We’re a very nice bunch of folks, we in this community who identify with (and, yes, celebrate) the principles Paul Kurtz set out to promote when he spearheaded the launch of Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry and later founded the Center for Inquiry. But at the risk of raising an oft-visited and sometimes painful question, what should the members of this community call themselves?
Later in this article, I’ll be offering a suggestion—one I’m fairly certain you haven’t encountered before. But first let me offer some autobiography, because the line of thinking that gave rise to my suggested name for our community is inseparable from the experiences that marked my own withdrawal from religion.
It is no coincidence that I opened this essay by mentioning Paul Kurtz. His work was especially meaningful to me.
Back in 1982, I was a young man who had just escaped from the delusions of Mormonism. Just months earlier, I’d been a “dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue through-and-through” Mormon. My ancestry goes back to the early days of the sect, and my entire clan stretches as far as the eye can see and in every direction (siblings, cousins, second and third cousins, and so on)—all partaking deeply of the delighted certainty that “This is the glorious Mormon truth, and aren’t we fortunate, special, and wonderful to be part of it!”
During my formative years, I questioned none of it. If anything, I may have been above average in my Mormon zeal and intensity. I’d done the two-year missionary duty with great valor. I completed my undergraduate work at Brigham Young University (BYU), then proceeded through the program at its affiliated law school. It was during law school that certain elements of my makeup—call it integrity, if you like—would not allow me to overlook facts that did not add up. I’d made a prior commitment to put reality first, and if my Mormon belief (dear to me as it was) proved inconsistent with reality, it was my faith that would have to give.
Thus, by the time I graduated law school and moved to California, I found myself reborn: I was freshly made to a life without religion and all its conceptual supports. I needed to get some grounding as to just what this new stance meant. Somehow, I got a mailing inviting me to join with other “unchurched Americans” and subscribe to Free Inquiry. I did, and a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer followed soon after.
I began to devour these periodicals. It’s hard to describe how much it meant to discover I was not a lone pioneer. Others had blazed the trail before me. They were veterans. They knew their stuff and were welcoming. That I had managed to stumble into their circle seemed nothing short of wonderful.
From that moment, I have always drawn cheer, comfort, and courage from knowing that I am not alone, that there are others like me.
More particularly, there are others who are good, as I am good. I will explain.
Although it was far from obvious at the time I departed the faith, before long I began to understand what made me different, what distinguished me from those who remained “in the fold.” It’s not that I was manifestly smarter. Rather, I began to realize the difference was one of priorities. Initially, I’d assumed that others would naturally rank their priorities just as I had done (what is authentically true matters first; all else, even allegiance to Mormonism, is subordinate). But that assumption was woefully naïve. Over time, I recognized that my way of prioritizing was in fact quite unusual. For better or worse, I care significantly more than most people about whether my beliefs accurately accord with what is real. Those who didn’t leave their faith, I realized, did so because they treasured their theistic belief (and its pleasures and comforts) more than they cared about its truth content.
This is why I found myself identifying with the community of folks intertwined with Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. In a nutshell, we wish not to believe in rubbish (I could easily pick a harsher term). From the first time I began reading these publications, I have felt this is the commonality that binds us: We like to see what’s genuinely real. We put that first.
I will go further. Because we put truth first, we are, in that regard, better than others. Yes, we are. No doubt, it’s politically incorrect to say so. But it’s true. Please, for consideration, test this for yourself.
Compare two persons. Person A wants his or her views about stuff to be accurate, regardless of whatever the personal cost may be of so concluding. Given this, he or she is determined to respect all evidence, and, indeed, constantly strives to collect and weigh all that is available—fully, fairly and honestly. He or she is always ready, moreover, to alter even the most-cherished conclusions should the evidence recommend it.
In contrast to Person A, Person B is determined to maintain at least a few particular conclusions, no matter what. These will involve matters essential to his or her emotional and/or societal comfort. Most particularly, they are conclusions that he or she is determined to maintain regardless of authentic truth content. Because of this determination, Person B has no interest in what evidence genuinely declares on such matters. Indeed, he or she will flee from evidence that threatens to potentially contradict “core” beliefs while selectively seeking (and habitually exaggerating) any supposed evidence that might be contorted to seemingly confirm them. Thus, Person B develops expert proficiency in methods that abuse and distort reason. Whatever corrupt expedients may be needed to foster and maintain confidence in spite of the lack of verity, these are Person B’s tools. Indeed, they are deployed not merely for conviction-building and maintenance but also to erect a strong pretense of justification.
I think there can be little doubt which of these two persons, A or B, is higher-minded, more noble, more praiseworthy, more rare—and, yes, more moral.
When we choose in any degree to prefer what’s comfortable and emotionally pleasing in belief, as opposed to what’s accurate, we have in that degree “drunk the Kool-Aid.” In Kurtz’s language, we have yielded to the “Transcendental Temptation.” We have become part of a camp that is different and apart from those who are always and without exception determined to inhabit Category A. Between those who embrace Category B practice in any degree and those who embrace none of it, the divide is distinct and broad.
So, where do we, in this community, fit? Bluntly, we are the teetotalers. By purity of intended principle, if not always perfection in practice, we are Category A people. Granted, we are human. Far too often, we fail to live up to this ideal. But it is our ideal, and we embrace it because, genuinely, in our heart of hearts, we really want to see what’s real. It’s our foremost desire. This is the germ of virtue that makes each of us part of this particular Paul Kurtz–founded community. When newcomers find this community, or we find them, we recognize one another as fellow travelers.
That said, let’s go back to me in 1982. How terrific it was for me then to find others like me, and, yes, to begin learning some new terms. I began learning new labels, some for things I’d never previously had labels for. In other cases, I developed enhanced meanings for labels already in my quiver. Labels can be good things, particularly when they foster understanding.
I learned, for example, that most of us within this community call ourselves “atheists,” for the simple reason that after one reviews all the applicable evidence, there is no compelling reason to think that gods as described by any religion exist.
We also tend to f
ind that we are “empiricists.” Why? When we examine the various methods which persons use to justify their beliefs, we tend to find that every method but one has zero efficacy when it comes to accurately distinguishing reality from illusion. The only method that seems genuinely efficacious in this regard is the method that rigorously compares ideas to experience in search of a good or perfect match, with the corresponding determination to reject ideas where a mismatch compels it. This is a reasonable definition of empiricism, so it is logical that we should describe ourselves using that label.
Likewise, we generally find we are “materialists.” When empiricism is your method, you tend to discover that reports of things from “other realms” (spirit matter and such) never really check out. We did not design things that way; it’s just what we tend to find when we apply our method.
Interestingly, we tend also to find we are “humanists.” In part this is not surprising. When you remove all imagined gods from your focused center, there’s an obvious logic in moving one’s focus back toward humans. But, even so, one could at least conceivably withdraw one’s focus from any imagined heavenly menagerie and, in reaction, formulate a negative, pessimistic, perhaps even hateful outlook toward humans. It seems that those in our group have done mostly the opposite. We have discovered hope for a much-improved human condition that seems to rise all but spontaneously from within ourselves—a yearning to labor for betterment coupled with the optimism that there may be within our species such nobility as to achieve it.
Atheist, empiricist, materialist, humanist. These are but some of the labels our group has found fitting. Yet so many of us have wanted something more—a word, a label that, compared to those above, more elegantly defines us.
There have been proposals. Paul Kurtz coined the term eupraxophy (later eupraxsophy), suggesting it as a fitting description for our general “endeavoring stance” in life. He further suggested we might call ourselves “eupraxsophers.” Unsurprisingly, this never gained traction.
Another proposal (which did gain at least initial traction) was that we might call ourselves “brights.” That term has likewise failed, and I need not review its debilities.
Instead, I want to suggest a term that, after thinking very long and hard over these many years, I consider truly ideal for our community: Genuism. Why this word?
I’ve already described the element I believe is our group’s largest commonality, our shared determination to assure that our views regarding what’s imagined to exist “out there” accurately depict what genuinely does exist out there. Because this is our objective, we likewise seek to assure that our conclusion-adopting methods are ingenuous (as opposed to permitting them to become disingenuous, as happens with the Category B character-type described above). Because this is the most real and major distinction between those who belong to our community and those who do not, genuism describes us fully—perhaps, better than any other term.
What do you call a person who practices genuism? Easy. He or she is a “genuist.”
I like being a genuist. I think it’s a great description. It positively describes who and what I am.
Every label implies a comparison to others; if a label is meaningful, the people whom it fits must differ in some verifiable way from the people who do not. If I am a genuist, the implicit comparison with others associated with that label does not in the least assert that I am smarter than anyone else. It simply describes a choice I have made as to where my priority and values shall lie. In that very respect, it commends my choice (and resulting values/priority change) to others. At least in theory, anyone can join me as a genuist by choosing a priority and values similar to those I have chosen. This is in marked contrast to the label “bright,” which suggests that its possessors are mentally superior to others. This offers few opportunities for others to join; it is not very practical to suggest that others simply choose to “ratchet up” their innate mental horsepower.
Yes, some will object that if we claim the term genuist, that carries an implication that others are not ingenuous or are less ingenuous than we in their epistemological preferences. However, is there really any news in that assertion? The bulk of those in the other camp openly advocate closing their eyes to evidence. (What else is their celebrated “faith,” after all?) This implication is a truth that, on any reasonable examination, those in the opposing camp cannot reasonably deny.
It is also true that genuist might be interpreted as implying that our position is morally superior. Rather than being a fault, I think this is a great virtue. Certainly, the other side constantly claims moral superiority for its stance, going so far as to deny that people like us could even have a basis for morality, while simultaneously predicting that we are bound for an eternity of torment owing to nothing more than our depraved disbelieving state. I think it is not at all a bad thing to counter with the implied assertion, “Guess what? We’re the moral ones.” Beyond that, how can you lead others toward a better and more moral stance absent a willingness to assert: “Yes, the reason you should prefer this stance is because it’s morally superior.” Perhaps outright advertising of this virtue—indeed, openly celebrating it as a virtue—would help it to gain in popularity.
I also love the term genuism as a discussion starter. Tell someone you’re a genuist. Think you’ll prompt a question? Of course you will! In answering, you’ll have superb opportunity to explain that you subscribe to a philosophy that is fundamentally opposed to Pascal’s Wager. This philosophy recognizes there often are indeed emotional, societal, and other benefits in adopting beliefs without regard to their genuine truth. It recognizes many humans (indeed, most) choose to go that way. A genuist, however, deems those benefits unworthy of even the slightest weight in choosing what he or she will believe. On the genuist’s view, the only matters of worthy weight are the things that genuinely indicate what is, most likely, real.
Among us—we atheists, we empiricists, we materialists, we humanists—I believe that genuism has been our stance and practice all along. We lacked only a label able to capture all of its virtues. I propose that from here on we should pervasively adopt and use the term genuism and its cognates.
Genuism describes what we are, as opposed to describing only a minor element regarding what we are not, as does atheism. It sets us apart from atheists who never became so in consequence of a genuistic analysis but only, say, because it was socially popular among one’s peers (and how strange to think that, at least among the young, this is now possible). It likewise distinguishes us from those who, like us, are humanists but nevertheless retain prima facie unreasoned epistemologies. Unlike the word bright, it implicitly invites those who are not genuists to become so. Finally, it openly (even, it may be argued, fiercely) advertises the high and noble morality in our stance.
I like it a lot. I hope you will too.
Glade Ross is an attorney and the founder of a software business of which he is CEO and president. He currently lives on Puget Sound in Washington with his wife and children and is passionate about sailing. This essay is adapted from part one of a four-part essay that will be published in its unedited entirety on the Council for Secular Humanism website.