By Tom Holmes
Cynthia Todd Quam lived most of her life not realizing she was, in fact, a humanist.
"A few years ago," she explained, "I ran across the American Humanist Association (AHA) and understood that was my philosophy. That was the way I was living. When I went to one of their national conferences, I had a feeling of coming home."
After attending the AHA conference in 2012, she came home determined to form a humanist group in this area.
"I've lived in Oak Park for about 20 years," she said, "and thought this community would be fertile ground for a chapter."
She put the word out and pulled together six people for an initial meeting at a restaurant in Forest Park in December 2013. Assuming that most of the interest would come from Oak Park, she was thinking about naming the fledging organization something like the Oak Park Humanist Group. To her surprise, as many were from Forest Park as her hometown, so they came up with End of the Line Humanists (ELH) — alluding to the terminuses of the Blue and Green lines — as a playful name that would also serve as a geographical marker.
One founding member (who preferred anonymity) said, "Humanist principles highlight actions that interest me: tolerance, service to others, making the world a kinder and gentler place. I like the idea of putting positive energy into the world because it just feels right, not because I fear for my soul."
Oak Park resident Carla Vissers added, "I got involved for the same reason a lot of people go to church: to be in community with people whose belief system is similar to mine. As a newcomer to the area, I've appreciated the chance to make new friends through ELH."
Quam describes humanists as "good without a god, nonbelievers committed to living ethical and compassionate lives."
According to the American Humanist Association website, "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."
Quam said it's hard to summarize what Humanists believe because they tend to be independent thinkers, but she offered the following list:
- Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Our view of reality and our ethics come from people as tested by experience, not handed down by a deity.
- Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
- Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of human ideals.
- Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
End-of-the-Liners expressed ambivalence about organized religion. On the one hand, they acknowledge that many good things happen in institutional churches. "There are a lot of good characteristics of traditional religions," said the Forest Parker who prefers anonymity, "youth groups that teach moral values, rituals to mark life events, pot lucks and other social events, a sense of being part of a group that has similar values." But, she added, "I never felt the need to join a congregation as I was very turned off by the rules put forth by specific religions. I also have been appalled, both historically and currently, by the horrors committed in the name of God."
The ELH website accuses organized religion of being concerned primarily about money, whereas End of the Line only asks for a $25 membership feel. The site states:
"When people join a church, they're expected to tithe a full 10% of their yearly incomes. What becomes of all that money? Some, it's true, goes to feed the hungry, help the poor and do other good deeds in the world. However, in many cases much of that is also used to evangelize, to maintain large properties and clergies, to support religious and anti-scientific agendas in public schools, to influence governments to grant special rights and favors to religious institutions."
Much of their ire is directed specifically at the religious right.
"As the '80s and '90s rolled around and the religious right got more power and started meddling in politics," Quam observed, "my live-and-let-live take on things had to be abandoned because I felt that now people are trying to change laws to curtail the rights of other people."
Not necessarily atheists
She is careful to draw a distinction between humanism and atheism. Atheism, she said, is defined by what people are not. "Humanists," she said, "are not just saying what they aren't but also saying that they are committed to living with a code of ethics. They don't think they need a god to be moral."
ELH members seem to lean more toward agnosticism than atheism.
"Humanists believe in getting our information through observation and experimentation," Quam said. "Our view of reality and our ethics come from people as tested by experience, not handed down by a deity."
True to their commitment to ethical living, nine ELH members put in 45 hours during the Oak Park Library Volunteer Days in July — sorting and arranging books and emptying, moving and cutting boxes. Members also volunteer with the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry.
In addition to opportunities for community service, they host social events. On Feb. 12, they hosted a Darwin Day Party at an Oak Park establishment at which they played Darwin trivia and creationist bingo. Charles Darwin, of evolution fame, was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln.
They held a "coming out" party at a Forest Park eatery in March where they "discussed the necessity and challenges of coming out as a non-theist in today's culture."
Their inaugural book club meeting was held on Nov. 26 at the Oak Park Public Library.
"Up until now our events have been mainly social or volunteer meetings," said Quam. "At the book club meeting we'll be able to discuss ideas. We haven't had a chance to do that yet on a formal basis."
They also talk about being more "activist," i.e. "working for the advancement of secular interests in cultural, educational, business, legal or political arenas. Possibilities include separation of church and state, social justice issues, etc." (according to the website).
Quam says the group is a work in progress. During their first year they have been "feeling their way along to see what the needs of our members and our community really are and to see what they are most interested in. I think our choice right now is to have no clear format or direction because our group is small and it's been difficult to get the word out."
Another difficulty is the negative perception of humanists by many in this country. She cited findings from a Pew Forum survey done earlier this year. The survey asked people how warmly they viewed members of other religions — the warmest rated 100, the coldest zero. Humanists per se were not mentioned in the survey, and while Quam emphasized that humanists are not to be equated with atheists, she noted that atheists receive an average rating of 41, Muslims 40.
According to another recent Pew poll, the number of religiously unaffiliated people (nones) in the U.S. has climbed from 15% to nearly 20%, with at least 6% of that number identifying as atheist or agnostic. "The Oak Park area … may be home to even more nonbelievers that the national average," Quam said. "Our group is growing steadily, drawing from a mailing list of approximately 100 and a meet-up group with over 60 members.
"We are part of the community," she added, "and we care about the community."