A few months ago, a friend asked me to be the “guest Humanist” in the religious education class he was teaching: “Building Bridges,” the course in which UU pre-teens are introduced to major world religions and philosophies.
I was told not to assume that the 11-year-olds had any prior knowledge of Humanism. What could I assume they knew? Well, my friend told me, they had already covered several other religions. He rattled off the list, and after hearing “Christianity,” I decided to begin with a story about Jesus. In the Gospels, a man asks Jesus what the most important commandment is, and Jesus tells him that it’s to love God. The second most important commandment, he says, is to love your neighbor.
Over the centuries, I told the kids, many different religions had come up with a similar two-step process for living a religious life.
Step one: love God. Once that love of God is established, it motivates step two: be good to other people.
Sometimes that works really well, particularly in communities where everyone has very similar ideas about God and how to show love for God in worship and ritual. But as the world gets more cosmopolitan, more and more often people find themselves surrounded by folks with very different ideas about God, worship, and ritual. It’s far too easy for believers to get so caught up in arguments about God that they get stuck in step one, and never make it to the second step at all.
But what if, I suggested, we started at step two instead?
In a nutshell, that’s the practice of Humanism: learning how to love other people, be good to them, and treat them with respect, whether they resemble us or not, and even—this part is very important—if they don’t necessarily believe the same things we do.
In community, doing a proper job of loving God together requires us to agree on all sorts of contentious topics: what God is like, which books and prophets do the best job of describing God, which institutions can speak most authoritatively in God’s name, and so forth.
On the other hand, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, educating the ignorant, seeking justice for the injured, and in general trying to give as many people as possible a fair shot at a satisfying life—those may not be simple jobs, but by comparison they’re relatively straightforward. So let’s start there.
But if we do that, what happens to the first step? Have we skipped it once and for all?
Not necessarily. When we start working together on step two, much is possible. In the cool of the evening, at the end of long days well spent, we might compare notes on the deep spiritual wells from which we draw our motivation. One person might mention Jehovah or Jesus, another Allah or Buddha, a third Reason or karma or the Form of the Good. And in the glow of the day’s shared achievements, we might find ourselves listening to each other in a whole new way.
This approach allowed me to avoid the common misconceptions of Humanism, so I didn’t have to lose time denying them. I’m not a diehard rationalist who ignores the softer, heart-centered parts of life. I don’t resent God, or blame God for whatever’s gone wrong with my life—and I don’t worry about Hell.
I also avoided the big-question discussions that help other kinds of religious people categorize each other, but miss the point of Humanism. I don’t know where the Universe came from, and I’m not sure what happens when people die. Even if I develop theories about such things, they’ll just be my theories, not the teachings of Humanism.
So instead of talking at length about what Humanists don’t believe and don’t know, I managed to get right to what we’re trying to do: love our neighbors. The class didn’t seem to have much trouble grasping that notion.