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.


Anonymous said...

Very nice post. I'll definitely have to read up more on secular humanism. I've heard mention of it and all that, but I haven't really taken the time to learn about it.

One thing you said struck a chord with me:

"We have outgrown the need for an invisible punishing deity to instill morality in us through fear."

I like this quote. The first thing that I thought of when I read that was that the idea of god is sort of like "morality training wheels." Like we can learn the idea of morality from learning what christians believe, but we should be able to shed the fantasy and retain the important information.

Thanks for the intelligent writing.

Lupis Noctum said...

If anything I've ever read deserved to be called an atheist "manifesto," this essay is it. Especially the last paragraph which, for me at least, sums it all up.

Kudos to Dr. Perlman for writing it, and to the webmeister for bringing it to our attention.

Anonymous said...

One must understand that idiots go out of their way to be stupid!!

I remember a time when being religious meant following the 10 commandments --- first. ANd getting into the bible later. You were to strive to be a good person cause God could tell.

Now, God is stupid. If you pretend to believe and just go thru the motions (and yell at atheists and other wrong religions) then you can fool God and get into heaven, which should happen say next month or so. Why, if your lucky, the end will come before we finish destroying this earth of ours and have to suffer for being so stupid and short sighted.

We are not ignorant, we are stupid. We know better.

ps, I am speaking about the "ram it down your throut" religious. in case you did not catch that. :-)

Anonymous said...

For your information, an atheist does not 'focus on the absence of God', an atheist simply shrugs her shoulders and asks, when questions, "what god? I see no proof of such a being".
I liked your piece (I've always considered myself a humanist as well as an atheist), but it always annoys me when people assume that I, as an atheist, 'deny the existance of God'. I don't 'deny' anthing. I don't 'deny' the existance of unicorns, leprechauns or goblins either. Why should I deny anthing that's completely imaginary?

Anonymous said...

You don't ram God anywhere. He won't be rammed.

And I thank thee,O Father,Lord of Heaven and earth,because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent,and hast revealed them unto babes.
Even so,Father;for so it seemed good in thy sight.

webmdave said...

With the support of the Babble, anonymous proudly proclaims, "I may be ignant, but I'sa gowin' to heben."

Next time, anony, just stick fingers in both ears and loudly shout: LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA.

It's equally effective as just as mature.

boomSLANG said...

Fundonymous: "You don't ram God anywhere. He won't be rammed."

LMAO!!!! THAT is rich! God doesn't get "rammed", eh? Check this out, fundy---on this site ALONE, your "God" has STEADILY been getting his ass kicked-to-shit on a DAILY basis. From a non-believer's stand-point, sure, your "God" only get's his ass kicked in concept, why?...because that's the only place "He" exists...but holy shit, from YOUR POV?...a believer's stand-point?.....well, it seems apparent to me that your "God" is a cowardly bench-warming wuss-bag.

Listen up fundy(ies)--your "God" presumably has ETERNITY to "make us pay later", or toss us in his "lake-o-fire", or whatever your ancient hand-book says.....yet, doesn't ANYONE find it odd that Mr. "Hot-shot Almighty" seemingly refuses to show us blasphemers, but more importantly--and ESPECIALLY--his own "devoted" followers, that he won't take lip from non-believers in THIS life? a life where people can actually WITNESS his "just" and "un-rammable" ways? I mean, reeeally now..... he allegedly opened up a can of "smote" back in his hay-day, and subsequently, his appearance back THEN didn't hurt anyone's "faith", did it? No, it didn't.... so why is your God and this---his BASTARD son doing nothing?

Let us ex-christians bow our heads:

Dear Jesus,

Shove yourself up your ass.


Okay, honestly now, think about it....would the "Lord your God" allow such blasphemy as that to be written about him back in the day? No, I don't think so---and if I'm wrong, please....say a collective prayer that Jesus shut this site down by noon tomorrow. We'll give him one last chance to show us he's anything more than a has-been non-existant piece of mythology.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, I don't know about this one, "That seems pretty innocuous, doesn't it? Yet today it’s not too much of a stretch to call atheism 'the new homosexuality.'"

It seems to me that guys still have it pretty rough. If I may say so, since I live with a homophobic.

As for Secular Humanism, I have to thank this article for settling it for me. I am, apparently, a Secular Humanist. There, I said it.

Anonymous said...

Just as a simple observation:

"G-O-O-D without G-O-D is simply -O-"

O being the shape of a circle or a continous search without any end.

boomSLANG said...

That's cute. Here's another observation:

The "ontological" and "cosmological" argument for God each have three of those, uh, "O"s...or, "continuous circles" in them = )

Anonymous said...

That works for D-O-G, too. You get a circle, which is exactly the path a dog takes while chasing its tail. Something like a fundy fruticake does whilst he desperately tries to find things to support their tired old irrational beliefs! :-) -Wes.

Anonymous said...

This is a well-written article, and provides what seems to be a quality synopsis of the philosophy of secular humanism, especially in the quotation of Dr. Melvin Shaw in the third paragraph. It was an interesting read, and I especially liked this part:

"Tyrants deify themselves and the state. They have nothing to do with secular humanism." (Well said! Quick, effective, valid rebuttal.)

However, it seems that there are a few contradictions present throughout this piece. First, the author makes many statements like these:

"We bear no animosity toward people who disagree with us...And we do not force our religion into the faces and lives of others by putting our ideals on parade...Religious intolerance drags us backwards into the darkness."

Clearly, one of the author's primary platforms is the disapproval of religious "intolerance," and the idea of "forcing religion into the faces and lives of others," etc. In themselves, these seem to be very valid statements. And, I wholeheartedly agree that no religion should be forced on anyone.
However, did anyone else notice another common theme running through the article?

"...the fundamentalists have no problem being hypocritical and two-faced..."

"[Secular humanists] do not -- repeat not -- conduct Crusades, Inquisitions, or pogroms. They do not declare jihads or fatwas...Secular humanists do not torture or kill believers simply for believing."

"...It is religious believers who perpetrate violence. Anger and violence are important and powerful tools for enforcing religious conformity."

"...Some very God-fearing people are, as we all know, very bad."

"Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
...practice exclusion, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, violence..."

Although it is not outright, there is a clear pattern of villification (sp?) of "religious" people and a strong defense of secular humanism. This is interesting. For such a strong opponent of "intolerance" and "forcing religion (which I would assume could also be translated "belief system")," Dr. Perlman seems to have no problem stereotyping, generalizing, and STRONGLY criticizing and condemning the "religious" as a whole, while consistently promoting the contrasting overall "good" of secular humanism/humanists.

Now, CERTAINLY there have been horrible atrocities committed in the name of religion. There is no debate about that. And, it seems that there would be no reason for secular humanists to ever perform such acts. HOWEVER, does a steady bashing and jabbing of the "religious" - however camouflaged it may be - accurately present the reader with a clear alternative to the "intolerance [and] discrimination" of theistic religions?

Now, of course the author does not promote - or practice, I hope - the outward, physical intolerance that followers of theistic religions have been known to display. But, he seems to have a serious problem with the FOLLOWERS - not just the DOCTRINE - of theistic religions as a whole.
And, he makes strong statements proclaiming the overall moral depravity and villiany of (seemingly) all followers of such belief systems.

Although he is clearly not planning a physical attack on theists, where is this "tolerance" of which he speaks so highly? Does this just mean that he lets them live? The author asserts that "...It's especially ironic that the God-believer's first -- and cheapest -- shot at secular humanists is to accuse them of amorality or immorality." Are the author's bold, sweeping accusations of amorality and immorality among theists (including a congruency drawn between "fundamentalists" and "TERRORISTS" in p8) intended to provide a healthy alternative to such "cheap shots?"

To sum all of that up: By consistently villifying theists as a whole, Dr. Perlman seems to practice - on a more internal, mature, humane level - the very intolerance which for which he condemns the "religious." There is nothing wrong with debunking the claims of another belief system, but this "insult the intolerant" tone seems somewhat misguided. At the least, it is thought-provoking.

"...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 seems like a peaceful, benevolent life strategy. But, is an unabashed condemnation of all "religions" and "fundamentalists" a step toward "improving relationships and environment?" And, if the "common good" truly IS the primary desire of the secular humanist, then why worry about the religous beliefs of a person contributing to this cause? Is an Orthodox Jewish man volunteering in a soup kitchen contributing any less to this "common good" than a secular humanist doing the same? If he is not, why insult him by lumping him into the same category as all the other "intolerant, discriminatory" religous fundamentalists?

It is possible that I have completely misread and misunderstood this article. To be sure, I am quite sleep-deprived (my brain just hasn't embraced the whole "think during day, sleep at night" concept). I am just attempting to promote an objective, insightful review of all content posted on this site. It would be alarming - and disappointing - to see the presence of a biased analysis that presupposes all posts by ex-christians/non-theists on this site to be essentially inerrant. After all, isn't this one of the very things for which we criticise religious fundamentalists?

My hearfelt regards to all readers and to Dr. Alan L. Perlman, and my apologies to all those I may have offended.


webmdave said...

DoesItFlow: Humanists just want to be left alone. Religious believers want to dominate.

It's not that all the followers of religion are monsters, that would be a ludicrous idea. However, it can't be denied that many monsters become followers of religion. Many later become leaders, and under that protective umbrella obtain control over people and free reign to do what their imaginations tell them.

Why is religion like that? Well, because it's bad form to criticize and condemn religion under any circumstances, that's why! After all, religion makes the world a better place! Right? Religion is good for the kids! Isn't that what they say?

When fundamentalists rally about displaying the Ten Commandments in a school or court house, those who cheer the effort are drawn as heroes and those who castigate the plan are smeared as villains.

Tolerance huh? Yeah, right.

Personally, I'm all for freedom of expression, so long as that expression doesn't hurt or infringe on the personal freedoms of another person. I could care less with which deity a person plays mental pattycake in the privacy of their mind. It doesn't personally bother me to hear religious music, see religious signs, or go in religious buildings -- it's all just pretend to me. I feel as much animosty toward church as I did for Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples during a 3-year stint in Japan -- none at all. Whatever people want to do in their private club, again, so long as they are not harming or hindering others, is fine with me.

However, what we cannot tolerate is any move by one particular type of ignorant fundamentalism (or for that matter, any 'ism,' ignorant or otherwise) from gaining dominice over the civil arena.

We of European decent know that our Christian forefathers tried having Christian controlled government for about 1,000 years -- it's now called the Dark Ages. Those of Arabic decent are enjoying some aspects of a Dark Age now. All any country needs to slide into another Dark Age is for the majority of people to follow leaders who have firmly embraced religion.

As a free society, freedom of expression must be tolerated as long as it does not infringe on the freedoms of others, or harm others. The flag of tolerance cannot be raised or lowered at the whims of the "righteous." Tolerance in the mind of fundamentalists means acceptance of MY religion, becasue MY religion is the true religion. And true religions like that do not teach tolerance -- they teach doctrines of eternal, retributive torture for all unbelievers.

Ideas have consequences, and history and current affairs clearly shows that ideas like that have led untold millions of faithful religious believers to level violence against those who disagree with them.

Reality: Some things are intolerable.

Anonymous said...

Well said, but to be perfectly honest; while in theory the idea of atheists and theists existing together with no animosity is a nice fantasy the chances of it occuring are one in a million, slaves will never tolerate the sight of free men in their midst, it reminds them of what they are.
Either free the slaves or gird for war, the millenia of pain inflicted upon the world by the gilded tumor that is religion cannot be simply forgotten, there must be restitution, preferably taken out of the hide of every priest, rabbi and immam and from the bricks and mortar of every temple. And afterwards atheists will STILL have nothing to be ashamed of, it'd be a drop in the ocean compared with the suffering they've caused. It's not like the theists can complain, dont they all believe in some form of Karma?

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


Thank you! I always appreciate your responses. Not all of my questions were addressed, but you certainly focused on the primary, central issue: What should be tolerated? When is intolerance an acceptable course of action?

Now, it is clear - and, of course, no news flash (!)- that you are opposed to any religion/belief system that sees itself as the only TRUE path. What are some general characteristics that you would assign to "tolerable" belief systems?

For example (purely for illustration purposes):

- Does not encourage negative behaviors against non-adherents
- Focuses on practical, temporal advice or ideas

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my lengthy entries! I don't post often, but when I do, they tend to be rather thorough, and receive few comments. It's nice to have some feedback, you know?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to your views on this (or anyone else's, for that matter! This is DEFinitely an open request).


P.S. If your stance on this is present elsewhere on the site (in a previous post, comment, etc.), please direct me to that.

Pageviews this week: