Humanism That Sings: Jodi Picoult and John Grant at the HCP

Humanists believe that, in a world of too much inequality and prejudice, art can light up the darkness and turn helplessness into hope. When you are nonreligious, you can’t look to a god for easy answers. Whether we’re gay or straight or anything else, the world offers all of us less comfort than we would usually like, and it’s natural, normal, healthy to look for something to comfort us. We’ve often turned to religion, but for LGBT youth that can often mean turning to the very community that has shunned them and treated them as less than human. Besides that, there’s something profoundly unjust about a belief that we would need to wait until a next life, after death, to love and be loved in a way that feels right for us. This is a post introducing the video (below) of a special Humanist event benefiting LGBT youth; but as it is also among the first in what will be a series of posts featuring Humanist artists and their work, I want to add some general thoughts on the role that works of art play in Humanist community.

Humanists don’t have one single replacement for God, or anything that we worship in place of a God. We don’t worship at all; Humanism is more complex than that. When justice can be won, we fight for it. When the truth can be determined, we go out and find it. And when it comes to our need for beauty, consolation, our search for a feeling of transcendence, we look to one another to create them, through art. Art is, if anything, the process of taking our own experiences, however tragic they may be, however ugly they may be, and transforming them into something beautiful that we can share with one another, to uplift ourselves and those around us. Art is secular alchemy. It is a redemption of our human experience, not by making the imperfect perfect but by making the imperfect beautiful. That distinction is as much at the heart of the difference between a religious and a Humanistic worldview as any debate over Creationism and evolution.

When I was a teenager, I remember feeling constant awareness of love and heartbreak. I remember being aware of how my parents’ relationship shifted as my father’s cancer developed. They used to fight about little things constantly, but as they became more aware that they had little time left together, they learned to make each other laugh more often. They would tell stories, and they would read together. I remember reading the novel Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, around that time. Styron perfectly captured the most agonizing kind of decision that any person could ever have to make. The story was not exactly a happy one, and yet I couldn’t put it down. And the fact that the story continued in Brooklyn, that what happened to Sophie in the camps was not the end, offered the comforting message that new possibilities always open up; that even without religion we can find light at the end of the tunnel.

When I first got involved in Humanism I noticed that most of my favorite works of art were essentially Humanist. Most of the literature that I love –  novels, stories, movies, etc. – is powerful because it is honest about the tragedies and the challenges we face every day as human beings. Great art is different from a Hallmark card. It can’t hold our hands every step of the way and promise that everything is going to be okay. Everything is not going to be okay. But art gives us courage for the journey into the valley. It reminds us that others have been where we are now, and that, although none of us will live forever or live perfectly, we can live lives of deep meaning and grace.

So I’m often asked, how can we grow the Humanist movement? And I think the answer is to think of it less as an intellectual process and more as an artistic and emotional one, where we help people understand that Humanism is art, that art is Humanism; and that, if we can bring freethinkers together to appreciate Humanistic art, then we are doubly not alone.

At a recent meeting of the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy, Rutgers Humanist Chaplain Barry Klassel asked students what they missed about their past religious affiliations, or what they found lacking in Humanism. The first answer was “MUSIC”. “We tossed around the idea of bringing all the arts into our Humanist experience – music, visual art, stories, architecture, film, etc.,” Klassel said. The Rutgers students agreed with us here at the Humanist Community Project that we need a place on the internet where we can gather artistic expressions that can enhance our Humanism, where we can compile them, comment on them, even edit and revise them. Our recent events with artists like Jodi Picoult, John Grant, and Seth Macfarlane support one of the main projects we have in mind for this site as it develops – to promote the exchange and creation of Humanist literature, music, and other art forms.

On World AIDS Day, December 1, 2011, the Humanist Community Project hosted an event entitled “Sing You Home”. It was an evening of conversation with Picoult and a concert by Grant, both of whose most recent work explores what it means to be gay in a homophobic society. Both Grant’s recent album, Queen of Denmark,  named Best Album of 2010 by Mojo magazine, and Picoult’s recent novel, Sing You Home, which debuted at #1 on the New York Times and USA Today Best Seller lists, are powerful examples of Humanist art. They transform the painful experiences of their protagonists into strength, into courage, into song. We were proud that, on a day created to mark what has been a terrible scourge in the gay community, we were able to bring these two brilliant artists together to exemplify why we still have hope in the face of AIDS, in the face of Matthew Shepherd, in the face of Prop. 8. This, to us, is what Humanist holidays ought to look like. It was an example of what Humanist community can be all about.

Check out the footage of this extraordinary event below. What other artistic events have you been to that could double as Humanist community gatherings? What artistic resources should we post here on this site? Who are the most inspiring artists that we should try to recruit for future events?

To watch the rest of the event, click here.

To learn more about the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard’s spring break service trip to work with homeless LGBT youth, click here.

About Greg Epstein

Humanist Chaplain @Harvard. Author of NY Times Bestselling book Good Without God: What a Billion Non-Religious People Do Believe. Directs @HarvardHumanist.

3 comments on “Humanism That Sings: Jodi Picoult and John Grant at the HCP

  1. This was a great event! I was so disappointed that it was not better publicized and therefore the turn out was not what it could have been. I walked around campus prior to the event and I did not see a single poster about it on all those publicity poles that exist around in the grounds. I saw nothing in the local papers. Some better organization could have filled the church to SRO! Missed an opportunity to get a much better coffer for a great cause!

    • I’m delighted you enjoyed the event! We would have loved greater turnout too – we advertised extremely heavily in the LGBTQ community in Boston (including in a number of publications), as well as becoming an official World AIDS Day event on their website, and reaching out to campus-based groups at Harvard and Elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a tough day to get big numbers (there’s lots of competing events). We’d love some suggestions regarding marketing if you have some – we’ve filled the church many times before and were surprised on this occasion.

      As you say, though, it did nothing to dull the spirits of those who attended – it was magical!

  2. I saw that study or at least the headlines. There are two effcets I would expect to see here a placebo effect (positive) of those who knew they were being prayed for and believed that would help them.I also see the potential for a negative effect (actually a correlation) as follows: friends and family who know the sick person have a certain sense of their prognosis based on judgments they make based on interactions with doctors, nurses, hospital staff, the patient, and their knowledge of the patient’s history. If they believe the illness is an extremely hopeless case, they are probably far more likely to pray. Ergo the so-called negative effect of prayer.Of course, the politically incorrect study to do would be a double-blind trial of prayers for the patient without their knowledge. Thus the prayer itself would have to be causing the healing: the fabled Power of Prayer . Don’t know if such a study has been done but if I wouldn’t bet on Pat Robertson being pleased with the outcome.

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