Are We All Humanists?

By Robert Bernstein   |   October 19, 2021

A horrific attack by fanatical Muslim Americans in San Bernardino in December 2015 raised concerns that there would be counterattacks against innocent Muslims. In typical Santa Barbara fashion, we had a solidarity rally to show support for Muslims. Local Imam Yama Niazi welcomed people, noting the presence of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and many Christian denominations.

I looked at the crowd in De La Guerra Plaza and noted how many were members of our Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. I shouted out “Humanists” to add to his list. He instantly responded, “We are all humanists!” I was delighted.

I am not sure if he knew that there was such an organization. He just knew that any reasonable person would be a humanist. I would like to agree.

Many people think that religion based on the Ten Commandments is essential for a “moral” society. But is that true? I have asked people who say this what they mean. Their answer: “Don’t Kill. Don’t Steal.” That is two. What about the rest? Some commandments are not acceptable in the modern world. Like the commandment to only worship the God of Abraham. We no longer close all stores on the Sabbath. And there is no longer any legal prohibition on having sex with someone who is not your spouse (pre-marital sex).

Meanwhile, the Ten Commandments miss a lot. Where is the commandment to protect the environment? To protect human rights? To participate in democratic governance? To treat other living things humanely? Or even to wash your hands before eating?

Could you create a better list? The American Humanist Association offers “The Ten Commitments”:

Altruism: I will help others in need without hoping for rewards

Critical Thinking: I will practice good judgment by asking questions and thinking for myself

Empathy: I will consider other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences

Environmentalism: I will take care of the Earth and the life on it

Ethical Development: I will always focus on becoming a better person

Global Awareness: I will be a good neighbor to the people who share the Earth with me and help make the world a better place for everyone

Humility: I will be aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of others

Peace and Social Justice: I will help people solve problems and handle disagreements in ways that are fair for everyone

Responsibility: I will be a good person—even when no one is looking—and own the consequences of my actions

Service and Participation: I will help my community in ways that let me get to know the people I’m helping

How do you feel about each of these Commitments? Does this seem like a superior basis for ethics? Do you disagree with any? Are any missing? How do you feel about the tone? Note that each Commandment begins with a threatening figure demanding Thou Shalt (Not). Whereas each Commitment is an invitation personally to affirm what sort of person “I” want to be.

The Imam opened his speech saying: “I’ve been a Muslim all my life.” We may look at a diverse kindergarten class and marvel at the Hindu and Christian children playing together. What does this mean to be a Hindu child? Would we refer to a child as an epiphenomenalist? A topologist or botanist? Clearly, one must have some maturity to decide on a world view or identity.

How many of us have stayed with the religion of our birth by pure inertia? I freely admit that I consider myself to be Jewish by heritage. And if I hear an anti-Semitic comment, I become very Jewish. But that is very different than my value and belief system.

“Nones” are people who don’t identify with any religion. Nones are the fastest-growing “religious” demographic now in the U.S. Better to be “none” than to be a member of a religion you disagree with. But is it also worth taking the time to affirm what we do believe?

We just had a Humanist Society talk by UCSB professor Dr. Ann Taves: “Non-Ordinary Experiences of Non-Believers.” It seems that non-believers have just as many such experiences as believers. But they interpret them very differently. I am the first to raise my hand and say that I do not understand the true nature of reality nor of consciousness. As a Humanist, I use this as a starting point to explore many possibilities. How about you?


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