FREETHOUGHT CHALLENGES OF THE '90s
by Frederick Edwords
We live in a period of rapid technological and social change
unparalleled in the history of the world. A significant number of
trends, developments, and scientific discoveries have converged to
create a situation today that many find confusing, others find
threatening, and some even find thrilling.
Whether we're talking about global satellite communication, space
travel, the information revolution, genetic engineering, new birth
technologies, or exciting fossil discoveries -- science and
technology are transforming the world's values more dramatically
and more completely than organized religion has ever been capable
Let me explain:
In the early 1960s, the birth control pill became widely
available. This brought increased attention and acceptance to
contraception and family planning. It also reduced the pregnancy
risk for those wishing to enjoy sex outside marriage and allowed
women more control over their own bodies. In short order we saw
family size in the developed nations shrink, sexual freedom
expand, and the women's rights movement rise to social prominence.
Today, majority values about sex outside marriage, age, family
size, population control, and the place of women in society are
very different from what they were prior to the sixties.
But the revolution isn't over. Today we have the new birth
technologies: in vitro fertilization, sperm and egg banks, the
ill-fated surrogate parenting, and soon, advance selection of the
gender of one's offspring. Such developments force a whole host
of new moral and legal dilemmas upon us -- requiring, once again,
the development of a changed set of ethical standards. We will
think differently tomorrow because of the technologies we
assimilate into our culture today.
Biotechnology is another developing area. This includes genetic
engineering, patenting of new life forms, cloning, and possibly
trans-species hybrids. With these developments, the features of
each life form will become capable of modification. One benefit
will be that genetic diseases, normally treated again and again in
each generation of an afflicted family, will now be wiped out of
the line altogether. Like some communicable diseases, some
genetic diseases will be brought to extinction. With nearly the
same license that we have manipulated machines in the past we will
soon begin to manipulate organisms. There can be no question that
this will have an incalculable impact on our values about life and
about the quality of life.
Recent developments in medical technology have already forced a
plethora of new ethical issues upon us. In fact, we have come so
far that professionals now disagree on when a person comes into
existence and when a person actually dies.
Does human life begin at conception, at the appearance of brain
waves, at birth, or some time after? What we decide affects our
views concerning the freezing of embryos, the rights of such
embryos, fetal adoption, a mother's prenatal care obligation, the
atmosphere in the birthing room, and selective nontreatment of
Does human life end with the death of the heart, the death of the
brain, or the loss of "significant life?" What we decide affects
our views on hospice, living wills, and euthanasia. It also
forces us to decide in the future if it is OK to use comatose
individuals as "living" organ banks or, as Dr. Kavorkian advocates
and I oppose, harvest death-row inmates for their body parts.
Medical technology is daily changing our values concerning human
Global satellite communication has made the world smaller and has
increased public interest and involvement in international
politics. We can now watch a war, or a democratic revolution, as
it happens, and from both sides. And we can see how actions taken
in one place affect the environment in some other. The slogan,
"Think globally, organize locally" sums up much of the resulting
politics. And through the video cassette recorder and cable TV,
individual choice in information gathering has been enhanced. No
longer do people need to get their ethics, their esthetics, or
their politics from a common source. The existence of
alternatives and options in almost everything has the potential to
limit the influence of mass propaganda and bolster minority
Then there are computers. Through desktop publishing, any
computer owner can become a publisher. Home computer modems make
possible individual information-gathering on a global scale. In
short, private and individual choice is also enhanced through the
computer, as much as is the power of individuals to invade the
privacy of others, spread software viruses, and so forth.
Space travel can change our goals. We may, in time, no longer be
limited to this globe for our pursuits and interests. Colonies in
space will, as have all colonies in human history, bring into
existence alternative societies and novel ideas. Different
visions of life's purpose will emerge.
Meanwhile, startling fossil discoveries of our evolutionary
ancestors are giving us an increasingly clearer view of who we are
and what we are about. The irony is that these discoveries are
coming at a time when we are developing the capability, through
genetic research, to change the very natures we are just coming to
The conclusion from all this is clear. Technology changes society
and changes values. We find ourselves today in the midst of an
incredible transformation -- one that is wrecking havoc on our
Because so many people cannot deal comfortably with the moral
dilemmas raised by the new technologies, one reaction has been a
backlash. This backlash is a repeat performance of past reactions
to change. In every age where the old ways were uprooted by new
technologies, there were those prophets of conservatism who sought
to put the genie back into the bottle. During the industrial
revolution, for example, orthodox preachers fumed from the pulpit
against the new machines. Congregations were told that God never
intended his children to travel as fast as a steam locomotive
could take them, and that people were in danger of losing their
souls if they sneezed while aboard such a swiftly moving
Today, not wishing to echo the cries of the Luddites, modern
fundamentalist preachers utilize the new technologies to more
effectively cry out against the changes in moral values that these
same technologies bring. Few things are more ironic than
listening to a preacher, broadcasting over satellite, condemning
the rise of globalism -- or pontificating on cable TV or a
videocassette, as he complains about people making too many
individualistic choices and "doing their own thing."
And these profound Bible pounders have given the new values a
name. They call them SECULAR HUMANIST VALUES and they blame them
on the existence of a small document called "The Humanist
Manifesto." And they blame the spread of these values on a small
cadre of organized Humanists in the American Humanist Association.
Oh, the flattery of it!
In the rush of history, if the past is any indication, these
reactionaries will fail. The world will change, and they will
either change with it (proclaiming that these changes had been
advocated by them all along), or they will resist the changes and
become entrenched in their own ways, living in their own
communities, much like the Amish do today.
And given that these changes have been proclaimed by them to be
Humanism, Humanism will triumph. As Humanist Manifesto II
declares in its opening sentence, "The next century can be and
should be the humanistic century." Certainly some of the values
that naturally derive from certain new technologies are
humanistic. Among those that I have mentioned or hinted at are:
free inquiry, free choice among alternatives, individual
liberties, increased opportunities for self-realization, a
breaking down of mass propaganda and dogma, laws and ethics that
take into consideration situations and circumstances, open-minded
attitudes on human sexuality, global thinking, participatory
democracy, and a greater appreciation for the power of the
For these reasons, Humanist Manifesto II begins with an optimistic
view of technology, declaring:
Using technology wisely, we can control our environment,
conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-
span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of
human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new
powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity
for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.
But it follows this with a warning:
The future is, however, filled with dangers. In learning to
apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we
have opened the door to ecological damage, overpopulation,
dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and
nuclear and biochemical disaster.
In short, there is no guarantee that a humanistic USE of these
new technologies will prevail. That's up to us, and we have a
tremendous job ahead. We have no time to wonder if Humanism and
Freethought will survive. It is our job to make sure that they
survive, to create a future for Humanism and Freethought, lest
there be no future at all.
And that brings me to the specific Freethought challenges we face
right now, in the 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, as
democratic change sweeps the globe, the ironic effect so far has
been an incredible growth in religiosity and irrationality. Let
me share with you a few examples.
o Christianity Today magazine has dubbed the former Soviet
Union "the most open mission field in the world," as
evangelists and missionaries descend from the West to hold
mass rallies and distribute staggering numbers of bibles
and tracts. In this light, it's no surprise that the
first ministry legally registered in Russia since the fall
of Communism was Campus Crusade for Christ.
o But evangelicals aren't the only ones grabbing a market
share of the old "Evil Empire." Mormon missionaries are
at work there. The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon
offered to fund a bolstering of the economy in return for
special privileges. Full color Hari Krishna posters now
appear in Moscow's subways while devotees distribute
"blessed" food. And Moscow has become home to five
national UFO study groups, four astrology organizations,
and the Russian Theosophical society.
o Jehovah's Witnesses reported 18,293 converts in Eastern
Europe in 1991. Over 12,000 Armenians have been trained
in Transcendental Meditation. Zen Buddhism, Hinduism,
Theosophy, Hawaiian Huna magic, Sikhism, Baha'i Faith, and
Rastafarianism are growing in Poland. The Children of God
have set up shop in Bulgaria, and Zoroastrianism is
growing in Hungary.
o Despite the fact that most Czechs do not want their
rejection of Communist tyranny to become an open door to
religious dogma, all 2.3 million school-age children in
former Czechoslovakia got The Book of Life, a retelling of
the story of Jesus ending with a call to faith. This
government-approved public school distribution was a
project of the Assemblies of God, the denomination that
brought us Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
o Also with the Assemblies of God is Frederick Chiluba, the
Zambian president, who declared his country a "Christian
nation," much to the chagrin of Muslims and civil
The effects of this activity are shown in the Scripture Language
Report of the United Bible Societies, which claims that more than
80% of the world's people have access to at least a part of the
Bible. But this has created the inevitable conflict.
o While Jews for Jesus has been busy converting large
numbers of Ukrainian Jews to Christianity, the New
York-based Jews for Judaism has been at work for the last
few years to "expose and unmask the missionaries," and to
train Ukrainian Jewish community leaders in counter
evangelism. Clashes between representatives of both
groups have taken place.
o Not to be outdone, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia took the lead
in funding the worldwide promotion of Islam. He ordered
6.2 million copies of the Koran to be printed and
distributed in the United States, Europe, China, and
elsewhere. Joining him were wealthy Muslims who want to
help build more mosques and Islamic centers everywhere.
Even international events have become a target.
o The Action Evangelique Olympique, an organization of
tireless evangelical students, made an extensive
distribution of conservative Christian literature to
spectators at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
o Meanwhile, over 3,500 Youth With a Mission got involved in
the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. They conducted
open-air church services and performed gospel drama and
dance in the streets. The International Bible Society
gave 125,000 scripture portions to athletes and coaches.
And religious promotion continues unabated in the United States.
o Since the U.S. Supreme Court's approval of the Equal
Access Act, student-led campus Bible clubs in the public
schools number over 10,000. The effect has been an
increase in "hallway evangelism" that has led some
irritated students to petition school authorities to stop
o In a January 1992 speech to the National Religious
Broadcasters, President Bush declared, "You cannot be
America's president without a belief in God or a belief in
prayer." During his administration, he has sponsored
numerous prayer breakfasts, and both the House and the
Senate have done likewise.
Clearly, the task ahead for us is immense. But, with our small
budgets, and a recession economy, we have been unable to as
effectively seize the growth opportunities available. The
International Humanist and Ethical Union, of which the American
Humanist Association and the American Ethical Union are founding
members, has begun small and struggling groups in many East
European countries, in Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America.
This is a promising development, but we must do more.
For all of us here, the place to begin is at home. Recent surveys
in the United States (still the most technologically advanced
nation in the world) indicate that American students continue to
score near the bottom of the heap in science, and that 47% of
Americans in general reject evolution and believe in creationism!
According to Emerging Trends, 95% of American teenagers believe in
a god or universal spirit. Of those 16 and older, 32% say they
have experienced God's presence. Teenagers who pray when they are
by themselves number 75%; who read the Bible when they are by
Yet, contrary to religious expectations, the mental, physical, and
emotional well-being of the young is at its lowest ebb in 30
years. Science magazine recently noted a "fall in test scores,
the doubling of teenage suicide and homicide rates, and the
doubling of births to unwed mothers."
Humanists and Freethinkers owe it to the next generation to
guarantee that there is an increasing access to the rational
And it's not just traditional religious fundamentalism that
deserves our attention. The next century won't be rendered a
humanistic century merely because it isn't a fundamentalist
century. Humanism is not the name for what you get when you don't
have a dominant fundamentalism. There are many things that are
neither fundamentalism nor Humanism, such as mysticism and the New
Age movement. With the assimilation of the new technologies, it
could be these ideas that dominate instead of ours.
Such fashionable religions and therapies, in one way or another,
play on the excitement of changing times to offer ever more
outlandish concepts. Whether we're dealing with the
pseudo-technologies of pyramid power, psychic surgery, or
channeling; or the self-help strategies of meditation, aural
reading, or Scientology processing, phenomena generically labeled
"New Age" have affected the thinking of millions.
Again, this is nothing new. During the period of major
transformation at the dawn of the Middle Ages, a mass of new
religions sprung up to capture the public imagination. The same
thing happened again during the early part of the Industrial
Revolution. Exciting times bring exciting ideas -- and anxiety.
And fast on the heels of anxiety are new therapies promising a
cure. That's why we have a New Age movement in today's "age of
But it isn't enough just to know this. It isn't enough to merely
understand why such things happen, to say to yourself: "Golly,
that's too bad, I guess people really go nuts during changing
times. It's a good thing I still have my wits about ME!"
What is needed is action. Humanism should thrive during changing
times. The Humanist alternative to traditional belief should be
vigorously promoted in a way that answers the nagging questions in
the minds of the people. For it is in Humanism that we have one
of the most revolutionary and beneficial philosophies there is,
its advocates having waited a long time to witness the dislodging
of the old values -- and yet nothing happens. Humanists, of all
people, have been the slowest to leap into the breech, to
capitalize on the changes occurring in the public mind-set. Yet
the opportunity is ready-made for just such an entry.
Proof of this can be found in the rapid and surprising growth of
the New Age. Contrary to the way many Humanists think, the New
Age is not merely some new superstition to replace the old.
Though it certainly has its share of nonsense and foolishness,
it also has some important parallels with Humanism and
Freethought. Let me list a few ideas that are shared by many
followers of the New Age and by almost all Humanists and
Freethinkers. These ideas are:
1. Rejection of the notion of a jealous and punishing god.
2. Rejection of the dogmatism of fundamentalist Christianity.
3. Rejection of religious angst and feelings of guilt.
4. Strong belief in the power and significance of human beings.
5. Acceptance of a concept of human evolution.
6. Interest in mental self-development.
7. Recognition of the joys in the here and now, particularly in
relation to food and sex.
8. Support for global and ecological thinking.
9. Flexible and excited interest in new ideas.
I could add more, but this will provide an adequate sampling to
demonstrate that a significant percentage of the North American
population is ripe for a number of the ideas Humanists and
Freethinkers have been advancing for years. Many followers of the
New Age turn to it not because they are inclined toward
superstition, but because the New Age is the only show in town.
This, then points up the problem: the reason why most of those
initially attracted to the New Age haven't found a better home in
Humanism or Freethought.
In part, it's the absence of an effective publicity campaign by
Humanists and Freethinkers. But those who somehow do manage to
stumble upon a Humanist, Freethought, or Atheist organization,
often find themselves either in a den of anti-religious
nay-sayers, or in a loosely organized and ill-defined political
caucus. There is rarely much offered for the serious seeker of
happiness and the good life.
Sure, there's an occasional Unitarian or Ethical Culture pulpit
homily about living better, but that's a far cry from intensive
classes, self-help study courses, and organized therapeutic
As a result, the word "Humanism" more often conjures up in the
public mind images of windy Manifestos, Bible bashing, and
intellectuals lecturing endlessly about reason, science, and civil
liberties. While Humanism indeed involves all of these things,
it's also a philosophy of joy, personal fulfillment, and emotional
liberation. It's a philosophy that can bring peace of mind and
But heaven forbid that we should ever tell anybody!
Is it our classified secret? Do we prefer to engage in purely
intellectual discussion, to prove, for the umpteenth time, that
mind-body dualism is a myth?
Yet, after we've proved it, do we do much with the information?
Do we now more fully enjoy and celebrate our bodies? Our
feelings? Our senses? Do we live our values like the New Agers
The reason the New Age promoters, the growing Yuppie
mega-churches, and even the evangelicals have been able to benefit
from changing times while we haven't is because we have too often
looked down upon efforts to make our philosophy personally
relevant and emotionally satisfying.
I think the time has come to get serious about applying Humanism
and Freethought to the basic needs of people: to healing the
hurts, sharing the joys, and expanding the horizons. The time for
a lopsided "left-brained Freethought" and Humanists who have
become "God's frozen people" is past. We have a rewarding and
balanced philosophy that we can teach, in a warm and loving way,
to our fellow human beings. We won't be so arrogant as to IMPOSE
it, but we can be caring enough to share it. Up to now, we have
selfishly kept it to ourselves and our small circle of friends.
The next century will be the humanistic century only if we change
our ways, open up, and reach out to others. And our outreach must
appeal to them not only intellectually, but also emotionally,
aesthetically, sentimentally, and even physically.
The most successful Atheist and Humanist groups around the world
do this. For example, during my travels in India I met with the
people of the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada who were active in
counseling battered women, rehabilitating criminals, providing
birth control services, helping people develop a rational
life-style, even teaching "atheistic" dances.
We like to think of Indians as "third world," yet Indian Humanists
are far more advanced in the expression of Humanism than we are.
When we look at ourselves, we should ask, how different, really,
are we from our conservative church-bound brethren?
A startling answer was uncovered a few years ago in a study of
Humanist groups worldwide conducted by Beverley Earles and
financed in part by the American Humanist Association. Dr. Earles
found that leaders of Humanist organizations and Ethical Societies
in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain,
Switzerland, and Luxembourg all complained about the same
constellation of ills: small membership, poor participation among
those who were members, and an infrequency of young people and
families among those who did join or participate. Together with
these common complaints was a common explanation -- the claim that
Humanists are such individualists that they are non-joiners. Put
more cleverly, they argued that the art of Humanist leadership is
the ability to "organize the unorganizable."
Beverley Earles, however, concluded that "this notion is nothing
less than a psychological rationale that cushions the blows of
repeated failure. It has evolved as a myth to account for an
assumed and irritating attractiveness of churches . . . "
Her research revealed that, in terms of membership-to-attendance
ratios, Humanism fares no worse than traditional religion!
According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches,
the attendance rates among Protestants average between 35 and 40%.
The largest attendance figures are held by the Mormons, but that
is only 50%. Although Humanist groups, Ethical Societies, and UU
churches have fewer people to start with, their attendance rates
fall into the common 35-40% average. So the argument that
Humanists and liberal religionists are unique in being non-
participants doesn't hold up too well. Instead, it would be more
accurate to argue that, with the secularization of Western
society, most people in the developed nations are non-
participants. One cannot, therefore, point a finger only at
Humanists and Freethinkers.
And since the problem is generalized throughout our culture, one
must ask if all the groups: Humanist, liberal religionist, and
traditional religionist are each doing the same mistaken things.
Beverley Earles found out that the answer is, essentially, yes.
One should not be surprised at this. If all these groups complain
about the same problems and use the same excuse to account for
them, then it is likely that they are all repeating the same
error. Let's look at this error, first from the standpoint of
Humanist and Freethought organizations.
Local chapters of the American Humanist Association, the Council
on Democratic and Secular Humanism, Atheist groups, Rationalist
societies, Freethought organizations, along with Humanist
community groups in many countries, often continue to follow the
lecture/discussion model for meetings. They seem to operate on
the assumption that if they can only get good enough speakers,
they can increase the level of participation of their members,
start attracting large crowds, and begin to change the hearts and
minds of the majority. Yet this method often fails and we
constantly hear the same complaints and excuses. The lecture/
discussion model for meetings developed out of the nineteenth
century Freethought movement and today's Humanists and
Freethinkers, in their inability to give it up in the face of
repeated failure, show that they are just as tradition-bound as
are the conservative religionists who they criticize at those very
Ethical Culture Societies and UU Churches are just as locked-in to
this approach. A liberal church service is little more than a
lecture/discussion surrounded by ritual and song that is held on a
Sunday morning. In a way, this is even worse. At least secular
Humanist organizations don't generally expect their members to get
up on a weekEND morning at about the same time as they do for work
during the week, get dressed up, and spend part of a nice day
cooped up in some building -- not when they could be out enjoying
nature or living the good life! The irony is that some UU
churches, realizing this, close up shop for the summer -- which
only acknowledges the error without really remedying it.
If Humanists, Freethinkers, and religious liberals are really
willing to question tradition, this is the tradition they should
question. But what, then, is a better model if this one is so
wrong? The answer was also revealed in Beverley Earles' study.
She found that providing a variety of activities, including
singles groups, activist committees, parties, dances, and
excursions, brought in a larger and more varied group of people.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch Humanist organizations have been
able to attract 50% of the non-believing population, including
large numbers of young people, to the Humanist movement. Since
non-believers represent a sizeable segment of the general
population in that country, this amounts to as much as 20% of the
Dutch being involved with Humanism in some way. How have they
Part of the explanation lies in their multi-faceted approach. The
Dutch realized early on that human beings, even humanistic human
beings, are not simply intellects on legs. People are also
social, physical, and emotional beings who are interested in
activities that appeal to their aesthetic, gastronomic, muscular,
and jocular sensibilities, to name a few. So the Dutch developed
a wide range of programs that invited interested people to pick
and choose as they wished and contribute as much or as little as
they liked. They offered a smorgasbord, and it worked.
A glimpse of this success has been seen in the United States with
some chapters of the American Humanist Association, some UU
Churches, and some Ethical Culture Societies. These have broken
through the limited lecture/discussion program model to also
schedule outdoor excursions, music, gallery tours, celebrations,
and a lot more. Their programs are held at various times and on
various days to appeal to more people. But such instances are
So, it's the multi-faceted approach that makes an organization
popular. As a response to traditional churches, many Secular
Humanists have suggested the creation of "Humanist centers." They
feel that the public center that appeals to a variety of human
impulses is an organizational model for the future. The most
successful liberal and conservative churches are now moving in
that direction and it is making them more effective competitors in
the marketplace of ideas. If Humanism and Freethought are to have
a place in tomorrow's world, Humanist and Freethought
organizations in the United States will have to adopt this method
And they need to develop study-courses, programs, and one-on-
one interactions that provide actual therapeutic benefits to
people. There are individuals out there suffering guilt and
anxiety because of traditional religious indoctrination. We can
help them. There are people who already have outgrown such
beliefs but who have nowhere to turn in times of trouble. We can
help them. There is a vast audience for self-help books of all
types, an audience made up of people who want to be more
effective, more organized, more motivated, and to feel better
about themselves. We can help them too.
It is entirely consistent with modern Rationalism to teach the
good life as envisioned by Bertrand Russell, a life motivated by
love and guided by knowledge, a life of reason and compassion.
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their 1954
book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they wrote:
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life
should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive
awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.
Referring to this attitude as "zest for living," they were
following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in his book The
Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal
and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this
quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound
appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things
until they have enough, and know when to stop.
Our various organizations need to promote this sort of joyful
living. We need to offer classes and courses, videos and
home-study guides, books and periodicals, support groups and
And we need to offer programs that help people liberate
themselves. The most successful program started by the American
Humanist Association works right along these lines. It is called
Rational Recovery, a substance-abuse program for people who are
fed up with the traditional religiosity and frequently addictive
nature of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. It is for people who
want a rational approach to ending chemical dependence.
This program, as well as one called Secular Sobriety, is
successful because it meets a crying human need. It helps people
in trouble and it helps them grow. The New York Times, Newsweek,
leading TV talk shows, and numerous other publicity channels have
given Rational Recovery massive free exposure. And the results
have been overwhelming. Jack Trimpey, the founder of Rational
Recovery, has been inundated with responses that keep his phone
ringing off the hook daily. He and his wife had to quit their old
jobs to devote full time to this program. James Christopher,
founder and creator of Secular Sobriety, has had to do likewise.
AHA chapters, CODESH chapters, UU churches, and others have gotten
behind Rational Recovery and Secular Sobriety to make them the
fastest growing Humanist endeavors in the country. It just goes
to show you what can happen when Humanism is applied to meeting
emotional human needs in the here-and-now.
But this might only be a beginning. There are so many areas of
life where an applied Humanism could make a real difference. And
in doing so, it could begin to supplant the powerful influence of
the New Age movement. It could begin to do for people what the
New Age only promises to do.
One subject that is ripe for a popular rational program is that of
the American tendency toward feelings of guilt. As one learns in
Anthropology 101, there are guilt cultures and shame cultures.
Well, this country in many ways is a guilt culture. The episodes
with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are adequate testimony to that.
But we have a philosophy of liberation that can act as a counter
to such tendencies. If they chose, Humanist and Freethought
organizations could become recognized as centers where people come
to find inner freedom.
Ours, in many ways, is an anti-guilt philosophy. But you'd never
know it to come to one of our meetings! It's not something we
like to talk about. (Do we feel guilty about it?) And if we have
successfully dealt with our own inner pain, that doesn't
necessarily mean we want our group meetings devoted to helping
others deal with theirs. So nothing gets done. And those pained
by irrational guilt and anxiety turn to their nearest New Age
practitioner, or visit their local church or temple, in hopes of
finding that solace the Humanists and Freethinkers failed to offer
You see, we needn't define our philosophy exclusively in abstract
and intellectual terms. It can be an emotional thing as well.
And, what's more, one shouldn't have to be an intellectual to be
one of us.
Let me repeat that: One shouldn't have to be an intellectual to
be one of us.
It is perfectly legitimate for Humanists and Freethinkers to
promote a program that would appeal to people of fewer
intellectual interests. What would be wrong with a more emotional
I remember speaking to one woman who I found to be in general
sympathy with Humanist ideas. But she told me she still liked to
go to church. So I suggested that she consider the
Unitarian-Universalist denomination. Her response was
interesting. She told me that she had tried them already. I
asked her if she had found herself in disagreement. She said
"No." "What was the matter, then?" I asked. And she said,
"There's no excitement there. I don't FEEL anything!"
There are millions of people like her -- people who are Atheists
and Agnostics but who aren't intellectuals -- people who have
liberal attitudes, but want some excitement, some emotion, some
(dare I say it?) religious adventure.
And that's what the New Age offers -- religious adventure for
people of tolerance.
Just think of the fun and exciting things New Agers get to do.
First, they get to go on a great journey of self-exploration.
Second, they get to make thrilling discoveries that can increase
their happiness -- sort of like going on a treasure hunt through
Third, they get to participate in invigorating ceremonies and
In short, for the New Ager, philosophy is fun!
Well, I think Humanism and Freethought can be fun, too. I think
there are humanistic voyages of self-discovery. And I think there
can be non-ritualistic ceremonies that express our ideals and
Perhaps most intellectual Humanists and Freethinkers won't be
interested. But that's OK. I'm not saying this particular
approach is for everyone -- anymore than a purely intellectual
philosophy is for everyone. All I'm saying is that the
Freethought movement can become broader without abandoning its
principles. It can appeal to the non-intellectual or
non-political individual without sacrificing any of its
intellectually-discovered conclusions, or giving up its present
So I say, yes, there can be a popular Humanism; a Humanism that
reaches out to people where they are; a self-help Humanism; a
Humanism that is fun, is exciting, is full of adventure and
self-discovery -- and which doesn't require a Ph.D. or membership
If you think such an approach will get nowhere, consider this
What if Christianity had only appealed to intellectuals? Would it
be the world's most popular religion today? Or would it survive
only in learned enclaves, easily overpowered by the far more
popular forces worshiping the one and only crucified savior, the
dead and risen Adonis.
The Roman Catholic Church appealed to both intellectuals and more
ordinary people. That is part of the secret of its success. The
New Age is increasingly attempting the same. Our world view rests
on firmer ground than either. All it lacks is popular support.
But that popular support is there for the asking. All we need to
do is apply our philosophy to the meeting of ordinary human needs.
All we need to do is speak in ordinary language with an
And then we need to promote ourselves like crazy. Yes, promote
ourselves! This is something else we don't like to talk about,
yet it is vital if Humanism and Freethought are to grow. I'm
referring to marketing, something that is often viewed as a dirty
word in Humanist and Freethought circles.
You see, to many of us, Humanism isn't supposed to prosper
-- lest it cease to be truly Humanism. This is the failure
mentality, the death-wish brought on by an unrealistic level of
idealism that equates popularity with impurity. Fundamentalists
don't suffer from this particular delusion. They market their
religion like profit organizations market consumer products. This
accounts for their incredible success all over the world, and all
out of proportion to the truth value of their claims.
If Humanism and Freethought are to have a place in the future,
they will have to shed their fear of marketing and begin to
directly and forthrightly advance their ideas in the world. A
significant portion of the budget of every Atheist group,
Freethought society, and Humanist organization will need to be
devoted to promotion.
It's time to spread the "good news" about our way of life.
The changing world of modern technology is creating ethical issues
that are breaking down the old consensus on values. A void has
been created. This is our opening. This is our opportunity. The
trends are in our favor if we will but seize the moment, ride the
wave, and deliberately propel ourselves and our ideas into the
So, let's begin to think of the 21st century as our century, and
the century of our children and grandchildren. Let's let
humanistic values be our legacy to the future. Let's make them
relevant to the daily lives of people. Let's make them fun. And
let's promote them with all the vigor of our conviction.
We have nothing to lose but our minority status.
This is the text of a talk delivered at the 1992 HUMCON in Cherry
Valley, California. Its author, Frederick Edwords, is the
executive director of the American Humanist Association.
(C) Copyright 1992 by Frederick Edwords
Permission to reproduce and distribute this material in electronic
or printout form, or through reprinting, is hereby granted free of
charge by the copyright holder to nonprofit Humanist and
Freethought organizations and publications only. All others must
secure advance permission of the author through the American
Humanist Association, which can be contacted at the address at the
end of this file.
For further information on Humanism and the AHA, please contact --
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
PO BOX 1188
AMHERST NY 14226-7188
Phone: (800) 743-6646