by Tom Flynn
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.
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.
For keyword definitions, please view Secular Humanism Definitions