An Interview with Chris Worfolk — Founder, Leeds Atheist Society

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in humanism?

Chris Worfolk: No, my family are open-minded but rational people. So there wasn’t much in the way of religion or belief in our household. My parents just get on with life.

Jacobsen: How did you come to find humanism, or a humanist community?

Worfolk: When I arrived at university, I was greeted by a huge array of religious activity. I’m not sure whether I expected university to be a temple of reason or not, but it definitely wasn’t. The religious societies were huge. They ran loads of events and put week-long marquees outside the student’s union touting their existential wares. I have no problem with this. But it did lead me to ask

Jacobsen: Where do the humanist students go?

Worfolk: The answer was nowhere. So I founded Leeds Atheist Society. I then spent the next few years of my life fielding the question “what is the point of an atheist society?” But evidently many people did see the point because a few years later we were one of the most active societies on campus, running three or four events per week to accommodate all of our members.

Jacobsen: What seems like the main reason for people to come to label themselves as humanists, from your experience?

Worfolk: I think it varies depending on generation. Ten years ago, West Yorkshire Humanists had a predominantly elderly membership base. And many of them were there as a reaction to religion. They had been hurt by it in the past, mostly over LGBT issues, and so came to Humanism as a place of refuge. On contrast, our younger membership base seems to have found Humanism for different reasons. Some are Dawkinites, but I suspect that most are here because they’re looking to fill the hole left by the breakdown of traditional neighbourhood communities in the West. Or because as society continues to become smarter and better educated, we all become more existential, get more depressed, and want a positive answer to the whole life, the universe and everything question without resorting to “a magic man in the sky did it”.

Jacobsen: What was the experience of finding a community of like-minded individuals?

Worfolk: It’s an easy way to find high-quality friends. Typically, anyone who takes horoscopes seriously, or refuses to vaccinate, is filtered out, for example. I also met my wife through LAS, and most human behaviour is probably driven by the desire to propagate our genes.

Jacobsen: You play guitar. How has the development of this skilled improved personal life? What is your favourite kind of music? Any favourite artists?

Worfolk: I’ve had a guitar since I was about 17. But I never learnt to play it. Then, when I reached 27, I decided to take lessons. I think it took me that long to gather enough emotional maturity to say to myself “look, a year of practice misery will give you fifty years of enjoying playing the guitar. And that’s a good deal.” I like to think of myself as a poster child for proving anyone can play an instrument. I have no music aptitude. I couldn’t play anything for the first six months of lessons. Nothing. Then it clicked. Now I play the piano, as well, and sing. I think learning one really hard skill gives you the confidence to go on and learn others. Now I play in the “house band” at Sunday Assembly Leeds. Which is a great way to improve your skills because the good musicians pull you forward. I don’t often discuss my music tastes because it leads me to lose all credibility as an adult. I like Avril Lavigne. Also Smashing Pumpkins, Dire Straits, Sheryl Crow, Lordi, rock music you can sing along to.

Jacobsen: What is the best argument for atheism, and theism, that you have ever come across?

Worfolk: Personally, I used to struggle with morality. I found it difficult to make sense of objective morality without an omniscient rule maker, which led me to adopt subjective morality.

But that never sat well with me either. Sam Harris finally cleared it up for me with The Moral Landscape. He makes an eloquent case for objective morality inside a Humanist framework.

Jacobsen: Who are personal heroes?

Worfolk: Bill & Melinda Gates because they are almost single handily wiping out malaria and polio. Jimmy Wales because he took all human knowledge and made it available to everyone for free.

Also Ray Kroc and Colonel Sanders. Kroc was 55 when he founded McDonald’s, and Sanders was 62 when he founded KFC. Which gives me hope that even if I achieve nothing in the next thirty years of my life, I could still make a valuable contribution to the world before I die.

Jacobsen: What differentiates New Atheism from ‘Old Atheism’?

Worfolk: I’m not sure anything does. I think the “new” represents a new wave of interest. It boomed in the seventies, and again in the naughties when people realised the battle for freedom from religion had not yet been won. But it’s essentially the same merchandise.

Jacobsen: What is the current strategy of the atheist movement to advance its cause?

Worfolk: I think the “movement” is probably too diverse to have a cause or a strategy. We can’t even agree if we’re atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, freethinkers, sceptics, etc. So there are many different movements worth commenting on.

In the UK, the National Secular Society changed its constitution so that it no longer affirms atheism. They want to be seen as objective as it is difficult to argue against an organisation campaigning for a level playing field without being able to accuse them of anti-religious bias.

Sunday Assembly is out there trying to create a secular church. It’s a well-trodden route: Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, the ethical societies of the late nineteenth century, Humanist Community, Church of Freethought have all tried it.

But Sanderson Jones is doing a great job of building a new movement. Then you have organisations like Atheists Feeding the Homeless and Humanist Action Group attempting to convert humanist ethical values into positive action. But the efforts are rather fragmented.

Take Atheism Plus, for example. It’s atheism plus social justice. Which is Humanism. But for some reason they wanted their own movement. Which is always likely to be the way when you try to herd free thinkers. Ultimately, what will advance the cause is the slow march of time.

We can rely on the tranquilising drug of gradualism if needed, because the world is only going to get smarter, and better educated, and more caring. The Moral Arc goes up. And that is good news for humanism and bad news for outdated and silly belief systems.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Chris, I enjoyed that.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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