Hip-Hop can help Humanism

NPS veteran contributor Stephen Goeman wrote yesterday about how atheists can find inspiration in Kanye West. Here are a few choice excerpts (thought you ought to read the whole piece):

Kanye’s lyrics and writing have more obvious relevancies to nonreligious life. Dr. Monica Miller has identified a tendency in hip-hop for artists to use Christian vocabulary to both critique religious institutions and lift up the mortal rappers to deity status as “Outlaw Humanism” (“outlaw” because these characteristics deviate from how Humanism is typically represented in its white academic context). Outlaw Humanism acts as a new creative mode of criticizing religious practices.

While these motifs of self-direction translate pretty easily into Humanism (dismantling an oppressive force while revering human life and understanding its fragility is an edgier Humanist manifesto), it’s important that we don’t paint over Kanye’s blatant Christianity. Kanye is arguably the most visible Christian in Western pop-culture, and references his devotion routinely in his music (“I am a God/ Even though I’m a man of God,” “We love Jesus,” “I pray you will,” all of “Jesus Walks”)

That Outlaw Humanism is so easily identified in Kanye’s very Christian corpus of music shows how fertile the ground for inter-religious dialogue is between modern Christianity and secular identities. We need to seek out people like Kanye who not only create stimulating art, but speak on a deep level to existential truths we feel. The differences in theological belief, while important, do not render these truths uninterpretable.

I’m a little disappointed that some readers were quick to dismiss the idea that Kanye West might provide something that atheists and humanists could find valuable. I have a hard time seeing how we can fight the old-white-man club vibe that atheism gives off when we can’t even be receptive to ideas like this.

Right on cue, Chris Stedman published this fantastic interview with Monica Miller (who was cited in Stephen’s piece). She immediately recognizes this problem:

One important thing hip-hop can do for Humanists is dislodge us from our preconceived notions about what a “Humanist” is, what a “Humanist” looks like, and what a “Humanist” might care about. I hope to disrupt—perhaps in good hip-hop or Humanist fashion—the preconceived notions about Humanism and who it “belongs” to.

At times rightly and at other times wrongly, Humanism has been regarded as decidedly white, affluent, and male. But I think Humanism can grow in size and social impact if we open up our ledgers to include sorts of Humanism we might not expect, such as the “outlaw Humanists”—people either outlawed by the larger society for ideological reasons, or outlawed by Humanist camps for not easily fitting into traditional definitions of Humanist or atheist.

I’d love for us to foster a culture here where we can look for inspiration and ideas beyond, as Stephen incisively put it, what we hear in lectures or read in Salon articles. Miller writes:

I’ll be blunt. Where race is concerned, Humanist organizations look a whole lot more like white Christian churches than they do places of mutual intellectual, civic, and social exchange and uplift. If members want membership to grow or change, actually do something about it.

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