Last evening I attended the biennial Humanism Award Banquet where the “Center for Inquiry—Northeast Ohio Humanism Award honors Northeast Ohioans who have played a significant role in helping to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” They were generous enough to present me with the award.
The guest speaker was Vyckie Garrison who used to be a prominent member of the Quiverfull Movement, a fundamentalist Christian group that assigns women to traditional roles and tells them to put Jesus in charge of their family planning by letting him decide when to open and shut their wombs, and encourages them to have as many children as possible. Vyckie had seven children before a series of events resulted in her leaving the movement and divorcing her husband. She founded the website No Longer Qivering to help other people who may be thinking of leaving the movement Last evening she recounted how she was slowly drawn in, became a true believer, and then left. You can read her story here, as part of a talk she gave on receiving the 2015 Atheist of the Year at the American Atheist National Convention.
Below are my own brief remarks after receiving my own award.
We are all familiar with the phrase “Seeing your life passing before your eyes”. That was the feeling I had listening to Mark introducing me. I know that we are all here to listen to Vyckie Garrison whom I have had the pleasure of hearing before and you will not be disappointed so I will not keep you long.
As Mark recounted, at the age of 25 I was ordained in Sri Lanka as a lay minister in the Methodist Church. Little did I think then that decades later, I would be receiving an award for humanism from a bunch of raging atheists, skeptics, humanists, rationalist, agnostics, freethinkers, and secularists. Did I miss any labels? But most of all, I consider you all my friends and am grateful and humbled by your selection of me for this honor.
Many of you have had the same journey that I have had, from religious belief of one sort or another to nonbelief of one sort of another. How and why it happened will vary but I suspect that all of us having reached that stage of will have asked ourselves: Now what?
It is true that realizing that there is no god makes a lot of sense and can be intellectually satisfying. At least that was the case for me when I realized that all the problems I encountered trying to reconcile my religious beliefs with my scientific knowledge disappeared in a puff of smoke when I adopted the simple hypothesis: “Hey, maybe there is no god!”
But after that what? I realized that the transition to nonbelief is not just an intellectual journey but has major practical consequences for how one lives one’s life, and that my atheism was not an end in itself but a means to an end. The realization that this life is the only one we have and that there are no Mulligans or do overs in the next life has major implications. One is that we are all incredibly lucky to be alive and one has to make he most of that opportunity and live that life to the fullest.
The other realization is that other people also have only one life and this has enormous consequences for how we live our own lives. If everyone has just one life, then it is our obligation to try and make sure that their lives are as good as possible. And this is where the fight for social justice comes in.
Many people live under situations of enormous injustices such as grinding poverty, discrimination and persecution based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and all the other things that are used to divide us. These things are all avoidable but the fight to eliminate them will not be easy because powerful forces want us to be divided so that our divisions can be exploited for their benefit. Being nonreligious means that we have to strive to end these injustices in the here and now, even though we may not be around to see our efforts succeed. But we have to have confidence that others will take the baton from us and keep going until the finish line is reached.
And it is important that we have fun doing so. As legendary journalist I. F. Stone said: “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”
So have fun fighting for justice, fellow skeptics! And thanks once again for this honor.
It was a fun evening, as is usually the case when I am with this group.