Progressives and Naturalists: Who Counts as a Humanist?

There's a connection between being empirically, naturalistically inclined and being progressive, but there may not be a direct causal link.  Still, Enlightenment naturalism played an important role in expanding the scope of human rights and individual liberties, what all but the most conservative would consider progress.


Given the variety of humanist organizations in the United States, it’s unsurprising to find some disagreement about what it means to be a humanist. The American Humanist Association’s (AHA) mission statement incorporates both progressivism and (indirectly) naturalism in its definition of humanism: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” But the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), another leading humanist group, includes conservative as well as progressive non-theists. For instance, in a recent article (“For liberals, no one’s evil,” Free Inquiry, Oct-Nov, 2005) philosopher Tibor Machan finds fault with liberals for not believing in evil or free will. To complicate things further, there are progressive supernaturalists who are sometimes considered humanists, for instance Jimmy Carter, who recently disowned his home church due to disagreements about values. As described in his recent book, Our Endangered Values, Carter’s are socially progressive in some domains that his former church’s are not. All this raises the question: who counts as a humanist?

Humanism has been closely allied with scientific naturalism since the Enlightenment, which challenged the reigning Christian supernaturalist orthodoxy. But humanism is also often understood as humanistic in the ethical sense of being deeply concerned with promoting individual human flourishing, as opposed to corporate interests or social hierarchies that reinforce economic, racial and gender inequalities. Such concern is the progressive side of humanism, at least as many construe it. In thinking about what it means to be a humanist, a central question is whether these tendencies, the naturalistic and the progressive, are intrinsically connected, as the AHA mission statement suggests. Or are they orthogonal, independent dimensions, such that naturalists can just as easily be politically conservative as liberal?

Human Rights and Social Secularization

All but the most hide-bound reactionaries would agree it’s a good thing that the scope of individual human rights has enlarged since the Enlightenment got rolling, even though some rights still remain contested. Slavery and segregation are banned, women and minorities can vote, and gays can even marry in some countries and in the state of Massachusetts. From the point of view of the individuals granted such rights this is huge progress, so the liberal, anti-traditionalist forces pushing these changes can be justly be characterized as progressive. Their conservative opponents, often reluctant to share power and privilege, resisted granting equal rights at nearly every stage in this process. Of course many conservatives would now endorse universal human rights, at least for women and racial minorities if not for gays. But it remains the case that conservatives are less likely than progressives to champion any further expansion of such rights. They are also less likely to support social safety net programs, characteristic of many Western liberal democracies, that provide a modicum of economic security and medical coverage to most citizens.

Coincident with progress on human rights and social welfare, there’s been a gradual trend toward secularization in the West, a political separation of church and state in which state-supported religious orthodoxy has given way to state-supported freedom of conscience. Driving secularization, of course, has been the empiricist, skeptical habit of mind deriving from the rise of scientific naturalism in the Enlightenment. Beliefs historically based on authority and tradition, whether about the nature of reality or the proper social order, were suddenly open to question. Exemplified by science, such questioning brought the supernatural worldview of faith-based religion, Christianity in particular, under increasing pressure. This challenge to authoritarian faith coming from Enlightenment empiricism and naturalism has brought about a more or less tolerant pluralism of worldviews in many Western societies. The freedom to hold and express one’s own view of ultimate reality – freedom of conscience – is now largely the norm.

Arguably, there’s a connection between the historical trend of increasing secularization and the trend of expanding human rights. Freedom of conscience, after all, is an individual right, a liberty that gives priority to the person over an authoritarian institution, namely the monolithic church-state (now exemplified by Iran and Saudi Arabia). More broadly, the notion that the individual can, and should, think for herself, and that naturalistic explanations and secular justifications should trump faith, opened up a Pandora’s box of questioning the status quo. Although the church was among the first targets of naturalist skeptics, others were not hard to find: the divine right of kings, the hereditary privileges of the nobility, the inferior status of women and non-whites, and the social Darwinism that held economic inequalities to be the virtuous expression of natural law (the non-theistic equivalent of god’s will). Such progressive thinking, while obviously not restricted to humanists, derives strong support from empiricist naturalism, which won’t accept appeals to tradition or religious authority as sufficient justifications for oppressive social hierarchies or economic inequities (not to mention belief in god). Absent such justifications, the egalitarian, progressive assumption that all individuals are owed equal rights and economic opportunity gains plausibility. So there’s a connection between humanist naturalism which challenges faith-based, non-empirical grounds for belief and humanist progressivism which seeks to universalize human rights and social welfare.

Plotting Worldviews and Politics

But as the examples we started out with show, these tendencies, the naturalist and the progressive, can come apart: not all naturalists are progressive, and visa versa. If we draw a vertical axis to represent the naturalism-supernaturalism worldview dimension (naturalism at the top), and then a horizontal axis midway through it to represent the progressive-conservative political dimension (progressive on the left), we can plot people according to their worldviews and politics. Naturalist progressives such as Paul Kurtz, chairman of CSH and Roy Speckhardt, director of AHA are in the top-left quadrant, while naturalist conservatives such as Machan are in the top-right. Jimmy Carter ends up in the bottom-left quadrant (supernaturalist-progressive), and Pat Robertson and the recently deceased Jerry Falwell end up in the bottom-right (supernaturalist-conservative). Feel free to plot yourself. If we agree with CSH that humanists must be naturalists, but can be either liberal or conservative, then they inhabit the top half of our chart. But on the AHA’s definition, true humanists reside only in the top-left, naturalist-progressive quadrant. I won’t attempt to adjudicate this dispute, only try to elucidate it.

Since not all naturalists are progressives and not all supernaturalists are conservatives, clearly one’s basic metaphysical worldview isn’t doing all the work in shaping one’s politics. So what’s going on? There’s considerable evidence suggesting that political persuasion is partially driven by personality, as for instance described by the Five Factor or “Big Five” personality inventory. This has five main dimensions, sometimes described as neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Progressives, overall, score differently on some dimensions than conservatives, for instance on openness (see here, p. 357). No doubt one’s personality also influences the cognitive predisposition to either faith or empiricism and thus supernaturalism or naturalism, perhaps in ways related to political persuasion. Indeed, polls on religious and political affiliation consistently show that Republicans and conservatives tend to be more traditionally religious than Democrats and liberals. Beyond personality, there are local community factors which obviously help determine both your politics and worldview: peer groups, civic organizations, churches, schools, workplaces, and so forth. Bottom line: had you been born to a family living in a different community, or been born with (and raised to have) different personality traits, there’s a good chance you’d be in a different quadrant than the one you currently find yourself.

Specifying the complex interactions between personality, community, worldview and political persuasion is obviously well beyond the scope of this article, not to mention my competence. However, it’s safe to say that although there’s an historical and psychological connection between being a naturalist and being progressive, there’s no unbreakable causal or conceptual link. One can espouse naturalism and not be particularly liberal – atheist libertarians such as Tibor Machan and the staff at Reason (a libertarian magazine) are cases in point. Still, naturalism does rule out some traditional justifications for conservative positions on criminal and social justice. It rules out, for instance, the appeal to the self-made self as the bearer of ultimate moral desert, who deserves to be rich, poor, punished or rewarded because human choices transcend causality in some respect (roughly Machan’s position in his Free Inquiry article). And as argued above, the empiricism that underlies naturalism will always make naturalists more likely than supernaturalists to question traditional, faith-based, or otherwise non-empirical claims to authority and knowledge. It’s no coincidence that scientists and university professors tend to be liberals, since their career commitment to unfettered inquiry militates against traditionalism and authoritarianism (see here re liberal overrepresentation in law and journalism schools).

We’ve seen that to call oneself a humanist is ambiguous, since there are at least two partially independent dimensions of humanism. But it seems the AHA’s definition of humanism as involving both naturalism and progressivism captures something real, even if it’s hardly monolithic. The “empirical personality” might have common factors with the “progressive personality” (research needed), and certainly the empirical habit of mind underlying naturalism resists traditionalism and authoritarianism, and so might be a pluralist democracy’s best friend. But even if it turns out it isn’t particularly hard-wired, individuals, communities and cultures can still preserve and amplify the naturalist-progressivist connection that’s often expressed in humanism.

But is it good to be naturalistic and progressive, and thus a humanist in the AHA’s stricter sense, one that also includes many CSH members? Well, if you endorse the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and our current roster of human rights, and if you’re happy to have a social safety net, you have progressives and naturalists to thank for it, for the most part. Enlightenment naturalism, based in the rise of science, played a vital role in liberating thought to the point where it could challenge an authoritarian, rigidly hierarchical and supernaturalist status quo, one that consigned most of humanity to social and economic marginalization. Supernaturalists and conservatives enjoy human rights and benefit from the social safety net as well, of course, but they can’t take as much credit for them.

TWC, January 2006, revised August 2007