Wanted: Better Understanding of Humanism

June 1, 2015

Molly Worthen's Sunday New York Times op-ed on the Sunday Assembly phenomenon ("Wanted: A Theology of Atheism," May 30) demonstrates, if nothing else, how badly we need to educate the media about the humanist movement -- and about atheism, for that matter.

Let's begin with the headline. What on earth is a "theology of atheism"? Atheists -- you know, people who hold no belief in God -- would seem to be the last people in need of a "theology," which dictionary.com defines as "the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God's attributes." In Ms. Worthen's defense, some headline writer is probably responsible for this faux pas. Presumably the next facepalm moment is Ms. Worthen's responsibility alone.

Profiling the Sunday Assmblies, that congregational-humanist project that arose in the U.K. and whose light-hearted pseudo-church services are springing up in various U.S. cities, Worthen writes, "Is this what secular humanism — the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear — looks like in practice?"

The answer to that is no. The Sunday Assemblies are what congregational humanism -- maybe even religious Humanism -- look like in practice. Unfortunately, Worthen presumes the affirmative and goes on: "In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void ..." Later still she mentions the Society for Ethical Culture -- an explicitly, even proudly, religious-Humanist organization -- and associates even that with secular humanism.

Secular humanism is the variety of humanism that, among many other things, prefers to avoid communal exercises that borrow too many of the trappings of church or synagogue. Some secular humanists distrust all group ceremony, finding it authoritarian and in tension with individual self-determination. Others prefer not to be reminded of the religious traditions they grew up in and take such pride in having outgrown. You're not going to find too many secular humanists at a Sunday assembly, much less at an Ethical Culture service. (For a vivid discussion of the "flavors" of humanism, Free Inquiry subscribers can read more by meJames Croft and Greg EpsteinWilliam R. Murry, and Jennifer Kalmanson, all of which appeared in FREE INQUIRY's October/November 2013 issue.)

Inside the movement we sometimes think the distinctions among secular humanism, congregational humanism, and religious Humanism have been done to death. Obviously those outside the movement need to hear a good deal more about it.


#1 David (Guest) on Monday June 01, 2015 at 10:47am

Here! Here! Very true indeed.

“Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” - Sting, “All This Time”

#2 Martine Frampton (Guest) on Monday June 01, 2015 at 11:39am

Definitely no “church-shaped void” in my life.

#3 Beth Presswood (Guest) on Tuesday June 02, 2015 at 3:28pm

“You’re not going to find too many secular humanists at a Sunday assembly,”


#4 Matt Dillahunty (Guest) on Tuesday June 02, 2015 at 3:42pm

If you want a better understanding, perhaps you should start with the humanist manifesto - which doesn’t seem to support your ‘no true humanist’ statements.

You’re right that there’s no church-shaped void…but you lose that ground when you start implying that true secular humanists wouldn’t participate in communal exercises. When you make this claim without supporting data and with ill-defined, subjective phrasing like, “..too many of the trappings of church or synagogue”, you’ve gone too far.

Define “too many” and start be explaining who gets to make that decision. Define “trappings” and demonstrate that what these organizations are doing should be fairly considered to be trappings rather than mere participation in human social constructs that may also have been co-opted by churches and synagogues.

We sang in church. Does that make singing a “church thing”? Your reasoning is going right off the rails.

Considering that the latest AHA manifesto post includes language like:

“Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.”

...your stated views don’t seem to mesh with that, prompting a concern about whether or not YOU would qualify under this view of secular humanism.

“You’re not going to find too many secular humanists at a Sunday assembly, much less at an Ethical Culture service.”

You seem proud to say that. Not surprising given your Grinchly tradition of poo-pooing all forms of celebration and community.

While it was nice of you to include a citation to articles, those articles can’t trump actually data on the self-presented identities of those who do, in fact, attend these things (and I’m not one of those who attends, if you were suspecting an unfair bias).

But the real citation for your ‘no true secular humanist’ might as well have been “Tom Flynn’s ass”.

#5 soupergenius (Guest) on Tuesday June 02, 2015 at 7:16pm


You forgot the most important rule of our little club. You don’t get to define us. We do as we please and don’t answer to your opinion, no matter who you are. Time to apologize for make broad sweeping statements about all of us based on your personal experience. You should know better.

Thank you Matt for pointing this one out.

Love the show!

#6 John Manford (Guest) on Wednesday June 03, 2015 at 7:57am

Unless the things at Sunday Assembly are not secular, where do you get off and how are you the speaker for Secular Humanists? 
Are you writing a dogma for us?  Will there be a purity test to make sure our secular humanism meets your standards?

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.