Secular Humanism Has a Political Agenda, and It’s Not In Favor of Liberty

Ronald Bailey

I am a secular humanist. I am also a libertarian. The fact that one finds very few libertarians as members of official secular humanist organizations should be a tip-off that official secular humanism does have a political agenda.

First, what is “official” secular humanism? Lots of the groups participating in the Orlando, Florida, “Moving Secular Humanism Forward” conference in March 2012 represent what I view as official secular humanism: the Council for Secular Humanism, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and so forth.* Assuming that it’s mostly secular humanists who are reading this article, let’s start out with the short show-of-hands survey I conducted at this conference to get some bearings on what the agenda of secular humanism might be. There were three questions:

  1. Is human activity causing global warming?
  2. Can radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants be safely disposed of in deep underground storage facilities?
  3. Does permitting adults without criminal records or histories of mental illness to carry concealed handguns in public decrease violent crime?

We’ll come back to these questions in a bit. In his article “Profiles of the Godless” (FI, August/September 2009), Luke Galen reported psychological survey data that looked at the differences between Center for Inquiry members in Michigan versus members of nearby churches. What he found was that the nonreligious folks were more likely than churchgoers to score higher on openness to experience and lower on agreeableness and conscientiousness.

As it happens, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has looked into the psychology of libertarians, and it turns out that the cognitive styles of secular humanists and libertarians are quite similar in many ways. Haidt’s survey data find that libertarians also score higher on openness to experience and lower on measures of agreeableness and conscientiousness than either liberals or conservatives. In addition, libertarians score high on need-for-cognition measures. Libertarians score lower than either liberals or conservatives on empathy and higher than either liberals or conservatives on systemizing. In other words, they have a relatively cerebral, as opposed to emotional, cognitive style.

When it comes to lifestyle liberty as measured by Haidt, libertarians score even higher than liberals. The starkest difference between liberals and libertarians occurs over economic liberty, where libertarians outscore both conservatives and liberals (especially liberals).

So what’s a libertarian? The dictionary definition of a libertarian is a person who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state. Here’s one nice bumper-sticker summary: “Have you heard about the vast libertarian conspiracy? We want to take over the government . . . then leave you alone.”

How many libertarians are there in America? To get at the question, the Gallup Poll regularly asks two questions:

  1. “Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  2. “Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?”

On the basis of these questions, Gallup divides Americans into four groups. Pure liberals are those who want government to do more to solve the country’s problems but not promote traditional values. Populists want government to solve more problems and promote traditional values. Libertarians think that the government is doing too much and do not want it to promote traditional values. And pure conservatives think that the government is doing too much but still want it to promote traditional values.

Apparently not all poll participants answer the questions in a way that Gallup can classify, and so they are undesignated. For the record, the latest poll (September 2011) finds that 26 percent of Americans are libertarian, 27 percent are conservative, 19 percent are populist, and 18 percent are liberal. Reason (the magazine where I am the science correspondent) did a poll and found that 24 percent of Americans are libertarian, 28 percent are liberal, 28 percent are conservative, and 20 percent are communitarian. In other words, libertarians are actually a pretty sizeable percentage of the American political landscape.

But there are different ways of slicing ideological tendencies in the United States. One of the more interesting academic undertakings in this regard is the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. The researchers there have modified an ideological typology devised by University of California Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. In this typology, Americans can be classified as Hierarchicalists, Egalitarians, Individualists, and Communitarians. Hierarchicalists prefer a social order where people have clearly defined roles based on stable characteristics such as class, race, or gender. Egalitarians want to reduce racial, gender, and income inequalities. Individualists expect people to fail or succeed on their own. And Communitarians believe that society is obligated to take care of everyone.

Probing these ideological values, the Yale Cultural Cognition folks report that Individualists tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks because they fear such claims will be used to fetter markets and other arenas of individual achievement. Hierarchicalists tend to see claims of environmental risk as a subversive tactic aiming to undermine a stable social order. On the other hand, Egalitarians and Communitarians dislike markets and industry for creating disparities in wealth and power. Consequently, they readily believe that such disparities generate environmental risks that must be regulated.

Keeping that typology in mind, let’s go back to my three questions dealing with global warming, storing radioactive wastes, and concealed carry. What is the scientific consensus with regard to each of these issues? Dan Kahan and his colleagues at the Yale Cultural Cognition project report their results in their article, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” in the Journal of Risk (2010). Broadly speaking, Kahan and his colleagues found that Egalitarian Communitarians tended to think that most scientists agreed that human activities were contributing to global warming and that nuclear wastes could not be stored safely and that concealed carry does not prevent crime. Hierarchical Individualists believed that most scientists supported the opposite views.

In my brief show-of-hands audience survey at the Orlando conference, the majority of secular humanists present voted like the Yale Cultural Cognition Project’s Egalitarian Communitarians. Now, what do the scientists actually think? Kahan and his colleagues cite National Academy of Sciences reports, which find that the consensus among researchers is that human activity is contributing to global warming and that radioactive wastes can be safely stored deep underground. There is no expert consensus with regard to the effect of concealed carry on the rate of violent crime.

“We believe it is more plausible to infer that both hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians are fitting their perceptions of scientific consensus to their predispositions than that either has some advantage over the other in discerning what ‘most expert scientists’ really believe,” assert the Yale researchers. In other words, it’s confirmation bias all the way down. No ideology has a lock on Truth with a capital T. This surely bolsters the Enlightenment ideal that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his or her values and beliefs on others. (Or, to put it another way, I may or may not have access to some absolute transcendent truth, but I’m damned sure that you don’t.)

So what can libertarians and secular humanists agree on? I am pretty sure that the vast majority of libertarians strongly believe that the government needs to get out of the marriage business. We also certainly agree that God and government should never be mixed. It’s bad for both and produces toxic side effects among the citizenry. However, libertarians are much stricter than many secular humanists when it comes to maintaining a wall of separation between state and church.

Take the current controversy over the new federal mandate that health insurers cover contraception and abortion services for all women. The Roman Catholic and other churches are pushing back, arguing that it’s against their religious beliefs to enable such activities. Secular humanists discount this argument, if one can judge by a recent Center for Inquiry press release entitled, “CFI Applauds Obama Administration for Standing Up to Religious Lobbying on Birth Control Rule.” Secular humanists see the rule only as a women’s health issue and thus do not see any breaches in the wall of church-state separation when government compels religious employers to buy insurance that covers a medical procedure their faith prohibits. (There is no “official” libertarian position on abortion, since some libertarians believe that an embryo is a person and some do not. For the record, I do not believe embryos are people.)

In keeping with the Communitarian/Egalitarian political agenda of secular humanism, I note that CFI has “officially endorsed universal health-care coverage.” Most libertarians would argue that the government has no business providing or mandating health insurance coverage in the first place. But setting that aside, one “libertarian-ish” way to resolve the current conundrum over insurance and birth-control services would be to give the funds to individuals, who would then decide which sort of health insurance policies they want to buy. The poor could receive tax-financed vouchers to buy whatever private insurance they prefer.

Similarly, lots of church-state conflict could be avoided if most public welfare services, including job training, nutrition support, and drug treatment, could be converted into voucher programs, allowing the poor themselves to pick the services they think work best for them. Similarly, church-state conflicts over intelligent-design creationism or the morality of certain types of sex education for minors could be avoided if parents could take advantage of school-choice programs. Government should not be involved in marriage. Secular humanists should ask themselves whether they are partially motivated to oppose this kind of devolution of government services to favor individual choice because they believe government institutions and agencies could be used to teach their secular values.

Cognitively speaking, it’s clear that libertarians and secular humanists have a great deal in common. On the other hand, the political agenda of official secular humanism amounts, for the most part, to standard-issue egalitarian progressivism. Unlike most secular humanists, libertarians believe that the evidence of science and history warrants distrust of both the church and the state as sources of power and authority over people’s lives.


* Editor’s note: While the president of American Atheists spoke at the conference, and a significant number of attendees certainly belonged to American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, the conference was organized by the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry, and only the former presents itself as primarily a secular humanist organization.

Ronald Bailey

Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine.

I am a secular humanist. I am also a libertarian. The fact that one finds very few libertarians as members of official secular humanist organizations should be a tip-off that official secular humanism does have a political agenda. First, what is “official” secular humanism? Lots of the groups participating in the Orlando, Florida, “Moving Secular …

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