Three Things Holding Humanism Back

Clay Farris Naff, writing for the Huffington Post, argues that “Humanism’s Moment of Opportunity [is] Going to Waste”:

The evidence is in, and it is clear: New Atheists have been a media success and a societal failure. They know how to sell books, how to debate, how to sneer, skewer, and satirize — in short, how to use all the squabbling skills of the modern academic (cf. the letters section of the New York Review of Books) — but the New Atheists seemingly have no idea how to build a positive social movement…What gives? Surely, this is a moment of opportunity for us secular humanists. What are we doing wrong?

There are problems with Naff’s analysis. He seems unaware of how much actually is going on in terms of positive social movement development. He fixes on the Brights organization as an example of Humanism’s failures, which to me is a misstep because it’s never been a large organization with much staff or a particularly compelling vision. His section on accommodationism is rather confused (partly due the the confusion around  how that term is used in different parts of the freethought community). The section on being “honest about what we do and do not know”  relies on a rather simplistic view of science. Nonetheless, I fear his overall point is well-made: Humanism is not performing up to its potential.

Think about it: at root, Humanism  is a worldview committed to the highest human ideals. Humanists are committed to the idea that the use of our intellect is the best way to understand the world, to the conviction that all human beings are worthy of moral concern and dignity, and to the hope that we can, working together, improve the world. Humanism provides a non-dogmatic, positive, uplifting, reasonable, realistic, and progressive stance which should be hugely appealing to a new generation of Americans who are, broadly, progressive in outlook and wary of dogmatism and all forms of regressive ideology. It should be a shoe-in, right? And yet membership of the major Humanist organizations isn’t huge, local Humanist communities are few and far-between, and evidence of the impact of capital-H Humanism on the American political scene is sparse.

Why? What’s holding Humanism back? I have three suggestions.

Low Expectations

In my view, after a number of years of intensive activism and participation in a large number of freethought events, it is often shocking to me how little people actually expect of Humanism. Somehow the idea has become widespread that the most one can expect from Humanism are occasional conferences and discussion groups. This is neither a full nor inspiring vision!

Let me be clear: Humanism is a worldview which can change your life. Humanism offers avenues for personal and societal transformation and growth well in advance of any traditional religion. Humanism takes the best of millennia of human thought and ethical development, and works to promote that in the world. At its best, Humanism can be exciting, inspiring, passionate, and powerful, and it’s our role to bring it to life and make its ideas sing!

Too often in recent decades we Humanists have restrained ourselves to gazing at near horizons, and so we should not be surprised if we don’t grasp the stars. A key challenge for Humanists today is to expect more of ourselves and of our movement.

Poor Strategy

Freethought organizations do in fact strategize with each other: they communicate behind the scenes, meet together to discuss the future of the movement, and everybody knows everybody else (start going to the different conventions around the country and you’ll see all the same faces again and again). However, the decisions made by some Humanist organizations often seem to me to represent a lack of long-term strategic thinking. I often want to ask why did you choose to spend your resources that way? What larger purpose does that serve?

What’s essential here, I think, is a distinction between strategy and tactics.  Sometimes I feel that Humanist organizational lurch from one tactical initiative to another without an overall strategic view. A billboard, ad campaign, or activist effort should usually serve some long-term movement-wide strategic purpose, in my view – but often they seemed designed to create a short-term splash without much thought to a long-term agenda.

I feel similarly about some of the large conferences: they frequently do not have an overarching theme which gives them a sense of broad narrative coherence and a link to movement priorities. Indeed, what the hell are our movement priorities? How are they communicated and by whom? These strategic questions need better answers, I think.

Fear: of Community Building, of Effective Communication, of Our Own Values

I say this with love, but the Humanist community is beset with irrational fears. In my work as a speaker and workshop presenter for Humanist and freethought groups I am constantly coming up against the same set of fears: that building local communities will turn us into a cult or a religion; that effective communication which engages people emotionally is manipulative; that people are embarrassed and afraid of sharing their Humanist values with friends in a passionate way.

I’ve written a lot on each of these topics, but suffice here to say: not every community is a cult, not all emotional appeals are manipulative, and there’s nothing creepy about inviting your friends to join you at a Humanist meeting and talking about the things you care about the very most. To make progress in the cultural marketplace we have to sell our values. We have to become as good (better!) at promoting our values as any religious organization. And we have to live those values, making personal choices in line with our Humanist commitments.

Ultimately, people will flock to Humanism once they start encountering proud, unapologetic, committed Humanists who demonstrate their ethical convictions through how they choose to live their lives. They will begin to identify as Humanists once they are members of warm, loving, passionate Humanist communities dedicated to social betterment. And when they see that the major Humanist organizations have a clear and compelling vision of a better world for all people, in the here and now.

I know it is possible to build a Humanist movement which lives up to the potential of the Humanist worldview. We know all we need to know and have all the resources we need to begin to do it. The only question that remains: when will we begin?

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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.