Models for our Movement: Let’s Get Religious

“We, as atheists, are on the cusp of a new civil rights movement.” So said Ellenbeth Wachs, former president of Atheists of Florida, before launching into a version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which references to African Americans were replaced with references to nonbelievers. “America has given the atheists a bad check”, she declaimed. “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of religious justice!”

Wachs’ display was an extreme example, but it is surprisingly common for even prominent secular leaders to draw casual parallels between the secular movement and the civil rights movement. Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (a fantastic organization for which I have the utmost respect), made such a comparison in an article regarding the role of atheists in interfaith work:

“It’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge [atheists'] existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can “pass.””

The reference to segregated water fountains and racial passing confirms Lindsay’s view that, in some sense, there is a meaningful analogy to be drawn between the African American civil rights struggle and the position of atheists in the USA in the 21st Century.

More frequently, it is the LGBTQ movement which has been used as the yardstick by which strategies to advance secular goals are measured. We are told, again and again, that atheists must “come out of the closet“, and thousands of words have been written on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBTQ movement. The comparison has now become a commonplace: it is impossible to visit an atheist conference without hearing numerous references to they gay movement and its suggested similarities with the atheist movements. The comparison has even reached mainstream literature: “Atheism, I realize,” opines a character in Sing You Home (Jodi Picoult’s latest book), “is the new gay.”

The desire to find ways to compare our fledgling movement to other historical movements is understandable. As the secular movement grows and gains power, and as we raise our aspirations, our need to organize effectively to achieve our goals becomes more pressing. It is natural that we look to other social movements for inspiration and guidance, and frequently the comparisons made and the lessons drawn are extremely valuable. Greta Christina’s talk on Atheism and the LGBT movement is an excellent example of an intelligent analysis yielding valuable strategic advice for atheists who seek to engage in effective activism. Often, however, comparisons to other movements skip over essential differences while leaving other potential models unexamined.

In my view, the closest parallel to the Humanist movement (which I see as distinct, to a degree, from the atheist movement), is not the civil rights struggle, or the fight for LGBTQ liberation, but religious movements which have sought acceptance, understanding and growth for their religious creed, practice or identity. This may seem a stretch: how can an explicitly nonreligious movement like Humanism be compared fruitfully with movements defined most significantly by their religious character? But I think the comparison is apt and valuable.

Consider:

  1. Humanism is a lifestance which orients an individual or community toward a set of values and metaphysical commitments, in the same way a religious worldview does.
  2. Humanism is an ethical practice which encourages those who adhere to it to act in accordance with their highest ideals, just as a religious creed is expected to affect the choices of a believer.
  3. Humanists, although anti-authoritarian and wary of proselytizing, nonetheless seek the widest possible acceptance of Humanist principles in order to promote human welfare, just as many religious traditions seek to spread their faith.
  4. Modern Humanism has traditionally sought to develop a Humanist society by affecting legislation at the local, national and, ultimately, international levels, making it a movement with political aspirations in a similar way to many more activist religious movements.
  5. Humanists currently face distrust, misunderstanding, and sometimes outright discrimination in ways which are similar (though not identical) to the distrust and misunderstanding faced by many minority religious communities (such as Catholics historically, or Mormons and Muslims today).
  6. Minority religious groups often face a complex interwoven network of oppressive practices, ranging from attacks on their identity and values (such as stereotyping: “atheists are unpatriotic and unprincipled”), de jure discrimination (atheists barred from legally hold office in some states, even if those laws are unconstitutional), de facto discrimination (the inability of atheists to achieve public office even if they are legally allowed to hold it), and social prejudice (African American atheists finding it difficult to find a date).

If my analysis is at all convincing, and it is in fact minority religious movements which provide the most accurate model for understanding the challenges of 21st Century Humanism, then this leads to a number of strategic conclusions.

First, we might recognize that we have rather more allies among the religious than we currently imagine. Maligned minority religions who, as I have argued, face many of the same challenges, could be allies in our quest for respect and acceptance. This, I believe, is what makes Chris Stedman’s outreach to the Muslim community so effective: he has correctly identified legitimate overlapping areas of concern and is able to articulate shared challenges in a non-threatening and welcoming manner. The result? He is able to bring together coalitions of religious and non-religious people to stand up for common recognition and respect. We might learn much from institutions like Park 51, which seek to provide the world with interfaith settings informed by a particular faith perspective, enabling minority traditions (here Islam) to present their values in a way which highlights the commonalities between their worldview and others’. I see no reason why Humanist community centers might not take a similar tack.

Second, we benefit from identifying the core problem Humanists face today: we suffer not so much from a lack of rights (as was the case with African Americans), nor from the perception that we are fundamentally perverted (as was, and too often still is, the case with LGBTQ people), but from a lack of trust. People don’t know many Humanists, don’t know what we stand for, and are suspicious that we don’t share their core values – just as some were once widely suspicious of Catholics and are still, to some degree, suspicious of Muslims and Mormons (that distrust is a key factor in anti-atheist prejudice seems to be confirmed by this study).

This means that anything we can do to build trust will target our most significant weakness: interfaith service work, ad campaigns which stress our positive values (not just inchoate “goodness” and certainly not just godlessness), and personal narratives which show that Humanists are just like everyone else could all do wonders for our movement (the single best current example of the latter strategy is the exceptional “I’m a Mormon” campaign).

Most important, and the primary impetus for my work on the Humanist Community Project, we should seek to develop a more congregational model than hitherto. No less an atheist authority than Greta Christina argues that:

“we’ve done an excellent job of providing online communities for atheists. But we haven’t done as good a job at providing in- the- flesh support networks to replace the churches/ synagogues/ mosques/ covens/ etc., and the sense of belonging and common purpose they provide…I’d like to encourage the leaders of [student] groups to continue that kind of community work — even after you leave school. I’d like to encourage you to carry that work into the non- college- and- university world.”

The suggestion that we create real communities which provide the “sense of belonging and common purpose” that are frequently provided by religious communities is, I think, exactly right. Such communities not only serve valuable individual purposes, but also serve as staging grounds for the activism which will be required to meet the challenges we currently face.

Successful religious movements which move into the cultural mainstream can do so by building strong local communities which they then use as a base for outreach. They grow their numbers at the local level, make themselves known to the wider community through civil engagement with them, promote understanding of their creed by opening the doors to outsiders and offering educational programs, and gradually humanize their adherents. By contrast, the Humanist movement is currently headed by a relatively large number of national organizations with few strong local communities to provide them with a meaningful constituency – we’ve put the cart before the horse. Our primary project now, I believe, is to build real local communities where Humanists can explore and deepen their commitment to Humanist values, and educate their local area. A Humanist Alpha Course would be a fantastic start, allowing people to learn more about Humanists and Humanism within a passionate, welcoming environment.

Finally, and as I’ve sought to demonstrate throughout this post, it’s likely that, if the comparison between minority religious groups and Humanists is at all valuable, we could learn an awful lot from how religious groups promote themselves and conduct their activism. While it would be easy to avoid all practices engaged in by religious groups out of squeamishness and reluctance to be seen as “just another religion”, I contend that this would be a catastrophic error. Many minority religious groups have made huge gains due to the sort of strategies outlined here, and it would simply be foolish to pass up effective organizing practices simply because they originated in or are primarily associated with religion.

In my mind, while we might learn a lot from the civil rights and LGBTQ movements, we have a lot more to gain from getting religious.

It should go without saying, but just in case, a postscript: Humanism is not in any traditional sense a “religion”. I do not believe it would be valuable or effective to present Humanism as a religion. I use the term “getting religious” in a metaphorical sense, by which I mean looking to what effective religious communities have done to promote their values and message, and adapting those practices to our purposes when appropriate.