Interview by Eric Nguyen
The Humanist Institute is truly one-of-a-kind. Part leadership training, part philosophy course, with a good helping of history lessons (not to mention quite a reading list), it is the only education program in the United States which aims to equip humanists to become effective leaders, spokespersons, and advocates in a variety oforganizational settings. Indeed, many of the program’s alumni have moved on to work for or with organizations like the American Humanist Association.
This year, the American Humanist Association is proud to sponsor James Croft to attend The Humanist Institute’s Class of 18.
James is no stranger to humanism. A doctorate student at Harvard, he is the president of the Humanist Graduate Community and is involved with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. His work has been published innumerous publications, including State of Formation, The New Humanism, and AHA’s magazine The Humanist,and he runs the blog Temples of the Future. Here, I talk to James about humanism, being a gay humanist, andwhat humanists can learn from the LGBT movement.
HNN: How did you get involved with humanism; in particular, how did you get involved in humanist activism?
James: I’ve always been a humanist—I grew up in a happy humanist household (although I don’t think my parents explicitly identified with that name) where I was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek. Neither of my parents are religious, and religion played little role in my life except artistically: as a choirboy I sang inchurch and chapel choirs all my young life. I certainly was engaged in debate over religion at a young age—I remember arguing with members of the Christian Union at High School, for example—but it was when I got to Cambridge University that I started to really consider my own beliefs, and encountered strongly religious people.
HNN: What type of church did you go to?
James: I sang in my school’s chapel choir. We had a chapel on the high school campus. And then at Cambridge I sang with some of the Choirs there too. I was at St. Paul’s Boys School—nominally Anglican (Church of England) but really very secular. There was religious education, as is required in England, but it taught about many faith traditions (although not humanism). I certainly didn’t feel like they were promoting Christianity, although the school was nominally Christian.
HNN: Is that usually the case with prep schools in the UK, that they teach religious education?
James: It’s required on the UK National Curriculum, so all schools have to teach it essentially. It’s comparative religion. They aren’t allowed to proselytize. But humanism is generally not included. To be honest I can’t remember a lot of what we studied in those classes!
HNN: You’ve lived in the UK and the US How does the climate for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers differ for each country?
James: Oh wow. BIG difference. It was coming here to the US and seeing the misunderstanding of atheism and humanism here that drew me to be more active. In the UK the majority of young people are not religious. And religion plays little role in political life. We really don’t have any equivalent of the religious right.
But here! It’s terrible! People try to impose their religious values on other people through the mechanisms of the state. It’s very repressive. And in general there is much less understanding that being nonreligious is a legitimate philosophy of life. I have been astonished by some of the stories I have heard of discrimination against nonreligious people here. They simple wouldn’t happen in the UK. In the UK it’s no big deal to be a humanist. Over here there was a systematic campaign of vilification of humanists! It’s amazing to think you facereal electoral challenges here if you are not religious. It’s quite absurd! A true prejudice that has existed for far too long.
HNN: To “come out” as an atheist in the US is difficult. Have you faced hostility head on?
James: Not really—I’m lucky to live in an academic bubble at Harvard where so many people are not religious. Incidentally I’m wary of the use of the term “coming out” to describe the atheist experience here. I think in some cases it might imply equivalence with coming out as gay, which I think would be very inaccurate. But shortly after coming to Harvard I did meet, for the first time, someone who had NEVER encountered a nonreligious person. They seemed to think not believing in God was really strange. And that was the jolt which led me to seek out Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy. It made me realize how much of a problem there is in US culture—goodness and civic-virtue are too often seen as the exclusive province of the religious.
HNN: It’s interesting how you mention “coming out” as potentially problematic, especially since many compare the humanist movement to the LGBT movement. How is coming out as gay different then telling people you’re godless?
James: It was a MUCH bigger struggle for me. I came out only after 10 years of real internal psychological warfare. I first told my parents I thought I was gay when I was 17, and it took until I was 27—just before last year’s AHA Conference actually!—to finally accept it for myself. In fact my coming out is intimately related to my humanism. I came out, finally, on a humanist service trip to New Orleans organized by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Something about being among friends who I knew would have no problem with it, and who I shared so many other values with, helped me take the final step. That’s one reason I am so strongly committed to building real humanist communities—like church communities for the nonreligious—to be safe-havens for self-acceptance and for people to be who they are. Secular society doesn’t offer many such spaces. And the religious ones are so often hidebound by ancient bigotry and superstition. But I understand why some people use the analogy, and I do respect that for many people there is real difficulty admitting to people youdon’t believe in God. But the social situation is so different. I don’t make the comparison myself.
I think there are lots of things that different social movements can learn from each other. But I personally reservethe phrase “coming out” for that extremely psychologically profound step that queer people have to take which I think is quite unique.
HNN: What can the humanist movement learn from the LGBT movement? And what can the LGBT movement learn from the humanist movement?
James: Oh wow—that’s a question Greta Christina can answer better than me! I think one thing is the value ofhaving real community spaces. Queer people have built entire parallel cultures from which to mobilize and inwhich to feel safe: bars, clubs, bookshops, gayborhoods, communes, towns like Provincetown, etc. And evenchurches. And they use those spaces as a base from which to strategize and mobilize. I think humanists need the same. I want to see a day in which every large town has a humanist center where people can go to find resources for helping them live their life fully. Real physical spaces—not just message boards and blogs—which promote humanist values in the world. Like every big town has a gay bar. Perhaps we could even use the gay bars during the day!
HNN: What about the LGBT community? What can the LGBT community learn from humanists?
James: To be honest, as organizers we have little to teach the gays! We’re years behind them. I hope we can provide a model of confronting issues of racism, sexism and other -isms before they become a huge problem. There is sadly some serious sexism and racism in the gay community. I’ve experienced it, and it isn’t pretty. There are some very unpleasant ways in which some gay men speak about women and lesbians, for example.
And I hope the humanist community can be brave and honest enough to show how to tackle these issues headon, while we’re growing as a movement. And not have this stuff bite us in the ass later.
HNN: Where do you see humanism in five years? Ten years?
James: Five years—I want to see a move toward a positive, activist movement which does more service work, more political activism, which takes its powerful philosophy and translates it into civic action. So in concrete terms I’d like to see the emergence of a secular voting block and lobbying force which can actually affect changein political races, for example.
Ten years—I want there to be at least a few of those Humanist Centers I was talking about. I want Humanist Centers to be springing up across America, providing people who are not religious with a place to explore questions of deep import, to discuss ethical issues, to build multi-generational relationships and to mobilize together for the good of humankind
Beyond that, I’m thinking large international institutions dedicated to humanist principles. A world parliament.I want the United Federation of Planets! Ultimately, I want humanism to become the creed of the 21st century. We have the ideals, we have the intellect, we have the vision. Now we need the passion and the power to make it happen.
Eric Nguyen is the field coordinator for the American Humanist Association.