I am a citizen of the world. First and foremost. That’s just the way I identify. And it’s no doubt one of the reasons I am drawn to the philosophy of humanism. But if one listens to the current political discourse, messages to put America and Americans first proliferate. Effective leadership is characterized as the ability to advance the standing of our own deserving “tribes” of “real” Americans above everyone else. Our nation is increasingly becoming a place where it is acceptable to disregard and/or demonize the “other” in our midst—often described through coded and loaded language—and to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Like many of my peers, I am disturbed by this proffered trajectory for America’s future.
It was heartening nonetheless to spend a few days at the end of May surrounded by my own tribe—fellow humanists from across the country—at the annual American Humanist Association conference in Chicago. An emphasis throughout much of the conference however was what we as humanists could do to get outside ourselves and engage with others beyond our own tribe. A challenging but necessary goal if we are to live up to our humanist principles.
Take for example the talk Mark Reimers of Michigan State University gave on neuroscience. Humanists are notorious for trumpeting “logic” and “reason” in our approach to the world. In fact, we are convinced that we have arrived at our more enlightened worldview because we applied these cognitive skills so competently. But now neuroscientific studies suggest that social identity rather than logic drives most strong beliefs. We underestimate how much our social environments influence our learning and beliefs.
So how do people move beyond religious thinking and commitment? Logic and reason may not be the sure path. Making meaningful social connections with those who are not in our “tribe” may be the more successful course. Creating humanist communities of support may offer a more appealing and welcoming niche in which to demonstrate our worldview. I know I still like to teach the “Tenets of Humanism” but clearly it isn’t the only way to advance the humanist message.
Likewise, one of the more provocative panels of the conference was “What Humanists Can Bring to Interfaith Dialogue.” I have long struggled with the concept of working with “people of faith” —especially in regard to public policy around social justice issues. As a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, I insist on approaching public policy from a secular ethical perspective and prefer not to sully myself with faith-based perspectives.
But this group of panelists made a compelling argument replete with positive experiences of their work with interfaith groups. They recounted how progressive “people of faith” are often our natural allies and dedicated activists who within the larger interfaith movement are largely committed to global ethics—the very kind we humanists tout. When we show up at the table of interfaith dialogue and action—and even in some cases demand a seat at the table—we actually have the opportunity to demonstrate how evidence-based approaches to problem-solving are what unites us as citizens of a shared world. When people don’t come to us, we can go to them. Let’s not be ignored; let’s engage. And let’s not be dismissive of our allies from another tribe—especially when they share our values!
Another provocative panel discussion was “The Intersection of Humanism and Social Justice Work.” Yes, humanists accept a naturalist worldview—along with atheists and other freethinkers. But humanism demands that we tackle the ethical issues confronting humanity in every age. It’s not enough to celebrate and embrace the ethical advances of the past; inequities remain that are embedded in our society and we accept our responsibility for addressing them.
The question becomes—how? How do we engage with social justice issues when today’s humanists --who espouse egalitarianism—are predominantly white Americans and have more power and privilege than those whom we seek to help? We aren’t necessarily from the same tribe and we don’t particularly understand each other. Our engagement then must begin with listening and learning. But our being identified with the work of equality and justice may do more for the advancement of humanism than any lecture series or discussion group.
Racial and religious tensions, nationalistic and ethnic division, and rampant individualism are all rearing their ugly heads across America and the globe. More than ever, people throughout the world must coalesce around humanistic ideals. We need this universal egalitarian philosophy to bring us together as citizens of the world if everyone is to “live long and prosper.” Only by engaging with people from all walks of life with a humanism that is practiced—not just preached—will we have any real effect in advancing our humanist principles.