|Humanist Essay for June 2011
"Believe It Or Not"
[Reprinted from the HSNM June 2011 Newsletter]|
I've noticed that my conversations with prospective HSNM members must always contain a "belief" segment. There is concern for what humanists might and mightn't believe, and if the interested party properly aligns with our perceived or assumed doctrine. Humanism is often equated with atheism and/or an anti-religion posture, but our use of the term "naturalism" is also sometimes construed as placing us on the opposite end of the spectrum, among nature worshipers, pantheists and various metaphysical orders. What generally puts everyone at ease and allows conversation to shift away from potential points of conflict to broad points of agreement, is when I blurt out: "I don't care what anyone believes or doesn't believe, and I don't think it's anyone's business what I believe." I go on to talk about the ideal of a secular society, in which we are all free to follow and express the belief or philosophy of our choice but prohibited from imposing our ways on others. This is where heads start to nod in agreement.
Humanist philosophy separates ethics from beliefs and places responsibility for human behavior squarely on the shoulders of humanity, regardless of its members' personal spiritual feelings. The phrase itself, "humanist philosophy" implies that we are able to debate approaches to living and social structure without reference to supernatural elements. I would even argue that the insertion of belief or disbelief into the mix hinders fruitful discussion. How can I argue with anyone's beliefs? How can I disprove anyone's disbelief? Of more concern to me personally, how can I possibly properly articulate my own beliefs? My beliefs are a moving target, I find, and defy my efforts to pin them down.
I've been writing for many years. I have written around and around the questions of what I think and feel and believe, and the overall state of my consciousness at any given time. In a short poem or a 400-page novel, I can come close to conveying, to my own satisfaction, my take on life and the world I live in. I am satisfied with those forms because they are holistic, and they encircle and approach the ideas from multiple perspectives. Linear arguments do not help me get to my deepest held beliefs. I can write a sentence with precision from beginning to end concerning what I believe, but the moment I add that period, I discover that the words do not ring true. They are a 2-D representation of a multi-dimensional phenomenon. I'm happier when I let myself be than when I make myself express a firm, unyielding belief.
I want to work for and live in a secular society where belief is a private matter and what we talk about publicly is respect. If you as a person respect me as a person, then it doesn't matter how we label ourselves. We can focus on our working relationship. Who cares what either of us believes, as long as we are pulling together to make our world better and modeling compassionate, constructive, ethical behavior?
Societies have always had ways of dealing with people who behave badly. Right now we have some extremely bad players in society who wrap themselves in the mantles of religious, nationalistic or economic dogma. The torrent of rhetoric about "believing in" one thing or another deflects scrutiny and criticism of their actual behavior. I think we're all getting sick of it. It's time to get away from distracting "belief" debates and engage in substantive discussions - leading to action - about fairness, freedom and respect.