Secularism and Secular Humanism

Tom Flynn

In this issue’s Research Report, Barry Kosmin—a leading expert on the demography of unbelief and a Council for Secular Humanism board member—shares results from a new study of secularism among today ’s college students. The study, a joint project of Kosmin’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and the Center for Inquiry, measured attitudes among religious, secular, and so-called spiritual students. (In this study, respondents chose their preferred identifier without defining it; elsewhere, the “spiritual” category has usually included persons who do not identify with organized religion but nonetheless report belief in the supernatural or engage in supposedly mystical practices.)

One of the questions Kosmin ex­plored was this: Among today’s students, what does it mean to be secular—in other words, how do they understand that term? The question is hugely important. Secular has come a long way since its origins in the Latin saeculum, which connoted a fixed and substantial interval of time (similar to century). Later, the word came to denote temporal or earthly matters in contradistinction to the divine, and this is its principal meaning today. The Oxford English Dictionary now defines secular as “belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion.”* But secular and its cognates have acquired further shades of meaning. In his survey, Kosmin asked students to choose from among five possible meanings for secularism:

• no identification or affiliation with any religious tradition;

• absence of supernatural religious beliefs;

• separation of religion from state/government;

• tolerance for various religions and philosophies; or

• atheism.

Secular, religious, and spiritual students differed widely, sometimes confoundingly, regarding which of these meanings they embraced (respondents could choose more than one definition). More than 70 percent of students who self-described as secular identified secularism as “no identification or affiliation with any religious tradition.” Only about half of religious students—and fewer than one-third of spiritual students—agreed. Roughly 60 percent of secular and spiritual students accepted that secularism entailed the “absence of supernatural religious beliefs”; only a third of religious students agreed. Secular students were far more likely than their religious or spiritual counterparts to identify secularism with “tolerance for various religions and philosophies.” The most disturbing finding may be that while 55 percent of religious and spiritual students identified secularism with “separation of religion from state/government,” fewer than 40 percent of secular students agreed. Considering the importance that most older secular adults attach to defending Jefferson’s wall, younger seculars’ apathy in this area is dismaying. Finally, few students of any worldview identified secularism with atheism.

Notable as these findings may be, it’s worth pondering what Kosmin’s five-item list of possible meanings for secularism left out. Not mentioned is any commitment to ethical or moral behavior, a lapse that seems perplexing given the popularity of “good without God” as a slogan among nonreligious adults. There is no recognition of the moral primacy of human beings and their concerns. Nowhere to be seen is acknowledgment of science as a privileged mode of knowing. Also absent is any sense of secularism as an individualistic stance favoring self-actualization and opposition to parochialism or chauvinism.

That’s no criticism of Kosmin’s work. Instead, it’s a realization that some of the values that secular humanists hold dear simply aren’t captured by the concept of secularism alone. That is why we call ourselves “secular humanists”; honorable as it is, the descriptor secularist fails to encompass everything we stand for.

On the Council for Secular Humanism website, secular humanism is defined as “a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system.”** Important as many of us consider it, “no identification with any religious tradition” doesn’t even make that list, though it is implied in the idea of a naturalistic philosophy.

Often, secular humanists are too hasty to welcome any uptick in the number of what social scientists call “Nones”—people identified only by the fact that they report no religious affiliation. It’s as though we think more Nones automatically means more of us secular humanists. Yet as Kosmin and other researchers have shown, quite a few Nones self-identify as “spiritual.” Surprising numbers of them report behaviors such as praying. While religious unaffiliation is hugely important, for the many secular humanists who were once religious, abandoning their former religious affiliation was an indispensable step on the path toward their current world­views. Still, being a secular humanist is different from just being a None. It’s different even from being just secular.

U.K. humanist activist Jim Herrick captured the tension between these descriptors when he wrote, “Secularism in the largest sense means that people do not refer to religion to make decisions, to adopt policies, to run their lives, to order their relationships, or to impel their activities” (“Will Secularism Survive?” FI, February/March 2006). When Herrick writes of “secularism in the largest sense,” clearly he is striving to encompass more than normally fits under secularism alone.

Let’s examine those items that didn’t make it onto Barry Kosmin’s list one by one.

• A commitment to ethical or moral behavior. This may not be a necessary characteristic of secularism, narrowly defined. But it’s a core component of many humanisms, secular humanism most emphatically included. Rich philosophical and, more recently, social-scientific literature discusses how autonomous human beings can examine the circumstances of life and their own natures in order to develop ethics that support human flourishing and can be accepted by persons of diverse backgrounds. A key concept is that our ethics must be consequentialist—values are to be judged by their consequences in society, not their conformance with some preconceived notion of “the good” or divine command.

• The moral primacy of human beings and their concerns. In the sense of attaching moral primacy to humans rather than imagined divine beings and their mandates, this is relatively noncontroversial among secular hu­manists. Such disagreement as exists on this issue has to do with inclusion: some secular humanists mean very precisely that our highest regard should be confined to members of the human species. Others deride this view as speciesist, urging that we widen the circle of our regard to include possibly sentient nonhuman beings such as the great apes, dolphins, whales, future artificial intelligences, and so on. But in the sense of centering our moral concerns on the world of everyday experience rather than on some dubious empyrean future, most secular humanists accept this view hands down.

• Science as a privileged mode of knowing. There is a vibrant debate within the movement as to how thoroughly science may be “privileged” without falling into unhealthy scientism. Still, secular humanists broadly agree that science, with its defined method and its emphasis on the intersubjec
tive validation of claims, is clearly superior to ways of “knowing” based upon intuition or claims of authority, divine authority in particular.

 An individualistic stance favoring self-actualization and opposed to parochialism or chauvinism. Now things get interesting. Individualism, the Maslovian imperative, and anti-chauvinism—call it “cosmopolitanism,” if you prefer—are these necessary aspects of the secular-humanist agenda?

Writing in FI February/March 2006, I explicitly associated both secularism and secular humanism with “a broader impulse toward emancipatory social reform . . . political freedom, expanded freedom of inquiry, increased autonomy to choose one’s life circumstances, and greater liberty for experiment outside the boundaries of social convention . . . toward reducing the coercive control exercised over individuals by social institutions at every scale: nation, church, local community, workplace, even the family.” I further described secular humanism as a “commitment to realize the opposite of insularity, parochialism, and sectarianism throughout life.” Realizing even then that I was reaching beyond the ambit of familiar nomenclature, I titled the op-ed containing these claims “Secularism . . . Plus.” I’d probably choose a different title today; in the wake of the online Atheism Plus initiative, too many in our movement now associate the “Plus” suffix with a prickly political correctness. Come to think of it, I almost called it something else then, toying with the clumsy neologism exsular: a synthetic antonym for insular meant to connote opposition to all forms of parochialism, chauvinism, and sectarianism.

I am not alone in associating secular humanism with anti-parochialism. One of our movement’s most assertive anti-parochialists was its founder, the philosopher Paul Kurtz. Throughout his career, Kurtz presented secular humanism as inseparable from the resistance to parochialism and chauvinism, especially in terms of nationality, ethnicity, and race. “It is time to rise above narrow tribalism,” he wrote in Humanist Manifesto 2000 (FI, Fall 1999). “Ethnicities are the result of past social and geographical isolations that are no longer relevant in an open global society where interaction and intermarriage among different ethnicities are not only possible, but are to be encouraged.”

These were notes that Kurtz sounded consistently through the years. As early as 1983, he declared: “We reject the notion of ethnic identification; we [secular humanists] have none. We are committed to a universal ideal. We do not have an exclusive cultural heritage but consider ourselves part of world culture” (“The Future of Humanism,” FI, Fall 1983). In 1994, he declared, “humankind must transcend the tribal loyalties and dangerous religious dogmas of the past” (“Some Lessons for Humanists,” FI, Summer 1994). In 1995, he argued for “universal ethical values and rights that transcend the limits of ethnicity, nationality, and cultural identity” (“Agenda for the Humanist Movement in the Twenty-first Century,” FI, Summer 1995). In 1998, he described religion, nationality, and ethnicity as emblematic of “ancient differences that are no longer relevant” (“Humanist Politics: The Need for a New Coalition,” FI, Fall 1998). On the matter of intermarriage, his words in Humanist Manifesto 2000 echo an observation he offered in 1995: “The highest good, as I see it, is intermarriage between people of different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures” (“The Limits of Tolerance,” FI, Winter 1995/96).

Longtime readers of FREE INQUIRY will also recall Kurtz’s repeated calls for world government, a goal that seemed more accessible to idealists in the heady years after the end of World War II than it does today. Of the paradigms Kurtz argued for, world government now seems the furthest from possibility. But the rest of his calls to overcome parochialism in matters of religion, nationality, and ethnicity, as well as his calls for individuals to realize these ideals by forging interpersonal relationships that pierce these boundaries, express values that most secular humanists still embrace.

In my 2006 op-ed, I identified secular humanism and its inherent anti-parochialism with “emancipatory individualism.” “How does emancipatory individualism express itself?” I asked. “Often, it involves a process of disintermediation. Weakening or ending the power of intermediary institutions empowers individuals to interact with higher-level institutions, perhaps even to connect directly with society as a whole. When this fails to occur, the institutional controls that govern individuals’ lives loom too close. Loyalties are constrained too locally, and insularity, parochialism, or sectarianism may result.” Trundling out my clumsy neologism (and paraphrasing Herrick), I wrote: “Exsularism in the largest sense means that individuals do not refer to local, parochial institutions of any type to make decisions, to adopt policies, to run their lives, to order their relationships, or to impel their activities. Instead they seek autonomy and the most direct contact with society at the highest possible level.”

Autonomy. Disintermediation. The imperative to penetrate old barriers in gleeful disregard of national, ethnic, or religious identities. As we ponder the shifting meanings of secularism, I hope we will never lose sight of these ideas’ centrality to the meaning of secular humanism.


*John Shook, “Secularity and Secularism Explained,” Center for Inquiry Free Thinking blog post, April 20, 2010. Available at, accessed March 10, 2014.

**Available at


Thanks to Sean Lachut for research assistance on this article.

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).

“Among today’s students, what does it mean to be secular—in other words, how do they understand that term?”

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