Author Roy Speckhardt: “Can we create change through humanism?”

For Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, this is not a question. He clearly affirms it in the title of his persuasive and accessible new book, Creating Change Through Humanism.

“Traditional religions that hold to divine revelations of ancient men and millennia-old texts are bound to be antiquated,” Speckhardt writes, “compared to the humanist drive to seek progress for humanity based on the best available evidence and reasoning.”

Please don’t misunderstand him. As a freethinker, he is skeptical of religion and its claims, but also acknowledges that much of modern religious expression is not especially oppressive and mind-constricting. There are liberal branches of most major religions that are completely open to the scientific method, and many participants in such denominations who would readily call themselves “humanists.” For them, as for many who populate our churches and temples, religion serves primarily as a gathering place, a community space that offers comfort, meaningful tradition, and structure. There are “millions of godless peoples who remain active in religions,” he says, citing the recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey.

“Perhaps today’s greatest challenge is grappling with how to raise worldwide standards of living in an equitable manner while simultaneously addressing the continuously deteriorating environment, upon which our very existence depends.”

“Humanists understand that this is the only life we have,” writes Speckhardt, “and this planet is the only place we have to live it. Unlike many religious organizations and those they support, humanists don’t rely on a god to fix things, don’t rely on an afterlife to improve our lot, and don’t have archaic prohibitions about contraception, abortion, or other means of providing families planning options. That’s why population dynamics matter so much to humanists – only humans have the ability to protect our planet.”

To Humanists, there are no classes of lesser people in the world: All are entitled to share life’s bounty, without appeal to somebody’s scripture to take anything away from anyone. Egalitarian argument is adduced about women’s, LGBTQ, and all civil rights, leading “to the conclusion that we live on this one world as one people.”

The last of the red-hot atheist rabble-rousers

Gone are the days, for the Humanist movement at least, when atheist rabble-rousers like the late activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair would gratuitously assault believers for their ignorance and superstition. Today’s Humanists are drawn more to ask probing questions: “Do you explore science, literature, and art with an open mind?” Not “Do you give exclusive allegiance to a unique prophet or savior?” but instead, “Do you value your own experience and worth?” And not “Do you believe in an absolute, a personal god, an immortal soul?” but “Do you act for the good of humanity, including future generations?”

“After all,” Speckhardt reminds us, “it’s tiresome to always talk about what we don’t believe. A consistently negative approach is simply unhealthy and less productive than alternatives.” For that reason, he writes, the term “atheist” is receding from popularity as being a negative term that denies belief, while “Humanist” has only positive associations. “Our drive to help humanity is a sensible one and our reliance on empathy is a recognizable good.” Or as the Humanist saying goes, “Good without a god.”

In his second section, Speckhardt tackles some of the world’s problems and suggests how, through Humanist activism, change can take place. He recognizes “that rampant inequality is cancerous to our world. Extremes of wealth and poverty, of cosmopolitanism and ignorance, are seeds of conflict and instability. When the bulk of a society has no hope of achieving the basic standards of life and happiness, it cultivates religious extremism and opens the door to violence as coping methods for the disenfranchised.”

Not surprisingly, with such an outlook, a survey of AHA members revealed that less than three percent claimed to be Republican Party members. Overall, Humanists are liberal, progressive (many lean toward socialist ideas), and democratic (both small- and capital-D). In recent years a Freethought Equality Fund PAC has been established whereby Humanists help to support such candidates who will base their votes on the Constitution, not the Bible.

Humanism, as Speckhardt outlines it, aims to address inequities of all kinds in this world, and allies on an issue-by-issue basis with many other movements for progress. There is one evident weakness in this book, and I believe more broadly in the Humanist movement. Although the author recognizes the need for coalition politics to elect better politicians to office, to repeal offensive laws and policies, to provide a more fruitful life for all, he singles out the usual “identity politics” groups but does not make the case for labor as part of, and many would argue the most significant part of that coalition. Time and again, where the opportunity arises to include a salute to the labor movement’s historic role in advocating for a better life, for overcoming racial and gender prejudices, for fair labor practices, for better wages, and against “right-to-work,” outsourcing and sweatshops, he misses it. It seems not to be his priority to bring Humanists aboard the cause of working people as a class, nor specifically to reach out to the working class with a Humanist perspective.

Brochures published by AHA and distributed at its recent 75th national conference did not carry the union printer’s bug; so right off the bat, a union member picking up that literature will question AHA’s commitment to improving the situation for working people if it can’t even figure out to buy union. This point was brought up in one session (by me) and was received with what seemed to be widespread approval. This is a critical alliance AHA appears not to have taken much into account, but it is absolutely central to its purpose.

With that important exception noted, Creating Change is a useful introduction to a subject that even without much proselytizing will undoubtedly become better known in the years to come. Year by year polls indicate increasing numbers of “nones” – atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, skeptics and humanists, especially among young people, who will be showing their profound impatience with “faith-based” (and anti-labor, anti-people) antics in our political and social lives.

Creating Change Through Humanism

Washington, D.C.: Humanist Press, 2015, 185 pp.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.