© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Humanism 2009 (3 of 4)

Part 3 of an address to Edmonds UU Church in Edmonds, WA, April 19, 2009. This part will bore regular blog readers, since it’s stolen from an earlier post, which was in turn swiped from an article I wrote for Secular Nation. So y’all can play at the sand table while the rest of the class catches up.

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

Okay, let me spin a scenario here. Any resemblance of the characters in this scenario to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely intentional.

harrysally54090A young woman named Sally sees a notice in the paper about a local humanist organization. She has always considered herself a religious humanist, completely nontheistic but longing for human community that doesn’t require her to park her convictions at the door. One Sunday morning she decides to skip her mainstream church service and check it out.

Sally walks in the door of the meeting with a nervous smile. A few men are setting things up. No one acknowledges her. Ten minutes after milling about awkwardly, reading scattered pamphlets and counting ceiling tiles, she crosses paths with one of the men. “Visitor?” he asks. “Yes, I am, hello!” she replies. “Hello, good to meet you,” he says. “Help yourself to coffee and nametags over there.” And off he goes to set up the chairs.

Sally has just met Harry.

Secular humanists come in every color, gender, age and size, but after many years speaking and belonging to humanist groups, and at the serious risk of stereotyping, I’d say there is a prototypical secular humanist, and Harry is it. If the police were profiling secular humanists, the profile might read something like this:

Scientifically-oriented, well-read white male, late 60s/early 70s
Grey-to-white hair and beard
Driving mid-sized vehicle with multiple incendiary bumperstickers
Officers cautioned to expect an argument
Suspect may be armed with syllogisms

Aside from the car, they’re essentially looking for Socrates.

Harry is the backbone of organized secular humanism, and most secular humanists fit most of that profile. Harry was there when Madeleine Murray O’Hair challenged prayer in schools, and he’s still here, staffing the tables, giving the talks, bringing the cookies, and just showing up, even when the rest of us have turned into the humanist equivalents of Christmas and Easter Christians.

I love Harry. Without the dedication and courage of Harry and those like him, humanism and the freethought movement would never have made it this far.

But what do we need to do to move further? For one thing, we need to also serve the needs of people who are quite different from Harry.

Harry was a freethought pioneer because he did not have the same needs as most other people. He was able to leave the church behind because he was exceptional in this way. I’m with him on this. When people talk to me about the need for community or wax poetic about “something larger than myself” or seeking the “spiritual side” of life, frankly my eyes glaze over a bit. The truth is that I don’t feel these needs in quite the way I hear others express them. That puts me outside the norm — something I need to recognize.

As a result of our relative lack of the mammalian desire to snuggle, I and all the rest of those with Harry personalities get together and talk quite happily about science and truth and reason. It’s not me I’m worried about—it’s Sally, who has been standing awkwardly by the coffee urn for ten paragraphs now.

Desperate for something to do, she ambles over to a table of books for sale. Every book without exception is about science, philosophy, critical thinking, or the debunking of religion or the paranormal. She meekly drifts to a group in conversation. Some religious dogma or other is being debunked with a flurry of critical argument and a smug, chuckling sneer.

Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.

The meeting begins to coalesce. After a few announcements, the speaker is introduced. And what will our new visitor hear for the next 45 minutes? Here’s a quick sampling of recent meeting topics for humanist groups around the country:

Jesus of Nazareth—Historical, Mythical, or Some of Each?
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Revelation Trumped by the Constitution
The Enlightenment and the Self
Who Wrote the Gospels?
Church/State—Strict Separation or Accommodation?
Debate: “To Believe or Not to Believe”

I’m interested in every one of these topics. Of course I am—I’m Harry. But Sally, not so much. If she comes again and has the same experience—an indifferent reception, an atmosphere of critical disdain, and a debunking lecture—the third time will rarely be a charm.

I’ve heard it said that the comparison isn’t fair. Humanist groups don’t want to be churches. I’m comparing apples and oranges. But if our prospective members seem to be allergic to oranges, might it not be wise to take a closer look at them apples? Might it not be wise to think about what it is that people are really looking for, and to even look to traditional religion as potential inspiration?

A recent post I saw on a humanist discussion board summed this up 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.

[Continue to Part 4 (conclusion).]

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This was written on Monday, 04. May 2009 at 05:54 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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  1. I’m harry too. I’m just talking out loud here — I get that we need to be more welcoming to recent converts but I’m nervous about where this will lead. It’s like asking someone who is not funny to act funny. We may stumble. You say you love Harry. People love Harry because he is genuine and awkward and honest. Let’s not dress him in hip clothing and make him play in a rock band.

    Comment: recovergirl – 04. May 2009 @ 6:38 am

  2. Ahh, you anticipate Part 4, recovergirl! The original title of this article was “Reaching out to Harry and Sally.” UUs often trample Harry in their desire to appeal to Sally (from Part 4: “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.”) Freethought groups do the reverse. I seek the Middle Path. 🙂

    Comment: Dale – 04. May 2009 @ 6:43 am

  3. So i’m Harry, my husband is Sally and I want my kids to be humanists. I have a lot of work to do!

    Comment: megmcg – 04. May 2009 @ 10:43 am

  4. On your original “Harry and Sally” post, Sphagnum commented that “There’s been some recent discussion in Humanist groups along the lines of “where do all the women go?” (Apparently they join, but then never return).” Many churches, in my experience, have the same problem getting men to stay.

    I am a blend of Harry and Sally, and that is every bit as baffling as it sounds. I have Harry weeks, when I read about science and religion and savor a good debunking argument, when I just can’t wait to drive an hour to the informal monthly A&A meeting at Professor Java’s and swap deconversion stories with whoever I end up sitting next to this week, and talk about that cool evolution special on NatGeo and how awesome is Richard Dawkins and who’s going to AHS to counter-protest Fred Phelps.

    Then I have Sally weeks, when I get nostalgic for my church even though I won’t go back, light a candle and stare into it moodily, read verses from the Dhammapada every morning, browse Witchvox for articles on season celebrations even though I don’t believe in gods, shell out for a yoga class where I can sort of filter all the chakra-talk as metaphor while getting some relaxing workout in a candlelit room, and take walks in the cemetery while pondering life and death.

    This is a constant cycle for me and I think it will always be that way.

    The one group where both my Harry side and my Sally side are happy and content is my writing group.

    Comment: Michelle Galo – 04. May 2009 @ 1:14 pm

  5. I’ll also think out loud here, and I’ll base this on the stereotypes in Dale’s post because I think there is some truth in them.

    In most everyday situations, I am Harry all the way. Even so, my personality is a weird mix of both depending on the setting and whether or not alcohol is served. I don’t usually care for attending group or community events at all, it just isn’t my thing. If for some reason I have any desire to do so, however, I want it to be pleasant.

    While the Harrys can put together some extremely thoughtful and provoking presentations, as far as community goes, the Sallys have it right IMHO. Looking forward to #4.

    Comment: lneely – 04. May 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  6. I think of Harry as the mind, and Sally as the heart. Both need nourishment. I have no problem feeding my mind; I read constantly and think critically. The challenge is finding time and dedicating myself to feeding my heart, which requires more coordination and effort. This is what feeds my heart: sitting quietly (meditation is attractive for that reason), being outdoors, and enjoying the company of people talking about things other than intellectual stuff, usually a board game and a good meal.

    Comment: kathryn – 04. May 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  7. keep that list close at hand, Kathryn, for a post later this week on transcendence of the everyday…

    Comment: Dale – 04. May 2009 @ 4:13 pm

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