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The Secular Humanist Prospect: In Historical Perspective

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 4.

Paul KurtzSecular humanism holds great promise for the future of humankind. But disturbing changes have occurred in recent years, particularly in the United States, that make its promise harder to fulfill. The cultural wars no doubt will continue to intensify. Though we have made progress—as recent Supreme Court decisions testify—we face unremitting challenges to the secular humanist outlook.

If I can flash back more than half a century, clearly most political and intellectual leaders of that time were sympathetic to scientific naturalism and humanism. I vividly remember John Dewey’s ninetieth birthday celebrations in 1949 (Dewey was then the leading American humanist philosopher). One such event was attended by the president of Columbia University (and future president of the United States), General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I recall Eisenhower declaring in admiration: “Professor Dewey, you are the philosopher of freedom, and I am the soldier of freedom.” Can we even imagine a soon-to-be U.S. president so praising a humanist intellectual today?

In those days, thoughtful Americans had great confidence in the United Nations and its efforts to transcend nationalism and build a world community. We sought to develop institutions of international law and a world court, enhancing our ability to negotiate differences based on collective security. Emerging from the Second World War, Americans displayed a strong desire to go beyond ancient rivalries, accompanied by confidence in the ability of science to understand nature and to solve human problems.

In 1973, I edited a book called The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism.1 In this book I observed that the twentieth century had been proclaimed to be the Humanist Century; many of the then-dominant philosophical schools—naturalism, phenomenology, existentialism, logical positivism, and analytic philosophy—were in a broad sense committed to the humanist outlook. The same was true of humanistic psychology and the social sciences in general. Indeed, I raised this question, “Is everyone a humanist?” For no one wanted to be known as antihumanist. I mean, who wanted to be antihuman? Heady with the momentum of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI even declared that Roman Catholicism was “a Christian humanism.” The only authentic humanism, he proclaimed, “must be Christian.”

Interestingly, it was also in 1973 that John D. Rockefeller, the scion of the Rockefeller family, published a book called The Second American Revolution.2 For Rockefeller, the second American Revolution would be a humanist moral revolution; he declared that capitalism needed to have a human face. Similarly, noted Marxists in Eastern Europe at that time claimed that their Marxism was basically humanist.

In the early 1970s, I was invited to Washington, D.C., on more than one occasion. I recall attending a reception at Mrs. Dean Acheson’s house and meeting, among others, Hubert Humphrey. I had been a strong supporter of Mr. Humphrey. I was the editor of the Humanist magazine at that time; Mr. Humphrey read my nametag and said to me, “Oh, Paul Kurtz! How nice to see you! Ah, the Humanist magazine, what a great magazine! I wish I had time to read it!” Walter Mondale, who was later to become vice president of the United States, and many other people identified approvingly with humanism.3 Indeed, in a very real sense humanism was the dominant intellectual theme on the cultural scene. On another occasion, I was invited to Washington by Senator Edward Kennedy (who was planning to run for the presidency). I spent a weekend at Sargent Shriver’s home. His wife, Eunice Shriver, was one of the Kennedys. I also visited the home of Mrs. Robert Kennedy. Everyone thought that the humanist outlook was important. And indeed, many of that era’s intellectual leaders of thought and action were humanists: B.F. Skinner, Albert Ellis, Herbert Muller, A.H. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Thomas Szasz, Jonas Salk, Joseph Fletcher, Betty Friedan, Sidney Hook, Rudolf Carnap, W.V. Quine, and Ernest Nagel come to mind. Many leaders in the Black community were humanists, not ministers, such as James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph; they worked hard for minority rights. Humanism and modernism were considered synonymous. In one sense the 1970s marked a high point of humanism’s influence—at least in the United States.

Now, I raise these points because there has been a radical shift today, particularly in the United States. Let me focus for a moment on this country, because of its enormous influence in today’s world. America is undergoing a fundamental transformation, one which in my view betrays the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Franklin were humanists and rationalists by the standards of their day, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. How different is the national tone today. We hear calls for the nation to become more religious; we see unremitting attempts to breach the separation of church and state, such as the financing of faith-based charities. Since the tragedy of 9/11, the momentum of change has accelerated. The so-called PATRIOT Act and the relentless pursuit of “Homeland Security,” I submit, are drastically undermining civil liberties.

The United States is the preeminent scientific, technological, economic, and political power of the world, far outstripping any other nation. Today the military budget of the United States is virtually equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Why has America’s former idealism on behalf of democracy and human rights declined, to be replaced by militant chauvinism? Why has its commitment to humanism, liberal values, and the First Amendment eroded?

These changes began in the late 1970s and gathered force in the 1980s. Because of my role in the humanist movement, I was able to observe closely as the attacks on secular humanism and naturalism intensified. In my view, six factors were responsible for these inauspicious developments.

First, there was a sharp rise in beliefs in the paranormal, pseudoscience, and antiscience in the United States and throughout the world. Claims concerning psychics and astrologers, monsters of the deep, UFOs, and the like dominated the mass media and fascinated the public. Claims were everywhere, but there were virtually no criticisms of them. In 1976, I brought together many of the leading skeptics in the United States and the world and founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). At CSICOP’s founding conference I posed the question: “Should we assume that the scientific enlightenment will continue, and that public support of science will be ongoing?” I answered that question in the negative. We should not assume that science will prevail, I warned, for we may be overwhelmed by irrational forces that will undermine our cherished naturalistic worldview. At that time, very few people questioned scientific culture or the scientific outlook as such—there was of course fear of a possible nuclear confrontation, but science itself was not in question. Gradually, and much to the astonishment of many observers, an antiscientific attitude began to develop. In response the skeptical movement organized itself across the world; there now exist skeptical organizations in some thirty-eight countries, from China to Germany, Argentina to Australia. They publish some sixty magazines and newsletters inspired by CSICOP’s flagship journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.

The second change that began to occur was the growth of fundamentalism and its prominence in American public life. The Moral Majority grew strong from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, in part by targeting secular humanism—not humanism per se, but secular humanism. I defined secular humanism first as “a method of critical inquiry.” Religious Right leaders charged that secular humanism controlled the country. (In one sense they were correct, for as I mentioned above, a generally humanistic viewpoint dominated education, science, and the media at that time.) They called for secular humanism to be overthrown and for a revival of popular piety. Surely they achieved the latter objective. Consider that most intellectuals once thought Protestant fundamentalism to be beyond the pale and Billy Graham a marginal figure. As time went on, Graham would become known as a “statesman” and act as a confidante to several presidents of the United States. America’s religious revival did not benefit only Protestant fundamentalism: conservative Roman Catholicism made great gains, eroding the reforms of Vatican II, and neoconservative Orthodox Judaism mounted an astonishing comeback. By the year 2000, public life in the United States was largely dominated by a theistic outlook. If I had declared the twentieth century the humanist century, respected conservatives such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and writers for Commentary magazine declared it an “anomaly.” They said that the twenty-first century would be a century dominated not by secular humanism, but by religious and spiritual values. For them, the secular humanist outlook could not expire too soon.

The third factor that emerged to challenge freethought and the secular movement was the near-total collapse of Marxism. For a good part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marxist-humanist ideals had influenced intellectuals; with Marxism’s eclipse, anticlericalism and indeed any open criticism of religion have all but disappeared.

The fourth major change that occurred was the growth of postmodernism. Postmodernism stands in opposition to the Enlightenment, humanism, the advancement of science, a concern for human progress, and the emancipation of humanity from the blindfold of authoritarian traditions. Postmodernism questions all these basic premises, especially the ideas of objective science and humanistic values, and it has gravely influenced the academy, not only in the United States, but elsewhere in the world.

The fifth factor that is so important is American triumphalism. Global free-market corporate capitalism now dominates the world. Pax Americana has many of the characteristics of a new kind of imperialism. The latest turn in American foreign policy questions ideas like deterrence and the balance of power. It maintains that American military might will police the world and defeat any “rogue states” that may challenge its hegemony. Unfortunately, this ideological posture has been accompanied by an open alliance with conservative and evangelical religious forces at home. In the best-selling book Mind Siege, Tim LaHaye and David Noebel provide a frightening apocalyptic agenda for evangelicals, admonishing their millions of followers in martial tones to prepare for battle against the secular humanists.4 We had become Public Enemy Number One, though after the emergence of the armies of the jihad we have been temporarily demoted to Public Enemy Number Two.

This brings us to the sixth major change: the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. The War on Terrorism and its associated “conflict of civilizations,” in Samuel Huntington’s phrase, has put all Americans under a heightened sense of threat. But even this must be viewed in the context of a larger movement: an intense Islamic missionary effort, antiscientific at its root, that is sweeping the world. Islam is on the move in Africa, Asia, and all parts of the world. What may be most significant are the fast-growing Islamic minorities in Western Europe—France has five million Muslims, Britain and Germany two million each. And of course the United States and Canada have growing Muslim minorities.

No less portentous is the global rise of militant Christianity. The reality is that there are more missionaries spreading the Christian gospel throughout the world than at any time in history. It is projected that, by the year 2025, 67 percent of Christians will live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. China, indeed, will have more Christians than all but six nations. This is occurring at a time when Europe is being secularized, with nonreligious minorities growing sharply and church attendance at record lows. But Christian missionaries are pouring forth from the United States—particularly Pentecostals and evangelicals, carrying with them a literal reading of Scripture that they apply freely to morality and politics.

What we are confronted with is the fact that the third world, which had been so powerfully influenced by Marxism twenty or thirty years ago, now confronts the clash of two powerful missionary forces: Islam and Christianity.

This is the new reality that we in the humanist and rationalist movement have to face. The armies of the faithful are powerful and multiple. We face continued, even escalating conflict between their intolerant religious ideologies and our naturalism.

I have offered a brief overview of a profound reversal in attitudes—from a period thirty years ago when humanism and secularism were in ascendancy, at least in the United States, to one in which they are being challenged at every turn, with vast sums of money and energy being applied to further missionary religiosity. This does not deny the positive developments associated with the triumph of democratic ideals, as Fukuyama has described.  But it is the overall secular humanist prospect that I am concerned with.

Thus we have great tasks ahead of us in future decades. But I ask, What should we concentrate upon? I submit that there are three main battles. First is the battle for secularism. I think the first great challenge will be to preserve the secular democracies; namely, we need to make a stronger case for the separation of church (or mosque or temple) and state. The state should be neutral, allowing a plurality of points of view, from religious belief to nonbelief, to coexist. This means that we need to defend democracy and the open society, human rights, and the rule of law. Virtually all of the fifty-four Islamic countries are theocracies, grounded in Sharia as set forth in the Hadith and the Qur’an. Unfortunately, recent efforts by the Bush administration to shatter the wall between church and state in the United States portend great damage for secularism worldwide. They also place the administration in the contradictory position of calling for barriers between church and state in Iraq that it is doggedly dismantling at home.

The second battle will be for naturalism; we are committed to the application of scientific methods in testing truth claims—by the principle of appeal to evidence and reason. Scientific methodology is basic to our industrial-technological societies; therefore, American power is based not on theology, but on naturalistic premises. We are the defenders of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry as part of the process of developing tested knowledge. Leaders of industrial and technological economies understand this full well. No revival of religious fundamentalism must be permitted to erode this dedication.

We are also committed to the naturalistic cosmic outlook—that is, to the scientific perspective drawn from the frontiers of the sciences. Here we have much work to do. We reject the ancient religious ontological views rooted simply in the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or Buddhist and Hindu literature. We wish to explain nature in the light of empirical and experimental evidence. That is the key principle that needs to be enunciated: naturalism in contradistinction to supernaturalism. We are predominantly nonreligious nontheistic empiricists and rationalists. We have developed our views of reality by reference to the findings of the sciences. We are skeptical about claims that are untested. Science provides our most reliable knowledge of the universe, even as it leaves room for mystery and awe about areas of the universe not yet probed or explained.

Our third great battle will be for humanistic ethics. We believe that no one can deduce ethical values solely from theological premises. Those who depend on theology for morality often end up in conflict with hatred and intolerance on every side. For example, Muslims believe in polygamy, Protestants and Jews in monogamy and the right of divorce, while Roman Catholics (at least officially) do not accept divorce. The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment; Muslim fundamentalists and Baptists defend it. Thus there is a conflict between humanist ethics and the religious-moral ideologies that so dominate the world today, just as there is conflict among religious ideologies. But all of them are based upon ancient faiths, too often irrelevant to contemporary realities.

Thus, we maintain that a humanist moral revolution offers great promise for the future of humankind; for it allows humans to achieve the good life here and now, without the illusion of salvation or immortality. We wish to test moral values by evidence and reason, and we are willing to modify our ethical values in light of the consequences. Our approach is planetary, as Humanist Manifesto 2000 emphasized—we hold that every person on the planet has equal dignity and value. Our moral commitment is to be concerned with the rights of every person in the global community and to preserve our shared habitat.

Humanistic ethics defends the autonomy of the individual, the right of privacy, human freedom, and social justice. It is concerned with the welfare of humanity as a whole.

In conclusion, I think that secular humanism has lost ground in the last three decades to religious forces, not only in America, but also in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The United States is anomalous in comparison with Europe, which has become increasingly secularized and nonreligious. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are secular; they do not look to the ancient faiths for guidance and believe that anyone can be moral without belief in any religion. The challenge today is especially urgent in the United States, no doubt because of the influence its immense power has given it in the world. Especially disturbing is the fact that the political leadership of the United States has grown fearful of expressing any support for agnosticism, skepticism, secular humanism, or unbelief. Moreover, the current administration uses the White House as a bully pulpit to spread religious gospel. It is possible in European democracies for politicians to publicly express nonreligious, even atheistic viewpoints—but alas, this is virtually impossible in today’s United States.

We have been waging a rear-guard battle in the United States. We need to move to the front lines to defend secular humanism—to convince the public that it’s possible to be a good citizen, contribute to society, be moral, and yet to be nonreligious. We need to defend the Enlightenment—whose agenda still has not been fulfilled, as philosopher Jürgen Habermas has pointed out. We need to encourage our supporters to speak out courageously. We need to engage in debate and dialogue, enunciating and defending secularism, humanism, and naturalism as meaningful alternatives to the irrationalism that increasingly dominates our age and threatens to overwhelm it.

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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