by Tom Flynn
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 3.
Why Pull Our Punches?
The Best Lack All Conviction ...
There are religious people and there are religious people. On issues from social
justice to abortion rights, secular humanists have long made common cause with a broad
spectrum of Christians. From liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists to members
of the United Church of Christ, mainstream Protestants defended many of the same
barricades we did. Too bad such nice folks are having their flocks snatched out from under
them by more muscular, less tolerant evangelical and fundamentalist denominations. But the
sad truth is that humans afflicted by the transcendental temptation seem to favor
churches that proclaim a lot, demand a lot, and forbid a lot. Countless pundits have
decried the erosion of mainstream Protestantism and its gradual replacement at the heart
of American religious life by strident evangelical fundamentalism.
According to the recent Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes toward
religion in public life, this process has reached an important - if regrettable -
milestone. For the first time I can remember, the survey grouped American Christians as
- White Evangelical Protestant
- White Non-evangelical Protestant
- White Catholic
- Black Christians
See what happened? Mainstream Protestantism has become irrelevant. "White
Evangelical Protestant" is now the default category. The liberal, sophisticated
believers whose relative sanity we used to count on are now defined only as "White
Non-evangelical Protestant" - that is, by their difference from the fundagelical
Some humanists say the ballyhooed resurgence of spirituality in American life is
nothing to worry about. They argue that while heightened religious sentiment will surely
benefit intolerant right-wing Christianity, mainstream denominations will benefit more.
Time for a new dream! Yes, a rising tide lifts all boats. But each day more of the
skippers resemble Rousas Rushdoony than Martin Marty. Increasingly, what's good for
American Christianity means what's good for Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, and
nameless ultraconservative churches that preach the denial of evolution, the laying on of
hands, the subjugation of women, and the damnation of all who disagree.
As benign denominations play a smaller role in the fabric of American religion, there
is less reason for secular humanists to distinguish among the sects. No longer should we
quail from declaring that it is with religion itself - the willing adherence to
supernatural propositions because of the emotional satisfaction they bring, rather than
any intersubjective demonstrability of their truth - that the problem lies.
Something to Do (Besides Sleep) Sunday Morning ...
One fledgling group near Detroit has found a way to speak out against religion as such,
one that hardy humanists might adopt (or adapt) as an outlet for activism in their own
groups. Brian Hinson chairs the Society of Activist Freethinkers (SAF),
also known as the Antireligion Society. SAF was
organized "to educate the public that all religions are rooted in myth" and
"to inform the public that all religions are a danger to a modern, civilized and
technological society." My kind of outfit! SAF publishes
hard-hitting rationalist tracts subtitled "Think Before You Believe" that baldly
present Bible contradictions. So far, nothing new.
But how does SAF distribute their anti-tracts? Would you believe ... under
the wipers of cars in church parking lots?
According to Hinson, so far SAF's roughly 90 members across the
country have distributed between 10,000 and 15,000 leaflets. One highlight was leafleting
portions of the Pontiac Silverdome parking lot during a Promise Keepers rally. So far,
Hinson says SAF's bold tactics have led to "no arrests, no physical
confrontations. ... We believe that being examples of good citizens, not mouthy fanatics,
is more likely to change someone's mind." They also realize that they are sowing
seeds of doubt that may take years to blossom - and will do so only among a tiny fraction
of their targets.
Some critics find church leafleting too aggressive. Others say the humanist movement
can't spare the resources to beard the most committed religious lions in their dens.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that on Sunday churches contain at least
two kinds of people - the contented believers whom nothing is likely to change, and a
questioning minority who attend services more frequently precisely because they are
searching for answers. I spent years going to church while questioning my deepest
convictions. Finding a SAF tract on my windshield - and with it, a point
of entry into the rich demimonde of atheist, freethought and humanist thought - might have
spared me untold guideless searching.
According to recent research, persons who grow up strongly religious, then become
nonbelievers, make up as little as one percent of the general population. But people with
this rare background make up more than half the active membership of most humanist groups.
The rationale for humanist recruiting among churchgoers seems paradoxically solid.
Humanist groups hungry for activities might try church leafleting. Some will develop
anti-tracts of their own, less sharpedged than SAF's. Others may go for
the gusto. If you'd like information straight from SAF, write PO Box
40995, Redford, Mich., 48239-9998 or email ANTIRELIG@AOL.COM.
If your group experiments with church outreach, let me know about your experiences.
What do you think? Write Advocatus Diaboli, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664. If you
prefer, fax (716) 636-7571 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.
Humanism Online Library