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Part 4 of an address to Edmonds UU Church in Edmonds, WA, April 19, 2009.

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A recent post I saw on a humanist discussion board framed the issue 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.

heartbrain3Fortunately, many humanist groups across the country are getting more comfortable with exactly these things. They are expanding their topics, improving the emotional and symbolic content of their meetings, and turning to ever-greater involvement in good works — an area in which UUs have always taken the lead.

But in the process of leading this transformation of humanism, I have seen many UU fellowships so eager to serve Sally that they ignore or even disparage Harry. It’s a delicate and difficult balancing act, but by naming it here today, I hope improve the chances of healing this fault line. If it is going to be healed, I’m convinced it will happen here in the UU denomination, because this is where Harry and Sally meet.

I have ever-greater hope for the rest of the humanist movement as well. They too are figuring out how to do community well, including a greater focus on good works. Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry began a marvelous “revolving charities” campaign, designating one charity each quarter as a spotlight beneficiary. In less than a year, thousands of dollars have gone toward orphan relief, domestic violence support services, medical research, and a residential facility for troubled youth. A few other groups are doing likewise. And from Portland to Albuquerque to Raleigh, humanist parenting groups and ethical education programs for kids are springing up, adding a family focus, more gender equity, and young blood.

I’d like to see this continue and expand. I’d like to see soup kitchen, food pantry, and Habitat volunteering added to the omnipresent freeway cleanup programs. The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia sponsors an annual Tree of Knowledge during the holidays. I’d like to see a Tree of Compassion right next to it.

When it comes to forming genuine community, humanists have a very mixed record. We fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting. Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t “to be a force for rationality”—humanist groups of all kinds will continue to lag behind theistic churches in offering community.

It begins with simple things. I urge humanist groups to designate a greeter for every meeting—someone to grab and shake the hand of every person who walks in the door, new or returning. Select topics that challenge the convictions and humanity of the group instead of always preaching to the choir. Or screw the topic and just get together for the sake of getting together.

I tell them to have a CD playing as people arrive. And not Die Gedanken sind frei.1 Something unrelated to freethought. Read a poem. Take a moment to remember people who are ill or have died. Collect money for the homeless. If you want families to come and stay, offer childcare or forget about it.

These are things UUs have mastered. Now I want to see it spread to the rest of the freethought world. If we make our secular humanist groups less about secularism and more about humanism, more humans will come. And as long as we continue to serve their humanity, they will stay—and they will bring their kids. At that point, you’ve got yourself a community.

“The good life,” said Bertrand Russell, “is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Thanks in large part to Harry, humanism has knowledge tackled. In the interest of Sally, and the millions of humanists like her, it’s time to match our intellectual efforts with greater emphasis on compassion, emotion, humanity, and love. And a big part of this is recognizing those things—ritual, language, symbolism, community-building, and more—that religion actually does really well, and giving ourselves permission to adopt and redefine what works, even as we set aside what does not.
1But click this link for a video of Die Gedanken that mixes Harry and Sally quite nicely.

Illustration from The Usual Error Project under Creative Commons license.

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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.