by Naima Washington
“Though a majority of Americans are still Christians...millions are not. Some are Jews, some are Muslims, some practice Eastern religions...It is simply rude to expect those people to celebrate the birth of the Christian savior, yet that is just what the majority culture has done for two centuries in this country….” ”It is the grossest calumny to suggest that atheists and humanists cannot be trusted to behave morally because they do not accept a system of other-worldly rewards and punishments….” These quotes are from two essays written by Tom Flynn (Fighting Back: A Manual for Freethinkers, edited by Tim Madigan and Tom Flynn; 1993) where he addresses humanists and atheists as equal even though his reprinted essay in the WASHline presents atheism as incomplete or perhaps even inferior to secular humanism.
I first learned of WASH in 1998, but during the 1980s, I heard the term 'humanism' as opposed to 'atheism' used by conservatives who accused humanists of controlling public policy and especially public schools. The opponents of secularism can be credited with thrusting the term humanism into the public discourse.
Attracting more members will take much more than a name change. Rather than having the views of WASH overlooked on the internet, I agreed that the insertion of the word 'atheists’ might be useful in alerting more nonbelievers of our existence as I rarely find anyone of any age familiar with WASH.
Tom Flynn has neatly divided the entire membership of WASH into radicals who support the name change; and conservatives who oppose it. Can the membership also be divided into conservative racists and radical racists; conservative homophobes and radical homophobes? The use of the words 'radicals and conservatives' throughout his essay only serves to create more divisions. Furthermore, his essays in Fighting Back…as well as his choice of words in the WASHline article sound rigid and authoritarian which tells me that he may not trust freethinkers to do their own thinking.
He also claims that“…conservative WASH members have defended secular humanist…”and that“‘…atheist’…still carries a negative connotation for many Americans…” According to him, some WASH members don’t use the word ‘atheist’ because it “…in any case doesn’t convey the proper impression of what WASH is about”. What is WASH about? Is it an organization bent on giving a ‘proper impression’ to an otherwise superstitious and religious public? Or do we aim to promote and live according to ethical principles? If I fight for social justice in the US, challenge the enemies of reason, and try to live a principled live, I’m unconcerned about impressions.
If I opposed the name change, I’d object to Tom Flynn’s implication that atheists are immature and won’t develop into adults unless we embrace secular humanism. Far from being able to 'see value on all sides of this debate,' he’s clearly overly-concerned that some WASH members have taken a position which he vehemently opposes.
He also writes, "...I have no complaints with any secular humanist group that wants to give atheists expanded visibility in its name or literature." After he’s written one objection after another to the proposed name change, this cannot be true. "Still, secular humanism offers qualities that pure atheism lacks." I've heard ‘pure’ secular humanism as defined by Tom Flynn and Paul Kurtz, but no definition of pure atheism although I'm sure that there is one. His essay is insulting, paternalistic, and untruthful. Don Wharton's approach throughout this process he has been honest, unambiguous, and he hasn’t distorted the views of those who oppose the name change simply to make his points.
In what is called, The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, Paul Kurtz writes: “We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.” If the organizations in the secular community lived up to half of these principles, they would all have different memberships, leaderships, and results! Living according to these principles will require that more of us leave our comfort zones.
Tom Flynn should know that there are no radicals of any consequence in WASH. Aside from its dwindling membership, over the years WASH has changed very little, and in all likelihood, its name will not change either.