Interview with Dr. Bonnie Cleaveland – President, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

by | November 23, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Bonnie Cleaveland is the President of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Some may recall this organization from the conversations with Dr. Herb Silverman. There is a good reason for this. Dr. Silverman is the founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, among other initiatives by him.

Here, we talk about developments in personal life, unquestionable things in the secular community, and more.

Scott Jacobsen: So, in terms of some background for the readership, what are some pivotal moments in the development of personal philosophy, and life stance, especially in a secular direction, or a secular humanist direction in particular?

Bonnie Cleaveland: I grew up non-religious, although with two religious parents. I was interested in religion when I was younger. I remember asking my mom if I could go to church. She took me to church, but

afterwards, I said, “That’s enough. I do NOT want to do that again!” [Laughing]. It was pretty boring for a kid.

I grew up in the Southern United States, so many of my friends are religious. When I was in middle school, forty years ago, I wanted to talk to a friend about the abortion debate. She refused to have the discussion, saying, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” Later in life, I realized that that is a standard Christian response to many topics.

That probably made me more anti-religious. This way of talking about issues shuts off your brain off entirely. Questioning isn’t encouraged.

I found the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry about five years ago. I was excited to find a group of people who were similar, even in this small Bible Belt town of Charleston, South Carolina.

Jacobsen: Are there topics in the secular community that harbour a certain unquestionability, akin to the aforementioned?

Cleaveland: The only thing I am worried about is that we do tend to be uniformly progressive. At least here in Charleston, it is assumed: if you are secular, then you are progressive, but it’s not true for everyone. We have libertarians and conservative members. I worry, sometimes, that they may not feel as welcome, which is unfortunate.

Jacobsen: What could increase the level of inclusion of those voices?

Cleaveland: That is a great question. By being aware, not everybody has the same progressive beliefs. It is interesting because it has a parallel to religion in the South where everyone is assumed to be a Christian. One of the first questions is this, “Where do you go to church?’ It is part of the water in which we swim.

You drive down the road and there are churches everywhere. Charleston is known as the “Holy City” because we have so many churches [Laughing]. So, it can be truly hard to be secular in the Holy City. So, I do not want progressivism to be the water that we swim in as secular humanists.

We need to continually acknowledge that there are different political viewpoints. Primarily because right-wing Christians have claimed religions as theirs. But that does not make any sense. There are plenty of religious people on both sides of the spectrum. Just because you are politically conservative does not mean you need to be a believer.

Jacobsen: What are some fun and community activities of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry?

Cleaveland: We did all kinds of great things. We have trivia, happy hours, and we go to performances and events together.

We enjoy volunteering together, as well. About quarterly, we bring food and serve it to the underserved in a downtown park for Potluck in the Park. A group of us go quarterly and pick up trash at our assigned section of roadway. We always have a great time. Anything we do as a community is fun.

Jacobsen: Who are some prominent members of the community?

Cleaveland: One prominent member is Herb Silverman, our founder, who also founded the Secular Coalition for America. In 1994, Herb started giving some talks around town and talking about secularism. Lots of people said, “I wish there were more secular people I can talk to.” Secular people felt alone. Herb founded Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.  We joke that Herb is the closest thing we have to a god!

Most of us are regular people, who are not necessarily well-known around town or in the secular community. We do have Amy Monsky who founded Camp 42, a group of summer camps around the South – in South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.

Jacobsen: What are some of the social or political activities, or issues, the Secular Humanists for the Low Country have been involved in, in the past? What have been some currently or ongoing that they have involved in, if any?

Cleaveland: There are many. Because we are in the Bible Belt in the US; there are frequent violations of the First Amendment, which guarantees the separation of church and state. So, we see things like classes engaging in prayer or a teacher using or displaying religious materials in the classroom.

We often are standing up for secular families and people of other religions who are not in the majority Christian religion. I have become increasingly concerned with the expansion of Christian Nationalism, since about 2016.

The Religious Right in the US has been organizing for 30-40 years. They are reaching the pinnacle of their power right now, both in national politics and local politics. In South Carolina an evangelical ministry in the Upstate of South Carolina, near Greenville, gets federal funding for foster care and adoption. Because they get federal funding, they are supposed to help all people who are considering to foster an adoption.

Under our governor, Henry McMaster has gotten a waiver that they can turn away people of non-Evangelical religion. A Catholic woman who wants to foster and adopt was turned away once they found out she is a Catholic. She was simply turned away.

The secular community is working to introduce ourselves to legislators and highlight that we do not want federal funds given to private religious activities. In Charleston County, which is relatively liberal compared to the rest of the state. We have a school board committee who are in charge of sex education. Several members of that committee are designated as religious leaders. So, there are more religious leaders who are given specific seats on that committee than medical people. I have recently been appointed to that committee for a three year-term, so I hope we can make some progress toward evidence-based sex education. Religion should have nothing to do with sex education in public schools.

So, those are some the most important issues that we fight for, kids’ rights and people’s rights, to not have their federal tax dollars fund religious activities.

Jacobsen: You mentioned “kids’ rights and people’s rights.” In terms of overall context of the social and political activities mentioned, what does this portend for women’s rights in the Bible Belt in America?

Cleaveland: It is clear that the Christian Nationalists primarily want to control and oppress women.  They are fighting to close abortion clinics, for example. They’re attempting to control women.  They are not focusing on men’s responsibility in pregnancy, for example. Women, and therefore society, is better off when birth control is freely available and comprehensive sex education available to everyone.

The religious right fights efforts to make birth control and other family planning accessible, so they obviously care more about controlling women than about reducing unwanted pregnancy.  It is important for us as secularists to stand up for women’s rights, and probably join with even religious organizations who are moderate and who want a sensible science-based approach to legislation and public policy.

Jacobsen: According to the Guttmacher Institute, although a progressive organization, granted, the work to decriminalize abortion for women reduces the number of abortions and increases the health and wellness of women who do get them.

In addition, it respects bodily autonomy and the independent and free choices of women, if given freely, equitably, and in a safe manner. In other words, if one has pro-life stated aims, and if one looks at the data, internationally provided by the Guttmacher Institute, and others, in terms of organizations.

Then a true pro-life person should, in fact, take a pro-choice position. Does this dialogue emerge in any of the secular dialogues with religious leaders in the low country, or in the popular media in the United States? I mentioned United States because I live in Canada.

Cleaveland:. I only recently learned that the rates of abortion in a country that do and do not allow legal abortion are almost exactly the same. Honestly, I believe that many religious are so insulated in the information that they consume; that they do not realize many of the facts about abortion.

So for us secular science-based people, one of the things we can do is spread science-based information.  Many people understand that making abortion illegal does not stop abortion, but it makes abortion less safe.

We know from lots of studies that providing sex education and access to birth control tremendously decreases the rates of abortion. It’s easy to think that, iff people knew the reality, then people would be more open to the pro-choice point of view.

One of the things we often do as secular humanists is spending time trying to provide data and information, because we do tend to be more based on reason and in science. We are learning that people do not change their minds particularly based on data, but based on emotion. We have to change social norms.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the provision of time, effort, finances, professional networks, and so on, to the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry? How can this recommendation expand in the Bible Belt in general in terms of secular organizational health?

Cleaveland: So, anybody, wherever they are, could Google “Secular,” “Secular Humanist,” “Atheist,” “Agnostic,” or “Freethought” in order to find a local secular group. I am amazed at how many secular organization there are even in small towns. If it is not in their own particular town, there is probably an organization in a town or two over.

People can find us at our website,, We started a Twitter feed, @CHSHumanists, just over a year ago, and we put out a lot of information, stories, and links to other secular organizations. We are also on Facebook and Meetup.

I do think it is so important to have people with similar values around you. We enjoy donating to local secular charities, volunteering around town, and getting together for social activities.

We have family friendly activities, too, so, we have a separate Facebook group for local families, including secular home-schooling families.

We recently had Andrew Seidel, Constitutional attorney from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, about his new book, The Founding Myth. These great discussions are my favorite part of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts and conclusion based on the conversation today?

Cleaveland: If people have younger kids, then I would strongly urge them to look into the secular summer camps. Camp 42 here in the Southeast US or Camp Quest around the US and Canada provide secular kids life-changing experiences.  

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and you time, Dr. Cleaveland.

Cleaveland: Thank you so much, it was nice talking with you.

Canadian Atheist 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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Photo by Philip Davis on Unsplash

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