Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New Humanism Conference II: Da Yute

Easily the most fun session at the New Humanism Conference was the "Next Generation of Humanism" panel. Whoever assembled the panel must have had a blast doing it. In addition to leaders of more-or-less traditional student organizations -- Amanda Shapiro of the Harvard Secular Society, Peter Blake representing Harvard Graduate Humanist Community, August Brunsman of the Secular Student Alliance -- the panel included three new-media types: Rebecca Watson, editor of the online magazine and blog Skepchick and regular contributor to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe; Bryan Pesta, who hosts the atheist and agnostics page on MySpace; and Hermant Mehta, author of the book I Sold My Soul on eBay.

Mehta's backstory is the most entertaining: He grew up Jain but has been an atheist since he was a teen-ager. The stunt that eventually became his book was that he offered the following auction on eBay: the winner could send this lost young atheist to the church of his or her choice. He expected to get about $10, but the bidding ended with a $504 bid by evangelist Jim Henderson. Mehta proceeded to visit a number of churches chosen by Henderson and blog about them for Henderson's web site Off the Map. (If this all sounds too good not to be planned in advance, you too may be a skeptic.) The book chronicles Mehta's adventures visiting a variety of Christian churches, including Ted Haggard's church in Colorado and the Willow Creek megachurch in Illinois.

Skepchick is another great story. The online magazine last published an issue in May, 2006, so it may be defunct. But the blog, forum, and podcast are active. Under slogans like "Smart is Sexy" and "Critical Thinking for the Masses", the Skepchick community discusses all sorts of topics from a youthful, skeptical, female viewpoint. (Anything from "Who are the 11 hottest movie scientists?" to "Can or should religion and science cooperate?") Probably the most outrageous thing they do is sell a "sensual but not lewd" calendar of skepchicks, which sadly was not available in the merchanting area. (Order yours here. Submit your photo for the next one here. See the 2007 calendar turned into a music video here.) This is not your grandmother's Humanism. It's not even the Humanism of your spinster great-aunt that nobody talks about.

The panel part of the discussion was noteworthy more for its attitude than for any outstanding idea or quote. This is a generation of Humanists who are not going peacefully into the closet. They don't shy away from terms like atheist. And they've also gotten past the in-your-face adolescent-rebellion God-sucks kind of atheism. And they don't look like the classic pocket-protector-wearing nerds. They are who they are and they seem comfortable with it.

The most interesting audience question/comment came from Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association. He was being blown away by the numbers the new-media people threw around. Pesta's MySpace group has 31,604 members (I just checked) and Watson claimed her podcasts could get up to 16,000 downloads. Edwords pointed out that the MySpace group was technically the largest Humanist organization in the country. He urged the 20-somethings to come to meetings of the longer-standing humanist groups and explain how they were reaching so many people. It was like watching a middle-aged businessman boggle at the net worth of the Google founders.


Matthew said...

"Edmonds pointed out that the MySpace group was technically the largest Humanist organization in the country."

Is an atheist/agnostic organization necessarily a humanist organization?

Doug Muder said...

An interesting question. There was a certain sloppiness about terms during the conference that seemed a little un-humanist to me. This panel used "Humanist" and "atheist" interchangably.

My answer? Humanism is the belief that human well-being is an end in itself, and that humanity is more-or-less on its own in achieving that well-being. So while it's possible for an atheist not to be a Humanist, it would be difficult.

I've never liked the term agnostic, because it is so vague. I don't see how to deduce anything one way or another about a person who calls himself/herself agnostic.

But it's in the opposite direction where I thought terms got fudged more seriously. In Humanism humanity is central rather than God, but there's no reason why a God couldn't exist. So there are religious Humanists of all sorts.

They didn't get much representation at this conference. There was a panel of Christian/Jewish/Islamic humanists, but they seemed to have a cultural rather than a theological connection to their religions. None of them expressed a belief in God.

Anonymous said...

just to point out for anyone who might want to google that it's Fred Edwords (not Edmonds).

Jaume said...

Doug, Albania was one of the most obnoxious dictatorships in the former Eastern Bloc. The country was officially atheistic and there even was a Museum of Atheism in its capital city, Tirana (not a pun on the country's regime). Therefore it is not difficult at all that people are atheists and do not give a s--t about human well-being. (The same can be said about religious people of different sorts, which means that the religious --or antireligious-- factor is not very relevant on this particular issue.)

fra59e said...

The so-called "Institutes of Atheism" in Eastern Bloc countries were nothing more than what we in America call university Departments of Comparitive Religion.

Francis said...

Anybody who imagines that Humanism and atheism are somehow identical has apparently not read the latest official statement of what Humanism actually stands for, Humanist Manifesto 3 (2003).

Our local Humanist group has used the saying "We do not know anything in the universe that matters more to humans than human well-being." That is NOT the same as asserting the non-existence of gods, easter bunnies, tooth fairies and unicorns. Wise people do not waste their time discussing non-questions.

Doug Muder said...

Thanks to Anonymous (one of my favorite authors) for the typo about Fred Edwords. Don't know how I did that; it's in my notes correctly. And my wife points out that Willow Creek is a megachurch, not a metachurch. I fixed both in the text.

Doug Muder said...

Jaume makes a good point that it's not actually difficult to find atheists who aren't Humanists. I was having a major oversight there.

Let me reiterate what I think Humanism is. I think it comes down to two key points that contrast with (but don't directly contradict) the teachings of a lot of traditional religions.

1. Human well being is the central moral concern. Which is not to say that the non-human world has no moral significance. But it does mean that Humanists reject God-says-so as a justification for a moral rule. To convince Humanists, you have to argue that following the rule makes the world better for people.

2. The responsibility for making the world better rests with humans. In other words, we can't just trust that God has a plan. We have to have our own plan that rests on our own efforts.

So Humanism as I see it leaves plenty of room for faith in God, Goddess, or gods. It limits the role of deities, but doesn't preclude their existence.

smellincoffee said...

Doug: I recently discovered the website of a UU church. The website provides many beautiful recordings of hymns and such, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Imagine my pleasant suprise when I checked your blog for updates today and saw that you are from the very town that UU church is based in. Small world!

Hathery said...

Just so you know, I find your blog very well-written and I've linked you on my blog. Hope you don't mind! :)