It’s June 21, the Summer Solstice and also World Humanist Day, by no coincidence: it’s on the longest day of the year, the day the sunlight shines for the longest time, to symbolize the light of reason illuminating humanity in much the same way that the light of the sun illuminates the earth.
So, on this most auspicious of occasions, I hope you’ll allow me to share a few thoughts on my own personal Humanism.
Atheism doesn’t play a major role in my life all the time, but Humanism never stops.
I have my cycle of obsessions, and part of the reason that this blog hasn’t really been updated is because the cycle has moved on. I’m definitely still interested in atheist and interfaith activism, but it’s more of a passing interest at current, so atheism isn’t really playing a huge role in my life right now. I know fighting for the rights of nonbelievers and helping others understand secularism and atheism is important work, but it’s not occupying a lot of my time right now.
However, here’s where I draw the distinction. Humanism isn’t simply atheism with a fancy name or atheism plus morality. My atheism may have stopped playing a major role in my life, but my Humanism has never stopped. My Humanist beliefs color every interaction and friendship I have. I base my Humanism on a core optimism about human nature and faith in the ability of every human being to do good. It’s profoundly affected the way I treat people and how I view people in general.
I consider myself a Christian atheist.
This may be news for some, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about religion as of late. Especially since Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis, doing great work to fix the hypocrisy and vanity in the Church, I’ve been encouraging myself to own my Roman Catholic upbringing. There are many Church teachings I agree with, and for the ones I disagree with, I’m not alone: pro-choice Catholics created Catholics for Choice to promote freedom of conscience, and the coalition Equally Blessed promotes equal rights for LGBT individuals within the Church.
Obviously following Christianity without even believing in God isn’t exactly mainstream, but it works for me. I draw inspiration from many religious traditions, but Christianity feels the most personal to me. The way I think of it is this: I’m inspired by the Bible but not bound by it. I consider Jesus an exemplary role model to follow. The Christian teaching that I think about most often is the seven deadly sins. I consider them the cause of all suffering: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth. When I find myself challenged by one of these, I call to mind the opposing seven heavenly virtues: Humility, Charity, Chastity, Kindness, Temperance, Patience, and Diligence. A pretty good guide to living, if you ask me.
While I don’t believe in their supernatural propositions, I draw inspiration from many religious traditions.
Religion is a very interesting topic to me. It frustrates me when some atheists dismiss all religion out of hand, because there is definite wisdom to be found in the varied religious traditions of the world. Yes, most religions include supernatural aspects, but another aspect of the definition of religion is that they provide a code of ethics to live by, and there’s a perhaps surprising (though, if you really think about it, not surprising at all) amount of overlap in the morals of the different religions. Yes, religion can be corrupted by dogmatism and tribalism to become a mockery of the ideals it promotes, but that doesn’t diminish the value of those ideals. If anything, it demonstrates the need to remain diligent in promoting those ideals, because they can become corrupted so easily. Ideals to live by: sounds like Humanism to me.
So on this longest day of the year, take a moment to think about how Humanism influences your life. Not even necessarily the secular kind. Faith in humanity is Humanism. Working to promote the inherent dignity of every person is Humanism. If you work to improve the lives of people, you can call yourself a Humanist.
I suppose this is my coming out. As I’ve known for a few months now, I’m bisexual. I’ve always been an advocate for LGBT rights, but this realization has made the issue take on an even more personal significance for me. Today I participated in the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network's Day of Silence. I spent basically all of today completely silent except when it was absolutely necessary for me to speak. Even for a hyper-introverted person like myself, it was torture. And much like it’s never the fall that kills you, it’s not the silence that drives you insane. It’s the lack of communication. The feeling of not being able to get your point across. Basically, the whole point of having this Day of Silence. So, since I spent a day locked in a room with my uncontrollable internal monologue, unable to escape, I’ve done some thinking about some lessons that the Day of Silence can teach.
Lesson One. Your allies are the people who speak for you when you have no voice.
The Day of Silence offers a nice opportunity to appreciate some of the issues faced by the LGBT community usually expressed in figurative terms by making them literal. Much like the straight allies who speak out to those who won’t listen to the people themselves because of their identities, on the Day of Silence, your allies are the people who literally speak for you — those who are willing to communicate ideas to others that you cannot.
Lesson Two. There are few things that are truly black and white. It’s frustrating to be expected to pick between two choices when neither describes how you really feel.
Anyone who’s participated in the Day of Silence can tell you that it’s easy enough to work with yes or no questions — the problem comes when your answer to a question can’t be easily captured with a shake of the head or a simple hand gesture. Coincidentally, this too serves as an eloquent allegory for a LGBT issue. Especially for the oft-overlooked latter half of LGBT (i.e. bisexuals and trans* people, and the rest when extended to some of the more unwieldy abbreviations like LGBTQIA…), society often seems to expect people to “pick a side”: gay or straight, male or female… you get the idea. Thing is, it’s not really that simple. What’s to be said when you’re given two choices and you don’t feel like either truly represents you?
Lesson Three. There are many creative ways to communicate without talking.
This one doesn’t really translate into any great epiphany about LGBT issues, but it’s impossible to get through a Day of Silence without learning it. There may be debates on the extent to which it’s cheating, but one way or another, be it through a notebook you carry around, sticky notes, or Charades: Hard Mode, if you’re being silent for a day, you’re gonna figure out a way to communicate. Oh wait. I guess that does translate into a good metaphor.
Lesson Four. We will never be silenced.
One of the great qualities of the human person is determination. We don’t simply quietly acquiesce to oppression. There is such thing as right and wrong, it turns out, and what is right always wins. Maybe not at first, and never without cost, but in the end, driven by that very human determination, the right side prevails. Those who seek to reduce the dignity of the human person, who resist change out of fear of the unknown, will be forced either to change themselves or watch as they become increasingly irrelevant, because they will never, ever win.
I retained no other purpose but to ponder my own existence. I rudely took the Universe by her collar and demanded the answers I seeked. She sang electrical melodies — telegraphed her response across a cable of neurons. She breathed proteins and sighed silky strands of DNA. Her answers were at once exciting and frustrating — as all good things are. Her poetic prose echoed across the vastness, a series of electrical impulses stretching to eternity, wherever that may be.
I originally posted this lengthy tirade as a status on Facebook, in response to a particularly heartless Holocaust joke. I promise I’m not usually this cynical, but this is a troubling trend I’ve been noticing with my generation and Internet culture.
TL;DR: Read it. Show that you’re capable of processing more than 140 characters at a time.
I get it; I’ve been immersed in the Internet culture firsthand. I’ve laughed at the jokes. But I’ve changed my perspective a lot in the past couple of years. Now? I don’t do offensive humor. Worst offender: Holocaust jokes. I might have laughed at them before. But now? At first glance, they’re amusing puns or wordplay. I want to laugh. Maybe I almost smile for a fraction of a second. But I’ve been to Holocaust museums. I’ve read the stories the legions never survived to tell. I’ve studied the madness that was the Holocaust, undoubtedly one of the greatest crimes against humanity in all of history. I see a joke, I want to laugh… but then I remember what I saw, and I don’t. SIX. MILLION. That’s how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Six million people, brutally murdered by people who saw no wrong in doing so. It seemed as crazy at the time as it does now. Few believed that the Nazis would really go through with their plans, and six million Jews paid the ultimate price for it. If you feel comfortable trivializing the senseless murder of so many people, I think you need to examine your life, because you’re seriously deficient in empathy. But that’s not even what breaks my heart. What breaks my heart is that there are people who will see this and think nothing of it; label me a “moralfag”, pat themselves on the back for being good trolls, and move on with their lives. That’s the tragedy here.
What have we done?
This post is originally from NonProphet Status. The introduction is written by Vlad Chituc, and the section I contributed is the next-to-last one.
I’m an atheist, but a year ago I became a vegan for Lent. I was inspired by Alain de Botton’s book, “Religion for Atheists” and a general realization that bad habits and failures of will were the biggest barriers to getting where I wanted in life. I figured that Lent’s 40-day trial period was a nice religious practice that could be easily translated into secular life.
We’re continuing and expanding that tradition this year at NonProphet Status. I asked our contributors, as well as some of our favorite people, to share what they were giving up for Lent.
I had a few accidental dietary transgressions last year, and I quickly learned how easy it can be to ignore what’s in what we’re eating. For the most part, though, I solidified a lot of the eating habits I have today. Though I’m not entirely vegan (yet), I’ve been gradually replacing eggs and dairy in my diet. I maintain a vegan diet for most meals in any given week, so I’m going to give veganism another try this year, hopefully for good.
It’s boring, though, to do the same thing two years in a row. So I’ll follow through with some sage advice from this Twitter feed: I’ll be reading no internet comments for the next 40 days, comments here notwithstanding. I’ve wasted way too many hours arguing with strangers on the internet for no discernible reason, and there’s no sense in wasting my time and harming my mental health on something so petty. I’m convinced that very little, if any good, has ever come from the average comment thread in any website. I have never heard anyone say “Wow, I’m really happy I read that insightful comment section,” so I think this is for the best.
I haven’t observed Lent since I was a Christian, so this is something new. But I like trying new things, so here goes. Instead of giving something up for my first atheist Lent, I’m going to add a practice: every day, I will make an effort to tell at least one person in my life at least one of the reasons that I am glad to know them. Often times, in the busyness of life, these kinds of feelings go unexpressed. We just assume that people already know that we love them, or that we demonstrate our gratitude sufficiently through our actions, or that we’ll get around to verbalizing it later. This Lent, I’m going to try to be a bit more intentional about expressing my gratitude for the many ways other people enrich my life.
I really like the idea of Lent – like Vlad said, giving yourself a set amount of time to try breaking a bad habit (or forming a new good one, like Chris is working on) seems like a really healthy practice. The combination of a predetermined end-date that you can always look forward to as a willpower booster and the solidarity of lots of other people taking on similar challenges at the same time makes Lent a smart tradition for anyone to adopt, Christian or otherwise.
This year, in an effort to both take better care of my body and be more financially prudent, I’m giving up alcohol for the next 40 days. I’m making an exception for the bottle of champagne I’ve been saving to celebrate my boyfriend’s last day of work this weekend, because rituals and traditions should be flexible, not dogmatic. But I feel like I’m somewhat making up for that rule-bending in a few weeks since I’ll be keeping kosher for Passover during the last week of Lent. Borrowing from two religions at once has got to count for something, right? Thank goodness Ramadan is still a few months away.
My phone is for all intents and purposes an extension of my body. If I’m not obsessively checking Twitter or refreshing my Facebook news feed, I’m getting into internet fights on Reddit. It’s bad enough that when I go out to dinner with my girlfriend I have to surrender my phone as soon as we sit down. So for the next 40 days I’m going to make a potentially futile attempt to wean myself off of neurotically checking my phone every 3 minutes. That’s not to say that I’m going to give it up completely. I’m about 98% sure that would break me. But I really like the idea that for the next couple of weeks I’m going to make a conscious effort to only check it once every…hour. Yeah. I think I can do that.
On top of trying to wrangle in an obnoxious addiction, this is going to be a weird experience for me. Being that I was raised Mormon and am now a godless heathen, I’ve never observed Lent. Actually, up until about 2 hours ago I never even considered it a possibility. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. There’s something powerful about millions of people over the same 40 days trying their best to conquer bad habits and collectively distance themselves from those things that we trick ourselves into thinking we need.
A few months ago, I would have dismissed the term “cultural Catholic.” But I’ve since developed a near obsession-level interest in religion, and that’s taught me to appreciate the positive aspects of the tradition I was raised in. It seems natural to capture the spirit of Lent in my own secular practices, just as it does with Christmas and other religious rituals. Following this logic and some inspiration from Vlad’s piece “Lent for Atheists,” I decided to give adopt a vegetarian diet for Lent this year. I would try veganism, but one step at a time.
That’s not the only thing I’m giving up for Lent, though. As it turns out, a lot of those lessons from Sunday school many years ago have stuck in my head. Every year we would have the Lent discussion; everyone wants to give up things like chocolate or soda, but that’s missing the point. Thinking theologically, what you give up should be some vice that’s distancing you from God. From a secular perspective, then, it should be something that’s distancing you from being a better person. In this way, it seems to me that the purpose of the Lent tradition is self-improvement. My sacrifice of meat-eating will be my 40-day experiment, as Vlad put it. The vice that I’ll be giving up, though, is procrastination. It’s a popular subject for jokes on the internet, but it’s also something that has started to become a serious problem for me. I’ll hopefully end these forty days with less stress from work and more awareness of the challenges I’ll face with my inevitable full transition to a vegetarian diet. Let the games begin.
I’ll give up tweeting raisin puns for Lent.
I’ve dismissed the term cultural Catholic in the past, but I’m growing to think that it might apply to me. Just about an hour remains until Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Catholic season of Lent. As with some other holidays, I really like the idea of Lent. During Lent, Fridays are days of fasting and abstinence, which means that food should not be eaten outside of meals and meat should not be eaten at all, though for some reason there’s an exception for fish meat. The most significant ritual of the Lenten season, however, is the giving up of a vice. Every year, Catholics are supposed to choose something to give up for Lent. Of course those not very invested in their faith (but nonetheless feeling an obligation) choose things like chocolate or soda, complain the whole way through, and emerge on the other side unchanged. But, as any Sunday school teacher will tell you, that’s not the point. The thing you give up doesn’t even have to be a thing. The point of giving up something during Lent is to try to make a positive change in your life. This year, I plan to celebrate Lent, even though I’m an atheist. Self-improvement is always good, and looks like it’s in season now. My vice (oh, my terrible, terrible vice) is procrastination. That’s what I’ll be giving up, hopefully. Additionally, and somewhat inspired by Vlad Chituc’s piece entitled “Lent for Atheists”, I’ll be trying out vegetarianism during Lent. So here’s hoping that what I give up during Lent will stay given up. Let the games begin.
Do you actually check this?
Interesting. The self-answering question.
Anyway, yes. I do. And for when I don’t, I get emails.
In every age there are those who proclaim the imminent death of religion. They seem to be to religious apocalyptic doomsayers what bigoted New Atheists are to religious fundamentalists, seemingly a mirror image. Like the various spectacular non-apocalypses we’ve experienced, the continued persistence of religion should serve to show that perhaps their reasoning is a bit off. A recent example of this is Valerie Tarico in her Salon article "Religion May Not Survive the Internet". There are a couple of reasons why her titular claim is a little far-fetched. Shall we?
First off, religion has survived for many thousands of years. That’s gotta mean something. That something is that religion is not a monolith. The fundamental flaw in the “God is dead”-sayers’ reasoning is, time and time again, their conception of religion. They see religion as this outdated, slowly decaying bit of craziness that will lie down and quietly fade into irrelevance any day now. But the fact is that religion has only survived so long because it can change. Nothing that is incapable of change will survive for very long in a changing world. A particular example of religion changing can be found in the Roman Catholic Church’s posthumous overturning of its ruling on Galileo. It obviously wasn’t for his benefit; at the time, Galileo was long dead. It was symbolic. The reversal of the ruling that put a man to death for seeking scientific truth was the symbolic rejection of the type of strict, literal interpretation of scripture that had formerly characterized the Church. I’m not saying that there aren’t still problems with religion — they are legion, certainly. I’m just saying that religion won’t just shrivel up and die. It’s only the negative aspects that are likely to do that. (And good riddance!) At its heart, a religious community is a group of human beings, and if they change, so too will the religion.
A point that’s rather unique to modern doomsayers (and that Tarico makes significant use of in her article) is the observation of the growing ease of access to and acceptance of alternatives to religion. To say that that could bring about religion’s demise is making a pretty big leap. Once again, the problem is with the view of religion (religious people, specifically, in this instance). The only way that easier access to alternatives to religion could bring about religion’s demise is if every religious believer only remains in their particular religious community out of a sense of obligation. Now, this is certainly the case for some closet atheists, but it’s hardly an accurate picture of the average believer. Put simply, most religious people aren’t looking for an alternative to religion. It should go without saying that many people live happy, fulfilling religious lives.
The conclusion that Tarico reaches in her article is simply wrong, because it is based on a stereotype of religion as a monolithic, unchanging entity whose adherents participate only out of a sense of obligation. There are certainly instances where that’s the case, but it’s those bits that stand to fade into irrelevance, not religion as a whole. Our religions reflect ourselves, conferring on them that very human resilience that will likely keep us seeing religion in some form or another for ages to come.
This was originally written as a response to a post in /r/religion asking “How has ubiquitous access to the sum of human knowledge (aka the Internet) affected your faith (or lack thereof)?”
I wouldn’t say that the Internet caused me to lose my faith. More that it helped me discover that I didn’t really have it in the first place. Reading and learning from the Internet for many years led me to a point where I was an “agnostic Catholic” (though many object to equating “agnostic” to “weak”, it was pretty much true then). I then discovered deism, which defines God as only the Supreme Architect, the non-intervening creator of the universe. Reading the definition made me recall sitting in church one afternoon and trying to figure out how I could make the Big Bang theory and God work together at a young age. For that reason, I embraced deism readily. The Internet also encouraged me later to realize that I was only a deist because I didn’t want to let go of God, even if my “God” would be more recognizable to Epicurus or Spinoza than Aquinas. I decided I was an atheist and later started reading a lot about Humanism. My readings on Humanism, at first mostly on the Internet but later in a couple of physical books as well, has profoundly influenced the way I view the world and humanity; to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything. So though my faith in God was never strong (and when it was, only because I was convinced by a scientific apologetic book), my faith in humanity as a Humanist is stronger than ever, and I have the Internet to thank for it.
Figure 1. Let tactlessness prevail.
Naturally, I was disgusted back then, but my perspective was also a bit different. A deist is little more than an atheist with a god, and as a deist, I liked to imagine myself as above all the petty squabbling between atheists and the religious. I was convinced that neither side was giving the other enough credit, and while I still think that’s true to a certain extent, I failed to realize at the time that a person who thinks about such matters as often as I do can never be above the continuum of belief and doubt. I could never be an apatheist, and my foundation for deism was far from sturdy. But recognizing that I’m now equipped with 20/20 hindsight, how do I feel about this sign now that I consider myself an atheist and a Humanist?
CNN’s Dan Merica noted a few days ago that "Christmas exposes [the] atheist divide on dealing with religion." So where do I place myself on this divide? Merica’s article uses American Atheists’ David Silverman and Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein as the exemplars of the opposing sides of the divide. I place myself squarely on Epstein’s side. As I’ve noted before, trivializing people’s beliefs is not a very effective “strategy”. Atheists are already at a disadvantage in American society, and calling other people’s deeply held beliefs “myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” isn’t likely to help our cause terribly. I’d imagine that some of these atheist activists all too eager to trivialize others’ beliefs wouldn’t appreciate the same being done to them.
Figure 2. Doesn’t feel good, does it?
Naturally, I can’t end my Christmas post without talking about the real meaning of Christmas (cue groans from the audience), as I did with Thanksgiving earlier this year. Pointing out that Christmas and friends originated from pagan winter solstice celebrations, besides failing entirely to change the minds of the “War on Christmas” folks (who are a little less than receptive to such sentiments), completely misses the point. Why are there so many celebrations around the winter solstice? No matter how you choose to celebrate it, winter is a time to celebrate humanity, to show that no matter how cold things get, the warmth of the human spirit will always prevail. (This was the idea I had in mind when I wrote "The Defeat of General Winter, or The Vernal Equinox Funeral Mass".) Christmas and Thanksgiving are a couple of my favorite holidays because they are, at the core, celebrations of the inherent goodness of humanity (as the American Humanist Association would say, "Sounds Like Humanism!"). With the associated mythology (which, I should add, is not necessarily a bad thing), Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude and Christmas is a celebration of generosity. I’d imagine that, much as rejection of their god, which, for the most part, they view as an embodiment of humanity’s positive potential, puzzles the religious, rejection of this celebration makes little sense. Whether or not it’s literally true that a jolly man with a magical sleigh and flying reindeer delivers presents to all the world’s children in one night is moot when the point is to celebrate generosity and the unity of humanity.
With their incredibly out of touch priorities, American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are not helping to advance secularism or civil rights for atheists with their Christmastime actions. What they are doing is sophomoric and more fit for name-calling in a high school cafeteria than it is for high profile activist organizations. Especially when lined up side by side with the Harvard Humanists, they are an embarrassment. And while I still have my differences with some of the Humanists there, their activism is actually helping people, and they should be applauded for it. On the other hand, AA and the FFRF need to take a strong look at themselves, and think about whether they actually want to change the world for the better or just continue to try to one-up religious people. If it’s the latter, they do not deserve our community’s support.
So from one human being to another, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.