By Chris Highland
"You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. "~ Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" 2
It seems wise to consider that any question about the future of Humanism as a viable alternative must (naturally) parallel the larger question of the future of Humanity itself. Do we "believe" in the continuing evolution of the human species? To put it more humanistically, how do we see the unfolding history of human life on earth? Facing ethical concerns the inquiry becomes: Is the human community capable of improving, growing, developing in creative new ways that will preserve not only our species but our neighbor species with whom we share this revolving rock of beauty spinning through sidereal space? And, for good measure, does Human-ology trump Theo-logy in the short and long term?
Any individual human who audaciously offers to comment on the whole family of homo sapiens must admit to being grounded someplace, carrying pocketed presuppositions to the discussion. As a former minister who emerged from early Evangelical and Pentecostal experience to become a Presbyterian minister before leaving the Church and ordination to become a Freethinker who finds Nature the best teacher, classroom, and sanctuary, I undoubtedly have a well-worn backpack full of pre-conceived notions! Indeed, for the humanistically inclined, "what's in your pack?" becomes a fossil-bone of contention with fellow crewmates on the earthship who appeal to other-than-natural opinions about who we are, what we must do, and why we are here.
In significant ways the Humanist can join a rational conversation about the who and the what but not so much the why. The Humanist generally considers the why to be at best a distraction, a sleight of hand or head, that ends up in theological debates with no end, let alone purpose. As for purpose, "meaning" isn't it reasonable to set the ground rules as soon as possible -- that is, the principles that ground us on the same earth, breathing the same air, drinking the same water of which we are made, sharing the same food sources? In other words, we need common guidelines of respect for our "household rules" (one origin of the word ecumenical) that will determine and define our "meaning" for our time. It seems reasonable that the guiding principle of Respect itself (similar to Schweitzer's "reverence for life") is a good place to start, and perhaps the best place to end.
In my "post-Christian" life after faith I have participated in a small part of what Robert F. Kennedy pointed to in his famous line, "Most people see things as they are and say, Why? I see things as they could be and say, Why Not?" Serving for two years as the director of a winter emergency shelter, I managed to organize and coordinate dozens of congregations with hundreds of volunteers to open their doors and floors to homeless folk. Did it matter that I was not religious, or that volunteers and staff represented all faiths and no faiths? No. The doors still opened and human beings were welcomed.
There are countless examples of people working together with a sense of compassionate justice to help other people, as well as wildlife, forests, rivers, oceans. Is this an option anymore? It seems clear that the human future, interlaced as that is with the future of all life, is completely dependent on whether we choose the secular or the sectarian. Do we continue to squabble and war over which land or river, heaven or holy book is best or holiest? Will we always be divided in mind or body by borders, barriers, fences, and walls? Freethinkers see the power of choice (one definition of heresy) and fearlessly choose -- or so we intend. This isn't simply cold Science, it's passionate common sense.
It may be true that Humanists are fundamentalists about this one thing: there is (some would say "may be") no God, but there is Good. As the Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein writes, "[It] is truly a sin to go on fixating on our petty little differences over territory, sexual morality, and other theological minutia while failing to acknowledge that there can be no greater ethical failure than allowing any of our differences -- religious or secular -- to make this scene [the future destruction of the human race] one day truly come to pass (Good Without God, p. 150).