How to Explain Humanism When You

By Steve Major

I’ve been on approximately 200 first dates in the last five years. A hundred more and I am legally required to write a book about my courting escapades with a title like “300 Cups of Tea” or “300 down, 3,499,999,700 to go!” or “The King James Bible.” I feel like that last one would sell really well.

It so happens (in a shocking level of coincidence in a humanist publication) that I am a secular humanist, and as someone who has clearly made dating a priority, I’ve been commissioned to address the role that humanism plays on my social life.

Dating is challenging at the best of times, but being a nontheist adds yet another layer of difficulty to the whole mishegas. It’s tempting to imagine that fate will deliver your soul mate to you when you’re finally ready for one, but I know far too many smart, funny, kind-hearted, lonely middle-aged singles to put my faith in a notion like that. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I’d still have to assume he was too busy intervening in sports games and watching third world AIDS orphans starve to death to pay overly close attention to the intricacies of who I’m sleeping with.

The truth is, though, that being a member of an organized religion does make it easier to find a spouse. Religious organizations are a great place to meet people (polygamous sects are good too, if you don’t mind sharing), but humanists need to venture further afield.

It would be rare to find someone of moderate to high religious conviction who would be interested in being in a serious relationship with an atheist and, speaking for myself, the feeling is mutual. Here in America nonbelievers are very much in the minority and, depending how strongly you feel on the subject, that can narrow your choices way down.

Since meeting girls at church or being set up by the temple matchmaker isn’t an option, you have to seek out your own versions of a higher calling: the arts, sports, volunteering! I’ve acted in shows, done improv comedy, joined book clubs, gone on clean-up expeditions, taken dancing classes, and am planning to join a kickball league. All of those things were fun, but for meeting other singles, nothing comes close to the date finding power of the all mighty Internet.

I’ve tried a couple of different dating sites—the differences are almost all a question of appearance and price, their functionality is more or less identical (except eHarmony, which is super expensive, badly designed and biased against atheists).  For reasons both practical and philosophical, I prefer the free sites. If you’re in your mid-thirties or above you should also consider, just because that’s where others of that age group seem to have gravitated.

These sites all have a religion category on your profile where you get choose from a dozen or so preselected options. Humanism, despite having been coined eighty years ago, still has some branding to do; most sites will offer a nontheist the option of listing themself as an “atheist,” an “agnostic,” “spiritual but not religious” or “other.” I went with “atheist” and being “somewhat serious about it.”

Only 1.6 % of Americans describe themselves as “atheist” according to the 2007 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which, even on the Internet, makes for an uncomfortably small dating pool. Fortunately when you include everyone who describes themselves as agnostic, secular, unsure, unaffiliated, spiritual but not religious, and other nontheistic euphemisms the percentage shoots up to a healthy 16.1%. We’re still in the minority, but since the nontheistic also tend to be well educated, it ends up being a good dating pool to swim in.

Until the time comes that I start seriously considering marriage and having kids, I’m also comfortable going out with people who identify as belonging to one of the major religions, as long as they’re either “not too serious” or “laughing about it.” I’ve found that encompasses a lot of people for whom their Jewish or Catholic identity is more cultural than religious, which I’m totally fine with. I throw Buddhists into that group too since, as an Asian Studies professor once told me, “Americans become Buddhist when they find Unitarianism too dogmatic.” In practical terms, it usually just boils down to being vaguely New-Age-y and vegetarian. I draw the line at caring about astrology though.

When you work for a group with “Humanist” in the title, the subject is going to come up quickly. Unfortunately a lot of people are unclear what humanism entails, and the AHA’s official definition is kind of a mouthful. So I describe it thusly:

“I’m an atheist, but while atheism only describes what I’m not—someone who doesn’t believe in God—humanism describes what I am: someone who also feels a commitment to scientific principles, behaving ethically, and doing my part to make the world a better place.”

How that goes over depends on who I’m saying it to. For a lot of people, once they get a clearer sense of what humanism is, it goes a long way to taking some of the negative connotations out of being an atheist. For others, even though they presumably already saw that I described myself as an atheist, the knowledge that it’s a big part of my daily focus proves to be a bridge too far, even when paired with the admirable caveats included in my humanism definition.

And religious compatibility is only one tiny component in actually being a compatible match. I once spent an hour having coffee with a girl who only wanted to discuss how annoying religious people were. Yawnsville.

I also once went on a date with a girl who, in all seriousness, told me she needed to get married before the world ended in 2012 so she could have a husband in heaven. In my defense, she was very attractive.

So I’m still looking for that special someone and making the most of my time as best I can. Fortunately there are still plenty of eligible women out there. I’d better start taking notes for my book.

Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association.