It was another Easter and my family had all descended upon my grandmother’s tiny North Carolina house for our annual gathering. As we all sat together on the cramped floor, participating in our ritual of watching “The Ten Commandments,” I looked around at my family and asked, “Really, is this what we really believe?”
This doesn’t make any sense. Why would Rameses not shudder from seeing the ocean open up before him? Why would he be so foolish as to send his soldiers after the Israelites? Didn’t he think that they might be drowned by God?
I was about 12 and always full of questions. I didn’t know anything about Rameses at this time, other than what I had learned in church, but I just couldn’t imagine a Pharaoh being so dumb. My grandmother said it was not that he was dumb, but that he was prideful and that “pride goeth before the fall.” I knew not to push too much because I had been taught that the word of God was sacred and not to be questioned, but in my head the questions remained, and as time went by, doubt crept in more and more.
As a teenager I often suffered from bouts of depression, partly due to my inability to cope with my father being in and out of my life, partly due to my feelings of being an ugly duckling, partly due to issues surrounding my ethnic identity….you see I was the only the one in my tiny hometown with a Latina mother and was often made to feel like I was “not quite Black enough”, and of course partly due to merely being a teenager! At the age of 15, this depression reached a boiling point and I decided that I had had enough. During a recent visit to my doctor, I had been given a prescription for medication to help with nausea. You see, the anxiety surrounding my depression was making it hard for me to keep food down and I was getting too thin. However, I noticed a curious side effect of this medication. It put me to sleep almost instantly. Then I had an “ah ha” moment. If I take the whole bottle, I’ll go to sleep for good! This fortunate side effect provided an attractive way out. After pondering the idea for about an hour or so, I proceeded to take a handful of the pills. When my mother and step-father came home and couldn’t wake me up they asked my younger sister what had happened to me and she told them what I had taken. They promptly rush me to the emergency room. My stomach was pumped and after a few days of counseling I was sent on my way. Because of this incident and other problems that I was having, my father decided that maybe I needed to come live with him for a while in Georgia.
Shortly before my arrival in Georgia, my father had begun his life of ministry with the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and wanting to be like my father, who I absolutely adored, I embarked on a path to seek salvation. Now remember the Easter story I mentioned earlier and the fact that I had always been full of doubt about my Christian upbringing. Despite my prayers for faith and understanding of God’s will, I had a hard time coping with my new role as the preacher’s daughter. This was complicated by the fact that I was still dealing with bouts of depression and it didn’t seem like my new role in the church was helping. However, as more time went by where I practically lived in church (I’m talking about Sunday service, choir practice, and Wednesday night bible study)…and after seeing how happy everyone else in church seemed to be, I though well, maybe if I give myself to god I too will be happy. So one Sunday morning, I took a tear filled stroll down to the alter and confessed out loud that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior. That was it. I was now “saved”! I had been washed in the blood of the lamb and yet I was not feeling very at all happy. Why? The problem was simple. The same doubt that I had at age 12 watching The Ten Commandments remained. I was not a true believer and I thought I would be damned forever because of it. For years I continued to pray for faith, prayed that the lord would come into my heart, but it never happened.
Eventually things started to turn around for me. While I was in college I met people with diverse backgrounds with various belief systems. The one thing that struck me most about them all was that they seemed equally convinced that their way was the right way, each one knew with complete certainty that they were on the right spiritual path. This piqued my curiosity and I decided to register for comparative religion. This course started me down a path that would eventually lead me to Buddhism, to Baha’ism, to being “spiritual”, to Deism, to finally Agnosticism and Atheism, and now Humanism. After spending so much time learning about ancient cultures and beliefs systems, reading various religious text, and studying the impact the world’s religions have had on humanity throughout history, I eventually said to myself, “you know what, none of this stuff makes any sense so why am I torturing myself.” Mind you, the key phrase here is that I said it to myself not out loud and not to anyone else.
Why would I keep something as fundamental as a major shift in my understanding of myself, my place in the world, and the very nature of my existence to myself?…..fear of being an outcast. For me, the acceptance that there was no god was a life saver. For the first time I was able to remove the shackles of depression that had held me prisoner for so long. It freed me of guilt and allowed me to freely express the fullness of my being without shame and with the threat of eternal damnation, and yet I could not share this with anyone. Well, at least not anyone that looked like me!
As I started to express my ideals with people in different parts of the world and from different cultures it became clear to me that I was not alone in my thinking. This was especially evident to me while I lived in rural China. For the first time I was living in a community where no one, as far as I could see, believed in any god, yet they were kind, peaceful, and happy! This experience left me empowered with a sense of purpose. I wanted for others to know that they too could let go of the teachings of false prophets and that they could let go of the worship of a god that didn’t exist, with all his misogynistic, homophobic, and petty ways. However, in dealing with my own people this would prove to be an overwhelming challenge.
I asked myself, “Why were people so hell bent on worshipping a god that justified their enslavement?....in worshipping a god that justified the stealing of their land and the displacement of their people?” “Why could so many I encountered not even conceive of a morality not based on religion?” Racism affects the very reality upon which one values him or herself within the given societal paradigm. Living in America, it is easy to become consumed with self-hate and defeat. So many of Black and Brown people give up on their lives before they really ever begin! Because of this, the promise of life ever-lasting can be extremely appealing and religion continues as a most effective mechanism for perpetual bondage, keeping the masses intellectually and emotionally enslaved.
Culture can be broken down into three main concepts. The cultural seed, which is the determinative and explanatory aspect of a culture that puts into perspective the cultural manifestations of a people in reference to their historical and cultural evolution; the way a people must think in order to manifest its cultural seed; and the will of the culture, purpose, and collective behavior of a people.
I believe humanism can be the new cultural seed, upon which we build a stronger sense of our humanity, a deeper understanding of our connection to each other and to the world in which we live. The more I learned and the more I observed, it became obvious that the very seed from which African American culture had been shaped was fertilized by Christianity. And as is always the problem with toxic fertilizers, it cannot simply be washed away because it now a part of the fruit itself. Black life and church life have become synonymous, and the only way to adjust for this is by planting a new cultural seed, one fertilized with concepts of freethought!
We need to lay the foundation for a cultural purpose that is reflective and supportive of all people. Our purpose has to be redefined to be one that seeks to redeem the human condition. To be one that frees us from racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophia and all of the ideological triggers of suffering. We must develop a collective consciousness that seeks to uplift every individual -- where it is no longer acceptable for wives to be burned, daughters to be stoned, families torn apart because of unfair and racist Immigration policies, women denied the right to control their own reproduction, prisoners to be used as slave labor, babies to die of starvation, and soldiers to be denied freedom of conscience, among others.
Changing the cultural paradigm requires an understanding that our morality comes from us, meaning that the similarities in moral codes across cultures are a requirement for human societies to function. Morality is not a gift from a divine creator, but is a combination of innate sensibilities and ever-changing combinations of value systems that enable human life. With advancements in scientific research, particularly in the areas of psychology, sociology and neuroscience, we are learning more and more about the complexity of our moral systems and it is through these human endeavors we seek to explain and understand, without religious assertion, what makes us who we are.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know humanism is not "THE" answer to all of humanity’s ill. However, I do believe that the world view embedded in the philosophy of humanism is currently our "BEST" hope for intellectual liberation…. liberation from teachings that uphold illogical, impossible, and irrelevant myths to be a factual basis to navigate reality. Why is this important? Why is there this push to inform others from a humanist perspective? For me the answer is simply this. "To each his [her] own" has no relevance to humanists because our world view is not narcissistic, it is not merely a synonym for Atheism. It is about a moral imperative to uplift humanity. Unlike religious people, we are not merely concerned with saving our eternal souls, and thus, cannot so sit and watch while the world in which we live continues to be consumed by hate, hunger, war, and disease perpetuated by antiquated religious dogmas that have no relevance in a civilized world.
In my personal journey as a humanist, my aim is to accentuate all that is positive in our world and uplift the oneness of humanity. As a humanist, I believe that is vital that fact, not fiction in the form of mythology, be the basis for how we as human beings define our world and our place in it. And yes, propelling this concept is where my mission lies! I recognize that everything that has led to the betterment of the human condition has come from scientific inquiry. Based on this recognition, I cannot sit idly by while others fabricate junk science and distort historical and archeological artifacts to "prove" their fallacious religious teachings, especially when these teachings are being used as the foundation for the public policy decisions that impact us all… doing so would be a disservice to everyone. I believe that this work is essential if we are to ensure that future generations can liberate themselves from dangerous and divisive teachings that only serve to perpetuate a chaotic world.
My embrace of humanism means that I can now function as a rational logical being....where I do not have to denounce the very essence of my humanity in some attempt to serve an imaginary master....where I can live my life to the fullest not saddled with self-loathing for my being born into sin....where I can raise my child without fear for spare the rod has no place in our home....where I can love without abuse because I do not have to follow the dictates of a faith that teaches me to serve my husband as I would the lord.
As a leader within the free thought movement, I seek to create awareness within the secular community that diversity and humanism are not mutually exclusive terms, to reinforce that the beauty of our collective human community comes from the richness of the divergent communities within it. And to stress that as humanists we have a moral obligation to ensure that the specific needs of the members of those communities are not ignored.
It is a fact that the cultural, and familial, pressures people of color face when they turn to reason rather than religion is uniquely troubling because of the central role religion plays in their communities. Descendants of those victimized by slavery and colonization in African, Latin America, Asia, and the US are reared in communities that have developed a social safety net wrapped in religiosity, a safety net that for many is their only source of information, skill training, and celebratory space. It is the place where they go to seek leadership opportunities, where they go to seek access to higher education, where they go to calm hungry bellies, where they go to network and seek employment opportunities, where they go to gain access to all the resources denied them by the society at large. To walk away from the only support system they have ever known, even when it comes with the price of intellectual stagnation, and repressive life options is not an easy one. For a divergent community to exclude its already marginalized members can be psychologically and emotionally overwhelming for those members, and needs to be counteracted by developing a structured support system. The isolation or dismissive attitudes, followed by continually being told "I'll pray for you!" can be very painful and there needs to be a safe space for people of color to integrate themselves into the humanist community. This safe space can only be accomplished by acknowledging the uniqueness of each individual’s experience on the path to humanism and by ensuring that all members of the humanist community have a voice.