For the past six months or so I’ve been working with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard to develop the Humanist Community Project: an initiative to bring Humanist, skeptic, atheist and freethinking groups together to share their group-building insights for the common good of all. Today, with great excitement, we have launched the new website which will be the hub of this project: a community blog with practical advice and inspirational guidance for developing, strengthening, diversifying and growing freethinking communities everywhere. You can find an introduction to the project here. We already have contributions from across the movement, including Humanist communities like ours at Harvard, Camp Quest, a Secular Jewish Chaplain, an Ethical Culture leader, and a Unitarian Universalist Humanist. We intend to offer frequent updates featuring voices from all areas of the freethinking community, demonstrating that freethinking is a broad and diverse movement with much to offer people.
The reason I care about this project, and why I have been working with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard on this project for some time, is because I believe the time for Humanism has come. When I moved from the UK to the USA four years ago, I was struck immediately by the extraordinary influence of religion on US society. I encountered, for the first time, someone who had literally never met a nonreligious person, and who was incredulous at the idea that someone can live a good life without religion.
As I got more involved with the Humanist Chaplaincy, I came into contact with egregious examples of discrimination and bigotry against nonreligious people, such as the person I met at the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association who attended meetings but would refuse to appear photographs because he feared that, if his coworkers discovered he was a Humanist, he would be fired from his job.
I couldn’t help noticing, too, that it is impossible to be elected to high office in this country as an atheist – a position that has recently been reaffirmed by the extraordinarily bigoted statements and TV ads by Republican contenders for their party’s nomination which actively deride nonreligious people.
At around the same time as I was becoming more embedded in the Humanist community at Harvard, I came out of the closet and accepted myself as gay. This was an extremely significant personal moment, and was partly made possible by the Humanist community I was lucky to have surrounding me. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by people who – because of their Humanist values – I knew would be accepting of me that I was able to finally accept myself, after ten years of struggle. I conquered the last of my inner demons during a service trip with the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, so I can honestly say that being in a Humanist community changed my life.
As I began to fuse my Humanist activism with gay rights work, I once again came face to face with religious privilege, in the form of the consistent attacks and disparagement leveled at queer people by many religious communities.
All this means that Humanism is far more than an intellectual position or philosophy for me. It is a way of life, an ethical tradition and practice to which I am committed to my very core. I powerfully believe that if the world were more Humanist it would also be very much better for billions of people. And, believing this, I want to do everything I can to bring about the day (as Ingersoll put it),
“when society shall cease producing millionaires and mendicants – gorged indolence and famished industry – truth in rags, and superstition robed and crowned… when REASON, throned upon the world’s brain, shall be the King of Kings, and God of Gods.”
That is why I started this blog, why I work for the Chaplaincy, and why I have worked for months to bring the Humanist Community Project to fruition.
The Humanist Community Project matters because only with living, activist Humanist communities will we be able to have the impact in the world that our creed demands and deserves. To achieve the triumph of reason and compassion Ingersoll speaks of will require, in my view, committed Humanist communities which are passionate and powerful enough to challenge the vested interests of tradition, superstition, and the worst aspects of religion, which promote inhumane values and unreason.
Looking at the current political landscape, I can’t help but feel that these communities do not yet exist. We are not yet the powerful lobbying and activist force that will be needed to take on those who oppose us.
Indeed, in my judgment we are losing ground. The religious right is resurgent, and has consistently been able to take over the language of values and decency and twist it to their own purposes. They have been so successful, over such a long period of time, in colonizing the language of value that even the very word “values” has a right-wing tinge to it in some American ears.
I think we desperately need a countervailing force in US and world politics – a secular, progressive voice that lobbies consistently for broadly Humanist principles in the face of concerted opposition that seeks to turn the clock back and make our society less humane, less decent, and less reasonable. I think Humanist communities – real communities , not just discussion groups or pub brunches – could come to be that force.
Further, I believe (along with numerous scholars in various disciplines all through recorded history) that human beings have real “existential” needs that don’t go away once they stop being religious. The need to spend time in community with others who share their values; the need to explore meaning in their life; the need to mark significant life events; the need for support in dark times; the need for beauty and passionate engagement with others.
Religious institutions have traditionally provided a venue for satisfying such needs, with the obvious caveat that they have also, in some cases, caused enormous misery and grief (this is not to say that many affirming and wonderful religious communities don’t exist – they do, I’ve visited them).
Although most of these needs can be fulfilled piecemeal by various existing secular institutions, there aren’t many spaces – I mean physical spaces (preferably architecturally stunning) on high streets or country roads – where secular Humanists can come together to share, explore and deepen their understanding of what it means to be a human being and a Humanist.
Sure, you can join a book club or meet friends in a pub, and these are great things to do. But if you feel rootless and alone, if you feel your sense of direction is lacking, if you feel like you don’t have a cause larger than yourself, if you don’t know how to make a difference, if you want to discuss difficult topics like death or love or the future, if you want to mark the turning of the seasons of the powerful events in the cycle of your life, where do you go? Some might have a ready answer to this question – good for you! But it is my experience that many people do not. They want such a space – I cannot count the number of people who have told me so – but they can’t find one.
But all around the USA attempts are being made to provide such spaces. The attempts are often small-scale, underfunded, and disconnected with other such groups, but also vibrant, exciting, fresh. From Freethought ‘churches’ in Texas to , there are little civic innovations springing up trying to give nonreligious people some of the same benefits that religious people can expect in almost any city they move to. And people are coming.
These places are not “cults” or “weird” or “pseudo-religions” – they are simply innovative attempts to harness the best bits of religious communities for nonreligious purposes, often established by deep-thinking people who have thought hard about how to avoid the pitfalls of organized religion and about the demands of Humanist communities.
So to the Humanist Community Project. We want to help out these efforts. That’s basically the whole idea. We want to research what works by going to visit such spaces – the best secular student groups, community organizations, skeptics groups etc. – interviewing leaders and members, and writing about what they’re doing which makes them so successful.
Then we want to disseminate this information widely so that other groups can share in the success. We intend to do this through publishing books and guides, educational resources, websites, blogging, digital resources, training sessions for those who want them, etc. The vast majority of these resources will be free. We have already conducted a survey of existing resources to ensure there isn’t too much overlap and that we don’t step on people’s toes.
We also want to allow these communities to showcase themselves and their work in their own words, using our blog and magazine to host their work. Thus they can tell us what they think they’re doing brilliantly, and other groups can learn from that.
In essence what we hope to produce is a collaborative expression of the collective wisdom of hundreds of Humanist communities across the world, so that every group can become as successful as the best group. Sharing our organizational wealth.
That way, we hope, these groups will become more and more fantastic, each inspiring the other, until we have large numbers of thriving, passionate, activist Humanist communities with big memberships.
Then the fun begins – because when the lobbyists from Center for Inquiry or the Secular Coalition for America go to lobby on our behalf, they will be able to point back to all these active, large communities – and religious people who share our fundamental humanitarian values – and say “these are the voters who have our back”. And that will mean actual change for us – no more creationism in schools, no more attacks on a woman’s right to choose, no more Proposition 8s.
That’s the dream.
Truly, the Humanist Community Project is about all of us – all human beings. It is an endeavor to work out how to grow and supercharge existing communities of Humanists to ensure we have a greater impact on the world stage than we have currently, and to defeat those forces who would demonize us, silence us, and impose their views upon us. It is a project that would benefit from your support. Visit now.