Representing Humanism: What do I Wear?

Stoles, robes and miters – oh my! Humanists have the worldview most solidly supported by evidence. We are masters and mistresses of the raised eyebrow, satire and wit streaming from our books and blogs. We are often decades ahead on the moral issues of the day.

But let’s face it: the religious have the best clothes.

For someone like me, raised on theatre and fantasy novels, dressing up is a passion. As I type this I am confronted with a bumper sticker my father gave to me in jest, bearing a quote from Thoreau: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”. I stuck this quote over my desk to remind me every day how much I disagree with it – for me, if an enterprise requires new clothes this is a serious boon!

That’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited about the Human Right’s Campaign’s Clergy Call for Equality and Justice. I will be attending as a Humanist Celebrant – apparently one of the first ever to attend the Clergy Call – lobbying congresspeople and senators for LGBTQ equality from the perspective of a committed Humanist. There are many intriguing questions raised by my attendance at the Clergy Call. Do I consider myself clergy? Should I be involved in this primarily faith-based effort when I profess no faith of my own? What is the role of a Humanist at a faith-based lobbying event?

But today, I’m addressing the most important query: what do I wear? On a recent conference call for attendees, the organizers stressed the importance of being visible and clearly identifying with one’s tradition. They asked for people to bring robes and stoles and hats and sashes to represent their faith. But what on earth does a Humanist wear to such a gathering?

First, let’s note the importance of ceremonial garb. Your clothes are a form of symbolic communication from yourself to other people. Consciously or not, you portray an image with whatever you wear. You cannot “opt out” of this symbolic messaging: if you pay no attention to your clothes, that’s a message. If you wear no clothes, that’s a message. Everything is significant. PeaceBang, of blog Beauty Tips for Ministers, understands this, saying “if we do not project an image intentionally, we will project one unconsciously.”

So we have to be conscious about our image when we are representing our tradition. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Humanism is a tradition – a rich intellectual and ethical tradition that deserves greater recognition. Perhaps fabulous clothes can help. PeaceBang suggests, “if clergypeople believe that religious life is vital, relevant and beautiful, they should look the part.” Well, if Humanist leaders feel that Humanist life is vital, relevant and beautiful, then we should look the part too. In fact we should look better. Because we can.

So what should we celebrants and Humanist leaders wear when representing Humanism? Some have already re-purposed religious garments for Humanist use – check out these wonderful stoles from Kit Wright, for example, which proudly bear the Happy Human. 

I rather like them, but I wonder if it is wise to adopt explicitly religious garments, which serve little secular purpose nowadays (academic regalia is rarely worn), for Humanist purposes. There is potential for serious misunderstanding and there is no doubt that members of our own community would react with consternation. Religious garments recall religious hierarchy, and hieararchy is something we should be wary of in Humanist communities. And we don’t want to look like a cult.

But this is no reason to have no distinguishing Humanist Celebrant garments – it’s simply a reason to be cautious and intelligent in their use. So what can / should Humanists wear when they are formally representing the Humanist worldview? My friends Stephen Goeman and Chris Stedman have suggested bowties, while I prefer a vest with a bright0colored shirt. What are your ideas?

Together, we can make Humanism look fabulous, and make PeaceBang proud!

About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.