(Photo by John Kelly/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The decline of the humanist movement

The puritanical secularism of the American Humanist Association is a stark departure from the founding principles of humanism

Richard Dawkins, the great apostle of atheism, was recently ex-communicated by fellow free-thinkers. His sin? Asking a question on Twitter: “Rachel Dolezal… was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”

The American Humanist Association subsequently stripped Dawkins of his 1996 Humanist of the Year Award. Why? “Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalised groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values … His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent.”

Humanists see themselves as the Enlightenment’s torchbearers. They take pride in adherence to “rationality” and open inquiry. It beggars belief to see them issue a blasphemy charge against a distinguished scientist. What does this movement really represent?

9/11 was my earliest memory. As a child, I became aware of the worldwide jihadist insurgency. Between 2015-16, Europe was under siege. Lives were lost on the streets of Paris, Nice, Copenhagen, Berlin, Brussels. The fanaticism which inspired such evil had to be challenged. The British Humanist Association looked like a lighthouse. They promoted something desperately needed in the Muslim world: secularism. Perhaps if the UK led by example, separation of mosque and state would be an easier export.

I interned at the BHA in the summer of 2016. I was ready to take on the radical muftis and mullahs but found myself wrestling with something else: faith schools. While press releases sometimes defended dissidents in Iran and Pakistan, the organisation put a lot of work into trivial pursuits.

Humanists see themselves as the Enlightenment’s torchbearers

When I wasn’t phoning up Catholic schools pretending to be a non-Catholic parent in the hopes of uncovering discrimination, I worked with the recruitment team. BHA raises funds by operating a network of “celebrants” — people who host non-religious weddings, funerals and “naming ceremonies” (think priests without the magic). With a straight face, the team leader described hiring criteria: “We screen applicants for belief in anything supernatural. Obviously people know you can’t believe in God but we also turn away people for believing in fairies.”

Humanism has the hallmarks of religion. They have prophets. David Hume and Bertrand Russell are Abraham and Moses. A number of “New” Atheists like AC Grayling (or previously Dawkins himself) compete to be Jesus. Their Holy Book? The Origin of Species. Festivals? Darwin day! Like most devotees, they dislike difficult questions. Bring up Darwin’s belief in race realism or how he celebrated that “civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world” and a Humanist runs away.

Lacking coherent philosophy, Humanists have no backbone. While they have campaigned against FGM and honour killings, they’re desperate not to offend. To prove they’re not racist, they spearhead petty campaigns like protesting the Pope.

Positions they take such as pro-gay marriage or pro-abortion aren’t principled. Why should being irreligious mean one has to support either of these issues? Atheists Brendan O’Neil and Christopher Hitchens argued against both. Because most religious people are opposed, Humanists feel obliged to be for.

Such shallowness hasn’t gone unnoticed. An activist left after 25 years. In September 2018, she shared her story. Without consulting members, Humanists UK fully supported self-ID as the basis of one’s legal gender. No thought was given to the impact on women’s rights such as access to sex-segregated places (e.g., prisons, changing rooms and domestic violence shelters). This knee-jerk thinking flies in the face of their “commitment to rational enquiry and the scientific method.”

Freedom to practice religion and freedom from religion is a laudable principle. In the Western world, it has largely been achieved. With little left to complain about, Humanists crusade against vague public references to religion.

In 1925 in suburban Washington, a 40-foot cross was erected, honouring veterans from the First World War. Practically all those who died would have been Christian. Almost a century later, the AHA went on the offensive. A spokesman for the group whined: “This cross sends a message of Christian favouritism and exclusion of all others.” The sad band of secular fundamentalists even took the case to the Supreme Court.

Efforts to cleanse “In God We Trust” from all public buildings and the dollar encapsulate just how ridiculous the movement is. How does puritanical secularism represent superior/scientific morality?

In Britain, the Queen is head of state and head of the Church of England and its bishops sit in the House of Lords. Humanists hate this. Perhaps this is an odd arrangement you wouldn’t have if you created a country from scratch. Nevertheless, since Anglicanism is such a liberal and watered-down Christianity, it poses no threat to non-believers. Indeed, the bishops champion the most marginalised. Aren’t these the people Humanists want to help?

The actions of the AHA have reaffirmed to the world what they are: a pointless and pathetic movement

Disentangling a 500-year marriage between state and church would involve excruciating pain without obvious gain. Shrinking congregations mean local churches can’t keep afloat. In 2012 the government agreed to provide £30 million a year in grants to cover maintenance costs. Humanists campaign for disestablishment. If the plug is pulled, stunning cathedrals and village churches would go into disrepair, destroying the country’s character and cultural heritage.

In 2021, apostates fear death, cartoons result in riots and mainstream theologians endorse suicide bombing. Only Islam contains such cancer. Unlike Dawkins, most Humanists haven’t had the courage to address the threat it poses to humanity. They hide away, fighting city councils for hosting prayers during meetings.

Science is under attack. Peer-reviewed academic articles exploring the greater male variability hypothesis or examining the neuroscience of gender dysphoria are unpublished by journals, capitulating to outrage mobs. In 2019 Cambridge fired a young research fellow for investigating a controversial area. Because the gunfire comes from the regressive left not the Christian right, Humanists have nothing to say. The actions of the AHA have reaffirmed to the world what they are: a pointless and pathetic movement.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover