Up to the time I was 21, I was very religious. I never missed Sunday Mass, contemplated the priesthood once or twice, and I tried to live my life according to the words of Jesus. I believed, fervently, in the power of prayer. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it all came apart. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so rational that our souls went somewhere else when we died. The idea of a God of the Universe caring much about the goings on of some obscure species on an obscure planet now seemed rather bizarre. And then there was the problem of suffering and why a loving, all powerful god would permit evil to happen in the first place. My worldview changed overnight, but I have never looked back.
I had an agnostic phase, then an atheist phase, but nowadays, I think of myself as humanist. I am still an atheist, but this word is an inadequate description of who I am. My atheism informs how I look at religion, but that’s about it. I self-describe as a skeptic, but this also is only part of who I am. It has made me appreciate the value of science and evidence and I see it as a useful tool, helping to evaluate the claims people make. I am a secularist in that I believe a secular state, that is indifferent to religion, is better for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. I am agnostic in that there is much I don’t know, yet I am not willing to accept that just because I’d like something to be true, it therefore must be so.
Humanism is something more. It informs how I feel about things. It brings in important values such as compassion, integrity, honesty and friendship. It says something very profound to me. That I am here for a short time, and while I cannot personally change many things, there are people around me who affect me and whom I affect in turn. That there is a world here that should be respected, as it is our only home in this Universe. That our enthusiasms and loves and hobbies and friendships are something to be cherished. That others may not be so lucky and that we should strive to make life better for everyone, not just a fortunate few. That education and healthcare and control over our bodies and freedom from oppression should be our birthrights.
These are universal aspirations that are shared by many, non-religious and religious people alike. Some people base this common understanding on their theology. I arrive at it because I realise that life is short, and the people around me are important and deserving of respect and compassion.
I often think I have not changed much from the time I was religious, but humanism has opened my eyes to others and their differences. When I was growing up, “Protestant” meant “them”, “Catholic” meant “us”. Being “Irish” was different to being “English”, as was “American” or “Nigerian”. “White” and “black” and “asian” all carried different meanings – not always benign. Sexuality was spoken about in hushed tones. Similar distinctions could be made regarding disability and mental illness. Humanism has helped to blur these distinctions. It’s more important that we relate to people, not because they are Christians or Irish or Americans, but because they are humans like ourselves. Likewise it’s important to acknowledge differences, but to realise that siblings from the same family are often more different than two people from different backgrounds and different continents who happen to meet, have a laugh, and fall in love with each other.
As a humanist, the greatest distinction I make is between people who want these things, and those who want the old orders to prevail. I am not sympathetic to those who advocate for theocracy, the exclusion of women or the suppression of sexuality along narrow lines. I oppose those who believe the world is to be exploited with little thought for long term consequences. I am appalled by traditions of mutilation and ostracisation that still prevail, despite the misery they wreak. People who put their ideologies ahead of universal education are a danger to us all, no matter how well meaning those ideologies are. Our shared humanity should always trump the thoughts that are in peoples’ heads. It’s people that are important – not their beliefs.
On World Humanist Day, I’m celebrating my humanism and the amazing fact that I can share a tiny sliver of time on this planet existing with other wonderful and fascinating creatures, some of whom also happen to be humans. I long for a day when this sense of belonging, humility and cooperation is shared by all the governments of this world. Unfortunately we have a long way to go.