Intelligent Humanism: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Michael Werner, former president of the American Humanist Association, examines the various courses of action humanists can take to explain a lifestance that appeals to both the heart and mind.

Have you had problems with being a humanist living in a highly religious area of the country? Here are some typical problems.

At a Christmas dinner a close relative who doesn’t know of your life stance announces that she has joined an evangelical church,is really into it, and invites you to come. How about a teenage son or daughter who thinks she or he has had a direct experience with God?  Maybe a close friend tells you she is considering using a non-scientific and untested medical treatment. Maybe you are at the deathbed of a friend who asks you to pray with them. Or maybe a customer of yours says they can’t stand gays and lesbians because the Bible says homosexuality is wrong.

All the rational answers we may have seem impotent in the face of these typical real world personal confrontations that many humanists experience. Of course, we have no simple formula to guide us. Like most ethical dilemmas, we are faced with choosing between our high principles and pragmatic outcomes with no sure formula for decision-making. Why is it nature that gave us clear rational methods for trigonometry but not for human relations?  When people make irrational choices, it is doubtful that reason can persuade them otherwise.

Science and reason are powerful tools for understanding the world but are pretty useless in these types of situations. Most humanists have highly tuned skills for critical intelligence, but our emotional intelligence often may not match. We may not have the intuitive skills in choosing the best path or the social skills in how to handle it. When do we refrain from criticism and direct confrontation? When is it best to confront the situation directly? When is it better to approach the issues indirectly? There are no easy answers, as all of us have discovered at some point in our lives.

There is a long debate going on amongst us for how “in your face” to be with our humanist lifestance. Specifically, the debate centers on how aggressive we should be in our attacks against religion. Undoubtedly, religion has benefited many; the real question is whether religion ultimately does greater harm than good and, if so, what do we do about it. Each individual situation demands its own solutions using our best skills of judgment and tact.

Psychologists know that, to get someone to change, it is better to hold a mirror up than to tell them directly. Writers, artists, and dramatists have long employed the technique of indirectness to more powerfully get their point across. Dickens doesn’t have to preach to you about compassion and social responsibility when he tells the story of Oliver Twist; you can viscerally feel it. Sometimes it’s not what you directly say, but what you imply by other means that is more effective.

The LGBT movement was torn on these issues when the confrontation with police at the Stonewall riots led to an “in your face” acknowledgement of their identity. The mood changed from staying in the closet to “We’re here, and we’re queer,” purposely embracing the derogatory term to affirm their identity without shame.

By the same token I have seen a gay man in a long term relationship in my workplace openly talk about his partner and their rather normal and quiet life together. I saw people’s attitudes around him change as his ethical life spoke volumes, and it became hard for those around him to maintain their prejudice.

Sometimes how we role model our humanist lifestance is most important. Studies have shown that people measure a person’s character in a matter of seconds because evolution has developed in us great intuitive powers to rate the trustworthiness of others. If we talk of humanist ethics, it is not something that people will believe unless they feel it living in us. Come across harshly, and the game is over, and no rational argument will win the day. As Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.”

In the end we have no simple answers for when to be confrontational and when to use more subtle skills of persuasion and also when to just let it go. We have critical intelligence, we have persuasive intelligence, and we also have supportive intelligence and wisdom is in knowing which to use and how to use them.