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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 entities.

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 inspiring people."

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 criticize religion.

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.

Breaking Away

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 Religious Left.

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.


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