My Interview with Monica Miller

As we prepare for the second annual Humanism at Work conference, I’ve been interviewing the speakers we have lined up. The first interview was with Monica Miller, Assistant Professor of Religion & Africana Studies and Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Lehigh University. The theme of this year’s conference is #blacklivesmatter: listen, learn, think, discuss, act and Monica, unsurprisingly, has a lot to say on the subject. I especially like her answers to these questions:

2. What role do you think social justice, and especially the fight for racial equality, should play in secularism/humanism?

Well, it depends on how a person understands those terms. If secularism/humanism is principally concerned with rejecting belief in a higher power, then it has the potential to become just as problematic as the “religious” perspectives. But if secularism is understood to be a rejection of ideologies and beliefs that short circuit life options, and if humanism is defined as a privileging of humanity, then the fight for racial equality is a vital component of such an orientation towards life. So from my perspective, the only secularisms/humanisms worth their salt will not simply be marginally concerned with the marginal, but will situate racial equality as absolutely central to their values, mission, etc.

3. What do you think secular/humanist organizations can do to foster more diversity, both within our communities and in the broader society?

Accept uncertainty and stop worrying so much about “god.” God remains just as powerful in its ability to shape the social life of humanists and atheists if those lives simply revolve around fighting against a boogie man that isn’t going away anytime soon. If these organizations are humanist, then privilege human life. Doing a good job at this will necessarily bring about a degree of uncertainty—so let’s embrace it. I’ve written about what I call “outlaw humanism,” brands of humanism that don’t necessarily look like what we imagine about humanism, but that are concerned to critically examine the world and fight for the worth of all of us. Making space for non-traditional forms of humanism in our midst is important, and so is the uncertainty thing, because if we do it well, then we won’t be making space within “our” movement, or making “our” movements and organizations better. Rather, getting better on the diversity front means realizing that these movements aren’t “ours” to begin with. To the extent they are humanist, then they belong to those who put human lives first. Coming to terms with letting go of our need to control the identities of our organizations, a hard task, nevertheless is central to making these organizations more diverse.

I think this is spot on. This is why, more and more, I’ve been setting atheism aside and focusing on humanism, both in terms of building communities and in terms of focusing my own activism.

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  • eric

    I’ve written about what I call “outlaw humanism,” brands of humanism that don’t necessarily look like what we imagine about humanism, but that are concerned to critically examine the world and fight for the worth of all of us.

    Wikipedia tells me that what she’s talking about is actually the original humanism of Greek and Roman philosophy, which today is encapsulated in the terms humanitarianism and the humanities. Having a humanist philosophy meant being a humanitarian and/or being educated in the humanities; it had little or nothing to do with rejection of God. So in some ways the gnus are going right back to the roots of humanism; it means be a humanitarian, which is pretty close to Ms. Miller’s “put humans first” idea. Secular humanism would, then, be being a humanitarian without any religious motivation or purpose. That seems like a pretty good fit or description of what you’re going for, Ed.