The third post in my “Countdown to 30″ series, looking forward to my 30th birthday and back to how I got here.
Discovering Humanism – Something to Believe In
While I was raised nonreligious, I didn’t consider myself a committed Humanist until I reached University. I had gone to Cambridge to study Education, inspired by the idea that people have great potential waiting to be unleashed, and driven by the knowledge that I had a responsibility to help people realize that potential. And, like many leaving home for the first time, I took the opportunity to explore my religious identity, voraciously devouring the major texts of many of the world’s great religions. I discovered the grand tales of the Mahabharata, the poetry of the Quran, the sparse beauty of Zen kōans, and great psalms of the Bible (many of which I had sung as a choirboy). I read gnostic and mystical works, apocryphal gospels and religious apologetics. I read widely in theology, philosophy and psychology of religion (Abraham Maslow and William James were early favorites, as I’ve explored before). And although I found much of value (alongside much to abhor) in ancient religious texts, I found nothing that was convincing to my young philosopher’s mind. It was clear to me that religions, and whatever was of worth within them, are human cultural constructions, and that ethics, community, aesthetics and values can exist – might even exist more purely – outside a traditionally religious framework.
Nor did I find anything that truly captured the values I had been brought up with – no religion I investigated wholeheartedly and unequivocally embraced science and learning. None made a clear commitment to the equal dignity of every individual (and most were extremely disparaging about gay people, women, and people of different tribes). And many had a dismal view of the human future, painting a hopeless picture of sinful, broken human beings facing apocalyptic catastrophe.
Then I stumbled across the second Humanist Manifesto. How I first encountered it I don’t remember, but it was a seismic moment in my development: here, for the first time, was a document which espoused, in clear and unequivocal prose, the values I was beginning to shape my life around. I remember printing the whole thing off – all seventeen statements – and reading through it again and again, making so many notes that I had to print a new copy. I started to buy books by the great Humanist thinkers and writers (Dewey, Sartre, Russell, Rogers), started to view my political activism through the lens of Humanism, and started to debate with my religious friends from a staunchly Humanist perspective. I joined the British Humanist Association. I began to call myself a Humanist. In short, I’d found something to believe in.