What Is Humanism?

Hail to FREE INQUIRY for its Fall 1996 issue (“Defining Humanism: The Battle Continues”) on clarifying what secular humanism means to different people, and, above all, what it means to secular humanists. Paul Kurtz was absolutely right to take a separate, secular humanist stand in the 1980s, when those opposed to a humanism without a god attempted, often for political purposes, to burden us with all the categories of a religion.

Never in my view have the representa-tives of secular humanism looked better in relation to those of a different persuasion than in this issue. We secular humanists have our differences, notably of late over how to criticize religion most effectively. But if the membership of the Washington Area Secular Humanists is typical, I believe there is one issue on which almost all of us agree. Secular humanism is not a religion and doesn’t want to be one. It is we, not those who have chosen to oppose us, who will define secular humanism. The argument offered by David A. Noebel (“The Religion of Secular Humanism”) that secular humanism is a religion because we have “the theology of athe-ism” is so ridiculous it is hardly worthy of comment. Does an organized disbelief in science make that doctrine “a science”? (Creationists might think so!) John Stuart Mill had it right in On Liberty, arguing that freedom of speech is the best way to discredit foolish ideas by giving them public exposure.

The “debate” in the fall FREE INQUIRY was superb, conducted in the best taste and in the true spirit to which the maga-zine is dedicated. Keep up the good work!

Stuart D. Jordan
Washington Area Secular Humanists
Washington, D.C.

David Noebel quotes a 1973 Paul Kurtz statement that “no deity will save us, we must save ourselves,” and then pro-nounces this statement religious. He claims Kurtz “speaks the language of reli-gion. Salvation is a religious experience and concept. While the Christian world-view insists that God (or Jesus Christ) alone can save our souls (regeneration) and bodies (resurrection), the secular humanist worldview insists that reason and science can save humanity through progressive governmental and liberal edu-cational programs.” This comparison is spectacularly disingenuous. Kurtz was not referring to the idea that humans have immortal souls that need to be saved from a fiery, eternal hell created by a vengeful, omnipotent god. No one knows this better than Noebel.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Save the whales.” Does this mean I am a member f a religion? According to Noebel’s tortu ed reasoning, it does, since it deals with “salvation.” If Kurtz’s state-ment was religious, then my bumper-sticker is religious, so I guess I belong to a religion. Who would have thought.

Noebel claims that secular humanism is a religion because it possesses a reli-gious symbol—the Darwin fish. Has Noebel never heard the words parody, lampoon, or satire? I belong to a environ-mental organization that has a dolphin as its symbol. Hard to look more like a fish than that. I guess I belong to yet another religion. They’re starting to add up.

Noebel claims that atheism is a theol-ogy. Since theology is the study of the nature of God, and since atheists don’t acknowledge a god, this claim is an oxy- moron. However, if my atheism is a the-ology, then I belong to yet another reli-gion.

If secular humanism can be defined as a religion, then words are meaningless because they can be made to mean any- thing. And we might as well devolve back into our knuckle-dragging ancestors and be done with this foolishness called lan-guage. Because in using Noebel’s reason-ing and definitions, I, as a freethinker, environmentalist, secular humanist, and atheist, am the most religious person I know.

Judith Hayes
Former columnist, Freethought Today
Valley Springs, Calif.

I was struck by how determined many of the religious have been to not allow any-one to not be religious. The methods for making people religious have included all the arts of demagoguery, and, when this has failed, force. One of the methods employed by religious proponents in the Fall 1996 issue was linguistic. For exam-ple, David A. Noebel defines the word religion so broadly that one would have to become a walking vegetable in order to escape being religious.

Indeed, it would seem that entrapment is inherent to the very nature and purpose of the activities of religion, for it is rooted in the origins of the word’s meaning. The word religion, etymologists suggest to us, comes from the Latin word religare, which literally means “to bind back” or “tie up” and was used in reference to mooring a ship to shore. What an excel-lent image to describe the tactics of the religious to define secular humanism with their chains of denotative nonsense. In the title of his article in the Fall issue of FREE INQUIRY, Timothy J. Madigan says, “Deliver Us from Religion,” to which I would add, “Give him a cutting torch!”

Jonathan L. Widger
Georgetown, Del.

It is time that FREE INQUIRY stop giving free time to haters of secular humanism such as David A. Noebel. His article is a piece of moral fraud, hypocrisy, and hate of everything we stand for. Why did we waste 2″4 pages of paper on this Christian bigot?

Let us stop this nonsense of giving space to people who hate us and would rather burn us at the stake. Do you think we could get a secular humanist article in a Christian religious magazine? Of course not.

George Rowell
New York, N.Y.

Editors’ Note: We felt it important to show the types of arguments many Christian spokespersons make regarding the claim that secular humanism is a religion—rather than paraphrasing these, we allowed Noebel to summarize what he considers to be the best case possible.

There are no such things as scientific, secular, religious, or ethical humanism, just plain old basic humanism. Humanism, thusly identified by the sim-plest of language, repudiates supersti-tions, religion being the most outstand-ing example. Humanism is a clean break with our heritage of religious befuddle-ment and downright nonsense. How can you seriously entertain treatises on the question, Is humanism a religion? There must be a lot more important issues for humanists to apply their reasoning skills.

Russell E. Simmons
Raton, N.M.

I define my humanism not so much by ral-lying to labels, as by actual beliefs and practice. Accordingly, I am humanist because I believe in and try to live by the optimum use of human reason, the refine-ment and commiseration of human feel-ing, and the unfettered pursuit of human inquiry and exploration of facts.

Moreover, so far as politics are con-cerned, I believe that a society supportive of humanism must necessarily be democ-ratic and tolerant of a free exchange of ideas.

Furthermore, so far as religion is con-cerned, who can really say? Some theists are very tolerant and open-minded, just like some atheists are diehard obscuran-tists and fanatics. Whether theology per se is a friend or foe of humanism is always a moot question. It really depends on how one understands religious faith, or the absence of thereof.

Many thanks for a very fine magazine.

John L. Indo
Bellaire, Tex.

The question should be, Is religion a quasi-rational or quasi-intellectual con-struct? Since religion is an artificial man-made institution, why do I have to con-stantly be on the defensive?

Religion is the substitute vision of human life. Religion is the movement try-ing to simulate real life. Religion is trying to provide some artificial significance and purpose in human life.

When my granddaughter died unex-pectedly at an early age, the counselor at the hospital praised me for my “quiet inner strength.” Then she proceeded to explain that this was a true sign of a “higher power.” I could only get her to admit that my self-reliance was probably some “sort of higher power.”

Oh well, that’s religion!

Keith L. Heezen
Fowler, Mich.

Be assured that Noebel is wrong in stating that secular humanism is the only world-view allowed in public schools. If secular humanism is taken to include atheism, then I do not know of any public school that is allowed to teach it, that is to teach its students that there is no God. Also, even if secular humanism is taken to be a religion, that is no reason to claim that teaching evolution is the teaching of a religion. After all, evolution is held to be true by not only atheists, but by members of various religious denominations, including Catholics, Jews, and Episco-palians.

Charles Kluepfel
Bloomfield, N.J.

“Defining Humanism: The Battle Con-tinues” closes with the question of why this nation is still so superstitious in religion.

Europe went through horrible wars in which religion was put to the ultimate test and found wanting.

This nation has never had religion tested in a like manner. With the year 2000 coming up I think religion in the U.S.A. will change, for the saner, I hope, as 2001 arrives and nothing from God has happened.

John B. Wilson
El Dorado Hills, Calif.

More on Abortion

John Fletcher (Letters to the Editor, FI, Fall 1996) alludes to the amicus curiae brief by 167 scientists to the Supreme Court in the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case. The brief, which I organized, was based largely on the neu-robiological material in the book Abortion Rights and Fetal `Personhood,’ edited by myself and Dr. James W. Prescott.

The book and the brief make the point that, by any reasonable definition of “per-sonhood,” that term is generally meaning-less when applied to a fetus before the nervous system and cerebral cortex are sufficiently developed to permit aware-ness. This capability does not exist until some time after twenty-eight weeks.

Edd Doerr, Executive Director Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.


A quiet but deadly constitutional crisis has arisen since the promulgation on March 25, 1995, of the Papal Encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” by Pope John Paul II.

In Roe v. Wade (1973) the U.S. Supreme Court found that abortion was a constitutional right of all women.

Under 28 USCA 453 all Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are required to take a Judicial Oath before they can exercise judicial powers, to “impartially”— per-form their duties, “under the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

The “Evangelium Vitae” binds all the faithful and involves their salvation. In it is denounced all abortion, for whatever cause or reason, as a “despicable crime,” which is directly contrary to Roe v. Wade, beyond any doubt.

Pope John Paul II ordained therein that all the faithful must henceforth disobey any existing abortion law; must oppose any new abortion law; and are forbidden to vote for any such law. In short all the faith-ful, including Supreme Court Justices, are henceforth expressly forbidden by the pope to be impartial, on the question of abortion, for any cause or reason.

Pope John Paul II himself expressly recognized in “Evangelium Vitae” that this raises an irreconcilable conflict that sometimes may require resignation of the faithful, rather than disobey him.

It is not denied that Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas are among the faithful and are bound by the Papal Encyclical, which is in direct conflict with Roe v. Wade without question.

An act of Congress 28 USCA 455(a) expressly applies to U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and resolves the dilemma. It mandates that where there cannot be impartiality or, if there is even an appear-ance of partiality, that Justice must recuse/disqualify him/her self, on that particular case or issue.

Besides vigorous public debate, coun-sel in all pending abortion cases, state and federal, at the trial, intermediate appellate level, and the U.S. Supreme Court level must be advised so they can move imme-diately, in every case, for recusal of Justices or judges bound by the

Encyclical in cases involving the right to abortion.

John Tomasin
West New York, N.J.


Gordon Stein

I was shocked to learn about the prema-ture death of Gordon Stein (FI, Fall 1996). Although I only had the opportu-nity to converse with him once at a skep-tics conference a couple of years ago, his writings made a deep impression on me. In his many book reviews, I always loved the fact that Stein called our attention to very key issues—his recent reviews on Hypatia and Lucretius in FREE INQUIRY are only the latest that now come to mem-ory. This is why after reading the obituaries I have the unpleasant feeling that without him, the humanist movement has become poorer.

César Tort
Houston, Tex.

More on Religion and Crime

In Sex and Reason, Richard Posner says that the three countries with the highest religious attendance in the world (U.S.A., Ireland, and South Africa) also have an extremely high violence rate, whereas the three countries with the lowest religious attendance (Denmark, Sweden, and Japan) have an unusually low rate of vio-lence. It gives one pause, doesn’t it?

Ben Akerley
Los Angeles, Calif.

What Is Humanism? Hail to FREE INQUIRY for its Fall 1996 issue (“Defining Humanism: The Battle Continues”) on clarifying what secular humanism means to different people, and, above all, what it means to secular humanists. Paul Kurtz was absolutely right to take a separate, secular humanist stand in the 1980s, when those opposed to a …

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