When Should We Speak out? (Secular Humanism and Politics)

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

When Should We Speak out? (Secular Humanism and Politics)


Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry


In the last issue of FREE INQUIRY, we published an editorial criticizing the morality of the preemptive war against Iraq. It was written before the war began and published after its start. Several readers objected strongly to this. This raises the basic question: Should secular humanism as a movement ever take political positions? Surely individual humanists, as citizens in a democracy. may participate in the political process. They can vote for candidates and support the political part(ies) of their choice. Many humanists, to be sure, are intensely committed to a political point of view. But should secular humanist organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism take positions on the burning political issues of the day?

There are four cogent arguments against the Council's becoming a political pressure group:

First, as a nonprofit organization we are prohibited from supporting candidates and/or engaging in political propaganda. This prohibition applies to the Christian Coalition, the Roman Catholic Church, and other nonprofit agencies as well, all of which at least theoretically risk losing their tax-exempt status if they engage in political activity of that sort. If some other nonprofits wink at this principle, we embrace its propriety.

Second, although secular humanists share a common set of beliefs and values, they may differ about any number of concrete political and economic measures.

Third, for the Council to endorse specific party platforms or candidates for office, and/or to identify with one part of the political landscape, might alienate other supporters who disagree. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are found on all sides of the political spectrum; why not secular humanists? For that reason, this argument goes, we are wise to avoid any narrow political litmus test and welcome everyone into our (pardon the expression) big tent.

Fourth, our movement is primarily educational. Our outlook and our mission are scientific, philosophical, and ethical. Politics is not part of our core mission. If even a hospital, supermarket, university, or art museum were to engage in partisan politics, many of its patrons would be offended.

Those are powerful arguments. Surely we should not define ourselves primarily as a political pressure group. At the present time, at least, the positions we take should be prudential, leaving room for dissent.

And yet, does all this mean that the Council for Secular Humanism should be absolutely nonpolitical, holding itself above comment on the issues of the day in antiseptic purity? Surely not. I would submit that we have a responsibility to speak out on issues that we consider vital to our scientific humanist outlook. Indeed, I would submit that doing so is an important part of our educational mission.

If we are not primarily a political pressure group, under what conditions may we speak out on political issues? There are no fixed guidelines. Nonetheless, I wish to offer some criteria. Primarily I submit, we have an obligation to make ourselves heard when vital moral issues are at stake. There is no sharp divorce between ethics and politics. if, as Clausewitz argued, the purpose of war is to fulfill political purposes, then the purpose of politics is to fulfill the ends and values that we consider desirable--especially when it impinges on our fundamental ethical values.

That there is an intrinsic continuity between ethics and politics is a classical idea. It was first expressed in Athens, most notably by Plato and Aristotle. The theme reappears throughout the history of political thought. Machiavelli took another approach, maintaining that the goal of politics was to secure and maintain power. For Machiavelli, there were certain policies that a ruler should adopt, many of them brutal, in order to achieve political aims. I readily grant that governing a nation is complicated, and that technical rather than moral issues are often relevant.

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When Should We Speak out? (Secular Humanism and Politics)
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