The Secular Humanist Prospect: In Historical Perspective
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
humanism holds great promise for the future of humankind. But disturbing changes
have occurred in recent years, particularly in the United States, that make its
promise harder to fulfill. The cultural wars no doubt will continue to
intensify. Though we have made progress—as recent Supreme Court decisions
testify—we face unremitting challenges to the secular humanist outlook.
If I can flash back more than half a century, clearly most
political and intellectual leaders of that time were sympathetic to scientific
naturalism and humanism. I vividly remember John Dewey’s ninetieth birthday
celebrations in 1949 (Dewey was then the leading American humanist philosopher).
One such event was attended by the president of Columbia University (and future
president of the United States), General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I recall
Eisenhower declaring in admiration: “Professor Dewey, you are the philosopher
of freedom, and I am the soldier of freedom.” Can we even imagine a soon-to-be
U.S. president so praising a humanist intellectual today?
In those days, thoughtful Americans had great confidence in
the United Nations and its efforts to transcend nationalism and build a world
community. We sought to develop institutions of international law and a world
court, enhancing our ability to negotiate differences based on collective
security. Emerging from the Second World War, Americans displayed a strong
desire to go beyond ancient rivalries, accompanied by confidence in the ability
of science to understand nature and to solve human problems.
In 1973, I edited a book called The Humanist Alternative:
Some Definitions of Humanism.1 In this book I observed that the twentieth
century had been proclaimed to be the Humanist Century; many of the
then-dominant philosophical schools—naturalism, phenomenology, existentialism,
logical positivism, and analytic philosophy—were in a broad sense committed to
the humanist outlook. The same was true of humanistic psychology and the social
sciences in general. Indeed, I raised this question, “Is everyone a
humanist?” For no one wanted to be known as antihumanist. I mean, who wanted
to be antihuman? Heady with the momentum of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI even
declared that Roman Catholicism was “a Christian humanism.” The only
authentic humanism, he proclaimed, “must be Christian.”
Interestingly, it was also in 1973 that John D.
Rockefeller, the scion of the Rockefeller family, published a book called The
Second American Revolution.2 For Rockefeller, the second American Revolution
would be a humanist moral revolution; he declared that capitalism needed to have
a human face. Similarly, noted Marxists in Eastern Europe at that time claimed
that their Marxism was basically humanist.
In the early 1970s, I was invited to Washington, D.C., on
more than one occasion. I recall attending a reception at Mrs. Dean Acheson’s
house and meeting, among others, Hubert Humphrey. I had been a strong supporter
of Mr. Humphrey. I was the editor of the Humanist magazine at that time; Mr.
Humphrey read my nametag and said to me, “Oh, Paul Kurtz! How nice to see you!
Ah, the Humanist magazine, what a great magazine! I wish I had time to read
it!” Walter Mondale, who was later to become vice president of the United
States, and many other people identified approvingly with humanism.3 Indeed, in
a very real sense humanism was the dominant intellectual theme on the cultural
scene. On another occasion, I was invited to Washington by Senator Edward
Kennedy (who was planning to run for the presidency). I spent a weekend at
Sargent Shriver’s home. His wife, Eunice Shriver, was one of the Kennedys. I
also visited the home of Mrs. Robert Kennedy. Everyone thought that the humanist
outlook was important. And indeed, many of that era’s intellectual leaders of
thought and action were humanists: B.F. Skinner, Albert Ellis, Herbert Muller,
A.H. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Thomas Szasz, Jonas Salk, Joseph Fletcher, Betty
Friedan, Sidney Hook, Rudolf Carnap, W.V. Quine, and Ernest Nagel come to mind.
Many leaders in the Black community were humanists, not ministers, such as James
Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph; they worked hard for minority
rights. Humanism and modernism were considered synonymous. In one sense the
1970s marked a high point of humanism’s influence—at least in the United
Now, I raise these points because there has been a radical
shift today, particularly in the United States. Let me focus for a moment on
this country, because of its enormous influence in today’s world. America is
undergoing a fundamental transformation, one which in my view betrays the ideals
of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Franklin were
humanists and rationalists by the standards of their day, heavily influenced by
the Enlightenment. How different is the national tone today. We hear calls for
the nation to become more religious; we see unremitting attempts to breach the separation of church and state, such as the
financing of faith-based charities. Since the tragedy of 9/11, the momentum of
change has accelerated. The so-called PATRIOT Act and the relentless pursuit of
“Homeland Security,” I submit, are drastically undermining civil liberties.
The United States is the preeminent scientific,
technological, economic, and political power of the world, far outstripping any
other nation. Today the military budget of the United States is virtually equal
to that of the rest of the world combined. Why has America’s former idealism
on behalf of democracy and human rights declined, to be replaced by militant
chauvinism? Why has its commitment to humanism, liberal values, and the First
These changes began in the late 1970s and gathered force in
the 1980s. Because of my role in the humanist movement, I was able to observe
closely as the attacks on secular humanism and naturalism intensified. In my
view, six factors were responsible for these inauspicious developments.
First, there was a sharp rise in beliefs in the paranormal,
pseudoscience, and antiscience in the United States and throughout the world.
Claims concerning psychics and astrologers, monsters of the deep, UFOs, and the
like dominated the mass media and fascinated the public. Claims were everywhere,
but there were virtually no criticisms of them. In 1976, I brought together many
of the leading skeptics in the United States and the world and founded the
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
At CSICOP’s founding conference I posed the question: “Should we assume that
the scientific enlightenment will continue, and that public support of science
will be ongoing?” I answered that question in the negative. We should not
assume that science will prevail, I warned, for we may be overwhelmed by
irrational forces that will undermine our cherished naturalistic worldview. At
that time, very few people questioned scientific culture or the scientific
outlook as such—there was of course fear of a possible nuclear confrontation,
but science itself was not in question. Gradually, and much to the astonishment
of many observers, an antiscientific attitude began to develop. In response the
skeptical movement organized itself across the world; there now exist skeptical
organizations in some thirty-eight countries, from China to Germany, Argentina
to Australia. They publish some sixty magazines and newsletters inspired by
CSICOP’s flagship journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.
The second change that began to occur was the growth of
fundamentalism and its prominence in American public life. The Moral Majority
grew strong from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, in part by targeting secular
humanism—not humanism per se, but secular humanism. I defined secular humanism
first as “a method of critical inquiry.” Religious Right leaders charged
that secular humanism controlled the country. (In one sense they were correct,
for as I mentioned above, a generally humanistic viewpoint dominated education,
science, and the media at that time.) They called for secular humanism to be
overthrown and for a revival of popular piety. Surely they achieved the latter
objective. Consider that most intellectuals once thought Protestant
fundamentalism to be beyond the pale and Billy Graham a marginal figure. As time
went on, Graham would become known as a “statesman” and act as a confidante
to several presidents of the United States. America’s religious revival did
not benefit only Protestant fundamentalism: conservative Roman Catholicism made
great gains, eroding the reforms of Vatican II, and neoconservative Orthodox
Judaism mounted an astonishing comeback. By the year 2000, public life in the
United States was largely dominated by a theistic outlook. If I had declared the
twentieth century the humanist century, respected conservatives such as Michael
Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and writers for Commentary magazine declared it an
“anomaly.” They said that the twenty-first century would be a century
dominated not by secular humanism, but by religious and spiritual values. For
them, the secular humanist outlook could not expire too soon.
The third factor that emerged to challenge freethought and
the secular movement was the near-total collapse of Marxism. For a good part of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marxist-humanist ideals had influenced
intellectuals; with Marxism’s eclipse, anticlericalism and indeed any open
criticism of religion have all but disappeared.
The fourth major change that occurred was the growth of
postmodernism. Postmodernism stands in opposition to the Enlightenment,
humanism, the advancement of science, a concern for human progress, and the
emancipation of humanity from the blindfold of authoritarian traditions.
Postmodernism questions all these basic premises, especially the ideas of
objective science and humanistic values, and it has gravely influenced the
academy, not only in the United States, but elsewhere in the world.
The fifth factor that is so important is American
triumphalism. Global free-market corporate capitalism now dominates the world.
Pax Americana has many of the characteristics of a new kind of imperialism. The
latest turn in American foreign policy questions ideas like deterrence and the
balance of power. It maintains that American military might will police the
world and defeat any “rogue states” that may challenge its hegemony.
Unfortunately, this ideological posture has been accompanied by an open alliance
with conservative and evangelical religious forces at home. In the best-selling
book Mind Siege, Tim LaHaye and David Noebel provide a frightening apocalyptic
agenda for evangelicals, admonishing their millions of followers in martial
tones to prepare for battle against the secular humanists.4 We had become Public
Enemy Number One, though after the emergence of the armies of the jihad we have
been temporarily demoted to Public Enemy Number Two.
This brings us to the sixth major change: the growth of
Islamic fundamentalism. The War on Terrorism and its associated “conflict of
civilizations,” in Samuel Huntington’s phrase, has put all Americans under a
heightened sense of threat. But even this must be viewed in the context of a
larger movement: an intense Islamic missionary effort, antiscientific at its
root, that is sweeping the world. Islam is on the move in Africa, Asia, and all
parts of the world. What may be most significant are the fast-growing Islamic
minorities in Western Europe—France has five million Muslims, Britain and
Germany two million each. And of course the United States and Canada have
growing Muslim minorities.
No less portentous is the global rise of militant
Christianity. The reality is that there are more missionaries spreading the
Christian gospel throughout the world than at any time in history. It is
projected that, by the year 2025, 67 percent of Christians will live in Asia,
Africa, and Latin America. China, indeed, will have more Christians than all but
six nations. This is occurring at a time when Europe is being secularized, with
nonreligious minorities growing sharply and church attendance at record lows.
But Christian missionaries are pouring forth from the United
States—particularly Pentecostals and evangelicals, carrying with them a
literal reading of Scripture that they apply freely to morality and politics.
What we are confronted with is the fact that the third
world, which had been so powerfully influenced by Marxism twenty or thirty years
ago, now confronts the clash of two powerful missionary forces: Islam and
This is the new reality that we in the humanist and
rationalist movement have to face. The armies of the faithful are powerful and
multiple. We face continued, even escalating conflict between their intolerant
religious ideologies and our naturalism.
I have offered a brief overview of a profound reversal in
attitudes—from a period thirty years ago when humanism and secularism were in
ascendancy, at least in the United States, to one in which they are being
challenged at every turn, with vast sums of money and energy being applied to
further missionary religiosity. This does not deny the positive developments
associated with the triumph of democratic ideals, as Fukuyama has described.
But it is the overall secular humanist prospect that I am concerned with.
Thus we have great tasks ahead of us in future decades. But
I ask, What should we concentrate upon? I submit that there are three main
battles. First is the battle for secularism. I think the first great challenge
will be to preserve the secular democracies; namely, we need to make a stronger
case for the separation of church (or mosque or temple) and state. The state
should be neutral, allowing a plurality of points of view, from religious belief
to nonbelief, to coexist. This means that we need to defend democracy and the
open society, human rights, and the rule of law. Virtually all of the fifty-four
Islamic countries are theocracies, grounded in Sharia as set forth in the Hadith
and the Qur’an. Unfortunately, recent efforts by the Bush administration to
shatter the wall between church and state in the United States portend great
damage for secularism worldwide. They also place the administration in the
contradictory position of calling for barriers between church and state in Iraq
that it is doggedly dismantling at home.
The second battle will be for naturalism; we are committed
to the application of scientific methods in testing truth claims—by the
principle of appeal to evidence and reason. Scientific methodology is basic to
our industrial-technological societies; therefore, American power is based not
on theology, but on naturalistic premises. We are the defenders of critical
thinking and skeptical inquiry as part of the process of developing tested
knowledge. Leaders of industrial and technological economies understand this
full well. No revival of religious fundamentalism must be permitted to erode
We are also committed to the naturalistic cosmic
outlook—that is, to the scientific perspective drawn from the frontiers of the
sciences. Here we have much work to do. We reject the ancient religious
ontological views rooted simply in the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon,
or Buddhist and Hindu literature. We wish to explain nature in the light of
empirical and experimental evidence. That is the key principle that needs to be
enunciated: naturalism in contradistinction to supernaturalism. We are
predominantly nonreligious nontheistic empiricists and rationalists. We have
developed our views of reality by reference to the findings of the sciences. We
are skeptical about claims that are untested. Science provides our most reliable
knowledge of the universe, even as it leaves room for mystery and awe about
areas of the universe not yet probed or explained.
Our third great battle will be for humanistic ethics. We
believe that no one can deduce ethical values solely from theological premises.
Those who depend on theology for morality often end up in conflict with hatred
and intolerance on every side. For example, Muslims believe in polygamy,
Protestants and Jews in monogamy and the right of divorce, while Roman Catholics
(at least officially) do not accept divorce. The Catholic Church opposes capital
punishment; Muslim fundamentalists and Baptists defend it. Thus there is a
conflict between humanist ethics and the religious-moral ideologies that so
dominate the world today, just as there is conflict among religious ideologies.
But all of them are based upon ancient faiths, too often irrelevant to
Thus, we maintain that a humanist moral revolution offers
great promise for the future of humankind; for it allows humans to achieve the
good life here and now, without the illusion of salvation or immortality. We
wish to test moral values by evidence and reason, and we are willing to modify
our ethical values in light of the consequences. Our approach is planetary, as
Humanist Manifesto 2000 emphasized—we hold that every person on the planet has
equal dignity and value. Our moral commitment is to be concerned with the rights
of every person in the global community and to preserve our shared habitat.
Humanistic ethics defends the autonomy of the individual,
the right of privacy, human freedom, and social justice. It is concerned with
the welfare of humanity as a whole.
In conclusion, I think that secular humanism has lost
ground in the last three decades to religious forces, not only in America, but
also in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The United States is anomalous in
comparison with Europe, which has become increasingly secularized and
nonreligious. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are secular; they do not
look to the ancient faiths for guidance and believe that anyone can be moral
without belief in any religion. The challenge today is especially urgent in the
United States, no doubt because of the influence its immense power has given it
in the world. Especially disturbing is the fact that the political leadership of
the United States has grown fearful of expressing any support for agnosticism,
skepticism, secular humanism, or unbelief. Moreover, the current administration
uses the White House as a bully pulpit to spread religious gospel. It is
possible in European democracies for politicians to publicly express
nonreligious, even atheistic viewpoints—but alas, this is virtually impossible
in today’s United States.
We have been waging a rear-guard battle in the United
States. We need to move to the front lines to defend secular humanism—to
convince the public that it’s possible to be a good citizen, contribute to
society, be moral, and yet to be nonreligious. We need to defend the
Enlightenment—whose agenda still has not been fulfilled, as philosopher Jürgen
Habermas has pointed out. We need to encourage our supporters to speak out
courageously. We need to engage in debate and dialogue, enunciating and
defending secularism, humanism, and naturalism as meaningful alternatives to the
irrationalism that increasingly dominates our age and threatens to overwhelm it.
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.