In the Christianity I grew up with in the ’90s, humanism was a dirty word. Reading the monthly alarmist political propaganda newsletter from Focus on the Family which came to our house, I remember most distinctly learning about the secular humanist monster Norman Lear. Norman Lear, I learned, was the television writer and producer most responsible for All in the Family and The Jeffersons in the ’70s. In the ’80s he founded the evil liberal organization “People for the American Way”. For some reason the farthest back I can remember the label of “humanist” applying to a specific person is Lear. I must have heard of others being described with the label before him. But he stuck out to me the most. In no small part this was because of his connection to TV shows that I grew up on. What also may have helped cement the association of Lear with humanism in my mind was watching an interview with him on television, already knowing of his reputation. Whatever other villainous humanists I may have been told about by Focus on the Family, or by various preachers whose sermons I attended, were probably for the most part relatively obscure figures who one wouldn’t just come across elsewhere by accident.
So I watched this interview with Lear with a certain fascination. My back was up. I was preparing myself to hear lies and upsetting offensive things that went well beyond what your average liberal might say. I was used to liberals. But this was someone even worse, this was someone self-consciously a secular humanist, which, as I had come to understand the meaning of the term, would mean he must be deliberately anti-Christian in his disposition.
It was like the devil had agreed to sit down for an interview.
But the devil turned out to be an utterly charming, genial, and thoughtful 70-something year old man who made me like him in spite of myself. The moment that stuck in my memory and has stayed with me my whole life was when he talked about how he would like to look around the room at a restaurant and think about how every person in that room had a closet. The closet was a synecdoche for the fact that each one had a private inner life. To extrapolate the idea for myself (since I can’t remember the specifics of how he developed it, but only the gist), he expressed the consciousness that all these other people weren’t just extras hired to fill out a restaurant scene in his own story. For each of us, located as we are at the center of our own universe, it is easy to slip into thinking of ourselves as the star of the story of life itself and understand everyone else in relationship to what supporting role they play in our own story. But here was this famous and influential TV executive meditating on his acute awareness that everyone around him had their own story, was their own person, had their own inner-life inaccessible to anyone else, and had their own closet in which they stashed private items and mementos representing their particular histories as particular people.
I remember feeling a painful sense of dissonance. I wanted to hate this guy but I resonated with what he was saying and found his interest in other people genuine.
And since Focus on the Family had told me to see this man as a walking avatar for secular humanism itself, I came away with a new sense of what being a humanist must mean. Being a humanist must mean being like Norman Lear. It must mean looking around yourself and recognizing that everyone around you has a private side and a personal story of their own. And the specifics of their stories that couldn’t be generalized to all people were worth taking particular interest in. It made perfect sense to me to infer that being a humanist must be about loving humans and being curious about them and thinking of them with empathy.
As I rack my brain, that’s the only experience of a supposedly avowed humanist speaking for himself that has stuck in my brain from my entire Christian upbringing. I remember atheists, but no one calling themselves humanists specifically. And, ironically, in the interview I never heard him mention that he was a secular humanist and if he gave any of his views on religion they didn’t leave an impression. But since he was supposed to be the representative of all things secular humanism, he had a profound impact on my beginning to think of humanism as something tender. And upon becoming an atheist and shedding my theologically based right wing conservatism, I came to deeply appreciate the bold and politically vital work he did addressing civil rights issues and skewering the bigotries of conservatives on All in the Family. I am proud when I watch a fully fleshed, unapologetically agnostic atheist character on All in the Family who, from a television standpoint, is ahead of even our times for his boldness and thoroughness of theological disputatiousness. (According to the Wikipedia page, Michael Stivic considered himself technically an agnostic, I assume out of a staunch desire not to be dogmatic as atheism is usually mistaken to be, but would call himself an atheist sometimes in order to goad his atheophobic father-in-law Archie Bunker.)
And the kernel of my understanding of humanism has always implicitly remained the genuine love of humanity and interest in individuals and their needs in their particularity that I took from Lear’s example.
Ironically, I just learned that he’s apparently not actually an atheist. The religious theocrats whom he was fighting politically, cast him as an atheist as an attempt to demonize him. He represented everything they opposed politically so that must have been good enough to them to cast him as an outright atheist and secular humanist. So it was religious leaders who picked out for me what humanism should mean. And they made quite an admirable choice!
So apparently you can express exemplary humanistic sentiments, do brave creative and political work against bigots on behalf of the marginalized, and even breathe three dimensional life into agnostic atheist characters who speak with articulate passion and dignity all while being some sort of theist or deist. Why, imagine that!
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. While contributing to an overall narrative, each installment in this series is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. Find all the posts written in the series so far below and bookmark on this regularly updated permanent page where a table of contents is kept.