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
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
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
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
and various other organizations (www.americanhumanist.org). The
event will be preceded by a banquet on November 10.
November 11-13 Freedom From Religion Foundation annual conference
in Orlando, FL:
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
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
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?