The Ashes: A Humanist Sermon

Ashes

For those of us who believe in liberality and human progress, 2016 has been a terrible year. Our hopes for positive change, which for a time blazed so brightly, have collapsed into cinders. Now we’re faced with the prospect of a cold and dark season to come.

This year was a painful reminder that there’s no narrative to history, no inexorable trend toward redemption. History isn’t a smooth arc, but a jagged sawtooth, with dramatic drops and plunges. Atheists, especially, ought to know that there’s no wise planner in control of the world, no prophetic guarantees that all will be well in the end. There’s only us human beings, hobbled by our own ignorance, benighted by our own cruelty, divided from each other by our petty differences.

It’s not just America where many people’s hopes lie in ashes. Looking out at the headlines, it’s hard not to feel that a trend of disintegration is running wild, as if an irresistible centrifugal force is tearing at the world’s foundations. Europe is paralyzed, consumed by squabbling, beset with homegrown racism and xenophobia. Syria has been annihilated as a nation, its people scattered to the winds. It seems as if the only groups on the ascent are bigots, thugs, strongmen and fascist wannabes. Things fall apart, the center can’t hold.

Was all of this inevitable? Were there larger historical forces that nobody could have resisted, or is it a failing in us? Our ancestors fought greater evils and won. Were we not up to the task?

Speaking for myself, the worst blow is that my error may have been optimism. It’s possible that I was complacent because I assumed, wrongly, that Americans would reject a racist and misogynist egomaniac in a landslide. I believed that when people saw him for what he was, they’d want nothing to do with him. It’s a discouraging thought that my faith in humanity was badly misplaced.

The true causes of this collapse will assuredly be debated for decades by historians yet to come. For now, we need to ask ourselves: In this dark time, what’s a humanist to do? Do we give up on progress, retreat into our own friendly enclaves, turn away from the wider world? Do we surrender to bitterness, decide that compassion is futile and that people are beyond redemption? Or do we fight on – but if we do, how do we find the strength to persevere?

I won’t tell anyone what to do for the sake of their own sanity. I know that many of us need time to withdraw, regroup, catch our collective breath. I certainly do. And yet, we can’t allow our empathy to be extinguished. I believe that the humanist mission to do good continues, even in a seemingly heartless world. Whatever choices our neighbors make, they don’t negate the obligations that morality lays on us.

That being said, over the next few years, we have to temper our ambitions with realism. We’re in a triage situation now. There will be harms that we can’t prevent, and we have to direct our efforts to where they’ll do the most good.

And yes, I believe that this means we should give less weight to the concerns of those who voted against their interests and ours. The people who chose white supremacy and plutocracy over their own well-being, or who demand that the clock of history be rewound to a past era and won’t accept anything else – they’ll shortly suffer the consequences of their own decisions. We can’t help them, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, let’s focus on helping those who don’t disdain our assistance. Let’s find the people who need it and welcome it, and do what good we can for them, even if only in small ways. Let’s stand with immigrants, people of color, the downtrodden – all those who are under the greatest threat in this uncertain new world.

However long this dark season may last, there will always be bright spots, glowing embers among the ashes where goodness and hope smolder on. As humanists, we should make it our mission to become carriers of the flame. Whatever tempests blow, we have to cup our hands around that hope and keep it alive until the day, however far off it may be, when it can flare back into life and kindle a new light in the world.

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