10 Questions with a Humanist

Rebecca interviews Fred Edwords

1. The American Humanist Association’s basic definition of Humanism reads: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Is this how you personally define Humanism as well?
Since I helped write that, yes. But I could add another definition that I also had a hand in: “Humanists—motivated by compassion, inspired by imagination, guided by reason, and informed by experience—strive toward a world of mutual care and concern.” In sum, we’re people committed to being good without God.

2. How does Humanism differ from Atheism or Agnosticism?
Well, once people arrive at a conclusion that ideas such as God, gods, or the supernatural are false, don’t make sense, or aren’t productive of growth and understanding, they sometimes ask themselves, “Now what?” And that’s where Humanism comes in. Humanism takes people to the next level. It allows them to move beyond mere negation to a positive affirmation of life.

As the late Corliss Lamont, author of The Philosophy of Humanism, put it; Humanism says “Yes” to life. That means Humanism offers a set of worldly, human-based values that allow one to endure adversity, find personal meaning, reach out to others, and discover the excitement of exploring what’s really out there.

And what do Humanists say really is out there? The natural world, humanity, relationships, the arts, and so much else. For example, the universe as discoverable by science is so fascinating in all its variety and complexity that there’s more than enough to keep whole populations entranced for generations upon generations. No need to expend time on the supernatural or paranormal when the natural offers mysteries aplenty! You can add to this the study of people, including the ways they think and feel, the vast collection of things they have made (which includes even religions and mythologies), and the wide range of human stories that we find in history, biography, and fiction. I could go on. We’ll never run out of things to learn and do, think about and feel, care about and act upon. Hence we’re content to explore “one world at a time.”

3. Do Humanists interact with, or ever work with, religious communities?
Yes. This happens in two ways: individually and collectively.

Individual Humanists, like billionaire Ted Turner, are working with religious institutions that have effective programs in place to bring aid to the suffering (without making religious preaching a centerpiece of such humanitarian help). Other Humanists, like scientist Edward O. Wilson, are working with Evangelical Christians to help raise environmental awareness, stop global warming, protect endangered species, and save the Earth.

Humanist organizations, such as the American Humanist Association, regularly work with religious organizations for common cause in promoting civil liberties, separation of church and state, abortion rights, gay rights, peace, social justice, and so on. We respect the fact that, while Humanists have a lot of innovative ideas and progressive moral sympathies, traditional religions tend to have the people power—at least here in the United States and many other countries.

4. What are some of the goals of the Humanist community?
Our primary mission is to share Humanist ideas with the world, apply Humanism to the critical issues of our time, and defend the liberties of Humanists. We see our philosophy as offering a clearer way to understand the world, a more effective approach to solving the world’s problems, and an attitude that promotes peace and a widening circle of inclusiveness. But because there has been a longstanding prejudice against our nonreligious, skeptical, rational, and empirical approach to knowledge, some Humanists have suffered discrimination and unfair treatment. So we speak up for our own and even offer legal help when necessary.

5. What is the biggest misconception, if any, about Humanism?
There is an assumption that rationality, which plays a central role in Humanism, makes one cold, unfeeling, and unimaginative. But rationality actually liberates people from a number of harmful ideas that can block the free expression of their personalities and the blossoming of their moral potential. The late Humanist psychologist Albert Ellis demonstrated this so effectively in his various books—including such classics as Sex Without Guilt and A Guide to Rational Living—which continue to enjoy a wide readership after decades. (He subsequently wrote updated versions which can be found on the Web site of the Albert Ellis Institute at www.albertellisinstitute.org .)

6. Who are some of your favorite Humanists, and why?
There are so many because they have been active in such a wide range of fields. When it comes to taking courageous stands for liberation, I think of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. When it comes to scientific innovation I think of Julian Huxley, Linus Pauling, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, and Carolyn Porco. I’m energized by the astuteness of social critics like Barbara Ehrenreich and Wendy Kaminer. And I’m amazed by the imagination of an inventor like Buckminster Fuller or a fantasy novelist like Philip Pullman. All of these people are or were part of the organized Humanist community in some way. But stepping beyond such individuals there are those who have proclaimed their Humanism independent of the movement, such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, whose hands-on humanitarian work has been an inspiration.

7. Asimov, Vonnegut, and Farmer?
I knew all three. Isaac Asimov was just fun to talk to. He had a great sense of humor and was an incomparable storehouse of knowledge. More than just a science fiction writer, he was rightly called “the great explainer of our age” by Bill Moyers. Kurt Vonnegut was funny in his own self-deprecating but plain-speaking way. He liked to hang out with ordinary people and say just what he thought, doing so with a Mark Twain style of wit that is rarely seen. James Farmer, who I met only once but also corresponded with, was a vigorous and untiring activist for civil rights. Yet he wasn’t the type to make people feel under attack when answering their questions. His approach was understanding because he could see the perspective of white people who were struggling to “get it.” And he wanted to help them succeed. Yet in other situations he could put his life on the line for the rights of African Americans. All of this was why, without an advanced university degree, he was able to teach at universities.

8. That leads me to ask, as a sci-fi geek myself, why do you think science fiction writers are so drawn to Humanism?
Because Humanism celebrates thinking outside the box. Just by the fact that Humanists are willing to step outside of traditional religion, and even go against the grain to the point where they arrive at the idea of a godless, natural universe, shows that they are people who are willing to question the status quo, rethink the culture, and then imagine a different future. Lots of science fiction and fantasy writers are or have been Humanists or the equivalent: Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert A. Heinlein, Gene Roddenberry, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula Le Guin, just to name a few more.

9. How would you suggest someone learn more about Humanism?
The American Humanist Association website at www.americanhumanist.org was deliberately made rich in information so that people everywhere could not only find other Humanists or find what Humanists are doing but could explore the philosophy deeply. On that Web site we have blog posts, news reports, articles, philosophical essays, and entire books free for downloading or reading online. And nobody has to sign in, sign on, or pay for anything to access this material. Also, there are no annoying ads or pop-ups. It’s simply a free and open resource. Yes, you can also sign onto statements, purchase books, register for conferences, or join the organization. But that’s up to you. There’s no pressure.

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.
What would have to happen, or what evidence would you need to see, to make you change your mind about something you now dearly believe to be true?

I can see several ways that could happen. Generally, personal experience is what changes my mind. I hear something is true, and then I experience it first hand and decide for myself. Of course, despite what some people may think, rational, logical arguments do in fact change my mind. Ever see the show “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit”? I sometimes I think all it takes is for Penn Jillette to tell me something.

About Fred Edwords:A leading voice for Humanism in the United States and abroad, Fred Edwords is recognized as an outstanding lecturer, debater, and inspirational speaker on human rights, Humanist philosophical issues, and Humanist lifestyle concerns. He has appeared on national and local television in the United States and Canada, has been interviewed on radio and for newspapers around the world, and has lectured in North America, Europe, and India. He has also written for several publications in the United States and elsewhere.

Fred Edwords began his Humanist activism in 1977 as vice president of the Humanist Association of San Diego. He became president the next year, expanded his reach as American Humanist Association West Coast regional coordinator in 1979, and became national administrator for the organization in 1980. He then served for fifteen years as AHA executive director (1984-1999) and twelve years as editor of the Humanist magazine (1994-2006). Edwords now focuses his attention on bringing Humanism to a wider public in his capacity as AHA director of communications.

Fred Edwords is also seen as a leader in the broader community of reason. He was the first president (2002-2005) of Camp Quest, Inc., a summer camp for freethinking children, and served in various leadership roles on the staff of the Ohio camp from 1998 to 2008. He has also served on the boards of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the National Center for Science Education, served as vice president of the North American Committee for Humanism, and been a member of the adjunct faculty of the Humanist Institute. In 1980 he was the founding editor of the Creation/Evolution journal-the only publication dedicated to answering the pseudoscientific, philosophical, educational, and legal arguments of creationists-serving as its editor for eleven years. For such work Edwords was recognized in the mid-1980s as Rationalist of the Year by the American Rationalist Federation and as a Humanist Pioneer by the American Humanist Association. He continues as an advisor for the Secular Student Alliance and a Humanist Celebrant in the Humanist Society.

He is also the director of planned giving for the American Humanist Association.