Reply to Flynn

Below is my original response to Tom Flynn’s long and interesting, yet periodically niggling, review of my book (Tom Flynn, “Unruly Multitudes,” Free Inquiry 41, no. 4 (July 2021): 54–61, link), which was published and significantly cut as a letter to the editor here: Stephen P. Weldon, “Stephen P. Weldon Responds to Tom Flynn’s Review,” Free Inquiry 41, no. 6 (November 2021).

I appreciate Tom Flynn’s close attention to my book The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism. To have such a long review by the editor himself is satisfying, even when he and I disagree. I’m also flattered to have the book characterized with a reference to the venerable Walt Whitman. Flynn recognizes that my book breaks new ground for scholars studying the history of humanism in the twentieth century.

His review and commentary begs, I think, for a response, not because the review is unfair—though I have some quibbles with his criticisms—but because its length seems to encourage conversation about the book and its thesis. How might humanists of different stripes benefit from my analysis, especially regarding the place of science in America?

Flynn’s assessment of my understanding of humanism is overall quite positive, and we agree more than we disagree. Flynn does make a number of nitpicky criticisms related to tangential issues (the date of a rock song, the nature of broadcast TV, whether or not to cite a book by its original title, what adjective best characterizes a small town). But I don’t want to spend much space arguing over Flynn’s sidebar explorations of narrow points of fact. His comments add detail in areas where my narrative is lacking, but I stand by my words in most of these cases. I believe I am correct even if the statements are occasionally incomplete. Moreover, I don’t think that most of the items that Flynn claims are errors have much significance with regard to the overall thesis of the book.

The one point of fact that I clearly got wrong was the date of the AHA’s second tax exemption change, when they returned to an educational tax designation after having called themselves religious for so many years. This happened after the turn of the millennium, a decade after I say it did. Flynn’s accounting of that event is no doubt correct. The main takeaway from this event, in my view however, is less the timing of it but the fact that it happened at all. That the AHA changed its tax status twice is striking, as Flynn himself notes, and speaks volumes about the changing perspective of American secularists and transformations in the culture at large.

But let me step back to consider Flynn’s overall approach and offer a different angle from which to view my book. Flynn’s sidebars help to explain how he reads the book as first and foremost an institutional history of the humanist movement. While that reading is possible, and I anticipated it, I want to encourage readers to look at the book with a different eye, one that explores the place of humanism in American intellectual history. More importantly, I want to encourage readers to contemplate how the humanists thought about science in different ways, and why that matters.

Flynn is quite complimentary about how I captured the early history of humanism. My main point is that religious institutions have played a much greater role in the secularization of American thought than most people recognize. When you look at the radical religious ideas of the 19th and early 20th centuries that led to humanism, you find them in well-established denominational groups around the country. In addition, you see scholars in the academy affiliated closely with liberal and radical churches. This is a very different America than what most people see today when the academy and the churches are so much more separated.

This part of the book is crucial for illuminating the—dare I say it—religiosity of secular thought. Not only that, but it shows how much people were attempting to meld scientific naturalism with something that they presented as a religious sensibility.

Flynn is more critical of my approach to the history of humanism in the second half of the century, calling it murkier, less precise, and uneven. I suspect that the main reason the second half seems less clear is that this more recent history is simply much more complicated, so my thesis is subtler. I talk a lot about the humanist idea of the scientific spirit, a recognition of the special importance humanists placed on science and scientific thinking. In this respect, I’m not talking about what science is but rather what humanists think science is. And there were serious disagreements about this.

This part of the book deserves special consideration, I believe, because what happened in the last third of the twentieth century, both within humanism and without, is crucial to understanding why American society sits in such a troubled position today. As we all know, Americans disagree strongly about religion and science. My main argument is that as humanism matured it found itself in several serious conflicts revolving around religion and science. Some conflicts were internal and some were external.

Internally, there was a growing diversity among humanists on what science meant. I highlight the division as one between Deweyan pragmatism and logical positivism. These two ways of thinking about science produced quite different results. Out of the first, I argue, came a more open-ended and flexible understanding of science. Drawing frequently on John Dewey, this group of humanists argued against determinism and reductionism. They saw science as a natural outgrowth of human thought. The positivists, by contrast, considered science to be rigorously disciplined thought; it was definitely not an organic outgrowth of our nature. Indeed, positivists usually believed human psychology got in the way of right thinking. They tended to embrace reductionism and determinism. This difference between trusting or distrusting the human outlook matters, and we see this in the striking differences of tone and content in humanist rhetoric from the different camps. The result was a conflict between two humanist frameworks, which was most notably apparent in the controversy over whether the arch-reductionist B. F. Skinner was a humanist or not.

Externally, the humanists faced two other potential threats. On the one side, there was the counterculture and  the burgeoning New Age movement that many (but not all) humanists worried about; on the other, there was a growing politically empowered Christian fundamentalism. Humanism and rationalism were targets of attack in both cases. In the book, I show how a few humanists responded quite vigorously to these movements in order to defend rational thought and scientific thinking against a wave of irrationalism. In the process, I found that humanists talked about and used science in a whole variety of ways to fight against fuzzy thinking. It was in this period and as a result of these cultural changes that the skeptics movement and full blown secular humanism arose. (Incidentally, I believe Flynn is right to suggest that the secular humanist movement owes a great deal to America’s freethought tradition, whose in-your-face posture toward much of American culture fit well alongside the aggressive skeptical mentality that I point to.)

One other thread that runs through the book concerns the way that humanist ideas about science were almost always connected to moral and political ideals. I show how this mode of thinking started early, with the founders of the Republic, Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and runs through the thinking of humanists like Paul Kurtz and James Randi.

Anyone who gets the book, I hope, will take time to consider not just the story of how American humanism was made, but also how the movement cultivated and developed the scientific spirit in American culture. That scientific spirit meant different things to different humanists, but it was always a central thread in humanist thought.