Let’s begin with an update. I paid off my last financial debt in September, which has had a remarkable impact on my sense of personal agency. I’m mentioning this fact first, because I want to be clear that there is no greater virtue in the choices I’m going to outline in today’s post. There is only greater possibility, afforded to me by a tremendous amount of support, which has given me the means to clear my student loans. If I were still in debt, I would probably not be able to make the choices that I have.
And this is an important caveat to foreground, because humanism is all about a focus on human agency: on maximizing and optimizing, that is, our ability to make choices that will in turn improve the world.
So many of our poor choices, after all, are informed by either a lack of agency or a perceived lacked of agency. And this second issue is especially pernicious: Even when we’re doing okay ourselves, we often lean into tribalism out of a fear that we will “lose” what we have if others also have access to stability and opportunity. We start to see others’ successes and elevation in society as synonymous with our own, impending failures. And so, we find reasons, ever so many reasons, to claim that our oxygen mask still needs a bit more adjusting before we’re ready to help others with theirs.
But the first issue is also difficult, because so very many human beings have lived, do live, and will continue to live out whole lifetimes without the capacity to enact significant personal agency. I think often, for instance, on the many lower-class Canadians who would never be able to move as I did to another country, and start over. It was incredibly hard for me — I saved and scrimped and lived on rice, eggs, and lentils to do so — but it would be impossible for many others: the ones, that is, who’ve spent their lives in poverty, under mountains of debt and attendant health problems; and who will die before those financial issues give them any rest.
So. Today I want to speak about a choice I’ve been able to make, and which I look forward to continuing to make.
But first, I needed to stress that this choice did not emerge in a vacuum — because there is no greater moral virtue to being, at last, debt free.
There is only greater agency.
A Speaker for Humanism
After two years here at Patheos, I have the distinct honour of being asked for the first time to speak to a university on humanism. I’ve given public talks before, but on writing and literature. The theme of this talk, conversely, is moving beyond our information silos, to think more deeply and collaboratively. Its primary audience is an interfaith group, to be joined with any interested parties from the broader community — and I couldn’t be happier to have met already with two lovely minds from the former.
I’m sure I’ll have more details about this talk in the coming weeks, but for now, suffice it to say that I’ll be discussing, in part, how infotainment narratives not only politicize our beliefs within rigid binaries, but also keep us from forming that humanist alliance which spans all cosmological beliefs and is the most vital work of our day and age.
Since it is my very first talk centrally as a humanist, though — and because I am now out of debt — I also have the ability to set standards of conduct for myself. And I have: for this talk, and for any others that might come later.
Why is it so important to set standards for myself when it comes to public speaking? Well, in this column, as regular readers know, I have criticised many aspects of the New Atheism/Four Horsemen movement, especially with respect to the creation of new charismatic figureheads to supplant the old. Granted, I too was enamoured with the debate- and speaker-circuits for a while in the 2000s. However, when I realized how much the speakers had grown comfortable in their cultural authority, readily speaking even on themes in which they were not experts (as well as resistant to acting like genuinely critical thinkers on subjects that served their interests best), I realized how toxic the entire environment of public speaking could become.
In particular, for all that the most prominent figures of New Atheism were seasoned tongues when talking about (certain forms of) empirical evidence, as well as the general moral depravity of Christian narrative, many of these speakers could not excise themselves from other aspects of the anglo-Western waters in which they swam: the nationalistic chauvinism, the xenophobia, the racism, the classism, and the sexism. And so, by the time the movement devolved into simplistic “warring civilizations” discourse, it had become abundantly clear that lifetimes spent arguing within Western-Christianity’s sandpit were insufficient for breaking free of its power structures entirely.
But was this at all surprising? Of course not. Atheism isn’t a philosophy. It’s simply a negation of a single proposition. You can believe in an afterlife, even, and still be atheist — so long as you don’t believe there’s a god overseeing that afterlife. And you can believe that we were created by superior beings (aliens, say), and still be an atheist. As much as some of the Four Horsemen gave the impression that atheism was a position arrived at from higher intellect, one is simply an atheist if one does not believe in a god — no empirical or logical rigour required.
Humanism, though, is a philosophy, and I call myself a secular humanist to affirm my existential variant as but one of many forms of humanism that exist in the world today. Catholic humanism, for instance, was the subject of my last essay, wherein I praised Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti as a highly humanist document, even though the Church itself remains non-humanist in many of its active practices. And other cosmologies have their own humanist practitioners, too — of course they do! — because it matters far less what one believes to have caused our universe to be, than what one does with one’s cosmology during our brief passage through this world.
As a speaker for humanism, then — even an extremely minor one — I know I don’t want to fall into the same traps that I’ve seen ensnare plenty of speakers come before. The stakes are just too high, when it comes to a philosophy that seeks to centre human agency, and to make the case that enhancing human agency (through public policy informed by worldly knowledge) is our greatest and most urgent activity.
And though I am by no means a perfect human being — I have and I will continue to make choices that are not ideal, and which may even cause harm — in this realm, at least, I think I can avoid hypocrisy altogether.
At least, I’m going to try. So, without further ado:
When speaking as a writer, I will continue to accept payment for my work in public and private venues.
When speaking on humanism, though, I will not.
Rather, when invited to give any talk on humanism, I will direct my speaker’s fee to international non-profits such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without Borders).
And I will ask — as I have with this university — that my talk be paired with a fundraising drive for a local non-profit, too. Donations will be voluntary, but all who hear of the event will at least be invited to share from the outset in this collaborative practice on both the local and the global level.
In the process, I hope to establish direct action as an intrinsic and vital complement to any speech on humanism.
And I hope to reaffirm that, even when one humanist is speaking from an elevated platform, humanism itself is and must be a communal enterprise.
This first speaker’s fee, by the by, is already well over the minimum wage here in Colombia — a wage only guaranteed to the 52% of the country that is formally employed (or at least that was, before the added unemployment caused by COVID).
In other words, for an hour-and-a-half’s work, plus prep time, I will be earning more than tens of millions here do in a month.
And yes, some would argue, “But M L, you’re saving for your own stability! Your literary press to raise up local voices! You’ll be able to do so much good down the line!”
But as I recently noted to a friend, this is a version of oxygen-mask rhetoric that conflates “put your own oxygen mask on first” with “inventory all the parachutes and pick one out for yourself” before helping someone else to breathe.
I certainly could rationalize any earnings this way — but I know too much about the behavioural science of wealth, and about how having “more” changes our empathy toward those who have “less” — to feel comfortable doing so.
More importantly, though, if I’m to speak with any integrity about humanism — about global and compassionate 21st-century humanisms especially — then I need to ensure that I’m living out my philosophy as fully as possible. And for me, that means foregrounding direct action as much as possible when speaking on related themes.
This is the promise, then, that I make to all of you today, for this and all future events in which I am invited to speak on humanism.
And I feel very fortunate to be in a position to make it.
I look forward to helping build a world in which even more of us can make it, too.