Making Humanism Relevant

Making Humanism Relevant January 7, 2013

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, NY Times religion writer Samuel Freedman penned a piece called “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent”:

The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others. They have been held in Protestant megachurches and in a Jewish cemetery. A black Christian youth group traveled from Alabama to perform “Amazing Grace” at several of the services.This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question: Where were the humanists? At a time when the percentage of Americans without religious affiliation is growing rapidly, why did the “nones,” as they are colloquially known, seem so absent?

In fairness to Freedman he was not unfair with us:

…it should be pointed out that the families of each Newtown victim chose religious funerals. The interfaith service, by its very definition, precluded the involvement of leaders from non-faith organizations like the Ethical Culture Society or the American Humanist Association. At the most divisive, the former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee asserted that violence like the Newtown shootings occurs because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”

The net effect can be to leave humanists feeling frozen out and defensive. “We send out letters, we send out press releases, we’re on Meetup,” said Anne Klaeysen, 61, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “But we feel people don’t pick us up. We’re not proselytizers. But the religious landscape has changed so that we have to market ourselves.”

While tacitly excluded from religious coalitions, humanist groups did respond to the Newtown killings. The Ethical Culture Society chapter in Teaneck, N.J., helped organize a gun-control rally there. The Connecticut branch of the American Humanist Association contributed about $370 to Newtown families from a winter solstice fund-raiser. The organization American Atheists reports on its Web site that it has collected more than $11,000 in online donations toward funeral expenses in Newtown. A secular support group called Grief Beyond Belief operates on Facebook.

If no one specifically calls upon their ties to a humanistic community, it’s going to be awfully difficult – and presumptuous – to put “boots on the ground,” as Freedman describes it. If a Humanistic Jew, Humanistic Unitarian or member of the AHA lost a child, humanism would be there with a message of comfort.

But Freedman’s larger point is that the vast majority of humanists simply have very little organized communal support from which to draw. And at a time when we should be aggressively reaching out with our positive message, we’ve yet to come up with a set of appropriate strategies to do so. Harvard’s humanistic chaplain (and fellow humanistic rabbi) Greg Epstein is devoting time to thinking about this:

“A lot of humanist rhetoric of previous generations revolved around reason,” he said. “We’d say, ‘We’re people of reason rather than people of faith.’ But I’ve always been uncomfortable with that as the banner under which we march. We need to think of reason in the service of compassion — caring, being cared-about, a life of meaningful connection. Reason itself is the tool. When we see it as the end-product we miss the point.”

Meanwhile, the debate rages on about how much humanists should borrow and steal from organized religion. And by debate, I mean the ridiculously huge non-issue of whether non-theists should devote their energies to proclaiming that it’s okay to be good without God or if they should be hyper-critical about the harm caused by much of religion or if we should be working to build positive communities.

The answer is yes! To all of those things! Why limit ourselves?

Can humanism and a community to go along with it really bring comfort to those in need? For humanists the answer is completely obvious.

Here are two great examples of how.  Check out these links to two outspoken atheists / humanists and their takes on the comforting benefits of our worldview.  When struck by tragedy, Greta Christina experienced “Humanism in a Sh**storm” and Susan Jacoby recently shared her thoughts about “The Blessings of Atheism” on the op-ed pages of the NY Times.

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