In the summer of 2000, I quit a “job” singing in an indie rock band in favor of studying Humanism toward a career as a Humanist chaplain and rabbi. At the time it seemed to almost everyone I knew (my mother and one friend were the main exceptions) to be an unassailable fact that I’d chosen the riskier, less practical of those two paths.
It was the turn of the millennium. Religion was on an upswing around the world. 9-11 and the Bush administration had not yet kicked the hornet’s nest of New Atheism. Somewhere in an office at Oxford, the theologian and former atheist Prof. Alister McGrath was probably already working his 2004 book The Twilight of Atheism , which actually contains some worthwhile insights but as a prediction of what was immediately to come did not work out too well.
The few things that happened next came so quickly that, like the iPod taking over music before you could tweet #ihatehavingtocarryawalkmantogorunning, we didn’t know what hit us. Osama. Bush. Rick Warren. Robertson and Fallwell’s comments on 9-11. Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens.
All the while, I was one of only a tiny handful of students in the U.S studying these events full time in preparation for a career in Humanism and secular studies. So I can tell you, things have changed. A certain tide has turned, or to use the Malcolm Gladwell catch phrase, we may have reached a tipping point in my field. A few years ago, though small groups of us saw the potential for something greater, Humanists and secularists were known primarily for studying and debating science and religion. We’ve now grown into a movement of people who are making a positive change in the world around us. So many of us, including a wave of gifted young students (and a steady stream flowing into my office this week to apply for the Humanist internship that I supervise) have internalized that to build a better world we are going to need to build up positive secular and Humanist values, building new institutions to affirm the dignity of all human beings, rather than merely tear down what came before us. We have to be creative and compassionate at least as much as we are rational or logical. We need to nurture Humanist communities* at least as much as we critique the problematic practices of other communities. And so in the US alone we’ve now got godless billboards, The New Humanism, and Humanists helping lead the Interfaith movement. There are secularist camps, charities, lobbyists and White House visits, high school clubs and earthquake relief efforts; there are atheists in foxholes, holding festivals. I could go on.
A few weeks ago I attended an historic conference: The World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway. Hundreds of Humanist, atheist and secular activists gathered in a city that had recently been shaken by a madman murderer out to get all those who value, as Humanists do, liberal democracy, open society, and religious pluralism. As it turned out, being there with the people of Oslo at that difficult time was good for us-we heard how hundreds of thousands of Norwegians marched with roses in hand, to passionately stand up for a continued emphasis on peace and inclusion in their society. And I’d like to think we were a breath of fresh air for the city, too. With our flags and banners flying all around a prominent city square, we learned about the 10,000 Humanist youth confirmation ceremonies performed every year in Norway; the 32 percent of Dutch army chaplains who are Humanists; the 120-member Humanist caucus in British Parliament and the 300,000 Britons who attend Humanist weddings each year; the life-saving social service work Humanists are doing in Uganda, Malawi, India, Pakistan, Haiti, and more. Near the center of downtown Oslo, there is a Humanist House-a beautiful, historic building spanning nearly an entire city block, home to dozens of professional activists and tens of thousands of community members, all engaged in supporting the above work and much more. If you come visit our little (but growing!) Humanist Student and Community Center in Harvard Square next month, you can see an exhibit about it. And in fact what really struck me about the place is that it is a museum, but not like most museums. Most museums are of the past: ruins, libraries, dinosaurs, statues, paintings. Oslo Humanist House is a Museum of the Future.
So all in all I think On Faith is right on target asking this question about whether we’re ready for secular studies. They are going to need to study what we’re about to do together.
*In the coming weeks, by the way, I plan to have a lot more to say about how we can do even more to build Humanist communities around the US. Follow me here and on Twitter to learn more!
Greg Epstein | Aug 31, 2011 2:23 PM