When I initially informed Tom Flynn of my desire to respond critically to his editorial in the last issue of Free Inquiry (“Why the ‘A’ Word Won’t Go Away,” February/March 2008), he shot back in jest, “Only if you begin your response with an admission that my logic is incontrovertible.” Flynn certainly weaves a seductive argument; nevertheless, I find him misguided on this issue. While I intend to address some of his arguments, I also plan to briefly explore the relationship between atheism and secular humanism. In his editorial, Flynn (influenced by Michael Martin) draws a distinction between positive atheism (firm certainty that no deity exists) and negative atheism (simple absence of god-belief). In the interest of clarity, and without engaging in definitional hairsplitting, my usage of the term atheism in this piece is pretty straightforward, reflecting the standard Webster definition of “disbelief in or denial of the existence of God.”
Briefly stated, Flynn believes that secular humanists should be up front about their atheism. Moreover, even though Flynn acknowledges that secular humanism is more than atheism, it seems he would have the secular humanist movement place the emphasis on atheism. Implicit in this is a kind of heightened reformist zeal: “Let’s make more atheists, then save them from nihilism by converting them to secular humanism,” Flynn has opined in the past. In his editorial, Flynn asserts that “secular humanists are atheists” and further that “anyone can plainly see that secular humanism is a variety of atheism.” I find his assertions dubious on two grounds. First, they seem to me overly simplistic. Atheism is not a necessary component of secular humanism; included in its tent are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and philosophical naturalists; closely allied are many nonpracticing Protestants and Catholics and secular Jews. Concomitant with this is the fact that atheism is most certainly not in and of itself sufficient for the humanist outlook. Frederick Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and H.L. Mencken were all atheists, yet they were Social Darwinists, opposed to any form of social justice. Marxism was perverted by atheist dictators who committed some of the worst crimes against humanity of the twentieth century.
Flynn’s position seems to me mistaken on another key point: Where do we find the evidence to suggest that individuals converted en masse to atheism will follow an inevitable path leading to secular humanism’s doorstep? A strident, activist brand of atheism betrays a lack of understanding of—even insensitivity to—the phenomenon of religion, indeed the human propensity for myth-making in general. Although Daniel Dennett is certainly right in pointing out that religion is a natural phenomenon, we must always remain cognizant of the irreducible complexity of the phenomenon. There are deeply ingrained psychological and sociological realities associated with the functionality of the religious impulse. It is highly unlikely that we will see this impulse undone any day soon by an acerbic brand of atheism. Indeed, I fear that we are beginning to see signs of a boomerang effect, with a stiffened resolve and renewed recalcitrance to reason among fundamentalists in this country, all in response to a perceived attack on their cherished belief systems. I can’t help but wonder if we are witnessing the fallout, since virtually every Democratic candidate seems to feel compelled to drive home to voters his or her personal relationship with Jesus. The key point here is that people come to religious skepticism in their own way, in their own time, in an intellectual and affective process.
Still, Flynn suggests that society is in need of a little “desensitization therapy.” The problem with this is that when taken to the extreme, this kind of “needle in the eye” or “Deal with it, I’m an atheist” approach can quickly devolve into the very same absolutist attempts at conversion we abhor among the Bible-thumping evangelicals; in short, a new kind of dogma. This creates, I submit, huge public relations problems for those of us committed to the promotion of the secular humanist life stance.
Now, before howls of protest erupt that I’ve gone “soft,” let me make it clear that this is not an abrogation of the good fight or a dismissal of the real challenges we face from the religious Right. I stand ready to challenge any who would champion doctrines based on dogmatism and fanaticism; I firmly uphold the separation of church and state.
Let us examine the argument from a slightly different angle: grant some credence to Flynn’s assertion that by jolting the masses into acceptance of the renegade atheist next door, we can finally begin having a genuine discussion of “the parts of [the secular humanist] life stance that we find most compelling.” Does this imply, eo ipso, that this is or even ought to be the mission of the Council for Secular Humanism? I submit not, for secular humanism’s quintessence is moderation in the best sense of the word; its outlook is pluralistic in character, and it is rather inclusive. As Paul Kurtz has stated, “Secular humanism is not antireligious; it is simply nonreligious.” Its central project remains the articulation and defense of sustainable and elegant secular alternatives to religion and the mythologies of the day. It offers a philosophical, ethical, and scientific posture, indeed a moral posture, capable of reaching deeply into the well of human potentiality, that is simply not reducible to atheism. While a forthright religious skepticism clearly informs the humanist project, I would argue that this is not the point to be emphasized. Far more pertinent to our agenda of cultural enrichment has been secular humanism’s commitment to a self-correcting, critical sensibility (free inquiry), its elaboration of a constructive normative ethical ideal, and its articulation of an exciting, cutting-edge cosmic perspective (scientific naturalism). This has been the case since day one of the organized humanist movement, manifested by American pragmatic naturalism.
Religious unbelief doesn’t just appear on the scene ex nihilo. Rather it emerges from—and is a byproduct of—a long historical drama spanning more than two and a half millennia. Here we find, in one long, continuous record, the fruits of the perennial quest for the nature of reality and the human good. This tradition has bequeathed to us wisdom—what John Dewey called “working capital”—along with much that we have come to associate with the Enlightenment, like science and liberty. The virtues and values that humanists cherish are a product of human experience and are themselves a part of this wisdom. Disconnected from its roots in history, atheism becomes a disembodied, attenuated concept, unable to defend itself against charges of nihilism.
Any intelligent and compelling response to our conservative and evangelical critics will have to appeal to the fecundity of the humanist tradition. A noble tradition, as vital today as it was at its inception, one can follow this rich stream from its beginnings in Ancient Greece to its rediscovery in Italy and to its encapsulation in the democratic and scientific revolutions of the modern era. Intellectual historians often refer to this stream as reason (as opposed to revelation, the stream associated with Jerusalem), and it delivers us beyond the supposed disenchantment with the world to a kind of re-enchantment with the world. Fortified by the abiding resources found in this stream, the unbelief of the secular humanist may still be assailed by critics, but in effect, it is unassailable—profoundly capable of supplying meaning, value, and ethical concord to human conduct.