The News has graciously given me a column dedicated to all things secular, scientific and humanist.
The New Enlightenment is a grass-roots movement conceived to carry on and pick up where the “first” Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries left off.
Wikipedia explains the original Enlightenment’s purpose was to “reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through the science.”
The New Enlightenment is marked as beginning with the publication in 2004 of Sam Harris’ “End of Faith” followed quickly by Richard Dawkins’ “God Delusion” and the irreplaceable Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great.”
The new movement intends to continue to replace supernaturalism and authority in human affairs with naturalistic science based in reason and tolerance.
In less than a decade, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.
My first involvement was at Northern Illinois University in 2006 while pursuing my doctorate degree. I was privileged to help form the NIU Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers, one of the first 75 or so campus groups to affiliate with the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), a nationwide coalition of college organizations.
We added the term “Freethinkers” as we couldn’t really form a secular group and exclude deistic Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine or believers of any kind.
This movement has always been so much more than a venue for disbelief in god.
It is as much about promoting science, reason and tolerance as engaging in critical analysis of supernatural and religious claims.
Back then, when a group of total strangers met for the first time in the NIU Library lobby we were all reluctant to use the “A” word (atheist) out loud, even when among fellow unbelieving scum. How times have changed!
Taking a page from the civil, women’s and gay rights movements, the New Enlightenment has undertaken to raise consciousness of the widespread prevalence and legitimacy of nonbelief.
Atheism no longer is automatically associated with Hitler, Stalin and Mao (Hitler was no atheist, and Stalin and Mao created their own “secular religions” placing themselves at the position of unquestioned righteousness, might and cruelty usually reserved for gods.)
The nonbelievers of today promoting the New Enlightenment ideas of skepticism for all ideologies, religious or political, and championing reason and tolerance to guide all human interactions have nothing in common with the monsters of the 20th century and their fanatical and dogmatic political systems of oppression.
In 2009, I advertised to form the Murray State Freethinkers (MISFITS) student organization and was fortunate to meet a dynamic group of students unknown to me and to each other who took on the leadership of the group and established us as the first secular college group in Kentucky.
A year later, a second group of students approached me to advise their newly formed Murray State Student Organization for Reason and Science (SORS).
Murray State now has the only campus with two student-led organizations affiliated with the SSA, and we number among nearly 400 other college and high school groups promoting the New Enlightenment across the U.S. Not bad for less than a decade.
No one in these two groups gives it a second thought to utter the “A” word out loud now, given that it is plastered across all media everywhere as the discussion of the absurdity of religion’s claims and its repressive practices continues on a daily basis worldwide.
A lot has changed in less than 10 years – imagine what can change in 50. Who, in the civil rights movement in ’63, would have predicted an African-American president commemorating the March on Washington 50 years hence?
The women’s and gay rights movements hadn’t even begun, yet consider how much they accomplished in even less time.
The world we live in today, far from perfect as those movements’ work is yet to be finished, is incredibly more tolerant than it was mid-century.
So, give this secular movement 10 full years, give the New Enlightenment 50 years or a century or two and see what can happen.
I am incredibly optimistic that normal human empathy and intelligence can trump the divisiveness, repression and absurd beliefs ensconced in the world’s religions.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism have had on the order of two millennia each, the reincarnation religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and the like a few centuries longer; the New Enlightenment hasn’t had a full decade yet.
Kudos are in order to the Murray State students who put their efforts into these groups, who risk or have suffered being ostracized by their church, community or family for daring to think for themselves, for boldly questioning many of the religious ideas they were taught as children which are neither so good nor so true.
Column by William Zingrone, Associate professor of psychology