Jim Lyttle is the Secretary of the Lake Superior Freethinkers. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Jim Lyttle: I grew up in Northern Canada (with geography almost identical to what I experience here in Duluth, Minnesota) among a family that respected, but did not have much, education.
My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and true to his calling served on Boards and Commissions such as the Salvation Army in his home town. When he retired, he kept on serving as Superintendent of Home Missions for Northern Ontario & Quebec within the United Church of Canada.
He was kind and hard-working and he established several churches in northern mining towns. When he finally got approval for a university in his town (North Bay), he walked out onto the porch and collapsed with a heart attack.
Despite all that, my dad took religion as a harmless fantasy that made some people feel good. My mom had been raised Catholic but drifted away during family life among apathetic Protestants who ridiculed the ritual and opulence of the Roman Catholic Church.
Born in 1952, I was part of the (late) 1960s and “shopped” religions. I participated in a Unitarian LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) group in Toronto, meeting in a barn at Highways 5 and 10 to smoke (just cigarettes) and discuss the meaning of life.
I was disillusioned when the group decided to harrass Christians who were having a conference near their own conference in Buffalo, with signs that said (among other things) “Fuck Jesus.”
I understood the irreverence and celebrated the whole idea of fucking (which we called “balling” at the time), but felt quite uncomfortable with that level of confrontation.
My family was fashionably hip and open-minded (I grew up almost totally without guidance or discipline) and we were perhaps at the high end of working class.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Lyttle: I did very well in public school up until Grade 8 when I was introduced to a fairly popular student named John Percival. The problem was that I had been in his home room for several weeks by then, and he had never noticed or heard of me.
We become best friends and he taught me what he learned each day after his guitar lessons. This was just after the Kennedy assasination shocked us half to death and then the coming of the Beatles saved us. I decided then to be noticed and not to worry much about school work.
(Also, I was smart enough to have bullshitted my way through so far, but the work was getting harder). Through high school, I barely passed courses but did get noticed.
After high school, I played in a band and traveled a lot. Then I settled down for a few years with a woman and worked in electronics. At 31, after my department was shut down, I went back to school – this time I meant it, though.
I got a BA in philosophy and economics at Wilfrid Laurier and went to Western for a Harvard style case-based MBA. After drifting a bit from job to job, I starting teaching at the DeVry Institute of Technology and discovered a passion for understanding complex things and explaining them simply.
I went back to school again, this time for a doctorate at York University, and came to America to profess, a career from which I retired in 2016. I have done very little self-education.
Jacobsen: With the defunctness of the Iron Range Coalition of Reason but the continuance of the Lake Superior Freethinkers, what happened to the Iron Range Coalition of Reason?
How can other coalitions or groups based on rationalism learn from these mistakes and even its successes while it existed? What is the current status of the Lake Superior Freethinkers?
Lyttle: The Coalition of Reason is going strong, headquarted in Washington DC and organized as a “base” to support social justice.
Our efforts locally to establish an Iron Range Coalition of Reason were based on plans and values embodied in Fred Edwords who founded the Coalition of Reason idea.
Shortly after we started, he was asked to take over bigger responsibilities in the American Humanist Association and a fellow from England came in to coordinate the local groups.
His agenda was much more political than intellectual and we gradually grew apart. Groups based on rationalism (as an intellectual preference) will have to be fiercely on guard against the tendency of their allies to lean far to the left.
Although the affinity of socialism and religious skepticism is quite legitimate, it is difficult to change hearts and minds on the topic of religion while arming critics with the ammunition that we are “just more godless commies.”
Our focus now is on the Lake Superior Freethinkers group that was founded in 1997 by psychiatrist Bill van Druten and others. There was a proposal to sell his hospital to the Roman Catholic Church.
Since there were only two hospitals, and the other one already was part of the Church, he was concerned about this monopoly. His “last straw” came when he was asked to sign a pledge to treat his (psychiatric) clients according to the tenets of that Church, regardless of their religion or lack of religion.
Many of his clients were already grappling with guilt and shame (and sometimes financial ruin) brought on by this or other religions.
Jacobsen: As the Secretary of the Lake Superior Freethinkers, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Lyttle: My official role as Secretary is to record official meetings, keep records of by-laws, file annual reports with the State, and so forth.
However, I also often host meetings as MC, look after all e-mail communications with members, run its website and official facebook page, and co-run the discussion website along with other promotional efforts.
There are three or four meetings per month and I design advertisements with graphics and such. This is similar to my work with the Clan Little Society, Inc. and my local Mensa Area group, known as the “Northern Brights.”
Jacobsen: What are some of the community activities of the Lake Superior Freethinkers?
Lyttle: In the past, the group has tried to avoid any quasi-political involvement.
Most of us happen to be far to the left (the questioning attitude of liberals overlaps skepticism about religion) but this annoys people who are considerably less “looney left” than we are, but who should feel at home as long as they are non-religious.
Lately, we are indulging our political selves a little more. Earning respect for secularism is still the “hub” of our activities, but we have established a “spoke” known as People of Conscience that dabbles in marching on City Hall and such.
We have always collected donations for local food banks and staffed booths at Pride Festivals and such, but the new group will coordinate with other groups to take small-p political actions against rising Trumpism.
Jacobsen: What are the demographics of the community?
Lyttle: Our town is 18% African-American and predominantly of Scandinavian background (not counting university students, who are much more diverse).
Our group includes about 80 people who come to meetings often and about 360 others who receive and interact with our e-mails and website and over 500 people on our facebook page.
Of the hundred or so I have seen, perhaps 3 are African American. African-Americans are known to be more religious (and we intentionally meet on Sunday mornings), but we are also a group of predominantly white men who are 65 and over (retired, with time for this), about a fifth of whom bring their wives.
We host mainly intellectual talks about issues related to religion and thus generally appeal to those who grew up with, and fell out with, religion. We have a 17 year old member and a few in their thirties, but this group is small.
They need childcare (and we are not about to try and sell atheist Sunday School!), often rely on the church for business and social contacts and moral instruction for children, and tend to be indifferent to religion.
Millennials in general (in the USA at least) seem to be more indifferent about religion then either enthusiastic or angry.
Jacobsen: What civic and political activism activities most interest the members of the Lake Superior Freethinkers?
Lyttle: We have many feminists, environmentalists, women’s rights advocates, and people who seek more government help for the poor.
However, we also have a significant minority of libertarians who are against religion mainly because it is a social entity trying to force itself on individuals.
Their resistance to church is part of their resistance to social engineering, “identity politics,” and government involvement in anything. So, it’s complicated.
Jacobsen: Who are the important secular and freethought forces in the United States now?
Lyttle: The main active group is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, started in nearby Madison Wisconsin by Anna Nicole Gaylor – a typical angry feminist from the 1950s.
It now has over 23,000 members, several chapters (including our group) and a head office with more than a dozen lawyers working to sue people for Nativity Scenes on city property and school prayer and such.
There are many other groups working in mostly un-unified ways to earn political power or intellectual respect or just to advance (what we see as) science rather than superstition.
Many of us are academics and generally hope to discourage “faith,” which we would define as believe in spite of the evidence.
All of these efforts are somewhat muted at the moment as we are in what I call the “Republican Decade.” We have maade progress since the 1960s, but our Supreme Court is now stacked against us for the foreseeable future.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Lyttle: Generally, outside of personal contacts and the occasional publicity stunt to get press, we exist as a webpage at LSFreethinkers.org where people can get involved and as a corresponding facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LSFreethinkers.org.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Lyttle: Not really.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jim.
Lyttle: You’re welcome.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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