Interview with Michael Cluff – President, South Jersey Humanists

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Michael Cluff is the President of the South Jersey Humanists. Here we talk about his 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?

Michael Cluff: I’m about as white-bread as you get! In a nutshell, I’m a WASPy Gen-Xer who grew up in a military household. Dad fought in Vietnam, and we moved around a lot.

(We even lived outside of Toronto for a year, so does that make me an honorary Canadian?) [Ed., close enough, just remember the Maple syrup for breakfast… If you visit, you can borrow the keys to the moose if you need to get around, too.]

Mom’s family was super-educated, patrician Episcopalians, while my Dad was a farm boy who excelled as a Marine officer. My young life wasn’t straight out of the Great Santini, but it was close. 

Religiously speaking, we were Episcopalians who were pretty laid back about Christianity when I was little. But by the time I reached high school, we were much more devout.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Cluff: I studied Cognitive Psychology in graduate school, researching processes of spoken word recognition. I wound up leaving before I completed a Ph.D. due to health problems.

Jacobsen: As the President of the South Jersey Humanists, what tasks and responsibilities come along with the role?

Cluff: It’s pretty much what you’d expect: planning and publicizing meetings and events, speaking out for Humanism wherever possible. 

Jacobsen: What are some of the community social activities of the South Jersey Humanists?

Cluff: Each month we have one formal meeting and one informal gathering. In the meetings, we discuss a predetermined topic or have a speaker.

“Drinking Skeptically” is our informal gathering at a bar, where we hang out and get to know one another better. 

Jacobsen: What are the demographics of the community there?

Cluff: Our group is pretty small at the moment, so it’s hard to characterize. (After Trump’s election we lost conservative members who balked at Humanism’s liberal leanings.

And some of the more liberal members focused their energies on more politically activist organizations.) Like most Humanist and atheist groups, we have our share of middle-aged white guys (including me). But we draw from many demographics, especially among our elected leadership. 

Jacobsen: What are important activist efforts in South Jersey now? What are some targeted objectives for activism, whether legal or social, for 2019?

Cluff: Since we’re in a blue state, we don’t have a lot of the usual bread-and-butter atheist issues here. Not many church-state separation battles. But there’s a lot of social justice work that needs to be done.

Atlantic City is severely economically depressed, so I’d like to see our group work toward economic and racial justice here. Our area is also a hub for human trafficking, and I’m hoping we can help out some of the local organizations fighting this issue.

Also, there’s an inspiring local organization doing relief work for Syrian refugees. 

Jacobsen: Looking at the United States now, for the secular-oriented and the humanist community, we can see the general view of the fundamentalist religious towards the secular and the non-religious – severely negative.

Where does this image of the inherent badness of the non-religious in the United States stem? It seems apparent and stark from the cold place to the North – the big place crammed underneath the disappearing white place on the map.

Cluff: It seems to me that Americans like to think of themselves as deeply religious, even though the average American knows very little about Christianity. Sure, there are many Americans who are deeply devout and find meaning in their religion.

But to most Americans, Christianity is like a favorite football team. You wear the team colors and cheer for your side on Sundays. To them being on Team Jesus is more of an identity than a philosophy.

You don’t need to know the names of the players, just so long as you know when to wear the team colors. So to them, atheists are the weird neighbors who refuse to cheer on the hometown boys at the homecoming game. 

Mixed in with that is the belief that being on Team Jesus is the only way to be a good person. Not being on Team Jesus means that at best you’re being a contrarian, and at worst you’re a snake in the grass. 

Jacobsen: What do you hope for 2019 for the South Jersey Humanists? Also, how have you been mentored into this role in the past?

Cluff: To be honest, I’ve been facing serious burnout over the last couple of years, and so one of my personal goals in 2019 is to bounce back with renewed enthusiasm for Humanist activism.

For now, this means focusing on fostering our community, learning its strengths as it grows, and letting our activism emerge from those strengths. 

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through 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?

Cluff:  Again, since we’re small, there’s plenty of opportunity for people to take initiative and to get involved. We’re a caring and intelligent group of people who are eager to get out and do the right thing. 

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Cluff: I believe that the humanist and atheist movements need to be more grass-roots than ever before. Too many of our big names have failed in big ways. Some have been guilty of sexual misconduct, while others have exposed themselves as bigots wrapped in pseudo-intellectual self-justification.

Time to abandon hero-worship and create communities of people who do the right thing not for fame but because it’s the right thing to do. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Michael.

Cluff: Thank you so much, Scott, and thanks for all you do.

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.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Estela Shaddix on Unsplash

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