Secularism, Atheism, Scepticism, Humanism, Agnosticism, Rationalism
SASHAR is a made-up word for the six concepts expressed above
When I started to get an interest on issues about religion, I noticed that different concepts were used as equivalent. For example in the atheist literature, it is common to find the SASHAR concepts as interchangeable or equivalent.But things are more complex that that. Here are some definitions that may help to understand the differences and similarities between these concepts:
It is common to hear people referring to secularists as an equivalent of atheism. This is wrong!
Secularism is the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs. In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. So the concept of a secular society involves the image of a religion free political and social system. Some ideas of modern secularism were developed by deists.
Deism holds that reason and observation of the natural world can determine that a supreme being created the universe but it does not intervene in human affairs nor suspends the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on religious authority or holy book or the need for organized religion.
Secularism is not a modern phenomenon. Its intellectual roots are believed to go back to Greek and Roman philosophers such as Epicurus (341 – 270 BC) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). During the Dark Ages, secularism was embraced by some medieval Muslim thinkers. For example Averroes (1126-1198) a Muslim polymath born in Córdoba (Spain). He is also known as one of the founder of medical principles. But it is during the Enlightenment (18th century) that secularism becomes a widespread ideology promoting the separation of church and state. Many Christians support a secular state.
So to claim that you are a secularist because you are an atheist is a non sequitur, since many believers can also be secularists. However, if you are an atheist you are necessarily a secularist.
Scepticism refers to an attitude in relation to accepting information without subjecting it the scrutiny of reason, rejecting magical thinking, superstition and other irrational beliefs. Experience is often a poor guide to reality. Scepticism helps us to question our experience and to avoid being too readily led to believe what is not so.
There is indeed a philosophical school of thought known as Philosophical Scepticism. Sceptics critically examine the meaning systems of their times, and this examination often results in a position of ambiguity or doubt.
The earliest sceptics can be traced back to Pyrrho of Elis ( about 360 BC) a Greek philosopher who felt uneasy by the disputes between all philosophical schools of his day. According to a later account of his life, he became overwhelmed by his inability to determine rationally which school was correct. Zen Buddhism has also been described as a form of ancient eastern scepticism since it is not concerned with whether a thing exist or not.
Modern scepticism is associated with critical thinking and is one of the ground stones of the scientific method.
Some people, such as scientists for example, can reconcile their belief in a divinity or some sort of magical thinking about the power of crystals and the stars and some dose of scepticism about the events that punctuate their daily lives and the surrounding world. It is like if they compartmentalized their thought process. When they are in the lab they use the principles of scepticism and apply them with minutia to their scientific research, but once their hang their white coat behind the door and go home, leaving their scientific credentials together with heir scepticism in the drawer of their office desk.
Other people apply scepticism to all areas of their lives, making it difficult to accept the existence of entities with magical powers that could have an effect on their decisions and daily activities.
So, one could describe himself as being sceptical, but still accept the probability of the existence of some divinity. This brings us to the definition of agnosticism.
Agnostics are sceptical about the veracity of claims that ascertain the existence of any deity. In consequence, they are also doubtful about the truth of religious and metaphysical claims.
According to agnosticism it is impossible to make any sort of judgments about things that are unknown.
Agnosticism is much more than an attitude towards religion. The very word agnostic means without knowledge (a= without gnosis= knowledge). The word was coined by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley –also known as Darwin’s bulldog- in 1869. However the points of view sustained by agnosticism were promoted as early as the 500 years BC. Protagoras (490-420 BC) a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher is usually referred as one of the earliest known agonistics. “He is also believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that “man is the measure of all things”. This idea was revolutionary for the time and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside the human influence” (see Wikipedia).
Agnosticism is the most rational standing when we cannot prove the existence or non-existence of things.
Logically it is impossible to prove a negative, therefore it does not make sense to see proof of the non-existence of something. However we can never be sure that this particular “something” does not exist. For example, until the discovery of New Zealand, Europeans believed that ALL swans were white. If someone suggested the existence of black swans, an agnostic response would sound like this: “ I cannot prove that black swans exist, but I cannot prove that they don’t exist either” . Then they found black swans in New Zealand!
Thus it mean that I could also believe in the existence of rainbow coloured swans? What would be the most reasonable answer?
Religious agnosticism applies the same line of reasoning to the existence (or non-existence) of a deity. Agnostics simply assume that it is impossible to know if God exists or not.
Some people would describe several categories and degrees of agnosticism which would ultimately lead to atheism.
The difference between agnosticism and atheism is that while the first claims that they do not know about the existence of a deity, the latter are sure that such a deity does not exist.
Nowadays atheism is often associated with the New Atheist movement (which I’ll discuss in detail in later blogs), but atheism is not a recent phenomenon. It was present in Classical Greece when the first philosophers attempted to explain the world in terms of the processes of nature instead of by mythological accounts. The 5th and 4th centuries BC were prolific in generating thinkers with atheistic views.
There are also a number of atheistic religions. They are considered atheistic because they have no God or deities. For example Paganism, Animism and Pantheism are atheistic religions in that sense that there is no personified Gods.
Some religions of the Far East focus on a contemplative life not revolving around the idea of gods. For example, Jainism, a religion believed to have raised about 3,000 BC does not have the concept of God. Other religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and certain sects of Hinduism also offer alternative life paths not cantered on the worshiping of a deity.
The term “humanism” can be confusing because it has expressed and different intellectual movements have been identified with it over time.
Humanism is philosophical school that focuses on human values and concerns focusing on moral virtues such as humanity.
The roots of modern humanism go as far back as to the 6th century BC expressed in an Indian school of thought known as the Carvaka system which was atheist in nature, It did not merely question whether there was a deity, it asserted that there was not!
In Ancient Greece, Protagoras was perhaps one of the philosophers closest associated with the ideals of humanism. During the Renascence and the Enlightenment humanism focused on reforming education promoting rationalism and emphasising scientific studies.
Humanists sought to create a citizenry (frequently including women) able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions (see Wikipedia).
The term humanism can mean several things, but in the modern context of religious debate it is usually perceived as a secular ideology which advocates reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making. This type of humanism is known as Secular Humanism which congregates people that seek to explain the events of the world through a rational approach.
In recent years there has been a raise in humanist societies and action groups which attract secularists, atheists, agnostics and sceptics leading the lay man to assume that the modern humanistic movement is an umbrella for the expression of atheist ideals.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is an organisation that represents humanist societies spread around the world. The member organisations must abide by the following statement:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”
In its modern sense, rationalism is a view that appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification for all claims. According to rationalism, knowledge and truth are acquired through the deductive method. The reliance of this method varies which promotes different degrees of rationalism. For example some philosophers defended that morality was a pure rational exercise, while others accepted the role of emotions in determining what humans may find morally repugnant. So while moderate rationalism assumes that “reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge”, extreme rationalism claims that “reason is the only path to acquire knowledge”.