Secular Humanism is Emancipatory

Tom Flynn

Center for Inquiry CEO Ronald A. Lindsay and I will be taking turns in the magazine’s lead editorial slot. (His editorial “Expressing One’s Views on Religion” appeared in the August/September 2010 issue.) In this issue, I’d like to open a dialogue about the varying meanings secular humanism can hold. What does the lifestance we share mean to you? There’s no one right answer. In hopes of sharpening the question (at the risk of possibly oversimplifying it) I’d suggest the following exercise: distill what secular humanism means to you into a single word by completing the sentence “Secular humanism is . . .”

I’ll go first—being editor has its privileges—but I hope not to be the last! Consider this a thirtieth-anniversary challenge. I invite readers to submit their own mini-essays formatted roughly like the one that follows: “Secular humanism is [one word]” followed by no more than one thousand words of interpretation. The most striking will be published on the Council for Secular Humanism website and/or in future issues of Free Inquiry.

Here’s my opening pitch:

Secular humanism is emancipatory. My near-to-hand American Heritage Dictionary defines its root, emancipate, as follows: “1. To free from bondage, oppression, or restraint; liberate. 2. Law. To release (a child) from the control of parents or a guardian.”

Like (I think) a majority of U.S. secular humanists, I grew up within a traditional religion. Like a smaller number, I took that religion seriously. I lost my faith only after I caught it failing to live up to its stated ideals. Those who followed different routes to their lifestance may disagree, but I find secular humanism brilliantly emancipatory in both senses of the definition above.

Let us count the ways.

1. Emancipation from divine scrutiny. Under any traditional monotheism, we are perpetual children (God the Father, and all that). Rejecting a supernaturalism centered on an omnipotent lawgiver is profoundly self-liberating. It’s the ultimate release from “parental” control. What real parent’s scrutiny could be as intrusive as that of a deity who never sleeps, never looks away, and can never be deceived or misled? For me, putting away that childlike thing was the beginning of adult responsibility.

2. Emancipation from a worldview contrary to our senses—and common sense. Life as most traditional faiths present it is so paltry next to eternity. Never mind the billions of years cosmologists speak of; eternity is forever. And it isn’t just the universe that lasts forever. You last forever (at least on the Christian view). Uncountable epochs after the Last Judgment, whenever that happens, you’ll still be going on thrilling to the bliss of heaven or writhing in the agonies of hell. Even then, there’ll be no end in sight. It’s difficult to imagine a world picture better calculated to alienate us from our real lives, finite and bounded as they are. To my mind, the realization that existence is purely physical—not just that there’s no such thing as the supernatural but no such thing as spirit, next to which the physical world must come in second—may be the greatest emancipation of all. It frees me to cherish this life on its own terms. No longer must I devalue my existence as the eye-blink prologue to some boundless perpetuity where, if only by dint of its incalculably greater scale, true significance must lie.

Granted, these two emancipations are not unique to secular humanism; they rest merely on atheism. But for the many secular humanists who started out religious, atheism’s abandonment of supernatural beliefs is a necessary precondition for secular humanism or a waypoint on the path to it. The next two items on my list are more exclusively secular humanist in character. The third bears on the secular in secular humanism; the fourth bears on secular humanist values not entailed by atheism alone (though many self-described atheists choose to embrace them).

3. Emancipation from an often-oppressive parochial community. Beyond the demands to assent to doctrine and fill the collection plate, congregational life (mine, at least) involved a larger web of social expectations. We “sheep in the fold” were expected to treat our church as the locus of our “tribal” identity. And we were expected to regard that religious identity, not our status as individuals or citizens, as our most fundamental self-identification. (This child of the pre–Vatican II Roman Catholic Church clearly understood that loyalty to Rome was meant to trump my loyalty as an American; in those days at least, the enduring anti-Catholic aspersion along these lines had some basis in fact.) It was powerfully presumed that single young adults would seek mates within the church; parents would encourage—if need be, bully—their children to do the same. Nor did the institution stop at shaping marital life. Where possible, adults were to make friends, seek business contacts, and even hire professionals and craftspeople under the church roof. Perhaps no expectation weighed heavier than the demand that emotional problems be dealt with almost exclusively through pastoral counseling, resorting to ill-trusted secular psycho¬ther¬apists or psychiatrists only in extreme situations.

As a secular humanist, such overbearing expectations are just as much a part of what I left behind as my former beliefs in God, eternity, or (see below) command morality. And good riddance! Secular humanism frees us to be secular in the broadest sense: free to stop centering our lives in an insular community of the like-minded, free to anchor ourselves directly in the culture at its broadest and its most diverse, free to seek the services we desire from the best-qualified providers without screening them through some hidebound denominational sieve. Instead of restricting ourselves to a parochial community’s straitened menu, to the extent our resources permit we may choose from everything an abundant society has to offer. (See also Austin Dacey’s “Decomposing Humanism” in this issue.)

As secular humanists, we belong first to ourselves. We are our own gatekeepers when it comes to mediating the demands any communities might place on us—even communities we freely choose to join.

4. Emancipation from external command morality. Secular humanism’s critics claim our lifestance means “anything goes.” Anything but! What secular humanism does mean is that we need not accept some arbitrary moral code unrooted in our own experience on the mere authority of, well, authority. Rather than freeing us from morality, secular humanism frees us to develop a truly relevant morality, one rooted in the real world and in the physical and social consequences of life as humans live it. Instead of accepting unverifiable assertions, we can come together with others to forge pragmatic values whose worth and value can be intersubjectively confirmed. For secular humanists, the obligation to live morally is in no way diminished; it is as real for us as it is for any believer. But as secular humanists, we set the terms of what is moral using reason, compassion, common sense, and the wisdom of our species. Freed from the imperative to be on God’s side, we can finally take our own.

These are some of the reasons I view secular humanism as emancipatory—at least, as many reasons as would fit within that thousand-word limit! (Fairness is a humanist virtue, after all.) Now it’s your turn. How would you answer the question “Secular humanism is . . .”?

I look forward to hearing from secular humanists who have cast off a previous religious identity as well as those who’ve been nonreligious throughout their lives. I suspect their views will vary in fascinating ways.

Please e-mail your answers (in the body of the e-mail or as an attached file) to me at Hard-copy responses can be mailed to my attention at Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664. (If submitting a hard copy, please include an electronic version on diskette, CD-ROM, or an old thumb drive if at all possible.)

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).

Center for Inquiry CEO Ronald A. Lindsay and I will be taking turns in the magazine’s lead editorial slot. (His editorial “Expressing One’s Views on Religion” appeared in the August/September 2010 issue.) In this issue, I’d like to open a dialogue about the varying meanings secular humanism can hold. What does the lifestance we share …

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