Interview with Moses Klein – Spokesperson, Humanist Association of Toronto

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Moses Klein is a Spokesperson for the Humanist Association of Toronto Here we talk about the community of humanists in the largest city in Canadian society.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was personal and family background regarding culture, geography, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Moses Klein: My family are Ashkenazic Jews. I was born in the United States, where my grandparents or great-grandparents had settled in the early 20th century, but we moved to Canada when I was very young, and I grew up in Toronto.

I was raised mildly Jewish, in a liberal branch of Judaism. My mother was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, but left Orthodoxy because she couldn’t accept the status of women in that sect.

My father is a secular Jew, but agreed when he married my mother to keep the house kosher to her standards. We lit Shabbat candles every week, but only occasionally went to prayer services.

Jacobsen: What were some of the pivotal moments or educational lessons in being guided to a more humanistic worldview, where not only having the rejection of traditional belief systems, typically, forced on the young in this country but also a set of affirmations about life, e.g., reason, science, and compassion?

Klein: In some sense, I was always a humanist. My parents were both university professors, and many of our family friends were people they knew as colleagues, so the values of academia – a commitment to intellectual inquiry and its potential to help us understand the world – were

inculcated in me from the beginning. It was a sort of humanism that was in no way in conflict with ritual practice. Reconstructionist Judaism, the sect in which I grew up, is in many ways quite humanistic. Besides its strong egalitarianism, it regards Jewish beliefs as the product of a living culture rather than divine revelation.

It acknowledges the human origins of religion. When I abandoned the religious practice, it wasn’t a change in my underlying beliefs so much as a recognition that the rituals and arbitrary laws had ceased to carry any meaning for me.

The final straw for me was a result of experience while I was at university when I had a summer job soliciting donations for an environmental organization. I was surprised at how many people I met took the view that, if there is pollution, it is God’s doing and it is not for us to do anything about it.

It was a conception about the relationship of deity and humanity completely at odds with what I had previously understood religious belief to be about, but I came to recognize it as an approach that was much too pervasive. Since then, I came to see the concept of a god or gods as a crutch that people can use to avoid responsibility for the world we share.

Jacobsen: How did you come to find the humanist community? What were some interesting stories within early moments with the community for you?

Klein: The first organized humanist community I joined was in university – a friend of mine started a Secular Humanist Discussion Group. It didn’t last long as a formal group, but three of us who came together through that group became, and remained, closest friends.

What was interesting, when I think back, was how our friendship was shaped by us coming together around discussing philosophy, even when our interactions were no longer defined in those terms.

Intellectual bonds shaped and strengthened personal bonds. Even when we started to move in different directions – one of them, for example, started exploring Zen Buddhism – I can’t think of anyone I’ve known, over my whole life, from whom I’ve discovered more authors in whom to get interested in.

Later, when I was moving around a lot, I started looking up humanist organizations in the towns where I had short-time jobs, as a way to find community quickly. (By that time Google was around, so it was easier than it would have been in my university days.)

I see one of the functions of organized religion as providing a community grounding for people with a shared sense of faith or spirituality, and looked to organized humanist or freethought groups to serve the same function for us. When I moved back to Toronto, I found HAT.

Jacobsen: What makes humanism appealing to you? How are these anecdotally related to experiences with others in the humanist community in Toronto? 

Klein: It’s significant to me that the organization is not the Atheist Association of Toronto, because we don’t come together over a negative – something that is not a part of our worldview. What brings us together is something we all affirm: that humanity is central to our worldview.

It isn’t only that human well-being is the benchmark of our ethics, but that human potential is our way to get there. There’s something empowering about the focus on our own agency, and something hopeful about a recognition that what we do matters.


Jacobsen: What can regular attendees of the Humanist Association of Toronto expect in their participation in the community?

Klein: Our most regular event is our weekly Forum, where we have a loosely structured discussion of a topic of the week, based on questions prepared by one of our members.

I like that because it combines intellectual stimulation and social bonding. Our mission statement refers to “growing humanism, a secular, rational and compassionate worldview, through education, connection, and community involvement.”

The HAT Forum exemplifies both the education and connection aspects of that. The Forum isn’t designed to learn from experts, so every 2-3 months we have a guest speaker, as part of the education component, and 2-3 times a year we have a party, as part of the connections component.

For community involvement, we have had an HAT contingent as part of the Toronto March for Science, for example. We also have people who have remained dues-paying members for years who do not come to activities but like to get our newsletter, or maybe come only for the social events.

Jacobsen: What are the approximate demographics of the Humanist Association of Toronto?

Klein: We skew toward the older. When I first got involved I was sometimes the only person in the room under 60! That’s changed – we’ve been able to reach out to more younger people, but the majority of regular attendees are still over 50.

On occasion we’ve gotten inquiries from parents interested in family-oriented activities, but it’s been a Catch-22 – it’s been hard to keep their interest without first getting more parents of young children. So we have a lot more of the empty-nest age, and an unusually large number of our regulars who have never had children.

Gender balance is about 50-50 (that also wasn’t always the case). We mirror the community in regard to immigrants and Canadian-born; probably disproportionately people of European origins, but also quite a few South American and Asian Canadians.

Aboriginal Canadians, and Canadians of African descent, not so much; I’m not sure why. And, since we’ve been meeting in a community centre with an LGBT constituency, we’ve been getting more exposure in that community.

Jacobsen: Who are some allies in the fight for secular spaces in this broadly religious nations, especially in ways religious Canadian citizens may not recognize or acknowledge – often amounting to tacit or explicit privileges for them? 

Klein: I tend to see the LGBT community as natural allies, because they struggle against religiously motivated discrimination. Minority religious groups can be allies on some issues, e.g. a campaign for a unified secular school system, because they often have a sense of not being represented in the mainstream culture, in ways that members of the dominant faith don’t always recognize.

However, on some other issues members of minority religions may seek acceptance and alliance with conservative Christians. For example, in Ontario updating a sex education curriculum to make it more inclusive, comprehensive and affirming has been controversial in recent years.

The most vocal opponents have been a mix of fundamentalists and other religious conservatives of different faith traditions – fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims have no difficulty making common cause to support an education policy that enshrines a heterosexist bias.

On the issues that really matter to me, where I see basic human rights involved, the liberal and progressive strands of all religious traditions are more likely to be allies of ours against the more intolerant versions of their faith.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved in the Humanist Association of Toronto, whether via membership, donations, or volunteering skills for the community?

Klein: Membership information and notices of upcoming events are available on our website at http://humanisttoronto.ca. Any secular humanists in the Toronto area who are interested, I encourage to join us for our discussion every week at the Humanist Forum, at 519 Church St. Saturdays at 11:00.

Most of our activities are run on the busker model – we hope that people will decide to support us, but they’re free for anyone regardless. So anyone can check us out without commitment.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more recent updates happening for 2019 for the Humanist Association of Toronto?

Klein: We recently had Jeffrey Rosenthal, a U of T statistician who is an excellent popularizer of his subject as well as a superb mathematician, give a talk about his new book about luck.

We have a talk coming up about protest songs, which promises to be interesting. We’ve also been doing a wider variety of social events, ranging from a summer garden party to a party with organized entertainment.

Jacobsen: How do members of the humanist community in Ontario tend to experience prejudice against them for not believing in the superstitions and mythologies dominant throughout the nation, e.g., Christian mythology and superstitions?

Klein: It varies. Not all of us have felt the victims of prejudice. Growing up in downtown Toronto, I never felt my friends from atheist families – or, for that matter, my openly agnostic father — had any sort of stigma.

I was Jewish, some of my friends were Christian, and others were atheist. We were different, but no better or worse. It was only when I was in the United States that I personally had a sense of religious prejudice being mainstream.

However, some of the people drawn to HAT have spoken about finding a space safe from the hostility of religious norms. Some who came from religiously conservative families are in the closet to their own parents. It depends a lot on what subcultures a person comes out of.

The late Robert Buckman wrote a book called Can We Be Good Without God. HAT used to give it away to our guest speakers. The fact that such a title has appeal, is evidence that there is still a widespread belief that only religion can ground morality. It may not be as widespread in Canada as it used to be, or as it still is in other countries, but unfortunately it does exist.

Jacobsen: Any thoughts or feelings based on the interview today?

Klein: So many of my answers have stressed the diversity of our movement – diversity of life experiences, diversity of beliefs beyond core humanist tenets, diversity of attitudes. It shows the challenge of being a spokesperson for an organization that has freedom of inquiry as one of its principles. We can rarely speak with united voice, so on most questions I have to convey a whole spectrum of positions.

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

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 Matthew Lai on Unsplash

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