Notes from the AHA Conference: Cultivating a Nationwide Community

By Ellie Haylund

Earlier this month, I and several other HumanistsMN members descended on Denver for the American Humanist Association’s annual conference. This year’s theme was “Crossroads and Collective Futures.” I’d never attended the conference before and was eager to connect with other humanists from across the country.

The program sessions were wide-ranging. Topics included “The Human in Humanism: Finding a Home for Social Justice & Other Values that Help Instead of Harm,” “Dehumanization of the Black Male Form,” “What Do You Mean Science is Racist?,” and “Multifaith Engagement.” 

Dr. David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society, receiving an AHA award

I spoke on a panel about growing and sustaining a humanist presence in one’s community. There are so many ways to be a humanist and building a like-minded community strengthens our ability to have a positive impact in alignment with our values. It was valuable to hear about what other secular organizations are doing – from public policy to volunteering, social engagements to student scholarships. On behalf of HMN, I reported on last year’s successful member drive, our wildly popular billboard campaign, and our work with Minnesota legislators to create the Secular Government Caucus.

Minnesotans had a strong presence at the conference. In addition to HMN representatives, members of First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and Rochester Area Freethinkers were present. Our friend Dr. David Breeden, senior minister at FUS, even received the 2023 Distinguished Service Award. As a chapter centralized in the Twin Cities, we have the benefit of a largely progressive environment. Not all humanists do. Speaking with attendees from states like Florida demonstrated how important it is to connect with those seeing the erosion of rights and threats to the First Amendment in their home states.

The more we can cultivate a nationwide community, the more we can promote and practice what is most important to us: ethical living, widespread human flourishing, and a healthy planet, with an emphasis on science, reason, and compassion.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. Humanism is gaining visibility and resonating with more people every day. I’d love to see even more HMN members attend next year so we can learn together, foster relationships, and “think big” about what we can achieve.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

The Ethical Implosion of the Supreme Court

By Harlan Garbell

“Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”

— Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

“In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.”

— Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1953-1969)

As many of you know, Earl Warren was instrumental in leading the Supreme Court to a new era where a broader interpretation of the Constitution served to increase the rights of many people in this country previously discriminated against or otherwise left behind. For example: decisions ending segregation, eliminating official school prayer in public schools, establishing a constitutional right to privacy, and mandating that a person arrested for a crime has a right to remain silent. 

These decisions benefited many people who had been historically ignored or mistreated in this country, including women, minorities, the unjustly accused, and the poor.

Growing up during the 50’s and early 60’s in a liberal household, and preternaturally curious about politics and governmental affairs, I came to see the Supreme Court of that era as the champion of ordinary people. That, for example, no matter how venal and corrupt Dixiecrats and powerful corporations could be, the Supreme Court would always make things right in the end. That the arc of justice always moved in a forward, progressive direction with the presumption that there was an ethical core motivating the justices — unlike among the hypocritical (and often corrupt) maneuvering politicians in the other branches of government.

Unfortunately, history has proven me wrong — as history often does. Unless you have been living on an ashram in the Himalayas, you know that the Supreme Court, with some exceptions, has dramatically reversed course since Warren’s time. Over the past several decades it has moved haltingly, but decisively, in the opposite direction of my quaint ideas about the arc of justice. What happened?amon

What I grossly underestimated was the perverse and substantial financial and political power of two of the most highly organized conservative forces in America: (1) evangelical Protestant and Catholic Churches, and their affiliated lobbying organizations, e.g. the Moral Majority, and (2) large corporations, especially in extractive industries such as oil and mining, and their lobbying arms, e.g. the American Petroleum Institute. 

These powerful political lobbies, as well as several foundations and trusts, were instrumental in funding and organizing movements and groups (like the Federalist Society) that doggedly sought to reverse the progressive trend in constitutional law that served to protect many previously powerless people and the environment. In many cases, according to polling data, these lobbies did not represent the will of the large majority of the population. This legal “counterrevolution” left in tatters my earlier idyllic vision of a courageous Supreme Court leading a virtuous, ethical crusade against injustice and for the ordinary person. The “arc of history” had shifted into reverse. 

Although the Court has issued dozens of disturbing rulings over the past several years, I will focus on what could be the three most egregious ones since Earl Warren retired in 1969. Disturbingly, these decisions were handed down in just the past two years. Plainly, the Supreme Court’s counterrevolutionary agenda has now gone into hyperdrive since former President Trump was able to nominate three arch-conservatives to the Court during his one term in office. 

The first decision was Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). In overturning Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court abandoned nearly a half century of precedent that a woman, within prescribed limits, had a constitutional right to an abortion. This was the first time in Court history that a fundamental constitutional right, previously established, had been taken back. 

The second was West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (2022), where the Court held that Congress did not grant the EPA the authority to devise emission caps in accordance with its Clean Power Plan. This case sets a precedent that will likely limit future rulings from the EPA in its efforts to protect the environment without express Congressional authorization. Moreover, this precedent may also serve to limit other federal rule-making agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, in their efforts to protect people from harm.

The third was the Court’s recent decision in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (2023) that held that a web designer (Lorie Smith) could not be compelled by Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act to create a wedding website for a same-sex couple. In his majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch elaborated that the law could not serve to violate the designer’s beliefs (i.e. her Christian beliefs) and her First Amendment right to free speech in the design of these websites. This decision will become, in my view, a “slippery slope” that could enable businesses to discriminate against gay people, nonbelievers, and others on religious grounds or their presumed right of free speech, notwithstanding the Civil Rights Act (1964) and decades-old state public accommodation laws. More than any other decision of the past half century, this ruling could serve to unravel the legacy of the Warren Court. 

For humanists, each of these decisions may set back the hopes, perhaps irreversibly, that most of us share regarding: (1) equality of the sexes, (2) a person’s right to make decisions regarding their own health, (3) protection of the environment, (4) protection of the rights of all people under the law, and (5) critically for the humanist movement itself, the separation of religion and government. 

My own, perhaps idiosyncratic, view is that these reversals in constitutional rights and protections can be traced back to a collapse in societal ethics due to the corrupting influence of money in politics.

The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) lifted financial restrictions on corporations and other special interest groups and opened the floodgates of “dark money” into the electoral process. Shadowy organizations, many funded by undisclosed right-wing billionaires, have proliferated and have had an outsized influence on elections ever since. This unsavory combination of unlimited money and secrecy has served to further corrupt politics, just as the liberal justices who dissented in that case predicted.

Personal corruption has also apparently spread to the Supreme Court. According to recent revelations, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the two most vigorous defenders of “freedom of religion” in recent decisions, have been recipients of lavish vacations secretly financed by billionaire conservatives. Thomas and Alito have shrugged these reports off, as have their political supporters on the right. Other reports highlight lucrative book deals entered into by justices that may not have been fully disclosed in a timely manner in their required annual financial disclosure forms. Sadly, another report suggested that a liberal Justice (Sotomayor) may have used her government-paid staffers to prod colleges and libraries to buy her books. 

Unsettlingly, many of us have learned through these revelations that the Supreme Court does not have a written code of ethics, unlike other state and federal courts. So what we have witnessed since the Warren era is not only the Court’s ethical failure to protect the most vulnerable people in our society and the environment, but also the personal failure of individual members to live up to the standards expected of them as the ultimate arbiters of law and justice in a democratic society. 

“We the people” deserve better than this. 

Volunteer Spotlight: Secular Saturdays

By Sally Johnson

“HumanistsMN is a secular community that promotes ethical living, widespread human flourishing, and a healthy planet through its commitment to science, reason, compassion, and creativity.”    

To support that mission statement, HMN brings us together as a community and offers events centered on intellectual thought, public service, education, advocacy, and socializing. These are made possible thanks to the many hours contributed by volunteers. 

In the September newsletter, we introduce a new feature, “Volunteer Spotlight,” to profile these activities and the members who organize them. 

First up: Secular Saturdays! 

Held monthly at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, Secular Saturdays offer a variety of programs followed by a combined social hour with refreshments. This format allows our members to connect across a wide range of topics. 

Recurring sessions include a Science Fiction Book Club hosted by Scott Lohman, hands-on service projects led by our Humanists in Action team, and TED Talk Salon discussions hosted by Audrey Kingstrom and others.   

Another occasional program, D-Cubed (for Discussion, Debate and Dinner), hosted by Jerry Smith, features discussions of nonfiction works and current issues. This group often meets for dinner after our refreshment hour. 

One-time programs have touched on topics ranging from mental health to food to history, drawing from an array of talent from both members and occasional outside speakers. 

“Secular Saturdays was a wonderful innovation – a fabulous opportunity for both attendees and hosts!” says Christine Retkwa, co-chair of the Humanists in Action team. “There are so many talented and knowledgeable humanists who have something to share that others are interested in – like nutrition or science or the environment.”  She is glad that the program gives attendees a chance to help the community through projects like making fleece blankets for children and menstruation kits for unsheltered youth. 

Audrey Kingstrom, HMN program coordinator, is a frequent organizer and host. She says the Secular Saturdays format makes it easy for our members to bring topics to an audience since the venue is already reserved.  “That shared social time after the presentations,” she adds, “lets us connect with a broader cross-section of our community than those who just attended the same session.” 

Scott Lohman, whose book club has been a longstanding fixture of Secular Saturdays, says he enjoys offering his sessions: “The Science Fiction Book Club allows for broad discussions ranging from the concepts of the books to how they connect with humanism.”  

Secular Saturdays take place at 3 p.m. on the first Saturday of most months. You can find upcoming programs on our Meetup site or at  The next one is coming up on Sept. 2. We hope you’ll join us! 

HMN Team Brings Ukrainian Refugee Family to Minnesota

By Christine Retkwa

The Ukrainian Refugee Assistance Project, organized by HumanistsMN members, is sponsoring a Ukrainian family that arrived in Minnesota in August. Here is an update through August 23.

Thank you to all HumanistsMN members and allies for your interest and engagement so far in helping our new Ukrainian friends! 

August 13 to 17 were very challenging days for Anton, Olga, and young Zlata!  They traveled to the country of Moldova, followed by an eight-hour bus ride to Bucharest, Romania, on August 14, before their early morning first-of-four-flights on August 15.

Imagine if you were in a Japanese airport where neither humans nor signs communicated in English. And you were not an experienced flyer. That is how it was for this family.  Ultimately, we learned that the best way to help them navigate the airports and make their connections was through the wonder of technology: committee members Esther Alder and Ashley Allen were able to virtually escort them through the airport using Facebook Messenger, even during the wee hours of our night. The family had two unanticipated overnight stays due to missed flights — and finally, arrival at MSP airport the afternoon of August 17!

They now have begun settling in at the home of LeeAnn Bera and Eoghan Henderson, where they expect to stay for up to three months. The first fun event was a picnic a couple days after arrival in a nearby park (Olga and Zlata pictured above; Anton not shown). 

And they have now had their first (very lengthy) appointment with the resettlement organization International Institute of Minnesota and have submitted applications for Social Security, Medicaid, and other programs. They have also signed up for English language courses and are working on enrolling Zlata in preschool.

Our committee and the family deeply appreciate the financial support of so many HumanistsMN members and friends. Every contribution is important and will go a long way toward helping this family have a great start at being independent.  We also appreciate the member who donated many flight miles to cover nearly all of two of the three plane tickets (the full cost was about $1,400 per seat). Through your generosity, we are happy to report having reached our original fundraising goal of $15,000!  Of that amount, about $3,000 has been spent for the long journey plus immediate necessities like a car seat, groceries, and three months of cell phone minutes.

The family’s near future will include getting more oriented, studying English, and working toward learning Minnesota driving rules (and getting a Minnesota driver’s license), then finding a job for Anton. We are planning to do occasional outings with them — and will aim for an HMN meetup later in September (likely an outdoor activity).

Fundraising has gone well, enabling us to meet many of the family’s future needs (such as the large deposit for rent as they leave their host’s home). Donations are still welcome at HumanistsMN website, or our GoFundMe page. To enable Anton to work as a commercial painter, which will not likely involve a fixed location, a reliable low-cost car will be critical. Also, the family will need moderately priced home furnishings in about two months when they prepare to move into their own home. 

If you are in a position to donate a well-cared-for used car (or offer one at a fair selling price), or if you have furnishings or housewares to contribute, please contact LeeAnn Bera (project leader) or Christine Retkwa (project treasurer) at

Know that all of your contributions and efforts are helping this family settle into a good life in beautiful Minnesota. Thank you!

HumanistsMN Ukrainian Refugee Sponsorship Team

A Tribute to George Erickson

By Paul Heffron

After a period of declining health, humanist leader George Erickson died on July 25 at age 90 near Eveleth, Minn. 

George had a long association with HumanistsMN. While living in New Brighton, he served from 1989 to 1995 in leadership roles including president, newsletter editor, program director, and host for our cable TV program. He did much to help expand our organization, then known as the Humanist Association of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  

He also served as vice president of the American Humanist Association. 

George wore many other hats. He had a career as a dentist, wrote a number of science books, and led a variety of civic organizations, including the Worthington Toastmasters, Worthington Airport Commission, and Nobles County Art Center. He also served on the New Brighton Environmental Quality Board and as vice president of the Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association.

He was also a philanthropist. In recent years, George became addicted to tennis and helped raise money for a four-court indoor tennis and pickleball facility in Virginia, Minn. He pledged $170,000 and chaired a committee that raised $720,000. The facility was recently named for him. George estimated that he and his wife, Sally, donated more than $1 million to local, national, and international charities and progressive causes.

George’s books include True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane and its sequel Back to the Barrens, which drew on his many solo flights over the Alaska Arctic and Northern Canada. Other books include Time Traveling with Science and the Saints and Eyes Wide Open, an essay collection.

George considered his book on nuclear energy his most important. Unintended Consequences:The Lie that Killed Millions and Accelerated Climate Change argues that nuclear energy, rather than solar and wind power, is required to meet the challenge of climate change. For several years, he gave talks on this topic at practically every college and university in Minnesota and adjacent areas. He finished his sixth book, Born to Fly, and secured its publication before he died. It contained more on his flight ventures and other essays.

Visit to learn more about George and get free copies of some of his books. Read an obituary here.

Humanist Picnic 2023 — Our Biggest One Yet!

Almost 100 people attended our annual potluck picnic in July — a record turnout!

Gathering at the Jaycees Shelter in Roseville, we dined on stellar food brought by guests, had inventive crafts enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and played games both physical (ladderball and bags) and mental (challenging trivia designed by Amy Butani).

Christine Retkwa and Esther Alder (formerly of Ukraine) made a pitch for the Ukrainian Refugee Project.

Thanks to the team that planned the picnic under the leadership of Audrey Kinsgtrom: in addition to Amy, Carole Allesse, Cindy Erickson, Elllie Haylund, Stephanie Schwinn, Mitch Thompson, and Zach Wood. And thanks to Craig Stilen for taking photos.

May 2023: Annual Meeting Elects New Board Members, Honors Volunteers

HumanistsMN members elected a secretary, treasurer, and four at-large members to its Board at the May annual meeting. See their profiles here. 

We also said thank you (with flowers) to Dave Guell, who stepped off the board after serving the mandatory limit of eight years (pictured at left). Dave was the Board’s secretary and technology guru. He heads the MediaTech team, helps to maintain our online membership system, and works on social media strategy. Rumor has it he will continue to perform those roles as a “mere” HMN member. Thanks for your service, Dave!

Program Coordinator Audrey Kingstrom also recognized the contributions of board members, committee members, participants in our service projects and advocacy events. HMN leaders gave updates on secular advocacy, Humanists in Action, membership, finances, and strategic planning.

April 2023: Getting to 100 Percent Clean Electricity

J. Drake Hamilton of the nonprofit Fresh Energy spoke about plans to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity in Minnesota by 2040. She spoke optimistically about efforts to expand the electric vehicles market, help building owners get expanded electric panels and electric heat pumps, and promote green hydrogen in agriculture.

See a video presentation of her presentation below, starting at 18:20.

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National Day of Reason 2023 at the State Capitol (With Photos)

By Suzanne Perry

The State Capitol was abuzz on May 3 as more than 70 advocates for secular government gathered to commemorate the National Day of Reason. HumanistsMN joined hands with First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and Or Emet – the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism to sponsor a breakfast with legislators to affirm that policy should be based on reason, science, and evidence, not religious preference.

The event, the third of its kind, drew people from across the state, including eight legislators, most of them members of the Secular Government Caucus that was set up after last year’s Day of Reason gathering. We are lucky to have strong legislative allies.

Andrew Seidel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an acclaimed author and constitutional lawyer, described Christian nationalism’s threat to our democracy, noting that claims that we were founded as a Christian nation — and should stay that way — violate the First Amendment and are profoundly un-American.

Thanks to the legislators who spoke: Sens. John Marty and Steve Cwodzinski and Reps. Esther Agbaje, Robert Bierman, Sandra Feist, Mike Freiberg, Rick Hansen, and Athena Hollins.

We know our cause has wide support. Twenty secular and advocacy groups in Minnesota and beyond endorsed the Day of Reason event.

Special thanks to the groups who tabled and/or spoke: ACLU of Minnesota, Camp Quest North, Central Minnesota Freethinkers, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Compassion & Choices Minnesota, Gender Justice, Jews for a Secular Democracy, Minnesota Atheists, OutFront Minnesota, SMART Recovery, UnRestrict Minnesota, and World Without Genocide.

The following additional groups endorsed the event: American Humanist Association, Jewish Community Action, Lake Superior Freethinkers, Rochester Area Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, UnRestrict Minnesota, and UU Humanist Association.

The Day of Reason team will work over the coming year to build on this momentum!

Photos by Craig Stilen.

Supporters of Secular Lawmaking to Gather at the Capitol on May 3


April 2023

Contact: Suzanne Perry, HumanistsMN
301.335.0466 /

Participants will observe the National Day of Reason, urging policymakers to keep religion and government separate. 

Three Minnesota humanist groups have planned a breakfast and reception at the State Capitol on May 3 to observe the National Day of Reason, which honors the principles of secular lawmaking and separation of religion and government that have guided our country since its founding.

Secular leaders, advocacy groups, and legislators will gather to urge lawmakers to base policy on reason, science, and evidence for the common good, not religious preference. Organizers are especially concerned about the rise of Christian nationalism and the impact of religious dogma on our legal system, with devastating consequences in areas including abortion and transgender rights.

“We call on our elected representatives to ensure that government does not favor one religion over another or the religious over the nonreligious, as mandated by the Constitution,” says Ellie Haylund, president of HumanistsMN. 

The event will feature remarks by legislators, including members of the new Secular Government Caucus. Guest speaker will be Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who will discuss “Christian Nationalism’s Threat to Democracy.” Seidel is author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American and American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom.

More than 15 secular and advocacy groups have endorsed the gathering, some of whose representatives will be tabling and/or speaking.

The National Day of Reason is an initiative of the American Humanist Association and other secular advocates. Sponsors of the Capitol event are HumanistsMN, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and Or Emet – the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.  The three local humanist groups first joined hands to sponsor a Day of Reason event at the Capitol in 2019 as part of a broader effort to build community among the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion.

The religious “nones” — nontheists and those who have no religious affiliation — are a growing part of the population, rising to 31 percent in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center

Unfortunately, we continue to witness the intrusion of religious ideology, and the denial of scientific and historical knowledge, in critical areas including abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, climate change, public health, school curriculums, access to books, and medical aid in dying.  

***Note: Andrew Seidel will also appear at a book-signing event for American Crusade at 6 p.m. on May 2 at Sweeney’s Saloon in St. Paul. He is available for media interviews.***

ABOUT THE EVENT: To take place from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 3, in the L’Etoile du Nord Vault B15 (basement) at the Capitol. Continental breakfast will be served. Remarks by participating organizations and legislators  will take place between 9 and 10:30 a.m. (Andrew Seidel will speak at 10 a.m.)

ABOUT THE CO-SPONSORS: HumanistsMN; First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis; and Or Emet, the Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, all believe in the tenets of humanism: that humans are moral agents responsible for shaping a desirable future for all humanity and the planet, without theism or other supernaturalism, and that the democratic process is best served by an educated citizenry relying on reason and evidence to determine sound policies for the common good.   

THE ENDORSERS: ACLU of Minnesota, American Humanist Association, Camp Quest North, Central Minnesota Freethinkers, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, Compassion & Choices Minnesota, Gender Justice, Jewish Community Action, Jews for a Secular Democracy, Minnesota Atheists, Lake Superior Freethinkers, OutFront Minnesota, Rochester Area FreeThinkers, Maverick Alliance of Secular Students (Minnesota State University, Mankato), MN Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance, SMART Recovery, UnRestrict Minnesota, UU Humanist Association, World Without Genocide. (Additional groups will be announced as they endorse.)

March 2023: The History of Freethought and Humanism

Speaking at our March Community Gathering, David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society, traced the written history of freethought back to the 700s BCE, when the Hindu Charvakas insisted upon a materialist examination of reality through philosophical skepticism and empiricism. He also discussed the development of humanism and the different interpretations over the years about what that is, including whether it is a religion.

See a video of his presentation below, starting at 14:49.

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New Member Spotlight: Jennifer Morrow

Joined HumanistsMN: July 2022

Profession/Residence: I have been a native plant landscaper for about 15 years. I closed my one-woman operation this past fall and am beginning the process of discovering what my next career will be. I read The Future We Choose and Uninhabitable Earth last winter and was filled with a need to pivot to work in reducing energy consumption. Step one was winterizing at home, so in the meantime I am kept plenty busy caretaking the three duplexes my husband and I own. (I’m the handywoman in our family!) We live in one of them in the Cathedral-Hill/Summit University neighborhood. Ultimately I’m hoping to work in alternative energy production or energy reduction.

How she found us: I joined HumanistsMN after discovering the group online. I had read Living the Secular Life a few years back and identified a lack of community in my own life. Being childless and secular and working in small businesses cuts out a lot of the natural community-building avenues. After attending Jerry Smith’s “Why Humanism?” presentation, I decided I had found what I was looking for and immediately went home and joined. That weekend I joined the Humanists in Action group at the Our Future: March for Abortion Access rally and recently joined the Humanists in Action committee. Activism and social experiences are the two things I was looking for and have found here.

Her journey to humanism: I was raised Catholic and by high school we had moved to the Twin Cities and joined a seemingly liberal church on the University of Minnesota campus. I was part of a young adult group and really enjoyed that community. I even became a liturgist. My freshman year in college I decided to run for the church council. I was told I would have to wait until I was older. It struck me as odd that a campus community church would not include a representative of that very community. It was enough to push me away and I never went back. I received a B.S. in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on water resources in 1999. In the time I was at the U, I had the chance to stand back and examine what I had learned being part of the Catholic church and being part of the scientific community, and I chose the natural world. Twenty years ago or so, an acquaintance and I discussed my lack of belief in a deity and my love of the natural world and he suggested I look into humanism. I wish I had taken his advice sooner but I’m glad I’m finally here.

HumanistsMN Billboards Urge Policymakers to Keep Religion out of Government


March 29, 2023
Contact: Ellie Haylund
President, HumanistsMN
612.834.0093 /

Messages highlight danger to democracy, threat of Christian nationalism

HumanistsMN (HMN), a secular community that advocates for separation of government and religion, has paid for two billboards near the State Capitol urging lawmakers to support that fundamental constitutional principle. HMN has become increasingly concerned about the rise of Christian nationalism and the impact of religious dogma on our legal system.

“We want to stress that our democracy rests on maintaining a secular government that does not favor one religion over another, or the religious over the nonreligious, as mandated by the First Amendment,” says HMN President Ellie Haylund.

The billboards, which will be up through the middle of May, both feature a photo of the Capitol, with the messages: “Protect Our Democracy. Keep Religion Out of Government” (at Robert and 10th Sts. ) and “Reject Christian Nationalism. Keep Religion Out of Government” (at Como Ave. and Marion St.).

With this effort, HMN aims to support the work of the Legislative Secular Government Caucus that was set up in October with HMN’s encouragement. “We are troubled by the efforts from some politicians to push a Christian Nationalist agenda, where right-wing Christian politicians are attempting to break down the wall of separation between church and state in order to push their beliefs on others,” the caucus said in a news release.

Christian nationalists believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and the government should take steps to keep it that way. By implication, anyone who is not Christian is anti-American and unpatriotic. One of the most alarming manifestations of this philosophy took place when January 6th insurrectionists used Jesus-laden rhetoric to justify overturning an election.

HMN is reacting to other worrisome trends including: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reject 50 years of precedent and end the constitutional right to abortion; high court rulings that erode the separation of religion and government, for example backing a football coach who led Christian prayers on the playing field; and attacks across the country on transgender rights, often on “biblical” grounds.

HumanistsMN, which promotes ethical living without theism or other supernatural beliefs, gives top priority to advocating for secular government. In recent years, this has included organizing events at the State Capitol to observe the National Day of Reason in May. These gather legislators, secular groups, and advocacy organizations to promote public policy based on reason, science, evidence, and inclusive humanistic values, not religious preference. 

This year’s Day of Reason event will take place on May 3. You can find details here. Guest speaker will be Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American and American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom. Seidel will also talk about and sign his Supreme Court book at 6 p.m. on May 2 at Sweeney’s Saloon in St. Paul. He will be available for media interviews.

David Hume and Adam Smith: the Friendship Between Two Enlightenment Thinkers

By Nathan Curland

If you haven’t noticed, we seem to be in the middle of an Adam Smith revival. Competing elements wish to claim him as one of their own. On the right is the conservative Adam Smith Institute (UK), which calls him the father of the capitalist system. On the left are the liberal Scottish defenders of Smith who argue that his theories have been cherry-picked and deliberately misinterpreted by the right to serve their own ends; that, in fact, Smith was not only an economist but a philosopher who understood deeply the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism and warned against its vices.

I learned of these competing claims by listening to Freakonomics Radio’s 3-part series In Search of the Real Adam Smith. This in turn led me to look for writings that might shed light on Smith’s life and philosophical leanings. When I found this book that linked David Hume, probably the most famous atheist philosopher of the 18th century, with the “capitalist” Smith, I was intrigued. What did these two men have in common that would make them such close friends?

Author Dennis C. Rasmussen is an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University and he clearly did a lot of research to put this book together (with a large notes section). His style is easy to read, despite the inclusion of quotes and paragraphs using the English of 18th-century Great Britain. He follows both Hume’s and Smith’s lives from birth to death and, along the way, reminds us of the historical times that they lived through that helped shape their lives and worldviews.

David Hume and Adam Smith are two of the most prominent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume was older, having been born in 1711 to a Scottish laird, a lower-ranking noble landholder. Smith was born in 1723 to a “modestly affluent” customs officer. Both lost their fathers when they were young and were raised by their mothers. Both families had enough means to send their sons to university: Hume to Edinburgh University at the age of 10 and Smith to Glasgow University at the age of 14. (Rasmussen reminds us that in the early 18th century, Scottish universities were more like boarding schools and didn’t reach their intellectual peaks until the late 1700s.) 

However, neither could count on substantial stipends: Hume as a third child would not inherit his father’s estate and Smith’s mother lacked the means to support him throughout his life. As a result, finances were always on their minds until both, in their own ways and through their own intellects, acquired appointments that eventually made them financially secure.

Both Hume and Smith were brought up in strictly religious Presbyterian households, but both lost their faith in organized religion early in their careers, largely due to their voracious appetites for reading the readily available works of previous “free thinking” philosophers. For example, Hume, according to James Boswell, said he “never had entertained any belief in Religion since he began to read (John) Locke and (Samuel) Clarke.” Smith, by the time he finished his university years, was influenced by the same works but also by the then-available treatises that Hume had published. 

Hume determined early in life that he wished to be known as a philosopher and was not shy about poking at the religious establishment, which was very powerful in Scotland during that period. He also had an affable, gregarious personality and easily made friends, even among much of the clergy. So though he had many detractors, his temperament likely saved him from severe censorship and in fact made him popular among the intelligentsia of the time. It did, however, stand in the way of his obtaining a university position in the religiously controlled Scottish Colleges. 

Adam Smith was more guarded about his nonbelief in his public writings and lectures. As a result, despite some rebukes he might have received from his superiors, he was able to garner a professorship at Glasgow University, where he served for many years. And though he had many friends, unlike Hume, his personality was more introverted and he developed a reputation for being a bit “absent.” He was also a writer known for his preciseness and attention to detail and did not want any of his works that he considered unfinished to be posthumously published. As a consequence, he had many of his papers destroyed after his death by his literary executors. Therefore, we don’t know as much about his deep inner thoughts as we do of Hume’s.

Hume was a prolific writer, mostly essays on various topics that he would pull together into publications over time. Most of his publications were considered controversial at the time because of both his general anti-religion stance and his dislike of the current political parties (Whigs and Tories). He is best known for his two Treatises on Human Nature and his History of England.

Smith, in contrast, developed his thoughts through lectures, both at the university and in public, and carefully pulled them together in only two great works during his lifetime: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Both were very well received at the time and are what made him famous. A third work, Principles That Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries, was not published until after his death and was held back by him, likely because of the controversial nature of its topics. (The book revealed his disdain for the clergy and their mixing of religious concepts into university curricula.)

Hume and Smith first met in 1749. At the time, Smith was in his late 20s and giving public lectures, some of which Hume likely attended since they both belonged to a number of societies.  From Hume’s letters, we know they had a lively correspondence thereafter and considered each other close friends the rest of their lives though they resided in different cities (Hume in Edinburgh, Smith in Glasgow).

Philosophically, Hume and Smith had similar worldviews but there were differences, likely due to their different stations. Hume, from a noble household, aspired to philosophy whereas Smith was more concerned about the practical aspects of society. For example, both believed that the only solid foundation for knowledge was through experience and observation, i.e. the scientific method; nor can one wholly rely on reason (because reason relies on a starting premise, which can be in error). However, Smith notes that scientific theories are “inventions of the imagination” and therefore must forever be subject to revision if the observations so require.

When it comes to morality, both agreed that it arises from common human sentiments, i.e. values (sounds like humanism!); specifically, our feeling for approval or disapproval. Under this philosophy, humans are endowed with “sympathy” (better defined today as “empathy”). But Smith had a deeper definition than Hume. Hume saw sympathy as a passive reaction (you smile when someone smiles at you), whereas for Smith it was more of a projection — to feel sympathy you must “walk in the other’s shoes” and understand the “why” for the emotion.

As for religion, both believed that the ultimate standard of right and wrong did not come from divine will. But where Hume believed religion was entirely “pernicious,” Smith saw that it could supply some comfort to the believer and therefore serve as a “buttress” for morality. Furthermore, Smith supported the separation of church and state so that no sect could become powerful enough to control the workings of all society. Hume, however, despite his disregard for religion and desire for religious toleration, favored a state religion in order to “bribe their [the clergy’s] indolence and render it superfluous to be farther active” and make them ultimately subservient to civil authority.

When it came to economics, both Hume and Smith approved of free markets, most especially between states, arguing they would improve efficiencies, while the resulting trade would ease political tensions. They saw the prevailing mercantilism as a philosophy of “beggaring your enemy” and warned about the dangers of imperialism and accumulating large public debt. Smith also warned about the evils of a highly commercial society, such as the tendency of merchants to collude against the public interest. 

Today Smith is widely heralded for the concept of “the invisible hand,” which is used by conservatives to mean the positive feedback loops created by each person working for his or her own gain and unknowingly creating a dynamic thriving society. However, Smith’s meaning was actually more in line with Hume’s notion of the “unintended consequences,” both good and bad, that can result from uncontrolled commerce, thus requiring carefully thought-out constraints.

There is much more to this book for the reader than I can cover in this review. Hume and Smith lived during a highly volatile century and each had their own travels and travails. Multiple wars and insurrections were raging in Europe during this period, which ended with the American and French Revolutions. Rasmussen follows his two protagonists throughout with many anecdotes and history lessons along the way. It is an interesting and enjoyable read.

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis C. Rasmussen (Princeton University Press, 2017)