Rebecca Hale was elected president of the American Humanist Association in 2013. She is co-owner of EvolveFISH.com, the popular online store of atheist, humanist, and pro-science merchandise, and co-founder of the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs.
Rebecca became a member of the American Humanist Association in 1996 and served as vice president from 2005 to 2012. She is a frequent speaker and commentator on humanism for the media, conferences and local humanist organisations. Rebecca was born in New York, NY, to Humanist-Unitarian parents. She received her Masters in Public Administration in 1976 and embarked on a career in government, real estate development, and college administration. Rebecca lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with her husband, Gary Betchan, and has two children.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Any prefaces to the interview?
Please bear in mind that these are my answers, I am one humanist and I do not see this as representative of the AHA or all other humanists.
What is your family story?
The cliff notes are that my father was raised in a mildly Jewish household in New York City and my mother was raised in Johnstown PA as a member of the Church of the Brethren. It never made sense to her that her good friend would go to hell just because she attended the wrong church. Upon asking her mother why this was so; she was told not to worry about all the stuff the church says, “just be good to people, live by the Golden Rule”. When my parents met my father had become a Unitarian and that made sense to her. I was raised as a Unitarian in the days of humanism.
What were some of the tenets involved in the Church of the Brethren faith?
I know very little about the Church of the Brethren, my mother had long since left it behind. I do know that it isn’t among the liberal progressive churches. Mum called them the “Dunkards”.
What made your father become a Unitarian in the first place?
After his Bar Mitsvah his father said to him … “okay, enough of that, lets go exploring” and the two of them proceeded to attend various churches until they found themselves at the West Side Unitarian church in New York City. I have a collection of “The Calendar” from 1927 through 1929, my father had them bound and signed by the minister, A. Wakefield Slaten. He must of made a considerable impression on my father!
What about your personal story?
I was bred, born and raised as a Unitarian, which during the time period of the 50’s – 80’s was essentially humanistic, in the modern tradition. I have at times been more aggressively atheistic and at other times more a live and let live. In high school a friend of mine and I both wore a little silver devil charm as a necklace! And yet the night some friends and I “borrowed” my parents’ car and had trouble sneaking it back into the garage I promised god I’d believe if we could just get the car back without getting caught. We did but I couldn’t keep that promise any longer than it took to push the car back into its spot!
What differentiates non-aggressive atheism from aggressive atheism?
There is a difference between just moving ahead with your life, ignoring other peoples’ efforts at proselytising and engaging them in debate or calling them out. I call that aggressive. I also think my little Satan charm that I wore around my neck (even in my yearbook picture) was aggressive; I was clearly doing it to snub the sea of Christians that were convinced that they knew everything.
What were some of other things that you did to qualify as an aggressive atheist?
That was pretty much it, that charm and always looking for a chance to confront believers. I didn’t attack all Christians, just the ones that pushed their religion.
You earned a BA in cultural anthropology and environmental studies. You earned an MPA, too. You worked in college administration, government, and real estate development. What were some of the important life lessons gained from these credentials and those professional capacities?
It was cultural anthropology and I think it gave me some of the best lessons one can learn in college. To view people from the perspective of their background, where they come from; what is important, the value of tradition and ceremony, that smart and curios and artistic people exist in all cultures. And that you should not be afraid of “different” because that is where we can learn.
Environmental studies, well, this was the time of the first environmental movement, Rachel Carsons and Silent Spring. It has given me a messy house! (I can’t seem to throw things away because I might need them again. This all reinforced my mother’s guidance “waste not, want not” and “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” – even though I have been fortunate in never having to really do without. I am frugal to a fault, I plan my auto travel so I don’t waste gas, I accelerate slowly and coast to braking. An organic chicken is first a roast, then part of it becomes a casserole or sandwiches, or chicken salad and the bones become soup.
I’m a scratch cook. I’m probably just this side of kooky when it comes to the foods I’ll shop and prepare for my family. I aim for organic and non GMO, which puts me at odds with many people in the secular movement. And, at times I am paralysed by how we are destroying the planet. I easily feel a sense of awe and joy when looking at how beautiful our natural world can be. These are all characteristics that were first instilled by my parents and then reinforced by environmental studies.
My study of government and then working in the public and private sectors taught me about the dampening effects of bureaucracy and it taught me to first recognise the rules and then find a way either through them or around them. And that sometimes when you are the one that always names the elephant in the room, you’ll get stepped on.
One of the advantages of moving back and forth between the public and private sector is that you learn to understand the value of cost benefit analysis; and that sometimes its important to know the cost of doing something, even if you understand that you’ll need to go ahead and take the loss.
You have been a humanist throughout life. What makes humanism self-evidently true to you?
Humanism works; unlike prayer, where it fails more often than it succeeds. I think my parent’s raised me “right” and I’m proud of how my children are turning out. They are strong, caring, ethical people. I deal with reality. I don’t expect everything to be perfect (I’d be okay if it was but I don’t expect it). Life can be ambiguous. You don’t always get hard answers. Humanism supports that; we strive to use logic and reason and we leave room for doubt and emotion.
What is a clear example of prayer failing in personal life?
I don’t have any personal experiences where prayer failed! I got that car into the carport. But I know it fails when people pray to win the lottery, pray for a sick loved one to recover or to get the big job, etc. The odds are against prayer.
What about in large groups?
I don’t think large groups of people praying has any better and actually has a lesser chance of success than a large group of people actually doing something
What about in the peer-reviewed research on it?
The oft offered peer-reviewed research about prayer over sick people has been shown to be flawed. If the individual does not know that everyone is praying the results do not substantiate that prayer made a difference. It seems to only work when the sick person knows about the prayers and so we have the placebo effect in effect.
Were parents or siblings an influence on humanism for you?
My parents provided the model. I don’t think my siblings have had much influence on me in this area. One became a Jehovah Witness, one is also a card carrying humanist and the third lives her life as a humanist and adds the colour of the 9th planet theory to her core beliefs.
Did you find a community of humanists to have that community for your children? No, we found it to support rational thinking in Colorado Springs. Its been a bonus for our children, especially Tani. She has found support among her fellow humanist friends (and friends from her time at CampQuest)
Did you have early partnerships in the activist pursuit?
If so, whom?
My husband, Gary Betchan, he is a bundle of organisational and creative energy. We started EvolveFISH.com together. I was reticent to make waves. Gary leaves a wake wherever he goes!
Do you consider yourself a progressive?
Does progressivism logically imply other beliefs, or tend to or even not at all?
You’ll need to define what you mean with the term “progressivism”. I have never used this exact term, so I did what any person sitting in front of a laptop would do and I “googled” it and then read Wiki. Historically it seems to be a bit all over the board with good and bad ideas. I imagine if we could look back to today from 75 years in the future I might see our humanism that way as well. We will have gotten many things right and may find a few mistakes or misconceptions. We can’t help but be a construct of the times and cultures we live in.
What ethical precept appears to transcend contingencies of geography, culture, and era?
If you are asking what ethical precept is universal, I’m not sure there is one that is man made. I think there may be some natural proclivities that humans have. In times past I might naively say “not to kill” but the religious only apply the do not kill to their particular tribe identity. The concept of stealing being wrong doesn’t even hold up across all cultures
How did you come to adopt a socially progressive worldview?
It just seems to be in my DNA humanism, cultural anthropology and environmentalism. I have not pursued any of it with some grand scheme, looking back it just flowed together. It evolved as I have I’m always open for new outlooks.
Does this seem like the norm to you?
Evidently, its my norm.
Why do you think that adopting a social progressive outlook is important?
Overall If for no other reason, its pragmatic. Change is inevitable; wouldn’t you prefer to help guide it rather than stand by or oppose it and get run over? There is research that these social progressive values work best in the long run. Game theory experiments have shown that being fair and kind ends up enhancing the position of both. However, it only works when everyone is playing by the same rules! There must be reciprocity when economics, relationships, power etc get too far out of balance they are not sustainable.
What movements and forces in American society work against reciprocity to take advantage of the real-world implications of the game theory experiments outlined before?
The very competitive nature of our capitalism; that you “win” by getting one over on someone else. That there is a basic greed worked into our society and reinforced by our media. We have come to a point where a person is valued by their bank account, the size of their house, how much media then can attract. The behaviors that support these goals do not support being kind and generous, unless we can help people understand that they really do “get ahead” by using reciprocity and kindness.
As a progressive, what do you think is the best socio-political position to adopt in the America?
What I have come to realise is that this is not a simple answer. It isn’t Republican or Democrat, or Green or Libertarian answer for me. It isn’t even a Berniecrat answer. This isn’t a simple world, we can’t just say this works in Colorado so it will work in or anywhere else, and what works in an urban area may not work out in the farmland.
What big obstacles (if at all) do you see social-progressive movements facing at the moment?
We need to be able to get people away from the 24-hour consumption of entertainment and find the carrot that will attract them to educating themselves on the critical topics of the day; climate change, economic inequality, and social justice. The United States is a pretty big ship that needs to change course, it won’t be easy. We built our business by selling bumper stickers and bumper sticker slogans but it takes a willingness to go deeper and educate oneself for people to understand the practical value of progressive positions
If America does not change course, what might be the impacts to its citizenry, especially the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden, and the marginalised?
There will be more poor and they will be poorer. This is already evident in the growing number of homeless, the people with virtually nothing. As the economic inequality widens many in the middle class are slipping into the lower class. At some point I hope that those that are grossly wealthy will notice that they can no longer make money because there is no one left with the resources to buy things, or go places.
How might the world react to it?
I’m not sure that the world will have the capacity to take on the United States, in order to forces us to compassion and equality… that was always our story that we inflicted on others, but we are too big to conquer. So, I don’t think they will act when its only economic inequality however, if we don’t start being more proactive about the environment, that could be a different story. Environmental abuses cannot be limited by our borders. The responsible environmentally conscious countries, may at some point take action against us. They will have to do this for their very survival and the survival of the human race.
How important do you think social movements are?
If we didn’t have them we’d still have slavery, women would still not have the vote, we’d bow down to a king, the list goes on. I can’t think of any of the great strides in human freedom that have not been pushed and forced through without a social movement. Power is never given up easily.
Who are those unwilling to attenuate their power in American society at this point in time?
There are so many! And, of course this is not to say that there are not exceptions within these groups: older white males, the churches, the people in power (be they elected officials or bureaucrats), the very wealthy and even the moderately wealthy. That’s a start.
What are your religious/irreligious, ethical, and political beliefs?
I do not believe in a supreme being; no gods, no devils, nothing pulling strings on our lives. I think we each have components of those traits within us; we have good, we have not so good. We are by nature animals and so we have all the in bred tendencies that an animal would have and over the eons we have imposed values or ethics on ourselves in an effort to institutionalise the “good”. I don’t mean to make it sound as though our basic nature is bad because I do believe humans want to be “good”, that kindness and altruism exist outside of humanity and are just as natural and inherent. Generally good begets good. However, I also live in the real world, where there are people and belief systems that I would judge as destructive and cruel and there are people who will do harm, be stupid and be damaged. I don’t see the value of allowing myself to be a victim; I prefer to only turn the other cheek once.
Above all do no harm. As a humanist I see that my active participation to make the world a better place is what gives my life purpose and value. This is my one life, no one will punish me later or reward me. So, its up to me to do the best that I know to improve the planetary condition.
What religious system does the most harm?
The ones that proclaim to have the moral high road and the implied or expressed mandate to enforce it on everyone else.
What irreligious system does the most harm?
I’m not familiar with any irreligious philosophy that encourages harmful actions. I do feel that being purely focused on scientific advancement without the constraints of compassion and empathy could do damage.
What about the most harmful political ideology as well?
Totalitarianism mixed with Fascism would be my guess. There is a famous quote from Stephen Weinberg “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” I’m not an expert in the field of ideologies, but this one makes good sense to me as the “right” answer.
You saw the rise of evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs in 1993. What were the negative and positive aspects from personal observations at the time?
The positive is that was developed a community of like minded people, the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs. And the Freethinkers have provided a home for the members of the community who felt and continue to feel oppressed by the influence of the evangelical Christians and their organisations and businesses. I am sure that living in the Springs has made me more and more reactive to the incursions made by Christians into our school curriculum and our municipal government.
There is a bit of a siege mentality that develops in secularists when they are consistently demonised by organisations and people that cannot be criticised and that flagrantly violate the law and skim along its intent and all the while being celebrated.
They use fire and police protection, the roads and other public infrastructure but avoid all taxes because of their non profit status. As a result, they have added to
the costs of local government but have not paid anything. They also pay below the norm and often require their employees to tithe back. As a result, the “jobs” they bring to the community tend to be low paying.
That sparked the need to found the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs (FCS) in addition to the web-based business EvolveFISH, which was sold in May, 2014. Now, you are the president of the American Humanist Association (AHA). What tasks and responsibilities come with these positions – at FCS and the AHA?
I’m largely in an advisory position with the Freethinkers at the AHA I am the President of the board of directors, its a volunteer position, our paid staff handles the day to day business at the professional level. I’m more of the head volunteer, so I run the board meetings, attend various movement meetings, and give the staff uninvited advice! Technically I have oversight duties over the top two paid staff, our Executive Director and our Development Director. I’ve been president for 4 years (I was elected president before Gary and I sold EvolveFISJ) and on the board of the AHA for 12, I’ve just been elected to another 4-year term on the board, next month we will vote for officers again.
You hold to the philosophy of personal responsibility. What does this mean in personal and professional life for each individual?
It means if we see something that needs to be done we do what we can about getting it done. “If it is to be, its up to me.” This is not to be confused with a libertarian or objectivist approach. What I am referring to is that there is no deus ex machina to come to the rescue, the ills of the world are largely of human origin and it will be up to humans to fix them.
To your philosophy, human beings have responsibility to each other and the environment, or their life support system. What are some of the more mundane examples of this responsibility in action?
What kind of car do you drive? Is it a polluter or clean energy? Have you done what you can to make your home more energy efficient? Do you recycle? Do you waste food and other resources? Do you assist others within your financial capabilities? Are you contributing goodness? Each person finds their own way to contribute to the solution, there are no rules, no dictates.
What about more urgent global examples with this responsibility in action, and potential solutions that societies need to implement – quickly?
I have some controversial positions here, not necessarily sanctioned by the AHA or even humanism. I think we as a society need to look at population control. Is it a basic human right to be able to have as many children as we want or are we at a point that reproduction should be limited? How can we change our landscaping and food production to increase carbon sinks and biodiversity and limit our use of environmentally damaging processes? Nothing else matters if we destroy our ability (and that of other life forms on earth) to live on this planet. Economic inequality, social justice, whose God is more right, all become irrelevant.
We could also help mitigate the climate issues by refocusing our cultures on things other than consumerism. My car has a rather ugly dent do I need to fix it or replace it? It’s still functional, do I need the latest new smartphone, latest fashion and more clothes than I can wear in a week, or a bigger house or my own jet plane? The marketing folks could lend their talents to convincing us that who we are is not what we own but what we know, or the art we create, the theatre or parks we visit. To find those things that we can find purpose and meaning in that do not consume the planets resources. Please not another KidsMeal with some cheap plastic toy that is either broken, forgotten or lost in the blink of an eye! If we make our own meaning for our lives; then lets find the ways to do that that do not consume the planet.
How might the implementation of serious proposals of population control look to you?
I haven’t gotten this all figured out yet, how, as humans on this planet come to agreement on how best to achieve this. I’ve gotten a lot of push back on the notion of limiting reproduction. I get the argument that if we just educate women and girls population growth will slow. It is understood that the more educated a woman is the few children she will have, and there are countries in the world with declining birth rates. This is the problem that comes up; the educated, the responsible people have fewer or no children however the uneducated and the highly religious tend to have children in very high numbers.
There is this “Quiverfull” movement among Christians to have as many children as they can specifically so they will have the armies they need to enforce their religious ideals on everyone else. It seems all of the Abrahamic religions focus on this ideal of winning by numbers. So, in a short period of time we will have fewer and fewer educated rational people and we could be over run by the “masses” if you will. And then is it fair to put the same limitations on people who live a subsistence life? They contribute far less to the climate change drivers than Americans or people with excessive and abundant lifestyles.
Also this would require a totalitarian process, not the best choice!
What would be the restrictions?
Maybe the best approach would be to reward people with only 1 or 2 children.
I think we need to be near 1 child for some period of time, but we are seeing how this hasn’t worked well in China. This may be because their social structure has developed for the children to take care of the older generation and when 4 grandparents and 2 parents are to be cared for by one person, well that’s a bit of a load. When that one person gets married, now there are likely 8 grandparents and 4 parents, so that doesn’t help spread the load at all.
Who would qualify?
I have no clue how this would work. I’ve been around long enough to realise that brilliant and talented people can raise terrible children and vice versa. Wealth shouldn’t be a determining factor, so I hesitate to offer a “cap and trade” system on children, but its an idea.
You raised two children, Joshua and Tanrei, within the humanist framework. What did this mean in terms of life within the home, at the school, and in relationship with the community?
It meant that sometimes they didn’t have the friends they wanted (parents wouldn’t always welcome them), it also meant that they have grown up with a bit of the sense of being an outsider or not quite fitting into the same mould as most of their friends. They are strong, insightful individuals. They were raised with an eye of helping them learn to make their own decisions and to think about the values they want to live by. Home life was not laissez faire and it wasn’t dogmatic. They have been given the freedom to decide for themselves what life philosophy they want to embrace.
What is the national state of humanism as a philosophy and a movement in the United States?
Humanism is catching on, our numbers are growing. There are factions with one focus or another but overall moving in the same direction. I know that there are far more humanists out there who simply don’t know the term; none the less they are living their lives with humanist principles.
What about secularism?
Secularism is most likely outpacing humanism, I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but since humanism is a subset or secularism it is a reasonable assumption. Secularism includes people who maintain their belief in god(s) and other supernatural forces and reject religious interference in government and our laws. I think this segment has gained numbers as people have looked at the abuse of the privilege that religion has demonstrated. The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse issues are a part of the drive towards secularism.
Do secular humanists, or humanists alone, experience bigotry and prejudice at all levels of American society?
Overall I’d say “yes”. I’m sure there are segments of society where it is more acceptable, the arts and historically the institutions of higher education.
I’d say that within the arts you find people who, by nature, tend to think outside the box and are more willing to allow other people to disagree with them. The institutions of higher learning because we tend to find more humanism among those who are better educated and those whose work is based in critical thinking and analysis.
Who is a living women’s rights activist that impresses you?
I can’t say that I would pick out any one woman who has pushed women’s rights as their only “cause” I understand the value, and the need for women’s rights but I tend to lump it into the category of fair play and economic justice. I don’t know that I’d want to name one women over another, although the women in the Middle East are putting a lot more on the line, their lives. As far as the United States, I’m a pretty big fan of Elizabeth Warren.
Who are other personal heroes throughout history?
I don’t think much about personal heroes. And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that history was not a subject I warmed up to. No one explained its value to me, I realise it should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. So, I’m not well grounded in all the famous and influential people throughout history. Overall I’d say its the people who tried to do the right thing There are a few names that come to mind; Molly Ivans, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Anwar Sadat, Che Guevara, Thomas Jefferson and my current favorite Bernie Sanders. I feel like this list should have more women, Pink, really, this is not my thing!
Who is the smartest person you have ever met or known personally?
This is really tough, I have met a lot of brilliant people. I prefer people who think differently who come up with a different way to see something, or make something work, people who synthesise various bits of knowledge and come up with new ideas and observations. And I’ve met brilliant people who are also strong on compassion and empathy. But it isn’t enough to be brilliant, its not enough to be strong on compassion and empathy, you need to take action, to make things better. My dad was brilliant, he set a pretty high bar.
What is your current work?
I have three jobs, I volunteer a fair amount of time to the American Humanist Association, I rent and manage houses to college students (that’s how I help pay our bills), and I’m a mother. I’m also a wife but my husband, Gary, is pretty independent, he knows how to feed himself and do his own laundry!
Where do you hope it goes into the future?
Humanism? In my most optimistic dreams I see humanism as the overlay for everything. I’m perfectly fine with whatever religion or philosophy some one wants to adopt; I’d just like to see humanism’s basic premise be the guiding principles for living with each other. If we all are considerate of each others space and need to survive, if we take action to support a healthy planet and healthy communities and if we all could accept that my rights only go so far as the end of my arm (and so do yours). Don’t ask me to live by your religious ideals.
Thank you for your time, Rebecca.
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.