Journeys to Humanism, theHumanist.com’s regular series, features real stories from humanists in our community. From heartwarming narratives of growth, to more difficult journeys, our readers open up about their experiences coming to humanism.
St. Louis Park, MN
My parents were raised Christian Scientist (Dad) and Methodist (Mom), but they raised my siblings and me Unitarian at the First Unitarian Society (FUS) in Minneapolis, MN, a notably humanist congregation. We lived in a conservative community of Catholics, Baptists, and Lutherans and trekked forty-five minutes (before freeways) to the FUS each Sunday, so we knew, at a cellular level, how important it was.
My parents were key models for the values they believed in and introduced us to international, interracial, and interfaith friends and activists through many different organizations and clubs. At that time, our church participated in the Church Across the Street program, in which we studied and visited the religious communities where we lived. To me, each religion seemed to be pushing the same ideas (hope, community, etc.) in different packaging, like brands of soap.
My siblings and I were encouraged to construct our own belief systems. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there was a god―I made up my own religion at twelve, in a brief attempt at ordering my world, but set it aside when I couldn’t figure out what to do about the messiness inherent in life―and, at fifteen, I finally gave myself permission to not know the “Answer(s)”. I decided that doubt and uncertainty were preferable to dogma. The books that influenced me were Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. In high school, I read existentialism (Frankl, Camus, and Sartre) and while I liked the emphasis on choice, I also noted that it was a philosophy of white men― those who had the most choices of anyone.
Religion divided us from our relatives. My cousins were like my classmates, telling me I would go to hell (at worst) and needed Jesus (at best). None of this made their religions appealing to me. My parents were better Christians in practice than their critics (our relatives). I think my parents and I read about religions defensively, as well as out of curiosity, and the more I considered the subject, the less impressed I was.
My family and I dove into the works of the prominent atheist authors of the 1990s. My mom said if she’d read Kenneth C. Davis’ book about the Bible earlier, it would have saved her a lot of grief. My dad read Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization at bedtime. Durant’s quote at the end of the chapter on the Inquisition was foundational: “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of a strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” Another vote cast for living with doubt, even humility.
Finally, I was and am deeply feminist. This, too, has directed me toward humanism. My young adult years (1970-1990) were spent reading works by women, after an education mainly dominated by men. I read feminist theory, history, analyses…everything from Ursula K. Le Guin to Shulamith Firestone and Merlin Stone. Nothing convinced me that I was missing anything by not worshipping a male deity or living within a male-dominated organization. I looked at the Ten Commandments and, sometime in my forties, noted the absolute absence of a Commandment against rape. I was (and still am) disturbed by the anti-intellectualism of the Adam and Eve story, as if knowledge is bad. Anyone who reads history, as we did and do in my family, must be struck by how unhealthy organized religions are for anyone not male.
I can respect the historical context, the beauty of the language (the Song of Solomon, the Beatitudes, e.g.) without the need for belief. And I still believe that prayer, like meditation or self-hypnosis, is good for the person who prays.
Believers are fond of saying that there are no atheists in the foxholes, as if we all long for the fold at last―but that isn’t true for all of us. Both my parents died peacefully as atheists, “lying down to pleasant dreams.” I have had near-death experiences, traumas, serious illnesses, and tragedies without the impulse to turn to a deity. Yes, I feel it would be comforting to believe in a “Benevolent Something,” but I cannot, no more than I can believe in the Tooth Fairy. And like a good Unitarian Universalist, I have friends who are Catholic, Amish, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, agnostic…and I am a humanist.