An Interview with Michael Cluff — President of South Jersey Humanists — CONATUS NEWS
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become a humanist?
The story I usually tell is that I stopped believing in a soul the more I read about human cognition in college (I was a psych major). But that over-emphasises the intellect, a habit we atheists are prone to.
I also saw how religion was failing so many people and not living up to how it is advertised. I saw very little bliss and contentment, but lots and lots of guilt, torment, fear, and judgment.
Perhaps the point where I truly became an atheist was during a high-school religious retreat. At the end of our retreat, our pastor suggested we walk out to the woods to pray. I scrambled to find a prayer-worthy spot — only the best for you, God! — and had to settle for an unremarkable log. As I struggled to come up with a prayer, my inner voice noted, “you’re trying really HARD to do this, aren’t you?” It took a few years, but that doubtful voice got louder and louder, and finally I stopped suppressing it (Wait, maybe that voice was Satan).
What seems like the main reason for people becoming secular humanists in your experience, e.g. arguments from logic and philosophy, evidence from mainstream science, or experience within traditional religious structures?
I honestly can’t pinpoint one reason! Whenever a new person comes to a meeting, they’re given a chance to describe their belief history. We’ve met everything from life-long atheists to people who lost their faith weeks before. If I had to pick, I’d say that science is the primary reason. But as my history shows, citing reason or “science” as the cause risks oversimplifying.
What makes secular humanism seem more natural to you than other sentiments, or ethical and philosophical worldviews?
The universe makes more sense to me if you don’t try to fit a personal God into your explanation. The problem of evil — why bad things happen to good people — simply vanishes without God. And the more modern views of God — god as energy or as the “ground of being” — strike me as truthy word games designed to protect a cherished belief.
So without a God, where do we go from there? What do we do with our one life while respecting the one life that others have? That’s the challenge of humanism. Our ethics should derive from the fact that we evolved as beings who feel pain and pleasure seeking to connect with other beings who also feel pain and pleasure.
What is the best argument for humanism you, personally, have ever come across?
I’m not sure if this is an argument. Perhaps it’s an observation:
Even the most religious people cannot be certain of the existence of God, much less know what that God would want from us. So a humanistic perspective, really, is the only honest one. I guess you could call that a flipped version of Pascal’s Wager?
You are the president of South Jersey Humanists. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
When we were smaller, being president meant preparing meetings and leading them, getting ideas for discussion topics, and keeping an eye out for battles we should fight. Now that we’ve grown, we have a (wonderful) board where we can share responsibilities and trade ideas. I also connect with other group leaders and keep current with issues in the larger humanist, atheist, and sceptic movements.
What have been some of its major setbacks, and successes, in its foundation and development?
Growth is a sign of success but it can bring dangerous crises. When you’re small, it’s easy to work by consensus. When you get bigger, it’s harder to make everyone happy. Imagine setting a meeting date and time for five people. Easy-peasy. Now imagine doing it for 35. No matter when you schedule it, someone will be left out. So when you grow, you have to formalise your decisions, create rules for managing money, and more. It’s a tough but important process!
We faced a different challenge at the same time: our membership hit a tipping point. The American Humanist Association was the first national atheist organisation to explicitly adopt a social justice agenda. Most of our members were happy with this, as our group was already heading in that direction. However, we lost some of our conservative and libertarian members, some who were uncomfortable with supporting Black Lives Matter, and some who feared losing focus on “atheist issues.” There’s a natural push and pull for a group to take action versus running an intellectual salon and debating society. Remembering that we’re primarily a humanist group, and not an anti-theism group, helps us stay true to our purpose.
With Trump’s election, it was clear that there’s a big need for humanist social justice. We’ve had an influx of eager, capable people saying that they felt it was time to act on their humanist beliefs.
What are some of the demographics of the organisation? How many members are in it? Who is most likely to join the organisation?
We’re probably more diverse than most humanist groups, but we’re still not diverse enough. Of our 33 paid members, about 40% are women, and only 12% are persons of colour. (Attendance at meetings and actions seems more diverse than these figures suggest, but I don’t have any numbers). We don’t have data on LGBTQ membership or participation, but we are fully welcoming to all.
What are some activities of the provided by the South Jersey Humanists?
One of our chartered goals is to provide a welcoming community for those who disbelieve in the supernatural.
Each month we discuss a specific topic, article, or book club selection. We’ve had speakers (most recently ,vaccine expert Paul Offit, American Atheists president David Silverman, Death With Dignity activist Barbara Mancini, AHA president Roy Speckhardt, and “Soul Fallacy” author Julien Musolino). We also do potlucks and have a monthly “Drinking Skeptically” event where we always seem to wind up talking about movies.
Has the group taken up any activist causes? What were they?
Another goal in our charter is to promote social justice (not just for atheists).
For social justice, we try to do what a small group like ours can. We’ve raised funds for the AIDS Alliance’s AIDS Walk (Third Place Fundraising Team in 2016) and the Leukemia / Lymphoma foundation.
We volunteer quarterly at the local Food Bank, and we’ve also given them fresh vegetables we grew in our community garden.
Each year, we help students write letters for political prisoners on behalf of Amnesty International. This is at the local university as part of their Martin Luther King Day of Service. While we did that this year, we met someone who is active in Syrian refugee relief (the Narenj Tree Foundation), so we’re hoping to help them soon. We’ve visited prisons, too, and participated in a prison pen-pal program.
What were their outcomes?
I wish I could say we’ve eliminated poverty, racism, and other forms of ignorance in our area, but there’s always next year. (Kidding, of course). I really admire what groups like Atheists Helping the Homeless have done in Texas, and I’d love for us to have that kind of success at some point.
Beyond the obvious benefits of our actions, taking action has gotten us together with other organisations and activists, which will make us better connected and more effective. And the more we do, the better at it we get.
What is the public perception of humanism in South Jersey?
It’s mixed. We live in a blue state, so we don’t face the same fights other humanist groups have, such as creationism in schools. But our part of South Jersey (near Atlantic City) is a patch of red buried within a blue state. The church-state issues we see here are quasi-legal, such as non-sectarian prayers at town councils or “Good News Clubs” operating within local schools. But we see lots of reminders that this is a religious area. Just down the road from me there’s a huge “One Nation Under God and Proud of It” sign at the local Catholic School. (That one doesn’t get vandalised like the “Black Lives Matter” one put up by the Unitarians).
What are the main impediments to the practice and advocacy of humanism in the local South Jersey area? Who/what are the main threats to humanism as a movement in general?
Sometimes, I wonder if apathy among atheists and humanists is our biggest problem. I know it took me a long time before I felt it was important to fight for the rights of atheists. When you live in a blue state, it’s easy to get by without thinking about your disbelief.
But perhaps the biggest impediment (locally and globally) might be the stereotype of atheists as amoral killjoys seeking to smash every Christmas display they see. The biggest compliment I ever got came from a co-worker who found out I was an atheist. “If someone like you is an atheist then I have no problem with it at all.” The more ‘out’ we are, the less threatening we seem. It humanises Humanists.
How can people get involved with South Jersey Humanists?
Thank you for your time, Michael.
And thank you, Scott! I appreciate your interest in a group like ours.
Originally published at conatusnews.com on May 3, 2017.