Is Humanism the Answer?

As I reflect on the 76th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association, held June 8-11 in Charleston, South Carolina, I keep returning to a conversation I had with Conor Robinson, projects director with the Foundation Beyond Belief. “You have to wonder,” he said as we discussed what it will take to create recognizable, substantive change in our society, “is humanism the answer?”

He was serious. The question caught me off guard. Restraining the instinct to answer in the affirmative, I forced myself to hang a question mark on beliefs I may have been taking for granted.

After all, what is humanism? When you declare that you’re a humanist, what does that really mean? How do you conceptualize humanist philosophy? What role does your stated humanist values play in your daily life?

There were some complex and important topics tackled at the various plenary and panel sessions, awardee ceremonies, and individual interactions that were framed from a humanist standpoint. Issues addressed included colonialism, racism and white supremacy, the intersection of race and sexuality, gender identity and gender expression, being mindful of white saviorism in activism, and strategic ways the humanist community can be more inclusive of marginalized communities.

While most feedback was positive, there were those who reacted with umbrage to these matters being discussed. These reactions mirrored the resistance I’ve consistently encountered since joining the American Humanist Association as its social justice coordinator. To be honest, such opposition existed well before that.

I’ve been involved in this so-called “atheist movement” for about four years now. I’ve worked with organizations like Black Nonbelievers, American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry (via their African Americans for Humanism initiative), and now in a full-time, professional capacity with the AHA. Through all the atheist-centered organizing, conferences, meet ups, and social media groups, one thing has remained constant: so long as interests and discussions remain “on message,” you’re golden; but the moment you scribble outside the margins established by dominant group members, you’re then reimagined as something abominable.

For those unsure of what I mean by “on message,” I’m referring to what many people within the secular community consider to be the only issues atheists and secular humanists should prioritize: separation of church and state, (natural) science education, and challenging religion’s hegemonic monopoly over public policy matters.

It should go without saying that I firmly believe these focuses are needed. However, there is so much strife many must endure on a daily basis that has little or no explicit connection to god beliefs. To put it another way, even if all social ills originated from oppressive theistic beliefs, the popular means of secular advocacy fail to address or even touch upon these social problems in any meaningful sense. The social oppression experienced in everyday life is multidimensional and maintained beyond the single variable described as “religion.”

And if the way social issues manifest is multifaceted, shouldn’t our quest to counter the problems be multifaceted? This brings us back to Conor’s question: Is humanism the answer?

Last year, Dr. Anthony Pinn was featured on the Life After God podcast where he discussed the need for secular humanists to become more socially responsive. At one point he remarked: “I’m not interested in talking about humanism and atheism if they are not socially active—if they are not engaged in issues of justice.”

I followed up with Pinn in private and asked if he could explain what he meant by this statement. He replied:

If systems that are premised on human capacity, human responsibility, and human accountability within the confines of the material world and reason can’t offer a way to address the injustice encountered, they pose little of practical use.  If they can’t address the well-being of life, what do they offer beyond belittling rhetoric and negation of other systems?  If I can’t locate the HUMAN in humanism, it isn’t a system that can help me and those like me move through the world in productive ways.

Humanists talk a good game. We even have cute mantras like “good without a god” and “good for goodness’ sake.” But how do these words underpin our ethics and manifest in our responses to injustice? I’m not talking about boycotting “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, or demanding religious symbols be removed from public spaces. I’m referring to matters of social justice and inequality—issues that impact human rights, well-being, and life-or-death situations.

I can only imagine how many humanists reading this react with disgust at the term “social justice.” I’ve always found humanist aversion to social justice fascinating—and embarrassing. When describing the relationship between humanism and social justice, Danielle Muscato put it best:

Humanism and social justice activism are inseparable. I do activism because I care about human welfare and meaning and health and happiness. I believe that humans are responsible for our own lives and welfare and that positive change comes about through human action. That’s the definition of humanism. Doing social justice activism is a foundational, integral aspect of being a humanist.

Our society is sick. If humanist philosophy isn’t applied in any practical, meaningful way to correct the dominant cultural standards that oppress entire groups of people, what’s the point of it? If humanists aren’t actively informing and reshaping the culture that elected Trump, then what are we doing?

Complacency hinders our ability to recognize nontheism doesn’t preclude us from harmful ideals ingrained into all of us through socialization. This is why oppressive ideas preserved in dominant culture remain entrenched within atheist and humanist communities. We aren’t nearly as countercultural as we’d like to imagine. This is why it isn’t surprising this movement (and those heralded as “thought leaders”) continues to suffer from a sexist, racist, and flat-out white male problem based on profoundly flawed, elitist rationalism.

It’s imperative that humanists work to mitigate our contribution to oppressive systems. And to defy those systems. And to obliterate those systems. If we cannot, or if we refuse to do so, how can we seriously expect to supplant religious beliefs that comfort the weary, inspire the indignant, and embolden those in positions of power?

Contrary to what some may believe, the eradication of religion (which will never happen) won’t magically rid this nation of oppressive value systems like sexism, misogyny, heteronormativity, colonialism, racism, ableism, and xenophobia. Many in the trenches who dedicate themselves to fighting for human-centered issues like police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and LGBTQ rights don’t identify as humanist and are on the religious spectrum. Why is this? Is this an indictment against the way humanists organize or against humanism itself? Does this distinction matter?

If your humanism doesn’t yearn for resolution to these matters, if it doesn’t compel you to defy the status quo that reinforces these harrowing disparities, if it doesn’t catalyze mass humanist involvement in social liberation movements—is humanism the answer?