Why I Do What I Do

This summer, I have run myself ragged. I have traveled the country visiting countless atheist and Humanist groups and conferences, and my schedule is no less grueling in the coming weeks. I have spoken, I have sung, and I have conducted workshops. I have been interviewed, written articles, and blogged, all the while putting my doctoral dissertation – and the rest of my professional life – on hold.

I’d love to say that this has brought me fame and fortune, but in fact speaking at student groups and conferences, almost always for free, ends up costing me money (you tend to eat out and buy Surly-Ramics and other conference stuff ;) ). This isn’t easy for me because, as a foreign doctoral candidate on a student visa, it is hard to find ways to work through the summer, particularly when every weekend is spent travelling.

People often ask me what I do. It’s a difficult question to answer: most people look at you funny when you say your a “Humanist activist”. Sometimes I don’t even want to begin the discussion, and say something like “I speak on progressive political issues”. Sometimes I even feel a little uneasy or embarrassed about how I spend my time. But here I want to say a little about why I do it: why I have dedicated so much time and so many tears to a movement as small and, at times, dissatisfying as Humanism freethought.

Because, let’s be honest: movement freethought is tiny. Tiny. Unitarian Universalists frequently wring their hands that their movement is small and dying, and they are way bigger than we are. And our movement is frequently dysfunctional: there is no other word for a movement which gets wracked with bitter debates over things like feminism, and which sometimes seems to relish tearing apart fellow freethinkers even more than it enjoys casting aspersions on the religious (a trend which, itself, often goes too far). As a movement we have our own little dogmas and blind-spots, and movement leaders and organizations often act in ways which fail to uphold the high values we claim to espouse. And we far too often seem incapable of getting the most basic things done, so prone are we to magnifying minute differences in opinion to epic proportions.

This can get dispiriting. At the risk of sounding like a self-aggrandizing wazzock, I want to achieve something with my life. I’ve been extraordinarily privileged to have developed some very valuable skills – a keen mind, an excellent education, a facility with words, the ability to speak in public – which might, if put in the service of a worthwhile social movement, do some good. I’m about to graduate from my doctoral program and I don’t want to dedicate the early pat of my career to a movement which is going nowhere – and certainly not one which is going in the wrong direction. I do not want to look back ten years from now and feel I have wasted my thirties on freethought, skepticism, and Humanism. There have been times – more frequent recently than ever – when I have considered giving up on Humanism and joining some other social movement – perhaps even training a a Unitarian Universalist minister (Heresy!).

But, however dispirited and burnt out I sometimes feel, something keeps me coming back to Humanism, and it is simply this: Humanism represents the highest human values in a way unmatched by any other social movement or lifestance. No other movement can claim so proudly that they put the highest human values right at the center of their worldview, unadulterated. In Humanism there is nothing valued above the dignity of persons, the primacy of reason, and the necessity of hope for the future. Humanism represents the single best hope for the future of our species: given the potential threat of climate change it may be that if our species has a future at all could be dependent on how Humanistic a world we create.

The promise of Humanism, and of a Humanist movement, is the promise of a cultural movement of people unwilling to let public policy be decided on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. It is the promise of a public dedicated to seeking the good of all, including prisoners and addicts and outcasts. It is the promise of financial security and decent healthcare for all people. It is the promise of a compassionate and thoughtful populace unwilling to succumb to prejudice or fear. It is the promise of science and education taking precedence over warfare and business. It is the promise of governments responsive to the will of their people, which respect their fundamental rights. It is the promise of international cooperation over competition, for the betterment of the entire world.

Humanism promises nothing less than the transformation of the human condition.

I am reminded of the promise of Humanism when I see campaigns by Humanists in India working to build a more humane society. I am reminded of this promise when I see Humanist organizations like the American Ethical Union recognize those who have taken difficult stands for love and justice and great risk to their own lives. Most of all, I am reminded of the promise of Humanism every time I meet passionate student leaders like those I met this weekend at the Center for Inquiry’s student leadership conference in Buffalo, NY – those students re-inspire me, reminding me that there is a future to our movement, and that it is getting brighter.

For if our movement often fails to reach and reflect its high values, at least it is striving to reach higher than most. While our ruthlessly self-critical nature may make it seem our movement is more fractious than others, it reflects our commitment to continually striving to better ourselves and examine our own assumptions. If we fight about feminism it is because (at least some of us) care about women, and are open to difficult questions about how we might change a sexist culture. If we fight about religion is is because we care about the baleful effect many religions frequently have on people’s lives, and want to liberate those people. I would rather be part of a movement which tears itself apart over social justice than one which is blind to the demands of social justice entirely – like so many social movements out there.

This is why I do what I do. This is why I think, despite the current weakness and smallness of the current Humanist movement, there is no project more important than its development and empowerment. I look forward to a time when I can say proudly “I am a Humanist activist”, and everyone will know what I mean. Until that time, I keep fighting. Please keep fighting with me – for the transformation of humankind.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – 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.

  • Cornelioid

    I regret not taking the opportunity to chat with you more when you first introduced yourself (CFI SLC 2011), and if i’m ever at another conference i’ll make a point to. You’re among the activists rationalists i most appreciate and respect and whom i think is most worth my time and attention. Thanks.

  • http://www.cautionchurchahead.com/ Steve Ahlquist

    I have always found you inspirational, James. You are one of the many reasons I do what i do.

  • BillFMurray

    I am proud to be a Humanist…

  • Paul Donohoe

    thank you

  • Ralph1Waldo

    Hi James! I for one am very glad that you do what you do. I feel that you advocate for humanism as passionately as anyone I’ve yet encountered in this movement, and I find that your particular articulation of humanist values and goals resonates with me in a particular way.

    Nevertheless, I have my doubts about movement Humanism, even aside from the many persistent problems of the wider (and indeed fractious) “secular movement,” as an effective foothold for progressive activism.

    As you say: “The promise of Humanism, and of a Humanist movement, is the promise of a cultural movement of people unwilling to let public policy be decided on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. It is the promise of a public dedicated to seeking the good of all, including prisoners and addicts and outcasts. It is the promise of financial security and decent healthcare for all people. It is the promise of a compassionate and thoughtful populace unwilling to succumb to prejudice or fear. It is the promise of science and education taking precedence over warfare and business. It is the promise of governments responsive to the will of their people, which respect their fundamental rights. It is the promise of international cooperation over competition, for the betterment of the entire world.”

    This assessment of what humanism should mean to the world as we find it is undoubtedly correct. But I am struck by the fact that many progressives, whether they are religious liberals or apathetic about religion in general, are eager to sign onto these goals as well but less eager to affirm the proposition that there is no higher power, nothing worthy of reverence above humanity, or that all religions are false. It seems to me that the most pressing threats to global health and human liberty – climate change, corporatism and increasing economic inequality – are of more immediate concern to all who share this world than the metaphysical/ontological propositions exclusive to humanism, as much as I agree with them. As such, I feel I can accomplish more through interfaith progressive activism and cooperation from a UU posture.

    Incidentally, I’m tickled by the notion of you becoming a UU minister! No doubt that you could deliver rousing sermons and embody the role of an activist “preacher,” though I don’t know how much you would enjoy the pastoral care component. I fear we don’t have many Kenneth Pattons and Stephen Fritchmans coming out of the seminaries these days, unfortunately, and the future of the UU movement with regard to humanism is somewhat uncertain indeed.

    In any case, I’m grateful for your voice.

  • Ralph1Waldo

    One more thing.

    “If we fight about religion is is because we care about the baleful effect many religions frequently have on people’s lives, and want to liberate those people.”

    How to respond to and dialogue with “religion” is the most fraught and problematic areas for organized secularism. Deep misunderstanding of religion and religious people is widespread due to the profoundly negative experiences some ardent seculars have had with it, along with the popularizing of New Atheist propositions which dramatically oversimplify it. I think you grasp this and I have really enjoyed your pieces on “responsible religious criticism.” But I also think it’s very important to strike at the heart of the matter (I really like what Chris has written about this), which is that dogma and authoritarianism are specifically responsible for these baleful effects rather than the complex phenomena we call religions. They are often intertwined, of course, but sometimes they are not.

  • ProudHumanist

    You’ve got a new Humanist fan, James. I’m 61, was a Mormon most of my life, and am relatively new to Humanism (3-4 years now), but I too want to “achieve something with my life” and want to be part of the movement. You make me want to keep trying.


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