Secular and Religious Humanism

The cover illustration of the Fall 2002 issue of Free inquiry with the special section “Drawing Clear Boundaries: Secular Vs. Religious Humanism” aptly depicts much of the content that lies within: little men painting artificial boundaries and erecting fences on an otherwise beautiful landscape. Does the humanist/freethought movement really need to take a page from organized religion and spend its time debating “Who is more secular than thou?”

I am as “secular” a humanist as they come. And I am unafraid to identify myself as an atheist. If humanism and freethought are to prosper we must set aside petty differences and refrain from building artificial barriers with dictionary definitions. If fellow humanists prefer to identify themselves as “religious humanists” because they feel more comfortable with the term, or have a desire to participate in familiar ritual, so be it. Such a view neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg (apologies and credit to Thomas Jefferson).

The stakes are too high at this moment in history to be focusing on what separates humanists from each other. We need to come together and focus on what unites us; the reality of a strictly natural world in which our ability to cooperate with each other will determine our future, for better or worse.

John Scalise
Mount Pleasant, Michigan


Some twenty years ago, I read an editorial by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair in which she lambasted and denounced Unitarians, Humanists, Ethical Culturalists, Rationalists, Agnostics, and Free thinkers for cowardice because they refused to call themselves “Atheist” or otherwise conform to her idea of what a “true” atheist should be. Imagine my dismay to find an editorial by Paul Kurtz in the recent Free inquiry that seems to echo Ms. O’Hair’s editorial.

Evidently, Kurtz believes that anyone who does not wholeheartedly em brace the parameters he has set for humanism is a coward. I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Kurtz. I have many of his books. I remember him working with Paul Beattie when Paul was president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists and I was the group’s vice president. I remember Kurtz working with UU Human ists, Ethical Humanists, and Humanistic Jews. Has he now decided that all of those individuals were (and are) cowards?

It is simultaneously amusing and sad that many of the very same humanists who seem to take such joy in ridiculing Christians for attacking one another over abstruse points of doctrine resort to similar name-calling and ad hominem arguments over vocabulary and what is or is not “orthodox” humanism. Furthermore, perhaps the history of humanism is not as “neat” as Kurtz would like. Scholars tell us that Confucius, Laotse, Gautama, and Vandhamana were most probably agnostics or atheists, as are many of their modern-day followers. A large component of American humanism evolved within Unitarian and Uni versalist circles. Great humanist heroes such as John Dewey and Albert Einstein made use of religious language at times, even using the “g” word. Bertrand Russell’s best-loved work is entitled “A Free Man’s Worship.” Are they all to be “read out” of the roster of humanism?

I merely wish to suggest that humanism is a “big tent” capable of accommodating many different “flavors.” I hope Dr. Kurtz shares this opinion.

Paul Kurtz replies: Why can’t secular humanists maintain that they are not religious and that they hold a scientific, philosophical, and an ethical outlook—without mixing oatmeal with mush by calling it “religion”? Secular humanism is neither a religion nor is it simply atheistic; it is affirmative and positive! Of course we want to be inclusive and welcome all humanists.

As a new subscriber to Free inquiry, I was most interested to read Tom Flynn’s effort to define secular humanism (“A Secular Humanist Definition”). I have two points to make:

1. If, as Mr. Flynn suggests, secular humanism includes a “cosmic outlook,” then the word humanism lacks sufficient scope. For example, assuming our species survives its own “intelligence,” it will inevitably give rise to life forms that, at this point, are best described as “post-human.” I would like to think that your movement would become critical to the thriving of our post-human descendants and their far-more complex societies. In fact, your movement is just in its nascent stage, waiting in the wings to tackle the immense ethical challenges of post-human existence.

2. Mr. Flynn’s characterization of “atheism” as the absence of a belief in a deity encroaches on the connotations of “agnosticism.” What’s wrong with a clear division of semantics between these two words, leaving atheism to mean a belief that no god can exist and agnosticism to mean that the question is still open? Who knows, some future cosmology might emerge that is rigorous enough to demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of a cosmic creator (analogous to quantum mechanics containing a theorem that precludes so-called hidden variables).

3. I mention this only to set up my real point: better than trying to encompass the atheism-agnosticism-skepticism spectrum, the proper basis is non-supernaturalism, i.e. naturalism. Thus simply delete nonreligious from the definition of secular humanism. “Naturalistic philosophy” can and should carry the semantic burden. Moreover, because the author illustrates how difficult it is to define the word religion, nonreligious must be equally problematic, hence in any case best omitted from putative definitions.

Pulling these points together, perhaps the term we ought to be defining is secular moralism: a comprehensive life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system.

Paul Bassett
Barrie, OntarioCanada

Let me set the record straight on Tom Flynn’s “definitions.” He writes, “Other religious humanist organizations include . . . the North American Committee for Humanism . . .” (p. 37). NACH/ the Humanist Institute welcomes all humanists from religious to secular and everything in between. It is a leadership graduate program (and is so incorporated). Its board, faculty, and students represent the diversity of humanism. In this context, I cannot avoid just a bit of name-dropping, since Paul Kurtz was one of its founders (1981) and he, Vern Bullough, and Gerry Larue are members of its faculty.

The factual errors would be trivial except that they may discourage potential students from among readers of Free inquiry and members of the Council for Secular Humanism. Thus, the Institute announcement reads:

Some modern humanists see themselves as rebuilding religions rationally and anew, while others of us see religions as unreformable. These different assessments should be the occasion for creative internal dialogue—and are one of the strengths of this Institute. Reactionary fundamentalists rightly see humanism as their enemy, and we want our neighbors to have the educational and emotional resources to resist this form of anti-modernity and anti-intellectualism. Political fanatics around the world draw strength from these fundamentalisms—found in every culture and religion—and exploit the violent side of their religions. The humanist commitment to respect and tolerance includes an equal commitment to creating and sustaining societies where rational inquiry can flourish, and where all can democratically engage in this rational inquiry.

Let me add a word of disappointment. Advocacy can be vigorous without being ungenerous. And, in a time like our own, gratuitous attack within serves neither the humanist movement in all its richness nor the wider task in all its complexity.

Howard B. Radest,
Dean Emeritus The Humanist Institute Hilton Head, South Carolina

Tom Flynn replies:

NACH has had several forms. It was founded as an umbrella group for humanist organizations, almost all of them religious humanist in orientation. Secular humanist, atheist, and other nonreligious groups felt sufficiently excluded to found their own umbrella group (the Coalition for Secular Humanism, Atheism, and Freethought), which operated as a secularist counterpart to NACH during the early 1990s. Over the years, NACH took responsibility for the independently founded Humanist Insti tute, briefly reconfigured itself as a membership organization for individuals, then took its present form as steward of the Institute. The Institute runs an excellent program, one whose perspective is unmistakably religious hu man ist and is broadly so acknowledged within the movement. While humanists of any orientation can (and do) enroll in the Humanist Institute for personal edification, for a small number of religious humanists (mostly Unitarian Uni v er salist ministers or leaders of strongly congregational religious humanist groups), an Institute diploma conceivably can serve as a career credential. It is understandable, in deed appropriate, that this group’s interests should have a disproportionate influence on the Human ist In stitute’s curriculum.

Getting Real About Child Abuse

Though I’ve always enjoyed Richard Daw kins’s writing, I must respectfully disagree with him on a couple of points in his op-ed piece “Religion’s Real Child

Abuse” (FI, Fall 2002). His opinion that threats of “hellfire” and “eternal punishment” are more damaging to a child than what he or she might experience at the hands of a “gentle pedophile” I find alarming.

I cannot speak from personal experience, as I’ve never been subjected to sexual abuse. But as a prisoner in the federal prison system, I am housed in close quarters with both convicted pedophiles and men who were sexually abused as children (sometimes they are one and the same). I would have to say, after hearing the stories of some of these victims, even “gentle” abuse scars for life. Not many of these men curse their childhood preachers or pastors, but they all curse their abusers.

Douglas Mauldin
Beaumont, Texas

Fight or Flight?

Obsta Principiis. Had Wendy Kaminer (whose writings I usually admire) recalled Justice Jackson’s words in the case she cited (“Choosing Our Battles,” FI, Fall 2002) she may have praised the plaintiff in the “Under God” case, rather than criticize him:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

More to the point, if earlier generations had been less inclined to Ms. Kaminer’s caution, more vigilant, more outspoken, the 1954 insertion, “under God” might not have been made. James Madison, who authored much of the constitution and most of its Bill of Rights, wrote this:

The people of the U.S. owe their independence & liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings. Obsta Principiis (resist first encroachments). [Quoted by Robert S. Alley in James Madison on Religious Liberty, Prometheus Books, p. 91]

One phrase of that statement deserves repeating: “. . . the evil comprised in the precedent.”

In the same document, Madison goes on to suggest that even his generation failed the Constitution by its failure to protest and prevent a chaplain being attached to the legislature and allow-ing chaplains, at taxpayers’ expense, to minister to the military. As Madison “descries,” good people of his generation did nothing to stop public chaplains; gen-erations of good people remained silent when “In God We Trust” landed on coins; in the late 1930s held their fire when “God” appeared over the new Supreme Court Building, and in 1954 when “under God” was inserted into the Pledge. With Madison, we should all be thankful to the Ninth Circuit Court: Obsta Principiis.

Tom E. Moses
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Wendy Kaminer responds:

I refused to say the Pledge in the seventh grade (when I decided it was “wrong to make somebody say something”). I haven’t recited it since. So I’m sympathetic to students who resent compulsory recitation, and I often recall Justice Jackson’s eloquent defense of free speech and freedom of conscience in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943). Indeed, my point, in part, was that Jackson’s opinion in Barnette, holding that students may not be required to recite the Pledge, made Michael Newdow’s challenge unnecessary. Given that Newdow’s daughter was free to remain silent (if, in fact, she objected to the Pledge), I consider the inclusion of the words under God rather trivial. I’ve never felt oppressed by occasionally hearing them; nor do I feel oppressed by the words under God on our currency. I realize, of course, that some people feel differently, but their outrage at these rote references to God doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to act strategically in defending separation of church and state. Personally I’m not going to be thankful to the Ninth Circuit if its opinion is upheld and eventually results in a repeal of the First Amendment.

Putting an Idea to the Test

As a fellow physicist and longtime determinist, I was surprised to read in “An Accidental World” by Taner Edis (FI, Fall 2002) that “random, uncaused events appear to be the rule in physics” and “even our everyday lives are touched by the fundamental randomness in physics.” Apparently Dr. Edis feels that the strange concepts used to develop theories of modern physics have found their way, via the predictions of those theories, to infect the realm of reality with gaps in causality and resulting randomness. The anomalies that he asserts challenge the reliability of the scientific method itself, and since the question is whether those “random uncaused events” have an objective reality in the everyday life of a secular human, I think it only appropriate that the validity of those anomalies be tested by experimentation.

For such a test, an experiment should have an outcome predicted by accepted theories of physics or chemistry (including quantum mechanics) and, in repeat-ed trials, the outcome should differ significantly from its predicted value. If the predicted value is given as a probability rather than a definite value, then each run of the experiment should include a sufficient number of repetitions to deter-mine the outcome probabilities to the desired precision. Skill and persistence will be required to track down and assign explanations for each anomaly found, whether it be experimental technique, inadequacy of the underlying theory, or, by default, a lack of causality. Until such experiments indicate otherwise, I think that reports of the demise of causality are premature.

Charles W. Clapp, Ph.D.
Sun City Center, Florida

Taner Edis replies:

I am puzzled by Dr. Clapp’s letter. By “randomness,” he appears to understand totally unconstrained “anomalies” that threaten the reli-ability of science. He also suggests that these anomalies could be detect-ed as deviations from the probabilistic predictions of quantum mechanics. This betrays a serious confu-sion about randomness. Specifying a probability distribution is exactly how we describe the randomness in a physical system; otherwise the term becomes meaningless. And we have many decades of evidence accumu-lated for the accuracy of and the randomness within quantum mechanics, including experiments that rule out ordinary unknown variables. Quan tum mechanics simply does not operate according to every-day notions of causality. This is text-book stuff; a “fellow physicist” should know this.

Secular and Religious Humanism The cover illustration of the Fall 2002 issue of Free inquiry with the special section “Drawing Clear Boundaries: Secular Vs. Religious Humanism” aptly depicts much of the content that lies within: little men painting artificial boundaries and erecting fences on an otherwise beautiful landscape. Does the humanist/freethought movement really need to …

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