By Gary Berg-Cross
In the recent blog There is no Alliance Between Liberal Churches and Secularists,and Don't Try to Blame This on New Atheists Hos makes a point by referencing and quoting from David Niose’s, ( president of the American Humanist Association) Nonbeliever Nation.
I will quote below from an earlier 2009 article by Noise called Revisiting John Dewey's God. I think this better captures the complexity of the issues and puts the failure of secular humanist to thrive in context. Take this one small part from the larger quote as an example:
The semantic possibilities with humanism are innumerable, just as the semantic debates are so tiring to most of us, but the one point that most humanists should concur with is the importance of encouraging openness about atheist/humanist identity and beliefs. Many humanists adamantly insist that they are in fact religious, and that is indeed their right, but all should stand behind those who openly declare that they simply aren’t religious.We can probably agree here, but note this is one of freedom to say you are not a believer is not the same as advocating a focus on attacking religion to the exclusion of promoting humanism. Noise makes a point about people not “shunning atheistic rhetoric in public discourse.“ And we can probably agree here, after don’t you see such language on this blog? It is more of a type – this is what I believe in, rather than “you are silly to believe in anything else.” Those “semantic possibilities” again to use Noise’s phrase.
I like the Noise article because it includes the unintended consequence of Dewey naturalistic humanists strategy regarding religious language – “ humanists simply needed to wait patiently, focusing attention perhaps on timely social and political issues but letting the religious landscape progress on its own.
As Niose says “none of ….the effects of his approach should have been foreseeable to him. You can read below about this and his analysis of what happened and what Dewey would approve of now. Much of this is consistent with the snippets of history I proved on post WWII American and its turn away from intellectualism.
So with that here is the full section of the quote:
But forthrightness isn’t the issue here, because the real problem with Dewey’s zealous usage of religious language is not the underlying intent but the effect. If even atheists were shunning atheistic language and labels in favor of traditional religious dressing, then clearly the real winner was traditional religion. Dewey, as spokesman for naturalistic humanists, established the norm that still stands today in the United States—religious language is condoned and viewed favorably, whereas atheistic language and identity are shunned.
In Dewey’s defense, none of this should be interpreted as suggesting that the effects of his approach should have been foreseeable to him, and in fact there were good reasons in Dewey’s time to believe that religious progress was leading society in the direction of naturalism. If so, humanists simply needed to wait patiently, focusing attention perhaps on timely social and political issues but letting the religious landscape progress on its own. Given the rich intellectual atmosphere and remarkable scientific advances of the times, Dewey and his contemporaries understandably saw little need to publicize atheism or tend to its public image. A more subtle naturalism complemented them, while also serving as what appeared to be a proper incubator for the religious views that they expected would eventually grow more prominent.
But as all humanists today know, a massive trend towards humanism did not occur by the end of the twentieth century. Just three decades after Dewey’s death, the Moral Majority had emerged as a powerful political force, born-again Christianity was flexing its political muscle, and organized humanism was unable to mount any serious resistance. We soon saw the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and of course the election (if we use the term loosely) of George W. Bush, the darling of the religious right. Religious conservatism has thrived in modern America, enjoying enormous wealth, great numbers of followers, and significant stature as a political demographic.
Perhaps more significant than the emergence of religious conservatism in the latter decades of the twentieth century is the relative absence of organized humanism as a political force during those same years. In fact, even today the word “humanism” is rarely used in public discourse and few Americans can define it. Moreover, though atheism has captured some public attention in recent years, the general image of atheists has remained very poor. Hence, while the religious right was resurrecting itself, humanism and atheism were making little progress.
To attribute these disastrous events solely to the overuse of religious rhetoric by early twentieth-century humanists would be to oversimplify phenomena that are in fact quite complex, but surely today’s organized humanists must reconsider all aspects of the strategies use by prior generations. Whatever those strategies were, they obviously didn’t work. As such, any fair analysis would question the wisdom of validating religious rhetoric while simultaneously shunning atheistic rhetoric in public discourse.
Clearly, those who embrace a naturalistic lifestance should be able to declare as such without fear of being ostracized, vilified, or scorned. To the extent that American culture still frowns upon such openness, a cultural shift is needed. Nonbelievers should be part of the landscape, capable of being open about their views without suffering repercussions or limitations. Open nonbelievers should be viable candidates for public office, respected in public ceremonies, and seen for what they are—valuable contributors to society. The Dewey approach, while no doubt helping to promote liberalism generally, didn’t achieve this.
This doesn’t mean that many of us won’t sometimes use religious language. (See Neil deGrasse Tyson’s defense of the term Godspeed in his article in the September/October Humanist.) The semantic possibilities with humanism are innumerable, just as the semantic debates are so tiring to most of us, but the one point that most humanists should concur with is the importance of encouraging openness about atheist/humanist identity and beliefs. Many humanists adamantly insist that they are in fact religious, and that is indeed their right, but all should stand behind those who openly declare that they simply aren’t religious. Surely even those who identify as “religious humanists” (and many naturalists do) would enjoy seeing a candidate for public office openly declare, “I’m not very religious.” And even those who follow the Dewey standard by using the term “God” in a naturalistic sense would surely smile at seeing an open atheist elected to office.
The biggest fear of the religious right is not abortion on demand or the end of faith-based initiatives, but the emergence of openly nontheistic Americans as a respectable demographic recognized as such by the public, the media, and public office holders. This can only happen if secular Americans unite—whether they be humanists, atheists, agnostics, or some other classification—as decent citizens who embrace a naturalistic worldview. Being a man of empiricism who valued learning from experience, John Dewey would no doubt approve.”
No doubt….You may have seen Noise’s article “9 Great Nonbelievers In U.S. History” John Dewey he lists as #5.
Image credits:Noise: http://www.meetup.com/humanistfellowship/events/64995092/
Non Believer Nation: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/12/20/future-book-alert-nonbeliever-nation/