Equality For All But Atheists

A couple days before the historic People’s Climate March in New York City, I was approached on the street by a woman who was putting up fliers about the march and who asked me if I was planning on participating. (I live in Connecticut and NYC is a relatively quick train ride away.) I told her that I could not make it, but that I am a member of some groups gathering troops to go and march together under the humanist banner.

She responded that she was a humanist. I was thrilled. Another one encountered in the wild. But without taking a breath she continued, “actually I do not know what a ‘humanist’ is. I do know that I don’t call myself a feminist because I believe in the equality of men and women.”

She asked me to explain what humanism is, since she calls herself one but doesn’t actually know what the term means. I started to explain about how humanism is an ethical tradition, but she interrupted me to continue: “I believe in the equality of all people. I extend that equality to plants and animals. We need to recognize the spirit of all living things and their equality.”

I was starting to like this woman, though thinking that it wouldn’t hurt her to interrupt less and listen more. I liked where she was coming from. I also believe in the equality of all people. I wouldn’t use the word “spirit,” but I also believe animals and plants need to be valued. We need to recognize our symbiotic relationship before it is too late. But I’m getting off topic. After decreeing the equality of all living things, my newly discovered humanist abruptly took us in an unexpected and unsettling direction.

I think atheism is the biggest evil facing our society today. Atheists are grotesque.”

Where did that come from?

I am not going to relay the details of how our conversation ended. I will say I did not reveal that she was talking to an atheist. She didn’t really give me an opportunity. But there are a few aspects of this exchange worth talking about.

To begin with, this is not the first time the “humanist” label has been used by someone who doesn’t understand the history and current usage of the world. Just last week, Joseph Gordon Levitt made waves when he tweeted about how he learned about the definition of humanism. I do wonder how this woman would feel if she knew that what the label embraced describes a movement of consciousness presently chock full of self-described atheists.

I do regret not relieving her of her ignorance. But I’m not sure if, with the opportunity to do it over again, I would do anything differently.

On reflection, I believe the reason I didn’t say anything was because of her use of the words “evil” and “grotesque.” I think I was worried that someone who used such words to describe a group of people could conceivably turn violent if made aware that she was unwittingly aligning herself with such a group. Combine that with the simultaneous knowledge that she was speaking to such an evil, grotesque person, and I had no idea how extreme her reaction would be. This is a situation every atheist faces when choosing when, whether, and to whom to reveal their beliefs. And not always do you have such a clear understanding of the other’s position on atheism before opening (or not opening) your mouth.

But even that fear and misunderstanding of atheism isn’t what most concerns me about this conversation. What most concerns me, is that this is a woman who claims boldly that she believes in the inherent equality of all people—who even includes plants and animals in this equality. Yet, atheists are grotesque “things” off the equality spectrum that she assigns to the entire universe. How can these two convictions exist together in one person? How can a person who stridently advocates for recognizing the equality of all—including non-human life—viciously and categorically leave out a vast and growing group of people?

I hope this woman met the humanist contingent at the climate march, because I believe the climate march is exactly the kind of space where her hateful beliefs might begin to change. Ideally she met a humanist and commiserated about the state of environmental justice and hatched plans to make it right. Ideally they bonded over their concern for the environment (if only because of its impact on us humans). Ideally then, and only then, did she ask what humanism was. Because getting the answer then maybe startled her enough to reevaluate her beliefs even the tiniest bit.

This opportunity, albeit fantasy in this case, is why I want to talk about the climate march. Much has been said of the march itself and I don’t need to add my voice to that chorus except to say that I support its goals and hope it is the beginning of some real change in policy and attitude when it comes to making and keeping our planet healthy. I do want to talk about what the march represents beyond climate change.

At the march there were likely representatives of almost every incarnation of the human experience. 400,000people of every race, age, gender, religion, and even politics marched in NYC and thousands more marched in at least 166 parallel demonstrations around the world. Immigrant rights groups came. So did labor unions. Student groups, seniors, artists, scientists, native communities, and, yes, faith groups. Conservatives marched too, though they may have kept a low profile.

The humanists did assemble and marched among a larger group of interbelief participants. That means there were humanists marching alongside Muslims who were marching alongside Sikhs who were marching alongside Jews who were marching alongside Mennonites. And it doesn’t end there. Everyone in the interbelief contingent was marching alongside the other groups assembled because of their commitment to environmental justice.

For me, humanism is about equality. The core challenge humanists face is realizing that equality. The increasing support for the environmental justice movement, demonstrated by the turnout and coverage of the People’s Climate March excites me for that realization. Environmental justice is a worthy and important cause on its own merits and that conversation should be held loudly and with immediacy. But the conversation also provides an important opportunity for realizing human equality.

We all live on this planet together. We all experience the effects of climate change and environmental ravishing differently, unique to our own circumstances, but we all face the same problem. So we all have a role to play in the solution. The conversation we all must have about the solutions for environmental justice is an opportunity for even more. It is an opportunity for people who are different—who have different ideas, different life experiences, different beliefs—to meet each other through their similarities. When we meet because of a shared problem our differences become an afterthought. The differences are still there, and they can be discussed later, but our relationships will form before our differences have a chance to drive us apart. And with those relationships formed, we have a real chance to realize equality.

This was originally posted with State of Formation.

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