I find myself needing to tell a simple story, one that highlights my family, my community, and the everyday reality of being a humanist at heart and in life.
Sitting down for dinner one evening, my eight-year-old son Ari told me, “Some kids at school said I was going to hell when I die because I don’t believe in God.”
Being a dedicated mother, a humanist, and a former therapist, I couldn’t help but ask my dear son just how this topic arose in school.
“Mom, there were like eight kids who were telling me I was going to hell because I didn’t go to church or believe in God,” Ari responded to my prodding. “One girl even said I wouldn’t be here on Earth if I didn’t believe in God. And another kid told me if you don’t believe in God, then you must be Jewish.”
Upon further questioning, Ari did clarify (for his very concerned mother) that the teacher had momentarily left the room while the class was working on a special holiday project. This explained just how all of this came up in a public school classroom.
While I do have to admit to chuckling at the absurdity of the last misguided comment from a naïve second-grader, for the most part I wasn’t laughing.
When I asked Ari how all this made him feel (yes, there’s that therapist in me), he said, “Really bad. Like there is something wrong with me.”
I told Ari that I knew exactly how he felt. Being a humanist all my life, I too had suffered the ridicule of friends. I told him how I learned early on not to say, “I don’t believe in God” at slumber parties with my mostly Lutheran Minnesota friends, lest I be forced to spend all night defending my position and feeling as if I were a leopard with spots.
But I also told Ari, “This is the exact reason why I do what I do. It’s why I’ve dedicated twelve years to the Humanist Institute—so that you and I will never have to feel ashamed for our beliefs.”
I shared this story with the Humanist Institute discussion list (HIDISC), on which faculty and students were actively debating the pros and cons of the latest American Humanist Association ad campaign juxtaposing notable humanist quotes with passages from religious text. I concluded by noting my support for the controversial ads and stressing that Ari’s experience is the very reason humanists need to “raise the flag”—so that the next generation and those following will have no shame in sharing their views.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Based on the support, encouragement, and heartfelt comments of those on the HIDISC, I was motivated to take the issue further. In fact it was Adjunct Faculty Member Mike Werner who really got my wheels turning when he agreed with my position in noting, “It’s about time we came out of the closet.”
I searched the Internet for the school district’s anti-discrimination policy, hoping to find the support I needed to address what happened at Ari’s school. After a little digging, I indeed found the “Anti-Harassment, Safe Learning Environment Policy” that states:
It is the policy of Hopkins School District 270 to maintain a learning and working environment that is safe and secure, and where students and employees are treated with respect and dignity. The District will strive to ensure that no student or employee will be subject to offensive or degrading remarks or conduct. Such behavior includes inappropriate remarks or conduct related to a student’s or employee’s race, color, creed, religion [emphasis mine], national origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, age, or status with regard to public assistance.
Equipped with my newfound knowledge, I composed an email to the school principal and Ari’s teacher presenting the story I’d originally posted on the HIDISC (thereby outing myself as a humanist). I then highlighted the above district policy and made the simple request to remind students to be tolerant and respectful of others, especially during the holiday season.
While I wrote the email with ease, it took more consideration to actually risk sending it. Would this make Ari’s life at school more difficult? Would these people be open-minded enough to accept my family’s lifestance? Should I just let it go and address this issue directly at home? In the end, I finally decided to click “send” and hope for the best.
As you can guess, the rest of my day was spent questioning my actions as I obsessively checked and rechecked my email to see if there was any response from either the principal or the teacher. By the end of the school day (with no forthcoming response), I was faced with the reality that I couldn’t avoid picking my kids up from school and possibly seeing the principal or teacher. Feeling like the person wearing her most raggedy clothes to the grocery store and hoping not to run into anyone, I headed to the school.
The principal was standing outside guiding kids to their parent’s cars. Catching my eye, he walked right up to me and said, “I got your email. Hear, hear! All students should definitely be reminded, especially during the holidays, of being tolerant and respectful to those who may not hold their same beliefs. I’ll make sure this message is conveyed to students and teachers.”
Walking into the school, I couldn’t help feeling pleased. Not only had I stepped forward in support of my children and my humanist worldview, but I received positive recognition from my community—one that more readily embraces the Judeo-Christian traditions than those of us “non-believers.” More amazing was what happened next.
I ran into Ari’s teacher just steps into the door. With my confidence boosted, I immediately asked him if he’d received my email. His reply was “No, I’m sorry haven’t had a chance to even think today. What was it about?” Feeling a little nervous, I proceeded to tell him the whole story. And his response took my breath away.
Ari’s teacher actually laughed out loud at the story and said, “Boy, do I wish I had been in the classroom at the time of this discussion.” In fact, he added, “This is such a strange coincidence, because I was listening to talk radio this weekend and happened to hear an interview with that Harvard chaplain guy—oh, what is his name… Anyway, in listening to him, I thought, wow, that’s what I believe.” He went on to explain that he’d grown up in a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod household and never felt comfortable with their beliefs. But humanism “as defined during the radio interview” really spoke to him. I was astonished. I could not have predicted that in my “coming out” and taking a risk to share my lifestance, I would provide an avenue for another individual to do the same.
Thus, it is imperative that we as humanists raise the flag, come out of the closet, or however you want to say it, because you never know whose life you’ll enrich by saying out loud, “I am a humanist!”
And as for that Harvard chaplain guy—I did pass along to Ari’s teacher the recommendation to read Greg Epstein’s book, Good Without God.