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Secular Humanism: a New Approach

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 4.

Paul KurtzSecular humanism and atheism are not identical. One can be an atheist and not a secular humanist or humanist. Indeed, some thinkers or activists who call themselves atheists explicitly reject humanist ethical values (for example, Stalin, Lenin, Nietzsche, and others). Nor is secular humanism the same thing as humanism by itself; it is surely sharply different from religious humanism.

I should also make it clear that secular humanism is not antireligious; it is simply nonreligious. There is a difference. Secular humanists are nontheists; they may be atheists, agnostics, or skeptics about the God question and/or immortality of the soul. To say that we are nonreligious means, that is, that we are not religious; ours is a scientific, ethical, and philosophical life stance. I have used the term eupraxsophy to denote our beliefs and values as a whole. This means that, as secular humanists, we offer good practical wisdom based on ethics, science, and philosophy.

The term secular should make it clear that secular humanists are not religious. In contrast, the term religious humanism is unfortunate. It has been used by some humanists to denote a kind of moral and æsthetic commitment to a set of ideals and practices; but this is most confusing. Often it serves to sneak in some quasi-spiritual and/or transcendental aspect of experience and practice, aping religion.

It is puzzling that religiosity is so strong in America today and that even humanists are fearful of denying that they are nonreligious—heavens to Betsy! In my view, cowardice is an important motive for many religious humanists who are embarrassed for anyone to know that they do not believe in God or salvation; and so they fudge, hide, mask, and obfuscate their real convictions in order to be socially accepted. They fear especially to be seen criticizing religion or to become known as an atheist. Ecumenism teaches that we should accept virtually all religions. In that spirit of tolerance, religious humanists do not wish to be seen as critical of any religion, whether Roman Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, or the numerous denominations of Protestanism.

Secular humanism is nonreligious. But this does not mean that it does not criticize the claims of religion; indeed, we have a moral obligation to speak the plain truth. There is a difference, however, between being antireligious—attacking religion or dismissing it cavalierly—and being willing to analyze religious claims and calling them to account for their lack of reliable empirical foundations. Biblical and Qur'anic criticism are essential to intellectual honesty and clarity; and so, secular humanists are able and willing to submit the claims of religion-particularly where these are relevant in the open public square-to critical scrutiny. To shy away from this would be dishonest. Accordingly, secular humanists are nonreligious critics of religious claims, particularly where these intrude in public policies and beliefs. Surely theistic religions today attack secular humanists and naturalists without compunction. In contrast, secular humanists have a responsibility to truth, to respond and to present the outlook of secularists and the ethics of humanism in clear and distinct language.

Secular humanism is thus committed to science and reason as the method of evaluating all truth claims, whether arising in popular belief, scientific theories, or in moral, political, or religious claims. Similarly, secular humanists are sympathetic to skeptical inquiry-that is, the application of rational methods and empirical/experimental testing to all claims to truth. For that reason, too, secular humanists cannot understand why religious humanists so fear to step on the toes of their religious brethren. Similarly, secular humanists are critical of those contemporary skeptics who express trepidation about treading in religious waters. Surely, skeptical epistemology means that there is open season on any and all claims to truth; all are subject to empirical and rational scrutiny. Critical thinking should not be confined to paranormal claims alone, which might be considered safe to criticize. In principle, critical thinking should likewise be applied to religion, politics, economics, and morality.

Within the current skeptical movement, I have argued that the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) should deal primarily with paranormal and fringe-scientific claims, and with religion only where an empirical scientific claim is made and can be tested. This is a matter of the division of labor and expertise. But I never meant to imply that religion is beyond the domain of skeptical inquiry. Secular humanists and skeptical inquirers have the right, and indeed duty, to submit these claims to examination.

What is central to humanism, in my view, is the ethical component; namely, humanists believe that:

  • Ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, independent of theological claims, amenable to rational scrutiny, testing value judgments by their consequences.
  • Ethical values and judgments are relative to human interests, needs, desires, ends, and values; they are open to objective criticism and evaluation.
  • Fulfillment, realization, and maximization of human freedom and happiness are what humanists seek, both for the individual and the community.
  • Thus there are ethical responsibilities that humanists hold toward others within the community, on the interpersonal level, the level of the democratic society, and the planetary community as well.

Clearly, secular humanism is not equivalent to atheism—it is far more than that. Similarly, secular humanism finds itself at odds with religious humanism, since its outlook is clearly nonreligious. It goes beyond any negative skeptical inquiry insofar as it seeks to provide a positive and affirmative alternative to customary moral and religious practices.

The moral of the story is that the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry, and the Center for Inquiry represent a point of view which is distinct from those of other existing humanist and atheist organizations in the United States. We respect our sister organizations, and are willing to work with them on concrete projects. Nonetheless, there are genuine differences between the Council and the American Humanist Association, the American Ethical Union, the Friends of Religious Humanism (now HUUmanists), and the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. All of these groups have religious impulses and religious tax-exemptions. We need to reiterate that the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry are postreligious. We have educational and scientific exemptions; more important, we wish to dissociate ourselves with any and all attempts to ape religion. We believe in science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and developing an alternative to the religious doctrines of the past. Similarly, we are open to a wide diversity of political views, and we cannot be identified with left-wing liberalism or right-wing libertarianism. We open our pages to liberals and conservatives, social democrats, radical nonconformists, and libertarians.

We also share some part of the protest of atheist groups (such as American Atheists, Atheists United, the Atheist Alliance International, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and others) in our skepticism of theology and our defense of the separation of church and state. But we stand for more than atheism alone, since we offer an alternative ethical life stance and eupraxsophy which is an inherent part of our position. That ethical dimension, indeed, defines our humanism.

Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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