Cynthia Todd Quam is the President and founder of ‘End of the Line Humanists’, and writer and poet. In this interview she talks with Scott Jacobsen about all things humanism.
Scott Jacobsen: What is your family and personal story – culture, education, and geography?
CTQ: I was raised in a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, originally from Pennsylvania. We moved to the Chicago area when I was two. My mother was Presbyterian and involved in the church, though not particularly devout. My father, a commercial artist, simply ignored religion; he never attended church but never openly disparaged it – I suspect because of the social norms of the time. I’m the elder of two children; my sibling is an evangelical Christian, and has been, more or less, since her teens. I attended public schools, where I was an introverted child and a reader. Not sure what I wanted to study, I dropped out of state college at nineteen to live on my own and work in downtown Chicago.
I grew sceptical of religion at an early age and spent most of my life as a nonbeliever, except for a brief period in my mid-twenties when, after attending a “Jesus rally”, I was “born-again” and identified as a Christian. Shortly thereafter, I married a Catholic and took classes to join the church, culminating in what they ironically called the “grand slam of sacraments”: baptism, first communion and confirmation, all on the same day.
Fortunately, none of that stuck. By my early thirties, I was divorced and finished with religion. I was a single parent for ten years. During that time, I went back to college as an adult, earning a BA in English, and then an MFA in Writing and Literature. I remarried, and my husband and I adopted two teens internationally, bringing our combined total to six children, who are now all grown. I spent some years teaching college-level English courses, but now devote my time to writing, family, and our humanist group. I have lived in the Oak Park, IL area, a proudly diverse community with a strong cultural and intellectual base, for the last 20 years.
SJ: When did humanism become self-evidently true to you?
CTQ: I remember at seven or eight being told that people who were not Christian – including those who had never heard of Christ – were going to hell. That didn’t seem fair. When I learned there were people of other faiths who in turn thought Christians were sinful and doomed, the whole concept fell apart for me. It was obvious, even at that age, that one religious claim was as subjective as another. The only part that made sense to me was the Golden Rule, and my personal ethics evolved to approximate that. Years later I found the website for American Humanist Association, which supports being “good without a god.” The idea was to live an ethical, compassionate life without religion. That was the “Aha!” moment for me. I understood that I had been a humanist for most of my life.
SJ: You are a writer and poet. What is the typical content and inspiration for the poetry and the writing?
CTQ: When I first began writing poetry, I wrote about my personal life: love won and lost, interpersonal relationships, life experiences. My poetry chapbook, The Letter Q, is mostly concerned with those subjects. I’ve also always been interested in mysteries, first as a reader and then as a writer, and I’ve focused some of my work in that direction and continue to find it engaging. I have a mystery novel in progress, and one of my poems in that vein was recently anthologised in the Nancy Drew Anthology, Silver Birch Press.
Some of my earlier poetry was about falling away from faith. Later, as the Religious Right began to rise to power, my writing changed to reflect concerns for social justice and the separation of church and state. My humanism began to inform and inspire my writing, and also the reverse. I began work on a humanist novel, which is still in progress. When I came to the part of the story where my protagonist meets a humanist group, I realised that I had little real experience of that sort. So, I gathered other like-minded individuals and formed a local organisation, End of the Line Humanists (so named for the two elevated train lines that terminate in our town), a chartered chapter of the American Humanist Association. Not only did it give my writing the depth of actual experience, but in the process, I found my philosophical community. In the end my novel took a back seat to my real-life humanist work.
After the 2016 election I, like many others, found I had a lot to say. I began to write and publish articles on the current political climate, and humanism has given me the context for that work.
SJ: You wrote An Action List for the (Un)Faithful on November 29, 2016. You outlined things for activist humanists to do, if they so choose, to get some change going. Of those listed, what are the top two or three more effective ways to advocate for humanist principles and values “in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s victory” and for the next four, possibly eight, years?
CTQ: Humanist values are humane values, and so the obvious answer would be to work on social justice issues in whatever ways we can. However, since so many of our rights and values are threatened because of religion, or religion’s alliance with corporate money, it becomes essential to address the source of these attitudes.
Toward that end, I feel that coming out as a nonbeliever is one of the most effective things a humanist can do. Of course, there are times and places, even in this country, when it isn’t safe to do so. But it’s crucial to make ourselves visible on a personal level and insist on inclusion and acceptance. As the Trump campaign has shown – to unfortunate effect in his case – normalisation actually works. LGBT rights have come a long way in a seemingly short time, but that rapid progress could not be made until gay people were willing to identify themselves, band together and demand that they be heard. The same was true for the disabled. Only after we are accepted will people listen as we point to the out-sized influence of religion in government and its effects on our social order.
Another way to highlight humanist values is making art. The artistically talented among us need to bring our ethics and philosophy into our work. Very few books, plays, movies, or songs have specifically shown atheists, agnostics, or humanists in a positive light, though that is changing. If we want to be heard, we need to be acknowledged by and reflected in the culture. Prominent humanist characters and role models will do more toward the acceptance of non-theists than anything we could preach. Some claim that a few seasons of “Will and Grace” did more to further the LGBT cause than all the years of gay activism put together.
SJ: What is the importance of humanism in America at the moment?
CTQ: Humanism shows people a way to be moral without worshipping a deity or participating in religions with draconian social agendas. I feel for younger people who’ve been sold the idea that you’re either religious or you’re sinful. Popular music is filled with their angst: “it’s where my demons lie,” “don’t want to let you down, but I am hell bound,” “‘we were born sick,’ you heard them say it.” Many give up, finding it impossible to think of themselves as honourable people without a religious framework. Humanism is one answer to that. It allows us to make being decent to one another our most important value.
Also, in what many are calling the “post-truth” era, humanism is one of the few evidence-based life philosophies. It provides a model at a time when a return to evidential truth is essential for the survival of our democracy, our culture and our planet.
SJ: What is the importance of secularism in America at the moment?
CTQ: Secularism is crucial at this moment in history, and in particular danger, as those now in power are desperate to legislate their archaic values before they are further outnumbered. Separation of church and state is the only way to ensure fair representation for all. It protects both believers and nonbelievers from coercion by institutions which may become more popular or powerful. Secularists fight to ensure our children’s education will be based in fact; that we may follow our own consciences in matters of love, worship, marriage, and reproduction; that the dangers to our environment will be acknowledged and mitigated. The importance of secularism in the coming years will be as a watchdog to safeguard American values and constitutional rights.
SJ: What social forces might regress the secular humanist movements in the US other than Trump alone?
CTQ: That depends on what you mean by “regress.” Trump’s election and the Republican ascendancy are actually energising humanists and other secular groups. The AHA reported a large bump in donations following the election, and we’ve seen the will to action rise in our own organisation. Young people are increasingly more secular, and their ranks are growing. Religion can’t hold out against this reality forever.
Trump, of course, is not the only problem. Mike Pence is a Christian nationalist who would be even worse for humanists. And with so many branches of state and federal government controlled by conservatives, who – let’s face it – owe their jobs to evangelicals, there is no doubt that secularism will be under wide attack in the coming years. Congress will try to repeal the Johnson Amendment, allowing churches to endorse candidates from the pulpit and involve themselves in political campaigns. Some state legislatures are already proposing and passing more “religious freedom” laws, allowing businesses and organisations to discriminate against people who don’t share their religious point of view. I believe we’ll see prominent individuals spotlighted and judged on the basis of whether their religious views correspond to those of fundamentalist Christianity, particularly in upcoming elections. But those are really political forces.
The biggest social hurdle for humanists is how we are perceived by the public. Recent polls show that Atheists, humanists and non-theists in general are held in lower regard than virtually any other group. We need to work on visibility, educating the public about ourselves, and improving and normalising our image. We also need a few brave souls to run for office.
SJ: What tasks and responsibilities come with being the founder and current president of the End of the Line Humanists? What is the current size of the ELH?
CTQ: End of the Line Humanists is only three years old. We are a small but growing organisation. As president, I plan activities, convene and lead meetings, write and handle most communications and promotion, book venues, coordinate with other officers, and represent ELH to the public and our parent organisation. Since our officer elections in June of ’15, I have helped with some of those tasks.
ELH has 60-70 people who come to our events; about a third of those are dues-paying members. Usual attendance is around 20, more for special events. We have over 150 on our mailing list and over 300 members on our Meetup group, so it seems that many are watching what we are doing and saying, perhaps waiting for the right moment to join us, perhaps just learning and thinking. We don’t have a building and must hold our meetings and events in public spaces. However, we are growing every day and have a stronger core group and more enthusiastic members as we evolve.
SJ: ELH is run out of New West Suburban Chicago. What is the humanist culture like in Chicago? What activities, campaigns, and initiatives take place there through the End of the Line Humanists?
CTQ: The American Humanist Association has two charter chapters and one affiliate chapter in the Chicago area. Each has its own mission and character. We occasionally attend each other’s functions and/or work together, as we did when we were host chapters for the national AHA conference that was held in Chicago this past summer. Being a large metropolitan area, there are chapters of other non-theist groups including American Atheists, Secular Coalition for Illinois, and Freedom from Religion Foundation, to name a few, and a number of independent non-believer Meetups and gatherings.
Job One for our group, which is new and small, has been to build a local humanist community. We hold social events, present speakers, discuss important issues, disseminate information about humanism, and run an annual food and funds drive for the local food pantry. We volunteer at the annual library book sale and are currently working with the Oak Park Homeless Coalition to set up volunteer nights for our group.
Since the election in November, our membership is more enthusiastic and more inclined toward activism. The timing is right for us. Having built a base of mutual values and trust, we are now ready to engage. We have formed a humanist action committee to seek out and recommend various issue-based actions that our members can take, both together and individually, in order to make a difference and bring more humanist light to the world. For example, we will be attending the March for Science in Chicago on April 22nd. We have also put together a speaker series for this spring and summer. Our first event will be a panel discussion held at the Oak Park Public Library on March 26th: Wide Awake: Progressive Rights Watch for 2017 and Beyond. Representatives from local rights and environmental organisations will participate to update us on what is happening in their areas, and what we as citizens can do to safeguard our rights and freedoms. (Details of the event below.)
SJ: You were interviewed in The Wednesday Journal too. You told the story of gathering humanists from the local areas such as Forest Park and Oak Park. In becoming more acquainted with humanism, you noted some principles were “tolerance, service to others, making the world a kinder and gentler place.” Also, the ELH membership are ambivalent about organised religion and not by necessity atheists. Other than these principles and dual-nature (religious or irreligious, inclusive “or”) of humanism, what makes humanism appealing to you?
CTQ: Actually, the ambivalence to organised religion statement came from a former ELH member who was also quoted in the article. I would say her opinion is not the norm for our group members. Identifying as atheist or agnostic is not required to join our organisation; but nearly all of us eschew religious belief. Humanists by definition are people who believe in living ethical lives without the supernatural, and that is pretty clear-cut as we practice it, not really dual-natured. It is actually this clarity that is appealing to me – the idea of good for its own sake, rather than for heavenly reward, or to avoid divine punishment. Humanism falls under the atheist umbrella; the difference is that the emphasis is on what we believe in rather than what we don’t. I find that positive focus inspiring.
SJ: What informs humanist beliefs for other humanists in general based on interactions with them? Some might note ecstatic/transcendental experiences, improved relationships, disillusionment with established religions, or something else.
CTQ: Just like religious believers, humanists have an entire spectrum of reasons to be involved. Many people are, as mentioned, disillusioned with religion; many are simply looking for like-minded individuals or social engagement that doesn’t involve a church. Most find that letting go of the Big Brother aspects of traditional faith gives them substantial relief from guilt and anxiety, and the development of and reliance on their own personal ethics is empowering. Many more seek a way to contribute to society that is not funnelled through a faith-based organisation. Most humanists tend toward liberalism on social issues, sharing a respect for the planet and the humanity of all the people living on it. In practice, we live for the same things that religious folk do — relationships, family, jobs, hobbies, interests – minus the gods. And we value many of the same things: good health, freedom, honesty, integrity, kindness, etc.
The humanist approach has traditionally been more rational than emotional; however, that is expanding as we explore new ways to express the joys and trials of life within the context of our philosophy. As to ecstatic experiences: one of the much-debated questions in humanism is if humanists can by definition be “spiritual.” Some say ‘yes’, others ‘no’. Some find transcendence in things like nature, yoga, meditation, or the arts; others strictly refute that any higher state is possible or real. We may sometimes disagree, but we value open discussion first and foremost.
SJ: Also, what makes humanism seem more right or true than other worldviews to you – arguments and evidence?
CTQ: The humanist value of doing good for its own sake is hard to argue against, even for the religious. Also, I think the fact that one’s intellect and emotions can be in sync really helps. No mental or semantic contortions are necessary to function as a humanist. We don’t have to disavow obvious realities or twist our lives to follow the often-contradictory rules in one 2,000-year-old book in order to feel secure. As for evidence, we have the evidence of the world: the fossil record, scientific method. However, in the case of an invisible deity who allegedly created the universe and controls our lives, the burden of proof is clearly on the believers. As we nonbelievers like to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
SJ: For those that want to work together or become involved, what are recommended means of contacting you?
CTQ: Those interested in our organisation can email us at beings@ELHumanists.org and ask to be added to our mailing list. Others ways to keep up with our activities are to visit our website at www.ELHumanists.org or join our Meetup or Facebook group. The best way to get to know us is to come to one of our events. We’re very friendly and always happy to meet and welcome new people.
SJ: Thank you for your time, Cynthia.
Wide Awake: Progressive Rights Watch for 2017 and Beyond
A panel discussion on safeguarding our democracy, rights, and environment
Oak Park Public Library
834 Lake St., Oak Park, IL
Sunday, March 26th, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
- Brad Bartels, Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association
- Anthony Clark, Suburban Unity Alliance
- Terry Grace, Move to Amend
- David Holmquist, Citizens’ Climate Lobby
- Ian Wagreich, American Immigration Council
- William Zingrone, Secular Coalition for Illinois
Join us as we discuss issues of critical concern in the coming years. Learn which of our rights, policies and programs are currently vulnerable; what congressional, judicial and executive actions to watch for; and what we as citizens can do to protect our civil liberties.
This is an informative program intended for the general public. The audience will have the opportunity to ask questions and join in the discussion.
This program is sponsored by End of the Line Humanists, not the Oak Park Public Library.