New Thread: What are “Secular Humanist Politics”?

“..a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to otherwise to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801


There’s no debate about what “religious politics” looks like.  We know that all over the world, religion insinuates itself into the political process, to the greatest extent possible.  It takes over entire societies.  9/11 happened because Osama loathed the Saudi regime and the infidels it allowed on their stupid holy soil, i.e., Americans.

Unbeliever’s politics

But what of unbelievers?  We are 1/6 of the population, surely a significant voting bloc – if we agreed on what politics we would support.   But I don’t know of any such agreement.

I would think that any combination of religion and politics is possible, since both decisions are emotionally made and later rationalized. But given all that, let’s speculate on what political system we would want as skeptics/atheists/secular humanists.

Secular Humanists favor total separation of church and state. 

But what else do they have in common politically? 

Jew = liberal

It’s hard, for instance, for me to believe that some left-liberals are overt atheists (they may keep their atheism quiet, just to blend in and get ahead). 

Among Jews, the mainstream in America are indeed liberal on everything but Israel.  They go along with religion, some making only an ostentatious appearance at the High Holidays, and they go along with conventional politics-as-is.  Some, like Detroit philanthropist Max Fisher, are even Republican.  But they are all go-along, unquestioning, establishmentarian types.

Political philosophy for atheists

The political philosophy that would most appeal to secular humanists would be that which fulfills humanistic goals and values.   That disqualifies both conservatives and liberals, both of whom want to use government (for whatever reason – carrying on wars, doling out farm subsidies) to make your life better.

Ha, ha, just kidding,  They want to use government to enrich themselves  and their fellow cronies and campaign contributors and indulge their “will to power” (Nietzsche).  That’s the kind of busybody, control-freak temperament that politics attracts.

Politics and humanist values

As for humanist values: what system of government best advances human freedom, dignity, and well-being?

Well, folks, believe it or not, it’s the one we were supposed to have, right here in the US of A, as described in the US Constitution.  Not a government that solves every problem and wastes trillions on foreign wars.  A government that does a few things well, as enumerated in the Constitution, and that’s it.  For dire needs, there is the amendment process.

Not deifying the Constitution

Please don’t accuse me of deifying the Constitution.  It has its flaws.  It didn’t give women equal rights.  It allowed slavery to continue.

It has other problems that bedevil us to this day, notably the 2nd Amendment, which, properly interpreted here in New Hampshire, makes firearm ownership a basic right of humanity, right up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But the wording is disturbingly vague, and the Amendment was crafted in a time when the government had the same armaments as the populace, which is most certainly not the case today. 

Yes, as I have heard many times, we might and could rewrite the Constitution,.  But why bother?  We haven’t really tried the one we have.

Infinite number of Constitutions

Any Constitution must and should still be an enumeration of the government’s powers, nothing more.  We actually have one of an infinite number of Constitutions which would accomplish the same thing: limited government, enumerated powers, protection of life and liberty, checks and balances.

So yeah, let’s just go with the plan we have.  It was a brilliant stroke: after millennia of despotism by kings, dukes, Popes, czars, pharaohs, and every manner of was the radical presupposition that people could choose their own leaders, that government existed by the consent of the governed.

That’s right: don’t dismantle the Constitution until you TRY the one we actually have. 

Return to Constitutional government

A return to Constitutional government means eliminating all unconstitutional functions of government, either by phasing out (farm subsidies) or privatizing (National Weather Service).  And it could be done with minimal pain, e.g., with generous buyouts for government workers no longer needed.

A government that protects the citizens’ rights, doesn’t wreck the economy with war and debt, and does a few other things well is what was envisioned by the Founders. 

And no, I don’t deify them, either.  Jefferson, to take just one example, was far from perfect, though brilliant.  (Yes, I know about Sally Hemmings and the Louisiana Purchase.) 

Low expectations

My greatness bar isn’t excessively high: most people are such screwups (including rulers) that I require only that my heroes get SOMETHING important right.

So to me, secular humanism translates into a libertarian political system, of the kind described by the Constitution.

There actually is a political party, the Libertarian Party, which any atheist should check out – if you agree with my contention that the kind of government that is most compatible with humanistic values is the libertarian one.

Too much freedom?

Maybe the Founders and today’s libertarians aim too high.  Maybe, as a sharp lawyer friend once pointed out during one of our many political discussions, Americans don’t want the amount of freedom the Constitution allows. They want to be taken care of by the government.  They just want to be one big happy Sweden. 

Never gonna happen.

We’re broke already. Just take a look at the National Debt Clock website, and watch the numbers fly – up.  But the lawyer may be right, as evidenced by the growth of government in the last 75 years.

Minimal government doesn’t necessarily mean unfettered free markets.  That probably is more freedom than people can handle.  Unfortunately, we need close regulation here, because as Madison said, men are not angels, and there’s too much room for manipulation by smart people.

But please check out the Libertarian Party and see if it doesn’t represent the values you agree with as a secular humanist. As I said, it’s hard for me to imagine how atheists can be hard-core liberals or conservatives, but I’m sure there are examples out there, and I may hear from them.

A third President Johnson?

This year’s Libertarian candidate is the best ever: former N.M. Governor Gary Johnson.  Yes!  Nice WASP name, Presidential candidate’s good looks.  And, unlike many former Libertarian candidates,  he has actually held a position from which people often run for President: State Governor.  

I don’t know what kind of crisis – maybe government bankruptcy -- it’s going to take before the Libertarian position starts making sense.  Many of the country’s problems, most especially its skyrocketing debt, are the result of too much government. 

Mind you, I’m not an anarchist: we need some government, just not nearly as much as we have.

I will do what I can to get Gov. Johnson elected.  The media will ignore him, which just shows what government brown-nosers they are.  How can they ignore a State Governor?

Simple proposition

My position as a libertarian is grounded on a simple proposition: If I don’t trust God, whom I don‘t see, how can I trust politicians, whom I CAN see? 





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Comment by Alan Perlman on August 21, 2012 at 11:14am

PS to James: There must be a safety net, but for whom?  Govt. bails out banks and auto companies, but they wouldn't bail me out when I couldn't get tenure and had to change careers to keep from starving.  I wasn't too big to fail.

Private charities do a much more efficient job than govt., one reason being that they don't have an unending flow of taxpayers' money and have to weed out the freeloaders and leeches.  Until Clinton, 30 years of "war on poverty" (why do governments love wars, real and metaphorical, so much?) resulted in 30 years of lost progress against poverty (blacks were already rising economically when the govt. decided on massive handouts). 

I'd like to see charity incentivized by giving us a tax CREDIT for contributions.  Hell, I'd give all my taxes to charity.  But the politicians will never do that.

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 21, 2012 at 10:54am

Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments.

Steph, I do appreciate your kind words and loyal readership!

I think (at least I hope) I've raised some questions to which my fellow heretics will have diverse answers...and that I'll learn something as a result.

I've been pondering these issues for many years. Yes, people want and need to be led, organized, and protected (see "The Grand Inquisitor," chapter from Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov"). But how much? All too often what government does not serve the people at all, but rather the special interests who have bought the politicians.

Ideology -- that govt. can and must fix everything that is amiss in this great land - is behind most of what govt. does. Pragmatism is most certainly not the driving force behind government policies. If it were, laws would be periodically checked and evaluated: has the intended effect been accomplished? Or has government intervention made the problem worse (usually the case)? Nobody ever bothers to see if "the general welfare" has been improved, because the real purpose of most of what government does is to benefit those who have financed the campaigns.

So laws continue long after their usefulness or relevance has expired. The war on drugs pretends to be pragmatic but is ideological in the extreme.

I'm starting to think that economics, like consciousness, is beyond the range of human understanding; cause and effect are too complicated and too heavily influenced by conflicting human emotions. I don't know economists of ANY school who have been consistently right, probably because they can study only what has happened, while what WILL happen, thus what really counts, is unfolding invisibly all around them. The recent economic clusterfuck was not caused by libertarians.

I look forward to further discussion. To what kind of politics (if any) does your atheism lead you?

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 21, 2012 at 10:29am

Comment by Michael OL on August 20, 2012 at 11:10pm

Years ago I had my dalliance with Libertarianism, but have recently been moving to the "left".

Government has a crucial function of filling a power vacuum.  Mankind can not exist as autonomous individuals; invariably, we're going to be led - to be shepherded here and there.  If the government is weak, then that shepherding will be done by churches, or corporations, or unions, or other agglomerations of people led by the crafty for manipulation of the gullible.  Jefferson/Madison/etc. lived in a simpler time, where population density was low, where weapons and technology available to private individuals (at least the wealthy ones) was comparable to that wielded by professional armies, before the rise of the modern corporation and before ideas such as mass free education and mass retirement gained much credence.  In that time, the greatest threat to liberty was petty tyrants in royal or ecclesiastical garb - or in the worst case, both simultaneously.  But there was always the enduring threat of man's basic inhumanity to man.  Today, we are far more adept at merging our interests to form powerful organizations, be they public or private.  Man's inhumanity to man is vastly stronger, amplified by technology and organization.  To counterbalance those organizations and their craving for power we need the ultimate organization wielding power: the government.

To me, the ultimate aegis of a secular-humanist government is pragmatism.  Such a government may be virulently market-oriented or socialist, or anything in between.  But in all cases, it espouses this or that policy in an attempt to solve some practical problem, be it national defense or education or poverty-relief or highway construction.  Never should such a government espouse messianic zeal, or a credo that it works for some philosophical good, some betterment of mankind.  Such trope is guaranteed to lead to tyranny and abuse.  The government may be ineffective, bumbling, obtuse, heavy-handed, whatever... its ideas may or may not work.  But those ideas must be narrowly practical, and never based on creed or idealistic desire to achieve some higher good.  Misplaced idealism (for what other kind is there?) is the downfall of all extremists, be they Muslim, Catholic, Communist, etc.

Comment by James Yount on August 20, 2012 at 2:33pm

Alan, maybe it depends on how you look at it.  The top 5% pay about 95% of the taxes.  I know a lot of small business owners that are taxed exceptionally, even though as an individual they don't make all that much money, especially if you take into account all of the hours they work to keep their businesses afloat. And I'm not arguing for my own self interest.  I'm a struggling student that pays NO federal income taxes.  In fact I get an earned income credit, about $2000 every year for my brother that I adopted.  If I wanted, I could get a couple hundred dollars a month and a couple hundred in food-stamps, even though I don't need it.  We can talk about those that need a hand up and all that, but I've known a lot of people that just leech off the system because they can, not because they need it. 

Comment by Steve Ahlquist on August 20, 2012 at 1:42pm

I have to express doubt that these kind of small government free market economic and political philosophies are compatible with humanism, which includes compassion, as well as reason, as one of its core values. Reason would demonstrate that libertarian economists have done a very poor job accounting for the negative externalities of some businesses, as the very existence of a toxic clean-up superfund demonstrates. I also question how a free market insures any kind of social safety net for someone who suffers a series of bad economic breaks through no fault of their own.

I don't really want to argue the pros and cons of libertarianism here, as I don't really have the time or inclination to do so. What I hope to suggest is that there may be other economic or political systems that do a better job of serving the core value of compassion better, and that by doing so such systems might also be more reasonable, thereby satisfying another core value of humanism.

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 20, 2012 at 10:48am

PS. Don't we have "reverse Robin Hood govt." -- robbing the middle class to give to the rich?

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 20, 2012 at 10:46am

@James Yount - Thanks for thoughtful comments. You're like me: you espouse the politics of human volition and dignity, but these are typically not promoted by politicians passing more laws.  Quite the opposite. 

And govt. inevitably carries good intentions too far. Civil rights, too long in coming, morphed into affirmative action and "diversity."  

I agree, you can have strong beliefs without needing the govt. to force them on everybody else.

Radical Islam must be forcefully opposed, no argument there, but there are better ways than invading countries, killing indiscrimimately, and getting embroiled in centuries-old disputes.

Comment by James Yount on August 19, 2012 at 7:36pm

I was a religious conservative.  Then I became an atheist and had to reexamine everything.  Now I'm a mixed bag.  I still want small government, something the right always promises but never delivers.  I love equality, ie I'm for gay marriage and all that, but I think political correctness has gone overboard.  I wish a lot of good attributes from the 50's would come back, including the respect for authority and elders.  I despise abortion but don't think I have a right to legislate morality.  I want religion as far away from schools and government as possible.  I have a serious problem with illegal immigration and think that needs to be addressed.  I agreed with Hitchens on Iraq and Afghanistan because I believe that Islamists should be fought. I think we need to put A LOT more money into developing technology and space programs.  I can't stress enough that I can't stand a robin hood state.  I'm not entitled to a portion of someone else's success.

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