July 1992

A New Editor For The Humanist

It was announced at the Portland Conference that the new editor of the AHA magazine is Dr. Don Page, presently the editor of The International Humanist, the Journal of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), to which the American Humanist Association belongs. He will begin with the January/February, 1993 issue of The Humanist.

Dr. Page visited Salt Lake City on February 10th of this year to interview Ed Wilson. During that visit, both Flo Wineriter and I became acquainted with him, and our friendship was renewed during the Portland Conference. Dr. Page has a more international view of humanism which I find supports my own vision of what direction the Humanists of Utah should take.

In the April, 1992 issue of The International Humanist, Dr. Page’s editorial “On Practice vs. Theory” sets forth his views on what direction humanism in the United States should take if it is to be an effective movement. His appointment will mean a change in the content and direction of The Humanist magazine. Many members at the conference voiced complaints about the magazine as it has been the last few years. Portions of the editorial are very pertinent and important to the chapter membership as we find our place within the humanist community in Utah, and are as follows:

“The humanist movement has been characterized, at least in Europe, as ‘pluralist’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘practical’ in an article by Rob Teilman (co-chairman of IHEU) in the December, 1991 issue (The International Humanist). Dr. Teilman points out that wherever the public image of humanism has been clear and consistent the movement has grown in public acceptance, while it has remained stagnant where its image has been blurred by an over emphasis on philosophical and semantic debates. His analysis focuses our attention away from philosophical points (on which humanists generally agree in any case, i.e., that we are ethical, secular, non-theistic and naturalistic) and highlights, instead, the question of what we contribute in practical terms to the lives of people in our communities.”

Dr. Page continues: “…This discussion is about acknowledging that humanism itself goes beyond human needs which are its raison d’etre, needs which were formerly the domain of traditional religions. Thus mainstream humanism provides the existential support that people continue to need when they are no longer theistic. And it is concerned with confronting the spread of nihilism as traditional religions wither in influence, by promoting a continuing emphasis on moral values.”

“The humanist movement is strongest in those countries where it has had a unified strategy aimed at becoming a mainstream component of pluralistic society. It is evident that significant numbers of people in most countries are secular and non-theistic in outlook while at the same time having no wish to interfere with the beliefs of their theistic fellow citizens. This observation supports the conclusion that as a strong humanist movement, if it is to represent these people and attract their support, will put its emphasis on serving their needs, and will choose to project a tolerant rather than iconoclastic public image while striving to work cooperatively with progressive allies to cultivate broad social acceptance of humanistic values and objectives.”

The editorial further states: “…European humanists are heavily involved with the provision of non-theistic counseling services for prison inmates, for armed forces personnel, and for the sick and dying in hospitals. European humanists are also involved in the provision of moral education in schools. …The existence of humanist conscientious objectors draws attention to the fact that humanism (in the Netherlands) is an alternative to traditional belief systems as a source of moral values. It also raises the issue of pluralism and our commitment to the right, indeed the responsibility, of individuals to behave accordingly to their deeply-held ethical beliefs. And most important to this discussion, the problems facing humanist conscientious objectors illustrates our obligation, both as individual humanists and as humanist organizations, to conduct ourselves so as to promote and not hinder a wider public acceptance of humanism as a belief system which can provide a grounding for ethics.”

In conclusion, Dr. Page writes: “…(It) might be asked if a unified objective exists among humanists to develop a positive mainstream public image, with an emphasis on programs to serve the practical humanist needs of the large numbers of non-theistic people we wish to represent. It seems clear that such an objective is not shared by those who, in the name humanism, emphasize intellectual and iconoclastic activities which appeal only to narrow groups and which drive away the great majority of the potential members and progressive allies whose support we need to achieve our goals.”

–Bob Green

AHA Conference Report

This was the first conference of its kind I had attended and I wasn’t sure what to expect, I have only been a member of the AHA for a year. It was a group of 300 people from all over the country who were serious and somber, taking notes and getting information. As soon as Flo and I got settled into our hotel room, we registered and began a series of meetings which went from Friday afternoon through Saturday and ending just before 12 noon on Sunday. It was a group of rational people doing rational things, and that is, after all, what humanists are: rational. Yes, at the end of it I would have welcomed one foolish irrational act, such as happens in the real world.

My reason for going was to get some information which would be helpful for what I do, and I did. I also wanted to find out what kind of organization I was now a member of, and of that I am still not sure.

There were four presentations which to me were of most importance and which I describe below.


This is an organization of the 70 or so chapters, about 20 of which had paid dues to have a vote in the Assembly. (The Utah Chapter paid its dues.) It is currently in transition to a more representative and useful entity. The organizational structure was confusing to me, but resolutions were passed to form a committee to revise the by-laws. It does publish a monthly newsletter, the Grassroots News, to report to the chapters on news of interest and serves to interconnect and inform each chapter of the activities of the other chapters. Of most significance is the fact that the Assembly does have money to give grants to chapters for growth activities. This fund was acquired by Harvey LeBrun, now deceased, who spent much effort to establish the chapter movement. These activities were discussed but none seemed applicable to our chapter. It is something that the chapter should consider for the future.


This was a plenary discussion given by Michael Klaper, M.D., who presented the rational for animal-free nutrition. He was an excellent speaker and made a case for vegetarianism that almost frightened me into becoming one. He did make the point that a meat-based diet is very wasteful of the planet’s resources and continued life on this planet may very well depend on changing to plant-based nutrition. The menu for the two banquets at the conference gave a choice for either a vegetarian or a meat entree. I “chickened out” and chose the meat. I have to admit that the “nut cutlet” and the “garden steak” looked very appetizing, and I ended up leaving most of my fish entree on the plate.


The Humanist Community of San Jose (HCSJ) presented their program of what they were doing as a local chapter. The April Utah Humanist printed their program and both Flo and I attended that presentation with some interest. By the way, that issue of our Journal was duplicated by them and made available at the conference. I saw our banner here and there with some surprise and pleasure.

Theirs was the largest delegation and the most enthusiastic–lots of smiles and energy, and they were younger than most of us. It was reported that they have 215 members with a newsletter mailing list of 800 to 1000. They have a full-time executive director who is a former Unitarian minister. This position was made possible by a $100,000 gift over 5 years from an anonymous donor identified as “not a millionaire and not previously known.” The gift was given only after the chapter developed a “business plan that would demonstrate an ability effectively to use such a contribution.”

Their presentation was scripted: good natured banter between five people and very well done. They discussed how they were building a “community of Humanists,” of people who are interested both in “responsible activities to make this world a better world, and in the journey of personal discovery.” “This combination,” they explained, “is attractive because when people are as much concerned for furthering the public good as they are for gaining private goals, they attract friends with humane social and personal values–friends who bring out the best in them.” With this combined goal the Chapter has a very active program: Sunday morning programs at Stanford University, a weekly series of discussions led by the executive director or other qualified speakers, various groups, forums, and “polylogues” on various humanist themes, social activities of all kinds, plus a professional looking newsletter with a schedule of activities and information of interest about Humanism. Many of the activities were member initiated, in fact, one member regularly sends birthday cards to members.

Both Flo and I expressed the opinion that what in fact they were doing was building a “church” in everything but the name, but they call it a “community” instead. They were not affiliated with the local Unitarian church or any other local group. This group of people(men and women) built this “community” out of an existing AHA chapter which had been active but had not grown much in some years. It is an impressive feat and what they are doing has given me a great deal to think about.


Fred Edwords, the Executive Director of the AHA, made this presentation. he began with the question: “Why doesn’t the Humanist Movement grow faster?” An interesting discussion followed. In summary, Mr. Edwords suggested that AHA chapters use a multi faceted approach; that Humanists are more than “intellects on legs” but also social, physical and emotional beings who are interested in may different activities. He said “our culture is a guilt culture, (but) we are an anti-guilt society.” and that people wanted people want a philosophy that is “FUN” and affirmative. Finally, he asked us to ask ourselves the question: “What do Humanists do?” he then suggested that we find our own answers. He pointed to the San Jose chapter and the Dutch Humanists as examples to follow.


I have noticed for some time that there is a great deal of questioning over definitions of Humanism. A number of members seem to be critical of the lack of good ones they could use. One member wanted to establish a prize for the best short “Humanism is…” statement, but he failed. No ones seemed to have a satisfactory answer to the questions “What is a humanist?’ and/or “What is Humanism?” There were suggestions given and examples handed out and perhaps something will happen. I don’t think the questions will go away.

I left the conference with a lot of new information, but with a very indefinite idea of what I should do when I got home. I thought it significant that not all AHA members belong to a chapter and many chapter members do not join the AHA and the relationship of one to the other is somewhat mysterious. There is no pattern and no direction on how to put a chapter together, and from what I saw and have read, each chapter is different, ranging from the “intense” activity of San Jose to chapters that are iconoclastic, spending much time and energy attacking organized religion. To me, neither of these were appropriate models for the Utah chapter, and I felt very much on my own.

It occurred to me then that an old folk-tale seemed to fit the situation. Remember the one of the “Blind Men And The Elephant?’ It is a good metaphor for this situation. The poetry version of the old story goes like this:

It was six men in Indostan
To learning much inclined
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind).
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

(The poem goes on to explain
how each felt a different part
and described the beast as a wall,
a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan,
and a rope.)

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Thought each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe (author)

Now what if one of the blind men had been a humanist? What would he have said? How about this?

I know I only feel a part
Of this great big beast
So large I’ll never feel the whole
And I’m too small, I fear.

I’ll use the scientific method
Take evidence from all
Then form an hypothesis
And soon encompass all.

Some day I will surely know
All about this elephant
And then I can tell the world
And be the most intelligent!

I am a humanist, you see!

–Bob Green

Letter to the Editor

(Editor’s note: Mr. Anne Zielstra is from a freethinker background and a secular humanist from Holland. His viewpoint reflects that experience and is typical of a secular humanist.)

Dear Bob:

The March, April, and May issues of the Utah Humanist have featured a series of articles on Humanism as a religion, and on community building. Here are some other thoughts on these subjects.


First, to set the record straight, the word “religion” has its origin in Latin, and comes from the same root that gave us words like “ligament.” The original meaning may have been something like “to bind together again,’although the classicists are not sure about that.

But what a word means does not depend on what the linquists or the priests decree. A word means what most people understand it to mean, and Webster’s dictionary is a good a reporter on common understanding as any. It defines religion as the “concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or a trasdecent spiritual entity that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc., are spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of inner need as a human response to that belief in such a being, principle, etc.” [Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, 1989]

That’s quite a mouthful. Notice, thought, that his description does not mention the word, “god” once. Not all religions require the belief in a god. But all assume that there is a reality out there that we cannot physically perceive, and that knowledge about how that reality behaves and how it can be manipulated has been revealed to certain individuals.

Humanism, by that description, is not a religion. So then what is it? A philosophy, a “rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct?” (That’s Webster’s again.) To some people that does not suffice. Humanism to them is an active, sweaty, practical movement, not an ivory-tower, passive and self-sufficient navel-staring mind game. But speakers of the English language have not yet accepted a new word to fit the concept. “Euphraxophy” (“the knowledge on how to do things well”) has been proposed. So has “life-stance”, but neither is in wide use. Perhaps humanists should make up their own minds about what to call this thing they have, and then consistently stick with it until the majority follows suit.

“Religion” is not the right word to describe Humanism, not only because it would confuse the listeners, but also for very practical reasons. Some time ago, the American Humanist Association aspired to the privileges that states normally bestow on religions. In other countries humanist counselors are accepted in the armies, hospitals and prisons as much sa priests are, so why not here?

When religious fundamentalists heard of that idea, they turned it on its head. Humanism is a self-proclaimed religion, they said, and its tenets (such as evolution) are taught in the public schools. If the Humanists can teach their doctrine there, then we want to have the school curriculum opened up to Creation Science and Bible Study! The AHA quickly put the lid back on that can of worms, and is now officially an educational organization, as is the Utah chapter.


Quite apart from semantics, should humanists follow the example set by organized religions? Art Jackson (in the April, 1992 issue) thinks so: religions, he says, are glue that hold society together.

Religions will gladly accept that assertion, I’m sure, but history does not bear it out. Babylon, Rome and Tenochtitlan did not fall because people did not believe in the established religion anymore. And religiously inspired schisms are still tearing many societies to warring pieces.

I’d rather think that society’s glue is not made by religion, but by economics. Even if they had nothing else in common, people would still prefer to interact because of the benefits of specialization of labor and technology. (That’s not me who came up with that, that’s Adam Smith.)

Sociologically, religions don’t glue people together, they split them up, in a tribal in-group of people who are right, and an out-group that is wrong. If a large part of humanity can be excluded from consideration, the efforts can be concentrated on effectively promoting the welfare of your tribe.

Historically, organized religions have been very easy tools for those in power, used to keep them in power. The Crusades, the Mogul empire, the Inquisition, the Victorian white man’s burden, and many other bloody enterprises used religion to mobilize and silence people who would ordinarily just mind their own business. I don’t want to throw doubt on the integrity of individual believers here. I do want to show that masses of believers have been easy prey for cynical manipulators. I have heard many people express a grudging respect for the public relations means of many religions, even if they don’t agree with the ends. (Bob Green’s article in the March issue provides an example.)

But should we follow an organizational example that has been so easily abused? Communist parties all over the world have done so, using the in-group/out-group principle (complete with the purges of heretics), and it has made them terribly ineffective. It would be an instance of old brain thinking” to try and repeat the practices of organized religion, and still exclude its principles. You might object that the Unitarian Universalist Church is an established religious organization that does not practice intolerance and exclusiveness. I do not know enough about that denomination to be able to say whether it fits Webster’s definition or my stereotype… But I doubt if its example can be reproduced: it evolved from a traditional church into a progressive one, not (as Art Jackson would have us do) from an association into a religious community.

Humanists are global rather than exclusive; they invite doubt and discussion; they are not willing to accept and preserve the status quo while waiting for a hereafter; and they are fiercely independent. Those are not characteristics that make for a successful docile and restricted religious order.

I think we should be able to come up with something new and better, and steer clear of old-time religions. That even extends to words and symbols. For instance, I don’t want to have a “belief system,” because a belief is something that cannot be disproved. I’d rather call it by “set of working hypotheses,” the few things I take for granted until new information becomes available.

So what does a new and better humanist organization look like? Since humanists are inclusive and open to different ideas, I think it is bound to be a diffuse entity of human catalysts, a loose network of people who make things happen through the single-issue groups that they support. The principles they share will be general to the point of sounding trite. Democracy, equality, tolerance, reason, these are not new ideas; but their practice is.

A humanist organization’s effectiveness should not be measured by how strong the organization is as a body separate from its members, or by how many buildings it owns and how many people it employs. It should be measured by how well it enables its individual members to give to one another the power and inspiration to change the world.

by Bob Green

No, Anne, dictionaries do not adequately define words such as religion which have so many emotional overtones. In this case, the word “religion” needs modifiers properly to define the meaning. For instance, the kind of religion you describe is the “traditional established religion.” The kind of religion Art Jackson of the San Jose chapter, Professor Appleby in his lecture, and others describe is a “personal” religion or perhaps a “generic” religion. My dictionary has one definition of religion as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith,” and this will do to define “generic” religion. Unless otherwise defined, this generic religion is what we are all talking about. Humanism can easily be considered as that kind of religion.

The other, a “personal” religion, goes to define that unique set of beliefs, or ideas or whatever, which we all individually formulate to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. I do agree that we need to adopt a single term to define what it is that humanism means to each of us. I suggest the words “idea-system.” This term comes from Julian Huxley, a founder of modern humanism. In his book, The Humanist Frame (1961), he acknowledges the need to have a term for Humanism and suggested the non-technical term idea-system, “with the proviso that it includes beliefs, attitudes and symbols as well as intellectual concepts and ideas.’ (p. 13) We can do no better than this, and I am going to adopt it in place of all the other terms.

The possibility that the Community of Humanists that Art Jackson describes could become a traditional established religion is beyond the realm of possibility. No humanist I know even considers doing anything like that. However, we need to avoid the possibility that the public gain the perception that it is , or could be. Flo and I thought it resembled a church or a generic religion. The question is: How to build an effective organization which facilitates the learning and living of humanism without appearing to be a church or a religion? Well, that is the job at hand, and your last sentence answers the question very effectively: “It should be measured by how well it enables its individual members to give one another the power and inspiration to change the world.” If we do that, what does it matter what we are called? “If we build it, they will come.” (Field of Dreams)

A Prescription For The Future
Or, Are We Always Going to be the Way We Are?

I might be the only one to ask that question, and considering my role in the Chapter, I am probably the only one to answer it. It is a question I have had in my mind during the past year and especially at the recent Portland conference.

Of the possible directions there are two extremes and a range in between. The first extreme is to be iconoclastic and do battle with Traditional Established Religion (TER) and their symbols and practices. Personally, I reject that approach, I don’t recommend that we be the skunk at the family picnic. It is my belief, based on my own experience, that thinking, reasonable people (the possible humanists) do not maintain their membership and activity in TERs to satisfy their intellect. They go to the TERs because the experience satisfies social, emotional, spiritual and family needs.

Another approach is that presented by Dr. Don Page in his editorial, the lecture of Professor Appleby, Fred Edwords at the conference and Anne Zielstra’s conclusion who all say that if humanism is to have a future, it must do what TERs do, but do it more effectively and in the humanist manner.

In the April issue of the Utah Humanist, I published the program of the Humanist Community of San Jose (HCSJ). In that program, Art Jackson set forth nine characteristics of the “Model” humanist group. Briefly, these are: (1) have a vision to be a institution with a message (have an attitude?), (2) recognize the need to build a community where searchers for truth can come, (3) have a building to meet in and leadership to carry out policies and goals, (4) programming should be broad enough to appeal to every kind of humanist, (5) have festivals, its ceremonies, etc., as part of the activities of the group, (6) hold weekly meetings on Sunday mornings to bring everyone together with programs to appeal to the whole family, (7) recognize every member of society as a potential organization or a church which holds all people together, and (9) be open to the idea of humanist spiritually and mysticism.

Before I go any further with this, I want to consider the beginnings of the Humanist movement. Briefly, it grew from the desire of Unitarian ministers in the western U.S. to preach a secular doctrine, and to “establish its right of a naturalistic humanist to fill the pulpit,” as opposed to the eastern part of the church which was theist oriented. Ed Wilson, one of those Unitarian ministers, was part of this movement, and has written its history published in the Humanist 50th Anniversary issue of Jan/Feb, 1991. In talking to him recently, I asked him about the beginnings of the American Humanist Association and what it was meant to be and do. He stated that it was to be a “channel for expression,” which meant a journal which would write about Humanism in such terms that the “ordinary intelligent layman would understand, versus the academic approach.” Ed and the others of the group wanted to “draw a ring around liberal, humanistic thinkers and scholars in the academic world,” such as John Dewey, E.A. Burtt, and John Herman Randall Jr., and “establish communication and cooperation.” The publication in the New Humanist Journal in 1933 of the Humanist Manifesto was an example of that effort.

An organization was needed to support the journal and members “were important for influence and income.” The chapter movement began in the late “40’s primarily as “cottage meetings” to extend that support of the journal. In some places, the chapters became a support group for the members themselves and for the most part were independent entities, changing the emphasis. The Unitarian church, in the meantime, was becoming increasingly agnostic, and depending on local leadership, supported and cooperated with local Humanist chapters. From then to now, there have been changes in the emphasis of the journal and the formation of many new chapters.

After the Portland conference, I pessimistically concluded that the American Humanist Association after 50 years now has a static membership of only under 10,000, with 76 or so chapters which act like separate little fiefdoms engaging principally in iconoclastic with some notable exceptions like the Humanist Community of San Jose, which is going along its merry independent way. And the AHA magazine–in the year I’ve been a member, has added nothing to my idea-system. However, there is presently the promise of change!

What is happening, then, with the HCSJ group is a change away from what has been done toward building what they call a “humanist community.” The record of their efforts indicates that it is successful. From my reading of its journal and newsletters, it is doing what religions do: it gives the answers to the existential questions of “Who am I?” and “What is the purpose of life?” and promises salvation, not in the religious sense, but as they state. I will write a life story that makes my interval a story of high purpose and significant meaning–a movement of grace, tolerance, exuberance, joy.” (Humanist Community Programs and Ideas, May 1992).

In Utah especially, we live in a culture with a traditional established religion which answers in a particularly effective manner the existential questions with a promise of salvation. Those questions are a part of the teaching curriculum and the problems of salvation are emphasized constantly.

The question then presents itself, can a humanist movement succeed here unless it addresses those same existential questions and a promise of a humanist kind of salvation? Can it in fact succeed anywhere? The next question: Does Humanism have the answers to the existential questions? It there a humanist kind of salvation? The people out in San Jose think so.

One more point: Why did I discover that I was a humanist a year ago? Because the first thesis of that first Humanist Manifesto said: “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.” Finally, a life idea-system that included evolution! And it went on from there to continue to answer those existential questions that as a Mormon I had been trained to ask and consider very important.

Shortly after that, I asked the question: Why did it take so long for me to discover Humanism? It was in the fall of 1953 that I formulated my humanist idea-system. I consider myself a well-educated and well-read person, and although I knew about Humanism, I had never met a humanist or heard of the AHA (that I remember). I now know the answer: it isn’t structured so that it could reach someone like me and it wasn’t intended to. Is it going to stay that way? I hope not.

Coming back to the original question, what kind of program should the Humanists of Utah have? I recommend we follow the HCSJ model with an important difference. We should recognize that we don’t need to build a Humanist community, we need to recognize that we already have one. What is a Humanist community? It depends on the definition of both terms in this context. Define humanism as an idea-system that asserts the dignity and worth of humankind and its capacity for self realization through reason and science, and a community as a group of larger society. This is the humanist community in which the Humanists of Utah will find its role. And there are many kinds of humanists here: secular, religious, rational, ethical, atheist, and even LDS humanists.

Considering the HCSJ nine characteristics one by one, what do we have? (1) Yes, we do have a vision of who we are and that we have a message and I daresay there are those of us with an attitude. (2) and (3) We do have a community and a place and the leadership in both the chapter meetings and in the Unitarian church where we meet. (see Tom Goldsmith’s letter, following.) (4)The programs which take place in the Unitarian church, of which ours is only a part could appeal to every kind of humanist, (5) Yes, festivals and ceremonies are present (but we could do more), (6) There are meetings every Sunday morning in the Unitarian church and a religious education program for children, (7) I’d like to think that every member of society in Utah is a potential member but that’s too difficult (if that is limited to only the thinking, rational people, okay). (8) We have been saying all along that a religious (generic) organization is necessary, and (9) We are open to the idea of spirituality and mysticism, in a humanist frame.

In this humanist community the Humanists of Utah have a place. That place is essentially the same role that the founders of the American Humanist movement set for themselves when they began. We will publish a journal that will write about the Humanist idea-system in terms that the “ordinary intelligent layman can understand.” We have members who are good writers and we will find more. There is a distinguished group of humanist scholars in Utah and they will be encouraged to participate. The journal needs important improvements in its presentation and editing, and we are working on that.

There is also a great deal to do yet in preparing informational materials to explain humanism to those who request information. (That is a summer project of mine.) Generic Humanism (if you will) has always been difficult to define and explain. The idea-system of humanism needn’t be because there are specific ideas that explain the existential questions and have a great deal to say about “salvation” in the here and now.

The lecture/discussion series will of course be continued. I have enough suggestions for speakers that I could hold two meetings a month for the next year. The emphasis will continue to be on the idea-system of humanism.

Last week I wrote a letter for the Grassroots News of the AHA chapter assembly at the editor’s request to explain why we were chosen as the Chapter of the Year. Many of the ideas I wrote for the News are included in this article, and this is pertinent here: “…we decided that our mission was to help humanists be humanists, find new humanists, and provide an association where all could find a sense of belonging to a larger community.”

In summary, we will continue to do what we have been doing. However, the difference now is that we will have a clearer vision of why we are doing it, and improve on it.

–Bob Green

A Rational Approach to Sobriety

“Rational Recovery – The Powerful Alternative” was the title of a talk given by Nile B. Ward, a Counselor of the FIRST STEP HOUSE at the June 14th meeting of Humanists of Utah. The following highlights were prepared by Nancy Moore.


About five years ago, when Nile was a senior majoring in social work at Westminster College, he and his wife found themselves in a situation when they discovered their 16 year old daughter was addicted to cocaine and other drugs. They were concerned that she was going to die, so they placed her in a program called Day Spring which uses the 12 Step Program originated in Alcoholics Anonymous. Their daughter progressed very well in Day Spring, has recovered, and is living a productive and happy life.

Nile has worked in various social agencies, including Alcoholics Anonymous, but always felt there was a problem with the spiritual and religious commitment part of the 12 Step Program. Nile saw that therapy ended up much like a cheerleading group in high school, with little of the solutions of remaining sober being based on rational thinking and the real world.

Last year, Nile went to work for First Step House in Salt Lake City where he found that the therapy was based on a cognitive model. Clients were required to look at the basic assumptions they formulate their life around, and ask themselves if those premises are based on rational and realistic thinking. Nile liked this approach of helping people because it made a lot of sense.


A few years ago, Nile met Jack Trimpey (MSW) a licensed social worker and recovered alcoholic. Jack had discovered that some of his clients resented having their treatment based on reliance upon a supernatual power, and having to submit themselves to feelings of powerlessness. He felt there had to be another way, so Jack initialized psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) into his program. RET is based upon the simple idea of “Give up irrational thinking, and begin basing your life on rational thinking.” In this type of therapy, people must be willing to look at rational ways of thinking and when they do, then recovery from alcohol or drug abuse will naturally follow. Rational Emotive Therapy believes our thoughts control how we feel, and our feelings influence how we behave, therefore therapy begins in correcting our irrational thoughts. “Thinking is the problem, not the drinking” is a familiar adage in Rational Recovery (RR).


The term “Rational Recovery Systems” (RRS) was created and the definition is as follows: RRS is a nonspiritual, nonreligious, nonprofit, self-help addiction-care group. Rational Recoverists use the word RECOVERY because they feel if a person has had a long, sustained period of sobriety, and has changed to a happy and productive lifestyle, then shy not consider themselves recovered? Because rational recovered alcoholics have taken ownership of their won problems, they do not think of themselves as victims, not do they consider alcoholism a disease.


Nile listed some Dubious Assumptions from contemporary alcohol treatment centers, which Rational Recovery Systems challenge because they are irrational, and do not lend themselves to responsible recovery. They are as follows:

DUBIOUS ASSUMPTION #1: A person must have a history of addiction or alcoholism in order to be effective in helping an addict or alcoholic.

RATIONAL RECOVERY SAYS: Alcoholics and other addicts are not so different from anyone else that they can;t be helped by a non-addicted person. Inbreeding is not necessary.

DUBIOUS ASSUMPTION #2: Supernatrual aid is required to recover from alcoholism.

RATIONAL RECOVERY SAYS: Spiritual healing is for spiritually inclined people, and it’s not for everyone. To convince people that only a higher power can restore them to sanity undermines the sense of personal competence that for many is central to recovery.

DUBIOUS ASSUMPTION #3: Only Alcoholics Anonymous works.

RATIONAL RECOVERY SAYS: Alcoholics can learn to abstain through many means, the chief of which is adherence to rational thought.


Rational Recovery, with its emphasis on Rational Emotive Therapy teaches people how to take personal responsibility for what is taken into their body, and how to avoid relapses year after year. This can be accomplished without supernatural aid, daily ritual, or prayer. Sobriety is a matter of self-interest, and the locus of control is found within.

The structure of the RR meetings at First Step House was touched upon. Because First Step House is not a medical facility, its clients have already detoxified before they come into the program, so at least their minds are functioning as they begin therapy.

The program is client-centered. However, a counselor helps keep people focused and thinking in the present. Swelling in the past prevents people from dealing with their present irrational thinking. People sit in a circle and they process information from each other. Patterns are observed, and suggestions are made. Meetings are held once a week and last about an hour. There is no fee, however, donations are accepted. The main concern of RR is to help people stay sober. The goal is to help people become self-sufficient, and to realize that becoming a rational thinker is a life-long process.

Sometimes it a RR group, unresolved or deep-seated problems emerge, such as past physical or sexual abuse. Rational Recovery’s advise to these clients is also to get competent, professional help outside of the group, because solving these types of problems is not the focus of RR.

Nile sees a couple of shortcomings in RR. First, the focus of the program is mainly on the average person, and talk about varied lifestyles is not common. Second, RR doesn’t deal with substantial substance abusers. As the program grows however, these shortcomings will be addressed.


The American Humanist Association officially sponsors Rational Recovery, and the program is the offspring of the Humanist Movement. Presently, Humanists in Massachusetts are using RR in prison. And in Sacramento, California, the RR treatment program has only a 30% recidivism rate during an 18 month time period. The results of a New York University study on RR participants is almost ready for publication.

Readings required for Rational Recovery clients are The Small Book, by Jack Trimpey, Delacorte Press, and A Guide To Rational Living by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. and Robert A. Harper, Ph.D., Wilshire Book Company. Both are available at most book stores.

The Flight Of The Wild Gander

~Book Review~

“..it is simply an incontrovertible fact that, with the rise of modern science, the entire cosmological structure of the Bible and the Church has been destroyed and not the cosmological only but the historical as well.” This quotation will probably not cause any of the readers of this review to run out and get a copy of The Flight Of The Wild Gander by Joseph Campbell. In fact, I assume that most of you consider this statement to be virtually an a priori statement. However, I do believe that many will find the works of Joseph Campbell and this book in particular intellectually stimulating.

The premise of the book is that there are a limited number of Myths, metaphysical events or stories, which are inherently believed or known to be true by all of us. This is a human condition that is inherited just as surely as hair or eye color. These ideas and concepts arise from an inborn need to have “heroes” coupled with a desire and an inability to explain the unknown.

It is incredible to see how various cultures throughout history have always used the same symbols and ideas (Tree of Life, Serpent, Virgin Birth, etc,). To be sure various ethnic groups have used twists in the telling and interpreting of the tales, but basically it is the same story with the same players over and over again.

Dr. Campbell makes the very interesting point that a fundamental change took place 8,000-10,000 years ago when humans moved from the root gathering and primitive hunting groups into cities. This led to the high bronze and Iron Age civilizations. At that time deities were changed from female or hermaphroditic figures into males. This change is echoed in the Bible. The first story of creation describes how God made male and female in his own image, presumably as equals. This legend is then followed by the more recent rendition of God creating man who becomes lonely. Woman is then created from the rib of Adam and is therefore subservient to the will of the first created, dominant male.

I was very sorry to miss the discussion of the possibility of developing a religion of Humanism. It seems to me that any such organization must take Dr. Campbell’s ideas into account to be successful. He believes that development of a new religion is inevitable and indeed has already begun. He states that the first effort was perhaps Copericus’ De revolutionibus orium coelestium (1543) and then Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1853.

Dr. Campbell writes:

“…not all, even today, are of that supine sort that must have their life values given them, cried at them from the pulpits and other mass media of the day. For there is, in fact, in quiet places, a great deal of deep spiritual quest and finding now in progress in this world, outside the sanctified social centers, beyond their purview and control: in small groups, here and there, and more often, more typically (as anyone who looks about may learn), by ones and twos, there entering the forest (the Waste Land condition of the Middle Ages troubadors) at those points which they themselves have chosen, where they see it to be most dark, and there is no beaten way or path.”

The discussion in the newsletter recognized the importance of celebrating life’s rites of passage and sign posts. The question is, it seams to me, would these ceremonies have a metaphysical flavor? From Dr. Campbell’s work there is ample empirical data to suggest that humans always have had and presumably always will need a common link with the Myths and Heroes of the past.

–Wayne Wilson


Humanist Humor

Here I go
On my twenty-minute run/walk
Sustained exercise for the third time
In a week,

After taking my aspirin a day,
To be followed by
One or two glasses of red wine
In the evening.

Then I can gobble my oat-bran muffin
For lunch, prior to
Skinning the chicken
Or boiling the halibut
To go on my lettuce and cucumber
Salad (hold the mayo)
For dinner.

I’m going to live

–Alan Coombs