Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Humanists of Rhode Island: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

My work in Humanism and atheism has, for at least the last two years, been primarily concerned with local issues and local politics. Not content with on-line griping and philosophizing, I made a real effort a few years back to start putting my values into action, and as a result helped form the Humanists of Rhode Island, a group that focuses not only on issues of separation of church and state, but also on issues of human rights and social justice. This focus developed in part from my acceptance of the idea, popularly attributed to social activist and urban development theorist Patrick Geddes, to "Think globally, act locally."

Though Geddes would apply this concept primarily to urban development and town planning, others modified the idea to apply to environmental, educational and business planning and strategizing. The work of the Humanists of Rhode Island on issues of separation of church and state, women's reproductive rights, marriage equality, environment and social justice are, after less than two years of work, still in their nascent stage, but we have had significant political victories, raised the visibility and political status of non-believers, and dedicated ourselves to charitable giving and volunteering.

The progress we have made locally is significant and should not be undervalued, but of a far greater significance is the effect our efforts could potentially have on the outside world. What we are doing in this state is showing how a small group of committed, hard-working Humanists can change their community for the better, galvanize political allies (and opponents), and bring the concerns of Humanism and atheism into the mainstream political consciousness. We are charting new territory here, building on the work of others and learning and sharing information as best we can with other groups.

In the atheist/Humanist/skeptic/atheist+ blogging echo chamber there is a concentration on national news and national events. This is a function of simple economics. National news is of interest to a greater number of potential readers, and therefore click through rates and ad revenues are increased. Stories about a cross going up on a median strip in Providence for the express purpose of chasing atheists out of the state are small potatoes compared to stories about Michele Bachmann's Islamophobia or the unjust imprisonment of Alex Aan.

As important as national stories are, there are only limited numbers of ways the average person can take effective action on these issues. We can sign online petitions, and if we happen to live in New York or Washington DC we can take some time to march outside the Indonesian embassy, but otherwise all we can do is fume and write our letters to the editors and our blog. Most of us don't even do that, and merely read the blogs of others.

Compare this to a local story. Here your action can be direct, and its effects more directly observed. When you speak out against prayer at your town council meeting, or against a cross or ten commandment display on public land, local media will cover you. Local politicians might not leap to your aid, but they will pay attention to you, even if it's only to dismiss you as anti-American

In Woonsocket, Rhode Island there is a cross on public land. The cross was made to honor three brothers who lost their lives during World war II, and to honor their mother, who lost all her sons to that war. The FFRF asked that the cross be removed, and the town circled their wagons, pledging to defend the cross. Now in times past, when I attended press conferences and town meetings on contentious church/state issues (like the prayer banner issue in Cranston) citizens would rise and angrily rail against the "damned atheists." Here in Woonsocket however, at a recent press conference held by Mayor Fontaine, an angry citizen stood up and railed against the "damned Humanists."

Our efforts over the last two years are starting to pay off. I doubt that two years ago the same angry citizen knew a what a Humanist was. Now he does. We are in his head and on the map here in Rhode Island politically, after only a year and a half a effort. Imagine what we could do in five years, or ten. 

Lest it sound like all we have done as a group is piss people off, it should be noted that our efforts saw the removal of that cross on the median strip in Providence and that our efforts contributed to the defeat of an ultrasound abortion bill in the Rhode Island State House. We have been at the forefront of the vigorous public debate concerning freedom of and freedom from religion. On top of that we give blood, build houses, clean-up highways and parks, raise money for women's shelters, distribute condoms and counter protest the religious right.

Strong, morally grounded and unyielding in our beliefs, we do this as Humanists.

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