Humanism and Politics

Ronald A. Lindsay

In the United States, politics dominates the news as we gear up for the fall elections. Not only will we have to decide on a president, but there are contests for Congress and most state legislatures, as well as state referenda on numerous issues, some of which have important public policy implications. It’s at times like these when I often hear discussed the question of whether being a humanist commits one to certain political positions. For example, given some of the positions of the Republican Party on social issues, is it inconsistent to be both a Republican and a humanist?

First, let me make clear that I am not asking whether it is inconsistent to be an atheist and a Republican or a nontheist and a Republican. Those questions would be easy to answer. There is no inconsistency. Atheism does not entail acceptance of any political position. (Aside: this is one reason I find the existence of the National Atheist Party more than a little curious.) One can even reject the separation of church and state and be an atheist. As one (cynical) atheist once remarked to me, “Just because there is no God doesn’t mean people don’t need religion.” I suspect many of the Wall Street financiers who donate generously to presidential campaigns of candidates supported by the religious Right have an attitude similar to this: “Of course, religion is just mumbo-jumbo, but we need it to keep the 99 percent under control.”

Most humanists are atheists, but they are not merely atheists. As the Council for Secular Humanism proclaims, humanism is “beyond atheism, beyond agnosticism.” In other words, being a humanist implies not only rejection of deities and spirits but also acceptance of certain fundamental principles.

Prominent among these principles are commitments to critical thinking, respect for individual autonomy, and an ethics that is broadly consequentialist in nature. Moreover, we humanists are firmly committed to a strict separation of church and state; among other reasons, we value individual liberty, and religious dogma has proven harmful to human interests when it has been allowed to influence public policy.

For these reasons, it would be difficult to reconcile an embrace of humanism with opposition to, for example, contraception, same-sex marriage, cohabitation without marriage, laws and regulations that protect and promote racial and gender equality, freedom of expression, and universal suffrage. If we truly respect individual autonomy, we must allow individuals the freedom to give shape and direction to their own lives, especially with respect to critical, life-altering choices, such as whether and whom to marry and whether or not to bear children. We also must ensure that individuals have the opportunity to pursue a livelihood without restrictions based on characteristics such as race or sex. It is also important that every adult have the right to participate in political life and have a role in deciding who our legislators and chief executive should be.

There are also issues on which most humanists agree and with respect to which there is at least a strong presumption in favor of a certain position. Legal­ization of physician assistance in dying for the terminally ill, aka physician-assisted suicide, is one such issue. Cer­tainly, a humanist cannot oppose legalization based on a quasi-religious notion such as the sanctity of life. However, I have known humanists who oppose legalization based on speculation about the harms that might follow legalization, such as pressure on patients to request assistance in dying or a decline in the quality of health care for those with terminal illnesses. The evidence from Oregon and Wash­ington (the two states where assistance in dying is currently legal) indicates that these concerns are probably unwarranted, but it would not be irrational for a humanist to oppose legalization as the evidence cannot be said to preclude completely the possibility of significant harm.

Effectively, that is the key to determining whether a policy position—call it position A—is consistent with humanism: Is position A supported by evidence-based reasoning? To be more precise: Is there an argument supported by some plausible set of facts and sound, secular, evidence-based reasoning that position A will cause less harm than position B, and is position A as respectful of fundamental freedoms and individual autonomy as possible? As humanists may disagree about the facts relevant to resolution of a particular issue, it’s not only possible but inevitable that there will be a number of issues on which humanists differ.

This brings me back to my initial question about the consistency of being a humanist and being a Republican. In answering this question, it must be admitted that in recent decades the Republican Party has been heavily influenced by the religious Right and has adopted policies antithetical to humanism. If we limited our examination of Republican Party positions to its stance on certain key social issues and the extent to which government can support re­­ligious institutions, then we might be tempted to conclude that there is a severe tension between being a Republican and being a humanist.

However, the Republican Party’s position on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, represent only a fraction of the entire Republican Party platform. The 2012 platform was not completed and approved as of the time of this writing, but a review of the 2008 Republican platform (available online at reveals that only about five of its fifty-five pages were devoted to policies on “Pre­serving Our Values.” The rest of the platform dealt with national defense, foreign policy, the budget process, fiscal policy, entitlement funding, taxation, government regulation, energy policy, immigra­tion, health care, and about a dozen other issues, including relatively narrow questions such as governance in U.S. territories.

Because humanists place great weight on individual autonomy, it is not surprising that there is a tendency to focus on policies that restrict our ability to make our own decisions about children and marriage and seek to impose religious dogma on us. We don’t like theocrats in our bedrooms. But precisely how much weight one should give to these social issues is not something addressed by humanism. Some humanists might view policies relating to national defense, entitlement funding, and taxation as being relatively more important than policies relating to same-sex marriage or the availability of contraception. It would not be irrational to come to such a conclusion. In other words, one can be a humanist and a Republican—although presumably a Republican not altogether pleased with the party’s stance on some significant social issues.

I have spent some time on this question because, in my discussions with individuals about the work of the Council and the Center for Inquiry, it is not infrequently assumed—especially during a presidential election year—that humanists constitute a subset of the Democratic Party. As a factual matter, most humanists probably do support Democratic candidates more often than not. But humanism does not compel them to do so. When we say that CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism are nonpartisan organizations, we do not make that assertion solely to placate the Internal Revenue Service. We really mean it. Humanism is a life stance, but it does not come accompanied by a detailed platform specifying positions on all the issues that a national political party is expected to address.

That’s not to say humanism is devoid of public policy implications. To the contrary, both the Council, through the Secular Coalition for America, and CFI, through its own lobbying arm, the Office of Public Policy, have advocated vigorously (and sometimes effectively) for certain specific policies. In doing so, we believe that we have adopted positions that re­flect humanist principles and with which most of our supporters would agree. We regard this advocacy work as an important part of our mission, and we also regard the issues that engage us to be important. How these issues ultimately affect an individual humanist’s vote, however, is something for that individual to determine. Humanism has no party line.

Let me turn briefly from domestic politics to a question of international human rights. Again this year, the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates will be commemorating International Blas­phemy Rights Day (IBRD) on September 30. When CFI and its affiliates first started to commemorate IBRD in 2009, some tried to trivialize this effort, suggesting that it was worse than pointless (and some of this criticism came from so-called humanists!). Actually, it was very important to call attention to the continuing suppression of speech critical of religion. Events in the last several months have underscored that, if anything, this problem is worse than it was three years ago. In Pakistan, one can lose one’s life by merely suggesting that its blasphemy laws should be reformed, and both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have reacted harshly to “tweets” that were alleged to have defamed “the Prophet.” In Indonesia, a so-called “moderate” Muslim country, Alex­ander Aan was attacked and beaten by a mob and then placed under arrest on a charge of blasphemy after he declared he was an atheist on Facebook. (The outcome of his trial is not known at this time.) And just a couple of days before I started to write this editorial, it was announced that a new book by Muslim author and activist Irshad Manji was banned in Malaysia for being blasphemous and for causing “disturbance to the public.”

Some CFI branches will be holding events to commemorate IBRD (look for e-mail alerts). In addition, we expect to meet with State Department officials this summer to discuss problems relating to international religious freedom.

What can you do? First, if you are not already “out” as an atheist or agnostic, there’s no better time to do it than on IBRD. You may have heard: in most Western countries, it’s no longer a crime to be an atheist. Sure, you may risk some ostracism, but if people in other countries are willing to risk jail or death to make an honest statement about their beliefs, you can risk a cold shoulder from a neighbor.

Second, keep informed about the persecution of people like Aan. If his case is still pending, or if he has been convicted and sentenced, contact the Asian Human Rights Commission or some other responsible body to protest the government’s action. (See CFI’s previous news an­nouncement on his case: People everywhere should have the right to express their views about any religious belief. That’s what IBRD is all about.

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.

In the United States, politics dominates the news as we gear up for the fall elections. Not only will we have to decide on a president, but there are contests for Congress and most state legislatures, as well as state referenda on numerous issues, some of which have important public policy implications. It’s at times …

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