What Humanism ISN’T, and why the F-Word is needed

Note: I wrote this Friday, March 23 but wasn’t able to post until today so while much has changed in the Trayvon Martin story, the key pieces remain still shocking and upsetting. 

Some days you get double slapped with awful human behavior, the wonder that is the internet keeps a steady stream of information flying across the various screens in our lives. Well within moments I saw two stories in my Facebook Newsfeed that were shocking, rage-inducing, and dumbfounding all at once.

I’ve often been asked about definitions of what Humanism is; had discussions about why someone would be a moral or ethical person without a belief in any god(s); or even about what drives someone to do good work if there isn’t a supernatural force guiding them to do so. All good questions, but today I’m struck simultaneously by examples of what Humanism ISN’T and proof that the F-Word is still a part of my vocabulary after years of fighting to never use it again.

First there was the Belvedere Vodka Rape Ad:

And no, it isn’t a meme or something like the Onion, it is actually an ad to sell expensive vodka: http://jezebel.com/5895931/the-rapey-belvedere-vodka-ad-that-just-got-pulled

Followed closely by “journalist”-extraordinaire Geraldo saying that the way Trayvon Martin was dressed had just as much to do with his being murdered as George Zimmerman. What?!

I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.

— Geraldo Rivera on Fox News

See the clip here: http://gawker.com/5895867/minorities-who-wear-hoodies-just-asking-to-be-shot-says-geraldo-rivera

So what do these examples of awfulness have to do with Humanism? Nothing and everything. So often Humanists, Atheists, and Secular folks get labelled as immoral or are questioned on why someone would do anything good in the world if they lacked faith. Well I feel that examples like these highlight something important. When a core part of how you view the world is: human beings are capable of doing good without any supernatural being intervening, and then you see examples of how awful people are to each other you actually need to use the F-Word. Faith of course.

I go out into the world each day and interact with my fellow humans believing that there is no special creator looking out for me or there to help me in a time of crisis. If I need help or assistance I need to turn inward to myself or outward to other people but there is no referee in the sky to help me. People make thousands of choices each day some of them are helpful or creative others are harmful or destructive. Yet at the end of the day I believe that the human mind has — through a stroke of evolutionary luck — developed the ability to aspire toward ideals. That is something pretty close to unique and why I feel people, though flawed and capable of horrendous acts and stupendous statements, are still worthy of faith. Given this belief my forehead may hurt from self-inflicted face palms from time to time. And now to reference my favorite Humanist quote:

Faith in god means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.

— Joss Whedon (source: http://bit.ly/GJNoEK)

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Consider Humanism Campaign

Post 14 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

I posted earlier this week on the A Week on Facebook campaign, part of the larger OUT Campaign. There is another campaign going on as well, for those who identify more with the term Humanist. It is called Consider Humanism. While each of these campaigns is doing something slightly different, they fit together nicely to create more spaces for people who collectively believe in people and the natural world and not deities and the supernatural.

One of the Consider Humanism videos:

The best few years seems to be an interesting moment in the long history of freethought, atheism, secularism, and humanism (for an EXCELLENT book on this rich history check out Susan Jacoby’s book — Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). There is more cooperation between different organizations at the national level and a bigger push to be OUT and raise awareness that we exist. We aren’t a tiny sliver of the population but a significant group with a valid alternative path for people who aren’t happy or shunned in various religious communities.

I’m excited to see what the rest of 2011 brings as well as the upcoming US Presidential Elections. Will nonbelievers be part of the conversation in an open way? What would you like to see done next to raise awareness of humanism and the larger freethinker community?

A Christian Heretic, What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Post 11 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

Controversial Christian leaders. Often they make headlines of late around pedophilia, endorsing political leaders from the pulpit, linking tragic events around the globe to atheists, gays, you name it if the group isn’t Christian it must be their fault. Now a Michigan Evangelical paster is stirring up trouble, but not for any of these tried and true reasons. Rob Bell is preaching about God’s love and the saving power of Jesus to tens of thousands of people.

Huh? He is Evangelizing thousands of people to be Christian and still he is in trouble. The trouble surrounds his notion that it isn’t all about Heaven and Hell, it is also about what you do while you’re here on Earth oh and not as many folks go to Hell as other Christian leaders claim. The other heretical notion that guess what no one really knows what happens when we die. So his crimes are also tried and true, just a bit older in form. He is a true heretic: calling into question religious dogma and asking his followers to question it to. He is one of the most interesting Christian leaders I’ve come across lately. I can’t wait to read and review his new book: “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Trailer for the New Book: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODUvw2McL8g

Background on the controversy: http://www.religionnews.com/index.php?/godfactor/is_rob_bell_a_heretic/

Rob Bell’s response: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/19/rob-bell-punches-back-against-claims-of-heresy/

I hope that more Christians like Bell get the press and have the courage to speak loudly, there are a lot of other people trying to make their faith look horrible, bigoted, and full of fear and hate. There is such a thing as a good, love-filled, and love-driven Christian — they just get in trouble when too many people notice.

P.S. Thank you to my friend Lily who is in a theology program for first telling me about the Rob Bell controversy being discussed in her class.

The Reliability of Change: why religion matters to this humanist

Post 8 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

In my part of the world, that of urban liberal college campuses (my day job is on a campus) it seems the world is oh so gay (not meant as a pejorative for once). I’ve got LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) colleagues, friends, family members. Queer-headed families are part of the norm for me. So are pride festivals, conferences overflowing with people who bend just about any identity one can imagine. My religious community has queer folk all around raising kids, serving coffee, speaking from pulpits. I say this to show what my normal level is (which for some may seem heavenly, or Gomorrahesque depending on your outlook).

Now, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in recent memory was one that was filled to the brim with religion, there was god language, shawls, mats, labyrinths, religious texts, smudging, calling the quarters, singing, dancing, and yes even Humanists and atheists. Not only was this one of the most religiously diverse experiences I’ve ever been in but it was also one of the queerest. At the beginning of February in Minneapolis after months of planning the national gay and lesbian task force came to Minneapolis. And not only did it bring a whole lot of LGBT folk, it packed a whole lot of spirit and faith as well. During the larger annual conference called Creating Change, another mini conference happened called Practice Spirit, Do Justice (PSDJ). There were moment when the two blurred in some amazing ways but what happened at PSDJ seemed to be somehow a special hidden area as well.

For this gay humanist it couldn’t have been more fun. I saw religious leaders both queer and allies talking about things lgbt people rarely seem to get together to talk about, god and how we as a movement in tat wit this notion. How religion is a part of our society and can hinder as well as help LGBT people achieve the equality we are working for. I met gay and gay friendly Mormons, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Native American Elders, Atheists, Quakers, Buddhists, Pagans, Wiccans, and so many more traditions during these few short days. I’ve been thinking about the LGBT families and individuals in religious spaces for a while now. I see this area of society as crucially important for us to move forward. I think we have done a lot in the secular arena very quickly, lots of amazing things that people just a little older than I couldn’t imagine happening in their lifetime and people just a little younger barely noticing as new and different.

We’ve done this great work by building some walls and opting out of spaces. Important walls that helped people who had been hurt by the religions they trusted and the families they loved. Opted out of the communities that turned their backs. We’ve built new families, communities, homes, religious groups, and spaces to heal. But I feel like things are changing, in church-time, about a decade or two after we would like. But they are changing none the less. This is something we can’t ignore or belittle, there have always been individuals and congregations here and there that have gone against the fray and opened the circle. There have been whole denominations, though they tended to be smaller ones, less “mainstream” or the ones we’ve created ourselves as LGBT people have done time and again when they couldn’t find what they need in the mainstream. But now, finally the small overtures and special rules that sometimes have allowed gay people to participate, and sometimes have taken that away are becoming something more. Clergy are able to be out; we are starting to be able to be married in places of worship and be out in religious choirs, and in the church office; and we are being recognized as being in the pews already. We aren’t those gays out there; we are the congregants already at the table.

By showing up to the table and refusing to give up our seat we do create change. Slowly, continuously, but just existing in places that sometime don’t want us or feel safe we are less the other and more just a committee member or coffee server. It isn’t always dramatic but these constant interactions where we just are start to pile up. We just are on tv, we just are at the office, we just are getting the mail. We just are. And by being in places that might not have always wanted us we are doing amazing things, life saving things.

Now, you might be wondering why a humanist cares. I gave up the Christian space long ago, as a gay man, as a nonbeliever, as someone who was left feeling betrayed by religion. I’ve found my spaces, created some, joined others, and have a life that goes over, under, and between places I don’t want to be. Why does what happens in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church matter to me when I can go about my merry gay humanist life without walking through the doors ever again? Because our communities’ children are in those places I’ve fought to opt out of, as many have. Our children or in the places next door to the MCC churches we’ve built, the liberal synagogues we’ve founded. LGBT people are unique in a lot of ways, but one way that I would argue we are different than almost any minority group in the world; we rarely create and raise the next generation of our community.

So I learned a lot about religious community, religious organizing, progressive faith, and the power of building bridges at Practice Spirit, Do Justice. But the lesson that finally hit home for me is that we truly are everywhere. And while it is true that it is pretty rare for LGBT people to be raised by LGBT people (though it does happen) it is also true that I know a lot of nontheists, religious liberals, and other people in my life that grew up in religious spaces that didn’t work and even hurt them. Most of the amazing LGBT religious leaders and our allies are not a part of the religion of their childhood either. So opting back in to religious conversation doesn’t just help LGBT youth, it helps humanists youth, atheist youth, Unitarian youth, and so many other young people that could grow up to be amazing agents of change from within the traditions we’ve left. While it is true that gay people are making change by just being who they are in spaces that might not be comfortable all the time, the same is true for those who don’t believe in god. Just being who we are as nontheists at work, school, and in conversations changes minds. Five years ago I didn’t think I would have worked three years at a church, voted for and elected an African American president, or have ten countries around the world recognize same-sex marriages as equal. That is in five short years. Now imagine how much the world could change in the next five? What if instead of arguing with so much of the world we had conversations? I’m excited to see how much my showing up time and again in religious spaces changes them. I’m betting in ways I can’t even imagine.