In a reply several weeks ago to my discussion of the hijacking of humanism by new atheist commandos, the Center for Inquiry’s John Shook—who is normally a responsible philosopher—says something very irresponsible. So irresponsible that I wondered for a minute whether this was the John Shook I knew and worked with for a couple of years at the Center.
Or is it John Shook acting the part of point-man for the movement I have accused of gutting humanism of its core meaning and facilitating its co-option by hardcore sci-philes like P Z Myers and Jerry Coyne, abetted increasingly by formerly responsible voices like Ophelia Benson and the Richard Dawkins idol klatch.
Shook writes that “Religion is the opposite of humanism.” That opinion, even if it is not entirely private, is epically silly and as my teachers used to say, historically indemonstrable.
It is true, of course, that in strictly rhetorical terms belief in God is the opposite of atheism (non-belief in God) and if humanism now means disbelief in God and religion is defined exclusively as belief in God, then we have a clear case of opposition. But before we permit that sleight of mind we need to state the obvious: (1) Not only were classical and renaissance humanism the product of religion, but even secular humanism arose from liberal religion in the early twentieth century; (2) Humanism did not arise from atheism and cannot be equated with atheism, except by bludgeoning it into conformity with atheist ideas and agendas—the current project of movement humanism and new atheists; and (3) So-called “secular” humanism was a naïve but deliberate attempt to de-theologize humanism by delimiting religion to “superstition, dogma and belief in the supernatural.” In fact, the first serious efforts to confront the “irrational” aspects of religion came not from skeptics and unbelievers but from religious humanists influenced both by classical discussions and by the discoveries of their time.
After exactly forty years since the publication of Humanist Manifesto II, and a little over a decade since the publication of the widely ignored Humanist Manifesto 2000 (originally “A Secular Humanist Manifesto”) it is time to pronounce secular humanism a colossal failure, a road without a definition, and a humpty-dumpty jumble of ideas, causes, and projects that, once the line is drawn under them, don’t add up to any particular sum.
This sketch is from a chapter of my new book, Why I am Not an Atheist. It is turning into a very long book because God is a very large topic, and it seems a shame not to use a piece of it that is relevant to John Shook’s blog:
MacDonald Humanism and Naytheism
The kind of manufactured and partially sycophantic “humanism” that organizations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry find it increasingly necessary to push is not the old-style, latitudinarian denial of God that, once upon a time, might have got you booted out of a church or a Catholic high school. It’s the boots-on kind where you kick believers in the shins and call them names, or say nasty things about Jesus or Mohammed, preferably both. Like recent al Qaeda planners, movement humanists and atheists prefer soft targets: they rely on the belief that a well-trained Christian won’t kick you back–and that Jesus is not coming again on clouds of fire. They don’t say what they say through a megaphone in Tehran or paint slogans on buses in Peshawar.
The “humanism” that movement humanism hawks is a duck blind for the so-called new atheism. It isn’t (as a CFI operative recently alleged) that religion is the opposite of humanism, any more than your grandpa is the opposite of you. But in its premises, approach, and substance, secular humanism is now the opposite of humanism.
To use an older category, it is a heresy, a split from the mainstream of humanist thought so profoundly out of touch with its patrimony that it can only be regarded as a weird disjointed sect. It is less (much less) a philosophical position or world view than a vantage point for a shouting match. It is to the real world of humanist thought what the Tea Party is to serious government and MacDonald’s is to fine dining..
In fact many atheists have tried to persuade their commando friends that the new atheist critique of God and religion is amateurish, indeed embarrassing: intellectuals and academics with no religious sentiment at all have been stunned by its lack of sophistication and ignorance of the voluminous literature—both academic and popular, historical and philosophical on the God problem. The reason critics like Richard Dawkins have done comparatively well selling books on subjects they know nothing about is the transferability thesis: the idea that the prestige you earn writing books on genes and grasshoppers can easily be transferred to topics as hazy as “religion,” at least if you accept (as Dawkins does) that the study of religion and theology is nothing at all.
Add celebrity atheism to secular humanism and you get the word cash, which is what these organizations need to stay afloat. And as churches have known forever, to get cash you need converts. To get converts, at least in the USA, you need big names. Big names lend luster, star power, even credibility to any campaign, and movement humanism is just that: the campaign for disbelief.
But “celebrity atheism” like celebrity anything else, actually cheapens the serious study of religion, which has dealt with the problem of God for a few hundred years, and longer if we include the history of theology stretching back to Anselm and the pre-Christian classical writers, perhaps especially Epicurus and Lucretius. In fact, I would argue that celebrity atheism weakens the atheist position in the same way that Hollywood manages to ruin every good book, glitz without guts.
How does it cheapen it? By associating ideas that should be arrived at by careful thought with other (even if famous) people’s conclusions: Bill Maher is an atheist; so is Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Sarah Silverman, Bill Nye. Are you smarter than they are? Case closed. Fallacy-wise it’s called argumentum ad auctoritatem. But we can forgive this trespass, because religious people do it every time they appeal to the Bible. At any rate, the “25,000,000 smart people can’t be wrong” approach to intellectual (or political) rectitude doesn’t always get you where you want to go, and American atheists and humanists can only dream about a number like that. What once was proudly called free-thought is fast becoming the slavish repetition of slogans and one-liners. Did you hear the one about the talking snake? If God is so smart, why did he put the prostate next to a man’s urinary tract?
At its clubfooted worst, the sloganeering and commercialization of atheism hinders the use of science and reason by encouraging logical shortcuts and self-satisfaction. You can put that dull piece by J L Mackie on one side, lad; you’ve got the T shirt that says “No God, No Problem.”
As it’s been defined by its pushers, “secular” humanism is fully naturalistic (i.e., anti-supernaturalist), non-theistic and robustly pro-science. Even though it has never really been pushed around, except verbally, it is tired of being pushed around. Even though it is not a persecuted class or sect, it behaves like one. Even though it has done nothing to improve education, health care, the rights of minorities, underprivileged classes, or women, it blames the oppression of the masses on the religious institutions that have been progressive in all of these areas. Naytheism does this in the simplest of ways, by delimiting “religion” to the worst examples of its complex parts and hoping an unsuspecting newcomer won’t notice. It claims that conscience can only operate freely without dogma, ignoring the extent to which much of dogma is the cultural residue of social conscience: no conscience, no law, neither humane ones nor cruel ones. It scans the Bible for examples of sixth century BC horrors and ignores the Sermon on the Mount and the prophets’ call for social justice. It pans for dirt, puts the gold to one side, and calls the result “religion.” It is not selective or “eclectic”; it is manipulative and deceitful.
Whatever secular humanism might have been, or might have become under serious management, it is now a menagerie of players who try to score through ridicule points they can’t make by reasoned conversation—proof unbounded that the “reason” they (claim to) peddle they can’t sell for a copper penny. What they can sell are slogans emblazoned on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers and membership in the (self-styled) Bright Makes Right community. The toleration that permitted Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Catholics to live a relatively peaceful life protected by a Constitutional “free exercise” provision, the atheists undermine by saying that the time to tolerate religion and be nice to believers has passed: rude rules. They can also sell the palpable falsehood that, like gays, blacks, and women, atheists need the confidence to fight for who and what they are—oppressed victims trodden underfoot by the jackboot of American religiousness. In short, that being an atheist is not merely a free thought and a free speech issue, but a civil rights issue, a human rights issue.
What Went Wrong?
Whatever secular humanism has to do now to stay in the game its beginnings are reputable enough. History explains.
In the early twentieth century, a clutch of philosophers–especially at Columbia University– began to draw on earlier American ideas of philosophy being essentially a commonsensical and “pragmatic” enterprise. While they weren’t unaware of developments in European thought, they were seeking a distinctive voice made from scraps of thought ranging from the essays of Thomas Paine to the romantic transcendentalism of thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau and the musings of Henry Adams, America’s first great intellectual historian.
Because of when they lived—an era of rapid innovation and invention– they were also fascinated by science. Science had been the sworn enemy of religion since the mid-19th century in Europe. The first president of Cornell, Andrew Dickson White wrote the definitive study of the “war” as a kind of charter for the University’s way of doing business. Science and philosophy could do business, needed to do business. Science and religion could not. Philosophy did not want to be too closely identified with the past—with metaphysics and puzzles. In America it wanted to be identified with progress, modernity, and democracy—solutions rather than big questions.
There were reasons for this disposition, which many European intellectuals regarded as new world naiveté: Americans liked to conceit themselves as pragmatists whose minds had been disciplined by the need to civilize a barbarous continent and establish new modes of justice, trade, and practical learning in the wilderness. We were independent, self-reliant, and above all resourceful. It was not all bogus, of course, and to the extent national myths (like religious myths, which often begin as national myths) can inspire people to do important things, it was a useful piece of mythology. Ancient Greece and Rome, imperial England, Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Nuclear America believed they were exceptional; so does modern China. If the success of a national mythology can be decided by sheer numbers, China will win hands down. No empire that has come before began with a base of 1.3 billion people.
Science and technology were our friends. The cafe intellectualism of Europe was not the American way: literature and the arts could be tolerated, but had to be subdued in the interest of fulfilling the great task of completing American democracy. We would transform a continent with universal education. We would translate civilization into its scientific elements.
The whole project smelled like a Congregational chapel—for good reason—because many of its early enthusiasts were hard headed New Englanders who associated religious excess—especially Roman Catholicism–with superstition and dogma. The Calvinist spirit (without the rough bits) was all about hard work, progress, and the brighter future. By comparison, Catholicism seemed dour, otherworldly, and focused on the miseries of this life.
Most (the un-churchable Santayana being the exception) were liberal Protestants or post-credalists, and they were joined early on by reform- and secular Jews (“Jewnitarians”) who frequently styled themselves secular, ethical or “cultural Jews” rather than anti-theists. God was the focus of this project only to the degree that some ways of doing him service involved structures and habits of thought that seemed undemocratic and regressive to the theorists.
There was scarcely an anti-God faction at Harvard or Columbia in 1911; but there was certainly a strong sense that medievalism (closely identified with Catholic ritual and belief, and especially with the Irish and Italian “problem”) was the culprit in retarding scientific progress and thus not really suited for the work of the Redeemer Nation. Harvard’s premier historian Henry Adams was so fiercely anti-Semitic that it was said if he “saw Vesuvius reddening… [he] searched for a Jew stoking the fire.” In a strange alliance, both the men of the prairie and the men of the ivory tower were anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The America of farmers, inventors, money makers and engineers was a land of common sense and practical virtue. One such practical virtue in the age of innovation was a suspicion of “foreigners” and people with dark skin.
If America ever had an ivory tower, it was pretty close to the ground. Swelling numbers of observant Jews, Poles, Irish, Germans and Irish were an obvious focus for metropolitan professors in New York, Chicago and Boston. German monks in tea-total Midwestern counties were making wine. Milwaukee and Saint Louis became Bavarian beer towns at a time when there were restrictions against alcohol in most major cities. even in Boston. Yet when Catholics weren’t boozing they were founding colleges and schools: Notre Dame in 1842, Georgetown in 1817; the coup de grace for the Irish in New England, Boston College in 1864. Reform-minded Jews formed Hebrew Union College in 1875.
What was not as conspicuous or threatening as the influx of European Catholics and Jews was the rural phenomenon of the radio evangelists operating on weak AM frequencies throughout the south and southwest whose religious groanings, healings and exhortations were confined to a (then) fairly thin Bible belt, a term coined by H L Mencken in the 1920’s to describe the growth of conservative Protestantism.
A few intellectuals—Mencken is the best known—paid attention to their potential influence; but Mencken was a Catholic, if a critical one, and a German one, who hated the Irish almost as much as did the denizens of Beacon Hill. Long before the Red State, Blue State divide, which in evolutionary terms is its offspring, these Americas hardly had anything to do with one another: distance, communication, and blissful isolation made it possible for iron age religion and atomic age intellectualism to go about their business well into the 1950’s, without really getting in each other’s way, aware of each other only as one might be aware of a distant kingdom. The intersections are few and far between, with the Scopes trial being the one that everybody knows a little about. In those days, the liberal east, the hominy south, the untamed west (save California), and the politely dull Middle West—and Texas—were not myths but social realities, rich and poor, smart and dumb fiefdoms of post-Civil War America.
The push to counter the effects of regressive, conservative religion on education, political life and culture was really an effect of the communications revolution. Evangelicals discovered TV and saw its potential as a vehicle for missionizing millions of previously unreachable people. And millions of folks (as we were now called) discovered evangelical Christianity as a result. It’s hard to overstate the impact that a Billy Graham, an Oral Roberts, and later on a Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and a Pat Robertson, had on the American psyche.
The response from the ivory tower was, unsurprisingly, negligible. For most Americans—myself included—it was a sideshow, something that junked up the airwaves on Sunday morning before real programming started with “Meet the Press”. But for anyone who grew up in the 1960’s and later, this junk, not counting a quick television Mass for shut-ins, was the face of American religion. It was religion.
The reason that religion sold and reason didn’t was fairly simple. Religion has been marketing itself since the first apostle drew a crowd, probably since the first priest slaughtered a goat. Science and reason had about as much market value as sand, and for most “folks” (who had no idea what went into the increasingly complex technologies they used) it was no part of their life. In the space age, while half of America gloated that we had been first on the moon, the other half waited confidently to be transported to heaven without rocket boosters. Nowhere else on earth did this partitioning of thought exist as radically as it did in America. –It still does in the anti-science wars that some politicians fight for the folks back home in Oklahoma.
But atheists and “secularists” (the word was uncommon in America, more familiar in Britain) to the extent they existed in a common cause were not the first on the frontlines against the rise of the evangelicals. It was liberal Christians and Jews, who had kept alive the humanistic foundations of their theology and ethics. Many were the sons and grandsons of European intellectuals, but few were born in Europe, and what they produced was a far more distinctively American voice than philosophy was able to do. The proof, by the 1950’s, is that almost everyone in Europe had heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, whereas very few academic philosophers (Bertrand Russell being an exception) were reading John Dewey. Partly this was a matter of style: The theologians spoke about real social problems, unfair labour practices, child welfare, slums and sanitation, unbridled capitalism—issues they thought found a response in the Gospel. Though it’s widely forgotten, the Temperance movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, though edged with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feeling, was primarily a campaign by women protesting the abuse of women and squandering of rent money by drunken husbands. It was tinged with puritanical feeling, but many members of the WCTU were progressive social thinkers who, if they had lived in the 1970’s, would have been feminists. Jane Addams, perhaps the leading female voice of the progressive era, found her vocation after reading Tolstoy’s confessional biography, My Religion, and with several women contemporaries saw it as her mission to bring Christianity back to its social roots—the compassion of Jesus. Addams increasingly leaned towards Unitarianism and served as a part-time leader of the Ethical Society of Chicago, then one of two great centers for religious humanism and interfaith discussion in America. The philosophers, while they were sometimes profound and even (like Santayana) eloquent, spoke like philosophers.
The Religious Response to American Religion
The roundest opposition to the early growth of religious yahooism came from the prestigious seminaries and divinity schools, especially from Harvard, Chicago and Union Theological Seminary: Reinhold Niebuhr, James Luther Adams, William Foxwell Albright, and dozens of others made not just national but international contributions to the scientific study of religion and the field of applied ethics.
If their work was not noticed by the yahoos it was scarcely noticed by the philosophers either. The uptick in religious fundamentalism convinced many in the post-Dewey generation at Columbia that religion in general was a bad thing, despite the fact serious work in the field was being done just across Riverside Drive. Europe itself after the War had become post-religious but not anti-religion, a tendency reflected in the work of Martin Buber, Rudolph Otto, the distinguished Romanian phenomenologist (who spent his most productive years at Chicago), Mercea Eliade and Germany’s gift to both Union and Harvard, Paul Tillich and France’s to Chicago, Paul Ricoeur. The field of philosophy of religion was even more distinguished with the emigration to Cambridge, Massachusetts, of Alfred North Whitehead in 1924, who (inadvertently) spawned a whole generation of philosophers of religion and process theologians, including Charles Hartshorne. Upon reading Religion in the Making (1926) H. Richard Niebuhr, the Yale theologian, said simply, “This is the gospel.”
Although these men differed widely in their approach to the study of religion, they understood that the proper study of religion is the study of religion in its human and cultural complexity, through the study of languages, the social sciences (especially psychology and anthropology), history and archaeology, human behavior, mythography and literature. Religion was both man on his own (“in his solitariness,” Whitehead said) and man in community. It involved belief, but it was also, perhaps primarily, behavioural and cultural. It needed to be studied, to be understood—not just from the top (God) down, but from the bottom up. Religion could not be reified apart from culture and context; it was not good or bad. It was an expression of the dichotomous realities of human existence.
As a result of the new way of looking at religion as “an object of human study” Harvard paved the way in 1939 with the granting of the first American PhD in the study of religion—what the Germans called Religionswissenschaft—the empirical or scientific study of religion. The course of study was famously rigorous, outclassing in depth and sophistication anything then on offer in England and all but a very few German universities—though the paradigm and form of study was a German one. As late as my time at Harvard Divinity School, three of five chairs in biblical studies were held by Germans, one by a Swede, and the other by a prominent Jesuit copticist trained at Cambridge. If Jimmy Swaggart revivals was “religion” to millions of Americans, something far more interesting was religion to a few.
Incredibly, the new atheists entirely missed this historic revolution in the new way of thinking about religion. Religion for them was simply the excrescent of what deluded people did with their free time (witness, the title of Dawkins’s book). It was “default answer” to every puzzling question the world can pose to us—about origins, evolution, nature, the cosmos, ethics and the meaning of life.
As far as I am aware, no single work of serious scientific interpretation of religion or ethical theory is even alluded to in any of the canonical new atheist books—a fact that makes the intellectual hubris of their critique all the more stunning.
No major thread of theological thought, from Schleiermacher to Tillich and Hartshorne is mentioned. The impact of French Existential thought, which seriously attempted to explain the existential basis of humanism is not mentioned. The influence of German phenomenology is not mentioned. The humanistic religious ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson and Jacques Maritain—all of whom talked about the continuing evolution of human creativity–are not mentioned, even though the last was the key theorist behind the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, and the Catholic philosopher Charles Malik (who studied with Whitehead) was one of its drafters.
The humanistic undergirding of the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) of John XXIII which spawned the Peace Movement of the late-sixties is not mentioned. No significant discovery in biblical studies (there were thousands), textual or archaeological, is mentioned. And most glaringly, no reference is made to “religion’s” seminal influence on the liberation and progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister who like many black theologians saw the Book of Exodus and the compassion of God as tropes for his struggle. Phyllis Trible, Dorothy Soelle, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, Tikkva Frymer Kensky did more to expand the world’s consciousness of patriarchy and the institutions it supported than any “secular” or atheist writer of the era: all would have defined themselves as humanists. The eco-theology of Thomas Berry is not mentioned. The famous defense of the medieval Church’s role in preserving humanistic learning and values by Christopher Dawson, perhaps the leading cultural historian of the twentieth century, is not mentioned. Not even the seminal contributions of Jesuit F C Copleston—whom A J Ayer called the most “capable and comprehensive mind of his generation”—is mentioned. The atheist movement generated by Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion is the only example of academic creation ex nihilo in human history.
The period from 1868 to 2000 was a period of almost unbridled progress in the empirical study of religion and creative theology and ethics: but for the new atheists, it is a black hole–a pile of discredited medieval superstition delivered wholesale by dutiful monks and hayseed pioneers into the modern era. Wearing a blindfold provided by intellectual cluelessness and ignorance of any information beyond their outdated agenda, “religion” remained for the new atheists the dead horse of discarded beliefs, a beast that would not lie down.
Secular Humanism: The Light that Failed
Beginning in the 1930’s a few concerned observers of American religion tried to counter the influence of religion in America by proposing an alternative “faith.”
The term “humanism” was eventually commandeered to describe a collection of ideas, attitudes, values and virtues that came not from religion but from science, or more broadly, “modern” thought. The step had already been taken in England with the founding of the British Humanist Association (founded in the 19th century and incorporated in 1928) with attempts to separate out the teaching of ethics from the “religious education” classes that formed part of the compulsory subjects in all British schools.
Probably correctly, some American observers of the British scene saw trouble ahead for American education—not just (or even primarily) in the protestant South, but in the Catholic Northeast and in the religious sprawl of the big cities where large numbers of immigrants had settled. The relic of the anti-Catholic prejudice of this era is reflected in one of the most enduring symbols of resistance to public education: the Catholic school system.
Although the Catholic school system was a regular target for hostility from nativists and a growing number of democratic secularists, the immigrant Church of Irish, German, Italian and early on French nuns and priests considered American public education inferior to the rich tradition of learning they could provide the children of the burgeoning Catholic population. Church-based education was not the place one went to hide from teaching about evolution or science and the arts; it was the place you were sure to be taught better science, solid mathematics, and proper English, at least one foreign language (Latin)—with catechism as a bonus. The proof of its success until very recently was the significantly higher scores Catholic high school students received on standard achievement tests like the SATs.
Outside the cities the public school system was not secular but protestant, and the deeper into rural areas one went, Bible-thumping evangelically protestant. The Bible was read each day; prayers were said; devotions were held; hymns were sung. No one objected, except a few itinerant Catholics, Jews, and the miscreant children of freethinking parents.
Ironically, the influence of religion in American schools, which notionally benefited from the First Amendment’s protection against religious “establishment,” was far more invidious than in England, where the study of religion was a benign “doily subject” –virtue education—and not immersed in anti-scientific thinking. Nothing privileged religion more directly than having a Constitutional amendment designed to keep it out of the public square.
But religion had always been a problem in America—even from before the Revolution—and by the 1920’s the First Amendment was under severe stress.
In 1933, a Michigan philosopher, Roy Wood Sellars, and a Unitarian minister, Raymond Bragg, drafted the first “Humanist Manifesto,” essentially a liberal religious document that spoke of a new, non-dogmatic faith that would replace the sectarian rivalries of traditional religion, eschew “supernaturalism” and embrace progress and the future. There was nothing especially exciting about the document; it struck a balance somewhere between Unitarianism (”Deed, not creed”) and the heavily Jewish ethical culture movement, itself a spin on the ethical societies that had begun as reformed Unitarian chapels in London and Manchester.
The Manifesto was mildly “communistic” in its call for an end to “the acquisitive profit motivated society”, language which later haunted the American Humanist Association –until 1973 when a new Manifesto was drafted by philosopher Paul Kurtz and Unitarian minister Edwin Wilson.
I have written fairly extensively about this document and there is no need to repeat it here. Basically, Kurtz and Wilson—but especially Kurtz –were far tougher on religion than the first manifesto: Indeed, it was largely a political document frosted with the constructive angst and progressive ideologies of the era: Pro-abortion, anti-war, anti-poverty, pro-technology, and pro- science. It’s most famous statement, “No God can save us, we must save ourselves,” was banal enough that it could have been attributed to any one of a thousand morbid existentialists of the period.
The “secular humanism” that emerged from the Manifesto was sufficiently indistinguishable from a political platform that it ceased to be anything resembling humanism. When Kurtz founded his own organization (originally the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism) in 1981, he coined the term secular humanism to distinguish his position from the religious humanism of the earlier manifestos and considered them superseded by a booklet he wrote called “What is Secular Humanism.” (1980) and a document signed by a large number of academics concerned about the growing influence of religion on American politics, A Secular Humanist Declaration.
In it he tried to sequester religion as a system of thought that sprang from preliterate and prescientific agrarian societies that have no purchase on the modern view of the world: “Secular humanists contend that issues concerning ethics, appropriate social and legal conduct, and the methodologies of science are philosophical and are not part of the domain of religion, which deals with the supernatural, mystical and transcendent.”
Strictly speaking, this assertion was not borne out by the role religion played even in American society, where the vast majority of religious concerns were unrelated to the supernatural and the “transcendent,” and had everything to do with ethics and society. The attempt to wrest the term humanism from its religious foundations was, in both practical and intellectual terms, a colossal failure.
In a little-read final paper (Humanist Manifesto 2000) Kurtz struck a more positive tone which reflected his growing dissatisfaction with the purely negative or “denialist” ideas that followers of his movement had come to express The document repeated the main error of the earlier one: “Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character….” and “have their origins in ancient pre-urban, nomadic, and agricultural societies of the past, not in the modern industrial or postindustrial global information culture that is emerging.” (I once chided him that if he was referring to the Bible, nomads don’t write books and are pastoral rather than agricultural, and that the most outlandish mystical language I hear today is from politicians invoking the favour of a mythical being called The American people.) But as an attempt to rescue his project from an insurgent atheist takeover of the store, the document made some of the right noises about human rights and the global future—the “human prospect.”
Several years before he died, Kurtz confessed his belief that the term “secular humanism” had been the wrong phrase, a conviction he enshrined in the name of the organization he founded a few years before his death, the Institute for Science and Human Values.
He lived to see the takeover of his organization by the atheist hordes—the subversion of the phrase to mean exactly what Humpty Dumpty wants it to mean. Its range of projects and topics looked more and more like a Jackson Pollock canvas; whatever colour you threw at it could be called secular humanism. Sartre in What is Existentialism? despaired that the term had become so general that “it has ceased to mean anything at all.” Kurtz witnessed a similar devaluation of the phrase he tried to popularize from as early as the 1970’s.
Paul Kurtz entered the battle when the term humanism was still used inclusively to mean both those “non-theists” who rejected, with various intensity, belief in God, and those others who rejected religion to the extent it was a dodge from the scientific naturalism he saw as the basis for all meaningful knowledge of the world. He was cautious about, but never dismissive of religious humanism and had dozens of friends in the Ethical movements of the United States and Britain. In the many conferences I planned with him and for him as the chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, the majority of participants came from the leading departments of religion and divinity schools of the United States and Europe—very few could have been styled atheists. On hundreds of occasions, he implored the hardcore atheists in his organization to “rise above” their negativity and look for positive alternatives to the absence of religion, which would be the condition of the global future.
Yet Kurtz believed strongly that the term “humanism,” unqualified, always smacked of “religion,” and so always insisted that the adjective “secular” be appended to it. He frequently repeated his belief that the term was needed to highlight the nontheistic character of a particular form of humanistic idealism, one that regarded science rather than revelation as the basis of understanding the world.
In so doing he quietly acknowledged its lineage. And in so doing he could never have said that “humanism is the opposite of religion.”