The Time Is Ripe for Some Good Old Humanist Inspiration

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I’m really freaked out these days. Last weekend my daughter (soon to be thirteen) told me she felt “aimless” and had “lost her opinions.” Turned out she was under the weather and this was just how her feverish self processed it. But then my son (almost ten) asked me, “Will North Korea drop a nuclear bomb on us?”

There are powerful people out there doing reckless things. There are both unmoored and manipulated people out there doing atrocious things. There are powerless people out there doing valiant things. And, of course, there are all kinds of people out there doing great, good, and even questionable things, and a lot of us who are just trying our best. I hold these truths to be self evident but don’t always know where to go from there.

I lack faith in a god and sometimes I lack faith in human beings. Reading the accounts of recent atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar—men, women, children, babies—hit me so hard I started to shake as I wept. Imagining the horror of having your child stripped from your arms and tossed onto a fire and then being dragged off and gang raped by a pack of soldiers shakes me to my core, as does the realization that humans are capable of such things. When an entire ethnic group is seen as something other than fully human—in this case influential Buddhist monks cast the Rohingya as reincarnated snakes and insects that needed to be exterminated—anything can happen, it seems. When people become convinced that we’re not all the same animal they lose their humanity.

And so, the time is ripe—so very, very ripe—for some good ol’ humanist inspiration.

Here we celebrate and hear from the 2017 American Humanist Association honorees. Humanist of the Year Adam Savage goes both deep and bright in discussing his privileges and biases as well his passions, which include not only debunking myths but building all manner of things and connections with others. Isaac Asimov Science Award recipient Sylvia Earle vividly conveys her explorations below the ocean’s surface, powered by human ingenuity, and her fierce advocacy for saving our most important resource and the life within it.

Religious Liberty Awardee Martin R. Castro, who served as chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights from 2011 to 2016, details the commission’s report that shined a light on how religious liberty arguments are being used to violate Americans’ civil rights. (“Humanity—that’s my business,” he wonderfully declares.) Sex writer and civil rights crusader Susie Bright, 2017’s Humanist Feminist Award recipient, is simply a blast of humanism, dedicating her award to “a lifetime of believing in women, loving women, and the importance of looking critically.” And last but not least, the AHA’s Lifetime Achievement Awardee Herb Silverman entertains and educates us with tales of secular activism and a comic plot to turn the papacy on its ear.

The 76th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association, at which the awards were presented, was held in Charleston, South Carolina, not far from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where two years earlier a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners. The conference saw some racial tension of its own, as a panel of Black Humanist Alliance members and others zealously challenged a mostly white audience to wake up to their privilege and consider the necessity of ceding power if organized humanism is to truly tackle social justice reform. Intentions were questioned, egos perhaps bruised, and in several cases professionalism was tested. But we find ourselves in the midst of an important, and, yes, messy process that requires engagement from all. We cannot afford to retreat into separate corners. We cannot compromise our humanity. Let’s keep talking—in these pages, amongst and within our humanist chapters and progressive coalitions, and, of course, when we meet again at the AHA’s 77th annual conference, May 17-20, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada.