“Naturally curious, compassionate and rational.” Last summer as I was biking home from one of our summer picnics, a more fit biker approached me from behind and called out “good reading!” as he cycled passed—pointing to my Humanist t-shirt with our tagline on the back. Then at the NAMI Walk more recently, a fellow walker approached me from behind and queried—“So, what’s Humanists of Minnesota?” The terse tagline got his attention, but I must admit, I still need to work on a short and snappy response.
Framing— how movements, organizations, companies and politicians hone their messages—has become critically important in our information-packed, media saturated and rhetorically overloaded world. Just over a decade ago, the distinguished University of California Berkeley linguistics professor, George Lakoff, brought this concept to the attention of political geeks with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Well, I’ve been thinking about elephants—and framing—like an incessant earworm ever since.
And so have lots of other people. This past August I attended two conferences for non-profit leaders with a few of our fellow members. I heard very similar recommendations and suggestions about carefully framing one’s message and telling one’s story. To be effective, messaging must be consistently aligned and constantly reinforced throughout the entire organization. On all platforms, by all advocates. So let’s unpack our tagline to see how it can help us frame humanism.
Take “Naturally.” I often juxtapose it with “supernatural.” It’s a short-cut to defining the humanist way of knowing with a term most people associate with religion and god. The alternative way of knowing the world is through science, verifiable human experience, the historical record and evidence-based reality. That’s our starting point as secular humanists. And “naturally” notably modifies the qualities that follow: curious, compassionate and rational.
“Naturally curious” helps define a humanist—and frames an important quality of our organization. Unlike adherents of other worldviews, we are not in search of god or on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Instead, we seek to learn more about the material world, ourselves, our immediate neighbors and all those with whom we share the planet. To understand how things work and why we do the things we do and what happens when things go badly and, naturally, how to make them better. That kind of curiosity drives much of our programming from D-Cubed discussions to TED Talk salons to our choice of guest speakers at our chapter meetings.
But on a personal level, that kind of “natural” curiosity should drive us to be more inquisitive about people around the world—and in our midst. What makes them tick? How do they think about the world and why? How do their experiences differ than our own? We should be cautious of stereotypes and more curious to learn firsthand about people who are different than we are—who come from other cultures, other generations, other worldviews. If we hope to put our humanism into practice in Minnesota, we need to be inquisitive of all those around us and welcoming to a broad array of the increasing diverse demographic that makes up our state.
“Naturally compassionate” helps define a humanist—and frames an important quality of our organization. Naturally we don’t believe that people are “born sinners,” but nor do we believe that we’re all good either. We look to the evolutionary record to understand from whence our “natural” altruistic tendencies arose. And, look to evolutionary anthropology and psychology to identify the cultural and social adaptations we developed to transcend our “altruistic failures”-- as humanist philosopher Phillip Kitcher describes conflict. Humanist compassion is both a personal attribute to be cultivated as well as social value to be promulgated. Our tagline in that sense is aspirational: How can we better exemplify that quality of compassion both in our personal lives and in our organization? How can we promote it within our society at large?
Finally, “Naturally rational” helps define a humanist—and frames an important quality of our organization. And given the evidence of neuroscience, perhaps this quality is most aspirational of all. What we are learning about our brains is that we are more inclined to respond with an emotional, instinctual or intuitive reaction than a rational one. We, who value and espouse rationality, may not be that much more rational than those who adhere to worldviews we shun. While it is true that our emotions play a larger role in our lives than many secularists care to admit, a “natural” evidence-based approach to rationality seeks to understand the actual functioning of our bodies and brains and recognize the whole of human experience—including our passions. Creating contexts for rationality to flourish, practicing mindfulness to slow down our impulses and studying critical thinking skills are all ways we can be naturally rational.
So, what is Humanists of Minnesota? How about: we’re a group of people who work on being more curious, compassionate and rational—naturally. And encourage others to be that way too.