Does the Solution to Our Broken System Lie with Humanist Values?

Yesterday voters in Virginia and New Jersey sent a clear message of support for Democrats that is also seen as a referendum on the GOP and President Trump at time when many agree our political system is in trouble. In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, the Washington Post ran a feature last month in which thirty-eight prominent writers and artists were asked to share their best idea for fixing American democracy. Of the thirty-eight conservative, liberal, creative, and practical solutions they received, we thought we’d highlight a few that fall right in line with humanist values.


By Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health

Collins suggests that a cure for a broken democracy is a healthy understanding of the science world. Undoubtedly, science and reason have fallen by the wayside in American society, with outright attacks on science and education by the Trump administration. Collins believes sparking the natural curiosity of children through education will encourage them to appreciate science and think about the world around them more critically. How does he propose we do this? A literal “black box” with an unknown object inside given to students to investigate. His idea came from his own experience as a science student when his teacher did that very thing.

On the first day of chemistry class, the teacher gave each of us a black box containing an unidentified object and asked us to come up with ways to investigate what the object was. This was a radical shift from a world in which teachers had simply poured scientific facts into my head that I was supposed to regurgitate on an exam. This was the first time that someone had challenged me to come up with the ideas…

Collins said it was his black box experience that gave him the tools to navigate problems on his own. Science, reason, and the ability to think critically are critical humanist values. Without them, we would fail to think rationally, remain open-minded and illogical, and be blind and ignorant to what evidence tells us about our universe.


By Ibram X. Kendi, American University history professor and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Humanists are dedicated to the equal treatment of all people. Equality is a vital humanist value, so naturally a constitutional amendment on equality is something we can get behind. Bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, these aren’t new American traits. However, since Trump entered office the surge in incidents driven by hate fueled by racial and gender differences or sexual preference can’t go unnoticed. That’s why Kendi proposed a constitutional amendment. It isn’t that it is suddenly needed, but America has now gone well beyond the breaking point. Along with this amendment, a federal agency would be created to investigate institutional racism, sexism, and every other type of inequality, and no one, government officials included, would be exempt from this law.  This solution is one that hits close to home for the American Humanist Association. Seeing inequality and unfairness in society and even within our own movement, we established social justice alliances—the Black Humanist Alliance, LGBTQ Humanist Alliance, and the Feminist Humanist Alliance—and we are planning expansions and additional groups. We recognize that the humanist movement must be dedicated to assuring not only representation of disenfranchised communities, but also to protecting their equality.


By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former NBA star and author

Critical thinking is an essential humanist value and prioritizing the teaching of it is a fantastic idea from Abdul-Jabbar. His idea is that Americans who ignorantly elect a corrosive and dangerous leader like Trump are the “zombies” of our society; they have abandoned their responsibility as citizens to make choices based on facts and logic, in favor of making thoughtless, self-serving decisions. These “zombies” let go of all control, letting others ultimately control their lives. Abdul-Jabbar thinks that if we give children the tools to think critically at a young age, over the generations we can begin to combat the type of thinking that produces FOX News and Breitbart, and we’ll eventually have a society that values science-based decision making.

While I was happy to see so many suggestions that aligned with humanist values, a wide range of individuals were asked to offer a solution, and so it’s not surprising that a handful of suggestions weren’t so humanistic, and some were outright problematic.

RR Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, says the way to fix our democracy is to ignore the cultural elite. I can try to understand the logic here:  if people are ignored they might change? It seems the suggestion is that if we ignore the cultural elite, which is mostly made up of middle-aged white men, the rest of us will take our power back. There is a problem with that, however. While middle-aged white men do cause many social problems, we wouldn’t benefit much from ignoring the elite ones. Elite white men have a lot of power and ignoring them won’t take away their political, social, or cultural power. Secondly, not all white men are elite and rich, and not all problems are caused by them. This solution will not solve or alleviate the deep systematic problems like racism, sexism, homophobia, economic injustice, environmental injustice, etc. This may be a good tip to live by, but this is no solution.

Author and Washington Post correspondent Kristin Henderson suggests required military or civilian service. I won’t get into how this won’t solve our actual systematic problems, but one of the great things about the United States is that military service is voluntary. I have a feeling most wouldn’t want that to change (ask anyone drafted into Vietnam). Henderson’s reasoning is not convincing in the slightest. She believes the military has “proved the benefits of setting aside differences, and not just in battle.” I suggest she ask female, LGBTQ, and secular service members about that.

Arlie Russell Hochschild (author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right) suggests we “redefine” the American flag to create more unity. He believes that if people respected the symbol of America again and were reminded of what it means, then there would be less hate, less fighting, less turmoil. The problem is, not everyone sees the American flag as a symbol of freedom. To some, the flag is a symbol of oppression and hate and represents a country that ignores them, abuses them, and forgets them. No, we don’t need a new symbol of nationalism. We need to acknowledge all the flag symbolizes, including injustice for some.

As interesting as these thirty-eight single ideas for fixing our democracy are, the truth is, it will take more than one change and more than one person making the effort. It will take all of us. As humanists, we believe that every day we have the responsibility to conduct ourselves in a civil manner. As humanists, we must strive to be productive members of our communities, creating positive change that benefits all. The best part about being a humanist is that the only requirement to conduct oneself ethically and morally is to be a human being. There is no belief in a higher power, no punishment for thinking critically or asking questions. We encourage voting, expanding social circles, interfaith collaboration, and intersectional activism. A humanist’s pledge to being “good without a god” simply means being good because we’re all in this one life together.