Is Secularism Crowding Out Humanism?


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.

Comments

  1. sundoga says

    I would also point out that not everyone involved in secular issues IS a humanist. I don’t consider myself one; I am certainly an Atheist, but I don’t hold the “values” of humanism as my values. Secularism is an area pretty much all Atheists can agree upon (as can many believers, of course) but please don’t assume such a broad base of support in all humanist areas.

  2. Chiroptera says

    …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.

    Considering the immense harm that theocrats are doing while they have the political power to do it, I’d think that separation of church and state is doing an awful lot to alleviate human suffering and improve society.

    Yeah, it would be nice to also work more directly on important social issues, but let’s not trivialize church/state separation; it actually has a lot more direct impact on people’s lives than just removing “In God We Trust” from the currency.

  3. sinned34 says

    Mission creep. All this does is distract away from time better spent making fun of people who believe in sasquatch and two thousand year old Jewish zombies.

    Wait, not everybody is interested in doing the exact same thing as me? What is wrong with you people? You’re doing skepticism/atheism/humanism wrong, I tells ya!

  4. says

    And this is why you Athiests will lose. Above all else, you insist on breaking the link between the State and the Judeo-Christian Values that have formed the very Foundation of This Great Nation ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, bringing with them the Declaration of Independence that they fought the King of England for. Plus, you ignore popular problems that, with your help, could be solved, like Voter Fraud, Benghazi, and Obama.

  5. Kevin Kehres says

    @1…well, color me intrigued.

    What part of this do you disagree with?

    Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

    Perhaps you should read the entire Humanist Manifesto III and get back to us with your objections.

    The TL;dr (wikipedia-edited) version:
    1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
    2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of evolutionary change, an unguided process.
    3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
    4. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
    5. Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
    6. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.
    7. Respect for differing yet humane views in an open, secular, democratic, environmentally sustainable society

  6. sundoga says

    I really don’t have any disagreement with Humanism (well, point 6 above isn’t something I would assume to be true even as a general rule), it just isn’t important to me. Philosophically I’m more informed by Daoist thought, and socially you’d probably call me a mild paleo-conservative.

  7. eric says

    Sometimes the smallest ideological differences produce the most heated debates. We snicker at the People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front joke, or two professors going at it full bore over some esoteric point of historical philosophy. But when the atheist giving 10 units of his/her charitable effort to women’s rights and 5 units to secularism starts attacking the atheist who gives 10 units of charitable effort to secularism and 5 units to womens’ rights, we are doing the exact same thing.

    So my own response to Croft would be: there is room in atheism and humanism for different people to prioritize good causes differently. Its more important that we do good than it is that we reach some consensus on the good to be done. Do not be the Civil Rights Secularist Front arguing with the Secularist Civil Rights Action group.

  8. D. C. Sessions says

    KK, you’ve clearly established that humanism has nothing to do with liberalism. None of those seven points would have caused Ayn Rand the least difficulty. Nor, for that matter, Josef Stalin.

    Proof by dictionary wins again.

  9. says

    D. C. Sessions “None of those seven points would have caused Ayn Rand the least difficulty. Nor, for that matter, Josef Stalin.”
    Of course they wouldn’t. They were the same person.

  10. Al Dente says

    I have no objection to humanism. I don’t like some facets of Humanism™ especially as performed by the Humanists™ at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. I saw that Chris Stedman, the atheist who hates atheists who don’t love religion like he thinks we should, is not going to be a Havard Humanist chaplain* any more so maybe the Harvard Humanists will become more humanist and less faitheist.

    *Why do humanists need chaplains? This is a question I once asked James Croft at his blog Temple of the Future (no shit, that’s its name) and got the answer which boiled down to “because…well, just because.”

  11. says

    @ D.C. Sessions

    Really, Ayn Rand would be fine with #6? I thought her approach was more “Maximizing individual happiness — screw society.” Or #4? Ayn Rand and “Humane ideals?” What’s humane about “I’ve got mine, sucks to be you!”?

  12. jflcroft says

    Thanks for the response, and thanks to those who made comments here. I suppose I think you’re right, Ed, in that the movement-wide trend is pushing more in the direction I hope that it will go (Foundation Beyond Belief has been particularly important in that regard, I grant you). That said, I do think the major movement organizations – the American Humanist Association particularly, but also American Atheists to some extent (given its explicitly humanistic mission) – are still unbalanced on this front.

    I chose the WWI Cross example because I feel it is a clear instance of misplaced priorities. In the world in which we now live I simply do not think it worth a Humanist organization pursuing that lawsuit, even if you think it is the right thing to do – why not let Americans United or some other secularism-focused group do that? It’s emblematic, to me, of institutional priorities gone awry.

    Some responses to a few comments now:

    sundoga says “not everyone involved in secular issues IS a humanist”. True. My post doesn’t address anyone who does not consider themselves a Humanist. It is addressed to Humanists and their organizations only.

    Chiroptera says:

    “Considering the immense harm that theocrats are doing while they have the political power to do it, I’d think that separation of church and state is doing an awful lot to alleviate human suffering and improve society.

    Yeah, it would be nice to also work more directly on important social issues, but let’s not trivialize church/state separation; it actually has a lot more direct impact on people’s lives than just removing “In God We Trust” from the currency.”

    Sure – I say as much myself in the OP. My words:

    “I understand the desire to place secularism at the center of Humanist activism. Humanism is, for many, a position achieved after a long struggle with religious faith, and many of our most passionate activists see religious influence on society as the root cause of many of our problems – and not without cause. The influence of conservative religion on US society, and societies around the world, is often baleful.”

    eric says:

    ” there is room in atheism and humanism for different people to prioritize good causes differently. Its more important that we do good than it is that we reach some consensus on the good to be done.”

    I agree. That said, there are limits. When major national organizations seem to let one part of their agenda become the majority of their focus I think there is a legitimate problem there which members of those organizations should point out.

    Al Dente says:

    “*Why do humanists need chaplains? This is a question I once asked James Croft at his blog Temple of the Future (no shit, that’s its name) and got the answer which boiled down to “because…well, just because.””

    This made me laugh. I don’t remember that being my response at all. But then again I speak with a lot of people and may have forgotten this particular exchange.

  13. D. C. Sessions says

    Really, Ayn Rand would be fine with #6? I thought her approach was more “Maximizing individual happiness — screw society.”

    She would agree that maximizing individual happiness — by me grabbing all I can get and Devil take the hindmost — is the same as benefiting society. Causality reversed, but the same.

    Of course, you’d have to go with her definition of “benefiting society,” which would involve a heapin’ helpin’ of “sucks to be you, now shut up and die you loser.”

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    What little exposure I’ve had to James Croft has always involved him telling other people what to do and what to think.

    Maybe he should join the “thought leaders” of the Global Secular Council.

    Piss off, James Croft.

  15. Michael Heath says

    I share James Croft’s concern while agreeing with Ed we’re seeing some fundamental improvements that bode well for the future.

    But I’m very put off by secularists who frame themselves as if only atheists are secularists, e.g., – http://www.secularwoman.org/about, when liberal Christians were and remain an integral part of both secularism and humanism. Such behavior by atheists is divisive where non-religious secularists need to leverage humanist influence, including those who are liberal and religious.

  16. jflcroft says

    Michael Hall: I agree with you that framing things in such a way that makes it seems as if atheists are the only secularists is very problematic. I talk about that in the full piece a bit

    Pierce R. Butler: Thank you for reminding me why I stopped reading the comments over here. This sort of stuff used to annoy me (the way some people attempt to avoid arguments they dislike by making personal attacks can be very frustrating – so unprincipled!) but now just makes me laugh.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oh heavens, I’ve offended one of my (countless) social betters – a Hahvahd man, no less! – with an uncouth remark so vulgar that he would not even stoop to deny the elitism that I and so many others bemoan.

    What else can I say but – and the thoroughbred you dressaged in on, James Croft!

Leave a Reply