“Humanism’s Chasm” (February/March 2019), my editorial speculating that generational factors may explain why membership in national humanist and freethought organizations has remained relatively static while the number of young Americans not identifying with traditional religion has skyrocketed, elicited thoughtful and articulate responses. Here are two, drawn from each side of the generational divide. One essay was contributed by Fred Whitehead, a longtime freethought historian and activist. Among many other things, he was our most knowledgeable guide when CFI’s Martina Fern and I toured sites for a possible Freethought Trail in Missouri and Kansas in October 2017 (see my “A Trail for the Heartland,” April/May 2018). The other essay was contributed by Sarah Myers, a twenty-five-year-old woman who generally avoids print magazines and saw my editorial only because her father, a Free Inquiry subscriber, urged her to read it. I invite you, too, to respond.
No Title — Sarah Myers
I am a twenty-five-year-old female, half-white, half-Vietnamese, and a self-identified skeptic and atheist. I worked and volunteered for a Midwestern skeptics conference, Gateway to Reason, as its marketing director in 2017, but since 2015 I have involved myself with the skeptics community, meeting many of the leaders of the movement, some of whom have columns in your own publication. My observations have led me to agree with Tom Flynn’s perspective that the demographic of self-identified Nones is meeting a standstill in growth namely due to lack of content that is appealing and interesting to people in gender, culture, and generation.
The way in which I express my skepticism is different than that of the Baby Boomer generation. In fact, I only came across Flynn’s article because my Baby Boomer father subscribes to Free Inquiry; he frequently is the one telling me to read the articles, some of which I do and some of which I do not. I feel that the topics of these types of magazines are ineffective with my generation because religious oppression is largely not a pressing problem that Millennials face today in Western society. It is true that “religion is nowhere near as weighty a concern for most younger unbelievers as it was for their elders,” because our problems are different. We face problems mostly in materialism, mental health, and political crises that the freethinking movement could address but for some reason chooses not to.
Materialistic concerns are pressing for this century and generation due to the increase in time spent on social media rife with brands and commercialism, where advertisements prey on the very demographics that the freethinking community has trouble reaching. These ads attract young women so well, far from the reach that a freethinking magazine would be able to at this point, that the clothing and make-up industries profit on this demographic in the literal millions of dollars! Clothing, make-up, and materialistic items are screaming at us with every newsfeed, storefront, and digital magazine that steps into our field of vision. There is no force that encourages women to be skeptical of these markets.
I started a blog and website devoted to skeptically inquiring into these manipulative consumer forces by promoting values opposed to the materialistic, superficial, and frivolous values that fast-fashion and make-up companies transmit through excess and waste. The anti-values I came up with actually were rooted in my skeptical upbringing. They were environmentally and sustainably oriented and required that I become educated in the science of household goods: clothing, food, and shelter. Women and minorities of this generation do not have the interest in spending time contemplating whether or not there is a god when our concerns are much more materialistic and practical to everyday living. Women do much of the shopping for the family structure. In fact, Harvard Business Review says that women make more than half of the decisions for household goods, furnishings, vacations, and other materialistic concerns. I found that was true when I went on my own endeavor to inject critical thinking into my own materialistic daily living. I suspect it is not that women do not care about upholding high freethinking or critical rigor in their lives; it is just that that critical rigor is not applied to topics (or things) that matter to them. There are already communities on the internet, such as on Instagram, that cater to shoppers committed to sustainable principles (hashtags include #ecoconscious and #ecofashion). Sustainability and global warming have largely been concerns of the freethinking community because of the science rooted in the cause. Perhaps if we can include more ways in which women can participate, we may then take an interest to the broad field of what skepticism and freethinking have to offer beyond what seem (to many in my generation) the frivolous activities of armchair philosophy.
Millennials, as you mention, have been given ample freedom to live in whatever spirituality they choose. The problem of social isolation is very large for my generation, including its effects such as depression and anxiety. If you look at one of the most effective social outreach structures (the churches), they extend their interests more broadly than the questions of God and scripture. They do community service overseas on mission trips. They hold charity events. They have auctions and parties. But most importantly, they do all of this so that they get young people involved from their earliest ages. Why is it a mystery that churches get more young people involved when it is social support that curbs depression and it is on social media that stereotypically many of our atheist and freethinking leaders spend most of their time outreaching to their audience? Check out how the world knows us with this list of “10 Times Atheists Online Were More Annoying Than Your Religious Aunt” (http://www.collegehumor.com/post/7039423/10-brave-atheist-warriors-who-100-confirm-there-is-no-god). I, for one, would be so relieved if there were more organized and fun events that included music, culture, and themes that appeal to my demographic. Personally, I think I am not the only one starving for like-minded friendship. It is why the skeptic conferences I go to are so beneficial to me … those conferences are where I have made a large number of my friends today. If there were more regular events like that locally (outside of the university) for youth and young professionals who enjoy discussing big ideas and politics—with music and drinks—it would create a reputation and fill a need that my generation lacks.
So, the fact that the rising of the Nones does not correlate with a rise in membership in freethinking organizations or subscriptions to freethinking publications is no surprise to me. There are no real-world, hospitable, open, and friendly community organizations that are devoted to social welfare—free from the debating, yelling, side-taking arguments that atheists are so notoriously known for.
Lastly and briefly, the political state of this generation is obviously in a crisis. Extremism is rampant in the far Left and the far Right, and there are minimal opportunities to unite the sides together that appeal to a critical, freethinking consumer of politics. The politics of secularism needs to go beyond separation of church and state … it needs to go deeper and promote the essential values of what brought us together in the first place, which is critical thinking, science, and humanism.
I think if the freethinking community could address these issues, then at least there would be a starting point to getting more women, minorities, and young people involved.
Sarah Myers is a writer, activist, and aspiring neuroscientist. She has written for various publications, including Huffington Post, Eclectica Magazine, Psych ’n Sex, and more for her science communication, human rights journalism, and creative nonfiction. She is an advocate for mental health, eco-fashion, and the interdisciplinary nature of the humanities and sciences. She was raised a skeptic, atheist, and academically oriented and applies her skepticism to overlooked industries of thought.
No Title — Fred Whitehead
Tom Flynn’s column “Humanism’s Chasm” addresses some issues that have perplexed and intrigued me for some decades. Hence a few observations and reflections.
First, on the issue of why the organized humanist movement remains small in formal membership even while many polls and surveys indicate the numbers of those who share many of its ideas and principles has risen: I recall Jefferson’s expectation that Unitarianism would one day become prevalent in the United States (!). Needless to say, that hasn’t exactly happened, yet in one sense it has, through the steady expansion of humanist and secularist culture in this country.
Over the years, I’ve given talks on freethought to various small Unitarian groups and have noted that often their core is New England Yankees stranded in places such as Fayetteville, Arkansas. In a way they are Brahmins in exile, valiantly upholding progressive ideas in areas remote from their Boston and New York homelands. I appreciated and respected them, yet I wondered, as they did, why their numbers remained so small.
Those visits occurred in the 1990s, when I was traveling through the American South on the trail of freethought’s history in the region. Various forms of Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism attracted far more people and, indeed, dominated the area then as they do now. To some extent the social base of such religious expressions was in the trailer courts, the isolated farms and mountains—that is, among the wretched of the Earth. The people there, always “on the margin” of existence, sinned, cried out to be saved, and were saved, only to fall from grace right back into the arms of Satan. Consider the fiction, for example, of Flannery O’Connor, the audiences of the television preachers black and white, and so on.
The Unitarians, however, never having known sin, were among the Elect, far distant from the cyclical sin, wickedness, and salvation of their neighbors. Without being exactly snotty about it (though sometimes they were), they just did not share that psychological pattern of behavior and being.
Thus it is, as Flynn observes, that many Boomer humanists remain obsessed with chronicles of how they escaped from religious fanaticism, guilt-tripping, and the rest of it. It continues to be a major personal preoccupation.
I am convinced that until the humanist movement somehow engages with the emotional and economic turmoil of the poorer part of our population, we will not grow. With the resurgence of various forms of socialist thought and politics (as with the notably dramatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), humanism needs to develop an organic relationship with these new and mostly young people who are rejecting the neo-liberal consensus and its counterpart, right-wing religious fanaticism. We need not only to ask the right questions but to join with many others not just like ourselves to find the answers.
I myself don’t have those answers, though I do have some suggestions. Solutions will emerge from social engagement and struggle.
A couple other observations: In recent decades I have spent some time in Europe, mainly in France and Britain. In both countries, I note that there is a much broader and deeper sense of humanist politics and culture, especially in their historic achievements. In France, for example, the National Federation of Free Thought not only has a monthly journal, La Raison, which gives significant space to historical articles and information, but it has its own research institute, which sponsors events and an important series of publications.
Back in the 1990s, I attended a summer gathering at the now sadly defunct annual meeting of the Alabama Freethought Association, in the country outside Talladega. A French family also came from Atlanta, to which they had recently moved. The young mother of this family was clearly somewhat traumatized by the fanatical right-wing Christianity of Georgia—and by how different it was from the modern secularist France she had known. She was particularly worried about how this would affect her children. I asked her, not being clear about this myself, if high school students in France studied philosophy—Voltaire, Rousseau, and the like. Almost indignant, she replied: “Of course they do!” Can we claim that American high school students ever read Thomas Paine, or even Jefferson, let alone Pragmatism?
If we are serious about renewing, reviving, and renovating American society, we will have to see to it that the great heritage of humanism and freethought is taught universally in our schools. Similarly, we will have to develop new media, including new feature and documentary films for public television, much of which has been taken over by pitch-men and -women for various self-help nostrums and panaceas.
As it is, even if much of American culture is slowly being “secularized” and is moving away from religion, what has replaced it is a mean and sordid consumerism, fascination with and promotion of vapid celebrities and sex scandals, corruption, and decadence.
A final observation: Flynn notes how young people now have a really different culture from their Boomer grandparents. They exist in cyberspace, which at the same time that it offers all the resources of the world (Google searches, Wikipedia, and the like) it also offers the Weapons of Mass Distraction (gaming, social media, and so on). Thus, secularization has become broad but shallow. Furthermore, the young have no (or at best, little) interest in print, whether books or magazines. And they point-blank refuse to pay money to buy or subscribe to print. (I’ve also found that they will not buy original art, preferring to simply download images from the internet for free.) In an odd way, they are becoming communists without knowing it (!). Old-line elite magazines such as The New Yorker attempt to be “hip” and run articles on young “woke” people, artists, rap musicians, and so on—but I doubt if they are really reaching anyone by doing so. Any more, The New Yorker does manage to publish a “high culture” article in most issues, but it seems more and more marginalized.
Thus, I suppose the main challenge is: Can we build a bridge from the humanist culture we have inherited—all that great literature, philosophy, music, and art—to the new culture? One way forward I can see is to foster and give due credit to the universalist multi-cultural world that is emerging. We don’t have to forget or ignore the Old, Dead, White Males, but we must recognize that we are truly moving into a World Culture—yes, in literature, philosophy, music, and art—and that is the path to survival.
Fred Whitehead is a native of Kansas, coeditor of an anthology, Freethought on the American Frontier (Prometheus 1992), and for several years published a newsletter, Freethought History. He also directs John Brown Press, which issued an anthology titled The Poetry of Resistance.