The Beacon of Humanism – Beacon for Whom?

I love Humanism and I love my Humanist Community. When I say “Humanism”, I certainly mean the philosophical position, which I describe as a life stance which rests on two “feet”. First, the back foot, planted firmly in the soil: a rejection of the supernatural as an explanation for human experience. Second, the front foot, striding confidently forward: the promotion of a positive ethical stance which asserts the dignity and equality of every human person.

But to me, Humanism is much more than this. To me, Humanism is a passionate commitment to a vision of society in which all humankind can achieve their full potential while contributing to the greater good of humanity. To me, Humanism is living in a way consistent with my values, fighting against sexism, racism, sexual prejudice, poverty and all forces which dehumanize and demean people. And to me, Humanism is a community of like-minded people who work together toward those aims, and a fellowship of friends which helped me come to terms with my sexuality and accept myself as a gay man after ten years of struggle.

So when I say I am a Humanist, I mean far more than that I do not believe in God. Humanism is a visionary commitment to a better world, in which the emancipation of all humankind is not an abstraction but a reality.

And this is why I’m wary of Humanist conferences. Because too often they fail to live up to the ideal of Humanism that I have in my head, and that is increasingly expressed in the Humanist Community at Harvard.

Sam Harris argued, in a 2007 speech to the Atheist Alliance, that “in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms… as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.”

This trap, I fear, awaits Humanists as much as atheists. So it’s always with slight trepidation that I prepare to attend yet another Humanist conference in a hotel ballroom, the American Humanist Association’s 70th annual conference, this time entitled “The Beacon of Humanism”. This year, the hotel is the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, a swanky location overlooking the Charles River, so I’m sure the ballrooms are just fabulous. And the proximity to Harvard shows in the fantastic lineup of speakers and honorees. But I’m still somewhat unsure as to what to expect.

Sherwin Wine, a founding father of Humanistic Judaism (and mentor to Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard), expressed the source of my uncertainty well in a speech at the New Humanism conference a few years back, also held in Boston.  Wine was speaking about the problem of gathering  to Humanism generally secular individuals who have no antipathy to religion, and who even might identify with a particular religion for cultural reasons.

In the course of his speech he introduced the concept of “the wounded” – individuals who have been hurt by religion and who turn to Humanism as a way to demonstrate their displeasure, even hatred, of that which wounded them. He said:

“The Humanist world, for a long time, gathered the wounded. It gathered the people who were wounded by the “other side”. Some terrible experience in the Roman Catholic Church, some terrible experience in the Muslim world, whatever it be. But the reality is that most of the people, certainly in the western world and in other parts, are not…hostile to religion…Their behavior has been secularized…but they don’t even mind answering [that they belong to a religious tradition]…They belong to us, but we don’t know how to reach them. We know how to collect the wounded, but we don’t know how to collect the other. Because when they show up, they don’t like the meetings of the wounded. The meetings of the wounded are: “There is no God! There is no God! Grrrrrr!” And they’re turned off.”

And often, at conferences such as this, the wounded come out in droves.  Believe me – I’ve seen it. A small but noticeable minority of the attendees at atheist and Humanist conferences (a group varying in size depending on which organization is holding the conference) display real anger, a sense of bitterness and rage, usually directed toward religion, but sometimes directed towards other conference-goers who disagree with them on some truly minor point. I once saw an argument explode over whether the “H” in “Humanism” should be capitalized, and the speaker, who had been interrupted in full flow, never got to finish their speech.

At the AHA conference last year (a wonderful event for the most part) I sometimes did feel like I was part of a “cranky sub-culture” and a “marginal interest group”. I witnessed a number of exchanges during sessions which I thought were deeply unseemly, involving finger-pointing and yelling, and in one case an interaction which I thought might turn into real physical violence. I have heard at other conferences the most astonishing bigotry directed toward the religious (there really is no other word), the most dumbfounding dogmatism, and frightful ignorance regarding both religion and science. And it does our movement a disservice.

Further, I have seen the nonreligious community tear itself apart over minor “doctrinal” differences, such as how to engage with the religious. The sort of personal attacks and unthinking criticism lobbed at my friend and colleague Chris Stedman for simply trying to engage the religious in dialog boggle the mind, and besmirch our movement.

So I ask today, the day before this year’s AHA Annual Conference, if this “Beacon of Humanism” is calling primarily to the “wounded” or to the secularized “other” Wine describes. Certainly, our movement should be big enough for both groups. But if the voices of the wounded predominate, others will be driven away, and our movement will not be presented in its best light.

Wine, describing the danger that the most strident of the “wounded” represent, said “If you get sufficiently self-righteous, you can exclude almost everybody.” Tomorrow and this weekend, we should not be looking to exclude. The Beacon of Humanism is a call to all humankind – let’s be welcoming.

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