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Building the Humanist Movement

James Croft

Why We Must Become Storytellers.

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by James Croft

"There is no reason why we should not have "secular sermons," opportunities to ponder together the deepest existential questions of human life without reference to the supernatural.

The first time I went to prison was terrifying. Walls topped with razor-wire loomed large as the bus approached the barrier. The faces of the others on the bus were tight with nervous expectation, mirroring my own. As we moved deeper into the compound, and heavy doors crashed successively behind us, I feared what was in store for me. But much worse than entering prison for the first time was leaving it, knowing that the men I had just met and worked with were not able to follow me. I remember looking back at the prison gates, as they swung shut after that first visit, thinking: the people I have just met are men like me. But I can go home—they can't.

As an undergraduate, I worked for the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project (LSW), a charity which takes the words of the Bard into prisons around the UK. In a typical "workout," we played theatre games, yelled Shakespearean insults at each other and composed our own verse in iambic pentameter. I would spend around two hours in the prison on each visit and in this short time, I witnessed the extraordinary change wrought in the inmates I encountered. At the start of our session, many of the inmates (or "residents," as we called them) would not look me in the eye, would mumble their names while staring at the floor, and react with surprise to a hand offered for shaking. By the end of the workout, they would be filled with energy, fizzing with excitement, reading their own poetry with confidence and pride. It was as if someone had, over those two hours, kindled a fire behind their eyes and progressively fanned its flames to a roar. We had—through our work, and through Shakespeare's verse.

Bruce Wall, who started LSW, tells the most striking story of the sort of change the charity's work brings about in people. An inmate participating in one of our productions had been a member of Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group in the UK. He had been raised by his father, also a member, to detest non-white people, and in prison he avoided anyone non-white totally. Tattooed on his arm: the "Death's Head," the symbol of Combat 18, and the "Totenkopf" of the 3rd SS Division. In the Shakespearean production we were rehearsing he needed to cooperate with other inmates, regardless of their race. And during that process, his views changed. He found that people with different colored skin are people like everyone else, that he could work and be friends with people of different races. He was so affected by the experience that, after the production, he and his fellow inmates organised a drive to raise money to remove his tattoo.

The story of the former Combat 18 member sounds similar to religious conversion stories, in that an intense personal experience gave rise to life-changing shifts in personality and character. But LSW is entirely secular, and makes no mention whatever of religion. I propose that to build the Humanist movement, we need to provide experiences that are non-religious and have powerful resonance in people's lives, changing them for the better. My experience with LSW served to humanize the inmates of the prisons I visited, and expanded my conception of what it meant to care for others. It was, I would suggest, a deeply Humanist experience—and we must create more of them.

Humanism, in my view, rests on two propositions. First, the back foot, planted firmly in the soil: a rejection of the supernatural as an explanation for any of the phenomena we observe or experience. Second, the front foot, striding confidently forward: the embrace of a positive ethical stance derived from human experience and the natural world. The "four horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) ably constitute the first of these "feet," demonstrating why we should reject the supernatural, but they fail to convincingly espouse an alternative philosophy that might replace peoples' religious worldview. The lack of the second foot, however, leaves Humanism somewhat off-stride.

One example: Hitchens, in a 2008 debate with Frank Turek (described online as a "Christian apologist, speaker, and best-selling author"), says that it has become one of his major preoccupations "to try and help generate an opposition to theocracy and its depredations." This is a noble and worthy goal which Hitchens pursues admirably in his work. But nowhere in this debate (nor in the majority of his writing on the matter) does Hitchens present a coherent, powerful vision of what an ethical world without God actually looks like. Cast your eye over the contents page of Hitchens' "The Portable Atheist." As evidence of this omission, the vast majority of the "essential readings for the nonbeliever" selected are critiques, satirizations, debunkings, and avowals of non-belief, and few offer any vision of society to put in its place. Much the same could be said of the writing of the other three "horsemen."

This quartet can therefore be seen as powerful spokesmen for atheism, but imperfect advocates of Humanism. This need not be seen as a criticism—they may well not be trying to advocate Humanism—but the distinction does elucidate some of the difficulties the Humanist movement faces.

Take the argument, so often put by the believer to the atheist, that "without God there can be no morality." Parts of this argument are roundly rebuffed by the horsemen and their allies: it is clear that religiosity is no guarantee of morality, and that all of the ethical tenets of religion can be shared by non-believers. But our chevaliers d'athéisme stumble at the next jump by failing to outline with sufficient clarity and vivacity what type of morality there can be—there should be—without God. It is no surprise that the religious barb that without God there can be no morality continues to strike home. Our champions refuse to raise the surest shield against it: the evocative depiction, using all the tools we have, of what a moral non-religious world might look like. You can argue all you like, as Dawkins does, that the morality of the religious does not in fact come from their religion, or that religion frequently makes people act in strikingly immoral ways, but still the point goes unanswered: what sort of world do non-believers wish to live in, morally speaking?

Already, some readers are squirming. Some atheists are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of presenting a comprehensive "Humanist philosophy," fearing that any such worldview will inevitably become just another ossified dogma enslaving the minds of those it infects. Perhaps this fear is a corollary to the concern Rick Heller describes, the discomfort of some atheists and Humanists in considering the importance of emotion in human life. Perhaps it has more to do with that alternative moniker for the non-religious: "free-thinkers." Reacting against the construction of a comprehensive non-religious worldview is seen, possibly, as another act in the struggle for mental manumission, keeping us free from one more potentially confining framework.

There are two main reasons to reject this ultra-sceptical position. The first is political and presentational: it is unlikely that the non-religious will achieve their various political and social aims if they do not organize more effectively under a common banner. Groups such as the Secular Coalition for America are a good start, but they focus mainly on action within the political sphere, and work primarily to keep religion out of important institutions such as schools and research labs. To be successful we must not only attack incidences of religious privilege or non-religious disadvantage, but also put forward a positive view of a non-religious society that goes beyond the political—not just secular politics, but secular communities, families, and voluntary organizations.

The second, more important reason, is moral. It is not enough simply to reject religion and go about your life. We all bear some responsibility for how our actions affect others and therefore must develop some form of personal philosophy or ethical framework by which we make decisions. For the non-religious, this can be a challenge—we can't simply ingest our values from a particular holy book or religious tradition. Nor should we merely parrot the opinions of our parents, teachers or peers. Thus, in the absence of any Supreme Being or stone tablet providing us with a moral rulebook, we must endeavour to write one ourselves, to the best of our ability. This requires us, with our back foot rooted in denial of the supernatural, to put our best foot forward and construct a vision of a better world.

Such a vision will not be one of purely rational beings acting in some strange utopia of the mind. Rather, it will be one in which those aspects of religion which legitimately add meaning and richness to people's lives are reconstituted in secular form. Kurt Vonnegut, noted novelist and Humanist, suggested in an interview in the Harvard Crimson that, "The biggest advantages of Christianity are the congregations, which can serve as expanded families and close-knit communities." Humanists need to acknowledge that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, and artistic traditions which serve to build social ties between people in a community by bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is invaluable, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no convincing secular alternatives to these organizations have arisen, and this plays a part in the "crisis of civic life" that some (such as Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves more forcefully on the basis of money, class and race, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other to discuss important questions about what it means to live in community with others.

Humanists should recognize the importance of the communities that grow up around religion, and must present a vision of secular society in which communal activity still occurs. There is no reason why we should not have "secular sermons," opportunities to ponder together the deepest existential questions of human life without reference to the supernatural. This is perhaps akin to what Carl Sagan, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience described as "informed worship."

How are we to spread this positive vision? Certainly, books like Dawkins' and Dennett's, and the frequent debates between religious and non-religious thinkers are a start—they help plant that back foot squarely into the earth. Humanists should look to other styles of writing, that more directly articulate the inspirational aspects of Humanism, to further our cause. Sagan's work strikes an elegant balance between debunking the supernatural and exploring the wonderful majesty of the cosmos revealed by science—it is surprising that no one seems to be currently carrying his torch. Dawkins' earlier writing, in A Devil's Chaplain and Unweaving the Rainbow, also had this inspirational quality. We would benefit from hearing him speak in those tones again.

We must also look more closely at the arts. The inspiration that religion has provided to artists across the ages is one of the primary arguments advanced in its favor. The artistic accompaniments to worship (song, dance, stained-glass windows et al.) hold strong appeal to people of faith—and with good reason. As Vonnegut advises, "Practising art, even in a mediocre way, can make the soul go." He, of course, meant nothing supernatural by this—he was suggesting that the making and experiencing of art is one of the greatest human pleasures, and serves to enrich and deepen our experience.

Marshall Ganz, sociologist, expert in strategies for political organizing, and behind-the-scenes architect of the Obama campaign, writes, "Stories are what enable us to communicate...values to one another." We use narrative, Ganz suggests, to engage people in a dilemma, to call their attention to a social problem, and to rouse them to action. We Humanists have allowed the religious to have a de-facto monopoly on stories, barring shining exceptions like Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

I call out, then, to artists, musicians, poets, dancers, playwrights and their fellows to begin to articulate a world free from religion, but anchored in considered, compassionate human values. Why not a secular songbook and "parables" in which doubt is honoured rather than vilified? Certainly, we do not wish to establish a "religion of unbelief," but we can establish a community of nonbelievers, allied to certain central Humanist values and to the idea that we can face our problems together, free from Divine Intervention.

The twofold project of Humanism I have outlined here is important because the challenges we face as a species are great, and it seems uncertain that we will overcome them. Christopher Hitchens is fond of calling religion "the oldest enemy of our species". It is a beautiful turn of phrase, and it is wrong. The oldest enemies of our species are far more mundane: pestilence, war, famine and death—the real "four horsemen." All these require more than rejection of the supernatural if they are to be defeated; anyone following the genocide in Darfur, or who has been spooked by our recent close call with the H1N1 virus, knows that they are far from vanquished.

Humanists must begin to espouse, more convincingly than hitherto, a positive non-religious worldview. And we must do so in print, on stage, through music and on canvas. For while it is abundantly clear that organized religion has proved unable to meet these challenges, it is also clear that the Humanist movement cannot thrive on denial of God alone. We need to say what we stand for, as well as what we struggle against. We must do so in ways that go beyond political manoeuvring—ways that speak to the human need for the inspirational, the meaningful, and the beautiful. We must, in short, become storytellers.

Comments (now closed)

Robert Park

26 Oct 2009 · 10:45 EST

I agree with James Croft's ideas, and have been working to promote development of the sort of community he envisions here in Madison WI. One thing that I think can help is some common language among us to describe the things we value. It seems to me that redefining terms from traditional religions for our own purposes may not be the best approach. On the one hand, while I describe myself as a nontheistic humanist, I do not think that means I necessarily have to consider myself "nonreligious". Two of the member organization in the Secular Coalition for American, the American Ethical Union and the Society for Humanistic Judaism, consider themselves to be religious organizations, and the AEU has won legal recognition in court as a nontheistic religion. On the other hand, "secular sermon" and "informed worship" are terms that do not resonate with me. Ethical Societies (AEU congregations) have replace the term "sermon" with "platform address", and in the strongly humanistic UU fellowship to which I belong (Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society) we tend to talk about Sunday morning presentations rather than sermons. Also, while we talk about Sunday morning "services" or "programs", we never refer to them as "worship services". I think "sermon" has the connotation of someone conveying ideas from a position of higher authority, and "worship" implies that there is someone or something that is inherently deserving of a higher kind of respect than the rest of us merit. Of course we also need to avoid getting hung up on language. Perhaps Greg's book will help supply us with some common language. I plan to order my copy tonight.

James Croft

28 Oct 2009 · 04:03 EST

Thank you for your thoughts, Robert. I'm delighted you've taken up the question of language - it is precisely to spark this sort of discussion that I use contentious phrases like "secular sermons". That there are others out there thinking about these issues gives me great hope - so please keep posting!

Guitar

28 Oct 2009 · 11:43 EST

I think the oldest enemy of our species is neither religion nor the mundane pains of nature but rather the credulity that infects the manner in which our species deals with such things. Theistic religions teach people to value credulity above doubt and skepticism. Based on the acceptance of certain premises without condition, theism's social glue leads to the next credulous issue of accepting and valuing the idea of unity. Unity is an absurd idea and just about as probable as its gods are; always leading to ignorance, conflict and separation. Knowing that we humans come in such a diversity, we should learn to value and seek after harmony founded in a healthy curiosity and not unity founded in credulity. The desire for "extended families and close knit communities" is a fine motivation and foundation for any movement, secular or otherwise but any harmonious secular social group needs to look for its new traditions and progress in the fairness and the willingness to test all things.

James Croft

28 Oct 2009 · 13:33 EST

Thank you for your comments, Guitar - I think your point about having a respect for both diversity and fallibility is extremely important. Perhaps that's the seed of another article...

Wendy Babiak

04 Nov 2009 · 09:54 EST

Guitar, I disagree with your statements about unity. I think unity in diversity is an admirable value. Unity in homogeneity is the problem. Unity, of our species, of the ecosystem, of the universe, is a fact of reality. It's the lack of recognition of that reality, of the interdependence of things (and people), that causes so much trouble.

Terence

12 Jan 2010 · 23:37 EST

I find the message you have given James an extremely positive one. Many who first rationally decide to be a humanist do ask the question "So I'm a Humanist, now what?". In a way, I wish that being a humanist had a "Humanists for Dummies", which I suspect no humanist would read. Much of the talk or discussion on any humanist social networking site seems to be focused on "highlighting that they have left religion" but few talk about what you can do after that. I often felt that humanists are fairly outspoken, at most times too cerebral. The biggest challenge in getting anything done with humanists is made a much harder task because the old say "Herding cats with high IQ's and a propensity for individualism" applies.

Matthew Truitt

29 Jan 2010 · 07:21 EST

I agree with the thoughts presented in this article, and especially like the analogy of our back foot being secure on the ground, promoting the idea of atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc.) and the other foot stepping forward, promoting a new basis for ethics. While I agree with the thoughts in this article, I disagree with the approach. Our movement is too small and fragile to fracture, and while I do consider myself a humanist, I find that most humanists try to promote a split where there doesn't need to be one. Continuing with the 2 feet analogy, both feet are needed. The back foot, the "atheist foot," must come first. Before we can begin to try to come up with new solutions to issues in our society, we must realize that the solutions we've come up with thus far are wrong (ie, the Bible doesn't have all the answers, there isn't a magic man in the sky who is going to sweep down and fix everything). Superstitious beliefs have been imbedded in our heads since childhood. This slate must be cleaned before we can rebuild a new code of ethics. Dawkins and the other "horsemen" are doing just that... and very effectively. True they don't go further and promote humanist ethics, but nor do they claim to. We cannot expect 4 authors to do all of the work for the movement. While I agree with humanists such as Epstein, and the author of this article, I think that they are needlessly critical of the "4 horsemen" and all of the followers these authors have. Why not bring this movement together, instead of forcing a division. If you are a humanist, and recognize that Dawkins hasn't yet laid out a new vision for society, lay one out yourself! Just do it; no need to criticize Dawkins; just do it. Instead, humanists tend to criticize atheists for not promoting a new ethical vision, but in the end, humanists are guilty of the same thing because they don't spend any time focusing on the "back foot," the rejection of God. Nowhere in "Good Without God" or this website (from what I've seen) are there detailed reasons to reject belief in God. Epstein's book focuses soley on the front foot... and this is fine! Dawkins can focus on the back foot, Epstein can focus on the front foot, and each side can appreciate the work the other is doing. It seems simple. I don't understand why we need to force a division into our tiny little movement.

Patrick Everett

17 Feb 2010 · 04:57 EST

John I attended the Harvard Chaplaincy small group discussion you led on Sunday, and enjoyed meeting you and hearing what you had to say. Please send me your email address so I can send you our Concord Area Humanist program. I think you may be interested in our Monday April 5 meeting, when Marguerite Robbins, who also was at the Sunday meeting, will be giving a presentation on non-violent communication. I also want to talk to you more about your topic on Sunday.

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