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. 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.

Summertime and the Livin’ Is Easy…at the HumanistsMN Picnic!

Humanists gathered at the Jaycees Shelter in Roseville in July for food, games, and comradery at HMN’s 2022 annual picnic. Activities included giant Jenga, bean bag toss, a trivia contest led by President Ellie Haylund and door prizes handed out by Stephanie Schwinn to “the mostest” picknickers (youngest, traveled the farthest, etc.). 

Our great humanist cooks contributed a cornucopia of salads, sides, and desserts, while Hart Hauge provided locally sourced hamburgers and grilled them with Taylor Spreeman.

SophiePhoung Le collected books for the Hennepin County Medical Center Psychiatric Unit. Audrey Kingstrom, Mitch Thompson, and Jerry Smith also helped plan the picnic.

Thanks to all who helped create this day of humanist fun!



Photos by Audrey Kingstrom and Craig Stilen

Click to expand photos.



Book Documents History of Free Speech, Calls for Vigilance to Protect It

By Nathan Curland

What is “free speech”? Why is it important? Are there limits, or is every utterance permissible? What does history tell us about this topic? These are the questions that Jacob Mchangama tackles in Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media.

Highly praised by such notable intellectuals as Steven Pinker and Nadine Strossen, the 400-page tome has been called the most complete history and discussion of free speech ever written. (The notes and bibliography add another 100 pages to the book.)

Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia. He has a law degree from the University of Copenhagen and spent a number of years there as a professor before becoming a free speech activist.

His activism came to a head following the 2015 jihadist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons mocking Mohammed and the ensuing global debate on the limits of free speech. This volume and the associated podcast, “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech,” were five years in the making.

In the introduction, Mchangama maintains that history shows democracy cannot stand without free speech. He starts by noting that the first indication that the values of democracy and free speech could be formalized was in the 5th century BCE in Athens. As a citizen, one could engage in bold and honest speech in public, even criticizing the government. However, even here there were limits, as Socrates discovered when he was accused of blasphemy, which eventually led to his suicide. The Athenian democracy did not last long, less than 200 years, as autocratic forces took control and clamped down on what could or could not be said about the government.

The emergence of free speech and an associated democracy of sorts, followed by an eventual takeover by authoritarian forces, is an ongoing story throughout world history. From the ancient Roman Republic to the enlightened Islamic Caliphates of the first millennium to the early universities of Europe and eventually to the modern age, we have seen free speech lead to democratic and human rights advances, only to be crushed as authoritarian figures take control, either of the narrative or by force.

An example is the 18th century Enlightenment, when free talk among the intelligentsia as well as the general populace flourished. Even monarchs such as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia relaxed prohibitions against speech. However, these advances did not survive the debacle and mob rule of the French revolution, which led to a major clamping down of individual liberties, not just in France but across Europe.

The detail that Mchangama brings to this history is astounding and engaging as we learn about the multitude of actors involved in advocating for free speech, using it for their own gain, or working actively to suppress it. He covers a long list of those who advocated for free speech through the ages, including many we are familiar with: Spinoza, James Madison, Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Orwell — but many others as well. He also writes about those who worked to undermine free expression.

Of particular note is the influence of technology. The invention of the printing press had a huge impact on making written works available, not only to the elite, but to the general public, which, in turn greatly influenced the wider spread of literacy and the ability of more and more humans to engage in the body politic. (The same can be said for the internet today.) This led to a wider desire for the ability to be able to speak your mind and the subsequent democratization of a good portion of the world.

Autocratic powers, however, have constantly found ways to blunt the positive effects of new technology and use it for their own purposes.

Unfortunately, free speech can be (and has been) used in ways detrimental to the health of egalitarian societies, leading to various attempts to limit it. The concept of “hate speech” is an example: when does speech become so hateful that it must be limited? Is it allowable to express your dislike or contempt for a person or group as long as you do not advocate for violence? Can one demand that a person be fired and his/her life ruined because you disagree with their political belief? (Think of the cancel culture infecting some of our universities.)

How about boycotts, which can harm large populations or industries? Is conflation of blasphemy with hate speech valid? All these examples show how difficult it is to draw a line between free speech and allowed speech.

I suggest readers begin with Mchangama’s concluding chapter before tackling the entire volume. He notes that despite the great advances made in free speech over the last century, in recent decades it has been under attack worldwide and we must all be vigilant in its defense: “Free speech is still an experiment, and no one can guarantee the outcome of providing a free, equal, and instant voice to billions of people,” he writes. “But a careful look at history suggests that the experiment is a noble one.” And finally, “For all its flaws, a world with less free speech will also be less tolerant, democratic, enlightened, innovative, free, and fun.”

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama (Basic Books, Feb 2022)

May 2022: Annual Meeting Elects Board Members, Revises Bylaws, Discusses Priorities

At the May annual meeting, HumanistsMN members elected new board members, revised our bylaws, heard reports about programming and finances, and met in small groups to discuss HMN priorities.

Board Election. Members elected two new HMN Board members, Abigail Jackson and Stephanie Schwinn. They reelected Seth Engman to a two-year term and David Guell to a one-year term. Find out more about the Board here.

Bylaws. Members agreed to amend the HMN bylaws as follows:

  • Add the following mission statement: “Humanists of Minnesota is a secular community that promotes ethical living, widespread human flourishing, and a healthy planet through its commitment to science, reason, compassion, and creativity.”
  • Restate the organization’s purposes.
  • Add additional responsibilities to the Treasurer and Secretary roles.
  • Remove the one-year membership requirement for Board candidates and give current Board members an opportunity to review and comment on proposed nominees.

You can find details of the proposal here. Compare with the old bylaws.

Program Updates. Ellie Haylund and Suzanne Perry discussed recent marketing efforts, including billboards, social media campaigns, and a redesigned website. Suzanne discussed the May 5 gathering at the State Capitol to observe the National Day of Reason. Christine Retkwa described Humanists in Action community service activities (including  free bikes for kids, highway cleanup, and Food Group packing) and advocacy efforts (including legislative alerts, a climate-action postcard campaign, and a contingent at the Reproductive Freedom march). Audrey Kingstrom discussed highlights of last year’s programs and plans for future programs.

Finance. John Walker presented reports on HMN finances for fiscal year 2021-22. One showed income for the year at $21,172 and expenses at $21,515, for a small deficit of $343. The other showed that on May 31, HMN had assets of $53,359, most in a checking account.

Member Input. Attendees were asked to fill out a survey about HMN spending and programming.  Thirty-five people competed the questionnaires, with results as follows.

Spending. People were most supportive of using financial resources for programming/conferences, followed by marketing. Next up were scholarships, grants to community-service organizations, and paid staff. Several people volunteered that we should pay a social media coordinator or offer stipends to interns. 

Advocacy. Separation of church and state was the top issue mentioned, followed by abortion/reproductive rights, voting rights/democracy, medical aid in dying, and environment/climate change.
Community Service. Highway and river cleanups got the most mentions, followed by the Food Group/food drives.
Programming. Most enjoyed:  D-Cubed, community gatherings, mindfulness, and speaker Andrew Seidel got multiple mentions. Recommended: Death Cafe, youth/family programming, and programs on financial independence, ethical investing, neuroscience, something musical. A plea to Audrey to revive the death and dying series.
Social Activities. Museums, biking, hikes, trivia, and outings to plays/music/comedy received multiple mentions. A few new ideas: Comedy Night at the Humanist Night Club, philosophy club, scifi book club, outings to sporting events, having or sponsoring a recreational sports team.
Note: if you have ideas about HMN programming or spending, please send them to president@humanistsmn.org.

My Goals as President: Increase Awareness of Humanism, Attract More Young People

By Ellie Haylund

Hey there, humanists!

I’m honored to be writing my first column as president of HumanistsMN. I first want to thank my predecessor, Harlan Garbell, for his steadfast leadership. It’s been an honor to serve as his vice president and observe his dedication to our organization, encouragement of new ideas, and commitment to the mission of growing the humanist community. I’m inspired by how he has empowered people to grow, get involved, and help us reach new heights. I aim to carry the momentum maintained by presidents past with enthusiasm, creativity, and a profound belief in the tenets of humanism.

During my seven years with HMN so far, I have held two key goals. One: to generate increased awareness of humanism. Do I expect our message to resonate with everyone who comes across it? I do not. But when humanism becomes a household term, it will organically reach the ears of those who never knew there was a name for what describes them. I support trying innovative ways for us to be seen and heard.

As co-chair of HMN’s Marketing Team, I was excited this past year to work on a plan to do just that.  It included billboards, radio spots, a greater social-media presence, a redesigned website, and new meeting venues (i.e., brewpubs!). Most exciting, we launched our first-ever membership campaign and brought in more than 30 new members.

My second goal: bring in the youths! For the organization to thrive, we need to prioritize connecting with young adults—whether they are seeking a community, looking for volunteer opportunities, or simply want to support our mission. 

We have healthy financial reserves and will continue to thoughtfully and strategically plan how best to apply them to these goals. Please let me know if you have any ideas, or want to help.

Okay, a bit about me. I love crafting, reading, video games, and music. I live with my husband and fellow board member, Nick, in our beloved Northeast Minneapolis with our rescue dogs Wally and Tater Tot. 

As a progressive millennial, I am part of the generation (along with the up-and-coming Gen Zers) that has higher rates of “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) than any generation before us. I give high priority to separation of religion and government, which is critical to issues I care about including LGBTQIA+ rights, reproductive freedom, social justice, and environmental protection. Humanists know that many people of all ages have held secular views since… a really long time ago.  Fortunately, it has become more acceptable to openly advocate for our principles as time ticks on.

In spite of the disturbing trend we’ve seen toward bigotry and fascism in our country, the natural trajectory of the majority of Americans is toward equality, compassion, reason, and logic — even if we sometimes waver between feelings of nihilism and optimism. This makes a community like ours more important than ever, as both a home for like-minded individuals and a champion for our values. We will not allow religion and intolerance to undo the critical progression of our society toward widespread human flourishing.

Here’s to a bit more of that elusive optimism. Onward and upward!

A Call for Humanists to Again Address the Question of War: Part 3

By Paul Heffron

In part 3 of his series about humanism and war, the author reviews articles in humanist magazines. (Read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Humanist Manifesto II was published in the October 1973 issue of The Humanist Magazine. Written by Paul Kurtz, editor, and Edwin Wilson, editor emeritus and former president of the American Humanist Association, it lays out a humanist critique of war.

We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world Community in which all sectors of the human family can participate. Thus we look to the development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government.

This world community must renounce the resort to violence and force as a method of solving international disputes. We believe in the peaceful adjudication of differences by international courts and by the development of the arts of negotiation and compromise. War is obsolete. So is the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It is a planetary imperative to reduce the level of military expenditures and turn these savings to peaceful and people-oriented uses. (Articles 12 and 13.)

The manifesto was originally signed by 282 prominent humanist world leaders in fields including education, science, government, and philosophy, and subsequently by thousands of other humanists. It served as a consensus statement, recognizing that some signers may have differences on particular points.

This statement may be viewed as an ultimate goal and as a framework for articles about war-related topics in humanist magazines. I have scoured the two major humanist magazines, The Humanist and Free Inquiry, from the 1980s to the present and found a  large number of relevant articles and speeches from conferences, enough to make up a tome-size anthology. I’ve assigned myself an impossible task. So I’ll give you some examples of how humanists have addressed this subject. 

But first, a word about the vision of a world federation and reduction in war and military expenditures. As various humanist writers have mentioned, the vision has some existential basis in history. The federation of the American states by the adoption of the Constitution made it unlikely that the states would carry on internecine wars as had taken place for centuries in Europe. It worked— except for the problem of slavery. It took a civil war to make the union one in which interstate wars became unthinkable. The European Union and NATO have likewise made war among the member states unthinkable. 

The Soviet Union made war within its empire impossible. Unfortunately, it failed to reform under President Mikhail Gorbachev, who identified with humanism, and it collapsed, breaking up into new nations and making future wars possible. The United Nations has lacked sufficient authority to prevent wars but has helped ameliorate or settle some conflicts and provided peace-keeping forces. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has effectively prosecuted political leaders for war crimes and has probably served to some extent as a deterrent to wars of aggression and war crimes. Not so in the current war in Ukraine. We can expect indictments for war crimes against Russia at the ICC.

So the humanist goal is not so hopelessly utopian. Progress can be reached when countries join in transnational federations and sign on to and support international structures like the ICC. 

Now for some examples of humanist takes on war over the years. 

NGOs as Peacemakers

In an article for the July/August 1999 issue of The Humanist, “How to End War,” Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute,  spelled out ways that the humanist vision could be pursued. Of particular interest are his comments about NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), which were prominent in the 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace international conference. Renner writes:

Impatient with the failure of governments to promote conflict prevention and peace building, NGOs—or civil society organizations, as they are increasingly called—are playing a more and more assertive role on the local, state, and international levels. And in an age in which peace and security concerns are focused more on internal than interstate matters, it is only sensible that civil society should be an active participant.

Recent years have seen the emergence of working coalitions that on an issue-by-issue basis bring together NGOs with like-minded governments. The anti-personnel landmines campaign is the outstanding example of this phenomenon. With the support of countries like Canada, South Africa, Belgium, and Norway, the campaign succeeded in putting landmines on the global agenda, hammering out an international treaty banning these devices and bringing the agreement into force at a speed far faster than any other arms treaty in history. Today, NGO representatives are frequent participants at intergovernmental gatherings. The 1999 Hague conference went even further: it was an attempt to set the agenda for 21st century peacemaking at which government and U.N. representatives were welcome guests but not the initiators.

An End to Landmines

The September/October 2001 issue of The Humanist carried a contest-winning youth essay, “A World Without Landmines” by 18-year-old Felicity Fields. She describes what devastating weapons landmines are, their victims often civilians who, after the war is over, step on them and lose their legs. Some, in fear of the mines, abandon their homes and neighborhoods or live in terror of stepping on or driving over one. She also describes the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which led to the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997. Signatories agreed to stop production and destroy stockpiles of landmines, and to clear fields of the mines left behind, a long-term task requiring community pressure and government action. 

The United States and Russia did not sign the ban. Millions of dollars have been raised to clear the mines and provide medical treatment for the victims, on average $9,000 per survivor. Fields writes:  “As U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat—Vermont) asked of Congress, as the ICBL asks of every nation, I ask of you: what greater gift could we give to the people of the world in the twenty-first century than a world without landmines?”

Misleading about Nuclear Deterrence

An excerpt from a speech by Daniel Ellsberg at the American Humanist Association’s 45th annual conference in 1986 was published in July/August 1986 The Humanist : “Is U.S. and Soviet Defense Compatible with Survival?” Ellsberg, best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said the U.S.- proclaimed policy of using nuclear weapons only for deterrence was not true. 

President Eisenhower threatened China with nuclear weapons in the conflict over the islands of Quemoy. “The Quemoy case was only one of a dozen or more specific instances,” he added, “in which presidents used the threat of nuclear weapons in an ongoing crisis. Nearly every one of them was kept secret from the American public.” Ellsberg’s answer to the question in the title was: no, not as long as nuclear weapons were used as a threat and on a first-strike basis. Congress must defund the arms race, he maintained, as it did to end the Vietnam War.

Nuclear False Alarms

The Humanist carried an article about the additional risk of false alarms of nuclear attacks,  “The Five Minute Decision that Saved the World,” by Douglas Mattern, president of the Association of World Citizens (July/August 2006). On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, the duty officer in command of the Soviet main nuclear surveillance bunker, received radar warnings that the Soviet Union was under attack by U.S. Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. He had only five minutes to decide whether to call for launching nuclear missiles. He believed the U.S. would not launch an unprovoked nuclear attack and that there must be a system error. He decided not to launch and waited 20 agonizing minutes to detect incoming missiles. There were none. He was right.  “What is clear,” Mattern concluded, ” is the nuclear nightmare can only end when all nuclear weapons are eliminated.”

UN Reform

In Fall 2000, Free Inquiry carried an article by Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator and president of the Global Security Institute. The title: “Humanity’s Worst Nightmare: It’s Worse than We Fear—and We’re Ignoring It.” Cranston said there had actually been many threats and false alarms of nuclear attacks. We simply can’t have a situation in which an individual can decide to launch nuclear weapons, he declared. He added that the solution is to reform the U.N., with nations giving up some of their sovereignty, to prevent nuclear war.

Obscenity of War

J. Harold Ellens wrote an article for Free Inquiry, “The Obscenity of War and the Imperative of the Evil Expedient” (April/May 2005). “I am a soldier. I have been for fifty years,” he writes. “I served in three wars and was wounded in two of them. I hate war.” He maintains that war is always obscene because of what it does to all those involved and affected by it. Ideas of just war, jihad, and holy war do not make the killing and maiming any less obscene. War as the lesser of evils is still evil.

Ellens added that engaging in war as a necessary defense is an “Imperative Evil Expedient.” He explained, “Soldiers hate war but serve for the sake of those they love. For a soldier, as it should be for a policeman, putting on the uniform is a daily confession that he or she has agreed that, if there is any wounding or killing to be done, he or she will stand in the stead of the civilian. Real soldiers know that, when they put on the uniform, they have already given their lives. It remains only a question of how much fear, loneliness, and pain they will need to endure before the last moment comes.” 

Ellens argues that the doctrine of preemptive defense is a sham. It makes the decision to engage in the bestiality of war a private judgment, outside of generally accepted ethical norms, and “undercuts efforts to establish humane constraints of warring nations and on war itself.”

Further Discussion

The forgoing examples are among the many subtopics by humanist writers in the magazines. These include war and the pursuit of world domination, order, or empire; war and overpopulation; war and economic interests; war and religious missions; education on the nature of war for school children and adults; and more.

Current issues, of course, include the war in Ukraine. Does the U.S. need to make sure Russia is defeated, not allowed to maintain its gains through negotiations to end the war? What about enforcing free trade for Ukraine so it can export its grain, etc. by establishing a no-embargo of ports and a no-fly-zone (instead of giving in to Putin’s terms)? Risk war with Russia, leading to nuclear exchange?

I hope my essays will help generate reading and discussion on humanism and war and lead to more position statements by humanists on the issues.


HumanistsMN Condemns Supreme Court Abortion Ruling

HumanistsMN condemns the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the significant degree of bodily autonomy that Roe v. Wade had granted for nearly 50 years — the right to have an abortion before a fetus would be viable outside the womb. The 6-to-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is expected to lead to abortion bans or severe restrictions in about half of U.S. states.

HumanistsMN believes in a world where everyone has the same opportunities to thrive. This decision minimizes the high degree of health risk that people can face during pregnancy, labor, and after a birth. “Bodily autonomy and self-determination are deeply rooted humanist values that are critical for realizing an inclusive, pluralistic, and flourishing society,” says the American Humanist Association

Dobbs v. Jackson found that the Constitution does not expressly or implicitly protect the right to choose abortion, saying “it makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.”

In addition to taking away this significant right, the decision raises concerns about how this strict-interpretation Court might rule in any challenges to other landmark cases that granted constitutional protection to human rights, for example same-sex marriage or interracial marriage. As the dissenting justices noted: “All rights that have no history stretching back to the mid-19th century are insecure.”

Secular Americans are a growing demographic. A 2021 Pew Research Study revealed that 29 percent of Americans now identify as “nones,” people with no religious affiliation. That percentage is up 6 percentage points from five years ago. 

As AHA Executive Director Nadya Dutchin states: “The right to abortion access has long been a culture-war issue utilized by radical evangelical and White Christian Nationalist movements to control women and undermine the well-being of our society.”  We cannot sit idly by while precedent and our own founding documents are ignored to favor the views of one religious group over those who believe differently or not at all.

Contact your state and federal elected officials and let them know we are out here and we vote. If able, please consider donating time and/or money to abortion rights’ and abortion funds organizations, including UnrestrictMN coalitionMinnesota-based OurJustice and National Network of Abortion Funds

See the related HumanistsMN statement on recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that erode the wall between religion and government.

HMN Denounces Supreme Court Rulings Eroding Separation of Religion and Government

HumanistsMN denounces the U.S. Supreme Court decision this week in favor of a high school football coach who led Christian prayers on the playing field surrounded by public high school students. We echo our parent organization, the American Humanist Association: the 6-3 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District basically moots the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits establishment of a state religion, by promoting religious privilege in public schools.

This follows last week’s decisions to require taxpayers in Maine to fund religious schools (Carson v. Makin) and to overturn the constitutional right to abortion (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization). With these, the majority on the Supreme Court have signified that they have no respect for religious freedom, bodily autonomy, and healthcare privacy in our country.

Separation of religion and government is a cornerstone of our democracy and this foundational principle is quickly being eroded by a religiously conservative judiciary, the highest court in the land.

HumanistsMN believes in a world where everyone has the same opportunities to thrive regardless of religious belief or a lack thereof. Secular Americans are a growing demographic. A 2021 Pew Research Study revealed that 29 percent of Americans now identify as “nones,” people with no religious affiliation. That percentage is up 6 percentage points from five years ago.

We cannot sit idly by while Christian Nationalists and religious conservatives ignore precedent and our own founding documents to favor one religious group over those who believe differently or not at all. Contact your state and federal elected officials and let them know we are out here and we vote.

If able, please consider donating time and/or money to secular rights’ organizations (some ideas here and here) and abortion funds.


Humanism and Stoicism: Relevant Philosophies for Modern Thinkers

HumanistsMN and Minnesota Stoics collaborated on June 4, 2022, to present a “compare and contrast” between humanism and Stoicism.

Gabriel Blott of MN Stoics and Audrey Kingstrom of HumanistsMN discussed a handful of major topics and how each tradition views them. They covered core principles and practices, ethics to politics, the division of individual vs personal responsibility, and much more.

Held at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, the discussion was moderated and MC’d by Rev. Dr. David Breeden of FUS, who has a wealth of knowledge and passion for both traditions.

These three engaging presenters gave us a great overview and the conversation was lively and informative. Watch a video of the panel below.

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April 2022: The Science of Mental Immunity

Andy Norman, author of the book Mental Immunity and director of the Humanism Initiative at Carnegie Mellon Universityspoke at our April Community Gathering about ways we can inoculate ourselves against irrational thinking and conspiracy theories.

Watch a video of Norman’s presentation below (introduction starts at 23:13).

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National Day of Reason 2022

Sarah Levin

By Suzanne Perry

After a two-year pandemic-related absence, HumanistsMN returned to the State Capitol on May 5 to observe the National Day of Reason, which honors the principles of secular lawmaking and separation of religion and government.

As in 2019, we joined hands with First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, to sponsor a breakfast with legislators to affirm that policy should be based on reason, science, and evidence, not on religious preference.

At the Capitol and at a brewpub event the evening before, our guest speaker  — secular-voters organizer Sarah Levin (pictured)  — urged us to mobilize to counter the growing threat of Christian nationalism and dogma-influenced policymaking, for example the draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Thanks to the legislators who attended the breakfast, including Senators Jim Carlson and Jen McEwen and Representatives Robert Bierman, Heather Edelson, Sandra Feist, Mike Freiberg, and Todd Lippert.

We were pleased to get support from 15 advocacy and secular groups in Minnesota and beyond. Representatives from ACLU of Minnesota, Camp Quest North, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Compassion & Choices Minnesota, and OutFront Minnesota spoke at the Capitol. The following additional groups endorsed the event: Black Nonbelievers, Central Minnesota Freethinkers, Gender Justice, Jewish Community Action, Jews for a Secular Democracy, Lake Superior Freethinkers, Minnesota Atheists, Rochester Area Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, and UU Humanist Association.

We know many people support the Day of Reason principles. As Sarah Levin advised, we just need to organize to increase our political clout!

Photos by Craig Stilen

Harlan Garbell, HumanistsMN

Allan Malkis, Or Emet

HMN Welcomers Stephanie Schwinn and Christine Retkwa

Day of Reason audience in the Capitol Vault

Rep. Robert Bierman

Rep. Heather Edelson with HMN’s Audrey Kingstrom

Rep. Sandra Feist

Rep. Mike Freiberg


Rep. Todd Lippert

Sen. Jen McEwen

Julio Zalaya, ACLU of Minnesota

Andi Kurbondski, Camp Quest North

Jerry Gale, Christians Against Christian Nationalism

Rebecca Thoman, Compassion & Choices Minnesota

Matt Lewellen-Otten, OutFront Minnesota