Be Not Constrained: James Croft on Humanists’ Responsibility to Fight Oppression

August 24, 2017

The modern conception of secular humanism arose in large part as a response to the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, and the evils of racism and bigotry. Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973, called for “the elimination of all discrimination based upon race, religion, sex, age, or national origin,” and envisioned a world in which all human beings were given equal dignity within a global community.

It is now two weeks since newly emboldened white supremacists, including Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, marched on Charlottesville, attacked counter-protesters, and murdered Heather Heyer. President Trump has exacerbated the ensuing tension and fear by refusing to assign full responsibility to the white supremacists, and insisting that the blame be shared by some contingent of an alleged “alt-left.”

It is time for humanism to respond once again. Our guest for this episode of Point of Inquiry is James Croft of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, who encourages us to fully live out the values of humanism, not just as an academic philosophy but as an urgent call to act on behalf of others. “Be not constrained,” he advises, as he and host Paul Fidalgo discuss how humanists can lead the way in healing our national wounds, but that the process must begin by honestly acknowledging and addressing the injustices that have permeated American society from its very beginnings.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Thursday, August 24th, 2017. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. Something malignant has burst in America. About two weeks ago, as of this recording, white supremacists, including avowed Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, burying torches, shouting racist chants and engaging in violence with counter protesters. Which, among other tragedies, led to murder when one of the white supremacists driving his car into a crowd of counter protesters on a pedestrian side street slammed into and killed 32 year old Heather Higher. President Trump, while making at least some halfhearted noise disavowing white supremacists, has gone out of his way to shift blame for the violence from the racists to the counter protesters and insisting that there were very fine people marching along with the Nazis and Klansmen. Few of us know how to process this rupture in the American conscience. I certainly don’t. I wanted to try, but I needed guidance. I needed to understand what was happening and how my humanism, the humanism espoused by the Center for Inquiry and other organizations can help us all to confront, understand and heal our bewilderment, our shame and our fear. So I ask James Croft to come on the show and help me help us through this. To view this national storm through a humanist lens. James is the outreach director of the St. Louis Ethical Society. And I think one of the strongest, most persuasive writers and thinkers in humanism and progressive activism, as you’ll hear, he has a lot of wisdom to offer. But more importantly, he calls us to evaluate our own biases and blind spots and to more affirmatively live out our humanist values. Before we get to that, some quick housekeeping. In our last episode I had teased the next show would be about aliens, which it clearly isn’t. Science writer Lee Billings was scheduled to come on the show, but we were met with a slew of technical difficulties, meaning we had to reschedule. So look for a conversation with Lee about extraterrestrials in the coming weeks. But for now, let’s get down to earth. 

James Croft, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you. 

It’s great to be here. I love your show. 

Oh, thank you. I’m glad you’re a fan. Now, James, as you know, this was not a long planned appearance for you to be on the show here and there. This may become a more informal conversation than we usually have on the program. But I think that’s a good thing. We’re going to be talking about the spasm of violence and hate that came out of the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville. And I asked you one specifically for me and for the audience. I felt like we needed to get some perspective on all this from someone who I knew had something to say about human ism’s role in confronting this phenomenon where we can help, where we’ve made things worse and so on. So before we get into all that, though, I want to give you a chance to talk about your humanist credentials, because there are precious few people that I can think of right now that kind of live out humanism in a very public way like you do. So, so far, the audience’s benefit. Who the hell are you, James? 

So I’m James Croft. I’m the outreach director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The Ethical Society is a congregation for humanists and people of any religious background and none who want to explore the big questions of life without reference to God or the supernatural. So we provide many of the things that a church provides their members without references to Scripture or God or anything supernatural. So we meet on Sundays for music and hopefully inspiring ethical talk. That I give often and an opportunity for people to be in community with each other. And we’re sort of like a a community hub for humanists. And one of the roles that we play in that capacity is connecting people together who want to make a difference in the world. So we have a lot of members who are activists in the community. And because I’m the outreach director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, I’m often called upon to represent the community in public and to be part of coalitions with other religious and not religious organizations. When we work on political and cultural issues and to do a lot of at least I feel like it’s part of my work to do a lot of activism on behalf of human is values in St. Louis and beyond. So you’ll often find me out on the streets protesting or speaking at a rally or working with other groups to pass a law or something like that in order to make the world a little more humanistic. 

It’s the ethical society, which is a branch of ethical culturalism, is that correct? 

Yes. So the form of humanism, the flavor of humanism that we teach and represent is called ethical culture. It’s a slightly weird, old fashioned name, but we’ve been around for more than 140 years as a movement. The ethical society in signals has been around for more than 130 years, and we exist in order to give a communal home for people who hold broadly humanistic values. 

Is there a stark divider at all between those who are part of ethical culture and those who might just consider themselves humanist? Like, what is the separation there? Like, why make that particular determination? 

I honestly myself don’t feel that there’s a stark division between humanism more broadly, the values and ideas that we promote the ethical society. Some people might feel a bit differently. I think the main distinction is that most humanists that I know do not express their humanism through coming together in a communal setting, kind of like a congregation. And we do. Our main form of organization is congregational. And the founder of the ethical culture movement felt that was important to encourage people to make connections with each other and to get involved in their community. The congregations play a very important role in developing what we would now call social and civic capital, and that they shouldn’t go away just because people don’t any longer believe in the particular teachings of any traditional religion. So he thought that he would build replacement congregations where anyone could come regardless of their religious beliefs. And so we are probably different from the rest of the humanist movement, more in our mode of organization than in our beliefs and values. 

That makes sense. And you said that you have religious members as well. 

We have members who consider ethical culture their religion. We have members who consider themselves not religious. And we have some members who have another religious identity and also sometimes come to the ethical society. So who would think of themselves as Jewish and who would think of themselves maybe as Christian? But also comes the ethical society sometimes or all the time. But they still share all your your values. Yes. What we are gathered together around is a set of core values, not a set of beliefs about the world or about God or about the afterlife. We don’t really address those topics very frequently in. Sunday morning meetings, we promote a particular set of values, a particular set of ideals about how we should treat each other and how we should seek to go through life. And we believe that those values are potentially universal among the human species and that anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, could probably hold them. So we don’t make specific religious beliefs the kind of barrier to entry. 

That’s what that’s actually a very interesting distinction between humanism, especially activist humanism and the broader atheist movement. I do want to return to that later. Now, you have a lot of experience directly with activism on race in particular. You happen to be in St. Louis. I think you arrived shortly before the events in Ferguson. Am I correct about that? 

Yeah, it was kind of astonishing. I moved to St. Louis in June of 2014 and Mike Brown was murdered in August 2014. And so very shortly after I began work at the Ethical Society, at that point, I was in a sort of apprenticeship role training to become a ethical culture leader, which is the technical term for all clergy people. I was finishing my training and that involves a one year internship at a ethical society, and I’d moved to St. Louis from Boston to do that internship. And immediately after I moved there, Mike Brown was killed. Then the Ferguson uprising happened. And so much of my earliest work in the St. Louis community involved getting together with local clergy of other traditions and figuring out how to respond. Now, I should say upfront, in case people can’t tell, I’m a white guy, so I’m not affected directly by the police brutality. Right. Yeah, well, it’s important to say because. Because we’re going to be talking about racism and. And I’m not personally subject to racism, but so I hopefully try and be an effective ally to people of color in this fight. But in terms of the work that I did in being involved in the Ferguson uprising, I was intensely involved for many months. I was not a frontline street activist for much of the most intense street protesting, partly because as an immigrant to the United States, I had to be quite careful about what actions I participated in, because an arrest for me is potentially significant for my visa status and my capacity to continue to stay in the United States. And so I was quite consciously careful about that, although I did end up getting arrested anyway. Oh, congratulate. Thank you. Thank you. It was not planned. But I worked in a number of different capacities during the uprising, very often spending many hours in jail support, which was volunteer who helped people who were being arrested. Basically, they would call us if they had been arrested and give us their information. We would track them through the system. We would inform their friends and family. We would make sure that there was bail money available. We would try and just help the person who’s been arrested. Understand that people on the outside know where they are. And we’re looking out for people because we really do not trust. I will speak personally. I do not trust the police at all to treat protest as well. I’ve just seen too many things happen and we’ve seen we’ve heard too many stories of terrible treatment. And so having that eye of your core volunteers who are tracking people through the system, who know where people were arrested and how long they’ve been in custody and what they’re being charged with and what the bail amount is, that was seemed to me like very important work. And I’ve continue to do that. This past week, I was doing some jails or actually that continue to be protests all the time and signals. But I got heavily involved in that with other clergy people. And I have continued, I hope to be at least somewhat useful in the fight for racial justice and against police brutality in St. Louis. 

So it is a real trial by fire. When you kind of started your training here and you immediately had to apply the humanist values that you were working on cultivating and throwing them right into something that was very heated and chaotic and had violence and a lot of other implications for it. How was your your congregation handling that? That moment was. Was there a kind of divide and how people saw protesters versus police or were you guys all on the same side? 

For the most part, that’s a really perceptive and interesting question. So firstly, I have this justly to just respond. Yes, absolutely. You’re great at it all to kind of respond to the first part of the thing that you said, which is that it was a kind of trial by fire and totally true. It was also a calling to see what to consider. What does humanism actually mean in action when there is a challenge to people’s dignity and rights right in front of you and your own community, a clear state of affairs, as there was in Ferguson around St. Louis, whereby the lives of people of color were simply not being seen as valuable and continue not to be seen as valuable as white lives. And I see it as starkly is that it’s simply a system in which black lives are systematically devalued at every single point in culture and politics, in the economic system, in the legal justice system. 

And to me, that is as explicitly anti humanistic as you can get. The core value of humanism, in my mind, is the full dignity and worth of every person. And that is not currently recognized for people of color in the United States, which is just mired in a racial quagmire, which has existed since its founding as a nation and has never been resolved or even adequately addressed. That’s my belief. And that is honestly. I had my own process of discovery doing this work of coming to learn a little bit more about how profoundly racist the system is through and through. 

And it was disillusioning in a very literal sense of I had an idea of what America was like. I bought into some of the narrative of America as a nation of free people and equality for all and all this stuff and. 

I honestly, I had my eyes opened, and it’s I think that people of color listen to this will probably be I don’t know. 

I don’t know how people feel. I I know that some of my friends are frustrated with how long it takes many white people to get to that conclusion when it’s so. Once you see it, it is so obvious. It’s like taking the red pill and seeing the matrix, I think. 

I think it’s so obvious to some of us, but I think to others, I think there’s just been this buildup of like a callous built up of denial about what they do see right in front of their eyes. 

And it makes it makes it hard for them to to admit that things could be as bad as they have been. And yes, before I mean, I want to get to Charlottesville too early, but I think Charlottesville was one of those things where there was this explosion, where it suddenly became apparent and undeniable. 

I agree. I think that there is a callous of simply. 

Having lived with the status quo for so long. People just think it’s normal and that’s the way it has to be. But I also think that obviously white people have an interest in maintaining the status quo because we are benefited by we’re privileged by in all aspects of our lives. And so even if we don’t want those privileges, we still receive them. And on some level, I think everybody has a vested interest. Every white person has a vested interest in maintaining the racist system, myself included, because it we do well out of it. It was designed in order to benefit us. And one of the insidious things that I have found about structural violence and structural inequality, which is not just racism, but homophobia and sexism and other isms, is that the one of the ways that they function is by hiding themselves from the consciousness of the people who are benefited by that. So men tend not to see sexism and straight people tend not to see homophobia because they don’t experience the violent effects of that structural system. It’s much easier for them to deny that it even exists. It just seems like normal for them. And I was in that place honestly, too. I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t like a card carrying racist. I wouldn’t sure a spouse explicitly racist views, but I was certainly clueless and oblivious to the extent of racial domination of white supremacy in America. And people say, you know, get work. 

Ferguson woke me up and particularly the young activists of color, lots of queer women of color leading the movement. They did a great job in waking up a lot of white people and in making this movement national and essential to respond to. 

I consider the Ferguson uprising one of the greatest exports that St. Louis has ever had, because it really changed the conversation around race in this country. But you asked how it was for our congregation. I don’t want to speak for all our members. We have almost 400 members. 

And it’s obviously people have different experiences. But how I experienced it as a kind of new person in a leadership position in that community. What is as a as a matter of fact, a majority white community right now in terms of our membership? It was a process of learning and. 

Development, education and an I tried to think, particularly after the heat of the first few months, was dying down a little bit in my mind, and I was able to think a little more clearly about it because there were months when I was just furious all the time and going to rallies and protests every single day. 

And I was very angry and I wasn’t necessarily thinking particularly well about my role, how to manage my role as a leader in that community. But when I started to think about it more clearly, I realized that. 

If we’re going to change this system, we do actually, I think, need the Buy-In of many white people who hold a lot of the levers of power and that that is going to require what is ultimately going to be a slow process of education. 

And it is, I think, part of my work as a white person in this movement. And I hope that I’m not wrong about this. Thinking about it is to try and educate other white people about what is really going on in this country and be the voice that tries to be more calm and more welcoming because I. 

Because I think that’s very difficult to do when you are subjected to a particular form of violence. I obviously I will follow what people can tell me to do, but I feel I have been told that I am good at leading people down a path of discovery on this. 

And I tried to do that with our congregation. And I think now I think I would say that we have overwhelming buying into the idea that we have to play a role in dismantling white supremacy in our city and in our nation. 

And I think that the SC culture movement has gotten to that place overall. We recently passed a national statement in our most recent annual assembly about reparations, exploring in our own societies, making racial reparations. 

And I think that puts us in a position that many organizations are not. And I said I was proud of that. So I think that we got to a good place. There was a struggle and we still have to continue doing that educational work. But I think that we got to a place where we have majority people’s understanding that this is something that’s been going on for a long time. 

This is not something to dismiss as angry people who are mean and violent, which is how a lot of people on the right want to dismiss this. Oh, yeah. I don’t like America, you know, which is kind of the the narrative that we see a law that these are people who are fighting for their lives, literally, and we should be fighting with them in this kind of gets in to the broader topic of human isms role as a life stance, as a philosophy. 

I’ll tell a little tale about SIFIs past here when Ferguson was happening, especially when those when it was really a parent. I remember that night when it’s really apparent that a hyper militarized police force was bearing down on this neighborhood. And I know for myself and for some of my coworkers at CFI, we were we were watching this live on television and live on social media and just aghast and wondering what it was we as an institution could do or say that would make any difference at all. And we really struggled with what are the boundaries of what our mission is and what is what needs to be done for this particular issue of police violence or racism more generally. And we did wind up responding on a few things. And and I’m glad that we did. But we tended to kind of, I would say, make them hyper focused on things that were directly in our wheelhouse, you know, free expression kind of stuff, which wasn’t necessarily as satisfying to me as I would have liked to have gone broader. But I understand there’s there is this kind of reticence not to go outside of our particular mission and let the other organizations that are better suited to handle those bigger things take care of them. But I think that you and forgive me, I’m putting words in your mouth, but I think you would take a different tack on that. I know that you’ve written that if you are not fully devoted to racial equality, then you’re not really being a humanist. And, you know, CFI is definitely a secular humanist organization and we believe all of those things very, very strongly. But we felt a little constrained about how to respond to that. So but you have a different take on that. 

I do. 

I think be not constrained would be my message like. Yeah, as far as I understand it, if I recall correctly, the mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. Well, you just off the tongue for you. That’s. How about that? Or I have Google right in front of you could have that. And humanist values include a commitment to the dignity of every person. That is the foundational humanist value. It’s why those other things are good. Science and freedom of inquiry are goods because they are good for the promotion of human dignity and human life. And autonomy is good because it’s a good for human beings that we are seeking to create a world in which everyone can live with dignity. And that is why we exist. And I think racial justice is clearly, directly in that wheelhouse. And I think that it is. I’m not speaking about see if I hear I’m speaking out broadly about our humanist movement. I think it’s extremely regrettable that we have a. Time allowed ourselves to become so narrowly focused on these what I think are procedural questions about expression in the public square, which are very, very important. But they they should represent a deeper commitment to human dignity, which is what humanism is actually about. And in situations where dignity of our fellow citizens is traduced, we should be there saying thou shalt not treat other people this way. 

It is what humanists have always throughout history argued, is that there are some things you cannot do to a human being. 

And there are ways to organize society such that human beings are able to live more freely and with fuller dignity. And that’s what we should be going for. 

That’s what the is all say. It’s what it certainly will feel exactly. Found the ethical culture movement believed. He wanted to move away from traditional relations, partly because he didn’t find a secure guarantee of human dignity in them. 

It’s it’s why we criticize the homophobic or sexist things in traditional religious beliefs, because we think that people should not be subject to structural violence like sexism and homophobia. And racism is the same. 

And I think that honestly, part of the reticence in the humanist movement broadly about getting involved in issues of racial justice more openly is simply because historically it’s been quite a white movement and we are bound up in white supremacy. 

We benefit as a movement that presents itself as this kind of reasonable, rational, well-educated core of people from a system which which essentially associates a lot of those qualities with whiteness. And I think that my belief was that I couldn’t work for a humanist organization and not have a crystal clear stance on racial injustice. And it’s how pervasive it is throughout society. If humanism just becomes about freedom to think what you want, but not freedom to walk down the street without being shot to death by police officer, what the hell good is that? It doesn’t. I don’t think that that is respectful of the fullness of the of the world view. I’m not saying that CFI represents that. I’m just saying that in general, I would be annoyed with that. 

Now, one of the strong things that we do, for example, is the secular rescue project or where those people who are being shot or attacked with machetes or something for believing what they believe or trying to get them to safety, for example. But I think that what the constraint very often is not just for the Center for Inquiry, but I think across the board for the secularist movement is that we tend to respond to things only if they are a direct result of religious or anti scientific belief. 

So we’ll respond to LGBT discrimination. Right. And we will put that in terms of that discrimination is being born of a religious belief about gay people. And so that’s why we have a role to play in in this particular fight or when we’re talking about women’s rights and abortion rights, that because so many of these objections to these things come from a religious mindset, that’s where we feel like we have a role to play. Whereas the the grander problem, the more insidious problem of institutional racism, it’s more it’s murkier on that side. That’s not to say that there’s not, you know, religion or pseudoscience baked in there, but it’s not it’s not a pillar necessarily or at least a publicly facing pillar of the problem. And so we feel like we’re a little constrained as to what we can say about that, that that suits us. But I also agree with you that just just by dint of being humanists at all, it compels us to move more assertively in that direction. 

Yeah, I believe it does. 

I think you’ve identified a genuine dynamic in the humanist movement in that we tend to focus on those oppressions which are based on bad beliefs, what we consider to be wrong beliefs or dogmatic beliefs about religion, for instance. I think you’re right that we do that and we partly do that because we see ourselves as humanists to be kind of distinct from an opposed to traditional religions. And because we like to be the kind of smartest people in the room, we pray price, rationality and thinking. And when we see obviously bad beliefs leading to bad treatment of people, we’re like, wow, we’re going to really go in on that. But of course, anti scientific beliefs or dogmatic beliefs aren’t the only source of oppression. There are forms of structural oppression that on not clearly and obviously directed directly related to a mistaken belief about some fact. Oppression is much broader and more complex than that. And I think we need to go in with equal vigor. When we see people oppressed for whatever reason, and I have to say that one of the things that concerns me in the movement right now is increasingly I think we are seeing some prominent humanists and skeptics move in to see those scientific realms themselves when they start offering apologies for people who conduct IQ research based on race and things so that people who defend that research, I I think that what’s happening there is that this is fetishization of an idea of free inquiry, which is blocking people from seeing that was actually happening here is that racism is working itself out. Right. That that these I studied human development. That’s what my doctorate is in. 

I did that at Harvard. I studied with some of the world experts in psychometric testing and we did not consider. I would say it’s fair to say that during my doctoral program, while studying these things, that, for instance, the theory of IQ was a scientifically valid and respectable theory anymore are referring to Charles Murray and his theories. 

So so I’m thinking about. Right. The recent kind of defense of Charles. Am I right? And and his his theories about racial differences in intelligence. And I understand that IQ is a widely used concept, but I personally do not consider it to be a. 

Rigorously defensible scientific concept, which has a clear definition that can be linked to genuine aspects of the human organism, and I think it’s extraordinarily culturally bound. I think it has been from the beginning, and I think it’s also the problems with it. 

And I think from my training in human development, as an as a specialist in that field who did my doctorate in it, that is is pretty much the consensus view of people in that field. And now I see humanists and skeptics defending that work that I consider pseudoscientific. And I see I have to ask myself why. And I think that part of what is happening is that we and we should probably talk about Charlottesville in a similar context. There is a narrative that’s being put out by some people that the left or social justice warriors are anti inquiry and kind of anti truth, that they have their dogma. Right. And so that if that’s the case and people are committed to skepticism and free inquiry, then anyone who challenges the so-called dogma of the social justice left, right, all champions for the untrammeled exploration of the world and scientific truth and scientific values, even if what they’re purveying is actually pseudo science, the fact that it it counters or seems contrary to some of the perceived dogmas the left has means that it’s anti dogmatic in people’s minds. I see that trend happening in the culture right now. 

It disturbs me because while I do agree, there are aspects of every movement which become dogmatic, the correct response to that is to be genuinely open minded. It’s not to sort of go extreme to make a point. And I think I see that happening. 

Let’s let’s actually take this to Charlottesville. So just to catch people up, we are recording this toward the end of August in 2017, and white supremacists were marching in Charlottesville and there was violence they committed against counter protesters. And we had the vehicular murder of Heather Meier and all that was bad enough. Then over the next few days, President Trump continuously made these false equivalencies between the white supremacists there and the counter protesters inventing this violent ALZ left that he called it. He said that was equally at fault. This both sides thing and that there were some really what he said were fine people among the Nazis and the Klansmen that were marching that day. So this is a big reason why. The main reason, frankly, that I’m having you on today, because I have to admit, when Trump was unable to make this distinction in his first statements and in his third and fourth and whatnot, I felt a kind of genuine panic, as upsetting as the events in Charlottesville were like taking the pressure off the Nazis, the president of the United States taking pressure off white supremacists and trying to kind of let them off the hook, even a little taking their side even a little. I couldn’t quite psychologically and emotionally handle that. He would take such a position. And I feel like I wanted to, like, scoop up my family and run away somewhere like, oh, God, I can’t let this guy near my family. So let me ask you first, what was your what’s been your reaction to to Trump’s responses to this? And my right to be panicked about this. And is there a is there a danger, a clear and present danger here that I’m perceiving? 

Yes, I think you’re right to be panicked. I. 

Did not have quite the same response, because it sounds to me like you’re describing a kind of process, part of a process that sounds like what I experienced during the Ferguson uprising of realizing how bad it actually already is and that. 

I just I had a period of mourning and grief. 

I would have to say where I was, I was mourning the loss of my idea of America. 

And in fact, not just America, but of the world. Sure, it was just a genuine realization that the world is much more profoundly unjust than I had hitherto realized. And that’s coming from someone. I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager. I had been doing, you know, work on all sorts of injustices for many years. 

And I hadn’t for my relatively privileged position as a white CIS man who is not poor. I had never really had that emotional realization that for most people on planet Earth, the current world system does not serve them. It does not allow them to live as I am able to live with genuine dignity and life options and choices that we have. We have not just built, but we maintain a world that is profoundly unjust for the more vast majority of people on it. And so I actually wasn’t surprised. I expected that Trump would do that. And and I, I, I was very alarmed throughout the election process. One of the things that I saw and saw after his election sometimes still see today in the humanist move in itself since we’ve been talking about the movement, is people saying kind of be calm, be levelheaded, don’t be over the top in your denunciations. You know, he’s not a Nazi. He’s a it was so far away from that and all that stuff and. 

I think that some of that comes from such a privileged place. 

I know that some of our listeners are going to really hate that, but it’s just it. 

Obviously, he is not Hitler, right? We are not there yet. But the point is, there is no reason, no cosmic reason. And humanists should understand this better than anybody. Why that sort of history could not repeat itself. 

All you need are the economic, cultural, political, social factors to be ripe for extremism to foster and the human animal will fall into extremism. It is a trend that we have seen again and again throughout our history. 

We are evolved organisms who tend to respond to certain stresses in particular ways. And we right now have a combination of economic insecurity, political dysfunction and cultural anxiety, which is causing people to turn to extremist views and look for scapegoats just as we have before in our past. 

The same things are happening now. So, yes, we we have a leader in the White House, someone who people actually elected to be president, who genuinely defends neo-Nazis as part of his job and has actively sought to restrict the freedoms of people who are opposing them. And that is alarming. People should be alarmed if people are not alarmed at the state of our democracy right now. They are not seeing this is very scary. Now I do. I genuinely think, though, that the United States has better systems in place to restrain the power of that individual. I think we are also very lucky in a certain sense that he is an incompetent and an a narcissist. 

And I don’t I mean, the common way that I don’t mean to diagnose him with anything, but he is obviously narcissistic in the general use of the term. And and so he is not a very effective politician at getting his actual agenda through. And I think we are very lucky in that, because if the same demagogic tendencies and the same ability to rile up crowds and the same ability to manipulate the media, but was also ruthlessly effective politician, we would be in even worse position. 

But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. I still hear some people telling me there was a good thing he was elected because it’s waking people up to how bad things are or that he’s never going to achieve anything or change anything because he’s so rubbish at a governing. And and that really, I think, profoundly misunderstands how dangerous it is to the psyche of the nation and to the cultural underpinnings of democracy, which is essentially a fiction that we buy into short that that this sort of person is running the country and doing the sorts of things he’s doing. I think you should be alarmed. 

OK, well, good, because I definitely want to make everyone feel good. Yes. 

No, because I definitely I definitely am alarmed. And what you know, I don’t know if this is particularly related to humanism, per say. Probably isn’t. But whatever it’s my show, this these alarm bells have been going on for some time. Right. All the way back to the beginning of the campaign. And I think what you were talking about with the fact that he’s you know, he’s kind of an incompetent clown in a lot of ways. And it made, I think, a lot of our institutions and a lot of the establishment not take what he represented seriously, although I remember during the debate when he said he’s going to lock up Hillary Clinton if he’s elected. And all the pundits after the debates were saying, well, that’s it. He just he just ended his campaign. Well, that’s it. That’s all it’s all done now, which, of course, turned out to be wrong. And what I learned from that and from people’s reaction to the Access Hollywood tapes and to his overt racism throughout the campaign was that there really isn’t this conscience that is sensitive enough to kind of repel someone like that off of the political arena. We just kind of absorbed that. And that was, I think, very telling to me about just just as much as Ferguson was telling in one aspect, the reaction to Trump generally has shown me where we are weak and and more susceptible. 

That’s acceptable. But we are more liable to just accept whatever kind of demagogery comes at us. Does that make sense? 

Yes, it makes sense. And I think you’re right, people discounted the danger partly because he was seen as kind of a buffoon and a silly figure. And so outside of what’s normal for years was considered normal, fierce politics that people couldn’t take him seriously, very effectively. 

But I think. I think that, again, we humans should understand this. We are not the perfect, rational beings that sometimes we like to imagine ourselves. We are far from that. And we will respond to the person who sings our music the best. 

It really is like your favorite summer song with those problematic lyrics that you hate, but you kind of love the song, so you keep playing it. I read it’s just a gut level appeal to a certain form of cultural identity. He is a demagog. 

He appeals to people’s gut level vision about how the world should be. And there is a group of people, a large group of people in the United States who feel like the country has moved away from their idea of what America should be, that they have a huge emotional attachment to what that idea of America should be. And in addition to that, some I think it’s fair to say, legitimate grievances about how the economic system has not served them, about how the political system has been totally unresponsive to their needs. And you put that together with someone who’s able to speak the cultural language that they speak. And I really think it’s significant that Trump is, you know, clearly attuned to read it and to the old right message boards and to the world of right wing Meems, because that is the language in which he speaks. You know, he we make fun of his tweeting, but he he’s speaking in the language that his people understand and that resonates with them on a deep level. I think these people think they just feel like he is one of them. He is on their side. And it is. And that is enough. And they didn’t feel like that about Hillary. They didn’t feel like that about any of the other candidates on the Republican side. I mean, obviously, if you think about them now, the other Republican candidates, it’s kind of absurd to imagine any of them being president. I think it’s kind of actually I look back and I’m like, how did we ever think any of the other ones could ever win? Like, they had nothing like this connection with people and. I think that that is something that humans have to grapple with and be honest about is that we will not win this cultural competition that’s happening now with sterile appeals to people’s rationality. We’re not going to argue them out of this. We need to seeing people out of it. We need to paint a picture of a future. They cannot help but want. And that’s why, you know, it. It has to be Star Trek or something. 

We have to story tell a story about a world that, yes, people who are currently, you know, a little bit excited about white supremacy and white nationalism get excited about, too. We have to become better storytellers to defeat this. Otherwise, the people who who are selling the best mute mood music right now are going to win. 

That’s that’s great, because I know that you’ve written about that very thing about one of the problems that humanists and those who believe in social justice have is that our stories are not as compelling as these these stories that the right has that that really unify them as a cultural tribe, as a unit. And we don’t have that kind of compelling trajectory to offer. And as you’ve written, I think that we spend a lot of time deconstructing everything that’s wrong. And you and I are doing that right now. We’re talking about what’s what’s wrong that led to Ferguson and that led to Charlottesville. But as you say, we need like a Star Trek type story to tell that this is what we’re aiming for and this is where we are going. 

Have you seen that’s an example of that kind of storytelling. Is there a template for us? I mean, maybe it is just Star Trek, but have you seen anything else that might suit that? 

Actually, it’s funny. You should you should ask that, because literally yesterday I completed an application that I sent in to the Roddenberry Fellowship, which is a new fellowship program. Oh. Started by a foundation which was set up in honor of Gene Roddenberry and his Star Trek vision of the future. 

And they want to find 20 people to give fifty thousand dollars to to fund a project that will impact the areas of LGBTQ issues, immigrants rights, racial justice and environmentalism. And I I submitted an application firstly because how amazing is it that there’s a foundation to carry on Gene Roddenberry vision? 

It just moves me. I know I just can’t solve gridding, but also because I what I want to do is build an academy for activists where we train people to tell those sorts of positive stories of the future, where we actually train people with the skills required to imagine a positive vision of the future, which we can enroll people in. That is inviting and welcoming and isn’t simply seeking to deconstruct the problems that we have today. And I’m not saying I want to stress this because people mistake me often that we shouldn’t do the deconstruction work. I think that’s very important. I think it’s important to say this is exactly what is wrong with our current society. But that is only half of a story that’s like the hell part of your story. You need a heaven to lead people to. You need a hopeful vision. And I think we need to train people to do that better. I do see cultural expressions that really moved me that make me feel like actually I think this is a way of articulating it in the fictional sphere. 

I’ve just been watching Sensate for the first time Netflix TV series, and I love it. 

And part of what I love about it is that it’s actually a very hopeful vision of how people with very diverse identities can come to understand each other and work together. And I see it as a kind of powerful fictional affirmation of our common humanity despite our differences. And I do think that that is a story we’re getting better at, telling the story of diversity. We’re not getting better at telling the story of unity within diversity. And I think that that is a particular narrative challenge. We don’t want to tell a story if we’re all the same. You know, the We’re All from Africa T-shirt, the U.S.A. Atheist conventions. Sometimes it’s like, no, that’s not what we want. We don’t want a reductive story that that focuses on the lowest common denominator. 

But I do think we need an inspiring story about, ah, ability as people to see and recognize each other and to fight for each other, even though we are profoundly different. I think that that is a story that we need, weirdly. I mean, it it’s amazing that I found myself to an ethical society and find my work there, because obviously when I was growing up, I never knew anything about ethical societies. They don’t really have them in England. And even while I was involved in the humanist movement, I didn’t really hear of them until a few years of being involved. But the founder of the ethical societies had this idea about we had to uplift. Individual human dignity is the most important thing. But also radical human community that we had to do both at the same time. 

And he had this idea that I cannot be who I am as an individual. If you cannot be who you are as an individual, so are ability to be our individual selves is bound up with our ability to be in community with each other. And that philosophical concept is something I think needs to be expressed better in a narrative form. I don’t have that story right now. 

I’m going to try and write a book that articulate some of that, some of what this vision for the future might be like. 

And that’s kind of a project I’m going to start working on literally today when I’m off this school. Oh, good. Because I feel like it’s so important. But I don’t have examples to give you of a people who are doing it particularly well right now. 

So we need to start doing it. We need to get to work doing that right now. 

I think we do. 

That’s my belief in any other circumstance. I’d want to end on this kind of hopeful idea. But I think there’s something that we have to tackle, which is among the white supremacists. There is unfortunately a a contingent of self-described atheists or what they would call skeptics or or what have you. And we’ve I’ve at least noticed that particularly in the Reddit communities and that kind of place, that you you said yourself that Trump can connect you very well, that there is seem, at least just anecdotally, at least, there seems to be more noise coming from those who are, if not overtly white supremacist, at least on the wrong side of things like misogyny and race relations and whatnot. You know, we we have the stereotype, the racist fundamentalist Christian who, you know, we we have that archetype in our minds. And now we’re seeing something that’s different, where they where there is a claim that they are able to use their rationality to justify whatever it is that they believe. Have you seen this as well? And what do you think explains that? I have seen that. 

I don’t think we should be surprised by. The first thing we should realize is that people who call themselves humanists and atheists are people. We are not immune to being racist or to any of the. Any of the trends that I’ve been describing, the cultural trends or the human instincts that lead people into particular political beliefs. We’re just not immune. And we should never think that because we take a humanistic view of the world, we are no longer human beings. Like we’re immune to these things. I think there’s a weird tendency maybe within all religious groups as a desire to feel that you’re one is the best. And I think the humanistic values are the best. But that doesn’t mean that people who consider themselves humanists are just better than everybody else. I think that that’s it would be foolish to think that. So I’m not surprised that there are racist self-declared humanists and atheists. I think that I haven’t done the work. 

I know that other bloggers and writers in the movement have done more of this work of tracing how a particular subset of the atheist community has become enthralled by the old right. 

I mean, that has clearly occurred. And I think part of it is. Something that I see again and again in my work is the feeling among some white liberal minded people that they are kind of being shut down and attacked by SJW use and that their way of being a liberal is not good enough for today’s activists. And so they feel like they’re being pushed out of almost kind of being a liberal because they’re not on board with the social justice language and things like that. 

And they’re not comfortable with discussions of privilege. I find that in my experience, just as a matter of fact, the concept of privilege is very alienating to a lot of people who have it. 


I think that that is operating within human status communities, that there are people who think of themselves as good, people who think of themselves to have the quotes, write political opinions, but are being held to a higher standard, that they realize that they don’t actually meet and that they’re like, well, why wasn’t I good? Why am I good enough for you? 

I think and I think that they’re feeling judged and looked down upon. I actually think that in terms of the emotional dynamics of the old right. A lot of it is about people feeling looked down upon and talked down to and belittled. Humiliated. Yes. And. I don’t want to say that those feelings are an excuse at all for for the political opinions they take because there is no excuse for becoming a neo-Nazi or an explicit white supremacist. 

But I do think we do need to do a little bit better at understanding the emotional dynamics involved and seeing if we can craft ways of talking about our social justice values that do not make people feel a little didn’t look down to, because there is a slight tendency that I’ve observed with an activist communities to say, well, if you feel belittled by how and communicating with you, that’s yet more evidence that you are not one of us. Right. Which obviously makes people feel more belittled and more pushed out. And I think that we can find ways of staying 100 percent true to our values. No. Come from mys on our social justice values. But communicating them in a more inviting way, that does not risk pushing people away from us. And sometimes and increasingly, I’ve been trying to get into that discussion with my my own social justice community to say, do we really need to address these issues in exactly this way or can we find ways that would reach all the people we’re reaching now and more? Because if we can do that, we’re going to just be the most important thing. I mean, I should say the social justice community is also community human beings. It can also be dogmatic and closed minded and and unwilling to think of new ways of doing things and and enjoying its kind of moment of cultural superiority. Of course, that can happen. 

And so we always have to be vigilant within our own communities and ask, when are we really acting in a way that furthers all that and is to the best and whether we’ve kind of indulging ourselves and being a little bit smuggle superior and not doing something that’s going to likely result in the sort of world we want to live in. 

It’s the humanist way to go about it, is what it sounds like that, you know, if you hold progressive values, there are certain social justice values that you hold. The humanist way to go about that would be to try to reach as many people outside your particular tribe right now to try to communicate those values and lift everybody up. So if these people there are a certain group of people who are having trouble with that or who are opposed to that, if you can bring them along a little, you lift them up a little. And I feel like that’s the humanist approach to this kind of education. I do. I do want to wrap things up because I know I’ve used up a whole hour of your time here. It sounds to me like Charlottesville in particular with something so explicit and so kind of as I as it did for me panicking that this is a real humanist moment, like this is a real time that humanists are called to really put their values into action. I wrote recently after Charlottesville happened that the second Humanist Manifesto itself was written as a response to the Nazis, to a form of white supremacism. And it saw the horrors of the Holocaust and World War Two and decided that humanism needed more wholly address that particular phenomenon. I feel like we’re at a similar flashpoint now where we are seeing these things out in the open for and they are blatant and we have a press, the United States, who is kind of on their side. And so this is a moment for us to try, as you say, try to tell better stories, because this is a moment that we’re called to put those values into action. 

Absolutely. The humanist values that we represent and we seek to bring alive in the world have, I don’t think, been more under threat in my lifetime than they are now. 

We really are standing at a turning point for our civilization because this is not just happening in the United States, but across the world. We are seeing a resurgence of extremist right wing nationalist Zemmour xenophobic views, and that is anti everything that humanism stands for. 

Humanism stands for globalism and universal human values. And the idea that we are not in a competition with our neighbors, a winner takes all game where some people win and some people lose. And so we better be the ones who win. That is not our story. Our story is we live on a shared planet. One species, one life lived together. And it is our responsibility to work together to make that life dignified for all people. 

And we need people telling that story. Now more than we’ve ever needed, because that story is under profound threat everywhere in the world. 

So you’re going to go and work on your story. What can other humanists who are listening to this, who now have been inspired by our conversation because we are so incredibly persuasive and but humanists who really do want to do something on to live out those values. What can they do? 

Get involved in? Community, find a community organization and join it and volunteer your time for it. It’s not going to be perfect and you’re going to have to put up with stuff that you don’t like, like it might have to, you know, sit there while people do a prayer or something like that. But I really think we have too many people starting new stuff. I mean, if you have a great idea, then start a new thing, get involved in something that’s happening in your community that is you are passionate about. Like, if you want to find a local, you know, human this friendly you church or ethical culture society, enjoy that. And that will plug you into your community and give you opportunities to get involved, because we need people who are spending their time rebuilding the civic life of this country. We need people who believe in the sort of values we’ve been discussing to fight for them. And that can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. It doesn’t. You don’t have to fight in one way, but you have to do something because you cannot wake up every morning to the latest atrocity that our president has come up with and just think that everything’s fine. You like that dog in the cartoon sitting in the flaming room, right? This is fine. No, it’s not fine. You need to start putting out the flames and find an organization you can join who can plug you into ways to do that. 

OK. So people have their marching orders. James, where can we find you online? What do you like? What do you want to plug? Where can we find you? 

So firstly, visit the Ethical Society of St. Louis. Is Web site ethical sdl dot org. We have a beautiful new Web site which has a ton of podcasts on it. You can actually subscribe to our podcast, Just Search for the Ethical Society of St. Louis on iTunes. And we record every one of our Sunday talks. We have literally hundreds of those talks from many, many years ago. We have a super techie enthusiast congregation. So we started podcasting ages and ages ago and they’re on fascinating topics from a humanist perspective, and they might help you get through the day. So check that out. You can follow the ethical society on Twitter at Ethical SDL is our Twitter handle. My Twitter handle is at JFK Krofft. And if you want to read my writing, you can go to Temple of the Future, which is my blog on the Perciasepe blog network. 

And I absolutely recommend people do that. It’s been very helpful to me. And James, this conversation has been very helpful to me and I hope to our listeners as well. Thank you so much for taking us through this. Thank you, Paul. 

This was a great discussion. I appreciate it. 

That’s our show for today. We’ll be back with a new episode in the coming weeks if you’d like to support the show. Good point of inquiry dot org slash support and donate to help keep the podcast machine running. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. I’m still a new host here, so it helps a lot. If you’d give us some fresh five star reviews on Apple podcast, Google Play and whatever else you happen to listen and subscribe. Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. Learn more at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m your host and producer, Paul Fidalgo. Thank you for listening. 

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.