Locating a Humanist Identity within an Interfaith Space – Adam Fendos

Right now, I’m trying to figure out what it means to be a humanist. In my work with the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry over the past months, I have continually found myself constructing an identity based on what I am not (i.e. I’m not a Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/etc.) rather than what I am. This is fine when interpreting the world around me, but this lack of identity shows when it comes time to speak for myself.

I applied to join the CRGC because, despite my lack of faith, I believe religion has great capacity to affect positive change. Growing up, a great number of my friends and mentors were individuals I met through the Lutheran church. Furthermore, the church was the vehicle through which much of the volunteer work in my community was organized. What’s more, I continue to keep a Bible by my bedside -albeit right next to the Qur’an, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Bhagavad Gita- and despite my nonbelief in the underlying cosmologies, the wisdom of these texts cannot be denied.

Does enjoying the occasional church service, practicing meditation, and taking refuge in the Qur’an make me a bad non-theist? It’s hard to say. At a time when non-affiliation is the fastest growing religious group in the United States, there is a distinct lack of agreement about what it means to be a non-theist. What’s more, these individuals (myself included) are missing out on the social and personal benefits religion provides. With no reason to believe this trend will reverse anytime soon, I think it is critical for society at large to begin developing a humanist religious identity.

Relatedly, the terms “culturally Christian” or “culturally Jewish” (to describe individuals who do not believe in a faith’s creed but continue to practice its traditions) are becoming more common. These types of Christians and Jews clearly see some value in the faiths they have chosen to leave and have picked out certain practices to keep and secularize. This too is a response to the lack of a strong humanist identity, and while it provides a greater framework than anything else currently available to non-theists, it is only half a solution. Ultimately, a healthy humanist identity will require its own culture and customs, just like any other faith tradition. This could be as simple as giving gifts on the solstice rather than Christmas, but it could also mean creating our own holidays and accompanying celebrations to reflect values deemed secularly important.

As the country moves away from religion as a prominent means of social organization, those who believe in the secular human potential (i.e. humanists) need to find ways of filling the void left in religion’s wake. I think the first step in this creation is involvement in interfaith work to study and learn from others. If the CRGC’s weekly meetings have shown me anything, it is that the specific belief system of a religion is less important than the sense of belonging it provides its followers. That belonging should be available to all, regardless of their theism.

– Adam Fendos