Speech before AHA 6/10/17

Several years ago at your San Diego conference I said it was time for you get bigger and more important–and look at what happened! You did just that, as Roy has demonstrated yesterday and today. Well, let’s try it again. Same message, more or less. You’ve still got to get bigger and more important. The country, indeed the planet, needs you to make another quantum jump. It needs an enlarged and strengthened AHA more than ever.

I’ll not talk today about our fight for recognition and our war against imaginary Gods. I’ll talk about a war against another problem, climate change and global warming. Unlike the imaginary God problem, time is not on our side. The world is getting warmer, the ocean levels are rising, and it’s not going to stop while we decide what to do. We have to win this one sooner rather than later.

Trump has raised the stakes for all of us by pushing in the wrong direction, and America is being left behind in the global effort. As an American, I was shocked to see this friendly message from the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron.


Well, I’m too old to learn French and I don’t want to start now. Let’s work with the French but let’s do our part of the job here, in English.

I’m talking about a shift in AHA’s emphasis, a kind of course correction, where AHA puts a higher priority than it used to on the fight to save the planet.

We aren’t just concerned about the climate because everybody else is. This is our fight too. The climate issue is both a scientific and a moral one. Neither the scientists nor the moralists can handle both sides of this equation as effectively as we can. We are in the middle.

On the science side, we don’t just have the meteorologists. We have the historians and anthropologists and others who can give us a true explanation of what kind of species we are, how we got started and how we got into our present pickle. None of this God stuff, we got here by ourselves and we damn well have to get out of it by ourselves. The narrative that proves this is the life story of our species. It’s our humanist version of Genesis, it’s ours, and we want people to know it.

On the moral side: if you are in a store and break something, chances are you end up paying for it. “If you broke it you own it” isn’t quite as sacrosanct as the golden rule, but it still resonates with most people. That’s why the climate deniers are so energetic in denying human agency in global warming, despite overwhelming evidence. Science has demonstrated human agency in global warming, it is up to us humanists to drive home the conclusion that it’s up to us humans to fix it.

There’s another important angle here: this climate issue gives us a way to build a bridge between the people who don’t believe in God and many of the ones that do. People who think as we do on issues like abortion and teaching creationism in schools but still yearn for some guiding principle, or force of nature, or almost anything to which they can turn for guidance even though they don’t understand where that guidance comes from. They think like us on most issues but haven’t quite shaken off their earlier religious indoctrination. This could include many of the “nones”, that group you’ve heard a lot about at other sessions these days, and others.

You get to such people by finding some common ground to share with them. My candidate is life itself, life on Earth.

What is life, life on our planet? It’s a vibrant, many-colored tapestry that bedecks our earth and makes it look different from the other rocky lumps swirling around the cosmos. Some call it Gaia, the biosphere, the thin layer of living creatures that spreads over most of the earth’s surface.

All the life on earth is built on the principle of a never-ending cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. It is the enabler of evolution and the ancestor of everything and everyone. We are all Gaia’s children, creatures of earth. We are all related through her. Earth is our mother.

Think of Gaia as part science and part poetry. The beautiful thing about poetry is that it can operate on levels of truth (what is) and hope (what ought to be) at the same time.

A while back Ed Gibney and I had an argument over what he called the “is” versus “ought” problem. Are there principles that exist in the abstract that should be our ultimate guidance, or should all conflicts be solved through reason fortified by experience? Do miracles exist? Well, maybe we have here, not a solution, but common ground on which we can build. Can we atheists agree with moderate believers that life exists, and while it may or may not be a miracle, it is pretty miraculous? Going that far is a small price to pay if we can fold them into our movement.

I have long supported the big tent concept for AHA. I assume that there are two types of humanists, the kind that pay their dues and come to meetings like this, and a broader kind that are humanists because of what they believe and the way they think. It’s useful to keep this in mind when I talk about getting Nones and the like to join the team. Maybe a ‘none’ starts thinking like a humanist early on, and will behave like one before he or she realizes she or he is one and joins up. It doesn’t make a lot of difference when that epiphany comes and that person joins up. Even if it never happens, you still function as a humanist. It’s sort of like the AARP, which folds you into its tent when you get old enough whether you send them money or not. If somebody thinks like us, behaves like us, and supports the same causes, that person is a humanist, a member of the team, whatever that person calls himself or herself.

You have to understand that to understand why this talk has such a peculiar title. “I’m alive, I’m human, I’m a humanist”. Deceptively simple, it packs in a lot more meaning than appears on the surface.

When you say “I’m alive” you are not just stating the obvious, you are telling the world you accept this idea of Gaia, life, the mother of us all, as the bottom line in your belief system. In doing so you are bonding with others who share that belief, in much the same way the old-fashioned Christian does with other people of his faith when he crosses himself.

All right, you’ve established that both you and your partner are alive. Then you say : “I’m Human”. What does that mean, when you unpack it?

That one phrase unpacks the whole human story, the narrative that shows us emerging from the vast pack of flora and fauna that life, powered by natural selection, has been grinding out for a couple of billion years. It takes us from the earliest humans through various stages of civilization to our present overpopulated but troubled condition. From another creature of Gaia to something special, a group of individuals that know they profit from cooperating but still have trouble working together, an acquisitive, power-hungry lot that in its greedy search for power has ravaged earth’s natural bounty and upset some of the earth’s important natural balances. From people who worshipped the earth to those who regard the earth as a gift to them by an invisible God. A curious, inventive lot whose cleverness has long since outrun their wisdom and who have gotten into trouble, deep trouble, for themselves and many of Gaia’s other children, from misuse of their natural environment.

When you say, “I’m human” you acknowledge a general awareness of that background. You can say it with pride because taken all together it’s a hell of a record, like no other species, tinged by regret that recently your species has been doing more harm than good and matters have run out of control.

Then you top it off with “I’m a humanist”. This puts you with that human minority that understands what’s going on and wants to set things right. It puts you with a growing cohort of people who see Gaia as the mother of us all and respects and loves her. It says you’re part of the team.

Enough rhapsodizing about being human. Let’s get practical. Where do we go from here? What can AHA do that it isn’t doing already, to build up the humanist team and fight for the planet?

For starters, AHA could redirect more of its advertising efforts to reflect the new emphasis. I leave how to do this to the experts.

Another kind of effort would be coordination with likeminded organisations. I look through the newspaper and see the ads of several such outfits every day. Many of them would welcome the chance to work with us; we would not only find our efforts more effective but might make some new friends.

And then there are the social media, about which I am pretty ignorant, again I leave this to younger and more agile brains. There are plenty of those in AHA right now, eager to help.

As President Macron has indicated there is plenty of interest abroad in the climate issue, especially in some countries where parts are going under water and cities are asphyxiating. Many have active humanist movements, so there’s scope here for coordination and perhaps some strategic planning.

This is too big a subject for a twenty minute talk. Whether or not you like what I have had to say, the message I have is, this climate busness is probably the most critical and urgent subject you can engage with at this time. AHA has or could have a significant role to play in it. Let’s follow the advice of our old friend Voltaire, who had a famous punch line in Candide, his sage conclusion after a lifetime of troubles: “Il faut cultiver votre jardin”. Go tend to your garden. When I first read it I didn’t understand it. Now I do. Go forth, y’all, and cultivate your portions of Life’s garden. It needs you.

Carl Coon

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