January 27, 2014

Tom Flynn on ‘Secular Humanism’


One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Discussion


5 replies to “Tom Flynn on ‘Secular Humanism’

  1. Terrance Gibson

    Would love to sit back and listen to a dialogue between someone like Dr. Flynn and someone holding a position derived from J.Z. Smith’s “religion as invented category”. Russell McCutcheon’s views on “uses of the category religion”might form the basis for some interesting exchanges in this context.

    Reply

    1. David Robertson

      Indeed! Thomas Coleman and the editors have been discussing having a roundtable episode on just this topic only today. Speaking as one of the editors, I would say that A Smithian/McCutcheonite position is the more prominent here at the RSP, as you may have gleaned from the discussion at the end of the interview. However, while we have a “position”, the RSP does not have an “agenda”, so we do not censor our guests, nor direct the interviewers in particular directions. It is interesting, I think, that often when our interviewers come from related fields (Thomas Coleman is psychology major) that they bring different sets of concerns (and often assumptions) to the table. These differences and disagreements may alert us to the fruitful areas for debate and research in the future. At the very least – and I suspect McCutcheon would agree with me – Flynn is data.

      Reply

      1. Thomas Coleman

        As David notes, a discussion such as this would be most exciting. I have much to say on why, as I see, the only ‘meaningful’, definition of religion involves a belief in a culturally postulated superhuman agent (CPS). I would tend to agree with J.Z. smith that religion is an ‘invented category’ (I have not read him yet so I don’t want to lay my neck on the chopping block just yet!) but would depart from it being wielded as the scholar’s sword with which to strike whatever his or her fancy happens to be. From my perspective, a religion without a CPS could never be a ‘religion’. It may be ‘religion like’, or perhaps greater than religion.

        Also, as David points out correctly again, my disciplinary background is different. And from what I would term a ‘psychological point of view’, what is ‘interesting’ is the ‘choice’ between Belief or nonbelief in a CPS and how one situates themselves in relationship to those two ontological positions. I would argue to be religious is to Believe and to Believe is to be religious. Religion centered on Belief holds empirical weight for measurement purposes and does not provide fodder for theologians and apologists to argue for some sort of homo-religious. I think taking the ontological ground with which the individual constructs their world is not only the most humanistic stance, but the most scientifically interesting one too – Flynn is indeed data, just not ‘religious data’. ;)

  1. Pingback: Curriculum Vitae: Thomas J. Coleman III | tjc3.com

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