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Part 2 of an address to Edmonds UU Church in Edmonds, WA, April 19, 2009.

[Back to Part 1.]

bridgebuilding430909As I’ve grown in my secular humanism, I’ve begun to value the second word more strongly than the first. And nothing illustrates the reason more vividly than the picture of all those hands racing skyward as Georgia kindergarteners enthusiastically embraced the idea of humanism—if only until dinnertime.

When they hear the definition, most people identify with it on some level. Think of the power in that.

The fault line down the middle of humanism runs right through the UU denomination. And that’s no surprise. When asked to choose one theological label in the Casebolt survey several years back, 46 percent of UUs chose “humanist.” It was by far the largest category of self-definition in this denomination. When given the option of identifying more than one label in the FACT survey of 2001, fully 91 percent of UUs chose “humanist” as one of their identities.

That’s a wonderful shared foundation on which to build.

Yet the fault line persists because we can’t seem to find our way past the first words— “secular” or “religious”— and their implications.

The irony here is that UUs are famously and proudly tolerant of diversity. You embrace and celebrate differences in race and ethnicity. You put other denominations to shame with your Welcoming Congregation Program for the GLBT community. Yet when it comes to being in community with other humanists, the fault line between the words “secular” and “religious” seems to yawn into an abyss.

It’s not just an issue for UUs. I recently spoke at one of the oldest Ethical Societies in the country and learned that two years ago they reached a level of such obsessive and destructive conflict over this issue that they called in a mediation team from the Alban Institute. On a scale of 1 to 5, their conflict was assessed at Level Five: “Intractable—no reconciliation possible.” One third of the Society walked away to form a new group. “We splintered like Protestants,” one person said. And the bitterness over the issue is still tangible.

Today I consider them one of the most successful humanist communities in the United States.

I know why secular humanists often have trouble accepting the idea of religious humanism, even when nontheistic, with its greater interest in ritual, in mystery, and in the notion of transcendence. I know why secular humanists flinch at the use of words like “holy,” “sacred,” “blessed,” “spiritual,” and “religion,” even when the user explains that they are divorced from their theistic origins — because I flinch too.

When I hear religious humanists ask why many secular humanists, especially the older generation, are so adamant in their renunciation of everything associated with religion, I hear echoes of other movements. I hear a young generation of African Americans chiding their parents and grandparents, asking “Why is everything about race with you?” I hear young women, whose mothers and grandmothers fought against an entrenched patriarchy for rights they now take for granted, who roll their eyes and ask, “Why is everything about gender with you?”

Many of us, especially those who grew up in earlier decades, have been wounded by traditional religion. I have met countless humanists who carry memories of betrayal, humiliation, terror, and psychological or physical abuse inflicted on them or their loved ones in the name of religion—often in childhood, when we are most vulnerable.

For these people, these most adamant secular humanists, words and rituals formerly associated with theistic religion carry genuinely painful associations. When other humanists who for whatever reason have been spared that wounding, or who bounced back more readily, insist that the seculars simply “get over” their aversion, that they simply recognize that religion can be redefined — it displays a very real lack of empathy.

But this knife cuts both ways, of course. When secular humanists accuse religious humanists of being “soft in the head,” or “irrational,” or “hooked on fuzzy-wuzzy mumbo-jumbo”—those are all exact quotes—they fail to recognize that God’s empty throne does not negate the many human needs that religion has traditionally served. Thinking hard about what those needs are is among the key challenges for humanism today.

[N.B. The following section is especially relevant to the Charles Blow column “Defecting to Faith.”]

One persistent delusion I hear from secular humanists is that people go to church for God. If we could just break through their belief in God, they say, they’ll walk away from church. It isn’t true, and we need to grasp this, once and for all, if humanist communities of all kinds are to bring people in the door and keep them there. If we don’t have what they are looking for, they will walk right out again.

I mentioned this disconnect to a gentleman in a freethought meeting last year and he scoffed. “Sorry,” he said. “If eternal life and pretty fables are what they need, we’re fresh out.” He didn’t seem inclined to question his assumption that that is what people need—that that is why people go to church. In fact, I’m convinced the revolving door on humanist communities of all kinds isn’t about the absence of God but the absence of something much more human and much more humanistic.

In a recent Gallup poll, only 27 percent of churchgoing respondents mentioned God or worship when giving their primary reason for attending church. They go to be a part of a loving community, for a sense of belonging, to be inspired and supported, to be involved in social justice and good works. One friend told me she goes so she can be surrounded by friendly people once a week. Simple as that. Yet the secular humanists who founded and who continue to run many freethought groups around the country continue to harp and harp on theology and epistemology, then wonder why few come and even fewer stay.

[Continue to Part 3.]

BONUS: Look, you’re already at the computer. Take two more minutes and read this fantastic (and brief) post at the Lucky Atheist. THIS is exactly what I mean by transcendence of the everyday!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.