A simple and powerful way to grow our movement is to claim your Humanist identity.
Be intentional with the words you use to describe yourself when it comes to your beliefs. Religious people describe themselves in very specific terms. Rather than simply informing others that they are “religious,” which would be quite vague, they’ll tell you that they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Baha’i if you them ask about their beliefs. Since there is a great deal of diversity within each of these religious traditions, they might tell you which denomination they come from as well. Someone might be an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Jew. A Catholic, Methodist, or Mormon. A Sunni, Shi’ite, or Sufi. Members of one denomination can probably tell you something about what sets it apart from other denominations, too. For example, a Methodist might distinguish Protestants from Catholics by saying “We don’t believe in saints.” We could go on and on about what these groups believe and what makes them different from one another, but the point is that religious people tend to be confident and knowledgeable about their religious identities.
We freethinkers should be just as outspoken and fluent, in the language of our own beliefs. When asked what we believe, too many of us say “nothing.” This, of course, is completely untrue. We believe in many principles and, on top of that, we believe in many of the same principles. We each develop our own moral compass and, together, we share a sense of ethics. We believe that freedom of conscience, logic, and the scientific method are reliable ways of coming to conclusions about the natural world. We believe it is essential to care for other people and our planet. So it does us a great disservice, as individuals and as a group, to say we believe in “nothing.”
Here’s a typical example of a conversation in which this might happen. Let’s say you’re getting to know someone better and, from what she’s said, you ask:
“Are you Jewish?”
“Yeah, I am,” she says. “What are you?”
“Oh, I’m not really anything.”
That right there is your opportunity to say “I’m a Humanist.” Or to use whatever word feels the most comfortable, when summing up your beliefs.
To take another example, Facebook invites you to describe your “Religious Views” on your profile. Many nontheistic people choose to leave this field blank. But just because you don’t belong to a religious group doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to answer the question. In fact, that’s all the more reason to find a term that helps you express your beliefs and join the conversation about religious views. If you type in “Atheist,” “Agnosticism,” “Spiritual,” “Free thinking,” “Unitarian Universalist,” or “Humanist,” you’ll see that there are thousands of people with you and become part of the online spiritual and secular community that’s raising awareness about alternative life stances to traditional religions. A revered teacher of mine describes her “Religious Views” on Facebook with the word: “Compassion.” Whatever term best represents your world view, use it in conversation and online. Don’t leave your Facebook or your metaphorical profile blank. Instead, own your beliefs the way religious people do.
This might require some exploring. Like Jews and Christians who can tell you about Judaism and Christianity and Catholics and Methodists who can tell you about their denomination, we should be able to speak confidently about Humanistic beliefs and should know something about the diversity of beliefs in the free thinking community.
Start with yourself.
How do you identify when it comes to your beliefs, and why? What’s the best way to describe your beliefs? And how do you want to describe yourself to others?
Do you call yourself a Humanist? Are you nonreligious or nontheistic? Spiritual? Skeptical? Secular? An out and proud atheist? Or someone who’s more comfortable describing yourself as an agnostic? A rationalist or naturalist? An Existentialist? Or, as Phil Zuckerman says, an aweist?
Do you still identify with the religion of your upbringing, knowing full well or suspecting that it no longer reflects your actual beliefs? Or did you grow up in an atheist home and have you always been a free thinker? Are you on a journey? Are you a Unitarian Universalist? A deist, Transcendentalist, or pantheist? Or something else?
Or are you both firmly rooted in a religious tradition and inspired by Humanism––like Humanistic Jews, Buddhist Humanists, and Christian Humanists?
Which terms could you describe yourself with here? Which ones don’t resonate with you?
And which ones were unfamiliar? By looking into some of the life stances presented here that you don’t know as much about, you can get a better picture of what the Humanist community looks like as a whole. In the same way that Catholics, Methodists, and Mormons are all Christians with similarities and differences among their denominations, we can all describe ourselves as Humanists while being a community of diverse belief that includes people who identify more specifically as atheists, agnostics, Humanistic Jews, rationalists, freethinkers, pantheists, etc.
Use the word “Humanist” and the other terms that best describe your beliefs in conversations with others. If it becomes clear that the people you’re talking with don’t know very much about Humanism, then you can turn these exchanges into teaching moments by telling them a little more about it. In addition to spreading awareness about Humanist values, you just might be opening the door for someone to embrace our life stance.
When we’re asked about our beliefs, we have the opportunity to introduce people to Humanism as both a set of principles and as an organized group to which they can belong if our message resonates with them. So take advantage of this by telling them you’re a Humanist and explaining a little more about what that means.