Being Humanists, Staying Humanists
Humanism as a lifestance, if we are to be sincere with ourselves, is a belief being held by very few, yet bold, individuals across the world. Whether ‘in the closet’ or ‘out of closet’, there are thousands of global citizens today that subscribe to the belief in ‘humanity for humanity’. Unlike other beliefs that evangelize, seek members and even threaten to kill in order to recruit members, humanists by virtue of our belief, do not preach to others to join our group unless such person(s) expresses the desire to embrace reason and science. This difference is not problematic. That which is problematic and of great concern is how we handle our members: how we make them have a sense of belonging so as to want to stay. Experience has shown that many humanist organizations, whether in Europe, America, Africa or Asia, are bad managers of their membership-fold.
To start with, let me note here that the root of our lackadaisical attitude to who stays or goes is traceable to the foundation of our belief, Individual Liberty; that strong conviction that every thinking human being has the ability to reason and take decisions that they consider best advantageous to themselves. This is jejune and complicated. Its ‘jejunity’ stems from the fact that it is harmful to suppose that since everyone has the liberty to enter and exit the humanist-fold, they should not be disturbed in any of their actions. Have we asked or paused to ruminate on the reason(s) for their exit? Why, for instance, will any right thinking human being, man or woman seeks to leave members of his ‘faith’ whether to join another or to stay aloof for sometimes? The point is simply that the humanistic freedom is overrated! And it is often naively handled by the humanist leaders! While hammering on ‘freedom’, we have not been considering ‘sense of belonging’, which is vital in any inter-personal, inter-group, and even, inter-national relationships. For wherever there are two to three persons, it is psychologically important for everyone to have and be offered the feeling of ‘being important and loved’; for that is what membership is ideally about.
The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines the term ‘membership’ as “the state of being a member of a group, a club, an organization, etc”. The emphasis on ‘state of being’ is intentional and it is to draw attention to the fact that the person in question is part and parcel nay essential part of that organization, club or group that he or she has subscribed to be part of. Membership can therefore said to be a coin with two sides, namely, rights and responsibilities. Signing-up to be part of a group conferred certain unequivocal rights on both the group and the individual members like the right to vote, right to aspire, among others, and responsibilities such as due payment, seeking for the growth and development of the group, among others. One germane responsibility that was purposely left out is the group’s RESPONSIBILITY to give every member a sense of belonging, being loved and wanted.
Many humanist groups are guilty of allowing their liberality to stand in the way of this vital responsibility that seems to determine membership entry and exit. Not that we do not care but we do not see it as a responsibility to ‘disturb others unnecessarily’. When a member does not receive any call, e-mail or post mail from his/her organization for a whole year, of what use is such an organization? When a once active member suddenly become silent, what do we do? Do we even bother to update our members on the activities of the group? Do we conduct surveys on vital issues as it affects the group’s visions sometimes? When disaster struck in an area where we have members, what do we do? Do we even remember our members’ birthdays? Do we have active, not mere, mail-list or functional database of our members or persons that have ever been in touch with our group? Do we move beyond theoretical to practical life projects to avoid monotony sometimes? Do we ever try to seek the opinion of our members as to what they really want from our group?
This is not just about the responsibility of our leaders or the group’s staffs alone; it is the responsibility of every one of us. In fact, it requires both personal, inter-personal and inter-group efficiency and action, and even international action. There was a time for instance, the IHEU, International Humanists and Ethical Union, ran a vociferous campaign for the release of the ‘Blasphemous’ Pakistani Doctor, Younus Shaikh. Dr. Younus was so glad he is part of the global humanist family that his appreciation note could be textually analysed to have been soaked in tears of fulfillment. When Deogratias of the Uganda Humanist Association went missing for months on the hummay2004 e-list, an enquiry from Josh of the British Humanist Association leads to the information on the arrest of a non-humanist ‘Deogratias’. When our Deogratias eventually showed up, he was so glad that at least someone somewhere appreciates what he is doing for humanistic commonwealth.
There was a time a member of my group confessed to me that one of my ‘Onwards!’ once fired him up to pick the bits and pieces of his life. The young man who was an active member of the Nigerian Humanist Students Society at inception in 2001 dashed into thin air in 2003. But because I had his email address, I made it a point of duty to send him an e-mail once in three months, at least. He never replied and I never give up. Although I didn’t give up, I was not so keen about his membership of the group but just happy not to let him be without himself telling me just that. So, it continued unceasingly for three years. I was amazed to receive a birthday mail from him on 22 September, 2006. Here is an excerpt:
Dear Yemi, I want to wish you the best of the years ahead. Your ‘hellos’ have been of immense benefit to my faith. Whenever am down, your ‘are you okay?’, ‘onwards!’ and forwarded humanistic messages comforted me and reminded me of our intellectual exchanges. Happy birthday, big brother!
The excerpt above had two effects on me: fulfillment and love. I was filled with the vigour to continue to do more because the mail made me realized that my efforts are never in vain. Secondly, the fact the he could remember my birthday made me feel loved, that awesome feeling that someone cares and did not forget you. In fact, that mail came also at a time I was personally down; when a very close family member was sick.
What could be gleaned from this example is the fact that showing love and giving others a sense of belonging does have an effect on our membership fold, and even on individual psyche. If therefore you are leader today, and does not care about, or give a hoot, about who leaves or stays in faith, I think you are not being sincere to that belief and, to some extent, yourself. Extending a hand of fellowship to other humanists, wherever they may be located in time and space, is therefore an essential tool not only in keeping many in the lifestance, but in ensuring that we do not unnecessarily lose those we could keep in the fold. This is a new year, let’s plan and work towards increasing this year. We can do it!
Yemi Ademowo Johnson, socio-political philosopher and applied anthropologist, is former Secretary General of IHEYO, Belgium, and National Coordinator, Young Humanistas Network, Nigeria. Yemi, co-author of Humanism, Ethics and Africa, is also a Columnist with the HEF Magazine Fritanke.