Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Humanist Civic Movement - Debunking is not enough

I have just come back from two weeks of discussing the nature of civic society and citizenship at Tufts university. It was a remarkable experience, full of new, challenging ideas and extremely smart people.

Perhaps the most striking element of the two weeks was my growing feeling that Humanists must come together to create a new civic movement to change society for the better. Why "civic" movement, and why do it at all?

There are already organisations which lobby for political change on behalf of the non-religious, and some, like the Council for Secular Humanism, which have a broader purview. What I have not seen, however, is a national movement attempting to bring Humanism into the everyday lives of people, filling those gaps which the erosion of religious observance has left.

What Humanists need to recognize is that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, artistic traditions etc. which serve to build social ties between people in a community, bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is extremely valuable, in my view, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no secular alternative to these organizations has arisen, and this may be part of the "crisis of civic life" that some (like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves on the basis of money, class more forcefully than before, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other, discussing important questions about what it means to live together with others.

I've seen (as a teacher) the effect of communities that do not have a shared identity or a common space in which to discuss existential questions. There is an almost palpable lack of "connectedness", of moral sensibility, of feelings of responsibility for others. I've also seen the powerful effect of bringing people together in a non-religious context to share an experience, most notably as a prison educator. Indeed, I've seen the value of the religious institutions "from the inside" (as a choirboy for many years). But I believe that not only do such institutions not have to be religious, but they may be even more effective if they are not, since you then eradicate the final barrier - that between people of different faiths.

In short, humanism / secularism / atheism is often presented as a negative position. We're "against" god, "against" irrationalism etc. And we often spend much of our time debunking things - religious arguments, homeopathy, pseudoscience, cults etc. Instead, we absolutely must spend more time building positive institutions to achieve social change. If we really believe that a society in which reason, rational method, clear thinking, and respect for all human beings would be a better society, we have to go out and
build it. Debunking is not enough.

5 comments:

Deb said...

I absolutely agree. These are very important goals, but how attainable are they in our present society? I fear the answer is not very. So many people, the majority obviously, think that atheists are the lowest of the low. Just look at a recent poll in which US citizens were asked who they would vote for: a Jew, Muslim, woman, homosexual, atheist, etc. It's no surprise what came back the lowest. We have a long way to go, unfortunately, to convince those around us that we are good people.

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