An Interview with Julia Julstrom-Agoyo — Secretary & Treasurer of Americas Working Group of IHEYO
Let’s delve a little bit into your background to provide a foundation for the conversation. Do you have a family background or only a personal background?
A family background, my mom loves to tell the story about how she grew up in Lima, Peru and at the age of 7 she declared herself an Atheist after finding the word in the dictionary, which was unusual because the majority of Peruvians are Catholic, though her immediate family was less religious. She was a curious child and liked to challenge the existence of God in school, to the frustration of her teachers. She was very much of an outsider in that way, but she’s always liked being different — being unique.
My dad, in parallel, went to a Christian church with his parents, but he grew up in a small, Republican town in Illinois. His parents were heavily involved in the church, in part through music, but at the height of the Vietnam War, some anti-war peace protests were organized in the small town and my dad and his family received significant backlash from the church community for having their names attached to them. His parents decided they couldn’t be part of the church anymore, so they all left and joined the Unitarian Universalist church there, which was fine with my dad since he had independently kind of already decided he was an Atheist. That’s where his humanism, atheism, kind of sprouted from. So when my dad and mom (who was studying there) met in the small town and eventually moved to Chicago — after they had a couple kids — they found the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago.
So they started bringing us there because they wanted to have us grow up in a community atmosphere, where we could learn about all different kinds of religions and common values without the dogma. So they got to go to speakers every Sunday. Then us as kids got to grow up in a Sunday school learning how to be a good person. [Laughing]
We got involved in volunteer projects and fundraisers, and stuff like that, and interacted with other kids who were not religious, which is really nice because most of our friends at school were religious and didn’t understand what atheists were — or were taught to fear or dislike them. We were ostracized sometimes. It was whatever kids do like saying, “You’re going to hell.” It is a hurtful thing to say to a child, although even at that age I knew I didn’t believe in hell. [Laughing] It was about community. I owe a lot of who I am today to being brought up in that atmosphere.
With your mom realizing that she didn’t believe in God, that she was an atheist in Peru in, as far as I know, a very religious culture and, therefore, society. Did she, herself, face similar prejudice?
Apparently, not too much. She grew up in Lima, which is the capital of Peru — and so maybe that had something to do with people being pretty open. Anyway, I know she likes being a different person in a bunch of aspects. She was fine standing out from the crowd. I think her family was okay with it because they were actually not too religious — my mom even says they were humanists without labeling themselves as such. Even many religious families in Peru don’t regularly go to church — they feel they can simply pray in their homes.
Your dad with the Unitarian Universalist form of humanism. From my sense of American culture, it is taken a lot more softly than being an atheist, where atheist, as a self-identification, would provide more means for someone to be bullied than if someone was a Unitarian Universalist. Not only because Unitarian Universalist takes longer to say…
But also because people probably don’t know what Unitarian Universalist is. For yourself now, if I may ask, where do you stand in terms of your own take on humanism — that is most comfortable to you?
For me, I thought a lot about it the last few years. I do identify as an atheist and a humanist, but what has become most important to me in the last few years is my humanism. I see my atheism as what I don’t believe in; I see my humanism as what I do believe in, which is much more important because I have a lot of religious friends. I don’t think our belief or non-belief in God is too important in a way.
So what ends up bringing us together are common values, which is what humanism is all about, that’s where I got my values, I think. It shifts the focus, which I think is more important these days with what’s happening around the world — what brings us together, where do we have common ground, what’s important, and don’t focus on what’s not important. God is not important to me, but I know it is important to a lot of people.
I don’t want to minimize that. For me, the fact that I don’t believe God exists is not the most important thing.
Now, you’re part of International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO). Together, we’re on the Americas Working Group for IHEYO. What other, if any, humanist organizations are you involved in? What roles and responsibilities come with them — stated and unstated?
I am involved with 2 or 3 that are all connected. I am part of FES, which is the Future of Ethical Societies. My role in that hasn’t been too prominent because I spent the last year abroad, so I was limited in the things I could do. I did join FES after high school basically, and started going to the yearly conferences and was involved in planning in some of those conferences — not as of late, but I did have some roles.
For a year, I was the liaison to the AEU, American Ethical Union. My responsibilities in that were to call in on some of the AEU board meeting calls, which were very long. I’m not sure if I added too much to them, but it was interesting to see how they work, what kinds of things they do, and what those calls are like. I did attend the AEU conference in Chicago. I helped lead a workshop along with Emily Newman.
I was a FES representative for resolutions AEU passes on current events — like statements on what we think about climate change or gay rights. Now, I am back. Hopefully, I will get more involved in that, especially with the conference coming up. But now that I am also back in Chicago because I went to college in Iowa, I am now attending the local ethical society most Sundays. I listen to the platform.
There are actually some young people my age who are coming, which is exciting. Hopefully, we can begin to build the Chicago young group of the ethical humanists and hopefully get them involved in FES and IHEYO. So that’s obviously related. Then there’s IHEYO. I was involved after Xavier got us in there. He was the main person in charge of the Americas Working Group. I helped him out for a while as a secretary.
We were both working on outreach and what the Americas Working Group looks like, how we want it to look. There were leadership transitions. Now, it is looking very promising. Basically, we are looking on expanding our network. Now, we have Canada & America in North America, and South America, at the same time. [Laughing] It is for the first time, which is awesome.
Obviously, there are a lot of long-term goals, but, for now, I think expanding the network and working on things together, having calls, and planning. Helping where needed, I speak Spanish, so I can help with South American outreach too.
In America, within the Americas, there are concerns within the public about the ability to practice and advocate for ethical humanism, humanism, even possibly secularism. [Laughing] From your vantage, because you have a longer life history in humanism that I do, who or what do you see as the main impediments or threats to the practice, or advocacy, of humanism?
If we’re talking about the current political atmosphere in the U.S. — although, there’s a lot to worry about with our current government, I don’t think there’s too much of a threat specifically against the humanist community. I think we’re still going to do what we’re going to do. I don’t think they can do too much about us. Also, I don’t think we’re at the forefront of who they want to target. There are concerns about certain religious groups or people driving certain religious agendas, which I don’t agree with and don’t need to get into.
I don’t see it as a sincere threat to the humanist community — at least in the U.S.; there are areas in Central and South America where humanists or non-believers do see more of a threat. Maybe, I am misinformed, but I don’t think there is too much of a battle for us, comparatively. At least our society, we’re not supposed to proselytize, which we don’t — at least I don’t think we’re trying to convert everyone to our side. [Laughing] We’re trying to open our arms and let them know we exist because there are a lot of people that think like us and don’t know that there’s a wider community that they can be a part of.
That’s what a lot of people are missing, especially if they belong to a church and leave the church. They miss the community. Hopefully, they can see us as somewhere to go. Also, if you look at the numbers, our numbers are growing. They don’t have to physically attend an ethical society. But I think nonbelievers are on the rise as far as I know.
You made an important note there by saying that we don’t want to proselytize. In the question, I said advocacy was the concern. In traditional religious structures, it is encouraged for members to proselytize, which seems different than advocacy to me. I think humanism and ethical societies can advocate without proselytizing. Do you think that’s a fair and reasonable distinction?
Yes, I do. I think it is difficult, but I do think you’re right. It is just like, “How do we go about it?” It is something I have been struggling with for awhile. [Laughing]
[Laughing] What are your hopes for humanism and ethical societies within your lifetime?
On a global scale, I would like to see humanists, free-thinkers — or really anyone from any religious background for that matter — free from persecution. In the U.S., one thing I would like to see, at least in my society — maybe, other societies are going about it in a different way — is a re-energizing of the ethical action committee. I would like to see that expand and grow and become more effective because I think a lot of people come to these societies — and I know not all ethical humanists attend these societies, and they don’t exist everywhere yet — to listen to these great lectures every week and leave with things to think about from these talks.
But there’s a disconnect in actually doing things about it, especially in this day and age when we need someone — everyone — to be doing something about what’s going on. Personally, in my own society, I would like to step up in the ethical action committee and have our presence at all of the protests, have our space also used for organizing. I would really like the societies to become more involved in interfaith activities, movements — reach out to all different kinds of places of worships, e.g. churches, and synagogues and mosques, and try to bring all different religions together. I think, in 2017 and going forward, we need not only to co-exist, but also co-resist.
There’s a collective benefit in increasing mutual understanding and to be there in mutual solidarity, especially when we see Jewish cemeteries being destroyed and Muslim communities being gunned down in their mosques while they pray and Black churchgoers being shot while they also pray. I think it is important to reach out and tell them we’re there to help and increase understanding of the different religions because I think that’s a big impediment to where we’re at these days. People will fear and hate what they don’t know.
Thank you for your time, Julia.