The Cowboy, the Lesbian, and the Humanist

A cowboy walks into a saloon. He removes his dusty hat, orders a whiskey, and sinks wearily onto a stool. He downs the whiskey, looks around, and notices that an attractive woman has joined him at the bar. She looks him over and asks, “Are you a real cowboy?” The cowboy pauses to consider the question. He orders another whiskey. “Well,” he says, “I wake at dawn, climb into a saddle, and herd cattle all day.  I eat by a campfire and pitch my bedroll under the stars. Yep, I reckon I am a cowboy.” He tosses back the second whiskey and reciprocates: “You a cowgirl?”

“Oh, no,” the woman replies, “I’m a lesbian.” The cowboy looks puzzled. “How d’ya reckon?” he asks. “Well, I wake up in the morning thinking about girls. I think about ‘em all day long. Then at night, I dream about girls.” The cowboy ponders this revelation in silence. The situation grows awkward. He pays for his drinks, mumbles a goodbye, and heads for the door. Unhitching his horse outside, the cowboy is approached by a tourist. “You really a cowboy?” the tourist asks. “I thought I was,” replies the cowboy, “But it turns out I’m a lesbian.”

This is obviously a joke and not meant to cause offense, but I offer it to induce a smile and provoke reflection on personal identity.

Our cowboy’s grasp of the concept “lesbian” is a bit shaky.  If we set that aside, though, we have a story about someone learning a new concept, realizing that it applies to him, and in the process, discovering something important about himself.

Discoveries can be transformational. The right concept can connect a person to a group, project or cause larger than oneself—and thereby afford oneself a sense of purpose, belonging, and identity. Did our cowboy find his true self in the community of lesbians? Probably not. A similar epiphany, though, could have resulted in a profoundly meaningful discovery. “The secret to happiness,” writes philosopher Daniel Dennett, “is to find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Of course, such discoveries rarely happen overnight. You learn over time that you can paint, you engage with artistic friends, and eventually you’re an artist. You get involved in political organizing, find you have a knack for it, and wind up an organizer. You enjoy building and fixing things, and wind up a carpenter or an engineer. In each case, you try on a role for size—or perhaps grow into it—and find that it fits. This is how identities form—how we find our “true” selves.

A play by the 17th century playwright Moliere features a character that discovers, to his surprise, that his entire life, he’d been speaking something called prose. Something very like that happened to me. I found, to my surprise, that the philosophical outlook I’d been nurturing for years had a name. I was, it turned out, a humanist. For me, the realization was profound. I finally knew what I stood for; I’d found a cause worth dedicating my life to.  It brought me “out of the closet,” and into a community. It gave me purpose and direction.

Regular readers of the Humanist Network News probably have similar stories. To become a self-identified humanist, you have to become reasonably familiar with the concept of humanism and decide: ‘Hey, that’s me!  That’s what I believe in!’ We serve the cause of humanism by helping others make the same discovery. One of the best ways to do that is to share our stories. By sharing my story, I hope to inspire a few of you to share yours. I also mean to introduce myself, and interest you in following this column.  In the weeks and months to come, I intend to explore the history and philosophy of humanism. What does humanism stand for? How did the philosophy take form? Is it the right philosophy for our time? If so, why?  How can we grow the movement?

But first, my story of humanist self-discovery: Around age 18, I realized I wanted to work with ideas. So I completed my degree and began training as a philosopher.  Curiously, graduate school taught me nothing of humanism (the movement has no real organized presence in higher education). I studied some fascinating philosophical systems: empiricism, utilitarianism and functionalism, pragmatism, phenomenology, and deontology. But I completed my degree without having found a philosophy that I felt answered the needs of our time. I took up teaching, but had no real philosophical axe to grind: I simply taught students the philosophical art of sorting sense from nonsense—what some call “critical thinking”—and gave them opportunities to practice on the works of the great philosophers. Gradually, the contours of a sensible outlook on life began to take form.

I had to leave professional philosophy, though, to really discover humanism. Faced with a chance to design next generation information technologies, I resigned my professorship (and with it tenure, lifetime job security and millions in guaranteed income). I founded an educational software company, designed an application for diagramming the logic of thought, and sold it to some of the world’s top consulting firms. It was my work on practical thinking strategies, though, that brought me into contact with the humanist movement.  I consulted for companies, taught critical thinking, and fell in with the Center for Inquiry.  I wrote essays for Free Inquiry and the American Humanist Association’s Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism. I’d never been entirely comfortable with the label “philosopher,” but “humanist” fit like a glove. These, I realized, were my people.

I missed teaching, though.  Eventually, an opportunity to resume teaching surfaced, so I seized it. The role of humanist philosopher fits me well, and I’ve never been happier. I rarely disclose my humanism to students, though. I don’t reward them for defending views I find congenial, or punish them for reaching contrary conclusions. I show them that exploring the space of ideas is great fun, I empower them to navigate this space, evaluate arguments, then let them discover for themselves what does and doesn’t make sense. The experience has convinced me that, if you teach the process and joys of critical inquiry, the important things usually take care of themselves.

Consider sharing your story of humanist self-discovery. Swap stories with your humanist friends. Tell your tale to non-humanist friends. Storytelling brings people together. It cements friendships, and promotes understanding. And stories of humanist self-discovery contain important landmarks for others seeking meaning and purpose. Creating a meaningful life has always been a tricky business; in times like ours, the terrain of possibilities is especially complex and treacherous. Stories help people navigate this terrain, so let’s share ours.

Humans need to believe and belong. The religions that have long met these needs, though, no longer make sense. The maps they provide are conceptually incoherent and morally disorienting. We need a map that can orient us properly in today’s world, and of all the philosophical systems on the cultural scene today, only one really fits the bill.

That philosophy is humanism. In the next installment of this series, I’ll offer a handy test for determining whether you or someone close to you is a humanist. (Many religious people, it turns out, are actually nascent or closet humanists.) In subsequent essays, I’ll explore what humanism really is and how its tenets should be understood, formulated and developed. I’ll trace the history of humanism and look at why it’s the right philosophy for our time. Join me for what is sure to be a fun and enlightening journey!