A question for you about humanism, atheism, skepticism, and politics

This issue, for various reasons, is on my mind lately, and a current news story focuses the question. The Center for Inquiry has issued a statement urging the “Obama Administration Not To Retreat Any Further on HHS Regulation.” This pertains to the recent dustup over reproductive health services (in particular birth control).

From the CFI:

On Friday, Feb. 10, the Obama Administration announced that it would continue to require health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services, such as birth control, without charging a co-payment. However, it indicated that it would allow religiously affiliated employers not to offer contraceptive coverage directly—although their insurers would still have to offer such coverage.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is pleased that the Obama Administration has continued to hold firm to the principle that employees must have access to contraceptive services as part of any employer-sponsored health plan and has decided to keep in place the substance of guidelines that require health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services without charging a co-payment. …

With regards to Advocasy, the CFI makes this statement about itself: “The Center for Inquiry advocates for science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values…” and does so via a number of programs, and the mission of the CFI is stated as “…to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

Here are my questoins: Is something like funding of birth control a political issue? Is it the proper role of an organization like CFI to engage in political issues, and if so, is there some subset of issues they should leave alone vs. focus on? What about other organizations with a somewhat different mission, such as JREF?

In short, do Secular Humanism, Skepticism, other Secular movements or groups, or Atheism have a Political Agenda? Are these movements politically agnostic? Are the goals and philsophies of these organizaitons incompatible with certain political orientations?

Why do I ask? Because in a few weeks I’m going to be engaged in a debate about this topic and I’d like to know what you think about it.

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53 Responses to A question for you about humanism, atheism, skepticism, and politics

  1. Physicalist says:

    My considered opinion: “I-dunno.”

  2. Natalie Reed says:

    Where would we even be able to draw a line between political and non-political?

    Skepticism is in itself apolitical, but so long as people keep politicizing everything they can get their hands on (contraception, climate change, evolution, everything) then…

  3. Greg Laden says:

    Phys: That will be my fallback position in the debate.

  4. Greg Laden says:

    Is skepticism definitively apolitical? Or could one say it is not partisan but often has political implications or effects?

  5. Aspen says:

    It shouldn’t be political, it should be an accepted right, but it’s not and women’s bodies and autonomy will continue to be politicised debated, and thus, birth control is political. Further it becomes political because population control becomes political. I also don’t think there is such a thing as “politically agnostic” when our entire lives on this planet are politicised from what we look like to how much money we make. I think it’s not only proper but it’s right than an organisation should stand up when it comes to birth control, and especially to protect those members of humanist and secular groups who are the minorities being attacked by politics.

  6. Kazim says:

    Agree with Natalie. Political has become a negative buzzword which sometimes has hilarious consequences, i.e., when I hear people saying “Government should not play politics with Social Security!” Social security is a function of government, and government is political. And as Natalie indicates, arguing for “reality” to be taken into account in making public policy is political… and well worth fighting for.

    I think perhaps more to the point would be the question: Is it reasonable to assume pro-choice as a default position for skeptics? And I think that it is, personally, as there are not many good arguments for “life begins at conception” that don’t somehow invoke the existence of a soul. However, as with lots of different topics, there’s a small set of people who take up a contrarian position, and you can’t claim to speak for all people all the time.

    If I were somehow thoroughly, 100% convinced that abortion is murder and is an equivalent act to murdering a human adult with a fully formed brain, a nervous system, and life experiences, then it might give me pause. The argument that a woman has control over her own body, and that a person can’t be forced to play host to another person or, say, donate a kidney, still might win out and keep me pro-choice in that case. But it would not be as obvious a decision to me at that point.

    So short answer: Yes it’s political, and there’s nothing wrong with that; yes, most skeptics can be reasonably expected to be pro-choice, but no it’s not a guarantee.

  7. Natalie Reed says:

    Having political implications or effects is not incompatible with being in and of itself apolitical.

    Skepticism ought look for the best answer, regardless of its political implications. If we’re specifically distorting, twisting or cherry-picking the truth to meet our political needs, we’re not very good skeptics, are we?

  8. James says:

    advocates for science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values

    Values influence actions. So whether the CFI should advocate on any particular issue depends what those values are (is there an agreed list of humanist values? or a particular set that the CFI publicly subscribes to?) and whether a scientific evidence + logical reasoning can lead to a political position on that issue.

    I suspect that among the values most humanists would subscribe to are freedom of conscience (and thus freedom of speech, religion, etc), a woman’s right to determine her reproductive experiences and the promotion/increase of human health and happiness. So, like most of us, the CFI would have to balance those values, consider the available evidence and decide which stance on this issue best fits their core purposes.

    This process should be the same for all of us on any political issue, however one might expect the CFI (by their very nature) to provide a more cogent and reasoned argument showing how the evidence led them from their core values to whatever position they reach. After all, that process is central to their message (it’s what they want us all to do more of) and they should be setting an example. This also (to some extent) armours them against arguments that they are really driven by ideology.

  9. Funny, so am I, or not a debate but a discussion. One hosted by CFI, at that!

    The funding of birth control needn’t necessarily be a CFI-related issue, but in this case it is, because the opposition comes from the official organization of US Catholic bishops. If bishops get to tell everyone what to do, we no longer have secularism (as a form of government), and if the trend continues it’s a dire threat to inquiry.

  10. karmakin says:

    That’s why I’m a bit iffy on the term skepticism, to be honest. I don’t think there’s anything innately that comes from the term skepticism that results in any sort of unified political stance (although I do agree with Natalie up above), and as such I do kind of understand the concept that maybe groups that self-identify as skeptical, by taking political stances may be alienating members of the group who do not take that particular stance.

    That said, I actually think it’s more about rational morality, the idea that there really is such thing as a correct answer to questions of morality, and although they can be complex, they can be answered in a rational fashion. Or, to be more precise, they can be discussed and worked on in a rational fashion.

    In this way, generally speaking most people who come from a position of rational morality are going to come to often very similar answers on a wide assortment of questions. Where we don’t, generally has to do with one’s irrational biases.

  11. James says:

    Ignore #6, Natalie and karmakin said pretty much what i meant much more clearly and succinctly.

  12. Mano Singham says:

    Without getting into the deep philosophical weeds of what skepticism and humanism are or what is or is not political, I think a legitimate issue for the CFI and other skeptic groups is to oppose attempts to impose a religious agenda on the public sphere on any issue. The efforts to reduce or eliminate contraceptive services seems to me to be a clear case of a religious revelatory agenda being pushed on the rest of us and thus falls within its ambit.

    Now if the CFI started taking a stand on whether nuclear power plants should be built or whether fracking should be allowed, then one could legitimately argue that they are straying too far from their mission.

  13. Pteryxx says:

    Now if the CFI started taking a stand on whether nuclear power plants should be built or whether fracking should be allowed, then one could legitimately argue that they are straying too far from their mission.

    But fracking is being allowed because of active suppression of research into its effects – and research suppression IS a concern of skeptical inquiry.

  14. Greg Laden says:

    Now if the CFI started taking a stand on whether nuclear power plants should be built or whether fracking should be allowed, then one could legitimately argue that they are straying too far from their mission.

    What if either of those issues involved a political landscape with willful misinformation … i.e, on one hand power companies lobbying to ignore real safety concerns and on the other anti-nuke factions shutting down off site transport of used fuel rods (both may have happened at Fukushima and both may have contributed to the severity of the nuclear disaster there)?

  15. MichaelD says:

    I’d go with the second option there not partisan but has political implications or effects. For example school science standards and school council meetings are political but they also touch on creationism and skepticism through that. I’d say skepticism should stand up for the evidence on an issue even if its a political issue.

    Also that skepticism can affect the way we reach a goal. If you want to reduce teen pregnancy the science shows sex ed is the way to go. That has political implications. If you’re say canadian with free healthcare what sources that tax money goes to health care say for paying out someones auroma therapist would be again a merger or skepticism and politics.

  16. My basic view of this is that CFI should take a side in a political dispute only when there’s a clear reason for the skeptic/humanist crowd to be on that side of the issue.

    This statement passes that test reasonably well. “A group of Catholic bishops shouldn’t be able to push around a presidential administration” is a principle that most unapologetic atheists are going to be able to get behind.

    Likewise with being stingy with religion-based exemptions to laws.

    What I would have worded differently is the bit about “the principle that employees must have access to contraceptive services as part of any employer-sponsored health plan.” That’s probably smart policy, but I think there’s some room for the skeptic/humanist crowd to disagree on a policy issue like that (you might question why a predictable cost like birth control should even be covered by insurance.)

    In general, I think policy questions tend to be not so straightforward, so caution is warranted there. Though on questions where it’s clear that there isn’t much of a secular rationale for one side, I don’t mind seeing CFI take a position.

  17. Al Stefanelli says:

    I look at it from the point of view with respect to the involvement of religious ideologies. Humanism, Skepticism, Secularism, Atheism, etc., have their differences, but I do not understand either of these to be political in and of themselves.

    However, given that politics involves actual people, and as a general rule, non-religious people would prefer their politics free from religion, whereas (obviously, again) the religious would like any range of the two to mix from slight to total theocracy, it makes the position unavoidably political.

    As an Atheist and Humanist, my moral and ethical composition will not permit me to support any political party/ideology that supports, in any way, the inclusion of any religious dogma, doctrine or preferences.

    For me, personally, I have not found that in the GOP, Democrat or Libertarian Camps.

  18. baal says:

    I might have had a different answer 10 years ago but ‘fostering secular society based on science…’ has become very much a political issue. We have the republicans attacking science education directly with ID bills and endless revisions to the various State’s standards and even all of education by means of State budget controls (cf. for why they are endless at it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/rick-santorum-college-indoctrination_n_1233820.html )

    Regardless of intent, if CFI opposes these republican efforts, then CFI’s actions are de facto political. Should CFI take active political stances (as opposed to incidentally political)? I don’t know. It’s an empirical question that I don’t know enough on what works better or how to assess if there is movement in the right direction.

    Should the Movement have a political agenda? Ideally, no, politics aren’t necessarily inherent. In the current US? entirely unavoidable.

  19. When religious groups are advancing a harmful policy on the basis of their religious views, it’s pretty clearly well past time for secular organizations to take a stand. Even religious organizations must be held to some minimum standard of decency in terms of how they treat their employees.

  20. Atheism/humanism/skepticism is not intrinsically political, but it’s a set of philosophical frameworks that can inform our individual politics. All three of these frameworks tend to divorce your preferences from what’s factually and scientifically true, via examining our cognitive biases and trying to compensate for them. All three concern themselves with what is true and with what is best for humankind as a whole, but without any moral prescriptives by ancient foundational texts to muddle things.

  21. maureen.brian says:

    Start from the other end, Greg. Absolutely anything could be or might be political, firstly because it will be about decisions made by people either collectively or each on his own behalf. Then, secondly, it is difficult to come up with something – particular shades of lavender or flavours of home-made soup excepted – which would not at some stage be about the allocation of funds to research, the willingness to buy or invest in A rather than in B, the degree of personal autonomy which forms the basis for all the group’s decision, or the willingness of the FDA in your case to monitor the quality of a medicine – any medicine – so that it is available in the market and whether to use it or not is a personal choice.

    All of those are political in the very basic sense of decisions made by / within the group after thought, contest or reference to some actually existing authority – postponing reference to any god until we have evidence of its existence.

    Now let’s look at what the CFI does promote, apparently without causing much fuss – science, reason, freedom of enquiry and humanist values.

    I’m probably biased, being a woman and all that, but I could happily promote access to birth control and promote it in the political arena under any one of those headings! Briefly, under science we know a hell of a lot more about human reproduction than the early fathers of the church did. We know how to manage menstrual cycles, to create impermeable barriers out of safe and reliable substances and we know how to prevent implantation mechanically or chemically. Not only that, folks, but we can do all this without resorting witchcraft which I’m pretty sure was what worried the ignorant old farts in the first place.

    Reason backed by science tells us tells us that people live longer, healthier lives when they have adequate resources of food, space, clean air and that they get on in life when they have good attention from adults in their infancy and, later, money for books and space to revise for exams.

    We got to where we are now on this subject through freedom of inquiry, the same freedom of inquiry which brought us railroads and the H bomb but that’s the way it is. So it makes sense to say in the political sphere let us keep on inquiring but let’s agree to concentrate on the beneficial stuff – which also tends to give you more bang for your buck.

    I know that you know all this yourself so I’m not going to think of an example for humanist values except to say they reinforce what I just said!

    As ever the problems will come from that quarter of the compass where they don’t know the difference between lower case p and upper case P in political, even worse the ones who don’t see the difference between political and partisan.

    They are not unlike your Mr Hansen of a couple of posts ago who seems able to believe at one and the same time that the Confederate flag on his back porch carries no meaning at all, let alone a negative one, and yet that we must protect his right to hang it there ‘cos he’s proud of it.

    How the hell can you be proud of something entirely devoid of meaning? How can you appeal to an authority which either was never there or didn’t understand what he was talking about? How can you, Mr Scared-of-Politics, allow people to make political decisions which affect my well-being, my lifespan unless they promise me they are going to make them on rational grounds? And that I get as much say as they do in the final outcome?

    And there you go! Politics.

  22. sailor says:

    It is purely political. The only time this becomes a medical issue is if someone must not become pregnant for their health.
    However, from a political point of view, we have overpopulated the earth and need to do everything we can not to make it worse. Making sure all women have access to birth control is obviously good the for the health of the nation, and it is difficult to estimate, but it might save money that would otherwise be spent on abortions. Giving abortions for non-medical reasons, again is purely a political judgment, but to my view it is good for the health of the nation.
    Problem is the other side have another idea of what is good for the nation. In as much as the other side base their ideas on an antiquated book that made sense (and then poorly) to nomadic herders at the beginning of the first century, any rational and non-religious association should be willing to weigh in. It is a religious/political issue.

  23. Anonymous Atheist says:

    Chris Hallquist wrote: “… (you might question why a predictable cost like birth control should even be covered by insurance.)”

    Because many individuals don’t have the foresight or finances to consistently buy it for themselves, and it’s a prevention alternative to the insurance companies having massively higher and more unpredictable costs of having more pregnancies and complications thereof to pay for.

  24. Is something like funding of birth control a political issue?

    If it isn’t, it sure has a lot of political candidates fooled. Snark aside, it’s a public health issue, it’s an issue of equal access to health care based on sex, it’s an issue of equal opportunity, and it’s an issue of religious imposition. It’s definitely a political issue.

    Is it the proper role of an organization like CFI to engage in political issues, and if so, is there some subset of issues they should leave alone vs. focus on?

    CFI defines itself as an advocacy organization. That means it will engage in political issues. They have a fairly broad mission, which could dilute their work, but as this particular issue falls under both secularism and humanism, it seems a good fit for them. In fact, with a broad mission like that, choosing topics that are intersectional is probably a good strategy for keeping focused.

    What about other organizations with a somewhat different mission, such as JREF?

    Having an educational focus doesn’t preclude issuing statements, though I’d expect such a statement from JREF on a particular topic to be less of a position statement and more of a “here’s what you should know about this” statement. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to have groups that specialize in this or that, so I wouldn’t expect all groups to cover all issues. If they did, they might as well consolidate.

  25. Inflection says:

    Any philosophical position with broad reach — which skepticism is — will have political implications. An organization such as CFI, dedicated to advancing an agenda in society, will necessary have to engage in politics if for no other reason than that speaking out is a political act. Insofar as a politicized issue can be coherently approached, and a side decided, by giving significant preference to the goals of a philosophical organization, that organization can reasonably take the resulting side of the issue.

    In this case, I think I understand that it is not the birth control that is the issue as much as the religious exemption being offered. This falls under CFI’s area of interest and is thus a reasonable issue for them to speak upon. Something broader, like support of the Democratic Party — however attractive it might be to a majority of CFI’s members — would be inappropriate unless overwhelming evidence had mounted that without support of that party CFI’s goals would be detrimentally impacted. Such evidence does not exist in the quantities required at present.

    In evidentiary support of that statement I offer that the primary quotation one sees decrying a religious exemption — “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” — was penned by Justice Antonin Scalia, a Justice not likely to take CFI’s side on many of its issues that might appear before the Court. This goes to show that CFI should not presently be taking sides in the U.S. Presidential election. They do, however, have an interest in speaking out regarding the birth control debate.

  26. seditiosus says:

    My view is this:

    Atheism and skepticism are intrinsically apolitical, but atheists and sceptics can have political agendas. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable for people to have Christian political agendas, and we can’t have one rule for some but not for others, can we? Of course not. That would be un-democratic.

    Secular humanism intersects with politics. It’s all about the human condition: betterment thereof. The humanist philosophy requires, for example, opposition to breaches of human rights. I think most secular humans would believe that people have the right to access healthcare (including contraception), and the right to a fact based (as opposed to myth based) education. A secular humanist will naturally make political choices according to his or her beliefs about what is best for the human race.

  27. Lou FCD says:

    Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

    ~Humanist Manifesto III

    I would say that personal reproductive decisions fall within the right to make “informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility”, wouldn’t you?

    I’m not exactly sure why there’s even a question about this.

  28. daenyx says:

    Funding birth control and other similar personal freedom/autonomy issues should be fundamentally of concern to the secular community because these issues are humanist ones, pertaining to rights and equality. They are also issues directly related to the goal of ‘fostering a secular society’ because the political movements against birth control funding, abortion, LGBTQ rights, etc are almost exclusively rooted in religion.

    Because these issues have become politicized, in order to effectively pursue tangible aspects of the CFI’s stated goals, there must be an implied, if not explicit political agenda.

  29. @Anonymous Atheist: All good points. I was just pointing out that this is an issue where there is some room for disagreement among secular-minded folks.

  30. I will put it this way:

    All people come to political positions with biases based on their education, their upbringing and their experience. Making sound policy decisions, we should seek to eliminate biases and come up with the most reasonable solutions and balance the needs of society with the needs of the individuals. So, we need to use a skeptical approach towards this question of whether or not employers’ responsibilities towards their employees health needs should take in the moral values of the employer with primacy over the moral values of the employee.

    I see it as an issue of health, here. As health providers in this issue have pointed out, contraception is not always the aim for contraceptives. The particulars of the uses for the various contraceptives should be a matter between the health care seeker and the health care seeker. It should be a matter of confidentiality and an ethical means of providing for contraceptives would be for an independent payer (since we don’t have single-payer here) to ensure that the treatment meets standards of efficacy and safety. I don’t want my boss to know if I have a vasectomy or if I am using fertility drugs, nor if I am buying condoms. It isn’t their business, if it doesn’t affect my employment.

    For a woman, the employer does not need to spy on her to find out if she has an abortion, uses the pill or an IUD .

    In my view, the Bill of Rights was designed to protect the rights of individuals over the rights of the government, and in the instance of birth control coverage, the Church wants the government to control the personal aspect of reproductive health at its bidding and is appropriating the free exercise clause incorrectly. That is my bias, and I recognize it. As a skeptic I would want to know if this is a justified bias given the priorities of our society’s concepts of liberty and self-determination. Does the need of society to control women’s reproductive health outweigh the needs of the individual woman. Is this an issue that skeptics can address?

    Perhaps it falls more in the territory of humanism – solving issues of ethics without resort to religious authority.

    So, we would use skepticism to determine what the best solutions are for pressing women’s health problems, and humanism to make a moral decision.

  31. frankb says:

    I agree with others like Natalie and Kazim about everything being politicized. Someone recently quoted Berry Goldwater as being angered by religious nuts. Conservatives can appreciate reality and evidence and so are not totally divorced from skepticism. But religious nuts are by definition the opposite of skeptics. So a proper skeptic must take an opposing political view to the religious.

  32. gwen says:

    I’m posting this before I read the other comments..

    ” Is something like funding of birth control a political issue? Is it the proper role of an organization like CFI to engage in political issues, and if so, is there some subset of issues they should leave alone vs. focus on?”

    This is simply a HUMAN RIGHTS issue, just as Marriage Equality and Civil Rights, and access to safe abortion are. The Religious Wrong politicizes issues which should be dealt with as simple human rights. Because of this, we must involve ourselves.

    …now I’ll go back and read what awesome wisdom others wrote.

  33. Is something like funding of birth control a political issue?
    Naturally? I would say not. But anything can be made to be political if some nut decides to try and bring the government down on their ‘side’.

    I used to think that the absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide was apolitical.

    Is it the proper role of an organization like CFI to engage in political issues, and if so, is there some subset of issues they should leave alone vs. focus on? What about other organizations with a somewhat different mission, such as JREF?

    I think it is the proper role of any organization to pursue their mission. If politics brings a fight to you, then that means getting political. I don’t think that we should regard being the apolitical as somehow more pure or rising above organizations/people involved in politics. Being involved in politics is a duty for citizens and a sometimes necessary part of being an organization.

    I feel like pretending that being apolitical is innately virtuous only pulls cooler heads out of politics and makes things (from human rights to potholes) worse.

  34. F says:

    Why back away just because someone else made it political?

    Why can religious institutions make things political ex cathedra, as it were, without losing their non-profit status?

  35. sundoga says:

    Everything is political.
    Politics is the basic form of human interaction. Jockeying for position in a peer group is politics. “Office politics” is exactly that, whether acknowledged or not. Positioning a group or person as “apolitical” is merely a particular political move.

  36. FlayingMarsyas says:

    Humanism is a worldview which encompasses a number of claims and attitudes about reality and ethics. It centers around the idea that human beings and human values are the measure, and ultimate end, of all that’s meaningful.

    Atheism is a specific attitude towards specific claims, namely the lack of belief in a God, or gods, or the legitimacy of any theology.

    Skepticism is a specific attitude towards any number of claims, and a general attitude of questioning and/or doubt towards the legitimacy of any idea.

    A position of atheism is not required in order to be skeptical; as a person may be skeptical about any number of things having little or nothing to do with theological claims. Neither is skepticism a requirement for being atheistic; as a person may be an atheist yet quite credulous in matters unrelated to claims about a God or gods. And neither atheism nor skepticism are requirements for, nor hindrances against, one’s holding a humanist worldview.

    The extent to which political discourse intersects or overlaps any of the above tends to proceed from the framing of an argument (or arguments) by a particular group (or groups) to serve the group’s objectives.

  37. Tony says:

    Greg:

    Is something like funding of birth control a political issue?

    -In an ideal government, I’d say no. I’d say part of the governments job should be to help foster a healthy environment for its citizens. Birth control definitely falls under ‘keeping citizens healthy’, so it’s a no-brainer that a government should push for health care providers to include birth control in their policies.
    Given the political landscape of the US, this is obviously a hot topic (such a pointless controversy at that). Religious belief is a tremendous source of opposition to contraceptives. As long as bishops can whine about being ‘forced’ to provide contraceptives, and trot out ‘religious discrimination’ (which doesn’t trump, IMO, the health of US citizens), funding for birth control will remain a political issue. I’m all for their right to moan and groan about not being able to dictate what women do with their bodies. That right stops when they try to influence legislation that runs counter to the right of an individual to make their own choices. I wonder how often fundie politicians and theist leaders are called out for their views. They can come sit at the lunch table with the rest of the class when they prove that their god (pick one) actually exists. Until such time, whatever that god may or may not have said has no relevance.

    Is it the proper role of an organization like CFI to engage in political issues, and if so, is there some subset of issues they should leave alone vs. focus on?

    -Advocating for science and humanist values (as CFI does) means they have a moral imperative to engage in political issues. Can anyone think of any political issues that aren’t significantly influenced by religious beliefs? If so, that might be where the CFI would have to draw a line (I’m not sure that would always be the case though).

    In short, do Secular Humanism, Skepticism, other Secular movements or groups, or Atheism have a Political Agenda?

    -I would say it depends on their mission statement. Any one of the topics the CFI advocates inevitably will bring them into politics.
    Gay Marriage (reason and humanism)
    Birth Control (science, reason, humanism)
    Climate Change (reason, science, humanism)
    Drug Policy (reason, science, humanism)
    Immigration (reason, science, humanism)
    Gun Control (reason, humanism; science?)
    Lunar colonies*…you get the point.
    As long as political issues impact US citizens, the Center For Inquiry has the potential to be involved (and in many cases absolutely should become involved). However, the involvement of the CFI in politics isn’t inherently a political agenda. It looks that way to those who oppose whatever issue the CFI advocates. The perception by some that the CFI shares certain liberal values with the left can be wrongly seen as an agenda (never mind that the CFI doesn’t have a particular political ideology).

    Are these movements politically agnostic?

    -The CFI certainly appears to be politically agnostic. The ideals and values the they espouse can be found across the political spectrum.

    Are the goals and philsophies of these organizaitons incompatible with certain political orientations?

    - The CFI’s goals are incompatible with conservative christianity, which heavily influences the far right. However, upon removal of religious arguments, it is highly possible the CFI and the Republican Party could be compatible.

    *For some reason, I think the religious beliefs of some individuals would be opposed to this inane notion of nutty Newt. This might be a case where the CFI and say, the Discovery Institute, would be in the same chapter (not the same page…that ain’t gonna happen).

  38. Tony says:

    Oops, forgot this:
    Greg:

    What about other organizations with a somewhat different mission, such as JREF?

    -from http://www.randi.org/site/

    Our mission is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.

    -Given their mandate, yes, it can be a role of JREF to get involved in politics.

  39. Tony says:

    Mike @30:
    -Great post!

    In my view, the Bill of Rights was designed to protect the rights of individuals over the rights of the government, and in the instance of birth control coverage, the Church wants the government to control the personal aspect of reproductive health at its bidding and is appropriating the free exercise clause incorrectly. That is my bias, and I recognize it.

    –I’d say that’s a favorable bias to have.

    As a skeptic I would want to know if this is a justified bias given the priorities of our society’s concepts of liberty and self-determination. Does the need of society to control women’s reproductive health outweigh the needs of the individual woman. Is this an issue that skeptics can address?

    –Oh, most definitely. Looking at the repercussions of secular vs non-secular decisions of reproductive health, the former reinforces the concepts of liberty and self-determination , while the latter reinforces one specific religious (and wrong) viewpoint on others to the extent that liberty and self-determination are negatively impacted.
    I would say that society doesn’t need to control women’s reproductive health. Overpopulation is definitely of concern, but diminishing that issue should not come from attempts to control women’s reproductive health. Rather, efforts to curb the population should focus on ways to empower women to make informed choices about their health (so yes, we need political candidates to actually tell the truth about contraception). Skeptics can easily address the issue, as uncritical religious beliefs are one of the biggest opponents to women’s right to reproductive health. Where uncritical religious beliefs exist, SkepticMan must be there to peaceably oppose them.

  40. jamessweet says:

    Because so many political positions rely on denialist mentalities, I think it will be difficult for a skeptical organization to avoid politics altogether. How can a skeptic organization not have a position on global warming? I suppose it would be possible for a skeptic organization to hold forth strongly that AGW is real and is a threat, but to have no position on whether we should actually make any attempts to reign in carbon emissions before it’s too late (allowing for a policy position of “eh, fuck ‘em”). Similar arguments apply to a lot of other issues, where I suppose it would be just possible for a skeptical organization to have a position only on the facts, but the facts themselves have often become politicized to the point where one’s position on the facts is inseparable from one’s position on policy.

    This goes doubly so for humanist organizations, where there are also a core set of values. You cannot really be a humanist and oppose marriage equality, for example. All arguments against marriage equality either a) rely on factual inaccuracies, or b) run directly contrary to humanist values. I don’t see any way around humanist organizations taking a definite political position on a number of issues.

    For strictly atheist organizations, the answer is less clear. Many atheist organizations have a purpose which is skeptically/humanistically-oriented, so the same arguments would apply; but not all. For instance, the Facebook group Grief Beyond Belief provides a safe space for non-believers to grieve. Here, the defining characteristic of the organization really is just atheism/agnosticism and not skepticism or humanism. Nonbelievers face unique challenges when grieving, and that is true even of Randian conservative douchebag nonbelievers. As such, it would not be appropriate for GBB to have official political positions. (Though it’s worth mentioning that the wonderful woman who runs GBB, Rebecca Hensler, is [thankfully] about as liberal as they come… but you wouldn’t know that if you only knew her from GBB)

    In addition, some skeptic/humanist organizations may wish to carve out their policy positions very narrowly. For instance, a skeptic organization could conceivably avoid taking a position on abortion, particularly third-trimester abortion where (I would contend) the fetus very clearly is a person at that point. (For the record, I oppose any and all restrictions on abortions at any time during pregnancy, so don’t interpret this as if I am making an argument in favor of regulating third-trimester abortion; nor am I denying that facts play a role in that decision, e.g. the virtual non-existence of abortions performed that late for non-medical reasons… I’m just saying that this is a case where it is not difficult to imagine two people agreeing on all of the salient facts and yet holding different policy positions, and so therefore it is reasonable for a skeptical organization to avoid taking a position on it.) On the other hand, I don’t think a skeptic organization is compelled to avoid taking a position on this issue either. As with the example of GBB, it depends very much on the nature of the organization and its mission.

    TL;DR: It all depends on the nature of the group in question, but generally speaking it will be difficult for skeptic groups not to take a position on some political issues, and it grows harder still for humanist groups. Atheist groups can be entirely apolitical, but are not compelled to do so.

  41. ischemgeek says:

    Full disclosure: I’m sick as a dog and am floating around the site to distract myself from the fact that my lungs and upper-respiratory tract are in full revolt.

    I think skepticism can’t not be political. Skepticism is about requiring people to prove their claims and settling on the most-likely-to-be-right answer, even in situations where some level of subjectivity is present or the data is incomplete. Where is that more important than in politics, especially in a political landscape where corruption, deceit and misinformation are the norm rather than the exception? Politics decides the future for a country, and international politics decides the future for the world.

    Regarding what topics skepticism should address: Everything.

    Regarding whether or not birth control funding is a “political issue”, my mental rule is: if people are arguing about it at any organizational level above individuals, it’s political. So, yes, birth control funding is a political issue. Politicians are fighting about it. If what you meant to ask was is it a battle that you guys should pick, I would again say yes. There are evidence-based answers here, and there is a lot of lies and disinformation out there (even if you leave aside the moral side of things).

    Regarding whether or not the movement has a political agenda: Yes, it does. When you set yourself up to combat lies and bad thinking, that comes with certain political impacts. For example, you’ll be against giving religion even more privilege than it has already, or for making sure that kids get taught real science instead of creationist bullshit. I don’t, however, think that it necessarily has a partisan agenda. You can be a politicallly active organization without being a partisan one.

    Regarding whether the CFI should toss in on political issues, my view is thus: If you’re going to advocate, advocate. Don’t shy away from politics just because it’s a dirty word nowadays. You have to accept that if you want to make change, to “foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values,” you will have to take a political stand. To do otherwise would be to set aside your mission statement.

  42. Azkyroth says:

    Why back away just because someone else made it political?

    Because it’s morally superior to retreat from every conflict and let the assholes get exactly what they want. No, seriously. “Be the bigger person” is the usual phrasing. Rewarding bullying builds character and helps to improve society…somehow…

  43. raymoscow says:

    In short, do Secular Humanism, Skepticism, other Secular movements or groups, or Atheism have a Political Agenda?

    Wouldn’t that depend on the group? There’s nothing necessarily politically coherent about non-belief in deities. Secularism has a more political remit in wanting to keep religious out of public affairs, but of course secularists differ on exactly what they want to accomplish and how.

  44. chrisdevries says:

    Skepticism, humanism, secularism, etc. are political only insofar as the enemies of rationality consistently favour the Republicans. For example, we think people should have the right to believe whatever they want to; social conservatives go much further by saying that the “majority” beliefs (which just happen to be THEIR beliefs) ought to be part of government, and that public institutions should promote them. Of course, it has been found that when asked about a hypothetical situation in which they relocate to a country with a Muslim majority (in which Islam is promoted by public institutions), they cite the value of “freedom of religion” as a reason why this is wrong. So it is reasonable to put forth the idea that most social conservatives see their version of Christianity as true, and therefore deserving of being forced upon everyone else to glorify God. Those who hold beliefs in opposition to this are not by default skeptics or humanists, but they ARE secularists. I could name other examples where social conservatives propose laws that are in opposition to skepticism, and humanism too.

    Because Republicanism in the US has a huge authoritarian fundamentalist movement within it, its values ARE generally opposed by people like us, making the Democrats the only logical choice for us. Of course, in many states, Democratic politicians come out as social conservatives, leaving people like us with no voice at all (data shows that Louisiana is particularly bad for this). The lesser of two evils is still evil.

  45. FYI: CFI’s mission is not only advocacy but education. This has little to do with the question, but I noticed that some commenters were neglecting this area of our mission. Great post and comments.

  46. DuWayne says:

    CFI is, in part, a political organization and this is a religion oriented political issue in the U.S. Not just in this context either. Reproductive health is only a political issue because of religion. I would hope that CFI’s OPP would be addressing this issue and other issues related to religion and public policy.

  47. nerdC says:

    It is really disappointing to see the CFI take this position. Reasonable people can have differing opinions on this issue. The CFI appears to be claiming that their position is the reasonable one. Why? Just because they oppose the Catholic Church’s position?

    The worst part of the announcement is that they refer to the payment for contraceptives as a “free” benefit. The fact that the government requires the employer to divert a fraction of employee compensation to a specific purpose certainly does not make it free.

    For those who take advantage of the benefit it can be a good deal as long as there are a large number of employees who do not. If CFI is advocating reason then they should apply it to this case as well as to criticism of religion.

  48. Greg Laden says:

    nerdC, can you distinguish your position from a politically-motivated Libertarian position?

  49. nerdC says:

    nerdC, can you distinguish…

    An interesting question, but the more I think about it the harder it is for me to figure out what you are asking. But since you asked, I’ll make an attempt. Or at least I’ll make random statements in the hope of coming somewhere near an answer.

    Reason applied to a large body of evidence leads me to believe or at least be very confident in the validity of evolution (a topic I mention because it seems to be popular on FtB). Similarly, my general life experience leads me to believe that the production and distribution of contraceptives is never going to be free. The issue is one of how the money gets shuffled around. TANSTAAFL as they say. Thus, making a claim that it is “free” is no more rational than is denying the validity of evolution.

    But what, exactly, is the “Libertarian position” that you are asking about? Is the TANSTAAFL theory a politically motivated belief? Or is it my statement that CFI should not claim something is free when (I believe) it is not.

    If one accepts the belief that contraceptives are not free, it does not immediately follow that one should, or should not be in favor of this particular government mandated employee benefit.

    For instance, @23 Anonymous Atheist says:

    Because many individuals don’t have the foresight or finances to consistently buy it for themselves,

    Thus, one can believe in the TANSTAAFL theory and still favor the mandate.

    My position on the original issue is:
    - There is more than one rational position on this issue. (The fact that the Catholic Church is opposed is kind of a red herring in the discussion.)
    - A organization dedicated to rational thinking should not take a position on a political issue if there is controversy that is not resolved by rational analysis. (I would be fine with me if they opposed the Indiana creationism bill.)

    Additionally, even if they have good reason to support a particular position, they should not use non-rational statements to support that position. (I think this statement is more important than the previous. If one wants to promote rational thinking, one needs to set a good example, even when inconvenient.)

  50. Greg Laden says:

    The thing is, nobody in the game thinks that “free” contraceptives don’t cost anything. That is not what is being discussed. That covering the cost to make them “free” is not really free is so off topic that I was guessing that up you had a political motivation for bringing it up, and it sounded like a libertarian position.

  51. nerdC says:

    What is being discussed? As far as I know the government is not changing any rule to permit an activity that was prohibited (or vice versa). The only issue is one of money; how do things get paid for.

    But original issue in this thread was what should the CFI do. For now I’ll stick to my basic position: They should stick to promoting reason and science. If they take on a political agenda then their basic mission can get corrupted.

  52. Atheism and skepticism don’t lend themselves to a political agenda aside from religious freedom for atheists and church state separation for both atheism and skeptics and keeping religion out of politics and science for skepticism.

    Humanism, on the other hand is a progressive philosophy of life that is indeed, quite political because the goal of the philosophy is to make the world more humane and just and that must be done through politics. Humanists have been for sexual freedom for decades now. Reproductive freedom and rights was among the very first issues Humanist organized around and it is one of the main reasons why there is a Humanist movement at all.

    So yeah – Humanism is political and unapologetic about it. Humanist groups, however, don’t take political stands unless there is a consensus among Humanists on an issue. Here is a great list of political positions Humanist groups (specifically the AHA and HFA) have taken over the years: http://www.floridahumanist.org/membercms/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=42&Itemid=78

  53. Dave S. says:

    Skepticism can and must have political implications. The whole reason we care about promoting skepticism, presumably, is that it will have positive consequences on our society. And how, exactly, do we think it will have positive consequences on our society? Through politics! Through people applying their hard-won skeptical skills to the place where it matters most: to the policies and bills and laws and candidates that determine our future and the future of our children. If skepticism did not have any political implications, I would not want to be skeptic — I would spend my time doing more important things. Skeptics who insist that skepticism is apolitical astonish me. It is tantamount to insisting that what they do is irrelevant and unimportant.