*Audio interview has been edited.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in non-belief?
Wendy Webber: Yes, and no. My dad was raised Catholic. My mom was raised Jewish. I am a mix of both of those coming from those families. We didn’t practice in my home, but I was exposed to religion and religious practice in my larger family.
Jacobsen: What was it like growing up in the community?
Webber: Where I grew up in southern New Mexico is a very Hispanic, Catholic community. Obviously, there are other religions present, but it is mostly Catholic. Religion was around. Personally, I didn’t find the lack of religious belief to be a problem.
I didn’t lose friends over that. For me, it was a fact. It didn’t matter between my friends and me.
Jacobsen: Eventually, you found yourself at Yale Divinity School. What was the experience there?
Webber: I got a Master of Religion there. I was studying theology of oppression and reconciliation with an eye on religious history. It was interesting to be a non-religious person at a school that was founded as a Christian seminary. Most of the people at the school were religious. But not everyone. There was a group of non-religious and non-theistic folk.
We started, or revived, a humanist, atheist, non-theist organization on campus that we wanted to use to have a social space and for conversations about being non-religious on an otherwise religiously oriented campus. It was also a way to engage the rest of campus the way the different religious groups on campus did by hosting educational or social events. It was great. We organized some great events.
My experience was, by and large, me being another student on campus. There were certain things that came up. I had one class where we were meant to write a paper that was about prayer in our own tradition. This subject doesn’t really exist, for me. I had to go to the professor and talk about it. It didn’t go over well [Laughing].
Webber: We compromised by my writing about Judaism.
Being there as a non-religious person wasn’t perfect. There was some pushback at times. I think there is a bit of a divide between people who wanted it to be a Christian school and others who want it to be a more inclusive school — having other beliefs represented.
So, I don’t think most of the issues I faced there were as much about being non-religious as about being non-Christian.
Jacobsen: Also, you helped found the secular organization. I came across a phrase I had never come across before. It was inter-belief dialogue rather than interfaith dialogue. This is more inclusive for the whole suite of irreligious or non-religious sets of worldviews.
So, I was heartened to read that. How did you go about building that community? What initiatives did you take on?
Webber: We did lunchtime conversations, for people to talk about their belief journey. We invited people who were religious and who weren’t religious to talk. We also did a thing, which is common at interfaith events, called speed-faithing. You sit across from someone who has a different belief system than you, then you talk about what your beliefs are and why for a few minutes then move on to speak to another person.
One of our most popular events we did while I was there was a practical inter-belief workshop. This was focused on the challenges in having an inter-belief event. Things like if you host one of these events on Friday nights a lot of people won’t be able to make it because of religious obligations. Practical things like that.
We made a point to make sure that it was very inclusive of non-religious people in the language we used and discussions we facilitated. We challenged the participants to be careful about the language they use. “Inter-belief” brings more people to the table. Things like “people of faith or no faith,” when you’re talking at an interfaith event is more inclusive than “religious people.”
We had a waiting list to get into the workshop our first year. We not only wanted people to know we were there, but also let people know about to deal with non-religious people being in that space.
Jacobsen: When you reflect on the situation for the non-religious, or humanists, in America today, what do you see as one of the main concerns?
Webber: [Laughing] I don’t want to speak for everyone. We are a diverse group of people, so I know everyone has their own concerns. And each of us weighs the different concerns facing our community differently. For me, a major concern is that humanism is not for everybody. If you go to humanist events, more often than not, white men dominate the space. We need to figure out ways to let the humanist community be more inclusive. Which means not just being inviting, but listening — really listening — to women and people of color and letting people be humanist in ways that make sense for them.
That’s a major concern I see inside humanism. As humanists within the larger culture in the US, a major concern I have is the perception that just because someone is not religious they are a bad person. That perception must change. I think that’s why it is important to do social justice work as a humanist. I mean, to do social justice work like community service visibly as a humanist. To show people in my wider community who might condemn me that, “My humanist values are why I do this. I am here as a humanist.” It helps people see that we’re good people.
For me, these are top issues the humanist community faces. There are a lot of different ways to address these issues. For me, addressing them is about seeking out non-white humanist voices and doing community service and other social justice work.
Jacobsen: Something of concern to many humanists are human rights. In particular, the US situation now with women’s rights — in particular, women’s rights. What is the state of reproductive rights in the United States?
If things are looking direr, what can be done to make sure they are both more solid and well-implemented in the country?
Webber: To be honest, reproductive rights is not the number one issue at the forefront of my mind. I am not saying it isn’t important, but it is not something I have been focusing my time or energy on.
Having said that, my answer to your question is that I think we need to have more women voices in the conversation at the policy level and in political and media discussions. We keep having all of these meetings about reproductive rights, policy, and law with not a single female voice present or if women are present their voices are not given adequate weight. Where men who clearly don’t understand female anatomy are making decisions about reproductive health policy based on their, frankly willful, misunderstanding.
It is part of a bigger problem of women being silenced or not having their voices heard. There are so many ways to get at this issue. We need to get more women’s voices at the high level. We need to get more women’s voices at the local level — holding local office. We need to teach our children — not just the girls — not just that women have rights, but how those rights continue to be violated and how to be part of the solution.
Most importantly, we need to face and address the fact that historically and continuing now, the negative consequences of these reproductive health policies affect women of color disproportionately.
Jacobsen: Any thoughts or feelings in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Webber: For me, I think humanism is about equality of all people. That is really the basis of humanism. That can manifest in a lot of ways. The humanist movement, for me, isn’t simply about getting rights for humanists.
It is about supporting all minority and oppressed people in gaining that equality, not solely humanists. We should as humanist to support movements like Black Lives Matter, issues like reproductive rights for all people with uteruses, and oppressed communities like Native and LGBT people. Importantly, not just giving lip service, but lending support with our money, actions, and voices — following their lead.
All of these different things are part of the humanist movement.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time, Wendy.
Webber: Thank you!
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.