When I stopped believing in God, like so many “come-outer” atheists who feel confident and even smug in their reasoning, I was ready to do battle with anyone on matters of religion. Even so, after these debates I always felt a little dirty knowing that my arrogance in trying to humiliate others wasn’t right. More importantly, I knew that I hadn’t won any hearts with my rude methods. People judge your philosophy in a matter of seconds, not by rational arguments, but by your character. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.”
Something else concerned me. While I criticized religion’s grounding on a man-made book, authoritarian control, or personal revelatory faith, I began to see that I myself had little grounding for the big questions in life. I arrogantly thought that knowing one truth, that there is no God, was all I needed.
Embarrassment over my own hypocrisy drove me to a lifelong search for what is true and how we should conduct ourselves. It hasn’t been easy to get beyond some of the shallow answers, such as “knowledge is based on evidence” or “just be good.” It’s even more difficult to find foundational answers aren’t as simple as we thought but rather layered, nuanced, interactive, and strikingly ambiguous at times (and too long to discuss in this column). I eventually found satisfactory answers to most of my questions in humanism.
Humanism speaks to my whole secular life stance and worldview, by which I seek the good life and good society.
Many people coming out of religion go through the angry “come-outer” stage and, like me, move on to a more reflective, encompassing humanism. But many do not. It’s certainly understandable that as a marginalized, oppressed segment of society, we will attract those whose frustrations boil over. This is a problem when personal emotional wounds, some not even related to our nontheism, can result in attracting toxic personalities that can paralyze any activist organization. I’ve seen them destroy the functioning of boards and chapters where the vast majority are sound personalities. Some call it the “angry old white man” syndrome and an indiscriminate toleration can allow it to fester.
As with all things in life, nurturing a community of humanists is a balancing act. We want to love and support people in their quest and passions in promoting a secular life, but we can’t let a few emotionally crippled individuals destroy our efforts, as each group has a “carrying capacity.” Studies have shown that the groups that succeed best are those where there is mutual trust among members. Our interpersonal skills and our skills at building supportive intelligence as well as critical intelligence must be developed and encouraged if humanists are to flourish as a movement and community.
A deep humanism digs down below the surface of our nontheism into the soil of our philosophy. It asks, as Socrates did, the big questions of life: What is truth? How shall we live? And, what do we hope for? Such a philosophy is never satisfied with simplistic answers. It looks inward as well as outward, asking if we have our own house in order before marching off to do battle with the religious right. It asks if our own hearts are true and our own lives exemplary before asking others to join us.
The early founders of humanism placed a lot more emphasis on individual character than we do today. They knew that self-righteously proclaiming errors in the Bible, the irrationality of belief in God, and railing against church-state entanglements are only part of our duties. We must also define what the good secular life entails.
The American Humanist Association has rightly moved to be more activist in recent years, but I hope we never forget to hold the mirror up to our lives, our own meanings, and our own actions, and reflect who we aspire to be.
Michael Werner is past president of the American Humanist Association and remains active in many humanist organizations.