*This interview published before, when Vic Wang was the President of the Humanists of Houston.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your family and personal story — culture, education, and geography?
My parents are Chinese immigrants from Taiwan who came to the U.S. for college in the 70’s. I was born and raised in Texas where I’ve lived my whole life, in Austin and in Houston. All of our family attended and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where I got my degree in Management Information Systems.
What informs personal humanist beliefs, as a worldview and ethic, respectively?
I was raised without any religion (which I’ve come to learn is pretty rare here in Texas), so secular humanist principles have always appealed to me even before I knew what it means to be a Humanist. And I’ve always felt strongly that ultimately, the kind of person you happen to be born as, and all of the circumstances that determine who you are as a person — your parents, your gender, your ethnicity, your nationality, really all of the circumstances that make you who you are — are ultimately completely out of your control. And to me it’s that realisation — that you could just as easily have been born as any other person on earth — which underscores the fact at there is really no rational justification to preferentially place your own well-being and desires over anyone else’s, and that the feelings and needs of others are no less valuable than your own. And it’s that emphasis on empathy and compassion for others that separates humanism from someone being “just” an atheist, and takes it from living your life free of theism all the way over to a worldview that drives everything you do.
What makes humanism seem more right or true than other worldviews to you — arguments and evidence?
One of my favourite definitions of humanism is living a life informed by evidence and driven by compassion, which means a rejection of the supernatural while striving to help others and actively trying to make the world a better place. So humanism is somewhat unique in that regard as compared to the world’s religions in the way it embraces freethought; if any of your beliefs aren’t based on sound reasoning and supported by valid evidence, why continue to hold them? Instead we should all strive to hold reality-based views on how to improve well-being, for yourself and for others. That makes humanism self-correcting in a way that traditional religions are not, as we’re always learning more and more about the world and how it operates, and improving our perspectives accordingly in light of new evidence and new understandings.
What are effective ways to advocate for humanism?
It’s no secret that the non-religious are one of the most distrusted and disliked of all demographic groups, even though the reality could not be farther from the truth. In reality, atheists are vastly under-represented in the prison population, the states in the U.S. with the least religion also have the lowest rates of crime, and the countries with the lowest levels of religion are also those with the lowest crime, the highest standards of living, and the highest levels of happiness in the world. So I think one big part of advocating for humanism is showing that “hey, we’re just like everyone else, and there’s nothing to be afraid of just because someone doesn’t believe in any gods. We believe in helping others and doing good in the world, even if our reasons for doing so may differ from those with religious motivations”.
What is the importance of humanism in America at the moment?
Just within the past few years we’ve seen a huge turning point as the non-religious are now the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. The latest statistics show 20% of the U.S. population no longer hold any religious affiliation (which represents a growth of almost 50% in just the past decade) and among younger Americans, a full 1/3 of millennials are now considered among these “nones”. And even more dramatic has been the grown of those who explicitly identify as atheists, with an increase of over 50% in the past decade. So clearly we’re seeing a decline in traditional religious worldviews and a corresponding rise in humanistic, secular views, both in the U.S. and worldwide. And yet despite this, atheists/humanists have typically been on the outside looking in when it comes to national discourse and political representation. Our representation among elected officials is virtually zero, and for us to even be acknowledged as a group that exists in the world of politics is absurdly rare. But thankfully, organisations like the Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, and the American Humanist Association are changing this, with an increased emphasis on political activism and fighting for political representation that thus far has been virtually nonexistent in American politics.
What is the importance of secularism in America at the moment?
At the same time that we’re seeing a growth in secular Americans, we’re also seeing a backlash against that from the religious right (and, more recently, the alt-right). We’re seeing more and more theocrats rising to power and trying to impose religiously -motivated legislation on the rest of society, whether through draconian anti-abortion regulations, restrictions on LGBT rights, voucher programs that would fund religious schools with public funding, manipulation of public school curriculums to impose pseudoscience and revisionist history on schoolchildren, or even outright attempts to dismantle the separation of church and state, as Donald Trump has already done by publicly vowing to repeal the Johnson Amendment which prohibits religious institutions from endorsing political candidates.
I think it’s very easy to become complacent as the general population becomes more secularised, while not realising that religious fundamentalism and extremism is — by its very nature — a backlash against the perceived threat that secularism presents. And we’re seeing that phenomenon playing out around the country as we speak.
What social forces might regress the secular humanist movements in the US?
In addition to the threat of fundamentalism and the religious right, over the past few years we’ve also seen a widening rift in the secular movement between those who embrace positive humanistic values and those who don’t (and in some cases outright reject them, or even reject the “humanist” label entirely). Fortunately, it seems that the vast majority of atheists believe in actively working to make the world better, including supporting the fight for equal rights, promoting altruism, and demonstrating compassion for disadvantaged groups. But those who don’t share those values seem to be disproportionately vocal — particularly online — which I think leads to a skewed perception of what the freethought community is really about.
What tasks and responsibilities come with being the president of the Humanists of Houston?
As President I oversee all aspects of the organisation, both in “real life” and online across our social media presence (Meetup, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc), as well as our in-person monthly board meetings. I also have a blog where I write about humanism, religion, and secularism.
How is humanism, especially secular humanism, seen in the larger Houston region?
While Texas as a whole is quite conservative and religious — in some areas overwhelmingly so — Houston is a pretty unique mix of conservatism and liberalism, with an enormous diversity of religious beliefs (Houston was recently recognised as the most ethnically diverse city in the United States, which is apparent just about any time you step outside). And while there’s certainly a huge amount of religiosity in the greater Houston area (Houston is currently in the top 10 cities in churches per capita, and at one point used to be #1), Houston within the city limits is quite moderate and, I’ve found overall, fairly accepting of humanist views. With a few notable but rare exceptions we haven’t encountered much blowback from the local community as a result of our activities, and we’ve even been invited by the local Interfaith Ministries organisation to be a part of several interfaith events, where we educated the public about humanism/atheism and provided a secular voice to what would otherwise be exclusively religious discussions.
Also, I think the high degree of religiosity in the Houston area (and in Texas overall) has ironically played a large role in our growth as an organisation, as we’ve quadrupled in size in the past four years and are now the largest chapter of the American Humanist Association in the country and the largest humanist Meetup group in the world with over 3,000 members. And I think a big reason for that is we see the inescapable effects of religion intruding on our day to day lives in a way that perhaps many parts of the country don’t. In many cases we have members who don’t even know any other atheists/humanists, and have no opportunity to converse with like-minded individuals outside of our events (I’ve even had some members tell me they had never even MET a single atheist — to their knowledge, at least — before coming to an HOH event). So I think there’s certainly a greater incentive in this area for atheists and humanists to seek out organisations like ours.
What are some of the activities, even initiatives or campaigns, of the Humanists of Houston?
We average 20+ events per month with activities including guest speakers, discussion groups, book clubs, volunteering, activism, and social gatherings. We hold a monthly “Humanist Community Giveaway” of supplies to the homeless, usually serving around 40–50 people per giveaway, as well as regular outings at the Houston Food Bank and other local charities. We’ve held numerous demonstrations outside the Saudi Arabian Consulate in support of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for advocating secular values online. We’ve participated in demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the incidents of police brutality around the country. We recently completed a fundraiser for Camp Quest Texas, a summer camp for children of humanist families, where we raised over $3,000 from our members to help underprivileged children attend the camp, which turned out to be the most ever raised by an organisation in a single year. And every year we have a booth at the Houston LGBT Pride festival as well as a float in the Pride Parade, as well as being active in our support for LGBT rights and equal rights legislation.
For those that want to work together or become involved, what are recommended means of contacting you?
We can always be reached via email at email@example.com, and the best way to keep up with our activities is through the HOH Meetup where we have our full calendar of events and photos from previous events. We also have a YouTube channelwith over 90 of our previous events and guest speakers that can be watched for free. And, of course, all of our events are free to the public so anyone is welcome to come out and check us out anytime.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.