Letters to the Editor

June 10, 2009

Are humanists a happy or a miserable lot?

HNN readers react to Doug Thomas' column: (Re: Why Do Humanists Seem so Unhappy?, Humanist Network News, May 13, 2009.)

I have noted the same phenomena. I would like to suggest another cause.

Analytical thinking is hard and the strain is reflected by our countenance. I worked as a failure analyst, charged with solving difficult problems using inductive and deductive logic. Though I lived with a moral imperative to be happy, while I was working I was frequently asked what I was so unhappy about. I eventual recognized that analytic thinking is unnatural and hard. I was having fun but it was a stressful fun and I appeared to be unhappy as I used the analytic processes.

Contrast the stress or discipline of critical thinking with the freewheeling, infantile, reptilian state of mind that we hopefully allow ourselves to occasion.

Examples include playing sports where blind reflex replaces thought or the use of alcohol which "quiets" our more thoughtful minds allowing us closer access to that non-intellectual but happy grinning all-is-right-with-the-world reptilian brain. Ideally we spend much of our time somewhere in between these two states. I purpose that it is the nature of humanist to be more thoughtful than the opposition.

Why are humanist so unhappy…? We think too damn much!

Edward Scott, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I wonder if Doug Thomas has looked into why some "Christian apologists" think humanists are dour and surly? I was in a discussion where my views were unknown, and a Christian, very much an "apologist," made this remark to one and all of us. A friend who knows me began to laugh, and asked "Well, do yoi know Bette here? She's a humanist, and has worked in humanist circles many years. And she's known to us as really quite cheerful and upbeat." The retort? "Well, then, she's the exception that proves the rule."

I suspect that many of these "apologists" have been told by others of their persuasion that humanists have no sense of humor. And so, they're flummoxed to meet a cheerful humanist. (And I've yet to figure out what that silly crack about the exception that 'proves the rule' means. Anyone know where that came from?).

Bette Chambers, Lacey, Wash. Organization: American Humanist Association

Sometimes Doug Thomas makes sense but his column of May 13 leaves me wondering what planet he's on. Humanists a grumpy lot? Not those I know. My humanist friends are among the sanest and happiest people I know.

Perhaps there's a clue to his problem in the way he appears to divide humanity into "believers" and "unbelievers." Why does he do that? Those labels are the invention of his enemies!

Is a metaphysical issue about an absurdity adequate grounds to categorize the human race into two camps? What's so special about any one particular metaphysical belief among the infinite number that are possible?

Perhaps the adherents of one or another fanaticism want to class you as an "unbeliever" if you don't submit to their worldview. Exactly why should you or I let them define us in that way, as if a quaint belief is somehow a default from which we are mere dissenters? I do not accept the status of a deviant.

I do not choose to be a "believer" or "nonbeliever" of nonsensical claims. Let anybody show evidence for a proposition that I may accept or deny. Until they offer such evidence why should I submit to being classed and put in a box of their definition on their terms?

Maybe Doug Thomas would be less grumpy if he didn't try to fight a pointless battle he does not need to fight.

Francis Mortyn, Calif.

Doug Thomas offers one plausible explanation of why a humanist might develop a surly attitude towards believers, but I think his essay as a whole represents a failure of critical thinking. Mr. Thomas answers the question "why are we such a grumpy lot?" without ever in any way evaluating the claim that humanists ARE in fact grumpy!

Religious devotees make all sorts of ill-informed, prejudicial claims about non-believers on a daily basis. They write screeds about the attitudes and behaviors of the so-called New Atheists without having read any of their books – or, even less well-informed, parrot claims based on such screeds. Priests, pastors and preachers of all types bemoan the rise of secularism and unbelief – and describe non-believers in all sorts of unflattering terms – all of which their flocks absorb and repeat with little evidence of reflection or evaluation.

The unsupported claim that non-believers are missing something essential from their lives and therefore must be unhappy is one of the most common themes of such diatribes. It is a tiresome falsehood, and hardly the only one believers regularly spread about non-believers.

Confronted with a blanket claim about humanists – that they are generally unhappy or surly – from someone Mr. Thomas describes as a "Christian apologist," my last inclination would be to accept the truth of that claim at face value. Perhaps the apologist is simply projecting his own negative attitude towards non-believers onto their behavior? Or perhaps the sorts of things the apologist regularly says to non-believers (and/or the way he says them) inspires the surliness he claims to have encountered?

At the very least, Mr. Thomas might have indicated in his essay that he considered such questions, or clearly stated that he was simply assuming there was truth to the "surliness" claim for the sake of discussing one possible cause for it.

As I suspect many HNN readers can also say, I know a great many self-described atheists, humanists and non-believers of all stripes. In my experience, they are on average no more surly or grumpy or otherwise negative in attitude than anyone else. Even the more limited claim that non-believers are prone to be surly specifically when interacting with believers is unsupported by my experience (which is all I have to go on, in the absence of any objective evidence).

In a society where non-believers are vastly outnumbered by believers, wouldn't such widespread interpersonal hostility be unavoidably obvious? Yet, I just don't see it.

I suspect that this apologist's claim about grumpy humanists has more to do with the apologist himself – shaped by his assumptions about non-believers and/or his behavior towards them – than it has to do with the humanists he's encountered.

Perhaps Doug Thomas had reasons for taking this apologist's claim about grumpy humanists seriously in spite of what I see as rather obvious reasons to be skeptical–if so, he should have included them in his essay.

–George M. Felis, Ph.D., Athens, Ga.

Why do I feel so unhappy? Is is possibly because I know a lot about the world around me, and greatly enjoy exploring it: not just my own particular locale, but also everything we humans can and have learned about it: I am a Hubble-hugger and Tree-hugger and Ant-hugger and Paramecium-hugger and… I look forwards with great expectation to the restart of the LHC and the hunt for the Higgs boson.

And I see – and hear – these stupid head-in-a-bucket religious fruit-cakes yowling about God says this and god says that and god says the other thing, and no, same-sex marriage is against god's law and…

And they waste all their energy, and despoil the one environment we have, for
such a sorry pack of lies…That is why I feel so unhappy, sir: I am appalled at the waste – sick at heart over the future of mankind.

Isn't that enough to depress you???

–Ed Oleen, Bronx, N.Y.

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