The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 3.
If you need proof that the secular humanist and (for lack of a better term) religious humanist communities have taken separate paths, consider Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell's proposal that humane nonreligious people call themselves "Brights." In their guest editorial (see p. 20) they report that their idea is enjoying broad acceptance. There's no reason to doubt them, especially since America's largest (again, for lack of a better term) religious humanist organization has launched its own Brights-based project.
It's equally clear that the proposal left most Free Inquiry readers cold. We gave it every chance for acceptance, running the seminal "invitations to enBrightenment" by biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in our October/November 2003 issue. A proposal can scarcely wish more distinguished advocates, and so I was astonished at the one-sidedly negative reader response. We received formal letters to the editor as well as a great deal of less formal e-mail, phone, and personal feedback. No one wrote or spoke in favor of the proposal. Objections varied; some readers simply thought there was no need for a new label. Most expressed misgivings that, despite proponents' best efforts, calling ourselves "Brights" would inevitably come off as the nonreligious claiming to be smarter than everybody else.
We presented the Brights to the Free Inquiry community, and the community has spoken. Those who find the label commodious are welcome to adopt it; but based on this feedback, and with all due respect to Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, Free Inquiry will not be adding "Brights" to its lexicon.
Elsewhere, Paul Geisert has said that the final decision to launch the Brights initiative was catalyzed by last spring's Godless Americans March on Washington, which was conceived by American Atheists and cosponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. Geisert thought words like godless and atheist too negative.
It's true; atheist does not capture the positive side of the secular humanist commitment, with its human-centered values and its dedication to applying reason and emotion to weave the most humane possible existence in this life. Still, atheism is nothing to be ashamed of. If not a sufficient component for secular humanism, it is a necessary one. It is the most visible point of difference between secular humanists and other Americans. If one is moving from religion to secular humanism, as many of us have, atheism is usually the tallest hurdle; after the gods and the magic and the afterlife have been set aside, the rest of humanism comes far more easily. Many of us "converts" became atheists first, only later embracing the full richness of secular humanism.
Still, if one is looking for an inclusive, inviting, and positive way to define the lifestance we share, I offer a modest proposal:
Secular = concerned with this lifeHumanism = values rooted in human benefit and self-actualization
I'm a secular humanist. It's difficult to imagine what could be more upbeat than that!
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry.