Why is it important to identify as such?
As a black man who previously identified as a born-again Christian, I know the value, privilege and moral authority that such designation earned me in certain circles. Once you leave a faith, in some ways it leaves you with a gaping void that you too often rush to fill with another metaphysical assertion for the unexplainable mysteries of our universe. I lost my faith in an internal war between an emotional desire to carry the crimson cross of a religious and cultural expectation of me and the rational necessity to only believe what I could sufficiently justify with reason and evidence. I presume you can hazard a guess who won.
I am not a Christian and in the absence of this underlying metaphysical foundation, I sincerely flirted with the idea of spirituality untethered to religious dogma. I found myself constructing meaning out of equally unfounded claims about the universe, trying to desperately to be “naturally supernatural” as the agnosticism I was defaulting to just didn’t seem sufficient, sexy or impressive enough. Saying I didn’t know the ultimate answers to the biggest questions just felt like fresh skid marks on white undergarments when every religion had a neat set of assorted, ancient assertions often with insanely incompatible implications. I wanted a spirituality that was all-encompassing and would most explain and encapsulate my African identity and cultural values yet was informed by the scientific method and unreliant on the so-called supernatural.
When forced to consider how nearly everything we now take for granted, every comfort, every technology, every disease understood, cured and immunized, every agricultural success story and trip to the moon have all come about through the mechanism of the scientific method coupled with reason. That’s good enough justification to look to science for the truth as it relates to navigating the world we live in now and only consider a world to come if science gives us license to speculate.
To this end, humanism is what best explains the most compassionate, progressive, just, egalitarian and liberating of our collective efforts and outcomes across all cultures, classes, creeds, and countries. As our religions and societies have moved towards acknowledging and valuing the dignity of all humans equally we have seen the abolition of slavery, improving gender and sexuality equality, and the stabilizing of more democratic governments. These improvements are not because the dogma of most religions has improved but in spite of its immutability. We really don’t give ourselves the credit we deserve.
Many religious people struggle to make sense or relate to the morality found within the pages of their scriptures for exactly this reason: we have largely outgrown much of the divine commands to subjugate women, lynch homosexuals and capture & bequeath slaves in the name of our personal favorite, usually male deity. This isn’t to say there isn’t good found in scripture, and that’s because humans have always been capable of good and bad ideas. Thankfully, we are getting better at identifying the bad ones and weeding them out unless of course, we retain systems that memorialize them and demand we carve them into our idols and traditions.
Humanism can be defined as a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality.
It is also the belief that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainty and that all opinions are open to revision and correction. Humanists see human flourishing as dependent on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus.
Secularism is built on three pillars:
Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.
Freedom to practice one's faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one's own conscience.
Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn't put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.
Secularism is important to me as I recognize that in any given society there is bound to be a degree of religious diversity including those who don't want religion to encroach on their personal lives. It is also likely that the religion of the majority dominant group will have marked involvement in the state and privilege as it relates to legislation, freedom to practice and oppressive to religious minorities.
In black communities, it is abundantly clear to most that irreligious people (atheists/agnostics) are a disadvantaged minority and often feel ashamed to "come out" for fear of ridicule, demonization, employment discrimination and difficulty to run for political office. I'm also aware that religious minorities within black communities such as Rastafarians often face disproportionate inequality, unfair legislation and limited freedoms in certain contexts and their rights deserve protection. Many governments have also incorporated the inhumane decrees of religious texts into legislation which pose significant inequality and harm to women and the LGBTQ+ community.
In closing, I believe the world becomes a better place the more humanist and secular we become with or without religion and certainly without the need for any supernatural petition or interference. It is my earnest hope that more black people see the value of both humanism and secularism and not see it as a threat to religious freedom but ultimately its greatest ally. There are many religious people who prioritize the humanist aspects of their religious obligations over the supernatural theocentric aspects and also recognize that separation of church and state protects the right to religion for all religious groups including their own.