My friend James Croft has a provocative post on his blog arguing that the American humanist movement is focused too much on separation of church and state and not enough on other aspects of humanism that, he believes, will do much more to alleviate human suffering and improve society.
Secularism is an important value: a secular government – a government which does not embody or promote any particular religious or nonreligious worldview, and which bases its policies on what is likely to improve the welfare of its citizens rather than on any particular religious ideology – is an essential component of a flourishing society. Efforts to protect the secular nature of the US government – such as preventing public schools from imposing religious views on their students through mandatory prayers or religiously-motivated materials in textbooks – are worthwhile and praiseworthy, and perfectly appropriate for Humanist organizations to pursue.
Over recent decades, however, it seems secularism has become the primary value of the American Humanist movement – indeed it sometimes seems to be the movement’s only value. Efforts to police the boundary between church and state have taken on increasing prominence, to the extent that they have begun, from my perspective, to crowd-out other issues which are even more pressing…
We live in a time when many Americans are struggling to get basic healthcare insurance due to the flaws in the US healthcare system and the incompetence of the US government; a time when a stumbling economy has left a generation looking toward a future of insecure employment and reduced affluence; a time when Republican laws threaten the basic right of suffrage for minorities and the poor; a time when trans people face legal discrimination, cultural ostracism and violence; a time when unions are under attack and workers’ rights are being eroded; a time when gun violence is commonplace and increasingly deadly; a time when women live in an atmosphere of constant threat; a time when our endless consumption has put the health of our very planet is at stake. Humans – and Humanists – have bigger problems and more pressing priorities than old crosses on public land…
Second, the focus on secularism-above-all-else pushes other important political issues relevant to Humanism to the sidelines. When our major movement organizations can find the time and money to lobby against memorial crosses, but have little to say about legal attacks on voting rights or a racist criminal justice system, we diminish Humanism, reducing it to a narrow focus on one issue among many. If we place so much emphasis on secularism that we fail to speak to the great social and political issues of our age, we show ourselves to be out of touch, a single-issue pressure group rather than a movement for the radical improvement of human life on this planet.
Though Secularism, as I have said, is a critically important value, it is not the only such value, nor is it even the most important one. Humanism is about the promotion of human welfare in all its aspects, and we cannot allow one small part of our political agenda to expand to fill the whole horizon of our hopes. We must be bigger, bolder, and more radical than that.
Honestly, I’m a little surprised that James is being this pessimistic. I absolutely agree with him on the necessity of humanists working to improve the lives of others, of course, but I think we are probably doing more of that work now than ever before. I don’t see an atheist/humanist movement that has focused on church/state separation to the exclusion of other priorities, I see one that has significantly broadened the issues it focuses on beyond secularism.
One of the groups that has done great work in this regard is the one that James has long been associated with, the Harvard Humanists. They have focused on building secular communities, starting an entire project devoted just to that. They have led the way in pushing for more action to alleviate suffering. But they’re not alone. The Foundation Beyond Belief is now four years old and is approaching a million dollars a year going from humanists to groups doing that kind of work.
The Beyond Belief Network has nearly 100 active teams that regularly take on service projects, from blood drives to feeding the homeless and much more. The Pathfinders are finishing up a yearlong trip around the world where they helped educate young children, provide safe drinking water and other crucial projects, laying the groundwork for a Humanist Service Corps that will, we hope, expand that work dramatically.
Is it enough? Of course not. The needs are so great and the resources far too limited. But I see a movement with a renewed focus on service to others, one that has been led to such actions by the example of amazing people like James Croft. Perhaps he doesn’t realize how much good he and many others have done in recent years in making that happen. So smile, James. You’ve done well. And the rest of us are working to do half as well ourselves.