Every two months, subscribers to FREE INQUIRY magazine enjoy reading a new issue filled with enlightening articles about secular humanism and related topics. As the director of outreach for the Council for Secular Humanism’s supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry, I am fortunate to encounter people every day who are living the values of secular humanism, people for whom secular humanism is much more than a magazine, a philosophy, or an academic position. For these individuals, secular humanism is a way of living that compels them to stand up and become part of their communities, encourages them to offer their hands to strangers, and inspires them to do what they can to improve the lives of their fellow human beings.
Secular humanists, skeptics, freethinkers, and the like are famously fond of evidence and facts. This is admirable and valuable, of course, but this predilection often expresses itself in argumentation, confrontation, and lots and lots of words. If our goal is to educate and advocate for a secular and more humane world, the default to argument can sometimes be a problem. As secular humanists, we have compassion and respect for our fellow human beings, but most people don’t interpret an argument as an expression of compassion. There is most definitely a time and place for disagreement, or even all-out battle (see EllenBeth Wach’s story on page 35), but it’s important to remember that winning an argument is not necessarily the same thing as changing someone’s mind. Simply being right doesn’t necessarily right a wrong.
To the extent that secular humanists are concerned with humanity—to the extent that we have compassion for others and a desire to make this life, our only life, the best it can be—many activists feel that we need to be more in the business of helping people win with us and less in the business of beating them. The challenge to those of us who want to see a more secular and humane world is to find an effective way to diminish errant and dangerous beliefs and ideologies without diminishing the people who hold them. Secular humanism should not be about defeating one’s fellow humans. Yes, of course we need to win arguments, but the point of winning the argument should be winning the person, holding onto the person while he or she lets go of the harmful beliefs.
One of the most proven and effective ways to do this is to translate our good arguments into good actions, which can often speak louder than words. The way we live and treat one another can be one of the best arguments for our worldview. For the times when our words aren’t effective, we ourselves can be the best evidence for the value of secular humanism.
The authors in this section are not professional writers, journalists, or academics. They are a small sample of thousands of secular humanist activists who in many ways exemplify secular humanism. All of them have found a way to put their secular humanist values into practice; they translate their life stance into action to become ambassadors and promoters of the secular humanist worldview.
Though some secular humanists blanch at the idea of getting together with other secular humanists to do service work, others enjoy the camaraderie and effectiveness of working as a team. Also, sometimes it’s simply safer to act in numbers. James Croft spends a lot of time bringing good people together to do good things, and he explains how this can induce and spread humanist values. Mindy Miner and other CFI–Michigan Secular Service Program members gather regularly to contribute to their local community, from making sandwiches for needy school kids to participating in local environmental cleanup and restoration projects. In addition to many other service activities, Franklin Kramer and other members of his campus group found a way to raise money for a secular adoption agency when a local Catholic agency chose to shut down rather than place children with gay couples. Alix Jules has taken the lead in founding the Dallas–Fort Worth Coalition of Reason’s Diversity Council to help make his local atheist group more responsive to the broader community. And Bill Cooke describes brave groups affiliated with the Center for Inquiry who are working in Kenya, Uganda, India, and Egypt to counteract dangerous superstitious beliefs with sound science and secularism.
Other authors saw a need and took it upon themselves to fill it. Rebecca Hensler created Grief Beyond Belief to provide a place for nonreligious people to find support and comfort after the death of a loved one. Bob Stevenson realized that his Daytona Beach neighbors were struggling with addiction and has spent the past seventeen years hosting secular recovery meetings to provide an alternative to higher-power-oriented twelve-step programs.
Sometimes helping one’s community is defined by lobbying to change it. Reba Boyd Wooden describes how she and the members of CFI–Indiana have joined coalitions to advocate at the Indiana State House for public policy based on science, reason, and secular values.
Occasionally, however, all the compassion and respect in the world won’t win the argument or the person. EllenBeth Wachs has risked personal safety and property to challenge the blatant harassment and unconstitutional actions of her local police and government. Her story is a perfect illustration of a situation in which it is imperative to not only win the argument but also defeat the people and their beliefs.
Finally, Hemant Mehta reminds us that while we work to improve our broader communities, we should not forget to look after the people in our own humanist, freethought, skeptic, and atheist communities. Like all values, secular humanist values begin in the home, where they can be demonstrated, practiced, and absorbed. The people in our movement are an extended family of sorts. Together we are working to give expression and life to a positive and hopefully world-changing philosophy, so we need to extend to each other the same compassion and concern that we profess for humankind in general. After all, when one of us wins, we all win. This is secular humanism with a heart; this is secular humanism with a pulse.
Lauren Becker is vice president and director of Outreach at the Center for Inquiry, and an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY.
Several articles in this section take a strong position in favor of shared charitable or social-service work as a platform for secular humanist activism. It is not the intent of FREE INQUIRY or the Council for Secular Humanism to advocate this variety of activism for all. We recognize that some readers will view the idea of bringing together secular humanists as secular humanists for charitable service with distaste. For some, it will be uncomfortably reminiscent of activities in the churches they abandoned with relief. Others will find the idea at odds with their understanding of secularism as an individualistic and cosmopolitan framework that encourages men and women to connect to the highest levels of society as directly as possible, relying on their community of belief for nothing that does not immediately concern their life stance. Other secular humanists, of course, will find these essays stirring, even empowering.
The reader is invited to view these articles as a cluster of bold statements on one side of what is recognized as a vital and ongoing debate. Your comments are welcome in our Letters column. Please address Andrea Szalanski, Letters Editor, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664, or e-mail email@example.com.