Gamm On: The Humanist Interview with Philanthropist Gordon Gamm

Courtesy: Dairy Arts Center

Gordon Gamm (left) is a retired attorney, an active investor, and a humanist philanthropist who lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife Grace (right). In addition to the major activities mentioned in this interview (which has been edited for clarity and length), Gamm has established a number of awards and interdisciplinary programs at the University of Colorado Law and Liberal Arts schools and Tulane University Law School; funded day care scholarships for low-income parents and assistance for mentally disabled job-seekers through the Boulder Valley Rotary Club; created the Bragg Symposium in Kansas City to celebrate Raymond Bragg (the principal author of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto and the first editor of the New Humanist); and founded the Boulder International Humanist Institute. Gamm has also established foundations with the Colorado ACLU; the American Humanist Association; the Center for Inquiry; the Colorado Music Festival; and the Boulder Philharmonic. He also contributed to the building for ETOWN, a Folk music venue in Boulder and the Jewish Community Center for the benefit of Beth Ami, the Boulder chapter of Humanistic Judaism.


Jennifer Bardi: You grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. How did your upbringing influence your embrace of a humanist philosophy?

Gordon Gamm: My father was a lawyer. Unlike some parents, he really encouraged me to be outspoken and to even disagree with him, and he respected my opinion on what I considered to be right or wrong. He would tell me about cases first-year law students would read and then ask me to be the judge and tell him how I thought the case should be decided. So early on I was taught to think about “fairness” and how judges decided to reach fair decisions in resolving conflicts without reference to God.

Also, growing up Jewish at a time shortly after the Holocaust, I think there was a lot of emphasis on critical thinking and on accepting the fact that we were the minority in a majority Christian nation, which meant that we had to think independently about morality.

It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Michigan and started studying philosophy that I learned about humanism. It struck me as really interesting that religion, Christianity in particular, was such an important component of our society and also how the Bible was in many ways out of touch with the morality that we live by.

JB: You yourself pursued a career as a lawyer and were successful at that. Can you talk about the type of law your father practiced and how it shaped your sense of justice?

GG:  My dad was severely disabled. He had gouty arthritis—one of the worst cases they had seen at both John Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. He was in a lot of pain during his lifetime and had several toes and fingers amputated. Still, he never lost sight of wanting to help people who were less fortunate. When he started in law practice he wasn’t only disabled by his gout—he was also disadvantaged by the anti-Semitism of the time. He was at the top of his class in law school and on the law review, but wasn’t able to get a job with one of the major firms, which would be more or less automatic today if you were at the top of your class.

My grandfather had declared bankruptcy during the Great Depression, and so Dad didn’t have very much money and he also had a family to take care of. He built his law practice by volunteering to represent criminal defendants who couldn’t afford a lawyer. This brought him recognition in the community, as his cases were reported in the newspaper. Most of his clients were black defendants who were charged with serious crimes—murder, rape, assault, battery—for which they might face the death penalty. He became a lawyer of last resort for defendants the public was inclined to prejudge as guilty, and he passed along to me a sense of social engagement and appreciation for helping people. I saw that Dad really loved the law as a vehicle for helping people who were less fortunate, were seeking compensation for being victims of another’s fault, and so on.

JB: I want to get into the role that activism and philanthropy can play in the humanist project, and how humanists don’t always get credit for these actions. You’ve funded numerous arts projects, political causes, and done philanthropy in many other areas as well. Let’s talk a little bit about art first. Was art an important part of your childhood? And what do you see as the overarching role of art in a civil and just society?

GG: I was a pretty good musician through high school. I was the first chair trumpet player in the school band and was also student conductor. I also play the piano by ear. Music inculcated a sense of being able to think outside the box. I love jazz, for example, which takes a lot of innovation and resourcefulness.

I think that the arts enhance the quality of our lives by providing another dimension to our worldview. Some people are very successful in business and have a knack for making lots of money to the point that it becomes the focus of their lives, but what is life worth if all you have is money? Other dimensions, such as an appreciation of nature, loving friendships, and the arts provide a wonderful, well-rounded life.

JB: I attended the opening of the new Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, Colorado, that you and your wife Grace made a significant donation to. There are now two small performance theatres there in your name (the Gordon Gamm Theater and the Grace Gamm Theater). The fine arts are often seen as rather elitist and mainly for the wealthy, but that space struck me as very community-oriented. What motivated you to help fund the performing arts?

© Ani Vattano Photography

GG: About eight years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I hadn’t really had anyone close to me who’d been treated for any type of cancer. My grandmother died from the disease but my parents kept me shielded from seeing her as she was dying. I just assumed that cancer was something that people normally die from. So, the question I had was, what am I going to do? How am I going to respond? And in fact, a friend of mine gave me the impression that I was going to have a pretty horrible experience in dealing with the cancer. Nevertheless, I said, if I only have a certain amount of time to live, let’s party! Grace and I went on some wonderful trips around the world with the National Geographic Society. We went to Africa, to Italy, and other really fantastic trips.

And then, doctors did the surgery and removed the cancer from my colon. Two years later they found that it had metastasized to my lungs, which is stage-four cancer. The oncologist told me that there was nothing more she could do. I went for second opinions at the University of Colorado Anschutz Hospital and also to MD Anderson at the University of Texas in Houston and both agreed that they could do surgery on the spots, which I underwent successfully. Two years after that, CAT scans indicated that my colon cancer had metastasized to my liver. Again, they said I had stage-four cancer (there is no stage five, only death).

At that point I decided I wanted to move forward and give money to charities that reflect my values. There are some sixteen different charities and programs I gave money to, including the redesign of the Dairy Arts Center.

It’s probably a longer answer than you were expecting, but I had three different runs at dying.  My first response was to party. The second one was to give and to see the results of the money that I gave away. Another reason why I gave to the Dairy was that at the pace they were going, I felt pretty confident I’d be around to see the result.

JB: There’s a plaque that hangs outside the entrance to the Gordon Gamm Theater that reads, in part,

As humanists we are grateful for this brief life experience and want to enrich it. The enlightenment philosophers were humanists who provided the foundation for our nation’s values. These values empowered our people to realize our capacity for self-government through our collective wisdom in seeking fulfillment for the general welfare. The arts are a reflection of human fulfillment in the search for beauty, innovation, knowledge, and a more perfect and caring community.

Why did you feel it was important to include those words?

GG: We humanists use the phrase “Good without a God” to repudiate the impression many in the public have that we can’t be trusted, that we’re selfish. I think we need to let people know that they’re misinformed when they disparage humanism by suggesting that if we don’t have a God to reward us after we die or punish us if we haven’t done well, there’s no motivation to be generous. I wanted people to know that my contribution to the arts in our community was motivated by my humanist values.

I’m in a Rotary Club, and one of our past presidents set a goal for everyone in the club to engage with some charitable organization. He asked me to write an article for the newsletter in which I would interview different members and ask them about the charities they were involved with and why. I was fully expecting most people to say that their religion had something to do with them making the decision to give either their time or money. But not a single member mentioned that their religion was the inspiration. Almost every one of them simply said the same thing I’ve said, that it more or less comes down to feeling a sense of reciprocity, wanting to give back to the community for the blessings of a good life and wanting to help others achieve the same.

JB: In some of your writings you’ve discussed research—namely a book by Arthur C. Brooks called Who Really Cares?—that suggests religious people are, in fact, more generous, honest, and generally happier and healthier than their nonreligious counterparts. How do you account for those findings and how do you see organized humanism responding?

GG: Brooks is respected as a scientist and a scholar, but of course he himself is also a Christian and the president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. I had doubts about his conclusions because of my research. Namely, crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction in this country and internationally. Murder rates are lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread. Atheists and agnostics have lower divorce rates than religious Americans. Conservative Christian women experience higher rates of domestic violence than unaffiliated women. Teens who make religiously inspired “virginity pledges” are as likely to engage in premarital sex and more likely to engage in unprotected sex than their non-pledging peers. Atheists and agnostics are less likely than religious people to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, or authoritarian. Secular people are much more likely to support women’s rights and gender equality, along with LGBT rights. Religious people are more likely to support the government’s use of torture.

Gordon and Grace Gamm are joined by members of their extended family for the opening of the Grace and Gordon Gamm Theaters on September 7, 2016, in Boulder, Colorado. (Ani Vattano Photography)

A recent study shows that religious prayer and meditation are not associated with an improved cardiovascular risk profile or reduced cardiovascular disease events. Nor do these studies support Brooks’s claim that the religiously affiliated have better overall health. In fact, greater religiosity is linked to higher levels of obesity. There is a negative correlation between life expectancy and religious affiliation by both country and state comparisons. That is, the countries and states with the highest life expectancy are the countries and states with the lowest weekly church attendance. The least religious countries fare better on life expectancy, income equality, child welfare, economic competitiveness, general healthcare, investment in education, rates of university enrollment, Internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations than the most religious nations.

And as far as generosity, the largest charitable donations in US history are from people with no known religious affiliation (except for Joan Kroc, who gave most of her money to the Salvation Army). I think that it was [AHA Executive Director] Roy Speckhardt who suggested, and I think he’s probably right, that rather than religion being what correlates with people being more generous and more honest, it’s their participation in an organization or a group of people who trust one another and encourage each other in being generous.

JB: Do you think that chapters and affiliates of the American Humanist Association, and other secular groups, need to step out of their mold of debate and discussion? Maybe pass the collection plate around or not, but get out in the community and become more visible as a humanist group doing social justice work or community service?

GG: My answer to that is a little bit complicated, because you can’t artificially impose that on humanist groups. Still, there is room to provide a broader range of activities that could engage people and create a sense of connectedness with one another. Charitable work and social activities are both ways to engage beyond simply spending time bemoaning religion or God.

I think our biggest hope for the growth of humanism is the Secular Student Alliance, which is engaging young college-age people. College is when I first became engaged with humanism, as I learned ideas that questioned the beliefs of my childhood.

I spoke to a student group in Golden, Colorado, recently and told them that humanism provides a distinct internal filter through which we see the world. As humanists we have something valuable to contribute in terms of our perspective about generosity and charity and about how to structure our charity to maximize social justice and welfare.

JB: I wanted to ask you about another area you’ve done a lot of work in: reproductive rights. You’ve advocated very strongly for women’s choice and funded some really important advertisements in newspapers and so forth. Can you talk a little bit about your motivation in this area?

GG: Whenever I take a position, I want to look at what other people who disagree with me have to say. So, I try to figure out what’s behind the so-called pro-life movement and why they regard it as so important to compel women to carry a fetus to term while ignoring the reality that the child may be unwanted. And the only thing I can come up with is that it’s the difference between having supernatural beliefs and not having supernatural beliefs. It’s the assumption that there is such a thing as a soul that enters the fetus at the time of conception that gives anti-choice crusaders some credibility in convincing others that they’re actually saving babies from being murdered. They are changing our language about the meaning of “baby” to conform to their religious beliefs about people they define as soul-connected.

In any event, there’s no way of determining whether there is a soul or what the soul is like. There’s no way of affirming its existence. But if you have a religion, and you’re trying to compete with other religions and you can say that your religion saves babies, that has a strong appeal to a lot of people. And religions are essentially in competition with each other for market share. That’s one way that the evangelicals got on board with the Catholics, which didn’t occur until the Moral Majority was established.

As humanists we believe that our world would be a better place if every child born was wanted and loved, and whose parent/parents had the capacity to provide a fulfilling life for their child.

JB: Are there any other groups you’re involved with that intersect with humanism?

GG: Yes, that’s another appeal about being a humanist. I don’t just give money to a charity, but I frame the charitable contributions in most cases around certain values that come out of my humanism. For example, when I found out that there were millions of preschool children in this country who are food insecure and that their brains don’t develop properly if they aren’t being adequately fed nutritious food, I thought it was inexcusable. So I started a program to ensure that there would be no preschool children in the City of Boulder who would be food insecure, and I partnered with the Boulder Valley School District to make that happen.

I started another program with Planned Parenthood in Colorado for teenagers who get pregnant and are required by law to get parental consent for an abortion. A lot of these young people are afraid to tell their parents and may even face violent repercussions. There is a provision called judicial bypass whereby girls can seek legal counsel who go to court and get the parental consent requirement waived. I helped to establish that program with volunteer lawyers.

Another program I started is in conjunction with the organization “I Have a Dream.” I had read that a lot of kids getting scholarships were dropping out of school because they lacked mentors to keep them motivated. Many are the first generation in their family to go to college, and they’re not prepared for the stresses that they encounter in being a college student. So, I started a scholarship program where I give a certain amount of money to a scholarship student in their second year. Then that amount increases during their junior year, and increases again in the senior year to encourage them to stay in school. “I Have a Dream” is a wonderful program that also provides tutors and mentors who can provide emotional support or counseling. We’ve had really good success with that program in keeping young people in college to graduate.

JB: I’m really inspired by all of your activities, and I hope that readers are not only inspired but also challenged to think about their activism and their philanthropy and how more humanists can really start to demonstrate what being good without a God means. So I want to thank you for all your work and for your time.

GG: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.