The Humanist Book Club

It’s the new year and, while I haven’t made any resolutions, per se, one thing I am trying to accomplish is to be more purposeful in my choices of how I spend my time. I want to get out, be involved in groups and activities, but ones that are energizing and rewarding for me. I often don’t feel like I have very large reserves of mental or physical energy, so I want to spend them wisely.

One group I have been involved with for a little while now is the Manitoba Humanists (or, more precisely, the Humanist, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba). So far I have been mostly lurking on the margins. I have attended a couple of “secular parenting roundtables," and I attended a few meetings of the book club. Unfortunately, the gentleman who was organizing the book club became a little too busy in the rest of his life, so the club went dormant.

At one of the secular parenting meetings I asked about the book club. The woman hosting the event mentioned they were looking to revive it, but needed someone to lead it. I mentioned that I might be interested and, after forgetting about it over the holidays, low and behold I have volunteered to help bring the book club back to life.

In the previous iteration of the book club, the books we read were, for the most part, books about atheism or by explicitly atheist authors. They were interesting books, and provoked interesting discussions, but I’m not sure I am interested in reading that genre of book – talking about why believing in God is misguided, silly, or dangerous – month after month. Other Atheist book clubs, it seems, do just that, with book lists teeming with the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others. And there is nothing wrong with that; all are interesting folks, with interesting, if not somewhat similar, ideas. I’m not really interested in reading a lot of that genre.

Without getting into an in-depth debate about definitions, I think I identify more with the Humanist perspective, rather than a Atheist or “skeptical" perspective. Rightly or wrongly, I see that distinction as the difference between focusing on the imagining of a positive alternative to that provided by religions or other dogmatic worldviews, as opposed to focusing on the opposition to and criticism of religion and close-mindedness. Or, as one member of HAAM put it to me: “I don’t just want this world, minus God. I want a better world." Of course “humanist" and “atheist" are just labels, and I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about the people who use those labels. But thinking about a distinction that way is helpful to me. And the positive perspective is something I want to – indeed I need to – focus on, if for no other reason than my own mental health.

Keeping that in mind, I started thinking about the types of books I might want to discuss in the book club. I was hoping to engage some others in a discussion of books of interest, but I was encouraged, for the first meeting, to “pick a book, and they will come." Once I’ve identified some people who are interested, hopefully we can start some lively discussion of where to go next.

That said, I had one idea immediately for a book to read: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. I had read this book in the past, and found it very compelling. It sparked my interest in Stoicism, and I have read other works about Stoicism since. It seemed to me to provide a potentially useful toolset for a secular person looking to live happily. And it wasn’t too long a read either. Perfect for a first book, I think.

I will be curious to see where we go, as a book club, from there. Ideally, I think it would be interesting to have a mix of themes, as well as of both fiction and non-fiction. I like the idea of including some titles that focus on the individual lived experience of characters (real or imagined), perhaps mixed with some titles that deal with ideas at a more abstract level. I also think it would be satisfying to include a fair selection of titles focusing on Manitoba issues, characters and stories, and works by Manitoba authors. As important as it is to be engaged in the broader world, it is also important to understand our own experience.

In terms of where to go next, I thought it would be interesting to read The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, because understanding the perspectives of aboriginal peoples is, it seems to me, a important task for any Manitoba Humanist. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it was selected as a finalist for the 2015 edition of Canada Reads.

After that, I hope we leave our options wide open. I’m interested in reading Swing Low: A Life and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews because, without having read them (although I have started Swing Low), it seems like they both present characters (both real, and imagined) that offer insight into particular struggles of being human. I also think it would be enjoyable to read and discuss the forthcoming Shopping Cart Pantheism, by Jeanne Randolph because, from what I get from the blurb, it seems like a playful, sharp and clever critique of religion and consumer culture. Of course, I haven’t read the book yet, so perhaps I’m missing the point. But finding out is part of the fun, isn’t it?

I think this journey into the Humanist Book Club will become one of the themes about which I write, both from the perspective of writing about the books we read and the process to choose them, but also from the perspective of understanding Humanism as an idea, and thinking about how to move the world towards something closer to the Humanist ideal. I don’t pretend that I am an expert on either books or Humanism at this point, but perhaps through writing about them I’ll get a little closer.

As I try to grapple with all the ideas bouncing around in my head, sometimes I think writing is the only way I can hope to make any sense of them (which makes me wonder why I don’t do more of it).

Let me know what you think of my book choices, and if you have any ideas for what would make a good selection for us to discuss.