God and Politics: What’s A Humanist To Do?


The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS), a new think tank conducting humanist research on social and political issues, met in Houston last week to reflect on the nature of theism’s impact on public policy. What is that impact, and how should we as humanists respond to it?

In this issue of Brainstormin’, I offer one perspective on the themes raised at this fascinating symposium.

Joseph Baker, a sociologist at East Tennessee State University, set the stage by establishing that theism has a demonstrable impact on a wide range of public policies. In particular, measures of a state’s religiosity are often excellent predictors of that state’s policies regarding such things as abstinence-only sex education, youth access to contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and the teaching of evolution. It is also a good predictor of economic insecurity, higher levels of religiosity correlating with higher levels of insecurity and societal dysfunction.  (It is likely that societal dysfunction and religiosity are mutually reinforcing.)

Baker also shared data suggesting that the type of theism prevalent in a state has a big impact on the kinds of policies embraced by that state. Individuals who believe in a distant, non-judgmental god are closer to atheists in their public policy views than they are to those who worship a personal, judgmental diety. For political purpose, it’s not whether you’re a theist that matters, but whether you believe in a personal diety.

This has important implications for humanists. To enact policies we feel are enlightened, we will often need to build coalitions with theists who share our values. We need to recognize the diversity within theism, avoid the temptation to lump all theists together, and engage liberal and moderate theists in constructive dialogue.

Adam Chalom, a leader in the movement for Humanistic Judaism, provided a fascinating look at how theism and ethnicity intertwine in the politics of Israel. Peter Derkx, a professor at the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, described the dilemma that religious fundamentalism poses to democracies that espouse religious tolerance. Can we meet the threat these belief systems pose without compromising our commitment to tolerance and religious freedom?

Next up was Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy who was a key witness for the prosecution in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover “intelligent design” trial. She posed a practical question with interesting philosophical dimensions: Given that religious fundamentalists will often champion unenlightened public policies, how can secular humanists and religious moderates form effective political coalitions? In particular, how do we negotiate our deep philosophical differences (which include both disagreements about the supernatural and disagreements over what counts as evidence)? The solution, Forrest argued, is to bracket our metaphysical differences and embrace a shared commitment to a public concept of evidence.  That is, we can (at least temporarily) set aside the question of whether supernatural entities exist, and agree that issues that affect us all need to be resolved on the basis of evidence in principle available to all. Private revelation, which may be admitted as a kind of evidence in matters that affect only one’s self, has no evidential value in debates over public policy. In public discourse, only publicly accountable talk has authority. An elegant solution to an important problem—and one humanists would do well to heed.

Author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson highlighted the fact that secularism has made few inroads among women and people of color, pointedly arguing that humanists need to take bold stands for social and gender justice if it hopes to win a following among traditionally disadvantaged groups.  Campaigner and blogger Maryam Namazie shared her extensive knowledge of political Islam, calling attention to the problems created when public officials capitulate to religious leaders in the name of pluralism. To secure human rights for all, she argued, we must thoroughly “de-religionize” public policy.

This excellent symposium brought together key humanist thinkers and posed questions of critical importance to our movement. The wisdom contained in the forthcoming collection of essays from the Institute for Humanist Studies promises to be an important resource for academics, public officials and humanist activists for years to come.

To learn more about the work of the Institute for Humanist Studies, visit www.humaniststudies.org