A Secular Humanist’s view of the past 9 decades

editorial opinion2

[FROM THE EDITOR: At the outset, I want to be absolutely clear: I and The Citizen emphatically DISAGREE with the philosophy and value assessments expressed by the author of the following piece. However, as a Christian who holds an opposing view to “secular humanism,” I suggest that it is highly instructive to get a capsule, candid view of what “the other side” fervently believes. It is equally instructive to contemplate the driving forces within American culture in 2021.  CAL BEVERLY, EDITOR]

A ‘Victory Lap’ commentary: Nine decades of progress

by James A. Haught

I’ll be 90 on my next birthday. My long life is sinking, shrinking, slip-sliding away. My wife is worse: bedfast, under hospice care. Soon, our world will end, not with a bang but a whimper.

Looking back over nine decades, I’m proud and pleased because secular humanism — the progressive struggle to make life better for everyone — won hundreds of victories during my time.

When I came of age in the 1950s, fundamentalist taboos ruled America. Gay sex was a felony, and homosexuals hid in the closet. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was illegal to look at something like a Playboy magazine or sexy R-rated movie — or even read about sex.

Blacks were confined to ghettos, not allowed into white-only restaurants, hotels, clubs, pools, schools, careers or neighborhoods. Interracial marriage was illegal. Schools had government-mandated prayers, and biology classes didn’t mention evolution. Buying a cocktail or lottery ticket was a crime. Birth control was illegal in some states. Desperate girls couldn’t end pregnancies, except via back-alley butchers. Unwed couples couldn’t share a bedroom. Other Puritanism was locked into law.

Now, all those born-again strictures have been wiped out, one after another. Human rights and personal freedoms snowballed. Society changed so radically that it’s hard to remember the old “thou shalt nots.”

The secular humanist crusade, a never-ending effort to help humanity, began its modern upsurge three centuries ago in The Enlightenment. Rebel thinkers began challenging the divine right of kings, the supremacy of the church, privileges of aristocrats, and other despotism. They envisioned democracy, personal equality, human rights, free speech and a social safety net.

At the start of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party sought many reforms. And women fought bravely for the right to vote. Then, during my lifetime, wave after wave of betterment occurred.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal passed Social Security pensions for retirees, gave unions a right to organize, provided unemployment compensation for the jobless and workers compensation for those injured at work, banned child labor, set a 40-hour work week and a minimum wage, created food stamps and welfare for the poor, launched massive public works to make jobs, created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to protect bank depositors, and much more.

The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren transformed America: outlawing racially segregated schools, outlawing government-enforced school prayer, striking down state laws against birth control and mixed marriage, protecting poor defendants against police abuses, mandating “one person, one vote” equality in districts to stop sparse rural conservatives from dominating legislatures.

The Warren Court gave couples privacy in the bedroom — which set the stage for a later ruling that let women and girls end pregnancies. Other subsequent decisions decriminalized gay sex, gave homosexuals a right to marry, and made gays safer from cruel discrimination.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society leaped forward with Medicare, Medicaid, the Job Corps, Head Start, public radio and television, consumer protection, pollution curbs, senior citizen meals, the National Trails System, and 200 other improvements. Four major laws guaranteed racial equality.

Meanwhile, the historic civil rights movement made America honor its pledge that “all men are created equal.” Birth control pills freed women from endless pregnancy and triggered the sexual revolution against bluenose church taboos. Women’s liberation weakened male domination. Gays gained legal equality through historic breakthroughs. The youth rebellion of the 1960s still has repercussions.

A 1987 high court ruling forbade public schools to teach “creationism.” Other progressive advances included marijuana legalization in many states, and the beginning of “right to die with dignity” laws.

Finally, the collapse of the idiotic Trump era and the disintegration of supernatural religion in western democracies are more victories for secular humanism.

Decade after decade, progressive reformers defeated bigoted religion and right-wing political resistance to wipe out hidebound strictures.

Barely noticed, humanist advances helped billions. War between nations has virtually ceased in the past half-century. In the 1800s, life expectancy averaged 35 years because of high childhood deaths, but now it’s near 80. Literacy and education have soared. Each day, 200,000 more people rise above rock-bottom $2-per-day poverty. Each day, 300,000 more gain access to electricity and clean water for the first time. Famines have almost vanished. Progressive values keep climbing.

We existentialists see the chaotic carnival of life — all the absurdities and blatant charlatans (Trump, for example). Sometimes we want to embrace Macbeth’s bitter lament that life is a pointless farce, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But I know that’s only part of the truth. The marvelous rise of secular humanism in a single lifetime — greatly improving life for all — paints a much-brighter hope for humanity. Let’s keep striving for more advances.

(James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and author of 12 books.

[PeaceVoice is located in the traditional homelands of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Watlala Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other indigenous nations who made their homes along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. By recognizing these communities, we honor their legacies, their lives, and their descendants.

Yours for a nonviolent future,

Tom H. Hastings, Ed.D.

Director, PeaceVoice Program

Oregon Peace Institute


503 744 9787

(he, him, his)


author, latest book, A New Era of Nonviolence


Assistant Professor

Coordinator, Conflict Resolution BA/BS major & minor programs

PSU Conflict Resolution Department


Portland OR 97201



Whitefeather Peace House

3315 N Russet Portland OR 97217]


  1. Not a single one of those accomplishments were wrought by anyone who would self identify as a “Secular Humanist”.

    The love affair that Secular Humanists have with their own supposed intellect is at odds with their real record. Secularist thought brought about Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. The mechanized mass murder they effected in the 20th century beat all killings in the name of God ever.

    After that, secularists adopted the humanist label and plagiarized the moral framework of christianity. Jacques Deride said it best of the secularists; that they are ‘feeding on the corpse of their ancestors’.

  2. Not a single one of those accomplishments were wrought by anyone who would self identify as a “Secular Humanist”. In fact, most of them can be traced directly to a person acting in the tenets of their Christian faith.

    The truth of the matter is that so-called Secular Humanists are in love with their own intellect yet are unaware of what philosophers since Kant and Nietzsche have warned: that their intellect is far too meager to build a moral and ethical framework sufficient to replace that of the world’s religions, and their attempt to do so would be a disaster. (Nietzsche in particular, a strong critic of Christianity, coined the phrase “God is Dead” specifically as an admonishment to the folly of secularism.)

    The true legacy of secularism is in the industrial scale slaughter of human lives during the 20th century under atheistic notions of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. The word “Humanist” was added to Secularism in the late 1930’s in direct response to these horrors. But the truth is that their humanistic strictures were simply plagiarized from Christianity.

    Secular humanists have spent the last 90 years annoying everyone else in the intellectual and philosophical community, leading Jacques Deride to remark that they were ‘feeding on the corpse of their ancestors’. The cannibalism of good ideas and good works from others may sustain the egotism of Secular Humanists, but the true record of the positive accomplishments of secular humanism shows that their ledger is still very much in the red.

  3. Haught exemplifies the tradition of Secularists in claiming credit for things they had no contribution to. Every victory enumerated in this letter can be traced back to an individual who was acting according to the tenets of their religious faith, in most cases Christianity. They certainly weren’t secularists.

    There is a legacy in secularism that is worth talking about. But as important it is worth talking about the warnings about secularism that were provided by philosophers in the 19th century. First was Emmanuel Kant, who pointed out that it was not possible to synthesize a moral framework based on pure reason as the secularists sought to do. He literally wrote a book about it. But the most devastating take-down of secularism comes from Friedrich Nietzsche who is best known as a severe critic of Christianity. His book ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ gave us the immortal line “God is dead.” Few people who haven’t read Nietzsche know what was spoken by Zarathustra next; that in our attempt to replace God, we would far exceed all the wrongs committed in the name of God, yet we would have no mechanisms to atone for our wrongdoing. In the first 3 decades of the 20th century, secularism gave us the horrors of Eugenics, the evils of Nazism, and the scourge of Communism whose murderous inhumanity killed more people in the 1930’s alone than has ever been blamed on killings in the name of God. The Secular Pinnacle that is Communism continues today in the death camps of North Korea, in the forced sterilization and abortion policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and in the Uighur concentration camps in Western China where they are being disabused of their Muslim faith.

    The Secularists of the mid 20th century beheld the horror of their ideology, but were unmoved to renew their faith in the divine. Instead they simply expropriated Judeo-Christian morality and called themselves Humanists. Since then, the totality of the evolution of Secular Humanism has come merely from coopting ideas from other philosophical movements and rebranding them. Within the larger community of Rationalists, they are generally considered a nuisance. This is what led Jacques Derrida to remark that they were “living on the corpse of their ancestors”, denoting their cannibalism of the productive efforts of other generations to sustain the body of their movement.

    I am a big believer in the power of rational thought, of empiricism, and the power of the scientific method. But I’m not so arrogant as to believe that I can explain everything simply on the power of my intellect alone. During my five decades on this planet, I repeatedly returned to the study of religion and am consistently amazed by how much truth is encapsulated in the stories and tenets of all faiths. However it is the teachings of the Old and New Testament which appear to have formed the most perfect moral and ethical framework of all. We abandon that at our own peril. Secular Humanists haven’t figured that out, and likely never will.

  4. I agree. It is refreshing to read a sensible secular viewpoint in contrast to Hoffman’s “Regular Rants from the Right”.
    BTW Cal, there are millions of excellent people in the world who are not Christian. I also wonder what Christ would have thought of your views.

  5. Great perspective from Mr. Haught and something those of us in a younger generation can take and use as inspiration. It is plainly obvious that humans can be good without god and I look forward to seeing the progress an increasingly secular society can make.