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Why We Must Become Story Tellers

This article was written by James Croft and originally appeared in The New Humanism at this link:
It is presented below for archival, educational, and scholarly purposes, but it is recommended that the reader read the article in the original page, if the link above is still functional.

The first time I went to prison was terrifying. Walls topped with razor-wire loomed large as the bus approached the barrier. The faces of the others on the bus were tight with nervous expectation, mirroring my own. As we moved deeper into the compound, and heavy doors crashed successively behind us, I feared what was in store for me. But much worse than entering prison for the first time was leaving it, knowing that the men I had just met and worked with were not able to follow me. I remember looking back at the prison gates, as they swung shut after that first visit, thinking: the people I have just met are men like me. But I can go home—they can't.

As an undergraduate, I worked for the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project (LSW), a charity which takes the words of the Bard into prisons around the UK. In a typical "workout," we played theatre games, yelled Shakespearean insults at each other and composed our own verse in iambic pentameter. I would spend around two hours in the prison on each visit and in this short time, I witnessed the extraordinary change wrought in the inmates I encountered. At the start of our session, many of the inmates (or "residents," as we called them) would not look me in the eye, would mumble their names while staring at the floor, and react with surprise to a hand offered for shaking. By the end of the workout, they would be filled with energy, fizzing with excitement, reading their own poetry with confidence and pride. It was as if someone had, over those two hours, kindled a fire behind their eyes and progressively fanned its flames to a roar. We had—through our work, and through Shakespeare's verse.

Bruce Wall, who started LSW, tells the most striking story of the sort of change the charity's work brings about in people. An inmate participating in one of our productions had been a member of Combat 18, a neo-Nazi group in the UK. He had been raised by his father, also a member, to detest non-white people, and in prison he avoided anyone non-white totally. Tattooed on his arm: the "Death's Head," the symbol of Combat 18, and the "Totenkopf" of the 3rd SS Division. In the Shakespearean production we were rehearsing he needed to cooperate with other inmates, regardless of their race. And during that process, his views changed. He found that people with different colored skin are people like everyone else, that he could work and be friends with people of different races. He was so affected by the experience that, after the production, he and his fellow inmates organised a drive to raise money to remove his tattoo.

The story of the former Combat 18 member sounds similar to religious conversion stories, in that an intense personal experience gave rise to life-changing shifts in personality and character. But LSW is entirely secular, and makes no mention whatever of religion. I propose that to build the Humanist movement, we need to provide experiences that are non-religious and have powerful resonance in people's lives, changing them for the better. My experience with LSW served to humanize the inmates of the prisons I visited, and expanded my conception of what it meant to care for others. It was, I would suggest, a deeply Humanist experience—and we must create more of them.

Humanism, in my view, rests on two propositions. First, the back foot, planted firmly in the soil: a rejection of the supernatural as an explanation for any of the phenomena we observe or experience. Second, the front foot, striding confidently forward: the embrace of a positive ethical stance derived from human experience and the natural world. The "four horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) ably constitute the first of these "feet," demonstrating why we should reject the supernatural, but they fail to convincingly espouse an alternative philosophy that might replace peoples' religious worldview. The lack of the second foot, however, leaves Humanism somewhat off-stride.

One example: Hitchens, in a 2008 debate with Frank Turek (described online as a "Christian apologist, speaker, and best-selling author"), says that it has become one of his major preoccupations "to try and help generate an opposition to theocracy and its depredations." This is a noble and worthy goal which Hitchens pursues admirably in his work. But nowhere in this debate (nor in the majority of his writing on the matter) does Hitchens present a coherent, powerful vision of what an ethical world without God actually looks like. Cast your eye over the contents page of Hitchens' "The Portable Atheist." As evidence of this omission, the vast majority of the "essential readings for the nonbeliever" selected are critiques, satirizations, debunkings, and avowals of non-belief, and few offer any vision of society to put in its place. Much the same could be said of the writing of the other three "horsemen."

This quartet can therefore be seen as powerful spokesmen for atheism, but imperfect advocates of Humanism. This need not be seen as a criticism—they may well not be trying to advocate Humanism—but the distinction does elucidate some of the difficulties the Humanist movement faces.

Take the argument, so often put by the believer to the atheist, that "without God there can be no morality." Parts of this argument are roundly rebuffed by the horsemen and their allies: it is clear that religiosity is no guarantee of morality, and that all of the ethical tenets of religion can be shared by non-believers. But our chevaliers d'athéisme stumble at the next jump by failing to outline with sufficient clarity and vivacity what type of morality there can be—there should be—without God. It is no surprise that the religious barb that without God there can be no morality continues to strike home. Our champions refuse to raise the surest shield against it: the evocative depiction, using all the tools we have, of what a moral non-religious world might look like. You can argue all you like, as Dawkins does, that the morality of the religious does not in fact come from their religion, or that religion frequently makes people act in strikingly immoral ways, but still the point goes unanswered: what sort of world do non-believers wish to live in, morally speaking?

Already, some readers are squirming. Some atheists are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of presenting a comprehensive "Humanist philosophy," fearing that any such worldview will inevitably become just another ossified dogma enslaving the minds of those it infects. Perhaps this fear is a corollary to the concern Rick Heller describes, the discomfort of some atheists and Humanists in considering the importance of emotion in human life. Perhaps it has more to do with that alternative moniker for the non-religious: "free-thinkers." Reacting against the construction of a comprehensive non-religious worldview is seen, possibly, as another act in the struggle for mental manumission, keeping us free from one more potentially confining framework.

There are two main reasons to reject this ultra-sceptical position. The first is political and presentational: it is unlikely that the non-religious will achieve their various political and social aims if they do not organize more effectively under a common banner. Groups such as the Secular Coalition for America are a good start, but they focus mainly on action within the political sphere, and work primarily to keep religion out of important institutions such as schools and research labs. To be successful we must not only attack incidences of religious privilege or non-religious disadvantage, but also put forward a positive view of a non-religious society that goes beyond the political—not just secular politics, but secular communities, families, and voluntary organizations.

The second, more important reason, is moral. It is not enough simply to reject religion and go about your life. We all bear some responsibility for how our actions affect others and therefore must develop some form of personal philosophy or ethical framework by which we make decisions. For the non-religious, this can be a challenge—we can't simply ingest our values from a particular holy book or religious tradition. Nor should we merely parrot the opinions of our parents, teachers or peers. Thus, in the absence of any Supreme Being or stone tablet providing us with a moral rulebook, we must endeavour to write one ourselves, to the best of our ability. This requires us, with our back foot rooted in denial of the supernatural, to put our best foot forward and construct a vision of a better world.

Such a vision will not be one of purely rational beings acting in some strange utopia of the mind. Rather, it will be one in which those aspects of religion which legitimately add meaning and richness to people's lives are reconstituted in secular form. Kurt Vonnegut, noted novelist and Humanist, suggested in an interview in the Harvard Crimson that, "The biggest advantages of Christianity are the congregations, which can serve as expanded families and close-knit communities." Humanists need to acknowledge that religious institutions offer all sorts of valuable social goods to the people who frequent them. They have access to physical spaces, common rituals, and artistic traditions which serve to build social ties between people in a community by bringing people of different generations together, encouraging people of different social class, race, and ethnicity to share in common experiences. This is invaluable, for individual human beings and for the communities in which they live. We all derive significance and meaning from our interactions with others, and religious organisations provide opportunities for us to connect.

With the decline of religious observance, no convincing secular alternatives to these organizations have arisen, and this plays a part in the "crisis of civic life" that some (such as Harvard Professor Robert Putnam) think is occurring in many parts of the western world. People are segregating themselves more forcefully on the basis of money, class and race, and there are few safe spaces in which they can come together and appreciate each other to discuss important questions about what it means to live in community with others.

Humanists should recognize the importance of the communities that grow up around religion, and must present a vision of secular society in which communal activity still occurs. There is no reason why we should not have "secular sermons," opportunities to ponder together the deepest existential questions of human life without reference to the supernatural. This is perhaps akin to what Carl Sagan, in The Varieties of Scientific Experience described as "informed worship."

How are we to spread this positive vision? Certainly, books like Dawkins' and Dennett's, and the frequent debates between religious and non-religious thinkers are a start—they help plant that back foot squarely into the earth. Humanists should look to other styles of writing, that more directly articulate the inspirational aspects of Humanism, to further our cause. Sagan's work strikes an elegant balance between debunking the supernatural and exploring the wonderful majesty of the cosmos revealed by science—it is surprising that no one seems to be currently carrying his torch. Dawkins' earlier writing, in A Devil's Chaplain and Unweaving the Rainbow, also had this inspirational quality. We would benefit from hearing him speak in those tones again.

We must also look more closely at the arts. The inspiration that religion has provided to artists across the ages is one of the primary arguments advanced in its favor. The artistic accompaniments to worship (song, dance, stained-glass windows et al.) hold strong appeal to people of faith—and with good reason. As Vonnegut advises, "Practising art, even in a mediocre way, can make the soul go." He, of course, meant nothing supernatural by this—he was suggesting that the making and experiencing of art is one of the greatest human pleasures, and serves to enrich and deepen our experience.

Marshall Ganz, sociologist, expert in strategies for political organizing, and behind-the-scenes architect of the Obama campaign, writes, "Stories are what enable us to communicate...values to one another." We use narrative, Ganz suggests, to engage people in a dilemma, to call their attention to a social problem, and to rouse them to action. We Humanists have allowed the religious to have a de-facto monopoly on stories, barring shining exceptions like Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

I call out, then, to artists, musicians, poets, dancers, playwrights and their fellows to begin to articulate a world free from religion, but anchored in considered, compassionate human values. Why not a secular songbook and "parables" in which doubt is honoured rather than vilified? Certainly, we do not wish to establish a "religion of unbelief," but we can establish a community of nonbelievers, allied to certain central Humanist values and to the idea that we can face our problems together, free from Divine Intervention.

The twofold project of Humanism I have outlined here is important because the challenges we face as a species are great, and it seems uncertain that we will overcome them. Christopher Hitchens is fond of calling religion "the oldest enemy of our species". It is a beautiful turn of phrase, and it is wrong. The oldest enemies of our species are far more mundane: pestilence, war, famine and death—the real "four horsemen." All these require more than rejection of the supernatural if they are to be defeated; anyone following the genocide in Darfur, or who has been spooked by our recent close call with the H1N1 virus, knows that they are far from vanquished.

Humanists must begin to espouse, more convincingly than hitherto, a positive non-religious worldview. And we must do so in print, on stage, through music and on canvas. For while it is abundantly clear that organized religion has proved unable to meet these challenges, it is also clear that the Humanist movement cannot thrive on denial of God alone. We need to say what we stand for, as well as what we struggle against. We must do so in ways that go beyond political manoeuvring—ways that speak to the human need for the inspirational, the meaningful, and the beautiful. We must, in short, become storytellers.