Planetary Humanism and War and Peace

Barry Seidman

Some secular humanists do not consider the war on Iraq a “core issue” for the humanist movement to address. To them the foundation of secular humanism is atheism, with no political convictions implied. True, a healthy humanist movement should never become so politically partisan as to ignore or denounce conflicting points of view. Ethical nonbelievers can and do disagree on a wide range of political issues. It’s also true that the Iraq crisis does not go to the core of what we would call “secularism”—unless we see Bush’s mission in the “holy lands” as his personal mission for God, but that’s a different matter. To me, at the core of secular humanism lies the hope of planetwide peace and cooperation. In pursuing this we must overcome not only the obstacles of religion but those posed by unjust warfare too.

A humanist response to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” must draw on humanist ethics and morality, which offer far more than mere atheism. While atheism as such carries no specific moral or ethical content, secular humanism stretches further, providing a powerful, affirmative, evidence-based life stance that unquestionably addresses the ethics of human behavior. I think that strongly implies a need to oppose the war on Iraq. Some secular humanists believe otherwise, but the ones I’ve had the opportunity to hear out tend to hold what I see as common misconceptions. Perhaps by addressing these misconceptions I can help to clarify the moral issues in play here.

One such misconception is the belief that George W. Bush desires a government in postwar Iraq that will control its own destiny—which its oil fields will have a role in shaping. This simply flies in the face of what he and his predecessors have done in Iraq over the past twenty years.1 Any idea that Bush is primarily concerned with the welfare of the Iraqi people is refuted by the very war itself, and further ignores the plan for a postwar U.S. occupation of Iraq led by Lieutenant General Jay Garner (who, by the way, has close links to hawkish Jewish groups in Israel)—an occupation the Iraqi people have since taken to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest.

Concerning Iraq’s oil fields, Bush has said he will keep them functioning for the Iraqi people. Yet they will be rehabilitated primarily by Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s former company, from which the vice president receives one million dollars a year. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw may have captured the truth during April’s heavy fighting when he suggested—accurately, if arrogantly—that the Iraqis mustn’t blow up their oil fields because the United States “will own that country in a few days.”

Then there is the conveniently neglected rationale for going to war in the first place: those infamous weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Strangely enough, no such weapons were used against U.S. or British forces, nor were any found in Iraq as of this writing in late April. Indeed, Bush’s prewar claims that Iraq possessed WMDs were forcefully refuted by the United Nations inspection team—Hans Blix said that, if the war had been delayed just two months longer, he might have been able to have given Iraq a clean bill of health. Additionally, we now know that much of the administration’s case for Iraqi WMDs hinged on a plagiarized eighteen-year old report on Iraq’s weaponry written by a college student!

What is a secular humanist to think about all this? In the Free InquIry editorial, “The Immorality of War Against Iraq” (Spring 2003), Paul Kurtz and other FI editors argued accurately that, since the administration’s reasons for war were grossly fallacious, the war must be considered unjust. Just War Theory originated in the Roman Catholic Church, but is now broadly accepted by the international community. According to the theory, a war is considered just when it comes in response either to a direct attack or to an immediate threat. Bush’s unfounded claim of Iraqi links to 9/11 holds no water, and it’s difficult to imagine what immediate threat Iraq might have posed to the United States. Suppose for the sake of argument that Saddam’s brutal treatment of the Iraqi people was reason enough for “regime change”—few if any secular humanists would deny that an Iraq without Saddam Hussein is preferable to one under his control—does this laudable goal justify war on the scale waged by the United States? And does anyone suppose that “regime change” was the primary goal Bush held in mind?

I think a secular humanist analysis of this war’s morality should begin with Just War theory, then turn to the Affirmations of Humanism and Humanist Manifesto 2000, along with the “UN Declaration of Human Rights” and other statements of international law. In the Affirmations, we find a call for “negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences,” for honesty, truthfulness, and for testing moral principles by their consequences. Clearly Bush’s push to war, and his conduct of that war, falls far short of these ideals.

We must work toward a planetary humanism with a worldwide system of ethics promoting peace, mutual respect, and cooperation. We cannot continue with the old tribal and faith-based prejudices and their “Us vs. Them” mentality. We cannot continue to accept outcomes that engender economic success for some at the cost of so many others. And we can no longer prop up dictators, sell them weapons of mass destruction, and tacitly approve the dictators’ use of them, as we did with Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. Why do we suddenly become “humanists” when considering what these dictators do with these weapons only after we gave them these horrible agents of death?

As secular humanists, we share the hope that humanist ethics will spread throughout the world. Thus we need a planetary perspective. We also need a broad-based, fully humanist commitment to justice and ethics, not just a narrowly, potentially amoral focus upon our rejection of the supernatural realm. Atheism, though correct, does not inform us how to act or how to think; it is instead a by-product of the action of thinking. Viewed in light of my own humanist commitment, America’s war on Iraq was unjust and deserves concerted opposition.

Note

1. For a sound review of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, see Steven Zunes, Tinderbox (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2002).


Barry Seidman is executive director, Community Outreach with the Center for Inquiry–Metro NY.

Barry Seidman

Barry Seidman is executive director, Community Outreach with the Center for Inquiry–Metro NY.


Some secular humanists do not consider the war on Iraq a “core issue” for the humanist movement to address. To them the foundation of secular humanism is atheism, with no political convictions implied. True, a healthy humanist movement should never become so politically partisan as to ignore or denounce conflicting points of view. Ethical nonbelievers …

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