A Secular Humanist Primer

William Harwood

What Is Secular Humanism?, by Paul Kurtz (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59102-499-6) 62 pp. Paper $9.95.


What Is Secular Humanism? is not an argument in support of secular humanism. Rather, it is a fairly concise statement of the principles secular humanism espouses and a response to allegations that secular humanism is less moral, ethical, or humane than philosophies based on alleged revelations from a metaphysical lawgiver. Kurtz explains that secular humanism is a positive philosophy; the rejection of manmade fantasies is merely a small part of what it is all about. Since he leans over backward to be polite to persons who do not grasp that humankind does not need a higher lifeform to spell out the difference between right and wrong, I will not interject my own less-flattering evaluation of metaphysics addiction into his précis.

As Kurtz writes, “It [secular humanism] has sometimes been taken as negative because it criticizes the sacred cows of society; but it actually delivers a positive ethical message that has significant pragmatic consequences for human culture. It presents affirmative alternatives to the reigning orthodoxies” (p. 21).

“Basically, secular humanists are nontheists; that is, they find insufficient evidence for belief in God, particularly in the monotheistic sense of God as a person. . . . The difference between nontheists and atheists is that atheists usually define themselves primarily by what they are against, whereas nontheists consider their unbelief to be only part of a broader scientific-philosophical-ethical outlook,” Kurtz explains (p. 34). While I would like to offer the foregoing as my reason for calling myself a nontheist rather than an atheist, the reality is that, in a culture in which atheist is generally—unjustly—considered pejorative, nontheist has not yet been similarly distorted.

“Indeed, some humanists even consider humanist ethics to be the most important characteristic, which should be emphasized in response to religionists, who egregiously maintain that ‘you cannot be good without belief in God’” (p. 35). Since Kurtz is spelling out philosophical principles rather than proselytizing them, he does not mention that although nontheists make up one-third of the general population, they constitute only 2 percent of the population of correctional institutions.

“Among the most enduring of human goods are those that we share with others. Some form of altruistic caring is essential to our very being. Developing an appreciation for the common moral decencies (or virtues) and cultivating a general sense of goodwill toward others helps human beings to restrain purely ego-centered interests” (p. 42). Ayn Rand’s version of the same philosophy was that altruism is enlightened selfinterest. Rand was right, and Kurtz is right.

“Humanist ethics expresses a concern for equality and social justice. Humanists agree with the religious tradition insofar as it supports the idea of the siblinghood of humankind—though not because God commands it but because moral reflection recognizes that we have responsibilities to other human beings” (p. 43).

The rest of What Is Secular Humanism? basically expands on the foregoing. The entire book can be read in a couple of hours.

The most vitriolic attacks on secular humanism come from inflexible ecclesiastics and parasites whose primary concern is protecting their bread and butter. Mere reason has as much chance of getting through the firewalls they have built around their brains as the metaphorical snowball in hell. But for persons whose hostility toward secular humanism stems from brainwashing by the dogmatists, Kurtz’s summation could, at the very least, pave the way for dialogue.

William Harwood

William Harwood has been published in skeptical and freethought journals around the world. The newest of his fifty books is titled Disinformation: Bullshit the Media Encourage You to Believe (World Audience, Inc., 2012).


What Is Secular Humanism?, by Paul Kurtz (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59102-499-6) 62 pp. Paper $9.95. What Is Secular Humanism? is not an argument in support of secular humanism. Rather, it is a fairly concise statement of the principles secular humanism espouses and a response to allegations that secular humanism is less moral, …

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