There can be a lot of confusion around the language we use. Simply put:
Is a lack of belief that there is a God or Gods.
Putting it broadly, agnostics are those who do not wish to give a definite yes or no answer to whether or not a God or Gods exists. Many Humanists prefer to describe themselves as agnostics rather than atheists. This can save what is often futile debate with religious people demanding proof that their God doesn’t exist!
A good explanation for this position was given by the philosopher Bertrand Russell writing in 1958:
“I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.”
The agnostic view also featured in the famous BHA Atheist Bus Campaign in 2009 which used the strapline ‘There’s probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
Is an ethical world outlook based on human values. Humanists, in the modern sense of the word, are atheists or agnostics. However, it is not enough to describe our outlook on life simply by our lack of belief. We do have strong beliefs, albeit based on a rational view of the world rather than religious texts. Humanism has sometimes been called ‘Atheism plus.’
Confusion can arise because the term Humanist is also sometimes used to describe anyone tending to a rational world view. For example it is sometimes used to describe philosophers from the European Renaissance who were religious but still placed central importance on human values and capacity.
Is the term which is perhaps most frequently misunderstood and misused. In particular many people use the word ‘secular’ as a substitute for ‘atheist,’ which can be confusing. However, secularism simply means the separation of the state from religion.
Humanists believe that the state should have nothing to do with religion. This view has profound implications.
A secular state is one which is completely neutral where religion is concerned. This means that atheists and the religious all have one common set of legal rights and duties. Secularists believe that just because people are religious does not mean they should be allowed to pick and choose from a separate menu of rights and duties.
Some people may believe that we already live in a secular state. It is fair to say that much progress has been made over the years in this direction. However, our hard won gains are always at risk, and there is still a long way to go.
Some glaring examples of special privileges which still exist include the right of faith schools to discriminate on religious grounds when choosing pupils and employees, the special tax advantages given to religions and the automatic right for clerics to sit in the House of Lords. (Iran is the only other country in the world which gives clerics the automatic right to decide on laws).*
It follows that you do not have to be an atheist to be a secularist. It is perfectly possible to have strong religious convictions and to value the importance of secularism. In fact secularism and absence of state interference is the best guarantee of freedom of religious belief and the avoidance of conflict based on religious belief.
An excellent example of a secular movement which enjoys wide support from religious groups is the Accord Coalition, which campaigns on the faith school system.
*The non-therapeutic cutting of male baby genitalia is another interesting example. There is ample evidence that this is potentially harmful and leads to countless complications and even fatalities. There is no statutory exemption for the practice, which amounts to a serious assault under UK legislation. Few statistics are kept of when things go wrong. That the practice of male circumcision isn’t questioned more reflects the extent to which religious entitlement is engrained, and the fear of challenging orthodoxies.
Ritual slaughter, which by its nature risks greater suffering to animals, is yet another example of a questionable practice which largely goes unchallenged.
These are of course sensitive issues. Challenges will be portrayed by some as an attack on religious freedom. However, there have been many orthodoxies proscribed in holy books and regarded in the past as sacrosanct which have thankfully been abandoned by the mainstream in our more enlightened times. Examples include stoning to death blasphemers, adulterers and homosexuals.