New Thinking - or A Second Enlightenment for Free Thought and Human Rights

Dr. Volker Mueller

(Translated by Mark R. Hatlie)

1. New Thinking

Debates about the values and norms of common living are coming back into vogue. In light of the great variety of crises in the world, people are looking into the spiritual (geistig) or cultural roots of the kind of life in which the individual is respected and even favored. We are living in an age of changing values which is often perceived as a decline in values. Where is there something to hold on to? Where is a fixed point of orientation for living? Where can we tap into a basic sense of security? Does a non-religious world view or a free-thought or humanistic approach to life offer us any answers in this regard? It is clear that the religious and world-view needs of people provide the origin, basis and changes in ethical existence.

How should we approach religion? What are its content, methods and basic claims? How should we relate to people for whom religion is an important aspect of their lives? How should we relate to religious institutions? What is the place of our justified demand for the separation of church and state? The definition of religion provided by Helmuth von Glasenhupp can help us here: "Religion is a conviction in the effectiveness of personal or impersonal transcendental powers expressed in recognizing, thinking, feeling, wanting and acting...The ethical high religions connect this conviction to a belief in a moral order in the universe. This belief finds its expression in the idea of moral responsibility for actions, of just consequences for all action and of progress to the highest degree of perfection." ²

In our current multicultural and increasingly secular society, we need a new kind of tolerance, of dialogue and conflict-management skills and of peaceful coexistence. It should be based on freedom, human rights and the ideal of the world citizen. The atheistic, humanistic and free-thought movement has an important role to play in this context, if it takes its demand for freedom of thought, humanity and human rights seriously. Especially human rights, which have universal character and are not an "invention" of the West, confront us with new global challenges. Free thinkers aren't adequately facing up to this challenge - not politically, not philosophically, not ethically - being too weak, too divided and too busy with themselves. The question should be asked whether some of the national and international alliances, as promising for the future as they seem, are really wanted and whether they have the economic, intellectual ("geistig"), personnel and political potential to face the challenge.

An organization for non-confessional and non-religious people - a free world view community - develops and spreads ideas about ethical living, arranges celebrations for life's turning points and major annual events, takes a political stand on issues of interest to the "unchurched", and works to secure human rights and free thought everywhere. Such an organization sound the alarm whenever and wherever the freedom of conscious is threatened, report on dangerous ethical and socio-psychological developments (for example on threatening sects and New Age movements), and rebuff any and all religious and ideological regulations about how people are supposed to think and believe.

Defending the freedom of world-view and ethnic minorities is also a goal.

The demand for New Thinking has been on the world stage since the middle of the 1980s, since Gorbachov's perestroika and glasnost'. At its center is the democratization and humanization of the social system - a project which has failed, being ecologically ineffective, politically stagnant and proved incapable of reform. Perestroika turned out to be a half-measure, especially regarding economic reform.

But I still favor the New Thinking approach. Even in the cultural and philosophical aspects of life, it can be used to initiate new developments, instill new hopes and attack obsolete ideas. With New Thinking, there emerged a vision of a more humane society in which social justice, democracy and freedom are interconnected. In the 1980s this was connected to the question of new concepts of society for democratic socialism as foreseen by Bebel, Luxembourg, Marx and Kautsky. It is important to bear in mind that an organization or a movement - even the free-thought, atheist movement - risks becoming conservative or stagnating. This can only be prevented by self-criticism and the maintenance of democratic structures.

Some elements of the free-thought movement in Germany were apparently untouched by New Thinking. To what extent did the movement question itself and throw obsolete ideas over board? Did it really take into account that the general societal situation in Germany and in Europe had totally changed? Did it recognize the new challenges this change presented? The globalization of the past few years puts the problem into clear relief. Global problems can only be solved at the level of global politics - with New Thinking.

2. Enlightenment

The enlightenment and free, un-dogmatic, atheist thinking belong together in the mind-set of the German free-thought movement and have common roots. "Enlightenment is still a slogan which divides people. Some see it as an instrument for combating ills of all kinds, a kind of cure-all. Others see only a naive or even dastardly rationalism, a rationalism whose arrogance makes it blind to the true essence of reality, even the cause of all the evils of modernity. It is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for bringing the discussion down to earth is knowledge of the enlightenment, that is knowledge of the historical period which called itself the enlightenment." ³

The 18th century is generally referred to today as the Age of Enlightenment - the century of light or of reason, the political century. The name can be traced back to the self-conception of an intellectual and societal reform movement which saw itself as enlightenment. 4

Starting in about the middle of the 18th century the term "enlightened times" is used to denote the success of the enlightenment. In his essay "What is Enlightenment?" (1784) Kant distinguished between "enlightened age" and "Age of Enlightenment". The groundwork for this Europe-wide enlightenment movement was broadly laid in the 17th century - by freeing science from theology and teleology and by the powerful drive toward freedom of thought by skeptic and rational modes of thought. That is also where we see the first new, dogma-free religiosity, which had been freed from the clutches of the church, the "Free Thinkers", the beginnings of atheism as an independent way of thinking, with its own clear profile (especially in underground literature and with Meslier) 5. Finally, the enlightenment was a social movement for the liberation of the 3rd estate (the "people" as opposed to the nobility and the clergy) and led to the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a unique social class, with its ideas of freedom and human rights.

The economic demands and the political structure also demand a cultural and philosophical freedom for the forces of progress. The enlightenment should serve the people and promote reason in all areas of life. Knowledge and virtue should govern the world if happy and free people are to live in it. The enlightenment promotes truth by means of clarity in human thought. At issue are reason and free thought as opposed to muddled, opaque, nebulous, irrational thinking, superstition and prejudice, and especially church dogmas, fanaticism, and illusions. In addition to the rationalistic aspects of enlightened thought, there are the emancipatory aspects as well. They lead inexorably to free and independent thought. During the enlightenment, both aspects were connected to science and social change. A New Thinking was developed during that period of history which threw old patterns of thought over board, and mercilessly questioned and criticized old ways of doing things.

Enlightenment is a striving to get rid of obsolete teachings based only on authority and to re-form life based on reasoned views and convictions. That means: Wanting change and acting by means of reason.

Philosophically, the enlightenment combats metaphysics. It promotes every kind of rationalism. It supports the natural sciences, the results of which made up much of the foundation for the enlightenment, having provided fuel for the enlightenment's belief in scientific progress and progress in general. In the fields of ethics and pedagogy, the enlightenment developed humanitarian ideals and educational methods which were more in tune with the needs of children, promoted the liberation of people from arbitrary relationships, the equality of all citizens before the law and finally the equality of everything which has a humane face before humanity a term which the enlightenment developed in its modern form.

The European enlightenment is composed primarily of the following elements:

  • rational clarity about the composition of the world by means of human reason
  • critical and skeptic severity without taboos or prejudices
  • empirical breadth and the consistent use of science
  • moral action (mankind is naturally good and can improve) which leads to optimism about progress
  • tolerance as a universal principle for thought and action
  • the equality of all people under the law and individual freedom

With regard to religion, as represented by the Christian churches, that implies:

  • the devaluation of belief based on authority, of religious dogmatism and superstition
  • the development of a natural faith based on reason, between pantheism, deism and atheism
  • the development of a cosmopolitan perception which leads to new conclusions about society and politics
  • fundamental criticism of church institutions and a philosophically-based criticism of religion

After Kant described the 18th century as the Age of Enlightenment, the term came to be used to describe the intellectual movement which began in England in the 17th century and spread to France, Italy, Germany and other countries during the 18th century. It took on different forms and penetrated society to a different degree in each country, but influenced all of European culture. Kant characterized it as follows: "Enlightenment is when mankind leaves its self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own reason without the help of others. Self-imposed is when the cause is not the lack of understanding , but a lack of courage to use one's own reason without the help of others. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own reason! is the slogan of the Enlightenment...For this enlightenment nothing is asked but freedom; ... to use your reason publicly." 6

3. Humanism

The word humanism is everywhere. In everyday life it is used just as much as by different politicians and by people who feel no connection with religion or a particular world view. Many free-thought organizations in Germany call themselves humanist in their names or use the word to describe themselves and their causes in their programs as being humanist or secular humanist. But what is humanism? Is it an ethical term or does it have to do with religious and world-view issues? We also see the important practical side: Humane action, without which free thought is only an academic exercise, understood as an approach to life, a real relationship between free-thinking people and among all people, is becoming more and more meaningful.

In cannot be doubted that there is such a thing as a religiously motivated humanism. Without people motivated by Christian humanism, we would not have many of the social and cultural achievements we take for granted. This is the case for other religions as well. But I would like to call Christian, western culture where we are all supposedly rooted into question. It was classical antiquity and the Enlightenment which determined the history of democracy, science and the culture of thought. The early roots dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, are pre-Christian and are central to Western culture. Look at some of the central humanist statements: Man is the measure of all things. (Protagoras) / Man is holy to man. / I am a human. Nothing human is foreign to me. (Cicero, Seneca). The Renaissance, especially Renaissance humanism of the 14th century and later, led to the Enlightenment, which led in turn to the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776). [The Renaissance, especially Renaissance humanism of the 14th century and later - which was rooted in the rediscovery and rereading of the pre-Christian texts - led to the Enlightenment.]

The antihumanist tendencies and inhuman political systems which influenced the 20th century so dramatically should also be mentioned. Colonialism, hunger, the underdevelopment of 4/5 of mankind, the world wars, fascism, Stalinism - these are some of the events and ideas that characterize our times.

I cannot give a comprehensive depiction of humanism (and opposing tendencies). But I have said enough to hint that secular humanism is intimately connected with human dignity and human rights. The battle for the dignity and rights of people is a certainly one of the most important goals of free-thought action. 7

In light of the differing developments of humanism and the apparent successes of non-humanist movements, the hope of people living together on the basis of humanist values would appear to be unfounded. That hope can hardly offer us an effective guide to action. Does secular humanism have a real chance? What is it? If we see our roots in classical antiquity and in the Enlightenment, developments in other parts of the world is still open to debate.

An organized free-thought movement has existed in Germany for more than 150 years. The highpoints of the movement were the end of the 19th century and the mid-twenties of the 20th century. In spite of political disagreements and the constant tendency to break up into smaller groups, the free-thought movement - nationally and internationally - became more and more a carrier of secular humanism. The destruction of the movement under the Nazis stopped this development temporarily - almost totally. Only a few activists survived and started anew - Carl Peter, Hermann Graul, Alber Heuer, Gerhard von Frankenberg, Fritz Hermann and others. 8

In Germany, the free-thought movement and free organizations which ascribe to humanism have been influenced strongly by the non-European world, primarily the US, Canada and India. International organizations such as the IHEU, the IARF and the World Union of Free-Thinkers have promoted a cosmopolitan approach for propagating and realizing secular humanism. Often, however, we remain euro-centric in our dealings and overlook many atheist and other secular ways of thought. Paul Kurz has written: "The current situation in the history of mankind offers us a big chance for the growth of the humanism world movement. The question is whether humanists have the foresight and wisdom to meet the challenge. Often leading humanists overlook the necessity of keeping an eye on the whole picture, being too busy with day to day problems." 9

The word humanism comes from the Latin word humanitas meaning humanity (in the sense of "humane-ness"). It assumes human consciousness and is aimed at giving value to the human individual. In doing so, it stands opposed to the subjugation of mankind to supernatural powers and truths and the use of human resources for purposes that denigrate mankind. Humanitas is what the Romans (Cicero, for example) called the ethically and culturally highest realization of human power in an aesthetically complete form, complimented by gentleness and humanity. Humanism, therefor, is the movement which stands opposed to scholasticism and the intellectual rule of the Catholic church. It began in Italy with Petrarch and reached a highpoint with Erasmus, Reuchlin, Hutten, and Melanchton. The humanism movement opposes theological and dogmatic attachments and promotes the search organizing life in a way commensurate with human dignity. The result is that humanity - marked by morality and a social movement - meets with humanist education. [The word "humanism" has two common meanings in Europe - classical education in Greek and Latin instead of traditional theology on the one hand and a non-religious ethical world view on the other. Here we see how the two meanings are intimately related.]

An important impulse for understanding humanism can be found in examining the highly developed enlightened thinking in India. The following is based primarily on "Relevance of Humanism" by dR. Vijayam, the executive director of the Atheist Centre in southern India. 10

The free-thought roots of the Enlightenment in India can be found in the agnosticism of Buddha, in the generosity of Mahaviras and in the questioning mind of Charvakas and Lokayatas. In India, the need for tolerance and constant dialogue between differing religious and philosophical points of view (Hinduism/Brahmaism, Buddhism, Islam) developed early on and had to be re-learned over and over again. India took the path of tolerance, simple needs and sympathy while Europe was ruled by Middle Ages with its Catholic authorities and the cruel, religiously motivated repressions.

National identity and humanism tend to loosen the chains of religion. Gandhi said that he would not bring his religion to the marketplace. Religiously and secularly oriented Indians fought together against colonial rule. National independence, achieved in 1947, promoted the secularization of that multicultural society. In the constitution of India, article 51-A (h), it says, " promote scientific temper, spirit of inquiry, reform and humanism".

Important Indian thinkers of the 20th century who recognized the relationship between enlightenment, secular humanism and rationalism and made it the basis of their activity were M.N. Roy (1887-1954): radical humanism; Periyar (1879-1973): rationalist; Gora (1902-1975): Atheist Centre; A. B. Shah (1920-1981): Indian Secular Society

We hardly know their opinions and achievements, sometimes not even their names. That is a loss for free thinkers. 11

A special strength of secular humanism - and also a kind of "positive atheism" - is the focus on the practical problems of humankind, a real connection between an ethical and world-view based life orientation and active help. "Philosophy must lead to adian" (What the hell is adian?) (Vijayan) Democracy, social justice, religious tolerance, women's rights and the anti-caste movement combine in India to promote human dignity for all. We cannot overlook, of course, the fact there is still much work left to be done, in India as elsewhere.

In India, secular humanism is allied with the formation of non-violent social relationships, a balanced relationship with nature, the right of the hungry to eat, equal rights, education and science in a common struggle against superstition. Other fronts include the fight against the caste system and against communalization [?] as well as for a secular state and social reform.

4. A New Kind of Responsibility

What are the current tasks and prerequisites for a new kind of enlightenment which is in step with with New Thinking, Free Thought and the dignity of humans? Do we need a second Enlightenment which is more than just a continuation of the first? The historically developed Enlightenment is, in my opinion, not over yet. It continues on in interaction with human rights and New Thinking. What needs to be done in Germany and elsewhere if we are to live up to our historical responsibility for a "new" Enlightenment with secular humanism as its focal point?

The organizational structures of the free-thought and humanist movement in Germany (and their place in international cooperation) need to be reformed. Alliances and cooperation are the way to success and they will remain so. More personalities from the scientific, cultural and political spheres should be won over. The material foundation of our work should be expanded. We need clear theoretical statements, clear ethical positions and an effective and a comprehensible public presence. We have to learn more about how to seek and find the common ground among the variety of positions within the free-thought and non-confessional movement. We need to turn that common ground into the basis for our cooperative work. We need to be more flexible in our use of the media. We need to gain access to broadcasting time on radio and television and representation in the Rundfunkräte (official media councils which have a say in what is broadcast in Germany. The two official churches both have seats on these councils).

A movement which considers itself secular humanist and free-thinking should address the burning questions of the day and offer answers. These issues include:

  • the responsibility for our fellow humans, their rights and freedoms, as well as nature and the environment
  • moral values: truthfulness, solidarity, tolerance, freedom, informational self-determination [?]
  • the maintenance of or creation of peace; non-military problem resolution
  • equality of men and women; women's rights to self-determination (especially with regard to German legal restrictions on abortions); same-sex marriage
  • a strict separation of church and state and of church and school (religion classes are still part of the German school system)
  • dignified solutions to problems involving the right to political asylum and requirements for attaining citizenship (and a clear position against violence against foreigners)
  • gene technology and bioethics
  • new religious and ideological movements, so-called sects and "psycho-groups", occultism and Satanism; Enlightenment instead of the abuse of the right to free exercise of conscience and religion
  • euthanasia

European and German unification present the opportunity to consciously think about and reassess future ways of living and working together in our own country and relative to other states and peoples. Writing a constitution is one way for a society to go through a reasoned process of self-perception and self-description. The ongoing discussion about a European constitution for laicistic Europe is part of that process. A truly laicistic Federal Republic of Germany would be the first step toward that goal. That discussion is both a stimulus and prerequisite for the reforming of an international order in which European rights do not come at the price of wrongs against non-Europeans: Our striving for happiness only has dignity if it is not founded on the unhappiness of others. Our striving for dignity must recognize the rights of others to strive for the same.

Our program for free-thought, human rights and dogma-free living is not outdated. It is an expression of New Thinking and a continuation of Enlightenment thought. Enlightenment thinking is connected to New Thinking, identity as a world citizen, free thought and human rights. We are represent tireless factor in the realization of civil and human rights all over the world, wherever they are threatened - at home and abroad, in the present and for the future.


1 Denis Diderot: Stichwort "Menschlichkeit". In: Artikel aus Diderots Enzyklopädie (8. Band, 1765). Leipzig 1972. S. 681.

2 Helmuth von Glasenapp: Die fünf Weltreligionen. München 1996. S. 9.

3 Werner Schneiders: Lexikon der Aufklärung. München 1995. S. 7.

4 Vgl. ebd. s. 9 ff.; vgl. auch Volker Mueller: Aufklärung und Naturanschauung im vorrevolutionären Frankreich. In: Wiss. Zs. der Humboldt-Universität Berlin. Reihe GW, 1989. Heft 4.

5 Vgl. Winfried Schröder: Ursprünge des Atheismus. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 1998; vgl Georges Minois: Geschichte des Atheismus. Weimar 2000.

6 Immanuel Kant: Was ist Aufklärung? Leipzig 1914. S. 1 und 3. Gegen diese Charakterisierung machte Hamann geltend, dass ein "Unvermögen eigentlich keine Schuld" und dass zwar eine "Vormundschaft", nicht aber die "Unmündigkeit" selbstverschuldet sein kann. Das Unvermögen bestehe also in der "Blindheit des Vormundes, der sich für sehend ausgibt und deshalb alle Schuld verantworten muß". Herder nannte die Aufklärung "das große Jahrhundert des Zweifelns und Wellenerregens". Eine großartige Deutung des Aufklärung gab Hegel in der "Phänomenologie des Geistes".

7 Vgl.: 50 Jahre für Geistesfreiheit, Humanismus und Menschenrechte. DFW. Pinneberg 2000; Zukunft und Wirkung der freigeistigen Bewegung in Deutschland. In: Schriftenreihe für freigeistige Kultur. Heft 11. Pinneberg 1998; Volker Mueller: Menschenrechte und Geistesfreiheit - gegenwärtige Standpunkte in der DFW-Arbeit zur Vertretung konfessionsfreier Interessen. In: Kristall. Heft 1/2001. Neustadt 2001; Das Humanistische Manifest III. Der Ruf nach einem neuen globalen Humanismus. In: humanismus aktuell. Heft 5. Berlin 1999.

8 An dieser Stelle möchte ich einige Literaturangaben zum Thema empfehlen, die u. a. belegen, dass wir es hier wirklich nicht mit einem neuen Schlagwort zu tun haben.

  • Fritz Hermann "Der Humanismus - Utopie, Ideologie oder Wirklichkeit?" (Jahrestagung der Freien Akademie 1967)
  • Fritz Bode "Unsere Aufgaben als freie Humanisten für eine lebensgerechte Zukunft" (Jahrestagung AG Weser-Ems der Freien Humanisten 1991). In: homo humanus aktuell A 40
  • Finngeir Hiorth "Humanismus - genau betrachtet" (Neustadt 1996)
  • Paul Kurtz "Verbotene Früchte: Ethik des Humanismus" (Neustadt 1998)
  • Zeitschrift "diesseits", Heft 43/1998: "Humanisten auf der Suche nach Zukunft" mit Beiträgen von Christian John, Manfred Isemeyer, Peter Schultz-Hageleit
  • Horst Groschopp: Dissidenten. Freidenker und Kultur in Deutschland. Berlin 1997.
  • Helmut Steuerwald: Kritische Geschichte der Religionen und freien Weltanschauungen. Neustadt 1999.

9 Paul Kurtz: Humanisten verteidigen die Vernunft. In: diesseits. Berlin. Heft 43/1998. S. 14.

10 Vgl. Vijayam: Relevance of humanismus. In: The Atheist. June 1997. S. 7 ff.

11 Literaturhinweise zum atheistischen Denken in Indien:

  • Gora: "Positive Atheism". Vijayawada 1978.
  • Gora: "An Atheist with Gandhi". Ahmedabad 1986.
  • Periyar E. V. Ramasami: "Is there a God?" Chennai 1996.
  • K. Veeramani: "Humanism". Chennai 1998.
  • "ATHEIST", Monatszeitung. Anschrift: Atheist Centre, Dr. Vijayam and Lavanam; Benz Circle, Vijayawada - 520 010. INDIA.
  • "The modern Rationalist", Monatszeitschrift, Anschrift: 50, EVK Sampath Salai, Periyar Thidal - Vepery, Chennai - 600 007, INDIA.