By Richard Logan
How do we build a thriving secular humanist future? How do we compete with organized religions, especially fundamentalist ones, which offer their members compelling narratives, a sense of meaning, a welcoming community, and comfort in times of distress?
A panel of local humanist leaders explored those questions on Oct. 11 at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. They included Audrey Kingstrom, Humanists of Minnesota president; David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society; and Eva Cohen, Or Emet activist and rabbinic candidate. Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, moderated.
The panel set out some of the challenges facing humanist movements:
- How do we make the stories about who we are into more compelling narratives? Religions have many stories about their respective origins. Christians learn the stories of poor and humble Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus for “all of us,” and the promise of an everlasting paradise if we accept Jesus. Islam offers the story of the rise and triumph of the Prophet Muhammad and the promise of an afterlife. Observant Jews have the powerful stories of Abraham and Isaac; Solomon and David; and Moses, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments. Are we putting the most charismatic elements we can into the stories of our organizations?
- How do we offer meaning that competes with the “ultimate” meaning offered by religions? Organized religions offer meaning, or perhaps at least a sense of meaningfulness from belonging. Of course, this comes from taking — on faith — the “truth” that a religion offers. We offer truth, and truth-seeking, using the tools of evidence and reason. But that often loses out to religion’s offered meaning (“God has a purpose for you”), which is as “ultimate” as it gets in the face of the anxieties and uncertainties of life. In other words, how do we make knowledge compete with faith?
- How do we make our communities as strong as possible? Organized religions provide community and belonging. Evangelicals, for example, often have megachurches that are full-service institutions with child care, recreation facilities, ESL classes, counseling, support groups, etc. They fill many of their parishioners’ needs, and their facilities are often major gathering places for members a few times a week. Religions also offer deep comfort in the face of anxieties like the fear of death, feelings of meaninglessness, uncertainty about identity, loneliness, sickness, loss, change. They do this partly through beautiful rituals that offer comfort, reassurance, and meaning. They often also have very beautiful sanctuaries. Do we take a lead from their success in making their community more concretely “real”?
- How do we make truth-seeking using the tools of Science and Reason as gripping to people as the “Ultimate Truth” offered by religions? Humanist movements accept that we live in a modern world that is full of change and uncertainty. But we have the powerful tools of Science and Reason, which we use to engage in the Quest. Should we do more to present it as the “adventure of the Quest”? Are we a belief system for the brave?
- What steps do we take together to build a broad humanist coalition of reason to have more influence on society, especially at a time when just what we stand for has never been more important? Panelists agreed that local humanist organizations should continue to collaborate on this question. Audrey Kingstrom, David Breeden, and representatives of humanistic Judaism and other groups will meet to plan action steps.
Richard Logan is president of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and a member of Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.