Category: Humanist Voices

A Personal Take on Government Support for Clergy

By Paul Heffron

The new federal CARES Act, designed to offset hardships because of the COVID-19 crisis, has highlighted again the controversy over government support of religion. CARES provides loans to cover the payrolls of businesses and nonprofits that have been harmed economically by the virus-related shutdowns. They are forgiven if the recipients keep their workers on staff.

And that includes clergy and other religious leaders. I have an interesting perspective on this issue.

When I was an ordained minister, federal law allowed me to exempt the parsonage I was provided from income taxes. I assumed that after I left the church in 1967, that benefit would end. But I recently learned that the law allows even retired ordained clergy to claim a tax exemption for housing costs.  I was shocked. I could have received a big tax break for the last four years as a retired ordained minister. My wife, Peg, and I pondered whether we would take the benefit if we did qualify.

At first I thought we should take it (by amending our returns for 2016-2019, as our tax preparer said was allowed) and donate the money to the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Legal Action Fund.  I could understand why someone would do that, but it was not for us. We decided we would not take it because we view it as unconstitutional and immoral.

This allowance fits right in with the Christian Nationalism agenda. Well-heeled televangelists, megachurch ministers, and others take unscrupulous advantage of the benefit. Every denomination continues to support it. My tax consultant and my church Pension Board assume I qualify because I get benefits from the United Church of Christ pension fund, even though I am no longer on the UCC roster of ministers.This curious experience got me interested in the history of the parsonage and housing allowance. Here’s what I learned.

The Revenue Act of 1921 said “ministers of the gospel” who lived in parsonages provided by their churches did not have to count these houses as income and pay taxes on them. In 1954, the law was expanded to include housing allowances provided by churches, many of which no longer had a parsonage. 

The allowance covered all kinds of expenses related to housing. A 2002 Act clarified the law. An appeals court was considering the law’s legitimacy and the IRS was prepared to follow with a new ruling. But religious denominations responded forcefully and Congress delivered. Hence the 2002 Act reaffirmed the housing allowance and clarified that it applied to both active and retired ministers. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been challenging the housing allowance for a decade. It won in lower federal courts in 2013 and 2017, but both times lost on appeal in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF has decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court.

So, despite the Constitution’s “establishment” clause, which bars government support of religion, the federal government has established an implied precedent that religious bodies serve vital interests of society and that subsidizing them to assure their survival is a legitimate federal function. It’s argued that without the housing allowance small churches and other religious organizations would find it difficult to adequately compensate their ministers and as a result might lose them and fold.

Given this precedent, the CARES Act aims to save the churches and cover the entire expenses of their work forces through forgivable loans. Strike another blow to the separation of church and state. The loans are administered by the Small Business Administration. Ironically, some churches could be viewed as businesses, some even as big business. But that’s another subject.

Paul Heffron, a longtime HumanistsMN member, was an ordained United Church of Christ minister from 1963 to 1967.

A Humanist Brings Secular Values to Senate Run

By Ross Meisner

I am a secular humanist, an atheist, and a proud member of HumanistsMN. And I am running for the Minnesota State Senate in the Fridley/Columbia Heights area. It’s a strange experience to run for public office: part issues advocacy, part popularity contest, part punching bag, and part community therapist. The motivation to run came after years of general activism and community support, when my professional and personal environment allowed me to embrace the mantra to be part of the solution.

What most energizes me is the possibility of bringing clear-headed and unflinching secular values to the MN legislature. I get a thrill when I “witness” to others about how secularists navigate moral and ethical issues, and apply such ethics to societal problems. I suspect (or hope?) many habitual theists actually question their organized religions, and may just need public “permission” to accept and act on those doubts. I would love to be a public example of the innate ethical secularism we all feel inside.

As a future legislator, I may be an unusual specimen: socially progressive and liberal, financially conservative and disciplined. I would like to make the world a little better, and do it on a responsible budget. I oppose the systemic advantages enjoyed by the wealthy, even though I have benefitted from some of them.

My campaign has been squarely focused on issues. I seek to apply my 20 years in the med-tech industry to establish a public option for healthcare insurance. My experience as a business owner has taught me about the dynamics of a successful workforce, and the diverse skills needed to fully employ our residents effectively. And six years leading a school board gave me insights to help guide the funding and performance management of our public schools. 

I firmly embrace Article 13 of the Minnesota Constitution, to paraphrase Sections 1 and 2: Whereas the stability of our government depends on the intelligence of the people, the legislature shall establish a thorough and efficient system of public schools and prohibit any support of schools that promulgate religious doctrines. Our public education is better than in many other states, but trails behind many other countries. And make no mistake, we are in a globally competitive market today.

Some say the measure of a country is how it treats its least citizens. It’s simply unacceptable that the most wealthy and powerful nation on this planet has people suffering from hunger, lack of medical care, or untreated mental illness. That some people risk financial ruin if they have a medical emergency. That some young people face literally decades of debt to get a college education. We can do so much better, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. 

These issues reflect our cultural values, which drive the political winds: we can start to change policy, but we also need to show our brethren that it’s the right thing to do. I value inclusion, equity, and respect for all people. This includes rational immigration policies, the right for a woman to make her own healthcare choices, death with dignity, a stable healthy climate for future generations, and full and easy access to secure elections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a big wrench in our endorsement process. District and state conventions have all been cancelled. By the time you read this, Minnesota will have achieved a historical first: the remote, online voting for party endorsements. My hat is off to the DFL party for achieving such a feat in such short order. At the time of this writing, everything is going smoothly. 

The virus also demands an immediate pivot in political priorities. When the legislature convenes in January, it will be all hands on deck to guide the rapid yet safe recovery of our economy, our small businesses, and our jobs.

There is also an element of theater in politics. I confess, I would be absolutely delighted to swear my oath of office on a copy of the Constitution, and omit those controversial final four words. I do not  need to call on some deity to ensure my performance. I answer to a far greater power: my community.

COVID-19 Flight Cancellations Complicate a Return Home from Amsterdam

By Ellie Haylund

It’s an odd juxtaposition. Imagine the city center of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 2019. Tourists from absolutely everywhere in the world bobbing and weaving across the historic hub. On our street, just a few blocks from the notorious, but remarkably commercial, Red Light District, things are tamer but buzzing. Canal tour boats pass periodically, bikers whiz by, and passersby are mostly locals.

One year later: March 2020. A city nearly overrun with tourists year-round has been silenced. The canals empty, the famously overwhelming bike lanes are ghost towns, and there is a general eeriness. I can only imagine that the red lights have turned off indefinitely, though the weed shops are still serving take-away.

My fellow humanist husband, Nick, and I moved to Amsterdam for his temporary work assignment one year ago. From the moment we arrived, we were already preparing for a bittersweet end. We fell in love with the city, our street, our apartment, and the lifestyle immediately. It feels as though part of the adaptation process was finding things that made Amsterdam more appealing than Minneapolis; perhaps it helped alleviate homesickness. But it was not emotionally difficult to leave the Netherlands at all. By the end of our time abroad, we wanted nothing more than to get home.

We’d been slated for months to fly back March 16. I’d been increasingly nervous about COVID-19 since January, and the rapid escalation leading up to our return was unsettling. Five days before our scheduled departure, Donald Trump erroneously announced a European travel ban that had us rapid-fire texting friends and family until 4 a.m. We quickly learned that we’d likely be allowed back as U.S. citizens, but the constantly evolving situation left us afraid of what might happen in a mere five days.

The next day, our flight was cancelled and we were rescheduled for a flight only two days after the original one. Not bad… A few days later, our flight was again cancelled. Thus began the arduous, fruitless task of calling and messaging our airline, KLM, for a new flight. We absolutely understood the unexpected customer-support burden they were experiencing, but it left us in limbo. The U.S. Embassy was clear—they told me via email that they did not have the resources to help us repatriate and we needed to work with our airline or find a new airline. Oh, did I mention the small caveat for us? Our sweet dog, Cosmo, was with us and was only certified to fly KLM.

We spent six days making public pleas. Nick tweeted at Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and documented our struggles in his signature upbeat, hopeful way. We had many friends drum up visibility online, and it turns out that social media isn’t a total wasteland. Nick’s tweets caught the attention of the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. He quickly reached out to Nick with a genuine concern for our situation. Before we knew it, we had the Ambassador, a customs intelligence person, and a KLM security manager calling, tweeting, and emailing Nick. We felt like the belles of the ball. Less than 12 hours later, we had a flight that was only 10 days later than our original one.

Schiphol Airport was good about trying to maintain social distancing with lines. It helped that there weren’t many travelers at this point. I had been anxious about potentially spending the nine-hour flight shoulder to shoulder with others, but our flight was nearly empty. I might even go so far as to say that most passengers were able to maintain a six-foot distance from all other passengers. Jackpot.

Because of the travel ban, only 13 U.S. airports could receive European flights and we had to fly to Chicago. Nick’s sister and brother-in-law saved the day by driving all the way from Minneapolis, picking us up, and turning right back around to drive back. Upon our return, our 14-day self-quarantine began.

If we hadn’t gotten the Ambassador’s attention, we may have found ourselves stuck in Amsterdam indefinitely, hunting for a new place to live with expired visas. That said, we know that our situation was far from dire compared to the state of the world right now. But there was something about being abroad, removed from our families, that left us feeling isolated and vulnerable in a scary time. Leaving the Netherlands to return to the U.S. health care system was not exactly enticing, but it was important to us that we be close to our support system during this crisis.

Since our return, Nick and I have both hit the ground running with work. My job is remote and his can easily be done from home, so we are very fortunate to have little disruption to our professional lives. It’s been a good distraction from not being able to hug our families or have a welcome home happy hour.

Ten days into our self-quarantine (as I write this) —so far, so good.

Ellie and Nick Haylund are members of the HumanistsMN board.

The Boy Scouts of America: Looking for Corruption in All the Wrong Places

By David Perry

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has filed for bankruptcy. This comes in the wake of 275 sexual abuse lawsuits, with as many as 1,400 more to come. The organization has already paid more than $150 million in settlements and legal costs and it seems to be only the beginning.

Ninety percent of the abuse took place more than 30 years ago. Since 2002, 17 states have created laws that allow victims to file charges beyond the normal statute of limitations, permitting these cases to move forward.

Sexual abuse is not something new to the BSA, even if public knowledge of it is. Since at least the 1940’s, the organization has kept a list of red-flag cases that were nicknamed the “perversion files.” These included the names of former Boy Scouts leaders who had been accused of sexually abusing young scouts and were considered ineligible volunteers.  The problem was that as the group kept out former abusers, it allowed new ones in.

I was once Midwest Regional Director of the now-defunct Scouting For All, which worked to get the BSA to end its ban of gay and atheist members and leaders. To the BSA,  gays were not “morally straight” and “you can’t be the best kind of citizen without duty to God.”

The Boy Scouts now allow gay scouts and scout leaders (although the latter not until 2015). But atheists? They are still not welcome. We atheists have heard it all our lives: Without belief in God, there’s no reason to behave ethically; and if things are bad now, they’d be even worse without such belief. 

Of course, when we look at the research, we find something very different:  if anything, secular morality is superior to theistic morality. (For example,  atheists are more generous than religious people, are  less likely to get divorced, and represent a tiny fraction of the prison population.) As for the BSA’s other bias: it isn’t gays who sexually abuse children, rather it’s pedophiles, most of whom are heterosexual in their adult relationships. 

As with the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the BSA chose to cover up the abuse rather than address it openly. It also failed to take the advice of experts who would have told them that keeping out atheists and gays is likely to make the problem worse since it provides a false sense of security –– feeding the notion that if you’re heterosexual and believe in God, you are not a threat to children.

I don’t like to generalize about religion since there are thousands of different ones and some are worse than others. But the BSA has been dominated by Mormons and conservative Catholics at the national leadership level, and this has allowed ignorance to dominate in regard to where and how to look for sexual abuse in the organization and how to keep it out.

The BSA is now at a crossroads. It has made dramatic changes by allowing gays, transgender people, and girls into their organization. But let’s be clear about why this is happening. The organization is in survival mode. Its assets may all be depleted after all lawsuits are completed and it has lost close to 50 percent of its members in recent years. The decision to allow new groups into the organization has more to do with trying to stay afloat than with accepting that it was previously wrong to exclude them. 

Will the BSA ever allow atheists into their organization? There has been no discussion among national leaders (at least not publicly) about doing so. Atheists remain the last of the three G’s that were excluded from the BSA: gays, girls, and the godless.

When I was working with Scouting For All, it was obvious that atheists took a back seat to the issue of gays and the BSA. Now that gays are allowed in, there’s little hope of ever reviving that organization. The BSA’s position on atheists is really a non-issue among most nonbelievers and that has certainly contributed to their continued exclusion. 

Atheists are still that group of people that others can claim to be ethically deficient with few people even batting an eye.

 

Stop Santa Truthism! It Softens Children’s Brains.

By Erica Klein

The author delivered this “rant” at HumanistsMN’s Solstice Celebration, a Festivus for the Rest of Us, last month.

Let me start in the traditional Festivus fashion: I HAVE A LOT OF PROBLEMS WITH YOU PEOPLE!

The particular problem I want to talk about today is Santa Claus. Specifically, what I call Santa Truthism, which means telling the Santa story like a true story. Santa Truthism softens up kids’ brains so those brains are susceptible to weird stuff.

What is weird stuff? Weird stuff means astrology, big foot, biorhythms, chemtrails, dianetics, energy healing, foot reflexology, homeopathy, holocaust denial (I’m only up to the letter H!), and a million other make-believe things that too many people believe are true. Santa Truthism creates a confusion of fact and fiction that can last a lifetime.

Children are scientists trying to understand the world around. You see them every day testing gravity with your glassware and their bodies.

For example, my mom used to tell me to eat my soup or it would get cold. She’d say, “Eat your ice cream or it will melt.” I finally asked her, “Please explain: if I leave my food sitting on the table, does it get hot or cold?”

Developmental psychology tells us that at age 3, children can understand the difference between facts and fiction. They can appreciate a story as a story!

I grew up with a lot of stories. My dad was the main storyteller in my family.

He would tell me the plots of old science fiction movies and Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. My stories included The Day of the Triffids, The War of the Worlds, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Pandora’s box, tales of Loki and Thor and Odin. And Elijah stealing a sip of the Passover wine.

My parents made two big mistakes with storytelling and both get back to this idea of making it clear when something is fact or fiction.

I asked my mother why there was sand in my eyes in the morning. She said the sandman comes in my bedroom at night and sprinkles sand in my eyes, and that makes me fall asleep, have dreams, and forget he was there. She said he can get in my room even if the windows are closed.

While my mom may have been picturing the friendly sandman from the old song “Mr. Sandman,”I was processing this a little differently. So Mom, if I understand you correctly, the “sandman” seeps through my walls, puts drugged sand in my eyes which knocks me unconscious and wipes my memory. Do I have that right? She saw this story wasn’t going over well and explained that it was just a story and not real.

The other storytelling mistake was when my dad read me Jack London’s To Build a Fire. I was 8, and it was my dad’s first dive into realistic fiction after all the myths and science fiction he’d been sharing with me. You know the story? A man slowly freezes to death. That’s the story. And my dad forgot to explain that it was fiction. I thought it was journalism, and that the author was following that poor man around while he froze!

In many families it is important to present the Santa story as truth and keep that truth alive for as long as possible. Parents will boast, “Oh, Johnny is 14 now and he still believes in Santa; what a darling!”

Here’s the problem: at the point where a child believes Santa is real, they enter a state I call “any weird stuff might be true.” Reindeer could fly. The world is fair and goodness links to rewards, badness to punishment. Every house in the world can be visited in one night. This creates a lifelong vulnerability to ideas that defy common sense and evidence.

Researchers who studied children’s conception of various realities concluded in an article published in Child Development:  “At age 3…children in their everyday talk discuss the contrasts between pretense and reality.” So I’m asking you, why present Santa as truth?

Santa Truthism softens the brain at a critical stage of development. Believing that any weird stuff is possible while you are sorting out how the world works leaves you open to believing that any weird stuff is possible as an adult. It isn’t charming, it’s dangerous.

Stories are great. This time of year, we celebrate stories like the one about an NYPD officer trying to save his wife and other hostages taken by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. Yippee Ki Yay, amiright? And the one about a man raised as an elf at the North Pole who decides to travel to New York City to locate his real father. We even enjoy the story about a suicidal man who abandons his family and loses his family business, which is critical to the local economy, but is ultimately saved by an apprentice angel.

But our brains would suffer if we treated these stories as facts. Let’s enjoy the stories, including the Santa story, and tell children the truth about what is real.

Santa is a fun story and there are also true Santa stories. I have one! It was July of 2011. The setting: a rental car van at the Detroit airport. Sitting across from me was a large man in a bright red vest who had a giant white beard.

I looked him over, caught his eye, and said, “Merry Christmas, sir?” And he said, in a quiet serious voice, “You recognized me.” And he reached into his vest pocket and gave me a coin that reads, “You were caught being good.”

I leave you with this quote from Carl Sagan: “…[T]o find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.”

Photo by  Mike Arney on Unsplash

Erica Klein is a HumanistsMN member. She sent this followup:

First, this rant includes fond recollections of my dad, Miles Klein, and Dec. 14, the day of the Festivus/Solstice party, was his birthday. My dad died in 2011 and it was nice to offer this tribute to him on his birthday. I think he would have enjoyed it.

Second, when I first prepared this talk for Ignite Minneapolis (you can see it here), I did some research on the child-development science related to fact versus fiction. I discovered that the primary researcher on this topic, who was cited over and over, was Jacqueline D. Woolley (I’ve included a quote from one of her articles). Well, Jackie Woolley was a friend of mine in college! Small world.

Reimagining Humanism: Let’s Promote Widespread Human Flourishing

By Jerry Smith

Erasmus of Rotterdam

The meanings of the words “humanism” and “humanist” have evolved considerably from the time of the Renaissance. Then humanists were people, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who discovered, read, and often translated writings of classical Greece and Rome, secular works that lay outside the dominant Christian worldview. 

Much more recently, humanism has been defined by three “Humanist Manifestos,” each emphasizing secularism, naturalism, and humanitarianism. This is the humanism I subscribed to when I joined Humanists of Minnesota in the early years of this century. (Makes it seem so long ago, and me so old!) Humanism was a secular movement, sharing many concerns — separation of church and state, for instance —with atheist organizations, but more focused on the question of how we should live in a post-religious world.

While there have been many changes since I joined, including most recently a name change to HumanistsMN, our organization could still be accurately described in these terms, as evidenced by its official statements of vision, purposes, and values. 

In an organizational planning/strategic management context, an organization’s vision expresses an intended or desired future state. Thus, HumanistsMN members “aspire to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment and contribute to the greater good of humanity and the planet through science, reason, compassion, and creativity.” 

Organizations often have “mission statements” that express their most fundamental purposes or reasons for being. HumanistsMN has six purposes that include promoting secularism, naturalism, and human rights, as well as creating a “caring humanist community.” HumanistsMN also endorses 25 values, ranging from “beauty and the arts” to “separation of church and state.”

Being the critically minded ex-academic that I am, I could assuredly find things to complain about and suggest changes to these definitions of humanism, HumanistsMN-style. But these seem trivial, mere nit-picking. The organization’s expressed vision, purposes, and values seemed quite adequate and appropriate. Until I read Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

In this best-selling book, published in 2018, Steven Pinker documents how the human condition has improved over the past 500 years on almost every significant dimension, including life span, health, wealth, equality, safety, democracy, knowledge, and happiness. Pinker attributes these improvements to developments in Western civilization epitomized by the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its embrace of science and reason.

In the book’s final chapter, “Humanism,” Pinker reviews the 2003 Humanist Manifesto III and defines humanism as the goal of “maximizing human flourishing.” In effect, he identifies humanism as the Enlightenment’s contemporary incarnation, thereby endowing the movement with a scope and significance far exceeding that expressed by HumanistsMN or other humanist organizations.

Pinker’s definition suggests an enormous opportunity for humanism. Imagine (or think back to when you were!) a young idealistic person, somewhat naïve, who wants to make the world a better place by various means, large and small. This person, whether religious or not, regards reason and evidence as the most legitimate bases for beliefs and actions, at both individual and societal levels. 

With what ideology or worldview might this person identify? Where might this person look for intellectual support and a community of like-minded people? To what movements and organizations would this person belong?

Various answers suggest themselves. Most have a relatively narrow focus — for instance, feminism, environmentalism, social justice. Atheism is both narrow and negative. Progressivism is broad but vague. Socialism, the preferred home for most such people in the 1930s, has a poor track record. Libertarianism strives to maximize individual freedom, but that’s unlikely to create widespread human flourishing. Liberalism, the most promising candidate, has lost much of its original meaning and now has leftist political connotations that many Americans find unappealing.

There’s an important “space” here, a place on the map of high-level human endeavors that can attract the allegiance and energies of all those people, young and old, liberal and conservative, secular and religious, who want to make this world a better place. 

And humanism, at least as Pinker defines it, is the most fitting occupant of that space: a post-religious worldview and movement that promotes widespread human flourishing. Such flourishing encompasses changes in individual human beings, in our societies and nation-states, and in the global community. Its achievement requires a healthy planet whose nonhuman occupants flourish as well. Humanism is the banner under which progressive people across this planet can unite to pursue the Enlightenment project of maximizing human well-being.

What implications does this have for HumanistsMN? First off, there are no clear incompatibilities or contradictions between Pinker’s view and HMN’s more mainstream account of humanism. Indeed, promoting widespread human flourishing could be taken as HMN’s most fundamental reason for being, an overarching mission that subsumes the organization’s five stated purposes.

But formally adopting this as HMN’s mission would have two significant benefits. First, “promoting widespread human flourishing” is more inspirational and motivating than the organization’s stated purposes. Certainly it’s good that we “educate the public on humanist and naturalist worldviews,” “advocate for the separation of church and state,” “create and sustain a caring humanist community,” and so forth. 

But neither individually nor collectively do these purposes fire up idealistic humanitarian blood like “promoting widespread human flourishing.” Identifying HMN with this mission will make it more attractive to current and potential members. More people will want to contribute their time and money, through dues and bequests, to an organization pursuing this mission.

Second, and just as important, this mission broadens the organization’s audience. Certainly HMN must promote secularism—a reliance on reason, evidence, science, and critical thinking—since these are, as Pinker demonstrates, the means of achieving widespread human flourishing. However, we must recognize that, for many people, “secularism” is a dirty word. If secularism is the dominant identity of our organization, it will be rejected out of hand by many Americans. 

On the other hand, if we’re identified with promoting widespread human flourishing, who could object? Such an identity would give HumanistsMN an opportunity to reach out from its base in the secular community to engage with other Americans. 

Our country is more deeply divided than ever before in our lifetimes. We’ve split into contending factions defined along dimensions like liberal and conservative, rural and urban, religious and secular, among others. By adopting as its mission the promotion of widespread human flourishing, HMN rises above these differences. 

In pursuit of this mission, we can engage with everyone, talk about what true flourishing would look like, and point out that historically, it’s been achieved through reason, evidence, science, and critical thinking — in other words, through secularism. I suspect we are most likely to “convert” people to humanism by demonstrating how reason and evidence can be used to achieve common goals.

Thus, I propose that the mission of HumanistsMN be to promote widespread human flourishing, a condition requiring a healthy planet whose nonhuman inhabitants flourish as well. With this as its “brand” or identity, I believe HumanistsMN can itself prosper as never before.

Jerry Smith is a member of the HumanistsMN board and co-leader of the D-Cubed discussion group.

First-Person Humanism: Questioning the Biblical Filter in Search of Truth

By Justin Bovee

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. ~ Humanist Manifesto III

Humanism. A life lived in the service of others, lacking dogma, focusing on compassion and a better world for all humans based on the best evidence and the eternal search for truth.

In contrast, had you asked me 10 years ago where my purpose for living came from, I would have opened with the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.  

For my former self, meaning was only found through theological dogma given by an unseen, unheard supernatural being. It could not be tested and had to be accepted on faith. To understand my journey to humanism, it helps to understand the importance of my former belief in the Christian god. It was the foundation of the relationship to myself, my family, my friends, and the world. It was the filter I used to find truth.

I was raised as an Evangelical Calvinist Christian in a small Utah town that was 98 percent Mormon. My mother, a pianist, led the family in nightly hymns, and taught me to read with Bible stories. My father, an electrical engineer, was a leading intellectual in the community. His knowledge covered a vast wealth of topics from religion, philosophy, home repair, hunting, and first aid. 

The board game that Ken Ham gave to Justin.

He also led the Young Earth Creation Science movement in Utah through the 1980s and 1990s. At one of the conferences he put on, Ken Ham (founder of the group that operates the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter), gave me a board game he made because I helped sell his merchandise. I then played the game with the creationist Duane Gish. I also remember the lines of school buses at the “Back to Genesis” program for children during the 1992 conference in Salt Lake City. Memories that now fill me with dread.

In order to protect my brother and me from “public school lies” like evolution, we were homeschooled. Involvement with the community was highly restricted. As outspoken Evangelical Christians, our family was also blacklisted by the Mormon community when I was 13. The neighborhood kids were told by their bishop not to converse with us. This only served as proof that our belief was correct and hardened our resolve.

A trope I hear often in humanist and atheist circles is that religion is the opium of the unintelligent. I find instead that it is less what one knows, but how one knows it. Everyone uses a series of filters to understand the world; not everyone analyzes the filter for accuracy. 

My spark of curiosity was developed in my father’s study. Our house was filled with books and small electronic gadgets that my father built. He taught me classical logic and had me read literature such as Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Iliad, and The Odyssey by age 14. 

My father was intelligent, but every book, every lecture, every video was screened through his personalized Biblical filter. History, specifically American, was perceived through an American Exceptionalism/Christian Nationalism lens (echoing  David Barton, founder of WallBuilders)

The Civil War, for example, was not about slavery, but Northern Oppression. Skepticism was a part of the training as well. My father used the phrase “Don’t check your brain at the door” when he wanted us to think. Contrary opinions were not ignored; they were celebrated. But they ran like everything else through the filter of the Biblical worldview. Regardless of intellect or evidence, the filter controlled the narrative.

Dedicating My Life to Christian Service

Justin teaching children the story of the apostle Peter’s imprisonment.

It would be easy to dismiss my former Christian belief as just indoctrination, but I cannot. I considered my relationship with god through Jesus to be real. My faith was everything and I wanted to live and was willing to die for my god. It all felt real; everything fit the narrative.

At 13, I dedicated my life to Christian service.I loved reading missionary stories about the likes of Hudson Taylor, John Paton, and Mary Slessor. I wanted to take my faith and convert others to what I thought was true.  Throughout my teen years, I worked with a variety of groups whose missions were to “save souls.”  At the time, I saw everything we did as “pure love.” I spent hours studying apologetics and other religions. I could tell you what was wrong with a hundred other religions, but the filter prevented applying the same methods to my own Biblical worldview.

At 17, I left home and was accepted at Frontier School of the Bible in Wyoming. I organized mission trips to Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics, engaged in street witnessing, interned at a Christian camp in Nebraska, was the youth pastor at a local church, and DJ’ed on the weekends for the local Christian radio station. To be Christian meant not just to believe but to live it loudly. If I wasn’t doing it fast, loud, and overblown, then I felt I was doing it wrong.

In 2003, I met and married Erika. We hardly knew each other. In 2007, after house-parenting for a year at a Christian children’s home, we attended missionary orientation. That is when everything slowed down. The staff of the mission organization noticed discrepancies in our marriage and recommended stepping out of ministry for a couple years, counseling me to focus on my wife and my son while building a network of financial support.

I was lost. I had specialized in missionary preparation from age 13, dumping anything I found superfluous. This left me with a 6th grade knowledge of math and deeply skewed understanding of science. I had a bit of experience tinkering with my father’s computer and found a minimum-wage job resetting passwords at a help desk in Utah. 

To increase my skills, I would find broken computers at thrift stores or the local dump and fix them. Our very small apartment was covered in wires and computer parts during the early days. For the nerds, I reinstalled Linux over 100 times on my personal system in the first year because I kept breaking it and didn’t know how to fix it.

After a job change in 2008, I met a dear Heathen friend. He was an amazing person with a great deal of love for others and outshined the Christians I knew. As a teenager, I had directed a group of kids to shun a Wiccan family because of my internal bigotry. Here was a person who showed all the signs of a “Christian” but worshipped “Thor.” He was so kind to me, regardless of how I treated him and his beliefs. It didn’t fit.

 In early 2009, I started the “TEARS of the Patriots”, a Tea Party group in Idaho. I found that the Christian nationalist friends I met there were exclusionary and less moral than my Heathen friend, who stood for the rights of all, including me. It wasn’t a big thing but a small fissure in my internal model of how I saw reality. It didn’t fit. 

In August 2009, my wife and I lost a child due to a miscarriage and I lost my job. I saw an opportunity for a fresh start in Oklahoma and uprooted the family. The stress had taken its toll and the two of us went into hiding. We went to church but kept our heads down. I kept my past hidden and avoided politics. It was during this time that the cracks began to become apparent. I began searching for consistency in my faith. I went back to my foundation, the Bible. This time though, I put the Biblical worldview filter on the table for review. If it was true, it should be able to stand up to scrutiny.

I wondered what made the Bible a better filter for finding truth than the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or The Iliad? What made any of those a viable option? Not all could be true, but all could be false. I read Christian apologetics, I messaged my former professors, and read everything my father sent me. I also reread the research on Young Earth Creationism. In total, it took seven years. It was a gradual unwinding as I systematically asked questions about each aspect of the narrative and found the Christian model lacking. 

Some of the powerful resources that helped me during the process included the Great Courses offerings “Redefining Reality,” “Your Deceptive Mind,” and “Science Wars.” Podcasts like The Atheist Experience and Skeptics Guide to the Universe provided insight into ways to counter theistic arguments. The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) helped me take evolution to a much deeper level. YouTubers like Benjamin Burger, C0nc0rdance, Aron Ra, Anthony Magnabosco, Paulogia, Potholer54, and King Crocoduck helped me catch fallacies in my thought process.

Facade of Christianity cracks

In June 2016, I was in San Francisco at a tech conference. I had just finished another back and forth with my father on the early Christian church and writings. The Biblical filter was overloaded. Either that model was true, and everything was a deception, or just maybe the Bible wasn’t a good method for finding truth. I knew at that point which I found more accurate but was unable to vocalize it. 

I was terrified of the consequences not only for myself but my wife and kids. What if Erika couldn’t be unequally yoked? How would my friends react? My family? A month later, during a drive from Nebraska, my wife discussed her doubts about the inerrancy of the Bible. She had been on her own journey, separate from mine, and was afraid of the consequences as well. 

The façade of Christianity that had a strong grip on our relationship cracked into a million pieces. We had one of the most honest conversations up to that point. It is funny how much one hides and internalizes when living up to a religious standard, regardless of the preaching about honesty.

I continued to study and we moved to Minnesota in the summer of 2017 — the first move we made for us and not religious, family, or work obligations. As I became more vocal about my  thought process, my ideas about theism came out. Reactions from my former religious community were mixed.

 I heard a lot of “It’s a phase” and “You were never a Christian to begin with.” Many cut off connection without saying a single word, but a couple talked to me about their own doubts. A handful of amazing Christian friends are still willing to talk and even challenge me on my thought process, which is awesome.

Everyone uses filters, mental models, to perceive the world. It allows us to get work done and not get buried in the nuance and the noise. All filters are flawed and it is important to constantly validate them for accuracy. My former personal Biblical filter had built-in safeguards to prevent analysis. 

Justin with his wife, Erika, and their two children.

While far from perfect, humanism is built on constant questioning and verification. It is set up to autocorrect itself where it can. Mine has been a long path with a lot of fears, but humanism with skepticism has provided me with beauty, nuanced models seeking truth, a world derived by observation and analysis, evidence-based ethics and real-world compassion, and inclusivity for the human tribe. Instead of focusing on glorifying a completely imperceivable supernatural entity, I have found my life’s drive in individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

Justin Bovee is a member of HumanistsMN, Minnesota Atheists, and First Unitarian Society.  He is also a data engineer at Target and always looking for another humanist to grab a coffee with.  Justin has started Secular North, an effort to develop tools to connect secular communities in our region. Secular North is in its infancy but can be found on Vimeo, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Check out the Secular North Discord Server for live broadcasts, secular chat and voice communication, and community from across Minnesota.  Justin can also be reached via email (media@secularnnorth.org).

 

Cohousing: An Antidote to Loneliness, a Path to Community

By Katherine Johnson

“Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.”

That’s from Humanist Manifesto III. It has special significance for me right now because I’m devoting a great deal of time and energy to creating the first energy-efficient intentional community in the Twin Cities.

This will be a custom-designed neighborhood that will join individuality and interdependence. The model was developed in Denmark in the early 70s and migrated here in the 90s, but it has much older roots in traditional villages. It’s called cohousing.

Each of us involved in this effort sees the benefits of living in a small community where:

  • Private homes combine with shared property and resources (think townhome complex or condominium).
  • Design and development are created by the first residents.
  • Shared spaces are actually used by all residents on a regular basis.
  • Social interaction is encouraged, not discouraged, as is the norm in standard developments.

In my work as a psychologist, I’ve seen the damage that isolation and loneliness can bring to one’s physical, emotional, and cognitive health — and that spurs me on to make our vision a reality.

The project is called Bassett Creek Housing and we are in the process of seeking 20 to 30 members so we can get it off the ground. Of special note, we just engaged a highly experienced marketing director who understands our needs — Stefan Silverman. In fact, since he came on the scene, we’ve gained three new members, including Stefan and his wife, Linda!

We’ve also received publicity from features in the StarTribune and the Edina Sun Current and on TV Channel 5. What a wonderful time of growth as word of our project spreads day by day!
We hope HumanistsMN members will consider attending one of our get-togethers at various locations to share a meal,socialize, and visualize the future of cohousing in the Twin Cities!

These events are coming up:

Thursday, Sept. 19: Quarterly program and potluck of the Twin Cities Cohousing Network. “Do you need a ‘Groupon’ for Cohousing?,” presented by Barb Bailey of the Partnership for Affordable Cohousing. Doors open 5:30 p.m., potluck dinner at 6 p.m., program 6:45 p.m.-8:15 p.m. Location: St. Francis Cabrini Church, 1500 Franklin Ave. SE, Minneapolis. For more information, see the Meetup announcement.

Sunday, Sept. 22: Bassett Creek Cohousing Site Search “In Depth” Meeting, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 Mt. Curve Ave., Minneapolis. This is your chance to engage in more detailed discussion about our search for a site and the goal of our project to create the first energy-efficient urban cohousing community in the Twin Cities! Find more information here.

For more details about events: Check the Bassett Creek Cohousing website, Meetup site, or Eventbrite.  For more details about our Urban Site Search Plan, see here.

Or talk to me at a HumanistsMN event or send me an email at norweegian@gmail.com.  I would love to share my vision with you!

A Story of Persecution, Survival, and Annihilation with Lessons for Today

By Bob Aderhold

We were in Lübeck almost two years ago, walking down the street, when we came upon a little brass plaque, about four inches square, embedded in the sidewalk. My Aunt Ursula, who grew up there, explained it was a memorial to a Holocaust victim who lived at that address. I’d never seen these before. It had been a long time since I was last in Germany.

We saw more of them. I found them quite moving. I wondered if there were some for my great-grandfather and his second wife, Adolf and Jettchen Kahn.

 Jettchen and Adolf Kahn

Jettchen and Adolf Kahn

Through some online research I learned that these stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) are the project of a German artist and intended as a subtle reminder of the grim legacy of the Nazi period. The project has been going on for over 20 years and there are now over 70,000 stolpersteine throughout Europe.

And yes, I discovered stolpersteine for my great-grandfather and Jettchen. They are in Hamburg, where Papa Kahn raised a family and practiced his profession until prohibited from doing so under the Nuremberg laws implemented by the Nazi government.

The inscription read: “Here lived Adolf Kahn, JG. (year born) 1870, Deported 1941 Minsk, Murdered”

My grandmother, Hedwig Kahn Aderhold, was born in Hamburg in 1901. She was Jewish. Separated from her Christian husband and children in the late 1930s, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1941, arriving in New York harbor on the Mouzinho, a Portuguese ship, on Labor Day weekend.

“Granny” was one of the lucky ones who managed to obtain an exit visa during a brief window following a change in the Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy and Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Friends Service Committee, she was able to bring my dad to the U.S. after the war in 1946, the year of his 20th birthday.

Until I started looking into the stolpersteine, I knew very little about my Jewish ancestors. Granny would not tell me what this period was like for her or what became of her father. When I brought it up, she refused and I stopped asking.

 The stolpersteine for Adolf and Jettchen Kahn indicating they had been deported and murdered. The stolpersteine for Adolf and Jettchen Kahn indicating they had been deported and murdered.
She did tell me that her father was Adolf Kahn, born in 1870 in the town of Mayen (near Koblenz in the Rhine valley), he was a shoemaker, and her mother was Rosa Bacharach. My father only knew that granny’s mother had died, her father had remarried, and that her father and his second wife had both perished in the Holocaust.

In Hamburg, the stolpersteine project is supported by the city administration. Volunteer research initiatives have gathered biographical information from public records and other sources on Holocaust victims. And it is available on the Stolpersteine Hamburg website. To my amazement, I found that someone has compiled a lengthy entry for Adolf Kahn, providing a wealth of facts unknown to his living descendants.

The entry quotes my grandmother’s older sister Helene: “My father went to the workshop every morning and worked until late in the evening, interrupted only by meals. He had his regular customers, who came to him again and again, not only for repairs, but for custom designs. His master’s diploma hung in the living room next to a large group shot of his military service as a young man, both of which he was very proud.”

 Refugee children in Lisbon boarding the ship that would also carry my grandmother to New York.

Refugee children in Lisbon boarding the ship that would also carry my grandmother to New York.

My Aunt Helene and Uncle Emil immigrated to the U.S. in 1928. I have fond memories of visiting them in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan.

The entry also says that Adolf and Jettchen were transported from Hamburg to Minsk, in the German-occupied western part of the Soviet Union, in November 1941, where they were murdered by the Nazi government, a few months after granny’s arrival in New York.

I continue to dig into this family history. I’m developing a website to document what I’ve learned for the benefit of my extended family and anyone else. I need to know where that quote from my Aunt Helene came from, among other things. Fortunately, my father recorded his wartime story in a brief memoir while he still had the capacity to do so.

This story of persecution, survival, and annihilation in my family has always been lurking in the background for me. Perhaps that’s why my sympathies are with the folks seeking refuge and asylum at our southern border and elsewhere.

We should not forget that the asylum laws so much in the news today reflect our nation’s shameful, tragic failure to provide haven to more European refugees in the pre-war period and its postwar commitment to never repeat it.

Government Can Work – If It Follows the Evidence

By David Schultz

Professor David Schultz made the following remarks at the National Day of Reason in Minnesota breakfast at the State Capitol on May 2:

Hope is great when it comes to miracles. Belief is terrific when it comes to the Tooth Fairy. But neither hope nor belief should guide the making of public policy to solve our nation’s or Minnesota’s pressing problems, especially now.

David Schultz

The making of good laws and government programs should be driven by facts and good evidence regarding what does work, otherwise taxpayer dollars maybe wasted.  Unfortunately, often that is not the case.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that all of us “are entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.” Unfortunately, in this age of alternative news and false facts, this seems the case. But is should not be so. Good public policy should be based on reason, not hope and belief.

Elected officials often enact failed laws and are captivated by political myths. There is a pack mentality among legislators who often turn to trendy and often untested ideas and the  need for quick fixes to make it look like they are doing something as elections approach or to appease an impatient electorate.

Many elected officials are part time, with limited knowledge, expertise, and ability to gather critical information necessary to make good decisions. Additionally, the power of money in politics, partisanship, special interest pressures, and sometimes simply ideology or even blindness to the facts – often willful – all contribute to situations where so-called new ideas are really recycled old ones already proven to have failed.

In almost every aspect of our lives we are taught to act upon the best available evidence at hand. Successful businesses are guided by data. Sound medical diagnosis demands it. Victorious military commanders need intelligence. Public administrators are taught to use best practices when managing. The public wants government to be successful and do what works at the most efficient price possible. But there is a knowledge gap in American politics. Social science and scientific research, as well as experimentation and past successes and government failures, provide significant evidence regarding what works or not, yet public officials often ignore this information when making policy.

Neither of the two major political parties seems exempt from ignoring facts when making policy. Republicans currently seem particularly prone to make these mistakes. Governor Jon Huntsman perhaps captured it well at the September 2011 Reagan Library presidential debate: “Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.”

Republicans seem convinced, despite the best evidence, that tax cuts are the solution to almost any economic ill there is. Or that immigrants are an economic drain on the economy.  Or that voter fraud is rampant, corrupting the integrity of U.S. elections.

Yet Democrats are not innocent.  Despite the best evidence that tax incentives are hugely inefficient in terms of affecting business relocation decisions, they often support them. Or despite overwhelming data that public subsidies for professional sports stadiums or conventions are bad economic investments, Democrats embrace them as tools of job production and revitalization.

Democrats have also joined Republicans in believing that “three strikes and you are out” criminal penalty laws for repeat offenders deter crime, when again the best evidence contradicts this.

Faith, hope, or simply myth and ignorance often describe what the art of politics has become these days.  Evidence-based policy making is what the legislative process should be about. This is why legislators hold hearings – they are supposed to be gathering information to help make better policy.  Instead, the hearings are often charades, with policymakers having already made up their minds and the outcome of the proceedings already predetermined from the onset.

Clearly no one has all the answers. Decisions are often made with limited knowledge, and experimentation is a good idea and way to improve decision making. Yet all this is different from the current practice of simply ignoring what the evidence says. And the evidence does speak loudly. My book American Politics in the Age of Ignorance documents a dozen of the most frequent failed policies and political myths that are repeatedly repackaged and enacted.

They include:

* Tax incentives are a good way to affect business relocation decisions.

* High taxes serve as deterrent to work or business activity.

* Enterprise zones are an efficient means to encourage economic development.

* Public subsidies for sports stadia are a good economic development tool.

* The building of convention and other entertainment centers are successful tools for economic development.

* Welfare recipients migrate from state to state simply to seek higher benefits.

* Three-strikes laws and mandatory minimums are effective deterrents to crime.

* Sex education causes teenagers to engage in sexual activity.

* Legalization of drugs leads to increased drug usage.

* Immigration and immigrants take jobs away from Americans and serve as a drain on the economy.

* Voter photo identification is needed to address widespread election fraud in the United States.

* Legislative term limits will dismantle incumbent advantages, break ties to special interests, and discourage career politicians.

For the most part, all of these ideas are false based upon significant evidence. In many cases, enactment or support for these ideas has produced the exact opposite effect from what was intended.

Be warned: Look to see many of these ideas again recycled, proposed, and reenacted again this year in Minnesota and across the country. But the persistence of these failed policies and myths should not be read as a wholesale indictment of government or of democracy.

Government in America has accomplished a significant amount, ranging from putting a man on the Moon, winning two world wars and the Cold War, helping find a cure for polio, and so much more. The list is impressive and often overlooked. The Marshall Plan, the building of the interstate highway system, clean water, sewers, fluoridation, Head Start, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and countless other famous and mundane activities demonstrate the capacity of governments to be successful and make meaningful differences in the lives of Americans.

Yet despite these accomplishments, government can still improve. It can execute better if simply if does what seems to make sense — learn from the past and from the evidence to make future choices better informed.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University.

 

First-Person Humanism: Becoming Captain of My Own Rational Ship

By Ellie Haylund

“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.”

— Kurt Vonnegut

My “descent” into humanism began, like many of us, before I even had a name for it. At the ripe old age of 14, I had a stark realization: the concept of a god seemed silly. Magic was the word I used when I nervously confessed to my then (and still) best friend, Jenna. I grew up going to church, but it was a progressive, open-minded Congregational community that encouraged exploration.

During confirmation, we were required to visit a service of another faith. They truly wanted us to “see what else was out there” to make sure this was the right place for us. Still, I got confirmed. Despite that rad, hip process, I just wasn’t there yet. It didn’t seem like a matter of if, but which. As many people say about 18-year-olds going to college, I think the confirmation process happens too early, before our brains develop enough to really critically think and decide.

So it was not long after confirmation that a light turned on. “This really doesn’t seem logical,” I thought. “It sounds like magic.” I hesitantly, gingerly voiced this skepticism to Jenna. I can’t say what would have happened if she’d been upset, confused, or disappointed. Would I have been embarrassed? Backpedaled? Lied to her, and myself, that I did believe in the magic? I don’t know—but I thankfully didn’t have to experience that moment. Jenna agreed. She had agnostic feelings, too. That was all I needed. My family was not overly religious by any means, so I didn’t have a threat of disownment or shame. But it was still uncharted territory and I now knew I was not on that journey alone.

I tended toward the “agnostic” label, as it felt reckless and bold to choose “atheist,” a word that suggests we know something we really cannot. I’d always say, “I cannot know for sure, but if I had to guess, a higher power seems pretty ridiculous.” But it felt odd to define myself by what I was not, by what I did not believe in. Lack of belief is a baseline; we are conditioned to believe. To need a label for an inherent default felt like it was not a sufficient self-definition. What makes me who I am? Why am I a good person? Why, without magical faith, do I practice and value goodness?

My “aha” moment came from a few sources. One, Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite humanist. As I delved into his works in college, I developed a love of his thoughts on the world we live in and how we live in it. Around the same time, my wise friend and roommate Kyle was always sharing knowledge, both obscure and fascinating. I managed to gain important insight from him in the midst of throwing parties, playing hours of video games, and eating our weight in Pizza Rolls. Ah, college. But I digress—he alerted me to the University of Minnesota’s Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists organization. I didn’t get involved before graduating, but it did plant the seed that this little corner of the world called humanism had a place, a community, a shared practice.

It took me several more years of casually browsing Meetup events to take the plunge. I think I just needed a little push. After I met my now-husband Nick, he realized that he was a humanist too—he just didn’t know there was a name for it. Finding a partner who was also interested in being a part of this community was what I needed to get rolling.

I can say now that I am technically an atheist. I do not believe there is a god or any higher power. And the believers are partly right: “Isn’t it sad to not have faith in anything? Isn’t it depressing to see no purpose in life?” Yes, it can be overwhelming and dark to believe there is nothing after life. But my faith is in people. And my purpose is self-defined. It is freeing to be the captain of my own rational ship.

I would probably be “happier” if I believed in a god that protected me and promised me eternal life, but I don’t. I don’t have a choice, so I have to find light and meaning in what I do know and trust. Which is why I love humanism—it speaks to what I do believe, what I do value, and what I can make of the world while I’m in it. Yes, I am an atheist by definition. But I am a humanist in practice—as a friend, partner, daughter, sister, neighbor, and stranger.

Ellie Haylund is a Humanists of Minnesota board member and chair of the membership team.

 

Local Humanist Leaders Explore Ways to Make Humanism Thrive

By Richard Logan

How do we build a thriving secular humanist future? How do we compete with organized religions, especially fundamentalist ones, which offer their members compelling narratives, a sense of meaning, a welcoming community, and comfort in times of distress?

A panel of local humanist leaders explored those questions on Oct. 11 at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. They included Audrey Kingstrom, Humanists of Minnesota president; David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society; and Eva Cohen, Or Emet activist and rabbinic candidate. Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, moderated.

The panel set out some of the challenges facing humanist movements:

  • How do we make the stories about who we are into more compelling narratives? Religions have many stories about their respective origins. Christians learn the stories of poor and humble Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus for “all of us,” and the promise of an everlasting paradise if we accept Jesus. Islam offers the story of the rise and triumph of the Prophet Muhammad and the promise of an afterlife. Observant Jews have the powerful stories of Abraham and Isaac; Solomon and David; and Moses, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments. Are we putting the most charismatic elements we can into the stories of our organizations?
  • How do we offer meaning that competes with the “ultimate” meaning offered by religions? Organized religions offer meaning, or perhaps at least a sense of meaningfulness from belonging. Of course, this comes from taking — on faith — the “truth” that a religion offers. We offer truth, and truth-seeking, using the tools of evidence and reason. But that often loses out to religion’s offered meaning (“God has a purpose for you”), which is as “ultimate” as it gets in the face of the anxieties and uncertainties of life. In other words, how do we make knowledge compete with faith?
  • How do we make our communities as strong as possible? Organized religions provide community and belonging. Evangelicals, for example, often have megachurches that are full-service institutions with child care, recreation facilities, ESL classes, counseling, support groups, etc. They fill many of their parishioners’ needs, and their facilities are often major gathering places for members a few times a week. Religions also offer deep comfort in the face of anxieties like the fear of death, feelings of meaninglessness, uncertainty about identity, loneliness, sickness, loss, change. They do this partly through beautiful rituals that offer comfort, reassurance, and meaning. They often also have very beautiful sanctuaries. Do we take a lead from their success in making their community more concretely “real”?
  • How do we make truth-seeking using the tools of Science and Reason as gripping to people as the “Ultimate Truth” offered by religions? Humanist movements accept that we live in a modern world that is full of change and uncertainty. But we have the powerful tools of Science and Reason, which we use to engage in the Quest. Should we do more to present it as the “adventure of the Quest”? Are we a belief system for the brave?
  • What steps do we take together to build a broad humanist coalition of reason to have more influence on society, especially at a time when just what we stand for has never been more important? Panelists agreed that local humanist organizations should continue to collaborate on this question. Audrey Kingstrom, David Breeden, and representatives of humanistic Judaism and other groups will meet to plan action steps.

Richard Logan is president of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and a member of Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.

 

Why I Write — And Why You Should Too

By Mary McLeod

It does me good to write a letter which is not a response to a demand — a gratuitous letter, so to speak, which has accumulated in me like the waters of a reservoir.

— Henry Miller

My propensity to write letters to the editor is well known, but not well understood. When someone says to me, “I saw your last letter in the paper, and agreed with what you wrote,” I sometimes respond, “Well, I write a lot, because I consider the letters section our equivalent of the ‘public square.’ I’d love to see your letter published, too.”

They inevitably pale, mumble something incoherent, and sidle away. (Although one friend to whom I said this three weeks ago had a letter published recently.)

I realize that some people are shy about sharing their views, or about displaying their writing skills or lack thereof. But surely most of my friends don’t have issues with either, so why don’t they write? They read the letters, they remember what they’ve read, and they’re interested and engaged. What stops them?

It’s not hard to remember my trepidation the first time I submitted a letter, and wondered whether it would be published, then cringed when I saw it in print. How would my friends react? Did I express myself clearly enough? Make some good arguments? Or did I disgrace myself in public?

Minnesota Nice being what it is, those who disagreed or simply dismissed my ramblings would probably never say so to my face. And there was no way to account for this, since I wouldn’t know who had seen it in the first place.

Then I had an epiphany: At least I had tried. That was enough. Over the years, it became so much easier, and now I have a folder full of pages torn from newspapers—a few from the New York Times, one from the Pioneer Press, most from the Star Tribune—each containing a letter of mine.

I have learned that various newspapers handle letters differently. Some write back and ask that I provide a source for facts alleged, some simply print a balance of views expressed, and some don’t seem to care what you write. But once a newspaper underling called to question my math, and was right to ask—it was a typo on my part. The New York Times has asked me for verification or citations, so do have your facts in order for them.

I’m retired, so I can’t harm or embarrass an employer, and nearly all of my friends share my general points of view, so among my familiars, I’m preaching to the choir. But at least I express myself—including the letters that are never submitted.

Over the years, I have drafted some guidelines for writing a letter to the editor, which I presented to the Humanists of Minnesota Social Action Team soon after it was created. When the Strib later published its own guidelines, there was considerable overlap between mine and theirs, except I also stated that “Editors are people, too.” I advised that the shorter the letter, the more likely it was to be printed since it would help the editor fill space and increase clicks or “eyeballs.”

I also suggested including an unusual word or amusing anecdote— something to make it stand out, entertain, or teach the reader something new. One of my favorite letters is this one, published in July 2017:

On my way to an appointment this morning, I drove past a corner nearby where two little guys were making money for a song — literally. Their hand-lettered sign read, “Song 25 cents.” For such a small sum from me, they would brighten my day, and the entire amount was pure profit for them. That’s creativity, a touch of kindness and a lot of thriftiness rolled into a touching package. Who could resist such curb appeal?

I received more “atta-girls” from friends about that letter than most others, and I like to think it also told the editor something more about me as a human being and helped form our “relationship.” But mostly, I just bang away, writing to persuade others to my point of view, as eloquently and compellingly as possible.

I frequently encourage friends to write up their interesting story and send it in, but few such efforts have seemed to pay off. “Nevertheless, [I] persist….” I implore each of you to write, too. Not all of your letters will be printed, and in the beginning, very few. But if you persist, you will learn, and that percentage will change.

Today, I would guess that roughly half of mine are printed, which tells me newspapers don’t receive enough letters! But my publication rate has increased over time, and I have to admit I would have screened out most of the same letters if I were in the editor’s shoes. They were too shrill, or not interesting enough, or someone else had said it better, or any one of a dozen other weaknesses. In some cases, I was just venting, and shame on me.

A better reason for writing letters is this: By writing, you learn what you think. You listen to yourself and learn from yourself. You clarify your own thoughts. You might even do a bit of research to back up your arguments, and you learn from that. But you learn, and that’s the point. It’s a valid point followed by many treatment professionals in rehabilitation. By reciting your story, you are forced to listen to yourself, and learn from yourself. You are the best expert on you, what you truly believe, and what motivates or moves you.

Whether or not you plan to submit your letter, try to follow the common word limits for letters to the editor (generally a maximum of 250 words) for they force you to develop your thoughts with an economy of words, and you may find you can omit some minor points. (Remember the lawyers’ old adage, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter brief.”) Make it punchy, strong, compelling. If necessary, draw up an outline, which will also help you organize and prioritize your points. Conclude with a strong statement.

Sometimes, you may write down your thoughts solely to vent, knowing you’ll never submit the letter. Perhaps you’ll do this over and over on the same topic, as a way of healing or getting past an issue. That’s OK, too, and along the way, you’re becoming a sharper, better writer, honing your skill. Several times, I have written out my thoughts, knowing or doubting I would ever submit them, but needing to clarify things in my own mind, or at times, unburden myself.

Do write, and do persist. I’ll make this offer to readers of this piece: Send me your proposed letter, and I will try to read it from an editor’s point of view and lend any help I can to increase your chances of getting it published.

Welcome to the writers’ club. Anybody can join.

Mary’s latest published letter discusses the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. Read it here.

Mary McLeod, a Humanists of Minnesota member, can be reached at marymcld@msn.com.

First-Person Humanism: Engaging the Younger Generation

By Michael Rauser

What do you believe in? It’s a question that everyone gets at some point in their life. For a lot of people, the answer depends on when and where you ask them. I know that answer has changed for me a lot.

I grew up in a very religious family and realized at a young age that I was not very religious, or in fact religious at all. However, religion fascinated me. I questioned my family’s religion early and often. In fact, I’ve always questioned things commonly accepted by most.

I’ve often been informed that we do things a certain way because that’s the way things are done. But I’ve always been fascinated by why things are done that way. For me the most important question isn’t “What do you believe in?”; it’s “Why do you believe what you believe?”

Growing up in a religious family and religious community, belief wasn’t a choice. It was an assumption. You could either accept the beliefs of your family, friends and community; or you could choose to be wrong and risk being sent to a realm of eternal torture by a “loving” god.

I was homeschooled from the 1st to 12th grades. I spent most of my childhood in a rural area and didn’t have many social opportunities outside of the church. For many years, I never knew that not believing in a god was even an option.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to believe, even though it didn’t make sense to me. I tried to work through it using logic and critical reasoning, tools that served me well in most other areas of my life. As I reached my teenage years, I started listening to comedy routines by George Carlin. I was originally drawn to him for his unapologetically vulgar tone, which I strongly related to, yet never felt I had enough freedom to express.

While I still appreciate to this day his proud vulgarity and those who have been inspired by it, his thoughts on organized religion were what truly changed my perspective. He wasn’t just questioning religion, he was deconstructing it on a surprisingly intelligent level.

I felt like I was finally able to admit to myself what I had always suspected. I started calling myself an atheist since I was not convinced by claims of the existence of a god or gods. As strongly as I identified with the label atheist (and still do), I felt there was something missing.

It wasn’t a god-shaped hole, it was a human-shaped hole. Atheism truly does have a lot of value, yet there is one thing organized religion does much better: creating and sustaining a closely connected social community.

Atheism can be a lot of things, but in its most simplistic form, it’s nothing more than a lack of belief. It’s difficult to form the kind of social bonds that religion offers over a lack of something.

While I was an undergraduate at the University of North Dakota, I joined and eventually led a group called the Freethinkers, which was exactly the kind of social community I was looking for. While running the group I started to realize how much my values aligned with humanism. With my passion for critical analysis, defending the rights of others, and creating secular social opportunities, there was quite a lot to relate to.

Going back to the question of what you believe in, and more importantly why, humanism answers both questions. Technically, anyone can be an atheist if they lack a belief in a god. However, to be a humanist you must have a passion for critical thinking, the scientific method, and logical reasoning. These are the most positive ways to be an atheist.

At age 25, my passion for creating a secular social community has been renewed. After leaving college in 2016, I tried to seek out more people like myself but found it difficult—partly because of my own problems, but partly due to the lack of the type of social opportunities I was looking for. There are secular social options, but they can either be limited in scope or filled with members several decades older than me.

As great as it is to see passion for a secular lifestyle from the generation that is usually better known for fighting against such beliefs, the generational gap can hinder forming a close social bond. It was this lack of younger engagement that initially pushed me away from the local secular groups.

But then I realized that this type of thinking was exactly why there are few young secular people active in the community. That’s why I chose to be more active in the secular community, including Humanists of Minnesota, and why I hope I can inspire others from my generation to do the same.

If you are interested in helping me in this quest, please contact me at michaelrauser93@gmail.com.

Getting in Touch with My Inner Conservative

By Harlan Garbell

Most of my life (yes, even including childhood) I have considered myself a “liberal.” This is no accident. My parents were dyed-in-the-wool FDR liberals, and union members, who always identified with the underdog. I recall despising Joe McCarthy as a kid while watching him on television demeaning his opponents. I would have voted for Adlai Stevenson (twice) but for a silly voting-age requirement that prevented seven-year-olds from casting ballots. Needless to say, I had a life-long, visceral hatred of Richard Nixon.

My self-described liberalism and my loyalty to my political “tribe” has remained firm throughout my life. For the most part, I have fallen in line on the issues espoused by the Democratic Party and voted for their candidates, even if I had to hold my nose doing it. However, on several occasions along the way, this tribal loyalty was uncomfortably shaken. For example, when organized labor supported LBJ on the prosecution of the Vietnam War. Witnessing the pervasive corruption of the Democratic political machine in Chicago, where I grew up, also tested my political worldview.

Political tribalism is more potent now than it has been in generations. In the age of Trump, people are choosing sides that cut across issues like the economy and identifying with political candidates who represent certain cultural values. For example, conservatives will disparage coastal, cultural “elites” for even the food they eat or the cars they drive. Liberals, in turn, will oftentimes disparage conservatives for the music they listen to or their devotion to NASCAR racing.

But aside from such superficial cultural examples, there have always been important core differences between conservatives and liberals throughout American history. For example, the size of government, the interpretation of Constitutional rights, and crucially, where and how governmental resources are directed. However, in political affairs, as in science, views should evolve and change if supported by the evidence. For example, how many liberals do you know have spoken out over the years regarding federal spending and deficits?

For some reason, the argument against large federal deficits is usually reserved for Republicans and so-called conservatives. Why is that? The short answer is that deficit spending during times of economic hardship was famously put forth by New Deal Democrats as a remedy for the stagnant economy of the Depression years. Republicans portrayed themselves as fiscally (and morally) opposed to such budgetary shenanigans. As a result, they hoped to grab the moral “high ground” against the Democrats in this nation’s never-ending political budget battles.

This ostensible financial prudence of the Republican Party has stuck as part of its political DNA through the years even though every Republican administration since Reagan has relied on significant deficit spending to finance their desired policy goals—for example. tax cuts for the wealthy and defense spending.

But liberals should embrace fiscal responsibility for practical as well as moral reasons. Financing the national debt alone will soon amount to an astounding $1 trillion annually. This could eventually require that federal programs that support working and middle-class people be significantly cut, or even eliminated. If history is any guide, legislators will first seek to extract “savings” from food stamps, school lunches, and community health programs. They will also push entitlement “reform,” usually meaning cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Liberals who support programs that actually help people in their daily lives should understand the benefits of fiscal discipline. Reducing or eliminating government waste, including federal programs that liberals support, should be considered a priority. Such waste needs to be characterized for what it actually is—the diversion of resources away from people who need them to politically connected government contractors and fraudsters.

Does that make me a “conservative”? Perhaps, but being realistic about how tax revenues are spent is going to be of vital importance in a less-forgiving financial environment going forward. This fiscal conservatism should not, of course, preclude raising taxes on the super-wealthy who have made out like bandits under  Republican tax cuts.

Higher Education

Another liberal shibboleth is support for programs that  encourage young people to go to college. College is great for those who have the aptitude for it, or where students choose programs that realistically increase career opportunities. However, in a more stringent budgetary environment, liberals should focus more on providing resources for job and skills training that do not necessarily require a college degree.

They should support programs that emulate the German model where young people receive political, economic, and cultural support to attend trade schools  to obtain the practical skills necessary for a modern industrial economy.

And consider the alarming level of  student-loan debt. This is now the second-highest consumer debt category, behind only mortgage debt, and higher than both credit-card and auto-loan debt. This is the toxic consequence of encouraging young people to go to college, notwithstanding their aptitude or chances of success—and a good example of how a formerly positive, liberal social policy has evolved into bad social policy because of corporatism and greed.

The average student in the Class of 2016 had $37,172 in student debt—a significant portion owed to politically connected for-profit colleges with poor job placement records and scammy reputations.

It is not college, necessarily, that secures someone’s future. Having marketable skills that pay a living wage is the key. This country doesn’t need more baristas with graduate degrees. It needs more workers with the needed practical, technical skills for the jobs that the Labor Department says are going unfilled.

The Role of the Military

Liberals should also focus on the role of the military in our society. There was a time when conservative elements were skeptical of the use of military force to resolve international issues. Remember, it was George Washington who warned against “permanent alliances” in his Farewell Address and Thomas Jefferson who was opposed to “entangling alliances.”

Fast forward to 2018 and the “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex” literally girdles the globe at a huge financial cost to the American taxpayer. The U.S. has approximately 800 bases in over 70 countries around the world. And liberals have supported this growth almost to the same degree as conservatives. Recall that not only did Obama extend the war in Afghanistan, but unwisely intervened in the conflict in Libya.

During the past month Congress passed the largest defense-spending bill in our history. If you add the budgets for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, this country spends well over $1 trillion on security-related matters. And yet many of our bridges, roads, and airports get older and more decrepit as the years pass.

The toll the militarization of our society has taken on this country’s resources and values has been enormous. The philosophically “conservative” position on the use of the military is in line with the pre-Wilsonian consensus that foreign adventures should be limited. Perhaps it’s now time for liberals to go “back to the future.”

If you are a liberal, our political “tribe” needs to have serious discussions about its core values. Our guiding principle should be that the people need to receive a larger share of government resources at the expense of a bloated military, tax-privileged oil companies, hedge-fund managers, and other assorted politically protected entities.

After all, wasn’t it a Republican long ago who talked about a “government of the people, by the people, (and) for the people”?

Harlan Garbell is vice president of Humanists of Minnesota.