A Primer for the Shy Humanist

By Harlan Garbell

The average Humanists of Minnesota member may not know that our board members have a job description. Yep, that’s true. The formal title: “Board Responsibilities and Expectations.” Along with our bylaws, this document is clinically proven to help you fall asleep faster at night. (Works for me!) Although we are not explicitly required to proselytize, we are required to appropriately represent the organization and its values. Personally, however, I am always looking to proactively get our message out.

Taking on this type of responsibility presents a dilemma for me as I am, unfortunately, a card-carrying introvert–with the test results to prove it. I am the last person in the world you would want selling raffle tickets for a charitable event. You would be better served asking “Boo” Radley. Door knocking for your favorite candidate? Forget it. Even as a kid I would be hesitant to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. The people behind those front doors could be scary, even if they did have candy.

 “Boo” Radley from the film “To Kill a Mockingbird”

“Boo” Radley from the film “To Kill a Mockingbird”


So if you are shy, or an introvert like me, how do you overcome your anxieties and talk to people about the benefits of humanism?  Well, you’ve come to the right place. Let me share my experiences. Consider this a sort of road map, or primer, for similarly afflicted members when discussing humanism with the uninitiated. Please note that these are personal guidelines and do not represent any official position of our organization.

Occasionally, I run into someone (perhaps at a Meetup) who is curious about humanism but may be concerned, let’s say, that we are some sort of cult. Hmm, think about that. Because I am much more cynical than most people (OK, 99.9 percent more cynical than most people), my wheels start turning. Has this person not raised similar concerns about another organization in town that worships someone who reportedly walked on water and was resurrected from the grave? If that isn’t “cultish” enough, many of these followers also believe that the object of their deification was born to a mother who practiced birth control the old-fashioned way. Go figure. But, as a board member, my first thought is that it’s time for me to get to work. (As Hyman Roth famously said in “The “Godfather,” “This is the business we have chosen.”)

The first order of business is trying to convince this person that we don’t do strange, cultish things. For example, I could say I have never seen anyone from our hospitality team offer someone at a chapter meeting any pastry or mocktail under the pretext that they are consuming the body and blood of Richard Dawkins. “That’s cool,” he or she might say in response, “but I have a 7-year-old at home and I’m concerned that this child not be exposed to people or ideas that could lead to immorality, or even worse, the possibility of a lower SAT score.”

In this scenario, I might quickly mull over the record of many Catholic priests sexually exploiting young children over the centuries and figure I’ll hit this one out of the park. But actually, this is the wrong approach.

Contrary to the fictitious exchange above, when confronted with these situations in real time, I strongly recommend not engaging your interlocutor from a place of cynicism or self-righteousness. Rather, try to be as positive and transparent as possible about our humanist values. If anything, I would suggest that we are the anti-cult and have very little (usually zero) tolerance for unethical or improper conduct. No need to make invidious comparisons with other organizations, notwithstanding what your private thoughts may be.

Remember, take a deep breath and keep it simple. Welcome inquiries regarding the organization and try to respond to any legitimate concern in a respectful manner. Be forthcoming and honest about our humanist values to the best of your knowledge. There is always help if you need it, as we will see below.

I suggest  providing our interlocutor with a short description of what humanism actually stands for. In other words—drum roll—it’s time for a Humanists of Minnesota  “elevator speech.” Many readers of this column are, no doubt, familiar with this litany. In our universe, science-based facts and critical thinking always trump supernatural beliefs and “fake news.” We are big on ethics and believe the planet Earth should be preserved for all of us and not, for example, the benefit of Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Halliburton.

Obviously, there are variations on this theme you could share at this point. Get them from our website or the literature we routinely make available. Create a variation of your own elevator speech that you feel comfortable delivering. My own mantra lately is that humanists are “secular, ethical, and progressive” in the way we view the world. This works as my personal framework of general principles from which to advocate specific values, for example separation of church and state, respecting the dignity of all people, striving for social justice, and cultivating lives that matter using reason and science.

I would also advise against getting into the philosophical (or theological) “weeds” with someone to convince them of humanism’s benefits. Even if you are correct, avoid the appearance of being argumentative. This can be counterproductive to your goal which, in my opinion, is simply to spark an interest or accelerate the curiosity of the other person. It also doesn’t hurt advising people (perhaps contrary to our image) that we are essentially just folks who like to have fun doing things together—especially activities that advance the causes that are important to us.

There you have it my shy humanist friends. It’s not particularly hard and you don’t need to venture far out of your comfort zone. Always strive to be clear, concise, and forthright. The organization has ample resources for people to learn more details regarding what humanism is about. You don’t have to be an expert. Refer people to these resources. You can also invite them to explore our Meetup site, which lists numerous events on a monthly basis. We occasionally even offer a course on the “Tenets of Humanism” which presents in more detail many of the themes discussed here. Ask folks to drop in. Don’t be shy.

Harlan Garbell is vice president of Humanists of Minnesota.



    • Christine Retkwa on December 5, 2018 at 1:07 pm
    • Reply

    Great article and suggestions, Harlan! I think I will adopt your “secular, ethical, and progressive” description in addition to the "naturally curious, compassionate and rational " one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.