I FRANKLY ADMIT that when I first learned the Humanist magazine and the American Humanist Association were turning seventy-five in 2016, I was surprised. I had assumed that the bold stance maintained by the AHA and the Humanist in the current world had been devised more recently, as religious entrenchment in the face of growing secularism has produced a loony fundamentalist political backlash that requires a concerted response.
Upon reflection, however, the importance of the longstanding tradition of the Humanist became more clear. The effort to obscure the obvious, to rely on fear, ideology, or religious pressure to limit debate has been a policy of governments, democratic or not, for far longer than seventy-five years. What many in the mainstream world of journalism seem to have forgotten is that a free press is the basis of a sound democracy. If the press is unwilling to openly question even the sacred—indeed, especially the sacred—who will? The Humanist magazine therefore continues to be an important source of critical analysis and commentary.
Skepticism and freethought are not an agenda, nor should they be the province of any political party. The need for magazines like the Humanist will therefore continue independent of the winds of political and ideological fad and fashion. In the current U.S. political climate it is easy to imagine that Republicans, who seem to have given up on reality-based policy, have a monopoly on nonsense. But it is worth remembering, for example, that a broad-based recent survey of American adults demonstrated that atheists were viewed on par with rapists on a scale of trustworthiness. We still have our work cut out for us.
The slow pace of political progress, when it comes to the need for free thought in all areas of the public sphere, is frustrating. When reading the work of our founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, it seems we have taken a giant step backward in the intervening centuries. As I write this, a leading candidate for President of the United States in one of the two major political parties has openly declared that evolution is the work of Satan, that the Big Bang never happened, and that the world is 6,000 years old. Somehow this colossal level of ignorance was not obviated by his Yale education or his subsequent training as a doctor.
Clearly the need to believe in invisible things that help you deal with a world that otherwise is not centered on your own existence runs deep and strong. Yet the history of human progress centers around our ability to overcome our innate myopia and solipsism, and allow our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality instead of vice versa. We do live in amazing times, and as a scientist it is often hard to believe how much our vision of the universe has evolved even since I was a student, and one can only marvel at the remarkable new windows on the cosmos that have been designed and built.
The dichotomy between the ability of scientific skepticism to produce progress and our ability as human beings to hold two contradictory notions in our heads at the same time is striking. But by openly recognizing this fact, by bringing such contradictions to light, as the Humanist does in different ways in each issue, we can help one aspect of being human have a positive impact on the other aspect.
We live in a remarkable universe and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this deserves celebration. We don’t need the garbage, the myth, or the superstition to make life interesting. Indeed, I’ve just finished writing a new book titled, The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far, because the story of the real universe is so much more fascinating, and full of so much more drama, compassion, and intrigue than stale books written by Iron Age peasants several millennia ago.
The challenge to the Humanist is therefore great: to steer a course between criticism and wonder. I am sure that the effort must be frustrating, but I thank the editors of the magazine for their continued efforts. Please keep producing articles for seventy-five more years. Because even if we win the current battles against superstition, ideology, and lies, the longer-term effort to preserve enlightenment must continue. Thank you for continuing to be on the front lines for so many years. Live long and prosper.