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An American Humanist Political Party?

Anyone who has been in Humanist circles for some time knows we are never, ever, short on opinions. We think therefore we talk. and talk and talk some more. Our endless conversations usually revolve around the BIG questions, i.e., the metaphysical ones: the existence or rather the nonexistence of God, evolution versus Intelligent Design, meaning and purpose in life, etc; and the major political issues: the dangers of the Religious Right, the Separation of Church and State, the Iraqi war, and others.

To our credit, we have many of the answers but one nagging question seems to continue to puzzle us. Why is it that we, who have so much to offer the world in terms of reasoned intelligence, thoughtful ideas, and personal passion, why is that we are so… well, alone? Why is it that we have been unable to attract numbers into our well-reasoned world? Why is it we are effectively perennial pariahs to much of the culture? In short, why is it we are, in essence, a “cult”?

Wikipedia: “Cult roughly refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture considers outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception.”

Could it be because we talk a good game but don’t play it hard enough?

A reading of our Humanist Manifestos declares us to be intensely concerned with the life of our planet from protecting the environment to supporting human rights to social justice. Generally, but not exclusively, we fall on the side of progressive politics, and I think I would be safe in assuming many of us are politically active as individuals, at least in staying well-informed and dutifully voting. But there are some of us who are uneasy with doing just this, and envision doing more.

In one of the very few pieces of literature that address the issue of Humanism and politics that my research found, Toward a New Political Humanism,[1] an anthology edited by Barry J. Seidman and Neil J. Murphy, the authors lament the fact that while humanists debate and philosophize a great deal, “the humanist community never does anything, not anything powerful, at least, to create social change, to make Humanism the world’s philosophy.” They go on to urge humanists to move beyond skepticism, atheism and agnosticism into the world of human endeavors, i.e., politics.

Massimo Pigliucci, the prolific Stony Brook academic and Humanist, makes the same point in the volume, and he characterizes humanists as “squeamish” when it comes to political debates. He attributes this in part to the open-mindedness of humanists when it comes to claiming “truth” since we know we do not have a monopoly on truth. He is astute enough however, to realize that there is also an underlying fear that voicing or espousing differing political views could create divisiveness among us. Nevertheless, Professor Pigliucci strongly believes that humanists should become more politically vocal, not only because it is the humanist thing to do but also because there is an actual duty to do it.

The Council for Secular Humanism’s (CSH) Paul Kurtz notes, in the same anthology, that while Humanists lack a “narrow political agenda or party platform” we should take “strong moral-political stances when basic values are endangered,” and he urges us to “speak out critically” on them. Norm Allen of African Americans for Humanism, while decrying how blacks were disenfranchised in the 2000 Florida election and their lack of power in the Democratic party, does not consider it “realistic or practical” to have a humanist political party.

David Koepsell of the Council for Secular Humanism, in a Free Inquiry book review, dismissed the thinking in the anthology as “unsound.” He goes on to say that Humanism is a “method of inquiry, plain and simple.” He says that he responds to questions on what humanists should believe with “nothing.” So for this reviewer it is the “love of inquiry and debate” that defines Humanism not “mere belief.” It would seem he places methodology above truth, effectively reducing Humanism to the scientific method, a perennial search for truth wherein the search is more important than the evidence that search might produce. This seems to me seriously wrong-headed and even convoluted thinking. Koepsell also warns of “unnecessary infighting and dangerous politicization of the secular humanist movement.”

But what is the purpose of the search, if not, to arrive at truth, however tentative that truth might be? It is, in fact, these “truths,” found through searching inquiry and applying reason, that give Humanists their values and the meaning they find in life. The Humanist Manifestos are clearly a statement of beliefs and aspirations, conclusions that have been reached by experience and reason over the years, and which continuously evolve. Hear Humanist Manifesto II: “The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted.”

And Manifesto III: “Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” These are hardly apolitical statements, and definitely progressive ones. The reality is, as the humanist affirmations show, social evidence usually leads us to progressive values.

Tim Gordinier of the Institute for Humanist Studies is the writer that comes closest to suggesting a way that humanists can put their philosophy to work in real time. Recognizing the hurdle of prejudice that humanists face, Gordinier promotes interest-group lobbying as a humanist tool in politics (he does this on the New York legislature; in recent years the AHA, CSH, and the Secular Coalition have initiated new lobbying efforts.) However, Gordinier also points out the limitations of small lobbying groups who lack a visible and viable constituency (not to mention money). They may get a sympathetic hearing (or a perfunctorily polite one) but may not get much in the way of results. Nevertheless, Gordinier believes the effort, by working with other groups in coalitions on progressive issues, is worthwhile. He does emphasize the need for constituents who do more than just vote.

I believe that if we want to make humanist beliefs truly meaningful we need to go beyond simply individual political involvement to a collective effort, and strive to make Humanism a political and philosophical force in our society. Timidity about divisiveness or polarization should not stop us from taking defined and strong political positions which express our values. Glossing over differences to sustain a pretense of solidarity not only lacks integrity but courage. There is bound to be the spectrum of differences in views from conservative to moderate to liberal within a humanist political movement, as in any other political group. Any organization that cannot tolerate honest disagreement within its ranks is simply not democratic.

I think humanists should take their philosophy out of their small, inbred, intellectual enclaves into the real world, i.e., into grassroots politics. Let’s face it: we spend much of our time “preaching to the choir” just as the televangelists do. The proof lies in our numbers; there are roughly no more than ten thousand humanists in the two major humanist organizations, the American Humanist Association and the Council for Secular Humanism, in the United States. Our voices, when they do reach out to the electorate, are drowned out by other voices in the country. These “other voices” are numerous, well organized, and very public, whereas our voices are diffused to a whisper and in an echo chamber.

The anthology is replete with impassioned comments about the need to address the burning social issues of society. These exhortations toward political involvement have a poignant–even pathetic–ring. Despite the eloquence and sincerity of their prose they fail, just as the humanists they criticize in their articles, to go beyond making proclamations and statements about what we should do, and address that haunting old humanist riddle of how to do it. What concrete real-life steps can we take to put our humanist values into the mainstream society? How can we become more than just a philosophizing cult?

Lets take the Libertarian Party (LP) experience as an example of what can be accomplished. Founded in 1971 by a small group at an informal gathering in a home in Colorado Springs, it achieved ballot status in some states and garnered 176,000 votes in 1976. In 1978, it elected its first state legislator, and in 1980 the LP was running national TV ads and garnered a million votes for its presidential candidate. By 1986, 200 candidates received almost three million votes and two years later, 853 candidates ran for office. In 2000, 256 candidates ran for house seats alone. Today the Libertarian Party is the country’s third largest political party, on the ballot in all fifty states, and commandeering millions of votes. This is the most significant third party performance in many decades. Ron Paul, who placed a distant third in the 1988 presidential election running as the Libertarian nominee while remaining a registered Republican, is a libertarian Republican Congressman, a 2008 U.S. presidential candidate, and a national libertarian figure who is becoming a household name.

While it is true the vast majority of LP candidates have lost their elections, much more importantly, the LP has brought the philosophy of Libertarianism to tens of millions of Americans through grassroots political action. They have done this by signature petitions to get on the ballot, and then presenting candidates in local, state and national elections. In the process of presenting these candidates and their views, the LP has educated millions of the public on the libertarian philosophy. They have lost elections but won minds, members and supporters.

The number of humanists at large in the society, (those who consciously subscribe to Humanism at some level) should be more than 100,000. The Unitarian Universalist Association alone numbers over 240,000, half of whom consistently call themselves humanists in church surveys. The Ethical Culture Society is much smaller but basically a humanist organization. We can also assume that out of the estimated 27,000,000 agnostics and other unchurched individuals there are a significant number of “unconscious” humanists who would qualify philosophically as humanists if they had the opportunity to become aware of its values. We already have a significant political base.

We would not be the first attempt at organized humanist political action. The British Humanist Association, while not running candidates, is very active in supporting candidates and policies they agree with, and encourages its members to devote time and money to those efforts. The “New Humanists”[2] have established parties and run candidates in a number of countries including Canada. Laura Rodriguez of the Chilean Partido Humanista was the first person in the world running as a humanist to win a seat in parliament in 1990. Tomas Hirsch ran unsuccessfully for president of Chile in 2006.

We could offer a distinctive political approach to political problems by using science and reason rather than strict ideology as a basis for public policy. While, as noted, most humanists are left of center politically and of the progressive ilk, and that a real commitment to evidence as a basis for policy would be sorely tested if any of those progressive ideas proved to be inadequate policy, this commitment should be what we strive for in our political life. When the evidence shows our policies to be wrong we need to acknowledge that fact and act accordingly. This commitment to evidence-based public policy could distinguish the Humanist Party from traditional political parties and be a refreshing change for a weary and cynical electorate, (especially Independents), fed up with ideologically-biased “facts” from the Left and the Right, and with the resulting angry legislative deadlocks.

Furthermore, beyond our disavowal of super-naturalism, (which, of course, will be a problem for many people), we do offer a commonality of values which many people can accept. Focusing on these values and positing our religion-free platform as a uniting factor rather than a divisive one could help alleviate the “atheist” charge which is bound to come. It is worth noting, however, that atheism, while hardly respectable yet, has in recent times come out of the closet, and books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have become best sellers. One brave congressman, Peter Stark–the first to ever do so–has acknowledged his atheism. It might be that we are witnessing the beginning of a sea change in how the American public views atheism (and it may well be that many a true-believer has more than a little atheism in his or her heart of hearts.)

The American Humanist Association and the Council for Secular Humanism each have over a hundred local chapters, many of which are well established. These groups could provide the basis for performing local political action and the nexus for a national coalition. Selective political action does not require either large expense or manpower. A person spending a couple of hours on a Saturday in a busy mall passing out a computer printed or copied piece of literature explaining the humanist position and petitioning to get on the ballot is not a big-time investment in time or money but can be very effective in getting our word out. Making local phone calls is free on most land phones. The Internet has proven to be a dramatic and inexpensive political communication tool. Furthermore, I believe humanists would enthusiastically support a humanist-inspired political movement. They must be damn tired of just talking about it.

Canvassing is a time-honored political action technique and, while more labor intensive, is also inexpensive. Thousands upon thousands of people could be reached and made familiar with our philosophy through these efforts. Local talk hosts would be eager to have a novel and likely controversial political party on their show. The Internet has proven its value as a cheap, dramatic communicator of political views. Humanist political groups can link with progressive organizations and other groups with whom they agree on important issues thereby building a vital working connection with the officers and members of these groups. Politics is a reciprocal game. People don’t have to become humanists in order to support humanist issues, just as consumers don’t have to become farm workers to support decent working conditions for farmers.

Would we even get enough signatures to get on a ballot? This is unlikely for some time to come (so we don’t have to worry about diluting Democratic votes), but we would be doing two crucial things as humanists:
1) Honoring the claim in Manifesto III: We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.
2) Bringing our humanist philosophy and values into the mainstream of our society, and begin making Humanism a more meaningful part of it.

We constantly struggle with the issue of how to offer people “something meaningful” which will induce them to join our ranks. There are potlucks, humanist Sunday “renewals,” films, special events, philosophy talks, lectures, book clubs, all worthwhile in themselves but which have clearly failed to attract any meaningful numbers into the humanist groups. Essentially, while we do wonderfully well in addressing people’s intellectual needs, we do not meet their emotional needs. We do not provide them with the passion they must have to become involved humanists.

But this is exactly what a political movement can give prospective humanists. Through political action we can give them involvement and passion. Anyone who has been in a political argument is aware of the passion with which people hold political views.

Anyone who has involved themselves in a political campaign knows the dedication and effort people show in their campaign work. Political action can provide the “missing link” in humanist recruitment: passion. We who are already humanists have that passion. What we have to do is to put it to work and give it to others by building a viable political movement with Humanism at its foundation. We face a profound choice: either to stay forever in our limited humanist world, constricted by ourselves and society from fulfilling our purported affirmations, or enter the broader world of political engagement, empowering ourselves in the process and making Humanism a living, working philosophy in our country.

Mikhail Gorbachev said it well: “Above all else Humanism means activism. In the name of humanity. This is my conviction.”


[1] Prometheus Books, 2004.

[2] A movement founded by Mario Cobos (Silo) in the Sixties which expanded from a kind of human potential movement to a more political one in the Eighties.

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