February 2023: Chat with Kazi Ahmed Habib, HMN Scholarship Winner (With Photos)

We were pleased to welcome Kazi Ahmed Habib, winner of HumanistsMN’s first Paul Heffron Scholarship for Secular Students, to our February Community Gathering. Kazi, a Muslim born in Bangladesh, told us about his journey to atheism and position as head of the Mavericks Alliance for Secular Students (MASS) at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He shook hands with Paul Heffron, our founding member, after whom the scholarship is named.  

Several other MASS students attended the event. After the discussion, participants headed across the street from the meeting venue, the Frogtown Community Center, to pose with a new HMN billboard, one of two promoting separation of religion and government that will be up through mid-May.

Photos by Benjamin Seide

Click on photos to expand.

Avoiding Meat: Just a Short Journey from Humanism

By Ellie Haylund

It is no surprise to me that many humanists are vegetarians. Preserving the lives of animals feels like a natural byproduct of a worldview that values compassion and ethics. 

Even outside of humanism, avoiding meat is becoming increasingly common. According to studies done by the sustainable lifestyle app abillion, “In the past two years, we’ve…seen the growing prominence of flexitarians, pescatarians and omnivores in the plant-based market. These consumer groups are called reducetarians. In simple terms, they are people who actively reduce their intake of meat and animal-based products, but do not completely give up meat or dairy.”

It is particularly common in younger generations. “A 2017 report showed that 80% of US Millennials eat meat alternatives, compared to 50% of non-Millennials,” abillion reports. “This corroborates with a 2018 survey which revealed that 7.5% of American Millennials and Gen-Z consumers have given up meat, triple that of respondents over the age of 50.” 

The progressive nature of these statistics is reminiscent of the rise in the religiously unaffiliated. While I am not implying a correlation, it conjures a bigger picture of younger generations embracing humanistic values, whether intentionally or not.

Humanism’s emphasis on compassion and a healthy planet both have a tangential connection to animal welfare. But an herbivorous diet is not inherent in the humanist lifestyle — it is just how one might interpret our tenets. Another philosophy more directly addresses it: sentientism. Also known as sentiocentrism, this worldview concerns itself with all sentient beings — both humans and animals.

Sentientism and humanism have a lot in common, including the importance of science and reason, along with rejection of the supernatural. Sentientism strays from humanism in that it essentially professes an obligation to protect animals by way of not killing nor consuming them. 

I was a pescetarian throughout high school. I chose to eat fish and seafood, avoiding all other meat. My primary motivation was moral and ethical. But I was still growing up and all it took to abandon the practice was a spring break cruise, 24-hour room service, and a burger. Oops!

Despite introducing meat back into my diet by the time I got to college, I pledged that I would one day return to pescetarianism — or ideally go full vegetarian. But this was all too easy to put off. For years. It sometimes felt hard to reconcile my love of and compassion for animals while continuing to eat them. 

Over time, I began to cut back on my meat consumption. I ate a lot of plant-based alternatives anyway, so it was not too challenging to prepare meat-free meals at home. But it wasn’t clear what it was going to take to fully abandon meat.

Last fall, I visited a friend in Vermont. She has a sanctuary farm with a small crew of the sweetest animals. Sheep, a goat, ducks galore, pigs with names like Sven, Mr. Duck, Rosie, and Potato. Most of them came from hoarding situations. We spent some time at another, larger sanctuary where I met at least 100 more sheep and a massive, beautiful cow. My friend is a vegetarian and we spent the weekend eating plant-based food and taking care of her precious brood of creatures.

Upon my return to Minnesota, I ruminated on the matter. It seemed like the obvious time to break up with carnivorism. So I jumped in and haven’t looked back. It feels so natural to live my values in this way and to better practice my interpretation of humanism. The demand for plant-based options has made it easy—restaurants almost always offer several compelling  vegetarian or vegan dishes.

 I would never shame a meat-eater — humanist or not. But for anyone who has trouble reconciling their values and their diet, I encourage you to seek out inspiration. A catalyst to make a change. Empathy and morality are second nature to us as humanists. It’s a short journey from supporting human flourishing to protecting the dear animals with whom we share our planet.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

Let’s Increase Access to Secular Recovery Programs

By Steven Kind

Anyone who faces the task of confronting an addiction will find barriers. These barriers can be so daunting that a person who needs help often cannot see getting beyond them — and may turn their backs on pursuing the idea any further.

“What about the friends I might lose?” “Will I have to go into a treatment program?” “What will happen to my job if I need to take time off?” “What will my family, friends, or other loved ones think of me?” And of course, “Can I even do this?” These are common questions that often lead the person suffering from addictive behaviors to throw in the towel before they even dip their toe into the waters of recovery.

For many, as it was for me, the obstacle is much deeper. I had been through treatment four times throughout my life with little success. The only options available to me were 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. These programs, starting with step one, tell you that you are powerless and must rely on God (or as they have come to define it, a higher power) to remove your addiction. Even for the faithful, the idea that they are powerless can be a nonstarter. As an atheist, the prospect of entering another 12-step program after several failed attempts seemed hopeless. Why even try?

That despair made finding an alternative paramount to any successful run at sobriety. I was facing sentencing for my second DUI in less than two years and my lawyer suggested I enter yet another round of treatment. I knew where this would lead. Another failed attempt, and the guilt and shame that go with it.

With few options before me, I went to a local outpatient treatment facility and put all my cards on the table. I explained that I was not religious and that I had done the 12-step dance with no success in the past. The counselor asked if I had heard of SMART Recovery. I hadn’t. She didn’t know anything about SMART Recovery other than that it was an alternative to AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous). I checked it out.

That was a turning point in my life. Had that counselor not made me aware of an alternative, I am convinced I would have suffered another round of humiliation at the feet of my addiction. With almost five years of sobriety, and now working in the field to help others with addictive behaviors, I have heard countless similar stories. For many, 12-step programs are mandated through the court systems, probation, parole, and organ transplant qualification programs. Mandated attendance in a program filled with religious dogma is both wrong and unconstitutional.

While 12-step programs can be helpful to those who agree with its tenets, what about the rest of the population? When it comes to religion, one cannot just “Fake it till you make it.” I know. I’ve tried.

Since it began in 1935, AA has helped many on their paths to recovery. But in the decades since its inception, incredible advances have been made in the field of addiction recovery. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy,  Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Medication Assisted Treatment are just a few options available for those seeking a life beyond addiction. So why are so many still pushed into a program that may be of little or no use to them? There are many factors at play.

First, there is a lack of awareness about available alternatives. Ted Perkins, author of the book Addicted in Film, takes the reader through decades of motion pictures about addiction. When these stories show someone going to get help, they inevitably attend 12-step meetings. Television, movies, and books rarely show any alternative to AA or NA.

The judicial system strongly pushes 12-step programs for defendants with addictions. Typically, when a sentence is handed down or the mandates through probation are discussed, AA or NA are the only options offered. When courts require assessments of defendants, the suggestions that come back often involve 12-step treatment or meetings,  and usually become a part of the requirement for successful completion of the sentence imposed.

This is an area that has seen some recent movement. The Nonreligious Recovery Options bill was introduced last year in New York. It aimed to ensure that when defendants were ordered into addiction recovery programs, they were offered secular options. The bill had momentum and made its way through the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul. She said she considered the bill to be “unnecessary” and added that it “imposes an overly rigid burden on courts and judges.” The burden was in essence shifted to the person being sentenced.

The American Humanist Association and other secular groups condemned the veto. For many, whether it’s a good fit or not, all they know is AA. When options are limited, it can make the daunting task of finding the right pathway to sobriety even more difficult. Often this leaves people on the hamster wheel of relapse, reoffending, and ending up in front of another judge.

Secular advocates are hoping to get the Minnesota Legislature to consider a bill similar to the one vetoed in New York. HumanistsMN, American Atheists, Secular Strategies, and SMART Recovery are working to draft legislation that could make a difference in the lives of Minnesotans who would otherwise not be able to choose their own path. We hope the new Secular Government Caucus will take an interest in this issue. Once it is introduced, it will be up to all of us to sound the rallying cry for this important piece of legislation.

Availability of secular recovery programs is slowly growing but it’s a difficult process. Funding is often hard to come by. Without government money, nonprofit organizations are limited to private donations and grassroots promotion.

If we don’t remove barriers to sobriety, many will never make the commitment nor find the resources to adequately battle their addiction. Finding a place where like-minded people support each other is a crucial part of the pathway to recovery. 

Without nonreligious options, a significant number of people will find themselves in the same place they began. Alone. Afraid. Addicted.

HMN Member Steven Kind is part of the SMART Recovery National Support Team, a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist, and author of Inspirational Dissatisfaction.

HMN’s Audrey Kingstrom Gives Secular Invocation at Legislature

Audrey Kingstrom, HMN program coordinator and a humanist celebrant, gave a secular invocation at the beginning of a House legislative session in February.  The sessions normally open with a prayer, so this was a wonderful opportunity to exercise the separation of religion and government.

Thanks to State Rep. Mike Freiberg, co-chair of the Legislature’s new Secular Government Caucus, for setting it up!

Watch a video of the invocation here:

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January 2023: The Fight Against Christian Nationalism

Our January Community Gathering focused on the fight against Christian nationalism in Minnesota. Sen. John Marty and Rep. Mike Freiberg discussed their work as co-chairs of the Legislature’s new Secular Government Caucus. Matt Lewellyn-Otten of OutFront Minnesota, an LGBTQ rights group, described the goals of the new Rights, Faith, and Democracy Coalition,  which aims to drive messaging against the codification of Christianity into law.

See a video of their presentations below, starting at 18:08.



Free Speech Cases Highlight Dangers of Catering to Religious Sensitivities

By John Walker

Given its location and relevance, you’ve probably heard of the January debacle at Hamline University. You probably haven’t heard as much about the album poster censored across the pond, but we’ll tackle that after the rundown of this first case.

For those unfamiliar with why Hamline is in the news, or interested in reviewing the timeline with more detail, here’s a  summary of what happened:

Back in September, adjunct Art History Professor Erika López Prater disseminated an 11-page syllabus warning students that she would show historical art depicting religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, and offering to work with students should they feel uncomfortable viewing these images. Note that the majority of mainstream Muslims consider viewing images of Muhammad to be sacrilegious.

On Oct. 6, the paintings of the Prophet Muhammad were shown in an online class following additional warnings. At least one student still viewed the images, took significant issue with them, and discussed the situation with the professor after the class. Emails, escalations, and apologies began.

On Nov. 7, the school sent an email to the student body condemning the incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” following internal faculty discussions. (Side note: most of my info on this matter comes from the reporting of the student newspaper The Oracle, which I strongly recommend reading due to its direct contact with many of the people involved.)

Some time leading up to the end of the semester, the professor was informed that her services were no longer needed (i.e., her contract would not be renewed) despite previous conversations with her department head suggesting that she was to continue teaching.

On Jan. 8, the news broke to a national audience via a New York Times interview with Prater, followed by a mostly negative response. On the 11th, the president of Hamline released a defensive statement, triggering another wave of condemnation save for a supportive response from CAIR-MN, Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which was notably contradicted afterwards in a statement by the national CAIR).

In the days since, the faculty of the university voted overwhelmingly to request the president to step down and the school announced its intention to host conversations around the intersection of academic freedom, student care, and religion. Prater also announced her intention to sue the school.

This event could spawn dozens of conversations on a wide range of subjects, both regarding the incident itself and the ensuing storm in the media. 

Why did so many press outlets lead with reports that the professor was “fired” as if to imply that the professor displayed the image and then was booted out the door the same day? Why do so many conservative outlets depict this as just another example of the absurdities of liberal campus culture when nearly every relevant voice has spoken out against the University’s action? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about the role of hypocrisy, outrage, and oversimplification in journalism and politics?

Why did a university representative call Prater’s actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” when, by nearly all other accounts, the warnings leading up to the event were perfectly considerate, clear, and professionally handled? What happens when the offended group is the only source for feedback, blinding those involved to a broader and more neutral perspective? Can genuine offense be both sincerely acknowledged and tactfully dismissed?

Where might society evolve if mere offense sways us too far toward self-imposed censorship? What is left when, as Ray Bradbury put it, everyone starts “running about with lit matches,” feeling they have “the will, the right, and the duty to douse the kerosene and light the fuse”? Can we respect religious individuals while drawing the line at giving their religion direct sway over the actions of others?

The phrasing of these questions alone likely hint at where I stand, and where, I assume, many humanists stand as well. So I will not belabor you with any more opinions before shedding light on the next case which I find, if not as engaging, perhaps more concerning.

Across the pond, HumanistsUK became a prominent voice speaking out against the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when the ASA announced that it had banned a poster advertising 30-year-old former-pop-star-turned-rocker Demi Lovato’s “Holy Fvck” album. The poster in question featured the provocative title alongside an image of Lovato in bondage lying on a dingy, cross-shaped mattress.

The reasons for removing the posters essentially amounted to “it alludes to a curse word which children might see” and “it connects sexuality to the crucifix in a way likely to offend Christians.” Indeed, I’d be clutching my pearls if I had any!

It’s worth noting that the UK has no equivalent of the First Amendment, and the ASA is not a government body. Regardless, the concern here is that this agency has effectively universal control over advertising space in the UK, and it based its decision in this case on four, yes F-O-U-R complaints, presumably from, almost by definition, four of the most easily-offended individuals in the country. And this was after the record company that bought the advertising space got explicit approval from the agency to run the ads, which is not required.

As HumanistsUK writes in a post on the matter, it’s possible to imagine that the poster may have ended up censored due to the allusion to the curse word on its own. As much as some of us might roll our eyes at the idea that children must be protected from such words, it’s not a battle many care to fight, especially to the extent that these sorts of rulings tone down undesirably extreme or “merely” shocking language in advertisements. Rather, the deplorable part is that this is one in a series of many rulings in the last couple of decades which explicitly refer to the offense likely to be caused to Christians. In effect, it amounts to a blasphemy ban, something most Western nations have long since left behind.

Together, the Hamline and Lovato cases demonstrate flip sides of the same coin; an understandable if misapplied desire to make a safe space for a traditionally marginalized group on one hand, and a government-adjacent entity protecting a traditionally powerful group from “serious offense” on the other. In both cases, the apparently fragile emotions of a small number of religious individuals are given power, either from the bottom up or the top down, to regulate, censor, or retaliate against the fair and justifiable actions of secular individuals in shared spaces despite their proactive diligence. 

As we look forward, however, it’s not hard to find some solace. The backlash against the Hamline administration’s actions was swift, severe, and nearly unanimous, and the undue privilege given to Christians seems set to run out in the UK as demographics continue to shift toward a more secular society.

But in neither case should we take our position for granted. We must continue to be eloquent, respectful, yet forceful in our defense of our secular ideals, and we cannot assume that the old religious guard will fade quietly into the night.

John Walker is a member of the HumanistsMN Board.

A Time of Momentum for HMN and Secularism

By Ellie Haylund

Happy New Year!

I’d like to enthusiastically thank you all — dues-paying members, event goers, volunteers, generous donors, the Board, committee chairs and participants, fellow humanists, and newsletter readers. You not only help to make our organization thrive, but each play an important role in raising awareness about spreading our values into the community and the world.

I cannot wait for 2023. We are seeing unprecedented momentum in HumanistsMN and in secularism overall. We recently helped establish the new Secular Government Caucus at the Minnesota Legislature, which means big things for separation of religion and government. With the legislative session beginning, you will be seeing HMN billboards advocating for secular government and against Christian nationalism as we work to support the caucus. 

We are deeply grateful to those who donated to pay for a third month of our two billboards, allowing us to share our message through the session, including during our spring National Day of Reason event (May 3 — Save the Date!). More on that to come! 

In other priorities, our Humanists in Action team has created a robust community-service program. Now the Board is considering additional ways to use our money and talent to help groups who serve those in need.

We awarded our first Paul Heffron Scholarship for Secular Students over the summer and we are thrilled that the recipient Kazi Ahmed Habib, president of Mavericks Alliance of Secular Students at Minnesota State University, Mankato will speak at our Community Gathering in February.

In the face of Christian nationalism, loss of reproductive rights, and political turmoil, humanism continues to be an ever-important champion for equality and equity. Despite the increased visibility of bigotry and hatred, statistics do not lie. More and more people are disaffiliating from religion but continue to embrace goodness, morality, and compassion. 

We are not just a home for those people; we are an advocate for all, whether they share our beliefs or not. This is the essence of humanism and I’m proud of our organization and all of you who support our mission. We are at record-high membership of almost 300 members and have strong finances thanks to donors over the years. This enables us to grow and broaden our impact. 

As we look forward, our Board is prioritizing long-term strategic planning. We also hope to strengthen our work to attract new members and nurture our existing ones. We have talented and dedicated leaders in our organization; our extensive programming is a testament to this. We want to harness those skills and commitment to think big. It’s all about creativity, optimism, and tenacity.

We always appreciate ideas and feedback — if you ever have a proposal or suggestion, please reach out to me at president@humanistsmn.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

A Tribute to Dale Heffron

By Paul Heffron

Dale Heffron, a longtime HumanistsMN member, died on Dec. 14. Following is a tribute by his brother, HMN Founding Member Paul Heffron.

Dale Heffron was my only brother, my big brother by three years. He was my best friend and my model. He had my back. We were often together, although we each had our group of friends by age group. Increasingly he included me in his circle.

Dale got us into the Catholic Youth Center in Minneapolis, where we took boxing lessons and had bouts in a real ring. Professional boxing was big back then, the time of Joe Lewis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, and others. Fights were broadcast on the radio. When both Dad and Mom were away, we would turn the middle room into a boxing ring, get into our boxing shorts, and turn on the radio to frame our match. At the end of each ring, we’d return to our corners and take our sponges from the water buckets and wipe away the imaginary sweat. It was all Dale’s idea. He never took advantage of his longer arms and greater strength. He’d make it a good match, but always stringing me along. He knew when to stop and return everything to normal before Mom got home.

He got me into the Elliot Park Neighborhood House and to its summer camp for four years. He got me into football youth leagues. He organized a neighborhood baseball league modeled on the All Star Baseball Game. Each player was a major league team. It was quite elaborate, a whole season. He was the St. Louis Cardinals. I was the Philadelphia Phillies. Only he could organize all the neighborhood boys into such a scheme.

When we moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Dale continued to include me with his older friends. After he graduated and went to the University of Minnesota and became a manager for the varsity basketball team, he gave me his tickets to all the home games. That really turned me on to basketball.

Dale had a group of older friends who found a church that had a gym where we could play half-court basketball. That led to lots of participation in that church, Olivet Congregational. The minister, “Pop,” was like a social worker. Two of our Minneapolis friends became involved too at Dale’s instigation. Dale became a member of the Y Camp St. Croix staff. He recruited those two friends and others in our Olivet group, including me. We all benefited greatly from our experience on the camp staff, all because of Dale and his record-setting recruiting efforts.

Much later when Dale was in the Army, he read the books of Bertrand Russell and other rationalist agnostics and would send me handwritten copies of many paragraphs. Those played a role in my theological quest and how it ended. Russell influenced not only Dale’s views on religion but also on the military and war.

The commander at the training camp where he was stationed used Dale’s social work and organizing skills and put him in charge of recreation, building and running a league. Under Russell’s influence, Dale became a conscientious objector. He told his commander about it, and the commander said that was okay, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” With more reading and thinking, Dale told his commander he was now a total objector, opposed to the military. His commander said, that’s okay, “Just keep running the recreation program; it’s needed for conditioning and morale, you’re doing a great job.”

When Dale’s tour was up, he—the total objector—was given an “honorable discharge” for his good work and contribution to military morale. I was impressed by this and did my PhD thesis on American antimilitarism.

Back when I was the pastor of a church in Ohio, Dale visited us twice and took us to the national volleyball tournament. He was into volleyball and wanted to expose me to the sport. When we moved back to Minnesota, he encouraged me to learn to play volleyball and got me on his masters team. We played in the masters division of the national tournament and I continued playing under Dale’s tutelage for many years.

I became desperate when there were no prospects for teaching in my field. I had a good-paying job in college administration while doing my graduate work and was able to build up our savings. In my despair I put that into investments in the worst way at the worst time. Dale found out about that and arranged for us to do this investing together. This relieved the desperation but didn’t make up for all the losses, just made the best of a bad situation.

I was then able to launch a new career as band leader and keyboard player with my father on trombone and my son on drums and a friend on sax and clarinet. We had a big band sound, four-way vocal harmony, and arrangements by my father, who was in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, partly for doing arrangements for Lawrence Welk and starring on trombone. Dale was among our biggest fans. [Editor’s note: many of us have enjoyed Paul’s performances at HumanistsMN events as part of the Freethought Band.]

He encouraged me in my effort for HumanistsMN as editor of the newsletter and as a writer of articles. He joined the organization and at meetings he, the social worker, would scout out the newcomers and talk with them and make them feel welcome. I learned to do that from him.

I close with the lyrics of “My Buddy,” written by Gus Kahn and adapted by me.

Nights are long since you went away.
I think about you all through the day.
My Buddy, my Buddy,
Your brother misses you.

Miss your voice, the clasp of your hand.
Just long to know that you’d understand. 
My Buddy, my Buddy,
Your brother misses you.


November 2022: The Elections Are Over — Now What?

Two political experts spoke at our November Community Gathering about the results of the midterm elections.

Christopher Chapp, associate professor of political science at St. Olaf College, dissected the Congressional elections, including an exit poll that he supervised of voters in the Minnesota race between Democrat Angie Craig and Republic Tyler Kirstner.Torey Van Oot, a journalist at Axios Twin Cities, discussed the surprising results of the Minnesota elections, which saw Democrats win all state offices and flip the Senate.

See a video of the presentations below. They start at 20’37”.

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What I Want for Christmas

By Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll, known as “The Great Agnostic,” was a prominent lawyer and 19th century orator who drew huge crowds to hear his lively denunciations of religion. He published this in The Arena literary magazine in 1897. We’ve gotten rid of (or at least weakened) most kings and emperors but still have some work to do on Ingersoll’s other wishes!

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their lands back to the people.

I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God — is not infallible — but is just an ordinary Italian.

I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels.

I would have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen, — to men who long to make their country great and free, — to men who care more for public good than private gain — men who long to be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both abolished.

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and ennobles.

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect peace.

I would like to see the whole world free — free from injustice — free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.

[Editor’s note: Ingersoll was a proponent of women’s rights, but uses some language that stereotypes or excludes women. We’re sure that if he were writing today, he would have referred to “people” instead of “men” and not distinguished between “manly” and “womanly.” Freethinkers are always evolving!]

A Humanist’s Take on ‘The Meaning of Life’

By Harlan Garbell

A seeker has learned that the wisest guru in all of India lives atop India’s highest mountain. It’s incredibly steep, and after many travails and hardships, including bitter cold and hunger, the seeker finally reaches the top. And there’s the guru, sitting cross-legged in front of his cave. 

Oh, wise guru, the seeker says, I have come to ask you what the meaning of life is. Ah, yes, the meaning of life, the guru says. The meaning of life is a teacup. A teacup? I came all the way up here to find the meaning of life and you tell me it’s a teacup? The guru shrugs, it isn’t?


My wife and I once belonged to a book club that focused on books about religion. Every month we would meet in a member’s house to discuss a recommended book about a different major religion (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.). Although we all appreciated getting together socially, we realized that after meeting for several years the group kept going over the same territory over and over again. Frankly, the discussions were getting pretty stale. We all knew that the club had just about run its course.

In an effort to revive interest in the club, one member suggested that everyone meet at a nice restaurant to discuss — I’m not making this up — the “meaning of life.” Although Glenna and I intended to go to this dinner, something came up at the last minute that sidetracked us. Now for all I know this could have been my single best opportunity to find the answer to this eternal mystery. (Could it be that the meaning of life is that life isn’t fair?)

Actually, to be candid, I have never really agonized over the lack of a satisfying answer to this question, notwithstanding the above-mentioned close encounter.  I was so busy dealing with my own “stuff” over the years that I didn’t have much time or energy left over to try untangling the fate of our species — seems like a big job. Perhaps now that I’m in the homestretch of my earthly tenure I can devote a little more time to this enduring question. 

Many biologists and other scientists will passionately argue that the only “meaning” of life is that humans (and all living organisms for that matter) survive for the sole purpose of reproducing themselves. Evolution, they say, is essentially a process where organisms “naturally select” for variations in populations conducive to survival and reproduction. And, of course, these variations must be heritable so that they can be passed on to descendants. Theoretically, these variations could be almost anything. For example, a long neck or an additional digit in a hand-like appendage. 

However, because of our highly evolved brains, humans have developed capacities that far exceed organisms whose nervous systems are much less developed. Could it be that it is only because humans are so clever that they have surmised that there must be a more complex, mysterious reality to life? One that will provide meaning to their many struggles and hardships? A reality that would explain the apparent chaos and randomness that often surrounds us, sometimes unforgiving and cruel? Or are we only deluding ourselves?

Of course, evidence exists that humans have always used their evolved intelligence to try to make sense of the environment they inhabited, and their place in it. Some of it isn’t really that hard to find — for example, Stonehenge, or Egypt’s pyramids. But archaeologically, these were relatively recent human expressions of attempts to deal with existential mysteries. Earlier clues of humans’ curiosity about their place in the cosmos could be found in the caves of Europe and the fire pits of Africa.

The Axial Age

Yes, this quest for meaning has been enduring, but it has not been necessarily linear, expressing itself in fits and starts. For example, there was a veritable explosion of philosophical and religious expression from 500 to 300 BCE over distinct and widespread regions of the world. Historians sometimes refer to this as the “Axial Age” because of its transformative importance in humanity’s philosophical or religious development. This was a period when the civilized world experienced a giant step forward in a more rigorous philosophical and ethical examination of life that still reverberates to the present day. In that span, the world saw the development of philosophical rationalism in Greece, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, and Confucianism and Daoism in China. 

Even though these philosophical/ethical traditions developed independently of each other, they shared striking similarities, according to the eminent historian of religion Karen Armstrong. A key similarity, she says, was the emphasis on compassion, self control, and justice in the advancement of human affairs, as opposed to the moral limitations of violence and war. And, interestingly, the great sages of the Axial Age — Socrates, Buddha, and Confucius — did not create this compassionate ethos in a halcyon era of peace and tranquility. Violence and warfare were part of the common fabric of their lives. (Socrates, in fact, fought in three separate campaigns during the Peloponnesian War.)

So a plausible argument could be made that violence and warfare may actually have been the catalyst that inspired the great philosophical, religious, and ethical impulses of the Axial Age. It’s as if these great thinkers used their insight, intelligence, and experience to teach us that there must be a better way for humans to exist, or else. That unless humans take a different path we are doomed to enslave and kill each other in an endless loop of violence and injustice. 

Fast forward to the present day and one wonders if the great teachings of that era, as well as later Christian and Islamic teachings, have really made a difference in reducing violence and injustice in human affairs. Perhaps. Some historians (and others) have argued that relatively speaking, the level of violence and war is much less today than in the past and that we humans are now generally safer. Statistically, they may be correct, but I have lingering doubts.

Are We Existentially Safer Today?

With the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the margin of error for the safety of our species on this planet is considerably less today. For example, less than 100 years ago, millions of Ukrainians were starved into submission through terror perpetrated by a Soviet Bolshevik regime. However, this grave injustice did not pose an existential threat to other Europeans, or Americans, at the time. Now, nearly a century later, as the spiritual descendants of that regime perpetrate another great wave of terror on Ukrainians, is this still true? Are we existentially safer? Not if you have been following the news lately.

Evolution in many ways is an exercise in challenge and response. A species’ survival depends on its ability to adapt to the threats in the environment. But for the human species, what if existential threats arise not only from the outside environment but also from our own unmitigated self-destructive impulses? And what if those impulses are now constantly exposed to the accelerants of misinformation, myths, and outright lies? 

The great philosophers of the Axial Age used logic and reason to teach their followers that leading ethical lives promotes justice and compassion, which are essential elements for peace and harmony in human affairs. Implicit in these instructions was the need for individuals to control their own internal passions that, left unmitigated, could lead to violence, injustice, and war. The eastern philosophers of this era further emphasized that the attainment of these virtues needed to be sharpened through continual practice. (Indeed, if humans were genetically endowed inherently with the traits of compassion and justice, would there ever have been concentration camps, animal slaughterhouses, or a ravaged Earth?)

Finding Meaning ‘In’ Life

Which brings me to the subject of this article. As the parable above so wisely implies, climbing a mountain to seek out a spiritual guru in search of the meaning of life is likely to lead to disappointment. Assuming there even is a meaning of life, it is unlikely any individual, including gurus, can solve this mystery for you. 

However, great thinkers of the past, including those of the Axial Age, have laid plenty of bread crumbs for us to follow on how to find more meaning in life. And modern day humanists have carried on this tradition by emphasizing that a more meaningful life can be had if you deepen your own commitment to justice and compassion for other humans, other species, and the Earth itself. 

So, my friends, save yourselves a trip up that mountain. Not only is there no right answer to the question of what the meaning of life is, it’s not even the right question.

October 2022 Community Gathering: The Roberts Supreme Court

Timothy Johnson, professor of law and political science at the University of Minnesota, discussed the partisan nature of the current U.S. Supreme Court, the most conservative in history, at our October Community Gathering. Under the leadership of John Roberts, the court has overturned precedents —- for example, the Roe v. Wade ruling granting a constitutional right to abortion — in a way that has upended legal tradition.

See a video of Professor Johnson’s remarks below. His presentation starts at 9’16”.

Yes, We Are ‘Star Stuff.’ But Remember the Spirit of Love.

By Ellie Haylund

From time to time, a powerful series of quotes by Carl Sagan pass through my mind:

“As long as there have been humans, we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

“All of the rocks we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star stuff.”

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

My husband and I drew from these quotes for a reading during our wedding ceremony. We found the juxtaposition of science and emotion to perfectly represent both our shared life perspective and the essence of humanism. Our celebrant expertly wove chemistry, data, and numbers with passion, meaning, and feeling to convey the intersection of the cool tone of facts and the warm concept of love.

As humanists, we are a community of inquisitive, curious, and science-minded people. But we also emphasize a less scientific piece – relationships and connection. We believe in compassion for living beings and the planet, equality and equity, and community service.  And while self-defined purposes are inherently subjective, our shared tenets are what distinguish us as opposed to a mere lack of belief in a higher power. We carefully combine the perhaps detached logic of it all with the emotional essence of unity.

The most abstract layer to my view of humanism is Sagan’s last statement – that the overwhelming weight and enormity of our existence can be eased by love. For some of us, it’s easy to get caught up in the headiness of it all. The more I analyze the nature of existence, the smaller I feel. And this can create an existential spiral, despite my strong ties to my humanistic view on personal meaning.

But, as I periodically do, I encourage you to remember the spirit of love. It may not be the most logical or rational, but it can provide a respite from the academically minded thinking that can dominate our perspective as we navigate our lives.

We may be blood, calcium, and carbon – star stuff. But we know that, as humanists, we are also creativity, empathy, and affection. We contain multitudes.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

September 2022: “You Are Evil and You Must Be Destroyed”

Our September Community Gathering featuring Seth Andrews, host of the Thinking Atheist podcast and online community, attracted a record audience. About 100 people, including several from out of town, came to hear Seth talk about “regaining our humanity in an inhumane world.”

He talked about the power of tribalism, the social media arguments that were “hardening” him, and the dangers of being too quick to dehumanize “the other.”

See a video of Seth’s presentation below. His remarks start at 10:37.

YouTube player

Are Armchair Activists Really So Bad?

By Ellie Haylund

Marie sees that Roe v. Wade was overturned. She heads to Instagram and posts about her outrage. Her post gets dozens of “likes,” but within a day, it has become buried in people’s feeds and minds.

Carl also finds out about Roe v. Wade and springs into action behind his phone screen. He finds a reputable organization to donate to and posts a link on Facebook. Friends and acquaintances see this post and are inspired. They donate a cumulative $500 via his link.

These scenarios are increasingly common these days. As humanists who care about the world, we are faced with an onslaught of new injustices, problems, and tragedies daily. We can feel tapped out on emotions, time, and in some cases, money. What is enough? Do we need to quantify our engagement in activism? If we cannot participate physically, is a call to action on social media performative? Will people think we are slacking activists – slacktivists, if you will? If an internet post is never seen, did it even happen?

A 19-year-old named Olivia Julianna was recently thrust into the spotlight for an internet post that sparked an almost unbelievable response. When Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida body-shamed Julianna in response to her pro-choice stance, she fought back, using it as an opportunity to encourage Twitter users to donate to abortion funds across the country. The response was swift and substantial – she raised over $2 million in a single week.

Julianna is an abortion-rights advocate and a political strategist with Gen Z for Change, a youth-led nonprofit that uses social media to generate awareness, fundraise, and engage with politicians. Though this naturally gave her a leg up in visibility, her action still represents the tweet-inspires-astounding-fundraising phenomenon.

Rare cases like these highlight one outlet available for those who don’t know how best to support causes. You see the numbers doubling, tripling. You see that it’s a legitimate fund and one that may make a valuable and immediate difference because of the massive influx of donations and momentum. That inspiration begets more, we enable mutual aid, and the exponential effect is achieved. That’s not slacktivism! That’s advocacy in the modern age!

But what about the norm, not the exception? Let’s step back to a more realistic, small-scale occurrence. If my tweet goes nowhere and serves no one, I am undoubtedly the dreaded armchair activist with no real contribution. But if my friend’s tweet catches a wave by chance, she has achieved something – even if our intentions were the same. Right?

Things get even more complex when we consider barriers like disabilities, poverty, and lack of disposable time – or, as popped up unexpectedly a few years ago, a pandemic.

When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, people around the world took to the streets in droves. It was a surreal, rare act of collective humanity. It was also complicated for many people. Covid was still in its infancy and vaccines were not available. Many opted out of physical marches and protests out of concern for their own and others’ health. There were alternatives – making financial donations to local organizations or food donations to neighborhoods where critical stores had closed down. And of course, social media.

Whether your options are narrowed by preexisting barriers or the sudden onset of a public health emergency, social media isn’t always a lazy alternative to more respectable forms of activism. It’s often the most accessible for personal circumstances. It’s just that we don’t always know that about others and they don’t always know that about us. Therein lies the problem with assumptions and perception when it comes to establishing the validity of another person’s form of advocacy.

In a time of carefully crafted maximum visibility of our every thought, stance, and action, it’s nearly impossible to avoid running what we see through an internal processor to perform a sentiment analysis. Are they being genuine? Performative? Principled? Sanctimonious? It’s incredibly easy for our brains to complete this exercise and render the verdict. “Picture from a rally…result loading…acceptable level of activism detected. Quote about equality and compassion…result loading…substandard level of activism detected.”

Is something better than nothing? Is everything something? Do we need to hold everyone to the same standard?

Ultimately, this is all subjective. People will do what they can, people will do nothing, and people will judge each other. People will be publicly present, people will keep their engagement under the radar, and people will scrutinize that. My two cents aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but I’m trying to see armchair activism in the best light. Most people are doing what they have the bandwidth to do during a time of relentless bad news. And when it comes to consuming and processing the content and contributions of others, I only have the bandwidth to see it all as good.

As members of a humanist community, we all engage in different ways. Some of us are active in service projects and advocacy. Some of us focus more on educational or social components. There is no right or wrong way to be a member of our organization. Being involved inherently makes a statement about supporting our mission – and that speaks volumes even if it’s not shouted from the virtual rooftops.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.