I want to make a quick follow up to my suggestion Tuesday that we should ignore Humanism as a philosophy and embrace it solely as a community label. Since my post, Leah Libresco at Patheos’s Catholic channel struck a deal with James Croft to briefly explain their philosophies. I look forward to getting a better picture of Humanism from James.
A few people, James included, have left some challenging comments, so I want to clarify a bit and address a few points on, appropriately, the philosophical and community aspects of Humanism.
On the philosophical aspect, what initially frustrated me was Humanism’s apparent ambiguity. I think that our labels should mean something, particularly if this particular label is meant to be our central moral identifier. Our concepts should try to carve nature at the joints so that our language is clear and useful, rather than vague and confusing (one of the reasons I prefer to talk about pluralism rather than interfaith). When you tell me that you identify as something, I should learn something about you that I didn’t know before.
James has responded and raised a few interesting points. I capture the gist here but read the full comment for his argument:
Humanism, in my understanding, can mean two things, neither of which are a single, coherent metaethical philosophy. The first sense is as a lifestance, a set of values, an orientation to the world. In this sense it is similar to “Christianity” when that term is used to describe some person’s view of the world: people talk of “my Christianity” and “their Christianity”. This is also the sense in which people say “I am a Humanist” (“I am a Christian”).
The second sense is as a tradition of thought and practice which is connected by a set of guiding questions, principles, or values. In this second sense it is sort of equivalent to “Christianity” when that term is used to refer to a tradition of Christian thought.
I like the clarification that Humanism isn’t one unified position. I was always under the impression that it was a philosophy (singular), and it seems to me that it’s often treated this way. I think the comparison to Christianity, though, breaks down slightly. I still learn a lot about someone’s moral commitments if I find out they’re a Christian, because Christianity has both metaphysical and ethical commitments. The ethical commitments only get more specific as you learn what type of Christian you’re talking to, and I don’t think there’s something analogous for Humanism.
I’m not sure what ethical commitments Humanism gives you, if any at all (especially if it’s a cluster of positions). But if there are philosophical commitments, then I’m not sure that they’re substantively moral. That is to say, the differences between Humanism and any generic kind of liberalism—with a focus on individual autonomy, promoting general welfare, tolerance, gay rights, feminism, take your pick—seem to be limited to certain epistemological commitments like “Reason” or metaphysical commitments like naturalism. But as I argued Tuesday, those don’t tell me much about morality at all. If Humanism is meant to be a moral position, then it seems strange that it doesn’t tell you anything interesting morally about its adherents.
So I say this all as a Humanist: If Humanism is going to be a moral position, then I’m still unsure of what separates it morally from any kind liberalism (or say, from religious Humanism). If Humanism isn’t going to be a moral position, then that’s actually fine with me. I think Humanism should orient itself towards moral action, rather than moral truth. If it does this, though, than the second sense of Humanism James describes strikes me as somewhat unnecessary, because we should turn elsewhere for our moral philosophy. There may in fact be a broad Humanist tradition, but is it interesting or helpful to learn or relate to? Am I better off just reading Kant? I’m not convinced.
A few other people made some good points about whether specific underlying moral commitments were necessary for a strong community. This I’m less sure on. I admit that I accepted Leah’s argument because first, I agreed that I found Humanist communities to be somewhat vague and shallow as Leah described. I also found that my own most valuable relationships conformed to that kind of substantive similarity that she wrote about.
As an undergraduate, one of my closest friends was also a transitioning vegan struggling to figure out moral philosophy with an interest in the social sciences. Throughout my life, my relationship with my twin has shown maybe an unsurprising amount of overlap, and I often find him articulating points in ways that echo or clarify my own thoughts. And now, one of my closest friends in my department shares a similar background, love for rap music, and disapproval of stuffy academic culture. And across all these relationships there’s a sense of a lot of shared assumptions and commitments—we can start a lot of conversations halfway through and know exactly where we are.
It seemed plausible that such philosophical overlap was a good place to start for deep relationships in a communiy, and I think Humanists want their communities to be something substantial and moral. I’ll be agnostic on whether communities can foster deep connections from a less narrow foundation (like maybe ritual, costly commitments, shared goals, and so on).
I’m still open to being proven wrong, because I like the idea of Humanism as a moral philosophy. I just don’t think it can be what Humanists want or need it to be.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.
October 7th, 2012 | Posted by: Stephen Goeman
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Below is a link to the full original article.
We’re aware of the irony: three atheists are driving from Cambridge, through Somerville, and into Medford, Massachusetts–en route to a Gurdwara while blasting Christian hymns on the radio. The church organ’s hazy echo transforms Chelsea’s stereo into a time machine, conjuring images of sweater vests and Sunday mornings past. It’s nice to have an excuse to wear a tie. I realize I don’t mind being up before noon on a weekend, a rare thought for this twenty-something.
We pull up to the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar and I am immediately struck by its simplicity. The building could easily pass for any of the restaurants it borders on Mystic Avenue. We join a group of more than 25 in front of the Gurdwara, gathered by Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman: Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Zoroastrians and atheists stand united in their support of a community recently hit with tragedy. A Sikh man bows towards the Nishan Sahib, a holy flag raised high outside the Gurdwara, before entering. A small group stands outside the building, holding posters that state their support for a community touched by tragedy. While we make small talk and wait for the last members of our group to arrive, a Sikh woman embraces a Muslim woman in our group and thanks her for coming. The love and gratitude felt by the Sikhs of Medford is palpable.
September 26th, 2011 | Posted by: Chris Stedman
The number of students who do not believe in a higher power is rising, but these students often ﬁnd themselves marginalized and struggle to gain acceptance on campus. Using data from the Secular Student Alliance, this article explores the interests of nonreligious nontheistic students, identiﬁes issues these students face on campus and offers strategies for accommodating nonreligious nontheists as part of a diverse student body.
In 2007, University of Northern Iowa student Cody Hashman identiﬁed a problem on his campus and decided to do something about it. “Cody noticed that when religious students come to college, they have all these groups to choose from,” said Cory Derringer, current president of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI). “That option really wasn’t there for nonreligious students, so he wanted to ﬁx that” (C. Derringer, personal communication, June 8, 2011).
The group started small — averaging five to 10 people at their weekly meetings for a few years — but in the last two years participation has surged, and they now see 30 to 60 attendees at their weekly Sunday brunch and hundreds at their larger events, with over 1,400 people attending their Darwin Week event series (Wilkins, 2011).
In this sense, UNIFI is not particularly unique. While one of the better-attended groups, UNIFI is just one of many nonreligious college student groups to experience signiﬁcant growth in the last ﬁve years (Niose, 2011). This phenomenon — increasing participation in nonreligious student groups on American college campuses — demonstrates that nonreligious nontheistic students are part of a diverse college campus. This article intends to help college administrations successfully navigate this new territory.
Please check out this article I co-authored with Lyz Liddell of the Secular Student Alliance, which is intended to help higher ed administrators, faculty and staff better understand and advocate for secular students. You can continue reading it in part at the Huffington Post Religion, and in full at the Journal of College and Character!
September 19th, 2011 | Posted by: Serah Blain
“Community is the goal.” – Tom Pettit
Prescott is a beautiful small town in Northern Arizona surrounded on all sides by National Forests. We have epic views of Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte. The sunrises and sunsets are breathtaking. During thunderstorms, there are often rainbows everywhere and it smells like juniper for hours afterward. There are ugly things about Prescott, as well. There’s a lot of gossip, xenophobia and limited perspective on a number of issues because people’s exposure to difference is minimal. There was that whole mural controversy. If you Google “Prescott, AZ” and “racism,” you’ll get 130,000 search results. I am not idealizing my town. That said, moving here has taught me about the very best human beings have to offer, and about the beauty and productivity of loving my neighbors in order to accomplish amazing things—despite serious differences.
Life in Prescott is inherently humanizing. You know everybody. And the few people you don’t know, you’ve heard of. People tend to be polite and honest—because if you’re a dick or a liar, you’re certain to run into the same person again down the road and it will be awkward and unpleasant. People tend to be helpful, because we’re all neighbors, and we understand what it’s like. People tend to be forgiving, because despite ideological differences, we know each other and we know that, even when folks in town are wrong, they’re usually acting in good faith. In a word, people in Prescott can disagree all day long, but usually we’re able to see each other as people and we’re willing to come through for one another when it matters.
Never has this been more evident than when my friend Tom Pettit was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. Tom was a local progressive activist and community organizer. He was involved in every progressive issue imaginable, every environmental cause, everything that really mattered in Prescott. Being that this is a small, conservative town, Tom had his share of adversaries, but even his adversaries knew him to be a man of integrity who cared passionately about the quality of life here. When Tom got cancer, people from all walks of life turned out for fundraisers on his behalf, bought t-shirts that said “I ♥ Tom,” brought meals to his partner and looked for ways to help. Even politicians who he’d publically spoken out against contributed. Why? Because Tom was a human being. He was a member of the community whose humanity was evident and whose presence mattered to all of us. He wasn’t a statistic or an abstract name. When people heard that their neighbor was dying of cancer, it hurt all of us—regardless of political stance, regardless of ideology, regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.
Tom Pettit believed in community organizing because he knew it could change people—and by changing people, it could change the world. And the communities Tom organized came together beautifully when he needed them. This is the same way interfaith/nontheistic cooperation works. When religious and nonreligious people come together to achieve a goal, we are participating in relationship. We are acting for a common purpose and validating our common humanity. We are building trust and goodwill and creating the kind of dynamic where difference isn’t a barrier to progress. This kind of trust and goodwill abounds in Prescott, and while I can think of dozens of examples, my very favorite is our annual Empty Bowls fundraiser. Empty Bowls is an interfaith project, sponsored by Prescott’s Unitarian Universalists, that raises money for our local food banks. The event is held on the courthouse square, and for a $15 contribution, donors receive a beautiful handcrafted bowl created by local artists and a bowl of soup prepared by local chefs. Last year, in our little town of about 40,000 people, we raised over $14,000 in one day at this one event. Prescottonians love participating, and we’re proud of the fact that the whole town comes together to do it.
People in Prescott have shown me that the abstract concept of building relationships to effect change works; it’s a model that people all over the world participate in daily in their own neighborhoods and towns, and the rewards are tangible. I take Tom Pettit’s vision of healthy, transformative communities with me into my activism as an atheist and it feeds my vision of interfaith/nontheistic cooperation. People in my town know that I don’t agree with the predominant conservative attitude, just as people in the interfaith community know that I don’t buy into their supernatural beliefs or much of the ethical systems those beliefs are based on. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do important work together when it really matters. And it doesn’t mean we can’t have honest, respectful, productive dialogue about our different worldviews—dialogue that often results in profound attitude change and ultimate victory for reason and compassion.
Just as small towns have their dark side, interfaith work isn’t always perfect either. Sometimes there are miscommunications. Sometimes there is a failure to strategize clear-sightedly. Sometimes there is too much animosity toward a particular idea for opposing viewpoints to come together at all. But we need to keep doing it and keep learning as we go—because when we get it right, we transform everything.
Serah Blain serves on the boards of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, the Arizona Coalition of Reason, and the Prescott Pride Center. The Executive Director of QsquaredYouth, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ youth in Prescott, AZ and surrounding areas, Serah is also the organizer of the Prescott Freethinkers, a thriving community of nontheists in Northern Arizona that meets regularly for discussion, fellowship and fun. She also co-chairs the Secular Student Alliance at Prescott College where she is working on a B.A. in Engaged Humanism. Her current interfaith volunteer projects include hospice care, and faith outreach for the Prescott Pride Center. Serah has two children who are being raised to be conscientious, compassionate human beings.
Today’s guest post comes from Wendi Wheeler, a Creative Associate at Augsburg College, where I went for my undergraduate degree. Wendi and I met last winter when she contacted me to do a story on my work for the Augsburg Now magazine. We’ve since stayed in touch, and the other day she sent me this blog post, written for her personal blog. I’m flattered by her kind words, but the real reason I’m sharing this here (with her permission) is because I think she’s got some very valuable insights on living a meaningful life without religion, and what the transition from religious to nonreligious is like for some. I’m extremely grateful for her honesty, openness, and bravery to share this with the world.
Years ago I went out with a guy who identified as an atheist. He was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, a Lutheran school for crying out loud, and he didn’t believe in God. I think he was a philosophy major. Go figure. When he told me he was an atheist, I expected him to also say he worshipped Satan and ate babies and stole communion wafers so that he could defile them.
I remember asking him how he knew the difference between right and wrong if he had no moral compass in the form of a God–and that God’s laws and teachings–to guide him. I remember him standing in front of the mirror, jumping up and down in order to get his tucked-into-khakis pink button down shirt to hang right, saying he used his own beliefs and ideas. I thought that was bullshit. How could that possibly work? If left to our own devices, I believed, we would all be horrible, nasty, sinful people.
We didn’t date very long. He was incredibly vain, and he would only let me have ONE Tic-Tac. Who gives a person only one Tic-Tac? The answer, I thought for a long time, is atheists. Atheists were mean in my book.
Then this winter I got connected to the work of Chris Stedman, a graduate of my school who studied religion as an undergrad, got his master’s degree in religion, and now is a big voice in the interfaith movement. Chris identifies as a secular humanist, and for the record, he doesn’t believe in God. What he does believe is that we, as people with common needs and desires and struggles and triumphs, need to work together to make our world a better place. I’m paraphrasing. You can read more about him on his website, or you can Google him. You’ll find lots of interesting stuff.
I met Chris and interviewed him for a story I wrote, and I’ve sort of fallen in love with him since then. Not in a weird “I want to date him” kind of way, but in an “I want to know more about this stuff” kind of way. I was so impressed by him and intrigued by what he writes and the people he knows and reads.
I think I am breaking up with God, and I feel like a pariah.
I am going to read Sarah Sentilles’ book, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, soon. My friend, who is studying to be a Lutheran pastor, is loaning it to me. Sentilles wrote that breaking up with God “…was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours.”
Word, Sarah. I feel you.
This is what she wrote for the Huffington Post in June of this year:
“When you break up with someone, it doesn’t mean that person ceases to exist. You bump into each other around town. You see your love with other people, and it makes you jealous, makes you consider getting back together, makes you wonder if you made a mistake when you called it quits. That’s what makes breaking up so hard. The version of God I used to love is still out there in the world, hanging around in churches, showing up in people’s prayers and hearts and imaginations, playing important roles in the stories we like to tell, saving some and condemning others. But I know he’s not the right God for me. I try to remember that.”
So I am breaking up with God. Here’s the deal: I am not going to worship Satan or sacrifice babies. I am not going to start punching random people in the face or smashing my car into theirs even if they are ridiculously stupid drivers who don’t pay attention and put other people in danger. I am not going to use more swear words than I already do. I am not going to steal your lunch out of the refrigerator, and I’m not going to tell you or your impressionable children that God doesn’t exist.
I will still be compassionate toward others and help those in need and listen when someone needs to talk and give money to beggars on the street and volunteer with local organizations and bring homemade cake to work. I am pretty sure I don’t believe in God anymore, but I do still believe in good.
Wendi Wheeler is a writer, a runner, and a creator of pretty dresses for girls of all ages. She is the “Creative Associate – Editorial” (a 12-syllable way to say “I write”) in the marketing department of a Minneapolis college. She also keeps a blog, Living in Love, which started out as a way to share her ridiculous dating escapades and morphed into stories about being in love with herself, with others, and with the world. She completed her first marathon a week before she turned 40 and currently is training for her second while also coaching runners. And when she is not writing or running, she spends time in her studio crafting beautiful clothes and chasing her cat, Melvin, off the sewing table.