© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Living up to humanism

happyhumanistI’m speaking to Edmonds UU just north of Seattle tomorrow morning. They asked that I talk about humanism, with special attention to the discomfort many humanists feel with ritual and other trappings often associated with theism. I’ll post the talk later.

91 percent of Unitarian Universalists claim humanism as one of their self-identifiers. There are essentially three types:

  • Secular humanists
  • Theistic religious humanists
  • Nontheistic religious humanists
  • The last group redefines the word “religion” to mean “devotion to certain values and principles and coming together in the service of those values and principles.”

    I understand the strategy there. If humans in general are too skittish to call themselves nonreligious, let’s broaden the definition of “religious” to include a less toxic, more positive expression. Gives folks a place to go.

    But that also creates headaches for those of us who are trying to address the toxic form. It’s like being a cancer researcher, only to have someone redefine “cancer” to mean “courage.” At which point the redefiners turn around and point an angry finger at those working for a cure, saying, “How can you be opposed to courage?”

    But again, I get it. I’m even coming to see the value in creating that space to be “religious” and nontheistic.

    At one point in the talk, I say

    When I first discovered the label for what I had essentially always been — secular humanist — I considered the first word to be the most important. I had renounced not just theism but all of the institutional accretions that have built up around theism these many centuries, doing untold harm to the very world and people I care so much about. But as I’ve grown in my secular humanism, I’ve begun to value the second word more strongly than the first.

    It’s true. For a long time I was proudest of my secularity, my atheism. I figured out this really hard thing that most people get wrong. And it’s the biggest thing there is! Woohoo! [Ape beats chest, peels banana.]

    It’s still important to me, but I think we spend too much time congratulating ourselves about it. Yes yes, little boy, you figured out the tricky thing. Good show. But NOW what?

    Humanism, of course. That’s what.

    Being an atheist in a theistic society is challenging, but atheism itself is easy. It’s a simple renunciation, a toggle switch. Humanism — taking care of each other and the world in the absence of divine help — takes effort.

    Humanism is something I can be held to and hold others to, something I can succeed or fail at, get better at by degrees. Some days I’m a better humanist than other days, but I’m always the same kind of atheist. Though I’m still every bit an atheist, my atheism doesn’t separate me from Joseph Stalin. But it’s pretty hard to argue that Stalin was a humanist.

    This isn’t meant to be another tired discursion on labels. As I said, I claim them both, as do most nontheists. But preparing this talk for tomorrow has reimmersed me in what humanism means and how important and energizing it can be.

    On the About page at the elegantly-named Humanity by Starlight, blogger and high-schooler Perpetual Dissent put it this way:

    I’m an atheist and I try to live up to being a humanist.

    Search ye in vain for a better nutshell.

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    This was written on Saturday, 18. April 2009 at 08:59 and was filed under diversity, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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    Comments »

    1. I’m an atheist and I try to live up to being a humanist.

      That is very profound, especially for someone still in high school. People like that give me hope for the future.

      Comment: antimattr – 18. April 2009 @ 9:09 am

    2. I’m reading Losing My Religion by whats his name. It’s got me to thinking about how humanists should make more of an effort to help each other out. I’m not ready to tithe(is that how you spell it?). That research you linked to on your blog a while back showed that New England has the highest number of non-believers and (I think this is true) we New Englanders also “donate” the least amount of our income. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m just starting to feel like If I advocate for less organized religion in the world I should be ready to pick up the slack in terms of help for the poor and such.

      Comment: recovergirl – 19. April 2009 @ 6:54 am

    3. The problem with “humanism” is that most humanists feel that it is equivalent with the American Democratic party. Or, that Humanism necessitate liberal [modern sense] economic policies. Conservatives, libertarians, anarchists and many other non-liberals can not only be atheist but, believe it or not, some of them strive to “taking care of each other and the world in the absence of divine help”. They just don’t believe in doing it through the government like you folk do.

      Can the readers see how I think linking humanism with liberal politics is exclusive and divisive for the atheist community?
      To be a compassionate atheist, you don’t have to be a humanist !
      I have been to several UU churches and have friends who are members who agree that they can name the 3 non-Democrats in their church.

      Comment: sabio – 19. April 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    4. “Being an atheist in a theistic society is challenging, but atheism itself is easy.”

      Atheism is only easy, if all you do is say “I don’t believe there is a god”. But living a life consistent with that belief is not nearly as easy as that. Here is a simple example. As an atheist, you most certainly believe, that there is no afterlife. That makes your life a most extraordinarily important thing to you, since there is no recourse of “I will still be here in some form after death”. Are you signed up for cryonics? Are you planning to? Why not?

      Comment: mitechka – 20. April 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    5. mitechka — Atheism is merely, “I don’t believe in a personal god.” It’s merely the rejection of a primitive and childish superstition. Even then, so what? “Atheism” explains nothing about the things religious people might concern themselves with, such as morality, ritual, community, etc.

      One should be identified by what he accepts, not what he rejects. “Humanism” is a good start.

      Comment: lneely – 20. April 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    6. Regarding “… about the things religious people might concern themselves with…”

      That statement carries with it no implication that a non-religious person doesn’t concern himself with them. Those are, however, the questions a religious person is bound ask a non-religious one; questions which “atheism” cannot answer, but “humanism” can.

      Again, identify by what you accept, not reject.

      Comment: lneely – 20. April 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    7. Atheism is only easy, if all you do is say “I don’t believe there is a god”. But living a life consistent with that belief is not nearly as easy as that.

      Exactly my point. You have separated the fact of negation (atheism) from the attempt to live an (ethical and meaningful) life consistent with that belief. That’s humanism.

      As for cryogenics, the question assumes that eternal life, and an unsustainable population, are what I’m after. In my more mature moments, I accept the idea that I need to leave the stage so others can dance on it. I do wish I had more of those moments…

      Comment: Dale – 21. April 2009 @ 8:12 am

    8. Can the readers see how I think linking humanism with liberal politics is exclusive and divisive for the atheist community?
      To be a compassionate atheist, you don’t have to be a humanist.
      What’s wrong with the “atheist community” to be diverse and have a bunch of different factions in it? And I don’t necessary feel that humanism (even if equated with modern liberalism) has a monopoly on compassion.

      In my view, religion and humanism are orthogonal to each other. I could be a religious humanist or a secular humanist. You could be a religious libertarian or a secular libertarian.

      And different people prioritize the axes (religion/economics) differently (and often the priority changes during one’s life). I personally feel that I have way more in common with a liberal (religious) Christian than a secular (atheist) Objectivist. Clearly, other non-believers may feel differently.

      Comment: nonplus – 21. April 2009 @ 10:31 am

    9. Can the readers see how I think linking humanism with liberal politics is exclusive and divisive for the atheist community?
      To be a compassionate atheist, you don’t have to be a humanist.

      I’m assuming you meant “To be a compassionate atheist, you don’t have to be a liberal,” which is obviously true. Though most atheists do seem to be liberals, I haven’t really come across claims that they are necessarily linked. For one thing, I know too many libertarian atheists.

      If you really did mean “To be a compassionate atheist, you don’t have to be a humanist,” I’m guessing we’re operating under two different definitions of humanism. Mine is about mutual responsibility, naturalism, and creating the best possible life in the here and now for ourselves and others — things a “compassionate atheist” would seemingly accept without issue.

      Comment: Dale – 21. April 2009 @ 11:55 am

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