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: http://www.americanhumanist.org/What_We_Do/Education_Center/Teacher_Corps.

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, http://www.considerhumanism.org

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.


2 Responses to “Humanist Identity in Action – AHA Conference Day 2”

  1. 1 Dave
    June 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Arguing equal rights does not require that we represent ourselves as an oppressed minority, nor does it suggest that we are seeking something less than societal change. As with the gay rights movement, arguing equal protection simply demonstrates that we are organized, aware of our identity, and determined to assert our rights. This, in turn, can result in societal change, because the rest of society will have to accept the fact that our demographic category demands recognition and respect, that deeply ingrained prejudices against nonreligion/nontheism will have to change. These prejudices are not necessarily “oppression,” but they are biases that, once changed, will bring about social change.

  2. June 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Interesting ideas, except that neither preaching goodness nor the Harvard Divinity School inspire me in any way. As for portraying nonbelievers as a victimized minority, I don’t know if that’s a negative, but it doesn’t have to involve a new wrinkle on identity politics, e.g. fostering a social identity of “Godless Americans” as a former leader of American Atheists tried to do.

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