Exit the Humanists, Stage Left


The intent of this post is not to to adopt a position for or against any of the issues mentioned in it – be it same-sex marriage, euthanasia or abortion – but to point out that humanism, even secular humanism, does not, ipso facto, dictate a particular position on any of them. Yet many secular humanists seem to assume, indeed openly argue, the opposite.

This does a disservice both to the public sphere, and to humanism itself, leading as it does, some secular humanists to adopt deeply anti-humanist attitudes.


First published on Whale Oil blog

Brendan O’Neill’s recent article on same-sex marriage in Australia is remarkable, not only for its originality – that arguments for same-sex marriage “infantilise rather than emancipate” homosexuals – but for its singular rarity as a secular voice of opposition.

Of course, such has been ferocity of the same-sex marriage blitzkrieg through Western democracies – as O’Neill notes elsewhere, rarely has such a staggering societal change been executed with such swiftness and take-no-prisoners ruthlessness – that opponents have been largely left dumbfounded. As a result, same-sex marriage has been imposed almost before opponents have gathered their wits.

Yet, what is truly striking is the manner in which, when opposing arguments have been raised, the heavy lifting has been almost entirely left to religious voices. This is not because the only arguments against same-sex marriage are religious (despite sneering attempts by its proponents to frame all opposition as religious bigotry). As O’Neill shows, there are many non-religious arguments opposing same-sex marriage to be made.

The failure of humanists to supply a non-religious opposition to same-sex marriage is yet another in a long trend of humanists taking up arms in the contest of ideas for one side only: the Left. From same-sex marriage, to euthanasia, abortion, and more, humanists are almost reflexively siding with the Left, and in fact the Regressive Left. This is a state of affairs deeply damaging to our public discourse, and to humanism itself. It creates the false dichotomy that all opposition to Leftist causes comes from “the religious Right”, and it sometimes leads supposed humanists to adopt positively anti-humanist positions.

Humanism is, essentially, the philosophic and ethical stance that places ultimate value in human beings, their interests, dignity and worth. Humanism is generally non-religious, valuing as it does reason and free inquiry, science over mysticism, and rejecting dogmatism; nonetheless, humanism is still compatible with some religions. Indeed, humanism first began as an intellectual movement in Renaissance Italy.

Some humanists claim that it is necessarily a left-wing world-view, but there is no reason for this. Despite claims about “progressiveness” and “social justice”, what politics there are built in to humanism emphasise ideas such as personal liberty and anti-authoritarianism, and individual responsibility. Such ideas are frankly anathema to social justice “progressives” and left-wing ideologues.

Some prominent secular humanists have taken up voice against the Left, and against the Regressive Left in particular. The late Christoper Hitchens, for instance, articulated many reasoned arguments against some fashionable Leftist hobby-horses, even if his often monomaniacal anti-theism at times seemed to lead him to take up some positions, simply because the most prominent opposition came from the religious (although he was astute enough to observe that same-sex marriage “demonstrates the spread of conservatism, not radicalism, among gays”).

Australian conservative columnist Andrew Bolt is a fierce secular critic of the Regressive Left. Yet, many of his arguments merely defend those made by the religious: rightly defending the freedom of religious critics of, say, same-sex marriage, to argue their case without being villified by the Regressive Left.

Yet, the arguments by secular humanists are there to be made, as Brendan O’Neill has shown. Opposition to same-sex marriage need not at all be religious. Similarly, there are reasoned, humanist arguments in response to issues such as abortion, or euthanasia A humanist should surely emphasise the singular value of human life, for example, not treat it as something to be discarded whenever one is merely tired of it, as some advocate. Certainly a humanist would hardly repeat the common pro-euthanasia platitude of equating a human life with a pet.

Issues such as these are fraught, certainly, and as such they deserve better responses than tribalistic division along imagined battle-lines of humanist/Left and religious/Right.

This is the great danger of the bien pensant humanists’ gutless retreat into mouthing the conventional wisdoms of the Regressive Left. It’s a betrayal of humanist values themselves, and it creates a false dichotomy that deeply wounds the public sphere.

On the one hand, it gives an uncomfortable space to bigots of both stripes. When only religious voices are raised against the Left, they’re easy targets for bullying and sneers about “theocons” and “the Religious Right”. Religious opposition to issues like same-sex marriage is also, sadly, too often taken by some in religious communities as license to indulge their own hatreds.

On the other hand, it places an unfair burden on one segment of society. When the secular humanists desert the field, the religious are left alone to oppose the often heedless and destructive social engineering impulses of the Regressive Left.

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