The First in the Family Humanist Scholarship initiative, started in 2013 by Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA), provides resources to undocumented, foster care, homeless, and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college. “Responding directly to the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline in communities of color, BSLA is the first atheist organization to address college pipelining for youth of color with an explicitly anti-racist, multicultural emphasis,” says author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson, who runs the scholarship program. The fund has received support from the American Humanist Association, Foundation Beyond Belief, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Atheists United, as well as from scores of individuals from humanist and atheist communities. Cameron Cohen, one of this year’s First in the Family Humanist Scholarship awardees, is a twenty-year old from South Los Angeles and a student at Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
Humanism is in a very odd place right now. It grew by leaps and bounds during the twentieth century, with people gaining the ability to voice their opinions and choose their own destiny. However, as it has grown immensely in some areas, in others it has stagnated. During my short twenty years on this earth, I have noticed a disturbing trend towards anti-intellectualism in almost any community I have encountered. People are proud of the fact that they may not have much knowledge over any topic, and people who do are perceived as “know-it-alls.” What’s worse, people become completely shut off from learning about new subjects, especially if it goes against their preconceived notions of what they believe right. Be they gay, straight, atheist, or theist, I believe as Aristotle did: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
I believe humanism has several solutions to tackle these issues. The largest, of course, is education. People should be exposed to other ways of life, if only in limited quantity. Many communities become echo chambers filled with biases and misinformation. People do have the capacity to understand and even agree with other ways of living, even if they don’t agree on everything. Which leads me to my second point: empathy. Far too often, people have an “out of sight, out of mind” or an “I got mine, what’s your problem” mentality when it comes to human beings. I’ve noticed that people will very quickly begin to vilify people they perceive to be the source of the problem, regardless of whether or not they really are. Rather than try to understand the situation, they would rather believe what they want to about it.
Returning to my original notion of what humanism can to do for the world, I would like to address us, as atheists. A prime example of the biases within various communities came to me in an LA Times article by Phil Zuckerman. When I was in high school, I was asked if I was an atheist. When I said yes, the other person said, “Oh, so you do whatever you like, huh?” I said, “No, why do you believe that?” I didn’t receive a response. Somehow, through no fault of our own, we nonbelievers have been maliciously stereotyped as being people without morals and without compassion or general regard for human life. All of that despite the link I provided above, and the many like it. People have developed weird, preconceived notions about atheists, seeing us as worse than people of other religions. Rather than engage us to see why we think the way that we do, it is much easier to cast our opinions, our very lives even, as those of “godless heathens.”
Ultimately, I believe it is time for humanism to take the next step in its evolution. People will always fight both for their rights and the rights of others. Yet I have seen that even the most amicable of us aren’t free from the predisposition of our ancestors. We don’t have to agree on everything, but I believe this: we can agree to disagree amicably, peacefully, and constructively.