Humanism, as a movement, is too selfless. Humanists are so busy advocating for the human rights of those persecuted in the name of religious dogmatism that we forget to take care of our own movement, through membership development, at a grassroots level. While the characteristic of selflessness would be considered by many to be quite a noble quality, there comes a point when selflessness can be quite disabling and even self-defeating.
History points towards this selfless streak in the Humanist movement. The Ethical Culture movement, a forerunner of the modern Humanist movement, founded by Felix Adler in 1876, provides an example of the hindrance that is excessive selflessness. Ethical Culture achieved great success founding badly needed social services in New York for the poorest of the city. Yet these early pioneers of the Humanist movement "turned their work over to the general public, taking little or no credit for themselves, for Ethical Culture, or for Humanism," wrote Greg Epstein in his 2009 book, Good without God. The priority of the movement was their community service and not the development of their own community. They actively shunned any benefit their success could have provided, thus depriving the movement of a great public relations asset that would have undoubtedly helped to attract new members to this young movement. We present day Humanists are similarly too selfless, with national organisations through out the world often prioritising advocacy over community development.
The Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) has been involved in a process of dialogue with the Irish government representing the voice of the non-religious in Ireland. This is a huge responsibility and members of the Board of Directors of the HAI past and present, all of whom are volunteers, have selflessly volunteered their time, knowledge and experience to this noble cause. The quality of research and draftsmanship of the HAI's government submission entitled "Equality for the Non-Religious" is but one example of the quality and scale of the work carried out by HAI members; for this I salute them. However, due to the scale of work involved in this process of dialogue with the Irish government, it is understandable that community development at a grassroots level, outside of Dublin, has not received the level of attention it deserves. We need to take a moment to reflect on the direction and priorities of the Humanist movement in Ireland.
The Humanist movement is particularly well suited to providing a secular alternative to religious community and we have a duty to do our best to provide Irish people with this alternative. In 2002 the General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which represents over one hundred Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secular, Ethical Culture, free-thought and similar organisations worldwide, passed the Amsterdam Declaration, which, according to the declaration, "is the official defining statement of World Humanism." The fifth fundamental of the declaration states:
Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world's major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.As a person can learn about and attempt to live according to the ideals of Humanism, the lifestance of Humanism is in itself an alternative to dogmatic religion. A person can be a Humanist and enact humanist values in daily life. In other words, people can be Humanist by themselves. However, Humanism as a lifestance cannot provide a person with a community which facilitates and celebrates this choice. Thus people are themselves responsible to either join their local Humanist group, or if there is none in place already, work with their fellow freethinkers to set up a Humanist community in their locality.
Not adhering to the values of an organised religion does not mean I should have to sacrifice all the social and psychological benefits which go along with membership of traditional religious communities. I want to have it all–and I believe I can. The general consensus within the field of the psychology of religion has been a positive correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction. However, in a study entitled "Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction," published in the American Sociological Review, Lim and Putnam point out that although the positive association between religiosity and life satisfaction is well documented, much theoretical and empirical controversy surrounds the question of how religion actually shapes life satisfaction; correlation is not causation. In 2006 and in 2007, Lim and Putnam looked at a representative sample of almost 2,000 people in the United States, using a new panel dataset to offer strong evidence for social and participatory mechanisms shaping religion's impact on life satisfaction. Their findings suggest that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they build social networks in the congregations of the religious services they regularly attend. The effect of within-congregation friendship is contingent, however, on the presence of a strong religious identity. They found little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship. In an interview with CNN, Lim pointed out that those who gained friends in their congregations during the course of the year also reported a greater sense of life satisfaction. This was also true for those who said they were attending their place of worship more in 2007. But people who go to a place of worship and have few close friends there are not any happier than people who never go to services, the study authors found. Lim notes that religious identity is also important and that people who say that religion is a very important part of self identity tend to be happier. Lim further comments that this relates to the issue of friendship as it is not simply the presence of friendship, but also the fact that you share this sense of religious identity with this particular social network, that makes you more satisfied with life.
We can create a secular alternative to church and religious community by building moral communities around Ireland based on Humanist principles. The Humanist movement, with its historical emphasis on reason and experience, rational and critical thinking, coupled with ceremony and compassion for the human condition, lends itself to providing an alternative to religious community. In a nutshell, I believe we can create a secular alternative which has all the benefits associated with religion, as listed by Lim and Putnam, and none of the nasty side-effects associated with religious dogmatism. Presently, my partner Annie Hoey and I are in the process of setting up just such a moral community in Cork—the Cork Humanists.
The Cork Humanists will act as a focal point for the non-religious of Cork and its surrounding counties and will strive to promote a progressive lifestance that affirms one's ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. Through the Cork Humanists, people will have the opportunity to meet people who share similar worldviews, to learn from and with each other, and celebrate their choice to live secular ethical lives. The Cork Humanists will be a space for all the non-religious of Cork, be they atheists, agnostics, Humanists, rationalists, sceptics or as yet uncategorised non-believers, and will not be limited to those who choose to adopt the label of Humanist. The Cork Humanists will be run by and for its members and organised on a democratic basis. Life long learning, enquiry and respectful debate will be valued and encouraged in the Cork Humanists. As a community of freethinkers it is doubtless that members will not always agree, but members shall strive to have not just tolerance of beliefs but compassion for each other. Groups such as the Cork Humanists will be challenged to balance socialisation and advocacy, simultaneously running social activities whilst providing a platform for advocating for the rights of the non-religious at a local level. We envision Cork Humanists as a community of fellowship. This fellowship will encompass personal development and outreach, advancing shared goals and enriching the life of our community.
Until Irish people have a viable alternative, they will continue to avail of the cultural and social support the Catholic Church affords. While we have come a long way in recent years in offering alternative forms of ceremony to mark the various life cycles, this is not enough in itself. We need to offer Irish people an alternative to church-going in their own localities. We need to turn our attention to Humanist community development.
By Aaron Keohane