By Jennifer Hancock
I am a Humanist. I am proud of that fact and I do not hesitate to label myself as a Humanist. Over the past few years I have met a lot of people who share my values as a Humanist, but who had just never encountered anyone who is willing to talk to them about Humanist values before.
Perhaps the main reason people have never come across the term “Humanist” before is because most Humanists don’t like to call themselves Humanists, preferring any number of other terms instead. And this isn’t just a problem we have in public, it is the basis of an ongoing debate in our movement regarding how best to conduct our outreach and of course, what we should call ourselves.
Personally, I think this internal debate is a waste of time. People are going to call themselves whatever they want regardless. Despite personally finding this debate rather silly, I recognize that it has negatively impacted our ability to share our philosophy with others. If we aren’t proud enough of our philosophy to call ourselves Humanists, we shouldn’t be surprised that the public’s knowledge about our philosophy is utterly lacking.
There are various reasons why Humanists shy away from using the word “Humanist” to describe themselves. First, we often treat words such as “atheist,” freethinker,” and Humanist” as interchangeable even though they aren’t. This co-mingling of meanings only causes confusion and leaves us, as individuals, to wonder which word will have a positive impact on our listeners? In my experience, one of the main reasons Humanists might choose to use another word, like “freethinker” instead of Humanist, is because they incorrectly think that “Humanist” carries negative connotations. And finally, there is the problem of confusing adjectives. Many Humanists are simply unaware that you can just be a Humanist, without the adjectives.
I think Humanism is a truly wonderful philosophy and I am hoping I can help others find peace with the word “Humanist.” After all, if we can’t convince our fellow Humanists to call themselves Humanists, then how can we hope to entice others to join our movement?
Our perception that the public at large regards Humanism negatively is simply untrue. Very few people I have met have heard the term before. And when people do hear the word “Humanist” for the first time, they will do what most people do when encountering an unfamiliar word, they guess at its meaning. You may be surprised to know that when people guess at the meaning of the word “Humanist” they almost always give it a positive connotation. After all, they are humans, so how bad could “Humanism” be.
Telling people I am Humanist has led to many wonderful conversations with complete strangers about all the positive attributes of our philosophy. I have had these conversations in supermarkets, fast food restaurants, bars, and children’s play groups. I have never experienced a negative response to the word Humanist; although mentioning Humanism does then obligate me to answer many follow up questions about the philosophy and what we value. Since most people have never heard the term before they normally just want to know more. For the few people who have heard the term, they are usually just confused about what exactly the philosophy is.
My personal experience with “Humanist” has been so positive that I would definitely recommend to other Humanists that they make it their word of choice when describing their personal views.
When it comes to adding an adjective I advise against it. The various adjectives people use to describe their humanism take the focus off of Humanist values and onto the connotations of the adjective itself. As far as I am concerned, if what is important is Humanism then we should simple talk about Humanism.
The other reason not to add an adjective in front of the word “Humanist” is because they are often confusing and in some cases, scary. “Secular Humanist” is a case in point. I personally think that “secular” is a wonderful word. Unfortunately, while “Secular Humanist” is one of the most popular adjective pairings, it is in reality, one of the worst words you can pair with “Humanist” in terms of its affect on your listener.
I once did some field testing of some phrases for an outreach piece I was working on and I was surprised to find out that not only do most people not know what the word “secular” means, their guesses at its meaning would frighten any Humanist. The people I talked to thought that “secular” is related to “sect.” And when paired with an “ist’ or “ism,” they assume it has to do with some sort of cult. Obviously, cults are not something any rational person wants to be involved with. This mass misinterpretation of the term, “secular Humanism” also explains how the religious right has so easily turned “secular Humanists” into their all purpose bogeyman.
Since most people think “secular” means sect, it is best to avoid it entirely. We certainly don’t want our Humanist movement paired in people’s mind with some sort of cult. For this reason I advocate against using the terms “secular humanism” or “secular humanist” to describe our philosophy or ourselves. Not only will the simpler “Humanist” suffice; it has the added benefits of eliciting very positive connotations for our audience.
We have enough hurdles to overcome without putting self-imposed obstacles in our way. If we really want to talk to others about Humanism we must start talking about Humanist values and not just about “Freethought, or “Atheism” or “secularism.” Humanism is worth talking about in its own. Further, if we are to grow our movement, we need to start talking about what really matters, and that is our ethics and our values as Humanists.
If we are to succeed, we must conduct our outreach in a way that gets people interested in what we are talking about while trying not to scare them or confuse them. Only labeling us as Humanists, plain and simple can accomplish this. Everything else is distracting and potential harmful to our cause. I am a Humanist. How about you?
Jennifer Hancock is a writer and Humanist activist. Her website, http://www.sumogirl.com/ contains the thoughts, opinions and creative pursuits of Jennifer Hancock, Gentlewoman. Included on the site are her Humanist counter to the advice given by televangelist Billy Graham and a weekly podcast “Humanist thought of the Week.”