Some question in your mind has brought you to this web site and specifically to this section called “Meet the Humanist.” I would guess that you have already heard some of the reasons why we reject religion and supernatural beliefs, probably explained by greater thinkers more eloquent than I could ever hope to be, or by other voices more strident than I would ever care to be. So the question on your mind is more likely, “Why Humanism?”
It is only recently that I began to call myself a Humanist but I have been an atheist for about as long as I can remember. I settled that issue in my mind long ago and accepted the rather grim fact that it put me at odds with most of mainstream society. Consequently, I felt isolated for most of my life. I felt like I was born in the wrong century; that in spite of all the advances of reason and science, I was living in an era that future generations would look back on as merely the prolonged decline of the dark ages of religion – or perhaps the prelude to another one.
Of course, I was not completely alone; I knew plenty of people who were not particularly religious and some who rejected organized religion but remained “spiritual.” Almost none of the people I personally knew called themselves atheists. It was too heavy a term. Atheism has been burdened with loads of negative baggage foisted upon it by religions, which have traditionally been the sole arbiters of morality in most societies. At best, we atheists are usually portrayed as shallow, misguided and materialistic in the vulgar sense. Worse, we are supposedly amoral, immoral or just plain evil. This is the time-honoured tactic of demonizing your enemies and it has worked very well for religions. It has made atheism unthinkable for most of the world’s population and kept most atheists silent and isolated for centuries. This tactic was so effective on me that I didn’t even know my own brother was an atheist until just a couple of years ago. Some of my close friends and family knew I was an atheist but I was usually discouraged from raising the subject and I accepted the feeble excuse that my views were offensive to the religious. So, I was not quite “in the closet,” but I was certainly not open about my atheism.
The incident that caused me to come out of hiding and to look into Humanism was extremely trivial compared to the real traumas that countless people have suffered due to religion. It was merely a comment made by a colleague who had written an article defending certain statements of Winnipeg’s Chief of Police. The chief had said that prayer could help to reduce crime in the city and my friend heartily agreed, saying that people of all faiths should pray regularly. He also presented an either-or fallacy describing a wretched way of living as the only alternative for people who don’t pray. I objected to this and said that he had failed to take into account all of the good, decent non-believers who deliberately do not pray.
Well, he admitted his oversight and apologized – but this was not the issue that disturbed me, by far. No, it was his following explanation that left me dumbfounded: He said he had overlooked the non-believers in his article because he does not believe we really exist! He firmly believes that all people have faith in their hearts and maybe we just haven’t discovered it yet.
I was doubly shocked – not only by his casual dismissal and total ignorance of my deepest core values but also by my own cluelessness about his opinion. His comment was extremely patronizing, but it was not made sarcastically. He was sincere. I never imagined that this misconception about atheists was so deeply ingrained in some religious people. It is no wonder that they persist in trying to impose their morality on everyone else. They just do not accept the fact that we really do not believe in any gods, especially their particular god.
That was the moment I realized that it is the silence of people like me that permits the ignorance of people like him to continue. This silence allows religious zealots to push their moral agenda on society even from within our own governments; to chisel away at free speech, human rights, education and the barrier between church and state, while those who are openly atheist cannot, effectively, even hope to win an elected office unless they conceal their atheism. I could not remain silent and isolated any longer.
However, I was uneasy with the idea of seeking out people who shared my views. Although I have always tried to avoid falling into the atheist stereotype of an angry, cynical misanthrope, my default position has always been one of suspicion for most organized groups of people, including atheists. I’m just not a joiner. Also, I was not comfortable with the atheist label because it is a negative term, or at best, it is neutral. It does not describe what I believe, but only one thing that I do not believe.
While searching for a more satisfying alternative to the atheist label, I discovered that my brother had joined a group called the Humanist Association of Manitoba, now known as the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM). I had heard the term “secular humanism” before but I didn’t know it was an actual philosophy and a long-established movement with organizations promoting it. To my embarrassment, I thought “secular humanist” was just a derisive term that born-again Christians used to disparage ordinary “unsaved” people who don’t regularly attend church. For that misapprehension I can thank my ten years of working in a radio station that sells much of its airtime to American fundamentalist preachers.
So, I did some reading about Humanism, just a little research. I was not looking for a ready-made dogma to sign up for and submit to. Instead, like many who choose Humanism, I discovered that my own ideals already matched it perfectly: thinking based on evidence and reason, not hearsay and superstition; morality based on empathy and rationality, not the purported arbitrary edicts of an undetectable supernatural authority; human rights for all humans, not just humans like me; understanding that we are a part of nature, not the supposed divinely appointed masters of it; and giving our own purpose and meaning to our lives today, rather than hoping to be rewarded in the “afterlife,” which is otherwise known as death.
Apparently, I was a Humanist all along; I just didn’t know it.
In my search to replace the word atheist I found the word Humanist and I decided to keep both. One of the goals of HAAM is to take the word atheist away from the insinuations of the religious. We can go a long way toward neutralizing the demonization of atheists by proudly owning the terms atheist, secular and Humanist. By being open about our atheism while we continue to be decent, caring human beings who strive to be good not for the sake of a god but for the sake of goodness itself, we can put the lie to their holy books and their leaders who tell them that we are fools – lost, evil and corrupt. They may continue to believe the lies about us, but at least they will know that we really exist. I believe we must come out.
– Paul Morrow