Humanism and Politics: When Should We Speak Out?
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 3.
In the last issue of Free Inquiry, we published an editorial criticizing the
morality of the preemptive war against Iraq. It was written before the war began
and published after its start. Several readers objected strongly to this. This
raises the basic question: Should secular humanism as a movement ever take
political positions? Surely individual humanists, as citizens in a democracy,
may participate in the political process. They can vote for candidates and
support the political part(ies) of their choice. Many humanists, to be sure, are
intensely committed to a political point of view. But should secular humanist
organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism take positions on the
burning political issues of the day?
There are four cogent arguments against the Council's becoming a political
First, as a nonprofit organization we are prohibited from
supporting candidates and/or engaging in political propaganda. This prohibition
applies to the Christian Coalition, the Roman Catholic Church, and other
nonprofit agencies as well, all of which at least theoretically risk losing
their tax-exempt status if they engage in political activity of that sort. If
some other nonprofits wink at this principle, we embrace its propriety.
although secular humanists share a common set of beliefs and values, they may
differ about any number of concrete political and economic measures.
the Council to endorse specific party platforms or candidates for office, and/or
to identify with one part of the political landscape, might alienate other
supporters who disagree. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are found on all sides
of the political spectrum; why not secular humanists? For that reason, this
argument goes, we are wise to avoid any narrow political litmus test and welcome
everyone into our (pardon the expression) big tent.
Fourth, our movement is
primarily educational. Our outlook and our mission are scientific,
philosophical, and ethical. Politics is not part of our core mission. If even a hospital, supermarket, university, or art museum were to engage in
partisan politics, many of its patrons would be offended.
Those are powerful
arguments. Surely we should not define ourselves primarily as a political
pressure group. At the present time, at least, the positions we take should be
prudential, leaving room for dissent.
And yet, does all this mean that the
Council for Secular Humanism should be absolutely nonpolitical, holding itself
above comment on the issues of the day in antiseptic purity? Surely not. I would
submit that we have a responsibility to speak out on issues that we consider
vital to our scientific humanist outlook. Indeed, I would submit that doing so
is an important part of our educational mission.
If we are not primarily a
political pressure group, under what conditions may we speak out on political
issues? There are no fixed guidelines. Nonetheless, I wish to offer some
criteria. Primarily, I submit, we have an obligation to make ourselves heard
when vital moral issues are at stake. There is no sharp divorce between ethics
and politics. If, as Clausewitz argued, the purpose of war is to fulfill
political purposes, then the purpose of politics is to fulfill the ends and
values that we consider desirable—especially when it impinges on our
fundamental ethical values.
That there is an intrinsic continuity between ethics
and politics is a classical idea. It was first expressed in Athens, most notably
by Plato and Aristotle. The theme reappears throughout the history of political
thought. Machiavelli took another approach, maintaining that the goal of
politics was to secure and maintain power. For Machiavelli, there were certain
policies that a ruler should adopt, many of them brutal, in order to achieve
political aims. I readily grant that governing a nation is complicated, and that
technical rather than moral issues are often relevant. Nonetheless, the overall
aim of politics is to realize certain long-range moral goals deemed desirable.
Accordingly, secular humanists should speak out and act when they believe that
their cherished values and beliefs are at stake; they should seek to persuade
their fellow citizens about the principles that they consider important to
endorse and defend.
I submit—and I am speaking personally here—that at the
present moment in American society, our cherished values and beliefs are indeed
at stake. They are under threat. This being the case, then declining to speak
out would be an affront to our deepest convictions. German theologian Dietrich
Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) eloquently stated that he should have protested earlier
in the 1930s, when the Nazis first began to implement their repressive policies.
Many Americans are today deeply disturbed about political developments. They are
frightened by what they view on the domestic front as a drastic threat to our
cherished democratic civil liberties, and internationally to the entire
framework of international law and order so painstakingly developed over past
decades. They are concerned about the unilateral preemptive war undertaken by
the United States in Iraq, its abrogation of the test ban and Kyoto treaties,
its bypassing of the United Nations, and its refusal to endorse the
International Court of Justice.
In the face of such dangers, how can we hold
Getting our theories straight is important; but it is praxis, the
practical consequences of our actions, that is the best test of our efficacy and
influence. Purely theoretical humanism is a mere abstract concept, without
content, of no moment for the real life of humans as lived; thus, the
relationship of humanism to praxis is central. (I have called this in my
If "God is dead," as Nietzsche
proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century, then at the dawn of the
twenty-first century we must affirm that "humans are alive." The power
of the humanist message is that life itself is intrinsically worthwhile, that we
aspire to achieve the best of which we are capable, including the expression of
our highest talents and creative excellences, that we cultivate the common moral
decencies, that our goal is exuberant happiness. To achieve all this we need to
develop a just social order for our own society, regionally, and on the
planetary scale. We humans are responsible for our own destiny: "No deity
will save us; we must save ourselves" (Humanist Manifesto II).
message of humanism is not that humanists are nonbelievers in theistic
religion—atheists, agnostics, or skeptics—but that we are believers, for we
believe deeply in the potentialities of human beings to achieve the good life.
Indeed, we wish to apply the virtues and principles of humanist ethics to
enhance the human condition. If we indict the theological/messianic claims of
the ancient religions for providing false illusions of salvation, then we also
need to state that we are concerned with improving the conditions of human life,
with improving the cultural, social, economic, and political institutions in
which human beings find themselves at various times in history. The underlying
premise here is our emphasis on humanist ethics: how we create a better life for
ourselves and our fellow human beings in the real world, here and now, and in
the foreseeable future.
Let me hasten to say that, although we are concerned
with moral and political issues, we should not be identified simply with any
political party or particular candidates for office. We should guard against
politicizing humanism. We have long argued in the pages of Free Inquiry that we
should be open to Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
libertarians and social democrats, radicals and centrists, Greens and
Independents. There is no single humanist response to every complex social or
public issue that may arise. Ideologically, secular humanists may be
laissez-faire free-marketeers or democratic socialists; they may believe in the
mixed economy or a federal world government. And surely they may differ on
taxation policies, public school vouchers, affirmative action, same-sex
marriage, the legalization of prostitution, immigration, foreign policy, defense
spending, war and peace, and countless ancillary issues. It is clear that there
have been conservative humanists, such as George Santayana and Antony Flew;
liberal democratic humanists such as John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Betty Friedan,
and Sir Karl Popper; and socialist humanists such as Erich Fromm, Sidney Hook,
and Svetozar Stojanovi"c. They all should have a place within the
"mansion" of humanism.
Accordingly, I would suggest that our primary
focus is more fundamental: we are interested in cognitive and ethical questions,
in achieving, especially at the present juncture, a cultural renaissance or
cultural reformation. We should concentrate on that. We offer a distinctive set
of intellectual and normative values. We emphasize the importance of reason and
critical thinking, and we wish to use these methods in order to reformulate and
refashion our values, and to raise the quality of taste and the level of
appreciation in society. Humanism is life-affirming; it is positive and
constructive. If applied, it would enable us to reform human culture by
transcending the ancient religious, racial, ethnic, and ideological dogmas of
the past that so adversely affect human civilization in the present. We thus
call for a New Enlightenment, a rediscovery and a reaffirmation of the highest
values of which humans are capable.
Where does this leave us on the key
principle of politics? I think that secular humanists need to speak out
critically about present trends in the United States. The Council for Secular
Humanism has not in itself taken corporate positions—and will not do so unless
there is a clear and present danger to our very democratic liberties. Free
Inquiry, however, does take positions. The magazine has autonomy of expression.
And the editors have exercised freedom of the press. I would identify at least
three areas in which we have taken stands on political issues.
First, we have
objected to the recent threats to our liberties on the part of the George W.
Bush administration: the Homeland Security and PATRIOT acts, the suppression of
civil liberties, the erosion of our liberties by moneyed interests and lobbies,
the control of the media by conglomerates with their smothering of dissent, and
the emergence of a plutocracy based on wealth and property. All of these trends
will if unchecked undermine our democratic institutions. We are especially
concerned about the growing apathy of the young in politics, perhaps as a result
of the pervasiveness of mass media violence, sensationalism, and mind-numbing
Second, we have questioned the current direction of American
foreign policy, with its broad-ranging antipathy to a peaceful world order, to
the United Nations, and to the development of institutions of world government.
Apparently, U.S. foreign policy is to be driven by a greedy "National
Security Strategy" under which we may carry out preemptive strikes anywhere
in the world. Does this mean that a new and imperial pax Americana shall
dominate the world, replacing the policies of deterrence and the balance of
power? Our unilateralism has offended our friends all over the world, for we
have abandoned many of the ideals that inspired the American dream-ideals of
individual freedom, equality of opportunity, human rights, and democracy.
and perhaps least controversially for humanists, we have objected to this
administration's egregious violation of the separation of church and state by
championing faith-based charities and similar measures. It distresses us that
the president uses his office as a bully pulpit to further the ends of
Evangelical Christianity. Surely President Bush has the right to his own
religious convictions, but it is disturbing when he and his administration
invoke them to establish policies that threaten our secular democracy. In our
view, the Bush presidency has been captured by the Radical Right and an alliance
of Protestant Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and Orthodox
neoconservative Jews. This alliance is bringing into being a new monotheistic
quasi-theocracy. Its moral-religious outlook spills out into the political
sphere in the nomination of arch-conservative judges, and also in such policies
as the administration's opposition to any support for population assistance to
the developing world. A political posture that affects every aspect of American
life has been inspired by a theological-moral outlook; and we have every right
We have published these strong dissenting opinions about the current
policies of the administration in Free Inquiry magazine and on our web site;
though some secular humanists have objected and they have accused us of being
left wing (which is unfair). The key editors who signed that represent the
Libertarian, Republican, Democratic, Independent, and Green (Social Democrat)
parties. Free Inquiry has indeed given space to alternative viewpoints,
particularly about foreign policy. Later in this op-ed section, we present five
essays embodying a wide range opinion on the Iraq war, which includes both
antiwar essays and defenses of the war by Edward Tabash and Steve Hirsch. Two of
our marquee columnists, Christopher Hitchens and Nat Hentoff, have voiced
outspoken support for the war in other media and would be welcome to do so in
Free Inquiry if they chose.
Free Inquiry's masthead states that "opinions
expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or
publisher." A free press is vital to our democracy and the secular humanist movement.
Thus there is editorial autonomy for the editors and columnists. We recognize
and cherish diversity of opinion. Unlike the Vatican or the Southern Baptist
Convention, secular humanism has no compulsory dogmas. On the other hand, we do
have a set of ethical principles that is central to our humanist commitment. I
submit that the editors can and indeed do speak out on the following
moral-political issues, as broadly drawn:
First, we are committed to free
inquiry, the free mind, freedom of research, respect for civil liberties, and
the open democratic society. This entails the right to believe, or not believe,
in prevailing religious or ideological doctrines. We object to any effort to
censor or prohibit dissent and restrict liberty.
Second, we defend the
separation of church and state and the secular state. Accordingly we are strong
critics of efforts to impose theocratic or quasi-theocratic measures.
endorsing freedom of the individual, we embrace the right of privacy. This
encompasses freedom of conscience, the right to control one's body, reproductive
freedom, contraception, euthanasia, abortion, and sexual freedom between
consenting adults, all of which we have consistently defended.
democratic humanists we believe in equality of opportunity, equal access, and
fair treatment of all individuals in society. We have supported the rights of
women, gays, handicapped people, Blacks, Hispanics, nonbelievers, and other
Fifth, we believe in Planetary Humanism, which applies the
principles of ethics to all humans anywhere on the planet Earth, rising far
beyond any narrow focus on ethnic, racial, religious, or nationalistic
chauvinism (see Humanist Manifesto 2000). This underlies our support for the
development of global institutions that can provide conditions of peace,
security, economic well being, cultural education, and enrichment for every
person on the planet. We are thus opposed to any effort to encourage a world of
competing nationalistic rivalries; and we believe in building a world community.
In conclusion, the secular humanist movement does not have a narrow political
agenda nor a party platform. Broadly speaking, we are committed to the
application of the method of intelligence to the solution of political and
social problems. This is the purpose of the Center for Inquiry, of which the
Council is a part: to apply reason, science, and free inquiry to all areas of
human concern, and to develop rational ethical and social alternatives.
recognize that many socio-political problems are very complex and often
difficult to solve. There are no simple solutions. We appeal to committed
naturalists and secular humanists who accept our basic scientific,
philosophical, and ethical premises, yet may sincerely disagree with any of the
above political choices: do not abandon us, but rather argue your convictions
with equal intensity.
Humanists bring to the bargaining table a unique kind of
optimism about the human prospect. We respect diversity of opinion, including
differences among ourselves. We believe that rational discourse is preferable to
violence and warfare, that compromise is superior to conflict, that debate and
deliberation comprise the best method for resolving differences. We should, as
best we can, raise our voices loud and clear in the current maelstrom of
conflicting opinions. The secular humanist position is an honorable one. It is
based on deeply held convictions, rooted in reason, and focused on an ethical
concern to enhance, fulfill, and realize human happiness, peace, and tranquility
on the globe. This point, though so brilliantly apparent to us, remains a
minority position in the world today. Yet we need to affirm it.
And in that
sense, we need to need to take strong moral-political stances when basic values
Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, is editor-in-chief
of Free Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State
University of New York at Buffalo. This editorial is based on an address
delivered April 11, 2003, at the Council's conference "One Nation Without
God?" in Washington, D.C.