Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why I'm a humanist

One of my favorite things to teach in both my freshmen and senior English classes is The Heroic Cycle. Essentially, it's a series of notes that I created that are essentially adapted from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. I realize that there are some legitimate criticisms of it, and it borders on oversimplifying things, but I find that when it comes to teaching high school students it's a good start for getting them to think about stories in ways that they haven't before.

Even though the school where I teach is not as diverse as others, I like to emphasize that even though we learn about the Greek myths and Norse myths (I go heavier on the Greek with the freshmen and heavier on the Norse with the seniors) that they have elements in their stories that can be found in stories all over the world. I tell my students that it doesn't matter what part of the world their ancestors came from - those ancestors of theirs told stories, hero stories in particular.

I'm also keen on telling them that this shouldn't be so surprising considering that when it comes down to it, we're all the same species and when you go back far enough, we're all related. It only makes sense that if we're all telling stories that we'd find some commonalities in those stories.

I don't just say this as a way to get them to appreciate myths and storytelling though. Sure, it's a way to get those who aren't of European descent to find something to connect to, and that's part of the point as well. For me though, the one thing that I hope seeps in is inherent in the idea that I expressed in the previous paragraph - we're all related. We're all of the same species. Sure, some of us might have a little more Neanderthal in our DNA, but none of us are so different as to constitute a different animal.

I've written in a couple of recent posts that I'm finding myself identifying more and more with being a humanist. I've resisted this label for some odd reason for the longest time. When I finally broke away from my faith, I quickly became so comfortable with the word "atheist" that I practically wore it like a badge of honor. It's not that I've suddenly become shy about that word, as it still fits me. But as I've noted before, it's a word that describes my answer to only one question. When it comes to being a humanist though, that gives a bit more of a description of how I see the world. One of the definitions from Google is as follows:
an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
I've run into disagreements with religious friends who think that somehow as an atheist I'm incapable of finding value or meaning in life because I don't subscribe to a supernatural explanation. I don't see why the explanation has to come outside of ourselves. The key thing is that we can see the "potential value and goodness". It doesn't mean that we ignore all of the screwed up things that humanity has done. It means that we look at the good, and we say: "Hey! We can do it! We need to do more of that!" It's looking at what's there and deciding for ourselves that it's worth pursuing.

Where do we find this goodness? It's everywhere if you just pay attention. It's in the stranger who helps you pick up a bunch of stuff you just dropped (just happened to me yesterday). It's in my son standing up for his preschool teacher when the other students call her names. It's when people work together to help one guy who's stuck in the train station's gap. It's everywhere, and people do these things without stopping to think about it first. There's something decent and worthwhile in us, and it's time to stop pretending that we're inherently corrupt or immoral. Even if we are, we have shown that we can overcome that.

Ultimately what I like about humanism is that it rejects tribalism. Even if somebody doesn't want to think of himself or herself as a humanist, the humanist will still look at them as "one of us" because there's only one criteria to be found worthy and of value. I also am leaning toward this label, if I gotta have a label, because it gives me something to endorse rather than something to tear down (which is what's inherent in writing about atheism).

And if you need a quick reminder of the humanity that unites us all, this is what does it for me. Yeah, you've probably already seen them. Watch them again.

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