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10 Myths About Secular Humanism

by Matt Cherry & Molleen Matsumura


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.


Have you heard that "secular humanists are molesting your children"? According to one pamphlet they are. Have you been told secular humanism is a conspiracy by the filthy rich to pervert American life? That's what some religious leaders claim. They portray secular humanism as an insidious cancer eating away at everything good and decent. Think this "secular humanism" sounds too bad to be true? You're right.

These claims and many others are part of a mythology about secular humanism that bears no relation to reality. Yet they are all that many people ever hear about secular humanism. It's time to respond to the lies and myths. Let's set the record straight.

First, though, we have an admission to make. Some of the charges against secular humanism are true! Yes, it's true that "secular humanists don't believe in a God or an afterlife." It's true that "secular humanism encourages people to think for themselves and question authority." It's true that "secular humanism says the morality of actions should be judged by their consequences in this world."

Secular humanists plead guilty as charged to these and many other claims that show the genuine and radical differences between humanism and revealed religion. In fact, we are proud of these differences, and want to see them publicized and debated. But in addition to legitimate discussion and disagreement, there is often an attempt to demonize secular humanists. As Eric Hoffer said, in The True Believer, "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." For many religious conservatives, secular humanism is that devil.

Even the most outrageous falsehoods can be sincerely believed. The person demonizing you may be misinformed, not malicious. They may even be willing to learn. Liberal religionists might come to realize they often have more in common with secular humanism than with traditional religion. It is therefore important to respond to false claims and show what secular humanism really means.

One myth about secular humanism that we should deal with straight away is that it is a monolithic dogma. It isn't. There is no central authority and no process for indoctrinating or converting people to secular humanism. People come to secular humanism by following their own curiosity and reasoning.

In fact secular humanism is not so much a body of beliefs as a method for reaching understanding. It is an approach to life that tries to be positive, rational, realistic, and open-minded. A common approach to issues often leads to common answers. Where we describe what humanists believe, we are not expressing a doctrine or view from on high, but doing our best to state the consensus shared by our fellow secular humanists.

1. Secular humanists have no morals.

If you believe the myth that you cannot have morality without religion and God, then you are forced to one of two conclusions. Either you can say humanists have no morals, or you can concede that they have a moral code but insist they must have gotten it from religion. We'll deal with these positions in turn. Let's start by explaining humanist ethics.

Secular humanists believe morality and meaning come from humanity and the natural world, not from God or the supernatural. It is our human values that give us rights, responsibilities, and dignity. We believe that morality should aim to bring out the best in people, so that all people can have the best in life. And morality must be based on our knowledge of human nature and the real world.

Humanist and religious morality share many basic principles because in fact both are underpinned by the fundamental human moral sense summarized in the Golden Rule: treat others with the same consideration as you would have them treat you. Humanists recognize that the common moral decencies - for example, people should not lie, steal, or kill; and they should be honest, generous, and cooperative - really are conducive to human welfare.

However, there are differences between humanist and religious moralities. Humanists realize that individuals alone cannot solve all our problems, but instead of turning to the supernatural, we believe that problems are solved by people working together, relying on understanding and creativity. That is why humanists are committed to promoting human values, human understanding, and human development. Humanists also emphasize the importance of self-determination - the right of individuals to control their own lives, so long as they do not harm others. Secular humanists, therefore, often promote causes where traditional religion obstructs the right to self-determination, for example, freedom of choice regarding sexual relationships, reproduction, and voluntary euthanasia.

Secular humanists disagree that, without God, life can have no meaning or purpose. We believe that people create their own meaning and purpose in life. The value and significance of life comes from how we live life, not from some supposed transcendent realm. Humanists believe the meaning of life is to live a life of meaning.

The moral differences between secular humanism and religion do not justify the allegation that secular humanist have no morals. This claim is not an argument, just an insult. It merely represents the human tendency to see one's opponents as amoral.

2. Secular humanism derives its ethics from Christianity.

Some knowledge of philosophy, world history, or comparative religion should dispel this myth.

Nonreligious, humanistic moral systems existed before Christianity and independently of any monotheistic traditions. For example, consider India's materialist philosophers of 3,000 years ago (the Lokayata), the Confucians in ancient China, and the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics of classical Greece and Rome.

Furthermore, the common moral decencies are found throughout the cultures of the world. Similar moral codes have evolved irrespective of religious belief or nonbelief, and Judeo-Christian morality is not unique. Scholars have found little if any original moral thinking in the Bible - the Ten Commandments were laid down by Hammurabi before Moses, just as Confucius stated the Golden Rule more than 500 years before it was attributed to Jesus.

On the other hand, liberal Christianity has been deeply influenced by humanism. The most important moral and political concepts of the modern era have developed out of humanistic thinking. You will search the Bible in vain for opposition to slavery or support for democracy and equality of the sexes!

3. The Supreme Court ruled that secular humanism is a religion.

This myth is based on a misunderstanding about how Supreme Court decisions are written, and was finally laid to rest by a Federal Circuit Court ruling issued in 1994.

In the 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins decision, Justice Hugo Black commented in a footnote, "Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others." Such footnotes, known as "dicta," are written to provide factual background to the legal principles in a decision. These dicta never have the force of law. They are merely comments.

The claim that secular humanism can be considered a religion for legal purposes was finally considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Peloza v. Capistrano School District. In this 1994 case, a science teacher argued that, by requiring him to teach evolution, his school district was forcing him to teach the "religion" of secular humanism. The Court responded, "We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are `religions' for Establishment Clause purposes." The Supreme Court refused to review the case; they refused to reverse a ruling that secular humanism is not a religion.

"But," you might ask, "even if secular humanism isn't a religion for legal purposes, isn't it really a religion in practical terms?" No. Look at it this way: Suppose Justice Black had been writing about an issue of interstate commerce in agricultural products, and in a footnote he included "apples" in a list of root crops. He would be wrong. It wouldn't matter what laws were involved-apples are fruits, not roots! As a factual matter, he was partly wrong about Buddhism because some branches of Buddhism do worship the Buddha as a deity. And he was wrong about secular humanism.

Secular humanism is not a religion by any definition: There are no supernatural beliefs, no creeds that all humanists are required to accept, no sacred texts or required rituals. Humanists are not expected or required to have "faith" in what is said by any authority, living or dead, human or "supernatural."

People may find values and meaning in life through either humanistic or religious worldviews. But religions claim that meaning is based on a god or the supernatural, while humanists derive their meaning and values from the natural world. Secular humanism is a naturalistic, nonreligious worldview.

4. Secular humanism worships humankind.

The idea that "humanists replace God with Man" seems to arise from a tendency among many Christians to assume that other religions and worldviews have a structure and content that parallels Christianity. So, since "Christians" worship Christ, humanists must worship humans.

But secular humanism is not a religion and humanists don't worship anything. We are far too realistic to worship humanity. While we recognize that all human beings have the potential to do good, we also realize that the potential exists for acts of great evil. Humanity's constant challenge is to understand itself and improve itself.

5. Secular humanists believe all of nature should be subjugated to human desires and interests.

This myth is more likely to worry progressive thinkers than religious conservatives. Perhaps it arises from taking the name "humanist" too literally. The point is that humanism is a naturalistic philosophy, not supernaturalistic. We don't pretend that our ethics and values are divine: we recognize that they are human, and therefore part of nature.

While individual secular humanists differ in how much value they place on the welfare of other species, we all accept that the human species has evolved by the same natural processes as every other species. We understand that some of our most treasured traits, such as language and the ability to understand and care for others, are on an evolutionary continuum with communicative and cooperative behaviors of other animals. We do not think humans are the result of a special creation, separate from the rest of the animal world. The naturalistic humanist approach is a much better basis for understanding that humans have a moral responsibility towards the rest of the natural world, than the biblical view that humans "have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

6. Secular humanism is the same as communism.

To which we can add the allegations that "secular humanism is a socialist political movement" and - brace yourself - "the Nazis were humanists."

Believe it or not, sometimes people make all these claims at once! Perhaps that should not be surprising when dealing with wild smear tactics.

Secular humanism is not a political movement, and secular humanists cover a wide spectrum of political views. In America, some secular humanists are active in the Democratic Party, many others are staunch Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, Greens, etc. One political view that secular humanists do share is unswerving support for democracy, freedom, and human rights. All secular humanists are utterly opposed to totalitarian systems like communism and fascism.

7. Secular humanists are unpatriotic.

The accusation that secular humanists are unpatriotic or unAmerican is often combined with the myth that "the United States was created as a Christian Nation." So let's start by dismantling that claim.

The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights contain no references to God or Christianity. Their only references to religion establish freedom of religion and separation of church and state: Article VI of the Constitution says there may be no religious tests for office, and the First Amendment stipulates that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ..." The motto on the Great Seal of the United States, unchanged since its adoption in 1782, is E Pluribus Unum ("From Many, One"). The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain an oath to God, until it was added in the 1950s McCarthyite era. It was also at that time that the motto "In God We Trust" was first printed on U.S. dollars. The myth that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation is perhaps best refuted by the words of the U.S. Senate itself. In 1797 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Treaty of Tripoli which stated that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

In fact the remarkable thing about the United States is precisely that it was created as a secular republic organized around the rights and freedoms of its citizens. It was founded not on links of ethnicity or religion, but on the basis of shared philosophical principles and ideals. Derived from the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, these principles are essentially secular and humanist.

The United States is based on values dear to the hearts of secular humanists, who have sacrificed, fought, and died beside their fellow Americans in defense of these great principles. The myth that secular humanists are unAmerican is an insult to the patriotism and distinguished service of millions of people.

8. Secular humanists want to outlaw religion.

Secular humanists don't believe the one, final, absolute truth has been revealed to them. On the contrary, we believe that all beliefs are fallible and provisional, and that diversity and dialogue are essential to the process of learning and developing. Thus we value tolerance, pluralism, and open-mindedness as positive and beneficial qualities in society. Humanists are staunch supporters of freedom of religion, belief, and conscience, as laid out in both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights protect the freedom of religious belief equally with the freedom of nonreligious belief, the freedom of religion equally with the freedom from religion.

Secular humanists would actually oppose advocacy of their worldview by schools or the government because that would violate the neutrality of a secular society, and the rights of religious believers. Secular humanists believe that a healthy society supports a variety of worldviews, just as it supports a variety of political parties. We also believe that religious and philosophical views should be every bit as open to debate and discussion as political beliefs.

9. Secular humanism is the official religion of the public education system.

In some ways this myth is rather flattering! Secular humanists would surely be proud to accept sole credit for schools teaching, say, science, sex education, and objective history. But we must share the credit with millions of Christians, Jews, and others who value good education.

The truth is, it's much easier for the far Religious Right to scare the faithful into making financial contributions by blaming secular humanists for the "evils" of sex education or education about evolution than by blaming their fellow Christians. Related myths are that secular humanism is the official religion of the government, the media, the universities, and anyone else who refuses to support a favorite dogma. All these claims make the same mistake: they confuse neutrality with hostility. That's a good tactic if you want to create a persecution complex, but it disregards the fact that neutrality toward different worldviews is the best protection from persecution in our democratic society. Separating church and state doesn't mean that the state promotes atheism and humanism, but that it provides equal protection to all beliefs, as people of many religions who are at the forefront of the battle to defend the "Wall of Separation" will be the first to tell you.

10. Secular humanists don't exist. They are a bogeyman made up by religious conservatives.

Maybe this myth is a reaction to the tendency of some religious conservatives to label everything they dislike as "secular humanism." In that sense it's true! The amoral, power-hungry "secular humanist" conspiracy described by some religious conservatives is a myth. But the vibrant movement that champions a moral approach to living based on reason and happiness is alive and growing.

So our response to this myth is twofold. Yes Virginia, there are secular humanists. But no, there is no bogeyman.


The Council for Secular Humanism is considering producing a pamphlet on "Ten Myths About Secular Humanism." We would welcome feedback, especially specific quotes and examples of any of the myths above or of others we did not mention.


Matt Cherry is Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism and Molleeen Matsumura is an Associate Editor of Free Inquiry.


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