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Outgrowing Religion, Nationalism, and Militarism

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Remarks to Phoenix Humanist Society, January 24, 2021

Powerpoint is here.

Whether humanism means atheism, or a commitment to questioning all accepted beliefs, or an identification with all of humanity rather than a small sub-group, or a celebration and promotion of all the richness of human culture, I'm in favor of it, and it has a great deal to do with the project I work on called anti-militarism. I work for an organization called World BEYOND War -- a name that is basically a positive way of stating the negative position of anti-militarism, while implying something more than that, much as the name humanism is a positive way of stating the position of atheism, while implying more than just that.

I sometimes gently nudge anti-militarists toward humanism, even while working with many terrific religious peace activists, including some of our very best peace activists who are explicitly motivated by religion, and working for organizations that take no position on theism. I say "gently," because for some people urging them away from religion is highly offensive. It's certainly also true that for some people urging them away from militarism or imperialism or patriotism is highly offensive. Nonetheless I'm going to be fairly straightforward and not especially gentle in what follows, as I try to suggest that every humanist on earth ought to be committed to ending all war.

I hope it will help to make clear from the outset my awareness of the fact that, just like every other person who has ever lived, I have myself believed ridiculous things, done regrettable things, tolerated horrendous things, and failed to think various things through to all their implications. I'll probably even demonstrate much of that in what follows -- even to myself if I read this 10 years from now. Our understanding of things is and should be constantly changing, usually -- I hope -- improving. The comical idea that one can pin down eternal truths in a single book or speech that will never get outdated is not, I think, a humanist idea.


A column in the New York Times on December 18, 2020, began with these words: "This year has awakened us to the fact that we die." I find two things remarkable about this. One is the notion that up through 2019 nobody had yet heard about dying. The other is that this column, despite beginning in this way, went on to repeatedly inform us that there is simply no way to know whether anyone dies.

Now, perhaps the author didn't really mean that nobody prior to 2020 knew they were going to die, but rather that few people had lived with the anxious thought that death might very well arrive at any moment. But did the author imagine homeless people never think? What about people who live under the constant buzzing of armed drones that could obliterate them with a missile at any moment? Or people on the run as refugees from wars or violent governments or gangs? Or people in hospitals on life-support machines? Or people with no prospects for finding food? Or people with a century or more of living behind them? Of course, most people who have long lived with the possibility of swift death are among the other 96%, that marginalized percentage of humanity outside of the United States. By definition they aren't part of the first person plural in the New York Times. But what does the idea of a general unawareness of death prior to 2020 say about elite awareness of people lacking health insurance, people lacking proper diets, people working extreme hours for low pay at dangerous jobs, people living in environmental disaster areas, or people living through the extended traumas of so-called natural disasters inadequately responded to? The same newspaper on its website homepage on December 21st claimed that $600 was going to save millions of people from a winter of poverty.

The column in the Times goes on to assure us that there is just no way to know whether death is followed by more life -- or, in other words, isn't death at all. Perhaps this is simply required nonsense mandated by the overriding need to avoid angry emails to the editor. But isn't it rather odd in a media outlet and a media culture that trumpets the need for verified and documented facts, and the absolute importance of shunning and even censoring any unproven speculation -- generally denounced as so-called conspiracy theories, whether or not any conspiracy is involved -- to nonetheless declare that people may very well go on living after death? Are there multiple, authoritative, named sources for that claim? Of course not. How about unnamed government officials assessing that claim with medium-high confidence from the so-called intelligence so-called community? Nope, not even that. Instead, the Times cites an academic field as the basis for its claim. Of course, no newspaper would write that biology tells us unicorns aren't real, yet they very well might be -- nobody can tell -- it's a matter for literature. Yet the Times writes that science finds death to be death, yet we just can't be sure -- it's a matter for religion.

Denying death doesn't get you labeled a death denier, in the way that you might be labeled a climate denier or pandemic denier, and not for any reason related to knowledge of the matter -- but rather as a cultural preference.

Now, I want to suggest that militarism gets the same cultural preference that the afterlife does.

Cartoonist Matt Wuerker drew a cartoon that shows a couple visiting a therapist. The man has a military uniform and a head made out of weaponry. The woman is the Statue of Liberty. She's saying to the therapist, "I know, I know, he's rough on my economic competitiveness, abusive of my environment, and this national security thing is a joke, but I can't imagine life without him." The cartoon has the title "Military Codependency Complex."


The mission of World BEYOND War is to envision a world without the male half of that couple. Why is it so difficult? Well, just as millions of people are raised to believe in a virgin birth, millions of people are raised to believe in nuclear deterrence. Just as millions of people are raised to believe their dead loved ones are looking down on them, millions of people are raised to believe that violent activities that traumatize almost every participant are "natural" and "inevitable." Just as people are told that loaves and fishes can multiply, so are they told that putting over a trillion dollars into future wars is done with a different sort of money than the money we just don't have enough of to help people who lack work or healthcare. Just as we're told that a beautiful child got cancer because God's wonderful plan is beyond our understanding, we're told that invading countries and kicking in doors and murdering families makes us safer -- not because that makes sense or has been proven (quite the reverse), but because secret lawless government departments know better than we do, or because, as Jerry Falwell declared, "God Is Pro-War."

And we're not just told these things. We're shown them in countless stories, children's stories, TV shows, movies, history books, video games, pre-game ceremonies, and holiday celebrations. We're saturated with the normalization of war. Armistice Day is now Veterans Day, and in various cities Veterans For Peace groups are barred from participation. Towns have been pulling down racist war monuments because they're racist without anyone having identified what a non-racist war monument would be and without anyone even noticing that they're war monuments, until a legal ban on removing war monuments gets in the way -- as in Virginia, which has no ban on removing peace monuments and would have a hard time finding very many to remove anyway. In 2019, a third of people polled in the U.S. supported an aggressive nuclear attack on North Korea that would kill a million people, about the same as supported it if it killed fewer people (some polled were less supportive of war if it killed more people, but others more supportive).

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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