Humanist Sociology – Introduction
Humanist sociology and psychology are basically two sides of the same coin. Both disciplines act on the same premises—sociology concentrates on society while psychology concentrates on the individual. Thus, Secular Humanist sociologists face the unscientific nature of their discipline, just like Secular Humanist psychologists, and attempt to redefine science to fit their discipline and exclude the supernatural.
Writing about the scientific nature of social science in The Humanist, Read Bain says, “Supernaturalism in all its forms is dying out. Science has been slowly destroying it for over three hundred years, with rapid acceleration during the last century. Its final stronghold is in the psychosocial realm. During the last fifty years the social sciences have made great strides toward becoming natural sciences and most of the former psychosocial mysteries have become matters of rapidly developing scientific knowledge.”1
In spite of Bain’s optimism, Secular Humanist sociology is not on equal footing with the natural sciences, and most Humanist socialists attempt to infuse value into their discipline through means that are not purely scientific.
Humanist Sociology – The Betterment of Society
When it comes to humanist sociology, secular humanist sociologists adopt as their goal the betterment of society. In this sense, they work not as mere observers, but as catalysts. Patricia Hill Collins believes that “the discipline of sociology thus is highly political.”2 The concern of science is adding to our present knowledge, not through politics, but through the scientific method. In contrast, the Secular Humanist sociologist works through activism to bring about changes in society. For example, Humanist historian Vern Bullough observes “Politics and science go hand in hand. In the end it is gay activism which determines what researchers say about gay people.”3
Humanist Sociology – Society as Evil
Secular Humanists see human beings as inherently good, yet they cannot deny the existence of evil in society. Rather than blame people for it, Secular Humanists blame society and its traditional institutions. Psychologist Erich Fromm speaks of “the social process which creates man.”4 He continues, “Just as primitive man was helpless before natural forces, modern man is helpless before the social and economic forces created by himself.”5 Fromm’s The Sane Society is based on the premise that society itself is insane and is a corrupting influence on individuals.
Secular Humanist sociology focuses on research and activism in order to restructure society and create a new social order based on Humanist values. Today’s culture, the “old culture,” inhibits our natural inclinations toward growth and self-betterment. Secular Humanists distrust and view as flawed the traditions in modern society that inhibit our potential and growth.
One societal tradition that Secular Humanists particularly distrust is religion. Fishman and Benello declare that Humanist sociology “seeks the concrete betterment of humankind and is opposed to theories that seek either to glorify the status quo or to march human beings lockstep into history in the interests of a vision imposed from above.”6 This view aligns with Secular Humanism’s belief in evolution and denial of God or the supernatural.
Humanist Sociology – The Self-Actualizing Society
Secular Humanist sociologists describe the new society in terms of human needs. Fromm defines his “sane society” as “that which corresponds to the needs of man—not necessarily to what he feels to be his needs, because even the most pathological aims can be felt subjectively as that which the person wants most; but to what his needs are objectively, as they can be ascertained by the study of man.”7
Abraham Mazlow, although a psychologist, also entertained the goal of transforming society. He devised a hierarchy of human needs and taught that our highest need is self-actualization (reaching our full potential). Maurice R. Stein sees society evolving to better meet human needs when he says, “Humanist sociology views society as a historically evolving enterprise that can only be understood through the struggle to liberate human potentialities.”8 The linkage between the goals of Secular Humanist psychology and sociology is explicit in Glass and Staude’s summation: “Just as the humanistic psychologist is concerned with individual change in a growthful direction, the humanistic sociologist is concerned with a society which would encourage and sustain such growth—a self-actualizing society, as it was.”9 Joyce Milton wrote an account of the ideas and lives of the major theorists who shaped Secular Humanism. Entitled The Road to Malpsychia:Humanistic Psychology and our Discontents,10 Milton illustrates how we are still suffering the effects of their ideas and innovations.
Humanist Sociology – Conclusion
Secular humanists believe social activism will bring about a culture of universal self-actualization. Reese says, “Informed and active people can make of society what they want it to become.”11 Optimism like Reese’s tends to highlight the flaws in our current culture in contrast to the utopian society Humanists are working to effect. Secular Humanist disdain for modern society reflects an open distrust of all traditions and a desire to abandon or rework all existing social institutions.
The traditional institution of the church must be radically remodeled or eliminated altogether. To this end, Humanists have developed their own non-traditional churches, although these organizations go by different names, such as Ethical Societies. For example, the Council for Secular Humanism’s website lists one of its purposes as providing the same kinds of support offered by traditional churches and religious organizations. Under the heading “Serving the Needs of Non-Religious People,” it states, “The Council gives practical support and services to non-religious people. It runs courses and summer camps that educate children in critical thinking and ethical values. For rites of passage, such as marriage and death, it provides dignified non-religious celebrations and memorials. And it runs a national support network for secular families and parents.”
Two court cases in 1957 established secular humanist organizations as functioning as religious societies. One case involved a group of humanists calling themselves the Fellowship of Humanity. They were seeking tax exemption for using their property for religious worship, including weekly Sunday meetings, despite their non-theistic beliefs. The other group, the Washington Ethical Society, applied for tax-exempt status as a religious organization. In both cases, the courts ruled that these organizations functioned as traditional religious organizations, even though they held non-traditional beliefs.
Humanists also seek to use the institution of the state, especially the judiciary, to establish their agenda, including such non-traditional ideas as establishing state-run childcare centers, following a narrow interpretation of separation of church (meaning the Christian church) and state, and passing legislation for gay rights, same-sex marriage, abortion on demand, and animal rights. To this end, Humanists in the United States, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, call for the eradication of all Christian influence, traditions, and symbols in the public square and a complete overhaul of society. Only then will America be prepared to merge with other like-minded Humanist states to forge a new world order.