The fourth post in my “Countdown to 30″ series, looking forward to my 30th birthday and back to how I got here.
Developing Humanism – A Home for my Values
My commitment to Humanism truly blossomed when I arrived in America. I remember one particular conversation with a fellow Harvard graduate student. We were sitting in the canteen of the dorm we shared when the discussion turned to God and, more particularly, my atheism. I remember my fellow Harvard graduate student prodding and poking at my beliefs as if I was some strange, exotic curio, asking “If you don’t believe in God, where do your morals come from?”, and “ Isn’t your life meaningless without an Ultimate Purpose?” (the capitals were clearly indicated by the portentous way in which the words “ultimate” and “purpose” were intoned). If I were someone inclined to take offense, it strikes me that these could be seen as extremely offensive questions, implying as they do that the only route to a moral life is through God, and that my Humanist worldview must therefore be ethically deficient and devoid of meaning.
I was shocked to encounter such sentiments then, in my first months at Harvard. After five years living in the States I am no longer. Instead, horrifyingly, I am sometimes relieved if the worst someone has to say to me about my worldview is that it must lead to an amoral and meaningless existence. Why? Because, since then, I have come face to face with many more egregious and insidious examples of prejudice against Humanists, atheists agnostics, skeptics. I have heard televangelists shriek that people who are not traditionally religious are responsible for social breakdown, crime, and natural disasters. I have heard news reporters casually describe nonreligious people as de-facto supporters of Stalinism and Nazism. I have noted how it seems impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected to high office in this country, and how public declarations of religious faith are required by those aiming highest. The idea of a non-religious President seems absurd in America – a nation which prides itself on promoting freedom of religious expression.
Furthermore, I have seen the baleful influence of right-wing religion on US public life. On all the issues I care about the most – equal rights, civil liberties, social and economic justice, healthcare reform, reproductive rights – it is the voice of the repressive religious right which shouts the loudest in American society. If any single reason could be found for the lack of progress the US has made in these areas over the past decades, it is the political influence and power of the religious right: a phenomenon that simply does not exist to a similar extent in the UK. The need for a progressive alternative has never been more pressing, it seems.
These experiences, and I use this term conscious of its ironies, radicalized me in my Humanism. They drew me to the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard (now the Humanist Community at Harvard), where I began to work alongside Greg Epstein in the development of the Humanist Community Project, and started me on the path to becoming a speaker and activist in the Humanist movement – the path which led to my starting this very blog, back in the days before it was here on Patheos.