Freedom of Thought

Ronald A. Lindsay

Please look at the back cover of this magazine. There you will find a list setting forth “Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles.”

Secular humanism is not a religion, nor is the Council for Secular Humanism a church. We have no dogma and no heretics. There is no humanist pope or hierarchy, nor is there a set of sacred texts that humanists must slavishly follow. Positions advanced by humanists are only as sound as the reasons and evidence in support of such positions, and those positions should be challenged and tested to the fullest extent possible. Humanism is based on human experience and knowledge—not supernatural revelations—and, as we all recognize, human beings are fallible. So why the principles?

Well, among other things, secular humanism is a movement whose adherents share a scientific, philosophical, and ethical worldview that can be, and should be, distinguished from other worldviews. Our principles help to define our beliefs and provide guidance to humanists as they consider specific issues and debate the wisdom of various policies.

Guidance is the operative word here. Our principles are general in nature and intentionally so. As just indicated, positions on specific issues must be supported by reasoned argument.

For some, I may have just devoted a few paragraphs to stating the obvious, but I believe a reminder that secular humanism does not mandate acceptance of a detailed moral code or a comprehensive political, economic, and legal agenda is occasionally necessary. Contrary to the perception of some, secular humanists are not a subgroup of the left wing of the Democratic Party. (I say this as someone who last voted for a Republican for president in 1972—when I was nineteen.) Sometimes it may seem that way, but that is in part the fault of many in the Republican Party who have decided to court the votes of the Religious Right by pursuing certain policies that are antithetical to most humanists, such as the outlawing of abortion, the tacit union of church and state, the denial of equal civil rights to gays and lesbians, etc. The fact of the matter is that humanists have diverse views on any number of social, political, and economic issues. What unites us, among other things, is our commitment to freedom of thought, uncensored discussion, and evidence-based inquiry. The pages of this esteemed journal reflect that commitment, as virtually every issue offers contrasting viewpoints on particular topics.

Let me move now from the general to the specific to address a topic that has divided some in the humanist movement: the topic of hate-crimes legislation. Under federal law, and the laws of many states, a criminal defendant may be charged with an additional crime or may receive a longer jail sentence if his/her crime was motivated by “hate” against a person because of that person’s gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. From time to time, other states consider adopting hate-crime legislation or there is a proposal to expand the types of groups that should be included within the scope of hate-crimes legislation. Such legislation is—in my opinion—highly inadvisable, if not morally repugnant.

Let us consider first the issue of which groups should be protected against hate crimes. Why prohibit hatred based on certain characteristics and not others? Deciding that hatred based on race or religion should be punished as opposed to hatred of the elderly or “jocks” (remember Colum­bine) implies that certain characteristics are less valued than others. In other words, hate-crimes legislation indirectly serves to officially endorse the position that some of our characteristics are more important and more defining of our identity than others—a counterintuitive result if the underlying rationale for such legislation is to combat stereotypes and promote the equal dignity of all.

Second, such laws seem unnecessary. Assault, murder, and other violent crimes are already punished. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that adding extra penalties because a crime was motivated by a particular thought considered socially unacceptable reduces the incidence of such violent acts.

But the most decisive argument against hate-crimes legislation is that effectively we are punishing people for their thoughts. Oh, I am all too familiar with the rebuttal that the state is not punishing hate-crime perpetrators for their thoughts because someone must commit a criminal act before they are punished. If you just hate men or gays and do not act on your hate, you’re not punished. But one receives extra punishment only when one’s thoughts are considered unacceptable. A person who just beats the hell out of you maybe gets five years. But if the state can prove the person beat the hell out of you because she thought all men are pigs and the world would be better off without them, she may get ten years. If that is not punishing people for their thoughts, I don’t know what is.

Punishment for illicit thoughts opens up a Pandora’s box of troubling consequences that should concern humanists. To begin, it gives the prosecution too much discretion to select certain defendants for additional punishment. Allega­tions of hatred are easy to make and hard to rebut. Inequitable treatment of defendants is inevitable. Consider two white men, one assaulted by another white man and one assaulted by an African-American man. The latter may be subject to an additional hate-crime charge, even though his assault was no different in its effect on the victim than the white man’s assault. Where’s the justice in that?

Moreover, under hate-crimes statutes, the prosecutor has license to question the accused about her/his reading, Internet use, favorite movies, favorite music, friends and acquaintances, and so forth, all to establish that a person harbored hatred for some group or other. In People v. Lampkin, an Illinois case, the prosecutor was allowed to ask the defendant about a remark he allegedly made six years before the crime. We should be leery of giving the state such broad inquisitorial powers.

Humanists in particular should be cautious about granting the state the power to delve into one’s thoughts and to punish one for inappropriate thinking. For most of human history, the state has been no friend of religious dissenters, especially unbelievers.

Disturbingly, there has been a move afoot in some circles—including the United Nations—to legitimize punishment for those who “defame” religion. Laws that impose extra punishment for hate provide an unfortunate precedent for such chilling initiatives. Critiquing religion, especially if the criticism has a sharp, sarcastic tone, can be—and is—characterized by some of the faithful as evidence of “hatred” of religion. If Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens bumps into a Muslim on a subway, should he have to worry about being accused of an assault motivated by hatred of Islam?

Nothing I have said here should be interpreted as indicating indifference toward the prejudices and biases that still present obstacles to many in our society. The principles of humanism condemn discrimination and intolerance. We need to work to eliminate barriers based on bigotry. But hate-crimes legislation will not help us achieve that goal. Instead, it can serve as an excuse for not taking necessary positive action to ensure true social and civil equality. “Me biased against gays? Of course not. I support hate-crimes statutes . . . but don’t let them get married.”

Bigotry is worse than immoral. It’s stupid. And as humanists we have an obligation to combat bigotry by working to change people’s thinking—not by punishing them for what they are thinking. Freedom of thought is meaningless unless it encompasses the freedom to have thoughts considered unacceptable by others.

Have a different perspective? If so, I’m sure you’ll let me know. Vigorous
debate among humanists is to be welcomed, not discouraged. We shouldn’t worry about the fact that we have disagreements on some issues. The day we stop having disagreements is the day we should worry—then we will have assumed the stultifying function of a religion.


Speaking of vigorous debate and the broad tent of humanism (by now you know I am the master of transitions), as editor of Free Inquiry Tom Flynn has done a masterful job of assuring that the pages of this journal are open to different viewpoints. Tom will be taking on a new role effective January 1, 2009, in which he will assume additional responsibilities for encouraging respectful debate while also adhering to the principles of humanism. As a result of a decision by the Council for Secular Humanism’s board of directors, Tom will be succeeding me as executive director of the Council. Under the Council’s bylaws, the president and CEO cannot also be the executive director, except for an interim period not to exceed one year. (This helps ensure the autonomy of the Council.) You may recall I became executive director of the Council in early June of 2008 and then about four weeks later became president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Accordingly, I am required to step down—and will thus probably gain entry in Council record books as the executive director with the shortest tenure. (Ronnie, we hardly knew ye.)

Any regret that I cannot continue as executive director is far outweighed by my delight that Tom—whom I have known for many years—is taking on this position. Tom knows secular humanism backwards and forwards (yes, he can recite the principles of humanism in reverse order) and has the temperament, knowledge, and penetrating intelligence to be an excellent executive director.

But no, this doesn’t mean that Tom now gets four pages in Free Inquiry to express his views instead of the usual two!

[It doesn’t? —Ed.]

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

Please look at the back cover of this magazine. There you will find a list setting forth “Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles.” Secular humanism is not a religion, nor is the Council for Secular Humanism a church. We have no dogma and no heretics. There is no humanist pope or hierarchy, nor is …

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