Why I Am a Humanist

Why do our readers (some of them at least) identify themselves as humanists? In what we hope will be the first in a series, Elka Enola tells her story. We invite other humanists to do the same.

Why do our readers (some of them at least) identify themselves as humanists? In what we hope will be the first in a series, Elka Enola tells her story. We invite other humanists to do the same.

From a very early age, the separate paths of Ideas and Values led me to Secular Humanism. Ideas defined how and what I thought, while Values determined how I behaved. But it’s really not so clear cut, because I think that there is a genetic component in how critically we can think, the degree to which we can comprehend complex ideas and the kind of questions we ask. I also think there is a genetic preferencing in creating our value structure.

Without a doubt, by age 5, I was an atheist. I also concluded that I was on my own.  I had to figure the world out myself.  Adults were of no use.

I was probably an atheist from a very young age, when I learned the words why? and how? My family were extremely poor illiterate Jews who came from Russia in the early 1920s. The religion they practiced was entrenched in superstition and misogyny. I stopped asking questions like, “If God is everywhere, why do we have to go to the synagogue?” or “If God knows everything, he knows what I think, so why do I have to pray?” or “Why is Sidney (my brother) more important than me?” I also noted that in our community, there were no voluntarily unmarried people. By the age of 5, I ceased asking adults anything other than practical things like, ”What time is it?” or “Do I need a sweater outside today?”

Without a doubt, by age 5, I was an atheist. I also concluded that I was on my own. I had to figure the world out myself. Adults were of no use.

My mother’s side of the family was very different from my father’s side, and here we find both genetic fact and supposition. The fact is that my mother’s side was not very smart, but my father’s side was. Also, my mother’s side was selfish and at times downright cruel. My father’s side, however, was the opposite. They were extraordinarily kind, generous and empathetic. My older brother and younger sister took after my mother’s side in both intelligence and behavior. I took after my father’s side in both intelligence and behavior.

Elka Enola

Elka Enola

In my entire life, I never knew my mother or her family or my brother or sister to voluntarily make a donation or help someone in need. Empathy and helping others was standard behavior in my father’s family. Three examples:

My father was an upholsterer. I was with him when he agreed to a job reupholstering booths in a small restaurant. A few minutes later, he was approached by someone who offered him a huge prestigious job which he refused. I asked him, “Why did you refuse? You could cancel the other job, you didn’t sign anything.” He looked at me aghast and said, “But I gave my word.”

My father’s sister, Leah, lived with us until I was 14 and she ‘finally got married’. She was very smart, but utterly illiterate; she didn’t even have the concept of letter or word. She worked in a clothing factory and was active in the union. Each day she walked 5 blocks from home to the streetcar stop. One Friday, on the way home, she found a wallet on the streetcar. Because she could not read, she brought it home for us to see. There was money and a name and address, but this being the mid 1940s, the owner, like most poor people, didn’t have a phone. She decided to return the wallet and contents to him over the objections of my mother and brother. Because she was illiterate, on a piece of paper, we wrote his address and each bus or streetcar she had to take. The bus/streetcar drivers would tell her where to get off and change. When she got there, she found the owner, his wife and children crying for joy. This was rent money and food money. In the 1940s, there were no safety nets and no government health plan. Everything that family needed depended on that pay packet. Overjoyed, he offered her a reward, but she would only take two carfare tickets, which, she said, is all she spent.

My father’s sister, Fanny, who lived next door, could quite aptly be called a saint. She was incredible. Not a day went by that she did not do something unasked for to help someone in need. There was a quota on Jews permitted to study medicine at McGill (also U of T) and even when Jews graduated as doctors, no hospital would give them practicing rights. So, in Montreal, The Jewish General Hospital was established, and all Jewish people went there. In other cities, it was Mount Sinai. Fanny used to go regularly to visit people there. When asked why she went in the daytime and not at night when everyone else went, her reply was, “That’s why.” Patients were alone during the day. When told she was crazy to go to the hospital in a winter blizzard, which remember, began with the 5-block walk to the streetcar stop, she replied, “Someone should be there.”

My older brother, my younger sister and I all experienced the same events but only I supported the choices my father and his sisters made. I think there is a genetic component involved.

My father, however, was an alcoholic. He would leave home at 7am and return about 3am so that the neighbours could see him leaving for work in the morning. He always had a mistress and, in my lifetime, he would have spent more on any one of them than he did on me. Someone got a fur coat, but I didn’t even have winter boots. I had no one to talk to. Leah got married and Fanny moved away. I felt isolated and abandoned. I needed something to hang on to.

Out came the white and yellow pages, the phone books. I wrote to every listing that remotely smelled of religion looking desperately for something to hang on to. In every case, I was sent a brochure that just raised more questions that resulted in more brochures.

So, at age 11, I became a Secular Humanist, although I didn’t discover that tag until many years later.