08/24/2011 10:21 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Secularists Celebrate Dr. King Too

Why would nonbelievers hold back appreciation for one of America's heroes of democracy?

It's only natural to suppose that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fervent Christianity is not esteemed by the nonreligious. His life's achievements are another matter. Like all secularists, nonbelievers regard expansion and protection of civil rights as absolutely critical to democracy's health. Still, Dr. King's faith in God can seem too alien to proper secular democracy.

How Christianity could have guided America through yet another grave Constitutional crisis is a curiosity for those proudly pointing to the Constitution's nonreligious foundations. Didn't religious justifications for individual rights and responsive government retreat into the history books a couple of centuries ago? Secularists of any party across the political spectrum surely agree that appeals to religion can't have a commanding voice in maintaining a religiously neutral government. And atheists would especially object to God-talk where our most precious rights are concerned. Where God delusions lead, only enslavement could follow.

All the same, Dr. King led a people out of bondage and led a country toward a land promised by its revolutionary declaration. Should atheists be unimpressed? Are there any atheists who would apply common criticisms against religion to Dr. King? Was his prophetic vision of universal love just a matter of regrettable brain misfirings? Was his political appeal to the Declaration of Independence flawed for omitting arguments from reason alone? Was his principled view of justice, that no one is truly free until all are free, unnaturally idealistic? Shall atheists judge this mountain of a man not by the content of his character or the impact of his deeds, but by the stain of his creed?

Dr. King's creed was actually a complex system of tenets, some biblical (he preferred liberal interpretations), some philosophical (from his humanistic training in the personalist school at Boston University) and some political (taking democracy as the best form of government). His thought is not the sort of easy target toward which some atheists aim by setting up Christians as poorly educated Bible-toting literalists eager for some divinely violent end. The role of God in ethics is no simple matter within Christianity, and ethics was about far more than just quoting scripture for Dr. King. He was no fundamentalist, and he did not take the "conservative" stance in Christian social ethics either. Instead of obsessing over biblical tradition and ritualistic purity, he identified radical ethical ideals, he invited everyone to join his social cause, and he condemned pharisaic self-righteousness. More like the "prophetic" voice in Christian ethics, Dr. King identified supreme duties we owe to each other to responsibly make this world a more humane place in our lifetimes. There's no waiting around for divine deliverance; in Dr. King's theology, the power of righteousness emerges through us as we transform our world toward the way it should be.

Dr. King's prophetic voice rang out for righteousness and justice here and now, in this life, without further delay. The recognition of who we all truly are, as equally valuable and worthy of compassion, is the needed ethical insight to understand true justice. Let the atheist who disagrees point out who among us is more equal and deserving than the rest. No, humanists cannot turn back from pursuing that ideal pinnacle of social ethics. As an ideal, it possesses no more scientific reality than things half-glimpsed in dreams. But as an ideal guiding our hopes for the future, it can be as powerful as anything in the human world.

Dr. King's appeal to hope was firmly humanistic. His mission was not about raising the hopes of a chosen people for a better invisible world after this one. Dr. King's message was about calling everyone to join a hopeful mission for a visibly better world today. When one's ethical vision perceives who we truly are as beloved and worthy individuals, there's no need to gaze into heavenly distances, but only to look out for each other right here and now. Dr. King had no intention of dividing the country with any divisive religion. Where did he say that only Christians can be righteous? When did he say that only Christians deserve justice?

In a way, Dr. King's religious stance was so universal that "God" functions as a unifying sign reminding us of our own supreme value. As a universalist, any specific religion pretty much drops out as irrelevant, and Dr. King could appeal not to duties owed to God in heaven, but to responsibilities we share toward each other right here. Such loyalty and fidelity to all in the human community transcends narrow creed. This universalism is not only humanistic in its ethics, it is also secular in its politics. As Dr. King knew well, it is secular government -- representative government that treats everyone justly, regardless of any faith or no faith -- that can deliver the promise of universal rights.

Sustaining secular government and robust human rights is an ongoing struggle everywhere, and believers can be natural allies with nonbelievers. What matters is the clear ethical vision and the fidelity to turn idealistic hope into social action. Prophetic humanists like Dr. King can turn out to be pivotal in such struggles. And let us hear no disparagement of "blind faith" where Dr. King is concerned. Those who can view humanity with compassion and see how to treat humanity with fidelity have no need for blind faith. Loyal fidelity to ethical ideals is also a kind of perception, not of what is, but of what should be. Faith becomes blind only when hope dims and fidelity to this world's future fades.

What in Dr. King's fruitful blend of humanistic ethics and universal justice could the secularist find objectionable? I see nothing unreasonable or unseasonable. Secularists celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, alongside everyone who still has a dream.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily shared by the Center for Inquiry or its staff.