When I came of age in the 1950s, deep in Appalachia’s Bible Belt, narrow-minded sanctimony prevailed.
It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket any day. Bootleggers and “numbers” runners were nailed by cops.
You could be jailed for looking at something akin to a Playboy magazine or a sexy R-rated movie. Even writing about sex was illegal. My town’s righteous mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place. It was a felony to be gay. Homosexuals were sent to prison under biblical-sounding “sodomy” laws. (One, I recall, killed himself to escape that fate.) It was unthinkable for an unwed couple to live together—and a single girl who had a baby was disgraced, along with her family. A desperate girl who terminated a pregnancy faced prison, along with any doctor who helped her. Birth control was illegal in some states and sold under-the-counter in mine.
Women weren’t allowed into most careers. They couldn’t serve on juries. Divorce was hush-hush.
Mandatory prayer was imposed on schoolchildren each day. Evolution drew scant mention in school biology classes lest it trigger a community-wide uproar.
Blacks were banished from white jobs, neighborhoods, and schools. They couldn’t enter “white-only” hotels, restaurants, theaters, or swimming pools. The whole culture branded them inferior. Jews were excluded from various Christian-only clubs.
WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were the only people who mattered—and only staunch churchgoers were deemed respectable.
Looking back, life in the 1950s now seems unreal—no, surreal. It’s difficult to remember. America couldn’t possibly have been so priggish and cruel, you think. But it was.
Today, America has been transformed to an astounding degree. Most of those puritanical taboos and prejudices gradually fled into the shadows. Now, unwed couples live together freely, and many single females bear babies. Sexual magazines and movies are so unfettered they’re practically boring. Gambling ceased being a sin and is run by state governments. Women flooded occupations and now earn most college degrees. Prejudice became illegal. Sunday is a whopper-shopper day. Gay sex no longer is a crime. School prayer has been banned. And so on.
Why did society evolve? You might say it was because secular humanist values slowly triumphed. Humanists won victory after victory, turning the culture upside down. Bit by bit, religion lost its grip.
Landmark Supreme Court rulings let couples practice birth control in the privacy of their bedrooms, let black children attend school with whites, stopped the prosecution of writers and photographers who portrayed sex, and allowed women and girls to end pregnancies. The historic civil rights movement toppled this nation’s racial apartheid. Congress finally made equality a national policy. The American Civil Liberties Union prevented fundamentalist politicians from imposing worship through government.
In the 2012 national election, voters in three states approved same-sex marriage, two states authorized recreational pot-puffing, several open gays were elected to Congress, and America’s first black president won reaffirmation. A Bloomberg BusinessWeek column called the ballot returns a “liberal landslide.”
Of course, all this progress doesn’t mean that utopia has arrived. Die-hard evangelicals still try to stigmatize gays, impose prayer at public events, block teaching of evolution, recriminalize abortion, ban sex from television, and so on. The battles of the culture war keep recurring.
Humanism means striving to improve people’s lives—and secular means to do so without religion. Throughout history, secular humanists have been key figures in struggles for human rights and social justice. Voltaire fought intolerance and the cruelties of his day. Through the generations since, unorthodox thinkers have crusaded for personal liberties and individual freedoms while conservatives—especially religious conservatives—resisted each step forward.
Western society is constantly evolving, generally in the direction of more democratic rights. Amid the cacophony of debating groups, freethinking humanists mostly wear the “reformer” label. A few liberal churchgoers also are in the progressive camp, but most churches have defended old moral taboos and narrow prejudices.
The good news is that religion is dying in America, as it did in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other advanced democracies. The number of secular Americans keeps rising; it is now at fifty million adults and beyond. People who don’t attend church are the surest backers of liberal political and social beliefs. Their steady increase portends more progress.
Looking back over my long life, I see a historic parade of victories for secular humanism. They have made America fairer, kinder, more humane, more honest, and more decent. And it will be a blessing if humanists continue winning, onward into the future.