Secular Humanists Can Disagree on War

Edward Tabash

Edward Tabash

Paul Kurtz and other Free Inquiry editors apparently disapprove of war with Iraq under all circumstances (see his editorial in the Spring 2003 issue and the slightly different version online). I disagree with his absolute rejection of military force when faced with a dictator as dangerous as Saddam Hussein. But I write under a disadvantage; by the time this is published, war with Iraq may already have commenced, with consequences that I cannot now anticipate.

The critical point that I wish to make—as a member of the Council for Secular Humanism’s board of directors and as a contributing editor to Free Inquiry—is that the issue of war with Iraq is one issue upon which secular humanists can disagree. The most conscientious and “atheistically correct” among us can take different positions on this question without violating our core humanist principles. Despite its great importance, the issue of war with Iraq is ultimately tangential to a worldview based upon rejection of the supernatural in a way that issues such as government-sponsored prayer in public schools are not.

Ethical nonbelievers who approach public policy questions with goodwill can honestly disagree on whether a war with Iraq is justified. The same is true with respect to the death penalty, tax rates, whether or not immigration should be restricted, and many other issues. By contrast, a rational secular person could not sensibly support government promotion of religion or any government policy that favored believers over nonbelievers. These are core issues for secular humanists in ways that issues like war with Iraq are not.


People who don’t believe in God constitute the most unjustly despised minority in America today. Polls demonstrate that more Americans would vote against someone just for being an atheist than for any other reason. Given this, we nonbelievers must place the smallest possible number of political obstacles in the way of our working together to achieve a modern civilization in which public policy is untarnished by religious dogma.

Thus, before I share my own views about possible military action against Iraq, let me strongly emphasize that no person’s standing with regard to the Council for Secular Humanism is affected in any way by his or her position on this question. Whether you agree with Paul Kurtz et al. or with me, or have an entirely different perspective, the issue of war with Iraq is not the type of issue that goes to the heart of our secularism.

There is probably no American alive today who disagrees as strongly as I do with President Bush’s attempts to weaken the wall of separation between church and state. Yet I am closer to agreement with the president on Iraq. As a secular humanist and a scientific skeptic, I value empirical accuracy. When I view the relevant evidence as objectively as I can, I personally cannot see Saddam Hussein as just another dictator. He invaded the sovereign nation of Kuwait in 1990 and almost did it again in 1994. His decades of devotion to developing weapons of mass destruction—and his use of them against the Kurds—give him a longer reach than standard-issue local despots.

I believe that the Israelis were justified in destroying Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. Iraq’s use of Scud missiles on Israel ten years later, though Israel was a noncombatant in the Gulf War, further confirmed the rectitude of Israel’s knocking out that facility.

Much can be said about the short-sightedness of American dependence upon Middle Eastern oil. However, our failure to develop viable alternative means of energy did not justify Saddam’s attempt to seize the oil fields of neighboring Kuwait in an effort to make the world a greater hostage to his control over such a large portion of the world’s oil supply.

I also believe that President Ronald Reagan—whom I rebuke for his attempt to place Robert Bork, the most dangerous religious right-wing fascist in American judicial history, on the U.S. Supreme Court—was fully justified in launching a military assault on Libya in 1986. Moammar Qaddafi’s level of support for terrorism was inarguably diminished by this attack.

In the online version of his editorial, Dr. Kurtz wrote that President George W. Bush desires to replace Saddam with a “puppet regime.” As much as I oppose the president on so many aspects of his agenda, and as much as I fear that he yearns to create a religious right-wing tyranny here in the United States, I do not believe he desires anything other than to bring about an autonomous but militarily harmless regime in Iraq.

I would suggest that war with Iraq is really a step toward attaining our dream of a more secular world. Saddam may be personally nonreligious, and his Baath party officially secular. But his principal technique for maintaining power is to fan the flames of Islamic fundamentalism. Saddam’s manipulation of Islamic fervor results in the expansion of fundamentalist religion. The longer he remains in power, the more entrenched Islamic fundamentalism will become worldwide.

So, when Dr. Kurtz charges (in the online version of his editorial) that the war against terrorism is essentially a holy religious war against Islam, I would suggest instead that the war against terrorism may be a necessary component of the effort to rid the world of religious extremism, something which all secular humanists should support.

Dr. Kurtz fears that a preemptive strike against Iraq would so morally compromise the United States that it might encourage India and Pakistan to go to war. Yet India and Pakistan are each capable of backing down from their territorial disputes and of making compromises on some final border arrangement that might avert hostilities. For that matter, as of today Saddam still has the ability to forestall warfare by going into exile. In previous days and months, he could have avoided war by fully opening up his arsenal to United Nations inspectors. If there is evidence that a despot as dangerous as he is possesses, or will soon develop, missiles capable of reaching other nations with chemical, biological, or nuclear materials—and that indeed, Saddam has such dangerous materials—then world peace and stability may actually be enhanced by a preemptive strike.

As I write in mid-March 2003, I reluctantly support a preemptive military attack on Iraq, if a logical and empirical understanding of Saddam’s arsenal indicates a substantial likelihood that he has weapons of mass destruction and the ability to reach other countries with these weapons. The reason I don’t support war more enthusiastically is because I am still racked with doubts about the extent of Saddam’s military threat. What tips the balance, for me, in favor of military action is that, given what is known about Saddam, it is more likely than not that he has such weapons and the ability to use them beyond his borders. If that is indeed the case, we cannot risk becoming sitting ducks while waiting for him to launch the first missile—or to sell or give such weaponry to terrorists.

Dr. Kurtz recommends disarming Iraq peacefully. Yet this may not be achievable without the credible threat of war. Even if war is averted, there is no reason to believe that Saddam would voluntarily disarm except under the imminent threat of war. Thus, even an agenda of peaceful disarmament may depend on the stern and genuine threat of military action.

In conclusion, then, I must emphasize again how important it is that the Council for Secular Humanism welcomes nonbelievers of all stripes, regardless of their views on war with Iraq. The Council’s purpose is to help establish a society in which supernatural beliefs play no part in the composition of public policy. Within such a broad realm of thought and action, there is room for a wide range of differing opinions on many political issues, including whether or not there should be American military action against Saddam Hussein.

Edward Tabash is a constitutional and civil rights lawyer in Beverly Hills, California. He is a contributing editor of Free Inquiry, a member of the board of directors of the Council for Secular Humanism, and chair of its First Amendment Task Force. He has successfully argued for separation of church and state issues in legal briefs filed on the Council’s behalf. Mr. Tabash is also the honorary chair of the Center for Inquiry–West.

Edward Tabash

Edward Tabash is a constitutional lawyer in the Los Angeles area and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry. He is recognized for his legal expertise pertaining to the separation of church and state. He is also one of the more well-known atheist debaters in the United States.