"Alice Roberts, 2018" by Rwendland / CC BY-SA 4.0

Alice Roberts: ‘Atheism is defining yourself by an absence. Humanism is a positive choice’

Aug 31, 2020

By Harriet Sherwood

Prof. Alice Roberts, the broadcaster, scientist and author, has been filming this week for the third series of Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns, after a five-month gap. “The last time we were out, back in March, people were pulling the shutters down around us. We felt very nervous. I drove home that evening, and stayed there,” she says.

Despite the hiatus in filming, Roberts has been remarkably productive during lockdown and its long tail. Her first children’s book, Human Journey, a story of ancestral migration, will be published this week, while a “much bigger book”, Ancestors: A History of Britain in Thirteen Burials, going back to the depths of the Ice Age, is due out in early 2021.

Roberts has also found time to co-author The Little Book of Humanism, a pocket-sized guide to the meaning of life and death scattered with quotations, mini-meditations and illustrations, published last week.

Roberts, who became president of Humanists UK last year, says she has come across many people who, on learning about humanism, say: “That’s me! That’s what I think, I just didn’t know there was a name for it.”

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9 comments on “Alice Roberts: ‘Atheism is defining yourself by an absence. Humanism is a positive choice’

  • To quibble, Atheism isn’t an absence of anything. It’s merely the conscious position, the observation, that no evidence has been supplied in support of (any) theism.

    Therefore it’s more accurate to say that Atheism is neutral rather than stereotypically negative.

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  • In the article above, Alice Roberts describes humanism:

    In their introduction to the book, she and Copson write: “Throughout history there have been non-religious people who have believed this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives – using reason and humanity to guide us.
    “These people have looked to scientific evidence and reason to understand the world. And they’ve placed human welfare and happiness – as well as the welfare of other sentient animals – at the heart of how they choose to live their life.

    I have an appreciation for the terms “humanism” and “naturalism” although I’ve always felt my happy home was in the community of atheists. I was wondering how others here feel about these groups and how others feel about labels in general.

    Is humanism too human centered?

    Is naturalism too cold and lonely?

    Here is Wiki description of naturalism:

    In philosophynaturalism is the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the universe.[1] Adherents of naturalism assert that natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe, that the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws.

    Naturalism is not so much a special system as a point of view or tendency common to a number of philosophical and religious systems; not so much a well-defined set of positive and negative doctrines as an attitude or spirit pervading and influencing many doctrines. As the name implies, this tendency consists essentially in looking upon nature as the one original and fundamental source of all that exists, and in attempting to explain everything in terms of nature. Either the limits of nature are also the limits of existing reality, or at least the first cause, if its existence is found necessary, has nothing to do with the working of natural agencies. All events, therefore, find their adequate explanation within nature itself. But, as the terms nature and natural are themselves used in more than one sense, the term naturalism is also far from having one fixed meaning.

    — Dubray 1911


    Humanism and naturalism. Compare and contrast!

  • @Laurie #3

    …and how others feel about labels in general.

    I think the headline was unfortunate. I was going to comment earlier that it (the headline) stuck in my craw a little bit, but you’ve expanded the subject matter to include naturalism. It was a pleasant side trip. Thanks for that. After reading the article, I realized the focus of the headline (labels/categories) was not really the main point of the article, which is why I thought it an unfortunate choice of wording.

    I’m not going to compare the pros and cons of humanism vs naturalism, but I’d like to say why the headline bugged me. How necessary are these ‘spiritual’ labels in a culture? Do we really need to define ourselves to others, and what is the cultural benefit? More importantly, how accurately do any of those categories define us as humans and fellow members of the local society?

    Maybe we need those labels as ‘jumping off’ points? I don’t know.

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  • Vicki

    Do we really need to define ourselves to others

    Years ago I paid no attention to the labels that people applied to themselves but now with the ideological divide that is so apparent I’m even more wary about accepting and projecting labels. Several times I’ve been accused of being a liberal, as if it’s the equivalent of being a Satan worshipper and I asked these people if they knew one single stand I hold on any issue at all and they didn’t. I told them not to back me into a corner with a label slapped on me that I didn’t accept for myself. Please, just ask me where I stand on individual issues. I promise to tell you the truth of where I stand. I do put effort into deciding these things. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be happy with what you hear but I do welcome further discussion and I’m interested to hear what you’ve come up with for yourself.

    I need some wiggle room in my views. I can’t be confined and sucked into any ideology that would restrict my ability to think outside the box if I need to do that.  Lately, my refusal to be sorted politically has allowed me to discuss actual issues one at a time and seems to diffuse the hateful attack mode that comes from announcing a label.

    In conversation with a thirty something guy who came right out of the gate as a devoted Republican, I asked him what issues were of concern to him. He fumbled around on issues but after a while he did say that when it comes to the environment that’s where he has a parting of the ways with his party. He’s a gun nut but loves to be in nature hunting and camping and didn’t appreciate the Republican penchant for slaughtering the environment so the fat cats can make a gazillion dollars off the destruction. I said “Thank you for holding yourself independent from them on this issue. That does take some guts to disagree with a big political party machine.”

    My hope is that now that he has broken on one issue he will be more inclined to break with a few more in the future. But wouldn’t it have been better to never have taken on the ideology in the first place? Maybe I’m asking too much of young people. Unrealistic, I suppose.

    How necessary are these labels?

    So many of these labels are applied to us by our families and various other agents of enculturation. It takes a lot to shake them off once they’ve been installed. I can’t see an answer for how necessary they are because I can’t imagine what life would be like for humans that could escape the process of enculturation! Labels as a personal statement of the variety of tribal affiliation that anyone just so happened to have been born into might be the glue that holds a group of people bound closely together as a survival unit. Woe be unto the problem child who rejects those labels! Ha.

    what is the cultural benefit?

    I find that my bias immediately rushes to the front of my mind when I read that question. I thought – Oh yes, the citizens would be so much easier to rally in defense of our issues that we hold dear! Get the people settled into a comfortable group and deliver the proper information that they need and maybe collect a few bucks along the way and we’ll be a force to be reckoned with! Freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the end of repulsive guns, fair distribution of financial assets, etc. Just think of what we can accomplish!

    But then, there’s the flip side.  Let’s collect a mass of preprogramed biddable (Phil’s word), low information, fear based thinkers and fleece them for all they’ve got. Blame some poor bunch of saps who can’t defend themselves and we’re all gonna be powerful and obscenely rich! Winning!

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  • Well said, Laurie.

    “Enculturation.” An apt word for the subject.

    I liked your example of the 30-something Republican. I can’t help wondering if your exchange spurred him on to get a clearer picture of just exactly what it is he supports. So many of us are members of a political party, yet how many can actually articulate why? I was leaning toward becoming an Independent a few years back (pre-Obama) because I found myself voting issues and a candidate’s performance record over party. That all changed when McConnell boasted that Obama would be a one-term president and not one Republican balked. Had I seen an inkling of outrage from any of them, I would have taken a little longer to commit to voting Democrat straight down the ticket. I’m afraid that ship has sailed, though, and I don’t see myself supporting anyone who continues to be a member of the party that enables Donald Trump.

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  • Vicki

    a clearer picture of just exactly what it is he supports.

    I’m afraid to get my hopes up…

    I’d love an opportunity to read the bullet points of the Republican party platform to a room full of their members and hold them to account for who agrees with the various points.

    I’ve had Republicans say that they don’t agree with the party on social issues but they like the financial conservatism.


    My response: We now have massive national debt and you’re in bed with the worst frothing at the mouth fundamentalists in America who are shoving their agenda down our throats so thanks a million. Own that.

     I would have taken a little longer to commit to voting Democrat straight down the ticket. I’m afraid that ship has sailed, though, and I don’t see myself supporting anyone who continues to be a member of the party that enables Donald Trump.

    Ha! I was there a few years ago. One of the young  voters in the family asked me what to do when there’s a list of candidates that they’ve never heard of and I told them to issue a punishment to the Republicans and vote the straight Democratic ticket. Evil cackling ensued.  Ok, I’m not proud of it.

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  • @Laurie #7

    I’d love an opportunity to read the bullet points of the Republican party platform to a room full of their members…

    The Republican National Committee announced before the convention that they weren’t going to have a 2020 platform. Their plan is to extend the 2016 platform instead. And not one Republican leader balked. Not one.

    So in effect, their platform is whatever Donald Trump says it will be on any given day. Here’s the closest he’s come to defining the 2020 Republican platform:

    “But so I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.”

    And the Republican party seems to be OK with that.


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  • Vicki #8

    And the Republican party seems to be OK with that.

    They’ll be ok with anything that gives them power. And right now – appallingly – they think that’s Trump. Because for them there’s no concern for the well-being of the nation. For all the “America America America” rhetoric, it’s all naked self-interest really. Not a scrap of integrity between them.




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