by Edd Doerr
Here are the headlines of two stories in the New York Times on July 29: "Judge Dismisses Atheists' Suit Against Texas Governor's Prayer Rally" (five columns); "Atheists Sue to Block Display of Cross-Shaped Trade Center Beam in 9/11 Museum" (five columns).
On July 28 the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM in Washington featured a one hour discussion on atheists and atheism with four assorted representatives of humanist and atheist groups. One local humanist who contacted me after the show said that the participants in the discussion, all atheists, came off sounding "defensive" and "poor-little-us-whiny".
My reaction to the show is that by concentrating on something that humanists and freethinkers do not include in their lifestance, the participants gave listeners a very narrow and limited perspective on what humanism is all about. The show did not get to issues that really grab people at this time, such as the ridiculous dispute over the debt ceiling, jobs, the slow economy, the massive new assaults on public education and reproductive choice in Congress and state legislatures, climate change, resource depletion, peace, environmental degradation, GLBT rights, etc.
Putting atheism ahead of everything else weakens the positive thrust of humanism, of naturalistic humanism is its various manifestations (humanist organizations, Ethical Societies, Unitarian Universalist and Humanistic Jewish congregations, etc). We humanists share many values and concerns with people who identify as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or simply shun labels. It is the common concerns and challenges that should be put forward.
Representatives of humanist organizations need to get over a whiny parochialism and put into practice the lessons of "framing" issues as George Lakoff does in his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" or that Alfred Korzybski taught decades ago in "Science and Sanity" and the General Semantics movement.
There is some merit in the lawsuits mentioned in the Times stories, but these issues are not central to core humanist concerns today and concentration on them to the exclusion of more pressing matters may at the end of the day work against the advancement of humanist values. I have spent over half a century fighting for church-state separation, and over that span of time have learned lessons about strategy and prioritizing that some of the new kids on the block need to pay attention to.