Secular is Insufficient

Humanist Service Corps – why secular volunteerism isn’t enough. The starting point must be Humanism.

There is a wonderful article at Applied Sentience on the Humanist Service Corp and how important it is that it is Humanist and not simply secular.  See: 

Secular volunteerism just means that the program is not tied to or promoting religion. But it doesn’t explain WHY people are volunteering or what they hope to accomplish by volunteering. For that, you need a philosophic statement of purpose. Which is why Humanist Service Corp is a Humanist service Corp and not just a Secular Service Corp.

Humanism isn’t simply about being secular, though that is a big part of it. It’s about doing good by being good. And for that, how we define GOOD is critical. It’s what sets a Humanist volunteer project apart. We don’t just want to make ourselves feel good by volunteering or giving to the needy. We actually want to accomplish good things by helping others to help themselves. And that requires us to be strategic about HOW we volunteer so that we actually do good.

Conor Robinson, who wrote the above article, makes the case, “our humanism demands that we not exacerbate existing skills gaps or reinforce postcolonial narratives that cast outsiders as capable and locals as needy.” The goal of Humanist volunteering is to support the individuals in need so that they can help themselves and become self-sufficient in their own advocacy and work.

I’m sure you have heard the adage – give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a life time.  Humanist volunteerism isn’t about giving, it’s about supporting. This difference is important. Giving is about the giver. Supporting is about the supported. The goal is empowerment of individual humans.

This last part is critical. It is very easy when in a privileged position to take care of other people’s problems. It’s one way we display and act upon our compassion. It’s a noble impulse, but to take care of someone creates and enforces inequality and it’s the inequality that is the root of many of our problems.  If we aren’t careful our giving ends up sustaining the underlying problem.

If we support people with a goal of empowerment though, we still help people and helping them take care of their needs, but we do so in a way that doesn’t condescend or infantilize them or make them dependent.  We are helping them. Actually helping THEM!

Let me give you an example of this. A couple of years ago a mother at my son’s school bus stop asked me for help. She was in a difficult relationship; she had health care issues, transportation issues and more. I gave her access to my phone so she could make calls. I made sure she had water and drove her to some appointments. But I didn’t do the work for her. I didn’t make those calls for her or sit with her in those appointments. I gave her the support she needed to get these things done for herself. I helped her understand what resources were available and pointed her in the right direction. She took that help and got herself learned from it and eventually left that abusive relationship. She called me from the road to tell me the good news. If I had tried to tell her what to do or given her rent or done anything other than support her and encourage her to take on her problems and expressed confidence in her that she could take on her problems, that she didn’t need anyone else to save her as she could save herself, she might never have had the confidence to leave.  I didn’t solve her problem. I supported her so she could fix things for herself. And having done that, she became confident and empowered and it changed everything for her.

Humanist service is not simply about volunteering. It’s about volunteering in a very specific way. Secular service can’t begin to explain the philosophic orientation of how a Humanist volunteers and why and to what end.  Being secular isn’t enough.

To learn more about Humanist Service Corps and to support their efforts visit:

1 comment:

  1. I notice the difference between Conor Robinson's "humanist generally implies secular" and your "Humanism isn’t simply about being secular, though that is a big part of it." While I see myself as a secular humanist, I'm also aware of humanists who are religious, believing in something I don't, something "beyond" the matter and energy we examine scientifically, but also subscribing to the idea that "[the hu]man is the measure of all things." Secular isn't a big part of it for any of them.


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