Beyond European Colonialism: An Interview with Jé Hooper and David Breeden

JÉ EXODUS HOOPER AND REV. DR. DAVID BREEDEN presented together at the American Humanist Association’s 79th Annual Conference, “Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism,” on August 8, 2020. Their discussion examined the European roots of what is traditionally considered humanism in the United States and explored how the humanist movement may embrace the universalist impulse of those roots and move beyond them to embrace a multiplicity of cultures. I had the opportunity to interview them separately before the event for Here they are presented together, adapted with their permission.

Jé Exodus Hooper (they/them) teaches theatre history and is a current PhD candidate within the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University. Both as performer and clergy within the Ethical Culture movement and First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, their ritual-based performance is grounded in the act of homiletics, decolonial humanism, and Black intellectual thought. Hooper’s love for orality involves the aesthetic of Black folk-talk—one of imagination as meaning-making. Their word-working emphasizes human freedom and interconnectedness through embodiment, intuition, creativity, and improvisation.

Rev. Dr. David Breeden is senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. He has an MFA in poetry from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and an MDiv from Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Breeden serves on the board of the UU Humanist Association and is chair of the education committee of the American Humanist Association. He regularly blogs on humanism and freethought and has published poetry, novels, and theological writings.

Meredith Thompson: How would you describe the European foundations of humanism?

David Breeden: I see the foundations of European humanism as: liberalism, rationality, capitalism, and individualism. How are these different from the European foundations of Christianity? Well, not much. And therein lies the problem and the challenge for Euro-American humanists.

“Cracked and collapsing” might be the most apt phrase to describe the European foundations of humanism today. And Euro-American structures of capitalist liberalism in general. Unfortunately, there’s no 800-number to call to get that cracked foundation looked at: Can it be fixed or does it need to be replaced entirely? The wreckage and death of the current pandemic have called out the pretenses of Western thinking. Those pretenses look anemic at the moment.

The focus on individual salvation that developed slowly in Europe under Roman Catholic hegemony eventually gave us the idea of individualism and individual liberty. That’s a potent and lovely and dangerous idea.

Jé Hooper: The shaping of the European foundation as I’ve studied and experienced it is deeply couched in conquest, contracts, and co-optings. Yes, I could observe the conversation within the means of power structure as eloquently described by Dr. Breeden. Nonetheless, to add to his brilliance, I would further see the roots or mythmaking strategy of European humanist philosophy.

The practice of conquest, for example, has been in existence and in circulation for centuries. It’s rooted in the myth of scarcity, a cultural gluttony that seeks to disenfranchise by controlling resources, people, and culture. I remember when my undergraduate art history professor brushed over intersections of Mediterranean artifacts of Greeks and immediately segued into Roman replicas. He continued to do the same with Egypt, re-enforcing Elizabeth Taylor-styles for Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. Anything Black, Brown, or Beige was improved upon or made better by a Eurocentric narrative. Even if it entailed passive explanation of abuse, militarization, and forceful infringement on intellectual property—down to ancient theological paradigms of Jupiter superseding Zeus.

Contract is another formation of humanist philosophy. If it’s written, then it’s absolute or valid. Contract within the framework of documentation suggests existence. Thus, if we examine the historical effects regarding the doctrine of discovery, it is the very violence-contractual concept that justified seizing land from original people. It had such a profound effect, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall federally endorsed its ideology to safeguard US imperialism. And humanists struggled to the call of inclusive dialogue because the European process of knowing and believing had been in a contractual violence that was central to their existence. But how can anyone discover a place where people already lived, moved, and bared their being?

Furthermore, the co-optings! The co-optings (especially in European humanism) can be as subtle as Descartes’s famous philosophical quote: “I think; therefore I am” in comparison to a biblical text: “So as a [person] thinks, so [are they].” They are the same brilliance, nonetheless we will privilege one form of wisdom over another. Clearly, Ancient Near Eastern thoughts were written much earlier than Descartes, but humanism would avoid such shared wisdom to “make a point” instead of honoring that wisdom as another “point of view.” Here, I am only stating that humanistic co-opting is ignoring, or worse rejecting, cultural pluralism of shared knowing, living, and doing.

Humanism must acknowledge that it has participated and is infiltrated with this developmental practice. It seeks to use a one-story narrative, steeped in Eurocentrism and always seeking to maintain its hegemony in the cultural dialogue.

Thompson: What effect has colonialism had on humanism in the US?

Breeden: I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I don’t think there was an overarching European plot to create concepts such as terra nullius or whiteness in order to conquer the Western Hemisphere and enslave Africans. Rather, the aggressive nature of Christianity and the aggressive nature of the ur-capitalism that existed in fifteenth-century Europe created the conditions in which all cultures not European could be thought of by Europeans as exotic, “other,” or nonhuman. Not really “there” in a human sense and therefore exploitable and expendable.

As both a colonized and colonizing nation, people and institutions in the US in some ways suffer from both the colonial trauma of the oppressed and the PTSD of the oppressor. This isn’t to deny that many people—namely Black and Native Americans—haven’t suffered more historically than the children of oppressors. It’s merely to say that oppressors are coarsened and denatured by their social strictures and structures. The greatest victim of our history is the United States itself.

“I would love to see humanism move from a Western-Puritan categorical perspective of inclusion and reach for being eclectic!”

In order to liberate others and ourselves we must escape the partial explanations and narrow focuses of essentialism. Reason and rationality are methods, not virtues. All human beings everywhere and for all time have had them and used them.

US humanists must deny the lie that the Euro-American ways of thinking and being are superior to other ways of thinking and being. If we can do that, we can become adults at last. Or at least get a good start toward that.

Hooper: When I approach colonialism, I again emphasize its “root-working power” as the cultural power to control and occupy time and space. Colonialism in America is made of four Cs:

Christianization: Christian religious occupancy and centralization, where one is expected to have religious literacy about the Judeo-Christian tradition. In addition, a religion outside of Christianity must privilege the Christian authority and oblige to its power as an initiator of its religious existence and its right to practice its belief.

Corporatization: Economic regulations of time and space with a high-demand on product and productivity. To be honored as fully human requires being productive. Yes, a citizen must be an asset to culture and/or exemplify “potentiality” that will lead to worth and wealth at the expense of existence.

Collegiatization: This is what I call cultural education or indoctrination of cultural assimilatory practices. This is a culture certification of conforming, integrating, and/or erasing one’s being for cultural acceptance and appeasement. It’s a credential to control one’s knowing, being, and doing based on “power that might be.”

Capitalization: World occupancy! An attention-getting platform that shows itself as central, powerful, and culturally dominant. Example: how America was always front and center in a world map. It’s establishment of focus, entitlement, and presumptuous self-declaration requiring cultural components and not cultural humility.

Humanism, unfortunately, can’t avoid much of this without moving away from Enlightenment ideas or full trust in modern science. Honestly, some if not all of humanism is entangled and/or participates in these four practices. It’s a process so embedded and so engrained it’s a mentality of colonialism; we all suffer from a complex called “coloniality.” Sadly, the eras of Enlightenment and modern science are tainted with such things that our movement struggles to be steadfast in its own presence. Anyone or anything different is faced with the same pushback humanism has received. Thus, there is “metacommunication” amongst our movement, causing us to be classified as religio-philosophy talking to itself and others like us.

Humanism promotes growth and human development, however, this growth is affected by an ostracism in which some moment of disconnection, misanthropy, and self-imposed social distancing are in correlation to its own trauma. Look, I get it! Hurt people hurt other people, and we have to practice new methods or ways out of the so-called pain from which we come. But we must remember: that shows up against those who seek to find a home within humanism, most likely QIPOC (Queer Indigenous and Queer People of Color) who come with experiential intelligence and bodily knowing that won’t always be justified by books and research.

Thompson: What are some things humanism inherited from its European foundations that you’d like to see improved? What would you like to see emphasized?

Breeden: First and foremost, I’d like to see Europe and many of its colonies learn humility. Christianity from its birth in the travels of Paul the Apostle has been about universalization and hegemony, based on the assumption of superiority. The Euro-American attack on all cultures was, as stated in the Book of Common Prayer, aimed at the outcome that “all nations and races may serve you (god) in harmony around your heavenly throne.”

Universalizing everything from capitalism to liberalism flows from this myopic brutalism.

The most serious threat to humanism is and has always been the accusation that humanists rely too heavily on reason and rationality. This, despite the clear fact that Euro-American humanists are much closer to the skepticism of David Hume than the optimism of Auguste Comte. Much closer to the cynical cosmopolitanism of Diogenes than the hegemonic totalitarianism of Paul.

As I see it, the true believers in QAnon conspiracy theories are looking for coherence in reality as much as—if not more than—serious philosophers or cosmologists. We can in one way look to the Frankfort School and its offspring as the creators of the current swing toward anti-reason and anti-science. Yet then QAnon folks, like everyone else, are seeking ways to find a shared epistemological reality.

Reason and the scientific method have proven themselves to be sound methods for discovering realities we can agree upon across cultures. Reason and the scientific method assume contingency and error. As Karl Popper pointed out, to claim something is “proven” by the scientific method is to say that by definition that thing can be falsified or denied by continuing research. This implies humbleness. It’s a far cry from Paul’s “I have seen The Way and the only way is the way that I have seen.”

The signature and lasting contribution of the Western mind to all of humanity is the non-instrumentality of other living things. All sentient beings have inherent worth and dignity. That’s a big and an ethical idea. May it flourish long after the cultures of the Western world have been forgotten!

Hooper: Whether philosophical or religious, I have always considered humanism to be a white-flight religio-philosophy. Through American theological liberalism, there has been a gradual shift to move further and further away from a theistic framework. Of course, no matter what tradition—e.g., Judaism, Christianity—people have transitioned from some kind of orthodoxy to more reformed and/or liberal ideologies, even nontheistic assemblies. However, if we examine the history of the Black folks and PoC [people of color] in those religious and philosophical transitions within congregational community, many folx struggle(d) to progress.

Based on my own research, I have reason to believe that as white liberal congregations seek to practice inclusiveness, it will be only a matter of time before white people will struggle with sharing epistemic practices with Black people and PoC because of white educational elitism and classism. As a result, there is gentrification of thought or moving away of practices that exempt Black people and PoC from taking part. Well, when we arrive at humanism (especially in the US context), the religio-racial diversity is very small, and most Black freethinking humanists are fortified by educational endeavors with humanist methodology, such as science, philosophy, and politics.

I would love to see humanism move from a Western-Puritan categorical perspective of inclusion and reach for being eclectic! Embody a real sense of cultural pluralism that holds healing values of reason and knowledge, while expanding itself toward intuition and embodiment.

Thompson: Can you describe ways that humanism can move beyond European roots to embrace other cultures?

Breeden: Back to that cracked and collapsing foundation I mentioned earlier. The unshakable foundations of humanism originate not in Western thinking but in the human psyche and the human imagination; not in any limited and contingent geographic space over-determined by biases, motivations, and desires but in an unencumbered way of thinking, doing, and being that embraces both freedom in thought and responsibility in action.

When we focus on the humanism of a particular region, we create a myopic and muzzled humanism. When we limit ourselves to ideas almost exclusively from the Near Eastern monotheisms and the post-Socratic Greeks, we sink our own humanism—and consequently our humanity—deeper and deeper into the jingoistic mire that serves as the dominant political discourse of nationalists in both hemispheres.

There is no “view from nowhere,” but we can learn to tell ourselves that any view we take isn’t complete and is therefore open to conversation.

Just because the term “humanism” originates in European languages doesn’t mean that the humanist impulse arose solely there. Quite the contrary. One of the most humanist statements of all time is the Roman-African playwright Terrence’s: “Nothing human is foreign to me.” Terrence’s work is a treasure in the Western literary canon. But remember: he was African; he was “the other” that saves Euro Americans from themselves. This is how that humanist cosmopolitanism imagined by Diogenes can operate. Where did Diogenes get his ideas? He was clearly looking beyond the boundaries of Greek thought.

In cultural terms, respecting and learning without appropriating is the key. When we realize the intensely provincial nature of most human ideas, we have stepped into a path toward understanding that a partial understanding is all any of us can ever manage—in contrast to the incredible richness of human thought.

The question of any cultural assumption is “why?” We won’t find the truth in any thought until we’ve taken Occam’s razor to it. Occam’s razor shaves closest when we pull in as much cosmopolitan thinking as possible. For example, when we stop mindlessly saying “God” and begin to qualify that by saying, “the gods of the Mesopotamian monotheisms,” we’ve taken to heart a profound reality. And we’ve begun to grow into adults.

Diogenes Sitting in His Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860). A founder of ancient Cynicism, Diogenes championed reason, nature, and a simple lifestyle over wealth and power.

Hooper: There are plenty of ideas, but sincerely we need to change our approach in epistemology. Dr. Itihari Toure explains epistemology as “the worth of knowing” instead of a way of knowing. Humanism hasn’t gathered that, though it formed to seek such ideals. Toure gives an example of teaching a child the alphabet, in which a teacher will spend more time instructing letter recognition versus sound identification. The worth of knowing in this circumstance is sounding out letters so that the child can read, not only a rote-memorization of letter recognition. Humanism must get the “worth of knowing”—hear and take heed of those knowings and value eclectic wisdoms beyond just science or logic as deemed by Western constructions. How can humanism be considered embodiment, intuition, instinct, imagination—and emotions as acts of intelligence to enhance human development?

Thompson: What do you hope readers take away from these ideas or from your AHA conference presentation (available to view at AHA’s YouTube page)?

Breeden: New eyes. Or at least newly opened eyes. Evidence suggests that humanisms appeared all over the world in antiquity. Most people interested in religions already know about Confucianism, Taoism, and Mohism. They may know certain sects of Hinduism, such as the Carvakas. But we are learning that the Aztecs practiced a version of virtue ethics, one more social and collective in nature than the Western versions.

Humanism is about liberation from provincialism. One of the horrors of what we in the Western world have unleashed is our correlation of individuality with essence. For example, we have claimed there is a difference in essence between females and males. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between Christian and atheist. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between European and other. We have claimed that there is a difference in essence between black and white. And on and on.

Well, what is essence and what is other in this paradigm? I’d say, frankly, that there is no definable difference between essence and cultural indoctrination.

In the face of the incredible richness of human thought, we do well to walk humbly with our own ideas, asking “why?” with every step we take. One of my scholar-heroes when I was in grad school was Edward Said. In his 1978 book Orientalism, he writes:

By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure. Moreover, humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking, therefore, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist.

There’s no such thing as an isolated humanist. That’s our future…if we choose it.

Hooper: Humanism is not one-size-fits all, and we need to make room at the table for everyone to make a contribution to empower our humanity together, especially if we want to see real change.