Progressive Secularism

This past weekend while we enjoyed sunny blue skies in Vancouver, 20,000 atheists, humanists, and freethinkers gathered in Washington, DC for a rainy Reason Rally. The speaker’s list was a veritable who’s who of the New Atheist movement, with Richard Dawkins, Tim Minchin, and Adam Savage taking the stage.

But what interests me isn’t so much how successful the Rally itself was, but how we build off the success of this event and translate that momentum.

So I was more than interested to read American Humanist Association president Dave Niose’s latest piece in Psychology Today about the need to keep humanism at the front of the secular movement.

As I looked out at all the young people cheering for Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin, however, I also realized how important it is that humanism, and not just atheism, be part of this revolution. Indeed, for humanists, the success of the secular movement is only half the battle. After all, humanism is not just an arm of secularism, but a hybrid of the secular movement and the progressive movement.

Niose reminds us that while Karl Rove and Ayn Rand were atheists, their ideologies were distinctly anti-humanist. They pushed greed, selfishness, and regressive policies instead of supporting a compassionate, evidence-based society.

This article further provided me with what may be my new go-to definition for humanism: progressive secularism.

The AHA has long defined humanism as “a progressive worldview”, where progressives generally believe we can make the future better through rational and compassionate policy decisions. By combining this future outlook with a support for secularism, the disentangling of religious and faith based propositions from government, we arrive at humanism. Humanists hope to make the world a better place by reducing the role of religion and increasing the reliance on evidence, reason, and compassion.

Niose finally discusses his disappointment that the early humanists, like philosopher John Dewey, failed to properly rally for secularism while being fairly successful at promoting progressive causes. For example, while we enjoy liberties of gay marriage, access to abortion, and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, we still don’t have any notable atheists elected to public office.

Looking forward, Niose gives his advice to our movement:

This is why humanism, not just atheism, must be an important part of the emerging secular movement. If yesterday’s humanists erred by ignoring secularism to emphasize progressivism, today’s had better also learn the importance of keeping both oars in the water.

Perhaps this is why the concept of atheist political parties (versus ones that also emphasize reason and evidence) has never really excited me. I somewhat fear that electing the token atheist may be as damaging to the goals of humanism as electing a Sarah Palin would be to feminism.

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