The Misanthropic Humanist

This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

I became an atheist in my freshman year of college. It was a difficult transition for me. I broke up with my high school boyfriend, largely over religious differences. I was nervous about going home to spend the summer with my religious parents. I had, to my knowledge, one atheist friend – one person with whom I felt safe to be my true self.

This friend invited me at the last minute to accompany him to hear Joss Whedon, who was coming to speak on campus. “Who?” “The Dr. Horrible writer. You know, he also did Buffy and Firefly and all that.” I liked Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and had watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was younger, but I didn’t know much about Joss Whedon besides that. “What’s he coming for?” “Some kind of atheist thing.” Sounded cool enough, and I had nothing else to do (not many friends, remember?), so I went.

The enemy of Humanism is not faith. The enemy of Humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every Humanist, every person in the world. That is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.

This speech was a defining moment in my life. That night was my introduction to Humanism, and Joss Whedon warned me from the beginning that it would not be easy.

He was right. Some days, it truly is harder to believe that humans can be good than that a cracker can turn into an undead god-person.

The older I get and the more I see of the world, the more I struggle with this. In a personality trait (feature? bug?) that Greg Epstein has called my “general dissatisfaction with things,” I often become overwhelmed with righteous fury over human failings big and small.

I am told every day that I am literally worth less than a man is, that a non-sentient cluster of cells has more rights to the use of my organs than I do, that I am responsible for the consequences if I am physically attacked, and that I am generally an inferior specimen of humanity.

Chris Stedman’s book Faitheist, which makes the scandalous claim that it’d be cool if people were nicer to each other and maybe even friends sometimes, somehow caused a gigantic internet controversy. How…?

Walking into a crowded place and emptying a bunch of metal into other people’s bodies is not just a terrible decision that one person made, but basically a national pastime at this point.

The Holocaust. That happened.

I am constantly surrounded by people overtly eating corpses. Everywhere I look, people are cutting up dead bodies into little pieces and putting them into their mouths and chewing them and swallowing them. What are you all thinking?

I used to do that a lot too. What was I thinking?

A lot of people get very angry when other people want to formally celebrate their love for and commitment to another person and then do nice things together like cohabitate and raise children.

Some people directly cause the deaths of children because they think it is better to pray for health and selfishly endanger everybody around you in the process than to get a life-saving vaccine.

So how am I supposed to go on talking about how humanity will be its own salvation? How can I keep babbling about fixing all our problems with reason and compassion? Why should I keep living out my values when it doesn’t seem to do any good?

This would probably be a good time to warn you that I am not leading up to a miraculous answer. I am mostly whining out loud. Happy Festivus, world: here are all the ways you have disappointed me lately.

But the fact is, even when it seems pointless, we must keep the faith. Maybe we won’t manage to save ourselves from ourselves, but it seems pretty clear that nobody else will, either, so we might as well try, right? We are our own best hope. Disappointing, maybe, but we have to work with what we’ve got.

You should also remember that wonderful things are happening all around, even though you can’t see most of them. At any given moment, billions of people are being perfectly nice to each other. The media only reports on the bad stuff because it is the exception to the rule.

It helps to have a boyfriend who is constantly ready to appease your rage with a well-timed picture of a bunny snuggling with a kitten, or an uplifting motivational speech, or an affectionate note, or a supportive hug. I actually don’t know of any other boyfriend who is as good at this kind of thing as the one I use. I don’t even know if they make this model anymore, but I recommend investing in one immediately if you fine it – maybe try Craigslist?

But perhaps most importantly of all, remember that you do not need to save the world yourself. To Frankenquote two of my favorite people and horribly mix my metaphors in the process, the arc of the moral universe is very long and life is very short, so although it does bend toward justice, we cannot always tell because we die on the march. Your responsibility is just to make a difference and not to worry about the size.

I am often comforted by a rather trite little parable that you have probably heard. A man is walking along a beach where thousands of starfish have somehow become stranded above the waterline. (Is this a thing that even happens? Do tsunamis do this? I don’t even know. Hush. It’s just a metaphor.) He sees a child picking the stranded starfish up one by one, walking down to the water, and dropping them back into the ocean where they belong. He asks the child, “What are you doing?” The child responds, “I’m saving their lives.” The man returns, “But there are so many of them. Even if you work all day, most of them are still going to die. What you are doing will not make a difference.” The child picks up another starfish and returns it to the sea, answering, “It did to that one.”

So here I am, at the end of twelve hours of blogging, attempting to wrap up probably the rambliest and least coherent piece of writing on the internet. Did we even raise any money? I have no idea. Have I revolutionized Humanism? Probably not. Did I have fun? Yes. Did I eat way too many kettle chips? Definitely. Am I still kind of disgusted with the world? Also definitely.

But I have a nice warm cup of tea here, and my boyfriend is probably downloading some cute pictures of baby animals for me to look at later. And tomorrow I will get up and keep living while I have the chance and hope for the best.

Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

4 comments on “The Misanthropic Humanist

  1. You’re what I call a ‘misanthroptimist’. Humanity consistently lets you down but you “keep the faith”. I’m the same way. It’s frustrating, but honest. I appreciate you, Chelsea Link!

  2. I’m a bit confused here. Don’t get me wrong, I (and so many of us) feel despair, anger, alienation, etc. from watching what we are capable of doing to each other- through action or inaction.

    I know you will have already heard everything I’m about to say, several times. But for the sake of discussion (which is why this post exists, right?) I think I have to go there.

    I’m not convinced that the numbers add up. What do surveys say about self-identifying religious peoples’ views on these issues?

    Yes, there is s subset of religious people who abhor homosexuality, and actively & aggressively try to mold culture and policy to fit their views. Another subset who tend to brandish a concept of American individualism that leads to a domestic arms industry, media culture, entertainment culture, that contribute to school massacres.

    There is also a huge number who legitimately choose careers, lifestyles, parenting choices, etc to actually attempt to improve the world, in ways that you and I would view as basically constructive and basically valid. Inspired by their religion. You cite part of MLK’s quote- the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice. MLK, as we all know, committed to his faith. By all reports of the, um, spice in his personal life- I somewhat doubt that homosexuality would be a major view of his now. I have read before, accurately or inaccurately, that the black protestant social justice tradition generally holds moderately conservative views on sexuality, but is frankly very busy trying to actively improve the world in a hundred concrete ways.

    The Holocaust, created and perpetuated by a toxic blend of long-standing bigotry, propaganda, economic/political conditions, ugly vulnerabilities in human behaviour, and many other factors. But I haven’t actually seen or heard anything other than acknowledgement and horror from any religious people I’ve had conversations with that intersected with that subject.

    My point is this, I think religious people have no problems acknowledging that there is horror and brokenness in the world. More often than not, I think their views inspire them to action and/or awareness at least equal to the secular world’s. The results aren’t always effective. And some of the things that some of them cite as brokenness (think, prohibitions on a variety of sexual expression/experience) we would not see as brokenness. We see, in fact, their views as brokenness in itself (bigotry, etc). Yet other religious people would agree with our assessment. And many, many issues that religious people are inspired by their faith to tackle are actually issues we would completely support. The same stuff that you are working on at your ministry.

    Be encouraged.

  3. Pingback: Humanist Community at Harvard 2012 Fundraiser Blogathon Recap!

  4. Life sucks, often. You can’t rely on people, because everybody’s got a life of their own. People are like icing: nice to top off with, but do not base your cake off of it. You have to build a life as if you were living it each day alone. Because you are. People come and go; relationships are solid like water, never reflecting the same thing to two different people. People disappoint & fuck up, and will always keep doing so. We all die so the next generation can think us stupid and repeat our mistakes.
    I’m not having children because I want the world to continue after I’m dead. Most days I just look for any reason to stay in bed.

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