Thinking Aloud: Secular Humanism and Atheist Boards

I have been thinking, on and off, about the importance of a secular humanist board instead of just an atheist board. An atheist board alone seems to lack any particular direction in terms of productivity and, perhaps, activism. Notice that the RDF was known as an atheist board but this classification was still second or equal to that of a science and reason board.

Those boards were about science and (at least I thought they were) a nexus for the members of OUT. This gave the RDF an “inward” purpose (that is, a purpose meant for it’s members; a place to meet like-minded people) and and “outward” purpose (one for the rest of the net/world; promoting science, reason etc). These purposes obviously overlapped, but I polarized in order to clarify.

The Heathen Hub, a forum which I help moderate, is a secular humanist board, which is why I bring it up. A secular humanist board, by definition, would, if healthy, feature great productivity in the areas of ethics, science, secularism, atheism and reason, among others. Likewise, it could inspire activism in those areas, due to the simple fact that it’s a far more robust stance than atheism (robust in the sense that it incorporates more than just not believing in gods, actively or otherwise). In other words, this means that the Hub and any similar boards have enormous potential.

To understand this potential, it is important to understand what secular humanism is, and that is, namely a philosophical worldview with respect to certain positions.  This worldview is comprised of a humanist philosophy with a focus on reason, ethics, and justice plus a specific rejection of dogmas and supernaturalism. The Council for Secular Humanism lists the key components of this world view, which I will reproduce here:

  • Need to test beliefs-A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

This is what I meant by robust; by having a greater scope than just plain atheism, secular humanism is better positioned to confront injustices, promote secularism,  promote reason and science and oppose dogmatism. It is also a distinct and, in my opinion, necessary voice in the debates on abortion, stem cells, gay marriage and assisted death, among others.

This uniqueness is due to the simple fact that secular humanism is explicitly and necessarily free from religion and, as it’s well-known, religion, especially Christianity on these matters, has been consistently imposing it’s own values on these issues. These issues affect human beings of all stripes, so this imposition of values is unjust and illogical if  they can’t be shown to have a legitimate basis. By arguing from religion, as the religious inevitably do, Christianity and any other religion encounters the problems that come with religious propositions, namely, who is correct and how do we tell?  Religion has not come up with a satisfactory answer to this problem, rather, it has come up with a vast variety of answers that assume they are correct by virtue of being God’s Word or some such. On top of the problem that comes with proposals of a subjective nature (values), they add another problem: verifying the supernatural (an odd concept, since it seems to mean nothing at all). Which god? Which word?  How do you know? And on and on it goes.

Those two problems muddle and thanks to them,  religions bog themselves down if they derive their points from their tenets. Take the gay marriage issue. Many Christians oppose it on the grounds of some bible passage  (or interpretation of said passage), while some other Christians favor it on the grounds of another bible passage (or, again, interpretation of said passage). They end up opposing themselves on the same grounds, which means that it becomes a matter of might makes right. For another example of this, take embryonic stem cell research in the US, under Bush, was not deprived of public fund because of reasonable ethical or scientific considerations (a group of  cells smaller than a fly’s brain is hardly capable of suffering). It was deprived of funds because of the Religious Right, a very able and politically-active constituency of conservative Christians. Likewise, there is no reasonable ethical or scientific consideration that justifies opposition to same-sex marriage; the only opposition is religious*.

This mess clearly cannot not go on, for constitutional reasons in some countries, but, more importantly, for ethical reasons. If one holds that all individuals should be granted the same rights as everyone else and be able to exercise them, within reason (i.e. while not depriving anyone else of their rights), then clearly, same-sex marriage shouldn’t even be an issue. Same-sex marriage cannot affect those not involved, simply because the only thing that comes with the package of same-sex marriage is same-sex marriage.  If one holds that ethically justified, medically necessary and scientifically promising biomedical research should be funded and encouraged, then embryonic stem cell research should enjoy the benefits of public and private funding.  And this is where secular humanism comes in.

As was mentioned before, secular humanism isn’t bound by religious tenets. Instead, it actively incorporates science, ethics, a concern for humanity, reason and skepticism. This elements are the best we’ve got for testing out our beliefs, establishing just norms and bettering our lives. Please note that I’m not making the claim that religious people and these elements are mutually exclusive. However, while religious people can, naturally, make arguments from science, ethics, human concerns, reason and/or skepticism, the ones that can keep religion out of the arguments seem to be a minority and, at any rate, they cannot form a cohesive, consistent body because they’re usually not coming from the same place, and can thus wildly contradict themselves in some aspects while agreeing on others. By instead creating a common place from which to issue forth, secular humanism avoids this issue and can present a united front, with the added bonus of not depending on any perpetually unverifiable and fuzzy ideas such as supernaturalism.

So far, so good, but I’ve yet to let the internet come in. First and foremost, the internet connects people all over the world which is great but not enough for clear organization. Chat rooms, for example, are horrid for organizing,  because there can’t be too many people pitching in; it becomes unreadable and if you can’t have lots of people, then you won’t have much of a constituency. Blogs and article-oriented pages could serve these purpose, but they have one disadvantage and that is that they can be heavily constrained (plus they can get kinda cramped sometimes). They are best for getting the news out and for expressing oneself as an individual. However, again, this does not work too well in the long run for a movement of any sort, because they are composed by more than one individual.  This is where forums come in, in my opinion. Forums are explicitly about discussion between individuals, as opposed to just commenting on what an initial, main individual said.

This is not much on it own, but the distinction means that forums are more naturally predisposed to form communities. Blogs can and do  form then, but I’ve often seen blogs where people are drive-by posters; it takes much longer the form in blogs, and when it doesn’t, it seems to be more of an exception. Lastly, forums tend to have less constraints topic wise;  by virtue of being designed for broad discussions, they already come with the space for talking about almost anything. It should be obvious that all this depends on forum policies, but, usually, when you want an online place for free discussion, you set up a forum and when you don’t want free discussion, you either close it down or don’t start it in the first place.

The advantaged of the forum format, in my opinion, is the potential for comfort it has. Thanks to this, a strong, cohesive community can develop, and this is precisely why they can be great for organizing like-minded people. Since the Internet connects much of the world, the likelihood that like-minded people gather increases, and this likelihood increases even more if they’re given a space to do so. This is why one can find the nicest, nastiest and weirdest communities on the net;  what were perhaps scattered and isolated minorities are now able to gather in one spot and, maybe, speak with one voice (if they agree to do so). This is desirable or undesirable depending on your point of view, but what one cannot disagree with is that it can be extremely useful.

With these too themes exposed, the importance of secular humanism and the potential of internet forums, I bring  the post round and two a close: a secular humanist board is necessary, immensely so. The advocacy of science, reason, ethics, secularism, skepticism and humanism that makes up the secular humanist perspective would benefit immensely from having an online community, because it can bring together secular humanists from across the world in a way that nothing else, so far, can. It should furthermore be in a forum because the potential for development that forums offer will, again, be hugely beneficial. Allowing free-ranging discussions (not a free-for-all, mind you; have places  for serious discussion, others for idle chatter and socializing) will mean that many more possible areas will be explored, many more perspectives can be taken into account and more nuanced positions can be solidified.


*Opposition to evolution is the same business.


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Filed under Atheism, Society & Humanism, Thinking Aloud

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