What the Heck Is That!?!

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

One question I hear a lot in my life, is the title of this article: “What the heck is that!?!”

It’s a question I get, almost every time I cross the border from Canada into the USA. Mostly because, when I cross, I’m either doing a presentation on one or another aspect of humanism, or attending humanist related events and activities. It could be giving a talk on interfaith marriage and parenting with mutual respect, hosting a service at Sunday Assembly Detroit, representing the Windsor Chapter of Humanist Canada, or sharing resources of Recovering from Religion. I pull up to the security booth with my happy humanist auto emblem and my B3 KND license plate, passport in hand. The border guard usually opens with “What is your business in the United States?” or “Where you headed?” or other things to that effect. I usually have to clear my throat and sigh at the same time. “I was invited to be a speaker for the Cleveland Humanist Alliance. I’m talking about interfaith marriage and parenting from a humanist perspective.” I’m always expecting the guard to tap their ear and say “Johnston, we’ve got a 721 in row 3F” But instead, I’m usually met with the deer in headlights look. “Ummm, what the heck is that!?!”

The first time I heard this question, I tried to poke my head further out the window to check my car for damage. “What’s what!?!” I asked abruptly. “H-uman-is-t, you said it twice when I asked where you’re going.” This is where I had to behave myself and not end up in jail by not pretending to be an extra-terrestrial, trying desperately to appear human. “Oooohh, humanism is a non-religious philosophical worldview that places the highest value on human dignity, well-being, compassion and is guided by reason.”  Then, like in the movie Click, when the main character presses pause on the remote, the border guard and I had a thirty-second staring contest. Slowly, he handed me back my passport…like it was covered in cooties and was well past the five-second rule. “Alright then” he said, “uh, have fun with that.”

I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but it’s every freaking time. I’m an honest person. I like to think that honesty is the best policy and I have nothing to hide about my worldview. I’m actually quite proud to be a secular humanist. But it’s definitely a full production that requires patience and fortitude to answer the myriad of questions. Sometimes I’m met with understanding and interest, sometimes it’s with condescension and accusatory looks. But I haven’t been pulled into secondary…yet.

My favorite crossing experience was when I was set to give the interfaith marriage and parenting talk to Sunday Assembly Detroit. My son, Nathan, was in the back seat on an iPhone, playing a game or something. The officer did the usual prodding, followed up by the usual “what the heck?” question and, when I said giving a presentation on interfaith marriage and parenting with mutual respect, he looked in the back window and said “parenting…” I looked at him, dead in the eyes and assured him: “I didn’t say GOOD parenting.”

It has become somewhat of a rite of passage, or a game that I don’t have the instructions for. Every time I get the question, I answer in somewhat the same way. I tweak it here and there for different audiences. It depends on what I think the response will be. I just finished the training to become a Humanist Officiant. I think if I was approached at a wedding by potentially religious attendees, I might leave out the “non-religious” part, as it’s not my place to rat out the bride and groom. Not everyone is out about their lack of belief, or comfortable having their “minister” spill the beans on their religious affiliation.

I think what shocks me the most is when people show genuine interest and I have to give them more than the pre-planned explanation. It throws me off a bit, in a good way, and I start stumbling over my words to give them more. “Oh, you want more? That explanation doesn’t cover it? Okay, what else would you like to know? I’m an open book.” I find that those conversations are some of the most productive and thought-provoking discussions…because everything is on the table. No holds barred.

If you are up for some fun and want to annoy the people behind you, waiting in line to cross the border, mention humanism in some capacity. You can even call it pulling a Steve. My wife, Cindy, likes to remind me that she was scared for our freedom, when we went to Sunday Assembly Detroit for the first time. I pulled my usual honesty policy and blurted out the following: “We’re headed to Farmington Hills, to the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which used to be called the Birmingham Temple. There’s an organization called Sunday Assembly that is kinda like a church but non-religious and has services that celebrate life. They are a humanist congregation…”

My wife now tells me to say that we’re just going for lunch.