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In Defense of Freedom of Conscience:
A Cooperative Baptist/Secular Humanist Declaration

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 1.


At an historic dialogue convened on October 6 and 7, 1995, at the University of Richmond, Virginia, Baptist and secular humanist scholars came together to find some common ground.

For many years both Baptists and humanists have been embroiled in heated controversy in the public square. Fundamentalist Baptists in particular have leveled strong charges against humanists, especially secular humanists, accusing them of undermining the moral and social fabric of America. And secular humanists have in turn accused some Baptists of betraying democracy and working to establish a theocracy.

The Dialogue focused on the following areas of concern: (1) Academic Freedom; (2) Biblical Scholarship; (3) Separation of Church and State; (4) Pluralistic Democracy. This Declaration presents a consensus statement. Although not necessarily agreeing with every detail in the Declaration, those who endorse it accept its general terms and are committed to further cooperation.

Academic Freedom

First, the principle of academic freedom is widely accepted in American higher education and at colleges and universities throughout the world. Recently, many Baptist schools and seminaries have undergone a major assault on the academic freedom of their faculties. As a result of this campaign by boards of trustees and administrators, leading scholars and professors have been dismissed or forced out by intimidation and harassment.

A college or university is first and foremost a center dedicated to the search for truth. A school of higher education belongs to a grand tradition that passes onto each new generation some of the lessons and intellectual skills of its forebears. The search for greater understanding, wisdom, and truth thrives best in a setting of academic challenge free of intimidation and repression.

To maintain its integrity, an institution of higher learning must operate by the rules and regulations that enhance rather than hinder the primary goal of inducting students into the joys and rigors of the learning process. Objectivity in inquiry is not conducted by a mind free of all biases but a community achievement whereby various biases, theories, views, doctrines, and interpretations are explicated and examined. Accuracy and fairness of presentation are high academic ideals. Without them, education becomes mere propaganda. While indoctrination may be the necessary beginning point of education, it cannot be its goal. In objective inquiry, the various relevant doctrines and interpretations are subjected to rigorous analysis and criticism. It is partly through critical inquiry that the interpretations and theories are tested, refined, improved, and sometimes exchanged for more promising ones. Without the testing process, higher education is impossible.

Academic freedom entails (1) protection from all the external forces that threaten objective inquiry, and (2) access to the tools and resources that make the academic process a concrete reality rather than an abstraction. Various interests tempt scholars to sacrifice their objectivity of inquiry both in the classroom and in research and publications. The academic life of searching for truth and of seeking to solve the problems raised in experience and research will not survive unless scholars, teachers, and the friends of education fight diligently against the temptations and threats.

Some professional schools have the responsibility of inculcating the students in a specific tradition or body of information, skills, interpretations, and doctrines. A theological seminary is a professional school designed to equip students for the various branches of the ministry. There are two competing models of the seminary. The first is designed to indoctrinate the students in a body of beliefs and to train them to serve and defend those doctrines. Within that model are varying degrees of latitude in providing students with the history and development of those beliefs.

According to the second model of seminary education, the training of students for various avenues of the ministry includes in addition the goal of higher education; namely, the search for greater truth and understanding. The emphasis is on the search and the adventure. On this model, much is expected of research. Seminary training is viewed as analogous to the medical training that prepares students for medical practice. Good medical schools are also research centers where the medical students are expected to learn some of the results of the latest research. Research carries a certain risk, as does all objective inquiry. Unlike indoctrination alone, objective research at the seminary level encourages students not only to learn and appreciate their heritage, but also to examine its doctrines and to try to test them by comparative, historical, and critical analyses. A denominational seminary has the added responsibility of exposing its students to the denomination's rich and diverse history.

The trustees and administrators of a seminary have a moral duty to communicate clearly which of these two models they expect the newly appointed faculty to follow. There is also the moral duty not to shift from one model to another abruptly and without regard for the faculty's advice and counsel.

In each of the models of seminary training, instructors have a professional and moral duty regarding rival views. If they choose to present those views, the instructors' duty is to represent them accurately and clearly. To misrepresent and distort is dishonest. To present a view or doctrine accurately, instructors must show why or how it is regarded as meaningful to those who embrace it. This practice does not prevent criticism, however; for criticism without accuracy in presentation will always be superficial.

Biblical Scholarship

Second, we believe that it is essential that objective biblical scholarship be encouraged. There is already a rich tradition of scholarly work, one that uses rigorous standards of historical and scientific inquiry. Dogma is no substitute for rigorous research and the integrity of inquiry must take precedence over demands for doctrinal conformity or censorship. The students in schools and seminaries have a right to know and faculty to teach. They as well as the public at large should be made aware of the tradition and they also should be exposed to the intellectual debates about the Old and New Testaments. Scholars should not be compelled to adopt a simple literal or inerrant interpretation, but need to draw upon the best linguistic, literary, archaeological, and historical research that is available. They should be familiar with the works of critics; for it is only by the free give-and-take of ideas that truth can be more nearly achieved.

The humanism of the Renaissance stressed the "return to antiquity." The ancient texts were seen as sources of enlightenment and wisdom. Among these texts were Hebrew Scripture and Christian Scripture. Renaissance humanism generated a new sense of inquiry into the past, an inquiry that evolved eventually into historical criticism. As a part of this movement, the Dutch Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466 - 1536) brought together what he regarded as the most reliable ancient manuscripts to produce his Novum Testamentum, a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Thirty years later, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. This, too, was a part of the Renaissance drive to go back to the ancient sources for enlightenment.

One result of the quest for the authentic sources was that of exposing documentary falsification and false attribution. Humanism's fundamental concern for historical accuracy helped bring about the Enlightenment, which sowed the seeds of a more sophisticated historical criticism and source criticism in the study of Scripture. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, biblical scholarship went in search of not only the most reliable texts of Scripture, but the prior sources that fed into the texts. Form criticism joined source criticism in enriching the field of biblical scholarship.

The latter quarter of the twentieth century has spawned a version of literary criticism that is becoming increasingly sensitive to the diversity of literary styles and genres in the Bible. Historical criticism's drive to uncover, if possible, the actual events of biblical times is joined by a new and equally powerful drive. The new literary criticism boldly claims that the authors and traditions producing the biblical texts harbored deep theological, moral, aesthetic, and literary interests that permitted them to reshape and even invent putative historical events. Furthermore, the new literary criticism has taken a fresh look at biblical myths to discover their power, value, and limitations.

Currently, biblical scholarship has exploded into a rich array of literary orbits rhetoric criticism, narrative criticism, and redaction or editor criticism. In addition, there has emerged the sociology and anthropology of the early communities in which the biblical texts possibly came into being. Added to this study is canon criticism, or stories of the selection and function of religious texts in the centuries after their composition. Such Baptist scholars as Dan O. Via, Jr.; T. C. Smith; Edgar McKnight, and R. Alan Culpepper have contributed to the thriving biblical scholarship of the second half of the twentieth century. Secular humanists like R. Joseph Hoffmann, Morton Smith, and G. A. Wells have made notable contributions to New Testament studies.

Contemporary humanists in particular both secular and religious have explored in depth the humanness of the biblical texts. They have opened up new opportunities for modern readers to find profound kinship with the ancients and their human struggles. Archaeologist and Old Testament scholar Gerald A. Larue in particular has stressed the humanity of the ancients. They have explored new vistas enabling Christians, Jews, secular humanists, Hindus, Muslims, and others to see that, while they do not share the same views on God or gods, they as readers of the various Scriptures can appreciate the human conditions, sufferings, and tragedies embodied in the texts.

Separation of Church and State

Third, the Baptist/Secular Humanist Dialogue made it abundantly clear that both traditions supported freedom of conscience, and this enlists both religious liberty and the right of unbelief. This means that we are vigorously opposed to any effort by the state to establish a religion, legislate conviction, or erode the cherished principle of separation of church and state embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

Humanism is a wide and deep river of certain ideals and values fed by numerous traditions. No one tradition can regard itself as the sole tributary. One of the more fascinating tributaries that both secular writers and the Religious Right have yet to appreciate fully is the early seventeenth-century Baptist and Seeker Roger Williams. For over a half a century, this undaunted defender of liberty of conscience and freedom of publication fought against those who insisted on using the state to propagate religion. With characteristic boldness, he proclaimed that liberty of conscience must not only include freedom to believe in a given religion, but freedom to disbelieve. Against Massachusett's Governor John Winthrop and other theocrats, Williams argued that a religion that depends on the state either to intimidate putative heretics or to give preferential treatment to religious believers and institutions will succeed not in building up faith and righteousness but in increasing hypocrisy and deceit.

As a religious humanist, Williams denounced the Puritans for their claim that the Native Americans were the Canaanites of the New World. He charged that both the New England Puritans and King Charles I of England had stolen the land that rightfully belonged to the natives. In addition, he not only protested the enslavement of the defeated natives, but invited Anne Hutchinson to live in Rhode Island when the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished her for expressing her unorthodox beliefs in her own house.

Roger Williams contributed to the Enlightenment's later emphasis on individual human dignity. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) gave perhaps the most succinct expression of this belief in dignity when he wrote that individuals everywhere ought to be treated as ends in themselves and never as means only. Kant's contemporaries Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson spoke openly of human rights and believed that no religion could call itself worthy of human commitment unless it paid more than lip service to the Golden Rule.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reflects the influence of both the early Baptists and deistic humanists. Thomas Jefferson was a natural ally of eighteenth-century Baptists. This is nowhere more evident than in correspondence between Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association. Those Connecticut Baptists wrote a letter to President Jefferson in 1801. They had little theological common ground, but they shared a belief in the importance of human freedom.

The letter opened by expressing "our great satisfaction in your appointment to the chief Majestracy in the United States." They continued, "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. ..." With strong words they affirmed, "Our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial affect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine and prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth."

Jefferson replied, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

In Revolution Within The Revolution, Baptist historian William R. Estep has traced out the fruitful exchange between Madison and some of the early Baptists, an exchange reflected in Madison's noted defense of the wall of separation between church and state entitled A Memorial And Remonstrance. Secular humanists are strongly committed to religious liberty for both believers and unbelievers. The free mind is thus the cardinal principle of humanism. It is embodied in the words of Thomas Jefferson when he declares his opposition to "any tyranny over the mind of man" and in James Madison's defense of religious liberty and the First Amendment. As Baptists and humanists we share this devotion to freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.

Pluralistic Democracy

Fourth, we recognize the pluralistic character of American life and the fact that there are different conceptions of morality and different systems of faith and belief. We respect that men and women may practice alternative styles of life and express different visions of the good life. In America there are often radically different religious eupraxophies and secular worldviews: Christian and humanist, Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and Hindu; and there are multiplicities of denominations and associations. We realize that theists may differ with humanists about the nature of ultimate reality; at the same time it is possible for both believers and unbelievers to participate in American life in a responsible way. Moreover, Americans of different faiths and none may believe in and practice the common moral decencies and basic virtues, respect human rights, and share common values.

As Christians and humanists, we call for tolerance and mutual respect for alternative religions and philosophies and we pledge ourselves to rational dialogue and the negotiation and settlement of differences. We share our commitment to our pluralistic democratic American heritage.


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