June 21st, 2012 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
“What’s a ‘Humanist’?”
It’s a question I hear a lot. I’m not comfortable with the idea of trying to answer it on behalf of all Humanists, so I usually respond to the question by sharing the story of how I came to identify as a Humanist. And since today is World Humanist Day, I feel inspired to share just a small bit of it here. There are many events that preceded this story but, well… I’ll get to that later.
The story of how I became a Humanist is a funny one to me in part because, after searching so long for an identity that affirmed my naturalistic worldview and compassionate ambitions, I found secular Humanism because of a Muslim.
After years of evading discussions about other people’s religious identities or challenging religious dogma in my academic studies of religion, I faltered when it came to discerning how to identify myself. I used “atheist,” “agnostic,” “nonreligious,” and “secular” interchangeably, but none of them really felt right; while each was accurate, they all seemed a bit inadequate — more like descriptors than identities. None encapsulated how I saw the world; none felt like an affirmation of the values I held. So I just went about doing interfaith work without an affiliation, content to create opportunities for people of varying worldviews to engage with one another constructively. Still, I wasn’t completely sure how to articulate my own perspective. I knew I didn’t believe in God, but found the idea of declaring positive values much more daunting.
But through the process of doing interfaith work — through building relationships of understanding and cooperation with religious people — that began to change. Inspired by others’ commitments to their varying worldviews, I began to more deeply consider my own. While interning at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), my friend Eboo Patel introduced me to Greg Epstein’s Good Without God and the works of other contemporary Humanists. From there, I began to devour Humanist literature; Confucius, Epicurus, and Renaissance Humanism, up to more recent Humanist thinkers like Robert G. Ingersoll and Paul Kurtz. I read the various editions of the Humanist Manifestos and jumped up excitedly to repeat their words aloud: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.“ This was what I believed — particularly its emphasis on taking personal responsibility for the greater good of all — but another person had written it down.
Inspired by what I’d read, I decided to act. Along with a group of other atheist friends, my friend Erik and I started up a group we called the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), to construct an egalitarian community of like-minded individuals. We planned service projects, hosted dialogue events with members of Chicago’s Muslim community, and wrote blog posts. But more than anything else, we were a community.
Encouraged by the books I read and the subsequent conversations I had with these friends, I started see my Humanism as not just something I thought about, but something I needed to act upon. The positive orientation of my Humanism allowed me to frame the world through a constructive, optimistic lens, and it became an expression of my greatest ambitions — one that sought out and celebrated the good in everyone, and encouraged me to act with love and compassion whenever possible, seeking to understand instead of dismiss.
For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt invested in a positive and deeply personal identity that pretty accurately mapped onto my own convictions. And, as is the case whenever I’m excited about something, I couldn’t shut up about it.
So I started blogging here at NonProphet Status, then elsewhere, and then I started writing a book about the aforementioned “many events” — about how I went from nonreligious to Evangelical Christian to openly gay atheist to Humanist and interfaith activist. That’s coming out in November. I am also proud to work for a Humanist organization, the Humanist Community at Harvard, which works to provide resources for the nonreligious. After a year and a half as the organization’s inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow, I am transitioning into the role of Assistant Humanist Chaplain. Perhaps my favorite part of this job is getting to listen to Humanists talk about their stories, their values, and about how they understand Humanism — and then moving, as a community, from talking about our values to putting them into action.
I keep talking and writing and listening and acting and asking about my and other people’s Humanism because the idea of a nonreligious identity based in positive values gives me hope for our future — a future in which everyone, nonreligious and religious alike, cares much more about the “good” than the “without (or with) God.” Such a vision may sound overly optimistic to some, but if a devout Muslim can introduce an atheist like me to Humanism, then I believe anything is possible.
If you’re a Humanist, please feel free to share the story of how you became one in the comments. If you’re not, feel free to ask questions, or share a story about a Humanist that inspires you!
Want to get involved in Humanism? Check out the Humanist Community Project website for more!