Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your family and personal story – culture, education, and geography?
I had a classic American beginning. My father was a General Motors Engineer; my mother was a nurse (until starting a family – this was the late fifties). We were a TV-like family of five in an all-white community in southern Michigan. We attended a Presbyterian church. My parents were committed to this – volunteering, serving as Deacon, church treasurer, and such, but it was not an oppressively religious household; questions were explored not squashed or averted. I spent eight years in and out of college, working factory and construction jobs, and traveling the continent on an old motorcycle. I eventually graduated from University of Michigan after some fraction of my collection of course credits seemed to form the requirements for BS in Biology. Then I fell into wastewater, that is, I chanced to have entered the wastewater treatment profession, a great place for a science oriented generalist with a desire to be useful to fellow humans and the world we live on. I managed wastewater treatment plants for most of my career and have tried to attend to the human component of an operation along with the technical.
When did humanism become self-evidently true to you?
I learned the term Humanism somewhere in my education and remember thinking it seemed a completely sensible perspective, but it did not dawn on me to adopt and own the label at the time. I have been a Humanist most of my life but just seized the identity in the last half dozen years. Humanism is simple. If one rejects the idea of a deity that directs earthly affairs, believes that the best way to understand the world is to carefully and dispassionately observe it, and desires to live a meaningful life in a functional society with other humans, then one is a Humanist. My belief in God evaporated by the time I started college. The usefulness of dispassionate inquiry as a tool to understand reality has been apparent to me from early on. And, I am inclined by my nature to care about humankind and to want to build and be part of a society where its members generally can flourish. Humanism is simply where one lands if one can’t accept supernatural explanations and cares about others. I have been there since the religion I was taught as child fell away.
What is the importance of humanism in America at the moment?
The increase in recent years in the number of Humanist organisations in this country and elsewhere is a very good thing. For decades, I was a Humanist but without any connection to other Humanists. I learned about and joined the GTH just as it matured out of the founders’ living rooms and started meeting in public places. I was enjoying a good life before GTH but I came more alive upon becoming part of this group. I now had people, thought-mates! It was a relief and a pleasure to be with friends with whom conversations on deep questions would begin with what is real as best as we can determine it, with no reliance on ancient magical myths. It is energising to be with others like one’s self; it engenders a feeling that even while a minority, we are not irrelevant. We can have an impact. I know that the emergence of other Humanist groups across the country gives opportunities for thousands of others to find “their people” and have the experience I am having. There are other versions of secular communities such as Free Thought groups and Sunday Assemblies; it isn’t all found under the name Humanism.
Some groups are activist and some focus more on social meet-ups. But to the degree that Humanists meet and organise, we are bound to influence the broader culture. And that is good; Humanism can be a foundation for functionality in our society. People can make better collective decisions when not bound to imagined revelations of a supernatural rule-maker and are free of delusions that exempt them from responsibility for our future on earth. Most Humanists are realistic about the rate at which a clear-eyed human-centric philosophy can displace deeply held supernatural beliefs as a guide for social decisions, but Humanist principles do have influence and I think their impact is increasing. Humanistic thought is on the rise, not just among the “nones;” it also shows up even within organised religion. There is a strong secular Jewish tradition in the US, the Unitarian Universalists embody many humanist principles, and in many liberal Christian churches, one finds virtual Humanists among clergy as well as parishioners – people who advocate for the rights of all, support separation of religion and government, recognise our obligation as stewards of earth’s natural systems, and even, when questioned directly, do not insist on the magical claims we often associate with the very definition of Christianity. I have met people like this while representing Humanism in local groups such as Pub Theology and Area Council on Religious Diversity (ACORD). So, the growth of Humanist ideas, even among those who do not identify as such, is a counterbalance to the vocal and visible conservatism that unnerves so many of us today.
What is the importance of secularism in America at the moment?
It is very important. We hope that the religious also recognise that that government and public functions must not include or defer to religion or none of us will have freedom of religion, or freedom from the religion of others. We can all tolerate the traditions of others expressed in public, but government must not represent or appear to favour religion. The workplace is a more difficult space; it is appropriate to accommodate some religious requirements of workers, but not to impose religious sensibilities of owners or managers on them. Functions that serve the whole community (such as hospitals) should certainly not apply religious rules.
What social forces might regress the secular humanist movements in the US?
The destructive parts of our own human nature. With the world’s population at 7.1 billion and climbing, there is increasing tension between peoples and stresses on resources. With the internet and the availability of customised sources of “belief verification,” we become more polarised. When societies are stressed, human nature moves them toward feeling and behaving like competing tribes. We feel more suspicious of others and protective of those like us. Ironically, as “Humanists,” we try to suppress part of our Human nature. We need to wilfully act on the vision of how we can function together rather than drift into the dysfunction that is (somewhat) natural.
Conservative religions and politicians will not hurt us. The unseemly elements of our own nature (imparted on us by our evolutionary past) can hurt us. I see it expressed even among liberals and professed Humanists.
What is the humanist culture like in Michigan? What activities, campaigns, and initiatives take place there through the GTH?
The backbone of our local organisation is our regular monthly meetings. We feature a speaker on topics that include science, philosophy, art, or issues of community interest. Often these bring in people from the community who are interested in the speaker or topic, who have no affiliation with Humanism. Sometimes the monthly lecture is a platform for an organisation that works for something Humanists tend to support. We may in that circumstance help with raising funds and contact sharing. GTH supplies a group of volunteers one evening each month to usher, take tickets, and make popcorn at a local community theatre that shows non-mainstream films. A contingent of GTH volunteers at Safe Harbour, a program for housing our town’s homeless on winter nights, and others participate in an annual work bee at Planned Parenthood. We have supported the high school science fair with prize money (and I have served as a judge). We have a get-together called “the Hungry Humanist” at a different restaurant each month just for socialising. We’ve organised member road trips to conferences of the American Humanist Association, Reason Rally, and other out-of-town Humanist or atheist events. Contacts from these have led to some great speakers at our monthly meetings. GTH Book Club reads and discusses nonfiction and occasional novels that give us tools for understanding the world around us (subject matter has included psychology, science, religion, justice and politics). Book Club events sometimes morph into very nice dinner parties. We have regular GTH bike rides, seasonal parties, and occasional campouts or ballgame excursions.
What tasks and responsibilities come with being the vice president of the Grand Traverse Humanists (GTH)?
Our board of seven meets at least monthly. We exchange ideas for GTH programs, seek and secure meeting speakers, and plan our meetings and events. Usually we do these chores with a glass of wine and intersperse them with philosophical side discussions and a few laughs. I and a couple others take turns presiding at monthly meetings. I sometimes represent Humanism and GTH at forums outside the group and to classes and media.
It also falls to us as a board to continuously assess the collective desire of the group regarding what we want to be. To what degree do members want GTH to be an important source of support and community for one another? Do we make it our business to know when members are ill or struggling and send casseroles? Or do we just provide interesting lectures and social events? To what degree do we want to serve a function for each other often fulfilled for the religious through church membership? Some members shudder at anything like mimicking church. Others miss the community and ritual they gave up when they stopped believing and left a church. As it happens, we are in the middle. We stay away from the vibe of a church congregation, but members do deliver a casserole from time to time. Another common decision: shall we be activists for our philosophy, interjecting ourselves into local, regional, or national political issues? How can we know if we can do so on behalf of all our members? Or should we just meet each other’s needs for like-minded camaraderie?
What is the current size of the GTH?
We have 83 dues-paying members, 176 participants in our closed Facebook group and 239 people who have signed up for GTH emails. Meetings have between 30 and 80 people; the larger events usually include some non-GTH attendees.
For those that don’t know, and many simply won’t because grassroots work is learned through action, what difficulties arise in the midst of grassroots organisation of a chapter?
We find that the average age of a GTH member is rather high. We would like to have a membership that is a cross section of generations just as we hope Humanism has traction with people in all stages of life across the country and the world. We are not sure why it is this way. To be a group of our size in a community the size of Traverse City is a success, but we often discuss a desire for greater age diversity nonetheless.
We work on selecting our tone. We think some have left the group out of exasperation with those who are inclined to be too tolerant of religion. Others have ceased to attend after perceiving that others in GTH may have been too disrespectful of the religious. Many members were once believers. Some feel kindly toward those they left behind in their former church scene and some are wounded and angry and receive hostility from their former fellow congregants and religious families. Who we select as speakers or the intensity of round-table discussions can affect who we retain and who does not return.
What about the eventual emotional difficulties and rewards?
Humanism is important to me; it is something I am glad to commit effort advancing. Other kinds of organisations I have participated in do not inspire me to get involved at a planning /serving level. GTH does.
GTH people, Humanists, tend to be deeply interesting and caring people; they are pleasant and stimulating company. My wife Suzette and I hosted a GTH Book Club discussion at our house a few weeks ago, soon after the election. The election was not a topic of the night, in fact there were only a few side conversations about it, but there was a sense of support and common feeling. Humans crave that. When all had left, I told Suzette, “you know, these are the people I want around me when things get weird.”
I am more alive and energised about life because I have these people around me.
What personal experiences tend to inform personal humanist beliefs, as a worldview and ethic, respectively, based on interactions with other humanists? Some might note ecstatic experiences, improvements in personal relationships, and so on.
Motivation for Humanist ideals comes ultimately from the better parts of human nature, from the evolved feelings that lead us to care about and support one another. Experiences support this in giving people a foundation for empathy.
For some Humanists who had been involved in religion, a departure from religious belief, a de-conversion if you will, is a powerful experience. It is not the emotional rush of a reported religious experience, rather it is a clearing of illusion, a relief from the tension of defending incoherent positions. It is freedom from trying to discern the will of an intangible capricious being and execute it to his satisfaction. It is the new knowledge that one is not being watched all the time. It has been described to me as “finding peace.” Some Humanist who came through this experience resent the deep connection formed in people’s minds early in life by religious indoctrination, that the ability to believe fantastic things is inseparable from goodness. That psychologically persistent fusion of ability-to-believe and goodness, is a harm that informs some Humanist’s regard for religion after they are out of it.
Also, intellectually, what makes humanism seem more right or true than other worldviews to other humanists based on conversations with them – arguments and evidence?
Humanism has no “revealed” doctrine, no myths passed down from ancient times that we contort perceptions to defend. Humanism is interested in understanding what is true, whatever it may be, to the degree that we can. We go where our best dispassionate, evidence based, inquiry takes us and we are comfortable with what we are not yet able to know. Humanism commits to honest careful pursuit of the questions while religion starts with answers.
Humanism recognises humanity as part of, and a product of, nature. This is key to a Humanistic view. We evolved as groups of cooperating primates. Our brains are a product of this evolution. In them resides the basis for our emotions and behaviour. We evolved to have the feelings that cause us to care about and support each other because cooperation within groups had selective utility. Self-serving instincts obviously also had selective utility. Competition with other groups lead to instincts in us that are at the root of suspicion and hostility toward those least like us. The good and bad elements of our nature were conserved in our evolution in balance and tension with each other.
So, Humanists know that good and evil are not forces directed by God and Satan in a supernatural battle in which we are soldiers. Rather, our better angels and our darker motivations are part of being a natural creature.
This view also equips us to understand our limitations. Adopting the dispassionate perspective and viewing humanity from the outside, leads to a fuller understanding of our nature and gives Humanists insight into the fallibility of human thinking and perceptions. The brain, the organ with which we apprehend the world, is an evolved tool. Evidence shows that we are prone to many kinds of thinking and perception errors; understanding this puts a person in a position to better recognise fallacious thinking in others. It also reminds us to be careful and humble about what we assert to know ourselves (Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, and E.O. Wilson have been GTH Book Club reads). This dispassionate examination of human nature as an evolved phenomenon gives a Humanist a very usefully lens to better understand human emotions, the culture wars, politics, religion, and interpersonal relationships.
Humanism is more likely to be right and true because we look for our car keys where we are likely to have dropped them rather than looking under the lamp post because the light is better.
For those that want to work together or become involved, what are recommended means of contacting the GTH?
Our website is gthumanists.org. Upcoming events are listed there. An email address that reaches all board members is email@example.com. We meet at the Traverse Area District Library at 7:00 pm the second Monday of each month. Other events vary in time and location.
Thank you for your time, Scott.
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.