The Divergent Discourses of Scientific and Humanistic Atheism

Lorna Mumford reflects on how events during her field research suggest that different atheistic discourses are utilised in response toPicture0028 differing aspects of concern regarding religiosity.

In his journal article The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches Stephen LeDrew provides an analytical account of developments in official atheist discourses since the publication of D’Holbach’s Systeme de la Nature in 1770. He highlights how since the nineteenth century, there has been a divergence between atheist discourses based on scientific arguments and those based on humanistic concerns. LeDrew sees this difference reflected today in the scientific approach of ‘New Atheist’ authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, with their more confrontational response to religious belief and the promotion of science and education as a means to achieve increased secularisation, and the approach of many secular Humanist organisations, who prefer a more accommodating approach and emphasise the importance of equal treatment for both religious and nonreligious worldviews.

I have been conducting ethnographic field-research among nonreligious groups who meet socially in the London area, variously catering for atheists, Humanists and ex-Muslims. As a researcher of ‘lived nonreligion’ I found LeDrew’s noteworthy account of the historical divergence between these two official atheist discourses fascinating. It also led me to wonder about the ways these official discourses were interpreted and utilised by participants in my own research. Initial analysis of my field data suggests that the members of all the groups equally engage with both forms of official atheist discourse through publications and the media, however within their own discourses my participants appear to use these two forms of atheism in different ways and contexts. While the scientific atheist discourse is utilised in intellectual, rational debates regarding the validity of particular religious texts and belief propositions, discussions relating to the influence of religious ideas in the public sphere are usually couched in the more emotive language of the humanistic discourse.

At a recent group meeting one of the members had brought along a leaflet she had come across in a church lobby while waiting for a friend who was attending the service. The leaflet contained a creationist perspective on the origins of life, a perspective my participants consider to be invalidated by evidence supporting the theory of evolution. One article in particular caught the attention of the group members I was sitting with. It described how the physiology of a whale was too perfect to have occurred as the result of natural selection, stating that such a creature could not have come about “other than by design”. The article proved to be a good source of entertainment; the leaflet was passed around and people read out loud sections they found particularly amusing or baffling. Quoting from a paragraph that used the example of a whale to demonstrate how biological organisms were created in such a way that either “all of it works, or none of it does” one member proclaimed: “so why do I have an appendix then?!”. This provoked a discussion about the contradictions between creationism and scientific theories. Throughout this conversation the overall tone was one of amused bafflement, the arguments of the scientific discourse were used to demean ideas about intelligent design and young earth creationism; descriptive accounts of evidence for evolution by natural selection were interspersed with jokes and laughter.

Compare this discussion of Creationism to a previous conversation, with almost entirely the same group of people, in which one member, I’ll call her Anna, spoke about her relatives’ attitudes toward homosexuality. One of her relatives is a Minister and at a recent family get together he had stated that he would never employ a homosexual person to perform lay duties within his church and Anna had queried “why ever not?”. She described how all of her relatives had fallen into an uncomfortable silence in response to her question and the subject was quickly changed. The tone of Anna’s revelation and the ensuing discussion was much more solemn and serious than the conversation about the physiology of the whale. It was clear that Anna was upset by the opinions of her relatives on this topic, and responses from others ranged from sympathetic understanding for Anna’s position to shock and dismay that such attitudes towards homosexuality still existed. On this subject there were no jokes or laughter. Instead arguments based on the humanistic discourse relating to discrimination were used to condemn (certain) religious ideologies’ attitude to homosexuality.

These two divergent discourses can, and do, operate in a complimentary way, with each informing and reinforcing the other, but these initial findings suggest that, rather than describing different people and groups, the two official discourses are used by the same people and groups but function in different ways, providing arguments and responses to two separate ‘dilemmas’ regarding religiosity: the propositional elements of personal religious belief, and the perceived impact religious practices and principles have on the lives of people in society.


LeDrew, S., 2012. The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches. History of the Human Sciences, 25(3), pp.70–87.

Lorna is the blog editor responsible for the day-to-day management of Nonreligion and Secularity, and assistant editor of NSRN Online. A PhD student in the department of anthropology, University College London, Lorna’s research comprises an ethnographic exploration of nonreligious value systems and notions of morality.


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2 Responses to The Divergent Discourses of Scientific and Humanistic Atheism

  1. I wonder how many of your group members were nihilistic? Have you considered how religious people in non-religious setting view scientific and social questions differently? Per chance a discussion on something like ‘starving children who will die during the converstation about them’?

  2. Pingback: Taking Atheism to School | Nonreligion and Secularity

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