Paul Kurtz


Should secular humanism take political positions? Surely individual humanists, as citizens in a democracy, may participate in the political process. They are likely to vote for candidates and support the political party of their choice. Many are intensely committed to a political point of view. But should secular humanist organizations per se, for example, the Council for Secular Humanism and our various publications and magazines, take positions on the burning political issues of the day? If so, are there any distinctive political principles that secular humanism entails and that requires us to speak out and defend?

There are arguments against our becoming a political pressure group: First, as a nonprofit organization, we are prohibited from supporting candidates and/or engaging in political propaganda. This applies to the Christian Coalition, the Roman Catholic Church, and other nonprofit agencies as well, all of which would lose their tax-exempt status if they did.

Second, although secular humanists share a common set of beliefs and values, they may differ about any number of concrete political and economic measures.

Third, for the Council to endorse specific party platforms or candidates for office, and/or to identify with one part of the political landscape, might alienate other supporters who do not agree. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are found on all sides of the political spectrum; why not secular humanists? Should we thus avoid a political litmus test and welcome everyone into our large tent?

Fourth, our movement is primarily educational—scientific, philosophical, and ethical in outlook. Politics is not our core mission. If a hospital, supermarket, university, or art museum were to engage in partisan politics many of its customers or clientele would be offended. (I taught at Trinity College in the 1950s, an Episcopal school at Republican prayer in Hartford, Connecticut, which awarded honorary degrees to all the Governors of the state who were Republican, but refused at that time to award one to Governor Abe Ribikoff, who was a Democrat. The faculty was deeply incensed by this political bias. During the Vietnam War, the New Left attempted to get universities to take political stands against the war; and demonstrators often attempted to shut down the university on a daily basis. Some faculty believed that the university should take such stands; others said no, for its purpose was learning, teaching, and research, a place where scholars and students could engage in inquiry into alternative perspectives.)

Should the Council for Secular Humanism be antiseptically pure, absolutely nonpolitical? My answer is that this is very difficult, for politics impinges on the very core of our beliefs and values. Surely we should not define ourselves primarily as a political pressure group—at least at the present time and the positions we take should be prudential, leaving room for dissent. But I submit that we do have a responsibility to speak out on issues that are considered to be vital to our scientific humanist outlook, and that this is an important part of our educational activities.

If we are not primarily a political pressure group, under what conditions may we speak out on political issues? There are no absolute guidelines. Nonetheless, I wish to offer some criteria. Primarily, I submit, we have an obligation to do so when vital moral issues are at stake. The point is there is no sharp divorce between ethics and politics. If the purpose of war is to fulfill political purposes (according to Clausewitz), then the purpose of politics is to fulfill the ends and values that we consider desirable, and this especially concerns us when it impinges on our fundamental ethical values.

That there is an intrinsic continuity between ethics and politics is a classical idea. It was first expressed in Athens, most notably by Aristotle. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he dealt with the question, “What is the good?” There are virtues and excellences, he said, that the individual should cultivate, notably practical wisdom, and the doctrine of the mean, if a person is to achieve eudaemonia, or happiness. Aristotle also maintained that we should be concerned with achieving the good in the community or state at large, and that we should be concerned with legislation and education. Thus in the Politica (Book I), he discusses how the master art of politics can help us to achieve a just society, which will best fulfill “the good for man.” This theme reappears throughout the history of political thought.

Machiavelli took another approach. He maintained in The Prince that the goal of politics was to secure and maintain power, and that there were certain policies that a ruler should adopt, many of them brutal, in order to achieve political aims; in spite of the fact that Machiavelli had a long-range moral aim in mind, namely the unification of Italy. I readily grant that governing a nation is complicated, and that technical rather than moral issues are often relevant. Nonetheless, the overall aim of politics is to realize certain long-range moral goals deemed desirable and thus political policies may be judged in those terms.

Accordingly, secular humanists should speak out and act when they believe that their cherished values and beliefs are at stake; they should seek to persuade their fellow citizens about the beliefs and values that they consider important to defend and endorse. Surely, the Catholic Church has a political-moral agenda, as does the National Council of Churches and the Christian Coalition. Why not secular humanists?

This is especially the case when we are faced with a clear and present danger to our very existence and when the very structure of democratic humanist moral principles are endangered. I believe that at the present moment in American society we face such a threat. If this were the case, then not to speak out would be an affront to our deepest convictions. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer eloquently stated that he should have protested earlier in the 1930s, when the Nazis first began their repressive policies. Many people in America today are deeply disturbed about political developments now occurring. They are frightened by what they view as a drastic threat on the domestic front to our cherished democratic civil liberties and internationally to the entire framework of international law and order so painstakingly developed over past decades. They are concerned about the unilateral preemptive war undertaken by the United States in Iraq, its abrogation of the test ban and Kyoto treaties, its bypassing of the United Nations, its refusal to endorse the International Court of Justice, and other such issues.


I have been involved in the humanist movement for over 35 years. My first article as the new editor of The Humanist magazine in 1967 (I was editor from 1967–78) stated my guiding editorial principle: “The test of humanism, in the last analysis and by its own terms, is not how it accords with theory, but how it works out in practice” (“The Moral Crisis in Humanism,” The Humanist, September/October 1967, p. 152).

Getting our theories straight is important; but it is praxis, the practical consequences of our actions, that is the best test of our efficacy and influence. Purely theoretical humanism would be a mere abstract concept without content, of no moment, or little significance for the real life of humans as lived; thus, the relationship of humanism to praxis is central. I have called this in my writings eupraxsophy, good practical ethical wisdom based on reason and science.

If “God is dead,” as Nietzsche proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century, then we must at the dawn of the twenty-first century affirm that “humans are alive.” The power of the humanist message is that life itself is intrinsically worthwhile, that we wish to achieve the best of which we are capable, including the expression of our highest talents and creative excellences, that we cultivate the common moral decencies, that our goal is exuberant happiness, and that in order to do so we need to develop a just social order for our own society, regionally, and on the planetary scale. We humans are responsible for our own destiny: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves” (Humanist Manifesto II). We are responsible for our own personal lives, careers, and fortunes, but also in some sense for the communities in which we live, including the global society.

If God is dead, then it is untrue that all things are permitted (as Dostoyevsky implied), or that anything goes (as our critics on the Religious Right maintain). It does not mean that life is meaningless and forlorn, nor that there are no programs of social progress for humanity (as some nihilistic postmodernists have suggested). We can and do find life immensely satisfying and enriching and there are so many goods that can be discovered and created: enjoyment and pleasures, sexual experience and love, sports and play, hard work and achievement, friends and companions, children and parents, intellectual and æsthetic enjoyments, leisure and rest, achieving our dreams and plans for the future, including failure and defeat, moral cooperation and social amelioration . . . the list is endless, all part of the mosaic of the full life. Life is full of opportunities that we can realize and share with other humans; as well as the tragic dimensions that we encounter, which we can learn to cope with and overcome by courageous resolution.

The key message of humanism is not that humanists are nonbelievers in theistic religion—atheists, agnostics, or skeptics—but that we are believers, for we believe deeply in the potentialities of human beings to achieve the good life; and we wish to apply the virtues and principles of humanist ethics to enhance the human condition.

If we indict the theological messianic claims of the ancient religions for providing non evidential false illusions of salvation, then we also need to state that we are concerned with improving the conditions of human life, and that the key components in this are the cultural, social, economic, and political institutions in which human beings find themselves at various times in history. The underlying premise here is our emphasis on humanist ethics: How we create a better life for ourselves and our fellow human beings in the real world, here and now and in the foreseeable future on the planet earth.

Let me hasten to say that although we are concerned with moral-political issues, we should not be simply identified with any political party or candidates for office. Thus we should guard against politicizing humanism; this would mean its vulgarization and trivialization. Indeed, I have long argued in the pages of Free Inquiry that we should be open to Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, libertarians and social democrats, radicals and centrists, Green Party and independents. Ideologically, secular humanists may be laissez-faire free-marketeers, democratic socialists; they may believe in the mixed economy or a federal world government. And surely they may differ on taxation policies, vouchers and the public schools, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, the legalization of prostitution, immigration, foreign policy, defense spending, war and peace, and any other number of ancillary issues. Humanists are surely not able to deal with each and every complex social or public issue that may arise. They can’t simply identify themselves as such with the left wing of the Democratic Party, or the Libertarian Party, the No Tax Party, or the anti-technological environmentalist Green Party. It is clear that there have been conservative humanists, such as George Santayana and Antony Flew; liberal democratic humanists such as John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Betty Friedan, and Sir Karl Popper; socialist humanists such as Erich Fromm, Sidney Hook, and Milovan Djilas. They all should have a place within the Mansion of humanism. We have our individual political allegiances, but I am not talking about that, but about our position as a movement.

Accordingly, our basic focus, I submit, is far more fundamental: We are interested in cognitive and ethical questions, in achieving, especially at the present juncture, a cultural renaissance or cultural reformation. We should focus on that; namely, we are offering a set of distinctive intellectual and normative values. We wish to emphasize the importance of reason and critical thinking; and we want to use these methods in order to reformulate and refashion our values, and to raise the quality of taste and the level of appreciation in society. Humanism is life-affirming; it is positive and constructive. If applied, it would enable us to reform human culture by transcending the ancient religious, racial, ethnic, and ideological dogmas of the past that so affect human civilization in the present.

We are thus calling for a New Enlightenment, a rediscovery and a reaffirmation of the highest values of which humans are capable.


What are the goals of the Council for Secular Humanism? Its original purposes as stated in its Certificate of Incorporation, are as follows:

To foster interest in and encourage the growth of the traditions of democracy, secular humanism, and the principles of free inquiry in contemporary society, and to make known the values of these traditions to the general public by educational means. The Council will attempt to develop an appreciation for freethought and the democratic ideals of the founders of the American Republic, typified by Jefferson and Paine.

Now, that is a fairly broad statement, but it is positive. It seeks to defend democracy, secular humanism, free inquiry, and freethought, and it points to the founders of the American Republic, such as Jefferson and Paine.

The Council was established in 1980 at a time when the Moral Majority was riding rough-shod. It was a religious coalition that singled out, unfairly, secular humanists as the “most dangerous” influence in America. At the same time we published in the first issue of Free Inquiry a Secular Humanist Declaration, endorsed by fifty-eight leaders of thought and action, including Isaac Asimov, A. J. Ayer, Francis Crick, Milovan Djilas, Albert Ellis, Joseph Fletcher, Sidney Hook, B. F. Skinner, Barbara Wootton, and others. The Declaration had eleven main points. The first principle of democratic secular humanism is its commitment to free inquiry. It states that we oppose any tyranny over the mind of man. “Free inquiry entails the recognition of civil liberties as integral to our pursuits.”

The second principle is our defense of church and state separation. This refers to the ideal of freedom, including political liberty and human rights. There are other principles presented, such as that ethics should be based on critical intelligence, and we should emphasize the importance of moral education of children. We also stated our concern for rational methods of inquiry, the significance of science and technology, and our defense of the theory of evolution. Only one principle in the founding Declaration is devoted to religious skepticism; namely that we are skeptical of unsubstantiated supernatural claims and that we may be rationalists or skeptics, agnostics or atheists. The conclusion of our Declaration is the belief that we need to direct our effort to education, including the electronic media and press, in order to raise the level of public understanding.

Clearly, we have a distinctive scientific ethical and philosophical viewpoint. We are secular humanists. We believe that the state should be neutral about religion and that no one religious or creed church should be officially established. The state should neither favor nor be opposed to belief or nonbelief. It welcomes diversity of opinion. As secularists, we believe in the secularization of ethical values, and their liberation from religious or ideological dogma.

We are nontheistic humanists, in that we are skeptical of traditional beliefs of God or supernatural entities. We are skeptical of these claims on philosophical grounds, but also of the Bible, the Koran, and other such literatures. Thus we may be agnostics, atheists, skeptics, ignostics, or simply indifferent to theistic claims.

We are post religious humanists. We hold, unlike other humanist organizations, that we are nonreligious, and that we derive our outlook and values from science and philosophy.

We are naturalistic humanists. We are committed to methodological naturalism, the view that the methods of science and critical intelligence are the best way to discover truth and to test hypotheses by reference to experience, reason, and experiment. We are skeptical of claims that have not been so corroborated. We are also scientific naturalists, in that we accept the findings of the sciences as the best source of knowledge about the universe. The universe has a physical-chemical material basis; the human species is part of the natural scheme of things; and evolutionary theories present the most reliable account thus far about the origin of species—without need for creationism or intelligent design.

We are ethical humanists. We wish to express the courage to become all that we can, to fulfill our plans and projects, and to realize the good life for ourselves and other humans within the community, without need for non natural or occult sources. We believe in human self-determination without reliance on a so called higher power.

We are democratic humanists in that we are committed both to the defense of the freedom and autonomy of the individual and the principles of equality. This entails our dedication to the open society and the full range of civil liberties.

We are planetary humanists, in that we wish to develop a global ethical community that highlights our interdependence in a transnational world. We are cognizant of our obligation to all members of the human family, and to the preservation of our planetary habitat and environment.

May I make it clear what we are not. Secular humanists should not be simply identified with atheism or antisupernaturalism. This clarification needs to be made today, because both our friends and foes mistakenly identify humanism with atheism. Stalin and Lenin, Ayn Rand and Madalyn Murray O’Hair were atheists—but they differed bitterly—particularly about humanist ethical principles, and values. Stalinists and Leninists brutally crushed freedom, dissent, and human rights, and they were willing to use terror to achieve their ends. Ayn Rand railed against altruism, maintaining that ethics begins with self-interest only. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was so interested in attacking religion and furthering atheism that she often forgot the basic humanist principle of tolerance for differences of opinion.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I did not personally participate in the “Godless March on Washington” last year. “Godlessness” doesn’t define me, though I surely do not believe in God. It conveys the wrong message. Nor do I think that the removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance should be our central battle today. It is untruthful, for the United States is a secular republic “under Canada,” not “under God.” Nor should we focus, as our primary aim, in removing “In God We Trust” from the currency. It simply should not be there, but I fear that these battles of the atheists—though surely important—are symbolic but tangential to other larger urgent issues, such as the separation of church and state, faith-based charities, the prohibition of scientific research into stem-cell cloning, and other important moral topics.)

I fully agree that the rights of unbelievers are violated today, and that our views need to be respected, as do those of Muslims, incidentally, who are being unfairly persecuted by this government. This issue, however, tends to marginalize us. Moreover, it gives the impression that we are simply negative; when we need to underline the joyful exuberance implicit in humanist ethics. It is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which exults freude, that should be our theme, not Mozart’s Requiem. That is what the nay sayers forget; it is not what we don’t believe in (I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, crop circles, or Sasquatch), but what we do believe in that counts. Generally, we believe in the importance of a naturalistic outlook, in using science and reason to understand the world and apply technology to the betterment of the human condition, and in social justice. We have attracted to our organization many of the leading thinkers, scientists, and authors today. This point has not been sufficiently appreciated by the American public—that you can be moral and not believe in God, that you can be a humanist and achieve the highest ranges of human nobility, that you can be a good citizen and a religious dissenter.

It is also important that we point out again that we differ fundamentally from other humanist organizations on one key issue—that we are nonreligious, not necessarily antireligious. In other words, we say that we can achieve a life of significant enrichment, and contribute to society, without Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Mormonism, or the many other sects of religiosity; and that the effort to create a new religious humanism is mistaken, when what we should build is a new ethics of freedoms, rights, and responsibilities. What we should help to create—especially today—and in common with others is a new Planetary Humanism, where every person has equal dignity and value, and in which the conditions of peace, tolerance, and social justice can prevail, and in which the underdeveloped, starving poor sectors, and undereducated portions of the globe are given every opportunity to develop economically, culturally, and in democratic terms. One reason why so many Western-style democracies (such as France and Germany) have been critical of the United States today is because the religiosity that so pervades our culture is overwhelming, and it leads to sanctimonious, self-righteous prattle about God being on our side and blessing us. We need to attract secularists, humanists, federalists, democrats, liberal or nominal religionists, and all people of good will who share our vision and outlook.

There have been many other important documents that Free Inquiry has published. The International Academy of Humanism, founded in 1983 under the auspices of the Council, is comprised of 80 of the most distinguished nontheistic humanists worldwide. It states that it is “(1) devoted to the principles of free inquiry in all fields of human endeavor; (2) committed to the scientific outlook and the use of reason and scientific methods in acquiring knowledge of nature; and (3) upholders of ethical values and principles. The Academy is interested in furthering respect for human rights and the freedom and dignity of the individual; tolerance of other points of view; commitment to social justice; willingness to compromise and negotiate differences; a universalistic perspective that transcends national, ethnic, religious, sexual, and racial barriers; and belief in a free and open pluralistic and democratic society” (Free Inquiry, Fall 1983).

No doubt the latest and most important statement that the Academy issued is Humanist Manifesto 2000, published in Free Inquiry in 1999. This has been already endorsed by signers throughout the world and translated into eighteen languages. This is the call for a new Planetary Humanism. This document focused on the need for a universal commitment to humanity as a whole, a new planetary bill of human rights and responsibilities, a new global agenda, and new planetary institutions.

The underlying ethical principle of planetary humanism is the need to respect the dignity and worth of all persons in the world community. And it states that we are linked morally and physically to each person on the globe, and that the bell tolls for all when it tolls for one. This principle is in opposition to the militaristic and chauvinistic mantra that seems to guide our foreign policy today. And it urges us to transcend the limits of narrow nationalism and patriotism. It should be clear that those who endorsed Humanist Manifesto 2000 do not see it as a creed, and may differ on many points, but nevertheless share in common basic ethical values.


Where does this leave us on the key principle of politics? I think that secular humanists need to speak out critically about present trends in the United States. I am of course objecting first to the threats to our democratic liberties: the Homeland Security and Patriot Acts, the suppression of civil liberties, the erosion of our liberties by the moneyed interests and lobbies, the control of the media by conglomerates with their smothering of dissent, and the emergence of a plutocracy based on wealth and property; these all undermine our democratic institutions. We should be especially concerned about the growing apathy and non involvement of the young in politics, perhaps as a result of the dominant role that the mass media gives to violence, sensationalism, and entertainment instead of information and education.

Second, I am questioning the direction of current American foreign policy, which is a threat to a peaceful world order, the United Nations, and the development of institutions of world government, all of which are endangered by the preemptive strike of the US in its war with Iraq. Our unilateral policies have offended our friends all over the world; for we have abandoned so much of the idealism that inspired the American dream—ideals of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, human rights, and democracy.

Third, I am objecting to the serious violation of the separation of church and state by faith-based charities and other similar measures. It is distressing for us that the President uses his office as a bully pulpit to further the ends of Evangelical Christianity. The President has surely the right to his own religious convictions, but it is disturbing when he and his administration seem to invoke them to establish policies which undermine our secular democracy. Numerous articles on the Bush presidency indicate that it has been captured by the Radical Right and that an alliance of Protestant Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and Orthodox neoconservative Jews is bringing into being a new monotheistic quasi-theocracy. The President’s speechwriters quote the Bible constantly. Only last week he told the families of deceased marines in Camp Le Jeune that their sons are “in heaven” (all too reminiscent of the Muslim justification of the jihad—that its martyrs will end up in heaven). But this moral-religious outlook spills out in the political sphere—by his nomination of the most conservative judges, for example; and other domestic and foreign policies, such as his opposition to any support for population assistance to the developing world. There is a litany of extremist religious positions that have been enacted. Thus a political posture has been inspired by a theological-moral outlook; and we have every right to protest.

We have published these strong dissenting opinions about the current policies of the administration in Free Inquiry magazine and on our web site; though some secular humanists have objected.

At the same time, however, we have given space to alternative viewpoints, particularly about foreign policy. The masthead of Free Inquiry states that “opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or publisher. No one speaks on behalf of the Council for Secular Humanism unless expressly stated.” A free press is vital to our democracy and the secular humanist movement. Thus there is editorial autonomy for the editors and columnists. There is no “Thus saith the Humanist Creed.” We have not, at least until now, passed political resolutions. We recognize and cherish diversity of opinion. Unlike the Vatican or the Southern Baptist Convention, we have no compulsion in our beliefs. On the other hand, we do have a set of principles that are central to our ethical focus. I submit that we can and indeed do speak out on the following moral-political issues, as broadly drawn:

First, I reiterate, we are committed to free inquiry, the free mind, freedom of research, respect for civil liberties and the open democratic society. This entails the right to believe or not believe in the prevailing religious or ideological doctrines. We object to any effort to censor or prohibit dissent and restrict liberty.

Second, we are defenders of the separation of church and state, the secular state, and according we are strong critics of efforts to impose theocratic or quasi-theocratic measures.

Third, in believing in freedom of the individual, we believe in the right of privacy. This entails freedom of conscience, the right to control one’s own body; reproductive freedom, contraception, euthanasia, abortion, sexual freedom between consenting adults, all of which we have consistently defended.

Fourth, as democratic humanists, we believe in equality of opportunity, equal access, and fair treatment of all individuals in society. We have vigorously supported the rights of women, gays, handicapped people, blacks, Hispanics, nonbelievers, and other minorities, and we have said that they should not be discriminated against.

Fifth, we believe in Planetary Humanism, which applies the principles of ethics to all humans, where possible, anywhere on the planet earth, beyond a narrow focus on ethnic, racial, religious, or nationalistic chauvinism. This entails our efforts to develop global institutions which will provide conditions of peace, security, economic well being, cultural education, and enrichment for every person on the planet. We are thus opposed to any effort to encourage a world of competing nationalistic rivalries; and we believe in building a world community


In conclusion, the secular humanist movement does not have a narrow political agenda or party platform. Broadly speaking, we are committed to the application of the method of intelligence to the solution of political and social problems. This is the purpose of the Center for Inquiry, of which the Council is a part: To apply reason, science, and free inquiry to all areas of human concern, and to develop rational ethical and social alternatives.

We recognize that many socio-political problems are very complex and often difficult to solve. There are no easy and simple solutions. We appeal to committed naturalists and humanists who accept our basic scientific, philosophical, and ethical premises, yet may sincerely disagree with any of the above political choices—do not abandon us, but argue your convictions with equal intensity. We need to work together to resolve these difficult socio-political problems.

Humanists bring a kind of optimism about the Human Prospect to the bargaining table. We respect diversity of opinion, including differences among ourselves. We believe that rational discourse is preferable to violence and warfare, that compromise is superior to conflict, that debate and deliberation comprise the best method for resolving differences. We should, as best we can, raise our voice loud and clear in the current maelstrom of conflicting opinions, and especially religious and nationalistic fanaticisms. The secular humanist position is an honorable one. It is based on deeply held convictions, rooted in reason, and focused on an ethical concern to enhance, fulfill, and realize human happiness, peace, and tranquility on the globe. This point, though apparent to us, is still a minority position in the world today. Yet we need to affirm it. And in that sense, we need to need to take a strong moral-political stance.

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