The Future of Secular Humanism in America

Paul Kurtz

Next year will be the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism and the launching of Free Inquiry magazine. At that time, secular humanism was the bête-noire of the Religious Right. We were accused of dominating American life—the courts, public education, the universities, foundations, and the media. Our accusers claimed that secular humanism was a “religion” and that it was being taught in the schools and colleges, hence violating the First Amendment. I myself came under heavy attack from Tim LaHaye and other fundamentalist preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. What patent nonsense! I insisted that we were secular, not religious. The battle against secularism came to a head with the election of Ronald Reagan to office, and the attacks continued unremittingly.

Our first decade and a half was devoted to responding to these intemperate charges, and Free Inquiry devoted many issues to examining the claim that America was a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation with its ideals rooted in the Bible. We insisted that we were secular humanists to distinguish us from the avowedly religious humanists, although some of my best friends are religious humanists, and surely none are dangerous to America!

We pointed out that it was the Enlightenment that inspired so many of the Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin), and we defended the civic virtues of democracy: tolerance, the right to dissent, the need for the negotiation of differences, and the importance of using reason and science to solve our problems.

Over the years, Free Inquiry evolved into a movement as we began to establish at first secular humanist groups, and then in cooperation with the Skeptical Inquirer, published by CSICOP (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), we launched in 1991 the Center for Inquiry and began to establish Centers and Communities in North America and worldwide. By then we had expanded our agenda and declared our commitment to science, reason, and free inquiry in every area of human interest, particularly secularism and humanist ethics. The Center for Inquiry/Transnational also began to focus on planetary humanism. We were by then the largest freethought, scientific rationalist, and secular humanist organization in the history of the United States (and possibly the world). We attracted outstanding intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists to our causes: Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Betty Freidan, Mario Bunge, Francis Crick, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steve Allen, Barbara Wooten, Daniel Dennett, Ann Druyan, Vern and Bonnie Bullough, and many more.

I recount the history of our movement because our publications constantly bring in new readers, many of whom may not know what an uphill battle it has been to build these institutions. But more pointedly, today we have reached a critical new junction; for I have been replaced as chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, CSI, and the Center for Inquiry, a position that I held since our founding.

Accordingly, I wish to point out the direct relevance of secular humanism today. This is especially the case with the emergence of the so-called new atheism, based upon well-known authors, many whom contribute to Free Inquiry. The new atheists have had a significant impact, for they brought the atheist position to new public attention. I should parenthetically add that I founded Prometheus Books in 1969—forty years ago—virtually before anyone else had been publishing books on atheism, secular humanism, and skepticism.

What is important about secular humanism today is its positive outlook; its effort is not simply to examine critically the claims of religion but to provide affirmative alternatives to both theism and individualistic libertarianism. The latter encourages each person to do “his or her own thing” in a hollow pursuit of self-interest. I have encouraged individual autonomy in a free society, but in my view we need at the same time to raise the level of taste and appreciation of each individual, widen and deepen the capacity for creative growth, and cultivate critical thinking and wisdom. I have stated that the goal of humanism is to develop a new eupraxsophy, i.e., virtues and values drawn from the application of intelligence and the scientific perspective. This entails a recognition of the need for enlightened self-interest to be sure but also for empathy, altruism, and a good will. Last but not least, secularists have a responsibility to cultivate moral integrity and high standards of personal morality.

In my view, the tests of the validity of the concept of Centers for Inquiry is at stake—are we able to generate a new secular morality in which individual persons are transformed and the common moral decencies and moral integrity prevail? Central to the core of secular humanism is a respect for the intrinsic dignity and value of every person and an uncompromising commitment to human rights. I deplore the prospect that the Council for Secular Humanism might turn into just another combative atheist organization—or that it might focus exclusively on the separation of church and state. The core value of secular humanism is the realization and enhancement of human fulfillment, a renaissance ideal of ethical good where human enlightenment comes first—an ideal I hope the Council will continue to champion.

What I have found—much to my dismay, even at the Center for Inquiry—is that competitive battles for self-aggrandizement and personal advantage are inescapable. These tendencies, I hasten to add, exist in the broader consumer-capitalist-corporate culture in which we live, where egoistic self-interest is the norm rather than the quest for the common good or the recognition of our empathetic responsibilities to others. I recognize that all social institutions experience power plays and that not only corporations but churches and temples are affected by the competitive rat race. Hence, the frontier for the Center for Inquiry movement as I view it is whether secular humanism can achieve a new level of moral excellence. As I move on from my former role as founder and chairman of the Center for Inquiry movement, I stand on the sidelines hoping that my creation is able to mature in wisdom and develop a new eupraxsophy of quality. We must move beyond the battle with the Religious Right, important as that has been. We need a new agenda if we are to survive, and that is the development of a new morality as part of the emerging planetary community of humankind.

Does the Universe Have Meaning?

The root question for secular humanists is the existential one: what is the meaning of existence? This is the primordial question that humans have pondered in every age.

Viewing the panoramic splendor of the night sky, one cannot help but be stunned by its magnificence and overcome by awe. This most likely was true for prehistoric men and women peering at the moon and stars, whether from a mountaintop, a desert oasis, a rainforest, or the frozen tundra of the North. Similarly for the undoubted astonishment of the rising sun every day, the bearer of warmth and giver of life. What does the universe mean to us? This question is all the more intriguing today, given the power of the Hubble Telescope to peer into the far reaches of the universe beyond our own galaxy. Viewing the brilliant photographs taken by NASA of the heavenly bodies thousands or millions of light-years away is a source of wonderment. The immensity of the universe (or multiverse) is breathtaking. The mystery of the cosmic scene perplexes the theist a
nd spiritualist no less than it does the secular humanist and atheist.

Human beings have always faced challenges and conflicts in daily life. They have had to labor by the sweat of their brows in order to survive. The struggle to persist is especially pressing when humans face thirst or hunger, danger or conflict, disease or death.

My favorite book of the Old Testament is that of Job, where we read:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil. And there were born to him seven sons and three daughters…. [Job 1: 1-2]

Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble…. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. [Job 14: 1–2]

Job is unable to resolve the problem of evil. He cannot fathom the transient character of human existence or the sorrow and tears that are so often experienced. After recounting these terrible travails, he finds solace in God.

This theistic response is not possible for secular humanists today, for science has discovered that the universe is amenable to scientific explanations and that regularities can be discovered in nature. Although nature exhibits order, it is not a perfect system; indeed, the universe is in constant change and flux. We witness huge nova explosions in outer space and the birth and death of stars. Our own planet is constantly changing—there are volcanoes, earthquakes, forest fires, floods, and periods of global glaciation and warming. The biosphere vividly demonstrates the emergence and extinction of species. It is estimated by Jerry A. Coyne that 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct—not only has there been the dramatic disappearance of the dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, and mammoths but also countless species unknown and unsung.1 The universe is hardly a system of perfect order or a product of intelligent design; rather than being “fine tuned,” it is more likely “out of tune.”

The evolution of the human species by means of natural selection has been an especially tortuous process; for other Homo species have become extinct—Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalis. Only Homo sapiens has endured in spite of hazardous adversities. That our species has managed to survive thus far is due to luck and human pluck. The evidence indicates that Homo sapiens emigrated from Africa about fifty to sixty thousand years ago, eventually populating the entire globe. The special coping mechanism that we possess that other species do not is creative intelligence; that is, our capacity for inspiration and discovery, the ability to invent tools and to marshal ingenuity, and the resolve to persevere in spite of formidable obstacles.

We have as a species conquered virtually the entire planet. We began as food gatherers and hunters, forging weapons for the chase; we developed agriculture and settled in villages and towns; we were able to build shelters and weave clothing, and we learned to etch drawings on the walls of caves, the first glimmerings of art. Human evolution, however, is both biological and cultural. With the invention of language, we were able to communicate with each other and to transmit the knowledge learned to future generations. We developed the technical arts and sciences, medicines for healing, and social institutions to soothe and protect the suffering heart.

Does the universe have any special meaning for humankind? That is doubtful, for the human prospect is always at risk. There is no guarantee that the social institutions that we have developed will persist unscathed into the unending future. We have created systems of morality and law to govern ourselves, and we contrived the sciences to understand nature and technologies to cope with problematic situations.

The human species exists on a minor planet on the edge of the Milky Way. Our galaxy has an estimated 400 billion stars, countless planets, and enormous clouds of gas. The spiral arms of the Milky Way extend some 50,000 light-years, revolve every 220 million years, and speed through space at 400,000 kilometers per hour heading toward our nearest galaxy, Andromeda, with which it appears to be on a collision course. There are billions of additional galaxies overladen with stars. Can it be that all this was designed with the human species in mind? What presumption! It is sheer anthropomorphic fantasy to fabricate a god in the image of man who will provide salvation in a mythic heaven. The god postulate is a delusion, says Richard Dawkins. The question that follows is, how shall we live? That is the overriding existential quandary that every person and culture faces. We need to create meanings for ourselves, and that is the task of scientific secular humanism.

In the modern world, we have been able to explain natural events and reduce deprivation and danger. The universe is neither good nor evil. For the secular humanist, the universe has no hidden purpose or design. We have some control—within limits—over what will ensue. And in spite of adversity and tragic events, humans are still capable of achieving some modicum of significance and happiness on their own terms in shared experience with others.

Thus we create our own meanings.2 The meaning of life is not to be found in secret formulas discovered by ancient prophets or gurus who withdraw from living to seek quiet release. Life has no meaning per se; it does, however, present us with innumerable opportunities, which we can either squander and retreat from in fear or seize with exuberance. These can be discovered by anyone and everyone who has an inborn zest for living. They are found within life itself, as it reaches out to create new conditions for experience.

The so-called secret of life is an open scenario that can be deciphered by anyone. It is found in the experiences of living: in the delights of a fine banquet, the strenuous exertion of hard work, the poignant melodies of a symphony, the appreciation of an altruistic deed, the excitement of an embrace of someone you love, the elegance of a mathematical proof, the invigorating adventure of a mountain climb, the satisfaction of quiet relaxation, the lusty singing of an anthem, the vigorous cheering in a sports contest, the reading of a delicate sonnet, the joys of parenthood, the pleasure of friendship, the quiet gratification of serving our fellow human beings—in all these activities and more.

It is in the present moment of experience as it is brought to fruition, as well as in the memories of past experiences and the expectations of future ones, that the richness of life is realized. The meaning of life is that it can be found to be good and beautiful and exciting in its own terms for ourselves, our loved ones, and other sentient beings. It is found in the satisfaction intrinsic to creative activities, wisdom, and righteousness. One doesn’t need more than that, and we hope that one will not settle for less.

The meaning of life is intimately tied up with our plans and projects, the goals we set for ourselves, our dreams, and the successful achievement of them. We create our own conscious meanings; we invest the cultural and natural worlds with our own interpretations. We discover, impose upon, and add to nature.

Meaning is found in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, in their culture built around Isis and Osiris and the pyramids, or in the ruminations of the ancient prophets of the Old Testament. It is exemplified by the Athenian philosopher standing in the Acropolis deliberating about justice in the city-state. It is seen in the structure of the medieval town, built upon a rural economy, feudalism, and a Christian cultural backdrop. It is experienced by the Samurai warrior in the context of Jap
anese culture, in the hopes and dreams of the Incas of Peru, by the native Watusi tribes in Africa, and in the Hindu and Muslim cultures of India and southern Asia. And it is exemplified anew in the modern postindustrial technological urban civilizations of the present-day world, which give us new cultural materials and new opportunities for adventure.

Human beings have found their meanings within the context of a historical-cultural experience and in how they live and participate within it. Life had meaning for them and their fellow human beings; only the content differed—the form and function are similar. Human beings have lived their lives under a variety of cultural conditions. They have found life inspiring and meaningful, a source of optimism and euphoria. It can be a source of joy and a wonder to behold but, only if we resolve to live fully—and to realize all of the goods of which we are capable.


  1. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking, 2009).
  2. The following includes some excerpts from my book, Affirmations: Joyful and Creative Exuberance (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004).

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Next year will be the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism and the launching of Free Inquiry magazine. At that time, secular humanism was the bête-noire of the Religious Right. We were accused of dominating American life—the courts, public education, the universities, foundations, and the media. Our accusers claimed that …

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