Princeton, Religion, and Politics: The Politics of Humanism on Campus

By Theo Anderson ’14

What is PUSH?

PUSH (Princeton University Society of Humanists) is a young organization, founded in 2011, and it is the only organization on campus for non-theists. Like many religious organizations, PUSH members have a variety of different views on religion, including atheism, various levels of agnosticism, secularism, and humanism; in this article, I will refer to all of these as “non-theism.” There are some fine differences between these belief systems, but they all share an absence of traditional religious doctrine. Members also come from different religious upbringings. Some were raised in secular families, but others have Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, or Buddhist backgrounds. As non-theists, PUSH members commonly reject prophecy, supernaturalism, divine revelations, etc.  The first goal of PUSH is to make a home for these people. It gives a sense of community to non-theists who might feel surrounded by theistic people.

What makes us a society of humanists rather than a society of non-theists?  Like all non-theist philosophies, humanism rejects traditional religions, but goes a bit further than other non-theist belief systems like atheism or agnosticism. Humanism, like many religions, promotes ethics, values, and human improvement – but uses reason exclusively as its foundation instead of divine revelation or some combination of the two.

In contrast, many other non-theist philosophies, such as atheism, are, strictly speaking, amoral. This does not mean atheist people aren’t moral – it simply means atheism alone does not concern ethics. As an analogy, many physicists have morals, but physics does not include beliefs about ethics. Humanism challenges religion’s near-monopoly on ethics. This is the second purpose of PUSH – to give members a forum to discuss ethics, society, and contemporary events, all through discussions based on reason.

When I talk about PUSH, I always get asked, “What do you do at meetings?” and usually with a look of puzzlement, as if the questioner suspects we all get together and perform some anti-Mass and then complain about religious people. I think the best way to describe it is by examples. In December, we watched a brief film on the history of Christmas, then swapped stories on our own experiences as non-theists living in a predominantly-Christian nation (and, for many of us, Christian families too). In October, we watched a short clip of Richard Dawkins – “An Atheists Call to Arms” – and talked about if or how atheists should promote their beliefs. We also invite guest lecturers such as philosophy professor Gideon Rosen, who talked to us about religious philosophical arguments. Generally, most of our meetings are discussions based on a PUSH-sponsored article, video, or lecture.

Our Politics: Don’t Push my Buttons

PUSH is not a political group. PUSH is not involved in political activism, even on issues related to non-theism. Political activism is simply not in the scope of PUSH. PUSH was never meant to be an activist group for non-theists. Moreover, there simply isn’t agreement among non-theists about political issues, even in issues heavily involved with religion.

Even on issues that would seem to have unanimous consensus among non-theists, differences still crop up. Evolution v. Creationism is a great example. Practically every member of PUSH wants evolution taught over creationism in public schools, but there isn’t much agreement beyond that. For example, should public school teachers be legally mandated to teach evolution? Should we reject school voucher programs that might send students to a school where creationism is taught? Should the theory of intelligent design be allowed in a philosophy course?

Another good example is the “In God We Trust” phrase printed on American currency. Some non-theists lobby to remove this from our currency, but others think it’s petty or a waste of time. If PUSH entered the thorny arena of political activism, it would necessarily isolate certain members, contradicting its primary goal of “establishing a positive social environment for rationalists, skeptics, and non-theists.” PUSH is not a group dedicated only for non-theists with certain political leanings, no matter how tied up politics and religion can get. The only thing PUSH “advocates” is rationality and skepticism. In fact, the third goal of PUSH is to promote intelligent discussion between non-theists and theists. This is the closest PUSH gets to advocating.

However, that doesn’t mean we never discuss politics. Sometimes we discuss political events surrounding non-theism. For example, we invited a guest lecturer to speak on the ongoing creationism v. evolution clash in public schools. Secondly, sometimes our guest lecturers discuss politics, but it is not the emphasis of the lecture. Finally, as politics almost always involves value judgments, politics can indirectly appear any time we discuss values. Once, we had a discussion on the Ten Commandments and their influence on Western legal codes—and then made up an alternative, modern Ten Commandments that we could use today. Naturally, when we thought of a modern Ten Commandments, we made value judgments, and these judgments can be indirectly related to politics. PUSH does not explicitly discuss political issues that aren’t related to non-theism. So, you’ll never hear PUSH debate about tax policy or gun rights.

Since there is no divine authority to shape the beliefs of non-theists, PUSH members have different ideas on politics, philosophy, and ethics. We don’t share any dogmatic, unquestionable beliefs that unite most religions, but we do share a strong sense of skepticism and are more concerned in serving humanity rather than a god.  PUSH is both a forum and a community for non-theists.

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One thought on “Princeton, Religion, and Politics: The Politics of Humanism on Campus

  • May 15, 2012 at 2:10 am
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    This is a great example, “Another good example is the “In God We Trust” phrase printed on American currency. Some non-theists lobby to remove this from our currency, but others think it’s petty or a waste of time. If PUSH entered the thorny arena of political activism, it would necessarily isolate certain members, contradicting its primary goal of “establishing a positive social environment for rationalists, skeptics, and non-theists.”

    Reply

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