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Interview With Mel Lipman
President
American Humanists Association
by Marilyn Westfall

UUI INTERVIEW WITH MEL LIPMAN
PRESIDENT, AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
WITH MARILYN WESTFALL, UUI

Mel Lipman, you are president of the American Humanist Association and a longtime UU. Would you consent to an interview for publication in the newsletter of the UU Infidels?

Of course! However, I must make it clear that any comments I make about UUA are my own personal comments as a longtime UU and do not reflect the views of the American Humanist Association.

Tell us something about the current status of the American Humanist Association. Is membership up? Are there new AHA chapters? In your estimation as president, what is the overall “health” of the organization?

The AHA has come a long way since the turn of the century and since the AHA board decided to move the national office from Amherst, New York to Washington, D.C. Before we left Amherst, our membership (once as high as 5800) dwindled to well under 5000 and our processes lagged far behind those of other organizations: we had two operating computers, dial-up Internet access, and rotary phones.

Now we use state-of-the-art technology and have jumped in with both feet into power- brokering in the nation’s capitol. So it’s not surprising that our membership has rebounded and soared well beyond our 65-year high of 5800. At last count, we had 7400 members and that number keeps rising. Since moving to Washington, the strength and numbers of our local groups have nearly doubled, and we’ve seen similar improvements in all our program areas.

Not only are we raising a Humanist voice in Washington, but we are also making a difference. As one example: we have been an instrumental part of political coalitions that have prevented Bush from legislating a single piece of his precious faith-based initiatives program.

The UU Infidels, as an organization, is concerned with improving the status of Humanists, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics within the UUA. Do you share that concern?

First, let me explain that I have a problem regarding how to refer to non-supernaturalists, because we use so many different terms to identify ourselves. Since I favor the term “Humanist,” I’ll use it in my responses, but I want to make it clear that, in using that term, I am referring to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, brights, non-theists or any other term we use when referring to our naturalistic lifestance.

As a Unitarian Humanist for 40 years, I certainly share all of the concerns of the UU Infidels. Shortly after the UUI was organized, I met Timothy Travis, founder of the UUI, at the Godless Americans March on Washington, in 2002. We spoke about our concerns with the UUA and about a need to organize the UU Humanists to maintain an influential voice aimed at the UUA. After the Godless March, the UUI focused on this concern and, with the dedicated assistance of people like you and other UUI members, we finally have that voice. When the American Humanist Association convened a summit meeting this past January and invited the leaders of all national Humanist organizations, the UUI certainly was included and well-represented by Timothy.

You visit a lot of UU churches and fellowships. You’re probably better in-touch with grassroots’ opinion than many of us. What are you hearing from non-believers about the UUA’s regard for their point-of-view?

Concerns expressed to me reflect the concerns of UU Infidels. Non-theist UUs feel increasingly marginalized and merely “tolerated” by the UUA. This has resulted in many Humanists leaving their UU churches, thus exacerbating the marginalization of those who remain.

Most Humanists in the UU churches I have visited throughout the United States believe that the UUA is not concerned with the discomfort they feel in worship services and with statements emanating from Beacon Street, which are increasingly stressing supernatural concepts of a deity. Since Humanists still comprise a large percentage of UU members, I think the UUA could easily resolve this discomfort by adopting a statement similar to the one proposed by Jim Haught, a long-time UU and editor of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette. Jim’s statement, adopted by the UUI for a petition drive, says that the UUA takes no position on the existence or non-existence of a deity.


Do you think there is a chance that UUA will issue such a statement?

Not in the near future. But eventually, with the UU Infidels gaining more and more support, and with Humanists remaining in their churches and speaking out against the trend to become a form of Christian Lite, I think the UUA will be obliged to consider such a statement. Also, the UU Infidels group is a good foundation to develop support for a Humanist candidate for the presidency of UUA, when president Sinkford’s term expires.

You mentioned at the 2005 General Assembly, speaking at the UU Infidels workshop, that we non-believers should present ourselves and our opinions with more positive expression. How do we walk the line as UUs, between criticism of UU leadership and positive promotion of our identity?

That’s an excellent question and a subject that should be a major discussion point among UUIs. We should promote our identity in a positive manner by requesting more Humanist services in our churches and fellowships and we should offer to conduct those services. We should volunteer to serve on minister search committees and have a voice in selecting our ministers. We should discuss our Humanism positively, not by attacking the religionists, but rather by talking about the positive nature of our own philosophy. Our philosophy promises a good, ethical life without fear of death or an afterlife; it promises intellectual integrity. The supernaturalists, in contrast, offer unproven beliefs. Ours is the more helpful and realistic position.

As for criticism of UU leadership, that can also be done in a positive manner. An ideal manner of dealing with the UUA is Jim Haught’s request (previously mentioned) for a definitive statement by the UUA saying that it takes no stand on the existence or non-existence of a supernatural deity. The refusal by the UUA to take this stand (so far) seems to demonstrate that the organization is reluctant not to embrace supernatural religion. And this UUA attitude will be revealed without our direct attacks on the UUA.

In a 2003 article in UU World, “Our Humanist Legacy,” former UUA president Bill Schultz expressed regrets for encouraging Humanists to work for the UUA, while Humanism struggled “to flourish as a stand-alone movement.” What’s your opinion about dividing our energies between the UUA and organizations specifically for non-believers?

About 20 years ago Bill Schultz expressed concern that UUs are placing too much stress on rationality. As with many of his other statements, I really do not understand Schultz’s meaning or motivation for the quote you cited above. Since I cannot do so positively and diplomatically, I won’t comment on any statements made by Schultz

UUs (or former UUs) are the largest single demographic of AHA members. Although many of our current members joined AHA after leaving their UU churches, I don’t consider membership in both UU churches and AHA as a division of our energies. The two complement each other. We join churches mainly for social reasons as well as for involvement in local activism. We join Humanist organizations mainly to support national efforts on behalf of all Humanists. Many AHA chapters are organized within UU churches and such local groups are assisted by the national organization.

At this time I think that rather than Humanism, it is the UUA that is struggling to flourish as a “stand-alone movement.”

Some leaders of and members in atheist and Humanist organizations lament that non-believers are reluctant “joiners” and unwilling to devote much time, thought and money toward activism. What is your opinion?

I don’t think that most Humanists are reluctant “joiners.” Rather it is because we join so many organizations that we cannot devote much time to each of the organizations. I belong to and contribute to every national freethought organization (Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America, etc.). I also belong to many secular non-Humanist organizations (ACLU, Americans United, Planned Parenthood, Scouting for All, etc.). Because our time, money and energy are limited, if we want to be active we must choose an organization to which we will dedicate the majority of our energy. I have chosen the AHA. But my membership in the other organizations certainly does not diminish the effectiveness of AHA.

Marilyn, if I may use you as an example, I know you are an AHA member who is at least active enough to attend our annual conference. Several weeks after I met you at the AHA’s annual conference, I shared a panel with you at the UUA General Assembly (at a UU Infidels breakout session) and I know you are very active in your UU church in Lubbock, Texas. So you are active in at least four organizations of which I am aware and, I’m sure, in others of which I am not aware. I certainly don’t think your activism with any of the organizations has a negative impact on the other organizations.

You mentioned several atheist and Humanist organizations. Various estimates indicate that membership in all the organizations combined is far less than the number of atheists and Humanists in the United States. How do you account for that?

In my local AHA chapter in Las Vegas, I ask each new member why he or she joined our AHA chapter. Usually, the person comments about being unaware that there were organized groups of Humanists. Our greatest challenge is to inform unaffiliated Humanists that we are organized. They are not alone in their non-belief of supernaturalism. We must also make the general public aware that Humanists have many values; our identity is not simply that of non-belief. We must encourage and make it safe for Humanists to “come out of their closets” and openly identify themselves as atheists or Humanists.

How can we do that? How can we change our society’s negative image of atheists and Humanists?

We can all work toward that goal by openly discussing our non-belief whenever the opportunity arises. For example, suppose we tell trusted friends and neighbors who respect us that we don’t believe in supernatural gods? They will then realize that good people hold these kinds of views. That kind of realization will make it easier for the rest of us to start acknowledging our beliefs and non-beliefs.

Organizationally, the AHA is currently the first and only organization to use public media to convey that message. We currently have full-page ads in various progressive magazines (American Prospect, The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, etc.) conveying the message that Humanists have values, but that the religious fundamentalists ignore our values while continuing to claim their moral certainty. The AHA will continue this and other advertising campaigns as long as we have the funds to do so. Hopefully, we will get the funds to expand into mainstream publications such as Time and Newsweek, as well as radio and television.

You have been quite concerned, I think, with fostering a sense of cooperation among various organizations supportive of non-believers. Do you see improvement in the relationships and joint efforts of these organizations?

I certainly do see an improvement. AHA is a strong advocate for coalitions of all atheist and Humanist organizations. That is why we convened a meeting in Washington, D.C. this past January, which was attended by the leaders of 24 national Humanist organizations (including UUI), to discuss issues of common concern and develop ways to work together to address those issues. This summit meeting will be held again in 2006 in California and will be sponsored by Atheist Alliance International.

The American Humanist Association is also a member of the Secular Coalition for America (a coalition of five national Humanist organization), which is located on the Web at www.secularcoalition.org. While none of our individual organizations had sufficient funds to do so, as a coalition we have been able to hire the first lobbyist in this country to represent atheism and Humanism and present our voice to Congress. As a coalition we were able to get more publicity presenting the positive face of Humanism than we could ever do as independent organizations. In the past month, our new lobbying endeavor has received extensive coverage in USA Today and many other newspapers throughout the United States and even international coverage in the London Observer. Our atheist views have also had public TV exposure on FOX news, CBS, etc. and in her first month on the job, our lobbyist has appeared on the “O’Reilly Factor” as well as other national television shows.

The combined effort of our national organizations has had an extraordinary synergistic effect from which all atheists and Humanists will benefit.

What upcoming events/activities should non-believers mark on their calendars? What can we do to help?

I am aware of the following planned activities:

October 9: Freethought Day activities in Sacramento, CA: (www.freethoughtday.org)

November 4 or 5: Scouting for All demonstration in Washington, D.C., protesting
BSA’s exclusion of Atheists and Gays: (www.scoutingforall.org).

November 10, 11: Atheists in Foxholes – Washington, D.C. This is an American Atheist
event (www.americanatheists.org) that is endorsed by American Humanist Association
and various other organizations (www.americanhumanist.org). The November 11
event will be preceded by a banquet on November 10.

November 11-13 Freedom From Religion Foundation annual conference in Orlando, FL:
(www.ffrf.org).

The web sites for the organizations will provide additional information about each event. There may be other events I cannot recall at this time. I only listed 2005 events.

If we want to help, we should make every effort to attend those activities where we need to present a strong voice—especially the “Atheists in Foxholes” event. If we appear on the mall in large numbers we will get more national publicity and let Congress know that we are not an insignificant minority.

In general what can we all do to promote Humanism in this country and to prevent the United States from becoming a theocracy?

We can make our voices heard in protest of violations of the constitutional separation of religion and government. We should also be concerned with general discrimination against Humanists. As I said before, the best way to do this is through organizations and coalitions of organizations. By joining and supporting those organizations that are willing to cooperate with other like organizations, we can take advantage of the resulting synergy and be most effective.

What is your opinion of the UU Infidels?

I have nothing but praise for the organization and its dedicated board. As a longtime UU I feel that I finally have a voice (through UUI) by which I can express my dissatisfaction with UUA policies that have been growing progressively anti-Humanist over the past fifteen years. While I am appreciative of the HUUmanists for providing an excellent intellectual source for UU Humanists, we also desperately need a more activist organization that seeks to bring about changes in the UUA. I think UUI is that organization.