Humanism: Creating Hope

Ronald A. Lindsay

This is my last editorial for Free Inquiry. I’ll be leaving the Center for Inquiry (CFI) at the end of 2015, soon after this issue lands in your hands.

Not unexpectedly, when I first began to write this editorial, I started out by discussing some of the highlights of my seven and a half years as president and CEO of CFI. This seemed like a standard way to take my leave. However, I abandoned that initial draft, principally because I did not want my last essay to be misleading. One thing I aspire to is intellectual honesty, and, in any event, I do not think that the perceptive readers of this journal would abide any dissembling or posturing. This meant that if I were to provide an accurate accounting of the years when I’ve been the head of CFI, I would have to mention some of the disappointments and low points of my tenure, in addition to mentioning the highlights. And that meant I would have to discuss the difficult leadership transition this organization experienced during my first two years on the job.

I don’t think any productive purpose would be served by replaying here the events of that tumultuous transition. Suffice it to say that I’m confident this organization will never have to experience anything like that again. It has now been established that CFI is not the property of any one individual. CFI is a respected nonprofit organization, and it now enjoys the appropriate governance for such an organization. Consequently, when I leave my position, the transition will be orderly and smooth.

So let me instead focus on another topic, a topic that is not always associated with humanists: hope.

Many of the religious like to believe hope is their bailiwick. After all, they have a supernatural being in their corner. They can always turn to God when they are in distress, and God is always responsive—with the important qualification that the response may not be what they expect or want, but then God knows best. There is no need to worry about anything. In the words of the great philosopher Joel Osteen, “Any time you have a setback, God has already planned a comeback.”

So goes the promise of religion. Of course, this is an empty promise because there is no deity. But leaving aside that not unimportant point, there are other problems with hope that is predicated on divine intervention. It diminishes our humanity. It implies that we lack the capacity to address the challenges that confront us. In addition, when we turn our gaze skyward for help, we are not looking at our fellow humans. Hope focused on the divine creates a vertical relationship between an all-powerful being and us pawns “here below,” instead of solidifying the bonds of our common humanity. Clinging to the grace of God turns us into dependent beings instead of autonomous agents forging our own paths forward.

Moreover, hope focused on the divine tends to generate passivity in the face of adverse conditions, especially adverse social structures. I don’t mean to overgeneralize here. Certainly there have been, and continue to be, a number of activists for social change who claim to be motivated by their religious beliefs, in particular the compassion for others that they believe is mandated by their god. Nonetheless, for the most part, relying on God to sort things out eventually, in the next world if not here, generates lassitude and meek acceptance more often than it serves as a spur to activism. Marx was not completely off-target when he observed that religion is “the opium of the people.”

By contrast, we humanists recognize there is no god that can save us. We can only save ourselves. Given the cruelty humans have exhibited toward each other through the ages and the immense suffering caused by this cruelty, one might think that any hope founded solely on human agency presents a very bleak prospect indeed. Yet the reality is that we humans, working together, have improved our well-being, have ameliorated our living conditions, and have diminished the frequency of wars and other bloody conflicts that have wreaked so much havoc. Furthermore, in improving our collective well-being, we have simultaneously increased the sphere of personal autonomy, allowing an increasing number of people to have control over their critical life choices and to create meaning for their lives. Obviously, we are nowhere near a utopia, but there is no denying that the circumstances under which we live today present a vast improvement over the circumstances in which humans lived not only two thousand years ago but just fifty years ago. Consider not just our material well-being but also the end of segregation and overt race discrimination, equal rights for women, individual control over reproduction, the recognition of the rights of LGBT individuals, and so on. Clearly, there is still much more work to do, especially in the areas of racial justice and social equality for women, but it is undeniable that we have made progress.

This progress did not come about through the application of religious dogma. To the contrary, our progress has often come in the face of opposition from religious dogma. Our progress has come through science, reason, and the willingness of a critical mass of people to think outside the confines of religious doctrines—doctrines that have held that blacks were justifiably reduced to slavery, that it is sinful for women to work outside the home, that birth control is immoral, and that love between people of the same sex is abhorrent and an abomination.

Science, reason, and humanist values: these have been and remain the keys to progress.

There is no guarantee of progress, of course. Progress is contingent on many different factors, some of which remain out of our control. There are still far too many people in the world who adhere to some religious dogma or political ideology and who seek to impose their beliefs on others. In addition, we have at best imperfect mechanisms for dealing with epidemics and other adverse natural occurrences, some of which, such as climate change, are global in their scope and threaten serious harmful consequences. But being a humanist means being able to deal with the contingencies of life.

Being a humanist also means being committed to working for a just society for all. In enabling others to live a free, full life, we create the conditions for a meaningful life for ourselves as well. Through our common efforts, we create the conditions for hope: a hope that is not based on fantasy but on the solid ground of human determination and achievement.

The path forward is not always clear. We will have our disagreements, but provided we adhere to our commitment to free expression, respect each other, and actually listen to each other, solutions will emerge.

So in leaving CFI, I ask you to continue to work together, united by the principles and values we share. Together we can build a better world. Together we can create hope.

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.