Secular Humanism

In a couple of weeks I''ll be going to listen to an interfaith panel discuss the genocide in Darfur. The panel will include a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. There's no room at that table for anyone who doesn't believe in God.

That seems just a little unfair. It's interesting to see how different faiths regard that problem. But this isn't just an exercise in comparative religion. The panel is being convened because allegedly these religious leaders have a special ability to guide us on moral matters. And people who don't believe in God have less of an ability?

We shouldn't buy into that. The question is how an un-believer could get a seat at such a table. Well, why not just empanel a sagacious ethicist? But then ethics is not religion. This is an interfaith panel.

An unbeliever can only get a seat at the table if he or she represents a way of thinking that's at least quasi-religious. This would have to be someone who affirms a set of values, who has some conception of how people ought to live and treat each other. (Plus, I suppose, a lot of followers.) I think Paul Kurtz, the "secular humanist" founder of the magazine Free Inquiry, could do the job. (See here for what secular humanists believe.)

Atheism is a big tent, with people of all sorts standing under it. The vocal, antagonistic crowd, like Dawkins and Harris, are smart and energizing. But the "kinder, gentler" secular humanists are rather important as emissaries to the world. They have a chance on that panel, and Dawkins and Harris don't.

The secular humanists could link up with Unitarians, liberal Jewish congregations, liberal Christians and others who share their political and ethical vision. Atheists, by contrast, are just all the people who disbelieve, from Karl Rove (!) to Larry Flynt.

I don't think I can actually call myself a secular humanist--I'd have to be excluded from the panel because at best I can call myself an ethicist. The way I look at ethics isn't the way secular humanists do. But I think those folks should be encouraged. In fact, I'm going to go buy a copy of Paul Kurtz's magazine today. (Ahem...I have an article in the current issue.)


Ophelia Benson said...

'But the "kinder, gentler" secular humanists are rather important as emissaries to the world.'

I wouldn't exactly call Kurtz 'kinder, gentler' though - and I mean that in a good way. He's frank and forthright about atheism; he doesn't hide it under the sofa and he doesn't make a show of 'respect' for religious beliefs. There's not really all that much space between him and (say) Dawkins.

Dawkins does however have more of a reputation for being vocal or what a lot of people call 'militant' - so that perhaps amounts to the same thing.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't know who the most effective secular humanist might be, but that movement does seem to serve a purpose, at least pragmatically. It does seem like non-believers are entitled to a seat at the table but they're going to have to talk about love, peace, equality, the value of every life...all that good stuff. And be very nice. No clerical garb necessary--that would be going too far.