ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – For Dave Niose, becoming a Humanist wasn’t a decision he slowly gravitated to. Just as some people are born and raised into the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish faith, so Niose always felt like he was a follower of the Humanist philosophy.
“It’s just a natural progression for me,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything brought me to it – it simply is what it is.”
It’s a philosophy, he said, that’s firmly grounded in reality.
“The Humanist philosophy is a naturalist philosophy, and it doesn’t recognize the supernatural,” Niose said. “That’s something that a lot of religious folks have a difficult time with. You ask them if they accept any supernatural notions, and you find that they do. For example, the notion of a personal God, miracles, things like that. You could go on to fairies and unicorns and astrology.”
Niose is the president of the American Humanist Association. He first joined the board in 2005, and helped develop the AHA’s media campaign – the first major national advertising campaign by a humanist or atheist group in the United States.
Since then, Niose has spoken to humanist and freethinking groups around the country to emphasize the importance of using the mass media to inject Humanist ideas into the public dialogue, and to improve the public image of the Humanist philosophy.
It’s a viewpoint, he said, that remains grounded in morality and ethics.
“We want people to lead ethical lives,” Niose said.
But it’s an image, he said, that can run counter to what far too many people think of Humanists – that they’re simply hostile to anything having to do with religion. Niose is well aware of the fact that the term “Godless secular humanist” remains a negative term in the political arena, directed at those who are allegedly opposed to traditional American values.
“If secularists weren’t so marginalized, I wouldn’t feel a need to be involved in Humanism,” he said.
Niose was in the Orlando area last weekend to meet with members of the Orlando FreeThinkers and Humanists, a group that meets once a month for presentations and social events.
Over coffee at a shop in Altamonte Springs, Niose said Humanism is a positive philosophy that involves a naturalistic life-stance and affirmative, progressive values. Atheism, on the other hand, is merely a view on the singular issue of the existence of a God or gods. “Some atheists still believe in certain supernatural notions, such as astrology, ghosts, or the power of pyramids,” he said. “These folks wouldn’t really be Humanists, because Humanism doesn’t accept supernaturalism in any form.”
“People think if you’re a Humanist you must be an atheist, and if you’re an atheist you must be a Humanist,” he said . “Humanism is not doctrinaire.”
Orlando Jack, who heads the Orlando FreeThinkers and Humanists, said this is a movement that simply wants people to be free to live as they choose, without the pressures of social conformity that some believe organized religion imposes.
“There are a lot of intelligent believers,” Orlando Jack said. “But it’s not wanting to get out of their comfort zone. At birth, you are indoctrinated to a point, because your parents have a faith. Most parents try to lead their children toward good, but hopefully kids have a chance to decide for themselves when they go through the age of reason.”
If they opt to give up religion, fine, Orlando Jack said. If they choose to stay with organized religion, that’s fine, too.
“We don’t proselytize,” he said. “We have a lot of recovering Catholics. A lot of them say ‘I became a freethinker or atheist after I read the Bible.’ This is just an option for people.”
Niose said he hopes to get Humanists to be more assertive about defending their beliefs at a time when the notion of being a non-believer is often used as a political weapon, a sign of someone being hostile to people of faith and to their values. It’s a false notion, he said.
“Morality and religion are so often associated with religion and culture,” he said. “Morality and values do not correlate to religiosity. There’s a lot of studies showing secular societies are more moral than religious societies. You’ll see the social ills are much greater on the American side than in Western Europe or the Scandinavian countries. This is a philosphy and a life stance. There are some people who consider Humanism a religion, and we have no problem with that.”
But it’s also a movement that, until 2005, didn’t seem interested in delving into the political arena. Niose said when he first got involved in Humanist, “I would describe the atmosphere as being like a club. In recent years, that has changed to more of a movement mentality. Within the last decade, there’s a feeling that organized Humanism had to stand up for itself and grow and change and not simply be a social club.”
But it’s a movement, he said, that isn’t trying to banish religion if that’s what people want.
“We’re not trying to convert people to nonbelievers,” he said. “It’s very analogous to the gay rights movement. We’re just trying to get people to stand up and be counted.”
Niose expects the American Humanist Association to keep growing, now that the Internet and social networking sites enable them to reach out to more people than ever before.
“One thing that really helps the whole concept of Humanism is social networking,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of young people who are atheists. But unlike previous generations where there was no opportunity to identify yourself as atheist or agnostic, this is really something that I think will take hold on a permanent basis.’