My Journey to Humanism – Jason Cooperrider
I am honored to have been invited to share the story of my journey to humanism with you here tonight. Before telling you about the journey to my current worldview, I’ll first describe what my current worldview is. I have chosen a variety of terms to help identify myself to others, so I would like to begin by explaining what I mean by each of those labels related to my worldview. Many of you will probably find that several of these labels help to identify you also, even if you haven’t necessarily thought of yourself in such terms before. I consider myself an atheist because I lack belief in any deity. Being an atheist means nothing more and nothing less, which is why there is such a variety of atheists out there. Most atheists do not claim to know with certainty that a deity does not exist, which is contrary to the view many people have of atheists. Atheists will say that the probability a deity does exist is small, which is why s/he has chosen not to believe in any given deity. It’s unfortunate that this term even exists, unlike aunicornist or aleprechaunist, but the vast majority of people do maintain belief in the existence of a deity, even though the evidence in support of it is on par with that for unicorns and leprechauns.
In addition to lacking belief in any deity, I also lack belief in the supernatural in general, thereby labeling myself as a naturalist. I only believe in what is supported by evidence of sufficient quantity and quality. In particular, I would label myself as an empiricist because I require such evidence to be empirical in nature, in that it can be measured and observed by the senses or instruments.
I consider myself a freethinker because I embrace freethinking in all aspects of life, such that I subscribe neither to faith nor dogma. I consider myself a skeptic because I critically evaluate available information before making a decision about whether to believe something, rather than blindly accepting the claims of others. I consider myself a secularist because, given my lack of belief in the existence of any deity, I consider it foolish to combine scriptures and rituals related to the belief in a deity with the governance of the people. Finally, and the reason I am here tonight, I consider myself a humanist because I don’t simply define myself with what I don’t believe, but also with what I do believe. I believe in humanism because I believe in dedicating my life to benefiting humanity, both at an individual level and as a whole. I think it is our duty to be the best species we can be and to help each other in doing so, sharing a common love for seeking the truth and developing a shared ethics.
Now I will tell you a bit about how I’ve developed this worldview over the course of my life and why it is important to me.
I was always a very curious child and remain that way now. To this day, several of my relatives who were close to me when I was a child tell me that I was always asking questions and eager to learn about the world around me. At an early age, sometime around 3 years old, this innate curiosity manifested itself in a love of science, which persists to this day and certainly always will. At age 6, my curiosity led me to ask my mother some difficult questions. Oddly, this happened when I came in to use the restroom after playing outside, such that I started interrogating my mother from behind the closed door of the bathroom while sitting on the toilet. Many profound thoughts have occurred to me while sitting on the toilet over the years and this was the earliest example of that that I can remember. In one go, I asked her if Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were real. After some hesitation, she confirmed that they were not. I was not upset in realizing that I had been lied to up to that point, though I did somewhat lament having learned the truth.
By age 10, my interest in science had become more of an obsession, such that I already had plans to get at least one Ph. D. in a scientific field, at an age when most children don’t even know what a Ph. D. is. Because my mother raised me by herself and almost my entire childhood was funded by Welfare and Social Security, this was a difficult goal to set for myself, but I had no doubt that I would achieve it. In fact, it was because of those difficult conditions during my childhood that I chose to focus on my education, which paid off in the long run. Initially, my scientific obsession focused on chemistry, but morphed into physics by age 12 and persisted throughout high school and into the beginning of my college education. Part way through my second year of college, I was exposed to and fell in love with neuroscience, particularly the study of the human brain. This solidified when the professor of my first neuroscience course began the first day of class by saying that there are more possible connections between the cells of the human brain than there are stars in the known universe. That has led me to where I am today, having nearly completed a doctoral degree in neuroscience at the University of Utah, after having graduated from The Ohio State University with one bachelor of science degree in neuroscience and another in psychology.
Religion didn’t play a major role in my life until my grandmother convinced my mother to let her get me baptized in the Lutheran church to which my grandparents belonged. This happened right around the time when I questioned the existence of such fantastical beings as Santa Claus, but I did not extend such thinking to God, because everyone believed in God, including adults, and God’s existence was just a fact that everyone knew. As such a young child, I had no reasons I could think of to resist being brought into Christianity; to the contrary, I was excited at the prospect of becoming an official Christian, based on what I had been taught up to that point, which was that a Christian is simply the ideal person. Anyone who isn’t a Christian is inferior and possibly even evil. One of my grandmother’s major mistakes shortly thereafter was to buy me a children’s Bible, which contained many illustrations and child-friendly text describing some of the more interesting parts of the Bible, such as Noah’s Ark and the battle of David and Goliath. I think this was a mistake on her part because it caused me to view the Bible as a storybook–a work of fiction–rather than as a legitimate holy text inspired by the word of God.
My skeptical nature shined through even as a child, when I would ask adults questions about parts of the Bible and Christianity that didn’t make much sense to me or begged further explanation. My mother, a nondenominational Christian, was good about trying to answer my questions, but others, such as my grandmother, would tell me I just needed to have faith and quit asking so many annoying questions. A major event happened for me when I was 12 years old: much to my grandparent’s chagrin, after I complained to my mother about how much I disliked having to wake early on Sunday and spend so much time at the boring church service, she told me I no longer had to go to church with my grandparents if I didn’t want to. With mom’s permission secured, I stopped going immediately, and though my grandparents pushed the issue for a while and tried to force me to go, they eventually relented.
In junior high school, with religious indoctrination greatly reduced, I learned more about the methodology of science and about the power of science to answer interesting questions and to reveal knowledge of the physical world, allowing us to use that knowledge to accomplish great things. This led to me abandoning Christianity altogether part way through high school, realizing that there was just too much about it that did not make sense and was even contradictory to scientific knowledge. Initially, my Christianity gave way to a generic monotheism–a belief that “God” exists and interferes in the daily affairs of the universe, such as answering the prayers of the humans it had created–and I developed a very personal relationship with “God,” who was not plagued with the human flaws given to it by most of the world’s religions. Nowadays, I suppose this condition would be referred to as “spiritual but not religious,” or simply as “theist.” As long as I believed in “God,” everything was okay to my mother and grandmother (my grandfather died just before my first year of high school). I didn’t believe in their god anymore and couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so arrogant as to claim to know and understand “God” through any particular religion and to force their flawed religion on others. Therefore, at some point in high school, I refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, due to the fact that it contained “under God.” Once, when a substitute teacher in my AP Chemistry class insisted that I stand and recite the pledge, I said “under Einstein” instead of “under God,” and began saying “under science” thereafter. My belief in “God” went downhill from there.
I began questioning whether “God” even existed during my first year of college. As I learned more about the natural sciences and critical thinking, my grandmother’s dire prediction came true: higher education had led me to atheism, because I eventually realized this whole concept of “God” really isn’t necessary to understand reality and it even serves to unnecessarily complicate matters. In my grandmother’s eyes, the atheism factory known to some as university had worked its evil ways on me. Until I came to Utah for graduate school, I referred to myself as agnostic, because I admitted the fact that it was impossible to disprove the existence of a generic or deistic deity. One could only say that the existence of a deity is highly improbable. After hearing a talk by Victor Stenger, physicist and author of God: The Failed Hypothesis among other books on science and atheism, I became convinced that it is possible to disprove the existence of certain deities who are claimed to interact with the universe in some way. Contrary to what I believed before, absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence in some cases. Beyond that, I was convinced by University of Utah neuroscience professor Greg Clark that the probability that any deity exists is so small that it can honestly be stated as zero for all practical purposes. That is when I started considering myself simply an atheist.
My mother and my grandmother reacted differently to me officially labeling myself as atheist. Until I actually started referring to myself as an atheist, they both still maintained hope that I believed in “God.” It really sunk in for them when I told them I was going to appear on a local Christian television program as an atheist in November 2011 to discuss my views on atheistic morality. My grandmother reacted in extreme anger, telling me that she was no longer proud of me, that she hated atheists and was starting to feel that way about me, and that she was going to remove me from her will. My mother reacted with extreme fear, worrying that someone would shoot me during the television recording for making my atheism so public. Beyond such immediate concerns, my mother said she was very sad by the idea that we would not get to spend eternity together in Heaven, because my soul would be lost. My grandmother no longer reacts toward me in anger, but she still insists that I’ll eventually see the light and return to Christianity.
Beyond atheism, humanism is also an important part of my life. Because calling myself an atheist only describes one thing I lack belief in, I want a label that describes what I do believe in. I discovered in college that humanism does that quite nicely. Aside from whether a deity exists, humanism places great importance on science, reason, and benefiting humanity to help it reach its maximum potential. I’ll quickly mention that I embrace secular humanism particularly, because I think one of the ways humanity can reach its full potential is by completely rejecting religion from government (a first step in rejecting religion as a whole).
Because I developed this worldview and it is important to me in my never-ending quest for Truth, which I value greatly, I have become involved in a number of atheist/humanist groups both nationally and locally. I will focus on the local groups for the purpose of this talk. In May 2009, Elaine Ball and I cofounded the University of Utah student group SHIFT (Secular Humanism, Inquiry and Freethought) with a couple other students as a revamped version of a precursor group. I served as its president for a year after having served as vice-president under Elaine during the first semester of the group’s existence and I have served as its treasurer since January 2011. Our group has been quite successful over the years, with a large diversity of members and some really fantastic guest speaker events, featuring such accomplished figures as former United Nations representative Dr. Austin Dacey, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker, bloggers Greta Christina and Dr. Paul “PZ” Myers, and physicist Dr. Victor Stenger, to name a few. Because of these and other efforts to educate its members and the community about atheist/humanist issues, SHIFT has been recognized both at the university level, being chosen as student group of the month twice, and at the international level, receiving the Secular Student Alliance’s Best Educator Award in 2010.
In the summer of 2010, I joined the boards of two other incipient local groups–the Utah Freethought Society and the Utah Coalition of Reason. These groups serve two unique roles in the community and I have been proud to be part of them. Though I had been an active member of the Humanists of Utah since the summer of 2009, when Julie Mayhew first contacted me about SHIFT and invited me to the annual barbecue party, it wasn’t until December 2010 that I was elected to the board as secretary. It hasn’t been easy being involved with so many groups while simultaneously working on a Ph. D. (it’s been especially difficult this semester, because I’ve been teaching a course at the U and a course at Westminster), but it has been a highly rewarding experience, as I’ve learned a great deal and met many wonderful people. My fellow group members have become my family here, with my nearest relative living 1500 miles away. I have all the community I desire from these groups, which is why I have no need for religious involvement, regardless of whether I believe in a deity.
Thank you for listening to my story. I hope you found it both enlightening and entertaining. I welcome any questions you might have now or in the future.
Celebrating Humanists of Utah
What is something you’ve done or enjoyed that you’re especially proud of? Enjoy these beautiful stories our members have graciously shared this month.
- I always think of this when I think of being proud: I know a family that’s so religious they don’t use the words “pride” or “proud” as they believe even saying you’re proud of your child for something they’ve done is not being humble. I learned about this from their teenage daughter who bragged to me about it. That said, I’m proud of the person my daughter has grown to be. She is strong, has a mind of her own and uses it well. When she was in her early 20s she put together a presentation for the local city council to encourage them to create a dog park, got on their agenda, and made the presentation herself. She doesn’t just care, she acts. I also do feel some pride for having the courage to leave the church I’d grown up in. It’s caused alienation from my family but I wouldn’t go back.
- As I read this question, the one word that instantly popped into my mind was “De-Baptism”. Like most humanist organizations, Humanists of Idaho faces the uphill challenge of promoting public awareness and dispelling the false claims often levied against us. How do we get people to notice us and take a second look; discover who we are and what we are about? One of the better ways we have found to get information out and meet people is to have a booth at local fairs. Our favorite is the Hyde Park Street Fair, which we have participated in for many years. It was in 2011 at Hyde Park that we decided to print and hand out, free of charge, De-Baptism certificates to anyone who wanted one. We were surprised by the enormous popularity of these certificates. One visitor suggested that we should have a ritual to go along with the certificates and make it “official”. In answer, I donned my blue Celebrant robe and performed dozens of De-Baptisms right in front of the booth. I used a handmade fan of pink card stock to fan off the effects of holy waters. Photos were taken, and one even made it into Freethought Today. Each De-Baptism was a crowd stopper. The number of visitors increased dramatically, as did sign-ups for our newsletter. And there was one very unexpected benefit. On the table, next to our literature and sales offerings, stood a jar labeled “Charitable Donations”, followed by a list of organizations we support. The attention created by the De-Baptisms more than doubled charitable donations over previous years. People filled the jar as they asked who we were, what we do, and mostly what the colorful ritual was about. Sometimes it is the simple things that make the greatest difference.
- About eighteen years ago, I told Humanists of Utah about some ongoing research I was doing that would, I hoped, eventually lead to a book. Some members actually remember what I said and have asked me periodically how the book is coming. I can now tell them that the book is scheduled for publication next March. It’s a detailed examination of the Book of Mormon and what the book tells us about its origin. I’m tentatively scheduled to speak about it to Humanists of Utah soon after its publication.
- In 1991, I made a friend on the first day of first grade, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. We were six years old. From then until the fourth grade, we were inseparable at school we played together, we ate lunch together, we begged our teachers to let us sit next to each other, and we always stood up for each other. When we were nine years old, my parents separated and my Dad moved to Utah, where his family was from. My mom, siblings, and I worked hard to get our house ready to sell, then we all moved to Utah as well. As soon as I found out I was leaving the state, and my best friend, I did everything I could to ensure we would never forget one another. We exchanged addresses and promises, called each other every day, and made our parents understand how much we meant to each other. I am proud to say that we are still friends to this day…that before chat rooms, e-mail, or Facebook, a couple of little nine-year-olds stayed in touch by writing letters and calling each other every Sunday for years.
- From a personal standpoint hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back was a notable high point in my life. I wasn’t able to do it in one day like many of the more physically fit people I know; My wife and I needed to spend the night at the Phantom Ranch to rest up for the hike up to the rim the following day. During the four days we spent at the canyon we stayed the first night in one of the beautiful old cabins on the South Rim before hiking down to the bottom and we also stayed in the El Tovar lodge on our last night. The whole experience was a trip backwards in time to a nostalgic era of Western exploration and early tourism which, in combination with the personal achievement of the big hike, forms a memory that I will always cherish.
- One of the things I am most proud of doing is assisting with the forming and the incorporation of Humanists of Utah. More than 20 years ago one of the founders of the American Humanist Association, Unitarian Minister Edwin Wilson, retired to Salt Lake City to be near his son, a physician at the Veterans Hospital. We developed a close friendship and he suggested organizing a local chapter of humanists. I eventually attended the Humanist Institute in New York, was certified as a Humanist Councilor, served as chapter president for many years and served on two national boards of the AHA. Nothing else in my life has been more fulfilling and satisfying.
- What I’d like to share with everyone is the fact that with some effort, it’s possible to recover and even improve lung capacity after having smoked cigarettes for many years. I’m 66, stopped smoking when I was 52 and, last summer, hiked the very steep Rattlesnake Trail in Wellsville Canyon. It was a grueling 4 hours up and an even more grueling 3.5 hours down. The fronts of my thighs were sore for days, but I did it!
- A couple of years ago I was disconcerted to learn that a friend of 35+ years was rapidly dying. I wrote to his wife for details and in the message said, “if there is anything I can do…” She responded that there was nothing to be done but she was disconcerted that their young adult son was very angry that everyone wanted to know if there was anything that they could do when the reality of the situation was that nothing could be done. I thought about it for a day or three and ended up writing a letter to my friend to say goodbye. I included anecdotes and memories but mostly I guess the message to him was that I loved him and would miss him but that I will never forget him as long as I live. I then contacted some mutual friends from around the country and explained the situation and encouraged them to send their goodbyes too. Many did. I heard back from his wife that he was deeply touched by the outpouring of love from the gang. She read them all to him shortly before he died and again at his memorial services a couple of weeks later. I did something similar when another friend more recently died. It really makes me feel good during the difficult times. I strongly encourage anyone who has a dying friend to do something similar.
- After finishing college (at an in-state school), I took a job in Maryland, 2000 miles away from home. There were many days of tearful loneliness and struggles, but when I finally got on top of my lost-ness it was the launching pad to the best sort of life I ever could have wished for: adventure, discovery, friendships, conquered challenges, passions, serenity and soaring spirit. The leaps off the cliffs are the most rewarding.
Merry Solstice Season everyone!
Flo Wineriter’s recent article in our newsletter advocating “Religious Humanism” was thought provoking. Those in the humanist/free thought community who wish to be considered religious humanists are free to do so; I think this stance is good for the humanist community in that it provides the fellowship aspect of our humanist philosophy. The Unitarian Church provides service for many of our humanist members who are also Unitarians.
I will readily admit that as someone who comes to humanism from a scientific point of view, I am a bit negligent in the fellowship area. But I’m happy to report that chapter member Elaine Ball has offered to work to change our lack of fellowship and make us a more, if you will, connected membership. And, as you may already know, Elaine is a certified humanist celebrant.
Reading Flo’s article reminded me of a lament I have sometimes, when these discussions about religion and humanism come about. I wish the discussion wasn’t so often about humanism as an alternative to religion. I know, I know, in many ways it IS the alternative to religion. Dogmatic religion, that is. I also know that we have to “Man the Ramparts” in many areas where religious fundamentalists seek to change secular society. Here I am going off on a rant about secular society, but I can’t help it. Whenever I bring up secular society or see it in print somewhere being vilified, I want to ask. “Why don’t you understand that our secular society is why everyone has the right to worship or not however they wish?” The marketplace of religion is open and free, as it should be. But a majority of religious people really do hate the idea of a secular society.
Well, enough of that stuff. I hope that you will join us at our December Social for (as I always say) a good meal and some good company.