Tom Flynn Responds to Daniel Maguire and Lawrence Rifkin

Tom Flynn

Most of what I have to say in response to these two articles is in my editorial starting on page 4 of this issue. Oddly, that editorial didn’t begin as a conscious rejoinder to these articles; only after I’d written it did I realize how it related to them.

Still, I agree with Lawrence Rifkin on one thing: it’s indispensable to define our terms, but after that it’s the game (or the debate) that matters. I suspect Rifkin would not agree with me that one objective of that game should be to demonstrate the possibility of living wholly without spirit, without larger meanings, without even the possibility of the sacred, thereby aiding believers to recognize that people can live rich, exuberant lives that way.

As for Dan Maguire, I’m less inclined than he is to praise religions for purveying humane values they did nothing to develop. How much credit does an institution deserve for recognizing the value of something it steals? (Would we think less of the church if it stole secular innovations that were not valuable?) And as I’ve met Maguire on at least one occasion, I’m puzzled by his assertion that “there is no one who considers nothing sacred.” Maybe I didn’t make much of an impression! To say it more seriously: I think it’s essential to a thoroughgoing naturalism to deny that such a quality as sacredness exists. Not only are there people who consider nothing sacred, but in my opinion encouraging the formation of more such people is an important part of the secular humanist mission. And as for ethics—it is a central secular humanist contention that men and women of goodwill who observe the world with open eyes and check one another’s work can work out at least the broad strokes of an ethics that supports human flourishing without anything more than reason and common sense. If doing ethics really requires “mystically deep cognitive encounters” as Maguire suggests, then I would submit that all is lost after all!

We have a choice. We can blur the meanings of words so that terms like faith and sacred can still connote something critical moderns needn’t feel ashamed of. Or (if I may quote Rifkin), we can hold that “clarity of language is essential” and recognize that for committed naturalists, there are indeed concepts associated with religion that are outmoded and harmful. Maguire is correct in noting that they are powerful. But so is mustard gas. If the nature of these concepts is such that their power cannot be used for good (or can scarcely ever be so used), it is only prudent to set them aside. No matter how highly faith, the sacred, and similar notions may have been regarded by past generations, I think contemporary secular humanists are well justified in having no use for them.

What do you think? Please send your comments to Letters, Free Inquiry, P. O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664.

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).


Most of what I have to say in response to these two articles is in my editorial starting on page 4 of this issue. Oddly, that editorial didn’t begin as a conscious rejoinder to these articles; only after I’d written it did I realize how it related to them. Still, I agree with Lawrence Rifkin …

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