Interview with Rebecca Hale – Former President, American Humanist Association & Board Member, Humanists International

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Rebecca Hale is an American icon of the humanist movement. She is the Former President of the American Humanist Association, Co-Owner of EvolveFISH.com, Co-Founder of the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, and a current Board Member of Humanists International (formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union). She became a Member of the American Humanist Association in 1996 and then served as Vice President from 2005 to 2012.

Here we catch up and continue discussion on women freethinkers, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What personal accomplishments make you most proud as true achievements – within the secular movement as a woman over time?

Rebecca Hale: There have been a couple of things. The first and the one that really started it all was EvolveFISH. My husband, Gary, and I were watching and experiencing the pressure and influence of the evangelical, radical religious right in our own community. And It was the thing that brought me into view by the American Humanist Association.

What we did with EvolveFISH was really grow the movement into a wider arena, we gave people symbols to use to express themselves and knowledge of the movement and of the ability to be non-theistic, and not be isolated. I often, speak of our early days before www. and the internet, we did print advertising.

That is how long ago. We used 800 numbers. A person would see an ad in Discover Magazine or even Playboy; and they would call us. People were, literally, in their closets. They did not want their families to know. The idea of other people out there who did not believe was starling and lifesaving for many people.

Bringing the movement out of the deep academic institutions where it had lived and putting it into the mainstream where people would see it in magazines, it was a major accomplishment. I did not do this myself. My husband, Gary, was very, very involved.

So, growing the movement, has been something that we have really been very active in. Along with that, when I was elected to the American Humanist Association (AHA) board, was pushing the AHA to be more activist oriented. The humanist movement was largely still an intellectual space while the atheist contingent was more of a common movement of people who had been burned by religion and for the most part, angrier.

The humanist movement was more intellectual and buried in academic institutions. It had the whole elitist kind of aura around it. Can I use “aura” [Laughing] in a secular view?

What I did in AHA was push us to be more activist, more involved on the grassroots level, get out of the ivory tower, and look at how humanism can be applied, and should be applied in everyday life, it is not just a philosophy to think about. It is an active thing.

Humanism is a way people live their lives. I think that the background from Evolve Fish and knowing how many customers we had helped me understand that there were many more functional humanists out in the world than our organizations knew. EvolveFISH had one of the first websites out there. One of the first to use the internet for commercial purposes. We had a website out there before the internet was the great marketplace; and we used it to spread ideas as well as advertise products.

I had a sense of the demand. I had a sense of the growing interest in the United States and in Canada, because we had a lot of customers from Canada – and around the world. I had a sense of the growing interest in secularism.

On the AHA board, I was able to give us (AHA) a bigger vision. That we are not just this oppressed minority. We are where the populations want to go. We must remove the politics and the politicians and to talk about what people are really feeling, really looking for, in their lives.

It is a growing movement. There are vast numbers of unclaimed humanists We had to look at it, again. How do we find them? How do we engage them? Those were the motivations on the larger scale. To identify the vast numbers of people who are functional humanists, people living their lives with humanist values. All the while not knowing that there is a name for their way of bing in the world. And that there are others like them.

As far as being on the board of the American Humanist Association or on any board, when you are on the board, it takes very strong personalities who get involved in this movement.

The average person doesn’t get involved, like they traditionally do with churches and religion. The every day humanist is busy living their life, going to work, spending their energies with their families, often focused on other community involvement. The people who are willing to stand out and, maybe, unthinkingly make themselves a target are the ones who end up on the boards and who end up in the leadership positions, and who end up joining these organizations.

One thing I brought to the AHA board was the ability to weather the strong personalities. Sometimes, you get people who can be almost toxic on the boards – very difficult personalities are on these boards because strong people are in these movements. People with strong ideals and outspoken and sometimes not particularly easy to get along with.

It is important to be able to step back, not take them personally, not get your own ego involved, look at what they are trying to say, look at what they are trying to say, in order to keep the board cohesive and moving forward. I think I was successful at that while I was president. I think those are the primary achievements that I can look at during that time.

Jacobsen: Who have been the most outstanding and outspoken secular women in the last decade?

Hale: This is really a tough one. There are so many women who are active, some with big national profiles and some working on the local level. In my experience, women are often the drivers and I don’t see them as in short supply or underclass. There are women who have been really friends and mentors to me, who did not always agree with them on everything. Bobby Kirkhart who, I think, a lot of people may not know anymore, has been a strong, caring and compassionate leader of Atheists United and Atheist Alliance. She is very much a leader in this movement.

I have a whole list here, more than I will remember or that we have time to discuss. Some that have been here a long time and continue with their head down and continue their work. Margaret Downey is an incredibly effective and energetic person, who has been in the trenches for a long time and has been involved with many of the national organizations.

There are – before the call we talked about philosophers – people like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein with influence more on the intellectual level, and her work is inspiring.

Greta Christina has done wonderful work. She has written books that are straightforward and clear and lectured all over the country. She is writing a column for AHA. Greta has a wonderfully obvious way of addressing the issues that people deal with.

There is Debbie Allen. I think she is going to keep moving forward. Mandisa Thomas and Black Nonbelievers, she is really taking on a big task and doing well with it. Of course, Annie Laurie Gaylor from FFRF.

Sarah Haidar, with Ex-Muslims of North America, that is putting her life on the line. She is soft spoken and delivers a strong clear powerful message.

I am focusing on the United States. I am focusing on the people who I know in the United States. I have seen the local leaders of so many of the chapters of the American Humanist Association. People active in Foundation Beyond Belief, like Noelle George.

Local leaders in atheist and Meetup groups, so many of them are women. They are doing fantastic things. We have these luminary names on the national or international stage. They are out there saying things for the public, their names are often familiar and there are the women whose names you don’t know if you aren’t in the local group.

The leaders of the local groups at the grassroots are, very often, women. They are creating good reputations for the secular community. There is a local woman here. Her name is Crystal Starkey. Her group focuses on charitable events and social justice issues, and thensome social activities.

She has created an entire community, an entire support network for non-theists. It is duplicated all over the country. I am sure it is happening in Canada and in some of the South American countries. Many of these local leaders who are women, who are unsung heroes.

You do not read about them because they have not written books. You do not hear about them because they have not done something that makes headlines. But they are right there making the movement with the people in their communities. They are right there in their communities.

Then you have women like Monica Miller, the AHA attorney, who argued the Supreme Court case on the cross and now leads our Appignani Legal Center. There are hundreds of others.

There are a lot of women in the movement. We will get to that when we get to another question that you have here.

Jacobsen: What initiatives have worked to include secular women more in the public and institutional spaces of the secular communities and organizations? What ones have been abject failures?

Hale: In my experience, which is largely focused on the American Humanist Association, they told the nominating committee to look to get an equal balance of gender and race on the AHA board. They went out and searched for women to be on the board.

Humanists are humanists [Laughing]. We kept voting for women and for diversity. At AHA we may have more than the majority of the board now that are women. I think it is a targeted activity by the nominating committees with the follow through by the membership if it is a voting membership, which we have at the AHA. I think it was very effective.

When we put together our conferences and publications, when we look for the speakers or the awardees, we make a conscientious effort to look for women and people of color to be awardees or to be speakers. It is a targeted, intentional activity.

I think it has been very effective. As a result, AHA does not look – like my husband used to call them – a “bunch of grey beards” sitting around.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] or gray chops like an Isaac Asimov.

Hale: [Laughing] yes, we have put them (women and people of color) up where they can role models and made a space for them. I think it has been effective.

As far as the glaring failure, this is something that I was personally offended by. The Women in Secularism conferences, I was personally offended to have them putting on a conference by men with the theme of “Why are there no women in leadership?”

At the time, I was President of the AHA. The AHA had an equal split of gender on the board. I was very familiar with Margaret Downey and the Freethought Society and Bobby Kirkhart, and Atheists United, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Ellen Johnson who had been president of American Atheist, and Mandisa Thomoas had Black Nonbelievers going on at the time, I think Sarah Haider (Ex-Muslims of North America) was active then.

There were plenty of women leaders. It was offensive. It was misogynist to have a group that was largely male proclaiming that there are no women leaders, which only proved to me: they were not seeing us. Because we were clearly there. I would say, “That’s a big fail.”

Jacobsen: In a sense, it does not amount to a standard sense of a failure. It amounts to a failure to take stock and look around.

Hale: Yes, to see.

Jacobsen: The blindness connected to the lack of inquisitiveness were the offensive part of it.

Hale: Exactly.

Jacobsen: For secular women in the 2010s, what seems like the most significant achievement as a cohort or sub-demographic of the secular community?

Hale: I think it is moving the secular movement out of the pure academic and intellectual box. So, we are more relevant to everyday life. Secular women are motivated by practicality and action. I think women tend to be more practical than men.

Jacobsen: H.L. Mencken called women the supreme realists of the species.

Hale: [Laughing] I agree. It is not enough to sit around and talk about the issue. We want to make the world better, and better for our children or better for our friends or better for our spouses or boyfriends or partners or whatever.

Maybe, it is the maternalistic gene. I am not sure. But I think it is the practicality of getting this inculcated into the general society and being activist.

Jacobsen: Any recommended annual events, authors, speakers, or organizations? For instance, international fireworks, I am a huge fan of

Hale: …[Laughing] I think it is a lot of fun. [Ed. We talked about probably two hours before and fireworks came up. I knew next to nothing before Becky telling me about it.] I am proud. One of the other things that I pushed for when I was the president of the AHA was a conference that would be more accessible to everybody.

The last AHA conference, we did that. It was online. It was far more complex than I had originally envisioned. But I think that it worked out. The speakers were phenomenal. It is going to be up on the YouTube channel. It gave accessibility. So, people who did not have the financial wherewithal or the time to travel and to go to a conference; they could see it. It was free.

Jacobsen: I have seen this done with fireworks conferences and performances.

Hale: I am going to get you [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Hale: It was a very low carbon footprint. Because I am concerned about the environment. It allows people to be involved without having to use carbon to get there.

The other event that I am going to pitch is the World Humanist Congress 2020 Beyond Borders, Our Global Humanist Culture. It will be in Miami, FL, August 6-9

It is a wonderful opportunity to see how humanism or secularism is being practiced around the world. And it is open to everyone, we invite you to come and join in the meetings, festivities and camaraderie.

There will be people from Africa and talks about what they are doing in Africa. There are people from South America. There are people from Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia. I am not sure if there is anybody in Malaysia.

Jacobsen: Oh! There is, MASH.

Hale: It is wonderful to see what is going on around the world because it is much different than this confrontational thing that happens here in the United States. It is a wonderful opportunity to meet people from around the world.

It is wonderful to see how similar and how different people can be. I did not have a chance to come up with speakers. I know Seth Andrews does a wonderful job as the Thinking Atheist to reaching out to people who are curious as to how to move out of their Christianity or Evangelicalism to secularism.

Aron Ra is more on the science side and a great speaker. Greta Christina, there are a lot of really, good presenters in the movement. People who can help you think about various aspects of it, and how to move it forward in the world.

But I did not get a good list together for you, Scott, too short of a period. My fault; [Laughing] I should have asked you for the questions sooner.

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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 AgnósticoséééBrazilian 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.

Image Credit: Rebecca Hale.

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