Tom Flynn – Secular Humanism versus . . . Atheism?

June 26, 2009

Tom Flynn is Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and folklorist, Flynn is the author of numerous articles for Free Inquiry, many addressing church-state issues, as well as the best-selling The Trouble With Christmas, about which he has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novels, Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred. His latest work, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Tom Flynn talks about his new role as Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and the relationship of that organization with the Center for Inquiry, including contrasting the Council’s grassroots network of secular humanist and freethought societies with the growing network of Centers for Inquiry throughout North America. He describes the Council’s and CFI’s new jointly sponsored Campaign for Free Expression. He explores the philosophical underpinnings of the Council for Secular Humanism, which includes advocating for and defending a nonreligious life stance rooted in science, naturalistic philosophy and humanist ethics. He criticizes the impulse among some secularist activists to avoid the term “atheism,” because secular humanism presumes atheism, and he argues that secular humanists should “come out” as atheists. He explains why secularist or science activists in the political arena who strategically avoid the term “atheist” may appear to be disingenuous. But then he contrasts secular humanism with atheism, arguing that “atheism is just the beginning.” He details new survey results showing that the fastest growing cognitive minority group and the only life-stance minority group that has grown over the last eight years in all fifty States is the nonreligious, and argues that between 8-10% of the U.S. population are “hard seculars,” those who are explicitly atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, as opposed to people who are merely “unchurched.” He explores the possibility of more elected officials “coming out” as atheists and secular humanists, and more atheists and secular humanists getting elected to public office. And he details some factors he thinks will indicate in the near future that secular humanism and atheism have become more widely acceptable in our society.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 26, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Enquirers, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to say something about you, our listeners. We’ve had now almost six million individual downloads of point of inquiry over the years. And that’s not really as many as it seems when you consider that we have, what, 200 episodes or so and most people download most will episodes. But what I’m getting at is that you, our listeners, your why we do this every week, CFI has this mission. We talk about it every episode. I say it at the beginning of every show. And whether or not you want to be you’re involved with that mission. Every time you listen to an episode or you argue about it online or you tell your friends about it. Maybe you posted on your blog or your Facebook page, you’re helping the Center for Inquiry advance its mission. When you do that. So my point, if you like the show, don’t just write into us and say so, although we really love that kind of charges our batteries. But tell others mostly you get point of inquiry through I tunes, for instance. So if you like the show, why not help us out by saying so on there? Even if you don’t like the show, we want your constructive feedback. But of course, positive feedback helps us share the show with new people. OK, so that’s that. Now on to our guest, Tom Flynn. I’m happy he’s back on the show. He’s editor of Free Inquiry magazine and also executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which is a vital part of the Center for Inquiry. He’s a journalist, a novelist and entertainer, a folklorist. He does all kinds of stuff, including Run the Council for Secular Humanism. He’s the author of the critically acclaimed, in quotes, anti religious black comedy, science fiction novels, Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred. His latest work is The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, which is a comprehensive reference work on the history, the beliefs, the thinking of America’s fastest growing minority. Those who live without religion. Welcome back to a point of inquiry Tom Flynn. 

Oh, great to be with you, T.J.. 

First off, Tom, you have a new role at the Center for Inquiry. Recently, you were named executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. 

Yes, indeed. I actually assumed that post in January of 2009. And I’ve been working on some additions to the council website and relaunch of our local group affiliate program. And we’re looking for some good things there. The council is participating in the Center for Inquiries, a campaign for free expression. We’ve launched a special Web site called Please Block US. Please block dot U.S.. And that’s basically designed to link to a wide variety of controversial material that some groups may find offensive, particularly, but not purely in the area of religion. And we’re hoping that some censorious individuals and institutions and regimes will block us so we can catch them in the act and tell the world. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get more information about the campaign for free expression and the Web site. Tom just mentioned through our Web site, point of inquiry dot org. Tom, you mentioned the council having a kind of a grassroots network of local independent groups. Tell me the difference between the Council for Secular Humanism and its outreach and what it’s doing. And the Center for Inquiry there related organizations, but they’re separate organizations. 

That’s right, T.J. The Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism are independent nonprofit organizations. Part of the center’s mission is to be a supporting organization for the council. And one other nonprofit. And they support us with the headquarters buildings and staff and things along this line. But the Center for Inquiry, of course, is well known for its branch centers for inquiry with their professional staff and their varied programing and oh, areas like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and several others around the country. 

Yeah. Around North America. Even around the world, I should say. 

Absolutely. We have got a very active one in Toronto. Also comes to mind, a very interesting place. But the thing with these centers for inquiry is that they’re fairly labor intensive. There’s usually a either a building that the center owns or space that’s rented a professional staff of some of the larger centers. There’s several people on the professional staff about. What do you do when you’re not capable of organizing at quite that level? And of course, a lot of a lot of local groups, special interest groups, they’re more comfortable operating at a more casual level. And really, that’s where the Council for Secular Humanism to local group outreach is oriented towards the people at the secular humanist of, you know, Nantucket or wherever it might be that they’re in a particular metro area and they like to get together once or twice a month and have a lecture and maybe have a picnic once or twice a year. This sort of thing. And it’s a little more voluntary. It’s a little more informal. There’s no professional staff. It’s all volunteer. And that’s kind of the niche where we’re aiming with the Council for Secular Humanism, local group outreach. And we’ve got in the network right now over 100 local groups. 

So if listeners are part of Freethought Group and in their hometown and they’re not yet affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, they can become affiliated. You provide some resources, but they remain independent. It’s just a loose affiliation. 

That’s correct. Another very important distinction relative to the center’s programing is that nothing forbids a local secular humanist group from having an affiliation with more than one national organization. And the council has some extremely valued local groups that do wonderful work that we like to send them speakers and what have you. And they’re affiliated with one or two other national groups, which is a little different arrangement from, you know, the situation with the centers where you’ve got a building or you’ve got rented space, you’ve got professional staff. And obviously, if you’re a center for inquiry, that’s what you are. That’s your sole affiliation. Right. 

In a sense, you’re you’re kind of rebooting or revitalizing the Council for Secular Humanism. But now let’s talk about the philosophical underpinnings of the council on how it’s different from the Center for Inquiry or if it is, you had the Council for Secular Humanism. You’re pushing secular humanism. You’re not shying away from the secular in secular humanism. But CFI, you know, it’s also advancing secular humanism. 

Well, certainly in the Center for Inquiry’s mission statement, it talks about fostering a more secular society. And that’s a very important aim. But that doesn’t necessarily speak to the philosophy of life. The individuals that are involved with it, you know, at the simplest level, a secular society is a society that engages in no form of coercion, where religion or irreligion is concerned, where everyone’s maximally free to do their own thing. And that’s certainly a very laudable goal right. 

At that basic level, secular just means non-religious government. Religious people in that sense can be secularists, kind of civil seculars. You can be a Baptist minister and favor church state separation. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And of course, there are there are several Protestant denominations and the American Baptist Church not to be confused with the Southern Baptists, has a long, proud history of advocacy for church state separation on exactly those grounds. 

But the Council for Secular Humanism is pushing not just that civil secularism, that kind of church state separation, but you’re pushing humanism even if the Center for Inquiry is seeking to foster humanist values to. That’s in the mission statement. You’re more focused on solely that agenda. 

That’s correct. And the mission of the Council for Secular Humanism is basically to advocate and defend a nonreligious life stance that’s rooted in science, in a naturalistic philosophy and humanist ethics. And that’s what we call secular humanism. And, of course, we serve and support people who live according to that life stance or closely related life sciences. Obviously, we we make common cause with atheists and agnostics and free thinkers and what have you. But in a secular humanism, just it isn’t just an empty caption. There is a substance there that’s a little bit different from just being an atheist or just being an agnostic. 

Okay, so that’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. In what sense is secular humanism different than atheists am? There’s kind of an interesting tension, I’ve noticed kind of developing out there in the Freethought world. There seems to be a growing contingent of people who agree that, yes, it’s all fine and good to advance science, scientific naturalism, even secularism. In the in the first sense of that word, we were talking about civil secularism, not the more comprehend. Secularism, where you’re trying to reduce religion in society. Well, these these people in in the kind of science booster world, they want to avoid the a word Athie ism at all costs. Right. So call him a secularist, even call him a secular humanist, but never call them an atheist because that’s like the worst thing in the world. 

Well, that’s going to pose a problem if you’re going to call that person who’s coming from that agenda, a secular humanist, because secular humanism basically presumes small Athie ism. Mm hmm. You know, people when when I go on the radio and television and people ask me, well, are you an atheist? And just to get that off the table, my usual soundbite is. Well, yes, I am an atheist, but that’s only the beginning. Mm hmm. And I think that captures something very core in the definition of secular humanism as we use it at the council. Secular humanism is a non theistic and atheistic life stance. It’s a life stance for people who do not hold a belief in a traditional deity and a supernatural order. But the thing is, that’s not the most interesting thing about them. 

It’s like that’s necessary, but that’s not all there is to it. 

Right. It’s a starting point. We’ve got to our conceptual work bench and we’ve cleared all these gods and goddesses and books of revelation off of it. Now, the million dollar question is, what are you going to build in its place? How do you create a balanced life stance that’s going to support exuberant living? That’s going to support humane values? That’s going to support compassion and excitement and all the things we associate with a full life well lived. 

So, in other words, Tom Athie ism tells you what you don’t believe in as a secular humanist. You don’t believe in God. You’re an atheist. But it doesn’t tell you what you do believe in. For that, you need a word like secular humanism, a whole host of secular ethical positions. You know how to live as a good person, how to live a good life, how to live well in a world without God and how to picture yourself in that world. 

A big part of secular humanism is what we call the cosmic outlook. And that’s an outlook that’s driven by science. We look at the universe as it’s described to us by astronomy and physics. It’s billions of years old. We’re we’re a life form that lives on the skin of one planet and an immense universe. It really doesn’t seem as though the sort of universe in which we could have a big part in God’s plan. And yet here we are. And in that life, how do you find meaning? How do you build a platform for living a good life, for a living humanely with your fellow human beings? And it’s got to start with the characteristics of the universe around us. That’s why we talk about a naturalistic philosophy. Secular humanism is, among other things, about solving the question, how do we live a good life? Well, in the world as it is, what does this world demand of us? 

If we’re going to live an effective and exuberant life in the natural world, not a world where there’s something supernatural. 

Right, because there’s no there’s no evidence for that. And again, this is where the kind of interplay between Athie ism and secular humanism, I think becomes very clear. Athie ism is an essential starting point. We don’t believe in God. We don’t believe in the supernatural order. But that just means that we’ve got a clearer idea that we need to solve the rest of these questions in the natural world and the world. Science explorers for us. And that’s where we have to confront these questions of how do we live a good life. 

Tom, tell me where this interplay between Athie ism and secular humanism or if Athie ism is a dirty word that you should avoid at all costs. Tell me how all that plays out. When folks like us are doing legislative advocacy so you know, their folks on Capitol Hill who are fighting for science and reason and all that, they say, sure, tell people you’re a secular humanist, but don’t come out as an atheist. You’re saying secular humanism means at least atheist means a bunch more. Yes, there’s ethics and all that. But Athie ism is necessary for secular humanism. So it sounds like you’re you don’t have a beef with coming out as an atheist. 

No, I don’t. I think it’s it’s unavoidable. And the problem that I see with taking the position. As a secular humanist by saying, oh, no, that’s not atheists, and we just want a more secular world. We just want to focus on science. Well, there are activists who do that and they’re doing very good work. But if they’re holding themselves out as being secular humanist, the danger is that they’re going to come across whether this depict them accurately or not. They’re going to come across as disingenuous, because if you’re if you’re having a debate with a traditional believer who, for example, believes that, you know, we need to do X, Y, Z, we need to not have stem cell research because embryos have souls and they’re sacred, which are pretty extreme religious position. But some folks on the right hold the position pretty much like that. And if you’re debating someone who’s coming from that perspective and your unexpressed variable in your argument is that, well, we don’t find claims like that compelling because we don’t think there are such things as souls. Well, you don’t necessarily want to lead with that and be really militant about it in debate. But this question of the difference in world views can’t be disguised beyond a certain point. You know, if you’re if you’re if your world view is totally naturalistic, well, it doesn’t include a God. It doesn’t have a place for God. And sooner or later, if you’re debating a smart religious believer, they’re going to catch you on that. 

And it’s not it’s not internally consistent. 

But isn’t it kind of strategic as an activist, say, on Capitol Hill, to go in under a false flag, not let the opposition know that you’re actually out to advance this kind of comprehensive secularism, this secular humanism we’re talking about? That’s the argument that at least we get from some people who are trying to advance science in society. They say, hey, don’t rock the religion science boat. 

Well, I think there’s room for both kinds of activism. I think anytime you’re going to engage in issue oriented activism, whether it be on Capitol Hill or anywhere else, you need to you need to be representing a platform that you can champion consistently. I think it’s great that there are activists out there who are interested in small s secularism and in preserving society against excessive religious interference, and that they want to keep science in the science classroom and keep religion out. And I think that’s all very important. I think it’s also important that you’ve got activists who are explicitly standing up for the rights of the non religious movement. Now, I think those are two slightly different kinds of activism. And one of the one of the wonderful things about the way advocacy happens in the nation’s capital and elsewhere around the country is there’s plenty of room for multiple groups that take their own particular take on those issues. 

They could work in coalition, but they have their own position, slightly nuanced from each other. 

Exactly. Exactly. And the people who genuinely want to fight for small secularism and simply fight against abuses by the religious right. Well, they need their voice. They need their organizations. They need their spokespeople who can validly and consistently put across that viewpoint. By the same token, and this is where a group like the Council for Secular Humanism comes in, you need other people who are in more position to say, no, we believe that there isn’t a God, that people have to find their values on their own, that we can’t rely on revealed religion, and that therefore we have to do more to defend the rights of specifically people who reject traditional religion. That’s a different agenda, calls for a different organization. And yes, definitely if somebody is doing advocacy under one of those umbrellas and actually believes in the other agenda. Well, that’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And sooner or later that person is going to be exposed and have their work somewhat. This valued with the perception that, you know, they haven’t been honest with their constituency. 

Right. It always struck me as a little backwards to, you know, the position that you should advance science and secularism, but not come out as an atheist. To me, that’s like a gay activists say who, you know, deep down inside, he wants to promote gay rights, but he tells everybody, no, he’s just promoting civil liberties for all people, doesn’t let anybody know that he’s actually gay and he’s working to advance gay rights. Can you imagine a gay rights activist who says, you know, to himself, I’m advancing gay rights, but. Doesn’t ever come out as gay. It’s just backward to me. 

Well, it is backwards. And yet if you look back in the history of the gay movement, if you look back 30 years ago, there probably were people who were in that conflicted position, felt that all they could accomplish. And that’s where they were kind of stuck. 

But the great strides in the gay rights movement really began happening when there was a national coming out day when people came out. When people high and low in society came out as gay and everyone knew someone who was gay. It seems to be going in the opposite direction to tell people, don’t rock the boat, don’t come out as an atheist. Use other words, kind of mask the truth that you’re an atheist because you don’t want to upset the religionists around you. 

No, I agree with you completely on that. My my take on that is that in in the atheist secular humanist Freethought movement that we are now at the point that the gay movement was perhaps 30 years ago. We’re just on the cusp of our own coming out day. Mm hmm. And we see that in the great commercial success of the new atheist books and all of the buzz that they’ve generated. And now that dozens and dozens of books that are coming out to engage people like Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris and debate. 

Right. The trends actually suggest that there’s never been a better time to come out as an atheist. So why in the world would we run from that word? 

Exactly. I mean, if if not now, when? According to the according to the most recent surveys, the American Religious Identification Survey that just came out last year confirm that roughly 15 percent of Americans in some polls have said even 16 have no religious affiliation. That doesn’t mean they’re all atheists. But it does mean that the the fastest growing cognitive minority group and the only life stance minority that gained in membership over the last eight years in all 50 states is people who are without religion. And we know from other polls that somewhere between five to eight percent, maybe a little more of the population are actually explicitly atheist or agnostic or what the pollsters call hard secular Jim Underdown. 

Right. And what a couple years ago, University of Akron or somewhere came out with a study that for the first time, over 10 percent of the population self-identified not just as non-religious or unchurched, but explicitly as atheist or agnostic. Right. 

Right. They they found that ten point seven percent of the population either self-identified as atheist or agnostic or on a whole raft of lifestyle indicators, had no influence of organized religion in their life. They called this group the hard secular. And one of the one of the enduring questions in demography, ever since the group that has no religious affiliation began to grow so rapidly during the 1990s. Everybody wanted to know how many of these people are truly non-religious and how many of them are just denomination switching. And what the Pew Foundation University of Akron study documented is it looked into this group. They found it was 16 percent that lived without religion and dug deeper and was able to separate the people who were truly non-religious as an atheist, agnostic, humanist. What have you from the folks who said they had no religious affiliation because they were switching denominations or they were kind of generic spiritual seekers, what have you? And they found that ten point seven percent, almost two thirds of the no religious affiliation group were non religious in the sense that you and I use it well. So that of this rapidly growing no religious affiliation group, about two thirds of them are fully non-religious and a lot of them accept the label of atheists. 

And that’s one of the largest minorities in the United States when you’re talking about belief. It’s larger than Jews. It’s, you know, Muslims, to be sure, all the other faith groups. 

It’s basically larger than any other single denomination except Roman Catholics. Wow. So, yeah, we have it. It is a little odd to look at a person who is a committed activist in the cause of secularism, who’s frightened of the word atheist because we as non theists, as atheists, as secular humanist, whatever you want to call us, are one of the fastest growing groups in American society. We’ve got the kind of numbers to demand our place at the table. 

Yeah. So why run from the term? Yeah, exactly. So, Tom. Where is all this going? Do you think, as executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism? Do you see that through our efforts and through organizing and people kind of coming out of the closet? Do you see that in the very near future? What more elected officials will come out that were kind of were very close to this brave, beautiful new day of kind of a secular humanist society? 

I, I think so. Or if not a secular humanist society, at least a secular, humanist friendly society. Here’s one of the near-term things that I’m really looking at that could be a tipping point. University of Minnesota and some other workers have done repeated surveys over the years asking a cross-section of Americans. Are there people who you would not vote for to be president solely because they belong to a certain group? And once upon a time, more than half of the American electorate wouldn’t vote for a gay person for president. And a certain number of Americans wouldn’t vote for a black person for president and what have you. And the interesting thing is, over about the last 15 years, the intolerant percentages, who wouldn’t vote for a person because of this or that characteristic have declined. With one exception. It’s now a relatively small minority of the population who say they wouldn’t vote for a gay candidate for president. It’s even a smaller group who say they wouldn’t vote for a black man for president. Of course, we just elected the black man president. There’s one group left that it’s still OK to discriminate against the only group that over half of these respondents say they would not vote for for president. Is an atheist. And I think we’ll know. We’ve reached our coming out tipping point, if you will. 

When we see that numbers start to turn around, that number, not necessarily the actual elected officials, but just more people. Okay with it. If Jefferson were alive today and he were open about his religious skepticism, he couldn’t be elected president. Thomas Jefferson. 

Probably not. I think the first thing you’re going to see when the number of Americans who wouldn’t vote for an atheist starts dropping closer to 40 percent. I think you’re going to see a scattering of elected officials who have been atheist all along and were afraid to talk about it coming out. I mean, Pete Stark from San Francisco did that a couple years ago and Bernie Sanders or whatever. 

This the only socialist in Congress. You know, I think he at one point came out as a religious skeptic or an atheist or whatever. But on the other hand, you almost don’t want to out them in case it it mucks up their political career or something. 

Of course, the magic moment is when people feel comfortable outing themselves. Right. And I suspect that I mean, there’s there’s tens of thousands of elected officials out there. If you look at the federal of the state and the local levels. Now, if atheists and agnostics and secular humanist and folks like that, if we really make up seven, eight percent, 10 percent of the population, some of those elected officials out there at the various levels of government have to be. Parts of our community and at the point where they feel safe in saying so, then that’s going to make it safer for people who are already out atheist to come into electoral politics and not feel that that’s an unbeatable blow against them. 

Well, Tom, here’s hoping your prophecies or your prognostications are true. This kind of soon coming world of secular humanism. Let’s hope it gets here. And thank you for joining me for this discussion. I enjoyed it. 

Thanks very much, T.J.. But please don’t call them protheses. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week. Find me on Facebook and on Twitter if you want to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join us at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily CFI Eye’s views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly, recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Our music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. 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.