Shifting Roles in Different Communities

I run in several belief-related communities. Most of my mom’s family is Jewish. Most of my dad’s family is Catholic. Both of my stepfamilies include members of several Protestant groups including Evangelical and Mormon. And there is a spattering of “nones” on all the various family trees. But the two belief-related communities I spend the most time in these days are humanist and interfaith. The fact that I am a secular humanist does not change regardless of where I am or who I’m with. However, my role as a secular humanist does change.

When I am with other humanists—maybe at a secular Sunday meeting or a humanist conference—I am an insider. Being an insider comes with the comfort of visibility and familiarity. There is shared history, inside jokes, friends, and insider jargon. There is also common ground in terms of our worldviews, though there is plenty of discussion about how our humanism should inspire our actions and places in the world.

State of Formation, however, is an interfaith space. In such a space I consciously join a group of people who come together knowing there are significant philosophical differences among us, and who seek ways to connect across our differences.

Part of my role in an interfaith space is to make sure that a humanist voice is heard. I do not want to dominate any discussion, of course, but to speak up when, for example, language is used that could make non-theists feel unwelcome; letting people know I’m present, sharing my life experience, also countering any stereotypes about non-theists that might emerge. In interfaith spaces, I feel a greater need to declare that “I am here” and explain why I am here. Like other minorities, I seek to articulate my values and beliefs and those of my fellow humanists.

My role in a humanist space is very different. There I spend a lot of time listening. Despite being grounded in an ideal of radical equality, we as a community still struggle to live into this ideal. Almost every humanist gathering I have attended has been dominated by older white men. (The umbrella atheist movement is even less diverse.) Mirroring a conversation happening across the United States, internally we are having serious discussions about privilege, oppression, and what to do about these issues of imbalance and injustice. In this context, I feel that my non-humanist identities often place me in a position of privilege. Therefore, I feel that I need to provide people who have been marginalized in humanist the opportunity to speak. Of course, this also applies to women, including white women.

Moving between these two communities is not simple, and exploring what my role(s) are in each setting continues to be a challenge. How often should I speak? What do I want or need to say? For whom do I speak? In sorting through these questions, I know I’ve made mistakes in the past will likely do so in the future. For all I know, I may have made an unintentional misstep in this piece! As far as I can tell, the best way for me to do better is to ground myself in my values and beliefs, including the foundational humanist ethic of radical equality. Such grounding will help me find my footing as different challenges arise. I have to believe that is true for anyone working in interfaith or other diverse contexts.

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