Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Humanist President Speaks in San Diego

Says We Can’t Attack, but Must Critique, Religion


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers: call them what you will, but people who reject the concept of a supernatural deity are the last group of people it’s considered socially acceptable to discriminate against in America, said American Humanist Association (AHA) president Mel Lipman Sunday, February 11 at the San Diego Public Library. And it’s only getting worse, he added, with the unprecedented influence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians over the political system and their stated goal to erase the separation of church and state and make the U.S. a “Christian nation.”

Lipman seemed like an unlikely leader of a counter-movement to the Christian Right. He’s middle-aged, short, not particularly charismatic and dressed for his library appearance in a dark suit and a pair of black-rimmed glasses that made him look like the accountant he used to be. (He’s now an attorney and history professor in Las Vegas.) He noted that 2007 is the 25th anniversary of the founding of his organization, and that at 8,000 members the AHA is larger than it’s ever been — but its membership is only a drop in the bucket compared to that of radical-Right Christian churches and political organizations.

According to Lipman, humanism has many of the same concerns as religion — notably working out and promulgating an idea of ethics and a way that human beings can live with each other with honesty and justice. “The only place where we differ from well-intentioned religionists is in the absence of the supernatural,” Lipman said. “In the humanist view, reason will dominate the cultural sphere. We are seeing overwhelming scientific and technological changes, and humanism is the only philosophy that can accommodate them. Humanists owe it to the next generation to guarantee increased access to the rational alternative.”

Alas, Lipman acknowledged, the world in general and the United States in particular are moving in the opposite direction from reason and the humanist alternative. “We live in a supernatural culture in which ‘believing’ has become more important than what we believe,” he said. All too many Americans believe not only in God, but in a directly interventionist God issuing “revelations” through clerical hierarchies, which according to Lipman are invoked to block scientific progress and “make it acceptable not to fund stem-cell research, not to give out condoms, to reject the theory of evolution and refuse to act to stop the reality of global warming.”

According to Lipman, various polls indicate that from 15 to 30 million Americans — five to 10 percent of the population — “don’t believe in a supernatural God.” The problem is that only a handful of them are “out” as atheists, agnostics or humanists, and even a tinier fraction actually belong to atheist or humanist organizations. Lipman said that humanists are beginning to break through to the general culture, largely due to the best-selling books and TV appearances by humanist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — but the biggest single factor holding back the humanist movement is the reluctance of humanists to come out of the closet and go public about their non-belief in God.

“With the unprecedented growth in this age of information, humanists no longer have the luxury of talking to themselves,” Lipman said. “Our alternative must be effectively promoted. Unlike 25 years ago, today every humanist, atheist or freethought group should have a major budget for publicity. We have run ads on Air America and in progressive magazines like The Nation, The Progressive and Mother Jones promoting humanist values. Our attitude has shifted from private philosophizing to public action. We are mobilizing to get people to identify publicly as humanists and are offering free AHA membership to all recent college graduates. We are offering a $500 prize on YouTube for the best humanist video, and some of the entries include humanist authors like Daniel Dennett and Kurt Vonnegut.”

Lipman said the AHA needs to put together this kind of P.R. offensive to “rekindle the torch for future generations” and “aggressively promote our lifestyle. Until 25 years ago, it was sufficient to keep our beliefs or non-beliefs to ourselves. Now we have to assert ourselves, if for no other reason than self-defense.” Lipman quoted Christian-Right religious and political leaders like both Presidents Bush, Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, Presidential advisor Karl Rove, federal judge Janice Rogers Brown and Alabama governor Bob Riley not only calling for “a crusade to restore Christian values to America” (LaHaye) but explicitly denouncing “secular humanists” as the enemy and calling for the exclusion of humanists from political office and public life in the U.S.

“Anti-humanist discrimination has become fashionable and ‘patriotic,’” Lipman saoid. “A University of Wisconsin study showed Americans associate atheists and secular humanists with criminality. We are seen as a major threat to American life.” He also noted other poll results that said a majority of Americans would not vote for an avowed atheist for political office, and that twice as many Americans believe in the Second Coming as accept the scientific reality of evolution.

One positive step Lipman pointed to is the formation of the Secular Coalition of America (SCA), consisting of eight atheist and humanist organizations, including his own. “We now have a full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to protect the interests of non-supernaturalists. We have had sympathetic meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and our lobbyist has appeared on MS-NBC and three times on Bill O’Reilly’s program. Each appearance has resulted in individual humanists coming out and joining our fight to prevent America from becoming a theocracy.”

At least part of the problem facing humanists is how to deal with religion in general, and in particular whether, and on what terms, to ally with liberal and moderate believers who also are concerned about the growing influence of the radical Christian Right in the U.S. and fundamentalist movements worldwide.

“I believe the extent of radical fundamentalism will subside, and direct attacks on religion will only encourage fundamentalism,” Lipman said. “I can work with religious people, but we must not refrain from attacking irrational beliefs. Our primary purpose should be to define the positive characteristics of humanism and the joy we can derive from our naturalistic stances. Christianity offers heaven, Buddhism offers Nirvana, New Age philosophies offer inner peace and Islam offers 72 virgins. We need to offer our own promise, rather than attacking the promises of others. The big promise of humanism is the good life here and now. Our claims and promises are true and have been proven true again and again. We have to brand humanism as a good and caring way of life.”