The Prospect for Humanism: The Hope of a Secular Society

Ronald A. LindsayBy Ronald A. Lindsay

Properly understood, humanism is not a religion. It is an alternative to religion. Humanism is a nonreligious life stance based on reason and compassion; it is focused on how we live our lives, not speculation about an afterlife. Humanism maintains that we should base our beliefs on evidence, not on authority or mysticism; that morality should reflect and promote human interests; that we can be good without God; that we can have hope founded on fact, not fantasy.

Because humanism is an alternative to religion, its ability to prosper and attract supporters depends on the extent to which people can accept the horizons of the natural world, that is, they can live without deities or any transcendent spirits. In this regard, there are grounds for cautious optimism. The number of individuals who self-identify as nonreligious is on the rise in many parts of the world, such as Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan -- essentially all the economically advanced democracies.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this trend will continue -- all things are contingent -- but it probably will. One reason for this trend is improved education. More and more people reject the existence of supernatural entities and the notion of revealed knowledge. Knowledge obtained through the scientific method has proven much more reliable, and we do not require deities or demons to explain anything. In the advanced democracies there are pockets of traditional theism in which belief in a personal, interventionist God remains strong, but gradually traditional theism is being replaced either with belief in an attenuated, impersonal deity or complete rejection of the supernatural.

To the extent traditional religion has any staying power in the advanced democracies, it is largely due to its emotional, not its intellectual, appeal. At an intellectual level, a person may recognize that there is no God, that there is nothing that transcends our natural world, yet continue to cling to a belief in God at an emotional level. Therein lies a major challenge for those who reject religion and would like to extend the influence of humanism. One part of this challenge is to overcome the negative emotional reaction that many still have toward the nonreligious, whether they describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or humanists. The stigma attached to the nonreligious is the product of centuries of associating religious skepticism with evil and cannot be erased overnight. Nonetheless, progress is being made in this area and the good news is that humanists and other nonreligious can take steps toward erasing this stigma just by making it known to others that they are humanists. It is more difficult to harbor prejudice toward humanism when one has friends and colleagues who are open humanists.

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Another aspect of this challenge demonstrates why humanism, and not bare atheism, is the more effective alternative to religion. In addition to the negative emotions some religious people have toward unbelief, many also have positive emotions about their own religious experience. These beliefs are a comfort to them. Moreover, these beliefs ground their moral outlook and provide a sense of purpose to their lives. To persuade people to make a firm break with religion, we must engage their emotions; we must demonstrate how morality can be grounded on a naturalistic outlook; and we must show that they can lead fulfilling lives with a sense of purpose without believing in God. To that end, humanist organizations need to improve their outreach, providing moral education, services, and opportunities for personal interaction at the local level.

The foregoing should not be taken as an indication that humanists are aggressively seeking "converts." Humanist organizations are not missionary organizations; they principally provide direction and support to those who are already dissatisfied with religion. In addition, although an increase in the number of humanists would be a positive development, the goal of humanist organizations is not to persuade everyone, or even a majority of individuals, to become humanists. What humanists do want is a secular society, that is, a society in which religion no longer influences public policy or frames our moral discourse. In the developed world, this is a realistic goal.

As indicated, in the developed world, the prospects for humanism are bright. The influence of religion is waning, even where individuals remain nominal believers. Not so in the rest of the world. Religion retains its dominance in South America, Africa, and much of Asia, in particular in majority Muslim countries. In fact, the secular outlook may be in retreat in many of the countries in these regions.