The Crucial Connection between Skepticism and Secular Humanism

Ronald A. Lindsay

You are probably aware by now that in early January the Center for Inquiry merged with the Council for Secular Humanism (Council) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), with the merged organization bearing the name “Center for Inquiry” (CFI). The merger had a very significant practical effect on the efficient operation of these three organizations; in terms of the nature of the work and the programming of these three organizations, however, the merger is expected to have little if any effect. That said, for a few individuals, the merger has been a point of controversy. Permit me to elaborate.

Since they were first formed, CSI, the Council, and CFI had been independent corporations, with all the obligations and liabilities of independent corporations. This meant, for example, that each corporation had to have a comprehensive set of insurance policies. Each corporation had to submit separate filings to do business in all the various states where it had operations, and, likewise, each corporation had to submit separate filings for all the various states in which it had to register to solicit funds. Moreover, separate sets of books had to be maintained for each corporation.

These corporate formalities needed to be maintained despite the fact that for over a decade now, the same individuals served as directors for each of the three corporations and the corporations had the same officers. For example, until January, I was the president and CEO of CSI and CFI and the Council. In other words, the management of the corporations was integrated, but the legal structure of the corporations did not reflect this integration. It would be difficult to imagine a more inefficient arrangement. In terms of hard dollars (that is, not counting staff time), maintaining this unjustifiably cumbersome structure was costing the three corporations tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The merger does away with this inefficiency and duplication of costs. At the same time, as indicated, the work of the Council and CSI (now designated as “programs” of CFI) will continue. Some evidence of this, of course, is the fact that you are reading an issue of Free Inquiry. Yes, Free Inquiry, the Skeptical Inquirer, and the other publications and projects associated with the Council or CSI will continue, the only difference being that we will now have some more funds to dedicate to the work of the Council and CSI.

At this stage, one might ask this question: “So, why wasn’t the merger done sooner?” Good question.

To begin, as is well known, sometimes one needs to spend money first to save money later. Replacing an inefficient furnace with one that will be less wasteful is a good idea and will save money in the long run, but there will be considerable up-front costs. Similarly with the merger: we recognized that although it would ultimately result in cost savings, the merger process itself would not be inexpensive. Moreover, apart from direct costs (principally legal fees), there would be burdens placed on our staff, who would need to restructure our banking arrangements, our contractual relationships with vendors, and so forth. Given our tight budgets and lean staff, we needed to time the merger so it would not affect our programming.

But there was an additional reason as well. There was unease among some skeptics, and also among some humanists, that the merger would—somehow, some way—adversely affect their work. Investigatory work by skeptics would be sacrificed for the sake of humanist projects, or, on the other hand, critiques of religion would need to be de-emphasized to placate some skeptics. In other words, there was some internal resistance, but these reservations were gradually overcome. One factor in overcoming this resistance was the realization that religious fundamentalism and opposition to sound science pose similar dangers; indeed, one often finds religious fundamentalists allied with those who are dismissive of science. To meet the twin challenges of scientific illiteracy and religious dogmatism, we determined that we needed a truly unified organization.

Nonetheless, after the announcement of our merger, there were some critics who thought that housing skeptics and humanists under one corporate roof would be bad for skepticism, bad for humanism, or bad for both. A few critics took special exception to the wording of our merger announcement, which indicated that, at a deep level, we believe there are principles and commitments that unify the work of skeptics and humanists. One skeptic tweeted, “I can’t support such a muddled, conflated mission. . . . Advocating for skepticism is something COMPLETELY different than advocating for secularism.”

Completely different? I beg to differ. To the contrary, there is a very close, crucial connection between the work of skeptics and humanists, and a secular society is essential for ensuring sound science.

To begin, let’s ask some basic questions: What is it that skeptics do? Well, as the mission statement of CSI indicates, one of the important things that skeptics do is use science, reason, and critical inquiry to examine controversial and extraordinary claims. What is it that humanists do? One of the important things that humanists do is use reason, critical thinking, and, where applicable, scientific inquiry to examine religious and ethical claims. In other words, humanists and skeptics are united by their insistence on the use of critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the scientific method. They also insist on freedom of inquiry. There should be no restrictions on inquiry; no claim is immune from critical examination. Their objects of inquiry tend to be different—you will not find many critiques of the Bible in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer, nor will you find many critiques of homeopathy or acupuncture in the pages of Free Inquiry—but their methodological commitments are virtually identical.

Consistent with these methodological commitments, skeptics and humanists are also unified by their rejection of dogma. Skeptics and humanists question everything (which is one reason “Center for Inquiry” is an apt name for our organization). Moreover, the scientific method is inherently antidogmatic. Scientific claims are always open to refutation.

It’s when we turn to the importance of science that we sometimes see tensions between skeptics and humanists erupt. In particular, some skeptics view humanism as unscientific. Humanism deals with religion and ethics and, allegedly, science doesn’t provide much assistance in these areas. Some skeptics further maintain that because it lacks an adequate scientific base, humanism is an “ideology.”

The scope of science is itself a topic of vigorous debate. I don’t want to wade too deeply into those turbulent waters. I’ll limit myself to saying that it is true that religion and ethics are, in general, not as susceptible to scientific examination as, for example, the efficacy of a certain drug. The latter lends itself to a controlled study that has no counterpart in most scholarly work on religion and ethics. But that certainly does not imply that ethical and religious questions are not subject to rational examination. Evidence and logic do bear on ethical and religious questions. In addition, science does bear on religion and ethics, at least to the extent that religious claims or ethical claims that are inconsistent with warranted scientific conclusions should be rejected. Therefore, it is misleading to characterize humanism as unscientific because it examines ethics and religion.

Furthermore, it represents a mischaracterization of humanism to assert that it is an ideology. An ideology, in the common understanding of that term, is a set of doctrines associated with some overarching the
ory, typically relating to political and economic structures. Humanism has no doctrines. There are no sacred texts or authority figures in humanism. We don’t consult the writings of Richard Dawkins or Paul Kurtz to find the answers to particular questions in the same way that the writings of Marx, Hitler, Mao, Rand, and other ideologues have been consulted by their followers. There is no “Little Red Book” that humanists wave about while chanting slogans. Nothing any humanist says anywhere at any time has any authority beyond the force of reason contained in his or her statement.

Sure, one can find collections of affirmations or principles of humanism. Indeed, a set of such affirmations is found in most issues of Free Inquiry. But these affirmations represent a consensus of views that humanists have arrived at after application of the tools of critical thinking. They’re not a set of doctrines that humanists must accept on pain of being expelled from the humanist “party.”

Finally, the claim that advocating for science-based skepticism is completely different from advocating for secularism exhibits a misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise or secularism or both.

Unfortunately, many people do have a misunderstanding of secularism. Often it is confused with atheism, but atheism and secularism are not the same thing, as confirmed by the fact that there are millions of religious people who embrace secularism. Secularism does not assert any claims about deities; rather, it is a political/ethical theory that holds that church and state should be kept separate and religious doctrines should not influence public policy. Further (as I argue in my recent book, The Necessity of Secularism), to have a truly secular society, discussions and debates about public policy should be carried out entirely in secular terms, that is, without appeal to religious doctrines as justification for a policy position. From the foregoing description of secularism, one can see that secularism is not only compatible with science, but it is required if we are to have scientists carry out their work and make policy recommendations that are not influenced by religious doctrine. Scientists can be religious; that’s not an issue. However, if they are to carry out sound scientific research and to make appropriate policy recommendations based on their research, they cannot allow their private religious beliefs to influence their scientific conclusions and recommendations. Theology and science don’t mix.

Sound science and secularism are firm allies. We at CFI will continue to advocate vigorously on behalf of both. Our mission is clear, and with our new, efficient structure, we are confident we will be more effective in fulfilling our mission.

Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone Publishing, 2014).

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.