The following Op-Ed is from the February-March 2006 issue of Free Inquiry
Strap in, gentle reader. On these pages, I will not only confess to having committed an act of neologism, I'll commit secular humanist heresy.
Last issue, I discussed the "vast historical suction . . . separating organized religion from its temporal mandates for more than 1,500 years" and predicted that, over time, the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives won't amount to much. I ascribed this trend, in part, to a centuries-long correction of the unsustainable concentration of all social functions in organized religion's "job jar" after the fall of Rome-a phenomenon for which secular humanists and other champions of the Enlightenment agenda can take little credit.
But that phenomenon is just one among several parallel trends-including some in which secular humanists (or our ideological predecessors) have been important. Together, they form a progressive sociohistorical current, which in recent centuries has impelled society toward greater individual autonomy, social and political openness, and . . . well, I'm tempted to say "secularization," but that's really too narrow a word.
As Paul Kurtz comments in this issue, for us, humanism has always meant more than just disdaining the supernatural. To that, I would add that secularism has always meant more than just separating church and state. That's one aspect of a broader impulse toward emancipatory social reform. That impulse, in turn, lies behind many of the most positive social changes of the last few centuries. Among them, I'd include heightened political freedom, expanded freedom of inquiry, increased autonomy to choose one's life circumstances, and greater liberty for experiment outside the boundaries of social convention. In a nutshell, it's an impulse toward reducing the coercive control exercised over individuals by social institutions at every scale: nation, church, local community, workplace, even the family. This impulse lies close to the heart of the Enlightenment, and I think it lies close to the foundation of our humanist commitment.
What we might say of secularism is that it represents the application to questions of religion in society of this broader principle of emancipatory individualism. As Jim Herrick so aptly declares in this issue, "Secularism in the largest sense means that people do not refer to religion to make decisions, to adopt policies, to run their lives, to order their relationships, or to impel their activities."
How does emancipatory individualism express itself? Often, it involves a process of disintermediation. Weakening or ending the power of intermediary institutions empowers individuals to interact with higher-level institutions, perhaps even to connect directly with society as a whole. When this fails to occur, the institutional controls that govern individuals' lives loom too close. Loyalties are constrained too locally, and insularity, parochialism, or sectarianism may result.
These days, disintermediation is a marketing buzzword. When you buy car insurance from Geico rather than from an agent or buy a book online instead of at the corner bookshop, that's disintermediation. But the word had sociological currency long before the marketeers picked it up. When individuals choose their own mates or careers rather than leaving those choices to their families, that's disintermediation. When individuals respond directly to political or social developments at the national or global level, perhaps joining or financially supporting a national or worldwide interest group rather than channeling their activism through their church congregation, professional association, fraternal organization, or political party, that's disintermediation. When individuals decide what their own lives and pairings and eventual deaths will mean instead of letting a community do it for them, that's disintermediation.
The principle seems simple: the more one can do for oneself without the help of nearby intermediaries, the better. The more one can do for oneself, the more one can do.
Clearly, there's kinship between this broad emancipatory impulse and the cause of secularism. Sometimes, there is more than kinship; among some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century freethinkers, it was fashionable to forbid any funeral or memorial service after one's death. Free individuals were apparently expected to draw their own conclusions as to what the decedent's life and relationships had meant. During the same years, anarchists and freethinkers often scorned marriage and the family as intolerable social impositions on what we'd now call freedom of lifestyle choice. (I've written in praise of both of these positions.) In my earlier writing, I sometimes tried to stretch the word secularism to cover every possible application of this emancipatory impulse; I now realize the error in that. What I see at the core of secular humanism is something like secularism, but broader-"secularism plus," if you will-an emancipatory individualist commitment to realize the opposite of insularity, parochialism, and sectarianism throughout life.
If only there was a word for that. (Please, nobody suggest disintermediationism.)
Here's the part where I confess to committing a neologism. I've always been of two minds regarding Paul Kurtz's 1989 coinage, eupraxsophy. It addresses a genuine need-English sorely needs a word to complete the sentence "secular humanism is not a religion, it's a ____"-but I've never been sure this ungainly e-word with an x and an s rubbing shoulders is the best solution. Still, I've yet to find anything better.
Confession time: two decades back, I worked as a writer for a management consultant. His specialty was educating organizations to be customer-centered rather than focusing on internal constituencies. In a business context, he too battled insularity, parochialism, and sectarianism. He sought a word for the commitment to seek their opposite. After some research, I discovered that English has no neat antonym for words like insular, parochial, and sectarian. So the consultant and I wound up (may the void forgive me) coining one. Yes, I engaged in a conspiracy to commit neologism.
The word we coined was "exsular." (The opposite of insular, get it?) Yes, an ungainly e-word with an x and an s rubbing shoulders. But it captured something of the outward-looking dynamic the consultant wanted to promote among his clients. And two decades later, I think it captures something of the emancipatory dynamic that's central to my secular humanism. Never mind that sixties shibboleth "think globally, act locally"-better that we look up and out, thinking and acting as globally as each of us can. Striving to escape unnecessary intermediary institutions, we seek tall skies; we thirst to jack straight into the matrix of our culture as boldly and straightforwardly as we can. As for parochialism, sectarianism, and insularity, we seek their opposite, in order to promote human welfare; we are (void forgive me again) exsular humanists.
To paraphrase Herrick, "exsularism" in the largest sense means that individuals do not refer to local, parochial institutions of any type to make decisions, to adopt policies, to run their lives, to order their relationships, or to impel their activities. Instead they seek autonomy and the most direct contact with society at the highest possible level.
I promise not to use exsular too often, but I think it captures some foundational aspects of our movement that secular is too narrow to encompass. Together with other phenomena, including that historical suction emptying out organized religion's "job jar," it forms part of a powerful progressive current whose action secular humanists should endorse.
All of that leads to a tangential issue-and that heresy I promised. In recent months, the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry, has had remarkable success raising funds online for disaster relief. Our Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE) raised more than $125,000 for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. That's well and good, but . . .
. . . then for the Council to operate an explicitly secular humanist charity at this late date in society's evolution strikes me as strange. Mightn't we accomplish more by explaining why the idea of sectarian aid groups is passŽ, and why it's more progressive for an organization like ours to encourage its members' individual charity and then just get out of their way? In other words, is a secular humanist charity an unjustified layer of mediation between free individuals and those they yearn to help? Is it un-secular? More properly, is it un-exsular? Does it run counter to ideals that many of us held all along, but lacked precise tools to articulate? I invite reader comments.
Tom Flynn is Editor of Free Inquiry.
A Few Definitions
in*sul*ar adj. 1. Of, relating to, or constituting an island. 2.a. Suggestive of the isolated life of an island. b. Circumscribed and detached in outlook and experience; narrow or provincial.
pa*ro*chi*al adj. 1. Of, relating to, supported by, or located in a parish. 2. Narrowly restricted in scope or outlook; provincial.
secátaráiáan (sµk-taör"¦-...n) adj. 1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of a sect.
2. Adhering or confined to the dogmatic limits of a sect or denomination; partisan. 3. Narrow-minded; parochial.
ex*su*lar adj. 1. Of or relating to a principal landmass; connected. 2.a. Suggestive of the engaged life at a crossroads where peoples and cultures intersect. B. Broad-minded and cosmopolitan in outlook and experience; eager to bridge directly from the individual to the highest levels of cultural, political, and social life.
(Based on the American Heritage Dictionary.)