American Humanism: Time to Cross the Threshold

On Sunday 10th the American Humanist Association’s 70th Annual Conference drew to a close. What did this convocation of American Humanists (and important visitors from around the world) reveal about the state of Humanism in America?

It showed that American Humanism is brimming with potential. And it showed that we must work hard to fulfill it.

The possibilities are a function of the time. For too long society’s door has been shut in the face of the nonreligious in America. We have been kept out of politics, unable to declare our beliefs honestly, knowing that to do so would mean electoral suicide. We have been subjected to baseless attacks by idiot pundits who blame the nonreligious for natural disasters and societal breakdown. In some parts of the country atheists fear employment discrimination and even find the search for love stymied by their lack of faith. The New Atheists, with their sharp rhetoric and uncompromising stance have shoved open this door, enabling nonreligious people to stand tall and declare themselves. “Religious morality is too often deficient and dangerous”, they have said, “and nonreligious people can be just as moral as believers.” And they’re right.

But now it is critical to step across the threshold. Already, the wave of interest in atheism spurred by the “four horsemen” and others is fading – the crest is already past. As the public’s attention turns elsewhere, the door they have opened is slowly swinging shut. We have a closing window of opportunity in which to establish real ethical communities of nonbelievers, and perhaps capture a significant percentage of the religious “nones” who comprise the fastest growing “religious” demographic in America.

The possibility Humanism represents is the potential for the creation of communities guided by more humane values than those which animate the broader culture. In a racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, transphobic society, Humanists might create sanctuaries in which equality, justice, liberty and love reign supreme. In a society in which the voices of the repressive right speak loudest and most stridently, Humanism holds forth the promise of a progressive counterweight which could punch back at those who buttress inequality, foment fear, and preach hatred. Humanist communities – real communities, with dedicated spaces, effective leadership and an inspiring message – could revitalize American civic life and alter American politics.

It’s an intoxicating vision, and one which clearly appeals to increasing numbers of Humanists. Responses to my talk (on the need for art, ritual and narrative when building Humanist communities), to the panel on Humanist Chaplains, and to Sean Faircloth’s call for a “Secular Decade” show that large numbers of Humanists want something more concrete and active than the meetup groups and debating societies that we already provide with such panache. The voices of the “wounded” (as I described here) were less noticeable than at last year’s, which I hope is due to some healing!

But none of our dreams for Humanism will come true if we remain content with attacking religion and superstition. It is not enough to dismantle priestcraft and wizardry. A world without superstition might be epistemologically preferable, but it is not necessarily ethically preferable. Atheism is compatible with goodness (and this is an important message to ram home for those who haven’t yet digested it) but does not guarantee goodness. We need to supplement our atheism with naturalistic values, and we need to act on those values. Too often Humanists give the impression that the ethical task is done once the “correct” ethical principles have been derived. But, as many philosophers have reminded us, to know the good is not to love the good or to do the good. Building communities which help us do good, as well as talk about what is good, is an essential nest step for American Humanists.

This does not mean that we should stop attacking religious privilege, or that the principled critique of the role of faith in society must end. Far from it: strong Humanist communities will enable us to present our arguments against the dangers of faith ever more effectively. Friends like Ophelia Benson do important work in holding faithful feet to the fire. But we must also recognize the efforts of those who promote our cause in other ways. Chris Stedman, who works tirelessly to promote Humanism in interfaith circles (and who has met with significant success), is an ally in our endeavor to achieve greater recognition for the nonreligious, and deserves our respect even from those who disagree with aspects of his work. We need to learn to work together as a movement, and keep our disagreements dignified, with the presumption of good faith (hah) on both sides. The phony war between “firebrands” and “accommodation” must end, for all our sakes.

If we can pull together in this way, if we can organize effectively despite our differences, if we are willing to dream big and work hard, American Humanism could cross the threshold and become a real social movement with the chance of bringing significant change to this country. America is desperate for a secular, progressive, positive political voice. Humanism could be that voice. I think that’s something worth fighting for. As Greg Epstein suggested at the conference, now is the time to sing, and to build. It is time for a full-throated Humanism with strong foundations. Prepare your voice, and prepare your hands: we have songs to sing, and communities to build.

"Bullseye on all accounts, much needed."

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