Arts & Culture

Humanists gather with evangelical fervor

7 min read

Agnostics, atheists, skeptics, freethinkers combine ideas, and forces

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a … humanist conference.

That’s not the beginning of a joke, though it could be. One of the enduring lessons of last weekend’s celebration of Harvard’s 30-year-old Humanist Chaplaincy was that humanists can be very funny.

“Comedy does solve problems that it seems nothing else can get to,” said novelist Salman Rushdie, a guest at the April 20-22 conference.

To prove that, he spurred lots of laughter with both of his talks at “30: The New Humanism,” an international gathering with dozens of groups represented. The conference — at Harvard and at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge — was a kind of United Nations of those who disavow the supernatural, and affirm the idea that a moral life is possible without God or a belief in the afterlife.

On hand were nearly 600 skeptics, naturalists, atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers. The conference started on April 20, with delicious improbability, at the Memorial Church, where Rushdie gave a reading. (Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy, the oldest on a U.S. campus, maintains an office in the church basement.)

The next day, the well-meaning fractiousness of any meeting of humanists was the target of Rushdie’s wit. It reminded him of an old joke about putting two Bengalis together in a room: What you get are two political parties.

Humor is central to getting out the humanist message, agreed Sherwin T. Wine. He is a onetime Reform rabbi who founded the first humanist synagogue, and went on to inspire a worldwide movement of humanist Judaism.

“We all know the human condition is absurd,” said Wine. “Worship to me is always something I treasure: laughter.”

Humor is one outward sign of a healthy humanist tradition running through the world, said conference organizer Greg M. Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain.

Another sign is impressive numbers, said Epstein. An estimated 1 billion people — including one in five Americans ages 18 to 25 — do not identify with any religion. “These people are not represented,” he said. “They’re misunderstood by the general public.”

Epstein is planning to use Harvard as a launching point to train more campus humanist chaplains, with the help of allies gathered from the conference ranks. He hoped the message of the Harvard gathering would reach out to unrepresented nontheists and energize a world movement.

“What’s new,” he said of new humanism, “is that we’re not going away, and we won’t be in the shadows any more.”

Part of the “new” in new humanism is also that it is a counterpoint to what’s being called “the new atheism,” a provocative and militant form of anti-theism popularized by writers like Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”), Daniel Dennett of Tufts University (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”), and Sam Harris (“Letter to a Christian Nation”). These authors share the view that even tolerating organized religion supports what they see as violent, anti-scientific, closeted societies of belief.

Epstein wants a bigger tent for humanism, not a war of words with the religions of the world. “Humanism is much more than science,” he said, welcoming those who still culturally identify with a religion.

“Some of us define ourselves as a religious community, some of us don’t,” said Manhattan psychologist Robert Berson, leader of the Ethical Society of Northern Westchester. “We’re cousins at least, if not siblings.”

Tom Ferrick, a onetime Jesuit priest and Vietnam War protestor who was Harvard’s first humanist chaplain, confessed an admiration for “tough-minded humanists” like Harris and Dawkins.

But in the end, he said, holding to hard, singular views shuts down discourse of the kind he enjoyed with the other chaplains at Harvard. (There are 41 today, representing religions from Baha’i to Zoroastrianism.) “I learned to be open to the diversity of this world,” said Ferrick. “I gave up absolutes.”

One billion is a big number, but there’s no one place for the nontheists of the world to go. Or if there is, it may not be attractive. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Harvard’s Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and an atheist since age 13, said that becoming a humanist “is like joining the chess club.”

“We think a lot,” agreed Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America and who is — since 2005 — Washington, D.C.’s first humanist lobbyist. She admitted that gatherings of humanists can seem overwhelmingly cerebral, as well as predominantly white and male.

But at the Harvard conference, Brown took heart. It was the first such gathering that seemed to include as many women as men, she said, and as many young people as old. (About half the attendees were college students. Epstein acknowledged that more work needs to be done to attract people of color, and more humanists from overseas.)

“The idea of dialogue was the kernel of this conference,” he said, as a way to bring to humanism a universitylike inclusiveness of “religions, cultures, and civilizations.”

If the conference had another message, it was that every world religion harbors a core of ethical traditions unrelated to a deity. To impart this message were a priest, a rabbi, a minister — and more.

Joining the conference via live satellite was Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino Research Professor at Harvard. His own spirit of inclusiveness was evident from where he was: Samford University, a Baptist college in Birmingham, Ala. Wilson’s latest book, “The Creation,” enlists fundamentalist Christians in the battle to save the Earth’s biodiversity.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor at Harvard, paid a videotaped visit to the conference — saying it was a mistake to think that humanist traditions began in the West. In India, pluralistic religious traditions going back to Buddhism in the sixth century B.C. show “an agnostic temperament,” including the idea that behaving in a moral way does not require a God figure.

Sherwin Wine said that as a newly minted Reform rabbi in 1963, “I was forced to say things I didn’t believe.” But he called Jewish history — with its love of education, family, ambition, and humor — “a testimony to humanism.”

Unitarian Universalist minister emeritus William Murray, a onetime Southern Baptist who turned to humanism at age 44, said there are seeds of humanism in the Christian tradition going all the way back to the Old Testament, with its idea that humans are made in the image of God.

Tu Weiming, director of Harvard’s Yenching Institute, put Confucianism — now resurgent in Asia — into a humanist context. At its core is “learning to be human,” he said, and a commitment to improving the human condition.

Rushdie talked about the “perfectly normal” religious tolerance that characterized his boyhood in Bombay. He grew up with a nonbelieving, scholarly father and a Muslim grandfather, who — though profoundly religious — was a model of open-minded tolerance. The two men, said Rushdie, represented “the forces that created me.”

In those days, he said, Islam was “a description of community,” not, as for some today, he added, a call to be intolerant.

On Sunday morning (April 22), 100 or more humanists gathered with Epstein in Gutman Hall for a conference roundtable. Disparate views on what to do next emerged, he said, “but they are all energizing.”

Among the imperatives offered: Create more humanist chaplains (though there was some dissent over the religiosity of the name). Study the power of the media, and use it to educate the public. Have an issue (global warming?). Take women more seriously. Learn how to raise money. Join forces, and get past dissention.

Said Berson: “We can have a lot of flowers in the garden.”