Above and Beyond

Tom Flynn

Thirty years in, the question we still hear most often at the Council for Secular Humanism is “What is secular humanism?” A cynical observer might find that pathetic: “What, your Council has been at this for thirty years, and most people still don’t know what it stands for?” For my part, I actually find it encouraging; after all, few people bother asking “What is atheism?” or “What is agnosticism?” Most Americans think they already know what atheism and agnosticism are (never mind that so many of them don’t). I view it as a plus that when discussion turns to secular humanism, men and women from every part of the religion-irreligion spectrum are still willing to ask about it. As any admirer of John Dewey will tell you, frank inquiry is preferable to misguided certainty.

These days, we’re often asked to define secular humanism in relation to atheism, a term more prominent than ever after the publication of all those New Atheist books (and more recently, all those varyingly successful believers’ books in reply). On the other side of the spectrum, we’re often asked to define secular humanism in relation to “no religious preference,” the stance that a mushrooming number of survey respondents have been using to label their stance on matters of faith. (I’ll say more about those surveys below.)

And of course, these days many of the people who are posing these questions never really ask them at all; they just visit your Web site. The global redesign of the Council’s site at www.secularhumanism.org is still several months away (see “Welcome to Our New Look” on page 6 ). But if you were to visit the site today, you’d see that we have simplified and restructured our home page in order to focus more tightly on that perennial question, “What is secular humanism?” In striving to answer that query in the fewest possible words while responding to contemporary preoccupations, I think we’ve concocted some statements that are worth repeating in the magazine as well.

If you haven’t visited our site recently, the first change you’ll notice is our new banner across the top of each page, which is devoted to that all-important task of positioning secular humanism vis-á-vis atheism and agnosticism. It reads, “Beyond Atheism. Beyond Agnosticism. Secular Humanism.” That leads the eye to a brief introductory statement:

If you’ve rejected traditional religion (or were never religious to start), you may be asking, “Is that all there is?” It’s liberating to recognize that supernatural beings are human creations . . . that there’s no such thing as “spirit” . . . that people are undesigned, unintended, and responsible for themselves.

But what’s next?

For many, mere atheism (the absence of belief in gods and the supernatural) or agnosticism (the view that such questions cannot be answered) aren’t enough.

Atheism and agnosticism are silent on larger questions of values and meaning. If Meaning in life is not ordained from on high, what small-m meanings can we work out among ourselves? If eternal life is an illusion, how can we make the most of our only lives? As social beings sharing a godless world, how should we coexist?

For the questions that remain unanswered after we’ve cleared our minds of gods and souls and spirits, many atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and freethinkers turn to secular humanism.

A follow-on page then describes secular humanism in greater detail as a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance incorporating a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system. The Web page proceeds to flesh out each of these terms. Free Inquiry readers familiar with Paul Kurtz’s editorials over the years will find this vocabulary comfortably familiar.

A subsequent page tackles the next-most-asked question about secular humanism: “If you don’t believe in God, how can you be moral?”

Far from living in a moral vacuum, secular humanists “wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness.” . . . Secular humanists believe human values should express a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. (Of course, human welfare is understood in the context of our interdependence upon the environment and other living things.) Ethical principles should be evaluated by their consequences for people, not by how well they conform to preconceived ideas of right and wrong.

Secular humanism denies that meaning, values, and ethics are imposed from above. In that it echoes simple atheism. But secular humanism goes further, challenging humans to develop their own values. Secular humanism maintains that through a process of value inquiry, reflective men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, and craft ethical systems that deliver desirable results under most circumstances.

Indeed, say secular humanists, the basic components of effective morality are universally recognized. Paul Kurtz has written of the “common moral decencies”—qualities including integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness. These qualities are celebrated by almost every human religion, not because God ordained them, but because human beings cannot thrive in communities where these values are ignored.

Secular humanism offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing fulfilling and humane lives—lives that are rich intellectually, ethically, and emotionally, without reliance on religious faith.

These are among the ideals we will continue to champion while Free Inquiry and its publisher, the Council for Secular Humanism, approach their fourth decade. As Paul Kurtz has often written, secular humanism is not mere atheism or agnosticism. Secular humanists share the agnostic’s epistemic skepticism; they share the atheist’s lack of belief in a supernatural realm. But secular humanism goes further still, forging a domain of moral and ethical commitment which, while it is available to any agnostic or atheist, is not a necessary component of pure agnostic or atheist positions. Though secular humanists don’t confine ourselves to any single political orientation, we take the demands of equality, social justice, planetary ethics, and, yes, planetary survival very seriously indeed. Secular humanism can be thought of as the next step, a platform capable of grounding fully rounded intellectual, emotional, and ethical lives.

At the same time, we recognize that the term secular has acquired implicit new meaning over three decades of discourse and controversy. For many, secular has come to stand alongside cosmopolitan as an antonym to terms like parochial, insular, provincial, denominational, or sectarian. Secular humanism embraces globality over locality. It lionizes free individuals who aspire to connect to planetary culture as directly as possible rather than filtering their life experiences through powerful intermediary institutions. It recognizes that different individuals bring different expectations and different “baskets” of wants to their involvements with a secular humanist organization.

More than anything, Free Inquiry has spent thirty years engaged in a great dialogue. That dialogue continues.

A New Religious Landscape

Since 1990, the news has been full of survey results documenting rapid growth among Americans who report no religious affiliation. People who report their affiliation as &
ldquo;none of the above” now make up 15 to 16 percent of the population; the number is higher still among younger Americans. Secular humanist, atheist, agnostic, and other freethinking journalists, myself included, have tended to portray growth among the “nones” as expansion in our own community. There’s always been a dash of optimism in that—after all, close to fifty million American men, women, and children now live without religion, while the number of people subscribing to Free Inquiry or belonging to “movement” groups remains in the tens of thousands.

After doubling over the fifteen-year period starting in 1990, growth among the “nones” has slowed, at least temporarily. The latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008), the third in a landmark series of studies directed by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College, shows both that the growth of the “nones” has plateaued and the group has come more and more to resemble America as a whole. Adult “nones” “reflect the general population in terms of marital status, educational attainment, racial and ethnic makeup, and income,” according to a Trinity College press release. While the “secular boom” of the 1990s is over, expect slower but still impressive growth: after all, two-thirds of today’s “nones” were raised inside religious traditions that their own children will likely be raised outside of. Moreover, “nones” constitute 22 percent of adults younger than age thirty, well above the 15 percent figure that ARIS 2008 finds for the population as a whole. So don’t be surprised, these researchers say, if after the next two decades “nones” account for one-quarter of the U.S. population.

Researchers disagree over how many of the “nones” can be considered wholly nonspiritual. ARIS studies suggest that atheists, agnostics, and other firm doubters compose less than half of this population, while studies by the Pew Foundation and others suggest that firmly nonreligious people account for two “nones” in three. On one hand, those are many more potential recruits than existing humanist or atheist organizations now attract. On the other hand, a substantial if uncertain number of the “nones” stand far indeed from secular humanism. Some hold relatively traditional beliefs; many pray or engage in “spiritual” practices.

As a movement, we are probably overdue to rethink our self-image as guardians of reason who battle fundamentalists committed to literalist beliefs rooted in traditional orthodoxy. It’s not our grandparents’ spiritual landscape out there; nothing should make that more clear than a recent “spirituality poll” conducted by that ultimate avatar of mom and apple pie, Parade magazine. Struggling to put a cheery face on numbers that depict unprecedented novelty, journalist Christine Wicker gamely reported that “Our nation was built on a foundation of strong faith, and in some respects that hasn’t changed. In fact, 69 percent of Americans believe in God . . . and 75 percent believe it’s a parent’s responsibility to give children a religious upbringing.” Another bright spot: “45 percent of respondents called themselves religious,” which Wicker contrasted against the supposedly more disturbing fact that 50 percent “rarely or never attend religious services.” These are astonishing numbers. Sixty-nine percent believe in God? Two decades ago, most surveys would have reported around 90 percent. (As late as 1996, a Council for Secular Humanism survey found over 88 percent believing in a traditional personal God who answers prayers!) Fewer than half call themselves religious? Or try this statistic on for size: only 43 percent of respondents to the Parade study “thought people go to heaven or hell depending on their actions on earth.” And a mere 17 percent said they would turn to a spiritual leader for guidance with life problems! Meanwhile, 27 percent “said they don’t practice any kind of religion.”

Ms. Wicker was left to comfort her readers with the fact that only 12 percent of respondents were atheist or agnostic. The same number disbelieved in the afterlife; 12 percent also said that no religion has validity, though it wasn’t clear from Wicker’s article whether these three 12-percent cohorts consisted of the same individuals.

Of course, the survey uncovered its share of oxymoronic results as well. Though only “45 percent of respondents called themselves religious,” 78 percent said they “would never think of converting to another religion.” In its way that’s as baffling as the significant percentages of atheists who pray that some previous studies turned up.

The lesson I draw from all of this is that American popular piety is settling into a configuration unlike anything we have known before. Legacy rhetoric about standing up to fundamentalism may not continue to serve our movement well. (Focusing reasoned critique upon fuzzy-minded “spirituality” may become as central to secular humanist activism in the teens as was resisting Jerry Falwell in the eighties.) And as the storied “nones” take their place among the nation’s best-established, most-studied demographic groups, there will be less point in seeking (hopefully or otherwise) to present them as standard-bearers for our own community. My own suspicion is that we who forthrightly, explicitly reject supernaturalism and spirituality will remain a distinct minority in our own right, our future course more and more independent from the “nones,” so many of whom self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”

A Personal Note

Speaking of anniversaries, 2009 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my private decision to stop celebrating Christmas. Notwithstanding Ariane Sherine’s hot-selling Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, I still believe secular humanists are better served by conspicuously declining to take part in the Christians’ nativity festival. As the sound bite goes, “It’s not the birthday of anyone we know.” Best wishes to all for whatever you’re observing—or not—in this season that some find festive. And to those who don’t, Happy Just Another Day.


  • “Americans Who Don’t Identify with Religion No Longer a Fringe Group.” Press release from Trinity College, September 21, 2009.
  • Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008). Hartford, Conn.: Trinity College, 2009. Accessed October 8, 2009, at http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/reports/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf.
  • Wicker, Christine. “How Spiritual Are We? Surprising Results from an Exclusive Parade Poll.” Parade magazine, October 4, 2009.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Thirty years in, the question we still hear most often at the Council for Secular Humanism is “What is secular humanism?” A cynical observer might find that pathetic: “What, your Council has been at this for thirty years, and most people still don’t know what it stands for?” For my part, I actually find it …

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