freedom of speech and expression against efforts by the far right and far left to muzzle society; it can oppose new superstitions and pseudo-science and continue its historic role of exposing the restrictive, irrational and essentially totalitarian pack mentality encouraged by orthodox religion.

We have seen the religious ethic of faith and universal love produce – in reality – hatred, intolerance and barbarism. For this reason, I think we should be wary of any general answer to the world’s complex problems which is restricted to human considerations limited by the virtues and vices, diligence and greed, foresight and folly of just a section of humanity, the privileged middle class of the richer industrialised countries.

What has become pressingly important today is humanity’s need to realise – and take action on the fact – that we do not stand apart from other living organisms. We are a part of nature: we can only “conquer” nature by destroying the natural world and ourselves with it. Homo sapiens badly needs a sense of ecological humility, combined with curiosity and intellectual integrity. We do not need blinkered conceit dignified as humanism, or evasion of the facts of life and death sanctified as religion.

Written in 1987. Revised by N.H.S., 23 November 2001.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Atheist Foundation of Australia.

By Nigel Sinnott