This article is adapted from a session presented at the 81st Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in July 2022.
One evening nearly a decade ago, I found myself with friends in a Chicago bar having a few drinks after a long day’s work. I looked across the dance floor from our table and there, my eyes connected with hers.
Now, at this point, it had been only about two and a half years since I left the church and my career as lead pastor of a suburban Chicago congregation, but it had been even less than that since admitting to myself that I had, in fact, become an atheist, and even less than that since my divorce from my high school sweetheart of sixteen years. Now here I was, trying to navigate this strange new world around me. Trying to figure out what it looks like to live life apart from faith. How does the real world function once God is gone and dogma removed? A big part of this was exploring my autonomy. Literally, for the first time in my life, trying to navigate what it looks like to simply live and enjoy my life without always feeling the need to delay my own desires.
And, in the vast array of all of life’s layers and complexities, yes, this also included my dating life right there in that Chicago bar. I saw this woman that I was interested in and the interest turned out to be mutual. We went back to her place and, well, I will let you fill in the blanks from there.
Fast forward, though, to the next morning and for the first, and what would turn out to be the only, time in my life I did what I’d seen illustrated in hundreds of films over the course of my cinema-viewing experiences. I did what I simply thought everyone in the real world did. I quickly collected the few things that I brought with me the night before and I discreetly slipped out the door without leaving so much as even a note behind.
Now, at the time I was blogging weekly about my deconversion experiences on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to my journey both into and out of faith. (Many of those stories would later make it into my book, The Rise and Fall of Faith.) Later that day this particular human from the evening before discovered my blog and left a comment that went something like this. She said, “I want to see you write a blog post about how easily you’ll go home with someone only to disappear the next morning because you think you’re too cool to be bothered to say goodbye like a decent human being.” And this may have included a long list of expletives that were not the most complimentary.
It hit me hard. I felt terrible, honestly, absolutely dreadful. In that moment I realized two things. First, I realized it had become a truly educational moment for me that this isn’t how you treat people in the real world, at least not if you want to navigate that real world as a decent human being. Second, it served as a focal point for me to ask the question: how do I exercise my autonomy without treating those around me like garbage? Where do these two values—personal freedom and respect for others—meet in the middle and give way to one another?
We’re talking about the work of embodying those values, of taking the general concept and actually living it out in real time, making it tactile and tangible: embodying it. It’s one thing to embrace a list of fuzzy concepts. It’s quite another thing, though, to infuse them with the hard choices of how we actually build our lives.
I’ve been preaching values for the last twenty years, first as that evangelical minister I referenced earlier who found himself, increasingly, on the more progressive side of things. But then, after I left church world along with my former faith, as I started finding greater grounding in my own newfound humanism, I eventually started helping folks work through and more fully embody their humanism in the way that they live their daily lives, asking questions, like:
What does it really mean to live compassionately?
What does it really mean to balance critical-thinking with a little good humanist humility?
What does it look like to embody our autonomy, without carelessly running over everyone around us?
Quite simply, what does it look like to live ethically?
I’m interested less in uploading new information or teaching something previously unknown. It’s more about helping us collectively apply the knowledge, passions, and values that we each already embrace. I would encourage, challenge, equip, each of us to be more conscious, aware, mindful of the extent to which we are actually living out the values we claim to hold. Are we actually living out our humanism?
Are we humanists in word only or also in action, in collaboration, in community?
I would suggest that embodied humanism lives beyond mere words in a lifestyle of applied values. The question for each of us then becomes: Does our humanism—does your humanism—reside purely in words and philosophy, or is it one of lifestyle? And to what extent does your humanism drive your lifestyle? Are we humanists in word only or also in action, in collaboration, in community?
I’d like to take us on a little exercise, a little journey. We’ll begin by taking a step back to consider which values we might be talking about in the first place. Then we’ll discuss strategies for embodiment of those values, and then, finally, we want to mix in a little bit of the “secret sauce” we call community.
I was with a group recently and I asked them this question: How well do you feel you live out your values? One person admitted kind of sheepishly, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the place to admit this, but I’m not really even sure I know what my values are.” Others looked around and then a couple of others chimed in, “Yeah, I’m not sure either. Really. I guess.”
Of course, a cool thing about humanism is there’s no credo, no dogma or doctrine, no mandated statements of any kind. It’s simply humans helping humans with human-based solutions to human problems. It’s 100 percent fully autonomous, with no one human having the authority to define it over another human. This can be incredibly freeing, absolutely liberating. But it also puts the impetus on each of us to really take ownership of our individual values. Gone are the days of pointing to an ancient book and saying, “I guess I just value whatever it says.” We’re each in charge of what we value, and now we’re also held responsible for it. So what is it that we value?
A great starting point for this might be the American Humanist Association’s Ten Commitments. The first one: Ethical Development. How does that resonate with you? How does that sit with you? Is that one of your most prized values? Maybe it’s peace and social justice. Maybe Altruism, in other words, helping others without need for reward. How about Humility? Hello good humanist humility! How about Environmentalism? Or maybe Global Awareness. How about taking Personal Responsibility? Or embracing Empathy. And then lastly, Critical Thinking.
And of course this isn’t the only list. You can feel full freedom to develop your own list of personal humanist values: racial justice, reproductive rights, transparency, vibrant community. Make it as specific and personalized as you want. Once we’ve identified our individual values, now it’s time for us to move on to the exciting next phase—to implement those values to upgrade our humanism, our humanist lifestyle.
Humanist values can be really easy when it’s just me doing my thing and everyone stays out of my way. We’re all pretty great humanists until another human enters the room.
Sarah Ray is a name familiar to many here. She founded the Atheist Community of Polk County, an AHA affiliate and Foundation Beyond Belief Network Team. She produced and hosted the YouTube show Freethought in Florida, in addition to serving as a board member of The Humanist Society.
She shared her story of finding humanism, in the spring issue of Humanist. There Sarah talks about how, after her deconversion and North Carolina’s passage of anti-trans legislation in 2016 (which effectively made it illegal to use restrooms not matching a person’s gender assigned at birth), she was in what she calls her “angry atheist phase”. She was enraged, engaged, and willing to do something, anything to create a demand for change. Sarah says her actions, though, ultimately came not from her atheism but from her humanism. She writes, “I came to realize that atheism is a bit useless on its own. Atheism doesn’t compel me to fight for the marginalized minority, my humanism does.” She continues about the local atheist nonprofit that she started with some friends, she writes that sitting with like-minded people, scoffing at supernatural beliefs has its place. But putting humanism first by actively working to better the lives of those around us is where we make a real difference. Yes, Sarah’s lack of belief in a god makes her an atheist, but it’s how she lives and interacts in the world around her, how she embodies her values, that is what makes her humanist.
Back when I was a minister I would often say, “Look at how a person lives and you’ll see what their real values are.” Now I qualify that a bit to simply acknowledge that just because those values are still growing, percolating beneath the surface, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not in process and it doesn’t mean that they’re any less real. Ultimately, it really does come down to how you’re living and I would suggest that humanism that stays in the head might not really be all that humanist. Humanism must push down from the head through the heart and into the hands—our activity, our action, our life style.
So what does this look like, as we live out and embody our values? What does this process look like? That’s kind of the tricky artistry of it. That’s where the mindfulness comes in, the intentionality, the creativity. I would encourage you to start by picking one value. Choose one that you want to increase in your life and then take some time to assess and get really practical with it.
Let’s use humility as an example. We begin by looking for specific ways, specific areas in your life, where that value might not manifest itself so easily, but you would like it to. With this humility example, we do the internal work of reflecting and asking questions like: What would it look like if my life had a little more humanist humility in it? What would it look like if I actually cared enough to not be such a jerk sometimes to the people I care about? How would I treat service staff, a little differently? How would I exercise that hospitality? How do I embody humility more fully in the way that I treat and respond to the displaced and unhoused folks I see holding signs as I drive up to and then through the intersection? How do I treat my own employees a little bit differently, not just on the days when I’m feeling pretty damn good already, but on the days where I’m feeling especially irritable?
Then, we want to take those applications and start working out action steps for them. Come up with one thing, just one action that I can do to help put that value into action. Then take one month to focus on that one action. Set your sights on it and that’s all you focus on for that month and, if nothing else advances in terms of your own personal humanism, for that month, you at least made a little bit of progress on this stubborn value you’ve been trying to implement. And that’s a win! Hopefully, there are other parts of your humanism that are a little more automatic at this point, but here’s a point where you make a little progress on just this one.
And then the next month, you take it a step further with another monthly action step, maybe even focusing on the same value just taking it a little bit deeper. And then the next month another one, and then another the next. Maybe it takes several months of action steps before you really begin to see the results you’re looking for, but then eventually you do. And your reward the next month: you get to move on to another value with another set of action steps.
Going back to our humility example, the first month’s action step might be to simply learn more about it. Maybe the action step for month number one is simply reading a book on humility. Maybe the action step for month number two is having one conversation a week with a different family member, asking them about when you’ve acted like a jerk in the past. Perhaps sit down with your children and ask, “When was I a jerk? How could I have done better?” No one said humanism is easy.
Maybe month number three is taking some of those insights you’ve gained and actively working to break old patterns and establish new ones. Maybe it’s taking three deep breaths every time you enter a particularly difficult situation. Maybe it’s taking twenty seconds to remind yourself of the humanity of the person on the other side of a difficult exchange. Maybe it’s giving yourself an extra twenty minutes in the morning to ground yourself with a cup of coffee before you start your day.
And then, as you sense yourself gaining real traction on the value of humility, maybe then a month number four, number five, or number six you might move on to a new professed value.
Maybe that of social justice, with the action step of joining a protest. Maybe the value of environment, with the action step of writing your congressperson. Maybe it’s the professed value of participation and volunteering and maybe your action step for that month is to email the AHA and see how you can volunteer four hours or attend an event that month. The challenge here is to select one monthly action step each month in your continual humanist upgrade.
Which brings us to our final step. Once we’ve identified our humanist values, once we’ve begun to implement them in the work of upgrading our humanism, now it’s time we take a step further. Now it’s time we unleash that secret sauce I mentioned earlier, now it’s time to tap into the humanist power of community.
There’s this iconic scene in the first Avengers movie. Whether you’re a Marvel fan or not, you may find it interesting that critics tell us that there’s this one foundational scene that plays a key role in setting up the entire franchise for success. It’s the scene almost exactly halfway through the first film when all the superheroes are gathered together for the very first time. As they come together, they each have their own priorities, their own missions, their own hopes, and ambitions and they conflict with one another. Rather explosively, they literally fight one another and in the process, they learn to work together. They each came in with their own agendas and their agendas were largely good. They just had to take a moment to hear one another out, to understand where each other was coming from, to learn how they could leverage each other’s strengths towards accomplishing the larger goal. It was only then they could combine their strengths to save the world from threats too large for any one of them to successfully combat alone.
Humanist values can be really easy when it’s just me doing my thing and everyone stays out of my way. We’re all pretty great humanists until another human enters the room. When all those other humans enter the mix, that’s when our humanism is tested, but it’s also when our humanism’s full power is unleashed.
You know the old proverb “many hands make light work”? I ask you is to think through your humanist values and consider which of them might be more fully manifested when working together in community. Which of your values can be easily fulfilled on your own versus which ones might be only more fully manifested in the context of community? The truth is, big things do often get done together. Big things get done in community. While it’s certainly true that sometimes it’s the seemingly insignificant things that can have the greatest impact, it’s also true that playing a smaller role in a more collaborative way can actually get more done in the long run.
When we’re talking about living out our humanist values and harnessing a more mindful humanism—whether it’s the kind of humanist values that want to help transform the whole damn world or the the kind of humanist values that simply want to attain a greater level of personal decency, responsibility, and compassion—practicing our humanism in community makes both more effective and more rewarding. It makes it more powerful.
Embodied humanism lives beyond words as a lifestyle of applied values. As Dr. Jé Exodus Hooper recently said, “When we take a stab at trying to make change, I don’t know that I’m necessarily always interested in like-minded folk as much as I’m interested in like-hearted folk.” In other words, it’s one thing to agree cognitively with one another, it’s a whole other level to agree with them on that deeper level of “like-heartedness” of lifestyle, of embodied values.
Whether it’s the collective wisdom we receive from one another, the collaborative endurance to push through limits together, the uplift of support and encouragement, the exchange of innovative and creative new ideas, the borrowed motivation, or the sense of social accountability in all of this, our values unfold in community and the humanist lifestyle there finds footing and thrives.
And so, we conclude with these questions which rise to the surface: What are the humanist values that you want to build your life around? What actions will you commit to in upgrading your lifestyle? How are you leveraging others to do greater good, to cheer one another onward, to build the life and family and community and world that we all so desperately want and need? How do we each play a part in this together, and how will each of us—how will you—start this next leg of your humanist journey today?