Who's Afraid of Humanism?

By Doerr, Edd | USA TODAY, March 1995 | Go to article overview
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Who's Afraid of Humanism?


Doerr, Edd, USA TODAY


IN 1993, police in Wichita, Kans., seized a how-to terrorist manual, produced by a group calling itself The Army of God, from the home of a woman later convicted of trying to murder an abortion clinic physician. The introduction describes the U.S. as "a nation ruled by a godless civil authority that is dominated by humanism, moral nihilism, and new-age perversion of the high standards upon which a Godly society must be founded."

Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) has written that, "When the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited children from participating in voluntary prayers in public schools . . . it also established a national religion in the United States--the religion of secular humanism."

In A Christian Manifesto, evangelical theologian Francis A. Schaeffer claims "the humanist worldview includes many thousands of adherents and today controls the consensus in society, much of the media, much of what is taught in our schools, and much of the arbitrary law being produced by the various departments of government." Moreover, "the law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force [emphasis in original] this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population."

Evangelist Tim LaHaye, in The Battle for the Mind, warns that "Most people today do not realize what humanism really is and how it is destroying our culture, families, country--and one day, the entire world. Most of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things of life." He adds that "we are being controlled by a small but very influential cadre of committed humanists, who are determined to turn traditionally moral-minded America into an amoral, humanist country."

Televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and hundreds of evangelists, writers, broadcasters, and columnists have made a fair-sized industry of attacking, and generally misrepresenting, humanism and secular humanism. To these critics, humanism is a sinister movement of great power and influence bent on destroying "traditional values" and wrecking civilization. To many of them, it even is demonic or satanic. Is there any merit to these charges?

While there is a humanist movement and there are humanists, they bear little resemblance to the pictures painted by the televangelists and ultraconservative columnists. Meanwhile, a great many Americans, educated and informed or otherwise, haven't the foggiest idea as to what humanism is.

To simplify, or perhaps oversimplify, humanism is a religious position, faith, or philosophy that stresses ethical living, democracy, rationality, use of scientific method, naturalism, social justice, and human equality with regard to gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. As Corliss Lamont writes in The Philosophy of Humanism, "To define twentieth-century humanism briefly, I would say that it is a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy."

Some humanists--generally those who qualify the term with the adjective "secular"--prefer not to classify their position as a religion, using instead the term philosophy or "life stance." The latter is coming into greater use in the U.S. and Europe.

How many humanists are there? It is hard to say, as one need not actually join an organization to be or to call oneself a humanist, just as one need join no church to be a Christian. Estimates based on polling data suggest that as many as 25,000,000 Americans might be classified as humanists, though the vast majority probably never would use the term. There is polling data from Norway and the Netherlands that humanists make up 20-25% of the population of those two countries. The Norwegian Humanists Ethical Union has more than 45,000 members, a little over one percent of the country's population, making it the second largest religious body (or life stance organization) in that nation after the state Lutheran church.

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