Interview with Luke Douglas – Executive Director, Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix

by | June 10, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Luke Douglas is the Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. Here we talk about his relevant background, and his community, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some background, either family or personal, what are some salient details and stories?

Luke Douglas: I’m a recovering former fundamentalist with a hard 180 story, so we’ll get that out of the way right off the bat. 

You can check out my story in more detail, but I was homeschooled in young earth creationism and went into conservative political causes for the first six years of my career. I learned in law school how to argue for both sides of a case, and my desire to be the best Christian apologist I could be drove me to research freethought and atheism. It wasn’t an easy transition, personally or professionally, but I’ve gained so much more than I’ve lost.

Jacobsen: How did you become intrigued and involved in secular issues?

Douglas: As I said, it’s very personal to me, and there’s never been a question for me that whatever I believed, I would be active for it. I volunteered for some secular causes after leaving fundamentalism while I built my career in progressive politics. I knew that it was going to take time to find my dream job as a professional secular organizer, but I’ve found it here, and I couldn’t be more excited for the coming year.

We are one of the first local secular organizations in the United States to have a full time executive director. That places very high stakes on whether we can prove that this idea is viable, much less that it’s viable in the more religious American interior rather than just on the coasts.

Jacobsen: How did the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix start? What are the demographics of the community now? 

Douglas: HSGP’s history goes back to the 70’s as a chapter of the American Humanist Association. Then in the last several years, HSGP came of age by incorporating as a nonprofit organization in its own right and in acquiring its own building that is now the Humanist Community Center.

The biggest challenge HSGP faces in its demographics is that our members and core of volunteers are fairly old. There’s a lot of energy being invested right now into attracting a younger audience through campus outreach and activities that students and young adults will find appealing. And being 26 myself, I’m working hard to help make that happen.

Jacobsen: What have been important social and political activities of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix?

Douglas: That’s an interesting question since the nonprofit laws in the United States are a bit complicated in terms of how political we can get. Coming from a background of campaign management, I tend to get as political as I legally can and see that as a way of making a real difference in society. That is, after all, the point of Humanism, to make the world better for Humanity.

Our role in that process, though, is nonpartisan. We invite public officials from both parties to do townhalls at the Humanist Community Center, answer audience questions, and help our members make informed civic choices based on all sides of the debate, while also exposing political leaders to Humanist concerns.

Another way we seek to represent secular values in politics is by volunteering to do invocations in legislative sessions. Arizona’s legislative session just ended, and non-theists gave more than a dozen invocations all told, sometimes with loud opposition from religious legislators. With the state session wrapped, I’m focusing on city and county councils and doing invocations in their sessions.

One recommendation I have, regardless of whether you love Trudeau, Scheer, or neither, is the same thing I recommend people do in the United States. When you hear that a political figure, whether an incumbent politician or a new candidate come out publicly as secular, contact their office and thank them. I take it as a given that religious fundamentalists will deride them, and the fear of backlash is much of what deters secretly secular politicians from speaking openly about their nonbelief. Whenever one goes public, I like to counter that with sincere thanks. Even if you live in a different riding, politicians talk to each other, and there are more nonbelievers in public office than you realize. The more you encourage those who do speak openly, the more will follow.  

Jacobsen: What are some new projects for the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix?

Douglas:  To be honest, I don’t know where to start. Having a full time executive director has drastically increased our bandwidth to raise money for projects that focus on growth, which include everything from collaborating on interfaith panels around shared goals to prostheletizing militant nonbelief. 

One good example is our new project with National Public Radio. I don’t know how much you follow American media, but most talk radio is very conservative in its leaning, and it has a strong religious presence. The major exception to this is NPR, which takes a balanced ideological perspective, targets a very educated audience, and is already listened to by many of the Humanists who are active in HSGP. We’ve raised the money to sponsor our local NPR affiliate and reach a far wider audience of potential members and people with shared ideas than we’ve been able to previously. This has a lot of potential for growth since we are headquartered just five miles from Arizona State University’s campus in the heart of Arizona’s intellectual nerve center, and we thought that would be more interesting than investing in something more traditional, like tabling at events and so forth.

Jacobsen: Who is an important person for secular work in your locale? What are other important organizations in the area?

Douglas: Arizona is unique not just in having a professional Humanist organizer, but also a professional political arm as well. The Secular Coalition for Arizona is an advocacy organization that counts HSGP and similar organizations across the state among its membership. They have a full time lobbyist, who is, to their knowledge, the only such professional in the United States who focuses on secular issues at the state level. We have two openly atheist legislators, one in the State House and one in the State Senate, with whom the Secular Coalition works extensively. And though they are in opposition, Arizona’s political landscape is changing rapidly, and the messaging they raise on sepration of church and state will continue echoing in future years.

Along these lines, Arizona recently elected an open nonbeliever to the United States Senate. Whatever you think about her policy positions overall, the fact that she got elected at all is very much part of a larger trend toward normalizing nonbelief in American politics, at least among those who aren’t actively pandering to religiously motivated voting blocs already.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix?

Douglas:  The best thing for someone outside Arizona to do is subscribe to our YouTube channel for exciting new content. All Patreon support goes to making our Audiovisual live streaming better, so please help out if you can because the work we do impacts the secular movement outside of Phoenix.

I’ve read some of your past coverage of volunteer versus professional secular organizers, and I would say HSGP is probably the single biggest test of that trend in the US right now.

Humanist and atheist organizations all over America are already watching, and I fully intend not only to make it work for HSGP but go on to help our allies across the US and Canada cover the map with professional, funded, and highly effective advocates for nonbelief at the grassroots level. 

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

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:

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 Sarah Otte on Unsplash

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