The following is adapted from the “Growing Up Humanist” panel held on Sunday, May 29, 2016, at the 75th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association. The panel featured all four authors and was moderated by Humanist Editor in Chief Jennifer Bardi.
GROWING UP HUMANIST ISN’T EXACTLY EASY. In fact, it can be downright confusing. At a time of self-discovery and nearing the end of our adolescence, we’re stuck with the added burden of defending our philosophies against our religiously conservative counterparts. Just when we think it would be easier to hide our true selves than to face the scrutiny of our peers, we remember that we’re getting to grow up humanist. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to start out in this world learning and understanding what freethought really means—and to be provided with a strong set of morals and life lessons to guide us.
Moderator: George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” And, of course, that’s a wise and jealous way of saying that young people fail to see how lucky they are with all their physical and intellectual energy, their optimism, passion, the absence of jadedness (and wrinkles), and the many decades of life they have stretching out before them in which they can realize their dreams and goals. However, I think another way to see this is actually courtesy of The Who’s Pete Townsend—the kids are alright.
Now, as humanists we often bond over and never tire of stories about people’s paths to humanism. Typically these involve a break from religion, whether it be a dramatic or sometimes painful split, or an evolution in thinking that culminates in enlightenment and a feeling of liberation from the constraints of one’s previous religious life. But I think we often forget that not everyone has had such a dramatic experience and that some people who call themselves humanists have always done so.
This a special opportunity to hear from lifelong humanists, and even more exciting, from young humanists who embody all the energy and curiosity and sincerity of youth. They’re in that stage of life that’s optimal for learning, but I think they have a lot to teach as well. So let’s meet them.
Anya Steinberg: I’m Anya. I’m sixteen, I go to Hopkins High School near Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I grew up humanist. It wasn’t so much that humanism was a big part of my life—I just knew that I was a humanist. But my mom gave me a choice to explore other religions, and once I’d seen what other people did with their religions, I concluded that humanism was the best choice for me.
Tani Hale: My name is Tani, and I’ve been attending American Humanist Association conferences since I was something like twelve months old. I’ve seen a lot of staff come and go, I’ve followed my mom [AHA President Rebecca Hale] and [AHA Director of Development and Communications] Maggie Ardiente around and played under the EvolveFISH table. My parents gave me a choice to be who I was, but they didn’t give me a choice about coming to conferences, which have almost always fallen on my birthday. Looking back, I can see that I’ve had richer experiences than just pony-themed birthday parties.
It’s been a huge part of my life even if people at my school don’t know it’s a huge part of my life. I will say I’ve gotten more comfortable talking about it after my mom told me to grow a backbone.
Halley Noon: I’m Halley Noon. I’m seventeen years old and, like Tani, I live in Colorado Springs. I attend Cheyenne Mountain High School, which isn’t exactly open and accepting of different people, like humanists and whatnot. I’ve grown up not only playing with Tani under the EvolveFISH table and going to conferences, but also in a home of recovering Catholics. When my grandpa was in his forties, he revealed that he was sexually abused by someone in the church. That really impacted my family of hard Irish Catholics. In his career as a lawyer, he made efforts to make churches pay taxes and to expose sexual abuse in churches committed by people in power.
So I not only grew up wearing funny atheist t-shirts, I also grew up in a home where it was made clear that we didn’t need a holy book to teach us good morals or show us how to do good things. My mother always made it a point to do good without the expectation of reward. And that has shaped who I am today, not only as a vegan but also as a humanist.
Ben Niose: My name is Ben Niose. I’m sixteen years old and I go to the Bancroft School in Massachusetts. It’s a very liberal school, so I don’t really face any discrimination for being nonreligious or humanist. I’d say the majority of kids there are non-religious. I’ve been involved with the American Humanist Association for a while—my dad, David Niose, used to be president.
When I was really young, I went to church (I didn’t like going). But sometime around fourth grade, I learned about humanism and I decided to accept it as my own [philosophy].
One noteworthy thing about me is that I got cancer last year. A lot of people have asked if that led me change my ideas at all, whether I looked to God and so on. Nothing like that really happened.
From left: Anya Steinberg, Ben Niose, Tani Hale, and Halley Noon
Moderator: Let’s talk about how each of you defines humanism. Say you tell someone you’re a humanist and they ask, what’s that? How do you respond?
Halley: The first thing I usually say is that humanism is the belief in the good that people can do. Then I say not only do we believe in people and the good that we can do, but that people are inherently good and that we have the ability to do good without any expectation of reward.
Tani: I agree with that. I say that I believe in human potential, and that kind of cuts it off and everybody’s like, “Okay, I’m a humanist too.” Then I can go on and explain the nonreligious pieces of it. I think at the core of humanism, it’s really just people believing in each other.
Anya: I agree that it’s all about the good that people can do without feeling like they’re obligated to impress God or whatever. We were learning about the Renaissance and Francesco Petrarch, the father of humanism, in my AP European History class, and people were shocked that somebody back then actually believed in the power of humankind to change the world.
Ben: I don’t think you necessarily have to be nonreligious to be a humanist. It’s just a focus on the idea that we don’t need a god to tell us the right thing to do. We just need to be focused on our own accomplishments and do things on our own.
Moderator: It’s nice to hear that your immediate responses are very action-oriented. Let’s talk about a time when you were open about your humanism and how that went—and maybe contrast it with another time when you were not open about it and why.
Anya: In fourth grade, there was this boy named Trevor Correa, and he loved God. I was so confused, because in fourth grade I didn’t have that much knowledge of the Bible or religion. So I asked Trevor, did God create everything and all at once? Or did he make the dinosaurs first? When did the dinosaurs come into play? Trevor was taken aback. He couldn’t believe that I would question any of these things. Then everyone in my fourth grade class found out I didn’t believe in God, and it kind of tumbled out of control.
Tani: I had a friend who I met in kindergarten and was friends with all through elementary school. She was religious, but it never really mattered because we were kids. We played dress-up and played with Barbies, and it was fun. And then around seventh grade, we would go on spring break trips with my mom, who would listen to NPR in the car and talk very openly. I guess it was just a little too much for this girl, and she started getting hostile because she knew I wasn’t religious.
It was really hard for me to hear this person who I’d been so close to say, “You know, you’re just not a good person.” It put me back into my shell. I thought if someone who was so close to me could shun me so quickly, then anybody could. In high school it got a lot easier to find people who were nonreligious or who were religious but didn’t care that I wasn’t. That was their thing and this was my thing and we could talk about it.
Living in Colorado Springs, because it’s so conservative, has been a balancing act. It’s figuring out when it’s okay to be aggressive and when you just have to take a step back and be like, “That’s really cool for you. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s move on.”
Halley: When you’re a [nontheistic] kid, and you don’t have a full concept of the idea of God yet, all you know is you just don’t believe that and your family doesn’t believe that, so you’re defensive. I had kids in elementary school telling me I was going to go to hell and that I was a bad person, or that it was too bad I was nice because I was going to go to hell anyway—those kinds of things.
So I’d make friends with kids and they’d ask me to go to Sunday school with them. I’d go and ask questions like, “what if you don’t believe in Jesus?” I remember coloring a Jesus and being told, “Jesus is a present. You can take it or you can go to hell.” I asked what hell was like and was told it’s where I’d burn for eternity. That’s not something you tell a ten-year-old.
But the older I’ve gotten, not only have I become more passionate with my views, but also I would say more educated in how I express them. I’ve always known what humanism is, but I haven’t always had the best way of articulating it. I’m really grateful that I’ve grown up secular, because I never had to go through that transition of [realizing] God isn’t real and being hated for it by my community and my family.
Ben: Like I said before, I go to a very liberal school, so I’ve always been pretty open about my beliefs. I have a good amount of religious friends and we can talk about it and have a respectful debate. I’ve never really felt any discrimination [for my irreligion], except maybe with my grandparents. They’re fairly religious, so we don’t talk to them about it.
Tani: I wanted to add that it was so nice that I always had Halley [to commiserate with]. To be like, oh my god, these people are driving me insane. Please help.
Then I met my boyfriend, and he was religious. I was like, I’ve got to figure this out gently because you’re really cute. He told me he went to church sometimes, and I asked him what that meant. “I don’t know. Sometimes,” he said. “That’s not an answer,” I responded, “I need to know where to go from here.” I kind of ruined him. Now he’s a very hardcore atheist and loves arguing with my dad about religion. I found somebody who instead of knowing that I didn’t believe in God and shunning me was like, that’s so cool—I’ve been in a desert and you’re an oasis of reason and I want that. And that made it easier for me to be super vocal.
Anya: When I was little it was really easy to pretend I was just like everybody else. I’d follow along when people talked about religion. When we’d say the Pledge of Allegiance in school my mom would tell me, “You don’t have to say the ‘under God’ part. That’s not supposed to be there.” But I’d say it anyway, or if I didn’t, I’d be looking around wondering if anyone noticed. I was kind of paranoid of everyone finding out that I didn’t believe in God.
In junior high and high school, I started becoming more involved in my friends’ religious lives. I went to Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. I went to confirmations. I went to Quinceañeras. I went to all these religious coming-of-age ceremonies because my school is very diverse. It helped me figure out that if everyone else could be open about their religion, I should be able to be open about my non-religion. And here I am now.
Moderator: Halley, you talked about how kids told you you’d go to hell and that kind of thing. And as horrible as that is, you had a foundation at home, where you were told, no, that’s actually not the case. Think about children who don’t have that support and how damaging it can be.
The flipside of that is that, as teenagers, at some point you have to rebel against your parents in order to set out on your own path. Have you ever rebelled by exploring religion? Have you carved out any philosophical differences from your parents?
Tani: A couple of years ago, my mom and I were riding in the car. I looked at her and told her I wasn’t an atheist. It was like I could hear her heart dropping to her stomach, and she was like, “What do you mean?” I told her that I didn’t like the term atheist for myself and that I wanted to be labeled as a humanist. But those thirty seconds before she heard this were the most terrifying thirty seconds of my life.
Halley: I’ve never had the urge to be like, you know what’s really going to get my parents today? Going to Mass! I’ve rebelled morally though. I gave up eating meat, cheese, and eggs, and that really pissed off my parents. When I told them I was going vegan, I got twelve cans of black beans, and they told me that was my dinner for the month and I had to figure out the rest. I guess you could say that was how I grew out of my moral obligation with my parents.
If anything, I think I’ve become more passionate about humanism and atheism compared to my parents. And the longer I’m on this earth, the more I find that secular ideas benefit the planet more than anything else.
Moderator: Ben, your father is a high-profile humanist—he served as the AHA’s president and now, as its legal director, he appears in the media discussing Establishment Clause cases. Do you feel like that’s had any special impact on you, in trying to navigate your own identity as a humanist?
Ben: I remember when he first became the AHA president, I wasn’t really sure what he was president of—like, there was a good six months where I was pretty sure he was the president of the United States. He was very good about not pushing anything on me. And once I did start talking to him about [issues], he’d say, “Well, this is what I think.” He made it very clear that I was able to think whatever I wanted.
Moderator: Let’s talk about the other issues that are important to each of you. Having been raised humanist, do you find common ground with people over other interests, social causes, and so on, rather than bonding over a rejection of religion? And do you consider these other areas—veganism, environmentalism, or feminism, for example—as part of your humanism or are they separate from it?
Halley: My veganism is intertwined with my humanism, and so is my feminism. Basically all of my activism is based around the idea that we can do good, we can do better.
Tani: I don’t attach those things to my disbelief in God, but to my own moral compass. I’m doing what I think will make a difference in the world. My belief in humanism is just based on the fact that everybody needs to be the best for everybody else. And that’s whatever you think is the best for
Anya: Humanism is intertwined with any kind of activism that you do. A lot of religious people like to deny a lot of things that need to be changed in the world. And humanism kind of opens you up. You have to accept that there are things that need to be changed, and you have to be willing to go out and do it.
As the president of Hopkins High School Earth Club, a very prestigious honor, I would have to say a lot of times it’s hard to get people to care about stuff. They get caught up in things that aren’t so important. But humanism helps me realize that there are things outside of the high school gossip that are important or outside of the immediate circle of everyday life that need to be worked on and need to be changed.
Moderator: Before we open it to audience, what would you add to the AHA conference or AHA activities more generally to attract young people? And, who would you like to see given the Humanist of the Year award?
Tani: I think we need a Snapchat filter. That would attract millennials. Snapchat is an app that lets you send pictures that only last ten seconds and the geotag locates your location on your phone so you attach a place to the picture. So if you’re at the AHA conference in Chicago, your photos will show that at the bottom of your picture. This way everybody in the world knows you’re in Chicago because that’s the most important thing—for everybody to know where you are. They have them for prom and stuff like that.
I’ve wanted Angelina Jolie to be named Humanist of the Year for like fifteen years.
Halley: I am a millennial, obviously, but when I hear my favorite theoretical physicist [Lawrence Krauss] is coming to town, everyone’s like, “That’s awesome. What’s a theoretical physicist?” So I don’t have much input because I get excited about the speakers the AHA already brings.
I would say that millennials are more excited with the environment and helping it. Possibly [the AHA could host] more active, fun activities rather than just sitting and listening to people speak. Maybe we could do a humanist run.
Tani: Or tag. I love me some tag.
Halley: They just had the Bubble Run in Chicago where they dumped a ridiculous amount of soapy bubbles on you while you run. That’s really fun. I can see that attracting younger people.
Anya: I’d do it.
Tani: My dad would do it.
Ben: I wouldn’t want to see this turn into a thing where [the AHA] only caters to the millennials. Where we’re asking, what did Justin Bieber do that we can award him for? I think it’s just hard to attract younger people to something like this because they already have their circles. In my area, pretty much everyone is a humanist. So they don’t need to travel to a conference to talk to like-minded people.
Anya: I agree with Ben. I think a lot of young people don’t really think about changing the world. When I was in junior high, my friends weren’t super excited to become part of the Jewish faith, like officially through their Bar Mitzvahs. They were excited about the party and the $6,000 they were getting from their family. Maybe humanists can invest in some kind of cash-grab ceremony like—
Tani: That’s a really good point!
Ben: I want a check in the mail!
Audience Member: I’m not from this part of world, but when I come to the West, I see people are more concerned about God and defining themselves as humanist [or otherwise]. Are young Westerners taking any initiative on issues that have nothing to do with the God but with humanity, like migration, like the refugee crisis happening in the world?
Tani: I think in the United States, if you’re under eighteen the message is, “you’re just a kid. You don’t know anything about the refugee crisis.” Or, “You don’t know what’s going on with Bernie Sanders. You’re just a millennial jumping on the bandwagon.” So then the only thing you can influence is yourself. You become self-involved, like, with God and your identity.
A town near ours flooded and my dad and I were going to go scoop out mud to help. All these friends of mine said, “Yeah, I’ll go.” And then nobody showed up because everyone else had their own things to do, so it was just me and my dad. And I get that life happens and you have to do things. But there comes a point when picking yourself every single time—over doing something that might even make you happier than staying home and watching Netflix for forty-five hours—just isn’t right.
Ben: That’s not the case in my circles. Everyone in my school is very encouraged to do what they can to make a difference. It seems like every other week there’s some kind of drive to help someone in need. And I’m very thankful for that.
Tani: I’m super jealous.
Ben: I’ve guess I’ve kind of taken that for granted.
Audience Member: I have a comment and a question. The comment is that I think next year we need to have a millennial AHA dance party, and I would like to organize that with you. The second thing is a serious question for Ben, if you feel comfortable answering. In the face of illness, a lot of people turn to God and religion and that community for support. I was wondering what kinds of things you were able to turn to for support, motivation, inspiration, and hope when you were facing your illness.
Ben: This might be kind of a boring answer, but I really just slept for a lot of the time. I didn’t have much philosophy going on in my head—I just wanted to get home and sleep. That was my motivation. I’m sorry if that wasn’t exactly the answer you were looking for, but it’s the truth.
Audience Member: I’m not given to magical thinking, but I’m sitting here daydreaming and thinking how can I forge your voter registration cards so you can vote in November.
Tani: Let me know, I’d love to.
Audience Member: My question is, what colleges are you looking at and what do you want to study?
Anya: In the college process, you get a lot of annoying emails, hundreds of them every day from schools trying to recruit you. A couple of weeks ago, I got asked to do a survey for Marquette University, which is in Wisconsin. I’d never heard of Marquette but they were offering a t-shirt, so I was like, I’m in; I want a t-shirt. So I get fifteen questions or so into this survey and all of a sudden it’s talking about Catholicism and asking how much I believe in God. I realized Marquette is an extremely Catholic university and I was like, how did I get roped into this?
So looking for colleges, I think it’s important to look for a really liberal environment where there are a lot of different people around, not predominantly one group of people as represented at the university or college.
Tani: Apparently, I’m a hot prospect for Regis Catholic Christian School. This school has sent me something like fifteen letters—paper letters in the mail. And they’re like, “We love you. We want you.” And I’m thinking, no, you don’t love me. You don’t want me, I promise. I would make problems for you.
I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Maybe something in medicine. I’m probably going to college in my city because I’m hopelessly attached to my parents, and I also want to save money so I can move somewhere really awesome once I graduate. So, that’s all I know right now.
Halley: I’m hoping to attend the University of Denver. I’m not sure what I want to major in, but I want to join the Peace Corps after college. I don’t know what’s after that.
Ben: I have no clue what college I’m going to. I also get a lot of emails [from schools], which is kind of annoying. But next year there’ll be a college board to help me through all that. As for what I want to actually do, I’m still not really sure. I’m good at math. Maybe I’ll become an engineer or a doctor. I don’t have a clear image in my head—I’m just hoping it works out.
Moderator: In conclusion, I think it’s important to note that adult humanists grapple with how they define humanism and how they want the humanist project and its core values to appear to the outside world. Which is to say these are ongoing conversations. As each of you grows and starts to form a more solid vision of what humanism means to you and how you want to incorporate it into what you do in life, I think we’re all hoping that you ascend to leadership roles. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.