Deconstructing U.S. Militarism: Humanism and the Peace Revolution

The time has come for humanists to actively assert that they are as committed peace and ending U.S. militarism as they are to the separation of church and state. Humanists, atheists, and assorted freethinkers along with the organizations that represent them (American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry and others) should join anti-war/peace organizations in assertively calling for a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy away from neoliberal imperialism and militarism.

Since February 2003 millions of people in the United States and around the world have taken a bold, ethical stand against U.S. military aggression. Citizens have engaged in perpetual revolt against the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of U.S. soldiers, participating in numerous local, regional, and national protests against the war in Iraq.

While numerous humanists have and continue to be actively involved in the anti-war movement many too narrowly focus on so-called "domestic" issues such as church-state separation and promoting science education. While the organized free thought/humanist movement has spent thousands of dollars rightly assailing religious fundamentalism and encouraging free inquiry it has failed to become officially involved in the national and worldwide peace revolution. Moreover, the free thought movement’s now ritualistic condemnation of religious terror smacks of hypocrisy when it fails to equally address the insidiousness of our secular government’s own acts of terrorism.

Worst still, an inherently pro-war secular ideology is now emerging. This "apocalyptical ideology" or narrative, which I describe in my forth coming journal article, "Fundamentalist Atheism and its Intellectual Failures" (Humanity & Society), holds that peace on earth will only come after the scourge of religion is destroyed. This specifically secular narrative is contributing to grossly simplistic political analysis and worst, justification of militaristic violence. Empirical proof of this emerging thought is evident in secular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Sam Harris has argued that the war is better understood as a conflict against "Islam itself" (2004, p. 28). During the 2007 Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) convention, Christopher Hitchens shocked many in the audience when he recommended carpet bombing Muslims. Responding to Hitchens’ comments a conference-goer asked, "How exactly does bombing and killing Muslims lessen their numbers or limit their fervor?" Rather than clarifying that he did not wish to merely indiscriminately murder Muslims but rather desired to attack strategic targets, he mocked the questioner. "I’m just wondering if I should draw you a picture. You mean how does killing them lessen their number?" He went on to state: "The numbers of those bombed will decline." He also described the hunting and killing of al Qaida not only as a duty, but a "pleasure" (Hitchens 2007). Thankfully the secular movement is comprised of thinkers such as atheist biologist and associate professor, P.Z. Myers, who labeled Hitchens recommendation of genocide as "insane."


Humanism in particular has an ethical responsibility to become more seriously involved in the peace and anti-war movement alongside the many progressive religious groups which have actively sought to bring an end to the U.S. militarism. Humanist Manifesto III holds that humanism "affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." In its Minimum Statement on Humanism the International Humanist and Ethical Union explains that humanism "is a democratic and ethical life-stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities." Those of us who are in heartfelt and dutiful agreement with these two statements must acknowledge that a radical change in U.S. foreign policy is needed for world peace and justice to ensue. 

According to Humanist Manifesto III, humanist values are purposed to preserve the "inherent worth and dignity" of each person of the world. Humanism does not honor the juvenile subjectivity of nationalism. Rather, Humanism requires a basic respect for moral universality and rejects unsubstantiated claims of exceptionalism. The most recent failure to apply moral universality was the general absence of an outcry about the disproportionate destruction of Palestinian life in Gaza on the part of Israeli, which was perpetrated with US backing and weaponry. The time has come for humanists to loudly proclaim that our nation’s advocacy of military violence and disregard for human life, including the millions of civilians who have suffered from our unethical brutality, is an affront to our humanistic values. To do otherwise is to make humanist/secular critiques of religious violence (Bill Maher’s recent film, Religulous for example) insidiously hypocritical.

If it wishes to remain a relevant voice for progressive, democratic, rational-criticism, and life-valuing ideals, the humanist/free thought movement must expend as much energy working for peace and curtailing U.S. militarism as it does working for church-state separation; or at least equally condemning secular militarism as it does religious extremism. By doing so humanists and organized free thought will send a clear message to all, including those who fear the nonreligious, potential religious allies and potential secular recruits that humanists actively work for peace and justice or at least that they repudiate secular violence (militarism) as much as they reproach religious violence.


For specifically, the time has come for humanists to acknowledge the great irony that it is our secular nation which is emulating the Catholic Church of the seventeenth century. We are the ones engaged in vicious and unethical militarism, use of torture, unlawful imprisonment and denial of habeas corpus, training of death squads and dictators at the School of the Americas, subversion of democratically elected governments, and imperialistic maintenance of military bases around the world. As Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King once said, our nation is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.  

In recent years, our nation has been responsible for the killing of more than 500,000 Iraqi civilians and thousands more in Afghanistan. But we cannot so easily lay the blame on the Bush administration. The U.S. was in part responsible for two million North Korean civilian deaths during the Korean War, and more than one million civilian deaths during the Vietnam War (American Foreign Relations, Clifford, et al., 2000). Not to mention the tens of thousands of civilian destroyed by the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When our nation hasn’t battled openly in war it has engaged in myriad murderous plots, many of which are aiming to undermine the principle of democracy it supposedly stands for. Historically, the US overthrew democratically elected leaders in Iran, Chile, Guatemala, and many more. In recent years we have aided an attempted coup against the popular Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez; and fomented aggression against the popularly supported Bolivian president Evo Morales. Today, about 80 million tax dollars fund the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.). Pretending to aid democratic movements, the NED’s true aim is to undermine popular democratic movements throughout parts of the world including Latin America.

William Blum’s survey of U.S. military action, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, shows that the United States’ imperial foreign policy nation has again and again disallowed disadvantaged people of the world to rise up and create a more egalitarian society. According to Blum, the common thread that runs through the United State’s military intervention in nearly every instance involving the Third World since World War II has been a desire to subvert independence. "Most commonly, this has been manifested in a) the ambition to free themselves from economic and political subservience to the United States; b) the refusal to minimize relations with the socialist bloc, or suppress the left at home, or welcome an American military installation on their soil; in short, a refusal to be a pawn in the Cold War or c) the attempt to alter or replace a government which held to neither of these aspirations; i.e.., a government supported by the United States."


The time has come for contemporary humanists and free thinkers to take up the anti-war/pro-peace legacy bequeathed by the likes of Erasmus, Condorcet, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Einstein, Freud, and Bertrand Russell, all of whom stood up against tyranny and war.  

Reputed as the last of the Enlightenment’s philosophes and the first western intellectual to call for the complete enfranchisement of women (in the late eighteenth century), Marquis de Condorcet believed that the more enlightened people became the more intolerant of war they would become. In his best known work, Progress of the Human Mind (1793), Condorcet wrote of a future world where nations would realize "that they cannot conquer other nations without losing their own liberty; that permanent confederations are their only means of preserving their independence, and that they should seek not power but security." He believed that the establishment of a "brotherhood of nations" would create a world in which "wars between countries will rank with assassinations as freakish atrocities, humiliating and vile in the eyes of nature and staining with indelible opprobrium the country or the age whose annals record them."

Well known for his wit and skeptical attitude toward religion, Mark Twain was an outspoken opponent of war and U.S. imperialism. From 1901 until his death in 1910, Twain was the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League, founded on June 15, 1898. Twain and his associates, which included John Dewey and William James sought to rally opposition to the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in particular. The list of humanists and assorted freethinkers who worked to end militarism goes on and on.


As a step in the right direction, humanists, atheists, and assorted secularists should endorse and participate in the national protest against U.S. militarism on March 21, 2009, in Washington DC. Additional opportunities include Florida March for Peace on March 28, 2009 in Melbourne, Florida, which I am co-organizing under the auspices of Humanists for Peace ( And finally the March on Wall-Street, demanding jobs, housing, and healthcare instead of militarism, on April 3-4 in New York City.  

As declared in a recent Letter to Barack Obama written by Voters for Peace and signed by leaders of the anti-war movement, including Humanists for Peace, a group I founded, "The anti-war movement believes the time is now to end the emphasis on militarism in U.S. relations with other nations and to set a goal of ending war in the 21st Century." Contemporary humanists should extend the legacy of peace left to us by our forefathers and foremothers by being a part of such a mission.

Jeff Nall is writer, peace activist, and speaker. His book, Perpetual Revolt: Essays on Peace & Justice and The Shared Values of Secular, Spiritual, and Religious Progressives (Howling Dog Press, 250 pages, $15.95), is available at his website: and Email sabletide(at)yahoo(dot)com