What I Learned from 11 Humanist Groups in 11 Days

I recently drove with my wife Sharon from our home in Charleston, South Carolina, to eleven locations in Florida in eleven days, covering over 2,000 miles. We were not on a vacation or sightseeing trip. Eleven humanist groups had invited me to talk about my recent book, An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land, and my earlier book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

I’ve spoken to many groups over more than two decades, but I got a better feel about our movement by meeting so many humanists in such a short period of time. I’m no atheist/humanist rock star like Richard Dawkins, so I was pleasantly surprised that some groups changed their usual meeting dates to accommodate my talk schedule. That’s partly because secular organizations in Florida communicate and cooperate well with one another. Thanks also go to David Williamson, Lou Altman, and several others who generously and painstakingly helped arrange my schedule. Click here for the organizations and leaders of the groups I met.

All but two I visited are affiliated with the American Humanist Association. Those two, chapters of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, have backed AHA initiatives. Most of these groups are affiliated with and support multiple national secular organizations. I like to think the Secular Coalition for America, working closely with its eighteen national member organizations, has set the example for cooperation and helped unify our movement more than ever before.

I tend to focus on theoretical humanism (organizing, writing, talking, and supporting humanist groups), while Sharon focuses on applied humanism (helping real humans in need). We saw examples of both on our trip. Before my talk to the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, for example, group leader Keith Becher took up a collection to help buy food and other necessities for the homeless family living in his apartment while he bunked with friends. Keith is coordinating with a homeless coalition to assist with housing and related issues. While I talked humanism, it was nice to see people like Keith and his group walking the humanist walk.

I gave PowerPoint presentations for Candidate Without a Prayer and read excerpts from An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land. (Both books have an ebook version published by the AHA’s Humanist Press.) I altered my presentations according to group identity (humanist, atheist, Unitarian, Jewish).

Since I like hearing differences of opinion, I included a few potentially controversial excerpts each time. Generally this was well received, but a couple of people at both Jewish humanist organizations were upset by my piece on Why I No Longer Support Israel, in which I said the Law of Return for Jews has outlived its usefulness. (I think displaced Palestinians are more deserving of the right to return than I am. Why should American Jews have the right to “return” to a place they may have never been? I said I would support Israel when it lives up to the ideals in its Declaration of Independence by putting human rights and social justice above sectarian concern, and treating its minorities as equal citizens.)

A woman in the Boca Raton congregation walked out when I finished reading the excerpt. A few days later I recalled this incident when I spoke to the Sarasota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, and I asked those who objected to stay and discuss their disagreements with me. One woman said Israel is the most democratic country in the region. I agreed, and said I would mention that in future talks. I simply expressed sympathy to a man who was upset by my piece because he is a Holocaust survivor.

Interestingly, most Jews seemed to enjoy anti-Semitic humor (at least from another member of the tribe). They especially liked this joke:

Two Jews see a sign in front of a church that says “$100 to convert.” One of the Jews asks, “Why not? It’s an easy way to make a quick buck,” and enters the church. The other Jew waits outside to see what happens. After forty-five minutes the first Jew comes out and the second Jew asks, “Well, did you get the $100?” The first responds, “Is that all you Jews ever think about, money?”

Everywhere I went, people most liked that my talks treated serious subjects with humor, a technique I’ve found effective in countering those who unfairly stereotype and demonize atheists. Some folks told me their favorite joke or humorous story. One woman said: “I divorced my husband for religious reasons: He thought he was God, and I didn’t.” A group leader said she is going to suggest that her group create a monthly fun night (or afternoon) and invite members and guests to gather for the specific purpose of offering humorous experiences, stories, cartoons, and so on.  I agree that we all need to find more things to laugh about.

All eleven groups, understandably, want to grow. The size and energy of each organization seemed inversely proportional to the average age of its participants. In a couple of groups, I was below the average age. (I’m seventy-five!) To grow, I think we should adopt techniques that churches do well—form communities that welcome the entire family and have activities for young and old.

When I was the leader of my local secular humanist group, I talked about the need to attract younger members (who, go figure, didn’t attend monthly talks and book discussions by mostly old men). This inspired local member Amy Monsky to start a children’s program and help make our group family friendly. She also founded Camp Quest of South Carolina. Other volunteers organized family picnics, bowling nights, trivia contests, drinking skeptically events, and charity work. We are now much more of a community.

During the Q&A after each of my talks in Florida, there was much discussion about how best to combat the political and social threats coming from the religious right, and we considered strategies and priorities. But the question I heard most often was, “How can I publicly identify as an atheist when my community is so religious?” I answered by stressing two points: If we hide who we are, the stigma will never end. And our honesty about not believing in any gods often inspires others to share that sentiment, so we discover new allies and friends.

On our long drive back to South Carolina on Thanksgiving day, Sharon and I reminisced about all we are thankful for, which includes our old friends and new acquaintances in Florida. We so appreciated the hospitality and fun we found everywhere on our journey, and look forward to seeing many of them again on the humanist trail. It was a wonderful experience for us and, I hope, for those we met.