Archive for June, 2010


Christopher Hitchens Has Cancer

Hitchens is being treated for cancer of the esophagus. We can’t say that our prayers are with him, nor would he want us to. For what it’s worth, I wish him good luck.

What should Humanists do when we doubt that sending good thought has any magical power?

1. Absorb the lesson: don’t smoke. Esophageal cancer is strongly linked to smoking.

2. Enjoy every precious moment while you have them.


AHA Conference Day 2 – Art & Religion & Science & Reason – Zelda Gatuskin

A session on the final day of the conference, this one was close to my heart. I am an artist myself, having sung in choirs for around fifteen years, and performed on stage in over fifty productions. I love to recite poetry and prose, and derive some of my greatest pleasure from theatre, film, and music. I studied ballet as a child, and have recently taken up dancing classes again. I studied Drama and Education as an undergraduate while teaching Shakespeare in prisons around Britain, then taught English Literature and Drama as a High School teacher, before receiving my Master’s degree in Arts in Education here at Harvard. And now, I’m studying my doctorate, preparing to write a dissertation on how the arts promote human development. In short, the arts have been central to my personal and professional life for many, many years.

Perhaps because of this personal involvement, I feel that the role of the arts in modern Humanism has been deeply undervalued – indeed I explored this in my first article for The New Humanism. Generally, in nonreligious circles, science is given more weight and attention than the arts and this, I think, has somewhat unbalanced Humanism. Therefore, I was excited to see this presentation advertised in the program, and made sure to attend.

In general, I felt Gatuskin made a well-argued presentation that covered many of the central points: too often the arts are marginalized in Humanist discoursed due to the focus on science, and particularly due to the mistaken idea that, while the sciences are rational and of cognitive value, the arts are emotive and cannot help us develop our understanding. Further, NAME pointed out that the arts are often associated with religion (much great art takes religious subjects or was inspired by religious texts, after all), and that this has further undermined their place in the Humanist movement.

As far as this goes, this is a valuable analysis, one I agree with wholeheartedly. What I thought to be missing was a consideration of what strategies we might use to better integrate the arts into the Humanist movement: the problem was powerfully articulated, but the solution was almost completely absent.

It seems to me that any attempt to integrate the arts robustly into the Humanist movement must address at least the following three challenges: first, the parlous state of the arts in US public schools; second, the development of Humanist artistic rituals to accompany significant moments in life; and third, the recovery and reinvigoration of a truly Humanist artistic tradition. None of these challenges will be easy to solve: in these times of economic hardship, the arts are facing ruthless cuts in classrooms and communities; some Humanists are extraordinarily ritual-averse, even to the extent of a seeming allergy to communal singing of any kind; and the idea of creating “Humanist art” is controversial even within the nonreligious community.

Nonetheless, here are some ideas. Securing the place of the arts in schools will depend on our ability to take control of the discussion around educational ends, and argue in favor of an expanded concept of the purpose of education which is not only broader than meeting scores in standardized tests, but is broader than preparing students to be successful in a 21st Century economy. If we can convince parents (who, of course, are also voters) that their children will be best-served by a full education which introduces them to the great modes of thinking developed by human beings over millennia of civilization, then the role of the arts will seem obvious. If we keep playing catch-up, trying to argue that the arts can fulfill the goals of education established by others, then the arts will struggle to hang on to even the precarious position they now cling to.

In order to increase the level of comfort in the Humanist community with artistic ritual, I think it’s best to start by simply developing some, and encouraging people to attend. My experience is that even those who think that they hate the arts can be won over if they actually participate. While working in UK prisons, I met many inmates who thought that theatre wasn’t for them. But after engaging, with others, in that artistic experience, they found value in it, and many, now, wouldn’t give up theatre for the world. I’m not suggesting that every Humanist will immediately become a choirboy after one singalong, but I do feel that simply encouraging people to get involved in communal art making will demonstrate its value to some.

Finally the question of “Humanist Art”. I have two suggestions here. First, let’s reclaim the artistic heritage of humankind for Humanism. Even though much, perhaps most, of the greatest art created across the millennia does take a religious subject or was created as part of a religious tradition, it was all created by human beings. And, from a Humanist perspective, it is a representation of the extraordinary creativity of the human species. Since we reject any concept of true religious “inspiration”, we can happily claim the great religious art as a manifestation of human ability. Second, I do not see any problem with creating artworks which explicitly or implicitly promote Humanist values. Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a perfect example of such a work – not only is it a compelling story, filled with literary references and appealing to children and adults alike, but it also contains a powerful Humanist message. We should not be ashamed of works like this – the arts have always been used as methods to convey a message and to promote a cause, and by refusing to develop Humanist art which does the same for us, we abdicate the field and leave it to the religious, who will certainly make use of art to promote their message.

If we were to take these three steps, I think the Humanist movement would be much more vibrant, inclusive, exciting and beautiful.


AHA Conference Day 3 – Critical Thinking in Schools Panel

The final event I attended at the AHA Conference was a panel on the state of critical thinking in American Schools, featuring Brant Abrahamson, Dr. Rodger E. Cryer, Paula Fraser, Hemant Mehta, and Prof. Andy Norman. As I whole I thought the panel did well, presenting some excellent ideas as to how to improve the ability of young children to think critically. One approach which struck me as particularly valuable was asking students to catch the teacher out in argumentative fallacies – this is bound to engage students while teaching them how effective arguments are constructed. Hemant Metha was also a highlight, speaking with passion about his methods of getting students excited about math, and reminding the audience of the power of the new social media to bring teachers into conversation, helping them share resources and improve on each others’ creations.

One standout theme was the importance of encouraging a culture of questioning, both for teachers and for students. If a teacher can present creative questions that require real thought (in contrast with the simplistic questions often found in textbooks), while enabling and encouraging students to ask questions of their own, then it is far more likely that students will develop the skills and dispositions necessary to become critical thinkers.

It was fitting, I think, that the final speaker on the panel should have been Dr. Norman, since his presentation itself applied critical thinking to the topic of the panel, and to the Humanist movement itself. Dr. Norman reminded us that very few people consider themselves deficient when it comes to rationality – it’s always the other person who is irrational – and that Humanists are neither immune to this propensity nor to irrational thinking. This is a particularly important message to a community that frequently considers itself the guardian of rationality, science and critical thinking: we mustn’t develop a blind-spot when it comes to our own thinking.

I think the panel perhaps suffered from three limitations. First, although there was a wealth of practical experience on display, there was little explicit reference to empirical research which supported any of the techniques and suggestions presented. Few areas of human development have received as much attention as the development of critical thinking, so it was a surprise to see little of this research mobilized to support the arguments being made. Second, I didn’t get such a clear sense as to why encouraging critical thinking was particularly urgent now, and why it should be a central plank of the Humanist movement. I believe it is important, and should be a primary goal of our movement, but I felt the argument as to why could have been better made during the panel. Third, one issue which I felt was insufficiently addressed was the question of transfer: lots of educational research demonstrates that people frequently are unable to transfer their ability to solve a problem in one context to solve a similar problem in a different context. Sometimes, even if the fundamental structure of two problems is the same, if the problems are encountered in different contexts, people will find themselves unable to solve the second problem even if they have learnt how to solve the first.

In response to this question, WHO raised the important role of thinking dispositions (as opposed to knowledge or skills) in developing critical thinking. Thinking dispositions, or “habits of mind”, refers to the idea, promoted by some researchers, that to become a critical thinker one must not only know how to think critically, but must care to do so, and be able to identify occasions on which critical thinking is necessary. In other words, we need to develop in young people the ability to find problems, as well as solve them, and help encourage them to get into the habit of thinking critically. Once we recognize that helping students think critically involves more than teaching them a series of skills, but also requires fostering positive motivation to ask questions, and the desire and ability to find problems, we will do a far better job.


AHA Conference Day 1 – Secular Student Alliance Session on Growing the Student Movement – August E. Brunsman IV and Jesse Galef

August and Jesse gave a fluent and helpful account of the current state of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), outlining the success of their experimental program in North California, where a professional organizer was used to massively increase growth of students groups in that area. They also provided sage advice on how to grow student communities, how to deal with difficult transitions of leadership between one year and the next, and how to develop the capacities of young Humanist

The two speakers spoke eloquently about the four prongs of the SSA’s current approach: Activism, Community, Education and Service, but I was left wondering “What about scholarship?” Presumably, this is one of the main reasons young people become students, and yet the potential for the SSA to advance Humanistic scholarship among young thinkers went unmentioned in their presentation. This is particularly important for graduate students, who are often looking for interesting projects to investigate, and reputable journals to submit their work to, and who might be convinced to spend more scholarly effort on Humanism and related topics were they supported in doing so.

To give an example of what I mean, I’m about to head to the Institute for Humane Studies (HIS) for a week-long Seminar called “Scholarship and a Free Society”. The IHS is, essentially, a Libertarian organization which wants smart graduate to become Libertarians too, and then write journal articles, studies and books about Libertarianism. They pay for everything – food, board, the speakers, everything. They will help me with career options, by recommending open faculty positions and keeping me abreast of faculty appointments. In short, they are willing to do a LOT for me, and I am not even a Libertarian!

As far as I know, there are no equivalent organizations that do the same for Humanist scholars. I have not been able to find a single seminar series which invites graduate students to spend a week studying Humanism, even for a modest fee: those organizations which do offer courses in Humanism (some of which were represented at the Conference) tend to charge prices far in excess of what most students can afford, and often do not draw upon well-known and respected academics.

Further, the existing Humanist scholarly publications seem somewhat lackluster and lacking in real intellectual energy and weight. This means that tope young scholars are likely to bypass Humanistic topics for more fertile and exciting intellectual areas. And any movement without a core of top minds leading the charge is unlikely to grow as fast as it otherwise might.

Might the SSA provide something similar, or at least put some resources into furthering Humanist scholarship? In response to my question, August revealed that the SSA has a “secret motto”: “Mobilizing Students for a New Enlightenment”. For some reason, however, this slogan is kept in the background. To my mind, this is an excellent mission, particularly for a certain sector of the graduate community who respect Enlightenment ideas and want to feel part of a movement with real intellectual heft. Imagine the difference in tone that might result among the Humanist Community were this to become the rallying-cry of young Humanists around the USA. It also has the benefit of linking Humanism with a proud tradition of radical thought, allying us with figures like Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Locke, Smith and Rousseau.

Further, the concept of “a New Enlightenment” (similar to the Royal Society of Arts’ idea of the “21st Century Enlightenment”) makes clear that the challenge ahead of the Humanist movement is a battle of ideas, as well as a call for political change and a march toward a better, more humane society. Finally, by associating ourselves with one of the great progressive shifts in human history we are reminded that to achieve our goals we need to raise our sights and raise our game. Seems like a win-win to me.


Religious and Secular Humanisms

From Jim Farmelant:

At this past Sunday’s Humanist Discussion Group meeting, we discussed religious humanism versus secular humanism.

I, very briefly, outlined the history of religious humanism in the United States, emphasizing the role of the Ethical Culture Society, and the development of a humanist wing within the Unitarian Church as central factors. I pointed out that at a philosophical level, both religious humanism and secular humanism share a great deal in common. Both religious and secular humanists subscribe to a naturalistic world view. They are both nontheists. Both reject dualism, which would divide the world into natural and supernatural realms. Both emphasize science as our most reliable
method for understanding the world. both value reason and democracy and both tend to emphasize the importance of human rights.

On the other hand, religious and secular humanists, tend to differ in that religious humanists are inclined to see humanism as being either itself a religion or, at the very least, an alternative way of being religious. While this is to some extent a matter of semantics, there are some real differences here in terms of emphasis and nuance. Humanist Unitarians, for instance, are members of a church, and they generally adhere to a clerical model, with a professional clergy (many UU ministers are avowed atheists or agnostics). They hold Sunday services where they do many of the things that one might find in a Sunday service at a liberal Protestant church. The Ethical Culture Society is much less
churchy, but nevertheless, the Society has, from its founding by Felix Adler in 1876, alway defined itself as a religion.

It follows a congregational model. Most Societies have professional Leaders, who are very often ex-clergymen (for instance, Tom Ferrick, an ex-Catholic priest, at one time, served as Leader for the Boston Ethical Society). Both humanist Unitarians and Ethical Cultaralists played leading roles in the drafting of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933 which the authors described their philosophy as one of religious humanism.

In contrast, secular humanists tend to define humanism as philosophy or a life stance. For most avowed secular humanists, humanism is emphatically not a religion. Secular humanists tend to see themselves as the successors to the freethought movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. They tend to look back to people like Voltaire and Diderot, Holbach, Hume, Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Colonel Robert Ingersoll, as role models and sources of inspiration.

Secular humanists are often, to varying degrees, overtly anti-religious. Other areas of difference, include attitudes towards ritual and myth. Religious humanists are often partial to taking rituals, derived from traditional religious faiths, and redefining them in non-supernaturalistic terms. Secular humanists, while not necessarily rejecting all rituals, seem much less interested in that sort of thing. Religious humanists tend to have a more positive attitude towards myth. They tend to the Joseph Campbell view of myth, which while viewing myths as not being literally true, see them as sources of wisdom concerning the human condition. Secular humanists tend towards a more debunking view of myth. Connected with this are differences in attitudes towards religious language. Some religious humanists while clearly rejecting belief in the existence of God as a being or entity, are willing to hold on to the term “God”, which they seek to redefine in non-supernaturalist terms. The philosopher John Dewey, in his book, A Common Faith, was a noted proponent of this approach. There he wrote:

“The idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, the idea of the divine, is one of ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and projection. But this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions — including man and human association — that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization. We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God.’ I would not insist that the name must be given.”

“One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word ‘God’ to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. . . . What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation. For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe. Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.”

Secular humanists, in contrast, are likely to agree with two of Dewey’s students, Sidney Hook and Corliss Lamont, both of whom objected that this attempt at retaining God-talk was likely to create confusion among both humanists and more conventional religious believers. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this positive attitude towards religious language language constitutes a point of convergence between religious humanism and liberal Protestantism. For instance within the Anglican and Episcopal churches, there has for some time existed an extreme liberal tendency, which

drawing upon the work of theologians like Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rejects traditional theism, while still talking about God. In the 1960s, the Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson presented this outlook in a bestselling book, Honest to God. Later on, similar views were promoted by the Cambridge University theologian Don Cupitt, who founded what he called the Sea of Faith movement. In the US, the retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has popularized similar views in a number of books. Bishop Spong in fact identifies himself as a humanist and was even given a Humanist of the Year award by the American Humanist Association some years ago.

Some readings:;;;

For a more sophisticated presentation, please review:

Religious and Secular Humanism–What’s the difference?
by Robert M. Price
from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.;

Also check out, the AHA presentation, written by Fred Edwords:;

For a secular humanist on the New Humanism, check out the third review of Good Without God listed on its Amazon sales page:;

Also see:

“Six Prominent American Freethinkers” byJames Farmelant & Mark Lindley;
(See especially the discussions of Felix Adler,
George Santayana and John Dewey as examples of religious humanists. Ingersoll, Rand, and Harrington perhaps qualify more as examples of secular humanists.

“The New Atheism (and New Humanism)”, published in Religious Humanism, Fall 2008, by James Farmelant.  Primarily about the famous Four Horsemen (i.e. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens), but also includes a brief discussion of the New Humanism as represented by, who else, Greg Epstein. Note that this was written before Greg did his book. So obviously, there would now be much more to say about Greg as a humanist, and how his New Humanism relates to the older varieties of both religious and secular humanism.;–and-New-Humanism-


Humanist Identity in Action – AHA Conference Day 2

In this panel, moderated by AHA Vice President Becky Hale, we were promised new ideas which would “help propel Humanism to the forefront”, and we got them in spades!

Greg Epstein

The second morning of the conference began with an address from Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein spoke about the importance of providing a “positive alternative” to religious communities for those who seek solace, comfort and community without God. He assured us that, in his experience travelling the country, the nonreligious do indeed number 40-50 million Americans, and 1 in 4 young Americans, and he reminded us that Humanists are perhaps the only demographic group which has increased in number in every state of the USA over the past few years.

Epstein further stressed that, as Humanists, our emphasis should be on goodness, not just our lack of religious belief, affirming that we have the basis, in three words, for a movement – we are “Good Without God” – the title of his recent bestselling book.

While travelling the country to promote his book, the most common response Epstein encountered was “how can I get involved in Humanism?” Too often, however, he didn’t know what to say. If there is no real community nearby, nowhere which can provide these budding Humanists’ needs, then it’s hard to know where to suggest these enthusiastic would-be contributors should turn.

Therefore, Epstein reminded us that while we should criticize the theology of religion, we must also remember that religion offers people real benefits, for which we Humanists need to provide positive alternatives.

I know from my experience with the Chaplaincy that Greg Epstein, Sarah Chandonnet and John Figdor are building those alternatives at Harvard. Hundreds of Harvard students have been involved at the HCH as members, and we are lucky to be able to draw thousands of attendees to our events each year.

Even more important, is that Epstein averred, we now have an accredited Humanist training program at Harvard Divinity School, with a course on Humanist Leadership, which will soon be available to any Harvard student, and to students at other nearby universities. This program will provide professionally trained leaders who can spread Humanism around the country.

Finally, Epstein asserted that we can’t accept an attitude which says the world isn’t ready for Humanism – we need to get involved now to make positive change. “This is only the beginning of a movement that will change the world”, he said, “It’s not our responsibility to finish this work, but neither are we free to desist from it”.

Roy Speckhardt

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, in a short address outlining the impetus for the Humanist Teacher Corps, urged that Humanists need to be active from the early stages of developing teaching materials, to combat the efforts of religious fundamentalists who wish to influence the school curriculum.

He asserted that there is only one way to bring about lasting change – education – and that the enemy of Humanism is hate, fear and ignorance.

The Humanist Teacher Corps aims to create resources for teachers, parents and students, provide presentations to the public on Humanism and education, and serve as a watchdog, advocating for Humanist curricula and assessing state standards to ensure they meet rigorous secular expectations.

The Corps has already reviewed state standards in four states, and work is continuing apace.

You can get involved here:

Todd Stiefel – Visionary Dude

Stiefel, the founder and president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, spoke about the “In Their Own Words” Educational Campaign, which he promised was both “interesting and controversial” – a promise amply fulfilled!

He stressed that scripture is the foundation for the moral core of fundamentalists, and that some advocate building the educational curriculum and legal system of the USA on scriptural principles. Therefore, demonstrating the weakness of scripture, and promoting Humanist values instead, was a crucial goal of the Humanist movement.

We need to show, Stiefel argued, how Humanist Values are “mainstream” – “good American Values”, and that, in fact, certain elements of scripture were deeply offensive and immoral.

Therefore, Stiefel has spearheaded and ad-campaign, presenting accurate, in-context quotes from scripture presented with Humanist beliefs to contrast with them, to educate people about the fallibility of scripture and compare it with positive Humanist beliefs. Ads each tackle a particular moral topic, such as “violence”, “hate” etc. Hopefully, these stark contrasts between biblical messages of violence and intolerance, and inclusive, positive messages of Humanism, will encourage people to “Consider Humanism”.

More information is upcoming at the campaign’s website,

David Niose, President of AHA – Humanism and Equal Protection

Dave Niose, President of the AHA, spoke briefly about the importance of strategizing when it comes to filing lawsuits to promote secularism and Humanism, outlining a new strategy which would approach suits, at the state level, on the grounds of Equality and Equal Protection rather than the traditional approach which stressed the Establishment Clause.

Niose argued that, while we have successfully be making our argument using the establishment clause for many years, there are problems with this approach.

First, there is no identity component to such suits – anyone can bring such a suit, even fundamentalist religious individuals, and so it does not distinguish Humanists in any way.

Second, the exact placement of the line between church and state is debatable, and so certain judgments may not go our way.

Third, Equality, and Equal Protection Under the Law are newer, more vital concepts which very few people question today, and therefore might profitably be mobilized in our favor.

Because of this, Niose suggests that it’s time to begin to argue for the rights of nonreligious people on the basis of Equal Protection, rather than the Establishment Clause. Citing the example of the Gay Rights Movement, Niose believes this may be a more effective strategy in the long run.

One example of a case that is being brought as an equal protection issue is how, in Massachusetts, teachers must begin the day by reciting the pledge of allegiance. Almost inevitably, the version of the Pledge recited includes a reference to God, and is therefore alienating for young nonreligious people. Under the new strategy, this discriminatory practice will be challenged on Equal Protection grounds, not Establishment Clause grounds. As Niose stresses, we will be asking saying to the court “we’ve always looked at it this way, but now look at this new way”.

There is no guarantee of success, but Niose is confident that if the case is decided fairly on the basis of the law, we should win, and this discriminatory practice might end.

My Thoughts

Such a packed session raises a slew of thoughts in your correspondent, but I will just put out one idea which I had the chance to raise in the question and answer session:

Do we really want to represent ourselves as an oppressed minority? What does this buy us, and how might it hold us back? If we continue to represent ourselves as a maligned minority, I don’t think we will ever become seen as a powerful force for cultural and civic change in this country. The problem is the passivity of that approach, its reactive nature. I, as a Humanist, want more than equal rights. I want societal change, perhaps on a very large scale. To achieve that we need to move beyond recognizing areas in which we are discriminated against, and get active in our local communities to build Humanist alternatives, as Epstein suggests. And we mustn’t wait until equal rights are achieved to do this – we have to start now.

As Becky Hale inspiringly averred in her final words, as Humanists we are up against religions offering their adherents eternity, and we may sometimes feel we have little of value to offer as a counterpoint. However, Hale says, “we have something better to offer than eternity: We have today.” The fight to make better todays for all Human beings on this planet cannot be simply a fight against fundamentalist principles in schools, against oppressive religious dogma, and against discrimination in law. It must also be a fight for a more just and humane community, society and world.


Creationism in Schools – In Support of Questioning

In a packed session at the end of the first day of the AHA Conference, Steve Newton and Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education presented a compelling analysis of the history of Creationism in Schools in the United States, and argued forcefully that Humanists must get involved at all levels to prevent young people falling prey to nonsense taught in the name of science.

As an educator I am fully on board with their project, and think it crucially important. However, I want to stress the value of allowing scientific ideas and theories to be challenged by students and teachers in an appropriate way. Much of the discussion during the session centered around the problematic nature of teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories. But I suggest that Humanists should support the rigorous examinations of arguments and counter-arguments using scientific evidence, and that support for this idea is central to good science teaching.

There is, perhaps, nothing more scientific than considering the possibility you are wrong, and analyzing the evidence for and against a proposition, and attempting to disprove a theory is the very heart of the scientific method. Young people may well benefit from investigating the weaknesses in current scientific theories, whether evolution or otherwise, and they may entertain some pretty wild ideas when putting those theories to the test.

We mustn’t, in the name of protecting science from religious extremism or pseudoscience, stop students questioning.


Discussion Group Protocol

Harvard Humanist Alumni

Humanist Discussion Group

Working Protocol

Organizer: Rekha Vemireddy


The Humanist Discussion Group (the “HDG”) is a twice monthly discussion group for people who identify with, or wish to investigate, Humanism, as defined by the American Humanist Association:

“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.”#

The HDG emphasizes critical thinking, fact-based presentations, and articulate marshalling of evidence and coherent reasoning to support one’s position.  Accordingly, the HDG is open to discussion about the basic tenets of Humanism itself.

Although most attendees are atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists, the HDG is open to people who believe in the supernatural.  The term members refers to regular attendees of HDG sessions.

The HDG includes all types of Humanists, religious and secular, militant and conciliatory.  Accordingly, members need not have an interest in congregational life.

The HDG is sponsored by Harvard Humanist Alumni.  Although many members are Harvard affiliates, the HDG is open to all.  Newcomers are welcome to all the regular meetings.  The HDG is normally held on weekends.
Group Procedures

Regular meetings will officially start with all attendees introducing themselves, with an emphasis on their religious/spiritual, philosophical, political and/or ethics interests and background, Harvard or Boston affiliation, and social organizing activities.  The facilitator will then briefly review the other group procedures.

Regular meetings will officially start no later than 15 minutes after the posted time.  A discussion circle will be no more than 10 people; accordingly, a given meeting may generate multiple discussion circles.

We strongly urge firm RSVP responses to meetings from all members and attendees.

We strive for an inclusive, considerate discussion culture.  Each attendee should avoid chronically interrupting others, and should address others’ positions respectfully.  The HDG is not an appropriate forum for expressions of misanthropy, unreasoning hostility, or hate speech, including racism and sexism, and any such behavior will be addressed initially at the check-in following the meeting.

Each meeting will conclude with an opportunity for each attendee to briefly evaluate what went well and what could have been improved about the meeting (a “check-in”).

At the end of each meeting, the facilitator will invite announcements from the attendees.

Discussion Topics

Topics discussed range from the abstract–religion, philosophy, ethics, epistemology, history, ancient culture, politics, the relationship between science and culture, geopolitics, to the personal–marriage, romantic relationships, parenting, friendship, social associations, and communication.

Most meetings will have a specific topic, often based on a reading or current event, which topic will be announced at least 5 days in advance through its Facebook site.  Most meetings will have a facilitator.

Any member or attendee may suggest a topic, whether on the HDG’s Facebook site or at a meeting.

Confidentiality Policy

The intellectual topics of discussion may be summarized on the New Humanism’s community blog.

Personal topics will NOT be so recorded, and attendees are not to discuss an attendee’s personal disclosures with people outside the HDG.  The facilitator will introduce the HDG’s confidentiality policy.

In no event will the HDG record or publish a list of attendees.

On occasion, discussion circles may be taped by the media, researchers, or the organizer(s).  Any such taping will be announced in advance of the meeting, and only attendees who wish to opt-in to the taping will be so recorded.

Democratic Governance

We value input from all the members of the HDG; we encourage all members to assist in organization, including with suggestions of topics, introductory presentation of topics, and moderating meetings.

Facilitators will generally be members who are familiar with this protocol and who are knowledgeable about Humanism.


AHA Conference – LGBT Council Meeting with Jason Frye Kolarik

Jason Frye Kolarik gave an energetic and spirited account of the struggle for LGBT rights and its relationship to Humanism in the morning of the first day of the AHA Annual Conference. Jason reminded us, with countless examples, that the LGBT Movement’s march to equality is not yet over, and that many grotesque inequalities still remain. Humanists, with their positive, naturalistic worldview, have been long-time allies of LGBT Rights, and the LGBT Council of the AHA that Jason is spearheading is hoping to demonstrate this more fully and actively.

Through a focus on building community, activism over specific issues (like the provision of Proms which respect the equal rights of LGBT people), and education, Jason revealed how the LGBT Council hopes to promote LGBT issues within the Humanist Movement, while making the presence of Humanism felt amongst the LGBT movement. Since the AHA has been a staunch support of equality for decades, it seems to me that this is a natural and positive partnership, which Jason made clear today. And my experience of coming out on a Humanist service trip to New Orleans has shown me, in the deepest possible way, how nonjudgmental, open and welcoming communities can make a positive difference in the lives of LGBT Humanists. For these reasons I’m excited by the LGBT Council, and look forward to getting more involved in the future.


The Benefits of Ballrooms – Why Attend a Humanist Conference?

I’ve entered this as a convenience for James, who is en route to the American Humanist Association conference — Rick

I type this entry as I sit on the runway at Boston-Logan Airport, about to take to the sky for a 6 hour journey to San Jose. I will be traversing a distance of almost 2700 miles. If I were to go 600 miles farther, and in a different direction, I could be in London, my hometown – this is a serious distance I’m about to travel. Why am I doing it? Because I am attending, with a stalwart group of Harvard Humanists, “Humanism 2.0”, the 69th annual conference of the American Humanist Association (AHA).

This will be my first conference related to Humanism and, although I’ve attended and presented at many academic conferences, I’m not sure what to expect at this one. What, after all, is a conference on Humanism hoping to achieve? Presumably most of the attendees will already consider themselves Humanists, or why would they make the trip? So growing the movement is probably not a primary goal of the event. Some may be hoping to learn more about the ideals and aspirations of Humanism, but those with the commitment to travel to a conference may well feel they already have a firm grasp of the basics. And then there’s that intriguing moniker, “Humanism 2.0” – what is this supposed to mean? The reference to “Web 2.0” is clear, but the connection between the new generation of web tools and the Humanist movement is hazy to me. So, I approach the conference (literally, now, as we’ve taken off) with a certain amount of uncertainty.

This uncertainty regarding the purpose and nature of the conference is not inconsequential – how we Humanists represent ourselves to the public, and the sorts of events we choose to organize and endorse, will serve to shape the image of our movement in the public eye. As Sam Harris argued in a 2007 speech to the Atheist Alliance in 2007, “in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms… as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.”

Can Harris’ critique of the moniker “atheist” be fruitfully applied to “Humanist”, and do his concerns regarding our being marginalized as an “interest group which meets in hotel ballrooms” skewer Humanism 2.0, which is being held at the Doubletree near San Jose airport? Harris certainly thinks so – in the same speech he exhorts the nonreligious to “go under the radar”, avoiding any particular label (including “Humanist”), and simply “be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.” In other words, to label oneself a “Humanist”, as I do, and to go meet in hotel ballrooms, as I’m about to, may in the long-run be a misstep. So why am I taking this flight?

The problem in Harris’ argument peeks through in his concept of being “decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them”: essentially, he seems to view being “decent” and “responsible” as fairly unproblematic, and the primary project of those of us engaged in the Humanist or atheist movements as the destruction of “bad ideas”. But what if we are interested in the very questions of the nature of a decent, responsible life? What if, as well as destroying bad ideas, we want to promote a positive vision of humanity, exploring our capabilities and promise, and asserting our ability to make a better world? For that, we need do more than “go under the radar”: we need to meet, organize and advocate until our dreams for a more humane society are fulfilled – even if that means spending a few days in hotel ballrooms.

Therefore, in attending the AHA’s annual conference, I have three clear goals for myself. First and foremost, I want to describe to as many people as possible the extraordinary work done by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and to tell those stories which express how important the Chaplaincy has been in my life. It would be a blessing if every campus in America had as strong and positive a Humanist presence as that afforded by the Chaplaincy at Harvard, and I hope to encourage those I meet to lobby for the creation of such institutions in their colleges and alma-maters. If I can raise some money for the Chaplaincy while I’m at it, so much the better (we’re fundraising, and you can donate here – we’re grateful!).

Second, I’m excited just to meet and speak with Humanists from around America – to hear about their work and lives, and how they experience their Humanism in this very religious country. Sharing stories with other Humanists is one of the greatest joys in my life, and I’m particularly excited to hear from those striving to create nonreligious communities which provide fellowship and community for nonreligious people. This is important and underappreciated work, especially in such a deeply religious nation (so different from the UK!) and I want to hear from those who are busy doing it!

Third, I want to develop my skills and knowledge so that I can become a more effective leader in the Humanist community. As I make Humanism a more important part of my life (assistant editing The New Humanism, for example), I realize that this must become more than a hobby. My passion for spreading Humanist ideals across this nation and across the world only grows stronger the more time I dedicate to it, and I want my efforts to be well-targeted and powerful. I hope I can find inspiration at the conference which will help me achieve this aim.

To keep the readers of The New Humanism (and the folks at Atheist Nexus and Think Atheist!) in the loop, I’m going to blog at least twice a day throughout the conference, ensuring that you get the full details of what the Harvard group is up to. And this more frequent blogging will continue when we return, with regular updates from the Chaplaincy and thoughts on Humanist news and ideas. We hope you will join us for the next few days as we explore “Humanism 2.0”, and stay with us afterwards to!