This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
TheHumanist.com: As the president of the Humanists of Houston, what tasks and responsibilities do you find yourself conducting?
Deborah Williams: “What don’t I do?” would be an easier question to answer! [Laughing] The job entails doing interviews like this one, but more importantly, it’s about providing a touch point for organizations through interfaith ministries, Black Lives Matter—anything for social action, like Meals on Wheels. (We’ve delivered hurricane boxes to them.) It’s about expanding what is available to our members, finding out their interests, and giving them what they need.
One of our members ended up in the hospital recently after she fell and broke her pelvis. As happens in a church when somebody’s ill and the pastor steps in, I [was a conduit between her] and the rest of the community. It’s more personal stuff than I envisioned before becoming president. Lots of hand holding. I don’t want to use the term ministering, but it’s similar.
TheHumanist.com: What are some of the social and political activities of the Humanists of Houston at the moment?
Williams: We were one of the sponsors for the March for Science. We’re also part of Texas legislature meetings. They meet every couple of years. We are part of the reproductive rights movement here. We’re involved with SB-6, which is the Texas version of what are known as the “bathroom bills.” We’re fundraising to help LGBT folks fight the SB-6 bill.
With the current US president and the Texas legislature off its rocker, we have lots to do. We can’t reach everybody. We try to post everybody’s events, but things happen fast. We focus on Texas issues such as science education. Also, they keep trying to ban abortion in Texas.
TheHumanist.com: Something I’ve come across in numerous interviews with nontheist groups is a lack of knowledge about what the heck the terms mean—even “humanism.” Do you notice this too?
Williams: I would say there’s a tremendous disconnect about what humanism really is, even among our membership at times. We have atheists who say, “How can you say that humanists are taking a stance on this bathroom bill? We’re progressives.” It is very disconcerting at times when it comes from your own membership. We had our own first meeting, the Humanism 101 meetup. We discussed what the Humanist Manifesto III says, and what the American Humanist Association says.
We try to educate members and the public. We were at the Pride Festival this year and had people ask, “Are you Satanists?” Here, in Texas, we reply, “No, we don’t believe in that either. Thank you.”
The idea of what to call ourselves is, I think, a problem we all have in humanist chapters. I am not a fan of the “friendly atheist” designator because when it comes to things regarding injustice, there’s not always space to be friendly. With SB-6, for example, it is a civil rights issue. We have to stand up and do the right thing.
TheHumanist.com: With the ongoing changes in America, politically and socially, what are some of the main concerns for you?
Williams: It’s interesting—in Texas, the laws still says that if you don’t believe in God, you’re not allowed to hold elected office. Trump’s election didn’t change that so much. We have several older members who are concerned that there might be a push to make people join churches. They are very concerned about the separation of church and state in Texas, which really wasn’t that separate to begin with.
On the positive side, the election has helped a lot of people become awake to the fact that they live in this little urban bubble in Houston, and the rest of the people in Texas can take that away from you. So what I see among the Humanists of Houston is an awareness that we have to stand up and be involved in politics. We don’t have to endorse candidates, but we can take a side for our own protection—protection of our children and protection of our environment.
TheHumanist.com: Any final comments?
Williams: Humanism has a long way to go in spreading its message, especially with the nones. There is a real opportunity if we are consistent and thorough. We are not a local club that meets in the local UU church. We should do some outreach. In Houston, for example, we have our community giveaway to the homeless community once a month. We need to do more.