After leaving religion, I realized that humanism was a way to explain how people can be good without the belief in gods.
I grew up with the idea that goodness came from God. My family was sort of Catholic—the soft Catholicism that meant we didn’t read the bible or go to church unless it was absolutely necessary. And while hell was a concept I was familiar with, it wasn’t the main focus of our religion. The main point was: God is watching, so don’t be a jerk. Just like Santa, but instead of a lump of coal you get burning in agony, and instead of just Christmas it’s forever.
Honestly, it wasn’t something I thought much about. God knew that humans weren’t perfect and that we would mess up sometimes, but He would forgive us if we asked. It was all easy and didn’t require much thought. And like Santa, even as a kid, I had my doubts about His existence.
But as I started to think about my own motivations for not acting like an ass, or just being nice to people, I wondered if I was really a good person. Was I not stealing, lying, or kicking puppies because God was watching? Would I still be a good person if He wasn’t keeping an eye on me? Did I want to go to heaven or was I afraid of hell?
I knew that doing good for people made me feel good, and doing bad made me feel awful, but there was a part of me that couldn’t let go of the idea that God was behind all that.
Good without God
I didn’t have some great epiphany that the god I was taught to believe in wasn’t real. But rather, I simply came to acknowledge that I just didn’t believe. Even so, I was still reluctant to identify as an atheist. How would I explain that I’m not some crazy murderer to believers? That I wasn’t going to lift money out of their wallets when they weren’t looking. You know, how would Santa know to put me on the good list if no one was watching me be good?
My fears were justified when I told a family member that I didn’t believe in God. They asked, “But how do you have any morals?”
And well, I didn’t know how to answer. I was hurt that this person who had known me since birth all of a sudden thought I had no morals, as if my entire life of not acting like a jerk was suddenly negated.
Although to be completely fair, I can be a jerk sometimes.
I stuttered and strained to tell them that I still donated food, money, and even my blood, receiving nothing in return except the satisfaction that I had helped in some way. That even without the belief in God, heaven, or hell, I didn’t have the urge to bludgeon old ladies to death as they slept. That I did good things because I wanted to seemed like a lame answer to this question.
And then, I found the concepts of humanism and altruism. It gave me the framework in which to defend my non-belief and my lack of desire to hurt people. Looking back, it seems odd to me now. I had been on the defense before for being a stripper, but now I was being asked to justify my inherent lack of will to be awful, as if that was somehow a default position that needed a supernatural reason to overcome.
Humanism explained what I couldn’t. That doing good feels good. And that helping people is good for everyone, including me. It gave me the foundation and confidence to shed the flimsy façade that I had created to hide my atheism.
Humanism helped me let go of the need to pretend to believe in God.