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The Human Factor

by Molleen Matsumura


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 3.


"The Human Factor" is a new feature of the Secular Humanist Bulletin, a forum in which the readers will be the writers. Here, humanists all over the country can exchange views on common problems, and discover the range of humanist perspectives on current social issues.

Why "The Human Factor"? In daily life, that's the phrase we use when we talk about those aspects of our humanity that are not purely rational - that, for better or worse, keep events from going forward in predictable, mechanical fashion. "The human factor" is our explanation for what happens when a technician, distracted by gossip with a co-worker, who types the wrong specifications into a computer controlling precision machinery, ruining the product. At best, the phrase describes emotional and sensual capacities that go far to make life worthwhile: The human factor has been in action when a person takes a less efficient route to work in order to pass by a park where roses are in bloom, or when somebody on the way to an important meeting causes delays by stopping to rescue a stray dog that has wandered into traffic.

Secular Humanist Bulletin needs a readers' forum because taking the human factor into account is an important task that doesn't always get the attention it deserves. We have our hands full responding to the problems presented by New Age mysticism, postmodernist relativism, and resurgent religious fundamentalism. These different movements take very different approaches to important issues of personal pleasure and liberty, but all attack the value reason and the scientific method, reinforcing each other despite their disagreements. With Congress considering yet another prayer amendment, promoting censorship and preparing to hand our money over to churches under cover of welfare reform, it can be all too easy to neglect the task of helping humanists support each other and learn from each other.

We are a minority in an overwhelmingly religious culture. Even when our fellow citizens do their best to express the values of pluralism and freedom of conscience, freethinkers are forgotten: "America belongs to people of all faiths," they say. We rarely hear, "... of all faiths, and of none." In the years I worked to establish a humanist presence on commercial computer communications services like Prodigy and America On-line, I was repeatedly reminded of the discrimination and isolation faced by secular humanists. People would tell me in email, "I want you to know my real name. I have to use a pseudonym because if my boss saw that I use a humanist bulletin board, I'd lose my job," or, "... if my neighbors knew, they wouldn't let their kids play with mine." Teenagers who had to hide books about evolution "as if they were pornography," and adults who had never heard of secular humanism except to hear it condemned in their churches, were surprised and delighted to meet other people who shared their doubts about religion, and their hopes to find better approaches to living.

Discussions followed a common pattern. Newcomers were eager to hear more about humanist institutions and history, everything from the existence of publications like Free Inquiry and organizations like the International Humanist and Ethical Union, to the identities of famous humanists from Carl Sagan to Mark Twain. And always, always, as trust was built people would begin talking about the problems they faced in daily life: both how to cope with pressure from religious relatives and neighbors, and how to apply humanist ethics to the problems that face us all.

Readers who are lucky enough to belong to local humanist organizations will recognize this patter. Members are eager for information that may not be available in other forums, and eager to work together for change in their communities. Just as important, though, is the chance to talk and laugh with people who are not shocked by their views, to share their efforts to build personal philosophies within the humanist framework, to talk freely about attitudes and ideas that may be taboo to their neighbors.

Most of us, though, don't have access to local humanist groups or computer communications. And, those of us who do are still eager to learn more from and about fellow freethinkers. "The Human Factor" will be one more place for humanists to talk. In each issue, we'll pose a question that (we hope) will spark a variety of responses. In subsequent issues, we'll print your replies. We're seeking many "right answers." The goal isn't just debate - though no doubt there will be plenty of that - but depth as well. We can learn as much from those who reach the same conclusions for different reasons, as from those who agree or disagree. Readers' suggestions of questions for discussion are also welcome.

Since this is the first time "The Human Factor" has appeared, and it's important to generate plenty of responses, I'm posing two very different questions.

  1. A presidential commission has just announced that human cloning research is "immoral." There is good reason to think that much opposition to cloning is born of widespread fear of science, and prejudice against "playing god." There are good secular reasons, however, to be concerned about human cloning research. What are your perspectives on human cloning - the risks, the benefits, the possible abuses? Should society regulate this research and its applications, and if so how should we go about it?
  2. Imagine you've just taken a new job in a small town. As a matter of course, colleagues and casual acquaintances welcome you by inviting you to church, or asking what church you plan to attend. You need to build new social networks, get along with co-workers, and remain true to your convictions (and possibly, consider the effects on family members). What specific ways can you deal with this situation? (Examples from personal experience are welcome!)

Mail answers to:

The Human Factor
Secular Humanist Bulletin
P.O. Box 664
Buffalo, NY 14226-0664


Molleen Matsumura is founder and past president of Secular Humanists of the East Bay and an associate editor of Free Inquiry.


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