Why aren’t there more open, committed humanists in the United States? Many of my acquaintances think like humanists in all important respects but shy away from having the label attached to them. As far as I can determine from the various polls that deal with religious affiliation, this is true of at least a strong minority and perhaps even a majority of the American public. These individuals may have been tagged with an affiliation to some religious denomination as children but hardly ever go to any church or synagogue these days, and don’t agree necessarily with the positions on public isues that their natal religion professes. When asked to state a religious affiliation, they’ll mumble that they’re Catholics or Lutherans or whatever, but they are humanists at heart, whether they know it or not, because their positions on all issues that matter are thoroughly secular, and not in the least based on the advice of whatever clergy they nominally follow. They don’t give a hoot about their church’s position on, say, birth control, and when they vote in elections, they vote on grounds that have nothing to do with religion. They are modern grown-ups except that they don’t publicly acknowledge the fact.
Most of the self-professed humanists I’ve met, since I drifted into the orbits of the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association, are different. They have a tale to tell of “how I became a humanist.” And it usually doesn’t involve a gradual drift from a church that even their parents didn’t bother much with. It’s more likely to involve childhood exposure to a fairly strict religious regimen on the home front, followed later in life by a kind of epiphany, when they became aware of the contradictions between the dogma they learned in church and Sunday school, and the world around them as explained by science. They became disbelievers relatively suddenly, and the change was more traumatic, than the closet atheists who never had the epiphany because their parents weren’t true believers themselves.
I suspect the polls consistently underreport the numbers of these closet humanists, because humanism as an organized way of life has yet to achieve the level of public respectability accorded to the major faiths, and many people when asked for their opinion are guided as much by a desire to appear politically correct as by other concerns. When I discuss specific issues with friends, and express a humanist view, they often agree. But if I talk to them about humanism as a way of looking at those issues, as contrasted with a religious perspective, I often sense a discomfort and a desire to shy away from the subject. They act as if they found it embarrassing, as though there were something politically incorrect about their identifying themselves with a movement that, like religion, has a label and organizations that espouse a certain world view. They are comfortable in the closet and would just as soon remain there, thank you very much.
How can the declared humanist organizations break through this aura of disrespectability, this sense that it’s politically incorrect to declare yourself a humanist, even though all your thinking, your whole mindset, is broadly humanist? If American public opinion would only come to accept the fact that humanists deserve at least as respectful a hearing as members of the major religious denominations, and our ideas should be allowed to compete with theirs on an equal basis, we’d soon have the fundies on the run, and many of the current administration’s loonier ideas would become history.
Public attitudes and fashionable ways of thinking are hard to change, at least rapidly. But some of the things organized humanism is already doing seem well designed to persuade closet humanists in our society to identify themselves to their peers. One such approach identifies humanists as the center of the opposition to the persistent efforts of the Christian fundamentalists to chip away at the wall separating church and state. That wall, that basic element of our Constitution, is politically correct throughout our society and we not only stick up for our rights but we identify ourselves as politically respectable when we are seen to take the lead in fighting the forces of bigotry on this issue.
We should continue to identify nonbelievers as a group that is entitled to the same rights under the law as believers, whenever discrimination rears its ugly head. Other groups, notably blacks, women, and Jews, have successfully upheld the basic principle that discrimination based on belief, race, or gender is wrong, so we are on high ground psychologically when we battle bigotry here.
And we need more role models, public figures that command respect throughout the nation, and are willing to commit themselves publicly to humanism. Kofi Annan is an obvious humanist at heart, viz his Nobel acceptance speech last fall, but he isn’t a role model for many Americans. Jimmy Carter’s speech in Cuba could have been written by a humanist, and if he weren’t a committed Christian maybe someone could get to him. I really don’t know where to look at this point, but somewhere, there must be quite a few individuals who are both humanists at heart and recognized role models for important sectors of our nation; we ought to seek them out and encourage them to go public. Ideas, anyone?
Carl Coon 5/16/02