Like a lot of opinionated people, I am rumored to never change my mind on anything. But this is actually just a false association. People unthinkingly equate passion with stubbornness. In reality, I’ve quite publicly changed my mind in a number of circumstances. For instance, I have written many times before about having been anti-abortion earlier in my life whereas now I do abortion doula work. I have also very publicly moved through phases of religion and non-religion. For me, there is no shame in being a human being who explores things and sometimes, as would be likely for anyone, changes her mind. I don’t see a contradiction in being a passionate person while also being someone who can be self-reflective and honest.
So, with that said, I’ve changed my mind.
Actually, I changed my mind two years ago but was unsure about how to write about it. I knew I had to write about it at some point not because I’m in any way important but because people were very confused about certain changes in my work. I wasn’t afraid of explaining it, just unsure of how to approach it in a world in which what I’m about to say and, more to the point, the way I think about it, is so foreign. I know that I will probably be misunderstood or thought to be saying something that I’m not, especially because this is a blog post and therefore not going to cover the topic sufficiently but – I need to let go of all that.
So, after having written The Humanist Ceremonies Handbook I can now say that I do not identify as a humanist, as an atheist, or as a nontheist. No, I haven’t become a theist either. I don’t believe that any of those labels have any real meaning behind them. This doesn’t mean that I disavow my book or that I’m “against” any of those things either. It simply means that after years of studying, thinking, and writing, I have now come to the conclusion that the way we think about and conceptualize religion is faulty. More specifically, I realized that western (organized) atheism and humanism rely on the protestant narrative for their definitions, philosophies, and, really, entire worldview. That’s bound to confuse a lot of people so let me explain…
The protestant narrative informs most of the western worldview. It is the narrative that gave us ideas such as that certain religious practices are superstitions, that the reformation was an improvement on matters, and that we are marching confidently toward further enlightenment every single day. We can go nowhere but up! In its desire to separate itself from “backward-looking” superstition it gave us the Enlightenment itself! Rationality! Rational religion! Science! Progress! And it is from the Enlightenment, generally speaking, that the skeptic and atheist and humanist movement was born.
Let’s take a brief moment here to talk about humanism because this is my focus for now. What is it? The truth is, it is a constantly moving target. To be a humanist is to be one who studies the humanities. I am a humanist therefore by the original nineteenth century definition of the word. But somewhere along the way, the word humanism began to take on all kinds of different definitions, just like any word does. Studying the humanities (humankind’s expression of its own experience of existence) became entangled with ideas about human self-sufficiency, our power to affect change for the better (or worse), our responsibility to each other. This had nothing to do with concepts of theism or atheism (which people largely wouldn’t have understood until the seventeenth century at least) and, in fact, many devout Christians have been retroactively proclaimed humanists. Today, according to the American Humanist Association, the term demands nontheism though I can’t seem to find any historical reason for the shift. Up into the present day there are plenty of so-called theists who identify as humanist who have been left out in the cold.
With the humanist movement of the late twentieth century came unchallenged and unquestioned assumptions, definitions and concepts. Religion, a construct so complex that not even scholars of the topic can agree on what it is, was loudly proclaimed to be a negative thing in all its manifestations. Theism and nontheism were carefully delineated and never the twain shall meet.
If you ask a humanist today what they think/believe, they’ll tell you that they are “good without God” and they will say it as though it is a revolutionary concept. And, to be fair, it is for some. Especially here in North America and, in particular, the States, where religion has been so weaponized that to declare oneself a moral being without allegiance to a deity can appear more unusual than in other places in the world. I get it. I used this phrase too. It’s neat and pat and saves a lot of time. And yet, I found myself at a complete loss to describe what this actually meant. To declare oneself good without God is to imply that those that believe in a God are only good because of that fact. And yet, having been religious I knew that the vast majority of religious people did not believe that they were one church service away from raping and pillaging their neighbors.
Another tenet of humanism, if I can call it that, is an allegiance to science. It was one of the most attractive things about humanism for me and I still find it an important construct. But, again, I knew that the vast majority of religious people subscribed to a mostly scientific worldview. I knew plenty of people who were proponents of evolution or who fought climate change and did so as part of their commitment to their religion.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary humanism is an insistence on atheism or agnosticism. But here again religious people appear to be misunderstood. History is replete with examples of people we might (anachronistically, I’d say) call nontheistic or, at the very least, post-theistic. The thing is, prior to the reformation era, western people would not have understood the idea of having a secular world and a religious world. This compartmentalization came about largely during the enlightenment. People would not have understood concepts such as theism and nontheism but they would have understood that there were many, many different ways of understanding mystery. This is exemplified in the diversity of spiritualities within the pre-reformation Catholic church – everything from folk practices to intellectualized clerical practices. Huge conversations were happening all over Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages” concerning the nature of God, whether God was a being, whether God was really us. And if you want to say, “yeah, but they were still talking about God, ” I would submit to you that the word God didn’t necessarily mean then what it means to a twenty-first century American. And don’t get me started on how the humanist movement relies entirely on a narrow western idea of theism in the first place.
And all of this comes back to that protestant narrative. I am, of course, generalizing because I’m sure you’re all dead of boredom by now, but it was the reformation that helped usher in a more uniform and “correct” Christianity, one that demanded more stringent categories and railed against the “irrationality” of folk devotions. This attitude is still prominent today in Religious Right circles and it is that attitude that prompted a reactionary American (and, I’d argue, western) humanism, this despite the fact that the Religious Right represents a tiny minority of religious people in America. But don’t feel bad. The Catholic church got all reactionary too. They felt a little sensitive after the reformation and many folk practices (“superstitions” that we wrongly associate with paganism) died out.
The American Humanist Association describes humanism as a philosophy. And yet, I’ve never, in all my years as a humanist, been able to identify the philosophy behind it. “Good without God” is not a philosophy. “Likes science” is not a philosophy. “Sticking it to religious people”(as yes, someone in a very senior leadership position once said to me was the point of humanism) is not a philosophy. It’s late, so I’d better get to the point which is that I’ve decided that humanism, while well-meaning, is simply a reactionary movement born out of the protestant narrative it so desperately wants to critique. How meta.
That said, I don’t repudiate my book. I think it’s a lovely idea to have an option for ceremonies without God language. All the above bitching aside, there are people for whom religion, whatever that is to them, leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and I don’t want those people to feel like they can’t have nice things. I’m particularly proud of having included trans naming ceremonies and other ceremonies for marginalized people. I feel like that is all worthwhile and I feel honored to have worked closely with other celebrants to bring these to the fore. I also don’t regret my time as a humanist. After all, it was seeking to become a more conscientious humanist minister that led me to study theology and, eventually, seek out a PhD program in religious studies. I’m grateful for that.
However, I’ve changed my mind about humanism.