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Why Do Humanists Seem so Unhappy?

May 13, 2009

Doug ThomasI was taken aback a few days ago when a Christian apologist asked me why humanists always seem so unhappy and surly. He did allow that I was fairly pleasant so he obviously had credibility, but the question remains: why are we such a grumpy lot?

Outside of the potential reason that humanism is the horrid fear that somewhere, someone is performing some act of belief, the surliness seems unfathomable.

I suppose, since this observer is a believer, one might wonder if he is the cause. Do he and his believing colleagues awake some lizard, anti-belief reflex in us? Do we assume that any contact with a serious believer will be a confrontation? Unfortunately, I think we often do.

I am reminded of an old story about John who wanted to borrow his neighbor’s shovel. On the way over he began to think about how to ask to borrow it and remembered that he had once forgotten to return a hoe he had borrowed. "Maybe he won’t lend me his shovel because of that," he thought.

A few steps further he remembered a disagreement with his neighbor about a community project – another reason the neighbor might refuse his request. Then he remembered that the neighbor was a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and since he was an Ottawa Senators fan, the neighbor might not even talk to him.

He went on thinking like this all the way to his neighbor’s front door. He knocked with trepidation and waited with anxiety as the door opened. "Well, hello, John. It’s good to see you," said the neighbor. "OK." shouted John, "You can just keep your damned shovel if that’s the way you feel!"

Before meeting a believer we often lay in layers of counter arguments against an assumed onslaught of evangelism or worse, sympathy. Perhaps our furrowed brows are caused by our trying to keep our arguments straight and ready. As a result, we are completely unprepared for the pleasant discussion that often ensues.

Psychological reciprocity often kicks in here as well. One can imagine the shock of John’s neighbor after John’s outburst and his subsequent instant recall of past negative experiences with John. People react as they are treated. A surly approach will get a surly response; a pleasant response will likely get a pleasant response.

I am not suggesting that we should assume that believers are always altruistic in their meeting with us, but I am suggesting that a simple, passive approach can gain us a great deal of space and respect. When confronted with an assertive believer, I have found it effective to simply say, "Thank you for that suggestion, but I do not share your belief."

Does that convert them from their belief or even give them pause to question it? No, but it is a pleasant response to which surprisingly few of them are able to counter punch. And – bonus – I don’t have to frown to remember it.

Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.

Appignani Bioethics Center