Interview with Mark A. Yuskis (with Jeanette Carter and Caryl Lyons): Co-Founder/Coordinator, UUSIC Secular Humanists (Iowa City, Iowa)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mark A. Yuskis is the Co-Founder/Coordinator of the UUSIC Secular Humanists from Iowa City, Iowa. Jeannette Carter and Caryl Lyons are part of the same community.

Here we talk about some of their lives, and much of their work and community.

*Please see Appendix I for the Mission Statements, Appendix II for the Vision Statements, Appendix III for the “A Secular Humanist Considers Our Fourth Principle” transcript, Appendix IV for the reason behind the comments by Yuskis, “Scott, you were so very generous and supportive in your comments to me…” and Appendix V for an image of a flyer for the Andrew L. Seidel Event. I tend not to share private correspondence in such a direct manner. Same with interactions, as I continue to see these as such, as per the title, as private. However, given the gentleness and respectfulness of the request, I am obliging here.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background? What are some pivotal moments in personal history important for the development of humanistic sensibilities and a humanist outlook for you?

Caryl Lyons: I was raised as a Presbyterian, regular attender every Sunday throughout elementary and high school. Then became a Methodist with my husband-to-be in college. We co-taught Sunday school to elementary students. I sang in choirs at both churches and attended Presbyterian youth groups through high school.

Mostly the fact that my father was a political science professor and sponsor of the International Relations Club. We often had people from many countries and of various religions in our home. Very early on, I knew that there was more than one way to envision the world, and that good people came from everywhere. I first questioned Presbyterianism as a 5th or 6th grader, realizing that I didn’t think I believed in God. I kind of buried that for a long time since my family, especially my father, was so religious, though very accepting of people from many backgrounds. But as we taught Sunday school, the other teachers began pressuring us to try to get money from our “students” to send Bibles to places that were not Christian, and we decided we couldn’t do that. So we stepped away from that sort of evangelical Christianity. After we married, we went to church exactly once and then took a 25-year hiatus from religion until we, almost by accident, discovered Unitarian Universalism.

Mark A. Yuskis: I grew up in NW Illinois, the son of a Catholic father and Church of Christ mother; so, I was raised Methodist. President of our Intermediate Youth Fellowship in Jr. High and then President of our Methodist Youth Fellowship in High School, I took this religion stuff very seriously. Why would adults proffer untruths? If this was true, it was nothing to “mess around” with; I kicked kids out of our popular yard for swearing! Those years of happy, religious “fake news” lasted until University studies in Biology, when Biochemistry, Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, Embryology, and Evolutionary Biology made clear an evolutionary path from beginning to present that needed no supernatural help. Ideas like Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Soul, and all that supernatural stuff made no sense and Eternal Life…how boring that would be after a hundred, a thousand, a million, and especially 5 billion years when the expanding sun engulfed our burnt crisp of a cinder Earth. I was an Atheist! An atheist who eventually became the whole Biology Department at Mount St. Claire College along the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa with a host of dear, delightful, liberal Franciscan Sisters who thought I was St. Francis reincarnate. They’d sit in on some of my classes and had no problem with evolution or the long history of Earth; they were bright and very progressive. They rarely showed their contempt for the Patriarchy of their religion, but it was there. My discovery of organized Humanism came when I moved to Iowa City and found the Unitarian Universalist Society there. A UU Society member, Betty McCollister, was also on the Board of the American Humanist Association. She took me under her wing, mentored me, and showed me that Humanism was much more than atheism; it affirmed Social Justice for all humanity across the planet, Democracy and Equality in human affairs, Moral Education of children, Rights of reproductive choice and sexual preference, Skepticism of untested claims, and an Optimistic viewpoint, and so on. I was on a path now of Humanistic Unitarian Universalism. The two philosophies wove together quite well for me. Though as UUism started to further embrace Spiritualism and the Language of Reverence around the turn of this century, we atheistic humanists started to feel somewhat marginalized in our formerly staunchly Humanist UU Society. Thus, we established our Secular Humanist group at UUSIC. We chose “secular” to distinguish ourselves from the UU Religious Humanists. We didn’t feel religious. We didn’t come to/join UUSIC for “religious growth,” rather we joined for the Humanistic Principles and Community. For us, it wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was the “best game in town.”

Jacobsen: How did you find the UUS Secular Humanist Community in Iowa City?

Lyons: We went to the funeral of a young man, adopted son of friends and a classmate of our daughter, who had committed suicide at age 14. He left a letter blaming a girl. We heard the then-minister of UUSIC give a humanist funeral, where there was no talk of God or heaven or angels or any of the trappings of a Christian funeral (“I go to prepare a place for you.”). Instead, the sermon was addressed to the teenage friends of the young man, telling them that they were not responsible for his death, that parents and teachers and counselors and everyone had tried to help him without success, and that this was a decision that the young man had made for himself. We mourned him but could not blame ourselves.

Hearing the UUS minister say these things was a life changing moment for me to realize that there were people who thought as we did. Then we read the 7 principles and knew we had found something special. We didn’t yet even know the concept of humanism, but when we read the principles, we knew they represented us. We attended the society within the next several weeks and joined by the fall after the summer funeral. That was 33 years ago.

When we first joined in 1986, UUS was quite a humanist group, I now know. Nearly 15 or so years later, it was becoming somewhat less so, enough that my husband and I wondered if it still was fitting in with out beliefs or lack of them. That was when Mark and a few others started the Secular Humanist group. We joined it almost immediately and its existence has kept us happily in the UUS community for another nearly 20 years. Being more accepting of those with views that fit more into the religious than the secular mode has been possible for me because I have had the UU Secular Humanists to relate to and work with for all these years. There is a rather large group of secular humanists but there is also an even larger group of people whose beliefs seem to be only a little more like those of members of mainstream religions, and then there is a group who are focused on spirituality, unlike most of us Secular Humanists.

Yuskis: New to Iowa City and seeking “community but not church,” noting that the Unitarian Universalists (who I’d never heard of before) called themselves a Society and not a Church, I was curious. I visited, read their Principles, met several members and stayed. And, as I shared above, we eventually felt the need to organize a Secular Humanist Group at UUSIC. I’ve been the Coordinator/Facilitator for most of the group’s 16 years.

Jacobsen: As the Co-Founder and Coordinator of the UUS SecHum Group Iowa City, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position, how have these change over a decade and a half of service to the community?

Yuskis: My role as Coordinator over the years has been basically two-fold: plan programs and facilitate meetings. Our Secular Humanist group meets on the 3rd Tuesday, monthly between September through May, following the Academic Calendar of the University of Iowa and the Liturgical Season of UUSIC. Facilitating meetings is the easier responsibility; it involves setting an Agenda, including a Welcome/Introduction, Announcements, Old Business, Upcoming Events/Meetings, and Introduction of our Speaker or Topic for Discussion or Program/Video. A very important responsibility is ending the formal meeting on time – some of the looks or tapping on watches are subtle reminders that “it is time!” We then adjourn to informal conversation, chatting with the speaker, and sharing of treats and beverages. Planning programs, lining up speakers, and coordinating special events are the real challenge to sustaining an active, well-attended SecHum group. It is also the most satisfying, especially when all goes well and as planned. (Later responses go into examples of special speakers, presenters, and special moments that perpetuate interest in our group.) One very significant change over the years is that for the last 5, or so, years SecSI (the Secular Students at Iowa (University of)) have continually attended our monthly meetings. Around 15 students generally join us, adding a fresh, youthful perspective to discussions. SecSI often prepares and presents one meeting during the year. One memorable meeting they prepared was a Video Compilation of Irreverent, Off-Color videos and cartoon clips. Not shocked or appalled, but rather thoroughly entertained were we by their creativity and unabashed sharing. They are very bright and add to our SecHum experience. Another change over the years is that we no longer set out a contribution basket for Wine Money. With some of the students being underage and with UUSIC formulating all sorts of new rules about this and that, we don’t have the autonomy to do these things “under the radar.” We no longer have our own independent checking account; it’s amazing we ever did! But we did, and it was very convenient and expeditious.

Jacobsen: What are the demographics of the community of 20-40 members who attend at regular events and 150 members who attend at special events?

Yuskis: As stated earlier, UUSIC has historically been a very Humanist UU Society. When I first discovered UUSIC about 1995, I felt a kinship and real philosophical “home” among like-minded folks. That has changed somewhat over time (emphasis on Spirituality and the Language of Reverence mentioned before) and our group has steadily aged. The UU makeup of our group is typically older, most in their 60s through 90s. I just turned 70 and am probably younger than the average age of the UU folks in the group. Now the advent of SecSI, ages 18 -24, into our group has greatly reduced our average age. The problem, not actually a problem, is that unlike us, they never get older; they are just replaced by newer students, the same age. The special event that attracted around 150, mostly UU, people was An Evening with Walt Whitman (see poster advertisement attached). Sponsored and planned by our Secular Humanist group, it celebrated the first anniversary of UUSIC being in our newly constructed, beautiful, “greenest” church in Iowa. With the University of Iowa so close, we were able to enlist two internationally respected/celebrated Whitman scholars, Ed Folsom, the Editor of the Whitman Quarterly Review, and Christopher Merrill, the Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa. One UU member called the “Evening” the best program he had seen at UUSIC. We’d like to think it WAS one of the best. We’ve also sponsored Dinner/Theatre and other events at UUSIC, on Campus, and soon at the celebrated Prairie Lights Bookstore, downtown Iowa City, where we’ll host Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, WI as he presents/reads from his new book Founding MYTH: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. Andrew is currently on a coast-to-coast tour promoting this book.

Jacobsen: How do these demographics change the characteristics and possibilities of the events?

Yuskis: Because we are now joined by SecSI for our meetings and so cherish their presence and contributions, we no longer meet at UUSIC, where we met when we had our 100+-year-old building downtown next to campus (easy for students to walk to). Now, we meet at Old Brick, another old church building saved from demolition years ago and now serving many agencies and as a meeting place, wedding site, etc. Our new UU building is over in Coralville now, too far for students to travel, thus Old Brick. The students rarely attend Sunday Services at the UU, most find it too “churchy” for their tastes (as Secular Humanists frequently do). Our programming also benefits from opportunities to join in some SecSI events for an occasional monthly meeting of ours. Recently, we joined them on campus for a presentation by Dan Barker, Co-President of Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan spoke about his new book Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning. Our group is familiar with Dan and Staff Attorneys from FFRF, as they have presented for us over the years. Our members share FFRF memberships and a few are Life Members of FFRF.

Jacobsen: What have been the more special moments in community for you? Why?

Jeannette Carter: Some of the special moments have been when we heard from our UI group of students about their struggles growing up as atheists; having programs presented at our UU Society by Mark and others to the general UU congregation on Sundays, and “spreading the word” about secularism; working on being a secular, atheist member of a general society which doesn’t look favourably on such beliefs; seeing the commercial by Ron Reagan on national T.V. promoting the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Yuskis: A very special moment of this Secular Humanist community had to be the inaugural meeting of August 21, 2003. I opened the meeting with a reading from that “Good Gray Poet” and my gay, atheist comrade Walt Whitman:       

I think I could turn and live with animals,

they’re so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.        

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,   

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,       

Not one is dissatisfied, nor one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth,     

So they show their relations to me and I accept them.

Interestingly, after this start with Walt Whitman, we had our “biggest” event 15 years later with our Evening with Walt Whitman, featuring Whitman scholars Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill (see above). I gave a Summer Service talk June 16, 2006: “Secular Humanists Add to the UUSIC Experience.” The talk was part of the summer theme This I Believe. I joked that they asked a confirmed atheist to speak thinking “maybe it would be a SHORT talk?” Well, I used my full time. Starting with some personal background and various past and future programs as our “contributions.” I ended with a “match that quote with its author” game. With names of historical figures posted on the wall in front, folks had a handout with 12 quotes to match. After they finished their “quizzes,” I read the quotes and gave the authors. There were many “oos” and “ahs” as they got them right or not. Since claiming that our group added to the UU experience, we have sponsored several special events:            

In November, 2007 we invited Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to share his story of From Boy Evangelist to Adult Atheist. We held a Chili Dinner prior. After dinner we retired upstairs to the Sanctuary where Dan played our baby grand and sang familiar melodies, but with altered, irreverent lyrics from his CD. Over 60 attended. We’ve maintained a close relationship with FFRF ever since.

While in Hawaii, I met Gary Anderson at the Honolulu UU. He toured the country doing a One-Man Theatrical Performance of CLARENCE DARROW: THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE. We booked him for April 11, 2008. Fortunately, our UU’s Susan Boyd, wife of Univ. of Iowa’s President Emeritus, Sandy Boyd, for whom our Law School Building is named, made it possible for this event to be held in the Law School’s Supreme Court Chambers (Levitt Auditorium). Gary was marvellous; it was the most memorable performance in the perfect setting.     

In September, 2014 SecSI (Secularists at Iowa at that time) invited Sean Faircloth of Secularity USA to speak at the Iowa Memorial Union on his new book Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It. The night before, our Secular Humanist group sponsored a Reception for Sean in Channing Hall at our old UUSIC building on 10 S. Gilbert. More than 50 attended, including UUs, Students, and others interested. This event marked a turning point in the development of a close relationship between our UU Secular Humanist group and the Secular Students at Iowa. We had over 50 attend our reception and the students’ IMU event with Sean was very successful.

In March of 2015 the UU Secular Humanists hosted Floyd Sandford, retired Biology Professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, for a Dinner/Theater event. Floyd travels the country performing his One Man Show: Darwin Remembers – Recollections of a Life’s Journey, in two acts. I set the stage in Channing Hall at the UU as Darwin’s Study, complete with plants, and ancient zoological specimens in glass containers (from the Coe College Biology Department where I was hired after Floyd retired). We began the evening with a Chili Supper. Floyd was convincing as his Darwin character and shared much of Darwin’s personal life and struggles. Around 75 people filled Channing Hall. It was another night to remember at UUSIC. We raised $725 of which $225 went to support SecSI, $100 went to the UU Young Adults group, and we sent $400 to the Southern Poverty Law Center.    

On Saturday, October 27, 2018 we presented An Evening with Walt Whitman in the Sanctuary of the beautiful, new UU Society building, our most ambitious venture to date. After commitments from Ed Folsom, world renown Whitman scholar and Editor of the Whitman Quarterly Review, and Christopher Merrill, Director of the Univ. of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program and driving force in Iowa City gaining UNESCO City of Literature status, we partnered with the UU Board to make this a First Anniversary Celebration of being in our new building. Ed and Chris shared reflections on Whitman’s democratic epic “Song of Myself” and on Whitman’s recently discovered “Lost Book” The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. We had nearly 150 in attendance. Cake, coffee, book sales and signing followed in the Fellowship Hall. A great evening for all who attended.

Maybe more to the question asked, Jeanette Carter, UU Secular Humanist since its establishment, shared: “One of the special moments in community with SecSI was when they shared their struggles growing up as atheists.” I’ll add to that by saying there is a mutuality in our relationship with SecSI; I believe it is comforting to those students who could not “come out” to their, especially religious, families to find a community of like-minded folks their parents’ (make that often their grandparents’) age. And, of course, we have benefitted from these young students’ enthusiasm and curiosity and deep questioning of so much. We have also found great comradery in meeting, interacting, sharing, and supporting other area Atheist and Humanist groups; such as, Humanists of Linn County (Cedar Rapids) with whom we’ve joined in some of their events and they in ours. We met and conferred with a delegation from the Des Moines UU who wanted advice on the Freethinker Friendly Congregation designation (granted through the UUA’s UU Humanist Association), which we had just completed working on with our congregation and that they were just considering. More on our process and results and feelings of the FFC next) (Also, please see comments from Jeanette Carter and Caryl Lyons on special moments) Another important recent event was a Sunday Service I presented August, 2018: A Secular Humanist Considers Our 4th Principle: a Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning. It was the highest attended service of the summer, a full house. I’ll attach the text of my Talk [Ed. Please see Appendix III.]

Jacobsen: What are the challenges of community for you? What are the benefits of community for you? What makes sense of a UU and a Secular Humanist view on the nature of the world and the ethics of human relations to you?

Carter: The greatest challenge is to find like-minded people who can come together for discussion and reflection (besides our Secular Humanist group); trying to fit in to Sunday services at our UU Society, which carries the trappings of traditional Christian churches in their services; feeling comfortable in a “Christian” nation.

Lyons: UUS gives a place from which to operate within the broader community, supporting many forms of social justice and social activism. The larger UUS community is very involved in terms of social activism, both as a congregation and as individual members. Some of our ministers have been extremely active within the Iowa City community in terms of giving a face to UUism, which makes me happy. The UU community also provides enrichment benefits individually, such as a book discussion group I have been part of for 30 years. Also, we, as almost all “faith” organizations do, provide support for each other at times of crisis in our lives—providing food, rides to appointments, conversations, or whatever is needed. It seems to me that the 7 principles are what ties secular humanists to the rest of the society. They are what we all basically agree on. Other differences sometimes seem like basic differences and sometimes seem to be mostly semantic. But words do make a difference.

Our secular humanist focus on books such as “Good without God” speaks to our beliefs that ethics are centered in how we treat other human beings and how we live our lives based on our UU 7 principles rather than on any “divinely inspired texts” or any kind of creeds. Something I like best about UUS services are these words we say each Sunday: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the search for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer.” This, to me, is secular humanism, and no one seems to be objecting to saying these words regularly.

Yuskis: Probably our greatest challenge in being in “community” within our UU congregation came after our year-long effort working with our congregation to become a designated Freethinker Friendly Congregation. We held forums, had informational tables during coffee hours, handed out brochures we made describing all facets, criteria, and benefits of becoming an FFC. All went “swimmingly” for 11 months and we thought we’d done so well and it would easily pass a congregational vote. In the last month, we started to hear concerns and doubts from members of our UU Society. Prior to the vote at the Congregational Meeting there were many surprisingly negative comments and one member passionately exclaimed, “this is so divisive, this is so divisive.” The vote tally was 78 yes, 42 no, and 18 abstain, not sufficient support to proceed with our application to the UU Humanist Association. This was the most disappointing time of our 16 years as part of our UU community. Our minister is now conducting 8 monthly forums designed to “bridge the gap in our Theological Diversity.” [Please see also comments by Jeanette and Caryl on “challenges and benefits” I’ve emailed] To me the benefits of being humanists/atheists in a UU community include being mostly accepted within the broad reach of UUism, having a community whose Principles are very humanistic, and affording an opportunity to be in community with other thoughtful, liberal people eager to serve and work toward a better world. Early in my UU years, I had the pleasure of serving on the Welcoming Congregation committee, which was successful in getting the UUA designation that specifically welcomes GLBT+ people. I also headed up our Free Lunch committee for nearly a decade. So yes, the two sets, UUism and Secular Humanism, I feel greatly overlap and atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and other freethinkers fit somewhat easily in that intersection, can find meaningful community, and feel very much at home (maybe with ignoring some of the supernaturalism, mysticism, and “bad science” embraced by some at the other end of the Theological Spectrum of UUism).

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors, organizations, or speakers?

Yuskis:

Authors we’ve read/discussed:                        

  • Four Horsemen of Atheism (Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins)                          
  • Steven Pinker.
  • Susan Jacoby.
  • Michelle Goldberg – Kingdom Coming.
  • Greg Epstein – Good without God.
  • Hector Avalos – Bad Jesus.

Organizations:

  • FFRF of Madison.
  • WI.
  • AHA.
  • UU Humanist Association.
  • Americans United for Church and State Separation.
  • Council for Secular Humanism.
  • Secular Student Alliance.

Speakers:

  • Dan Barker and Staff Attorneys from FFRF.
  • Andrew Seidel – Founding MYTH (FFRF).
  • Robert Cargill (He is a wonderful presenter) – University of Iowa Department of Classics and Religious Studies, a CNN contributor for Finding Jesus, and author of Journey through the Archeology and Cities that Built the Bible.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Yuskis: Scott, you were so very generous and supportive in your comments to me about my concerns of being such “small potatoes” in comparison to the Big Guys and Large Organizations who you cover/interview and who support atheist, secular, and humanist thought, values, and concerns here in North America and internationally. Those words meant a lot to me and to our group. Thank you. I think if you shared that comment some way in your postings that it would mean a lot and resonate and give an uplift to other small groups like ours in Canada, the US, and beyond. If all this rambling doesn’t merit any type of posting, that’s cool. It’s been an important exercise for me (and others) to reflect upon all our years as a UU Secular Humanist Group here in Iowa City, to think of all the good people who found kindred mentalities with a science-, reason-, and evidence-based take on the nature of the world around us and our part there within, and to be in deep, appreciative community together in a world ripe in superstition and supernatural beliefs.

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

Appendix I: Mission Statements

As Secular Humanists we welcome atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and other non-theists who desire a community that embraces reason, science-based inquiry, humanist values, and the separation of church and state.

As Secular Humanists we take a life stance that embraces healthy relationships, reason, rational ethics, and scientific naturalism as bases for morality, decision making, emotional well-being, social justice, and graceful living.

As part of a strong and altruistic Secular Humanist movement, we take responsibility for finding personal purpose and fulfillment in life, and work to benefit humanity through using free inquiry, reason, science, critical thinking, and compassion.

Guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience, we affirm our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

To provide to the greater Iowa City area a secular community, free from religious dogma and supernatural beliefs, that promotes the greater good of society based on science, reason, and moral and ethical thinking.

Appendix II: Vision Statements

We offer social interaction, education, and programs that explore and promote secularism, social justice, non-theistic advocacy, and compassion, free from supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition.

We provide a socially active and involved community of atheist, agnostics, and other non-theists for UUS members, Secular Students at Iowa, and the Johnson County area.  We strive to promote secular values and enrich the lives of members and visitors through meaningful programs, expert speakers, and special events of interest to secularists.

We provide a community for non-theists, eschew supernaturalism, educate members and visitors via programming, discussions, and interaction to promote secular values and reduce the stigma of non-belief. We strive to move secular humanism from intellectual exercise to true social movement.

Through our activities and discussions, we hope to educate the public about secular ethics, speak out as advocates for the separation of church and state, and promote a philosophy that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we use the scientific method, seek to develop and improve ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women, stand for human rights and social justice, and assert that humanity must be responsible for its own destiny.

In our individual and collective relationships with religious humanists at UUS and with the congregation as a whole, members of UUSSH practice radical acceptance of one another’s beliefs, and we greatly value the opportunity to join with UU religious humanists for social action based on our shared humanistic values.

Within our UUS Secular Humanists group, members of UUSSH practice scientific skepticism as our means of seeking truth and meaning regarding or own and others’ beliefs, and we focus on promoting separation of church and state and the use of scientific rationalism as the basis of ethics and a just world.

A secular community that provides to members and to the public the opportunity to understand, enhance, enrich, and promote secular values through meaningful programs, expert speakers, and special events to bring about social justice for all.

Appendix III: A Secular Humanist Considers Our Fourth Principle

*Presentation of the text given on August 26, 2018.*

Good morning, I’m here today representing our UUS Secular Humanist Group, and we are dangerous! The late (thank…goodness) Sen. Jesse Helms of N.C. wrote that, “When the U.S. Supreme Court denied children from participating in voluntary public school prayers…it also established a national religion in the United States – the religion of Secular Humanism.” Jesse had a few details wrong about the ruling, but details or the “truth” weren’t things to deter his, or others’, zeal and rhetorical flourishes!

 In “A Christian Manifesto,” the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer claimed that: the humanist worldview includes many thousands of adherents and today controls the consensus in society, much of the media, much of what is taught in our schools, and much of the Law being produced… (he continues)… The Law, especially the courts, is the vehicle to (force) this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population. I think he underestimates our numbers and overestimates our powers, but he, and his ilk, would likely be pleased to see the direction that the Courts may now be heading.

I’d like to share with you the UUS Secular Humanist’s recently adopted Mission Statement, and let you be the judge of just how “dangerous” we are. After a year’s work with much member input, our Mission states:

We are a secular community promoting the use of reason, scientific inquiry, humanist values, and church/state separation as the bases for a just world.

You may wonder why we use Secular Humanists, rather than just Humanists, or Religious Humanists? Well, that’s been commonly asked of us. When we organized 15 years ago, our then minister at our initial meeting argued that we needn’t form a new group, because there was a UUA sanctioned Huumanist organization (with 2 Us in Humanist, of course), and it had a publication called Religious Humanism. Frankly, we didn’t and don’t feel “religious” and we concurred that “secular” described better our take on Humanism. One interim minister even called us an “oxymoron.” Our choice of Secular was a conscious decision, much like the decision in -1961- when the Unitarians and Universalists merged, to call ourselves the Unitarian Universalist SOCIETY of Iowa City, instead of a church.

Even in 1841 when first established in Iowa City, they chose to be called…First Universalist Society. Now, we’ve pretty much let that church/society issue go…it’s just awkward saying “I’m going to Society meeting today at our new Society building.” Now for complete disclosure, for a while in our earlier history, we did call ourselves: “All Souls” and I couldn’t find if we finished that with Church or Society of Iowa City. Jeanette or others on our Historical Records Committee could likely settle that question for us.

I’m here in Title today to consider our 4th Principle as a Secular Humanist. I could make this real brief by acknowledging Mary Loesch’s talk and just say “ditto.” Or similar for Kim and Lula’s talk earlier this month. Lula shared with me after their talk: “I think I’m a secular humanist,” I responded “I think so.”

I’ll start briefly with the notion of a Free search, and finish with a personal comment on Meaning, but focus mainly on, from my perspective, what a Responsible search is, and what makes a reasoned Truth. I often say I’ve been the most and least religious person in my family…you can guess which of these I am now! As a kid I took all my Methodist instruction VERY seriously…hell or heaven, eternal salvation or damnation… this was nothing to mess with or take lightly…I even kicked kids out of our yard for swearing… if they could only hear me now, especially when the Orange Man appears on TV (and he’s always on TV)!

I guess I was Free to question or doubt (love that word doubt, wish there were more of it), but I wasn’t as precocious as others I know, and I was thoroughly soaked in my familial, cultural, and religious milieu. I didn’t have enough doubt or skepticism in those early years to question that which adults around me seemed to believe.

Finally, as a Biology Major at ISU (the one in Illinois), I started to see the light, and it cast broad shadows on my former thinking and beliefs. Oh my g..gosh, I’m an atheist! But I didn’t just toss out God, I cleaned house…no ghosts, no spirits, no soul, no miracles (I really don’t like the abuse of that word), and… no one watching all those pointing skyward after touchdowns, pins, or homeruns.

In actuality, I’m an asupernaturalist…it indeed covers way more ground. Like virgin birth (if they’d only known any reproductive biology) and resurrection (Occam’s Razor suggests the body was grave robbed, physics tells us it didn’t pass up through the cave ceiling…no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. And, “asupernaturalist” doesn’t immediately precipitate all those negative connotations that seem to run through people’s thoughts when they hear the word “atheist.”

In the description of my talk, I suggested “the bases of our beliefs are more important and more significant than our actual beliefs. Beliefs are only as good as the ‘data’, the reasoned and open inquiry, and the facts that they’re based on. This describes a Responsible search for truth .. for me. Myth, superstition, comfort and wishful thinking, and unverifiable religious claims, including escaping death and seeing those who have “passed” before us (sometimes even our pets) … do not. You’ve heard in politics that “you can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.” I believe it’s similar that you can have your own personal subjective beliefs, but they may not be grounded in facts or a more objective universal truth.

Historically, Truth came from scriptures, whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic. In John 14:6 of the Christian Bible, Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Jesus also, supposedly, said: “The Truth Shall set you Free.” Well, I agree with that one.

Fortunately, this basis for Truth began to crack in the well-named 17th/18th century’s Enlightenment, when the introduction of the scientific method transformed society by using science and reason rather than political or religious dogma to explain natural phenomena. Frank O’Gorman in his book, The Long Eighteenth Century, identifies and describes this period as from 1685 to 1815. This process of enlightenment (little e) is still ongoing, while theistic religions around the world still hold sway and radical religious extremists make life intolerable and dangerous for far too many.

Though not named until Friedrich Niethammer in the early 1800s, Humanism or human centered thought has been germinating since recorded history with the Catholic Church suppressing it all along (think Galileo). Then after the Reformation this suppression was joined by the Protestants, and the evilness of Humanism is voiced viciously now by conservative and evangelical Christians. Again, I reiterate we’re really not dangerous or evil.

The Enlightenment, Humanism, and Unitarianism and Universalism have been part of a long continuum and have much historical connection.

As early as the 1830s both Unitarianism and Universalism were studying religious texts other than the Bible; and, by the early 1900s, humanists in both groups were advocating that people could be religious without believing in God… saying: no one person, no one religion, can embrace all truths.

So, from the Enlightenment, through the rise of Humanism, and its advance thru Unitarianism and Universalism, with the concomitant decline of Christian influence, we’re at a point now where UU congregations around the country (and world) have differing flavors of belief… from liberal Christian to a large congregation in London with an openly atheist, non-supernaturalist minister who puts up a sign saying “We believe in Good.” UUS falls in between these, historically leaning Humanist.

And, then comes along Postmodernism; I never appreciated Postmodernism. Just as we were developing many reasoned, objective truths about the world around us, Postmodernism casts doubts upon them, calling them relative and subjective.

Some have even called Unitarian Universalism the Postmodern religion. You’ve heard the response some have given to the question of what do UUs believe, they, unfortunately, too often respond: “Whatever you want.” But, that isn’t true; you just have to look at our 7 principles for what we Do believe in.

Daniel Dennett, famous American philosopher, is no fan of Postmodernists either; he believes (quote) “They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”

MEANING, on the other hand, is more subjective to the individual. Some get meaning in life from the comfort of a loving, beneficent, god and the promises accorded. I totally get it, just don’t buy it.

Others, embrace a Higher Power, which may be Nature, the cosmos, a kindred community, an inter-connected humanity, or that which gives enrichment and meaning to their lives.

As for many of us, my Meaning comes from here and now, especially here at UUS. This Society has given me so much: like opportunities to contribute in ways such as:

  • Serving, and at times, leading our Welcoming Congregation effort in my earlier years and the Interweave Group that followed for GLBT folks and our amazing allies.
  • Leading the Free Lunch program for many years at the Wesley Center, when we still called to arrange for food and volunteers. I very much enjoyed those friendly chats. The funny part of that time was that the attendees thought I was the Minister. 😊 Yep, Rev. Mark…an interesting word pairing!
  • Then, 15 years ago sipping wine with Harry Kane, we decided we needed a Humanist group. UUSIC had a long, noted Humanist history. Things were changing: we were embracing the “language of reverence,” we were becoming more “churchy,” and many of us were feeling marginalized.

Thus began the Secular Humanist Group. I’ve had the privilege to lead this group for at least 10 of its 15 years. Most proudly, in the past several years we’ve been joined in our meetings with 10-20 Secular Students at Iowa, or SecSI for short.

  • In this last year, out of the Secular Humanist group has come the Freethinker Friendly Congregation Committee, working toward an official designation from the UUA’s UUHumanist Association for UUS. Just like we were welcoming to GLBT folks prior to becoming a designated Welcoming Congregation, we have been welcoming to atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists throughout our history. If approved, we will openly welcome Freethinkers of all stripes through our website, literature, and advertising.

But most importantly, the UUS has given me a wonderful community to be part of, and my dearest, closest friends.

So, you see this Society is a very special home for me and has given great Meaning to my life. And, I hope you support the Freethinker Friendly Congregation effort, so some other person like me can more easily find a life-enriching, Meaningful home and community like our UUS.

Thank you.

Appendix IV: Opening Correspondence and Response by Scott

Yuskis opened with some comments recognizing the group and the requests for emails in addition to the celebration of the 16th year as an acknowledged focus group within the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City/Coralville. He noted being a co-founder and the current coordinator of the group. He described interacting, as a focus group, with most of the atheist, humanist, and secular groups in Iowa, especially from Des Moines eastward. In addition, he described being one of the oldest such groups in Iowa, by their examination of the histories and assessments of the group. They have had guest speakers including Dan Barker and Staff Attorneys from the FFRF, Madison, ISU’s Hector Avalos, David Breeden at FUS, Minneapolis, and some experts from the University of Iowa. The Andrew Seidel reading event flyer can be seen in Appendix V. He noted this is what he could share and wanted to wait to see if I wanted to proceed more. My response was probably what Yuskis intended with the final response in the interview:

Scott, you were so very generous and supportive in your comments to me about my concerns of being such “small potatoes” in comparison to the Big Guys and Large Organizations who you cover/interview and who support atheist, secular, and humanist thought, values, and concerns here in North America and internationally. Those words meant a lot to me and to our group. Thank you. I think if you shared that comment some way in your postings that it would mean a lot and resonate and give an uplift to other small groups like ours in Canada, the US, and beyond. If all this rambling doesn’t merit any type of posting, that’s cool. It’s been an important exercise for me (and others) to reflect upon all our years as a UU Secular Humanist Group here in Iowa City, to think of all the good people who found kindred mentalities with a science-, reason-, and evidence-based take on the nature of the world around us and our part there within, and to be in deep, appreciative community together in a world ripe in superstition and supernatural beliefs.

Here’s the response to the early correspondence from me:

This is great. Keep sharing, I want as many voices as possible. I noticed a dearth of ordinary voices, who, I think (and feel), should be the ones on the forefront of the entire media landscape and, often, are not there.

Next, I stated:

To use an American cliché, though Canadian while feeling like Vonnegut as a “man without a country,” size does matter to some; to others, size does not matter. In this context, size does not matter. Those larger voices would not exist except in the light of the smaller voices. I disagree with individuals who attempt to characterize the smaller groups as not as substantial as the larger groups in size, import, and influence, as this characterization seems dishonest. The larger groups are comprised of the smaller groups and the prominent voices rely on the acceptance and propping-up of the smaller groups. So, I agree, however, with the idea of the focus needing to be on the smaller groups because this puts the attention where it’s more needed for democratic decision-making and providing a voice to the oft-ignored. It comes down to the small groups at the end of the day. Furthermore, and to a deeper dream for me, the smaller groups should have some democratic command over their movements and their communities, including, even especially, in freethought movements and communities. A-women.

Appendix V: Andrew L. Seidel Event

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.

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