The State of Humanist Organizations
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
This month’s Humanist Discussion Group meeting featured as a speaker Vern Bullough, senior editor of Free Inquiry. Mr. Bullough has written numerous articles and is an internationally known leader in the humanist movement. He has helped bring about the inception of international humanist organizations.
He introduced us to the history of humanist organizations in the U.S. A key player in the humanist movement was Ed Wilson, who was the minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. I want to mention that Ed also played an important role in the organization of the Utah Humanist Association in Utah early in the 1990’s, when he returned to Utah at the age of 90. He served on the Board of Directors of Utah Humanists until his death at 93. I remember he was the featured speaker at our organizational meeting. I had received a letter from the organizing group, signed by a gentleman named Anne Zeilstra, which opened up by saying, “Surprise! You are not the only humanist in Utah!” At that time I lived near Ogden and thought I probably was the only humanist in Utah. Apparently the group had obtained my name from the list of subscribers to the Humanist. It was a real thrill to me to find out that the humanists were going to have an organization in Utah and to have the opportunity to participate in that endeavor.
Wilson organized a group of eminent scholars and leaders in the U.S. to sign the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933. His group chartered themselves as the American Humanist Association. Mr. Bullough said the humanist movement owes more to Ed for its development than to anyone else. Corliss LaMont also gave much to humanism and was very influential in keeping it alive.
In his speech Bullough, then went on to point out the problems humanism faces today. First, not all Unitarians are humanists. Some Unitarian congregations are empathetic to humanism, but most are not. Second, humanists disagree among themselves. They are highly individualistic and have divided up into several organizations.
Paul Kurtz became the editor of the Humanist. Then he started Free Inquiry and resigned from the Humanist. Bullough feels that the latter magazine is more political than the former. Free Inquiry has expanded tremendously. One thing that has helped is that Paul takes an idea and runs with it.
In spite of their differences, both of the largest humanist organizations, the American Humanist Association and the Council for Secular Humanism, have worked together effectively in several endeavors, especially in training humanist leaders. Humanist organizations have been created in several countries overseas. There is an International Humanist and Ethical Union. The largest humanist group in Europe is in Norway, and there is another large group in the Netherlands. Humanists are pretty friendly to each other everywhere.
How can humanists get more membership in their organizations? Bullough had several suggestions: One way is through study groups. In Los Angeles there is a theater, and humanist events are held there regularly. The internet is probably the best way to inform people about humanism, and its use for that purpose is the coming thing. Special groups centered on particular interests can be formed, for instance, single groups, gay groups, and retired people. Chapters can hold special conferences in their areas on a particular topic once a year. They should be given advance publicity in the media. Several years ago the Council on Secular Humanism held such a conference in Salt Lake City, which was highly successful. There are now 40 college chapters around the country. One difficulty with this approach is that students leave college. Youth conferences are another way to go.
We need paid organizers in humanism. There could be a conference of Rocky Mountain humanists. In Utah we could form new chapters in other nearby areas and then get together to talk about how we could work together. Humanists have much common ground with each other, but big egos are a problem for cooperation among humanist groups. T-shirts are a possibility. Sometimes humanists have issued sound bites to the media. We have at times gotten a good deal of publicity in the New York Times. We might be able to get some coverage in the University of Utah Daily Chronicle. We can write to our national organizations for press materials. Unfortunately, public service radio and TV stations won’t run humanist materials. Our president, Robert Lane, pointed out that we have sometimes had success in getting letters-to-the editor published. Bullough suggested writing manuals on subjects that are especially interesting to people, for example, divorce. Many books are published that advocate humanist ideas, but not many of the readers join our organizations. Nevertheless, humanist ideas are widely respected in our society. They played a role in the development of the U.S Constitution and in the promotion of human rights. He cautioned against taking the Madeline Murray O’Hare approach. She was unwilling to cooperate with groups other than her own.
We should, he said, promote strongly the idea that man is responsible for his own destiny. This would resonate well with many people.
Environmental and political activist and author Chip Ward struck a chord with humanists as he spoke about his work keeping the Great Basin Desert from becoming a nuclear waste dump. A resident of Grantsville, Ward believes that because Tooele County has for years been trading environmental quality for jobs, revenues, and profits, many people are now sick.
Ward recalls going to a public hearing ten years ago about a plan to build toxic waste incinerators on Utah’s West Desert. At the hearing, an industry expert hired by the corporations who build incinerators said the emissions from hazardous waste facilities would be so safe and legal that people could eat it spread on their breakfast cereal.
Such a statement seemed to reassure many in the audience, but Ward was left with the urge to run home to examine his breakfast cereal. His alarm increased when a Greenpeace activist there said if we lived downwind from toxic waste incinerators, we would give birth to two-headed babies and die. New to such issues, Ward found the conflicting testimonies confusing and alarming. As he walked out the door that evening, he said to a neighbor, “Let me see if I got that right–we’re going to eat breakfast cereal for two-headed babies.”
After the hearing, Ward decided to do his own research and discovered that each side of the debate had convincing evidence and experts to support their arguments. As citizens, people are supposed to process that information and be the ultimate arbiters of its credibility and integrity. That, Ward realized, was why politics has become an information war.
Before Grantsville, Ward and his wife worked in Capitol Reef National Park where they took responsibility for their own water source and growing their own food; this taught him that people are really what they eat, drink and breathe, and that the collective decisions made about what to allow into the air, water, soil, and food get translated into flesh and blood.
As a result of this intimate experience, Ward was able to extrapolate that for people who live near incinerators, chemical industry facilities, and toxic or radioactive wastes, their own bodies will eventually be affected. Ward learned that environmental laws and policies are not precautionary, and so are not wise. Aside from a reckless orientation, those laws and policies are interpreted and enforced in a political arena where increasing numbers of citizens are turned away or turned off. And when citizens do not get involved, the situation worsens.
Reluctant at first to get involved himself, Ward tells how he and a neighbor gathered signatures on a petition for improved air monitoring, a modest attempt to introduce some accountability and consensus. Hoping for 50 signatures, they obtained 500–because so many were worried about cancer and the chronic illnesses plaguing their community.
Ward admits to having a difficult time sorting out the information because he realized that the nature of consciousness and perception is we see what we look for, so he was wary of jumping to conclusions. Then one revelatory Saturday morning as he was reading and drinking his coffee on the front porch, Ward realized that from where he sat, he could point to three homes where children were in wheel chairs, to a home where a child had been born with one kidney, to a house where another child had Spina Bifida, to a home where a child had recently died from leukemia, and to two homes where mothers in their early thirties had just died of cancer. Ward recounts how all his alarms went off, and he asked himself, “Have I moved my children into harm’s way?” Precaution compels action before conclusion.
Although politics appear disguised as laws, policies, campaigns, budgets, and rhetoric, Ward says they are really about how we live and die. In his book, Canaries on the Rim, Ward captures the story of his activist quest to address the ongoing controversies over the use of the West Desert as an enabler for some very toxic collective behaviors.
As an aside, Ward explains that the “canaries” in the title is a metaphor and a reference to the coal mine canaries that were kept to warn miners about poisonous fumes in the air, something which he has had to point out to the local Barnes & Noble stores because they insist on restocking his book in the bird guide section next to manuals on parakeet care.
Continuing on, Ward admonishes that if we want to have an interesting life and meet compelling people, we should get involved. As we go about our daily lives, we are constantly given the choice to avoid or embrace our responsibilities as citizens. When we avoid the challenges of creating viable and healthy communities, the consequences are often dire while embracing those challenges, we create hope. In a personal testimony, Ward states that passionate commitment is not a burden but a blessing, and that when people practice their heartfelt convictions, he believes life becomes richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
The March Discussion Group was a departure from our usual format of a selected reading. Through the efforts of Bob and Julie Mayhew, we had as a special guest Vern Bullough, a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a long time humanist. Before the discussion, Bob, Julie, and I had an enjoyable dinner and some chitchat with Vern and his wife. At the meeting, Vern gave a history of the humanist movement and talked about the competing groups that exist today. Afterwards he answered a number of questions from those in attendance.
I want to say a few things about the divisions in humanism. In the several years that I have been a chapter member and board member, I have been a bit dismayed by the divided nature of the humanist movement. That is, all of the “competing groups” that exist. While some diversification and duplication is inevitable and even necessary, I suspect that a lot of it has to do with some big egos and conflicting philosophies that were allowed to divide the movement unnecessarily.
It is also irritating for me to read letters on some of the Internet sites where sniping occurs by some atheists toward agnostics. There is certainly nothing wrong with discussing whether or not God exists, but to make snide remarks about people who would agree with you in nearly all other aspects of freethought, critical thinking, rationality and science isn’t at all helpful to humanism.
When a missionary or the Jehovah’s Witness comes calling I tell them that I am several things: a humanist, an evolutionist, and an agnostic. But I try to not call myself an agnostic-humanist. Hyphenated or modified names only tend to confuse, and all of the names or philosophies are able to stand alone while at the same time reinforcing the others where they overlap, i.e. humanism has a naturalistic viewpoint and evolution is certainly naturalistic.
In this regard, I recommend that you check out an article from the November/December 2002 Humanist by Edd Doerr called Humanism Unmodified. It can be found on the Internet…see our website for the link.
Finally, it is my sad duty to inform you that Rolf Kay has decided to resign from the Board of Directors of the Humanists of Utah. Because of health problems he is stepping down immediately. He informs me that he will remain a member and I am sure we will see him at our meetings often. I know that I speak for the entire board and indeed all of the membership in thanking Rolf for the many years he has served on the board. Rolf’s good humor, jokes and keen insights have benefited the chapter tremendously. He also arranged the February and August socials for many years-no small feat. Rolf, thanks you very much and good luck in all that you do.
Rolf’s departure leaves an empty seat on the board. Anyone interested should contact any board member.
Marion Craig Essay Contest Winners
The entries to the Humanists of Utah Marion Craig Essay Competition have been read and evaluated by our chapter’s essay committee, Bob Lane, Bob Mayhew, Cindy King, Julie Mayhew, and Flo Wineriter. First place winner is Kendra Walbeck; her winning essay was titled “Why Join a Gang.” Second place winner is Megan Hurst, who titled her essay “Keeping the Environment Clean.” Both winners are 9th grade students of Mrs. Moses at South Jordan Middle school.
They have been invited to read their essays at our April 13th meeting at which time they will receive their respective awards, $500 and $250. Mrs. Moses will receive $250 for encouraging her students to participate in our essay competition.
This was the third year of our chapter’s essay competition and is funded by money left to the chapter by the late Marion Craig, an active humanist and Salt Lake City school teacher.
The Politics of Enlightenment
The Enlightenment is about the power, the beauty, and the truth of reason. Emotion, desire, and magic may readily sway us to instant gratification but reason will lead us to reality.
In his book, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, the Politics of Enlightenment, Darren Staloff forcefully reminds us that America owes its guiding political traditions to three founding fathers whose lives embodied the collision of Europe’s grand Enlightenment project with the birth of our nation. Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson each steered his public life under the guideposts of Enlightenment principles. As a consequence we have a government that is modern and efficient, constrained by checks and balances and capable of appealing to lofty aspirations.
Staloff says no other nation bears the imprint of the Enlightenment as deeply as does the United States and our ideals are inconceivable outside of an Enlightenment context.
The World is Flat
When I give talks concerning the history of humanism, I cite the significance of the creation of the internet with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press; both were gigantic leaps in information technology and the human ability to communicate. In his current best selling book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman explains how events of 11/9/89 and 9/11/01 influenced the changing concept of a global world to a flat world. Tearing down the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center destruction contributed to an explosion of world commerce that flattened the world and sped up the distribution of information and of wealth to millions of people.
Friedman says, “People don’t change when you tell them they should. They change when they tell themselves they must.” To gain a better understanding of how and why we must change our world concept from global to flat, this book should have a top priority on your reading list.
Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in Blink of an Eye, by Michael R. LeGault, discusses the problem between egalitarian intelligence and critical thinking. Egalitarian intelligence is the notion that all ideas and opinions are of equal value, and that knowledge and reasoning tends towards the same conclusions. The importance of critical thinking is that it leads to innovative and creative thinking. These premises support the author’s theory that a breakdown in critical thinking, lack of planning, wavering indecisiveness, occurring at crucial moments can have devastating consequences. There are some issues, with some of the analogies the author uses; one problem being LeGault’s use of egalitarian thinking when he is trying to build a case for critical thinking. This only supports the fact that criticism should strive first to raise our consciousness, and encourage us to use our critical thinking intelligence skills.
Adult: A person who has stopped growing at both ends and is now growing in the middle.
Beauty Parlor: A place where women curl up and dye.
Cannibal: Someone who is fed up with people.
Chickens: The only creatures you eat before they are born and after they are dead.
Dust: Mud with the juice squeezed out.
Egotistic: Someone who is usually me-deep in conversation.
Gossip: A person who will never tell a lie if the truth will do more damage.
Handkerchief: Cold Storage.
Inflation: Cutting money in half without damaging the paper.
Mosquito: An insect that makes you like flies better.
Secret: Something you tell to one person at a time.
How would life in Utah change if humanism was the dominant cultural influence? Give this question some serious thought then share your conclusions with chapter members and others who read our journal. Your humanist aspirations for a better society may be summarized in a few sentences, a paragraph, or a lengthy article. Put your thoughts together and submit them. Your contribution will appear below and perhaps in a future brochure.
If we are serious about humanism changing society we need to clearly state our goals and aspirations. We need to know what we stand for and let others know what we want to happen in politics, education, science, and society. I hope everyone will contribute some ideas and stimulate an exciting discussion.
Here are some of our readers’ comments:
Humanists of Utah reserves the exclusive right to determine which submissions will be published and the right to edit all submissions for length and/or content.
This question could evoke a huge response, possibly even a book. It is quite easy to think of a number of ways that life would change.
Most obviously would be the general change from a conservative culture to a liberal one. I doubt that there are more than a few, if any of our chapter members that consider themselves conservative or Republican. Even if there are a few, they most likely are not of the far right wing type or neo-con or religious conservative.
If indeed we were the dominant influence that would mean that we could put into practice some of the affirmations we now struggle to even make known to the public. But, putting our affirmations into action would also be problematic, because while we would be the dominant force, all the religious and conservative people probably wouldn’t just disappear. They would likely be even more of a pain in the butt to us, than we currently are to them.
I believe that public education will always be debated. However, if humanists were in control, the subject matter would almost certainly change drastically. The issues of class size and teaching of science in science classes would be moot. Probably the concern would be how to extend public education beyond 12 years. Should there be a multi-directional system where some students are sent to academic institutions and others to skilled trade training? How do we decide which students will go which direction? If plumber can be adequately trained in 18 months, is it equitable to subsidize six years of schooling for an electrical engineer?
Tough questions, but in my opinion, worth the asking!
- Instead of the Ten Commandments, let’s put up “Love, not Hate.”
- No person goes to bed hungry
- Healthcare for everyone
- Fair wages for educators
- Mandatory classes in critical thinking and diverse belief systems in schools
Flo Wineriter asks us to imagine how life would change in Utah if humanism were the dominant cultural influence. This is an intriguing exercise.
First, I’d find out whether I’m just a natural rebel against any dominant culture, although I do believe I’d fit comfortably in the larger humanist society and not, as today, just among selected friends and organizations.
Second, it’s a little like imagining a science fiction world because so much could change. On the other hand, little might in fact change because we would remain human beings with our differing personalities and psychologies, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, drives and passions, talents and interests, education and ignorance, ethnicities and orientations, spiritualities and this worldliness, and so forth. And so there would still be a healthy pluralism.
The key change, I believe, is that in a humanist culture, we’d be more pragmatic, making public policy decisions based on the evidence rather than ideology. This would have consequences. For example, in our criminal justice system we’d probably put more emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation than punishment, and help more drug users rather than incarcerate them. We’d probably adopt a more vigorous pre-school and early school program so that our older public school students would be better prepared to learn more history, civics, science, and the humanities. And our morality would embrace the whole of ethics and not be so preoccupied with sexual and reproductive issues. It would include broader matters like protecting the environment and the beauty around us, and securing the future for our children and grandchildren.
I address changes only in Utah and not in the nation, where there would be more extensive changes deriving from this same respect for evidence and science. But just imagine, a secular humanist winning a seat in the Utah legislature! Pure science fiction.
If the AHA is ever going to acquire enough influence to change society in positive ways it needs to give serious thought to the implications contained in the humanism definition. Any casual reader would, correctly, conclude that, boiled down to the core, humanists believe that humans are a product of nature and nothing more.
Without doubt humans are a product of a large evolutionary past, having brains that evolved from a simple brain stem to eventually include a more complex Limbic System and continuing on to the grand human finality Neo Cortex.
In my opinion if humanists want to participate in the creation of a better society they need to confront head on which of these brain systems influence human social behavior most profoundly. Once identified, it then makes sense to direct the greater part of resources toward gaining an understanding of the basic needs and properties associated with that system. Then a plan of action should be made addressing how best those needs can be fulfilled while at the same time teaching the values associated with leading the “rational” independent life humanists affirm.
I suggest the Limbic System, with its emotional supernatural feel good tendencies and fear of any ultimate mortality, cannot be ignored, as humanists have essentially done in the past. Perhaps that system influences as much as 90% of who we are as humans. I see humans as an enigma. Are they stupid or highly intelligent, or can they even be thought of in such simple terms? With 10% of their brainpower they have, almost fully explained the workings of the universe around them and with the other 90% they have managed to take the world back to a 10th century kind of war. They do this and still insist on calling themselves moral creatures. Certainly the puzzle must be solved while helping them recognize and confront their tribal past.
Christians recognize those 90% needs and then, of course, derail human independent possibilities with their “theological or ideological abstractions” creating totally dependent people.
The humanist challenge then, is how to bridle the great power sincere emotions produce and direct it towards accomplishing a compassionate, empathetically driven human good while at the same time preserving the absolutely necessary sense of individual purposefulness, self-fulfillment, and worth.
I realize I have identified only personal views regarding where humanist need to re-direct their energies and have offered no plan as to how to accomplish any changes. As to Florien’s “What If?” question and my “aspirations” on how life in Utah would change if humanism were the dominant influence I can only speculate using self introspection and what I believe are genuine humanistic goals as source. Meanwhile, for humanists to have any chance of participating significantly in the creation of a more ideal society I believe they need to broaden their perspectives as I have suggested.
Had I known, in my youth, what I have learned only after years of observation (probably a common feeling shared by many humanists) and if indeed humanism can be made successfully attractive to the young people with all of their enthusiastic energies I believe an enlightened and universally moral culture could indeed become a reality.
Here is my submission in our quest to discover what life might be like if humanists were in the majority:
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- NO WAR
- NO Starvation
- NO Corporations defined as “Persons”
- Universal Education through college
- Universal Health Care
- Real Stewardship of our home (planet) and all its inhabitants
Secular Student Alliance
Member Recommended Websites
This month’s featured site is the Secular Student Alliance. Freethinking young people are the world’s greatest hope!