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happyhumanistI’m speaking to Edmonds UU just north of Seattle tomorrow morning. They asked that I talk about humanism, with special attention to the discomfort many humanists feel with ritual and other trappings often associated with theism. I’ll post the talk later.

91 percent of Unitarian Universalists claim humanism as one of their self-identifiers. There are essentially three types:

  • Secular humanists
  • Theistic religious humanists
  • Nontheistic religious humanists
  • The last group redefines the word “religion” to mean “devotion to certain values and principles and coming together in the service of those values and principles.”

    I understand the strategy there. If humans in general are too skittish to call themselves nonreligious, let’s broaden the definition of “religious” to include a less toxic, more positive expression. Gives folks a place to go.

    But that also creates headaches for those of us who are trying to address the toxic form. It’s like being a cancer researcher, only to have someone redefine “cancer” to mean “courage.” At which point the redefiners turn around and point an angry finger at those working for a cure, saying, “How can you be opposed to courage?”

    But again, I get it. I’m even coming to see the value in creating that space to be “religious” and nontheistic.

    At one point in the talk, I say

    When I first discovered the label for what I had essentially always been — secular humanist — I considered the first word to be the most important. I had renounced not just theism but all of the institutional accretions that have built up around theism these many centuries, doing untold harm to the very world and people I care so much about. But as I’ve grown in my secular humanism, I’ve begun to value the second word more strongly than the first.

    It’s true. For a long time I was proudest of my secularity, my atheism. I figured out this really hard thing that most people get wrong. And it’s the biggest thing there is! Woohoo! [Ape beats chest, peels banana.]

    It’s still important to me, but I think we spend too much time congratulating ourselves about it. Yes yes, little boy, you figured out the tricky thing. Good show. But NOW what?

    Humanism, of course. That’s what.

    Being an atheist in a theistic society is challenging, but atheism itself is easy. It’s a simple renunciation, a toggle switch. Humanism — taking care of each other and the world in the absence of divine help — takes effort.

    Humanism is something I can be held to and hold others to, something I can succeed or fail at, get better at by degrees. Some days I’m a better humanist than other days, but I’m always the same kind of atheist. Though I’m still every bit an atheist, my atheism doesn’t separate me from Joseph Stalin. But it’s pretty hard to argue that Stalin was a humanist.

    This isn’t meant to be another tired discursion on labels. As I said, I claim them both, as do most nontheists. But preparing this talk for tomorrow has reimmersed me in what humanism means and how important and energizing it can be.

    On the About page at the elegantly-named Humanity by Starlight, blogger and high-schooler Perpetual Dissent put it this way:

    I’m an atheist and I try to live up to being a humanist.

    Search ye in vain for a better nutshell.

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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.