Journeys towards humanism: the family that reads together
Journeys to Humanism, theHumanist.com’s regular series, features real stories of humanists from our community. From heartwarming stories of growing up to more difficult journeys, our readers open up about their experiences of humanism.
Saint-Louis Park, Minnesota
My parents were raised as a Christian Scientist (Dad) and Methodist (Mom), but they raised my Unitarian siblings and I at the First Unitarian Society (FUS) in Minneapolis, MN, a particularly humanistic congregation. We lived in a conservative community of Catholics, Baptists, and Lutherans and walked forty-five minutes (before the freeways) to FUS every Sunday, so we knew, at the cellular level, how important it was.
My parents were key role models for the values they believed in and introduced us to international, interracial and interfaith friends and activists through many different organizations and clubs. At that time, our church participated in the Church Across the Street program, in which we studied and visited the religious communities in which we lived. To me, each religion seemed to be pushing the same ideas (hope, community, etc.) in different packaging, like brands of soap.
My siblings and I were encouraged to build our own belief systems. I spent a lot of time trying to find out if there was a god. disorder inherent in life ― and, at fifteen, I finally allowed myself not to know the “Answers” (s). I decided that doubt and uncertainty were better than dogma. The books that influenced me were those by Maugham human bondage, Lee Kill a mockingbird, and Forbes’ Johnny tremain. In high school I read existentialism (Frankl, Camus and Sartre) and while I liked the emphasis on choice, I also noted that it was a philosophy of white men, those who had the more choice.
Religion separated us from our loved ones. My cousins were like my classmates, telling me I would go to hell (at worst) and need Jesus (at best). None of this made their religions attractive to me. My parents were better Christians in practice than their detractors (our parents). I think my parents and I read articles on religions defensively, as well as out of curiosity, and the more I considered the subject, the less impressed I was.
My family and I delved into the works of prominent atheist authors of the 1990s. My mother said that if she had read Kenneth C. Davis’ book on the Bible earlier, it would have saved her a lot of heartache. My dad read Will and Ariel Durant History of civilization At bedtime. Durant’s quote at the end of the chapter on the Inquisition was fundamental: “Intolerance is the natural corollary of strong faith; tolerance only grows when faith loses its certainty; certainty is murderous. Another vote to live in doubt, even humility.
Finally, I was and I am deeply feminist. This also oriented me towards humanism. My young adult years (1970-1990) were devoted to reading the works of women, after an education mainly dominated by men. I’ve read feminist theory, history, analyzes… everything from Ursula K. Le Guin to Shulamith Firestone and Merlin Stone. Nothing convinced me that I was missing something by not worshiping a male deity or living in a male dominated organization. I looked at the Ten Commandments and, in my forties, saw the absolute absence of a Commandment against rape. I was (and still am) disturbed by the anti-intellectualism of the Adam and Eve story, as if knowledge was bad. Anyone who reads the story, as we have done and as we do in my family, must be struck by how unhealthy organized religions are for anyone who is not a man.
I can respect the historical context, the beauty of the language (the Song of Songs, the Beatitudes, for example) without needing to believe. And I still believe that prayer, like meditation or self-hypnosis, is good for the person praying.
Believers like to say that there are no atheists in the burrows, as if we all yearn for the sheepfold at last, but this is not true of all of us. Both of my parents died peacefully as atheists, “lying down to have pleasant dreams.” I have had near-death experiences, trauma, serious illness and tragedy without the urge to turn to a god. Yes, I think it would be heartwarming to believe in “something good”, but I cannot, nor can I believe in the Tooth Fairy. And as a good Unitarian Universalist, I have friends who are Catholics, Amish, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics… and I am a humanist.