Seriously, Tom Flynn?

I somehow completely missed this when it was written back in June by Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. It’s a response to Joe Klein’s ignorant comments about how secular humanists don’t help out after natural disasters. And by “response,” I mean that he actually agreed with him while making an argument that isn’t just false, it’s downright offensive.

But you know what? So long as we’re talking strictly about secular humanists, not about atheists/freethinkers generally, Klein was right. And there’s a good reason why…

Truly secular humanists don’t come together as secular humanists to give out hot meals — or distribute cash — when disaster strikes. That’s because they’ve seen the damage done when religious people let their church memberships spill all through their lives. Insofar as secular humanists are truly, radically secular, they are careful not to give even their own lifestance organizations more than their due. To them, a secular humanist organization is for discussing living without religion, for learning how to do naturalistic ethics, and for learning how to counter common religous claims. After that (warning: radical idea), private life begins. I don’t know for certain (and neither does anybody else), but I strongly suspect that secular people contribute and volunteer just about as frequently as anybody else. What they don’t do is cluster together in a little group of fellow freethinkers to do it. Instead they reach out directly, as individuals, to organizations whose primary mission is delivering relief.

It gets worse. When someone in the comments pointed out that lots of secular humanist groups actually do organize disaster relief and ongoing service projects to improve the lives of others, he pretty blatantly implies that only organizations that actually have the phrase “secular humanism” in their names actually are secular humanist.

There’s only one national organization with “secular humanism” in its name, and the Council for Secular Humanism does not engage in lifestance-specific charitable/service activities.

Tom, I’ve got news for you. Just because you lead the Council for Secular Humanism does not mean you are the one and only voice of “true” secular humanism. I am “truly” a secular humanist and I am one of thousands and thousands of other people who are “truly” secular humanist to do exactly what you claim we do not do — and we do so explicitly as a result of our secular humanism. You can stick your head in the sand and pretend we don’t exist, or you can play a rousing game of “no true secular humanist” if you’d like, but in the real world secular humanists are doing the very work you don’t want us to do.

And yes, it gets worse. He clearly implies that the only reason any religious organization would involve themselves in charity efforts is to boast and to make themselves look good, making this as offensive to religious people as it is to secular humanists engaged in relief efforts.

Staunch secularists are repelled when church groups mobilize so boastfully to show up at disaster sites, soup kitchens, and so on, waving the banner of their particular denomination. “Look, we’re Methodists, we’re ever so much holier than those darned Presbyterians” — and what, exactly, does that have to do with helping the victims? This kind of activism smacks of exploiting those wracked by tragedy in order to score a few PR points.

Really? Is there any evidence, or even a single example, of a Methodist group engaging in charity efforts in order to show that they’re holier than Presbyterians, or something similar? There certainly are evangelical relief efforts that are primarily for show, like Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, which is nothing more than a fundraising tool and a cover for his mining interests in Africa, but what does that have to do with a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen run by nuns in an inner city? Or a refugee camp that saves lives in the worst and often most dangerous of situations? Even more, what does that have to do with secular humanist charities?

We’ve all heard of members of megachurches whose faith so circumscribes their lives that they wouldn’t hire an accountant or a plumber whom they didn’t meet at church. That’s the mentality truly secular humanists reject. They turn to their secular humanist organizations to enrich their experiences in secular humanism, and nothing else. When disaster strikes, they don’t squander time or resources pulling on secular humanist T-shirts first. They reach out as individuals and channel their money or time toward some organization whose primary focus is aiding the victims. Granted, when we’re that hard-nosed about our secularity, we sometimes pass up a PR opportunity. But we have the consolation that when we as secular individuals are participating, more or less anonymously, in service work, we’re doing it to help the work get done rather than to score cheap points for our side by making sure the soup bowls we hand out are extra-full when the cameras are rolling.

In recent years some atheist organizations have sprung up to channel overtly atheist giving. Foundation Beyond Belief is one, there are many others, and some atheists and freethinkers think their work is exciting. Truly secular humanists are more skeptical. Yes, the churches do a lot of chest-thumping charitable outreach this way — but if they really had the victims’ welfare at heart, they should stop and let the lifestance-blind specialist organizations that really know what they’re doing do the work more efficiently. Staunch secularists who don’t think today’s churches have a genuine role in, say, disaster response can see no reason why secular humanist organizations should rush to repeat their mistake.

I’ll be honest, when I read those two paragraphs I got pretty pissed off. I’m still pissed off. First of all, the Foundation Beyond Belief does exactly what he says should be done, we funnel money from secular humanists to “lifestance-blind specialist organizations that really know what they’re doing.” After the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma, our staff stayed up all night vetting organizations to determine which organizations those are for the Humanist Crisis Response launched the next day. Secular humanists donated more than $45,000, every dime of which went to those organizations. The result was more than 100,000 meals provided to those who had lost everything. Many other secular humanist groups were there on the ground helping people clean up from the disaster, providing homes for the victims to stay in, distributing food, water and medical supplies and other vital services.

But according to Flynn, those who donated their money, time and energy aren’t “truly” secular humanist because they should have been sitting around talking about secular ethics rather than putting them into action. And in lieu of suggesting to Flynn that he perform an impossible sexual act with himself, let me suggest that if his version of secular humanism as a dry, abstract, individual-only pursuit were the only “truly” secular humanist vision, I would want little to do with it.

One of the key tenets of secular humanism is that there are no gods to answer our prayers, rescue us or help us in times of need. It is humanity alone that can help ourselves and one another and we have a shared responsibility to do so. No, it isn’t enough for me to join an organization to “enrich [my] experiences in secular humanism.” I want it to enrich my life as a human being. We can’t just sit around talking about the necessity and responsibility to help improve the human condition, we must put that central tenet of secular humanism into action or it is sterile and meaningless. And quite frankly, I’m rather appalled that one of the most prominent leaders in secular humanism would take a position like this.

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  • busterggi

    Who died and made Flynn the Secular Pope?

  • Ryan Jean

    When Flynn originally posted that, the response in almost every place I saw it discussed was nearly uniformly against him. Even the minuscule number of defenders he had couched their language in very carefully-parsed terms that amounted to little. It was clear in less than a day that Flynn does not exactly have his finger on the pulse of secular humanist thought, and for someone in his position that is quite an embarrassment.

  • cheesynougats

    “And in lieu of suggesting to Flynn that he perform an impossible sexual act with himself,”

    Well, I am not a prominent blogger, so I don’t have to take the high road. Tom Flynn, go fuck yourself.

  • cswella

    “In recent years some atheist organizations have sprung up to channel overtly atheist giving. Foundation Beyond Belief is one, there are many others, and some atheists and freethinkers think their work is exciting. Truly secular humanists are more skeptical.”

    More skeptical of what? I don’t understand why providing a service for people who don’t have the time to research if the charities they give to are secular is not skeptical enough?

    “Staunch secularists who don’t think today’s churches have a genuine role in, say, disaster response can see no reason why secular humanist organizations should rush to repeat their mistake.”

    The mistakes we see in religious responses to disaster have more to do directly with shipping crates of bibles/literature, taking up space and time from shipping food and other relief. How have or would secularists make this mistake? What’s wrong with setting up a tent or having boxes labelled “Secular Humanist” as long as there’s real solutions being shipped?

  • Steve Sirhan

    Shouldn’t Flynn stick to his Reign of Terror idea of wanting to rename days of the week that are named after pagan gods?

  • Sastra

    I agree with Ed, but I recognize Tom’s argument as one which was (and is) commonly made when the religious would insist on their moral superiority by pointing to all the religious hospitals, charities, and relief organizations and demanding to see the atheist ones.

    Before we DID have specifically atheist or humanist charities, the usual response was that they were demanding to see a connection which didn’t apply to us. We weren’t trying to get our ideas about God across by being good people; that’s not why we are atheists nor is it how we plan to ‘convert’ others. We don’t believe in God because “God” is a failed hypothesis. Getting into a pissing contest about which group is nicer is playing into the religious identity game.

    Bottom line, people who do real good in order to explicitly express God’s love for the world do the right thing for the wrong reason. How important is that? Depends on what you focus on.

    Religious charities help create and feed the stereotype that a person who truly lives their faith is humanistically admirable. That’s what REAL faith-in-action is, the message goes. But different things are being equated and co-opted. This confusion between belief, identity, and behavior makes it difficult to explain where atheists fall: faith is an epistemic vice. Trying to emulate the belief-reflects-behavior trope can look self-defeating then. We’ll never catch up — and in the mean time we’ve let the issue slide from what is true to which belief makes you a better person, so choose.

    Problem is, with secular humanism the values aren’t just grafted on to supernatural inventions with no necessary rational or natural connection as in religion: they define the stance. A secular humanist is an atheist because of their values: they don’t pretend it’s the other way around as do the faithful. So organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief ARE secular humanism in action. Technically speaking, by engaging in the world and trying to improve it the religious are behaving like secular humanists. If they care more about helping than converting they’re even thinking like secular humanists. It’s not their game; they’re playing ours.

    So yes, I see Flynn’s point — but I disagree with him here. Again. He also wants to abolish marriage and get atheists out of Christmas. Tom Flynn is hit or miss for me. I think he has too strong a tendency to label too many things ‘religious.’ But he’s also done and written some powerful things.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Who died and made Flynn the Secular Pope?

    More to the point, who made him the secular answer to Pope Palpadict, twisted dead-wrong logic and all?

    It looks like yet another big-time “secular” leader just got bambozled into taking some version of the anti-social-justice-dictionary-atheist line.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    I know the name but can’t remember if I have read anything else by him, but based on this piece alone, he might call himself a secular humanist but I don’t see any evidence of the humanist part of that label, quite the opposite in fact.

  • wscott

    The notion that secular humanists are more prone to donate or help out as individuals rather than a group, may well be true for some secular humanists. Maybe even many. If he’d stopped there, Flynn might’ve had an interesting hypothesis, instead of an easily-falsified piece of No True Secular Humanist douchbaggery.

  • dogfightwithdogma

    To them, a secular humanist organization is for discussing living without religion, for learning how to do naturalistic ethics, and for learning how to counter common religous claims. After that (warning: radical idea), private life begins.

    Notice that Flynn states where he thinks is the demarcation between the function of a secular humanist organization and “private life.” Is it possible that Flynn is a secular humanist with libertarian leanings? If so, I think it might explain why his version of what constitutes a secular humanist is out-of-sync with how most secular humanists act and lead their lives informed by their secular humanism. I for one do not share Flynn’s version of a secular humanist, and I am member of the Council for Secular Humanism.