The American Humanist Association sent me a letter the other day in the hope that I would become a dues-paying member. This mailing seems to be tied to President Trump's recent renewal of his vow to abrogate the Johnson Amendment. Doing this, says AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt, would "essentially turn churches in to super PACS, funneling millions of dollars to elect Religious Right candidates." That alarmist tone carries on into the main letter. "Are you tired of the Religious Right's monopoly on values?" Speckhardt asks, "Do you feel like a second-class citizen when politicians voice the need to believe in God in order to be a good person?" This goes on for several pages, and it becomes clear over those pages that the AHA is primarily if not exclusively concerned with a Christianist menace to the nation. Speckhardt is troubled by Trump's vow to "protect Christianity," and by "a resurgence of attempts to insert Bible study and creationism in public school classrooms." Yet throughout his warnings against religious chauvinism and religious monopolization of the public square, the word "Islam" never appears. You don't have to be an alarmist on the subject of Islam to find that a significant and actually troubling omission. The nearest Speckhardt comes to it is a purposefully vague reference to "the destructive nature of extremist religion." Overall, Speckhardt and the AHA clearly are more troubled by the prospect of Christianist power than the actuality of Islamist violence. I suspect that's mainly because the AHA, as described in the letter, is primarily a lobby dedicated to arguing against the Christian Right in the courts and propagandizing against its legislative agenda in Washington D.C. By its nature it's more concerned with preventing a seizure of political power through political channels by religious extremists than with protecting people against religiously motivated violence. If the AHA is doing anything to address terrorist threats, it isn't mentioned in the letter I received. You'd get the impression from reading it that to be humanist it suffices to be anti-Christianist, if not anti-Christian, even though the AHA boasts of its collaboration with "progressive faith groups" and its welcoming of members "who may not identify as humanists."
What is a humanist, exactly? A separate brochure explains that, according to the AHA, "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." On another page we learn that "Humanists affirm the dignity of every human being and assert that humanity is responsible for its own destiny, having within itself all that is needed to improve the conditions of life." They "see reason and science as the best tools for the discovery of knowledge and the achievement of goals." The AHA's specific goals include "separation of religion from government, preservation and restoration of the environment, protection of civil rights and liberties, and promotion of personal choice regarding introduction of new life, family structure, and death with dignity." They "will not tolerate legally imposed sectarian judgments, human rights violations, or discrimination in any form."
As long as there has been self-conscious humanism, there has been anti-humanism. If there has been any consistency in the opposition, whether from Christian critics of "secular humanism" or Marxists who advocate a kind of "anti-humanism," it is in the rejection of the premise that man, understood as the individual or the individual consciousness, is the measure of all things. Religious believers reject that idea for obvious reasons, while some Marxists claim that individual consciousness is socially constructed and thus can't enjoy the moral subjectivity or autonomy claimed for it. Marxists in particular developed this line of argument against the charge that radical social revolution, including terror against counterrevolutionaries, violated supposedly universal norms of human rights. Some paradoxically argue that they remain the true humanists while challenging "bourgeois" humanism because only their communist revolution can emancipate the true human self, which would flourish in communion rather than curdle in isolation.
For its part, the AHA believes that "happiness is attained by harmoniously combining personal development with work that contributes to the welfare of the community." A Marxist might point out the omission of "struggle" as a precondition for this ideal state, while religious believers would insist on the necessity of orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy, faith and adherence to revealed law, before harmony is possible. The AHA can safely be labeled a form of liberal humanism dedicated to resisting repression but unwilling to see itself as practicing repression, much less advocating it in any form. It prefers to defend liberties rather than appear to deny them to anyone. It sees "personal development" as effortlessly compatible with "the welfare of the community," and the two, implicitly, as equal priorities. When confronting its chosen Christianist enemy, it will say, "You cannot do that," but it probably won't go as far as saying, "You cannot think that." At this point, its reluctance to address Islam may make more sense, on their own terms if not ours. Because no one is lobbying for shari'a law in legislatures today, the AHA may see nothing to confront, or they may see no way to confront Islam or Islamism without appearing to be repressive in a way that would betray their mandate.
On the AHA website, a revised statement on "A Humanist Approach to Islam" at least states that "Governing modern societies by literal application of Shari’a law is a backward reversion and should be recognized as such," but is satisfied that "while there is a continuing threat of terrorist attack from Islamic
terrorist groups, extremist Islam as a political force does not exist in
this country." The association sees "no contradiction, on the one hand, between their longstanding adherence
to principles that run contrary to religious beliefs and, on the other,
their strong distaste for efforts to propagate a crusade
mentality against Islam or any other religion." Of course, many Christians, if they've heard of the AHA, may assume that it is, in fact, waging a "crusade" against them exclusively, and failure to acknowledge this perception of inconsistency may be as significant a blind spot as the AHA's apparent belief that religion is a threat only in courts and legislatures.
The slogan on the AHA brochure reads "Good Without A God," but in practice that seems to be a personal motto rather than an imperative for everyone. The AHA member presumably says, "I can be good without a god, and the rest of you probably can as well, but we won't require it of you." They come short of the "militant atheist" position that people can't be good with a god, or that when they're good it's in spite of God. Like all forms of liberalism, this sort of liberal humanism faces new tests of its tenability in the 21st century that weren't expected just a short time ago, when the end of the Cold War seemed to mean the happy ending of history and the beginning of progress without struggle. Whether humanism itself remains tenable as something distinct from liberalism is a separate question, but it's unclear whether the AHA has an answer for it.