The Future of Secular Humanism

Although card-carrying secular humanists are few, secular humanism has been enormously influential in American culture and, particularly, in American education. For this reason, SuperScholar decided to cover the recent conference on secular humanism in Los Angeles (granted, we’re a bit late reporting on it).

The Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine, celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting a conference titled Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanism’s Next Thirty Years, A Free Inquiry Subscriber’s Conference at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, on 7-10 October 2010. The aim of the conference was clear from the title.

At the conference, three watchwords characterized the proposed agenda: Act, Combat, and Promote. “Act to end the stigmata attached to being nonreligious, Combat religion’s privileges and its influence on public policy, and Promote science-based skepticism and critical thinking.” Plenary sessions included the following:

<>           The First 30 Years, Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?

<>           Special Presentation by Ron Lindsay (seeking financial support)

<>           Secular Humanism and Human Values

<>           The State of Church and State

<>           Debate between Robert Wright and Sam Harris on Where Should Seculars Stand Today and Tomorrow on Questions of Religion and Belief?

<>           The Challenge of the Rise of the Nones (Nones = people who check of the box “none” for religious affiliation)

<>           New Directions for Secular Humanism: A wide-ranging open discussion on secular humanism and its future

There was a gala dinner with Richard Dawkins, in which Dawkins received a cash award of $45,000, made payable to his foundation. There was also a luncheon with physicist Lawrence Krauss.

A series of debates peppered the conference:

<>           On the topic of whether secular humanism should embrace an accommodationist or a confrontational stance vis-à-vis religion, P.Z. Myers and Chris Mooney took opposite positions, with PZ Myers advocating the confrontational approach.

<>           Physicist Victor Stenger claimed that there are really no theistic evolutionists — that if people are truly evolutionists, then they aren’t theists. Eugenie Scott defended the opposite position and claimed that there were indeed many religious people who accepted evolution and Darwinism.

<>           Shadia Drudy claimed that the 1st Amendment of the U. S. Constitution was intended to promote freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and that the founders were very religious. Eddie Tabash and Sean Faircloth maintained that the United States founders were secular, and intended a strong wall between the Church and the State, for the purpose of freedom from religion.

<>           Ed Buckner and Jennifer Michael Hecht held that morality is outside the domain of science, while Sam Harris held that science can produce morality, that an “ought” can be produced from an “is” using science.   

<>           Perhaps the most significant debate of the conference was between Robert Wright and Sam Harris. Using Islam as their backdrop, Harris defended the confrontational approach of neo-atheism, arguing that the sooner religion is removed the better, whereas Wright was willing to allow a place for religion.

Despite calls for unity at the conference, a significant amount of disagreement about where secular humanism needs to go was evident. During the last session, a sharp exchange occurred between the founder of The Center for Inquiry and The Counsel for Secular Humanism, Paul Kurtz, and Ron Lindsay, the current CEO and President of these organizations.

Kurtz, using the microphone set up for the audience, cited at length a recent LA Times article exposing a “rift within the Center for Inquiry.” “That rift” Kurtz said, quoting the article, “cracked open recently when Paul Kurtz, a founder of the secular humanist movement in America, was ousted as chairman of the Center for Inquiry, an organization of the Counsel for Secular Humanism.  One factor leading to this ouster, was the perception that Kurtz was on the — and this is quoting Thomas Flynn — was on the mellowing side of the movement.” Unlike some secular humanists who envision the destruction of religion, Kurtz advocates for accommodation with religion.

Kurtz stated that he had been censored for the first time in his life, and that this was through the CFI, an organization he founded, in that they refused to publish his letter of resignation as well as his neo-humanist statement of secular principles and vlaues. He said that his ouster resulted in the “worst two years of my life.” Toni Van Pelt, who had opened the Office of Public Policy for the CFI, defended Kurtz and lamented his censorship and forced resignation by Lindsay. This was followed with simultaneous booing and applause from the audience. Several panelists, including Jennifer Michael Hechti and Sean Faircloth, left the stage during this exchange. The entire exchange is available here:

What does this exchange suggest about the future of secular humanism? Although secular humanism shares a broad set of concerns and goals, the exchange itself suggests that how secular humanism approaches religion in coming years will remain very much a matter of controversy. At stake are two very different approaches, one entailing accommodation, in which religion, if not valued, is at least admitted to the category of “peaceful coexistence.” The other, entailing conflict, treats religion as an enemy to be defeated and destroyed.

Given the conflicted role of religion in public life, this conflict within secular humanism is likely to play itself out in the wider culture and, therefore, in education.

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