Let’s begin with a story. Colombia is about to undergo two weeks of mandatory lockdown, from March 24 to April 13, to protect against COVID-19 dissemination. We’ve already been in voluntary social-distancing for two weeks, but the hoarding behaviours didn’t really kick in until Tuesday, when hard-discount stores and major supermarkets alike had to implement changes in how people could access the stores and what they could buy.
Medellín has also been under curfew since Friday, and citizens in their homes have taken part in something called #AplaudoaNuestrosHeroes every night. This involves stepping out onto one’s balcony at either 8 or 9 p.m. to share in collective cheering and noise-making as a show of solidarity and collective gratitude for the health professionals putting themselves at risk for everyone else’s benefit. On Friday and Saturday, it was a 20-minute event around here. On Sunday, a concert was thrown in, via megaphone, with members of the apartment-complex management team taking turns with rousing speeches to cheer up citizens. “¡Sí, lo puedes!” (Yes we can!) was the cheer of the moment–and not just in our units, either. In distant apartment complexes and barrios, signs of similar could be seen at the same time.
And that good cheer extends, still, to community outreach. Yesterday, on my way to the store to stock up for the two-week lockdown, I saw a motorcyclist and a taxi manage to collide even on a three-way highway that was almost bereft of traffic. (There was, to be charitable to both drivers, a bit of coverage at one winding turn the motorcyclist was trying to take.) The motorcyclist skidded a ways from his bike, having hit his head and back hard enough that he froze, unable to move, while still clearly conscious.
So, what did bystanders do? Especially the half-dozen people in flimsy anti-infection masks who were closest to him?
All of them came up, breaking social distancing rules, to help.
And when they did this, I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding this week–because, amid all this tension, all the fearmongering and the genuine reasons to be afraid, that simple compulsion to reach out and help reminded me that human decency is an instinct we haven’t yet lost.
What a privilege it’s been, too–between this accident, and the rousing cheers at night, and various kindnesses I’ve seen performed at supermarkets–to remember that humanism doesn’t need much to thrive. All it really calls for is our focus on the here-and-now. The secular realm as an immediate and vital site of human action.
Colombia is a supremely Catholic-seeming culture that will go this year without Semana Santa–without collective celebrations, that is, for an event so integral to Christian faith traditions–because the nation is taking sensible measures to protect against a secular disease that doesn’t give two hoots about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
However, while the Catholics are putting aside something so integral to Catholicism, for the last week I’ve been inundated by atheist links and posts illustrating that we haven’t given up Catholicism as a site of our discourse. Rather, many of us are being utterly “sore winners” at this time that calls for so much unification of the human will against a common threat.
Honestly, we have so much in this crisis to be thankful for–including the supreme sensibility of so many of our neighbours, in putting communal health and well-being first. Why aren’t we now turning our attention, too, 100% toward building upon this focus on the secular sphere, as we strive to create a better, more just world in the aftermath of this pandemic?
After all, religious folks, for all the sneering one sees on many atheistic channels about their intrinsic “stupidity” for drawing from different cultural stories given to them often at birth, are also taking reasonable precautions in this wildly precarious time. And why wouldn’t they? They have families and loved ones they want to protect, too. By and large, our commonalities, as human beings receptive to new and urgent intel as it arises, have amply risen above our cosmological differences.
Why isn’t that enough? Why is there still so much poking and laughing at particular “failures” of faith?
Charity starts at home, of course:
Now, let me be as charitable to my fellow atheists as I was when describing the motorcyclist and taxi, two very different vehicles that still managed to collide on a highway big enough for all:
Maybe there remains a meaningful obstruction in the minds of many atheists, as they take in news of religious institutions ceding to secular precautions. Maybe there’s a body of hurt, after so many years of trying to reason with religious relatives and community members who have looked down on them and called them immoral; who have routinely raised up religious exceptionalism to dismantle social policies that would have bettered the world for all.
I can understand how that emotional geography might compel one to collide with religious persons even on a very open and promising road to better secular policy for all.
In our culture, too, a lot of space has been given to the importance of being permitted to say harsh things about a group that has harmed us. I hear fellow white people sometimes chafe at BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, + (other) Persons of Colour) public commentary about “white people”–commentary that runs, I know, from gleeful mockery to straight-up wishing that white people didn’t exist. I am a feminized person who chafes, myself, when other feminized persons (women, non-binary) employ a similar register to vent about “men”. I’m also a queer person who cringes when other queer people rage likewise about “the hets”. But it’s neither my place, nor very useful, to try to force someone to stop venting as they feel they need to. And so when (predominantly white, male, heterosexual) atheists say that they need to vent this way, sometimes, about religious folks… again, I can’t force anyone to change their ways. And it wouldn’t be useful to try.
However, I do want to point out that there is an abiding Simpsons-esque “HAW HAW” in many atheistic spheres right now, toward fellow human beings who’ve suddenly been cut adrift from their usual spiritual communities and routines.
And I want the secular humanists among us to take note of this behaviour; and to reflect upon whether or not this serves our interests and our shared world best.
How Being a “Sore Winner” Cedes the Site of Moral Discourse
Because, yes, this crisis has illustrated that many things our religious fellow beings take as fundamental are… not. Catholicism in particular is a form of spiritual practice highly tethered to place and hierarchy, with love for the Christian god shown through obedience to the presumed divine ask of showing up weekly for mass in a church, and otherwise by living a life that allows one to continue to take the Eucharist without conflict.
And, there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. That’s a solid 15.4% of our family that, generally speaking, finds value in a life ritualized according to precepts established by a central authority in the Vatican.
Now, do I find those precepts to be “good”?
By and large, no. I think obedience and modesty, two critical elements of Catholic practice, to be two of the worst sites upon which to grow healthful moral practice (individually) and ethical practice (communally).
Nevertheless, my motivating question, as a humanist, cannot be “How will I get them to see how wrong this cosmology is?”
Why not? Because this is a question that cedes moral authority even in the asking. It’s a question that chooses to orient my time in the cosmos around that other site of philosophical discourse, as my primary battleground.
And yes, I could certainly spend my whole life picking on the inanities that emerge from various manifestations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and the rest of the world’s dominant faiths. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m highly susceptible to that common atheist fixation, too, because it really bothers me that the character of Christ, with its deeply problematic textual inconsistencies, is considered a useful moral authority to draw upon for contemporaneous ethical issues.
But would such a life be anywhere near as ethical as one dedicated to improving my own sense of what should be the moral centre of our policy-making and community-building?
Obviously, my answer is “no, no it would not.” Rather, a good life would be one in which I and my fellow humanists advance what we believe to be the central tenets of good public-policy formation, namely:
a) a reliance on empirically informed data-sets that,
b) by the necessity of including the fruits of human behavioural analysis, will
c) draw upon empathy during decision-making and implementation processes, so as to
d) create societies where the least off are as well off as possible.
And every breath, every word, spent venting on someone else’s site of moral discourse (as much as, again, I fall prey to this compulsion sometimes, too), is a distraction from that far more ethically sound end-game for all.
Suffice it to say, then: In times of crisis, like this COVID-19 pandemic, all the signs of humanity’s potential for baseline humanistic action become clearer than ever. We can see those signs in how we compose and regulate ourselves for the protection of others. We can see them, too, in how our communities face down the risk of societal collapse.
Granted, it’s not easy. Sometimes people panic and are selfish. But other times they partake in stories of collective action, and resistance–and those are the stories we should be working to cultivate all around us.
And we are, too, aren’t we? Cultivating those better stories?
After all, there’s ever so much talk right now about society changing after this event. (I mentioned as much in my last essay, too.) However, the responsibility to enact those those changes is by no means solely set upon religious persons. Do we really expect most of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics not to return, say, to all the pomp and circumstance of their most ritualistic faith the moment it’s safe? And so what if they do?
Our responsibility, as humanists of every stripe, is simply this: to hold the line on the secular sphere being the most important sphere for human action, now and going forward. And for that, we need our attention poured into the secular sphere. Into our governments. Into our public institutions. Into our economy, and its priorities. Into the environment. Into our neighbourhoods and familial and communal lives.
We’re doing it already, by and large. We’re living most of our lives in that most critical of realms for humanist action.
I’m just asking you to think about adopting the same course-correction I sometimes struggle with myself:
Go all the way, and don’t look back.
Because the secular sphere that we share with our family of 7.8 billion… deserves no less.