David Koepsell – Why Secular Humanism?

May 18, 2007

David Koepsell is the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, North America’s leading organization for nonreligious people. An author, philosopher and an attorney, David’s work focuses mostly on the nexus of science, technology, ethics and public policy.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, David explores the relationship between secular humanism and religion, whether secular humanism is just a religion for the nonreligious, the “tenets” of secular humanism, and addresses many challenges to the worldview both from Christian activists and from those in the “atheist movement.” He also justifies it as a viable naturalistic life-stance, competitive with supernatural ways of looking at the world.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 18th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York on the new master’s degree called Science and the Public. CFI also maintains branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C.. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Indianapolis, Indiana. And 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at big questions with interesting people through the lens of science and reason. We focused mostly on three research areas pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion, the intersection of religion and nonbelief in our society. Before we get to this week’s guest, David Capsule, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. Here’s a word from this show’s sponsor. 

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I’m pleased to be joined this week by my friend David Capsule, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. David just returned from a visiting fellowship at Yale, and he is an author, a philosopher and an attorney whose work mostly focuses on the nexus of science, technology, ethics and public policy. He joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about to justify maybe secular humanism. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, David Capsule. Thanks, T.J.. Well, before we get to the discussion, hot and heavy, tell me what you’re up to at Yale. 

Well, I had a visiting fellowship in the Center for Bioethics there, and I’ve been working on issues related to the ethics and legality of ownership of genes. 

We could easily get sidetracked talking about that. How interesting that is with changes in technology coming down the pike. What would you predict that that’s not just an interesting academic question, but a central issue in jurisprudence and bioethics? 

Well, it’s not just coming down the pike. Actually, about 20 percent of the human genome is now patented and these are wild type genes. So it’s stuff that belongs to you and me. It’s part of what we might consider the public domain. 

But big pharma or biotech is trying to own that. They already do. Oh, wow. 

They have friends. So it’s a it’s a considerable issue. And there’s been a huge land grab in the last decade. And there’s all sorts of ethical and theoretical as well as real actual practical issues. For instance, my favorite issue about this is the fact that should any of us decide to reproduce. Do we owe licensing fees to the patent holders? Well, you know, technically we do, but nobody’s enforcing that yet. 

Wow. So that’s Heddy. That’s interesting. But you’re on the show today to talk about secular humanism. You’re the director of the Council for Secular Humanism. It’s North America’s leading organization for ethical, non religious people. One of the vital parts of the Center for Inquiry here. Let’s start out, David, by defining our terms. They say that defining secular humanism is about as hard as what, hammering a piece of jello to a tree. What is secular humanism? 

Well, again, any definition is going to be provisional and contingent. But secular humanism since has been defined numerous ways. But it always tends to include a number of factors, including the fact that we are non theistic. We atheistic or skeptical at least of gods exist. Yes, exactly. And we have a number of what we would call central tenets or notions. Doctrines now wouldn’t say doctrines, OK, because they’re always provisional and contingent. OK. Unlike dogma in religion, secular humanist tenets are open to revision. Just like scientific theories are. 

So are you implying that secular humanism is derived or discovered the same way science is discovered? 

Yeah, it is part and parcel of empiricists method. So the notion that, for instance, which is central to secular humanism, that humans have an inherent dignity is something that secular humanist tend to agree with. There might be some out there who who who disagree with that or say, well, Solman here, who knows very well could be. And for instance, Peter Singer would say, well, not just humans, that other sorts of creatures as well. Right. But these notions are beyond the simple rejection of God. They are notions that we as secular humanist abide by. 

So why isn’t it just the same thing as Athie ism lack belief in God? Atheist lack belief in God seems to be a lot more going on than just, you know, saying there ain’t no God. 

Well, that’s exactly it. Secular humanists also embrace a positive philosophy of life. So people like Paul Kurtz and other writers in the secular humanist tradition going all the way back to the Greeks, well, they never said they were secular humanist. 

They were, you know, stoic or epicurean or something. 

Sure. And elements of those philosophies, I think survive and others think as well survive in secular humanism today. Notions that, for instance, we as individuals have a duty to improve ourselves, to contribute to society. We embrace, for instance, artistic and creative endeavors. This is this obviously goes well beyond the mere rejection of a of a of a god or gods. 

So just saying you’re an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about those things you might believe. It just tells you the one thing you don’t believe. 

Exactly. And that an atheist can be the foundation for nothing else. All right. OK. 

We’re our first Stalin ism or. Exactly. Or, you know, some communist totalitarian, a strict regime, etc.. Sure. So if it’s not just a few ism, some people kind of argue it’s quasi religious. Let’s talk about secular humanism is relationship to religion, both from conservative Christians like William F. Buckley. And James Dobson, on the one hand, and also sometimes from people who would consider themselves part of the atheist movement, you hear that secular humanism smacks of religion, self-identified secular humanists, they what they regularly convene for fellowship. There’s certain ritualized elements of their get togethers. They take care of each other like, you know, parishioners do at a church. There are even celebrations of certain rites of passage, like baby naming things, funeral rites. So isn’t it? Be honest. Isn’t secular humanism just a religion for the non-religious? 

Well, if you want to really broaden the definition of religion that greatly, then you could say that almost anything could be a religion. That’s part of the ongoing discussion about whether or not secular humanism is a religion. Let me let me just go back a little bit in history so we can understand where this notion of secular humanism is a religion comes from. There is, in fact, a tradition of religious humanism, which we should distinguish with modern secular humanism. And this is actually part of the reason counsel for secular humanism was created in the tradition of religious humanism, dates back, you know, back to a common faith that dhuey, that hold of ethical culture tradition, that you could have a naturalistic religious life stance. 

Right, exactly. And that was the key, was that somehow this was a religious life stance. And that is a very broad understanding of religion because there is obviously no deity for humanists. 

Well, it’s the functionalist view of religion. It looks like a religion and quacks like a religion. Why not call it a religion, right? 

Well, we as secular humanist reject that functionalist definition. The problem with that is it really is overbroad in you to use a legal term. It’s overbroad and overinclusive. If you have that sort of functionalist definition, then all sorts of ritualistic activities with social interaction could be classified as religions. 

That going to a baseball game, everyone stands up at the same time. Begins with a hymn. There are heights of emotion like at certain churches. Yeah. 

The institution of baseball would be like the church of baseball. 

So literally it would be the American religion, not just metaphoric. 

Exactly. And that’s obviously overbroad. And there are, of course, problematic religions, for instance, Buddhism, which doesn’t have in some of its forms any deity in my Hagana, Terra Vaida, Buddhism, there are supernatural elements. 

But in Zen Buddhism, what I know in some departments of religion they call Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, not a religion, because not only is it atheistic, but there aren’t any supernatural elements. 

Yeah. And in an on Atman Buddhism as well, which is ancient Najran form the same sort of Nandy a. Non supernatural Buddhism. And I would say that it would be more properly considered to be a philosophy than a religion. 

Confucianism also. They sure they call that an Eastern philosophy because it’s naturalistic. It’s non supernatural. 

Right. And in secular humanism, I would say, goes a bit further. We don’t actually have the rituals of a lot of these, even non theistic religious traditions. So secular humanist, some of them like to get together on Sundays and talk about Dawkins’ latest book. But some of us don’t do any of that. So there is a there’s a broad range of practices among secular humanist which really don’t allow us to consider secular humanist practices to be religious at all. 

I’ve always chuckled that so many secular humanists can think of nothing more enjoyable than the very feel logical activity of getting together on a Sunday morning and talking about another reason why God doesn’t exist. Exactly. So here you are, a lawyer. You’re telling me why you’re arguing secular humanism is not a religion. But hasn’t the Supreme Court on a number of occasions talk Cazzo v. Watkins, other high court rulings? Haven’t they said indeed, secular humanism is a religion, at least for free exercise purposes? 

No, not quite. The Takasu decision, first of all, there’s a couple of legal things you need to understand in the talks, a decision where it lists secular humanism among various religious things. That’s dicta. OK. It’s not like a footnote. Yeah, it’s not a it’s not even. It’s not that. It’s the functional use of that particular phrasing in the in that decision has no bearing. It has no precedential value. 

So dicta, it’s it’s not part of the ruling. It’s kind of just explanatory of the reasoning of the rules. 

Something like there’s tons of dicta in most cases, our dicta, than the actual legal effect of anything in a case is very narrow. So, no, the Supreme Court has never held secular humanism misere. Legend, the 9th Circuit into, in fact, discussing tour Carso has very explicitly said secular humanism isn’t a religion. OK, distinguishing and thus not embracing the functional definition of religion. Now, there is an interesting decision. O’Connor did hold that for free exercise purposes as opposed to Establishment Clause purposes. 


This is the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. And O’Connor has said explicitly that that nonbelievers have the same rights as believers for free exercise purposes. And that’s a great holding, in fact. And it’s legally it’s very consistent with the First Amendment’s history, like conscientious objector status of other things like that. 


And it’s important for us as secular humanist as well, because what that means is that you and I have the same sorts of civil rights under the First Amendment as believers. And this is actually being challenged now by some of the new people in the Supreme Court, so I don’t expect I don’t expect that to go unchallenged in the future. 

So let’s get down to it. If all of what we’ve just talked about as introductory now tell me why secular humanism. I’ve heard you speak to audiences very passionately and also over beers or something. I’ll hear you defend secular humanism as a life stance, as a world view. You actually think it gives religion a run for its money without being a religion? 

Well, here’s the thing is that there’s millions of people in the United States and worldwide, possibly a billion people worldwide who don’t embrace any sort of religion as we have traditionally known it. We’re not part of a church who are among the what we call the nuns. Those who are simply not interested in pursuing their world view or viewing the world through the lens of some sort of religion. What is there then for those of us who don’t have that particular world view? Well, we could simply embrace nothingness. No, there’s existentialists out there who embrace the nothingness, but there as well. 

And it should be said in defense of those hand-wringing existentialists, some of them embrace a lot, you know, in a humanistic way. Sure. But so nihilism is an option. You could just be a sour puss and say nothing ultimately matters and just, you know, don’t socialize, don’t get up on Sunday morning. Don’t hang out. You’re saying secular humanism is an alternative? 

It is an alternative. And I think it’s one that most of us who are of that bent actually do ourselves pursue of nihilism is not even a philosophy. It’s the absence of a philosophy. Secular humanist philosophy is a positive worldview which looks to the improvement of ourselves and our species and uses science and reason as the means for all of that. And I think that if you look at the history of modernity, you look at the the trajectory of civilization. It has been propelled by this philosophy. If you look at it by secular humanist, yes, I think so. And most people who reject it nonetheless have to understand that secular humanist world view actually has improved the lives of everyone who is benefiting by modernity. 

Conservative, intellectual, religious critics have even equated secular humanism with the whole project of modernity, not only saying it’s fueled modernity, but they’re part and parcel there, one and the same. Right. And it’s not an over broadening of secular humanism then, aren’t we actually saying there are many more people who are secular humanist that don’t even know it? 

I believe there are. I think most people who are secular humanist don’t even know it. It’s not, you know, the term. You’re sounding a little like a Mormon. You know how they baptized for the dead. Yes. Well, the term now was, you know, the late Jerry Falwell embraced the term as a means of derision of those of us who happened to be part of this world. 

But it is a word that most people don’t know still. So although it’s been used as a term of derision is available in the public sphere, most people, if you’re if you ask them what a secular humanist is, they have no idea. 

The only people who know what a secular humanist is are self-identified secular humanist. However, they got that way. And religious extremists who are scared to death, the secular humanists taking over the country. Right. A run of the mill middle ground. They haven’t heard it. 

Exactly. And I’m you know, when I’m speaking to groups who are I don’t happen to be secular humanists about secular humanism. Inevitably, people will come up to me and say, oh, so that’s what I am. Know, I’ve always I’ve always thought this way or I’ve come to believe this. And I didn’t know that what it was called. 

We have to finish up shortly. I have to run to the airport. And you have a busy schedule. 

I want to touch on two things before we finish up the foundations of secular humanism. I mean, it’s. 

It’s not enough for people just to get together and say, hey, fearsome isn’t enough for me. Sure, I don’t believe in God, but I I’m a nice guy. I believe in these other things. Let’s call it secular humanism. The criticism of that is that there’s no. Real solid grounds for that world view. You’re kind of just plucking it out of the air, believing things that make you feel good about yourself or your place in the universe. But without foundations. 

Well, that’s just natural. OK. Secular humanist philosophy is founded upon empiricism. The scientific method can be applied in the social and cultural sphere and the interpersonal sphere just as well as in the scientific sphere. So does liberty. Let’s take a principle that we embrace as secular humanist the principle of liberty or autonomy. Do these principles improve individuals and communities and cultures? 

If the answer’s yes, then then the embryo is the grounds for embracing it. Rather than saying God fashioned people to love freedom, as George Bush talks about that sounds like a solid foundation. You appeal to the utmost as your foundation for your belief. 

Except that when you get down to it, there is no foundation for that. Because there. You’ll do you’ll do a lot of work looking for that in the scripture. 

Whereas we have mean you’ll do a lot of work looking for freedom as a as a principle in scripture. 

Well, yeah. I challenge you to show me where or autonomy or any of those other liberal principles. Whereas in what we have seen from a history of two or three hundred years of experimentation, we have seen societies that embrace liberty and autonomy improve. That’s empirical evidence that this works. So secular humanism looks to what works, looks to the evidence, looks to the outcomes, right. Exactly. So it’s not mere dogma. This is this is the application of the scientific method and reason to human life. 

So even if it’s emphatically not a religion. Tell me one or two doctrines of secular humanism. 

Well, again, I wouldn’t call them doctrines. I would call them principles. And they’re always open because they’re contingent to falsification and new evidence. I would say liberty is central autonomy of the individual self-improvement and the improvement of the individual through education, the arts, etc.. 

Everything you’ve just mentioned seems pretty self-centered. The improvement of the individual autonomy of the individual. 

Well, I think also these are applied to communities as well. So we believe in democracy. For instance, democracy is as the originally CSA, which was the Council for a Democratic Secular Humanism I kodesh. And democracy is central to the improvement of societies and is a theme in all of modernity. 

And you argue that on empirical grounds, what are just a couple other doctrines? Lots of. 

I might also say secular secularism is an important communal element of the philosophy as well. You, your societies that have been secular, have improved, have created greater spheres of liberty and led to the emergence of the modern democratic liberal state. 

But you wouldn’t want to have one without the other. You wouldn’t want democracy without secularism, because then well-meaning, fervent religious folks can vote in religious regimes. 

This is exactly the case. And we’ve seen a time and again, I might point out the Constitution of Iraq is open to that sort of problem simply because it is a Islamic constitution. 

Hamas in Palestine. Now, the problems in Turkey with secularism being under attack right where the army is the only thing keeping it secular, that’s on. 

That’s that’s not a positive thing. 

One other thing that I bump into a lot when I’m traveling and talking with folks out there, atheists, they are under the impression that secular humanism is necessarily political. It’s left of center. When you talk about the culture war issues, stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia, gay rights, all of these things. Wouldn’t you say that by and large it is left of center? 

I would not because. Well, I think the political spectrum. First of all right. Now is skewed. It’s very strange how we classify left and right. A lot of the things you’re talking about, I would consider to be conservative values. All of the things that you mentioned focus on individual autonomy, which used to be a conservative value. And in fact, there are conservatives out there who I would call secular humanist, although they might be loathe to say so. The fact is that those of us who abide by a secular humanist philosophy or consider ourselves secular humanists are not necessarily on one side of the political spectrum, although, you know, over time the parties align themselves with various. Principles which we may or may not happen to embrace. 

You hear some cultural a mouths, if I could editorialize like that. Like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, talk about secular progressivism. Is that the same thing as a secular humanist? 

Well, no. O’REILLY First of all, I doubt he really understands what the term secular is. He? I believe that both of them, if they understood what secularism has done, would embrace the term. But nonetheless, no secular progressives is a conflation of two different themes meant to try to divide. I believe that the American public. 

So last question, David. Let’s talk about speciesism. You mentioned Peter Singer there early on. Some amazing people in the world of ideas call themselves secular humanists, E.O. Wilson, Salman Rushdie. There’s a long list, lot of Nobel Prize winners. People kind of come out as secular humanists. On the other hand, some of my favorite atheists and kind of outspoken critics of the role of religion in society refuse to call themselves secular humanist on the grounds that it privileges our species over other species, other non-human primates, for instance, great apes or or even porpoises, dolphins, something like that. Don’t they have a point? Shouldn’t we care about all life? 

Not just. Tuman life. 

They do have a point, actually, and. But let me point out where humans are distinct. That we know of, humans do have a capacity for sentience and reasoning that other animals don’t necessarily have. And that’s why we’re having this discussion now. Does that exclude other sentient or conscious creatures from the range of rights or liberties that we’re interested in? No, it doesn’t necessarily do so. And I think that there’s a point in debating that. And I actually was at a very interesting conference in New York this past weekend, the Up and Jani bioethics conference, where I heard a great paper on this notion of trans Beamon ism. So this takes this question even further. Will disembodied persons have equal rights under the law at some point in the future when we can upload our consciousness? 

Is something out of a sci fi novel. Will that consciousness and a computer have the same rights as you or me walking around? 

Right. And someday we’ll have to face that. And this is an interesting criticism of of humanism that maybe we should be talking about person ism or some other less species centric notion. 

You’re always supposed to leave them wanting more. And our conversation left me wanting to talk more, especially now about transhumanism and the future application of technology and its implications for these ethical questions that we’re talking about, human life extension, disembodied selves. We’ll have to have you back on to talk about that. Thanks for joining me on Point of inquiry, David. My pleasure. Thank you. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz pointed inquiries. 

Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.