“Humanism Taught Me to Fight” – Secular Women in Other Movements

September 25, 2016

“Humanism taught me to fight, and to find purpose and meaning. It influences me every day.”

Those were some encouraging words from Kayley Whalen of the National LGBTQ Task Force. For the first session of Women in Secularism 4’s last day, CFI’s Stef McGraw moderated a panel with four activists on secular women whose work spans different movements and causes. For this writer, the takeaway theme for this conversation was a very hopeful one, that with humanism and secularism at one’s philosophical foundations, one can go forth and get active in other movements, creating a give and take between them that benefits everyone.

Whalen told her experience of coming out as a trans woman 11 years ago, and finding philosophy and humanism to be a path out of the religion that rejected her. “When I came out as trans, I was empowered by the humanist belief system,” giving her a new set of tools and a source of inspiration to fight against injustice.

Similarly, Diane Burkholder of of One-Struggle KC talked about how reliance on the church was so limiting for back people in need, especially if they identified outside the community’s norms, and that a humanist alternative was necessary. “All my identities come into my work, and there’s a lot of overlap,” she said. Ecologist Kaberi Kar Gupta said, “Secularism made me what I am.” Hypatia Alexandria of Hispanic American Freethinkers spoke of the resilience she found by realizing that an “imaginary friend” won’t be there to make things happen for her.

The secular movement as phenomenon was revealed in this conversation as both a great source of strength and potential, as well as something that can be unnecessarily limited or narrow in scope and tolerance. “We’re used to talking to each other,” said Burkholder, “but because we’re marginalized, we’re afraid to call out shitheads in the movement.”

And the shitheads, as it were, are a real problem. As Alexandria pointed out, the secular community is no different from the rest of the population in that it has its ugly aspects and its arguments, and “trying to cumbaya all the time” isn’t productive anyway. But as Whalen made clear, “We have a men’s rights problem in the secular movement,” arguing that not every voice in the movement is equally valid and worthy of amplification.

“Do I always feel accepted? No. Do I feel accepted in places like this? Yes. I’m so glad we have Women in Secularism.”

(At one point, Gupta discussed the phenomenon of gender-fluid lions, which was fascinating news to this writer.)

One particularly noteworthy theme that emerged was how the dreaded “mission creep” of secular organizations working on a wider array of issues (with admittedly limited resources) is in part addressed on a person by person basis. “We live in society,” said Alexandria, “so we need to work in different areas,” bringing the secularist point of view into other arenas, as individuals. Gupta discussed how she is able to enter non-white communities and make productive advances despite her atheism, and brings her critical and evidence-based thinking to bear on the task at hand.

Burkholder warned against the “mental masturbation” that can occur within secular convocations that fail to ask, “What is the work we’re doing to actually connect with people?” Given the limited resources of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” Burkholder said that the more we collaborate with other groups, the stronger our movement can be.

(At CFI, we do this all the time. We work side-by-side with groups across ideological and theological spectra on shared causes.)

There was so much more discussed here, so I’m not doing it justice, but it was very heartening to hear about all these often-overlooked opportunities to plant the secular point of view within other movements. But also the skepto-atheists as a whole need to open their minds to other points of view inside our own ivory-ish towers.

Alexandria said, “Don’t offer me a diversity photo op,” but bring people with different perspectives into the decision making process. And Gupta declared, “I make up [for] my height with my voice.” We certainly heard her.