The Humanist on the Boat—No Mere Fishing Expedition

A quiet dawn is breaking over Mobile Bay, Alabama, as Captain Rob backs the trailer down the public ramp. I cast loose the trailer ties as he flips the ignition and the small skiff floats free. The deckhand Ronnie parks the truck while I wait for him with one foot on the deck and the other on the dock. We push off and our day of fishing begins.

Image credit: logray / 123RF
I am not a commercial fisherman like Captain Rob or Ronnie; I’m a marine biologist (my official title is “fisheries observer”) with the National Marine Fisheries Service. My job is to collect fisheries data for use in management and policy decisions; however, if you were to pass our vessel while out sport fishing for red drum, you’d most likely assume I was another commercial fisherman. I wear the same clothes, speak the same language, and even have the same untidy facial hair. The one major difference between me and most of the crew I work alongside is not immediately apparent: faith. The topic always arises at some point during our time on the water and ultimately leads to the question: “Do you believe in God, Phil?” I reply I don't. The tension becomes palpable but I’ve become adept at diffusing these situations. The fishermen ask me if I have ever been to church. I have a tendency to respond with a stifled chuckle and a nod. I was raised as a pastor’s child. I grew up learning about theology and biblical history. In my younger years I spent five days a week at church, between Boy Scout troop meetings and my father's preaching schedule. The majority of my friends during this time were from the church, and with two working parents, the church was a source of afterschool care for me and my two sisters. In short, I’ve been immersed in religion since birth. And I consider it a gift when it comes to discussing religion, something I do often in hopes of promoting secular humanism. One could say I’m a humanist fisher of men. Most of the fishermen I work with (indeed, up to this point they’ve all been men) are devout Christians. With most of my work being in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern Atlantic, this is not surprising. Many of the people I encounter have never met an atheist. On long trips (some of which can last up to fourteen days), we often revisit old topics of conversation, and the subject of religion resurfaces. While I try to explain morality without a deity, they seem less interested in the details of my personal moral philosophy and more interested in how someone like me comes to have a worldview that is, to them, a novel one. This is where I start talking about the wonders of biology. Most of my current worldview has been driven by my study of life. The more I identify myself as a biologist, the less I seem to identify myself with religion. The common questions arise: If you’re an atheist, what’s stopping you from murdering or raping someone? How do you go about your day in what can be a dangerous profession without any hope of life after death? When you’re out on rough seas, don't you pray to God for safe passage? I do my best to answer them honestly and respectfully. With regards to the first question, I say that my morality dictates that all humans are brothers and sisters of the same species and are considered equal. It’s our duty to protect and nurture our fellow humans. I tell them that the world is wonderful and studying the beauty of life provides purpose for me, despite the dangers of my job. It usually makes the captain smile when I add that although the sea can be an unforgiving place, I have faith in my captain and I trust him to weather rough seas. While promoting humanism is one of my passions, I am just as passionate about promoting ecology and biology. When I view nature in its purest form, I feel an almost religious sense of wonder. The wonder I experience when studying life is like viewing the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, once drew parallels between the pilgrimage to Mecca and the pilgrimage astronomers and astrophysicists make to mountaintop observatories. Upon hearing this I was filled with a sense of mutual understanding. When I make my own pilgrimage into the vastness of the ocean, I’m reminded that this sense of reverence and awe is very much a function of my brain, and, indeed, studies have shown that the same awe and ecstasy experienced by the religious are experienced by scientists while viewing nature and the universe. When I first gained this understanding, the Christian God became something that got in the way or cheapened the experience. From that moment I knew a large part of my life would be devoted to helping people find fulfillment and understanding in the natural world rather than from a pew, where I never found it. When one considers humankind as special or somehow removed from nature, as is believed by many religions, specifically conservative Christianity, it becomes easy to ignore our impact upon the natural world. It’s easy to believe that God will protect the fisheries, for example, or that existence is immaterial and the true rewards will be found in heaven. However, we humans are not separate from the natural world but are rather a very real part of it. In this light, addressing our impact on the world also becomes very real and relevant. The impact of the fisherman on the fish finds its mark with surprising force. When I talk to commercial fisherman, I start with some compelling facts about the sea life all around them. Most commercial fisherman don't know that a majority of the fish they’ve caught for most of their lives change gender at least once throughout the fish's life cycle, and I often show them this when I’m dissecting a sample that’s undergoing such a change upon its capture. This simple example is a wonderful springboard into evolution and the diversity of species. The interesting thing about having these discussions is that most people who fish for a living are aware of the basic principles of ecology. They see the underlying ecological framework of the Earth merely because of their profession: this species appears only during summer; if this bait species is present there must be a predatory species nearby; or this species is generally caught over sandy bottom features. Ecologists call this species interdependence and tolerance. With a little understanding and a willing exchange, the fishermen and I are often able to deepen our understanding of the aquatic world together.


The sun is beginning to set on Mobile Bay and we’re required to vacate the waters before sundown. The Captain steers the boat towards the ramp and we prepare for landing. Exhausted, we pile into the truck. I wonder to myself if I’ve made an impact. After the fish have been iced and packed away we begin to say our goodbyes. The captain shakes my hand, and with a smile says, “Thank you, Phil. I admit I was wrong about you. I thought you were only interested in destroying our livelihood.” I reply that I was wrong about him as well, assuming he’d be conservative and damning of my views. “Instead, you showed me great respect and understanding. I can’t wait to go to sea with you again.” With that, I know I’ve represented humanism for the wonderful philosophy that it is. I have shown that being a humanist doesn’t mean I’m an immoral person bent on making the world a terrible, godless place, but rather a kind and compassionate person who promotes knowledge over ignorance. As the humanist on the boat, I hope I’ve offered tempting bait to those casting wide nets.