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The Human Factor

by Molleen Matsumura

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 4.

Welcome back to the column where the readers do the writing! This is your place to see how other people apply their humanism in daily life, and to contribute your own insights. In the last (and first) column, I asked two questions, one about cloning - and the one that brought the most responses, "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 .... What specific ways can you deal with this situation?"

Many answers were encouraging, offering common-sensical advice that apply to any new arrival in a small town. David Hunt spoke for many when he wrote from Sandusky, Ohio, "If we want to be accepted, we need to show that we can live 'a good life' without religion. Be charitable. Be helpful. Be friendly. Show that it is not necessary to tremble in fear of divine punishment to be a good human being ... Words, while having a short-term impact, do nothing to advance the humanistic cause in the long run. Actions do. Be involved in the community, even if it's little things. Organize a blood or food drive at work. Volunteer to help at a local homeless shelter. Volunteer to tutor. Find something that shows you believe in helping others, and persist in doing it. This action, far FAR more than any argument we could make, will show that humanism is not satanism, or hedonism, or self-centered admiration, or an anything-goes philosophy."

A small-town reporter who preferred to remain anonymous commented, "Doing what's right is not dependent on a religion. I think even the religious can see that when you show them by example."

Getting to know people on the job and in volunteer work seems to give them a chance to set aside their preconceptions. David Hunt said, "[At work] I do not hide the fact that I'm an atheist. Rather than horror, many express curiosity. In fact, at lunch, I take pride in being called the `Honorary Heathen.'" He reminded me of a newspaper pressman I met at a meeting of the Central Virginia Secular Humanists; after he was featured in a local paper as the "only atheist in Lynchburg" (the town that is Jerry Falwell's home base), his co-workers would call out "Hey, atheist," in about the same way they might say, "Hey, Lefty."

Hunt also advised, "Don't flaunt your atheism," and this seems to make sense for the same reasons that we'd rather not be awakened by door-to-door proselytizers. Still, that's not the whole story. Charles Selby, one of the original residents of Christmas Valley, Oregon (though obviously not one of the folks who named the place!) minced no words when he pointed out that some people are simply "bullies." His advice was to get to know a community well - go to school board meetings and town council meetings, find out who are the complainers, who are the trouble-makers, and who are the people who listen to reason. He offered a reminder that in small communities people are very interdependent, astutely observing that owners of service businesses like auto repair shops are less likely than employees to be rude to customers who happen to think differently.

One's role in the community makes a difference. Very public roles seem to call for extra caution. The journalist I quoted earlier never hides her atheism from her co-workers; still, she avoids publicly expressing her views so that her objectivity will not be questioned. Television and radio newscasters who end their programs with a "God bless you" don't seem to have that problem!

The most poignant letter did not directly answer the question. Victor G. wrote of living on a small New Mexico farm that lacks electricity, cutting him off from the possibility of electronic communication. He made it clear that for many people, there is no substitute for getting together with like-minded people. He wrote that he would "literally give my right arm" to attend the recent Free Inquiry meeting in Cincinnati, but cost was a barrier. Distance is another barrier for those who feel that occasional meetings with other humanists are part of "the answer"; there are people who drive one and a half hours each way to attend monthly gatherings - for others, the distances are too great.

These problems raise one of the questions we're asking in this issue. The other was brought up by a comment that James Haught, a senior editor of Free Inquiry, recently made to me. Haught explained that, as the editor of a daily newspaper, the Charleston, W. Va. Gazette, he is careful not to impose his own views; he must bear in mind the concerns of his publisher and his colleagues, and the need for editorial balance. Then he added, "Thank heaven (?) for Prometheus Books, Free Inquiry and the Internet. They're outlets allowing freedom for personal heretical thoughts." With one quizzical question-mark, he pointed out an important problem - the way our everyday language is saturated with religious metaphors, with the implication that religious views aren't just common, but universal.

With that background in mind, here are two questions for your contemplation and commentary. Please feel free to answer one or both, to be serious or to take Charles Selby's advice, "Never take yourself too seriously."

  1. What are your suggestions for building bridges among individual secular humanists?
  2. What are some colorful phrases we can substitute for the all too common phrases like, "She's a saint," and "God bless you"? Original creations and quotations from favorite authors are equally welcome.

Please send your contributions by DECEMBER 12 [Ed note: This deadline has been extended to FEBRUARY 15.] and please state whether your name and location may be cited (we'll assume that "names are withheld" unless we're told otherwise.) Write 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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