Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, tell us briefly about your background, in terms of how you first found secularism. Not necessarily as a tacit thing, but as an explicit thing, where separation of church and state is important as a fundamental value.
I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. My experience was heavily influenced by growing up gay in Nebraska in the 1980’s and 90’s. The 80;s were not so easy for LGBT+ people in the Midwest at that time. They are getting better, but are still not that great. The peculiar thing I noticed growing up is how orthodox, Evangelical, conservative, authoritarian, religious structures have such a pernicious effect on the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
They’re so rigid. They are very repressive for the most part. They are very, very intolerant towards people who don’t exactly fit the mould, keeping in mind that not all religious institutions and individuals that even overlap with the broader context of what I am referring to necessarily apply in that manner, but, in general, when you’re growing up gay in Nebraska in the 1980’s and before then, you have a lot of resistance from church doctrine and religious people.
The narrative at the time was that being gay was considered a major aberration. Although, things have changed wildly and rapidly in the last several years, and when you grow up white, working class or middle class, there’s a narrative that you’re fed: that if you follow certain rules, life will be good for you. And you are placed with some substantial obstacles where just being who you are is considered deviant. And part of your natural characteristics are seen to make you ineligible from experiencing the benefits of what you were promised.
And in a state that is relatively homogeneous, and at the time was even more so, you have the privilege of noticing the fundamental disconnect compared to other people with more obvious connections to being part of a mainstream group. I think that coupled with the fact that I think I grew up nominally Christian. I think that not having a firm, strong, blatant religious experience that I was confronted with every single day.
That connected with the fundamental disconnect. I think that opened my eyes, not just in my own experience, but the experience of others as well. On top of that, growing up gay in high school, I was part of a mostly African-American gospel music-centred chorus in my high school. We were heavily involved with the NAACP. And I bet I am just rambling at this point. [Laughing]
It’s okay [Laughing].
This gave me a major perspective shift, and so, I got involved with LGBT rights early on as a teenager. I remember also that there was a protest outside the state capital. I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. There was a protest outside the state capital, and it was on a change in the state constitution that was going to change marriage eligibility for same-sex couples. My picture was the prominent picture of the main section of the local paper.
My grandmother saw it and got a little mad at me. She said, “I think our friends will see that.” I said, “I hope they do.” So I got involved in LGBT politics. Part of that intersection, I met someone that was active in the local humanist group when I moved to San Diego. He was active in the local gay community. He was an early, early on gay activist, from the 70’s forward. He invited me to a humanist meeting. I started getting involved, and from LGBT rights movement to getting involved with the local humanist group. I shifting my focus from gay rights specific to more atheism.
This was kind of on the leading edge of the New Atheist movement. It was brewing in the 2000’s. I became heavily active with atheism and secular humanist activism. With that, I became the president of the Humanist Association of San Diego. I became terribly active in my community. I became the only person to deliver humanist invocations to the San Diego city council. We participated with a lot of marches and activism against Proposition 8.
I was active in both. I became Mr. Gay Pride 2005. I got involved with the American Humanist Association and became the first coordinator of the LGBT Humanist Council. Later, they upgraded that to a new position. In this process, what lead me to secularism, and a different perspective than atheism or secular humanism, I was the first person in my family to go to college. In that process, I decided to do political science.
And I had some extra time on my hands. I picked up a second major, which was religious studies. In religious studies, I became heavily interested in the sociological perspectives on religion and secularism. Not just to try to take on and destroy religion, or try to convert people to atheism, but to deeply understand why people come up with religious perspectives and the various intersects with political opinion concerning the separation of church and state, the perspective on minorities, the people formerly in out groups, etc.
In that process, I had incredible professors. One is an expert on secularism. I have developed, I think, a more broad and inclusive of secularism for myself to look at the world through because when you study religion you study religion, philosophy, history, and political science etc. Through my experience growing up, through my experience in activism with LGBT and humanism and atheism, and going the academic route, this is what lead me.
It was a messy, messy, windy road, but I guess I went from activist to academic. That’s how I got where I am now.
Also, you’re a humanist celebrant.
I am a humanist celebrant!
That makes me think of the descriptions you’ve provided of various aspects of fundamentalist religious upbringings and doctrine, and how people can be excluded. In very intimate settings, in ceremonies, what denominations or sects appear to have the greatest amount of inclusion for those that, historically, have been marginalised and demonised groups, or individuals that would attach themselves to groups?
This is a wonderful question! I love this question. So I guess the biggest thing I can say is it depends, and the majority of world religions. In Islam, there is an increasing edge of inclusion in a lot of circles at the same time with this current rise of nationalist populism. There’s a major rise in conservative orthodoxy. Same with Christianity. Same with Judaism. What I mention about my academic background, the thing that I learned was that religious institutions have to respond to the changing world. Otherwise, they die.
If we look at Christianity, we can say there are groups that are heavily inclusive and there are others that are not heavily inclusive. From my perspective on this, the ones that are the most inclusive of LGBT people are the Unitarians. The Unitarians are very inclusive. Humanists and ethical culture tend to be very inclusive. That’s what we pride ourselves on. A lot of these things that divide us are from older ideas, if they are from a larger religious group.
If they are from a smaller religious group, there is this protective aspect of keeping the group from being wiped out. The Druze, for example, they don’t even let outsiders know about the deeper aspects of their particular religious experience, but the groups that tend to be more inclusive, Like I said Unitarians and humanists. These are groups that have a particular worldview from ethical culture. The motto is “deed not creed.”
I think Unitarians, humanists, and increasingly more Liberal sects of the different major religions are more and more going for that because they have to correspond in response to the people in the here-and-now. I think that this is one of my aspects in my own conceptions of secularism that are exhibited by looking at this particular situation. It is the fact that you have these Liberal-progressive groups that completely bypass what the text says.
You have particular values, particular values that are indicative of the human condition. When these come in conflict with the doctrines, usually, the doctrines get put to the side. We can look at Christianity, for example, with all of the prohibitions against witchcraft. We no longer burn witches for the most part. Certain places and certain sects do, but we change because we’re people.
You are the chief executive officer for the Secular Policy Institute. What is it? What do you do, and what fulfilment comes from undertaking this position?
I am the CEO. What the Secular Policy Institute has two main aims, we are a policy advocacy organisation and we’re a think tank. We’re more heavily geared towards our policy advocacy focus. We look at situations around the world, whether human rights violations or where there are instances of policy articulation, development, implementations, and legislation that involves a separation between religion and government.
We create advocacy letters and sign onto them. We are a coalition of 300 groups around the planet who agree that there needs to be a separation between church and state and agree with the principles in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. After we develop our advocacy letters, we will solicit our coalition members for their signatures, and then we connect with decision-makers, ambassadors, legislators, heads of state to promote necessary policy shifts or to contribute to the dialogue.
We also meet with different coalitions, government agencies, to add that particular secular perspective. From our think tank, we are increasing with that. We are increasing our work in writing policy briefs and white papers. We have around 30 distinguished fellows who are the leaders in their particular fields, e.g. linguistics, climate change, philosophy, biology, etc, etc. Once per year, we produce a World Futures Guide to look towards a better future from the minds of think tank.
What fulfilment comes from the Secular Policy Institute is the change that we actually make, and to give voice for more vulnerable people, for example, we saved the lives of 9 people in Nigeria last year. One of our current projects is we’re also helping the bloggers in Dhaka and Bangladesh who are under fire. This has been a major problem. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC have covered this issue. We are active in helping these people re-locate who are under immediate threat, and just making a different, and not just for myself, but facilitating that channel so that just the average, ordinary person who feels like they can’t be involved and effectuate positive change.
It is helping them so they can accomplish good things. For example, we have one person in San Diego who contacted us for some assistance in some direct lobbying that she wanted to do. She is a school teacher. She is a former school administrator. She is a scientist. She is also a concerned mother. She wants to alter the education code to make the Pledge of Allegiance not a necessarily a mandatory exercise because you have a policy requiring a daily patriotic exercise because the term that was added to the Pledge of Alliance of the United States in 1954, “One Nation Under God,” that can be rather divisive at the same time.
What has been said in court cases many, many times is that when the government engages in the business of combining church and state, it sends a message to believers that they are political insiders and nonbelievers that they are political outsiders. We helped the teacher and mother who is going into kindergarten and starting the process in the public school. We helped her with the policy brief.
She met with three state assembly people, just yesterday. Just helping people in their everyday lives advocate and make connections, and lobby the government directly to change things, it is the key core element in the democratic process, which makes the democratic process thrive. Helping contribute to democracy, helping people get involved, and being that catalyst to facilitate deeper involvement, I think that is probably the most rewarding aspect of being the CEO of an organisation like the Secular Policy Institute because it is so vital.
What the single best way people can get involved with the Secular Policy Institute?
Thank you for your time, Jason.
Thank you so much!