Honorable mention — Persons of color essay contest: Asha Johnson

How humanism granted me autonomy

By Asha Johnson

Merriam-Webster defines humanism as “devotion to human welfare.” For many, religion dictates their moral compass and provides them with an opportunity to look beyond themselves. However, as a humanist, I think independently and relish the freedom of my autonomy. I build my moral and ethical convictions on my own, based on my internal values and a dedication to the well-being of all, and I take full responsibility and ownership for my actions. Rather than spending time worshipping, praising and seeking guidance from some “being” or “thing” larger than myself, I take pleasure in working toward causes greater than myself, such as social justice, human rights, equity and equality.

Far too often religious communities are marked by hierarchical associations: People are judged based on gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. As a humanist, I believe in establishing a foundation of equality and mutual respect; I do not believe in a superior set of beliefs, nor do I believe in supporting or permitting patriarchies, homophobia, or violation and infringement of human rights. Instead, when I recognize someone is driven by a genuine compassion for others, I view and treat them with the consideration and respect they deserve.

Being a humanist has enabled me to develop my own perspectives, viewpoints and morals. Far too often, religion can be black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. Yet, life has more dimension, complexity and nuance than can be explained by simplistic dichotomies. Rather than living for the future and worrying about “sins” of the past, I live immersed in the present. Nevertheless, I am still a proud proponent of many principles that may carry religious connotations such as compassion, joy, unity, humility, forgiveness, acceptance, inner peace and empathy.

In fact, I believe a few of these principles, in particular compassion, unity, acceptance and empathy, could help the secular community to better engage with a wider audience.

Especially when engaging people of color, we need to make an active effort to take a more empathetic rather than sympathetic approach. When attempting to truly empathize, we must keep in mind the unique experiences that individuals face. The secular community is far too often portrayed as a cult-like group that loathes religion and anyone or anything associated with it. Many people who publicly join a secular community face fears of judgment and ostracism by traditionalists who view their decision as sinful, radical and defiant. Given that religious association is especially common among people of color, joining a secular community can be particularly difficult for minorities who must defy convention as well as generations of family tradition.

Thus, while firmly sticking to fundamental beliefs, the secular community must simultaneously acknowledge that change is rarely easy and often gradual. People must feel comfortable exploring and considering the secular community, while following their own evolutionary path and timeframe. Putting a label on your beliefs requires confidence, and for some, it may require a great deal of time. Thus, becoming more inclusive toward people who are questioning their beliefs and perhaps not entirely prepared to call themselves members of the secular community would go a long way towards improving dialogue and engagement with people of color.

Additionally, as a person of color, I would love to see the secular community address a broader set of issues. We can all become more supportive, involved allies, especially in issues of race relations and xenophobia. While I feel that current critical social justice and human rights issues (e.g., women’s rights) that are often opposed by the church should definitely remain at the frontline of discussion, I would love to see the secular community extend its reach even more broadly and take a more inclusive stance. Apply humanism with the depth and breadth it deserves; expand the focus to emphasize “improving human welfare” of the entire community.

Asha, 18, is from Oakland, Calif., and attends Howard University, where she plans to major in mechanical engineering and play for its volleyball team. In high school, she was a peer tutor, served as president of the Black Student Union, played varsity volleyball, basketball and was on the swim team. Asha was a four-time North Coast Section Scholar Athlete, a Commended National Merit Scholar, a National AP Scholar with Honor​, and the recipient of the Female Scholar Athlete of the Year award.