When Should We Speak Out?

Paul Kurtz

In the last issue of Free Inquiry, we published an editorial criticizing the morality of the pre-emptive war against Iraq. It was written before the war began and published after its start. Several readers objected strongly to this. This raises the basic question: Should secular humanism as a movement ever take political positions? Surely individual humanists, as citizens in a democracy, may participate in the political process. They can vote for candidates and support the political part(ies) of their choice. Many humanists, to be sure, are intensely committed to a political point of view. But should secular humanist organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism take positions on the burning political issues of the day?

There are four cogent arguments against the Council’s becoming a political pressure group:

First, as a nonprofit organization we are prohibited from supporting candidates and/or engaging in political propaganda. This prohibition applies to the Christian Coalition, the Roman Catholic Church, and other nonprofit agencies as well, all of which at least theoretically risk losing their tax-exempt status if they engage in political activity of that sort. If some other nonprofits wink at this principle, we embrace its propriety.

Second, although secular humanists share a common set of beliefs and values, they may differ about any number of concrete political and economic measures.

Third, for the Council to endorse specific party platforms or candidates for office, and/or to identify with one part of the political landscape, might alienate other supporters who disagree. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are found on all sides of the political spectrum; why not secular humanists? For that reason, this argument goes, we are wise to avoid any narrow political litmus test and welcome everyone into our (pardon the expression) big tent.

Fourth, our movement is primarily educational. Our outlook and our mission are scientific, philosophical, and ethical. Politics is not part of our core mission. If even a hospital, supermarket, university, or art museum were to engage in partisan politics, many of its patrons would be offended.

Those are powerful arguments. Surely we should not define ourselves primarily as a political pressure group. At the present time, at least, the positions we take should be prudential, leaving room for dissent.

And yet, does all this mean that the Council for Secular Humanism should be absolutely nonpolitical, holding itself above comment on the issues of the day in antiseptic purity? Surely not. I would submit that we have a responsibility to speak out on issues that we consider vital to our scientific humanist outlook. Indeed, I would submit that doing so is an important part of our educational mission.

If we are not primarily a political pressure group, under what conditions may we speak out on political issues? There are no fixed guidelines. Nonetheless, I wish to offer some criteria. Primarily, I submit, we have an obligation to make ourselves heard when vital moral issues are at stake. There is no sharp divorce between ethics and politics. If, as Clausewitz argued, the purpose of war is to fulfill political purposes, then the purpose of politics is to fulfill the ends and values that we consider desirable—especially when it impinges on our fundamental ethical values.

That there is an intrinsic continuity between ethics and politics is a classical idea. It was first expressed in Athens, most notably by Plato and Aristotle. The theme reappears throughout the history of political thought. Machiavelli took another approach, maintaining that the goal of politics was to secure and maintain power. For Machiavelli, there were certain policies that a ruler should adopt, many of them brutal, in order to achieve political aims. I readily grant that governing a nation is complicated, and that technical rather than moral issues are often relevant. Nonetheless, the overall aim of politics is to realize certain long-range moral goals deemed desirable.

Accordingly, secular humanists should speak out and act when they believe that their cherished values and beliefs are at stake; they should seek to persuade their fellow citizens about the principles that they consider important to endorse and defend.

I submit—and I am speaking personally here—that at the present moment in American society, our cherished values and beliefs are indeed at stake. They are under threat. This being the case, then declining to speak out would be an affront to our deepest convictions. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) eloquently stated that he should have protested earlier in the 1930s, when the Nazis first began to implement their repressive policies. Many Americans are today deeply disturbed about political developments. They are frightened by what they view on the domestic front as a drastic threat to our cherished democratic civil liberties, and internationally to the entire framework of international law and order so painstakingly developed over past decades. They are concerned about the unilateral preemptive war undertaken by the United States in Iraq, its abrogation of the test ban and Kyoto treaties, its bypassing of the United Nations, and its refusal to endorse the International Court of Justice.

In the face of such dangers, how can we hold silent?

Getting our theories straight is important; but it is praxis, the practical consequences of our actions, that is the best test of our efficacy and influence. Purely theoretical humanism is a mere abstract concept, without content, of no moment for the real life of humans as lived; thus, the relationship of humanism to praxis is central. (I have called this in my writings “eupraxsophy.”)

If “God is dead,” as Nietzsche proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century, then at the dawn of the twenty-first century we must affirm that “humans are alive.” The power of the humanist message is that life itself is intrinsically worthwhile, that we aspire to achieve the best of which we are capable, including the expression of our highest talents and creative excellences, that we cultivate the common moral decencies, that our goal is exuberant happiness. To achieve all this we need to develop a just social order for our own society, regionally, and on the planetary scale. We humans are responsible for our own destiny: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves” (Humanist Manifesto II).

The key message of humanism is not that humanists are nonbelievers in theistic religion—atheists, agnostics, or skeptics—but that we are believers, for we believe deeply in the potentialities of human beings to achieve the good life. Indeed, we wish to apply the virtues and principles of humanist ethics to enhance the human condition.

If we indict the theological/messianic claims of the ancient religions for providing false illusions of salvation, then we also need to state that we are concerned with improving the conditions of human life, with improving the cultural, social, economic, and political institutions in which human beings find themselves at various times in history. The underlying premise here is our emphasis on humanist ethics: how we create a better life for ourselves and our fellow human beings in the real world, here and now, and in the foreseeable future.

Let me hasten to say that, although we are concerned with moral and political issues, we should not be identified simply with any political party or particular candidates for office. We should guard against politicizing humanism. We have long argued in the pages of Free Inquiry that we should be open to Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, libertarians and social democrats, radicals and centrists, Greens and Independents. There is no single humanist response to every complex social or public issue that may arise. Ideologically, secular humanists may be laissez-faire free-marketeers or democratic socialists; they may believe in the mixed economy or a federal world government. And surely they may differ on taxation policies, public school vouchers, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, the legalization of prostitution, immigration, foreign policy, defense spending, war and peace, and countless ancillary issues. It is clear that there have been conservative humanists, such as George Santayana and Antony Flew; liberal democratic humanists such as John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Betty Friedan, and Sir Karl Popper; and social-ist humanists such as Erich Fromm, Sidney Hook, and Svetozar Stojanovi´c. They all should have a place within the “mansion” of humanism.

Accordingly, I would suggest that our primary focus is more fundamental: we are interested in cognitive and ethical questions, in achieving, especially at the present juncture, a cultural renaissance or cultural reformation. We should concentrate on that. We offer a distinctive set of intellectual and normative values. We emphasize the importance of reason and critical thinking, and we wish to use these methods in order to reformulate and refashion our values, and to raise the quality of taste and the level of appreciation in society. Humanism is life-affirming; it is positive and constructive. If applied, it would enable us to reform human culture by transcending the ancient religious, racial, ethnic, and ideological dogmas of the past that so adversely affect human civilization in the present. We thus call for a New Enlightenment, a rediscovery and a reaffirmation of the highest values of which humans are capable.

Where does this leave us on the key principle of politics? I think that secular humanists need to speak out critically about present trends in the United States. The Council for Secular Humanism has not in itself taken corporate positions—and will not do so unless there is a clear and present danger to our very democratic liberties. Free Inquiry, however, does take positions. The magazine has autonomy of expression. And the editors have exercised freedom of the press. I would identify at least three areas in which we have taken stands on political issues.

First, we have objected to the recent threats to our liberties on the part of the George W. Bush administration: the Homeland Security and PATRIOT acts, the suppression of civil liberties, the erosion of our liberties by moneyed interests and lobbies, the control of the media by conglomerates with their smothering of dissent, and the emergence of a plutocracy based on wealth and property. All of these trends will if unchecked undermine our democratic institutions. We are especially concerned about the growing apathy of the young in politics, perhaps as a result of the pervasiveness


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. This editorial is based on an address delivered April 11, 2003, at the Council’s conference “One Nation Without God?” in Washington, D.C.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.