Reading Time: 4 minutes

Part 3 of an address to Edmonds UU Church in Edmonds, WA, April 19, 2009. This part will bore regular blog readers, since it’s stolen from an earlier post, which was in turn swiped from an article I wrote for Secular Nation. So y’all can play at the sand table while the rest of the class catches up.

[Back to Part 1.]
[Back to Part 2.]

Okay, let me spin a scenario here. Any resemblance of the characters in this scenario to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely intentional.

harrysally54090A young woman named Sally sees a notice in the paper about a local humanist organization. She has always considered herself a religious humanist, completely nontheistic but longing for human community that doesn’t require her to park her convictions at the door. One Sunday morning she decides to skip her mainstream church service and check it out.

Sally walks in the door of the meeting with a nervous smile. A few men are setting things up. No one acknowledges her. Ten minutes after milling about awkwardly, reading scattered pamphlets and counting ceiling tiles, she crosses paths with one of the men. “Visitor?” he asks. “Yes, I am, hello!” she replies. “Hello, good to meet you,” he says. “Help yourself to coffee and nametags over there.” And off he goes to set up the chairs.

Sally has just met Harry.

Secular humanists come in every color, gender, age and size, but after many years speaking and belonging to humanist groups, and at the serious risk of stereotyping, I’d say there is a prototypical secular humanist, and Harry is it. If the police were profiling secular humanists, the profile might read something like this:

Scientifically-oriented, well-read white male, late 60s/early 70s
Grey-to-white hair and beard
Driving mid-sized vehicle with multiple incendiary bumperstickers
Officers cautioned to expect an argument
Suspect may be armed with syllogisms

Aside from the car, they’re essentially looking for Socrates.

Harry is the backbone of organized secular humanism, and most secular humanists fit most of that profile. Harry was there when Madeleine Murray O’Hair challenged prayer in schools, and he’s still here, staffing the tables, giving the talks, bringing the cookies, and just showing up, even when the rest of us have turned into the humanist equivalents of Christmas and Easter Christians.

I love Harry. Without the dedication and courage of Harry and those like him, humanism and the freethought movement would never have made it this far.

But what do we need to do to move further? For one thing, we need to also serve the needs of people who are quite different from Harry.

Harry was a freethought pioneer because he did not have the same needs as most other people. He was able to leave the church behind because he was exceptional in this way. I’m with him on this. When people talk to me about the need for community or wax poetic about “something larger than myself” or seeking the “spiritual side” of life, frankly my eyes glaze over a bit. The truth is that I don’t feel these needs in quite the way I hear others express them. That puts me outside the norm — something I need to recognize.

As a result of our relative lack of the mammalian desire to snuggle, I and all the rest of those with Harry personalities get together and talk quite happily about science and truth and reason. It’s not me I’m worried about—it’s Sally, who has been standing awkwardly by the coffee urn for ten paragraphs now.

Desperate for something to do, she ambles over to a table of books for sale. Every book without exception is about science, philosophy, critical thinking, or the debunking of religion or the paranormal. She meekly drifts to a group in conversation. Some religious dogma or other is being debunked with a flurry of critical argument and a smug, chuckling sneer.

Rather than being welcomed into an accepting community, she has the distinct feeling she’d better watch what she says. Most of all, she is painfully aware that the sneer is directed at who she was the previous week.

The meeting begins to coalesce. After a few announcements, the speaker is introduced. And what will our new visitor hear for the next 45 minutes? Here’s a quick sampling of recent meeting topics for humanist groups around the country:

Jesus of Nazareth—Historical, Mythical, or Some of Each?
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Revelation Trumped by the Constitution
The Enlightenment and the Self
Who Wrote the Gospels?
Church/State—Strict Separation or Accommodation?
Debate: “To Believe or Not to Believe”

I’m interested in every one of these topics. Of course I am—I’m Harry. But Sally, not so much. If she comes again and has the same experience—an indifferent reception, an atmosphere of critical disdain, and a debunking lecture—the third time will rarely be a charm.

I’ve heard it said that the comparison isn’t fair. Humanist groups don’t want to be churches. I’m comparing apples and oranges. But if our prospective members seem to be allergic to oranges, might it not be wise to take a closer look at them apples? Might it not be wise to think about what it is that people are really looking for, and to even look to traditional religion as potential inspiration?

A recent post I saw on a humanist discussion board summed this up very well. “Religious communities,” it said, “are often filled with social events, music, poetry, inspiration, and life advice. It can be very difficult for some people to give all of this up for a few science books, Internet forums, and an arsenal of ammunition to use against the religious. Where is the poetry? Where is the inspiration? Although many of us have already found meaning without religion, we should probably try to help those who haven’t.”

This is the sound of Harry reaching out to Sally.

[Continue to Part 4 (conclusion).]

Avatar photo

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.