Let’s begin with a recap, friends. It’s been rough times for me here in Colombia, just as it’s been rough times for a great many of you around the world. Having a lock on what to say, as a humanist with a platform, isn’t easy when it feels like we’ve a hundred fires to put out all at once. The best I’ve been able to do, these past few weeks, is to try to advocate for thinking carefully about where we’re looking to advocate for comprehensive change, how we’re handling a fear of getting things wrong, and how to avoid sweating the small stuff when there’s so much hurt to go around.
And yet, every time I go online I’m still inundated by posts fixated on the inanity of religious people in the US, the infotainment circus of major newsmedia continuing to parrot dangerous lies so that we can all be “shocked” by who’s saying them, and the bevy of heated online disagreements around speculation about various celebrities’ actions.
And I’m just so tired of it, friends. I’m tired of the rubbernecking at developing disasters.
So, today’s post is less about thinking, and more about doing.
And the stark reminder that doing something is at the heart of humanism’s aims.
Because the Real World Deserves More than Prayer
Last night, I stayed up comforting a friend. (In Spanish, I might add, which is one of the most gratifying affirmations of the worth of learning another language.) Her mother is dying, and it is not a good death. Because there is no state support for healthcare for those without insurance, the mother’s renal cancer advanced too far before my friend, with my help, was able to get her mother to a treatment centre where… I’m sad to say I recognize that what they were giving her was more palliative care than genuine hope. (My friend, on the other hand, is not fully processing that the cancer has already spread.)
But just as happens in the US, another blow befell my friend while she was getting her mother into treatment. She lost her job for want of personal-day protections. Which meant the family had nothing. With no savings, they started going hungry the moment the mother was released from treatment. My friend started begging on the street.
The support I gave her to buy food helped, of course, but then a third lack of safety net kicked in at the end of June. President Duque had extended the lockdown in Colombia, but not the eviction protections. I learned from a legal source that some rental companies had prepared themselves quite well for this loophole, and filed thousands of mediation requests to take effect July 1, to start the contractual proceedings necessary either to force people to pay or else to hasten along their evictions. But that process is just for people with contracts. The vast majority here live by spoken agreement — and there are no underlying rental protections without contracts.
The landlord came to my friend’s apartment and shouted in her dying mother’s face that he would throw them both to the street by force if they didn’t have the rent the next day. And no police force would stop him.
Now, I’m not telling this story to toot my own horn for helping one family, but rather to illustrate that helping families in the singular is itself a sign that ever so much more action is required if we’re to build a better, more just world.
Because, while I have been helping this family, I’ve also been seething not just at the arbitrary nature of giving personal aid, but also at the level of care that serves as a social norm — not just here, but in many parts of the world where people have come to stop expecting massive systemic changes. The “thoughts and prayers,” that is, which the rich issue because they’ve no interest in sharing the wealth and security of their class status; and the “thoughts and prayers” the poor lean on because they literally have nothing else.
My friend, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is Catholic. Her mother is Catholic, too. Neither knows I’m an atheist — nor does it matter, at this juncture, because I know my friend has nothing to offer me in exchange for my help but the standard “God bless you.” What kind of jackanape would I be if I dismissed her calling on “God and the Virgin” to keep me in good health, while she’s crying her eyes out daily over not being able to feed her mother or alleviate her pain?
But there are times, friends… boy howdy, there are times when I almost wish there were a god, because what an awful thing it is to hear tell of a poor woman devout her whole life, dying painfully in a modest barrio, crying out to her daughter “Don’t let me die!”
Because, well, we know, don’t we, fellow atheists? We know that only silence awaits. There is no “wiping away” of all these horrible tears. And so, how I sorely wish she could have a feeling of grace wash over her, to ease her all the better to that end — and my friend, too, as she comes to terms with her mother’s impending death. But it isn’t to be, no matter how much mother and daughter pray together these days, and no matter how much ever so many others do the same while dying in similarly downtrodden neighbourhoods across our deeply hurting world.
Which isn’t to say, humanists of faith, that I’m suggesting they stop praying. (Not if there’s no better available aid than the solace of ritual and presence of others through it!)
I’m just saying that we humanists, from all across the spectrum, need to aim higher in our practice of giving aid.
The System Is Changing; The System Can Be Changed
In some ways, then, for all its horrifying disasters, the US is also positive marvel these days — for look how quickly the conversation about systemic injustice has accelerated along a host of critical issues requiring a deep uprooting of supposedly too-entrenched norms. Racist statues coming down, the 79-year-old Mount Rushmore centered as a target for similar dismantling, cities being sharply rebuked and brought to account for bloated police budgets, relief cheques being cut in a country that claims such actions to be “communism”… What the US has amply illustrated in these last few months, that is, is that when the zeitgeist is upon us, when a sense of urgency is truly believed in, suddenly quite a few elements of the status quo can indeed be dropped almost overnight.
Which means, fellow humanists, that we’ve no excuse for not pushing that sense of urgency even further. Socioeconomic precarity comes in many forms, but they all share one key outcome: a disparity with respect to who gets to live — and die — with dignity.
Why is this a matter for humanism, in particular? Because humanism is not just about the recognition that humans have the most pressing agency in our known universe (whether or not you believe in a higher power), but also about a prioritizing of knowledge, comprehensive worldly knowledge, from a wide range of behavioural sciences as from the facts of biology, geology, and cosmology, to develop a body of public policy that will best extend the capacity for informed agency to as many human beings as possible.
In this struggle, though, we are competing with fellow human beings: those, that is, who view agency differently — some from within religious parameters, and some from without. The nihilists of the world favour human subjection, either to one another or to specific framings of a spiritual order. Nihilists would say that it is sufficient that some humans get to live in such a way that their agency supersedes others’ in the day-to-day world. Nihilists would further try to diminish the critical importance of alleviating human suffering, such as when one claims that there is perhaps more dignity to the old woman who dies in Christ, however horribly in poverty and fear, than to the rich man who dies comfortably and quietly in his secular home.
Turning from Nihilism to Humanism
One thing popular atheistic discourse has done over the last 20 years or so is focus on the nihilism in Christianity. And there is certainly plenty of it! There are some choice anecdotes I could pull from prominent atheists’ interactions on panels and radio shows, but let’s go right to the source instead. As part of my Victorian lit studies I read excerpts from John Henry Newman’s Apologia, so when he was canonised last year by the Catholic Church, all the nihilism in his account of conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism came rushing to the fore. I’ll give you just a nip of it here, as it pertains to the above:
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact [i.e. the existence of suffering]? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birth-place or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
It’s a fascinating excerpt, no? Because, of course, atheists are slapping their foreheads at the line before the part in bold, shouting, “No Creator! Obviously!”… but humanists of all stripes should be shaking their heads at the wickedness of the binary drawn here by Newman: the “either” no Creator “or” mankind discarded. Spiritual and religious humanists: you know these aren’t the only two options. And it’s important for all of us to call out bullpucky when we see it.
But also, I’ve placed one part in bold because Newman clearly didn’t understand the psychology underpinning his baffling conclusion here — but we do. We humanists know both that it would be patently absurd to see a child living in the streets and first think “wow, his parents must’ve been ashamed of him” — but also, that Newman was plainly unaware of fundamental attribution error, wherein one tends to attribute fault for a specific situation to individual character in lieu of broader environmental factors.
So, yes, lots of classist nastiness built into exalted forms of religious belief.
The problem with the atheistic trend of just focussing on nihilism in the church, though, is that we become trained to see it as only existing in that quarter, on that side of the spectrum… when absolutely, secular nihilists are also well-seasoned in using naturalistic defenses, falling prey to Humean is/ought fallacy, to justify why inequity must simply be accepted (so long as they are comfortably situated within its systems).
In your part of the hurting world, my fellow humanists, “action” might look different from action in my own. But these differences need only be superficial. So much of the world rose up in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, for instance, that it’s clear we now operate within a globalized discourse, where the strong, unwavering actions towards greater justice in one part of the world can have a significant impact upon related campaigns in others.
As such, an old standby in the justice-seeking community, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” is long overdue for a rewrite. What we need to do, rather, is act locally to move the world.
And that means not being satisfied with individual acts of social outreach.
That means pushing for bolder, more systemic changes in our necks of the wood, secure in the knowledge that any one city, province, or whole country’s initiative towards a greater justice for all will serve as a test case, for better or for worse, for citizens elsewhere striving to enact the same.
Let’s all give each other, then, the very best test cases possible — for the creation of more humanistic societies, globally, requires no less than a rethinking of the world on whole.