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December 9, 1997

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of the presentation by Dr. Paul Kurtz at the Harbinger symposium, "Great Religions in a Pluralistic Society," 30 October 1997]

by Paul Kurtz

I am very pleased to be at this university, because the definition of a university is that it is committed to free inquiry. What better place to defend secular humanism, which is synonymous with free inquiry, and perhaps the best definition of it?

I was here in Mobile eleven years ago, in October of 1986. At that time the question was raised: Is secular humanism a religion? Six hundred and twenty four parents contended that it was. They wanted textbooks written by so-called secular humanists banned in the public schools in Alabama, and I believe that this was done. And there were 45 textbooks by some of the great intellectuals, such as the great historian Richard Hoffstadter, the humanist psychologist A.H. Maslow, the philosopher John Dewey; and others. The case was brought by Pat Robertson, and the judge was Judge Brevard Hand, "The Unlearned Hand," as he was known throughout the country. And this case was known throughout the country. This became a kind of symbol, because beginning in the 1980s there was a great effort to extirpate what was called secular humanism from the various schools of the United States. We thought that the effort to censor textbooks in Mobile was a test case.

I was called as an expert witness by the ACLU and People for the American Way, on behalf of 12 parents who wished to defend the right of their children to read the offending books. I first was called to give a deposition of ten hours in Washington, D.C. The attorney was Tom Kohuck. Next I was called to the stand in the Mobile Court House and I spent eight hours under intense grilling. Judge Hand paced up and down around the courtroom hitting me with questions. I felt that I was at an Inquisition. They rolled in a big cart full of my books, which they put on the table in front of me; and they proceeded to quote from them. "Professor Kurtz, did you write this?" they would ask. I said, "Yes, but you have taken it out of context." Their purpose was to demonstrate, first, that secular humanism was a "religion" and had no place in the public schools; and, second, that secular humanists were "immoral." In any case, Judge Hand ruled that the censored books were religious, because they expressed the secular humanist viewpoint. However, this was overturned in the Appeals court, unanimously; and so that never got anywhere. Indeed, the Mobile case was the high point of attacks on secular humanism.

You have another famous judge. I'm sure you're aware that Judge Roy Moore and your Governor, Bob James, are known worldwide now. Many conservatives are opposed to judicial activism. But how much activism is involved here? Judge Moore has the Ten Commandments posted inside the courtroom, and he doesn't believe in the separation of church and state. This raises the question of whether the Ten Commandments should be in the courtroom? Now, I don't think that they should, under the principle of the separation of church and state. But I also have a second reason: I think some of the Commandments are wicked, and I think they have a bad influence. How many people have read the Ten Commandments? You know the Second Commandment? Perhaps you have forgotten it. I went back to the King James Version of the Old Testament, and it says, "You shall not make a carved image for yourself or the likeness of anything in the heaven above. I am the Lord your God, a jealous God." The Bible then goes on to say, "I punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." Is this not collective guilt against the unborn? If you commit a sin, your children's children's children will be punished? Is that moral? It seems to me that that Commandment is very wicked indeed, and we have the right to criticize it.

There are actually two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus and the other in Deuteronomy. There are numerous other commandments in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus. The one that I like to quote is in Exodus 21: "Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death." Or another one, "No descendant of an irregular union" (that is, a bastard)" even down to the tenth generation, shall become a member of the assembly of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:32). Or another one: "No man whose testicles have been crushed..." Or, "A man may not have intercourse with his wife during menstruation." And so on.

Well, what is my point? The Bible expressed the point of view of a nomadic and agricultural tribe living on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It expressed the best wisdom of that day -- it was prescientific. The King James translation, at least, has some great literary qualities. There were surely some moral excellences expressed in that document. But the Bible was limited by its times. For example, I would like to read the Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his slave, his slave girl, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to him" (Exodus 12:17). Why the talk about slavery? The Bible is limited by the times. We need to go beyond the pre-industrial, pre-information age and develop a morality appropriate to the developing world today.

The same is true of the New Testament. I look upon it as a powerful literary and moral work, but it should be read with the best tools of science and linguistic analysis. We need to recognize that it too was limited by the epoch in which it was written.

I've responded to Judge Moore on that point. But I'm here to talk about secular humanism. What is secular humanism? Many people find it difficult to define. They say it's like jello -- you can't nail it to a tree. Paul MacCready, the inventor, defines it thus: ``A secular humanist does not believe in God, and doesn't steal." That's a brief definition. I would like to provide a more ambitious definition. Humanism is the oldest literary, philosophical, and scientific tradition of Western civilization. It predates Christianity. It goes back to our Graeco-Roman heritage; it comes to fruition during the Renaissance; it was expressed with the development of modern science and the scientific revolution during the Enlightenment; and it gave birth to the democratic revolution of the United States (the Founding Fathers were deists and humanists), perhaps its most important humanistic development in the contemporary world. Many great people were humanists or precursors of humanism, such as Socrates and Aristotle, Epicurus and Lucretius, David Hume and Voltaire, Spinoza and Kant, Tom Paine, Jefferson and Madison, Mill, Freud, Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov -- the list is endless. And there are millions of Americans who are secular humanists, though many may not know it. I think there are tens of millions of secular humanists. Sixty percent of Americans belong to a religious organization, to mosques, temples, or churches. Forty percent are unchurched, and a great number of Americans are only nominally religious, and they share humanist values and ideals --- in fact, a good part of the humanist agenda. Eight to ten percent of Americans, according to the Gallop and other polls, are unbelievers, agnostics, skeptics, or atheists. They are without religion, and they constitute a significant minority in America. They are good citizens, loving parents, and moral human beings. It is the last repressed minority that needs to come out of the closet.

Is secular humanism a religion? Those who maintain that it is religious wish to go through libraries and universities and burn books by secular humanists; this would literally empty the Academy. No, secular humanism is not a religion. For something to be a religion means that its adherents are bound to it, that they have a faith in some unseen power, creator, or cause, and that they have some notion of prayer, devotion, and ritual toward this power, creator, or cause. Secular humanists deny the existence of such a creator and surely are not interested in prayer or devotion to such a being. To say that secular humanism is a religion is to use the term religion so broadly that it means anything. Is feminism a religion? Are we devoted to it? Is communism a religion? Is libertarianism a religion? Libertarians are devoted to the free market and actively support it. Is vegetarianism a religion? It seems to me if we were to use the term religion in that way, its definition becomes so wide that it applies to everything. If you're a devout pinochle player, if your whole life is spent playing pinochle, are you religious in that sense? By such a definition, religion applies to everything and to nothing. It's a misuse of the language, and it makes no sense.

What is appropriately meant by humanism today? I refer here to humanism in the twentieth century, to the leading humanists of the world. In the first sense, humanism is that philosophical outlook that is related to science. It's connected to the scientific revolution, which began with Galileo in the 16th century. It is committed to a method of inquiry. That's my basic definition of humanism. Humanists believe in free inquiry in every field of human endeavor and they want to use the methods of science. For humanists, beliefs should be considered tentative hypotheses; they should be tested by the evidence, by their rational coherence, by their experimental consequences. Humanism is an attempt to apply the methods of science as far as possible to all branches of human investigation. Perhaps a better term is critical thinking. Now watch out! Anyone who wants to teach critical thinking in the colleges is a humanist undermining the fabric of American education. Yes, we want to develop an appreciation for critical thinking. We want to use reason as the guide to life. If you make a claim, you must go beyond pure subjectivism, authority, or any other appeals to emotion, and try to support it by objective methods. Is that dangerous?

Humanists are skeptical, as scientists are, because knowledge is changing, open to revision. We are living through tremendous scientific advances today. In fact, America is a superpower, as you hear over and over. Why? Because we have applied science to technology for human improvement. Science and technology are related in this rigorous method of inquiry. We're skeptical about claims that cannot be tested. But we can develop, in a constructive way, positive knowledge. That's the first point.

The second point many people find controversial: The humanist view of nature is based on the sciences, on the frontiers of knowledge. What is nature? What is reality? What does it all mean and how does it fit together? Humanists want to draw the answers from the natural sciences (astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry), the biological sciences (including genetics), and the behavioral and social sciences. Science is fallible and to be revised continually. Nonetheless, in four centuries -- science is only four centuries old -- we've made more progress in expanding the frontier of human knowledge than in all the millennia before. One problem, though, is that scientists become specialists and know about only their narrow fields. We need to develop an interpretation of nature and of the human being within it, based upon the sciences.

As far as we can tell, the universe is dynamic, expanding, and perhaps 15 billions years old. This is what the astronomers tell us. They are the great prophets of the 20th century --- not the people who wrote the Bible, but the people who really study the heavens, using the best tools of mathematics, observation, and verification. We have an expanding universe, an evolutionary universe. Evolution is a fact. You cannot understand the nature of Mars or any of the planets in our solar system, or even the planet Earth, without this evolutionary hypothesis. Evolution applies not only to the physical universe, but to the emergence of life, probably three billion years ago on the planet Earth, and the slow evolution of life forms.

The evolutionary hypothesis is among the most fruitful, productive, powerful hypotheses that we've invented since Darwin. As I travel around the world, I find it puzzling that that the major opposition to Darwinism and to evolution comes from the United States -- actually from certain parts of the United States -- and is based upon the Bible. People everywhere ask me, laughing, "What's going on the U.S.? Why are the creationists so powerful? Why are they trying to censor evolution in the schools?" It makes no sense, for if we throw out evolution, we have to throw out astronomy, geology, biology, genetics, the social sciences. Evolution is a powerful hypothesis, confirmed over and over again.

Humans are a part of nature; we are continuous with nature; we are not separate from it. And the mind is a function of the body. Secular humanists find no evidence for immortality of the soul, ghosts, or spirits. By the way, did you see the front-page story about the ghosts in the Mobile Register this morning? Apparently there are very famous ghosts in Alabama. The story mentioned a ghost buster by the name of Mr. Durm. I am pleased to see that the article quoted the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which I founded. Writers for the Skeptical Inquirer examine these cases, and every case for which there is sufficient data can be explained without postulating ghosts.

The third point is that secular humanists -- secular humanists -- are nonreligious. There are religious humanists, but secular humanists are not religious. Secular humanists are agnostics or skeptics concerning the God question. They examine the evidence. As for myself, having been a professor of philosophy all my life, I have examined this question year in and year out. Does God exist? I've probably spent more time on the God question than anyone else here -- unless there are philosophy professors around -- and I find that none of the arguments can stand up to scrutiny. Many people have asked me, "Aren't you afraid that you don't believe in God? What will you do when you meet your Maker?" I quote Bertrand Russell, who would say, "You didn't give me sufficient evidence." If God is a rational being, surely He's not going to punish me for using my mind.

I am also skeptical about the claims of revelation. There are one billion or more Muslims on the planet; Islam is the fastest-growing religion, and it's based upon the alleged revelations of Mohammed, about 600 A.D. on the road to Mecca.

How many people here have read the Book of Mormon? Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion a hundred fifty years ago, claiming to have had visions from the angel Moroni.

How many people here have read, really read, the Bible from cover to cover? Let me see your hands. That's all? Not many! I'm shocked. It's a great piece of literature. Everyone should read the Bible, and read it seriously.

The question that I am raising: Do you accept the revelations of Mohammed, who denies Christianity and Judaism? Do you accept the revelations of Joseph Smith? Do you accept the revelations of Reverend Moon, or of Mary Baker Eddy? We can raise serious questions about revelations. I don't have enough time to go into this topic tonight, other than say that the only way I could accept a revelation is if it is corroborated by independent, objective observers, whose testimony is reliable.

What is secular humanism? It is a scientific method of inquiry, and it is skeptical about religious claims. But most important, secular humanism is positive and affirmative. It is committed above all to an ethical outlook. People who say that secular humanists are wicked have apparently not heard what secular humanists say. In fact, secular humanism is the oldest ethical doctrine in the West. It goes back to Socrates and Aristotle who pondered ethical questions and talked about leading a noble life of excellence, about the importance of the virtues. It can be found in the writings of Epicurus and the Epicureans, of Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics. It comes to fruition again with Spinoza and with Immanuel Kant, the greatest German philosopher. Should we remove Kant from the universities? Or the English philosopher John Stuart Mill? Humanism derives from this great tradition of philosophical efforts to base ethics upon reason. Ethical philosophy attempts to work out a rational interpretation of the moral life as best we can.

On the contrary, religious ethics has often had negative and destructive consequences. For the fatherhood of God people have marched off to wars and killed each other. Look at the German army in the First World War, declaring "Gott mit uns" as the French army proclaimed, "Mon Dieu! mon Dieu!" both slaughtering each other on the Western front. Look at the battles between Muslims and Jews, or Hindus and Muslims, or Protestants and Catholics.

Simply believing in God does not make one virtuous. Many evils have been defended in the name of God: slavery in the South before abolition (slavery was based on the inferiority of the black people as being the descendants of Ham -- you should read John C. Calhoun, the influential Southern thinker, who so argued), the patriarchal society (demeaning women and insisting that only the man is the lord and master -- as is the case with the Promise Keepers today). I was reading USA Today this morning, and see that the head of the Promise Keepers has violated the seventh commandment. Remember what the seventh commandment is? You shall not commit adultery. He confesses today and in an upcoming book that he committed adultery and that his daughter had two children born out of wedlock.

So belief in God is no guarantee of virtue. Furthermore, people who believe in God often disagree. Liberal Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Jews, and liberal Catholics favor abortion rights. Conservative Catholics and fundamentalists do not. Muslims believe that God favors polygamy, that a man can have four wives. Christians and Jews do not. Many people draw on religion to condemn homosexuals. Others do not. It is interesting that the Catholic bishops have come out against capital punishment -- Catholic bishops agree with secular humanists on this point, or we agree with them. But many fundamentalists here in the South and elsewhere favor capital punishment. So to say that those who believe in God are virtuous is not true, and to claim that all the saints are within the churches and the temples, and all the sinners outside, is simply false.

What is the positive ethics of humanism? The focus is upon happiness and the good life, here and now, in this life, for ourselves and for our fellow human beings. On the other hand, many salvational philosophies believe that we should suffer the pains of this life so that we will have eternal blessings in the afterlife. Humanists want to build a just society, in which all human beings can share in the goods of life and achieve their potentials. Humanists want to distribute happiness as far as possible.

This humanist point of view that began to develop in the 17th and 18th centuries maintained: "No deity will save us, we must save ourselves." In other words, we are responsible for our own destinies. Every human being and every society must meet the challenges and develop life in his or her or its own terms. Humanism focuses on the freedom and autonomy of each individual to realize the full life here and now, and that is why the courage to become is so crucial. The good life is a life of creative joy, of actualization, of creativity in every field, of cooperation and service to others, of shared experience. We ought to do whatever we can, individually and socially, to achieve that.

Humanists do not believe that anything goes. Pat Robertson's TV crew came up to my university once to interview me for a program on humanism. I was pleased that he wanted to get another point of view. This became a half-hour episode of "The 700 Club" a little over ten years ago. The producers would quote me out of context, say, on the humanist view of drug use, and then show someone dead of a drug overdose, lying on the floor. Or, for instance, they would quote me out of context on the humanist view of homosexuality, and then show a gay dance. But the point is that although humanists believe in the right of privacy, they have argued for self-discipline, temperance, and moderation as a part of the good life. We want to satisfy our desires, but also to achieve the fulfillment of our highest talents and aspirations under the rule of reason.

Our relationship to other human beings is crucial. In my book, Forbidden Fruit, I argue that there are a set of common moral decencies shared by both believers and nonbelievers: "Honor your father and your mother," "you shall not commit murder," "you shall not commit adultery," "you shall not steal," "you shall not bear false witness against your neighbors," etc. These commandments predated the Bible; they were part of the Hammurabi Code before they were written down in the Old Testament. There are other virtues: "to tell the truth," "to be sincere," "to keep promises," "to be dependable," "to be honest," and so on. These are the common heritage of humankind; they cut across cultures. We recognize them and live by them.

However, ethics cannot be fixed for all time and written in stone; ethics has to change and be modified in the light of new conditions. We no longer live in isolated communities; we're part of the global society. So I want to move on to the fifth point in my general definition of humanism: humanism is concerned with developing a social polity. It is committed to democracy. The major critics of totalitarianism in our time, the great intellectuals who opposed totalitarianism, were humanists, such as George Orwell, Sidney Hook, Karl Popper, and others.

Humanism is committed to a doctrine of human rights, a free and open society, the right of privacy. Humanists agree that the best way to solve social problems is by a free markets of ideas. When I was a GI in the Second World War I went to Hyde Park at the height of the buzz- bomb attack on Britain, and I was amazed to find people on the soapboxes in Hyde Park, with one man saying, "We should allow Mr. Hitler to come into Britain. We should be pacifists and welcome him with open arms." I said to myself, "My, look at this! Britain is facing death, and yet defending freedom of speech in a free society!" That's the whole point that we Americans recognize in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof," along with a defense of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So the democratic outlook and the humanist outlook converge. I submit that the great democratic revolutions in the last three centuries are basically humanist revolutions. Those of you who accept democracy are really accepting the humanist outlook. The New Testament says, ``Leave unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." The democrat says, ``No, do not leave unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; oppose him! Throw him out of office!" So democracy is crucial.

In addition to democracy, we have at the present moment a new moral imperative, the imperative to build a world community. I realize that Senator Helms in a nearby state is perhaps opposed to this. But it seems to me that in the 20th century we will be faced with an economy that is global. Here in Mobile, Alabama, your industries and trade depend upon global markets. America does not live isolated. We all depend on trade in our interdependent globe. I think everyone recognizes that today. The power of the American economy comes from our ability to trade in the free market. Yet it is not sufficient to have a global economy. Humanist Manifesto II states that in the 20th century humankind reached a position where we recognize our interdependence with everyone else. We need to develop a new global ethics. No one talks about that, except secular humanists. Yet it is crucial. A global ethic that says, yes, I'm an American (or a Frenchman, or an Indian, or a Chinese), but equally importantly I'm a member of the human species; I'm a member of the world community. That is the overriding imperative today. We are all members of a world community. This is graphically illustrated by global warming and the ecological damage to the environment. Unless we recognize that we have a common planetary habitat, and that whatever happens in any part of the globe affects everybody, then it, seems to me, we're in deep trouble, and we don't have much time to recognize that.

Building a world community is crucial. I'm talking about a moral community, a community beyond national differences that divide people, beyond ethnic differences, beyond racial or sexual differences, but also beyond religious differences. I fear that often those who speak in the name of God mean "my God." We have to transcend these differences. Part of the secular humanist agenda is to build common ground, a new humanist ethics, an appreciation for human rights, and a quest for values that we can all share. That's my definition of the ethics of secular humanism. It seems to me an appropriate point of view for the present age.


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