Saving the Soul of Secularism


Nov. 4, 2009

"Once people are enlightened …they will gradually learn to regard war as the most dreadful of scourges, the most terrible of crimes"Condorcet, 1793.

Since February 2003, millions in the U.S. and around the world have participated in marches, rallies and varied protests, making a bold, ethical stand against U.S. military aggression. Citizens have engaged in persistent resistance to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of U.S troops.

While numerous humanists have and continue to be actively involved in the anti-war movement many others are too narrowly focused on issues such as church-state separation and promoting science education.

The time has come for humanists to actively assert that they are as committed to peace and ending U.S. militarism as they are to the separation of church and state. If we can see the threat to freedom posed by the mixture of church and state, we must see the threat to freedom posed by militarism.

The very legitimacy of secularism and freethought is at stake. Humanists, atheists, and assorted freethinkers along with the organizations that represent them: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, among others, should join anti-war/peace organizations in calling for a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy away from neo-liberal imperialism and militarism.

While the American freethought/humanist movement has spent thousands of dollars rightly assailing religious fundamentalism and encouraging free inquiry, it has failed to become officially involved in the contemporary and historic national and worldwide peace revolution.

In fact, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" (p.14), reports that 22 percent of Americans "unaffiliated" with any religion agreed that "The best way to ensure peace is through military strength." While this is far from an indictment of our movement, it is at least an indicator that the absence of religious belief does not equate a peaceful worldview.

Humanists should be at the forefront in leading the unaffiliated to recognize that war does not bring peace. Moreover, condemnation of religious terror smacks of hypocrisy when it fails to equally address the insidiousness of our secular government's own acts of state-sanctioned violence, which some liken to terrorism.

Interestingly, freethinkers outside of the U.S. realize that church-state separation is no more important than taking on American militarism. For instance, Klaus Hartmann, chairman of the German Freethinker Association, has signed an international statement which calls for "withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq," "no attack on Iran and an "international prohibition of war as a means of conflict resolution."

Here in the U.S., however, an inherently pro-war secular ideology is now emerging. This "apocalyptical ideology" or narrative, which I describe in my forth coming journal article, "Fundamentalist Atheism and its Intellectual Failures" (Humanity & Society), holds that peace on earth will only come after the scourge of religion is destroyed. This specifically secular narrative is contributing to grossly simplistic political analysis and worst, justification for militaristic violence. Empirical proof of this emerging thought is evident in secular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

In his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris argued that the war is better understood as a conflict against "Islam itself."

During the 2007 Freedom From Religion Foundation's (FFRF) convention, Christopher Hitchens shocked many in the audience when he recommended carpet bombing Muslims.

Responding to Hitchens' comments a conference-goer asked, "How exactly does bombing and killing Muslims lessen their numbers or limit their fervor?" Rather than clarifying that he did not wish to merely indiscriminately murder Muslims but rather desired to attack strategic targets, he mocked the questioner. "I'm just wondering if I should draw you a picture. You mean how does killing them lessen their number?"

He went on to state: "The numbers of those bombed will decline." He also described the hunting and killing of al-Qaida not only as a duty, but a "pleasure". Thankfully the secular movement is comprised of thinkers such as atheist biologist and associate professor, PZ Myers, who labeled Hitchens recommendation of genocide as "insane."


Humanists in particular have an ethical responsibility to become more seriously involved in the peace and anti-war movement alongside the many progressive religious groups which have actively sought to bring an end to the U.S. militarism. (These groups include Christian Peace Witness, the Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian Universalists and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.)

The Humanist Manifesto III holds that humanism "affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." In its Minimum Statement on Humanism, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) explains that humanism "is a democratic and ethical life-stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities."

Those of us who are in heartfelt and dutiful agreement with these two statements must acknowledge that a radical change in U.S. foreign policy and spending priorities is needed in order to create a more caring, just, and thus humane world.

According to the Humanist Manifesto III, humanist values are supposed to preserve the "inherent worth and dignity" of each person of the world. Humanism does not honor the juvenile subjectivity of nationalism. Rather, humanism requires a basic respect for moral universality and rejects unsubstantiated claims of exceptionalism.

The time has come for humanists to loudly proclaim that our nation's advocacy of military violence and disregard for human life, including the millions of civilians who have suffered from our unethical brutality, is an affront to our humanistic values. To do otherwise is to make humanist/secular critiques of religious violence (Bill Maher's recent film, Religulous, for example) insidiously hypocritical.

If it wishes to remain a relevant voice for progressive, democratic, rational-criticism, and life-valuing ideals, the humanist/freethought movement must expend as much energy working for peace and curtailing U.S. militarism as it does working for church-state separation. It should at least, condemn equally secular militarism as it does religious extremism.

By doing so humanists and organized freethought will send a clear message to all, including those who fear the nonreligious, potential religious allies and potential secular recruits, that humanists actively work for peace and justice or at least that they repudiate secular violence (militarism) as much as they reproach religious violence.

(Jeff Nall is a Florida humanist and peace activist who founded Humanists For Peace.)