Charleston UU talk   -   2/21/10 

American Atheist  -  April 2010




By James A. Haught

Well, I was asked to speak five minutes on Why I Am a Humanist.  But I really can’t explain why I’m a skeptic-minded nontheist, because nobody quite knows where beliefs come from.  Mindsets are rooted deep in the unfathomable subconscious.  People never fully understand what made them liberals or conservatives - or conformists or nonconformists - or military hawks or doves - or believers or doubters.  Studies find that women tend to be more churchy than men, so perhaps biology is a factor.  (Or maybe women are trying to keep men from tomcatting around.)

All I know is my own life.  I was born in 1932 in a little Wetzel County farm town that had no electricity or paved streets.  I grew up with gaslights.  We were rural folks who said “boosh” and “poosh” and “weesh” and “feesh.”  Our neighbors gave their daughter a fancy French name, WYE-vonne.  We didn’t know our language was quaint.

Despite our isolation and quaintness, country people are as smart as city dwellers.  My dad was a postmaster.  Mom was a teacher and conservatory-trained violinist who published children’s stories.  A great-uncle somehow got to Harvard and became dean of West Virginia Wesleyan College.

My immediate family never attended church.  It was alien to us - although an uncle-in-law was a Methodist preacher.  Holy-rollers were laughable.  After I came to Charleston and lucked into a newspaper job, just by accident, I thought supernatural religion was absurd.  Praying to invisible spirits seemed goofy. (Bizarrely, I was assigned to write a church column in the 1950s.)

Some of us cub reporters attended a Great Books course in the old library on Hale Street - and it blew my young brain to discover, for the first time, that thinkers through the centuries had tried to fathom why the universe exists, and whether there’s any cosmic purpose. I had been unaware of philosophy. It was an exciting, mind-opening time for me.

Our city editor, L.T. Anderson - a brilliant clone of H.L. Mencken - was my mentor.  He laughed at hillbilly preachers and pompous pastors.  I told him: “OK, Andy, you’re right that gods and devils and heavens and hells are just fairy tales - but what’s the real truth? Why are we here? Why is the world here? Why do we live and die?  What answer can an honest, sincere, thinking person give?”

Andy eyed me and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.”  Bingo.  That rang a bell in my psyche.  Admitting that you don’t know is truthful.  Honesty is the key.  It’s dishonest for believers to claim supernatural knowledge, with no evidence whatever.  But it’s mentally honest to confess that you cannot answer.  Being truthful is moral and honorable.

Back in those days, the 1950s, this Charleston Unitarian congregation was filled with chemists, professors and other highly educated, science-minded people who shared my skeptical, agnostic, secular humanist worldview.  So I was drawn to this group like a magnet.

Through many decades of reading and learning, I solidified my freethinker mentality.  For example, I saw that simple logic proves that the loving Father Creator of standard churches cannot possibly exist. Life has many tragic horrors.  The Haiti earthquake killed 200,000 people.  Before it, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed the same number, mostly children.  And nature - “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson said - involves predators ripping helpless animals apart. Also, terrible diseases inflict suffering and death, while people pray for relief. If an omnipotent deity created all this, or if he does nothing to ease the pain, he cannot be a merciful Father.  He would be a monster.  The best conclusion is that he’s just a fantasy, a figment of people’s imagination.

Magical religion gives people hope.  Believers think they will “triumph over death” in the Great Beyond.  About half of Gazette obituaries say the deceased “went home to be with the Lord.”  (West Virginians must be exceedingly righteous, because no obits say the departed went the other direction.)  All this involves false hopes and self-deception, I think.  I don’t envision a future mystical realm. Our minds and personalities are created by our brains, and when the brain dies, so does the self.  Yesterday was my 78th birthday.  I see clearly what’s ahead for me, and it isn’t very enticing.  It would be comforting to soothe myself with hope of eluding death - but that wouldn’t be honest.

All we can do is live right now in the most rewarding way, and try to improve life.  Humanism means wanting to help humanity.  Secular humanism means doing it without the involvement of supernatural faith.  This worldview grew in me a half-century ago, and it never left.