A program of the Center for Inquiry
During the middle decades of the twentieth century, American humanism focused much of its energy on social-justice issues that stood close to its core interests but were nonetheless separable from them. The abortion-law repeal/decriminalization movement, the voluntary euthanasia movement, and the early efforts for African-American civil rights clearly justified mid-century humanists’ commitment of time and energy, in part because traditional Christianity played so large a role in the organized resistance to those reforms. Nonetheless, these issues were sufficiently discrete from humanism’s core that this period (described in the previous article) was largely characterized by enthusiastic humanist activists helping to launch reform movements that soon developed specialized advocacy organizations of their own. Thus, abortion-law reform and, later, abortion-rights activism became primarily associated with organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL rather than, say, the American Humanist Association. Similarly, the voluntary euthanasia movement became associated with organizations such as the Euthanasia Society of America and the Hemlock Society, and the early civil rights movement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, with the inadvertent effect of masking the indispensable roles that Unitarians, Ethical Culturists, and independent humanists had played in laying the foundations for all three movements.
By contrast, beginning in the late 1970s, organized humanism began to focus more intensely on social-justice issues “closer to home,” as it were—issues that engaged humanist activists and their core interests more directly and around which strong humanist, freethought, and atheist organizations were more likely to develop than the independent organizations that mid–twentieth-century humanist engagement had spawned so prolifically. Many of these “core” social-justice concerns had to do with resisting the influence of religious privilege.
Religious privilege is so pervasive that most people are not even aware that such a phenomenon exists, much less that it constitutes a problem. In the United States, for example, religious organizations receive a wide range of gratuitous advantages not available to more secular organizations:
The idea that religion provides tangible benefits to society—whether by providing social services or creating a more virtuous citizenry—is so commonplace that those who suggest otherwise are often viewed as subversive malcontents by religionists who consider themselves in other respects progressive, and sometimes even by other atheists. (In a 2015 book, Australian atheist commentator C. J. Werleman launched just such a criticism against so-called New Atheists who contend that religion lacks social value.)
However, religious privilege is a very real and serious problem, one that goes beyond the usual disagreements about nativity scenes and crosses on public property that provide fodder for American culture-war skirmishes.
The major mass social-justice movements described in “Creative Minority Report: How the Humanist Movement Changed America” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2016) had largely ended by the time the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism was established in 1980. (In 1996, the organization shortened its name to the Council for Secular Humanism. In 2015, it became a project of the Center for Inquiry [CFI]. In the interest of clarity, it will henceforth be referred to simply as “the Council.”) If the mid-century humanist agenda had largely been completed, the Council found itself perfectly situated to fight against the scourge of religious privilege—and a newly muscular religious Right—as those continued to develop in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
The situation in 1980. In 1980, tensions between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were increasing due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, furthering an already deeply established apocalyptic view that America was locked in a fight to the death against the forces of “godless communism.” People who openly questioned religion in the United States were considered unpatriotic subversives at worst, immoral cranks at best. The Secular Humanist Declaration was published in the premier issue of Free Inquiry (Winter 1980/81). It elicited many negative reactions, not just from the “usual suspects” on the religious Right but also from moderate conservatives and liberals who felt that criticizing religion was unpatriotic, questionably moral, or in poor taste. For example, John P. Roche—an academic who described his politics as “Social Democrat” and had advised the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations—complained that “The Declaration is at least as dogmatic as the pronouncements of the Moral Majority, except it is the reverse mirror-image... Considering the intellectual gravity of those who signed it, the odd aspect of the Declaration is its frenzied tone.”
In the second issue of Free Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, the founder of Free Inquiry magazine and the Council, defended the right to criticize religion in an editorial:
Religious believers daily bombard us with their faith claims. They surely have a right to believe in whatever they want... But some dogmatic religionists are intolerant and wish to impose their views on others. Part of their growing influence may be attributed to the fact that the views they express often go unchallenged ... doctrinaire religions must be taken seriously, for they have a powerful influence on the lives of countless people. That is why we believe that religions should not be immune to Free Inquiry or critical scrutiny.
Since 1980, the Council and, later, CFI have not only challenged religious privilege from an intellectual perspective in the pages of Free Inquiry magazine but also through various “real world” initiatives. This essay will examine three of the organizations’ key antireligious privilege projects:
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 16.6 million adults aged eighteen and up and 697,000 adolescents aged twelve to seventeen have an alcohol-use disorder. Roughly 88,000 people die each year from complications due to excessive drinking, making alcohol-related causes the third most-common type of preventable death in the United States. Alcohol-related deaths kill 10 percent of working-age adults aged twenty to sixty-four, which costs the American economy $223.5 billion per year.
Given how many lives are negatively impacted by alcohol abuse, one would think that there would be a strong impetus to implement medically accurate best practices to help those struggling against alcohol-use disorder. Yet Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) remains the most popular and widespread approach to alcoholism rehabilitation—as of 2000, 90 percent of American addiction facilities used AA’s signature Twelve Step method. AA requires members to accept evangelical Christian religious dogma in the vague hope that a “Higher Power” will cure them of their drinking problems. In 1987, the Council helped to launch Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves (SOS) as a formal project to provide a secular, evidence-based alternative to AA. (SOS became a project of CFI when it merged with the Council in January 2015. In early 2016, SOS became an independent nonprofit organization.)
To understand why SOS is necessary, one has to examine the roots of AA itself, which is heavily based on the teachings of an evangelical revival group called the Oxford Group Movement. Founded by Frank Nathan Daniel Buchman in 1921, the Oxford Movement had as its goal to create an international moral reawakening by emphasizing the individual’s helplessness in the face of sin and the need to rely on God to overcome personal vice and social problems. AA founder William Wilson encountered the Oxford Group Movement while he was convalescing at the Charles B. Towns Hospital for alcohol-induced delirium in 1934. He became so enthusiastic about its teachings that he borrowed them with minimal alterations to create AA. Wilson was always clear about the connection between the Oxford Group Movement and the AA philosophy; in his 1957 book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Wilson credited the Oxford Movement as the inspiration for the famous Twelve Steps and admitted that he would have preferred to make the religious content in AA even more overt, but “these ideas had to be fed with teaspoons rather than by buckets.”
The medical establishment was initially skeptical of AA, dismissing the group’s “Big Book” in a 1939 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association as “a curious combination of organizing propaganda and religious exhortation. It is in no sense a scientific book...” Attitudes soon changed, and mainstream medicine became supportive of AA while simultaneously downplaying the religious nature of its program. Today, the popular press (and a great many recovering addicts) agree that AA is a nonsectarian “spiritual” program that can be adapted to the specific needs of anyone regardless of his or her religious beliefs. Atheists and agnostics are encouraged to “fake it until they make it,” often with the absurd suggestion that they designate an inanimate object as their Higher Power so they can work through the Steps. In essence, AA prescribes a simplistic religious solution for the complex problem of addiction, telling desperate people that all they need to do is surrender their lives to God and everything else will fall into place.
The genesis for SOS came in a 1985 Free Inquiry article written by James Christopher, titled “Sobriety Without Superstition,” in which Christopher, a former California advertising executive, described how being an atheist in AA had impeded his own recovery process. Christopher received hundreds of letters from readers who also struggled with alcohol and desired a secular sobriety program. He started the first SOS group in 1986 in North Hollywood, California, with only a single telephone and an answering machine. The Council began its formal support of SOS in October 1987; among other things, the infusion of resources allowed SOS to publish a new quarterly newsletter. Within six years, over one thousand SOS groups had been founded in the United States. Today there are also SOS groups in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
SOS takes a radically different approach than AA to recovery from substance abuse. The primary focus of SOS is to empower individuals to lead clean and sober lives, not to promote a religious or philosophical agenda. In contrast to AA, there are no “steps” or any other kind of pre-determined program that a person must adopt. Participants make “personal recovery plans” to provide a roadmap for maintaining sobriety in the present and the future. This plan can be altered depending on the goals and needs of the person creating it. The SOS approach is based on the concept of “cognitive sobriety,” in which the achievement of sober living—not having a relationship with a “Higher Power” or changing one’s values or identity—is the primary goal of the individual in question. SOS meetings, both face-to-face and online, help members clarify what they want out of a sober life and learn techniques from other recovering alcoholics that will enable them to stay committed to alcohol abstinence. There are no sponsors for new members, as it is believed that this practice has the potential to devolve into “guru worship” and emotional dependency. SOS is committed to building self-esteem and self-worth in its members by giving themselves credit for becoming and staying sober, whereas AA requires its members to credit their recoveries to a nebulous Higher Power. While SOS members accept that they are alcoholics, as do AA members, the former believe that they deserve to have a “good life” sans alcohol and have the ability to have one, if they choose to work at it, while AA maintains that alcoholics are “powerless over alcohol” unless God (or a Higher Power) intervenes.
In addition to establishing local groups, SOS works to challenge AA’s effective stranglehold over the legal system. Many individuals are forced to attend AA or other twelve-step programs as part of a DUI sentence or as a way of satisfying drug and/or alcohol treatment requirements while in prison. Failure to attend AA meetings, even if one has a legitimate philosophical objection to the religious content, is often interpreted as noncompliance by judges and prison officials and can lead to additional penalties, fines, or jail time. In some jurisdictions, even suggesting that an alternative to AA exists is enough to brand one as a troublemaker. Consequently, SOS has worked to have its program recognized as a legitimate alternative to AA so that atheists, agnostics, and religionists who don’t believe in AA’s brand of spirituality can fulfill their court-appointed rehabilitation requirements without being penalized. SOS’s first legal challenge to the AA monopoly occurred in 1987, leading the state of California to permit SOS to be used as an alternative for those sentenced to mandatory participation in a drug or alcohol education program. Since then, SOS has used the establishment clause to argue, often successfully, that AA and other twelve-step organizations are religions and that state sponsorship of such programs amounts to a government endorsement of sectarian religious organizations.
There is a growing legal consensus that forcing prisoners to participate in religiously based rehabilitation programs such as AA is unconstitutional. In the 1996 case Kerr v. Farrey, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional rights of a Wisconsin prisoner, James Kerr, were violated by threats to send him to a more restrictive prison and deny him parole if he refused to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting—the only drug-education program offered at the correctional institution in question. The court eventually ruled that “the state has impermissibly coerced inmates to participate in a religious program” and that Kerr had the right to refuse participation in Narcotics Anonymous (an affiliate of AA) because the group’s content was fundamentally religious, not medical, in nature. Similarly, in Warner v. Orange County Probation Department, which came before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997, it was decided that forcing an atheist to attend AA meetings as part of a sentence for drunk driving violated the establishment clause, especially since the plaintiff was denied “a reasonable choice of therapy providers, so that he was not compelled by the state’s judicial power to enter a religious program.” The more recent case of Munson v. Norris, decided in 2006 by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, concluded that the constitutional rights of James Munson, a paroled sex offender, were violated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections when it forced him to pray during a court-appointed sex offender rehabilitation program in a fashion contrary to his religious beliefs.
It is hoped that the growing legal momentum to have twelve-step programs formally recognized as religious will encourage additional jurisdictions and institutions to provide secular alternatives to individuals assigned to court-appointed drug/alcohol education programs.
The unwarranted success of AA and its related family of twelve-step programs can be attributed to the deeply ingrained religiosity of the American public, which is already primed to believe that any problem can be overcome if one prays to God hard enough and has a sincere desire to change. However, the AA method puts more emphasis on submitting to God than it does on establishing a sober life, which automatically places it in conflict with the needs and desires of many suffering from alcohol-use disorder. While some afflicted individuals may respond to AA, others might benefit from another approach, such as SOS, Smart Recovery, drug therapy, or even “detoxing” on one’s own without the help of a support group or doctor. No person struggling to overcome an addiction should have to “fake” anything in order to regain control over his or her life. Neither should a recovering alcoholic have to give all credit for his or her recovery to a nebulous Higher Power when he or she is the one doing all the work to stay sober. That both are considered necessary by AA’s many supporters in the medical establishment, the legal system, and the public at large speaks volumes about the pernicious nature of religious privilege in medical situations.
While the early twenty-first century has seen unprecedented gains in acceptance of atheists and secular-humanist values in the West, the same is not true in the developing world. There, blasphemy laws, the presence of powerful religious institutions, and intense social pressure to manifest religious belief severely curtail the ability of humanists to disseminate their views. The need for secularism and humanist values is arguably greatest in the developing world because the global poor have the most to lose when superstition, religious dogma, and pseudoscience are promoted as fact.
The Council and CFI have long supported humanists in the developing world. As early as 1984, CFI founder Paul Kurtz visited Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa to examine the state of humanism on the African continent. Writing in the Fall 1984 Free Inquiry, he described encountering individual humanist activists but finding little humanist organizational activity in the countries he visited except for a single embattled South African group. At the time, Kurtz’s organization had no capacity to offer significant assistance. That changed in 1989, when Kurtz and Norm Allen Jr. organized African Americans for Humanism (AAH), originally to support humanist activism in African-American communities. Free Inquiry published An African American Humanist Declaration almost at once. By early 1991, it was decided to expand AAH’s mission to include outreach in Africa. Allen made a two-week tour of Ghana and Nigeria, seeding new humanist groups. A 1994 African tour by Free Inquiry Senior Editor Vern L. Bullough and his wife, Contributing Editor Bonnie Bullough, deepened many of these contacts.
Ultimately, AAH helped to facilitate the formation of humanist groups in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa. AAH has also helped organize pan-African humanist conventions that allowed African humanists from all across the continent to network, debate, and enjoy the company of like-minded individuals. At the first such conference in October 2001 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s most prestigious university, the topics included how advances in biotechnology might alleviate hunger in Africa, how to advocate for humanism in cultures that do not recognize the freedom to dissent, and how humanist values might help defuse tensions between Muslims and Christians.
During the early twenty-first century, much of the Council’s international work was taken over by CFI. New and existing African humanist groups were reorganized as CFI branches. Today, CFI branches in Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia remain active, directly addressing the problems associated with extreme poverty and ingrained superstition. One of the main projects at CFI–Uganda is disseminating medically accurate information about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, and contraception, a crucial task given that 7.2 percent of the adult population of Uganda is infected with the disease. As in many sub-Saharan African nations, Uganda is awash in superstitious beliefs about HIV/AIDS, many of which center around ways to use witchcraft or other forms of magic to prevent or cure HIV infections. Having access to correct information about HIV/AIDS and other health-related topics not only enables Ugandans to make better choices but discourages them from patronizing folk magicians peddling bogus cures. A sister organization of CFI–Uganda is the Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability (HALEA), which works in the slums of Kampala to educate the populace about the dangers of falling into superstitious belief patterns, provides information on employment and educational opportunities, and funds programs to keep young people engaged in meaningful activities and away from criminal enterprises.
Another important campaign undertaken by CFI’s African affiliates concerns fighting against the widespread belief in witchcraft. While Westerners tend to believe that witch trials belong firmly in the less-enlightened past, in sub-Saharan Africa thousands of individuals, mostly women and children, are exiled from their homes or even killed because they have been accused of witchcraft. CFI–Kenya has been working to educate Kenyans, especially in rural areas, about the baseless nature of witchcraft accusations. It teamed with the Moi Freethinkers, a student skeptic organization at Moi University, to stage debates about the dangers of superstitious beliefs. Despite the demonstrable harm that belief in witchcraft causes to individuals, families, and communities, African religious conservatives condemn the humanist fight against superstition and supernatural beliefs, claiming that to deny the existence of witches runs contrary to history, tradition, and common sense. For example, Emeka Esogbue, a Nigerian writer, criticized CFI–Nigeria’s then-spokesman Leo Igwe’s anti-witchcraft campaign:
Although ... Leo Igwe assumed that witchcraft is not real by erroneous assumptions, faulty arguments, and allusions, what he failed to understand is that true victims of witchcraft experiences will vehemently disagree with him because they felt it... To say that witchcraft is a belief that does not imply truth, validity or reality of what is believed in is like attributing same to the various secret societies that are known to exist all over the world because witchcraft in the African society is nothing but a society where adherents gather after secret initiations have taken place. Anybody who has been privileged to listen to a witch who willingly confessed to evil and iniquitous acts brought on anyone will not share in the beliefs of those who see witchcraft as mere beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, Igwe has found himself on the receiving end of physical and legal violence from Nigerians who profit from the perceived existence of witchcraft, including a vicious mob assault committed by two hundred members of the Liberty Gospel Church and an unsuccessful legal suit by Helen Ukpabio, pastor of that church, that was meant to silence his criticism of her witch-hunting “ministry.”
CFI has launched the Freethought Emergency Campaign to aid atheist bloggers in the Islamic world, who are being targeted for death and/or imprisonment by Islamists. These efforts have their roots in the campaigns to support Salman Rushdie after the Iranian government placed a fatwa on his head for writing The Satanic Verses in 1989 and a similar effort to aid humanist author Taslima Nasrin, whose writings lead to mass demonstration and death threats in her native Bangladesh in 1993. After a string of 2015 assassinations that killed atheist bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel in Bangladesh, CFI used the fund to help bring Nasrin to the United States because credible threats against her life had been issued by al-Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, the same group that had claimed responsibility for Das’s murder. Given the ways that blasphemy laws and social pressure limit the ability for atheists to speak openly in many Islamic societies, online arenas are often the only spaces available for nonbelievers in Muslim nations to express their doubts and their dissatisfaction with the status quo. The deliberate targeting of atheists bloggers is intended to silence all forms of religious dissent.
Part of the reason religious privilege is so difficult to confront in the developing world is because religionists in these countries have decided to intertwine their piety with nationalist and/or tribal affiliations. Rejecting religion in favor of humanism is thus seen as an abandonment of one’s heritage or as a sign that one is a “dupe” of Western governments who want to reimpose colonialism by importing “foreign values” such as secularism, atheism, and humanism. But the extreme examples of religious privilege seen in the developing world, such as deferring to folk magic and superstition to solve problems, attacking those with unpopular opinions, and allowing religious organizations carte blanche to spread misinformation, serve only to diminish the quality of human capital by hindering people’s ability to access proper education, medical attention, or even accurate information about how the world works. CFI’s efforts to spread reason and science in the developing world provide a much-needed corrective to the aggressive religiosity found in these countries.
Since its inception in 1945, the promotion of universal human rights has been an integral part of the United Nations’ (UN’s) mission. However, Islamic member states have been working to undermine the right to free expression by lobbying to have “defamation of religion” classified as a human-rights offense. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an international organization of fifty-seven countries with significant Muslim populations, has asserted that the dictates of Islam demand that Muslims receive special rights, namely, the right to be free from religious criticism. The OIC has issued parallel “human rights” documents, such as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981) and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990), both of which undermine the idea of universal human rights found in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly in the areas of free speech and women’s rights.
Since issuing the Cairo Declaration, the OIC and its allies at the UN have worked to make criticism against religion in general and fears about “Islamophobia” in particular the primary concern of the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC). The OIC’s greatest victory occurred on March 28, 2008, when a delegation from Canada at the HRC moved a resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Speech, an office that has traditionally been devoted to ensuring freedom of speech. However, a coalition consisting of Islamic nations, China, Russia, and Cuba advanced a rival resolution that would change the mission of the Special Rapporteur to make it in charge of monitoring “instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” Although the European Union, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Switzerland opposed this change, the resolution put forth by the Islamic nations and their coalition passed, effectively creating a “blasphemy taboo” at the UN and giving “rights” to religions while diminishing the rights of individuals.
Opposing these efforts to define “blasphemy” and “offense to religious sensibilities” as human-rights offenses is CFI’s mission to the UN. It advocates for secular values as a nongovernmental organization under the UN Economic and Social Council. In September 2008, CFI and the International Ethical and Humanist Union (IHEU) issued a joint statement condemning the “defamation of religion” concept as a threat to human rights. The statement noted that there were already ample protections against religious hatred in existing UN documents, and so there was no reason to give religions special protections, especially when such protections are used to silence religious minorities, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. While the “defamation of religion” resolution passed in the General Assembly and the HRC, the objections of CFI and the IHEU, as well as those registered by other Western countries, made it clear that there was no consensus about granting special rights to religions. The pushback was such that in 2011, the HRC unanimously agreed on a new resolution based on a proposal written by the Pakistani delegation that dropped the language of “defamation of religion” and instead promoted the right of individuals to choose their religion and/or belief system freely. The new resolution was still problematic; it called for states to foster “religious tolerance,” which could be interpreted to support government censorship of critics of religion and did not mention a right to be free from religion. Still, it was a step forward from the rhetoric of “defamation of religion.” Later that year, the UN Human Rights Commission forthrightly came out against blasphemy laws as being an infringement of free speech and contrary to existing international law on the subject.
While it is doubtful that the OIC nations and their allies will cease their efforts to have defamation of religion classified as a human-rights offense, constant pushback is needed to prevent it from becoming a reality. Claiming that religions, rather than individuals, have rights places dogma above criticism if that criticism injures the feelings of believers, even when their beliefs are harming society. Although the UN continues to uphold the universality of freedom of speech at the moment, scores of countries around the world have blasphemy laws on their books that continue to restrict the speech rights of atheists and religious minorities.
That religious dogmas should be open for critique like any other idea was a radical notion in the Ronald Reagan era when Free Inquiry was founded and remains so to this day. While it is not unusual for objectors to religious privilege to be stereotyped as affluent Westerners who are tone-deaf to the psychological and social benefits that religion supposedly provides for the poor, the people who are most victimized by religious privilege tend to be poor people of color, especially women, whose opportunities are needlessly limited by powerful religious leaders and institutions. Since most societies typically grant special privileges to one or two particular religions, the people most often punished by blasphemy laws are other religionists, whether those belonging to the majority group who profess a different opinion than the religious establishment or members of unpopular minority sects. Nonetheless, the danger that blasphemy legislation poses to humanists, atheists, and other unbelievers in many countries of the world is very real. Confronting it is an emergent challenge for CFI.
The initiation of the idea of this project and partial funding for its research and writing was provided by Gordon Gamm. These articles explore secular humanism’s outsized role in influencing society-wide social-reform efforts in the twentieth century. Part 1, which appeared in the August/September 2016 issue, focused on the fight for reproductive freedom, voluntary euthanasia, and civil liberties. Part 2 highlights the contributions of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Council for Secular Humanism, now a CFI program.
Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of Southern U.S. history.