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.