Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013: The Year of the Humanist Activist

"The poor you shall always have with you..."
I've spent the last two years working to establish myself as a Secular Activist. Though I've been a Humanist for much of my life, when it came time to actively promote my philosophy publicly through service work, protest, testifying, speaking and writing, I went with the more politically safe and well known term "Secular" to describe my activism.

For some time I've been rethinking this decision. Though I will always be a secular activist, I find the term constraining for a variety of reasons. For one thing, secularism concerns itself with secularity, that is, establishing and protecting a religiously neutral society in which a wide variety of views can find expression. Though I am still fully committed to this goal, and consistently engage in activism around this idea, (particularly in the various idiocies that arise from the so-called "War on Christmas") my concerns and motivating issues are wider in scope.

For a while, I could find reasons to include issues such as marriage equality and reproductive rights under the banner of secularity because arguments against these essential human rights almost exclusively rely on theology and are often times couched in religious terms. Even when the arguments sound secular in nature, they are usually revealed to be a disguise for religious, anti-secular points of view.

The issues that concern me do not end with marriage equality and reproductive rights, however. I am also concerned with poverty, wealth inequality, obscene military spending, universal health care, the erosion of collective bargaining rights, education, women's equality, and corporate personhood among many others, and my attempts to view these issues through the lens of secularism versus encroaching theocracy are becoming ever more difficult to justify.

The truth is that I am not really a secular activist, at least not exclusively. I am a Humanist Activist.

My Humanism provides me with a core group of values including but not limited to Reason, Compassion, Optimism and Action that drive me towards working to make the world a better place. Whereas my secularity is largely silent on issues such as class, wealth inequality and poverty, my Humanist values are progressive and speak volumes on these subjects, leading me to conclusions about the way I want to see the world shaped, and compelling me to work towards these ends.

Tomorrow a small number of fellow members of the Humanists of Rhode Island will be at the RI State House to join me in representing nonbelievers and those with no religious faith traditions at the 4th annual "Fighting Poverty with Faith" vigil sponsored by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition. I believe that Humanists, with our particular brand of optimism about the future and our scientifically validated belief in the essential decency of human beings have a unique and compelling voice to add in the war on poverty.

Jesus says, in Mark 14:7, that "The poor you shall always have with you, and you can help them any time you want." He echoes this sentiment in Matthew 26:11 and John 12:8, referencing the Old Testament phrasing found in Deuteronomy 15:11. Though these passages are often used to justify and encourage a Christian tradition of caring for the neediest among us, I believe there is also a second, less helpful message contained therein. We will always have poor people in the world, says the Bible, and there will always be poverty and wealth inequality... Until the day Jesus returns to establish a new world order.

In a nutshell, Christians believe that the problem of poverty cannot be solved by human beings. The best we can do, says Jesus, is to lessen the problem somewhat, provide some little comfort where we can, but poverty can never be eliminated because it is beyond the power of humanity to do so. Starving children and people without hope, Jesus implies, is a never ending sign that we live in a broken, sinful world.

The goal of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition is to "cut Rhode Island poverty in half by 2020," a laudable goal, and a difficult yet realistic target to reach. But could it be that scripture subtly works against setting our sights higher? Might it be realistic to set the goal of eliminating poverty worldwide by 2050? I do not know, but Christians and other faith groups might not have the philosophical ability to imagine such goals outside the intervention of their God. Humanists do not believe in God, so we believe it is up to us to imagine and engineer solutions to such problems.

Perhaps it is in reality impossible to eliminate poverty, but we won't know until we try.

So as these nascent thoughts and ideas take shape, I leave behind the label "Secular Activist" in favor of the term "Humanist Activist." I cannot promise success, such prognostication falls to the mystics and prophets in whom I have no faith. I can only promise to try my best to make the world a better place.

1 comment:

  1. It is a social good and and a humane to make common cause with others who share your goals.
    Thank you for sharing your process. I admire your integrity, you intentionality--and your commitment to persevere!!