Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Introducing…Foundation Beyond Belief

Being a humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t give as much as I’d like to the causes I care about. I consider myself a pretty generous guy, and when I give, I give generously. But I get to the end of each year and realize that I just haven’t given as much as I wish I had. Again.

Another thing: When religious folks give through religious charities and churches, it registers as an expression of their worldview. I want that too. I want my contributions to “count” as a visible expression of my secular humanism.

Then there’s this: Multiple solid surveys by philanthropic research organizations like Independent Sector and the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey1 show that churchgoers give a much greater percentage of their income to charitable causes than non-churchgoers like me. Arthur C. Brooks (author of Who Really Cares) is pretty sure he’s got my number: he says it’s “evidence of a gap in everyday virtue” (p. 40) between the religious and nonreligious.

I think he’s missing something obvious. If people in Group A are asked to pass a plate full of the generous donations of their friends and neighbors and either add to it or not, 52 times a year, while people in Group B have no such regular and public nudge — I’d say something other than virtue is in play.

offer5400I think the difference has much more to do with whether or not you have systematic opportunities for giving than some “gap in virtue.” I speak at Unitarian fellowships and Ethical Societies all the time, places brimming with friendly atheists. And when that offering plate passes by, I give, and so do they, knowing that these places will use it to do some good.

The offering plate is also passing through a million mainstream church pews every Sunday, giving the religious an easy and regular way to give and to combine their giving with others as a positive collective expression of their worldview.

I don’t agree with those who insist religious people give primarily out of fear or guilt. That may be in the mix, but most I know give because they are challenged and encouraged to do so, because generosity feels wonderful, and because the habit of giving turns giving into a habit.

I want to do better. It’s time for those of us who are otherwise engaged on Sunday mornings to have our own easy and regular means of giving, one that focuses and encourages humanistic generosity and demonstrates it to the world.

Welcome to Foundation Beyond Belief.

> what it is

FBBlogoFoundation Beyond Belief is a new charitable and educational foundation created (1) to focus, encourage and demonstrate humanistic generosity, and (2) to support a nationwide nonreligious parent education program.

The Foundation will highlight ten charitable organizations per quarter–one in each of ten areas (health, poverty, environment, education, human rights, and more). Members join the Foundation by signing up for a monthly automatic donation in the amount of their choice, then set up personal profiles to indicate how they would like their contribution distributed among the ten categories. Maybe you’d like to give 25 percent each to human rights, poverty, education, and the environment. We’ll distribute it accordingly. By year’s end, you will have helped support a dozen organizations in the areas you care most about.

The centerpiece of the Foundation will be a lively online community. Active members can join a social network and discussion forums centered on the ten categories of giving, upload videos, recruit new members, advocate for causes and help us choose the new beneficiaries each quarter. We’ll also create and host a multi-author blog of world-class contributors focused on the cause areas, as well as humanism, philanthropy, and the intersection of the two.

Carefully selected for impact and efficiency, the beneficiaries may be founded on any worldview so long as they do not engage in proselytizing. At the end of each quarter, 100 percent of the donations will be forwarded and a new slate of beneficiaries selected.

On the educational side, the Foundation will build the next stage in nonreligious parent education—a nationwide training program for parenting seminar leaders. We plan to have 30-40 people teaching nonreligious parenting seminars in cities across the country within a year.

We’ve begun assembling a stellar cast to guide the Foundation through its infancy. The Board of Directors includes Hemant Mehta (author, Friendly Atheist blogger, Secular Student Alliance board chair), Dr. Wayne Huey (ethicist, educator, author, former Georgia and U.S. High School Counselor of the Year), Trish Hotze Cowan (Sunday School Director, Ethical Society of St. Louis), and executive director Dale McGowan. (That’s me.)

The Foundation will launch in two stages. On October 1 we’ll unveil the pre-launch website, where members can begin setting up profiles and basic donations. On January 1, 2010, we will launch the full site, including the ten featured causes, all profile options, blog, social networking, and the means for members to select and change their preferred distributions.

We’re making no little plans here, and there’s the potential to do something pretty earthshaking. But this is a community thing, or it’s nothing. We’ll need your help.

> what you can do now

There are two ways to stay in the loop as we work toward the Foundation’s partial launch in October and full launch in January:

Facebook users: Click here to join the Foundation Beyond Belief group on Facebook Causes. No donation required — just keeping yourself in the loop.

Non-Facebookers: Click here to put your email on our mailing list.

Either way, sign up and we’ll keep you informed as it takes shape.

1And the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, and the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census…the list goes on. The facts themselves are not in doubt.

Leave them kids alone

Orphaned boys were perhaps the cheapest Taliban recruits. An incensed Afghan official in one village presented [U.S. military anthropologist] Tracy with a boy who had wandered into the district governor’s compound a month earlier. The boy wore an explosive vest that the Taliban had told him would burst with flowers and candy, but he didn’t know how to make the vest work.
–from “Human Quicksand: For the US Army, a crash course in cultural studies” by Steve Featherstone, Harper’s magazine, Sept 2008

I’ve discovered something about myself recently: I’m sometimes made almost physically ill by the idea of helpless kids at the mercy of stupid adults. Since “stupid” describes all adults some of the time (yes, me) and some adults all of the time, and we all find ourselves primarily at the mercy of adults for our first 18 years, it’s a not uncommon problem.

Sometimes it’s fictional. Take the unbearable scene from the movie Babel in which a series of bad choices by adults leaves two kids alone in the desert with their terrified nanny, who leaves for help, then returns with said help but cannot find them.

The shot of the empty spot of ground where they had been, followed by the nanny’s anguished face, haunted me for weeks.

childsoldierThen there are thousands of real-world examples, from the ghastly and bizarre (children drowned in their car seats or bathtubs, kept in underground bunkers for 13 years) to the commonplace (children whacked in the head, taught to hate, deprived of education or vaccines) to horrors both ghastly and common in some places. Children told the C-4 in their vest is peppermint would qualify, as would the estimated quarter million “child soldiers” fighting in conflicts worldwide right now.

(I guess I should have warned you at the top that this post was headed into the darkness. I happened on that Harper’s article again last night for the third time, and it got me connecting loose ends—especially this idea of kids at the mercy of adults at their worst. It lightens up a wee bit now.)

What Shall We Tell The Children?

There’s another piece I come back to again and again—a really radical address by Nicholas Humphrey called “What Shall We Tell the Children?”, first delivered as the Oxford Amnesty Lecture in 1997. In it, Humphrey discusses the idea of children’s intellectual rights in a way both provocative and compelling. His thesis centers on the teaching of beliefs:

I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

It becomes clear, in the fullness of the piece, that Humphrey is referring not just to teaching about a belief system, but indoctrinating a child into it. So how do we determine whether they would have chosen a belief/value/action for themselves? Sometimes it’s easy to know, and sometimes it’s difficult. So when in doubt, don’t impose a belief.

Here’s a dry run—some beliefs, values, and actions I could impose on my children:

Committing murder-suicide with an explosive vest
Being circumcised
Disliking a given racial/ethnic/religious/political group especially much
Liking a given racial/ethnic/religious/political group especially much
The importance of avoiding prejudice
The importance of self-respect
The value of honesty
The value of thinking for one’s self
Believing/disbelieving a given worldview

For each of these, picture your child at age 30, looking back on childhood. If you can easily picture the child saying, “If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice at that age, I wouldn’t have chosen x,” you’ve probably identified a value that should not be imposed.

Start easy:

“If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to commit murder-suicide with an explosive vest.” My confidence is pretty high on this one. For this reason (and others, I suppose), I don’t send my children into governors’ compounds with explosive vests.

“If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice at that age, I wouldn’t have chosen to be circumcised.” Youch. The number of uncircumcised adults who choose the procedure (somewhere around 1 percent, if I remember correctly) speaks for itself on this one.

Liking or disliking Swedes, Republicans, accountants? I can certainly see my child’s likes and dislikes differing from mine, so I take care to avoid inculcating. But it’s hard to imagine someone actively resenting the fact that their parents taught them not to pre-judge others (“When shall I escape from this damnable tendency toward tolerance?”).

Then it gets even easier. Picture them saying, “Damn them for teaching me self-respect!” or “Curse the day they forced me to think for myself!” I teach my kids self-respect, independent thought, honesty, and a whole raft of values they are almost certain to appreciate rather than bemoan as adults.

Ah, but now we’ve arrived, have we not. How does the inculcation of a given worldview—any given worldview—stand up to this test?

Answer: It’s all too easy to picture an adult wishing that a single worldview had not been forced on him or her as a child. I wish I hadn’t been forced to consider myself a Catholic. I wish I hadn’t been forced to consider myself an atheist.

I’m proposing an even higher standard than Humphrey’s “most likely.” With some probable exceptions, a reasonable doubt is enough for me to refrain from imposing a belief or value on my child.

Humphrey suggests that the protection of our children’s lifelong intellectual rights demands that we not indoctrinate them to any given worldview—that we allow them to experiment with belief, try on different hats, and weigh different influences until they themselves can make an informed choice. And I agree.

The complete text of Humphrey’s Oxford Amnesty Lecture

Interview with Amanda Metskas

amandametskasAmanda Metskas — whip-smart and Obama-cool executive director of Camp Quest, contributor to Parenting Beyond Belief and co-author of Raising Freethinkers — was interviewed about Camp Quest last week over on Science-Based Parenting by Skeptic Dad.

In case you don’t know (and haven’t clicked on the big blue button in the sidebar), Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp designed for the children of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, brights, or others who hold a naturalistic (as opposed to supernatural) worldview.

The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.

Read the interview here.

BONUS: There’s a lovely review of Raising Freethinkers at one of my favorite blogs ever — Motherhood Uncensored. On second thought, don’t go. Once you read Kristen Chase, you’ll never come back to my insipid drivel.

Truly, madly, deeply

tmd54301I’m surely not the first to point this phenomenon out, but I find self-canceling verbal intensifiers interesting, and I’m running into a lot of them lately.

(Fortunately, the resulting stain is easily removed with lemon juice and 7-Up.)

First was a conversation with a friend about three weeks ago. “We’re all here for a purpose, I truly believe that,” she said. A novice or robot would hear “truly” and think, “Ooo, okay then, this person has strong reasons for confidence in her position.” But once you’ve heard intensifiers used this way several hundred times, you realize that it actually signals the opposite. No one says “I truly believe that” unless they know their belief is founded on nothing but a wish.

Several more “deeplys” and “trulys” popped up in the following days, all used in the same self-canceling way.

Then there was a tragic news story, the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of a local woman. “I truly believe with all my heart that she’s still alive,” said her mother to an offered microphone. My heart broke for her. In her position, I’d surely say and feel the same groundless things. Maybe I’d even intensify them to keep myself from despair.

But if I were an investigator of the crime, and a relative came to me and whispered, “I believe she’s still alive,” I’d say, “What? Have you heard something? Out with it!” But as soon as I heard “truly, with all my heart,” I’d nod and simply offer my sympathies, realizing there was nothing to it.

You’ll often hear “I deeply believe…” followed by a religious conviction. Not so often “I deeply believe” in evolution or the Krebs cycle. But just as I was getting all puffed up on that line of thought, Google — as she so often does, the saucy minx — rocked my confident assumptions like a conjugal trailer on Valentine’s Day. When I Googled the phrase, “I truly believe,” the second site from the top was British journalist Matthew Parris making this reasoned (if mildly patronizing) statement:

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

That’ll show me. It nicely confused my simple pigeonholes, always a good thing. And I have a feeling Parris — a pro-religion atheist who is a former Conservative politician and gay — does quite a bit of that.

I truly, deeply believe that we need more people like him.

Easy ethics and hard

“They shot him…he was running. It was during their exercise period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started to climb. Right in front of them….We had such a good chance. I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.”
–Atticus Finch on the death of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird

onediff320909“Remember in To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom Robinson gets shot?”

It was in the middle of a silent car ride that Connor (13) blurted this out.

“Oh yeah. Worst part of the book.”

“He wasn’t really trying to escape, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well Atticus says he was trying to escape, but there’s no way! They just shot him because they wanted to and made up that story. I know it. But Mrs. Lawson and the whole class said he was shot trying to escape, just like it says.”


“And I said he wasn’t trying to escape, you’re supposed to read between the lines and figure that out, they shot him seventeen times, but they were all just saying, ‘No, no, no, he was escaping, that’s what it says, that’s what it says.’ I HATE that.”

“Hate what?”

“When you’re right but every other person says you’re wrong! Because then you basically ARE wrong.”


Now before anybody gets all hifalutin’ about being the Lone Voice of Truth or starts quoting Kipling to my boy, at least tell me you know what he means. If you’ve got your self-confidence polished up so shiny bright that you can confidently stand your ground against unanimous jeers without a flicker of self-doubt, without feeling even for a moment what it means to be rendered “basically wrong” by the judgment of the many—know that I hold you in the highest respect, and think you a freak.

It’s easy to picture ourselves in retrospect matching the courage of Galileo or Giordano Bruno, or Fulton and his steamboat, or Hershey and his chocolate bar. I can manage these fantasies, but only in retrospect. I am Bruno taking the nail through the tongue while KNOWING I’ll one day be vindicated. Being the Lone Voice of Truth is one helluva lot harder without that perspective.

So we talked about Kohlberg.

No, it’s not a tasty hybrid of kohlrabi and iceberg. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg laid out a useful set of “stages” of moral development. Connor’s question isn’t exactly a moral issue, but the willingness to speak up about what you believe is right or true definitely is.

The six stages:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
Stage 1. Avoiding pain
Stage 2. Seeking reward

Level 2 (Conventional)
Stage 3. Social conformity
Stage 4. Rule following

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
Stage 5. Social contract (understand that rules are human creations and can be changed)
Stage 6. Universal ethical principles (standing on principle regardless of consequences)

Early childhood is usually limited to the pre-conventional. If you want your kids to spin their wheels in the lower levels, base your parenting solely on punishment and rewards. Later, most kids become obsessed to some degree with the next two, and would yes very damn well jump off a cliff if their friends did, or slavishly follow rules because they are rules, depending on age and stage. And plenty of adults never get beyond this conventional, conformist morality.

It’s the tug of Stage 3 that Connor was talking about—the fact that it can feel like the loud majority defines right and wrong just by dint of its loud majorityness. So we had a quick chat about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

Don’t laugh—kids can do this.

“Yeah, I know what you mean about feeling wrong when everybody else disagrees,” I said. “It’s a stage three thing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Something I remember from psych class—six different levels of moral development. For little kids, being good is all about rewards and punishments. Then you want to please other people, that’s stage three, or follow rules, that’s stage four.”

“My school is OBSESSED with rules,” he said.

He’s right, they are. “Yep. And that’s okay as far as it goes. But what you want to do is push yourself higher than that.”

“Like what?”

“Like standing up for what you think is right even when everyone around you thinks you’re crazy. That’s the top level. Gandhi. Galileo. Jesus. Darwin. Atticus. Connor McGowan. People like that.”

Wry smile.

It’s not that we leave the lower stages behind as we move up. Everybody still responds to punishment and reward and social pressure, even as we show bursts of high-level morality. But it’s worth talking to our kids about the difference between the easy rule-following moralities so many are so fond of, and the higher, harder levels that all of our moral heroes, if you think about it, seem to occupy.

Love, sex, and death (in rapid succession)

lovenooseERIN, 11: “Hey guess what we were learning about in Health today.”

(Erin loves Health. She is fascinated by the human body. She wants to be a doctor.)

MOM: What?

ERIN, smiling: S-E-X.

MOM: Oh yeah? And what were you learning about it?

ERIN: We learned that when you have sex you can get horrible diseases like AIDS and die.

[Dad buries face in hands, quietly weeps for the species.]

ERIN: What, Daddy?

DAD: The first thing they taught you about sex is that it can kill you? Holy shit.

ERIN: Oooooo, the S-word! Well it’s true, isn’t it?

DAD: (*Sigh*) Yes, it’s true. If you are careless, you can get a horrible disease and die. Did you know you can also die if you eat carelessly?

ERIN: Yeah.

DAD: And if you drive carelessly?

(Erin wants to drive more than anything in the universe. I often let her reach over from the front passenger seat and control the wheel in empty parking lots and in our subdivision. The high points of her current life.)

ERIN: Well yeah, if you’re careless and don’t use your brain.

DAD: But what if the first time you heard about eating, we just said, “Oh, eating? That could kill you.”

ERIN: Dad. When I started eating, I was like an hour old, and it was just booby milk. (Giggle.)

DAD: Fine, driving then. What if the first time we talked about driving, we just said, “Oh, driving? You can die doing that.”

ERIN: That would be annoying.

So we talked about sex. It was not the first time, but the first since it became associated with the Grim Reaper. We talked about the fact that it is a good thing — the most important part of being a living thing, in a way, because without it we wouldn’t exist.

We talked about the fact that sex is something our bodies enjoy, and that evolution made sure of that, and why. And yes, that it’s something for later, and that there can be serious consequences if you let your body shut your brain off.

Mostly I was just sad. Not for my kids, since it wasn’t the first time they’d heard about sex, but for the millions of others who have to wade through fearful bullshit about shame and sin and death before they discover that sex, like a dozen other human joys, is a wonderful, natural, and good part of being fully human — one to be handled with care, to be sure, but first and foremost good.

The religious diversity tango

Concerned about a church/state issue in your school? Do what you can to avoid looking like this:

(Special fun @ 0:52-1:04.)

Although his reasons are poorly expressed (and thought out), public schools teaching about minority religions to the exclusion of the culturally dominant one does raise interesting questions.

Go ahead, discuss. I’m going to the teachers’ lounge for a smoke.
Interesting note: This public charter school encourages active parent comment on the curriculum and classroom materials. From their “Philosophy” page:

River Springs strives to uphold parent rights and choice in education. Through choice of curriculum, teachers, and program options, parents can monitor materials that affect their children’s attitudes, values and beliefs.

Greekology and the regular America god

lips4432[DELANEY, 7, takes Bulfinch’s Mythology down from my office shelf and starts leafing through.]


DAD: Mm.

DELANEY: Are there any people in Greek who still believe Greekology?

DAD: Not any more. Well…actually there are a few. But mostly not.

DELANEY: I don’t get how anybody can still believe it. You said people climbed up to the top of Mount Olympics and didn’t see any gods.

DAD: Well…if you believed in something like that, and somebody hiked to the top and said your gods weren’t there, what would you say?

DELANEY: I’d say they were hiding. [Chuckles.] Or invisible.

DAD: HA! Perfect.

[She continues rummaging the shelves.]

DELANEY: Ooo, this one’s nice.

DAD: Yeah, I like that one. It’s called the Book of Common Prayer.

DELANEY: Who uses that?

DAD: The Church of England.

DELANEY: What!? I thought England believed the same god as the regular America god.

DAD: Yeah, it’s…well, there are different churches that believe in the same god but in different ways. They just do little things different.

DELANEY: Like what?

DAD: You remember the thing with the wine and bread? Some churches think the wine actually turns into the blood of Jesus, and the bread…

DELANEY: …is his body, yeah. I thought they ALL believed that.

DAD: Well, some of them believe it’s just supposed to make us think about his body and blood. But some think it really, exactly turns into his blood and body when you eat it.

[Long pause.]

DELANEY: Okay, I have a question. [Pause.] Where do people get these ideas? How do they…how do they think of stuff like that?

DAD: Different ways. This one they actually got from the Greeks. They used to think the spirit of the gods lived inside bulls and goats, so they’d take the animals up on top of a hill, slit their throats and drink their blood. They said they were taking the god into their bodies. So when the Christians…

DELANEY: Oh. My. God.

DAD: What?

DELANEY: That is just COMPLETELY disgusting.

DAD: But…you didn’t seem freaked out about drinking Jesus’s blood…

DELANEY: Well that’s people blood. I’m already full of people blood. I could drink a little more.

Laughing matters 7: Mr. Deity

nullI am always the last to discover cool and interesting things. Hat tip to Facebook friend Beverly Emond for helping me deduct one more dollar from my Shameful Ignorance account by introducing me to Mr. Deity.

Mr. Deity is a brilliant and hilarious series of satirical shorts on YouTube that proves once again that comedy beats the keeeey-rap out of every other means of enlightenment.

We think of comedy as entertainment, which is about like saying sex is exercise. Sure, comedy’s fun, but it also reveals the truth more head-top-removingly than any argument could — especially when the purveyor has his head on straight. In the case of satire, that means understanding and, if you can manage it, empathizing with your targets. Brian Keith Dalton, the creator and star of Mr. Deity, does both, and we get the benefit.

Wanna grapple with the Problem of Evil? You can read volumes of treatises and apologia on theodicy and the Epicurean paradox. Or you can watch this:

You can lunch with Benedict XVI for a week to explore substitutionary atonement — the idea that one person can atone for the sins of another — and the dual nature of Christ. Or you can watch this:

And you can ponder and argue how and whether God answers prayers, and the implications of the conclusions you reach. Or you can watch Bruce Almighty, a smart and worthwhile comedy. Or watch this:

I know why these things soar the way they do here. Dalton is uncovering inconsistencies and problems and nonsense, but he is not sneering. He gets religious belief, empathizes with it, respects the impulse, even though he doesn’t share the conclusions. That’s essential to the comedy. My own religious satire falls flattest when I am least understanding of my targets and soars highest (imho) when I get where they’re coming from — because the latter is more likely to be rooted in the truth.

This from Mr. Deity’s FAQ:

I am a formerly religious person (non-bitter), and as such, have great sympathies for the beliefs and feelings of religious people. I love the fact that they are concerned with the big issues like Good and Evil, Existence, Creation, etc… I don’t always agree with the answers they provide to these questions, but I deeply respect their concern. Our goal here is not to mock religion, but to use it as a foundation for the humor. I’m thrilled that so many religious people have written to tell me that they love the episodes. In future episodes, I intend to turn the tables a bit and poke fun at what I call the “angry atheists” (of whom I am not fond). We’ll see if they take it so well.

As for his implied question….

We’ll see if the [angry atheists] take it so well [as religious folks have]

…with a few notable exceptions, I’m not even one tiny bit optimistic.

Mr. Deity’s YouTube Channel
Read the complete Laughing Matters series

Humanism 2009 (4 of 4)

Part 4 of an address to Edmonds UU Church in Edmonds, WA, April 19, 2009.

[Back to Part 1.]
[Back to Part 2.]
[Back to Part 3.]

A recent post I saw on a humanist discussion board framed the issue very well. “Religious communities,” it said, “are often filled with social events, music, poetry, inspiration, and life advice. It can be very difficult for some people to give all of this up for a few science books, Internet forums, and an arsenal of ammunition to use against the religious. Where is the poetry? Where is the inspiration? Although many of us have already found meaning without religion, we should probably try to help those who haven’t.”

This is the sound of Harry reaching out to Sally.

heartbrain3Fortunately, many humanist groups across the country are getting more comfortable with exactly these things. They are expanding their topics, improving the emotional and symbolic content of their meetings, and turning to ever-greater involvement in good works — an area in which UUs have always taken the lead.

But in the process of leading this transformation of humanism, I have seen many UU fellowships so eager to serve Sally that they ignore or even disparage Harry. It’s a delicate and difficult balancing act, but by naming it here today, I hope improve the chances of healing this fault line. If it is going to be healed, I’m convinced it will happen here in the UU denomination, because this is where Harry and Sally meet.

I have ever-greater hope for the rest of the humanist movement as well. They too are figuring out how to do community well, including a greater focus on good works. Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry began a marvelous “revolving charities” campaign, designating one charity each quarter as a spotlight beneficiary. In less than a year, thousands of dollars have gone toward orphan relief, domestic violence support services, medical research, and a residential facility for troubled youth. A few other groups are doing likewise. And from Portland to Albuquerque to Raleigh, humanist parenting groups and ethical education programs for kids are springing up, adding a family focus, more gender equity, and young blood.

I’d like to see this continue and expand. I’d like to see soup kitchen, food pantry, and Habitat volunteering added to the omnipresent freeway cleanup programs. The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia sponsors an annual Tree of Knowledge during the holidays. I’d like to see a Tree of Compassion right next to it.

When it comes to forming genuine community, humanists have a very mixed record. We fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting. Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t “to be a force for rationality”—humanist groups of all kinds will continue to lag behind theistic churches in offering community.

It begins with simple things. I urge humanist groups to designate a greeter for every meeting—someone to grab and shake the hand of every person who walks in the door, new or returning. Select topics that challenge the convictions and humanity of the group instead of always preaching to the choir. Or screw the topic and just get together for the sake of getting together.

I tell them to have a CD playing as people arrive. And not Die Gedanken sind frei.1 Something unrelated to freethought. Read a poem. Take a moment to remember people who are ill or have died. Collect money for the homeless. If you want families to come and stay, offer childcare or forget about it.

These are things UUs have mastered. Now I want to see it spread to the rest of the freethought world. If we make our secular humanist groups less about secularism and more about humanism, more humans will come. And as long as we continue to serve their humanity, they will stay—and they will bring their kids. At that point, you’ve got yourself a community.

“The good life,” said Bertrand Russell, “is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Thanks in large part to Harry, humanism has knowledge tackled. In the interest of Sally, and the millions of humanists like her, it’s time to match our intellectual efforts with greater emphasis on compassion, emotion, humanity, and love. And a big part of this is recognizing those things—ritual, language, symbolism, community-building, and more—that religion actually does really well, and giving ourselves permission to adopt and redefine what works, even as we set aside what does not.
1But click this link for a video of Die Gedanken that mixes Harry and Sally quite nicely.

Illustration from The Usual Error Project under Creative Commons license.