A Helpful Humanist is a Happy Humanist: A Case for Volunteerism

I recently went to the wedding of a good friend of mine who happens to be a very devout Christian. She pulls most of her friends from her church, prayer groups and the campus ministry, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I was the only nontheist at this event. In fact, the bride was the only person I knew at this wedding, so I ended up talking to a lot of new people. I small-talked with one such stranger for a minute or two before he got to the point of asking me, “So, do you have Christianity in your life?” to which I responded, “Well, no, I don’t.” He looked surprised and intrigued and continued with, “Do you have ANY religion in your life?” Again I told him, “Nope!”

Surprise and intrigue abounded as he asked this final question of me, “But where do you get your morals?” Just like that! Because I’m sure in his mind, he believes that religion leads to morals and so being without religion must lead to being without morals. I explained to him that I learned those things from my parents and grandparents, my community of friends, artists, and the good people at the Washington Ethical Society, and even from an innate sense of what is right and wrong. This seemed to satisfy his curiosity and the conversation was over, but I continued to think about the implications of his questions. Godlessness does not equal moral bankruptcy, and I find this common misconception to be disturbing.

So how do we – the perceived wicked ones, devoid of a valid value system – debunk this ridiculous evaluation? If the go-to definition of a humanist is someone who is “good without a god,” we need to spread the awareness of that ideal and take positive steps to back up that conviction with action. The great thing is that this isn’t difficult to do, and in fact it can be incredibly rewarding and even fun. There are opportunities to serve the community in so many ways, individually, in a group, from home, out in the world – you name it, and there’s a service opportunity! The following is a non-exhaustive list of very few of the very many ways to do good in the world:

  • Volunteers of America has an entire website dedicated to helping people get involved in their communities all over the nation.
  • If you’re between the ages of 17 and 24 you can apply to serve your community by working in public schools with City Year, an affiliate of Americorps, and people of all ages and abilities can join the corps members on designated service days such as Make a Difference Day every October, and the MLK Day of Service.
  • A non-profit called Casey Trees is always looking for volunteers to help plant and care for trees in Washington, DC.
  • To bring some extra joy into your community, consider working with Kaboom!, an organization that aims to provide children with safe and fun places to play by building playgrounds all over the country.

On how humans must begin to change the world for the better, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “it is not to be carried by public opinion, but by private opinion, by private conviction, by private, dear, and earnest love.” Essentially, the way we act, the way we approach life and the way we treat other people matters.

So at the absolute minimum, remember that a key component of humanism is the idea that we all know as the “golden rule.” Treat others as you would like to be treated, which generally means with kindness, fairness and respect, and simply choosing to live as such is a positive action, which will bring a positive change to the world.

Sadie Rothman is the field coordinator for the American Humanist Association.