Introduction by David Warden
There are two types of humanists: born humanists and born again humanists. So the joke goes! The majority of the testimonies here fall into the latter camp (by about 70% to 30%). Humanists are often brought up in a religion, and they may even have been the 'born-again Christian' type, as I was. At some point they stopped believing, and later on they discovered humanism. Aaron is quite unusual in having found an implicit form of humanism via Star Trek (please take note: there's definitely a marketing opportunity here, because Star Trek continues to have cultural relevance for young people). The minority group represented here are those to whom religious ideas never made any sense. They either came to this conclusion themselves in early childhood or they grew up in an atheist/non-religious family. Apart from this distinction between two types of humanists, there are two common threads in being and becoming a humanist: the first is disbelief in supernatural claims, and the second is appreciation of humanist values.
I’m a humanist because, even as a child, the Christian religious education I received did not make any sense to me, and by the time I was 13 I had already pretty much decided that I was an atheist, or at least a sceptic. But humanism came to me much later, and for me, put the flesh on the bones of atheism and offered an ethical foundation to build on. I would defend anyone’s right to affiliate to any religion so long as it tolerates other people’s tolerant values, but I'm an active humanist because I have been dismayed by the terrible hurt, fear, oppression and social damage that some organised, dogmatic religions can cause.
We are all citizens of this small, but very special planet, and I would go so far as to say that in an endangered world, a tolerant, informed, rational and compassionate humanist approach to the great issues of the day is by far the best bet for the future of humanity. The human species is the steward of planet Earth, and we all share the same responsibility to ensure as much health and happiness for all as far as it is possible. It’s that thought that motivates me, and that I will do my best to instil and encourage for the rest of my days.
Becoming a humanist has been transformative for me. It's allowed me to fulfil my passion for helping the needy without expecting anything in return. With the support of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust (UHST) and other humanist friends, I've built the Katumba Parents Humanist Nursery and Primary School in one of Bundibugyo District's most neglected areas, near the Congo border. I've also helped colleagues establish other humanist schools.
I come from a Muslim background, and have seen first-hand how aid through my local mosque often bypasses those most in need. My widowed mother, who looks after eight orphans, has never benefited from such programmes due to discrimination. She has struggled all her life, working in other people's gardens to provide for her family, since her Christian relatives sold off my late father's land. I was once invited to train people in the medicinal benefits of plants, but the health coordinator I was directed to asked for a baptism card. This discrimination led me to withdraw from the programme, and solidified my commitment to humanism. In my managerial role and as the founder of Katumba School, I've achieved much. For example, I've been able to build a small house for my mother, and take care of my extended family and other needy children living with me. I contribute towards their fees and educational materials. This life, where I can help others without expecting rewards, brings me immense joy.
I’m a humanist because I appreciate the values associated with humanism. I first became aware of these values via Star Trek, such as respect for other cultures, respect for life, tolerating alternative views, and the democratic approach to decision-making. The scientific approach, which relies on solid evidence for observable phenomena and logical explanations for what exists, should guide how we live our lives in the 21st century. Having been raised in an atheist family, I was later exposed to Jehovah's Witnesses for a year in my early teens, which pretty much solidified my atheism. Discovery of actual humanism was pure accident when I attended a meeting in 2014, and I have been a strong advocate ever since.
I'm a humanist because it brings me happiness. I come from a religious Hindu family and was raised on stories of Hindu mythology and Swami Vivekananda, who played a key role in introducing Indian philosophies and yoga to the Western world. When I was searching for happiness and looking to fill a void in my life, I found that the teachings of humanism provided me with contentment and happiness.
I'm a humanist because I believe in the human power to be kind, compassionate and rational without recourse to a supernatural motivation. But of course, I can't resist offering a poem to you on this topic!
What’s a Humanist?
They trust in methodologies objective and specific
They describe observed phenomena in a manner scientific
They reject all explanations couched in ghosts or ghouls or spirits
They circumscribe their arguments with naturalistic limits
They ask to see the evidence before they reach conclusions
They prefer to confess ignorance than make up false solutions
They try to meet all human beings with kindness and compassion
And to treat all other animals in corresponding fashion
They’ve no evidence of afterlife, so reasonably deduce
That this is the one life that we have of any earthly use
They put aside the magical claims of many an ancient text
And instead use moral judgement to decide what to do next.
So, in answer to your question, having thought the whole thing through
I’d say it sounds a lot like me. Would you say it’s like you?
I'm a humanist because I believe in the connectedness of all things beginning with, but not limited to, the connectedness of human beings. Currently there is a great deal of concern about disconnection. Disconnection of humanity from its environment, from nature, from the ecology of our planet, and unless we begin with addressing our disconnection from each other as members of the same species we cannot address any of those other issues. Homo sapiens is the one species of human that has so far avoided extinction and this is largely because of our ability to co-operate. But because we are now so many, so diverse and so widely dispersed across the globe, that ability is being eroded, in spite of our technical communication abilities being better than ever. Once, as a born again Christian, I believed human beings were connected because they were all children of God, made in his image. I no longer believe that, but I do believe we are quite literally connected by our very DNA. We need no scripture and no God to connect us. We need to get back to trying to build the Tower of Babel, not to reach God but to reach a secure and stable future for ourselves and our planet. (Note: In the biblical story, the Tower of Babel was built by humans who wanted to reach the heavens, which was seen as an act of hubris and resulted in their languages being confused and them being scattered across the Earth.)
I became an atheist quite suddenly when I was around 19 or 20 years old. Until that point, I had been a practising Christian in the Church of England, routinely saying my prayers. But one morning, I woke up and found that I no longer believed in any of it. It wasn't until years later that I discovered humanism and I instantly recognised it as a belief system that resonated with me. During a particularly challenging time in my life, I decided to invest in a lifetime membership with Humanists UK, which was then known as the British Humanist Association. This decision served as a kind of vote of confidence in my ability to survive. As life became calmer again, I joined various humanist groups in different locations. My reason for joining was quite simple: to be with like-minded people and have a ready-made social group. No more complicated than that!
For many, many years I was a Christian. Over time, the foundations of why I called myself a Christian fell away, so if asked about my core values I would go for the 'atheist' label. However, using it in a conversation about my core values did not sit well with me as it simply said what I was not, I felt I needed something else. The humanist values matched my own, and so I now call myself a humanist. That's it, not much more to it really.
I'm a humanist because I wanted to connect with the local Windsor area where I have lived for 20 years. I had never really felt part of my local community, as I had spent a large part of my career travelling abroad. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the 'Troubles' as a gay English Catholic boy, and so I experienced very early on in my life how religions, cultural traditions and fixed ‘identities’ can divide us, leading to terrible consequences. I became an atheist at around 11 years of age when the priests brought an early end to my altar boy career for asking too many questions. Over the last eight years, I've helped set up Windsor Humanists and become a trained humanist school speaker. I sit on the local SACRE (Advisory Council for Religious Education) as the non-religious representative and have been involved with local interfaith groups. These activities have all helped my husband and I connect to our local area in ways neither of us could ever have imagined before becoming humanists, and we've made some close friends as well. I feel strongly that humanism has to become increasingly a locally-based social movement that provides the sense of community which previously was provided by the churches and religion. I'm also very much committed to Humanistically Speaking, as I think it's important that there is a voice for humanists 'at the grass roots' – and free thinkers everywhere – which is not tied to any specific organisation or political campaigning group. What I particularly like about meeting up with humanists is that they like to ask a lot of questions, as I still do myself!
I first realised I was a humanist when I picked up a Humanist Society Scotland leaflet at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007. I was brought up Church of England, but started questioning what it was all about in my teens and stopped going to church. I've spent virtually my entire professional career working in the non-profit sector as an environmental campaigner and in grassroots education and community development in low-income countries. When I discovered humanism it seemed to ‘tick all the boxes’. I liked — and still like — the way humanism advocates for responsible stewardship of the planet (and rejects rigid dogmas and authoritarian ideologies). And I liked the focus on this life rather than the fictitious ‘afterlife’ sold to me in my youth, which seemed designed to trick people into thinking that things will be better when they die — but only if they conformed to the teachings of the vicar, priest or ‘holy book’ and kept putting money into the collection box!
I'm a humanist because I can't acknowledge any religion that espouses a superior being in charge of our destinies, which handily absolves us of much responsibility for our own actions. This strips away so much of the critical thinking which should accompany our actions, and renders us child-like. Above, and way beyond that, is the oneness that we should feel with the whole of nature – a nature that is almost universally denigrated and diminished within most religions. I find that offensive. If we cannot embrace the unity that we share with all other species, then we relegate this world to a very uncertain future – for all life, in all its infinite variety, including ourselves.
I’m a humanist because I live as if there is no god or other supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in human affairs, and the humanist approach to life accords with my own views on how one should live. I think this has always been the case, but I did not fully recognise it until becoming actively involved in humanism about 15 years ago. Unlike some humanists, I have had no negative experiences of religion. My family was non-religious and I do not remember any discussion concerning religion with any of them. I participated passively in the usual manifestations of religion at school, though I have no recollection of religious education lessons. My only rebellion was to bunk off Sunday school from about age nine, because the activities there seemed silly to me as an avid reader of Arthur Mee’s 10 volume Children’s Encyclopedia. My next conscious move occurred in my mid-20s, when I often gave evidence in court as an expert witness. After swearing an oath a couple of times, I realised this was not ‘me’, and so I affirmed instead. I joined Humanists UK (then the BHA) about 30 years ago. I’m not sure what prompted this, and I did little more than pay a sub until I had moved to Stockport and wanted to get involved in some local activities not related to work or politics. I went to my first meeting of Greater Manchester Humanists in early 2007, was on the committee by April, and Secretary by September!
I'm a humanist because, at the age of eighteen, I realised that believing in myself was a much more effective life strategy than putting my trust in God or Jesus. But it took another five years, and a degree in theology, to completely shake off my intellectual belief in God. I heard about humanism when I was at university, but I thought for many years that Christianity provided the best ethical basis for living. I no longer believe that. The Christian ethic of sacrifice and selflessness is an unbalanced way to live a human life. Humanism replaces God with Good. That is our focus. It's about living a good life and this can mean being a great musician, athlete, teacher, scientist, parent, engineer, doctor, builder etc., as well as caring for others who need help. It's also about creating a good society so that everyone can flourish. As a species, we remain extremely confused about how to achieve this, but humanists can join in the intellectual effort of trying to find solutions to the problems of distribution and finite resources. Homo sapiens is a flawed ape with a brain and body built for survival and reproduction. We've done incredibly well to build cities, compose symphonies, land on the Moon, and cure disease. We're a destructive and remarkably stupid ape as well. But humanism is a great antidote to despair and stupidity.
Tell us why you're a humanist (or not!) in the comments below. We'd love to hear!