Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Debating the Concept-Labels of Secular Humanism and Atheism

By Gary Berg-Cross
A proposed Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH) Name Change was announced in the December 2011 issue of WASHline, after the WASH Board of Directors has voted to change the organization’s legal name from “The Washington Area Secular Humanists” to “The Washington-area Atheists and Secular Humanists.” This compromise vote allowed the acronym, WASH, to be retained. But the bylaws requires further votes before the name change goes into effect. So some discussion continues.
Over the last 6 months or so there was considerable discussion, available to WASH members, on the monthly WAShline newletter on the pros and cons of adding “atheist” to the name. This may not have been available to some Secular Perspective blog readers (a motivator to join?), but might be of interest. So here is a small take on it.

On the pro side WASH Board of Directors member Don Wharton kicked things off in the August WASHline with the something of a practical, “marketing” argument to achieve our goals:

Clearly most of our members identify as “secular humanists.” It is a wonderful term which accurately and comfortably reflects me and my views; thus, raising the issue of a name change for WASH does not reflect my personal preferences. It is a matter of better marketing and achieving WASH’s mission as an organization. The terms “secular humanist” and “secular humanism” are now far less visible and meaningful than before. For WASH’s May board meeting I gathered some statistics on the majority of US adults who are also Facebook members. Adding the numbers who specified atheist and atheism as an interest totaled 138,000. Only 5,700 reported an interest in the term “secular humanism and none in secular humanist.”

WASH co-founder Lois Porter responded with an opposing letter in the August WASHline arguing to retain the current organization name because it will:

“attract young new members” and that they “would be especially good at giving the world a picture of what secular humanism looks like in the 21st century.”

WASH Board Member and Baltimore chapter coordinator Bill Creasy also responded in a letter in the August WASHline supporting keeping the name. His analysis used data available on Meetup.com that suggested that “atheist” is a label that serves a within group function. It is more used for secular people to meet other secular people. Don later responded with additional data challenging Bill’s data and so on.

The debate also got the attention of our November MDC WASH chapter speaker Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism. Tom wrote an article ("Whither Secular Humanism") in the Secular Humanist Bulletin (available to Associate members of the Council, such as WASH) defending keeping the original name. He notes an obvious personal bias as director of the Council, but acknowledges Don’s point about the growing usage of the atheist label:

“Particularly among young people the term is well known and generally understood. In contrast secular humanism is less strongly recognized among folks under 20.”

On the other side he notes that atheism is generally (but unfairly) associated with “stridency and intolerance.” He goes on to say that the Council has:
“striven to achieve a tone and level of sophistication in discourse above that seen in at least some purely atheist groups. But there is a larger problem with atheism: strictly understood it is only a position on the question of whether God…exists.”

He later goes on to note a discussion of this in his edited The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief reflecting the point that:

“Once one has realized that there are no gods, anything at all can follow… Secular humanism has dimensions that atheism alone cannot offer.”
I generally agree with the idea that atheism (A) is only the beginning of the story of our identity. SH is broader and wider than the big A. I enjoyed reading Tom’s further ideas on the unfortunate shrinkage of the Humanist idea as Secular has become more widespread.

I’m sure we will continue to have discussion on this issue. What you've got here is a rich, but vague, concept-dish covered in a historical-intellectual sauce, served up on a platter of underlying questions and projections into the future.

So much fun and so important!


Don Wharton said...

The March WASHline will feature the article by Tom Flynn and my response to it. I take the position that TOm's views are a mixture of bigotry, misinformation and very bad market research.

I will personally send a PDF copy of the our March newsletter to any new WASH member or Friend of WASH.

To join: http://home.wash.org/join-wash/

to email the PDF request: blog[at]wash.org

Anonymous said...

Burden of proof; lol. The day I meet an atheist who *actually believes* in his convictions is the day I eat a magic sandwich. For every believer who was raised that way, there are a thousand atheists who 'believe' so because it's the done thing, because they have an axe to grind, or because they're trolling.

Cool pic, bro.

Explicit Atheist said...

Aononymous, please read my posts. I am trying to clarify why sensible people believe that the universe is entirely material and that the concepts that are basic to theism such as immaterial willful agents and minds are fictions. Basically, we take a weight of overall available evidence approach to evaluating such assertions and we see the evidence as strongly favoring the conclusion that all of existence is built on the material.