By Ed Gibney
A couple of posts ago on this Sacred Naturalism blog, Alice Andrews made A Call to Unify the Nonreligious. While the religious are technically spread among hundreds, if not thousands, of different sects, there are a handful of leaders who together can say they speak for the vast majority of those who are full of faith. And no matter what the message, people who represent mobs of millions have real power. As a good example of this, I re-watched the 1982 movie Gandhi this week, and while his message about the dignity of nonviolent passive resistance was an uplifting and inspiring one, it was clear that the powerful leaders of the British colonial empire would have just squashed the one man saying it were it not for the hundreds of millions of people who rallied together to stand behind him. As a nonreligious citizen who asks, sometimes pleads, for what I think is a saner direction for our society, I currently feel like someone who can be squashed, rather than someone who, at the very least, could stand behind someone else speaking on my behalf with real power. Towards the end of Alice’s post, she wrote:
If you agree with me that the time has come for something that connects, unifies, and organizes atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, religious naturalists, spiritual naturalists, “new ageists,” as well as those who identify as nontraditional religious, and nonreligious spiritual, keep Sacred Naturalism on your radar and help us enlarge and refine this vision.
If you’re like me, this really struck a chord. When I read this, I shouted in my head, “I’m ready! Let’s do this!”
But this is a big job. A really big job. With just a few minutes of research, the various non-believers Alice mentioned are spread across groups such as those for:
Humanism, Secular Humanism, The New Humanism, Religious Humanism, Inspiral Humanism, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Religion of Humanity, Sunday Assemblies, Agnostics, Atheism, Atheism 2.0, The Friendly Atheist, The Thinking Atheist, Sacred Naturalism, Religious Naturalism, Spiritual Naturalist Society, Sublime Naturalism, Skeptics, Skeptics in the Pub, Brights, The Evolution Institute, Evolutionary Philosophy, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which recently merged with the Center for Inquiry.
If this were a Monty Python skit, now would be the time for the joke about how much I hate the People’s Front of Judea. Or was that the Judean People’s Front? Splitters! In evolutionary epistemology terms, this is the point of blind variation, before any selective retention has simplified things. All of these groups want to change the world for the better—better than one run by dogmatic hierarchies favoring faith and loyalty over reason and the search for truth—but none of these “nones” have gathered enough mass to become a center of gravity for social change. Yet.
In a prior career, I used to work as a change management consultant. Combining a few of the best practices from that field, we can say that there are six steps necessary to lead a big change:
- Establish a sense of urgency
- Form a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
- Define the transformation’s vision and strategy
- Develop communication plans to inform/involve
- Choose “breakthrough projects” and get efforts moving
- Develop a road map for long-term implementation
For the change that we nonreligious are seeking, the urgency has been established. We are on a so-called “burning platform” that motivates us to do something new. We just don’t have something solid to jump to yet. That brings us to the next step: form a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition. To really unify the nonreligious, we’d need people with large followings to put their public platforms together. People like: Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Lawrence Krauss, Alain de Botton, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Michael Shermer, David Sloan Wilson, Hemant Mehta, and probably others I’m sure I’m forgetting.
Looking at that group of people though, I believe that this would be a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition for the nonreligious in the world today. If they got together and moved on to the third step of successful change management plans—defining a united vision and strategy—and they were committed to acting together and remaining “on message” with the people that follow them, then I think the nonreligious might actually be corralled effectively for the first time in history. Not completely corralled, but effectively.
So, Richard, Ed, Dan, Sam, Steven, Rebecca, Lawrence, et al., if you are reading this, why don’t you pick a nice spot to get together and hash this out? Create something like the Nicene Creed for Christians, but make it reasoned and sensible for us nonreligious. It would be nice if you could hash out a name for us too. I’m partial to using Sacred Naturalist, but I’d be open to using another identifier as well if it really would lead to unity.
If you’re not one of these luminary public intellectuals though, you don’t have to wait for this or future groups to unite us. There are still things you and I can do. If you’re like me, you’ve picked and chosen from that huge list of nonreligious groups above and you participate in the ones that resonated first or most strongly with you. You’re probably not a mono-nontheist regarding these groups. Like me, you’re probably polyamorous with a few of them. And that’s to be expected, because while all these nonreligious groups have separate mission statements, vision statements, and goals, there is much overlap between them, and none of them claim sole ownership of the truth. I don’t know when, or even if, these nonreligious groups will finally be united, but we can hasten that day by nudging whatever groups we each participate in to embrace the common ties that we all have.
What are those ties? Well I think some of them are based on ideas of the mind, certain philosophical stances towards reason, logic, and openness to doubt that can all be debated and carefully defined by careful thinkers. But unquestionably, there is a physical tie that unites us all as well, and that is our shared origins from, dependence upon, and situation in…nature. As Emily Smith asked in the previous post on this Sacred Naturalism blog, What is nature? Well, we are all part of it. As she rightly expressed: “How could we claim to be the one thing on this entire complex and diverse planet that is not natural when our entire existence has taken place within nature? We were born in nature as single-celled organisms in primordial soup, and we have differentiated from other life in the same way as every organism on Earth.” This is correct. We are not supernatural, nor have we seen evidence of any such entities or powers in this universe. So regardless of where we want to go or what meaning we want to emphasize with our lives, we all do come from the same natural evolutionary origins, and because of that we are all tied inextricably together with the rest of life as well.
This message is already a core part of what Sacred Naturalism is all about, and as Alice Andrews said two posts ago, that gives us “something that is affirming and positive…something we can attach to — something with a larger and affirming vision that connects and unifies us.” But this unifying tie to nature isn’t everywhere in nonreligious groups. Not yet. So let’s put it there.
To give you an example of the nudging we can do to get it there, here’s something small I’ve managed to do with the help of some advice from other Sacred Naturalists. In January, the American Humanist Association (AHA) published a 75th anniversary edition of its Humanist magazine with the following customary definition for humanism inside its front cover:
Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Free of theism and other supernatural beliefs, humanism derives goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny. [Emphasis mine.]
This month, the AHA published an article of mine on the cover of the magazine called When the Human in Humanism Isn’t Enough, in which I argue for that community to change the items in bold in their self-definition to be more inclusive to all forms of life and get away from any speciesist hints of human exceptionalism. I’ll let you read the article for yourself to see the argument I made in full, but I can tell you that the organization is strongly considering changing its core definition. If you agree that they should, post a comment on the article, tweet it out, send them a “letter to the editor.” Your support will really help make the case. And that will bring us one step closer to uniting these nonreligious groups around our shared ties to nature. No one alone is powerful enough to change the world on their own, but if we all keep doing things like this, one change management step at a time, we can lay the groundwork for a powerful, nonreligious, unified movement to come together and lead the changes we want to see.
Ed Gibney is a writer and evolutionary philosopher who blogs about his beliefs and the fiction it inspires at evphil.com.