Just What Is A “Secular Humanist Liberal,” Anyway?
A brief essay describing what liberal secular humanism is, stripped of the rhetoric of the religious right.
An essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup
Why This Essay?
Liberal secular humanism has a bad name.
Of that, there’s no doubt. And it is the conservative wing of the Christian church, particularly the fundamentalist evangelicals who have damned it endlessly, portraying secular humanist liberals as some sort of devils incarnate. The sort of unkempt people who go around in trenchcoats, molesting little kids in schoolyards, or selling illicit drugs on streetcorners, or something like that. There’s certainly no love lost on them by the evangelical fundamentalists, that’s for sure.
But what’s the truth? Are they really that bad? And just what is liberal secular humanism, anyway?
Probably the easiest way to understand this phenomenon is to break down the phrase into its individual words, and get a good handle on what each means, and then gain an understanding of what the synergy of the three words together cone to mean.
The term, “liberalism” dates from the Enlightenment. In the 15th century, in reaction to the excesses of the church, and the recent scientific discoveries of Galilleo and others, and the church’s reaction to those discoveries, that certain European intellectuals came to the conclusion that it was increasingly apparent that the Catholic church could no longer justify its claim to perfect knowledge.
Galilleo declared that Earth was very unlikely to be the center of the universe, because there were at least two other examples of moons orbiting other planets, which meant they weren’t orbiting earth. In fact, they had no relation to Earth at all. This fact came as a great shock to the Catholic Church, which had claimed that the earth was the center of God’s creation. It had to be the center of creation, because it was the object of God’s creative efforts.
Yet here was a man who had shown that any fool with a telescope could see that there were celestial objects out there which had no relation whatever to “God’s Earth.” So why had God bothered to create them? What was their meaning?
The Catholic church’s answer was to attempt to silence Galilleo. But it didn’t work. Along with Galilleo, there were a flood of other discoveries, the New World, which wasn’t mentioned in the Bible at all. And the circumnavigation of Africa, and later the world, which led to discoveries of whole continents of people, whose cultures had no knowledge of Christianity or interest in it. And with the discovery of these cultures, came knowledge that had no relation to Christianity, nor relevance to it, yet had obvious usefulness to humanity.
This flood of scientific discovery overwhelmed the intellectual police of the church. It quickly became obvious that not only did the church not have a monopoly on truth and knowledge, but that natural philosophy, as science was then called, had obvious advantages in its newly discovered ability to describe the world in useful and predictive ways the church never could.
With the new discoveries came the realization that the church had been wrong about a great deal. And if it was wrong about science, that very much begged the question, what else was it wrong about?
That whole civilizations could exist in complete ignorance of Christianity, and establish for themselves value systems that were not only workable, but in many ways more advanced than the value systems of Christianized Europe, came as a great shock to the intellectuals of Europe. Could the church be wrong about value systems as well?
The cruelty and corruption of the Catholic Church hierarchy made it obvious that its value systems were as defective as its world view. Intellectuals rebelled, in some cases establishing new churches to compete with Catholicism, in other cases working to divorce the church from the political power structures it had used so successfully for centuries to control the population.
The opposite view, that value systems that had served society for centuries should not be discarded readily, became known as “conservatism.” It was largely a reaction to the excesses of the new liberal philosophies, and the fact that they were obviously limited in their effectiveness as well. That philosopy of conservatism has evolved over the centuries, becoming a political as well as religious and intellectual philosophy, just as liberalism came to embrace a more secular view of moral philosophy.
The obvious failure of the Catholic church, and many of its theological successors to formulate value systems that were fair, humane and at the same time accepted that other views were not only possible, but had value, caused a reaction that built upon the secular discoveries of natural philosophy.
By the 18th century, the success of science and natural philosophy to address many of the problems of humanity that had not been addressed by the Christian churches, had caused many intellectuals of the day to suggest that perhaps the failures of religion were inherent problems within it.
The view gradually gained currency that value systems and the political systems they were based on, should be based on reason, as reason was clearly addressing human problems more effectively than the church ever did, and eventually the Age of Reason, as it came to be called, even became a political movement. Beginning with the American Revolution, which was largely a reaction to the tyranny justified by the “divine right of kings,” and culminating with the French Revolution of 1789, reason became established as the basis of human law. But the American Revolution failed to address the inequities of the slave trade and the oppression of the indigenous Americans, and the limitations of reason inherent in the French Revolution led to its failure, ending in worse repression than the monarchy it replaced.
By the middle of the 19th century, it had became obvious to intellectuals that while reason was a far superior way of ordering value systems, it nevertheless had limitations. The limitations were acknowledged privately by intellectuals, but publicly, reason seemed to be making serious inroads into the view that religion ultimately had little to offer philosophically. Scientific progress accelerated, and for the educated, religion was having an increasingly hard time holding its philosophical ground.
The trend reached a dramatic climax, when Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in the latter third of the 19th century. Finally, science had declared the origin of humanity to be quite natural and without apparent divine purpose.
This was all too much for the religionists. Science and reason had gotten entirely too personal. Increasingly backed into philosophical corners by the inroads of science and the value systems based on reason that science made possible, religionists lashed out.
The religionists declared the secular philosophies made possible by the synergy of science and reason to be evil. They gave it a name: Secularism. Secularism to the religionist became a rejection of religion and its value systems, and was viewed as the ultimate evil; an expression of the devil incarnate. In order to castigate it to the maximum extent possible, religionists declared secularism to be the obvious result of “Satan’s work” in the world. It became anathema; a secularist was a person doing the devil’s work.
The implications of Darwin’s insights were obvious. Man was not the work of a divine creation, but rather the complex result of a simple, long-running, natural process. So to assume that while God didn’t create man, the notion that He did establish inviolable value systems by which man was to live, struck a lot of intellectuals as nonsensical on the face of it.
Since God couldn’t be asked for comment, it was obvious to the new philosophers that man had to rely on his own devices to establish value systems that are workable and the sound basis for the organization of society. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the role of God in the affairs of man is necessarily circumscribed by the limitations imposed by scientific discovery. And as those circumscriptions become ever tighter, the trend pointed to an obvious conclusion.
That conclusion became clear. Don’t look to God for answers. Even if He is there, He’s not talking, and so it’s becoming increasingly evident that there’s no point in resorting to Him for advice.
This theory, which says that the obvious conclusion of the trend of scientific discovery is that God is most likely man’s creation, an attempt to know the unknowable, was called “humanism” by those first realized the implications of this insight.
So let’s give up the pretense; let’s get on with becoming philosophically self-reliant, because there isn’t any reason to believe that a God is going to hand us the answer any time soon.
Humanism, in the final analysis then, is nothing more than mankind accepting responsibility for his own moral affairs.
The Result: The Dreaded “Secular Humanist Liberal”
So there you have it. That despised being, the “secular humanist liberal.” Someone who has recognized the shortcomings of religion, and has accepted the fallibility of reason. Who has accepted responsibility for his own value system. Who understands the frailties of human reason, but who, in spite of human limitations, is willing to forge ahead, and try to make the world a better place for himself and his family and neighbors, based on the best information available to him. Accepting that he won’t necessarily get it right on the first try. But someone who also knows he can’t neccessarily get answers from God either.
Now, was that so bad?
The Ethics Of Liberal Secular Humanism
I believe that one of the reasons secular humanist liberals are castigated so strongly by religionists is that we are stereotyped as not having any moral values or ethical principles.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Liberal secular humanism recognizes the vital importance of morality and ethical standards for personal and societal growth and happiness. The notion that liberal secular humanism is amoral is simply untrue.
What distinguishes a liberal secular humanist from a religionist in this regard is that the liberal secular humanist believes that these moral standards should be designed rationally, based on proven sociological prinicples, not on religious belief or supposition, or on the superstitions of previous generations, or the edicts of religious leaders who often interpret what they claim to be the word of God on the basis of their own personal prejudices. Ethics, we believe, should be designed to meet human needs, not the demands of some unknowable, abstract being who can’t be asked for clarifications of often irrational edicts.
To that end, there are several organizations of liberal secular humanist ethicists who have developed detailed moral and ethical value systems. Links to the web pages of these organizations are in the resources below. The reader is invited to read their web pages and explore the ethical and moral systems they have developed. I believe you will find them more comfortable and better suited to your life than the moral systems of the religionists. And it is my belief that they are better suited to the development and well-being of society as well.
The American Humanist Association’s Definition of Humanism:
“Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracty and the expansion of open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values — be they religious, ethical, social or political — have their source in human nature, experience and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”