In-Depth Chat with Gary McLelland — Chief Executive, IHEU

Image: Gary McLelland.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Gary McLelland: Hi Scott. I grew up in a small town outside of Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland. It was a happy childhood. I was also fortunate to have family in a small village in the north west coast of Scotland called Arisaig, where I spent most of my summer, Christmas and Easter holidays. It’s a stunningly beautiful village surrounded by some of the most majestic highland landscapes, and tranquil beaches. I still try to return for a few days each summer and feel very lucky to have such warm memories of that place from when I was young.

I was raised as a Catholic, and attended Catholic schools. The Church had a fairly important place in my family life. Whist the place of the Church was important, for rites of passage, celebrations and school life, my family was never overly-religious, and were (and still are) socially progressive and open-minded.

My experiences with religion when I was young was fairly positive. I enjoyed the ritual and community aspects of Church, and the sense of ‘belonging’ felt very positive. I was probably more religious than most young teenagers my age, I would attend Mass and take part in other Church events fairly frequently until my mid-teens.

In my late teens I began to have doubts about my beliefs. Not my beliefs per se, but I knew that people smarter than me, with more worldly experience had rejected religion. So I felt it was strange that I seemed to have such a rigid idea about something which so many people had differing opinions about. Eventually I rejected religion, not an easy process — but eventually I embraced atheism and eventually humanism.

I felt angry — angry that the state-funded education system allowed, even encouraged me, to follow one particular belief system. I don’t want to exaggerate the situation, I received a very good education, at a very good school, but I was never exposed to any views, beliefs or philosophy which challenged my religious beliefs. I feel so angry that this system is allowed to continue.

It was this that inspired me to get involved in secularist and humanist campaigning.

Jacobsen: You joined IHEU in February, 2017. You are the chief executive for IHEU. What have been some of the more startling developments in the IHEU community, even in your short time there? What have you found out about the community and the things that we are dealing with?

McLelland: I have been made to feel very welcome by everyone in the international humanist community since beginning in February. I want to be very open and accessible, and hope that folk feel like they can get in touch with me, to offer ideas, ask for support or have a moan.

We are clearly seeing an increase in divisive politics all around the world at the moment. Populist leaders of the far left and right try to divide and enrage people against each other, appealing to the basest of our emotions and fears. This is clearly a concern for those of us who try to live inclusive, ethical lives based on reason.

And of course IHEU continues to receive a steady amount of request for support from people who are in high risk areas such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the work that IHEU does. To help support this work we launched a global crowdfunding campaign to raise money for helping humanists at risk (https://www.gofundme.com/protect-humanists-at-risk) and hope that as many people as possible can help support it.

Jacobsen: What have been some of the more heartening developments of the organization for you?

McLelland: Without doubt the most heartening aspect so far has been the reception by the amazing IHEU staff team. It amazes most people to learn that IHEU only has four member of staff! We are lucky to have such a dedicated, hardworking and smart team of staff.

The major development has been the start of our new Growth and Development programme. This is a series of targeted support, funding and activities which are going to be rolled out over the next three years to support new and smaller humanist groups in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

There is a lot more we can do to support and promote new humanist organisations in these regions, and we are working hard to do it. In order to do this we need resources, money. We’re lucky to have so many big Member Organisations which help fund the work of IHEU through their annual fees. I have high hopes that we will be able to find other funding bodies to help support this work as well.

Jacobsen: As the chief executive, what tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

McLelland: As the Chief Executive I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation, and report to the Board 5 or 6 times per year to update them on the progress being made. It’s my job to make sure that the strategic aims and objectives of the organisation, which are set by the General Assembly and the Board, are acted upon in most effective way.

This means ensuring that our team of staff and volunteers and well managed and understand their place in the plan. It also means ensuring that we meet all our financial and legal responsibilities in the UK and USA (where we are registered).

One of the most important parts of my job is communicating with our members and supporters around the world, to communicate the work of IHEU, and listen to concerns and suggestions from members of the community.

It’s a very interesting and stimulating job!

Jacobsen: Before this work, you were the head of communications and public affairs at the Humanist Society of Scotland (since 2013) and a director (this is a British term which means Board member) of the European Humanist Federation, and board member on the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education. What were the big takeaway experiences from these positions?

McLelland: That’s right. I was promoted to head of communications and public affairs after having joined the Humanist Society Scotland doing research and policy work on education. It was a wonderful job, during which time I helped to make some real progress in challenging the requirement to have religious worship in schools — something I’m glad to see the Society continue today.

In the European context I was always interested to learn about the similarities and differences within the humanist movement. Meeting other humanist colleagues from different countries is a really good way to get appreciation of the breadth and diversity of our movement. That’s one reason why I want to see IHEU offer more support to less well-off organisations to fund delegates to our conferences in the future.

My work on the Scottish Joint Committee was interesting, I was the first ever humanist to be appointed! The Committee’s work is mainly as a lobby group of religion and belief interest groups, with teachers and union leaders. It seeks to promote the subject of Religious and Moral Education (which is a very progressive curriculum) and develop it.

My main takeaway from these experiences is understanding the difference between tactical and strategic aims. Joining the Scottish Joint Committee will be an unpopular move for some, seeing it as ‘buying into the system’ rather than seeking reform. However, I believe that in some cases it is more beneficial to our strategic aims (secular education) to also be involved in areas that might not immediately achieve them.

Jacobsen: In addition, you did some humanist campaigning, and worked for the Mercy Corps European headquarters in Edinburgh. What were the tasks and responsibilities in these positions? What is humanist campaigning?

McLelland: My work at Mercy Corps was on a global citizenship project which sought to find youth leaders who have an interest in international development. The idea was that by bringing these youth leaders together with counterparts from Gaza, the USA, Jordan and other countries — we could share skills and experiences. We wanted to help promote and nourish youth leaders, with a view to developing the idea of global citizenship.

I was also active in humanist campaigning before working for a humanist organisation. I has a particular interest in dialogue between religious and nonreligious people.

Jacobsen: How did these positions help prepare you for this one? What were the unique perspectives and skills development from them as well?

McLelland: Having a background in the humanist movement was a great advantage, I already knew a lot of people, and they knew me. This was a big help.

Having an understanding of both policy and also international development were both helpful too. I would like to see IHEU work more with development work around the world. I think we have a key opportunity to help development organisations meet their aims through our vast network of members and supporters.

Jacobsen: Women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, in the world are under direct, and indirect, attack. How can grassroots activists, legal professionals, and educational professionals, and outreach officers in the humanist and ethical culture community fight to maintain those new and fragile rights from the historic norm of religious violations of women’s bodies?

McLelland: Yes, you’re right. The attack on women’s rights’ is a very worrying development. It goes without saying that we will always stand up for the woman’s right to choose, and defend and protect the rights of women.

You’re right to identify the different groups involved in this debate. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all have different jobs — the job of lawyers is not the same as the job of an activist. What is important is that we both understand and acknowledge that, but also ensure that we talk to each other.

I am particularly interested in the academic research around religion and belief, in law, history and sociology. I think it is so important that our movement engages with researchers in these fields, in a real way though — more than just being research subjects. I think we have a lot to say, and also have to be present to argue against some misconceptions which can exist about our movement.

Jacobsen: You earned a BSc (Hons) in psychology with a diploma in childhood and youth studies. Your master’s dissertation is in progress. Why pursue the psychology degree? What was the research question and finding from the honors thesis?

McLelland: Yes — I have always had an interest in psychology. My interest grew into a passion when, after my deconversion, I read Freud’s ‘Future of an Illusion’. This fascinated me. After studying psychology for 4 years I came to understand the critiques of Freud and his methods — but I still believe that his opinions offer a really insightful view into the human mind, but more through a philosophical lense.

My main research for my undergraduate was on how individuals who identify as ‘liberal catholics’ make sense of their identity. I wanted to know how someone with liberal (pro-LGBTI, pro-choice, socially progressive) could identify with a belief system so closely associated with a conservative institution.

Jacobsen: What is the research question and tentative title to the master’s dissertation?

McLelland: I’m glad to say that I have now completed my master’s dissertation, on the question of “What would be the impact on the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence on ‘blasphemy’ laws if it was to adopt the same approach as the United Nations?”

In my dissertation I argue that the European Court of Human Rights has developed an idea that the right to “freedom of religion and belief” should also include a right for religious people not to be offended. I compared this with the approach of the United Nations, which is much more progressive, and argued that the European Court should reform along the same lines as the United Nations.

Jacobsen: Who is a personal hero for you?

McLelland: It sounds cliched, but I’m genuinely humbled by all the amazing campaigners I meet within our movement. At this year’s General Assembly we gave an award to Dr Leo Igwe, an anti-witchcraft campaigner and founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, we also heard a speech from Narendra Nayak, an anti-superstition campaigner whose valuable work saw him targeted for assassination in India, also people like Kaja Bryx of the Polish Rationalists who despite having a full-time job is able to produce so much video material and interviews for the humanist movement, and also contribute as Vice-president of the European Humanist Federation.

It’s honestly a privilege and and honour to work with these dedicated and inspirational people.

Jacobsen: How can the human rights orientation prevent encroachment of standard religious privilege into societies, especially secular ones — and even further ones more prone to respecting women’s rights (in particular, reproductive rights)?

McLelland: Human rights is the framework through which IHEU seeks to engage with, and change, the laws and policies which affect our movement. The advantage of the human rights approach is that it is grounded in a secular and objective framework of law. Human rights takes the aim of increased material well-being as a presupposition — this leaves us then to debate the relative merits of different specific laws and policies to achieving this aim. So in this sense, human rights is the most effective way to address the threats you mention.

There are, broadly, two risks to this approach though. Firstly there is the threat from reactionary nationalism; we see across the world now populist leader emerging who want to tear down the idea of universal values, global citizenship and internationalism. The threat is that the delicate human rights framework falls down with it, or loses its authority as a moral leader.

The second risk is postmodern relativism; I see an increasing trend within sociologists of religion a desire to unpack and reexamine arguments which our movement takes as read. This includes the positive value of the enlightenment, a trust in rationalism and the idea of secularism as tools for the orderly and productive structuring of public life. The risk here is that we must be ready to make our arguments for secularism, freedom of religion and belief and enlightenment values in a way that I’m not sure many of us are.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for IHEU moving forward into 2017–2020? How about into the next decades?

McLelland: What I am confident is about is that we have the right people, the right ideas and the plans to carry them out. What concerns me is that we don’t have the resources to make them happen.

Our members pay an annual fee which largely funds the work of IHEU. However, if we want to build our capacity and increase our activities we need to find more sources of funding and support. This will be a key focus for me in the coming months and years.

Thinking ahead further, there is a need for our movement to be bold and take leadership in a number of areas. We are lucky to have within our movement incredibly bright people, and I would hope to see them lead with ethical and practical comments on issues such as; work automation, artificial intelligence, environmentalism and challenging populism.

Jacobsen: What are the future prospects for the fight for the most vulnerable among us and their rights being implemented, such as women and children (globally speaking), because — as we both know — there are some powerful and well-financed people and groups who hold rights in contempt of the advancement of their theocratic endeavours?

McLelland: I think the future prospects are good. Bearing in mind the threats I mentioned above, there is progress being made. Our movement also has a role to play in ensuring that liberal religious reformers, non-conformists and heretics are defended and protects, as it’s through these internal debates and discussions in religious movements that progress can be made.

I also think we have a lot more to do in relation to the rights of children. Too often the rights of children are completely overridden by the wishes of parents — I’m thinking here particularly of the issue of prayers at school and other religious issues.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

McLelland: I am grateful for the chance to talk to you. It’s great to see how active IHEYO is these days, and I look forward to working with you all more.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Gary, that was fun.

McLelland: Thank you :-)