Meanwhile, Back at the Chasm …

Tom Flynn

In “Humanism’s Chasm” (FI, February/March 2019), I reflected on the differences between older and younger unbelievers, especially regarding their views of themselves as members of a marginalized group (the young tend not to see themselves this way) and the importance they attach to antireligious activism (the young tend not to see the point). My essay elicited vigorous reader response.

In this issue, I’d like to focus on another broad area where younger unbelievers differ significantly from their elders (and vice versa)—politics and social justice.

Kidnapped by the Left? Letters published in this and the prior issue offered a common refrain. Writing from Australia, David Montani accuses:

The atheist/freethought movement has been hijacked as a leftist cause. … [M]any members of the atheist/freethought movement are hostile to certain fellow atheists joining the movement’s ranks merely because their politics happen to be right of center. … My suggestion is to let go of the prejudice against right-of-center atheists and warmly welcome them.

Frank Boardman writes, “Perhaps if secular humanist groups did not require belief in socialism or that President Trump is the devil, they might increase membership of Nones who have diverse political opinions but opinions on religion and philosophy that are not that different from those of other Nones.”

Michael H. Davison casts a broader net:

The publication that calls itself Free Inquiry and claims to represent secular humanism suffers a much too-narrow field of view. … Communism and fascism … exhibit all the characteristics of a theistic faith, the same intolerant dogmatism and the same righteous assurance of commanding the truth. For a current example close to home, look no further than college-aged kids who scream “Fascist!” at speakers and writers they don’t like while their professors snicker off-stage at the success of their indoctrination. These are the true fascists. They want the government to control everything, the defining characteristic of communism and fascism. Is this discussion not worthy of some space in Free Inquiry?*

Are these critics right? In this issue’s feature article “Secular Humanism—a Road to Socialism?,” Allen Agnitti expresses the left-leaning perspective to which the previous writers objected:

The cause of secularism alone would bring into the fold a variety of harsh and callous voices, such as social Darwinists and partisans of the repugnant philosophy of Ayn Rand. But in adding “humanist” to secularism, one draws a bold line of separation, leaving outside Rand’s followers … .

Of course, the majority of older humanists—folks who subscribe to Free Inquiry and get involved with local secular humanist groups or Center for Inquiry (CFI) branches—are neither conservatives nor socialists. (In the most recent reader survey, FI subscribers leaned considerably further left than the population as a whole; 66 percent described themselves as liberal or progressive; 8 percent self-identified as socialist while 9 percent chose conservative or libertarian.) Across the board, they tend to pursue their political, social, and environmental convictions separately from their humanist or atheist commitments. Membership in multiple national groups with distinct agendas is normal for this population, with the lens of humanism or atheism being applied selectively to matters of life stance and worldview. Members may be active in Democratic Party politics and the Sierra Club but hold those commitments separate from their humanism or atheism. (Consider also the many liberal-leaning cause organizations that began in the humanist movement and only later built fully independent organizations: most national death-with-dignity and abortion-rights organizations followed this pattern. Their agendas were core humanist concerns fifty years ago, but groups from NARAL to the Final Exit Network now operate outside the ambit of organized humanism or atheism.)

What I’m describing is siloing, to be sure—but in this case, I regard it as healthy. I think it bespeaks a robust secularism when so many contemporary humanists maintain multiple commitments and focus their humanism or atheism as such solely on core life-stance issues. What a refreshing contrast with the expectation, still common in traditional churches, that members will mediate all or most of their private lives through their church.

For different reasons, then, many older humanists and atheists, despite varying political orientation, arrive at a shared conclusion that some political or social-justice issues lie “outside the wheelhouse” when they’re wearing their humanist/atheist hats. As letter-writer Tarik El-Bakri expresses it, they seek to avoid “tagging the freethinkers movement to agendas that fall outside the natural remit of secularism and humanism, thereby diluting the latter.” The result is a commitment that’s heavy on church and state but may seem neutral or even absent where social justice is concerned.

Speaking for the young Nones, Sarah Myers (April/May 2019) charges that our movement lacks “real-world, hospitable, open, and friendly community organizations that are devoted to social welfare—free from the debating, yelling, side-taking arguments that atheists are so notoriously known for.” The key phrase there, I think, is devoted to social welfare. Discomfort with atheist argumentativeness aside, Myers yearns for an organizational home that’s sufficiently woke. This connotes a rejection of multiple affiliations. In its place is a hunger for one dominant affiliation that must take cognizance of the demands of social justice. Nor is it only an unrepresentative, social-media-active cohort of young activists who appear to feel this way. I’ve heard similar comments one-on-one from other young Nones—convention-goers, youth volunteers, CFI interns, and students on campus. On the one hand, they don’t share our passion for separation of church and state; on the other, they find it baffling that we maintain official neutrality on social-justice issues they consider non-negotiably important.

Objections of the Elders. Let’s consider the objection lodged by the older male writers I quoted above. Again, their conservative views represent a minority among Free Inquiry subscribers. But that’s not to say that right-leaning points of view are excluded or belittled. In a June/July 2017 editorial, CFI Chair Eddie Tabash declared flatly: “The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is nonpartisan. If we are often more critical of one major political party than the other, it’s only because one party is more fervently devoted to creating a theocracy.” He added: “Just as CFI is nonpartisan, we also don’t take positions on competing economic theories. For instance, we don’t support any particular side in the dispute between Ayn Rand’s free-market views and those of socialists.”** (Obviously Tabash and Agnitti disagree on Rand; I’ll get back to that.) Because of this policy—and because it reflects the preference of many core supporters—CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Free Inquiry have usually resisted taking hard positions on intersectional issues.

Are more conservative-leaning humanists such as Montani, Boardman, and Davison wrong to complain about a homogeneous, sometimes intolerant leftism in the movement? Not necessarily, though I think they’re mistaken when they attribute it to Free Inquiry or its copublishers, the Council for Secular Humanism and CFI. There is a historic strain of narrow leftism in the larger humanist movement, the sort that can make non-leftists feel excluded and raise fears about ideological litmus tests. At the national level—let’s be frank—that’s more often been encountered over the decades at the American Humanist Association (AHA) and in its magazine, The Humanist.

Free Inquiry includes leftist voices but many others too. Yes, Shadia B. Drury and (until 2018) Greta Christina, both staunch leftists, number among our columnists***. Yet so do Ophelia Benson, who is controversial in some quarters on the left; the nuanced philosopher Russell Blackford; and the satirist and commentator Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, among many others. Sam Harris, nobody’s leftist, had a column in the mid-2000s. Until his death in 2016, so did libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan. (And I defy anyone to find a leftist slant in this issue’s “Humanist Soapbox” entry, “Eugenics or Bust.”)

But let’s loop back to libertarianism. I haven’t forgotten the young Nones—and as it happens, older humanists’ historic stance toward libertarianism exemplifies the sort of studied neutrality on social-justice issues that apparently exasperates younger activists.

A Civil Disagreement. One of humanism’s perennial debates during the late twentieth century was between libertarians and socialists. In practice, it pitted a small but vocal libertarian minority against a broader group ranging from socialists to centrists. The libertarians, too, fell along a spectrum, ranging from mere skeptics of centralized social and economic planning (full disclosure: I was among them) to hardcore objectivists for whom Ayn Rand was a guru and selfishness a positive virtue. FI’s Fall 1989 issue offered a provocative cover feature, “Libertarianism or Socialism: Where Do Secular Humanists Stand?” with an all-star lineup of advocates from both sides. FI’s November 1990 conference “Humanism and Liberty” featured a panel debate on libertarianism vs. altruism. (Amusing anecdote: there were three prominent libertarian panelists and a lone advocate for altruism—we hadn’t planned such a strong libertarian skew, but we could only find one altruist willing to participate for the small honorarium we could offer. Our audio-visual budget was pinched, too; the three libertarians collegially shared a single shabby lapel microphone, while the altruist never let go of the only decent mic. Ah, irony.)

The point is that though many of our readers and conference-goers held passionate views for or against libertarianism—even though no small number of them felt certain that the positions they opposed were short-sighted, counterfactual, or immoral—the organization never took an official stance on the issue. We aired the controversy, invited voices from all sides, and showed them all equal respect. We held firm to the principle that the solution to speech one disagrees with is more speech. To repeat Eddie Tabash’s words, we declined to “support any particular side in the dispute between Ayn Rand’s free-market views and those of socialists.”

From his side, Allen Agnitti describes humanism itself as “a bold line of separation, leaving outside Rand’s followers.” I think that captures something of the woke mentality widely shared among young Nones: opponents are considered outside the pale, their positions worthy to be reviled rather than considered or debated.

Once I was asked whether Ayn Rand was a humanist. My answer was quite different from Agnitti’s: “Yes, Ayn Rand was a humanist—but a failed humanist.” Rand began from a nontheistic point of view, I explained, and strove to deduce the best way for human beings to live, not from authority but by logic and observation. That’s how humanists do values. Rand’s problem was that so many of her starting points were simply wrong—unreconstructed Aristotelianism as an authoritative account of human nature, a disdain for altruism as unscientific that science was even then overturning—that the system she created could scarcely fail to be perverse.

Agnitti is demonstrating a fascinating phenomenon; I think he is looking backward and applying to the old libertarian-vs.-socialist debate the same standards young Nones now apply to alt-right racists, misogynists, homophobes, and the like. In place of collegial disagreement, they tend to insist on strict exclusion from the fold; in place of dialogue, unstinting opposition. To some degree, this is understandable: the ideological opponents of today are more extreme and dangerous than the libertarian antagonists of years past. But I think it also reflects a different, more exclusionary sensibility among many of the young.

I suspect that many young Nones would steer a course far different than that chosen by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1978. In that year, a neo-Nazi group—yes, neo-Nazis, little different from today’s—planned to march through Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb then home to numerous Holocaust survivors. The ACLU defended the neo-Nazis on the same principles it had earlier invoked to defend civil-rights marchers. (The neo-Nazis won the right to march through Skokie, though they ultimately decided to rally in downtown Chicago instead.) The ACLU’s decision was hugely controversial, causing one of the largest mass resignations of its members, but it is now considered the organization’s proudest moment. The title of a 1999 book by political scientist Phillipa Strum eloquently captured the principle in play: When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate.

“Freedom for speech we hate” is a principle many older unbelievers cherish fiercely. Yet I fear it’s a principle few young Nones would embrace, and quite a few may find nearly incomprehensible.

Objections of the Young. As nearly as I can unpack the rhetoric, the differences between young Nones and their elders cluster along two principal axes:

  1. Many young Nones are fiercely committed to so-called intersectionality, such that social-justice issues pertaining to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, disability, and the like are strongly prioritized, and in fact prioritized more highly than social-justice concerns principally relevant to unbelievers in religion. This may explain young activists’ relative disinterest in church-state separation, campaigning to remove religious symbols from public spaces, and the like—and also their oft-expressed bafflement when elders resist taking positions on larger social-justice issues as humanists or atheists, defining them as outside their wheelhouse. (Elders, of course, may question what the point is of a humanist or atheist organization that does not place the concerns specific to humanists or atheists at the center of its activism. And given the current ideological drift in Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, young Nones who now think separation of church and state unimportant may one day realize that it’s important as hell after all. Okay, so I’m showing my age.)
  2. Young Nones tend to show intolerance toward ideological opponents, viewing them as enemies, not interlocutors. This shift partly reflects the harsh militance and intolerance many of these opponents display; still, I fear that much of value is lost when “the solution to speech we disagree with is more speech” is dismissed as naive and a principle such as “freedom for speech we hate” seems simply incoherent.

Summing Up. In these socio-political matters as well as in their attitudes toward religion, today’s young Nones seem sharply different than those who came before them—so much so that some of the values older humanists hold dearest are vigorously rejected by the young, and vice versa. Organized humanism, atheism, and freethought face one of the sharpest “generation gaps” they have ever confronted. Can this chasm be bridged? Will humanist/atheist activism on behalf of humanists and atheists become an abandoned cause? Is there some wholly other way forward? I’m thinking of CFI’s embrace of a broad pro-science commitment that addresses the concerns of humanists and atheists, skeptics of the paranormal, and defenders of evolution, vaccination, and scientific medicine across a broad front—and of its recent work rallying Stateside humanists and atheists to fight persecution of unbelievers overseas, sometimes aiding them to escape countries where their lives are in danger.

As before, I welcome your comments. Something tells me they’ll be forthcoming.



* Actually, Russell Blackford offered such a discussion in the June/July 2019 issue, albeit in the context of terrorism rather than so-called triggering speech (“Terrorist Propaganda and Government Censorship”).

** “Saving Speaker Ryan (and Unshackling the Bern),” FI, June/July 2017.

*** Greta Christina exemplified the ideological intolerance more common among the young in her August/September 2015 column “Skepticism, and Emotional Responses to Terrible Ideas.” In it, she rejected the view common among older humanists that even controversial or repellent ideas should be open for dispassionate discussion—a concept many elders view as the essence of free speech—dismissing it as “an idea that should be taken out into the street and shot.”

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).