Humanism, Politics, and the Religious Left
by David Anthony
If there is any group that symbolizes the antithesis of humanism, that group would be the
Religious Right. Whereas humanism is a forward-looking philosophy that stands for reason and
enlightenment, the Religious Right is guided by ancient myth, superstition, and ignorance. It is
no wonder that humanists have been locking horns with the Religious Right for years.
In fact, humanists sometimes forget that the Religious Right does not represent the entire
religious establishment. On the other end of the religious spectrum, far removed from the
fundamentalism that dominates the Religious Right, is a less noticeable group that includes
liberal Protestant congregations, liberation theologians, politically active Unitarians, New Age
devotees, and even some followers of Eastern religious traditions. Unlike the Religious Right,
this "Religious Left" often enjoys warm relations with the nontheistic community. Indeed, the
Religious Left's liberal inclinations are largely responsible for a partnership between some of
its members and left-leaning political activists, a partnership that has sometimes come at the
expense of the nontheistic community's true priorities.
The Working Relationship
It is an old cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows, and nowhere is that more clear than in
the odd relationship between the Religious Left and left-leaning political activists. Together,
these groups helped ignite the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, proving that massive
social and political change was possible through the combined efforts of seemingly contrary
It was the original guru of the left, Marx, who referred to religion as the opiate of the masses.
A century after Marx, however, many of his disciples joined forces with liberal Christians to
achieve reform. This irony did not go unnoticed, even by those participating in it. In an
interview a few months ago, historian and political activist Howard Zinn, an icon of the Left who
has participated in protests and marches for half a century, told me he recognized this odd
arrangement decades ago when he was teaching in the South. Acknowledging his Marxian sympathies
and looking back at his years of activism, Zinn reflected on the power of religious groups to fuel
social change. "That first became evident to me in the Civil Rights movement, when I saw the role
that churches played and church music played," he said. "What an important role that played in
Indeed, there is no denying that much social and political progress in the last half century has
been spearheaded by leaders working with religious credentials: the Reverend Martin Luther King
and the Reverend Jesse Jackson quickly come to mind, and, of course, there are many others. With
religious leaders so prominent on the Left, however, the result has often been that important
nontheistic priorities have been left out of the dialogue. Those whom one would expect to be
sympathetic to secular causes—political activists with no particular fondness for religion—find
that they risk alienating powerful left-leaning religious leaders and groups if they openly
This quandary has frequently resulted in not only the silencing of the secular movement, but also
in the growing strength of religious sympathizers on both the Left and Right. In America, this
means a Republican Party that is controlled by religious fundamentalists who are openly hostile to
secularism, and, perhaps more important, a Democratic Party that fears confronting religious
conformity, opting instead to nominate churchgoing and born-again candidates of its own.
Hence, while humanists complain about the Religious Right, perhaps it is time to rethink
humanism's relationship with the Left. Although humanists have partnered with the Religious Left
to win great victories on social and political issues, perhaps it is time to politely point out
the inherent intellectual weakness of any group, Left or Right, that claims moral authority from
ancient myth and superstition. While humanists generally agree with many of the Left's immediate
goals of social and economic justice, they should realize that a close partnership with the
Religious Left sometimes comes at a price of sacrificing humanism's most fundamental priorities.
After all, are not humanists expected to actively engage the religious establishment in debate, to
criticize the worldview of establishment religion, and to argue in favor of reason-based, not
myth-based, ethics and values? How can humanists do this if they are tightly aligned with
religious groups on so many political issues?
While humanists tend not to be evangelical about their philosophy, most humanists nevertheless
would agree that society would be much improved if humanism became a mass movement. The natural
result of this kind of movement would be the significant decline of the established religious
institutions of Western society. To build such a movement, however, a public debate must be
launched in which humanism itself is presented to the public as a viable alternative to the
ancient religious institutions that have dominated Western culture for two thousand years. This
debate will never happen if humanists themselves keep it out of the public marketplace of ideas,
opting instead to keep quiet about religious issues in order to appease their partners from the
Humanists are, in their own way, trying to transform Western culture and bring about a world of
peace and enlightenment. Unlike the Religious Left, however, humanists believe this can be done by
scrapping ancient myth and superstition and by embracing reason-based beliefs and values. Perhaps
it is time for humanists to make humanism itself, not political activism, the fuel that powers the
engine of change and enlightenment in Western culture.
Certainly, the notion of being politically active is consistent with a humanist life stance, but
few would argue that political activism itself is the essential core of humanism. I am not
sufficiently foolhardy to attempt to conclusively define the "core of humanism" here, but I would
suggest that it includes, at the very least, the promotion of reason-based ethics and values, as
opposed to the superstition- and myth-based ethics and values of the ancient religions. Surely,
most immediate political goals, even if desirable for public policy reasons, do little to chip
away at the legitimacy of establishment religion, particularly when such political goals are
pursued in partnership with religious groups.
By actively promoting humanism itself and tactfully exposing the illegitimacy and obvious
falsehood of establishment religious institutions, humanists would be initiating a public debate
that they could not lose. This would build a unified humanist camp and eventually a mass movement
based not on political issues but on something more fundamental—philosophy and life stance.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that humanists cease political activity, and it would be
undesirable for humanists to launch a hostile attack on the Religious Left. It is reasonable,
however, to suggest that humanists who expend all of their energy and resources on the hot
political issue of the day—whether it be gay rights, abortion, the right to die, etc.¾are
neglecting the real prize. If humanism is to triumph, the victory will result in a vast migration
of the masses away from Judeo-Christian religious institutions and towards humanism as the life
stance of choice in Western society. Perhaps this goal is too lofty even for some humanists to
envision. Perhaps it is easier to instead concentrate on immediate political issues, to consider
humanism a personal philosophy that is incidental to a life of social and political activism.
While this position is understandable, one must wonder what kind of revolutionary social and
cultural change would occur if humanists instead devoted their energy and resources to promoting
humanism itself as a philosophy and mass movement.
David Anthony is an attorney, author, and educator.