Secular Humanism: Its Scope and Its Limits

Ronald A. Lindsay

Secular humanism is a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance. It is comprehensive because it touches every aspect of life, including issues of value, meaning, and identity.

Presumably, th e two foregoing statements provide an accurate description of secular humanism because they appear on the website of the Council for Secular Humanism. But permit me to register a dissent from these statements. Or, perhaps better said, let me explain how I think the “comprehensive” nature of secular humanism should be interpreted. It should not be interpreted as implying that secular humanism significantly and directly influences all the choices we make throughout our lives. For example, we have no list of required garments or taboo foods. Furthermore, based on my experience, secular humanists have widely varying preferences about forms of entertainment, style of housing, and mode of transportation. With respect to many, if not most, questions, secular humanism does not point in any particular direction. Instead, it opens up our horizons so we can assume responsibility for shaping our lives through our personal choices.

There are values shared by secular humanists. Anyone familiar with Free Inquiry knows what they are, and if you need to refresh your recollection, the Affirmations of Humanism are printed on the inside cover of this issue. There are a number of different values and principles set forth in the Affirmations, but I believe the core values can be summarized as equality, freedom, responsibility, and secularism.

Equality. Secular humanists are committed to treating all with dignity and respect and to removing discriminatory barriers to equal opportunity. Democracy is the only form of government morally acceptable to them, in part because it is the only form of government in which all citizens have equal political standing (at least in theory).

Freedom. Fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, freedom of religion, and reproductive freedom are central to the secular humanist outlook. These freedoms are cherished and championed not only for their utilitarian value but also because they provide individuals with the autonomy to decide the course of their own lives.

Responsibility. Secular humanists hold that individuals have the responsibility to make use of the freedoms they enjoy. In particular, they should employ critical reasoning in making important decisions. They should not blindly follow the dictates of any religion or ideology, nor should they defer to the authority of a priest, rabbi, imam, or secular guru.

Secularism. We are thoroughgoing secularists. Our advocacy of the separation of church and state is not limited to demanding that there be no overt alliance between the government and religious bodies. In matters of public policy, we maintain that religious doctrine should have no role to play. Discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based entirely on secular considerations.

These core values—equality, freedom, responsibility, and secularism—provide a meaty agenda for secular humanists. Promoting these values and working to have these values applied in our society and our institutions is more than enough to occupy our time and energy. Nonetheless, some seek a broader agenda. In particular, there are some who believe that secular humanism implies a commitment to a wide range of specific political, economic, and cultural positions. I disagree.

Politics and Economics

Everyone knows that the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry are nonpartisan, consistent with their status as nonprofit organizations. They cannot and do not endorse candidates. However, there is a perception that, in terms of their beliefs, secular humanists in the United States are a faction of the left wing of the Democratic Party—and this perception is sometimes fostered by secular humanists themselves.

Make no mistake: there is at least one good reason that secular humanists in the United States tend Democratic. Regrettably, at least since the 1980s, the Republican Party has cozied up to religion, often the more conservative brand of religion. Most Republicans not only want to insert more religion into our lives, they are eager to fund religious initiatives with our tax dollars. In addition, Republicans have allied themselves with religious Right positions on abortion, stem cell research, and gay rights. Thus, all too many Republicans have adopted positions contrary to secular-humanist understandings of secularism and fundamental freedoms.

But rejection of Republican or conservative positions on issues such as abortion and stem cell research should not imply that secular humanist principles commit one to specific stands on all the various foreign-policy or economic issues that divide Americans. Is there a secular humanist position on the Iran conflict? The war in Afghanistan? We are in favor of democracy and equal rights for women and religious minorities, but it is debatable whether democracy and egalitarian principles can or should be exported and imposed at gunpoint. Similarly, we are in favor of protecting the United States against terrorist attacks, but whether American intervention either in Iraq or Afghanistan will have the consequence of diminishing the threat of terrorism is unclear. In sum, it seems to me, the wisdom of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan is a subject on which reasonable secular humanists can differ.

Likewise, on economic issues, there is ample room for disagreement among secular humanists about regulation of financial institutions, stimulation of job growth, tax policy, Social Security reform, and so forth. Occasionally, some humanists will claim that secular humanism does have something significant to say about controversial economic issues. Typically, what follows this pronouncement is one of two things: either a specific position is set forth that attracts nowhere near universal support among humanists, or, in lieu of a specific position, a bromide is offered. Something like, “The market should not be left unregulated.” That’s not especially helpful, is it? Who does not believe that some regulation of the market is necessary (other than the most fervent disciples of Ayn Rand)? Disputes are not about regulation in the abstract but about the specific constraints that should be placed on the market and the appropriate role of government.

Clearly, because of secular humanists’ commitments to civil equality and the dignity of the individual, some of the constraints imposed on markets are supported by the vast majority of secular humanists. We do not think people should go without adequate nutrition or housing, even if this means they must receive assistance from the government—but this is hardly a controversial position. There are many other issues on which secular humanists can and do disagree with each other.

One should not infer from the foregoing that secular humanists have nothing to contribute to debates over foreign policy or economic matters or other controversial policy issues. In most cases, however, the principal contribution of secular humanists to policy debates is not advocacy of a specific substantive position but rather the approach we bring and the methodology we urge all to adopt. Policy debates should not be governed by ideological doctrine or religious dogma. Empirical data, where available, should be offered in support of positions and carefully examined. Objectives of proposed policies must be carefully defined, and a clear, rationally defensible connection must be made between the proposed policy and the stated objective.

These may seem like obvious points, but they are frequently overlooked. To take just one example, consider the debate over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. One justification for th
is policy has been that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would adversely affect military effectiveness. But upon examination, one finds virtually no evidence to support this speculation. To the contrary, dismissal of trained, experienced individuals from the armed forces solely on the ground of their sexual orientation has deprived the military of needed skills at a time when there is an overall shortage of qualified personnel. Insistence on evidential support and critical reasoning—over “gut” instincts and propositions taken on faith—can be decisive.

Culture

Some secular humanists have also suggested that their lifestance entails a commitment to particular cultural values. Reference has been made to the need for individuals to pursue excellence (“The Pursuit of Excellence,” FI, December 2005/January 2006). This is sometimes coupled with the assertion that we need to refine our tastes; Mozart is inherently preferable to Megadeth and should be recognized as such, some humanists insist.

If encouraging the pursuit of excellence simply means encouraging individuals to make use of their talents and capabilities, that’s fine. If it means that secular humanists have an obligation to educate others on appropriate tastes, then I would vigorously object to this misunderstanding of the scope of secular humanism. Secular humanism does not empower its adherents to act as some sort of culture police, dictating standards to the less enlightened. It does not come with a required reading list or a mandatory course in art appreciation.

I don’t know about you, but having been to a number of secular humanist conferences, meetings, and gatherings over the last thirty years, it seems to me we may be a bit top-heavy in the area of graduate degrees. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful that so many learned and accomplished individuals are attracted to secular humanism and are willing to use their skills to further our cause. But erudition can be perceived as condescension when a humanist leader begins lecturing others about what they should read, watch, or listen to or how they should spend their free time generally. Secular humanism is supposed to be a “movement.” A movement limited to a subset of those who subscribe to the New York Times and enjoy reading Aristotle does not strike me as a broad-based movement or one with much potential for growth.

As indicated above, we do maintain that individuals have certain responsibilities. For example, in a well-functioning democracy, voters should be informed voters, so people should take the time to become educated about the critical issues before heading to the polls. But after people have discharged their responsibilities, they should have the discretion to decide what other activities to pursue. They can spend their Sunday afternoon engaging in car repair, casino gambling, cooking, or cogitation—or as a couch potato. None of these activities is more intrinsically humanistic than another.

Secular humanism does bear on the key aspects of one’s life. It shapes our moral values. It also influences our sense of meaning and identity. It does so, however, not by dictating what we should think or what we should do but by providing the means for us to decide for ourselves what we find fulfilling and to create our own identity.

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.


Secular humanism is a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance. It is comprehensive because it touches every aspect of life, including issues of value, meaning, and identity. Presumably, th e two foregoing statements provide an accurate description of secular humanism because they appear on the website of the Council for Secular Humanism. But permit me to register a …

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