Interview with Michael Bauer – CEO, Humanistische Vereinigung (Humanist Association)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Michael Bauer is the CEO of the Humanistische Vereinigung (Humanist Association).

Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Michael Bauer: I grew up in the area of Nuernberg, in the northern part of the federal state of Bavaria. Religion never played a prominent role in my family, if any at all. I became baptized, but more because it was a social thing in the village my parents and I lived than by spiritual reasons or something like that. I took part in the protestant religion subject which in Bavaria like in most parts of Germany is given at the schools until I was 14 or so, then I discovered that this religion thing was nothing I can share so I changed to visited the school subject ethics. Indeed I read most of the bible in that time, and I found it quite strange. So I refused to take part in the protestant ritual of confirmation and had to forego a lot of presents (laughs). At the age of 18, I left the church also formally.

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

Bauer: I studied musicology, political science and sociology and hold a masters degree in musicology and a similar one in political science. Additionally, I am a certified counsel on medical ethics. Since working for HV, I visited a lot of conferences and seminars on humanist topics of all kind from brain science to political issues, many of them had been organized by our team. This year we have organized conferences on music, how music can make our lives better, on Karl R. Popper and his legacy, on transhumanism, and we for next year are preparing a three-day-conference on the political ruptures and social and ecological crises we face. This a very inspiring part of my work.

Jacobsen: As the CEO of the Humanistische Vereinigung (Humanist Association), what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Bauer: Quite different ones. The most important is the responsibility for the finances, the real estates and the staff, together with my colleagues in other leading and responsible positions, like the COO for educational affairs Ulrike von Chossy. In total, we employ 330 persons and have an annual budget of some 15 million euros. But the economic tasks are only one part of the job, there is also the service to our members, the development of new projects, the advancement of the humanist life stance in the public, political representation, publications and other things.

Jacobsen: For the young, what are the youth celebration and the Juhu Towers?

Bauer: The “jugendfeier“ is to celebrate the end of childhood and the beginning of getting a grown-up person. This kind of celebration exists since the late 19th century. Our youth organization, the Young Humanists, use some of the ancient towers in the medieval city walls of Nuremberg for their meetings, what are really exceptional locations, as you perhaps can imagine.  

Jacobsen: What is the Namensfeier? What is the wedding party and the funeral speeches? If we look at these alternatives, secular alternatives, to the religious rites of passage from birth to death, what makes them more similar than different and more different than similar than the traditional religious rites of passage?

Bauer: Our celebrations mark the important turning points of a family or the personal life: the birth, leaving childhood, finding a partner, and the death. These are important events in the life of everybody, religious or not. As humanist we organize the celebrations in a very individual way, we don’t have a fixes ritual you have to obey or something like that. Every celebration is different und individual, just as the persons who celebrate are also individuals.  

Jacobsen: As Humanistische Vereinigung was founded in 1848, at present, it runs 19 childcare centers, 1 private primary school, several social and educational humanist activities (apart from those mentioned), a hands-on museum for science education through the senses, advises on medical ethics, and more, including hiring 330 staff with 2,200 members in general. For other humanist organizations, by comparison, these may blush. Indeed, few matches this size and this length of existence. What has been the history of humanism in Europe since 1848? What have been the major stages of development – even setback and regrowth – of Humanistische Vereinigung?

Bauer: Oh, this is a very long story. Let me sketch it very shortly. In the beginning, in 1848, we were part of the democratic revolution in Germany of this time, which besides others wanted to end the unity of the feudal regimes and the churches. This led to a religious reform-communities which promoted a “free religion”, which was sometimes more atheist than religious. These communities were very progressive, they enclosed voting for women, scientific thinking and an educational reform. In this time, our predecessors, mainly the women, founded the first kindergartens in our region, which were based on these ideas educational reform and democracy. But the revolution failed, and in the 1850s, these new communities were forbidden, at least in the then kingdom of Bavaria. Most of the frontrunners emigrated, many of them to the USA and Canada. The “48ers”. It took some years, until the could be refounded, and the they mingled with the upcoming worker’s movement and the social democracy and became more and more a part of the socialist milieu. During the NS-dictatorship the organization was forbidden, and many of the leading persons were imprisoned, some were deported to concentration camps. After the war, the churches opposed the refounding and said, the humanist and freethinkers were responsible for the “godless” Hitler-Regime. But the American Military Government didn’t believe this outrageous bullshit, and allowed the restitution. In the following years, the critique on religion was a major focus of the organization, and the membership was declining. Only very few people joint, and many old members died. In these times, there was only a more political secretary and a part-time employee for the administration to assist the voluntary board. In the 1990s, a new generation of volunteers came into office, and they changed the organization’s strategy to what we call “practical humanism”. In 1994 the first newly built humanist kindergarten was opened, 2002 the second, 17 more in the following years, and today we expand to many more fields of humanist social and educational activities, like science education, youth care, student housing, and also hospices.

Jacobsen: As you’re focusing out of the state of Bavaria, what is the religious-secular divide like there, e.g., community differences, demographic differences, and so on? Also, what are the general demographics for humanists?

Bauer: Bavaria has 15 Mio. inhabitants, the narrow majority are Catholics. The catholic church has strong roots in the rural areas of southern Bavaria, but in all the larger cities, like Munich or Nuremberg and others, the majority is non-religious. So we have a difference between the situation in the cities and the countryside. Additionally, the younger people are very less religious than the elders. The dominating party, CSU, is conservative and says it represents “Christian” values. The conservative state government is a problem for the non-discrimination of the non-religious. That’s why we regularly sue the government, at the moment we are at court because of the discriminatory situation concerning value subjects at schools, there is only value-based religious teaching, but not a humanist equivalent. We want the government to establish a humanist subject, too. We will see how the outcome will be.

Jacobsen: If we look at prominent German humanists, who would those individuals be? Why them? Who are non-German humanists that German humanists love?

Bauer: There are some humanist writers, actors and comedians, but in politics only very few people commit themselves to be humanists. The religions still are very influential in Germany. In general, humanism is not in the amount part of the public discourse than it should be.

Jacobsen: What are some exciting developments and upcoming projects for the community of Humanistische Vereinigung in 2020/2021?

Bauer: Our major public event in 2020 will be the „HumanistenTag“ in June, the three-days-conference I mentioned already. We will open two new kindergartens and housing facilities for some 40 students, and we plan some other things, which yet are in a too early stage to report.

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?

Bauer: There are many ways, as volunteers in projects, of course as donators to our international relief organization Humanistische Hilfe, or our organization for the promotion of talented humanist students Humanistisches Studienwerk. Networks, publications and every other help is also welcome.

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

Bauer: 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.

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 Jakob Braun on Unsplash

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