Why Secular Activism?


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
Aug. 19, 2009

I'm often asked why I decided to get involved with humanist activism. Having reached a point in my career where various options were open – local politics, community service, etc.- why did I decide to invest my resources in humanist activism?

The answer is simple. While much good work can be done in many different ways, I saw (and continue to see), two facts as undeniable:

1. The religious right is one of the most dangerous power centers on the American landscape, not only because of the social agenda that it promotes, but also because of the larger neocon agenda that it inevitably assists; and

2. The emergence of Secular Americans as a recognized American demographic category is an extremely potent antidote to the dangers posed by the religious right.

Obviously, for anyone with a progressive viewpoint, there are many valid causes that might be worthy of energy and effort: the environment, education, women's rights, gay rights, specific political campaigns, and countless other opportunities await those with the ability and willingness to contribute.

For me, however, it seems apparent that all of these struggles eventually relate back, at least indirectly (but, usually, directly), to the fact that America too often exalts conservative religion and vilifies (or, worse yet, ignores) those who prefer to approach the world from a natural standpoint.

This may seem most obvious in the areas of women's rights and gay rights, where conservative religion leads the efforts to obstruct rational public policy, opposing reproductive rights and demonizing gays at every opportunity.  But perhaps more importantly, it is conservative religious activists who encourage a general atmosphere of anti-intellectualism in America, suppressing efforts to teach science and misinforming children and the public about a variety of contemporary issues, from climate change to birth control.

And we should realize that it is conservative religion that ultimately empowers neocons, because neocons need the religious right to win elections.  This is why neocon policy makers and candidates are so often willing to throw religious conservatives some red meat on social issues. By satisfying the religious right, they become more viable as candidates. 

What does secular humanism, and more specifically humanist activism, have to do with all of this?  Everything. 

Humanism stands for everything that the religious right opposes –  critical thinking, education, human rights, smaller military budgets, scientific progress, women's equality, gay rights, international cooperation, and so forth. As such, if one connects the dots logically, one would conclude that humanism in America has enormous potential that has been untapped, and if that potential is eventually realized America is likely to experience a major transformation for the better.  

To assess that potential, first consider how small the humanist movement is now (had you even heard of it before?), and then consider how much room for growth already exists.

In fact, to tap this potential it is not necessary for organized humanism to find converts; rather, the main task that needs be done is to help the millions of humanists who already dwell on the American landscape realize the importance of identifying openly as such.  There's a good chance that many who read this piece are humanists who have never before considered identifying this way.

Humanists need to understand the empowerment that comes along with the creation of a recognized demographic category, a group of taxpaying Secular Americans who refuse to have public policy shaped in a manner that vilifies their identity and exalts anti-intellectualism.

If Secular Americans were to ever emerge, the religious right would necessarily weaken as a political force. Surely, the religious right has grown so much in the last three decades partly because virtually all Americans, liberal and conservative, have viewed America's religiosity as a defining, unchanging characteristic that could not be seriously questioned.  This assumption is changing, and we are seeing more and more open secular identification, especially among younger Americans.

The actual number of humanists is open to debate, depending on whether we use religious practices, beliefs, or identity as the key yardstick.  But this much is clear, after watching the religious right's power grow for three decades, Secular Americans have learned that identity and demographic recognition are absolutely essential to reversing such developments. 

This is a vibrant movement, and there have already been successes.  The newly formed Secular Coalition for America has brought the first lobbyist to Washington specifically representing the interests Secular Americans. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) has "come out" as the first openly nontheistic congressman in American history.

The American Humanist Association initiated the first national advertising campaign promoting the notion of secular humanist identity, and now numerous groups around the country are doing the same.  We now have Camp Quest, a camp for children of nonreligious families, and we have education centers, legal centers, charities, student groups through the Secular Student Alliance, and local groups all around the country, all affirming the notion of secular identity.

The movement was assisted somewhat in recent years by a series of bestselling books debunking religion, and now awaits an important book to be released by HarperCollins this fall from Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, Good Without God – What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, that promises to educate the public about the positive aspects of the humanist lifestance.  Clearly, Secular Americans are emerging, and we have no intention of going back to the closet.

Secular Americans don't for a moment think that the election of Obama has eliminated the danger of the religious right. Critical thinking and rational public policy will not be secure until secular humanists have firmly established themselves as a recognized and respected demographic category, seen by the public, the press, and the government as being worthy of a seat at the table in the American public dialogue.  Obviously, there is much work to be done and this is no time for complacency.


(David Niose is an attorney and the president of the American Humanist Association. This column was originally published on July 21, 2009 in Open Salon.)