The secular humanist movement has issued a number of manifestos outlining its goals for the future, but its most recent document shows more concern about religion’s predominance in the world, the growth of “irrational” philosophies, and balancing responsibility as well as freedom.
The “Humanist Manifesto 2000” is similar to the previous manifestos in proclaiming secularism and a non-theistic world order the wave of the future, although the emphasis is now on what is called “planetary humanism.” The manifesto, published in the secular humanist magazine, Free Inquiry (Fall), claims that the growth of religious and ethnic rivalries and fundamentalist, pessimistic, and apocalyptic movements makes a new humanist offensive particularly important.
Specifically marked out for criticism is postmodernism in universities which, according to manifesto drafter and philosopher Paul Kurtz, questions the “basic premises of modernity and humanism, attacking science and technology, and questioning humanist ideas and values.” In an interview in the Washington Times newspaper (Sept. 8), Kurtz says that the new theme of this manifesto is the importance of responsibility along with freedom; one section says ethics can be derived from common universal principles based on reason and biology. While the manifesto calls for optimism about the future, it also has a defensive tone, viewing secular humanism as a minority voice. The manifesto acknowledges that “most worldviews accepted today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in character.”
Since college campuses are often the birthplace of new philosophies and the doorway to involvement in many new religious movements, the secular humanist movement is increasingly targeting these institutions, according to Lingua Franca (October), the magazine reporting on academic life. Those choosing to disaffiliate themselves from any form of organized theistic faith are finding in the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) an opportunity to affirm a life philosophy, consider new moral directions, find for themselves an intellectual tool kit, and develop an agenda for political activism. Founded by Prof. Paul Kurtz in l996, the CFA has spread over the past three years to include participants on over 100 campuses.
The CFA aims to provide for the skeptics an organization much like that of Hillel, Campus Crusade, and the Muslim Students’ Association. Activities include lectures, parties, activism, and socializing opportunities. Collegians are joining for several reasons; fear of the growing influence of the religious right, seeking an alternative to the nihilistic outlook of post-modernism, and what it sees as an anti-intellectual climate recently strengthened in Kansas, which removed evolution from the school curriculum.
On several campuses, CFA chapters have become directly involved in activism on environmental causes, racial equality, women’s rights, gay and lesbian liberation, and the separation of church and state. The members report many instances of resistance to their agendas, with one collegian finding it to be as difficult to be atheistic as it is to be gay. Observers note also the benefit of CFA offering an alternative campus program that provides community, identity and security in uncertain times.
They offer such festivals as Superstition Bash Day, Darwin Day, Banned Book Week, and Freethought Day . The article concludes with the analysis that the CFA serves as “a warm haven for the CFA’s most vulnerable members — those at smaller, more conservative schools and those from fundamentalist families.”
(Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226; Lingua Franca, 22 W. 38th St., New York, NY 10018)
— This report was written with RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad