Contents: UU World Back Issue

Humanists, go public

by Khoren Arisian

Members of humanist organizations read a lot of humanist literature in private. Because many of them are solitary folks at heart—who care little about coming together in groups to do anything, who frequently pride themselves on their isolation and their status as non-joiners, who are almost terrified of committing themselves organizationally or monetarily in support of needy causes—their joint effectiveness is practically nil, no matter how many e-mails they may forward from home to an unresponsive White House. Often too concerned with their own views, sometimes vehemently so, they do little on behalf of their philosophic posterity.

Involved as I have been professionally all my adult life in the liberal religious, ethical humanist sphere of endeavor, I have frequently noticed that liberal religious/humanist leaders often bemoan the fact that they don't have a “narrative” like that of major world religions. I submit that such yearning—namely, the notion that something old and comfortable is missing in one's life—is beside the point. We are not empty wine bottles waiting to be filled. Liberal religion is an entirely new spiritual dispensation on the world-historical scene. An inspiring, mostly untold saga of liberal religion lies before us, waiting to be seized and shaped from the moral, secular, and religious history of Western culture. This is our common narrative in which all ethical, nontheist, and humanist enterprises need to be resituated. It is mainstream, not tangential, even if it is not culturally and demographically in the middle.

What originally attracted me to Ethical Culture was its historic inclination toward activism and institutional outreach to the public. We are at a critical juncture in American life when, more deeply than ever, we of humanist persuasion need to go public with our most deeply felt convictions and enthusiastically seek out our fellow citizens to help spread anew the message of the democratic faith and its permutations. And if we don't know enough about that faith and don't realize how much it is entwined with the liberal religious legacy, let us educate ourselves and others. The Hebrew prophets, be it recalled, were not mere rabble-rousers; more important, they were political realists who spoke in the public square and educated the people. In effect, they were ethical educators. There's an old lesson here to be learned again.

From A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism, a collection of essays compiled by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Harry T. Cook, and Marilyn Rowens (International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and Milan Press, 2003), available from

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
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