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Beyond Reaction

by Molleen Matsumura

The Human In Secular Humanism

On August 20, 1996, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals filed a ruling that San Francisco's ownership of a 103-foot concrete cross in a public park violated California's constitution. (On the same day, they ruled that a city-owned cross in Oregon violated the U.S. Constitution.) While the suit had been filed by a coalition of civil liberties organizations, the plaintiffs were a group of individuals including Jews, Protestants, two Unitarians, and two humanists - myself and the late Phil Mass.

In the months before the suit was filed, and again when we appealed the District court's ruling that City ownership of the cross was legal, and again when we won the appeal, the issue was thoroughly covered in headline stories, editorials, and talk shows. After a while, you can't help thinking, "I've heard all this before." "The cross is part of the city's history," "The cross isn't a religious symbol," "Why aren't these people more tolerant?" The same questions and arguments are repeated over and over, until the edge of righteous indignation is dulled to boredom.

Then, some bit of dangerous foolishness cuts again. About a week after the most recent ruling, I listened to a panel of experts on a public radio station going over the familiar ground. The host posed another popular question, "Why not have symbols of all viewpoints together in the park?" A professor of religion, who liked the idea, commented, "I'm not quite sure what the atheists would have. I suppose an empty space." He sounded urbanely amused. He sounded smug - and not at all scholarly. I was driving at the time. I kept my grip on the steering wheel and continued to avoid telephone poles as I growled, "You could try asking!" With very little effort, the professor could have learned about the "Happy Human" symbol of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the similar figure in the logo of the Council for Secular Humanism.

But why was I thinking about how easy it would be for him to find out, if he tried? I haven't had to do anything at all to learn the meanings of crosses, stars of David, pink triangles and rainbow flags, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse ears and the RCA spotted dog. That's because the people and organizations behind these symbols have done the work of making sure I recognized them.

Maybe the real question is, "Why don't we humanists do more to make our logo known?" Could it have something to do with some common reactions toward religion? Many humanists express one of two, apparently contradictory attitudes toward religion. One is automatic rejection of anything that seems to suggest religion: "Marriage celebrations?... Don't do it, too much like religion. Observing significant dates?... Don't do it, too much like religion." The other attitude is that we must compete with religious institutions on their own terms; the argument runs, "If humanism is going to replace religion we have to have humanist schools, hospitals, and social clubs, just like they do." These attitudes aren't truly opposite; they have two features in common: neither approach can be carried out consistently, and both are based on reacting against religion rather than evaluating choices in human terms.

On the one hand, we can't and shouldn't avoid every activity that religion has ever touched. Every religion I can think of has ceremonies involving food, and I don't intend to stop eating. On the other hand, doing every thing religions do is no way to offer an alternative, or avoid their errors. We don't need humanist hospitals for humanists and religious hospitals for religionists, but secular hospitals open to all. And we don't need rival dogmas, but an end to dogmatism.

Asking whether we should promote the "happy human" logo is a useful exercise in analyzing a problem on its own terms, without reference to religion. What would it mean, in human terms, for us to to use and promote the happy human ("HH")? It means that you might see a car with an HH bumper sticker, or I might see a commuter with an HH coffee mug, and think, "Hey, I'm not the only one!" It means someone will look at your bumper sticker and ask what it means, or where they can get one like it. It means you will have an opening to explain, "No, it doesn't mean we 'worship man' - we don't worship anything, but we do treasure our humanity, warts and all." It means your neighbors and colleagues would find out that secular humanists are their colleagues and neighbors. It means engaging in a quintessentially human activity since, so far as we know, the only animals that create symbols are humans.

It would mean that we're human, doing human things, and that's what humanism is all about. Humanism is more than the rejection of history's mistakes - it's the realization of our possibilities. Humanism is the simple proposition that humans are the source of human values, and happiness is the goal. A significant step towards that goal is sharing it with others, remembering that sometimes, a logo is worth a thousand words. That's only human.

Molleen Matsumura is Associate Editor of Free Inquiry and Contributing Editor of Secular Humanist Bulletin.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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