by Tom Flynn
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.
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:
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.
For keyword definitions, please view Secular Humanism Definitions
I would like to thank Tim Binga, Center for Inquiry Director of Libraries, Paul Paulin, CFI fiscal officer, and David Henehan for valuable research assistance.
* Based on an article that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of FREE INQUIRY.