Atheism, Humanism and Secularism

Yesterday’s news stories about prayer in Bideford council meetings and the Christian guesthouse owners have triggered the expected levels of outrage from the usual suspects.

One thing that critics of this ruling often seem to (deliberately?) misunderstand is the differences between atheism, humanism and secularism. I thought it might be useful to post simple definitions of the meanings of these three words.

Atheism is simply the absence of belief in any kind of deity. Atheists just don’t belief in your god. In fact they don’t believe in any gods. They don’t believe in your god for pretty much the same reasons they you don’t believe in other people’s gods. Atheists don’t hate god. It would be incredibly silly to hate something that you don’t believe if. For obvious reasons there is are very few religious people who would call themselves atheists.

Humanism is a philosophical approach which assumes that the best way to build a system of morals and ethics is to approach the problems logically and rationally and with humanity. Humanists don’t want to take moral instruction from a supernatural entity, but rather assume that moral and ethical decisions should be taken on the basis of the effects that they will have on human beings. Despite what some people would have you believe, this does not lead to them murdering babies. Although there is nothing intrinsically preventing religious people from being humanists, many religious people prefer to take moral and ethical stances prescribed by their religion rather than thinking things through for themselves.

Secularism is the belief that religion has no place in public affairs and that there should be complete separation between church and state. This means that the USA is, by definition, a secular country (it’s in their constitution) whereas the UK, which is by any measure a less religious country than the USA still has an established church and therefore (by definition, at least) is not a secular country. Whilst many religious people can see no problem with their religion being tightly integrated with the state, they can often recognise the problems when someone else’s religion is in control. For this reason many religious people (although by no means all of them) are keen supporters of secularism.

The three concepts are completely separate, although (of course) many people subscribe to all three beliefs. In the UK we have separate organisations to promote each of these ideas – Atheism UK, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. You can join any combination of the three and members of each of these organisations should not be assumed to hold the beliefs of the other two.

In particular, the campaign that led to the Bideford council ruling was run by the National Secular Society. Therefore it cannot be seen as an attack on religion in any way. If it is an attack on anything, it is an attack on the influence that one particular religion (actually one particular church within that religion) has (or, rather, had) over the governance of that local council.

No-one has been told that they can’t pray. They haven’t even been told that they can’t pray before their council meetings. They have been told that they can’t pray on the meeting’s agenda. Effectively, they can’t pray on taxpayers’ money. And I’m astonished that people are seeing this as an attack on their. faith.

Don’t believe the stories that church leaders and the tabloid press are telling you. The full text of Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling is available online. Read that and see exactly what he said.

Even if you can’t be an atheist, or you’re doubtful about humanism, please accept that secularism makes sense.


  1. NSS constitution which I gathered recently have been modified stated clearly there is no rational belief in god(s). This comment have left NSS as an Anti-religious not just a separation of State and Church. There are some theists who also believe in the need for separation.

  2. The “separation of church and state” is NOT in our Constitution. Please get your facts straight. Thank you.

  3. Put my trust in man- are you kidding! Look at the past history of mankind. Also the human body is a miracle and very complicated. I surely don’t believe in your secular humanism that permeates our society for the worse!

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