The Humanist Touch

Putting The Human Into Secular Humanism
by Judith Hayes

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 14, Number 1.

There is an old saying: "Out of everything good comes something bad; and out of everything bad comes something good." This was brought home to me rather forcefully when a friend, a freethought activist, recently fell ill and required major surgery. After the initial shock wore off I thought, What can I do to help? Living two thousand miles distant, I obviously couldn't offer a casserole or anything. But I wanted to do something. Now. And, being a writer, my first thought was to write something. But what? Get well soon? Then I hit on the idea of putting together a "Get-Well Album" and began soliciting contributions from freethinking humanists all over the country. As it turned out, it was a decision I was happy to have made.

I received cards and letters and emails from everywhere. The results were truly remarkable. People who had already sent their own personal get-well wishes nevertheless sent me additional contributions for the album. There were pithy quips, lovely poems, and heartfelt wishes - a sincere portfolio of caring. People really cared, and were willing to express their thoughts through my project. My "please-pass-the-message-along" request was obviously taken to heart, because I ultimately heard from people I had never heard of. These were total strangers to me, but we had a common bond - concern for a good friend.

Without realizing it, I was conducting a kind of experiment. My little album project was in effect testing "humanist compassion," a trait theists claim does not exist. I confess that I had the briefest twinge of worry. What if no one responded? What if only a handful did? Would I send that along? After all, I was asking people to do what was, for most of them, a duplication of effort. I could just hear, "But I already sent flowers!"

However, I needn't have worried. I think everyone understood my desire to put all these wonderful thoughts and good wishes into one pretty package. I had actually said in my appeal that I wanted to create the world's largest freethought get well card. I have no way of knowing if that happened, but the messages rained in like a spring shower on a bed of buttercups. People were wonderful. I added some colorful artwork (a carousel, roses, and so on) and the finished product was a great big, beautiful bundle of love. It was precisely what I had in mind. And it was received with sincere, gracious thanks.

This got me to thinking. Even when I was still a staunch Christian, lo these many years ago, I often thought the "I'll pray for you" line was overworked and a bit of a cop-out. It's a lot easier to pray for someone than to do their laundry. Robert Ingersoll's words of wisdom, Hands that help are better than lips that pray come into sharp focus when there is real human suffering around you. I often wondered back then, budding heretic that I was, if all of those hours spent praying for sick people might have been better spent, say, by washing someone's hair for them, or taking their dog to a vet appointment. Why pray, I thought, when the thing your bedridden friend perhaps needs most is a gentle backrub? These were undoubtedly heretical thoughts, but they also seemed to me to ring out with common sense. They still do.

And so as I assembled the many heart-warming messages for my ailing friend, it struck me that all of these thoughtful people were responding to my appeal not because they felt their God would frown on them if they didn't; and not because they were trying to earn merit badges that would be redeemable in some afterlife; and not because they had been extorted into it with threats of hellfire. They responded simply because they cared. They were motivated solely by human compassion and love. This was a wonderful realization.

We've all heard, When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But I learned something much more important. When there is human need, the place to turn is to humanists.

Judith Hayes is the author of a (now defunct) monthly Internet column called "The Happy Heretic" and of the book In God We Trust: But Which One? (1996).