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.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture 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 is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student 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.

  • Jim Farmelant

    Those sorts of attacks are deplorable, and remind me of the sort of flack from certain atheist bloggers that was direct against Greg Epstein, when he was putting on his New Humanism Conference four years ago. I am sorry to say that some of the people who were most vociferous in criticizing Greg were connected to the Center For Inquiry.

    There is, as you well know, long been a division within the humanist movement between those who identify as religious humanists and those who identify as secular humanists. This division has a long history, which can be traced back to the 19th century, and is probably not going away anytime soon. I don’t think the existence of such a division within the humanist movement is necessarily a bad thing. It seems to me that sort of conflict is a rather healthy thing, reflecting the fact that people come to humanism for a variety of reasons. I suspect that Sherwin Wine was correct in his assessment of the reasons why many people become humanists and atheists. A subset of these people do so because they have been hurt in some way by organized religion. They are quite properly angry over this and, unfortunately, some of these people direct their anger against people who actually share very similar views to themselves, thereby, creating unnecessary rancor within the movement.

  • TempleoftheFuture

    Insightful as always, Jim. I agree that a certain amount of conflict and debate within Humanism is extremely healthy, and entirely in-keeping with Humanist principles. But the tone and tenor of that debate should, I think, be informed by the fact that we agree on almost everything! We mustn’t be overcome by the narcissism of small differences. That way lies factionalism and complete cultural irrelevance.

  • Isabel

    I think of this particular category of “wounded” as “unrecovered” — not to pick a fight over terminology, I assure you! — but because their wounds are so sharp and so raw that they cannot see past them, sometimes in surprising ways. (Like that capital H — good grief!!)

    That once described me. I had terrible wounds from religion, but I like to think I’m pretty well-recovered from them. I am still aware of those wounds, but they no longer speak for me; they help me understand others’ outbursts, but don’t motivate me at all, not at all.

    So I’m wounded, but recovered … and now I get to enjoy the most delightful conversations on topics that, once, would have had me chewing holes in steel. Without novocaine. Heading in the wrong direction.

    (drily) Trauma often precedes recovery; meaning, recovery is optional, but not always available. I like the idea that humanism (however you capitalize it) can provide both a relatively safe haven, and a rationalistic environment, that would create an opportunity for self-analysis and self-insight — the most essential prerequisites for healing & recovery.

    I’m a bit disconcerted by the implication that the way to handle the “unrecovered/wounded” is to shut them out or shut them up. Tempting, but probably not realistic. Psychologically, the recovery emphasis is on behavior: it’s made clear that questions should be on point, or near it anyway; and anyone who would disrupt a speaker’s session over a capital letter does not need to be in that session. They can have a decaf latte and bitch about it outside instead; that’s appropriate. Or make notes for their own future session on the perilous importance o’ capitalization… and realize that it’s going nowhere. A learning moment!

    But the psychological approach goes nowhere in a humanist context, where you only introduce limits on behavior — especially speech — at your peril. We are nothing if not passionate about open debate. I love it, but I agree with Jim and TotF that it’s quite possible to do disproportionate damage by ripping at details.

    Within the compassionate, socially aware, and thoroughly decent Temple you’re constructing, I can absolutely see recovery happening — the combination of reasonable support and reflection are inherently there. But, you’re right, it seems rather rare to find it in some humanist environs; the emphasis on rationality seems, at times, to slice past lively debate and bleed all too easily into a hyper-critical frame of mind which is counterproductive — both to your goal of creating an inviting place, and to my eternal hope for places and philosophies and societies that make it easier to recover, not easier to feel attacked.

    Today’s Snoopy’s-happy-dance inducer:
    “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.”

    I should probably trim this up but I’m too woozy at the moment. Forgive the rambles and accept my hearty “break a leg” for your presentation.

  • TempleoftheFuture

    Thanks for your comment Isabel! As usual, it gives me a lot to think about. I do want to clarify that it was not my intention to imply that we should shut out or shut up those who still have unhealed wounds from religion. Far from it. Rather, as you suggest, I think the task is to find mechanisms which include people, however wounded they might be, and provide a place where real healing can take place, without that process disrupting the experience of others who are in a different place too much.

    How to do this I’m not sure, but being able to frame the problem in this way certainly helps!

  • Kaleena

    Not spam :) Awseome things happened tonight. Good thing we have a picture of where it all started.

  • LucienBlack

    I encountered your defenses of Chris Stedman over at Butterflies and Wheels, and found this site through that. Poking around here, I like what you’re doing, and am highly intrigued by it (though I confess, I seem to lack the artistic mind to truly appreciate or understand your posts on the Sacred Harp– something my wife despairs about). Thank you.

    On this post, I confess that in some ways I do see myself as one of the “wounded.” The religious restrictions I faced growing up shaped a personality that has sometimes made it difficult to speak up and out about issues I believe in, and I still shake and sweat during any face to face confrontation. My emotions go back and forth between the anger you describe, and a more rational interest. Thus, it’s good to see someone who is as passionate as you give every evidence of being, who writes with such eloquence to express that passion, working towards giving all humanists a chance to grow together. Keep it up, please, and I hope someday to shake your hand. You show me hope.

  • TempleoftheFuture

    LucienBlack, thank you so much for your comment. It is hugely moving to me to see that my writing is being read and appreciated by thoughtful people like yourself. I hope you’ll stick around and comment some more, especially as we start to offer resources for building Humanist communities here o the site!

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