Good Without God: Secular Humanism and Morality

By Alan M. Perlman, PhD

Don't look now, but your neighbor, uncle, cousin, coworker -- or even the person next to you in church or synagogue -- might be a (gasp!) secular humanist.

A secular humanist is almost the same thing as an atheist. If there's a difference, I suppose it's that the atheist focuses on the absence of God, whereas secular humanists, if they don't deny the existence of God, simply consider him irrelevant --and get on with the business of improving the world.

To quote Dr. Melvin Shaw, writing in the September 2006 issue of The Jewish Humanist, “A humanist is one who adheres to the principle that all human beings are created equal and should enjoy equal opportunity, and that we are capable of solving our own problems by ourselves with a little help from our friends. We do not ask for divine guidance and do not pray to a nonexistent deity.”

That seems pretty innocuous, doesn't it? Yet today it’s not too much of a stretch to call atheism “the new homosexuality.” If you think back to the animosity and discrimination -- and sometimes outright violence -- that was inflicted on homosexuals 50 or 100 years ago, you have some idea of the social disapproval of atheism today.

Shaw notes that because he is a secular humanist -- and an American Jewish scientist as well -- he qualifies for consideration as "the most hated man on earth." Indeed, a recent Harper's Index, citing the latest figures available as of May 2006, reported that atheists were number one among "minorities who Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry" (Muslims and African-Americans were second and third, respectively).


It's not as if animosity toward nonbelievers is anything new. Some of the most eloquent passages in the Torah are descriptions of the horrendous consequences of not following God's commandments. The war between faith and reason has been going on for a very long time.

Yet today, after the brilliant humanism of the Greeks and Romans, after the Renaissance, after the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Information Age, we still have superstition, fundamentalism and fanaticism. In fact, they are on the rise -- frighteningly so. Reason is in retreat. And the fundamentalists have no problem being hypocritical and two-faced about science. Terrorists do not pray for the instructions to make a bomb. They go on the Internet and download them.

But it is a one-sided war. Secular humanists mostly want to be left alone. They do not want God and religion rammed in their face, as is typically the case in most of the world. They do tend to get a bit testy when things go too far, as when their children are forced to recite prayers at school. But they do not -- repeat not -- conduct Crusades, Inquisitions, or pogroms. They do not declare jihads or fatwas (by the way, I am totally in agreement with those Muslims who define jihad as "inner striving"). Secular humanists do not torture or kill believers simply for believing.

No, it is religious believers who perpetrate violence. Anger and violence are important and powerful tools for enforcing religious conformity.

That's why it's especially ironic that the God-believer's first -- and cheapest -- shot at secular humanists is to accuse them of amorality or immorality.

To fundamentalists, secular people are...well, the devil. Atheists have no God, therefore no morality. I've heard this charge repeated over and over, and I am really tired of it.

I recently read it again, from someone who should know better but is cognitively incapable of knowing better, namely an Orthodox rabbi writing a column in the Providence Journal (Avi Shafran, “The vast indignity of atheism,” 6/28/06). He repeated the cliche – which is untrue at best and libelous at worst – that dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong are products of atheism.

This is absolutely ridiculous. Tyrants deify themselves and the state. They have nothing to do with secular humanism.

For way too long, secular humanists have been vilified as lacking in morality or lacking a basis for morality. Nothing could be further from the truth. You do not need God in order to be good, and in fact some very God-fearing people are, as we all know, very bad.

What’s so important about “a-theism” anyway? Why not classify religions as humanistic/ahumanistic? Isn't that just as important a division, if not more so, than theistic/atheistic?

Some regions, such as Buddhism, are inherently atheistic or nontheistic. Buddhism is humanistic as well. Likewise, Secular Humanistic Judaism is both nontheistic and humanistic.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are mixed. They are theistic -- and humanistic when they promote humanistic values, such as tolerance, nonviolence, charity, courage, compassion, honesty, and the value and autonomy of human beings.

But they are decidedly ahumanistic when they practice exclusion, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, violence, ancestor worship, the submission of human beings to divine authority, and the mindless, unquestioning veneration of ancient texts.

Secular humanists have nothing to apologize for. We bear no animosity toward people who disagree with us. We don't kill people over the meaning of ancient texts. And we do not force our religion into the faces and lives of others by putting our ideals on parade, insisting that all politicians adhere to them, or staging in-your-face public celebrations of our values. Gay Pride parades take place all over this great land of ours. Can you imagine the animosity that would greet a Humanist Pride celebration?

A few years ago there was a movie entitled The Contender, which was about whether the accusation of an earlier sexual escapade would or would not scuttle the career of a female presidential candidate. All but unmentioned -- of course, I caught it -- was the fact that she was also an atheist.

I think the character’s atheism, if placed at the center of the plot, would have made for more – and more interesting -- dramatic conflict than even her sexual history, whatever that was.

How would the country respond to a candidate who was qualified in every way but denied God’s existence? Not well, I would think. In fact, I confidently predict that if current conditions continue, we will see a Black President, a female President, even an Asian-American and a gay President -- before an avowed secular humanist is elected to the nation's highest office. And yet this choice would make the most sense, given that our nation’s Founders clearly intended that religion and politics be kept separate.

I try to be compassionate. I try to be empathetic. I try to understand the one-sided rage that is directed at nonbelievers. And I think I do understand it. When your entire, shared worldview is based on a fantasy -- the metaphysical, the divine, call it whatever you want, but it’s still a fantasy, a figment of the imagination -- then your wall of belief is so thin and fragile that any threat must be dealt with severely.

Such a view is no longer tenable. We only have one Earth, and we simply have to share it peacefully. Religious intolerance drags us backwards into the darkness. It is reason and science that improve life for all of us.

There’s another significant upside: since secular humanists are never thinking about God – never praying, never worrying about what he thinks or wants -- they can devote much more attention, energy and resources to improving themselves, their relationships, and their environment. This is what the major religions are all about, if we strip away all the mythology, ritual, and other God-baggage.

Secular humanists know that the truth of human experience is that certain virtues, practices, and habits of mind and character make for a better life. We have outgrown the need for an invisible punishing deity to instill morality in us through fear. We know we can be good without God. And I think it would be a better world if everyone else could figure out how to do the same thing.


Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to This article was posted with the persmission of the author.

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