By James A. Haught
I’ll be 90 on my next birthday. My long life is sinking, shrinking, slip-sliding away. My wife is worse: bedfast, under hospice care. Soon, our world will end, not with a bang but a whimper.
Looking back over nine decades, I’m proud and pleased because secular humanism – the progressive struggle to make life better for everyone – won hundreds of victories during my time.
When I came of age in the 1950s, fundamentalist taboos ruled America. Gay sex was a felony, and homosexuals hid in the closet. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was illegal to look at something like a Playboy magazine or sexy R-rated movie – or even read about sex. Black people were confined to ghettos, not allowed into white-only restaurants, hotels, clubs, pools, schools, careers or neighborhoods. Interracial marriage was illegal. Schools had government-mandated prayers, and biology classes didn’t mention evolution. Buying a cocktail or lottery ticket was a crime. Birth control was illegal in some states. Desperate girls couldn’t end pregnancies, except via back-alley butchers. Unwed couples couldn’t share a bedroom. Other Puritanism was locked into law.
Now, all those born-again strictures have been wiped out, one after another. Human rights and personal freedoms snowballed. Society changed so radically that it’s hard to remember the old “thou shalt nots.”
The secular humanist crusade, a never-ending effort to help humanity, began its modern upsurge three centuries ago in the Enlightenment. Rebel thinkers began challenging the divine right of kings, the supremacy of the church, privileges of aristocrats, and other despotism. They envisioned democracy, personal equality, human rights, free speech and a social safety net.
At the start of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party sought many reforms. And women fought bravely for the right to vote. Then, during my lifetime, wave after wave of betterment occurred.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal passed Social Security pensions for retirees, gave unions a right to organize, provided unemployment compensation for the jobless and workers compensation for those injured at work, banned child labor, set a forty-hour work week and a minimum wage, created food stamps and welfare for the poor, launched massive public works to make jobs, created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to protect bank depositors, and much more.
The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren transformed America: outlawing racially segregated schools, outlawing government-enforced school prayer, striking down state laws against birth control and mixed marriage, protecting poor defendants against police abuses, mandating “one man, one vote” equality in districts to stop sparse rural conservatives from dominating legislatures. The Warren Court gave couples privacy in the bedroom – which set the stage for a later ruling that let women and girls end pregnancies. Other subsequent decisions decriminalized gay sex, gave homosexuals a right to marry, and made gays safe from cruel discrimination.
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society leaped forward with Medicare, Medicaid, the Job Corps, Head Start, public radio and television, consumer protection, pollution curbs, senior citizen meals, the National Trails System, and 200 other improvements. Four major laws guaranteed racial equality.
Meanwhile, the historic civil rights movement made America honor its pledge that “all men are created equal.” Birth control pills freed women from endless pregnancy and triggered the sexual revolution against bluenose church taboos. Women’s liberation weakened male domination. Gays gained legal equality through historic breakthroughs. The youth rebellion of the 1960s still has repercussions.
A 1987 high court ruling forbade public schools to teach “creationism.” Other progressive advances included marijuana legalization in many states, and the beginning of “right to die with dignity” laws.
Finally, the collapse of the idiotic Trump era and the disintegration of supernatural religion in western democracies are more victories for secular humanism.
Decade after decade, progressive reformers defeated bigoted religion and right-wing political resistance to wipe out hidebound strictures.
Barely noticed, humanist advances helped billions. War between nations has virtually ceased in the past half-century. In the 1800s, life expectancy averaged 35 years because of high childhood deaths, but now it’s near 80. Literacy and education have soared. Each day, 200,000 more people rise above rock-bottom $2-per-day poverty. Each day, 300,000 more gain access to electricity and clean water for the first time. Famines have almost vanished. Progressive values keep climbing.
We existentialists see the chaotic carnival of life – all the absurdities and idiocies (the Trump era, for example). Sometimes we want to embrace Macbeth’s bitter lament that life is a pointless farce, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But I know that’s only part of the truth. The marvelous rise of secular humanism in a single lifetime – greatly improving life for all – paints a much-brighter hope for humanity. Let’s keep striving for more advances.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He has written 12 books and 150 magazine essays. As a blogger at a dozen websites, he has 1,200 essays online.)