“Sore Winners”: Centring Humanism, not Atheism, amid Pandemic

“Sore Winners”: Centring Humanism, not Atheism, amid Pandemic March 23, 2020

Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 Licensing

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.

And Yet…

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.

The Take-Away

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.

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  • Sophotroph

    Ultimately, humanity will not survive its trials if faith is not allowed to finally die. We’re on the brink of total global failure, and the main reason is the elevation in global culture of signaling power by ignoring inconvenient facts.

    This behavior is propped up almost totally by religion.

    The shaming religion is receiving now is both deserved and useful. Religion sticks around, perpetuating ignorance-as-virtue, because it is perceived as powerful.

    Mockery deflates that perception, especially when there are no consequences visited upon the mockers.

    Until the anti-thought notions of religion are no longer a force in politics, we have little chance of turning any of this around.

  • guerillasurgeon

    I’m not sure that putting society before oneself is necessarily a catholic, or even a religious thing. I think it’s more broadly cultural. In the US for instance many religious leaders are completely ignoring the whole idea of social distancing and refusing to close their churches – although I noticed there’s usually a fair distance between them and their audience. But US society is far more individualistic and to some extent more selfish than many others. We’ve had instances of people buying huge amounts of toilet paper – and being told off for it. And for God’s sake buying bottled water, as if the taps are suddenly going to be turned off. But on the whole people are taking government advice to shop normally. I went out shopping the other day and everyone was remarkably calm, pleasant, distant thank goodness, cheerful and helpful. Hopefully this will be like the blitz, where there were some few that took advantage of it but on the whole most people remain calm and helped each other out.

  • We agree on the idea of letting things die that aren’t useful to society. What we disagree on is the idea that intensely fixating on the mockery of religion will be what brings about that transition. Fixating on a thing does not make it go away; it makes it a site of conflict — and when you challenge people’s egos by criticizing their opinions and beliefs, an abundance of research into human behaviour illustrates that a common response is deeper entrenchment into those points of view.

    But if we focus instead on the secular components of society, and make them the sites of greatest interest and value to human thriving, what is essential to success in our society will edge people away from that which is not.

    Canada has done that a mite better than the U.S., by simply having a culture in which talking about one’s faith during election campaigns or while in office is nigh on unheard of. And we didn’t arrive at that point by castigating or mocking religion! We just made the secular sphere a place where it would be considered deeply inappropriate to wax on about personal faith. 25% nonreligious population, and rising.

  • Thanks for your word of good cheer, guerillasurgeon! I appreciate the positivity. I had to adjust to an odd workflow these past two weeks, so apologies for the delay in reply — but I do so hope you and yours are doing well in these strange times.

  • Dr. Marty Shoemaker

    Hello ML. Not sure why you only use initials but so be it. I am a Humanist Chaplain, yeh I know it is an oxymoronic career, but that is my volunteer title now after 40 years as a psychologist and university teacher. I have been reading your posts intermittently and this last one was one I wanted to support because I am of the similar opinion that this war with religious folks is mainly a wasted and egotistical form of human exchange. However, I must confess that on occasion when there is actually evidence to indicate whether some theological stances actually work or not, I at first look for failure or retraction such as god will protect us during the pandemic. I must confess that sometimes I wish then regret wanting their congregation to have high numbers contaminated to show them. This is not the better angels of my nature to quote Steven Pinker so your approach which is to reproach this part of me and those in secular camps who want to show them that disregard for science will make them pay. In my more reflective moments I do not want this to happen even though we will read hundreds of blogs and news items, “Church that met regularly spared from virus” I guess I would rather be wrong than for them to get sick in great numbers. I am working on this and other struggles I have with 3000 year old morality followers and the capitalism of so many churches these days. But Jesus got a few things right, and the story of the Samaritan and removing the log in your eye before you criticize one with only a speck is a moral stance that will last but is very hard for us in the secular camps. Research shows that those that attend regular religious services are twice as charitable than atheists and non-believers. Thanks again for the insights ML and keep on writing for us in North America. BTW I have travelled several times to Colombia and been to Medellin. Be safe.

  • Hi Dr. Shoemaker,

    Humanist chaplains aren’t rare in my original neck of the woods. The position is a vital means by which we create opportunities for non-spiritual counsel in institutions and systems that tend only to offer spiritual counsel to students in need. Thanks for your “service” to the end of creating different opportunities!

    We have similar real-life outcomes when it comes to the application of humanistic practice: I too struggle with frustration at specific acts of arrogance in the face of disease on the part of religious practitioners; just as I too sometimes get caught up in all the things I hate about, say, the Bible, and not enough in all the things I appreciate about my fellow human beings.

    Being humanist doesn’t make us “saints” by any measure. It makes us aware that the most important site of agency *is* humanity — flawed beings though we naturally are. And so thank you so much for sharing your own humanity here. We are always going to have some petty knee-jerk responses — but since we know it’s not “demons” or “the Devil” working within us; because we know it’s a simple tribalist desire to conquer and to be “right”, we can move past those knee-jerk first instincts, and strive for secondary responses that are better.

    All best wishes to you and yours in the fray!

  • Dr. Marty Shoemaker

    Thanks ML for the lengthy and thoughtful reply. You are one of the few writers in South America that I read. I do read almost all your postings because you articulate your thoughts and beliefs in ways I really like and relate to even though I am a member of an enemy tribe.. old white male, heterosexual who still reads enlightenment thinkers. I am 1 of 2 Humanist Chaplains in Canada. I am hoping we can engage a few more to volunteer. Looking forward to your next article.