The color of humanism

Adapted from the blog Black Female Skeptics Network

It was another Easter and my family had all descended upon my grandmother’s tiny North Carolina house for our annual gathering. As we all sat together on the cramped floor, participating in our ritual of watching “The Ten Commandments,” I looked around at my family and asked, “Really, is this what we really believe?”

This doesn’t make any sense. Why would Rameses not shudder from seeing the ocean open up before him? Why would he be so foolish as to send his soldiers after the Israelites? Didn’t he think that they might be drowned by God?

I was about 12 and always full of questions. I didn’t know anything about Rameses at this time, other than what I had learned in church, but I just couldn’t imagine a Pharaoh being so dumb. My grandmother said it was not that he was dumb, but that he was prideful and that “pride goeth before the fall.” I knew not to push too much because I had been taught that the word of God was sacred and not to be questioned, but in my head the questions remained, and as time went by, doubt crept in more and more.

As a teenager I often suffered from bouts of depression — partly due to my inability to cope with my father being in and out of my life, partly due to my feelings of being an ugly duckling, partly due to issues surrounding my ethnic identity … You see, I was the only the one in my tiny hometown with a Latina mother and was often made to feel like I was “not quite Black enough.”

Eventually things started to turn around for me. While I was in college I met people with diverse backgrounds with various belief systems. The one thing that struck me most about them all was that they seemed equally convinced that their way was the right way, each one knew with complete certainty that they were on the right spiritual path.

This piqued my curiosity and I decided to register for comparative religion. This course started me down a path that would eventually lead me to Buddhism, to Baha’ism, to being “spiritual,” to Deism, and finally to Agnosticism and Atheism and now Humanism. After spending so much time learning about ancient cultures and beliefs systems, reading various religious texts, and studying the impact the world’s religions have had on humanity throughout history, I eventually said to myself, “You know what, none of this stuff makes any sense, so why am I torturing myself?”

Mind you, the key phrase here is that I said it to myself not out loud and not to anyone else.

Why would I keep something as fundamental as a major shift in my understanding of myself, my place in the world, and the very nature of my existence to myself? Fear of being an outcast. For me, the acceptance that there was no God was a life saver. For the first time I was able to remove the shackles of depression that had held me prisoner for so long. It freed me of guilt and allowed me to freely express the fullness of my being without shame and with the threat of eternal damnation — and yet I could not share this with anyone. Well, at least not anyone who looked like me!

But as I started to express my ideals with people in different parts of the world and from different cultures, it became clear to me that I was not alone in my thinking. This was especially evident to me while I lived in rural China. For the first time, I was living in a community where no one, as far as I could see, believed in any god, yet they were kind, peaceful and happy! This experience left me empowered with a sense of purpose. I wanted for others to know that they too could let go of the teachings of false prophets and that they could let go of the worship of a god that didn’t exist, with all his misogynistic, homophobic and petty ways.

However, in dealing with my own people, this would prove to be an overwhelming challenge.

I asked myself, why were people so hell-bent on worshipping a god that justified their enslavement? In worshipping a god that justified the stealing of their land and the displacement of their people? Why could so many I encountered not even conceive of a morality not based on religion? Racism affects the very reality upon which one values him or herself within the given societal paradigm. Living in America, it is easy to become consumed with self-hate and defeat. So many black and brown people give up on their lives before they really ever begin! Because of this, the promise of life ever-lasting can be extremely appealing, and religion continues as a most effective mechanism for perpetual bondage, keeping the masses intellectually and emotionally enslaved.

Culture can be broken down into three main concepts. The cultural seed, which is the determinative and explanatory aspect of a culture that puts into perspective the cultural manifestations of a people in reference to their historical and cultural evolution; the way a people must think in order to manifest its cultural seed; and the will of the culture, purpose, and collective behavior of a people.

I believe humanism can be the new cultural seed, upon which we build a stronger sense of our humanity, a deeper understanding of our connection to each other and to the world in which we live. The more I learned and the more I observed, it became obvious that the very seed from which African American culture had been shaped was fertilized by Christianity. And as is always the problem with toxic fertilizers, it cannot simply be washed away because it now a part of the fruit itself. Black life and church life have become synonymous, and the only way to adjust for this is by planting a new cultural seed, one fertilized with concepts of freethought!

We need to lay the foundation for a cultural purpose that is reflective and supportive of all people. Our purpose has to be redefined to be one that seeks to redeem the human condition. To be one that frees us from racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophia and all of the ideological triggers of suffering. We must develop a collective consciousness that seeks to uplift every individual — where it is no longer acceptable for wives to be burned, daughters to be stoned, families torn apart because of unfair and racist Immigration policies, women denied the right to control their own reproduction, prisoners to be used as slave labor, babies to die of starvation, and soldiers to be denied freedom of conscience, among others.

Changing the cultural paradigm requires an understanding that our morality comes from us, meaning that the similarities in moral codes across cultures are a requirement for human societies to function. Morality is not a gift from a divine creator, but is a combination of innate sensibilities and ever-changing combinations of value systems that enable human life. With advancements in scientific research, particularly in the areas of psychology, sociology and neuroscience, we are learning more and more about the complexity of our moral systems and it is through these human endeavors we seek to explain and understand, without religious assertion, what makes us who we are.

I recognize that humanism is not the answer to all of humanity’s ills. However, I do believe that the world view imbedded in the philosophy of humanism is currently our best hope for intellectual liberation — liberation from teachings that uphold illogical, impossible and irrelevant myths to be a factual basis to navigate reality.

As a leader within the freethought movement, I seek to create awareness within the secular community that diversity and humanism are not mutually exclusive terms, to reinforce that the beauty of our collective human community comes from the richness of the divergent communities within it. And to stress that as humanists we have a moral obligation to ensure that the specific needs of the members of those communities are not ignored.

It is a fact that the cultural and familial pressures people of color face when they turn to reason rather than religion is uniquely troubling because of the central role religion plays in their communities. Descendants of those victimized by slavery and colonization in African, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. are reared in communities that have developed a social safety net wrapped in religiosity, a safety net that for many is their only source of information, skill training and celebratory space. It is the place where they go to seek leadership opportunities, where they go to seek access to higher education, where they go to calm hungry bellies, where they go to network and seek employment opportunities, where they go to gain access to all the resources denied them by the society at large.

To walk away from the only support system they have ever known, even when it comes with the price of intellectual stagnation and repressive life options is not an easy one. For a divergent community to exclude its already marginalized members can be psychologically and emotionally overwhelming for those members, and needs to be counteracted by developing a structured support system. The isolation or dismissive attitudes, followed by continually being told “I’ll pray for you!” can be very painful and there needs to be a safe space for people of color to integrate themselves into the humanist community.

This safe space can only be accomplished by acknowledging the uniqueness of each individual’s experience on the path to humanism and by ensuring that all members of the humanist community have a voice.