Secular separatists

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week with more background on the “Imagine No Religion” ad campaign and related developments:

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists — in short, nonbelievers of every description — will gather in dozens of cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.

Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they’ll celebrate what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless — a surge in recognition that has many convinced they’re on the brink of making a mark on mainstream America…

Building on that momentum, nonbelievers have begun a very public campaign to win broad acceptance. On billboards and bus ads, radio commercials and the Internet, atheists are coming forward to declare, quite simply: We’re here. And we’re just like you.

The article is interesting throughout and includes the revelation that atheists now fund a congressional lobbyist. I’m looking forward to receiving a federal subsidy for the time I spend not worshiping. Hey, it works for farmers.

So what is this HumanLight day and what happened to its founders’ space bar?

In Western societies, late December is a season of good cheer and a time for gatherings of friends and families. During the winter holiday season, where the word “holiday” has taken on a more secular meaning, many events are observed. This tradition of celebrations, however, is grounded in supernatural religious beliefs that many people in modern society cannot accept. HumanLight presents an alternative reason to celebrate: a Humanist’s vision of a good future. It is a future in which all people can identify with each other, behave with the highest moral standards, and work together toward a happy, just and peaceful world.

I don’t want to denigrate a holiday that’s clearly filling a need for some people, but it seems a bit overly sensitive to think that Christmas is unfit for non-believers. The holiday has already become highly secularized and represents the very things listed above to millions of Americans, leaving them free to attach specific Christian meanings only if they choose to. For many non-Christians the day has as little do with the birth of Christ as it does with the pagan festivals that give it form. Given that HumanLight is not going to knock Christmas off its perch as the primary winter holiday any time soon, this is a good thing. It seems to me truer to the theme of universal good will to continue co-opting Christmas and making it our own than to replace it with an esoteric, separate celebration two days earlier. And if our aim is to make secularism more accepted and appealing, then we should perhaps not send the message that being an atheist requires giving up a treasured holiday with centuries of tradition behind it. (Though if HumanLight makes you happy, by all means enjoy it. The group responds to criticism, including discussion of the capitalized ‘L’, here.)

On a semi-related note, head over to the new Secular Right weblog. It’s got some good names behind it and is off to a promising start.

[WSJ link via Freedom and Shit.]


5 thoughts on “Secular separatists”

  1. Jeff commented on this article a little while back.

    Question for you: You throw around the term “secularist” a lot. What does that mean? What distinguishes “secularist” from “atheist” or “agnostic”?

    I ask because I’ve always understood the term “secular” to mean something like “neutral regarding religion…or non-religion.” Whereas I’ve understood “atheist” to mean pointed rejection of religious belief. You seem to be using the term in a different sense.

    For that matter, what does Humanist mean? I’ve sometimes heard the term to mean a belief in human potential without any need for the supernatural. Other times, I’ve heard of historical figures like Desiderius Erasmus as “the greatest of the Christian Humanists”, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.

  2. You’re right, I’ve been using words interchangeably when I shouldn’t have. I’ve been using secularist to mean agnostics and atheists, when it could also mean simply a desire to keep religion out of public affairs.

    Here’s Wikipedia on Humanism:
    “Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality. It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism can be considered as a process by which truth and morality is sought through human investigation. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.”

    I never use the word because of the baggage that goes along with it, though broadly speaking I could be considered a secular humanist.

  3. Great post — with which I agree completely.

    As for secularizing our holidays, consider Thanksgiving. Or, more accurately, read Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 T’giving Proclamation. It’s all about God-with-a-capital-G.

    As far as Lincoln was concerned, the “holiday” was religious in nature.

    Now? Not so much. Instead, it (like Christmas) has become a day to enjoy life as we know it, flaws and all. And we don’t need “god” for that. (Or at least I don’t!)

    The text of Lincoln’s proclamation is here:

    (I have no idea how to make that a live link.)

  4. So, Christopher Hitchens disagrees with you on this. See his article in Slate.

    He gets into a humorously overwrought moral tizzy over all celebrations of the Holidays. Somebody seriously needs to tell this guy to chill out.

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