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The Humanist Obligation to Serve: Being "Good without God" Requires Action

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"I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion -- and where it isn't, that's where my work lies." -- Ram Dass

Ten years ago, in the summer before my freshman year of high school, I went with my church to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do home repairs and work with at-risk youth. We stayed and worked in what was then the poorest county in the United States of America, and it was a hugely educational and personally transformative experience.

Though the last ten years have seen me change my philosophy in several dramatic ways -- from born-again Christian to rejectionist atheist to my current work as a Secular Humanist and interfaith activist -- reservations in South Dakota continue to face similar challenges to those I encountered in my youth. Today, the poorest county in the U.S. has shifted a bit north: Ziebach County, home to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, hub of the Cheyenne River Reservation. Located approximately 200 miles northeast of Pine Ridge, Eagle Butte is geographically and economically isolated, enabling devastating poverty and social difficulties for its residents -- particularly for its children.

Fortunately, the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP) exists. Founded in 1988, the CRYP provides an after-school safe space for youth and offers artistic, athletic, nutritional and mentorship opportunities. As the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard to plan and lead a service trip to work at the CRYP last month.

The CRYP opened their doors to our group for a week, allowing several of our most skilled graduate students to not only assist in site maintenance and upkeep, but to serve as consultants to CRYP staff, designing materials to promote organizational sustainability and volunteer consistency. We also did a lot of direct work with the youth served by the program -- while I let kids dress me up in a ridiculous butterfly costume, bury me in foam stamps, and climb all over me (leaving me with purple bruises for weeks), others from our group encouraged the youth to open up about their lives, lost to them in ping pong, and cooked up a storm.

It was an incredible week; not only because of the work we were able to do, but also because of the tight bond we formed as a group. Both within our group and among those we collaborated with, I saw such profound love and reciprocity -- whether it was the conversations we had with fellow volunteers about the Humanist value of working to better the conditions of life for all, or the simple joy in a little girl's eyes when one of our student leaders, an Applied Physics Ph.D. candidate named A.J. Kumar, gave her a piggyback ride. At every moment, I was reminded of one of my favorite Gandhi quotes: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." Not only did we find ourselves -- we found one another, and those we worked in solidarity with. Our experiences that week truly put the "human" in Humanism.

A month after our trip, I am reminded once again of the fundamental importance of Humanist service work. Just a few days ago, I organized and ran a community service project for the American Humanist Association's (AHA) annual conference -- the first time the AHA has featured one at its annual conference. After years of attending interfaith conferences and Humanist/atheist conferences but only encountering community service events at the former, I realized that if my community wants to be seen as equally ethical individuals, we will need to make good on our values. That we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion -- for our own sake, if not in respect to how we're perceived by others.

It was open to the public, and of the 400 conference attendees, about 40 participated in the service project. I was very pleased with the turnout, and happy to hear many who couldn't make it express their belief that it had value; but someday, I'd like to see nearly everyone who attends the AHA conference participate in a group service project. I don't think it is sufficient to gather for education and fellowship -- we must also act upon the values we discuss.

This is a call to Humanists and atheists everywhere: Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people's mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge -- but not yet enough about love and compassion. The Humanist case for compassion and engagement is so compelling that it should be more than an afterthought.

Until we make this a priority, we will likely continue to be seen by many as mean-spirited and immoral -- and we will be hypocritical for making the criticizing of the religious our top priority while failing to act on our values with the incredible frequency that religious people do. In this year's groundbreaking American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell revealed that the religious easily beat the nonreligious in the arena of civic engagement -- that those actively involved in religious communities are much more likely than the nonreligious to volunteer their time to causes, give more money to charity (both religious and secular), and be more involved in their broader communities.

Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we've got no business saying that "religion poisons everything." We've got to shift our priorities and start focusing on how Humanism can make a positive contribution to the world. Otherwise, we give people no compelling reason to believe us when we say that we are "good without God."

HCH's student intern Charlotte Arsenault -- a future Humanist hospice Chaplain and one of the most compassionate people I know -- participated in the AHA conference service project, wearing one of our "Good (Without God)" t-shirts. While working, she was asked by a man: "Don't you think it's a bit presumptuous for you to say that you are 'Good'? Wouldn't you be better off saying you have the 'intention' of being good without God?"

She replied that because our organization emphasizes and engages in service work frequently, we can say that we are good without God; and that, perhaps more importantly, wearing the shirt is a reminder and a challenge to her to actually be good, to be a representative of Humanism, and to hold herself up to the standards that she expects from the Humanist movement. He said that he understood, and they proceeded to have a rich conversation on nonreligious ethics.

The Black Eyed Peas once asked, "Where is the love?" It may sound cheesy, but how we respond to this question through our actions will determine the direction and impact of the Humanist movement. And if we neglect the question altogether, I believe that we have no right to call ourselves Humanists.

Ten years after I traveled to South Dakota on a Christian mission trip, I can safely say that it and experiences like it have been more rewarding than any conference I've ever attended, as valuable as they often are. But communities like the one we have at Harvard, where the mutual goals of love and service remain at the forefront of our actions, present a hope I long to see actualized in religious and nonreligious communities alike -- for the sake of Humanism, and for the sake of all humans.

Around the Web

Council for Secular Humanism

Secular humanism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

What Secular Humanists Believe- Beliefnet.com