Category Archives: humanism

The Threat of Not Caring

For those of you who can look at a swastika or a confederate flag and say “Why can’t people just let it be?” I have been thinking: maybe you haven’t had the experiences I have had. Maybe you don’t know the things I know. Here is why we can’t “let it be.”

The Nazis imagined a purified society ruled by what they thought to be a master race. They tortured, mutilated, stole from and murdered millions of people. Not as part of some other plan. The genocide was the plan. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe you didn’t read the Diary of Anne Frank when you were twelve years old. Maybe you didn’t identify with the young Jewish girl hiding with her family during World War II. Maybe you didn’t read the epilogue, horrified to learn that she died in a concentration camp. That her father found her diary afterwards, read what she wrote about how she still believed people were good, and decided to publish her private thoughts so people all over the world could understand what we lost when Anne was murdered. Maybe you didn’t have that experience.

Maybe you didn’t grow up as a non-theist, being told several times that you were going to burn in hell, as I did. The first time it happened I was six years old. I heard the threat implied by those words: you’re not in the in-group, you’re not good, you’re not worthy. It’s not quite “I’m going to kill you” but more “If someone else killed you, I wouldn’t mind.” I mean, after all, if my soul is damned, why should anyone bother to protect my corporeal form? This is why a belief in the supernatural is so dangerous – it allows people to believe and do terrible things. Every time I meet a new person, I wonder: if they knew I didn’t believe in any supernatural beings, would they see me as less human? Would they care if someone murdered me for it? I am constantly reminded, by the passive assumption that Christian=good – or, at least, that religious=good – that I am seen as less human than other people. Maybe you haven’t had that experience.

I am not a person of color, so I don’t know what that’s like. But here is what I imagine. Seeing a confederate flag in a public place says to me: you are not wanted here, you are not in the in-group. It’s not quite the threat of “I’m going to kill you” but rather “if the police shoot you, I won’t mind.” The flag is not an offense. It’s a message. And the message is: white=good. White is best. All others are less than. Not quite human.

Being reminded that you are seen as not quite human is terrifying. As a human, I rely on other humans to support the environment I survive in. If they reject me, I will die. If they ignore me, I will suffer. If they exclude me, I will not thrive. And any monster may come to take me. A Nazi. A white supremacist. A fundamentalist Christian. A frightened cop. An angry young man who defines his self worth by sexual conquest. Poverty. Disease. Starvation. Any of these monsters could take me, and people won’t mind.

That is why we can’t be quiet. Why we can’t brush aside cruel remarks, or fascist symbols, or racist flags. It has to be called out. In my case, I’m asking: “Will you care if someone kills me? Am I human to you?”

Things you can do if you don’t understand:

  • Read the Diary of Anne Frank, a murdered Jewish girl whose spirit survives.
  • Watch the film Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Listen to a talk given by a holocaust survivor.
  • Read a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Consider that people were born into slavery under our system. Families were forcibly separated. For generations.
  • Read the books 1493 and 1491.
  • Read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Ask a Jewish friend if they have ever received death threats. They have.
  • Read about Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and murdered for offending a white woman.
  • Read about Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay.

It matters what people think. It matters what people say. It matters what ideas we promote or condone. It matters that public figures are equating a movement explicitly devoted to kicking non-whites out of the country with a movement devoted to highlighting the inhumane treatment of people of color. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are not simply competing theories or opinions, like a disagreement between environmental protection and resource extraction. One is about dehumanizing people, and the other is about re-humanizing them.

BLM might well have called themselves “Black Lives Matter, right? Right? Right….?” Either way the answer has been a deafening silence.

The Nazis gassed people in chambers. It took a while to die. People tried to claw their way out. Their fingernails broke off and stuck in the walls. Sometimes, the Nazis threw emaciated people into mass pits, before they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People.

People did this to people. Ordinary people did this. And not that long ago. And in a culture not far different from our own.

American soldiers took German civilians afterwards into the camps and confronted them. The American soldiers were horrified. Adult men weighing 70 pounds – walking skeletons. Mass graves. Murdered children. The Germans acted like they didn’t know. But it was worse than not knowing.

They just didn’t care.

10 Things Every Good Atheist Should Do

Catholics have their sacraments – among them baptism, the eucharist, penance and marriage. Muslims have the Five Pillars of Islam, including the Shahadah (profession of belief in Allah and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet), salat (daily prayers), zakāt (charitable giving), sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Hinduism recognizes four stages of life – student, household life, retirement, and renunciation – during which people would be expected to have different pursuits and contribute in different ways.

Most religions and philosophical systems have rules of behavior, rites of passage, goals and commandments. Taken together, these can be seen as rituals for a sense of shared community, for celebrating and acknowledging important changes in life, and as best practices for maintaining a healthy self, healthy family and healthy community.

Recently I’ve been wondering what a secular version of such a system might look like. Obviously the whole idea of rigidly subscribing to a set of life rules is out the window. But I think most people (atheists included) find that the “rules” of other religions resonate with them, because they acknowledge or address things that we all have in common.

The idea of giving back to the community certainly has appeal. This is captured nicely in the ubiquitous bumper sticker phrase “Practice random acts of kindness.”  Improving oneself is always good – “be all you can be.” Many people make New Year’s resolutions – to be better, or kinder, or to appreciate life more. These are all nice secular examples of rituals that can bind us and guide us in life.

Here are a few ideas I have had about acts that atheists/secularists/humanists/skeptics/whatevs can perform to achieve the goals of being better people and leading positive, purposeful lives:

  • Donate blood. With this one easy act, you can potentially save the life of another person. Donated blood has a limited shelf life, so donate as often as you can. (For more information, see American Red Cross.)  Likewise, you might consider registering to be a bone marrow donor. Some religious adherents have beliefs that prevent them from donating blood or marrow, so as atheists why not step up to address the need?
  • Be an organ donor. The idea is simple: if you are dead, you won’t be needing your organs anymore, but they could save another person’s life. All you have to do is notify your DMV that you want to be an organ donor. You should probably also notify your family that that is your wish, in case the hospital asks for their approval at the time of your death.
  • Have an Advance Directive. This is a document that makes clear what your wishes are for end-of-life care. For example, you may not wish to be kept alive on ventilation or have a feeding tube if you are in a persistent vegetative state (“brain dead”), or to have your heart restarted if it stops. If your mind is gone and not coming back, your family will be left in the position of having to make a decision about whether to let you live or let you go. That can be a very difficult decision for a family to make, and can even drive a terrible wedge between family members who disagree about how to handle the situation. Don’t leave your loved ones in this terrible situation – make your wishes clear by writing an advance directive.
  • Write a Will. A will is simply a document that makes it clear how you want your property and wealth to be handled once you have passed away. For most of us, the best reason to have a will is to save your family a lot of trouble. Many people have multiple marriages, and disagreements between children of a first marriage and the second spouse can lead to very hard feelings after a death in the family has already left people in a raw and vulnerable state. Don’t leave it for your family to fight over. Make your wishes clear. Related to this: you should document how you would like your remains to be handled (i.e. burial, cremation, etc.), so that your family is not left arguing about that either.
  • Volunteer. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities, but one with huge impact is to volunteer at your local public school. Public education is one of the key foundations of society, and is critical to a functioning democracy. If you want to make the world a better place, help educate the next generation. Educating is not just a job for teachers – it takes an entire community. Teachers love having volunteers, the children benefit from the extra attention, and as a bonus, you get to learn so much, too.
  • Help Other Parents. It is really, really, really hard being a parent. And trust me, sometimes society can be very parent-unfriendly. Parents need support, and a lot of it. This is doubly true (or quadrupely, really) if they are a single parent. On the really easy end of the scale, you can do things like not glaring at people when their children scream in public. It is impossible to control a child’s behavior – you can influence it, through routines, bribes, rewards and punishments, but you can never really control it, any more than one adult can fully control the behavior of another adult. And importantly, children are still learning. They don’t know all the rules, don’t have full control of their emotions, and aren’t as good at hiding what they’re feeling as adults are. So, be a mensch, and when you see a kid going crazy in public, help the parent out – make funny faces, or give them a little toy while they’re waiting in line at the airport. Say something nice to the parent, whose blood pressure is probably through the roof. If you see a toddler slip out of their parent’s hand and bolt for traffic, grab them by all means! If you see a teenager misbehaving, don’t be afraid to speak up (“Hey kid, knock it off.”) Parents can’t do it all by themselves, and expecting them to leads to all kinds of problems. So help a parent out, and be part of a better future for all of us.
  • Be a Good Parent. If you are a parent, do the best job of it you can. You don’t have to be perfect, but you should take it seriously. Loving your kids is a great start, and most parents have that down, but it’s not nearly enough. Take classes, seek advice from other parents, ask your kids how they think you’re doing. Treat it like a job – one that you want to do really, really good at. If you are good at it, the rewards are both immediate for you and your family, and ongoing for society.
  • Take Time (Be Balanced). Many religions emphasize this, and they are right to do so, because many of us would never take time for ourselves if we weren’t told to. Often we feel like we need permission to relax and reflect.  It’s good to work hard, and I’m not even going to put that in this list, because I think most people naturally want to work hard and be productive. Another way to capture the concept is with the word “balance”. Try to achieve balance in everything you do. It’s good to exercise, but too much of it will shorten your life. It’s good to rest, but too little exercise will shorten your life, too.  It’s important to work hard and get things done, but it is equally as important to reflect on what you have done or the effect it has had, or on what you plan to do and the goals you hope to achieve.
  • Share Your Stories. Tell people about your experiences. Write them down. You will be amazed at the value that your descendants and friends will find in such memoirs. Keep your knowledge alive in the people around you. When a person is gone, we all suffer the loss of their unique contribution and insights. Share whatever you can while you are here.
  • Make Something. It’s not enough to just live. I appreciate a good hedonist, I really do. But even hedonists strive to achieve something unique with their lives (“the world’s longest chocolate bath!” or whatever). Make something, do something, grow something, have children, write stories, write a song, teach someone, build a wall, a garden, a business, a nation… something! Ray Bradbury put it best in Fahrenheit 451:

“Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”

  • Appreciate the Beauty and Complexity of Life. I mean really look at it and feel it and think about it. Stand in awe of the immense complexity and beautiful patterns of the universe and be grateful that you have the capacity to appreciate it.
  • Be a Good Steward of the Environment. It should really go without saying that we should all take care of the environment that sustains us. So, just as your mother taught you to keep your room clean so that you would be able to find your stuff, you should strive to take care of the resources that we all need to survive.  The universe is vast, but this little spaceship we are all riding around on called planet Earth is small and has finite resources available to it. Likewise, it is composed of systems that are interdependent, and changing one variable often results in other changes that may be less desirable (collateral damage). Think about the impacts your actions have, and strive to minimize your ecological footprint.
  • Learn. Be a lifelong student. As children, we dedicate several hours a day to learning new things. There is no reason that adulthood should be any different. Be receptive to new information, new data, new perspectives. Occasionally challenge your own assumptions. Visit a section of the library you have never been to before. Learn a new language. Challenge yourself. Learning is an endeavor that is its own reward.

I know that wasn’t 10 things. Ah well – you get the idea. I could add more. It’s good to be humble, to give thanks, to appreciate people, to listen, and to be compassionate. But some of these things are just so obvious that they hardly need to be listed. You should have learned them in Kindergarten, right? And maybe the above list is obvious, too. What can I say – I like making lists.


What would Brian Boitano do?

Since I live in a Christian culture, there are unsurprisingly a lot of Christian cultural habits that are hard to shake. I don’t like to act like I’m a Christian when I’m not; it feels very dishonest, and I highly value honesty. However, there are times when I don’t want to make a scene either. How do I fit in while maintaining my integrity?

Some things are easy to deal with. I say “gesundheit” instead of “god bless you”. It’s a perfectly good German expression meaning “good health”, and it allows me to counter a sneeze without being all in-your-face about how I don’t believe in a god. Some people look at me funny when I say “gesundheit” but no one has ever been offended, so that’s good.

Other things are much more difficult, and I am often at a loss to know what to say. What should I say when a coworker has a family member in the hospital? I am sure not going to say “My prayers are with you.” But that is what at least half the folks in my office wrote on a recent card to a coworker. I was … without words. I had no handy platitude to fall back on.

A common thing to say in such situations is “let me know if you need anything,” but I kind of hate saying this, too. It puts the onus back on the person who is having trouble to actually ask you for help, and chances are they won’t ask, even if they really need it. They will assume you are just saying that to show that you care. If I am sincere in a desire to help, I will say “what can I do to help?” because that shows that I really mean it. If I don’t mean it, I won’t say it.

It is likewise very difficult to know what to say when someone has died. I am sure it is hard for everyone in such circumstances to know what to say. But the religious person can always fall back on “our prayers are with you.” That is also pretty presumptuous – what if the person you are saying this to is not religious? Now they are upset and offended.

I shouldn’t be so harsh. It’s hard for everyone in such situations to know what to do, or what to say. But a little sensitivity goes a long way. I would rather say nothing at all, than say something hurtful.

There are other situations that require a bit of thought, if you are not religious. Weddings and funerals come to mind. Our solution was to have a fake wedding (we called it a celebration) and then get married officially in the courthouse. If I had it to do again, I would skip the fake ceremony and just do the courthouse and maybe dinner with close family. I just felt so compelled to have a proper wedding, even though I didn’t want any part of it to be religious.

I have never had to arrange a funeral, but I can only imagine how hard this will be, especially with the added aspect of being an atheist. People have a certain expectation when it comes to funerals, no matter what the faith (or lack) of the deceased.

There are other land mines, of course. Holidays are a pain. If I told people that I wasn’t celebrating Christmas because I was a Muslim, they would be very understanding. But if I just say “I am not celebrating”, just ’cause, they really don’t get it. And many people assume that means I am free that day to join in with whatever they are doing. Easter is the worst example of this. I can’t think of a more useless holiday. It’s pretty easy to dump. But I’d better plan to be doing something else that day, or I’ll be roped into something I don’t want to do.

It’s awkward being a parent who isn’t religious. I want my children to be critical thinkers and not take a dogmatic approach to things, but children tend to be a bit black-and-white about everything at first. And while my children are learning to be a bit more subtle, I hope they don’t offend other children unnecessarily. I have already had to break up one religious argument between my daughter and a cousin. Sigh. They are six, they have more important things to worry about!

Anyway, I’m looking for some creative suggestions on how to navigate this Christian land without pissing off its other inhabitants.


I was looking for a site with resources for humanists, and instead stumbled across this site for Christians who want to fight humanism in schools:

Wow, now I really understand what the fight about education is really all about. I can’t decide if that site is funny or sad. I guess I’ll go with funny. It’s funny that these folks see the teaching of values absent a mythology as a bad thing. Is it bad because it proves you don’t need religion to be a good person? I guess I’ll have to read that long list of books to find out.

You know, I wasn’t thrilled with public education, but if it did anything to inoculate me against Christianity, I am eternally grateful. Thank you to all my public school teachers who showed me that you can transmit values without lies. Good on you.

Oh also, blatant error on that site: humanism is not a religion. It is really quite devious on the part of the site’s author to refer to Humanism as a religion, because then they can contrast it with Christianity. The real contrast is between a value system based on reason and open inquiry versus a system based on arbitrary dogma. It doesn’t sound so good when you put it like that.