Humanist EDge: Rationally Countering Crisis—It Takes a Collective

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

The American Humanist Association’s February master class for humanist leaders, “Building Communities to Counter White Nationalism,” brought eleven impassioned leaders together in a Washington, DC, conference room to think through multiple crises facing humanity, including white supremacy, authoritarian rule, growing inequality, planetary degradation, and the moral certitude that can afflict us all. A daunting task to be sure, but work made easier by a desire for collective action from a strong community.

I first heard about the two-day interactive workshop, hosted by the AHA Center for Education, with a little less than two weeks to prepare. Books had to be ordered, travel arrangements needed to be made. Our course instructor, Dr. Sharon D. Welch—a longtime professor, activist, and humanist leader (and, as of January, an AHA board member)—meticulously assembled a syllabus with five required readings. The time frame to prepare was unnervingly short, but so too is the time frame for solutions to the crises at hand. I promised myself that I would finish each of the five books before the workshop began. It wasn’t hard to keep my promise.

The readings proved to be quite compelling, constructing a vivid narrative of the raw emotionality of historic and contemporary white supremacy and the systemic policy choices that have perpetuated the crisis to this very day. Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide gave us the historic, nauseating context of white Americans’ hate-fueled opposition to black progress, from the first days of chattel slavery to the modern day institutional racism that played out in our school and prison systems. Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandela’s book, When They Call You a Terrorist, provided insight into the perspective of one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, a story of self-love in defiance of the rampant criminalization of black identity. Paul Hawken’s Drawdown and Van Jones’s The Green Collar Economy connected social and racial inequality with the epidemic of climate change, showing how both problems can be tackled simultaneously. Lastly, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder gave us the chance to reflect on how we can individually resist the rise of authoritarian politics and thinking in the United States.

Both haunted and invigorated by the interconnected challenges mounted against us, we gathered as humanists to envision a path forward; to continue the work that began lifetimes too late. As humanists, we are called upon, as portrayed in the myth of Sisyphus, to roll that boulder back up the mountain together, knowing full well that our efforts are riddled with risk and uncertainty. As ethical beings we come to terms with how our ways of life impact others throughout the world and in futures unknown. For these monumental tasks we only have each other and a little bit of time. We can only place our trust or faith in the ingenuity of humans to innovate and find creative solutions. To succumb to despair is to betray our ethical responsibility towards others.

For me, as a humanist who has become increasingly interested in what I represent rather than in what I stand against, the interactive conversations that occurred in the master class proved invaluable. I had grown tired of the holier than thou, self-righteous rhetoric that mocked the irrationality of religious folk. The us-vs.-them binary felt self-congratulatory rather than self-critical, a negation of Socrates’s humanistic dictum “know thyself.” Such self-righteousness struck me as being yet another iteration of cultural supremacy with a hyper-masculine vibe.

We humans, who are imbued with pride for our rationality—are we so rational after all? If so, then how did we get here? Is it more important to win an argument or to solve complex issues such as white supremacy, growing inequality, rising authoritarian rule, and climate change by forming coalitions with others? No single individual or group that cares about the fate of humanity as a whole can accomplish this alone.

One particular discussion about understanding a scientific basis for what enables diverse groups to work together really resonated. Dr. Welch introduced the idea that we can only be rational collectively—we can check other peoples’ biases or blind spots, but not our own. Deep learning occurs more effectively in inclusive communities that intentionally incorporate diverse perspectives.

I became very intrigued by the larger cultural implications of this idea, particularly the need to guard against the notion that so-called “lesser cultures” or groups of people have nothing of value to teach modern societies. Contrary to that notion, ancient Sufi writings warn mystics about the dangers of moral arrogance that are sometimes disguised as outward humility. In other words, Sufi thinkers had a subtle understanding of how the human mind plays tricks on itself; how it can often be more rationalizing than rational. Moreover, there is a Sufi saying that the believer is the mirror of the believer, meaning that we depend on others to know ourselves more fully, and that we may only know our darker selves in conjunction with others.

The meaning of wealth was another compelling theme that emerged during our conversations. How can we reimagine lives that go beyond the hyper-consumerist culture on offer? How does the cult of individualism prevent us from pooling our collective emotional, intellectual, and cultural resources to reimagine what it means to live well? Most importantly, how can we ensure everyone has access to these reimagined modes of wellbeing? These stimulating conversations brought to mind the work of Juliet Schor, a sociology professor and longtime advocate of simple living. She suggests that traditional ascetics may have much to teach us about living simply while preserving natural capital for our long-term prosperity. Sometimes we need other cultural perspectives to foster creative unlearning. And regarding consumerist culture and deeply ingrained systemic white supremacy, we Americans have so much to unlearn.

For me, the interactive workshop at the American Humanist Association put us squarely in that imaginative space. Participants came from all over the country to share knowledge, exchange ideas, compare diverse perspectives and experiences, and probe ways to pool our collective resources as we take on white supremacy, growing inequality, and climate collapse. We left with an even longer list of books to read, with dogged determination to make submerged bodies of knowledge and indigenous wisdom matter.

Humanists in the United States have an important role to play in creating a receptive space for a more inclusive humanism, one that works at the intersection of social justice and innovative community-building. In heartfelt commitment to this endeavor, I am cofounding an emerging humanist organization to provide an alternative to faith-based communities. The goal of An-Nas: Humanists Rising in Muslim Communities is to promote greater engagement with diverse humanist traditions while encouraging our members to take on universal issues that impact humanity at large.