Eric Townson is one of the organizers for Humanism With Heart. Here we talk about some of his family and personal background, Unitarian Universalism, Humanism, and Humanism With Heart.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: A brief backdrop for some people reading this today. What is some brief family background, some personal background, or some context as to your personal journey into this world view, life stance, and so on?
Eric Townson: I grew up in a remote Appalachian town in Western North Carolina where most people held conservative views that were in stark contrast to my family’s progressive views. My father was an architect and my mother was an English teacher. I feel fortunate that they taught me to rise above the bigotry, homophobia, and sexism I faced daily as a child. I’m also grateful that they gave me a lot of freedom to explore ideas and culture.
At age 13, I went through formal education in Episcopalian doctrine, and was confirmed in the Episcopal church. Sometime after that, on a Sunday morning on the way to church with my mom and sister, I expressed to my mom that I wasn’t enjoying the services. I described to her the intense feelings of what I now know as cognitive dissonance. She said that I had been instructed in the church’s teachings and I was old enough to decide whether I wanted to attend. She turned the car around, and after that we rarely went to church.
This set me on a journey to develop a worldview that could help me make sense of life. I was compelled to be a seeker of truth and meaning because my parents were unhappy alcoholics even though they had attained much of “The American Dream”. As a child I would sometimes experience wonderful feelings of inner peace when I was consumed by the gorgeous nature of Appalachia. I yearned to feel connected to something much larger than my individual self. And yet, I was also deeply inspired by science and technology starting from when I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at age 7.
Trying to reconcile my spiritual feelings and desires with a scientific perspective was a difficult process because I found so little support. I came across and explored a lot of things that promised to make me happy, only to be disappointed when it became clear that it was yet more unfounded nonsense. I didn’t fit well with most hardline atheists, and even less so with most religious people, and this left me philosophically isolated much of my life.
At age 15 I was exposed to Alan Watts, a humanistic thinker who presented Buddhism as a spiritual undertaking to “lose oneself” in the here and now. His depiction of Buddhism was stripped of supernatural concepts such as reincarnation, and I found myself coming back to his teachings over the years.
When I was in college I was “proselytized” atheism by the head of the philosophy department. He argued that trying to conceptualize a god was deeply problematic and ultimately provided no helpful purpose. This made sense to me and after that I started formally referring to myself as an atheist.
Soon after I came out as an atheist, a religious friend countered me by saying “there has to be something bigger than us”. And that also made sense to me and stuck with me all these years.
I often jokingly refer to myself as the world’s worst atheist because I spend so much time contemplating all the things that I have no control over that are utterly essential to “me”. For example, I cannot claim responsibility for my genetics, all the culture that has been absorbed into me, my respiration, the beating of my heart, how my brain works, my mostly privileged upbringing, and on and on. I see myself, not as a fixed thing, but a continual, ever-changing process.
I am still a seeker of truth and meaning, but at this middle-aged point in life, I am finally content with my worldview and the answers I have found that are based in science. I’ve loosely adopted Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as a personal spiritual framework, and I highly recommend it to anyone trying to reconcile science and spirituality.
ACT depicts the human condition as a double-edged sword dealt to us by evolution. We are the only animals that possess language beyond rudimentary elements such as simple vocalizations. The power of language is enormous. We now know that it is the basis for most of memory and our sense of identity. It also enables us to record and communicate recipes for everything from how to bake a cake, to how to sequence a genome. It enables us to coordinate in extremely sophisticated ways as we collectively pursue things like science. And yet, it is also what enabled the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb. And, it is what causes us to be the most anxious animal on the planet because we are the only creatures that are aware of our own mortality. We constantly seek meaning, and yet even deeply religious people like Mother Teresa, can experience the “dark night of the soul”.
ACT attempts to help us by teasing out the “active ingredients” in Buddhism and other philosophical systems and practices. For example, it advocates developing a slight detachment from our thought streams in order to stop fueling harmful levels of anxiety. And yet, ACT also urges us to embrace and judiciously exercise the immense power that language affords us.
Jacobsen: So, let’s talk about Humanism with Heart, which is the name of the group. Why found it? What is its purpose? And what are some of the activities?
Townson: I became a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) about 10 years ago because UU has a deep connection with humanism and is very accepting of atheists and agnostics. I joined the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Winston-Salem (https://uufws.org) because over half of our congregation, including our minister, identify as humanists, and many others are humanistic in their outlook.
I started Humanism with Heart because I wanted a forum to explore, through the lens of natural philosophy, all kinds of topics, including the deepest questions in life. I also wanted a way to make social connections with other humanists.
We have the full support of our UU congregation and are affiliated with the UU Humanist Association. We are aligned with the American Humanist Association (AHA) and take much of the group’s description from the most recent Humanist Manifesto. We often have AHA speakers present to our group through web conference.
We have found social media such as Meetup to be a great way to attract attendees. Our group will often be people’s first exposure to UU and humanism.
Our meetings typically have 10 to 20 attendees, which is a good size to keep things from getting stale, and yet small enough to afford meaningful connections to form.
I chose to use heart in the name to signal that we weren’t a bunch of angry atheists railing against religion, and were, for example, much more interested in exploring why religion is so pervasive in human culture. And, in fact, we now have several regular attendees with divinity backgrounds. The co-organizer for the group had attained two divinity degrees before having a crisis of faith that led him out of Christianity. Other regulars include a 30-year Mennonite missionary to Africa, a retired Moravian minister who was the first Moravian since the 1700’s to be convicted of heresy, and an ex-Anglican priest.
My wife suggested we call it Humanism with Heart and not Humanists with Heart, because she likes to give herself freedom to evolve, and avoids labeling herself. This also makes it fit well with UU because we are non-doctrinal and call ourselves to support one another in our unique, personal development.
Jacobsen: Does religious humanism seem like the identical principles of humanism plus the sensibility of just community, ritual, and something other than oneself? That certain instinctual feeling one gets in community and ritual.
Townson: Yes. That’s really a nice way to put that. For me, it’s a reminder to every now and again, look away from the gizmos and gadgets I’m so glued to, and remember, “Holy cow … existence!” [Laughing].
Townson: I think this ability to be struck by awe and wonder is available to all of us. UU for me, when it is at its best, helps me experience moments of transcendence in ways that are still compatible with the scientific materialism at the core of my worldview.
Community is the other crucial component of religious humanism. Coming together in community is difficult, because even when we are mostly like-minded, we will always find ourselves splitting philosophical hairs until we reach points of disagreement. And yet, I feel it’s been psychologically healthy for me to be part of a community.
I think the truly scientific mind is one that’s open and even ready to challenge things that you might cherish. You’re probably familiar with the notion that there are parts of our brain that are aware of our intention to make a decision before becoming consciously aware of that ourselves.
Jacobsen: Yes, this is Benjamin Libet’s research. I remember asking one of the leading psychologists. Actually, the leading Canadian psychologist living or dead, Albert Bandura, during a book signing once.
He noted that there are some flaws in the research, but this was years ago when he put out his book, Moral Disengagement. I know that Benjamin Libet’s research has been under more scrutiny as of recent.
Townson: Yes. That’s exactly where I was going with bringing this up. Sam Harris and others see much of our behavior as highly deterministic. I find this very appealing because it helps me be more compassionate with myself and others – a very UU compatible sentiment. So, it was a bit difficult for me to have some of the scientific basis for this view called into question. That’s the tough thing about being a scientific skeptic. We must be open to modifying previously accepted ideas as new information becomes known, and this is often a somewhat difficult process. Being in a community with others, brings me into contact with lots of different ideas, and this similarly causes me to stretch and challenge things I hold dear, but in the end, I feel like I’m better for it.
Jacobsen: How are you hoping to develop Humanism with Heart into the future?
Townson: At this stage we’re focusing more on facilitating discussion in our meetings as opposed to being so much about presentation and education. We find that our members prefer this approach and I think we’ll continue to see some growth in our attendance. We still provide a good bit of education, but it’s working better to open up to allow for more participation.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Eric.
Townson: Thank you.
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.
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 Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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