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.
- 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?
- 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
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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