Celebrate World Humanist Day


World Humanist Day is indeed an international holiday.  Various groups celebrated a Humanist Day at different times until the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which many established groups such as the American Humanist Association belong) settled it on June 21.  Most years, this is the summer solstice; in 2012 the solstice arrives late on June 20,thanks to the leap year correction.

The IHEU notes the solstice connection, but doesn’t say why the date was chosen.  Their website suggests a picnic on that day, which suggests that the organization has a northern hemisphere bias: people in Australia or South Africa might find that suggestion inappropriate due to weather and the early dark.

The idea “humanism” has been around at least since Auguste Comte (1798-1857) wrote about a “religion of humanity”, but in America, at least, the term was not in wide use until the 20th Century.  Before that most people could not imagine ethics apart from a creed or commandments to support it.  Arguments over doctrine were intense; hence the term “freethinker” was in wide use.  Freethinkers, however, had a range of ethical stances.

The IHEU defines humanism in this way:

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

Until well into the 20th Century popular ideas of ethics were drawn largely from the Bible and were focused on the individual.  Some things were agreed upon (e.g. killing is wrong, you should help your neighbor) while others (slavery and women’s rights) were matters of great debate.

Robert Ingersoll was one of many we would now call humanists.  He gave a lecture entitled “Liberty of Man, Woman and Child,” which expresses his view on personhood.  And his “creed,” as he said in slightly different language on several occasions, was:

Happiness is the only good.  The place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.

With a view of the bay from my window, I think I’ll skip the picnic.  I will enjoy the long day, relish the early morning return of the light, and get on with the business of seeking to make the world a happier place through writing.

[Robert Ingersoll plays an important role in the life of John Emerson Roberts.  See Books page.]


May Days


I have a theory about Cinco de Mayo.  I believe its popularity is partly due to its proximity to May 1, the spring cross-quarter day.

Cross quarter days mark the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes, which are also the events which mark our sun-based seasons: winter begins about December 21, on the winter solstice, spring on the equinox in March, and so on.  I’ve made a clumsy sketch of this.

The cross-quarter days, October 31, February 2, May 1 and August 1, midpoints in the sun’s move from equal day/night to longest or shortest day, to equal day/night again, have been celebrated since ancient times.  For some these were the beginnings of seasons, for others a time to move cattle or start crops, for still others a time of purification.

Given the contemporary enthusiasm for Halloween, I’m surprised that I didn’t make the connection for Cinco de Mayo sooner.  Halloween is a multiply corrupted holiday, having begun as Samhain in its Celtic manifestation, and been converted to “All Hallows Eve” by the Christian church, which cannily placed its festivals on traditional dates whenever possible.  Current celebrations ignore both the connection to All Saints Day and the purification and preparation for winter qualities of earlier usage.

The original May Day (Beltane to current Wiccans) was the beginning of summer.  People celebrated fertility with flowers and Maypole, and for herders it included moving herds to their summer pasture.

While Christians have often fretted over confusion with ancient practices, freethinkers should see no problem with celebrating the cycle of the year.  Though we may have no crops to plant or cattle to move, we are still made of the stuff of earth and should be aware of its turning.

But if you missed May 1, enjoy Cinco de Mayo, a festival built on a small battle victory, which happened to fall at a time when our bodies’ link to the earth tells us it’s a time to celebrate.

What do freethinkers celebrate?


There seem to be a shortage of atheist/freethought holidays. A recent blog comment suggested that there is nothing between April Fool’s Day and Be a Pirate Day in September. 

While the word “holiday” has unfortunate origins, now largely ignored, I do think atheists, agnostics and freethinkers should find occasions to celebrate during the year.  One hundred years ago, gatherings were held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  I don’t know how many still honor this occasion.

Robert Ingersoll, the most successful freethought lecturer of the nineteenth century, was immediately raised to “sainthood” beside Thomas Paine upon his death in 1899.  No miracles were needed.  January 29 was often celebrated as a “Paine-Ingersoll” event. 

Ingersoll declared himself to be agnostic, but he was in fact a humanist before the word came into popular usage.  The following quotation is typical:

“Reason, Observation, and Experience―the Holy Trinity of Science―have taught us that happiness is the only good, that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
(From “On the Gods”)

Why not honor Ingersoll on his own birthday, August 11?  Perhaps in those pre-airconditioning days of the early twentieth century August was an off time to hold a celebration.  Now, I think, an August “holiday” would be a good idea.

Another option would be to establish “Atheist Family Day” on July 17.  When Ingersoll died on that date in 1899 his wife and daughters took immediate action to preventthe  fraudulent claims of deathbed conversion which plagued every freethinking hero.  Ingersoll’s family was united in supporting the cause of freethought.

If these options don’t appeal to you, perhaps you have other ideas about what and when freethinkers should hold celebrations.