Trailblazers Wanted: Perfection Not Required

One of the easiest ways to insult an atheist or humanist is to compare him or her to a religious fundamentalist. So prepare for an insult. Atheists, like fundamentalists, believe in perfect beings. Not in deities, mind you, but in freethought honorees. Of course, our flawed (read: human) laureates never live up to the perfection we expect of them, regardless of which nontheistic organization bestows the honors.

The most recent example is comedian Bill Maher, recipient of the Atheist Alliance International’s 2009 Richard Dawkins award. This award is given annually to an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheistic lifestance; who, through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage, advocates increased scientific knowledge; who, through work or by example, teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheistic lifestance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Maher was such a good catch that AAI agreed to hold its convention in Los Angeles, where Maher lives, so that he could appear and accept the award. The timing was great since his documentary, Religulous, was still popular. On October 2, the night of the award ceremony, Maher arrived at the convention with Dawkins, who had just appeared on Maher’s TV show, Real Time. Meanwhile a potentially disruptive protest had been planned by some convention attendees in response to Maher’s decidedly unscientific views on healthcare. Dawkins brilliantly defused the situation in his introduction. Dawkins acknowledged that he and Maher had some differences, but then went on to discuss Religulous and lavish praise on Maher as a very worthy recipient of the award. For his part Maher began his fine acceptance talk with the response: “Richard Dawkins summarizing my movie is better than the movie.”

Should we ignore perceived flaws of awardees like Maher? Of course not. But there is a time and a place. My place was one paragraph of an October 13 Washington Post “On Faith” column about vaccinations, especially those intended for children.

Ignoring scientific evidence need not just be a side effect of religion. A noted atheist like Bill Maher, for example, has at least one thing in common with some of the religious fundamentalists he derides— an anti-vaccination belief. One may oppose all vaccinations because of a belief that God requires only faith in Him, or because of a belief in pseudo-scientific, alternative health claims. I agree with Bill Maher on most issues, and he should certainly understand why almost all atheists disagree with his vaccination position—the preponderance of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective. Fortunately, Bill Maher neither wants nor has children. I wish the same could be said of the religious anti-vaccinationists.

This brings us to the American Humanist Association’s Honorary President, Gore Vidal. I certainly thought Vidal was a worthy successor to the late Kurt Vonnegut when Vidal accepted the position on April 20, 2009. However I would not have recommended him for such an honor on October 29, the day after the Atlantic published an interview in which Vidal made a disgraceful comment. Here was Vidal’s response to a question about the September arrest of Roman Polanski, who had been convicted of statutory rape in 1978: “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?” I’m not bothered by Vidal’s use of the F-word, but there was no justification for this eighty-four-year-old man to make such a statement about a girl who was thirteen at the time of the incident. Even so, I don’t think Vidal’s lifetime work justifies removing him as AHA honorary president for this one odious remark. Now if Vidal were to become, say, a Holocaust denier or a born-again Christian, then I would certainly reconsider my position about whether to throw Vidal off the humanist bus.

Stephen Jay Gould, 2001 Humanist of the Year, provides another example of nontheistic honorees who don’t always fit the bill in their fellow humanists’ eyes. The Humanist of the Year award is given annually by the AHA to recognize a person of national or international reputation who, through the application of humanist values, has made a significant contribution to the improvement of the human condition. Selection of the awardee is based on research derived from biographical data, writings, studies, and contributions to humanity.

What was the problem with Gould, the renowned paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and popularizer of science who seemed to have an abundance of all the qualifying criteria? In a word (actually an acronym), NOMA. Gould coined the phrase “Non-overlapping Magisteria,” claiming science discovers matters of fact and theory (the “what and how”), while religion is concerned with purpose and moral precepts (the “why”). Gould asserted that science and religion possess independent and complementary tools of inquiry, and any apparent conflict comes from one mode of investigation trespassing on the domain of the other. Most humanists disagree with this argument, myself included. But I don’t find Gould’s position totally indefensible, just mostly so. In any case, Gould was a worthy recipient for many reasons, NOMA not being one of them.

If I were in charge, what criteria would I emphasize in picking Humanist of the Year or the AHA Honorary President? Let’s consider two hypothetical candidates:

Candidate A has been involved with humanist causes for decades and has quietly made a difference to local communities in many ways. He is a wonderful, kind, and compassionate human being.

Candidate B is famous, and having recently learned about humanism, decided she was one of us. She regularly makes controversial statements, for which she receives much media attention. She is edgy, but almost never goes over the edge. She has quite an ego, and seems not nearly as nice a person as Candidate A.

Perhaps you know these candidates, which is interesting because I don’t have anyone special in mind. We all know the prototypes, and good arguments can be made for either. I would quietly give recognition and appreciation to Candidate A, but would bestow the honor on Candidate B. My philosophy for AHA in particular, and our movement in general, is that almost all publicity is good. Our movement isn’t very well known, and I think it’s worth taking a bit of a risk to gain visibility. To be perceived as a respectable community, we must first become a visible community.

I’m pleased with the new bolder and edgier AHA, though I’m still closer to the edge than most. I was a member of the first media outreach committee, which started with “respectable” ads in magazines and graduated to edgier ads on billboards and buses like, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” Or, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” These ads received considerable media attention and proved to be a terrific success. It was probably a wise decision for the rest of the media committee to reject my suggested billboard, “Have You Found Jesus? Neither Have We.” Maybe someday you’ll see it, but for now we can disagree on strategies for billboards and honorees without being disagreeable.

It’s certainly reasonable to find flaws with people, especially those in high places. Humanists are mostly proud skeptics and independent thinkers. We are not the sheep promoted in Psalm 23, where a Shepherd Lord takes care of all wants. So here’s my proposal, which won’t insult any recipients and will acknowledge that some of us recognize imperfections in the winners. In the printed program for the American Humanist Association’s annual conference, which lists awardees, add one more line at the bottom:

Perfect Human of the Year: No winner.

Herb Silverman is distinguished professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, president of the Secular Coalition for America, and a board member of the American Humanist Association.

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