This past Wednesday I was speaking at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. I had been given an invite by my friend Charles Neal. He is the moderator for the Interfaith Panel of Chattanooga and we have become good friends since I started attending the panels. My presentation was on “What Humanists Want You to Know About Humanism”. I was giving an introductory course on the difference between atheism and Humanism to members of the congregation and clergy. The lectures were split up into two 50 minute presentations. Charles recommended I keep the presentation short as he was certain there were going to be a lot of questions.
I put together a quick presentation (about 15-20 minutes) where I introduce atheism, explain the atheist stance and then introduce Humanism. Most people have not heard of Humanism but they know what atheism is. I find that starting with a frame of reference the audience has familiarity with is a good starting point and then I can walk them to something they’re not familiar with, such as Humanism. I also use this format when speaking at the Interfaith Panel. If I explain I’m a Humanist, most people have no idea what this means. However, if I introduce myself as an atheist, people have a concept of what that is and then I can lead them into understanding what Humanism is. I find this format of going from atheism to Humanism does two things: 1) It removes the stigma most people have associated with the atheist label, and 2) it provides a way for me to introduce Humanism as a moral and ethical guideline.
In each of the presentations there were approximately 50 people in attendance. It was a large enough audience that I felt I was able to reach quite a few people but at the same time it was small enough to feel less like a college lecture and more like a comfortable gathering.
At the end of the presentation I opened the floor for questions and I got quite a few good ones. The audiences were very inquisitive and I made it clear they were welcome to ask any question, no matter how uncomfortable since I knew they weren’t likely to get another chance like this. I only had one confrontational question but everyone else really wanted to know more about how to speak to atheists and Humanists, what we believed, what we had in common, and how we could get along. One of the memorable questions was a lady younger than me asked if it was ok to say “I’ll pray for you”. I answered that it depended on the tone of voice you use when saying that but you may want to avoid doing it as some of us might not like it no matter how it’s said. Both of the classes ran right up to the end and I had a few people come up afterwards and want to speak further.
I spent the rest of each class fielding questions and explaining in more detail about Humanism and atheism. I think they and I both learned a lot. They learned a lot more about a minority of the population they don’t get to interact with and I got to learn about the kinds of questions these people have.
I want to say that I really loved this event and I’ll be more than happy to do this again. I want to be the friendly face that can answer the tough questions. My personal goals are to remove the stigma of the “a” word and also provide a face to what a happy nonbeliever looks like. Many people have only been told what we’re like and the information is often incorrect. If I can change that for groups of people at a time, maybe I can make it just a little safer for others to come out and be open…