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The New Humanism: The Next Generation

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This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 20 - June 2007.

SSA board member Jacquie Kuzma writes about the New Humanism conference's panel discussing the "Next Generation" of humanists. Leaders from several large student groups shared the table in this discussion on the future of organized humanism.

"The next generation isn't about age. It's about new forms of organization, new forms of communication," said Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. This sentiment was echoed by other members of the "Next Generation of Humanism" panel at the New Humanism conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 20-22.

The panel focused on ways to promote and maintain involvement in the humanist movement, examining many of the challenges that student and adult humanist groups are facing as they head into the future.

Panel members included Bryan J. Pesta, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management at Cleveland State University and organizer of the Atheists and Agnostics Group on MySpace.com; Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchicks, Ltd.; Amanda Shapiro, president of the Harvard Secular Society; Peter Blake, president of the Harvard Graduate Humanist Community; August Brunsman, Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance; and Hemant Mehta, Chair of the Secular Student Alliance Board of Directors. Matt Cherry served as chair of the panel.

Early in the discussion, Peter Blake emphasized the importance of a visible humanist presence by citing an example from his own life. He explained that after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he wanted a place to go for support, but he didn't feel comfortable even in non-denominational religious services. Blake's anecdote highlighted the need for humanist communities and also provided some insight into what people might look for in those communities.

With respect to recruitment into humanist groups, panel members agreed that community is key. According to Rebecca Watson, creating a sense of community and a social environment for young people is of paramount importance. "It takes a village to raise a worldview," said Bryan Pesta.

Getting the word out is another major challenge that panel members discussed. In this case, the word is "humanism." Hemant Mehta suggested that a significant number of people think that humanistic ideas are simply common sense but have never heard any discussion of those ideas. Many may not even be aware that labels like "humanism" exist, said Rebecca Watson. "Tell your hairdresser you're an atheist," advised August Brunsman, arguing that visibility should be a top priority. Brunsman also suggested that students are in the best position to get the word out to other students and that conferences like The New Humanism are valuable for that reason.

Of course, humanist individuals and groups should strive for visibility that is positive, said panel members. Matt Cherry advised stating that humanists aren't "anti-religion," and Rebecca Watson added that "we're positive about science and a naturalistic worldview." "Show that we're people first and skeptics second," said Bryan Pesta. Charity was suggested by multiple panel members as an excellent way for groups to publicize themselves.

Also a focus of the SSA's own activist training, new technology was lauded as one of the most powerful ways to connect with other people and create communities. Sites like Facebook allow humanists to reach out to more new people than ever before. Hemant Mehta, who maintains his own blog at FriendlyAtheist.com, argued that the Internet is an important resource because "we don't have to wait for media coverage to come to us."

Indeed, it is likely that the "next generation of humanism" will depend largely on this new technology for the visibility and community creation deemed so important by the panel.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 20 - June 2007.

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