Asserting Our Humanism

by Melvin Lipman, President of the American Humanist Association
Speaking at a forum of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio
Saturday, July 29, 2006, at Upper Arlington Public Library

The American Humanist Association is the largest and the oldest Humanist organization in the United States. We have 114 chapters and affiliates in 46 different states, plus Washington D.C. The purpose of the American Humanist Association is to promote the awareness of Humanism.

Why do we need to promote the awareness of Humanism? A recent study was published in March of this year by the University of Minnesota, which showed that Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics--we're all in the same boat--are the most despised minority in the United States. Most of the public feels that it's terrible to say that "I won't vote for" someone because it's a woman, because they're gay, because they're Black, but more than 50% of the population in this country feels it's very proper to say "I won't vote for an Atheist." We need to make the public aware that we're your next-door neighbors, that we don't have horns, (laughter) that we're not evil people. And that's one of the major functions of the American Humanist Association, to address that issue.

We advise our members through action alerts periodically--at least one every week, press releases, whenever any national news comes of interest to Humanists. We monitor the legislation that's taking place in Congress. We have our own Humanist Legal Center, where we would actually file suits or file briefs to support law suits that protect church-state issues that we're involved in.

That's just a general idea of who we are, and I'll be glad to talk to anybody and let you know how to join if you'd like to.

Today my talk was entitled Asserting Our Humanism. What does that mean? Well, comedian Paula Poundstone says "Being an Evangelical Atheist doesn't mean knocking on doors and yelling 'There is no Word!'" (laughter) So how do we assert our Humanism? Well, the first sentence in the Humanist Manifesto provides a succinct description of Humanism--it gives what we call an "elevator answer" to the question "What is Humanism?" Elevator answers are if you get in an elevator and somebody sees your pin and says 'What is it?' You say 'That's the Humanist symbol.' Well, what's a Humanist? And all you have is 14 floors down to explain what a Humanist is--where I could spend 7 hours and still not sufficiently explain it

But the brief description would be that first sentence in our Humanist Manifesto. And what it says is "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

Now that's a pretty big sentence. What it stresses is, first, the responsibility of every Humanist is to live a life of personal fulfillment. How do we get that fulfillment? Through our social responsibility, our lives aspire for the greater good of humanity. That's what Humanists are all about.

The key words that distinguishes us from other social-minded philosophies are the two words "without supernaturalism". And that's what keeps us apart from many other social-minded groups. Humanism does not rely on or accept any supernatural interpretation of reality.

So, what does that mean in our culture today? Well, we know we live in a supernatural culture--one in which "believing" has become more important than what you believe in. One in which clergy and parishioners alike claim personal knowledge of the unknown. The Humanist view questions and wonders how one can know the unknown. The Humanist view does not include revelations interpreted according to the aims and whims of a chosen few--an authoritarian clergy. A clergy that allow religious and political dogmas to trump science and reason, that makes it acceptable to allow our president to continue to deny effective stem cell research. That makes it acceptable for this country to refuse to distribute condoms to fight AIDS in Africa. That makes it acceptable for some Ohio School Board members to even consider changing teaching standards by labeling as controversial such scientific facts as evolution, as global warming, stem cell research.

Reason and science are not trumped by the Humanist view. In the Humanist view, reason would dominate the public square, science would be respected in national policy and debate.

When the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification--and that's a survey conducted by City University of New York. They conducted a survey in 1990, and another one in 2001. And in comparing those surveys, we find that the number of adults who identify with no religion more than doubled between those two surveys. U.S. population increased by only 18%, but there was a 100% increase in the number of people who identify with no religion.

But when we say "no religion", that might mean they still believe in a supernatural supreme being, they just don't follow any particular religion. Further studies and further questions have indicated that the percentage of people in this country who don't believe in any supreme being, have ranged from 8 to as high as 20%. I like to use the figure 10%--generally a conservative figure of the number of Humanists, or Atheists, or Freethinkers, or whatever else they're called. So I would estimate, 10%, the population of the United States is 300 million, therefore there'd be about 30 million of us in this country.

Until about 20 years ago, it was sufficient just to keep our beliefs or our nonbelief to ourselves. It was nobody's business what we believed. But times have changed, and today we're in a position where it is essential that we assert our Humanist values.

Timothy LaHaye--anybody ever hear of Timothy LaHaye? (Some laughter) The author of the Christian fundamentalist Left Behind series, was on the Jerry Falwell show about six months ago, and he said, "We're in a religious war and we need to aggressively oppose secular humanism; these people are as religiously motivated as we are and they are filled with the devil."

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist at a meeting of the theocratic Family Research Council in March of this year, spoke about the "war on secular society", and he said, "We need to find ways to win the war." And so, it's a war against us, and we need to fight back in this war.

Another Bush administration adviser Paul Weyrich said, "The real enemy is the secular humanist mindset, which seeks to destroy everything that is good in this society." It's nice to know that we're so powerful. (Laughter)

In 2003, speaking to the Christian Coalition, Alabama Governor Bob Riley, spoke about a "more important war than the war in Iraq". He said the war against secular humanists is "a war for the absolute soul of this country". He called for a "crusade" to restore the Christian character of America.

Well, friends, I think we should be prepared for a crusade. It's creeping up slowly. It's like the analogy of the frog in water, you've probably heard, that if you put a frog in lukewarm water, the frog will just sit there. And then you start turning up the heat little by little until it starts to boil, and it's too late. The frog is unconscious and can't jump out.

Changes are not made all at once. We're not going to have a government that takes away our rights not to believe all at once. But we've got to see the signs. We've got to see what is happening, and we have to be prepared to defend ourselves.

Last year, after a close Senate vote to approve her nomination to the Federal Court of Appeals, and she was approved, California Justice Janice Rogers Brown said that people of faith were in a war--they keep using that term war. She said they're in a war against secular humanists, who threaten to divorce America from its religious roots. Brown complained that America has moved away from the religious tradition on which it is founded, and to which we need to get back.

In June 2002, responding the the 9th Circuit's courageous decision concerning the Pledge of Allegiance, George Bush, the second, our president, said "I will only appoint judges who know their rights come from God." Now Article VI of the United States Constitution specifically prohibits the use of any religious test for any public office. But I guess *our* president can legitmately claim complete ignorance of the Constitution as an excuse. (Laughter).

In 25 years, the Christian right has gone from their self-described "Silent Majority" to the "Moral Majority", and today, to the "Embattled Christians".

Singer and songwriter Holly Neer said it quite well. She wrote a song called, "I Ain't Afraid". And, part of the lyrics of that song are, "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus, I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your god.

I'm not afraid of religion, I'm afraid of what people are doing in the name of their religions. The intent to completely break down the wall of separation between religion and government, has made anti-Humanist discrimination fashionable, with Humanists being depicted as without values and less than patriotic.

I mentioned the University of Minnesota study that was released this past March. It concluded that acceptance of religious diversity does not extend to those who do not believe in a God. When 2000 American households were sampled and asked which minority group shared their values of American society, Atheists were ranked below every other minority group. Atheists were associated with all kinds of immorality and criminality. Though today, Atheists--at least those that acknowledge they're Atheists--and they're unorganized as a group. They are seen as a major threat to the American way of life. Of the total U.S. poplulation of about 300 million, as I said earlier, it's estimated that about 30 million do not identify with any supernatural God. A conservative, which is that 30 million, is more than the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and any individual Protestant sect, combined.

So, we are a large group. But, if those 30 million remain in their closets, we have no voice. We need to raise the level of awareness, and the level of acceptance, of non-supernaturalists. We need to make the public aware that we're not devils, that we can be nice, kind, ethical people. How many of your neighbors know that you're Humanists? Probably very few--it's a topic that we try to avoid. We tend to live our lives separate from our Humanist identity, while others, literally, wear their identification on their sleeve or around their necks, or on the bumpers of their cars.

How many friends and associates, acquaintances, coworkers, know of your Humanism? That could be the reason we think we're so few--we simply don't know each other. If we are to be known, and to have a positive influence on our culture (and I shouldn't have to explain the need for that) we must identify ourselves. Not be ashamed of our beliefs.

For too long we've allowed our nation's leaders to ignore, or even actively oppose, the interests of Humanists. We're a growing constituency, and we have a right to the same respectful attention legislators give to other citizens, and now, with one voice, we can insist that it be delievered. If humanists are open about their beliefs, we can soon be as strong and powerful minority. But if we choose to remain in our closets, we'll soon find that the closet door is sealed shut, so that we cannot get out.

So, we've come out. What now? How can we be most effective? Well first, by supporting our national, nontheist organizations, so that we can speak with an organized voice. There are enough national organizations in this country to suit everyone's tastes. I proudly belong to every one of those national organizations. And the next step is to get our national organizations to cooperate with each other. The Christian Coalition did it, while each member organization maintained its own identity--why can't our organizations do the same thing?

Last year, five national organizations combined their efforts, and formed the Secular Coalition for America. Two other organizations have since joined the coalition. There are now seven organizations that make up the Secular Coalition. By combining our efforts, the Coalition now has the first lobbyist in Washington D.C. whose lobbying efforts are devoted exclusively to protecting the rights of secularists.

The American Humanist Association has provided office space for that lobbyist, and her staff of one. And in addition to her contacts with Congress, she's received national coverage by a feature story in U.S.A. Today, several major newspapers, appearances on Tucker Carlson's show and the O'Reilly Show, and numerous other appearances on radio, T.V., newspapers.

Each one of those appearances has resulted in individual humanists coming out and joining our fight, to prevent our country from becoming a theocracy. To start paying attention to the dangers to our planet, and to its people in this life, and not in some imaginary afterlife.

Turning to another issue, ask most people if they would vote for an Atheist. Again, the response would be a proud "No!" And the responder doesn't even think she is bigoted. But anyone would think it's bigoted if we said we wouldn't vote for somebody because he's a Muslim, or because he's gay, but very proudly they'll say "I would never vote for an Atheist."

I don't think in the near future we'll completely remove religion from our government, or even be able to elect an Atheist president, or even to Congress. Although there may be some elected officials who have not yet come out of the closet, I am unaware of any known Atheist who has been a successful candidate for any national public office in this country. We need more public exposure. We need to run for public office. And while not pushing our beliefs, we must not hide them if the question arises.

Al Smith's defeat for the United States presidency in 1928 because he was Catholic, paved the way for another Catholic, John F. Kennedy, to be successful 32 years later. We need an articulate, reasonable, national candidate to bring the issue of religious tolerance into the discussion. We need to stop debating among ourselves as to who's a "real Humanist", or Atheist, or Freethinker, or whatever.

We need to spend less time attacking religion generally, and devote our attention to those aspects of organized religion that impact negatively on us. I'm really not interested in convincing my neighbor that he's stupid for praying to an imaginary man in the sky, as long as my neighbor does not interfere with my right to my beliefs. As long as my neighbor does not insiston making me or my children listen to his or her prayers in school or in public meetings. That is where our concerns should be directed.

Let's devote our energies to eliminating the perception in this country that morality is related to supernatural beliefs, and that you can't have one without the other. Let's encourage our young people to be as proud of their beliefs as are the religionists.

This encouragement will not come from attacking religion, but from talking about our *own* philosophy of life. Let's talk more about the joy we have living a life free of superstition. A life where we can think for ourselves, where we know that bad things do not happen to us because we are bad, or because we are being punished. A life where we can accept and understand the concept, "Shit happens!" (Laughter) And yet go on living optimistically about the future.

As Humanists, we are not immoral, and we are not intellectual snobs. We are happy people living complete lives, and doing what we can to ensure the survival of our species. We are mature enough to accept our lives. We are mature enough to accept the reality of our existence without perpetuating imaginary childhood fantasies. We are grownups who no longer believe in Tooth Fairies, or Santa Claus, or imaginary friends, or imaginary gods.

But, we will never get religion to disappear. Religions will always exist, because it's the only way some people will choose to cope with life. But the degree of radical fundamentalism that we are seeing today will diminish as our society changes. And radical attacks on religion in general will only polarize and create more fundamentalism. I can coexist with liberal and even moderate religionists. It's the fundamentalists that concern me. Recognizing the existence of religion does not mean accepting irrational beliefs. It does not mean that we must refrain from ever being critical of irrationalism.

It's okay to attack political beliefs, economic beliefs, we have book critics, movie critics. While all beliefs can be criticized, it's still considered socially incorrect to criticize religious beliefs. It's ironic that we live in a Democratic society where ideas are constantly and vigorously discussed openly, yet we are afraid of offending others by discussing religion.

Being critical of others' beliefs should not be the defining characteristic of Humanism. Rather than being overly involved in attacking other beliefs, we should be more evangelical in spreading the word about the overwhelming joy and comfort that we can derive from our naturalistic life stance.

Every religion has its own assurance of reward, rewards either in this life or in some imaginary future life. Christianity promises eternal life in heaven, Buddhism offers the blissful state of nirvana, New Age religions promise inner peace and union with God as well as power over external events, Islam offers 72 virgins in the afterlife...every religion has its big, big promise. Humanists need to offer our own promises, rather than devoting most of our energies attacking the promises of other groups. Let's take the spotlight off the supernatural religions, and focus the spotlight on what Humanism has to offer.

Humanism is much more than the default condition that prevails when no brainwashing has occurred. The big promise of Humanism is the good life, here and now. Edwin H. Wilson summed it up when he wrote,

The Humanist lives as if this world were all and enough. He is not otherworldly. He holds that the time spent on the contemplation of a possible afterlife is time wasted. He fears no hell and seeks no heaven, save that which he and others created on earth. He willingly accepts the world that exists on this side of the grave as the place for moral struggle and creative living. He seeks the life abundant for his neighbour as for himself. He is content to live one world at a time and let the next life - if such there may be - take care of itself. He need not deny immortality; he simply is not interested. His interests are here.

While the religionists make claims that noone has ever proved, our claims are real. Our claims and our promises have been proven over and over and over.

There is a tiny gap in the transcription here, as I was switching to a new folder on my voice recorder.

There's a quote attributable to the Jesuits that says, "Give me a child at an impressionable age, and he's mine for life." What about children of Humanists? How do we nurture *their* beliefs the way the churches do? Humanist parents often feel defensive when asked, "What religion do you raise your children in?" The questions themselves offend me. Do we ask every Christian or Jew or Muslim, "What do you teach your kids?" Are *we* expected to raise our children to follow some religion that we, ourselves reject?

Of course not. We must respond to religionists who ask "What do you teach your kids?" by making it clear that we are *not* "believers in nothing". And that we have lots of Humanist values and Humanist ethics to teach our children. It's important that Humanist parents give attention to the issues that religion concerns itself with. Things like morality and ethics, and interrelating with others. If we don't answer our children's questions about the world, and the way it works--the mystery, the injustice--if we don't have these conversations, nothing else will do the job except maybe the supernatural religions.

I'm looking forward mostly to the questions, so let me finish with a quote from Howard Zinn. He said, "Throughout history, people have felt powerless before authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing, acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them, even if a little. That is the history of the labor movement, the women's movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the disabled persons’ movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the movement of Black people in the South." And I'm hopeful that will also be the history of the Humanist movement.

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