One element of fascism is the “Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.” I call this “The Boogeyman Strategy.” It has been a strategy of the right dating back at least as far as the red scare. Today, we have “evil-doers” and “terrists.” The southern strategy scapegoats blacks in order to get lower-class whites to vote GOP. Illegal immigrants and gays have also been made into major scapegoats.

But there is one other group that has been made into a boogeyman… a group that I am a part of. We are the “Secular Humanist Left.” Like Gays, we are one of the scapegoats the right has targeted with their “culture war.” On any given day you will hear O’Reilly et al attack “secular humanists” as the great force of immorality in our country, painting themselves as victims of a grand evil conspiracy being perpetrated by Satan’s secular humanist minions.

The right isn’t alone is misunderstanding and villainizing secular humanism. I would like to help inform those of you who don’t know what secular humanism really is, and share a bit about how I reached my current world view.

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Why should the religious left care about atheists being misrepresented? Because the right constantly associates liberalism with secular humanism. This makes sense, since there are many shared values between the two. As they misrepresent secular humanism, they also misrepresent liberalism. It is a conscious effort to turn 1/2 the country into the boogeyman, and should be a concern of all liberals. You could respond by abandoning secular humanists, but I don’t think it is a liberal value to abandon allies.

What are those values? What do secular humanists stand for? The Wikipedia gives a pretty succinct and accurate summary of secular humanism:

Secular humanism is an active lifestance that holds a naturalisic worldview and advocates the use of reason, compassion, scientific inquiry, ethics, justice and equality.

Does that sound evil and immoral to you? Yet somehow Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the right repeatedly conflate secular humanism with communism, Stalinism, Maoism, hedonism, fascism, and any other un-American “ism” you can think of. It is a way to lure the so-called “values voter.”


Patriotism, spirituality, respect for authority, and basic moral values are all under siege from a well-funded, secular lobby that envisions a society free of judgments about personal behavior. And if that society falls apart in the process, so be it.

Rush Limbaugh:

Why did we allow liberalism, moral relativism, and secular humanism to poison our nation’s soul?

If these seem mild, don’t kid yourself. The message to the devoted is quite clear, especially since they constantly bathe their audiences in rhetoric like this.

Rush’s Brother David Limbaugh has been very outspoken in smearing secular humanism, including publishing books to defame and distort what we stand for:

“Liberals are just awful human beings who would love to see strong Christian values usurped and replaced with secular humanist non-vaules.”

Huh? I can understand how a religious nut might take offense to the promotion of reason and scientific inquiry, but how can you call compassion, justice, equality, and ethics non-values?

Note the way both Limbaugh brothers have connected liberalism and secular humanism.

Lesser known Right-wing radio host Tom Marsland has written:

The abbreviated list of secular humanist failures in the past century have included the former USSR, Communist China, Hitler’s National Socialism, Castro’s Cuba, Central American communism, Japanese imperialism and Mussolini’s Italian fascism.”

Pat Robertson:

How can there be peace when drunkards, drug dealers, communists, atheists, New Age worshipers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive dictators, greedy moneychangers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers, and homosexuals are on top?” — “The New World Order”, 1991, P. 227

While the right deliberately twists secular humanism, others simply don’t seem to understand it. I did a Google search for definitions of “secular humanism” and found these:

  1. A religious worldview where “man is the measure;” man, in himself, is the ultimate norm by which values are to be determined; all reality and life center upon man; man is god.
  2. A form of religion that believes in humanistic values. Placing man before God. The thought that man is practically a god.

This is an important point: Secular humanism is NOT a religion, it is a worldview and is anti-dogmatic. Many on the right call it a religion and say we are trying to replace one religion with another. They use this fiction to argue that secular humanist values (like science) should not be taught in schools, because that is state sponsorship of a religion. Quite an ironic position considering the right is trying to eliminate the separation anyway. They even cite a supreme court case, Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), which contains a dictum footnote which says (among other things)

” Among the religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered  a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism,  and others.”

However, dicta hold no legal weight and do not set any precedent. In Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District (1994) the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that  

“[N]either the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes.”

Secular means not religious, so the idea secular humanism is a religion is either dishonest in the extreme or the people on the right have such small minds they can’t understand that you can have a worldview that is not a religion. If it is a set of beliefs and values, it must be a religion, right? And if there is a community which forms around that set of values and beliefs, it must be a religion, right? Wrong. Secular Humanist beliefs are an outgrowth of scientific and social scientific knowledge, so as our scientific, cultural, and historical understanding grows and changes, so does secular humanism. Additionally, you can disagree with points in the many humanist writings and still call yourself a secular humanist. Secular humanism is, by definition, anti-dogmatic — so to be dogmatic and say you have to have certain exact beliefs and values would be hypocritical in the extreme. Just visit a secular humanist website and you will see the kind of debate about all kinds of things that no religion would ever tolerate. (By the way, there is such a thing as religious (non-secular) humanism as well — same values but belief in a higher power, too.)

Secular humanism does NOT compare humans to God — it rejects the notion of God altogether. In fact, isn’t it Christians who say humans were created in the image of God? Secular humanism says that man is a naturally evolved animal, an imperfect part of nature; humanism is a humble but empowering world view.

Definition #3 almost gets it right:

3. The doctrine emphasizing a person’s capacity for self-realization through reason; rejects religion and the supernatural.

This is where the right gets claims about secular humanism being hedonistic, but secular humanism isn’t just about the individual and self-realization — humans are social animals, after all. Thus, there are social values that follow from secular humanism which are not addressed by definition #3.

Here is the Wikipedia definition again:

Secular humanism is an active lifestance that holds a naturalisic worldview and advocates the use of reason, compassion, scientific inquiry, ethics, justice and equality.

So where do right-wingers get off saying secular humanists are commies? Well, the first Humanist Manifesto (1933) did call for a socialist economic system. However, the same manifesto and subsequent humanist statements also emphatically support democracy.
The secular humanist position is that society should do two things:

  1. Provide for the needs of all its members.
  2. Provide all of its members with the opportunity to achieve their potential.

It was clear during the Great Depression when the first manifesto was written that unfettered capitalism simply does not do these two things. We now know that communism also does not provide these, and secular humanism has evolved since then. The modern secular humanist left generally believes a hybrid system is the best answer, with a mix of fundamental services provided by the government and a regulated capitalist marketplace for other goods and services.

It is also an important point of secular humanism that humans are social creatures, and we decide what kind of societies we create. All individuals have an impact on the societies in which they live, and therefore have a responsibility to help create a better society for themselves, their children, and others. Kenneth Phifer, one of the authors of the original Humanist Manifesto put it this way:

Humanism teaches us that it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. We must act to stop the wars and the crimes and the brutalities of this and future ages. We have powers of a remarkable kind. We have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we will do. Humanism tells us that whatever the philosophy of the universe may be, ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world in which we live rests with us.

What about the idea that Nazis, fascists, or Japanese imperialists were Secular Humanists?  This is a clear instance of the common right-wing tactic of simple dishonesty, saying all atheists/non-Christians are secular humanists. These groups clearly did not hold the humanist values listed below.

How about some specifics (from The Affirmations of Humanism — see link below):

  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.

Boy, those sure are some dangerous ideas, aren’t they? People should be good to each other and work together? Isn’t that just about the most immoral and dangerous idea you have ever heard? OH NO, NO, NO!! We can’t have that!!

Ok, so there are some other points which clearly might be threatening to Christians, but they are no threat to the American way. After all, the Constitution is a completely secular document. Thus, I would assert that these points reinforce American values:

* We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.

This is the main principal which opens secular humanists to the attack that we lack morals. How dare we suggest that morals are man made and don’t come from God?! That would mean we could decide killing is ok in certain circumstances! Well, it is — it’s called self defense, and our legal system recognizes it, too. The right loves to push the idea that “moral relativism” is a bad thing; just look back at the quote above from Rush. The truth is, we all practice moral relativism all the time. Can’t we all imagine a circumstance in which war is morally justifiable and a circumstance in which it is not? That is what moral relativism does — it evaluates acts within the circumstances in which they are committed. Now, if you look at the other values espoused by secular humanism, there are clear lines of right and wrong. No circumstance would justify bigotry, rape, or torture. Moral relativism is a straw-man.

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

How dare we suggest that truth comes from reason rather than the Bible?! How dare we suggest life should be enjoyed?! How dare we support the right to privacy and the right of people to choose with whom they have sex?! How dare we say health care is a right and not a privilege?! Such terrible non-values!!

Note how there is mention of “service to others” and “compassion over selfishness.” This goes back to the idea that all individuals have an impact on the societies in which they live, and therefore have a responsibility to create a better society. This is no threat to the American way… the Republican way maybe, the Bush way definitely, but not the American way.

I will take it one step further. These values are the key to winning the war on terrorism. Religious fundamentalism, Christian as well as Muslim, is the real threat. As long as religious fundamentalists exist, there will be religious conflict. Until all people see that every human life has value and that we are all global citizens, there will be war. Until the U.S. begins practicing what we preach about freedom and democracy, we will engender hatred and violence toward America and Americans. The Religious Right is the religious wrong.

The truth is that secular humanists are far more “christian” than the Christians who attack them. While the Christian right foments war and hate, the secular humanist left calls for peace and compassion. While the Christian right sees the rest of the world as potential enemies, potential converts, or potential cheap labor, the secular humanist left sees the rest of the world as our brothers and sisters deserving of respect and compassion. While the Christian right believes the Earth was given to us by God for us to “tame” and use, the secular humanist left believes the Earth is a shared ecosystem which humans often throw out of balance, threatening all life on the planet through irresponsible use and abuse. While the Christian right attacks gays and minorities, the secular humanist left believes they have a right to privacy, happiness, and equality. Maybe this is why they mistake it for a religion?


How did I become a secular humanist?

I was raised Catholic. I am the 12th of 16 children. I went to Catechism, had my First Communion, and my Confirmation. I was an alter boy. But my parents weren’t complete wackos, they actually taught me to feel sorry for people who didn’t believe in God.

When I went to college I made a friend who turned out to be an atheist. When the subject first came up, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: Isn’t it depressing not to believe in anything?

Him: I believe in something: Me, my potential, the infinite possibilities of my life and my ability to make good decisions. That’s not depressing, that’s empowering.

Me: But something greater than just you, I mean. Isn’t it depressing not having faith in anything greater than you?

Him: I do have faith in something greater than just me, too: humanity, human society. The way I see it, people create societies, people can have a positive or negative impact on their society, and people have to be responsible for creating a better society for themselves, their children, and others. I have faith that if people work together to create a good society, they can eventually do just that.

Me: But what about after you die?

Him: Then I hope I have left a good society for future generations.

Wow. No concern for his own soul or the afterlife, just concern for what is left behind for others. That struck me as one of the most selfless things I had ever heard. Any God who punished someone for such an attitude didn’t seem like a very good God to me. It was then that I stopped going to Church and began drifting away from my religion.

As I took college courses, my personal world view continued to evolve away from theism. I learned about many religions and found many of them more appealing than Catholicism. I learned about the evolution of our species, both physically and culturally, and saw how societies organize. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that religions are simply one way of organizing a society. It also seemed to me that more blood had been spilled over religion than for almost anything else (other than maybe territory disputes — and often the two were so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable).  How are wars waged in the name of the “Prince of Peace?” I began to become aware of how religions today foment conflict and hate, and promote exclusiveness both in our own society and around the world. Why is it that religious laws only apply to the in-group?

All this time, my moral base remained firm. I found I didn’t need any kind of supernatural authority telling me stealing or killing or cheating are wrong. All I needed was to ask myself, “What would a society be like that allowed such things?” Thus, I eventually concluded that all of the morals I believe in could be reached through logical reasoning about how we should organize society. I didn’t realize that what I had begun believing had a name. Thanks to the internet, I have found there is a large community of people who believe the same things I do. It was very comforting to learn that a bunch of people could all use reason and compassion to reach the same conclusions I had.

If you are interested in learning more about Secular Humanism, visit the secular web, or learn about humanism interactively – explore the Continuum of Humanist Education.  (Uh oh… look out! It’s a trap to try and convert people to my “religion!” <snark> — I don’t care if you agree with me or not, I just want you to understand it before deciding either way).

There are now ten Humanist Manifestos and Declarations:

  1. Humanist Manifesto I
  2. Humanist Manifesto II
  3. A Secular Humanist Declaration
  4. A Declaration of Interdependence
  5. IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism
  6. HUMANISM: Why, What, and What For, In 882 Words
  7. Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism
  8. The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles
  9. Amsterdam Declaration
  10. Humanist Manifesto III (Humanism And Its Aspirations)

Just to reiterate, One of the great things about secular humanism is that I can read through these 10 statements and disagree with some of what they say and still call myself a secular humanist.

I will leave you with the words of the famous 19th century humanist Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, known as “the Great Agnostic:”

When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave of the clergy and their biblical revelations. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free–free to think, to express my thoughts–free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself….I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all the worlds.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

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