Far More Than Atheism

Secular humanism is nonreligious, but it differs greatly from both atheism and religious humanism.

BY: Paul Kurtz


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Secular humanism is nonreligious. But this does not mean that it does not criticize the claims of religion; indeed, we have a moral obligation to speak the plain truth. There is a difference, however, between being antireligious--attacking religion or dismissing it cavalierly--and being willing to analyze religious claims and calling them to account for their lack of reliable empirical foundations. Biblical and Qur'anic criticism are essential to intellectual honesty and clarity; and so, secular humanists are able and willing to submit the claims of religion--particularly where these are relevant in the open public square--to critical scrutiny. To shy away from this would be dishonest. Accordingly, secular humanists are nonreligious critics of religious claims, particularly where these intrude in public policies and beliefs. Surely theistic religions today attack secular humanists and naturalists without compunction. In contrast, secular humanists have a responsibility to truth, to respond and to present the outlook of secularists and the ethics of humanism in clear and distinct language.

Secular humanism is thus committed to science and reason as the method of evaluating all truth claims, whether arising in popular belief, scientific theories, or in moral, political, or religious claims. Similarly, secular humanists are sympathetic to skeptical inquiry--that is, the application of rational methods and empirical/experimental testing to all claims to truth. For that reason, too, secular humanists cannot understand why religious humanists so fear to step on the toes of their religious brethren. Similarly, secular humanists are critical of those contemporary skeptics who express trepidation about treading in religious waters. Surely, skeptical epistemology means that there is open season on any and all claims to truth; all are subject to empirical and rational scrutiny. Critical thinking should not be confined to paranormal claims alone, which might be considered safe to criticize. In principle, critical thinking should likewise be applied to religion, politics, economics, and morality.

What is central to humanism, in my view, is the ethical component; namely, humanists believe that:

Ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, independent of theological claims, amenable to rational scrutiny, testing value judgments by their consequences. Ethical values and judgments are relative to human interests, needs, desires, ends, and values; they are open to objective criticism and evaluation.

Fulfillment, realization, and maximization of human freedom and happiness are what humanists seek, both for the individual and the community.

Thus there are ethical responsibilities that humanists hold toward others within the community, on the interpersonal level, the level of the democratic society, and the planetary community as well.

Clearly, secular humanism is not equivalent to atheism--it is far more than that. Similarly, secular humanism finds itself at odds with religious humanism, since its outlook is clearly nonreligious. It goes beyond any negative skeptical inquiry insofar as it seeks to provide a positive and affirmative alternative to customary moral and religious practices. [W]e stand for more than atheism alone, since we offer an alternative ethical life stance and eupraxsophy which is an inherent part of our position. That ethical dimension, indeed, defines our humanism.

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