The Duty of Dissent

David Koepsell

Four years ago, I took the position of executive director here at the Council for Secular Humanism. The job intrigued me, faced as we were at the time with political and social challenges that seemed, frankly, insurmountable. President George W. Bush was at the height of his popularity, and his outrageous affronts to secularism, as well as a still-strong alliance with Christian fundamentalism, threatened to undo many of the protections of the First Amendment. The Council was about to turn twenty-five years old and had come a long way, building the circulation of its flagship magazine, Free Inquiry, and gaining strong support among those who embrace secular humanist values. With this sort of support, facing what seemed like an impossible battle to hold the line against creeping fundamentalism and theocracy seemed almost possible. In fact, it was.

The past few years have seen a shift, as movements inevitably do, and there is again a certain sense of momentum for our positions. The public has grown wary of fundamentalists and their connections to Washington, D.C. Part of this is due to their own hypocrisy, and we can’t take much credit for that. Demagogues like Ted Haggert, who boasted about his access to the halls of power, and Larry Craig, who inhabited those halls, left themselves open to destruction by the complete disconnect between their public words of sanctimony and their private actions. Having seen enough of this, the public has retreated. The fundamentalists are retreating from politics, too, though not nearly enough of them. Secularism still has plenty to do, with no thanks to many on the American Left who publicly pander to religious groups and causes.

Throughout all this, I have been buffeted by opposing viewpoints within our movement. On the one hand, some want us to be more vociferously supportive of “progressive” politics and notable left-wing causes and people. On the other, I frequently hear criticisms from those who think we affiliate too often with “progressive” or left-wing causes and people (“Please, can’t we just focus on the important issues of secularism and humanism?”). I see this as good. The fact that we do not please everyone all the time means we are being consistent, not along political lines but along the ideological/philosophical lines that define secular humanism. I do not fear dissent, even in our own “ranks.”

The sneer quotes for “ranks” is, of course, deliberate, for no group is more appropriately likened to the fabled “herd of cats” than secular humanists. Well and good; it is central to the philosophy of secular humanism that conscience should be free. It is our duty to use our limited capacities for reason to develop our own rationales, to question authority, and to argue, debate, and often dissent. Within our ranks is a range of opinions about political and social issues. In fact, this is part of what makes Free Inquiry so interesting. You won’t get just “the party line” but opinions across the full spectrum of dissent. We may all be humanists, but we need not share every opinion. How boring would it be if we did?

If you want a party line, there are organizations that will cater to that. The Council for Secular Humanism will not be one of them, because that would mean abandoning one of our core principles: that dissent is not just good but a duty. In the great tradition of J. S. Mill, we have always held the conviction that good ideas cannot be deemed good without testing, without debate, without facing the challenge of dissent in the court of public opinion. This must be true within our own policies and philosophical discussions, as well as the world at large. If we cannot air in these pages or in our other publications the full range of criticism and comment on even our most cherished beliefs, then we will be hypocrites, because this is our publicly stated conviction and our duty in the world of public ideas.

About a month ago, I wrote a column for our online newsletter, the Secular Humanism Online News, which now has a circulation of nearly ten thousand readers. Many of you might have read it. I focused on something a former Free Inquiry columnist, Sam Harris, said at a recent conference on atheism. He had the radical notion that the use of the term atheist somehow does not do us justice, doesn’t adequately define us, and is not particularly politically useful. He continued by putting forth the even more radical notion that no term really quite suffices—indeed, that labeling ourselves does little good for our cause. He suggested that instead we ought to live our lives according to our beliefs—defending science, reason, and our values through the lives we lead—rather than by putting on atheist conferences and the like. I expressed some sympathy for this point of view in my column as being extremely pragmatic and honest. Within a day, calls for my resignation came from a handful of colleagues. Oh, the irony. So much for free inquiry. Rather than prompting honest, civil debate about the issue—which is what ensued for most of us within our halls—some felt that straying from the party line called for a purge.

As you can see, I did not heed the call, and the organization remains uncleansed from my impure opinion. I remain sympathetic, in some ways, to Harris’s point of view, though I never embraced it fully. His dissent raised an important issue, and it engendered some good discussion about the role of groups and group identity, as well as labels and the value of just living the “good life.” By exposing these topics to sunlight and unfettered public debate, we develop a clearer understanding of our positions and better arguments to support them.

No philosophy can develop, grow, or ultimately survive without ongoing debate. This is one of our most formidable criticisms of religious dogma. Dogma cannot shift; it cannot stand against contradictory new evidence; it cannot be subject to debate. It is static. We are not static, and it is the ebb and flow of ideas that makes us strong. The method of the sciences and the object of humanism is progress. We will progress as long as we embrace dissent as a necessary part of that method, as necessary to the pursuit of that object. I enjoy our debates and value those who raise objections when a new, controversial, or downright silly idea is voiced. It sets us apart from our cultural competitors and will, if we let it, enable us to succeed in our shared goal of a better, progressive, more humanistic society—so long as we avoid the tendency to call for purges or sacrifices of those who dare to differ. This is the difference between ideas and ideology. I’ll take the former, thank you.

David Koepsell

David Koepsell is an author, philosopher, attorney (retired), and educator whose recent research focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics, and public policy. He has provided commentary regarding ethics, society, religion, and technology on numerous media outlets. He has been a tenured associate professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management in the Netherlands, visiting professor at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Instituto de Filosoficas, and the Unidad Posgrado, Mexico, director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Comisión Nacional De Bioética in Mexico, and asesor de rector at UAM Xochimilc.

Four years ago, I took the position of executive director here at the Council for Secular Humanism. The job intrigued me, faced as we were at the time with political and social challenges that seemed, frankly, insurmountable. President George W. Bush was at the height of his popularity, and his outrageous affronts to secularism, as …

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