Three Things Holding Humanism Back

Clay Farris Naff, writing for the Huffington Post, argues that “Humanism’s Moment of Opportunity [is] Going to Waste”:

The evidence is in, and it is clear: New Atheists have been a media success and a societal failure. They know how to sell books, how to debate, how to sneer, skewer, and satirize — in short, how to use all the squabbling skills of the modern academic (cf. the letters section of the New York Review of Books) — but the New Atheists seemingly have no idea how to build a positive social movement…What gives? Surely, this is a moment of opportunity for us secular humanists. What are we doing wrong?

There are problems with Naff’s analysis. He seems unaware of how much actually is going on in terms of positive social movement development. He fixes on the Brights organization as an example of Humanism’s failures, which to me is a misstep because it’s never been a large organization with much staff or a particularly compelling vision. His section on accommodationism is rather confused (partly due the the confusion around  how that term is used in different parts of the freethought community). The section on being “honest about what we do and do not know”  relies on a rather simplistic view of science. Nonetheless, I fear his overall point is well-made: Humanism is not performing up to its potential.

Think about it: at root, Humanism  is a worldview committed to the highest human ideals. Humanists are committed to the idea that the use of our intellect is the best way to understand the world, to the conviction that all human beings are worthy of moral concern and dignity, and to the hope that we can, working together, improve the world. Humanism provides a non-dogmatic, positive, uplifting, reasonable, realistic, and progressive stance which should be hugely appealing to a new generation of Americans who are, broadly, progressive in outlook and wary of dogmatism and all forms of regressive ideology. It should be a shoe-in, right? And yet membership of the major Humanist organizations isn’t huge, local Humanist communities are few and far-between, and evidence of the impact of capital-H Humanism on the American political scene is sparse.

Why? What’s holding Humanism back? I have three suggestions.

Low Expectations

In my view, after a number of years of intensive activism and participation in a large number of freethought events, it is often shocking to me how little people actually expect of Humanism. Somehow the idea has become widespread that the most one can expect from Humanism are occasional conferences and discussion groups. This is neither a full nor inspiring vision!

Let me be clear: Humanism is a worldview which can change your life. Humanism offers avenues for personal and societal transformation and growth well in advance of any traditional religion. Humanism takes the best of millennia of human thought and ethical development, and works to promote that in the world. At its best, Humanism can be exciting, inspiring, passionate, and powerful, and it’s our role to bring it to life and make its ideas sing!

Too often in recent decades we Humanists have restrained ourselves to gazing at near horizons, and so we should not be surprised if we don’t grasp the stars. A key challenge for Humanists today is to expect more of ourselves and of our movement.

Poor Strategy

Freethought organizations do in fact strategize with each other: they communicate behind the scenes, meet together to discuss the future of the movement, and everybody knows everybody else (start going to the different conventions around the country and you’ll see all the same faces again and again). However, the decisions made by some Humanist organizations often seem to me to represent a lack of long-term strategic thinking. I often want to ask why did you choose to spend your resources that way? What larger purpose does that serve?

What’s essential here, I think, is a distinction between strategy and tactics.  Sometimes I feel that Humanist organizational lurch from one tactical initiative to another without an overall strategic view. A billboard, ad campaign, or activist effort should usually serve some long-term movement-wide strategic purpose, in my view – but often they seemed designed to create a short-term splash without much thought to a long-term agenda.

I feel similarly about some of the large conferences: they frequently do not have an overarching theme which gives them a sense of broad narrative coherence and a link to movement priorities. Indeed, what the hell are our movement priorities? How are they communicated and by whom? These strategic questions need better answers, I think.

Fear: of Community Building, of Effective Communication, of Our Own Values

I say this with love, but the Humanist community is beset with irrational fears. In my work as a speaker and workshop presenter for Humanist and freethought groups I am constantly coming up against the same set of fears: that building local communities will turn us into a cult or a religion; that effective communication which engages people emotionally is manipulative; that people are embarrassed and afraid of sharing their Humanist values with friends in a passionate way.

I’ve written a lot on each of these topics, but suffice here to say: not every community is a cult, not all emotional appeals are manipulative, and there’s nothing creepy about inviting your friends to join you at a Humanist meeting and talking about the things you care about the very most. To make progress in the cultural marketplace we have to sell our values. We have to become as good (better!) at promoting our values as any religious organization. And we have to live those values, making personal choices in line with our Humanist commitments.

Ultimately, people will flock to Humanism once they start encountering proud, unapologetic, committed Humanists who demonstrate their ethical convictions through how they choose to live their lives. They will begin to identify as Humanists once they are members of warm, loving, passionate Humanist communities dedicated to social betterment. And when they see that the major Humanist organizations have a clear and compelling vision of a better world for all people, in the here and now.

I know it is possible to build a Humanist movement which lives up to the potential of the Humanist worldview. We know all we need to know and have all the resources we need to begin to do it. The only question that remains: when will we begin?

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Rob Davis

    Some great points.

    But, I also fear that the humanist community at large may go the way of secular societies of the past if it doesn’t change its message more toward accomodationism and interfaith dialogue, and away from anti-theism. Which may require actively distancing itself from those individuals and groups which seem to be primarily about what they are against.

    I and many others in a similar position to me completely avoid specifically “secular” groups because of these negative tendencies.

    • James Croft

      I have a question for you: what do you consider to be a “negative tendency” of a group? For me, I WANT a group which is clear about what it opposes as well as clear about what it seeks to promote. Every promotion of a positive worldview, after all, will come into conflict with those who take a different position vis-a-vis those same areas of life. And we mustn’t be afraid of conflict! In order to promote our values we will need to defeat (culturally speaking) some opposing worldviews.

      There are elements of society which need to be opposed: which we need to be “anti” about. A Humanism which isn’t anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-sexual prejudice, anti-ableism etc. is not a Humanism which I want to be a part of. So what do you consider to be a “negative tendency”, and what do you see as the problem with that?

      • Rob Davis

        True! I am saying at least three things:

        1. The public message has turned off a lot of people who may have wanted to affiliate with the larger secular community.
        2. From my perspective (and I don’t think I am alone in this, as I’ve spoken with many fellow agnostics/atheists/humanists about it), some groups have been seen as MORE anti- this or that than positive.
        3. The main negative tendency from my perspective is the false equation between religious fundamentalists (which exhibit cult-like behaviors) and moderate or progressive religious folks. What often gets communicated is not from disagreeing, debating, arguing, conversing, but rather name-calling and demonizing.

        Of course, that’s not everyone or every group in the secular community. But, I think there are an increasing number of people who, when presented with a choice for a community, will choose a progressive religious one rather than one that is perceived as being anti-religious.

        • James Croft

          OK. I think with that added detail I’m broadly in agreement with you. The balance between pro- and anti- is off, often. And the rhetoric is off-putting and sometimes unpleasant. It attracts a certain sort of people, but often not those who are going to ultimately build a healthy, long-term positive social-change movement.

          I just want to make sure that the criticism “Let’s be clearer about our positive goals and more intelligent regarding how we communicate with the public” does not become “let’s not call out religious groups and organizations when they do things wrong” or even “let’s not talk about the broad problems with religion as a social phenomenon.” I think both of those things are really important.

  • baal

    My comment probably falls under part III. When I say to folks, I’m a humanist, the description and follow on discussion can be somewhat difficult. The people I’m talking consistently try to remap what I’m saying to other reference frames such as, “oh like one of the actual christians” or “isn’t that feminism”. I even had a fundamentalist Muslim say that I was living the true life of a Muslim without having been trained to do so (he was impressed).
    Worse, they also assume I don’t really mean it when I say that I look to the harms as best as I can define them before making a judgment or engaging in condemnation of something. They remap in two ways here as well. In the first way, (if they already agree with me on a given issue) they agree that punishment is rightful if you feel you don’t like something. If they don’t already agree with me but otherwise don’t mind the judgment, they assume my group calls for me to punish the out-group and that it’s normal and regular.
    Given that kind of a cultural context, humanism has a higher than average status quo burden (inherency) to overcome. Better messages would help – particularly if they could be branded ‘humanism’ and get some media buy in (openly humanistic characters calling themselves humanists on TV shows).

  • Todd Battistelli

    These are three reasonable points. I’m particularly interested in the strategy question, though I’m not sure what the answer would be, and the effect of “proud unapologetic, committed Humanists” can’t be over-stressed. There are a couple other factors that spring to my mind. One, the reluctance of some to associate with a nontheistic worldview given prejudice/distrust surrounding atheism. Second, the lack of inertia which sustains religious communities that have a longer history than contemporary Humanist groups.

    I’m curious, James, if in your studies of Ethical Culture you’ve seen evidence of what drew people people to the Society for Ethical Culture when it first stated. Obviously the 19th century doesn’t map exactly onto the 21st, but I wonder if there might be some lessons in our history that we are over-looking or not applying to their fullest.

  • Clay Farris Naff

    I’m honored that my essay prompted you to write this. I must say, however, that it rather feels as if you felt obliged at the outset to make some critical remarks about it so as to immunize yourself before endorsing my overarching claim. I welcome thoughtful criticisms, but it’s puzzling that you chide me for holding up the Brights as an instance of Humanism’s failure when actually I cite it as an example of the New Atheists’ elitism and its failure to attract large numbers. There is a distinction, no?
    As a science writer I cannot help but bristle at your suggestion that I hold a simplistic view of science. Of course, in a short essay I could not elaborate my point about the light horizon, but it nonetheless remains true that there are competing and as yet untested conjectures for what, if anything, lies beyond. If you have evidence to the contrary, you ought at least to provide a citation or link rather than let such a remark stand as a naked slur.
    Those complaints aside, I think the analysis of Humanism’s shortcomings that follows is generally sound. I would only add that Humanism for its own sake (or for the benefit of the individual) is not sufficient. The progress of civilization is what counts most, and the very survival of civilization, let alone its progress, hangs in the balance of the next few decades. Population, resource depletion, war, and climate change all threaten to tip it into the dustbin of evolutionary dead-ends. To give civilization a fighting chance, I argue, requires moving beyond the boundaries of label and ideological purity to form a Good Faith Alliance with those believers who accept science, reject supernaturalism (at least in practice), and commit to meeting the challenges of steering civilization through the rapids of history toward a better future. More on that here:
    and here:
    Best regards,


    • James Croft

      Hi Clay! Thanks for your response. I think there’s a lot of commonality in our view. I particularly agree that we are in a critical moment and that the creation of a broad-based movement for change is essential. I’m not quite sure the value you label “Tolerance” will be quite such a virtue as you suggest in the second linked piece (I feel there is a lot to be said for a forceful metaphysical naturalism). But in any case we are in broad agreement, I think.

      As for the brief wave toward criticisms at the start, I quite frequently seek to note areas of agreement and disagreement within a post. It’s important to me to note things I don’t agree with as well as things I do, and I think it can be useful to another writer to know that there are areas of disagreement as well as areas of agreement. I note, actually, that you do the same in your response! But I agree too that my criticisms are not fleshed-out (because I wanted to focus on what I did agree with).

      So, to those criticisms: My problems with using the Brights as an example of the failure of anything is that the organization is not a serious player in the movement. To my knowledge, it does precisely nothing! I just don’t think it’s a fair example. Why not pick on the American Humanist Association, for instance? Furthermore, it is by self-description not really a New Atheist organization – it seems squarely to be a Humanist one by self-description. But this is a minor point – I didn’t mean much weight to be put on it :)

      On science, I think it strong to call my brief rebuke a “slur”, although I accept I do not substantiate it. What I was referring to here were the following:

      1. A sharp dichotomy between “knowledge” and “belief” which I think cannot be sustained philosophically.

      2. The use o the term “conjecture” to seem to suggest that there is no way of judging between the following three hypotheses:

      “whether there is anything “beyond” [what we observe] (say, an infinite multiverse, a vast but finite cosmic landscape, or a mischievous teenager running the simulation)”

      I am no cosmologist or physicist, but my understanding is that our observations actually currently favor a multiverse theory as more plausible than available alternatives. Even were this not the case we might have good reasons for provisionally accepting one over another. We need not be satisfied with “mere” conjecture.

      This is related to:

      3. The slight hint of a dangerous (and, in my view, unscientific) relativism. This is most clear in your “alliance of good faith” post when you say:

      “We recognize religions for what they really are: cultural and institutional responses to a shared belief about ultimate reality. On this understanding, there is no one “right” religion – just as there is no one “right” language or culture.”

      The problem here is that the second sentence does not logically follow from the first. It is not logically necessary that because religions are “cultural and institutional responses to a shared belief about ultimate reality” that ” there is no one “right” religion”. But this non-sequitur can lead to an unwillingness to challenge falsehood, which can lead to inhumane beliefs and practices.

      Now, having read your “Can Religion Embrace…” post, I think I see more clearly now that your advocating a sort of shared agreement on religious naturalism with a sort of truce called on broader metaphysical questions. This is quite a responsible approach, in my view – except that I don’t really believe metaphysics can be so easily separated in that way.

      So those are the sorts of points I was thinking of. Does that clarify things somewhat?

      • Clay Farris Naff

        In short, yes. A little more: the non-sequitur you pick out disappears, I believe, if you unpack the term “ultimate reality.” The implication, which I make explicit elsewhere, is that these are beliefs about putative aspects of reality that are unavailable for scrutiny. In that sense, we have no means to decide that any particular religion is “right.” However, we most certainly have the evidence to declare many specific claims of many religious are wrong – as I do in the essay in question.
        Thus, I am emphatically not a relativist when it comes to questions that can be decided by the application of reason to the available evidence. However, ultimate reality, even within the scope of naturalism, is an open question. For example, while there are some proposals on the table to experimentally determine whether we live in a simulation or not, none has been performed and no consensus exists about whether one would be conclusive. As things stand, the reasons why we might choose to reject that hypothesis (e.g. it’s fruitless, it encourages anomie, etc.) are merely pragmatic or aesthetic. Your suggestion that the multiverse is implicit in current theory is accurate but goes too far. Even Brian Greene, who has popularized it, says that it is no more than suggested by the math.
        Finally, concerning tolerance and metaphysics. My fidelity to the truth as best I can discern it forced me out of my materialist position more than a decade ago when I was confronted by the paradox implicit in any rejection of mathematical realism: if we reject the independence of mathematics, we short-circuit the veridicality of scientific truths dependent on mathematics. In other words, if math is just a language, then patterns we pick out in nature by describing them in that language have no objective truth-value. Like the color purple, they are simply the referents of signs. On the other hand, if we provisionally accept mathematical realism, we open the door to a rationally bounded metaphysics. By extension of a similar principle, we may then create a rationally bounded tolerance. In short, it’s not ‘anything goes’, but neither is it ‘my way or the highway’ to hell.



  • Will Davidson

    In order for a community movement to be successful, it has to be relevant to the every day needs of the average person.
    People need help raising their children with a core set of values.
    People need help in times of need.
    At some point in their life almost everyone will need help with a physical or mental illness.
    People need help learning how to live the good life.

  • Kevin C Jenkins

    I don’t think the ‘New’ Atheism is intended to be a worldview-creating movement.

    It defines atheism as non-theistic because it doesn’t make a positive claim about the nonexistence of all of the possible definitions of gods. This distinguishes it from what I call ‘nega-theism’, the active belief-in-a-lack rather than the simple lack-of-belief. This is important because taking the nega-theist position means accepting the burden of proof for an inherently unprovable claim.

    It also tends to be anti-theistic, in that it cites social harm as one of the main reasons for openly stating its dissent to theistic beliefs. You could contrast that with what I call ‘apatheism’, in which a person doesn’t believe but is also not interested in addressing the problem. Many who call themselves ‘agnostic’ are closest to this apathetic atheism. I can understand that and think a culture in which religious belief is personal enough to stay out of public policy is a great goal, I don’t think we’re there.

    While the term ‘atheist’ is about as relevant to who I am as the term ‘non-astrologer’ would be, I will use the term for as long as it is culturally relevant and helpful to destigmatize irreligion for others who are not yet ‘out’ about it. I think Karen Armstrong referred to New Atheism as a sort of “Palate cleanser”, and I think that’s a fair point. It is about dissent, about countering a social entity that is harmful to society, but it is not a destination in itself because it defines itself by what it is not and what it is against.

    That’s why it’s important to follow the broom (or perhaps bulldozer) with a positive construction like Humanism. It is an objective moral system not because it tries to impose rules external to mortal concerns, but because it seeks to fulfill the objective of promoting human well-being and limiting suffering. As to joining interfaith groups, if our moral objective can be best achieved by working beside those of progressive religious faith, then so be it. It’s not like we’re concerned about pissing off a deity because we consort with those who hold beliefs a bit different from ours. Humanism can even be considered a faith (albeit one open to and contingent upon evidence) because it starts from a position of hopeful trust in the potential of humanity to fix its own problems. That faith could be falsified, but without the possibility of falsification there is also no possibility of validation, and it seems more useful to approach the problem from a hopeful stance than a cynical one.

  • M. Mouton

    The Movement should start at ground Zero. The majority of speakers in the Atheist/Freethought/Humanist movement seem to be where religion is a non issue. The Bible Belt is the front line of fundamentalist backward thinking, where children get indoctrination in public schools. Where you have to fear coming out, and to say you do not believe comes with a the fear of your family being ostrasized in some way. I keep hearing “what do we need to do?”

    I send out emails to speakers. Asking them not to come out to where we are to speak, but to write a letter we can read or make a short video to play at a meetup, something to let the groups know that someone important in the movement is noticing or cares. This is usually met with a return email saying “Sorry, we do not have the time.”

    I want to applaud James for responding, not only with a video, but a brilliant one. It is a dedication to the movement like the one that James has that can help small groups like ours with confidence.

    If the figureheads of the movement payed a bit more attention to the groups in hiding it would help. If any one speaker at an event like Skepticon would adopt 5 groups. They do not have to be active just pop in every now and then to inspire. Be a figure to rally around. Someone with a voice and a presence, someone that can inspire people in the frontlines to be a voice and a presence.

    Thank you James Croft for all you do. I wish others would have the same passion

    Thankfully our group has Jerry Dewitt. Other groups need this kind of attention.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    Perhaps more can be accomplished if Humanists stand up for issues outside of what is traditionally thought of as secular issues. For instance, Humanists could start speaking out strongly on economic disparity, wealth inequality, human rights issues such as marriage equality, reproductive rights and women’s issues, against the movement to disenfranchise certain kinds of voters, advocate against war, the death penalty and the kind of economic policies that bring poverty to the world, etc.

    When I speak on these or related issues, I do so as a Humanist, and to clarify this, I tell the audience that Humanists believe in reason, compassionate and optimism. I also don’t recoil from the term atheist, but own it. When I speak up against the usury of payday loans I find myself in a coalition of liberal Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu clerics, as well as state senators and other community leaders. We can respectfully disagree on metaphysics while we set about righting the wrongs of the world.

    This is how Humanists spread the word. We honestly and forthrightly express ourselves without apology, we bring our unique perspective to all manner of issues. Academic and highfalutin discussions about philosophy and metaphysics mean nothing tothe working poor, or those in the grip of fundamentalist, racist or classist ideologies. We need to talk the talk of those in need, and express our Humanism in simple terms that can create a large, grassroots movement.

    Sorry to go on so long, but along the way, Humanists need to be clear on strategies and tactics. I’m still learning about this and learning from my mistakes. I write less on my blog that centers on religion and Humanism and more on a local progressive blog that concentrates on local issues. I do so as an avowed Humanist. This is something new in Rhode Island, and often I am the only person in the local media to call attention to the terrible statements and policies of the Catholic Church or to the bellicose and unacceptable religiosity of a State Senator in the performance of his job. For this I am both thanked, (sometimes in secret) and reviled ( sometimes very publicly.)

  • Rick Malin

    Thank you James Croft for trying to bring some sense to this huge issue. I’ve been searching for a rational world-view for many years, hoping that it would bring people together and show them that this is the better way. Its very exciting to see all the discussion currently online. I was caught off-guard by all the disagreement and bickering, but I was very active (for 10 years) in the Ethical Society, and we never settled whether we were a religion or not, so I get it.

    The writers often seem to get bogged down in semantics, or endless excruciating details. I guess this is because of our necessity to be free and independent in our thinking. I think we still should keep sight of the overall picture. At the Ethical Society, debates could get deep and emotional, but still there was an overall sense of ‘we are in this together,’ It was a very fulfilling time for me, but it wasn’t perfect — new members were few and far between. I struggled with this — maybe it was too churchy or ‘stuffy’ or something. Now I think we shouldn’t be too concerned with trying to draw a big crowd. Perhaps small local groups would be just as effective – there’s nothing like a sense of community. As for trying to create an ‘overriding worldview’ — we might have to settle on several varieties. There can’t very well be a ‘central authority’ on such things.

    But yes, we do need to be in strong agreement on certain common interests, like stop destroying the planet and all that — but we don’t need to solve every little question about life, the universe and everything — at least not right away. Now we know there are a lot of people in this boat — we just have to learn to all row in the same direction.

    I feel strongly that we are standing on the brink of something big, and we just need to work out a few details. I think Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and others are all doing important work, and I know there are many others that I still have to check out. . I believe your recent viewpoints are very helpful, and I’m looking foreward to hearing more from you.

  • Chris

    You make sense, James. I would just offer another step in the process of relevant Humanism/freethinking. You say, “They will begin to identify as Humanists once they are members of warm, loving, passionate Humanist communities dedicated to social betterment.” Ok, and what about becoming participating, even facilitating members, of interfaith groups or other collaborative non-profits? I sense you would agree that Humanists aren’t the owners of warmth, love, or passion for social betterment! It seems to me that this is the major missing element in the often polarizing agitation of the secular community, and a major reason there is so little “community” to be found. Thanks for your work.

  • Jim Nave

    I tend to think this is a problem with the coupling of humanism and materialism (as if the two naturally go together). I hit on this topic in a previous post on these boards, and then reposted it here:

    We have to keep in mind that humanism exists for humanity and not the other way around. We’re not trying to condition humans to fit into a humanistic structure. but rather trying to build a humanistic structure that fits humanity.