Interview with Omer Tzuk – Founder and Editor, Humanist Magazine

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Omer Tzuk is the Founder and Editor of Humanist Magazine and is a Ph.D. Student in the Physics Department at Ben Gurion University.

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?

Omer Tzuk: I grew up in a suburb of Haifa, the third biggest city in Israel. My family is secular Jewish, but in Israel being secular is a very broad definition. So one can define himself a secular, or “hiloni” in Hebrew, but still believe in God and follow some religious traditions. My parents were not great believers, but they have never talked with us about their beliefs. So since I had few friends from religious families I since childhood, I was also a believer, and I was quite fascinated from religious rituals. I remember myself praying to God from quite a young age. It was only in my twenties that I’ve started to ponder about my beliefs and developed a more skeptical worldview. By the time I’ve started my first degree, which was in Astronomy, I started to introduce myself as an atheist or agnostic. 

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

Tzuk: After I have finished the obligatory military service in Israel, I have started my studies in astronomy and astrophysics. As a child, I have watched the TV series Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and became fascinated by cosmology. I think that my first encounter with the ideas of the New Atheists was a video lecture of Richard Dawkins on TED. Since then I’ve read books by Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

Jacobsen: What is the interest in physics for you? What is the doctoral research question? What are the preliminary findings or derivations?

Tzuk: For me studying cosmology was the first objective in enrolling to astrophysics studies for my first and second degree. I really wanted to understand better the theories over the structure and the dynamics of the Universe. But after the second degree, I have realized that there is this interdisciplinary field of study called complex systems, and I became very interested in following this direction. For my Ph.D. I have collaborated with ecologists on issues related to ecological systems in semiarid environments, asking questions related to their responses to climatic changes. So you can say that for my Ph.D. I haven’t pursued a classical topic in physics, but rather a mixture between applied mathematics and theoretical ecology. 

Jacobsen: What is the origin story of Humanist Magazine?

Tzuk: Four years ago I started to discuss with several persons that I’ve met during the annual conference of the Israeli Atheists Association on creating a new website that will serve as an online magazine. At first, we thought that the name of the magazine would be Epicurus, since in Judaism Epicurus is taken as a synonym for atheist. But we have found out that there was already a journal with the same name, addressing the secular humanists and atheists in Israel. Another consideration was that secular humanism is less known in Israel, and we thought it may draw more attention than another page on atheism (there are several big facebook groups for atheists in Israel). So we organized a founding team in which we discussed the scopes and guidelines of the magazine, and started to contact with people that we thought may be interested in contributing articles for the magazine. Since its beginning, our magazine was based on voluntary work. Along with sustaining the online magazine, we have also organized several gatherings in pubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where we invited speakers to lecture on topics that are of interests for atheists, humanists, and freethinkers. The last addition to our activity was establishing an Instagram account where we publish quotes from various secular thinkers around the world.

Jacobsen: Who have been important contributors and editors? What have been the most controversial, most read, and most interesting articles or submissions to it?

Tzuk: Our main support came from our voluntary editors: Sarit Hatuka, and Ron Gueta, Daniel, Ronit Nikolsky, and Geula Sheena. And we also have a marvelous translator, Shlomo Adam, who brings many interesting articles from around the world and translate them into Hebrew for our magazine.

The most controversial article on our site was one that I’ve written, titled “Religion and Other Brain Pathologies”. I’ve compared between the case of Charles Whitman, a mass murderer that carried the University of Texas tower shooting, and the case of Baruch Goldstein, who carried the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. Charles Whitman was diagnosed with a brain tumor postmortem. Baruch Goldstein wasn’t diagnosed with any abnormal behaviour prior to the massacre, and we can safely assume that his behaviour was entirely supported by his religious beliefs. He was venerated by Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist, religious politician, which founded a park for his memory where he is buried. Thinking on religion as a brain pathology is very controversial idea in Israel. The percentage of religious people in Israel is very high, and none likes to think of himself as a carrier of some brain disease. 

Jacobsen: What is the editorial process for submissions to Humanist Magazine?

Tzuk: I receive the articles from our contributing writers, and check that they follow our guidelines. We try to be as apolitical as we can, something which is extremely challenging in Israel, and we strive that our articles would not include ad hominem arguments. Afterwards, I send the articles for professional editing and proofreading to our editorial team, and when they come back I publish them on our website. Other avenues would be that I, or someone else, would spot an interesting article in English, ask for permission to republish the article in Hebrew, and that translating the article to Hebrew by our translator.

Jacobsen: As the Founder and the Editor of Humanist Magazine, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Tzuk: Well… almost all of them. Since we have not succeeded yet in establishing some financial resources for our activity, the maintenance of the website and the other activity is solely based on my limited free time and the free time of the other members. We have tried to think of ways to create some income that can be used to hire a professional chief editor. We also dream to establish a non-profit non-governmental organization for supporting educational activity in schools, where volunteers will come to schools to present the secular humanistic worldview, and the ideas of the enlightenment. 

Jacobsen: If you could have one message for aspiring humanist writers, young and old, what would it be, for them?

Tzuk: My main message is to strive to create a local community, finding like-minded people is a very good start for establishing any kind of activity that aims for social change. 

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?

Tzuk: The best aid that we could receive now is finding a team that can assist us in creating some sort of financial resources. We would also love to receive articles for our website, and if they fit our guidelines we will send them to translation and publish them on our website and Facebook page. 

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

Tzuk: I think that creating such bridges between atheists and humanistic organizations and activists throughout the world is a very important pursuit. 

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

Tzuk: Thank you Scott for the opportunity, and I wish you great success in your mission.

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 Eddie & Carolina Stigson on Unsplash

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