Humanism's Role in a 'Political Revolution'

With religion fading, humanism is vital to transformative change

Posted Apr 06, 2016

Nate Gowdy, used with permission
Bernie Sanders has shown that many Americans are ready for a "political revolution," but it can't happen without social movements and activist groups pushing for a progressive agenda even after the election. With the decline of religion in America, this leaves an important role for secular humanism.
Source: Nate Gowdy, used with permission

Win or lose, Bernie Sanders has certainly demonstrated that the idea of a “political revolution” has much appeal to ordinary Americans. There’s room for debate about exactly how to define such a revolution, but there can be no question that the general themes expressed by Sanders—controlling Wall Street, addressing wealth disparity, providing quality health care and education for all, and moving America toward a system more akin to European-style social democracies—have resonated with voters.

As some have pointed out, however, a real political revolution cannot occur via the campaign of one presidential candidate. Truly systemic change requires a broad popular uprising, a recognition that old institutions have failed and must be replaced or transformed. New thinking. New paradigms. While the Sanders campaign has engaged many in the political process and generated excitement for progressive reforms, it remains to be seen whether its calls for "political revolution" are anything more than catchy campaign rhetoric. 

Many are skeptical but hopeful. Patrick Barrett of the University of Wisconsin, in an insightful piece in Truthout, says the Sanders effort is unlikely to translate into real change without the accompaniment of strong social movements. "Autonomous organizations" must be established, Barrett says, to flex muscle by “disrupting business as usual” via tactics such as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. These organizations—such as unions and community groups—would not be primarily political, he says, but would warily enter the electoral arena “with the goal of transforming it.”

It’s hard to argue with Barrett’s reasoning, since he’s simply saying that strong underlying social forces must be present to bring about major progressive change (whether we call it democratic socialism or something else). The political energy generated by Sanders is remarkable, but will mean little if everybody goes home after the election and does nothing to oppose the relentless efforts of corporate lobbyists and other conservative interests to control the system and shape policy.

What should trouble those hoping for a "political revolution," however, is that there are few such social movements and autonomous organizations that appear ready to fill the role suggested by Barrett. Unions have been decimated in America, and there is no reason to believe that they are ready to become major sources of progressive power. As for community groups, there are undoubtedly many small organizations across America that fit that label, but there is little indication that such groups are poised to mobilize in a way that suddenly launches the nation on a new trajectory.

There is, however, one noteworthy type of “autonomous organization” that has traditionally been important in promoting progressive change: liberal churches. But it would be a mistake to expect liberal religious congregations to take the lead in a new progressive movement. They surely have a role to play, but given the decline of religion in general (and liberal religion in particular) no broad-based progressive movement would get far with liberal churches as the primary source of momentum. (Conservative and fundamentalist churches, often of the megachurch variety, are the only area of Christianity showing much growth.)

In fact, the key demographic that is likely to engage in the progressive activism of a "political revolution"—the Millennial generation—is disassociating from organized religion. America is rapidly trending secular, with almost one in four now identifying as religiously unaffiliated, and young people are leading the charge. Thus, while the historical role of liberal churches in progressive movements, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, is undeniable, it is unrealistic to expect liberal religion to play that kind of role in a contemporary drive for major social and political change.

This all results in a problematic conclusion: Barrett has diagnosed the problem and even written the prescription, but he hasn’t shown progressive where they can fill that prescription—where they can realistically expect to find the “autonomous organizations” with the muscle to fuel a true, lasting movement for transformation.

But there are possibilities that many progressives and other commentators have overlooked. One such possibility is organized humanism.

If we consider that America is becoming increasingly secular, the importance of secular humanism in any contemporary progressive movement should be obvious. Humanism, as a worldview, is inherently progressive. As liberal churches have declined over the last generation, humanist groups have been springing up around the country and indeed the world, many of them well positioned to serve as instruments of change.

The American Humanist Association, for example, now has almost 200 chapters and affiliates across the United States. (Full disclosure: I'm AHA's legal director.) As activists, humanists overwhelmingly favor progressive, egalitarian public policy: reproductive freedom, equality for women, sensible regulation of corporate power, LGBT rights, racial equality, and science-based decision making. (In one poll of humanists last fall, 74 percent supported Bernie Sanders, 21 percent Hillary Clinton, 2 percent Donald Trump, and less for everyone else. It would be hard to find a stronger demographic of progressive support.)

Sensing the opportunity to play a larger role in shaping the agenda, humanists have taken steps to capitalize. Groups such as the Center for Freethought Equality and the Secular Coalition for America are now lobbying in Washington on behalf of secularism and humanist public policy. Humanists now even have a PAC, directly pursuing political aims.

There are many challenges facing humanist organizations as they seek more prominence in pushing for progressive goals. Some humanist groups have been criticized for being too white and too male, for example, and some have preferred intellectual conversation and debate over on-the-street activism. There is legitimacy to much of this criticism, but many groups are working hard to address such issues. The AHA recently created a position of social justice coordinator, for example, and many high-profile humanists have been increasingly calling attention to the link between humanism and social justice.

It will take more than the humanist movement to transform America, but the importance of humanists and humanist groups in promoting a strong progressive agenda (or if you prefer, a "political revolution") should not be underestimated. With neither labor nor liberal religion nearly as influential as they were in their heydays, strong and autonomous organizations that are poised to enunciate a progressive vision, and fight for it as well, are few and far between. If there is any hope of maintaining constant pressure on the political establishment to move toward major, transformative change, humanists surely must play a role.

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