Steve James is the Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York. Here we discuss his background, work, and community.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some background, either family or personal, what are some salient details and stories?
Steve James: I was raised Catholic. My mother was a devout Catholic who made a bargain with my father that all of their kids would go to Catholic school and be raised in the church. He was a non-practicing Christian of an indeterminate denomination. My grandmother who also helped raise us kids was a devout Lutheran. I had 16 years of Catholic education, first with the nuns, and then the Jesuit priests. I was an altar boy (when the masses were said in Latin), and embraced the many aspects of Catholic life in a small urban parish.
But my upbringing in a home that contained different religions taught me that my religion was not immutable. My education with the Jesuits taught me to think for myself, and to rely on science and logic for answers. Somewhere in my college years I realized that I didn’t believe in God, the angels, saints, and heaven anymore. I had “lost my faith.” Still, I consider myself a cultural Catholic, continuing to appreciate the beauty of the Christian values articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. I miss many aspects of that way of life, especially belonging to a community that nurtures you in a worldview shared by everyone around you. It is a very comforting feeling, even though it is an illusion.
Jacobsen: How did you become intrigued and involved in secular issues?
James: The most important time in my intellectual development was 1977 when I read Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, and his final work Escape from Evil. Becker had been an atheist as a young adult, and although he embraced a vague religious orientation in his later writing, he clearly discards traditional organized religion when he writes: “Religion is no longer valid as a hero system.” Becker understood that death is the ultimate fate of all living things, and that humans are unique in our ability to know and dread our inevitable demise. Death, he says, is “the rumble of panic underneath everything.” His writings led me to understand the purpose of religion, that religion offers an antidote to death anxiety by promising eternal life Religion also offers one “cosmic meaning.” It provides a purpose beyond the three-dimensional world we inhabit. Purpose and meaning are powerful defenses against death anxiety. I learned that you have to confront your mortality, the delusion of literal immortality, and the dependence on cosmic purpose and meaning to be intellectually free.
Similarly, every culture offers, in addition to religious eternal life, symbolic immortality. From ancient Egyptian pyramids, to medieval kingdoms, to empires, to multinational corporate empires today, humans have been devoted to creations that will live beyond their own graves. To be free, you have to confront these delusions as well. Culture also provides self-esteem, codified into heroism systems, another defense against the dread of death. Our present-day hero systems revolve around consumer utopia. As Becker puts it, “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.” In this country many of us driven by a need for achievement, a dominant heroic role, and are devoted to America the superpower, another form of empire in the service of purpose and meaning.
As I came to understand what religion does, in conjunction with the other functions of culture, I began to realize that a secular, independent life was both challenging and liberating. I understood that we make our own purpose and meaning in our lives, and live with the uncertainty and struggles that that entails.
I have spent a great deal of my thinking and writing focused on these themes. My book, American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture applies the ideas of Ernest Becker to contemporary issues. My work with the Humanists explores alternatives to the predictable cultural values of wealth, fame, power, and beauty that are presented to us as reasons for living. As humanists we attempt to live by a few simple principles:
Humanism is a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world, advocating the methods of reason, science and democracy.
We maintain that human beings, using their own intelligence and cooperation with one another, can build enduring peace and contentment upon this earth. Please join us in this effort.
Jacobsen: How did the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York start? What are the demographics of the community now? What is involved in the Executive Director role, tasks and responsibilities?
James: The Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York (HSMNY) is a local chapter of the American Humanist Association. The chapter, as it presently exists, was founded in 1974 by Jesse Gordon and Corliss Lamont.
Corliss Lamont (1902-1995) is one of the most renowned Humanists in history. He is the author of 16 books, including The Philosophy of Humanism (originally published in 1949 as Humanism as a Philosophy), and The Illusion of Immortality (originally published in 1932 as Issues of Immortality: A Study in Implications), two of the most important works of Humanist literature. He is survived by his wife Beth Lamont who is a member of the HSMNY executive board.
HSMNY serves the New York metropolitan area with demographics as diverse as the city itself.
The tasks and responsibilities of the Executive Director are to organize and run the monthly meetings. This includes working with other members to pick a topic, find a video or speaker, write a meeting invitation, send out a Meetup announcement, coordinate email and other social media announcements, coordinate with the venue where the meetings are held, and provide audio-visual service to support the meeting. Other responsibilities include communicating with the membership regarding special events that may be of interest.
Jacobsen: What have been important social and political activities of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York?
James: HSMNY meetings are partially social in nature in that they take place in a restaurant meeting room and attendees order food and drinks for an hour prior to the formal meeting. The group is not overtly political, but the politics tends to lean toward progressive positions on most issues. We are, after all, concerned with “the common good.” Occasionally we become involved in demonstrations and marches in the city on an ad hoc basis.
These are the meeting topics for the last 12 months:
- Education’s Death Valley
- Altruism in an Age of Narcissism
- Being Wrong in a Time of Certainty
- A World Beyond Poverty
- Being Vulnerable
- New Atheism
- The Good Country
- Abortion in America
- Capitalism and Democracy Parts 1 & 2
- War or Peace? Is a war between the U S and China inevitable?
- Embracing Diversity
Jacobsen: What are some new projects for the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York?
James: No new projects lately.
Jacobsen: Who is an important person for secular work in New York? What are other important organizations in the area?
James: New York has many secular organizations. New York Society for Ethical Culture is one of the oldest and best established groups. The Secular Humanist Society of New York describes itself as a leading freethought organization. NYC Atheists is an active organization of New Yorkers who care deeply about the Separation of Church and State as well as a wide range of secular issues and interests. Gotham Atheists reports a membership of 2,000 atheists. Other groups include the New York City branch of the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists a group in nearby New Jersey and Ethical Culture groups in Long Island and Westchester which are suburbs of New York.
Dr. Anne Klaeysen has been a Leader at New York Society for Ethical Culture for many years and is one of the more prominent secular voices in the city.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York?
James: Find HSMNY at https://www.meetup.com/Humanist-Society-of-Metropolitan-New-York/ and https://www.corliss-lamont.org/hsmny/. We meet every second Thursday of the month. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Steve.
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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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.