Secular Humanism Defined
Coined four decades ago by advertising executive Rosser Reeves, “unique selling proposition” means a distinctive and meaningful characteristic that only one among a cluster of competitors exhibits.1 It’s the thing that makes your message or product different from any other. If secular humanism exhibits such a characteristic, then that would almost certainly justify its existence as an independent life stance—and demonstrate the need for a dedicated organization to be its advocate.
To me, secular humanism’s unique selling proposition is rooted in the balance it strikes between cognitive and emotional/affective commitments. Paul Kurtz captures this when he identifies knowledge (cognitive) and courage and caring (affective) as “key humanist virtues.”2 Christopher Hitchens makes the same point more obliquely when he contrasts “those who believe that god favors thuggish, tribal human designs, and those who don’t believe in god and who oppose thuggery and tribalism on principle” (emphasis added).3
Secular humanism’s cognitive thrust lies in its naturalistic worldview; its emotional or affective thrust lies in its positive ethical outlook. Each element is equally essential to secular humanism; neither stands alone. I submit that this meaningfully differentiates secular humanism from religious humanism, and from simple atheism as well. Continuing with Hitchens’s language, secular humanists necessarily disbelieve in God (naturalism) and just as necessarily oppose thuggery and tribalism on principle (an outgrowth of ethics). Of course, many atheists, agnostics, and religious humanists do the same. But when atheists and agnostics adopt positive ethics, they do so for reasons independent of their atheism or agnosticism. When religious humanists defend naturalism, they do so for reasons outside the boundaries of their religious humanism. Only for the secular humanist do both commitments arise organically within his or her life stance.Drawing Clear Boundaries: Pencil Sketch
Unlike religious humanism, secular humanism eschews transcendentalism in any and all forms. Depending on the context, transcendentalism can mean outright mysticism, the “spiritual” (itself a term with many meanings), or simply a rush toward emotional closure disproportionate to the knowable data. However defined, transcendentalism is rejected by secular humanists in favor of a rigorous philosophical naturalism: “naturalists maintain that there is insufficient scientific evidence for spiritual interpretations of reality and the postulation of occult causes.”4
How about atheism? When people ask me whether I’m an atheist, I say, “Yes, but that’s just the beginning.” Unlike simple atheism, secular humanism affirms an ethical system that is:
rooted in the world of experience;
equally accessible to every human who cares to inquire into value issues.
I make this point cautiously, since religionists often falsely accuse atheists of having no values. Most atheists I know have strong value systems. In fact, some of my favorite atheists are secular humanists without knowing it. But atheism is only a position on the existence of God, not a comprehensive life stance. Nothing about atheism as such compels atheists to adopt any particular value system. British author Jeaneane Fowler noted that “while atheism is a ubiquitous characteristic of secular humanism, the most that can be said of an atheist is that he or she does not have belief in any kind of deity; the majority of atheists have no connection” with secular humanism.5
The same is true for agnostics (who doubt God’s existence on epistemological grounds) and freethinkers (who engage in systematic, rational criticism of religious doctrines). Like atheism, these stances are not morally self-sufficient. Freethinkers who call it unfair of God to condemn his creations to hell must reach outside of freethought to construct a concept of fairness. Secular humanism is unique among these life stances in that it contains within itself all the raw materials needed to construct inspiring value systems that are both realistic and humane.What Are Secular Humanist Ethics?
Secular humanism propounds a rational ethics based on human experience. It is consequentialist: ethical choices are judged by their results. Secular humanist ethics appeals to science, reason, and experience to justify its ethical principles. Observers can evaluate the real-world consequences of moral decisions and intersubjectively affirm their conclusions. Kurtz and other secular humanists argue that all human societies, even deeply religious ones, invariably construct consensus moralities on consequentialist principles. Millennia of human experience have given rise to a core of “common moral decencies” shared by almost all.6
Human happiness and social justice are the larger goals of secular humanist ethics. For Owen Flanagan, “[e]thics … is systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.”7 These conditions include freedom from want and fear, freedom of conscience, freedom to inquire, freedom to self-govern, and so on. Undergirding all of these is a keen commitment to individualism. Secular humanism takes upon itself the Enlightenment project of emancipating individuals from illicit controls of every type: the political control of repressive regimes; the ecclesiastical control of organized religion; even the social controls of societal and family expectations, conventional morality, and the tyranny of the village. This does not mean that anything goes but rather that social and political limits on human freedom must be justified by the individual and social benefits they confer.
Secular humanism affirms the values of both creative and individual self-realization and cosmopolitanism. Therefore, secular humanists sometimes defy ideals of the Left as well as the Right. Free Inquiry has opposed political and religious correctness, defending the right to criticize any teaching, even teachings revered by religious or ethnic communities. We support social and cultural fluidity, for example, championing intermarriage and assimilation when liberal opinion has sought to preserve static ethnic and religious identities.The Heritage of Secular Humanism
Though different from atheism and religious humanism, secular humanism owes a great deal to both traditions. In fact, secular humanism is best understood as a synthesis of atheism and freethought, from which it derives its cognitive component, and religious humanism, from which it derives its emotional/affective component.
Atheism and freethought trace their roots to ancient Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on rational inquiry and curiosity about the workings of nature. Other sources included early Chinese Confucianism, ancient Indian materialists, and Roman Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. Submerged during the Dark Ages, freethought re-emerged in the Renaissance. With the Enlightenment, rationalist and empiricist thinkers laid foundations for the modern scientific outlook. Utilitarians emancipated morality from religion, foreshadowing consequentialism. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ushered in a golden age for freethought. With the turn of the twentieth century, this flame flickered, but an abiding tradition remained that decades later would emerge as secular humanism.
Religious humanism also began with Greek philosophy and its hope of achieving the good life through human agency. Rome’s Epicureans and Stoics offered early human-centered value systems. Renaissance humanism, a literary and philosophical movement, assigned prime importance to earthly happiness. Ironically, even the Reformation left its stamp on religious humanism, infusing the notion of the primacy of individual conscience. Liberal religion would be religious humanism’s immediate ancestor. Universalism, originally a Christian denial of eternal damnation, was founded in 1780. Unitarianism, which renounced the Trinity, formed its first American congregation in 1785 and organized as a church in 1819. In 1876, Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler; it continues as today’s American Ethical Union.
Religious humanism budded from liberal religion in the early twentieth century. Humanist Manifesto I (1933) crystallized a movement among Unitarians that was already two decades old. Drafted by philosopher Roy Wood Sellars, Unitarian minister Raymond Bragg, and others, the unfortunately named Manifesto was signed by thirty-three Unitarian ministers and also philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952).
The principal religious humanist organization is the American Humanist Association (AHA), founded in 1941. (While AHA’s aims extend beyond religious humanism and include naturalistic humanism, it serves as “home organization” for a great many religious humanists.) Other religious humanist organizations include the American Ethical Union, the North American Committee for Humanism, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the former Friends of Religious Humanism, now calling itself “HUUmanists,” and the Humanist Society of Friends. The latter two organizations are now included within the AHA. Religious humanism defends its identity vigorously. For instance, in 2001, an Austin, Texas, Ethical Culture society sued the state of Texas, winning recognition as religious for tax purposes although it asserts no belief in a deity.8
Though the term secular humanism appeared prior to 1961, no organization existed specifically to advocate it until Paul Kurtz and others formed the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) in 1980. The name expressed opposition to totalitarian nontheisms such as those in the communist world. CODESH issued A Secular Humanist Declaration, the successor to Humanist Manifesto II (1973). Free Inquiry was launched late in 1980, publishing the full text of the Declaration in its inaugural issue. In 1996, CODESH shortened its name to the Council for Secular Humanism, the fall of communism having rendered the modifier “democratic” unnecessary. In 1999, the Council issued Humanist Manifesto 2000, the most recent restatement of the secular humanist position.Secularism, Religion, and Confusion
We come to the crux: Is secular humanism a religion? An orientation document on the [former] Council for Secular Humanism Web site said no: “Secular humanism lacks essential characteristics of a religion.”9 Everyday parlance assumes that religion has to do with a god or gods, life eternal, and similar supernatural claims. Yet thinkers as varied as John Dewey, Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and A.H. Maslow (1908–1970) sought to extend the definition of the words religion or religious so as to encompass “ultimate concerns” with or without transcendental content. In A Common Faith, Dewey chose to define religion and religious dissimilarly. Religion retained its common association with the transcendent or supernatural while religious was held to subsume any commitment of deep significance.10 (See the sidebar for etymological profiles of words important to this controversy.)
Still, common—that is, pre-Deweyan—usage holds that the genuinely religious necessarily involves the supernatural or transcendent. Common usage has its advantages, not least that it sustains discrete meanings for terms like philosophy and ethics. I still stand by a definition of religion I offered in these pages in 1996: Religion is a “life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience.”11
From this definition, it follows that in order to be a genuine religious humanist, one must believe in something that is unprovable in this world. One needn’t believe in a deity or a spiritual substance (though some religious humanists do)—one might simply cling to some historical or social proposition in which one’s faith outruns the available evidence. For example, Teilhardian or Tiplerian optimists who believe in the inevitable perfectibility or triumph of humankind would qualify as religious humanists. So would dedicated Marxists, ironically enough. And of course, there are human-centered thinkers who nonetheless believe in a fairly literal kind of spirit, in the human soul or elan vital, or in a disembodied system of karma: their claim to the term religious humanist is uncontroversial.
On the other hand, if my definition of religion is correct, then a great many self-declared religious humanists … just aren’t. I suspect that three principal processes make religious humanism seem a more popular option than it actually is.
The first process is improperly ascribing the word religious to a secularized “spirituality” from which all transcendence has been wrung. In the Summer 2002 issue of Free Inquiry, Matt Young and Malcolm D. Wise wrote eloquently that they had abandoned transcendentalism.12 For Young, religion had been reduced essentially to an ethnic and social heritage. Wise argued that a wholly this-worldly awe in the face of nature’s wonders served as “spirituality” for him. Based on my definition of religion, I respectfully disagree. If you have journeyed beyond the possibility of belief in any literal transcendence, congratulations—but please find another label. You are not religious, and “religious humanist” misstates your position.
The second process is less edifying and requires little comment. No doubt some who claim the label “religious humanists” simply find it a useful way to avoid having to admit their unbelief.
The third process by which I believe the prevalence of religious humanism is exaggerated is also the most interesting. Some wholly naturalistic humanists call themselves “religious” because their practice of humanism retains certain forms that echo congregational life. I have come to see this as a misnomer. Humanists vary in their enthusiasm for rites of passage, ceremonies, and similar communal symbolic activities. One could arrange us along a spectrum, from crusty freethinkers who disdain ritual in any form to enthusiasts who find humanist ceremonies deeply satisfying. It is tempting verbal shorthand to say that the curmudgeons are “more secular,” the ceremonialists “more religious.” The analogy seems to ring so true: the curmudgeons reject everything “churchly,” some of which the ceremonialists preserve. But this is profoundly misleading. After all, nothing prevents a thoroughgoing naturalist—by our definition, an irreligious person—from cherishing humanist ceremonies. The split between humanists who embrace humanist ceremonial and those who scorn it is not a split between religious and secular humanism; it belongs on some other spectrum. When we confuse genuine religiosity—that is, transcendentalism—with the mere taste for ceremonial, we misrepresent both. And we run the risk that secular humanists holding solidly naturalistic worldviews will mislocate themselves in the religious humanist camp solely because they relish ritual.
I’ll conclude my “pencil sketch” phase by offering two blunt conclusions:
People who hold no transcendent beliefs but don the “religious humanist” label are being dishonest—either with the public, or with themselves.
Because it lacks any reliance on (or acceptance of) the transcendent, secular humanism is not—and cannot be—a religion.Humanism, Religion, and the Prayer Warriors
Our denials aside, Christian Right activists ceaselessly make the case that secular humanism is a religion. In 1980, Religious Right activist Phyllis Schlafly charged: “Secular Humanism has become the established religion of the U.S. public school system … and the various rationales that have caused public schools to eliminate prayer, moral training, and the teaching of basics.”13
Fifteen years later, little had changed. In 1995, Pat Buchanan thundered: “We see the God of the Bible expelled from our public schools and replaced by all the false gods of secular humanism.”14
Most recently, fundamentalists Tim LaHaye and David Noebel are still pounding that drum. In Mind Siege, their best-selling polemic endorsed by many powerful leaders of the Religious Right, they inveigh: “Until the American people realize that humanism is a religion, not simply a naïve philosophy or modern educational theory, the humanists will continue their siege on the minds of our children.”15
By calling secular humanism a religion, Christian Right activists hope to bar modern science, evolutionary theory, sex education, nonbiblical values, and pedagogical innovation from public schools. In other words, “secular humanism has to be extirpated.”16 Large campaigns have been mounted to achieve this. In 1986, 624 parents aided by then-Governor George Wallace sued Alabama, alleging that forty-four public school textbooks unconstitutionally promoted the “religion of secular humanism.” The case, heard initially by a sympathetic federal judge, W. Brevard Hand, became a media circus. Subpoenaed to the trial, Paul Kurtz was cross-examined for ten hours about whether secular humanism was or was not religious.17 (Judge Hand’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs was overturned on appeal.18)
Those who paint secular humanism as a religion often—and incorrectly—claim the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a footnote to Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), Justice Hugo L. Black wrote: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.” Justice Black just had his facts wrong. More important, personal footnotes, or dicta, are not considered part of Supreme Court decisions and carry no weight as legal precedent. That didn’t keep then-Justice Antonin Scalia and then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist from citing the footnote in their pro-creationist dissent to 1987’s EdwardsAguilard.
In Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, a 1994 ruling that never faced appeal, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals explicitly denied that the Torcaso footnote constituted a legal finding that secular humanism is a religion. “Neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes,” said the court. “Indeed, both the dictionary definition of religion and the clear weight of the case law are to the contrary.”19
After years of Religious Right activism, overt religious expression is more prevalent in public schools than at any time since 1962. Is the charge that secular humanism is a religion still potent? As we’ve seen, Christian activists go on playing the “religion of secular humanism” card. I conclude that we are wise to scent danger if secular humanism and religion are further conflated in the public mind.
Complicating our task is the undeniable presence of humanists and humanist organizations that are outspokenly religious. Through no fault of its own, simply by existing, religious humanism gives aid and comfort to the prayer warriors.
These nested confusions simply underscore the urgency that secular humanism be unmistakably clear in upholding its nonreligious identity.Drawing Clear Boundaries: This Time, in Ink
Secular humanism occupies one point on a spectrum of reformist orientations, between atheism on the “left” and religious humanism on the “right.” Drawing from all across this spectrum, it is a vigorous hybrid whose debt to its source traditions should never be forgotten.
Atheism lends a valuable critique of outmoded, regressive religious systems. We welcome its vision of a universe upon which meaning was never imposed from above. But secular humanism goes further, calling on humans to develop within the universe values of their own—as it were, from below. Further, secular humanism maintains that, through a process of value inquiry informed by scientific and reflective thought, men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.
At the same time, we acknowledge religious humanism’s compassion and its focus on human-centered values. Nonetheless, secular humanists reject religious humanism’s conviction that leaning on spiritual or transcendental moorings—even if lightly—is essential for the good life.
Secular humanism is invigorated by the best that atheism and religious humanism have to offer—thoroughly naturalistic, yet infused by an inspiring value system. It offers a nonreligious template that may one day guide much of humanity in pursuing truly humane lives. This is the fulfillment of secularism as George Jacob Holyoake imagined it (see definitions): the successful quest for the good life, intellectually, ethically, emotionally rich, and without any reliance on religious faith.A Secular Humanist Definition
We can now attempt our definition of secular humanism. Secular humanism begins with atheism (absence of belief in a deity) and agnosticism or skepticism (epistemological caution that rejects the transcendent as such due to a lack of evidence). Because no transcendent power will save us, secular humanists maintain that humans must take responsibility for themselves. While atheism is a necessary condition for secular humanism, it is not a sufficient one. Far from living in a moral vacuum, secular humanists “wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness and the capacity for free choice and an understanding of the consequences thereof.”20
Secular humanism emerges, then, as a comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system. That is the definition I offer.Secular Humanism and the Council’s Unique Mission
Secular humanism indeed possesses a “unique selling proposition.” Its full richness cannot be captured by an umbrella organization that encompasses the value neutrality of atheism and the epistemological neutrality of religious humanism. Atheism and freethought are distinct positions that deserve to be represented by organizations of their own. The same is true of religious humanism in its several varieties. Surely no less is true for secular humanism! As secular humanism’s principal exponent and a resolute defender of its nonreligious character, the Council for Secular Humanism fills a unique niche. It champions the best the community of reason has to offer: hard-minded scientific realism tempered by the compassionate commitment to an ethics that welcomes being judged by its results.
Speaking of results, the Council for Secular Humanism’s achievements in its almost three decades of existence are remarkable. Never in the nineteenth- or twentieth-century history of freethought or humanism has any American organization mustered as many readers and supporters, as many world-renowned thinkers, as large a staff, or such capable facilities in the service of rational thinking and humane ethics. As part of the international Center for Inquiry movement, the Council continues to flourish despite powerful religious and cultural forces ranged against it.
Secular humanism is a balanced and fulfilling life stance. It is more than atheism, more than “unhyphenated humanism”; it offers its own significant emergent qualities. The secular humanist agenda is a full one—in my opinion, an essential agenda for contemporary civilization. Surely it is more than enough to justify the existence of an independent organization dedicated to implementing it. The Council for Secular Humanism has a compelling mission, one we will continue to pursue with determination and vigor.
Written by Tom Flynn
for the Council of Secular Humanism
Affirmations of Humanism
We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
Drafted by Paul Kurtz
for the Council of Secular Humanism.
A Secular Humanist DeclarationIntroduction
Secular humanism is a vital force in the contemporary world. It is now under unwarranted and intemperate attack from various quarters. This declaration defends only that form of secular humanism which is explicitly committed to democracy. It is opposed to all varieties of belief that seek supernatural sanction for their values or espouse rule by dictatorship. Democratic secular humanism has been a powerful force in world culture. Its ideals can be traced to the philosophers, scientists, and poets of classical Greece and Rome, to ancient Chinese Confucian society, to the Carvaka movement of India, and to other distinguished intellectual and moral traditions. Secularism and humanism were eclipsed in Europe during the Dark Ages, when religious piety eroded humankind's confidence in its own powers to solve human problems. They reappeared in force during the Renaissance with the reassertion of secular and humanist values in literature and the arts, again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the development of modern science and a naturalistic view of the universe, and their influence can be found in the eighteenth century in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.
Democratic secular humanism has creatively flowered in modern times with the growth of freedom and democracy. Countless millions of thoughtful persons have espoused secular humanist ideals, have lived significant lives, and have contributed to the building of a more humane and democratic world. The modern secular humanist outlook has led to the application of science and technology to the improvement of the human condition. This has had a positive effect on reducing poverty, suffering, and disease in various parts of the world, in extending longevity, on improving transportation and communication, and in making the good life possible for more and more people. It has led to the emancipation of hundreds of millions of people from the exercise of blind faith and fears of superstition and has contributed to their education and the enrichment of their lives.
Secular humanism has provided an impetus for humans to solve their problems with intelligence and perseverance, to conquer geographic and social frontiers, and to extend the range of human exploration and adventure. Regrettably, we are today faced with a variety of antisecularist trends: the reappearance of dogmatic authoritarian religions; fundamentalist, literalist, and doctrinaire Christianity; a rapidly growing and uncompromising Moslem clericalism in the Middle East and Asia; the reassertion of orthodox authority by the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy; nationalistic religious Judaism; and the reversion to obscurantist religions in Asia.
New cults of unreason as well as bizarre paranormal and occult beliefs, such as belief in astrology, reincarnation, and the mysterious power of alleged psychics, are growing in many Western societies. These disturbing developments follow in the wake of the emergence in the earlier part of the twentieth century of intolerant messianic and totalitarian quasi religious movements, such as fascism and communism. These religious activists not only are responsible for much of the terror and violence in the world today but stand in the way of solutions to the world's most serious problems.
Paradoxically, some of the critics of secular humanism maintain that it is a dangerous philosophy. Some assert that it is "morally corrupting" because it is committed to individual freedom, others that it condones "injustice" because it defends democratic due process. We who support democratic secular humanism deny such charges, which are based upon misunderstanding and misinterpretation, and we seek to outline a set of principles that most of us share.
Secular humanism is not a dogma or a creed. There are wide differences of opinion among secular humanists on many issues. Nevertheless, there is a loose consensus with respect to several propositions. We are apprehensive that modern civilization is threatened by forces antithetical to reason, democracy, and freedom. Many religious believers will no doubt share with us a belief in many secular humanist and democratic values, and we welcome their joining with us in the defense of these ideals.Free Inquiry
The first principle of democratic secular humanism is its commitment to free inquiry. We oppose any tyranny over the mind of man, any efforts by ecclesiastical, political, ideological, or social institutions to shackle free thought. In the past, such tyrannies have been directed by churches and states attempting to enforce the edicts of religious bigots. In the long struggle in the history of ideas, established institutions, both public and private, have attempted to censor inquiry, to impose orthodoxy on beliefs and values, and to excommunicate heretics and extirpate unbelievers. Today, the struggle for free inquiry has assumed new forms. Sectarian ideologies have become the new theologies that use political parties and governments in their mission to crush dissident opinion. Free inquiry entails recognition of civil liberties as integral to its pursuit, that is, a free press, freedom of communication, the right to organize opposition parties and to join voluntary associations, and freedom to cultivate and publish the fruits of scientific, philosophical, artistic, literary, moral and religious freedom. Free inquiry requires that we tolerate diversity of opinion and that we respect the right of individuals to express their beliefs, however unpopular they may be, without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanctions. Though we may tolerate contrasting points of view, this does not mean that they are immune to critical scrutiny. The guiding premise of those who believe in free inquiry is that truth is more likely to be discovered if the opportunity exists for the free exchange of opposing opinions; the process of interchange is frequently as important as the result. This applies not only to science and to everyday life, but to politics, economics, morality, and religion.Separation Of Church And State
Because of their commitment to freedom, secular humanists believe in the principle of the separation of church and state. The lessons of history are clear: wherever one religion or ideology is established and given a dominant position in the state, minority opinions are in jeopardy. A pluralistic, open democratic society allows all points of view to be heard. Any effort to impose an exclusive conception of Truth, Piety, Virtue, or Justice upon the whole of society is a violation of free inquiry. Clerical authorities should not be permitted to legislate their own parochial views - whether moral, philosophical, political, educational, or social - for the rest of society. Nor should tax revenues be exacted for the benefit or support of sectarian religious institutions. Individuals and voluntary associations should be free to accept or not to accept any belief and to support these convictions with whatever resources they may have, without being compelled by taxation to contribute to those religious faiths with which they do not agree. Similarly, church properties should share in the burden of public revenues and should not be exempt from taxation. Compulsory religious oaths and prayers in public institutions (political or educational) are also a violation of the separation principle. Today, nontheistic as well as theistic religions compete for attention. Regrettably, in communist countries, the power of the state is being used to impose an ideological doctrine on the society, without tolerating the expression of dissenting or heretical views. Here we see a modern secular version of the violation of the separation principle.The Ideal Of Freedom
There are many forms of totalitarianism in the modern world — secular and nonsecular — all of which we vigorously oppose. As democratic secularists, we consistently defend the ideal of freedom, not only freedom of conscience and belief from those ecclesiastical, political, and economic interests that seek to repress them, but genuine political liberty, democratic decision making based upon majority rule, and respect for minority rights and the rule of law. We stand not only for freedom from religious control but for freedom from jingoistic government control as well. We are for the defense of basic human rights, including the right to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In our view, a free society should also encourage some measure of economic freedom, subject only to such restrictions as are necessary in the public interest. This means that individuals and groups should be able to compete in the marketplace, organize free trade unions, and carry on their occupations and careers without undue interference by centralized political control. The right to private property is a human right without which other rights are nugatory. Where it is necessary to limit any of these rights in a democracy, the limitation should be justified in terms of its consequences in strengthening the entire structure of human rights.Ethics Based On Critical Intelligence
The moral views of secular humanism have been subjected to criticism by religious fundamentalist theists. The secular humanist recognizes the central role of morality in human life; indeed, ethics was developed as a branch of human knowledge long before religionists proclaimed their moral systems based upon divine authority. The field of ethics has had a distinguished list of thinkers contributing to its development: from Socrates, Democritus, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus, to Spinoza, Erasmus, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Bentham, Mill, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and others. There is an influential philosophical tradition that maintains that ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, that ethical judgments can be formulated independently of revealed religion, and that human beings can cultivate practical reason and wisdom and, by its application, achieve lives of virtue and excellence. Moreover, philosophers have emphasized the need to cultivate an appreciation for the requirements of social justice and for an individual's obligations and responsibilities toward others. Thus, secularists deny that morality needs to be deduced from religious belief or that those who do not espouse a religious doctrine are immoral. For secular humanists, ethical conduct is, or should be, judged by critical reason, and their goal is to develop autonomous and responsible individuals, capable of making their own choices in life based upon an understanding of human behavior.
Morality that is not God-based need not be antisocial, subjective, or promiscuous, nor need it lead to the breakdown of moral standards. Although we believe in tolerating diverse lifestyles and social manners, we do not think they are immune to criticism. Nor do we believe that any one church should impose its views of moral virtue and sin, sexual conduct, marriage, divorce, birth control, or abortion, or legislate them for the rest of society. As secular humanists we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Secular humanist ethics maintains that it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy. There have been any number of distinguished secularists and humanists who have demonstrated moral principles in their personal lives and works: Protagoras, Lucretius, Epicurus, Spinoza, Hume, Thomas Paine, Diderot, Mark Twain, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, Robert Ingersoll, Gilbert Murray, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Max Born, Margaret Sanger, and Bertrand Russell, among others.Moral Education
We believe that moral development should be cultivated in children and young adults. We do not believe that any particular sect can claim important values as their exclusive property; hence it is the duty of public education to deal with these values. Accordingly, we support moral education in the schools that is designed to develop an appreciation for moral virtues, intelligence, and the building of character. We wish to encourage wherever possible the growth of moral awareness and the capacity for free choice and an understanding of the consequences thereof. We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, to confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious moral practices, these young minds should not be indoctrinated in a faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves. It should be noted that secular humanism is not so much a specific morality as it is a method for the explanation and discovery of rational moral principles.Religious Skepticism
As secular humanists, we are generally skeptical about supernatural claims. We recognize the importance of religious experience: that experience that redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural. We are doubtful of traditional views of God and divinity. Symbolic and mythological interpretations of religion often serve as rationalizations for a sophisticated minority, leaving the bulk of mankind to flounder in theological confusion. We consider the universe to be a dynamic scene of natural forces that are most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However. we find that traditional views of the existence of God either are meaningless, have not yet been demonstrated to be true, or are tyrannically exploitative. Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe. They reject the idea that God has intervened miraculously in history or revealed himself to a chosen few or that he can save or redeem sinners. They believe that men and women are free and are responsible for their own destinies and that they cannot look toward some transcendent Being for salvation. We reject the divinity of Jesus, the divine mission of Moses, Mohammed, and other latter day prophets and saints of the various sects and denominations.
We do not accept as true the literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, or other allegedly sacred religious documents, however important they may be as literature. Religions are pervasive sociological phenomena, and religious myths have long persisted in human history. In spite of the fact that human beings have found religions to be uplifting and a source of solace, we do not find their theological claims to be true. Religions have made negative as well as positive contributions toward the development of human civilization. Although they have helped to build hospitals and schools and, at their best, have encouraged the spirit of love and charity, many have also caused human suffering by being intolerant of those who did not accept their dogmas or creeds. Some religions have been fanatical and repressive, narrowing human hopes, limiting aspirations, and precipitating religious wars and violence. While religions have no doubt offered comfort to the bereaved and dying by holding forth the promise of an immortal life, they have also aroused morbid fear and dread. We have found no convincing evidence that there is a separable "soul" or that it exists before birth or survives death. We must therefore conclude that the ethical life can be lived without the illusions of immortality or reincarnation. Human beings can develop the self confidence necessary to ameliorate the human condition and to lead meaningful, productive lives.Reason
We view with concern the current attack by nonsecularists on reason and science. We are committed to the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence in developing knowledge and testing claims to truth. Since human beings are prone to err, we are open to the modification of all principles, including those governing inquiry, believing that they may be in need of constant correction. Although not so naive as to believe that reason and science can easily solve all human problems, we nonetheless contend that they can make a major contribution to human knowledge and can be of benefit to humankind. We know of no better substitute for the cultivation of human intelligence.Science And Technology
We believe the scientific method, though imperfect, is still the most reliable way of understanding the world. Hence, we look to the natural, biological, social, and behavioral sciences for knowledge of the universe and man's place within it. Modern astronomy and physics have opened up exciting new dimensions of the universe: they have enabled humankind to explore the universe by means of space travel. Biology and the social and behavioral sciences have expanded our understanding of human behavior. We are thus opposed in principle to any efforts to censor or limit scientific research without an overriding reason to do so. While we are aware of, and oppose, the abuses of misapplied technology and its possible harmful consequences for the natural ecology of the human environment, we urge resistance to unthinking efforts to limit technological or scientific advances. We appreciate the great benefits that science and technology (especially basic and applied research) can bring to humankind, but we also recognize the need to balance scientific and technological advances with cultural explorations in art, music, and literature.Evolution
Today the theory of evolution is again under heavy attack by religious fundamentalists. Although the theory of evolution cannot be said to have reached its final formulation, or to be an infallible principle of science, it is nonetheless supported impressively by the findings of many sciences. There may be some significant differences among scientists concerning the mechanics of evolution; yet the evolution of the species is supported so strongly by the weight of evidence that it is difficult to reject it. Accordingly, we deplore the efforts by fundamentalists (especially in the United States) to invade the science classrooms, requiring that creationist theory be taught to students and requiring that it be included in biology textbooks. This is a serious threat both to academic freedom and to the integrity of the educational process. We believe that creationists surely should have the freedom to express their viewpoint in society. Moreover, we do not deny the value of examining theories of creation in educational courses on religion and the history of ideas; but it is a sham to mask an article of religious faith as a scientific truth and to inflict that doctrine on the scientific curriculum. If successful, creationists may seriously undermine the credibility of science itself.Education
In our view, education should be the essential method of building humane, free, and democratic societies. The aims of education are many: the transmission of knowledge; training for occupations, careers, and democratic citizenship; and the encouragement of moral growth. Among its vital purposes should also be an attempt to develop the capacity for critical intelligence in both the individual and the community. Unfortunately, the schools are today being increasingly replaced by the mass media as the primary institutions of public information and education. Although the electronic media provide unparalleled opportunities for extending cultural enrichment and enjoyment, and powerful learning opportunities, there has been a serious misdirection of their purposes. In totalitarian societies, the media serve as the vehicle of propaganda and indoctrination. In democratic societies television, radio, films, and mass publishing too often cater to the lowest common denominator and have become banal wastelands. There is a pressing need to elevate standards of taste and appreciation. Of special concern to secularists is the fact that the media (particularly in the United States) are inordinately dominated by a pro religious bias. The views of preachers, faith healers, and religious hucksters go largely unchallenged, and the secular outlook is not given an opportunity for a fair hearing. We believe that television directors and producers have an obligation to redress the balance and revise their programming. Indeed, there is a broader task that all those who believe in democratic secular humanist values will recognize, namely, the need to embark upon a long term program of public education and enlightenment concerning the relevance of the secular outlook to the human condition.Conclusion
Democratic secular humanism is too important for human civilization to abandon. Reasonable persons will surely recognize its profound contributions to human welfare. We are nevertheless surrounded by doomsday prophets of disaster, always wishing to turn the clock back - they are anti science, anti freedom, anti human. In contrast, the secular humanistic outlook is basically melioristic, looking forward with hope rather than backward with despair. We are committed to extending the ideals of reason, freedom, individual and collective opportunity, and democracy throughout the world community. The problems that humankind will face in the future, as in the past, will no doubt be complex and difficult. However, if it is to prevail, it can only do so by enlisting resourcefulness and courage. Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than in divine guidance. Skeptical of theories of redemption, damnation, and reincarnation, secular humanists attempt to approach the human situation in realistic terms: human beings are responsible for their own destinies. We believe that it is possible to bring about a more humane world, one based upon the methods of reason and the principles of tolerance, compromise, and the negotiations of difference.We recognize the need for intellectual modesty and the willingness to revise beliefs in the light of criticism. Thus consensus is sometimes attainable. While emotions are important, we need not resort to the panaceas of salvation, to escape through illusion, or to some desperate leap toward passion and violence. We deplore the growth of intolerant sectarian creeds that foster hatred. In a world engulfed by obscurantism and irrationalism it is vital that the ideals of the secular city not be lost.
A Secular Humanist Declaration was drafted by Paul Kurtz, Editor, Free Inquiry.
Humanist ManifestoI. Preamble
Humanism is an ethical, scientific, and philosophical outlook that has changed the world. Its heritage traces back to the philosophers and poets of ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and the Charvaka movement in classical India. Humanist artists, writers, scientists, and thinkers have been shaping the modern era for over half a millennium. Indeed, humanism and modernism have often seemed synonymous for humanist ideas and values express a renewed confidence in the power of human beings to solve their own problems and conquer uncharted frontiers.II. Prospects for a Better Future
For the first time in human history we possess the means provided by science and technology to ameliorate the human condition, advance happiness and freedom, and enhance human life for all people on this planet.III. Scientific Naturalism
The unique message of humanism on the current world scene is its commitment to scientific naturalism. Most world views accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character. They 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. Scientific naturalism enables human beings to construct a coherent world view disentangled from metaphysics or theology and based on the sciences.IV. The Benefits of Technology
Humanists have consistently defended the beneficent values of scientific technology for human welfare. Philosophers from Francis Bacon to John Dewey have emphasized the increased power over nature that scientific knowledge affords and how it can contribute immeasurably to human advancement and happiness.V. Ethics and Reason
The realization of the highest ethical values is essential to the humanist outlook. We believe that growth of scientific knowledge will enable humans to make wiser choices. In this way there is no impenetrable wall between fact and value, is and ought. Using reason and cognition will better enable us to appraise our values in the light of evidence and by their consequences.VI. A Universal Commitment to Humanity as a Whole
The overriding need of the world community today is to develop a new Planetary Humanism—one that seeks to preserve human rights and enhance human freedom and dignity, but also emphasizes our commitment to humanity as a whole. The underlying ethical principle of Planetary Humanism is the need to respect the dignity and worth of all persons in the world community.VII. A Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
To fulfill our commitment to Planetary Humanism, we offer a Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, which embodies our planetary commitment to the well-being of humanity as a whole. It incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but goes beyond it by offering some new provisions. Many independent countries have sought to implement these provisions within their own national borders. But there is a growing need for an explicit Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that applies to all members of the human species.VIII. A New Global Agenda
Many of the high ideals that emerged following the Second World War, and that found expression in such instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have waned through the world. If we are to influence the future of humankind, we will need to work increasingly with and through the new centers of power and influence to improve equity and stability, alleviate poverty, reduce conflict, and safeguard the environment.IX. The Need for New Planetary Institutions
The urgent question in the twenty-first century is whether humankind can develop global institutions to address these problems. Many of the best remedies are those adopted on the local, national, and regional level by voluntary, private, and public efforts. One strategy is to seek solutions through free-market initiatives; another is to use international voluntary foundations and organizations for educational and social development. We believe, however, that there remains a need to develop new global institutions that will deal with the problems directly and will focus on the needs of humanity as a whole. These include the call for a bicameral legislature in the United Nations, with a World Parliament elected by the people, an income tax to help the underdeveloped countries, the end of the veto in the Security Council, an environmental agency, and a world court with powers of enforcement.X. Optimism about the Human Prospect
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as members of the human community on this planet we need to nurture a sense of optimism about the human prospect. Although many problems may seem intractable, we have good reasons to believe that we can marshal our talent to solve them, and that by goodwill and dedication a better life will be attainable by more and more members of the human community. Planetary humanism holds forth great promises for humankind. We wish to cultivate a sense of wonder and excitement about the potential opportunities for realizing enriched lives for ourselves and for generations yet to be born.
Drafted by Professor Paul Kurtz, International Academy of Humanism, USA