Secular Humanism, Trashed

My thanks to Polichinello for highlighting this rather good Salon article by Michael Lind on secular humanism. I thought it made a useful supplement to an earlier Corner contribution by Derb/Bradlaugh, and posted accordingly:

Derb, in some respects Michael Lind’s entertaining demolition of secular humanism in Salon echoes a number of your points about the use that our species often makes of, to borrow your phrase, “pretty lies.” Here is an extract:

“The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic…Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage…To the extent that natural science can inform the way we think about politics and economics, it undermines the view that human beings are, or could be, rational actors devoted to the common good, rather than emotion-driven, semi-rational cousins of chimps and gorillas. On this point the secular philosophers Hume and Hobbes are more convincing than Bentham, Dewey and Kurtz.
Our simian psychology has obvious implications for naive models of democracy, in which a neutral, rational public listens dispassionately to all sides before making up its hyperlogical collective mind. And it has implications as well for naive models of economics, in which consumers and producers perceive, think and act with computer-like accuracy.
The skepticism about human rationality that science inspires should not be taken as support for authoritarianism or paternalism… On the contrary, it should render questionable all claims to wise and disinterested leadership, including those of America’s own altruistic progressive technocrats who propose policies to “nudge” the unenlightened masses into doing the right thing. It makes more sense to think of our leaders and intellectuals as half-crazed hooting howler monkeys — just like the rest of us.
Science can tell monkeys where they came from, and technology, informed by science, can build a cleaner and safer monkey house. But a knowledge of science cannot turn monkeys into something that we are not.”

We are what we are.

This entry was posted in philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Secular Humanism, Trashed

  1. Matt Foss says:

    I’m not sure where Lind is coming from in these blanket statements about the political views of secular humanists. Does he think that a specific entity like the Council for Secular Humanism (which uses Kant’s 2000 Manifesto as its model) speak on behalf of all who identify as humanists? The American Humanist Association, to give contrast, doesn’t give a preference for a particular economic theory, nor for any sort of world government. Their Manifesto can be found here.

    Humanists, like atheists and agnostics in general, aren’t a monolithic ideological group, and we aren’t the naive hippies portrayed in Lind’s caricature. We certainly aren’t all big-government liberals. There’s plenty of room to disagree on how to attain the goal of maximizing human happiness.

  2. Polichinello says:


    Lind notes that Kurtz’s manifesto doesn’t speak for all SH’s in his piece. He knows there are exceptions. However, Kurtz is (was) a fairly big figure in their movement, and his manifesto got wide circulation.

    We certainly aren’t all big-government liberals.

    The majority are big government liberals. In fact, it’s probably the overwhelming majority. As such their point of view is worthy of attention and criticism. Use the points Lind makes to help differentiate yourself from them.

  3. Tom Meyer says:

    *Wow,* that was good.

    My own experience has been that — at least in Boston — the boundaries between the skeptics movement, atheists, and secular humanists is essentially non-existent and that all three assume liberalism as their default.

    At the last Skeptics’ meeting I attended, we had a presentation by the Secular Coalition for America about all the nefarious influences of the Religious Right. During Q&A, I asked the speaker if he sees any dangers to our liberties from the religious left. The speaker was polite and we had a good back and forth, but the rest of the audience was quietly horrified that I would even suggest such a thing. To their minds, being a nice, educated, irreligious person is synonymous with being a liberal.

  4. TLP says:

    Frequent Salon contributor, Christopher Hitchens, clarifies that he does not wish that all people abandon religion, nor that it is possible.

  5. Matt Foss says:


    Point taken. Those who do claim to speak for all humanists (such as Kurtz) certainly should be subject to criticism, particularly those who advocate policies that may be counterproductive to human happiness.


    I had the same feeling when I attended the Secular Student Alliance conference last month. Many (but certainly not all) of the attendees seemed to assume that secularism is inherently a left-wing value. As you said, “To their minds, being a nice, educated, irreligious person is synonymous with being a liberal.”

  6. Julie says:

    The reason Liberalism is the default for any secular or agnostic movement is because conservatism has been hijacked by religious rhetoric. Just look at the GOP candidates. If one wishes this not to be so, stand up and represent a your party with logic and reason. At the moment, the conservative party is being under represented in this department.

Comments are closed.