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Freethinkers as Cultural Warriors

by Patrick Inniss

Like it or not, we are undeniably engaged in a "culture war." We need to face this fact, and even embrace it. If we have confidence in the merit of our ideas, we should welcome the opportunity to engage those who oppose us in debate over the direction of our society. But too often we shy away from this battle. In the debate over some of the most essential principles guiding our major institutions, freethinkers are often no-shows.

The term "culture war" is, in contrast, used with abandon by the conservative and religious elements. They have no fear of declaring hostilities on every aspect of our society which they view as in any way liberal or in opposition to the prevailing dogma, especially those of a religious nature. We must adopt the same confrontational tactics if we are to move freethought to the place of prominence it deserves.

While the culture war has largely been defined along liberal versus conservative lines, the real issue isn't so much your politics as how you got there. At its essence, the culture war is a struggle between those who demand rigorous standards of truth and those who would mask the truth to preserve an ideology. It is between those who are open to learning and ideas, and those who demand that any ideas not conflict with the old. It is between a mentality in which inquiry and discovery are a means toward determining the ultimate form of reality, and a mindset in which all questions of meaning and destiny are already answered in the enigmatic myths of the distant past. It is a contest for the minds of humanity between those who face an admittedly harsh universe and those who prefer their heads in the sand.

Therefore, the defining issues of the culture war are not so much hard issues like welfare or even gun control. Instead the real litmus tests for culture warriors are such things as gay rights, prayer in schools, protecting the flag, and the supposed intrinsic value of religion itself.

Why has the response to the culture war from the freethought community been so muted? Part of this can be attributed to the historic weakness and inadequacy of freethought groups. They are, we must recognize, generally small and poorly supported. Freethinkers have often excused their own failures with the flaccid cliché that we're "hard to organize." I've probably even used that line myself at times. But after being involved with the movement for over 10 years now, it is apparent that there is nothing in the nature of freethinkers that would make them any less effective members of their organizations than church members are of theirs. It's just a matter of developing the appropriate organizational structure, agenda, and leadership.

Our organizations are not churches, social clubs, or discussion groups, although they might incorporate certain elements of each of these. But, most importantly, freethought must be promoted and managed to cultivate and exploit the natural desire of members to contribute meaningfully to the development of themselves and society through sharing their insights into the nature of humanity. Given these things, freethought organizations can succeed and even prosper. More importantly, they can become societal resources capable of making a real contribution to the shaping of public attitudes. In other words, forces to be reckoned with in the culture wars.

With proper organization, freethought can at least become a greater voice in our society. Any hope of matching the power and influences of churches, however, will require more than solving organizational shortcomings. Truly influential groups do not succeed without resorting to modern promotional techniques. In today's world, ideas are marketed much as any other product. Mormons, Christian Scientists, Lutherans, and most others have TV and newspaper ads.

Religious groups have for years had their own television programs, which were probably the first infomercials. Representation in these media is essential for freethought. So far, the superior financial resources and media savvy of churches have made their marketing efforts impossible to match. However, new media are on the brink of exploding onto the scene. Freethinkers should be poised to exploit these innovations to even the playing field.

The first of these new media, is, of course, the Internet. But the Internet as we see it now is just a hint of what mass communication will be like in the future. These new arenas will be the likely battlegrounds for the culture wars of the 21st century.

In the end, it is important to remember that, while we confront those who attack us, people will listen to what they want to hear. While religion does spend a lot of time assailing non-belief, its primary message has always been one of hope, albeit false: "You won't die-in fact, if you do what we say, you will live forever." While immortality may still be a little beyond what freethinkers can promise, we must make sure we promote the many positive aspects of a rational lifestyle. The public must understand that we are not just attacking superstition, we are offering a better way.

The joy of learning, the freedom of honesty, the self-assurance and calmness that all come with secular humanism can and should be put forth as benefits of living a life based on rationalistic values. When we promote freethought, we must stop putting religion down and instead focus on telling everyone how freethought can benefit the world and everyone in it, no matter their station in life. Everyone can live better if they commit themselves o the total honesty that is the core of all freethought. With this kind of message, we can win big in the culture war.


Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The Following is reprinted from the Fall 1999 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.


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