Rallying the Humanists
In the midst of a brouhaha in Buffalo last month over a gay men's choral performance at a church, Jeff Ingersoll opened up the Buffalo News. A statement from a religious protester caught his eye: "You've got to stop the abortionists, the homosexuals, the pornographers, the secular humanists," the protester said. "These things are overtaking our country."
Ingersoll, a secular humanist, took offense. And so he did what many secular humanists today do when their deepest beliefs are insulted: He wrote a reasonable, mildly worded letter to the editor.
Reversal. Once a force to be reckoned with, secular humanists, who believe in science and rationalism in making moral choices, were behind many major cultural changes in the 20th century, including advances in women's liberation, civil rights, and desegregation. But an increasingly passionate and politically sophisticated Christian right has them on the defensive. "We're in the 21st century," says Jim Sedlak, executive director of STOPP International, an antiabortion group, "and there's a strong backlash."
But it's the backlash that may be invigorating a new wave of neosecularist activity. "Our growth is in proportion to the growth of extremism," says Mel Lipman, president of the American Humanist Association, whose membership more than doubled in the past three years.
But the new humanists face an uphill battle. "It's a question of what do you do with the 'A' word," says Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, a magazine from the Council for Secular Humanism. He means "atheism." The public tends to lump secular humanists (who are against religion in public discourse but who may still consider themselves religious) with atheists (who don't believe in God at all). With more than half of all Americans viewing atheists unfavorably, according to a 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that's not good for public relations. In 2003, two former academics tried to rebrand nonbelievers as "brights," but that term hasn't caught on with the general public.
Ironically, many secular humanists are looking to religious groups for inspiration on reinvigorating their base. Two years ago, Alabama medical student Ford Vox formed the Universist Movement, a secular group that meets much as a church would. Even camp is being secularized. The Free Inquiry Group established Camp Quest for the children of secular humanists. Meanwhile, the Secular Coalition for America plans to set up shop in Washington, D.C., with a full-time lobbyist.
But don't count on Ingersoll to join any protests: "It's just not something we would typically do."
This story appears in the August 8, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.