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Advocatus Diaboli

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 2.

Replacing Our Last Cottage Industry

In the 1820s and '30s Frances "Fanny" Wright shocked America by advocating free love and birth control. England prosecuted Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh for distributing Charles Knowlton's 1832 contraception treatise Fruits of Philosophy. In 1855 Lucy Stone made waves by refusing her husband's surname. In 1916 Margaret Sanger was jailed for distributing birth-control information. She went on to found Planned Parenthood. In the same year Emanuel Haldeman-Julius added his wife's surname to his own (at the suggestion of Jane Addams). In 1921 Marie Stopes opened England's first birth control clinic. In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, which would trigger sweeping re-evaluations of women's roles in society. With the 1960s, all hell broke loose - from the Pill to books like Robert Rimmer's The Harrad Experiment, which portrayed a fluid new world of sexual expression. (Rimmer has been a Contributing Editor of Free Inquiry since its founding.)

The point of this idiosyncratic survey should be clear. Pat Robertson is right - as secular humanists, we are heir to a tradition that is in many ways profoundly anti-family. For more than a hundred years humanists and freethinkers have been either center stage, or cheering from the front row, each time reform blunted the family's ubiquity and power. From free choice of mates (in place of family-arranged marriages), birth control and abortion, to acceptance of unwed cohabitation, same-sex households, and openly sexually active singlehood, humanists and other reformers have dealt the family countless body blows. Some say the family is becoming more inclusive. I say we are subduing the family, not extending it - perhaps setting the stage for its replacement.

Secular humanists should celebrate this achievement, not minimize it, and renew their assaults upon the family. This obsolete and exploitative institution must go.

What's Wrong With the Family?

What isn't? (1) Like priestcraft, matrimony, and monarchy, the family is just the sort of pre-Enlightenment institution that secular humanists and other progressives have historically striven to undermine. At humanism's core lies enmity toward all things medieval, authoritarian, and obscurantist. As medieval holdovers go, the family is short on obscurantism, but drenched in authoritarianism. It's second only to matrimony in transmitting the idea of women as brood animals. In perpetuating the idea of children as property it has no peer. The family must go.

(2) In our overpopulated world, the family lends luster to the idea that everyone should find a partner of the opposite sex and pump out babies. Recent trends toward fewer births per family (in the industrial world, at least) are laudable. But why not a society where forming a family and reproducing are simply viewed as two options among many - options jointly exercised by, perhaps, only a third of the reproductive-age population? That would really give us a handle on population control! The family must go.

Finally, (3) the family stands in the way of another implicit humanist goal: decoupling sex from reproduction and reproduction from parenting. The birth control explosion of the 60s emancipated much sex from reproduction. Yet even today, few can imagine anyone but themselves raising their kids, as though conception and childbirth imply anything about one's capacity to prepare a child for today's complex world.

The Costs Of Cottage Industry

We expect specialists to build our cars, raise our buildings, make our clothing, write our software - the list is endless. Perversely, only society's most precious products - us - are still entrusted to cottage industry. If society is falling apart as conservatives charge, perhaps the blame lies not with "alternative family structures" (more accurately, non-familial households) but simply with parents, single or married, rich or poor, for whom parenting could never be more than a hobby - pursued in naive isolation, abandoned just when one threatens to get good at it. While procreation and parenting remain yoked, most children are doomed to be raised by amateurs. (Ironically, as family size declines, a given child is more likely to suffer inexperienced parenting. Even ZPG has a dark side.)

David Cooper said the family "exists as a challenge to go beyond all the conditioning one has undergone in it." I spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood struggling to reverse the damage inflicted by the Roman Catholic Church (which knew what it was doing) and my parents (who as only children with few child-raising peers, had few clues what they were up to). I speak from bitter experience. The family, our last cottage industry, must go!

Secular humanists should renew their efforts to seek what Cooper called "new types of living arrangements" that "avoid the restrictions and subtle violence of the family." Unfortunately, even within humanist circles anti-family activism is fading. One reason might be a failure of imagination. There are few compelling post-socialist visions of a world free of families. We need new ones, and fast.

Looking Backwards - Issuing A Challenge

In 1888 Edward Bellamy published the utopian novel Looking Backwards, 2000-1887. Bellamy predicted that by the 21st Century capitalism, home, and family would be forgotten. Generations of reformers imbibed Bellamy's vivid images of happy workers who lived in dorms and ate in refectories, of children raised in large cohorts by gifted mentors, and dreamt that this was the shape of things to come. Science-fiction masters like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others portrayed futures in which the family had been eclipsed by licensed, professionalized alternatives. Many progressives simply assumed that one day, if not too soon, parenting would be a career like any other. Those most capable of it would be trained to mentor armies of children not their own.

Too many secular humanists no longer find such visions compelling. Trouble is, Bellamy was a socialist. Looking Backward was primarily an anti-capitalist tract. Its utopia required huge exercises of state power. After all, what except a powerful state could declare all children its wards and license professional parents? Writers who played riffs on this vision (even libertarians like Heinlein) could never quite depict the Post-Family Era without relying on Big Brother to usher it in.

With that in mind, I issue a challenge. How many secular humanists still see the family as something to be overcome? Are you as mystified as I am as to how this desirable reform might now be approached? Can we construct a vision of an individualist future where most sex never leads to conception; where only a fraction of the population reproduces; and where only gifted mentors parent, without regard for whose offspring the children may be? If so, how? Can free men and women bring this state of affairs into being without coaxing Leviathan from the deep?

Let's talk it over. Write Advocatus Diaboli, SHB, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664, or email tflynn@centerforinquiry.net


David Cooper, The Death of the Family (Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Press, 1971).

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 2000-1887 (numerous reprints).

Tom Flynn, who after this issue steps down as founding co-editor of Secular Humanist Bulletin, has taken extraordinary care not to form a family. He lives in a non-familial household and is childfree by choice.

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