Honored Humanists at the 77th annual Conference
David Suzuki, recipient of the American Humanist Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, speaks at the organization's conference May 18. | Eric Gordon / PW

LAS VEGAS, Nev.—An organization such as the American Humanist Association is in the business of tracking the public figures who align with its values and, through the work they do, promote its vision. This year, as every year, at its 77th annual Conference AHA presented several awards to individuals who have furthered the cause of secular knowledge.

What is compassion?

Science writer and advocate, Los Angeles-based Jennifer Ouellette became the newest AHA Humanist of the Year. Ouellette has written popular science books, and edited The Best Online Science Writing 2012. Her writing has also appeared in a number of print and internet magazines. In recent years she has co-hosted Virtually Speaking Science, a weekly podcast with a prominent scientist or science writer. She has often appeared on National Public Radio, and was the founding director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an L.A.-based initiative of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at fostering creative collaborations between scientists and entertainment industry professionals in Hollywood. She also holds a black belt in jujitsu!

Ouellette was honored for helping to increase numeracy and for her feminist approach toward science, encouraging girls and young women to take up careers in math, technology and science.

The honoree took the podium stating she was going to speak from the heart. Many Humanists have progressive ideas about end-of-life issues. For them there is no grace or sanctity in prolonging life for life’s sake against a person’s will. At the Conference there was in fact a Final Exit Network booth distributing information about the choice to end a painful life.

Ouellete spoke about the painful last three months of her brother David, who had died three years earlier from a fast moving cancer. She wanted to speak about “how to have a good death at the end of a good life.”

Her first point was that medical professionals have to be honest about a patient’s diagnosis. It actively harms a patient to pretend there are cures or unknowable outcomes in hopeless cases. Patients have hard critical decisions to make on the basis of information they receive, and it must be accurate. Also, more resources and research must go into pain management. In David’s case the pain was unbearably intense, but the professionals helping him could only commit to just “staying ahead” of it.

Right-to-die legislation needs to be passed in every state, and even where it is the law, there are formidable hoops to jump through. In California, where David was dying, the wait time exceeded his expected lifespan. His only recourse once he refused further treatment was to starve himself to death. “That should not be the fallback option,” said Ouellette.

Ijeoma Oluo / cactusbones (Creative Commons)

Finally, in their family, the issue of death was complicated by their parents’ evangelical beliefs. They refused to admit he was going to die, would not have the difficult conversations the whole family needed, and delayed the acceptance process. To them, his death would only confirm his lack of faith in Jesus. Secular people in the family found it easier to deal with his death than the religious members.

“This all too short life is all we have,” Ouellette says. “What is compassion? Prolonging someone’s life or ending their suffering?” She cited the political battle society is fighting over the issue of death with dignity, and the religious community’s unhelpful influence on legislation.

Yet, she says, “Long-term, people do change their minds. First change their heart, and be patient. Keep doing what you’re doing, and change will happen.”

It’s not prejudice if you call it religion

Andrew Bradley and Deven Green are the co-creators of the popular videos Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, and are this year’s Humanist Arts Award recipients. The English-born Bradley writes the content, and Green is both co-producer and the actor who portrays the sanctimonious but well groomed right-wing authoritarian nut. In a recent episode of the ongoing series, the video exposed how Christian conservatives like Donald Trump, not because the businessman in a Christian, but because Christianity is a business.

Injecting humor into their acceptance presentation, they performed a sketch “The Whole Bible in One Minute,” in which they revealed that “God is not a full-time job—and it shows.” Their rant deals with the weirdness of money-drenched evangelical religion that obsesses about abortion and homosexuality—two subjects about which Jesus had absolutely nothing to say. “Religious freedom,” they say, citing the spate of cases winding their way now through the courts, “is Sharia law—only Christian…. It’s not prejudice if you call it religion.”

In the Q&A someone asked if they were making the mistake of lumping all Christians together. “No,” Bradley replied, “we’re spoofing incredibly hypocritical people who don’t practice their own religion.” Another questioner wondered why Betty Bower is always so fashion-conscious. “So you couldn’t dismiss her—she’s not a rube.” How about your funding, where does that come from, asked a third person. “Funding? It’s a labor of love.”

A sample of Betty Bowers videos can be found here, and from there you can watch dozens more. If you are not familiar with this program you owe it to yourself to check it out!

Then I grew up and became an adult

Award-winning print and web journalist Ana Kasparian, whose main platform is as host and producer of The Young Turks, won the Humanist Media Award. The show, featuring Turkish-American celebrity journalist Cenk Uygur, is considered the largest online news program. Many of their broadcasts can be viewed here.

Kasparian grew up in an intensely conservative Christian Armenian family deeply conscious of the Armenian genocide by Turkey that occurred 100 years ago. Her father was born in Syria: The family had been forced to leave their homeland, parts of which were expropriated by Islamic Turkey. Most Armenians believe that they were persecuted as Christians, and hold onto their faith jealously.

Young Ana, however, showed signs of rebelliousness early on, objecting to different standards for boys and girls, and rejecting her family’s obsession with purity before marriage. “I felt shame and guilt, like a woman a man wouldn’t want to marry. Then I grew up and became an adult and stopped caring,” she recalled. “Living your life according to someone else’s morality is not living.” Kasparian identifies as a progressive and nontheist.

On The Young Turks Kasparian had to do fact-based journalism and research, “dissecting” on some stories “the very religion I grew up learning.” The U.S. “has decided to engage ourselves in religious conflicts…. A lot of our lives to this day is dictated by religious interests.” If conservatives objected to Obamacare because they believed the government was going to get between you and your doctor, the current struggle over abortion and birth control is exactly that: government control over what your doctor can tell you, and what services are available to you.

Kasparian acknowledges the still widespread prejudice against atheists. “I try to voice who we are,” she says, “but in a noncombative way.” Gladly she observes that one-third of college freshmen today claim no religion.

The ultra-right is “terrifying,” she says, “especially to young children, telling people they’ll burn in eternal damnation.” But she is careful not to paint all believers with too broad a brush. On The Young Turks they distinguish between moderate, ordinary Muslims and fundamentalists. Kasparian related that on her show she had occasion to mention that her mother was on dialysis and needed a new kidney. A listener named Jordan French contacted her saying that as a Christian he wanted to volunteer one of his kidneys for her mother. The transplant was done and now Mom is thriving.

Make it a little harder for yourself

Among the most inspiring and challenging remarks of the Conference was the acceptance speech by writer Ijeoma Oluo, who received the Feminist Humanist Award. Born to a Nigerian father (who soon returned home to Nigeria) and a Caucasian mother, Oluo was raised outside of Seattle by a single mom. She only started writing and publishing after the Trayvon Martin case. Her book So You Want to Talk About Race came out in early 2018. She claims she’s experienced just as much racism from atheists as anyone else.

“When I’m walking down the street, or shopping in a store,” she told her large audience of anti-religionists, “I’m not thinking about evangelicals, or trying to convince them, or about legalization of marijuana as an evangelical issue.” Instead, she said, she was concerned about people watching or following her, making racist assumptions or comments.

“The woman at Yale who called in the cops on a Black woman who fell asleep on a chair in her own dorm lounge was a writer for The Humanist,” the AHA magazine. Some of the magazine’s articles were racist—mocking hijabis, for example. Addressing the AHA, which had just given her an award, she told them, “I want it to do better. It takes more than just saying, ‘I signed on.’ Atheism does not immunize you from white patriarchy.”

If you think you’re being pushed too much by folks coming up from below, she said, maybe they’re threatening your idea that you’ll always be at the center of their movement. “The privilege you have is like the air you breathe,” while others are “gasping for breath.” “You will never be better than the people you decide to overlook…. Make it a little harder for yourself.”

A lively Q&A followed her provocative call for new ways of thinking. Someone asked about the fashion brand H&M which had recently been slammed for its advertisement of a new garment showing a black boy in a hoodie reading “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Oluo replied that racial trauma lasts hundreds of years, and in an instance like this “the structural issue has to be looked at.” Who was sitting around the table when that slogan was approved? And if there were people of color, did they feel empowered to speak up? “What is the power structure that allows such things to happen?”

Gavin Grimm, an 18-year-old transgender man who was on the following day’s speakers list, asked Ms. Oluo, “Do you get fatigued by people who regard you as a Google?”—in other words, who ask Oluo’s time to explain her life and her often painful issues when they could have Googled their questions first. Why bring up all this pain for people who are  already so burdened? Oluo answered. This feels like “exploiting marginalized people on your way to enlightenment.” She reserved the right to decline such conversations if she felt like it.

Another audience member asked, “What does it mean concretely to ‘do the work?’” In an uninterrupted flow, Oluo responded, “Look at systemic oppression. We think it’s a big problem outside of us: Oppressors have evil intent (and we don’t). But it’s a system that will function if we do nothing. Where do you spend your money? Do you speak up at work? Attend school board meetings? City council meetings where they decide police policy? Vote? Is there a ramp at the restaurant? Do they hold the PTA meetings at noon on a workday? Why is the announcement in English only? I do not have the luxury of being comfortable: I was called ‘half-n***er’ on the Strip yesterday.”

Deven Green and Andrew Bradley address the AHA conference. | Eric Gordon / PW

After another question she went on: “Make different choices. Do different things. Make small changes, and enrich your own world as well.”

We have to live within the laws of Nature

Renowned Canadian scientist and educator David Suzuki won the AHA’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. Now over 80, Suzuki has awards, medals and prizes from numerous international organizations, as well as 29 honorary degrees. His foundation seeks to “create a sustainable Canada through science-based research, education and policy work.” His written work includes more than 55 books, 19 of them for children, and his videos on science issues are seen around the world. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.

He began—as Canadians do—by acknowledging the Southern Paiute people whose land includes what we know today as Las Vegas. He appreciatively recalled his formative educational years in the United States. One year at Amherst College, he attended a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a fellow student, where he was shocked to see the mother in the house openly disagree and argue with her husband. In the traditional culture he grew up in, such behavior was unknown.

In the 1950s he witnessed the great American push toward science, in part prompted by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. Our space effort yielded untold numbers of scientific advances in many fields. Now he is shocked by Americans who complain that it’s “un-American” to get off of fossil fuels. “The U.S. evaluates everything in terms of money.”

DDT was once heralded as a wonder chemical to spray on plants to control pests. Then Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out in 1962. “We don’t know enough to understand the powerful consequences of some of our scientific advances,” Suzuki says. When news of atmospheric pollution started appearing, he recalls, “I didn’t even know there was an ozone layer to destroy.” Think of the planet as a basketball: The zone where life exists is the depth of a layer of Saran wrap on its surface.

Prof. Suzuki rails against overgrowth and consumption. “We have people paying hundreds of dollars for brand-new jeans that are already ripped.” In 1900 only 14 cities in the world had populations of a million-plus. By the year 2000, over 400 cities were at least that big. Truly we live in the Anthropocene Epoch—a period where “man is transforming the planet and we don’t know how to do it in a manner that’s sustainable.”

In a short time he is scheduled to receive another honorary degree, this one from the University of Alberta. An avalanche of protests and objections has flowed in: Alberta—and funding for that very university—depends on tar sands oil production! “We have now elevated a human construct—the economy—above Nature. It’s inevitably destructive.” Power companies think nothing of cutting down millennia-old forests with nary a thought as to the vital “services” forests provide for the air, clean water, as a block to erosion, and sustenance for people.

“The fatal flaw of capitalism is that it’s based on the need for constant growth, and that it must occur: It’s the ultimate destructor on Earth,” he states. “Capitalism is accelerating our suicide path: We’re using up the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren…. We have to live within the laws of Nature, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Such are the concerns of Humanists at the present time. And as Ijeoma Oluo preaches, it’s not just about evangelism.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.