Interview with William Keener-President of the Hickory Humanist Alliance-
[Previously published in Conatus News]
What is your family and personal story — culture, education, and geography?
My German (Lutheran and Reformed) and Scots Irish (Presbyterian) ancestors immigrated to the American colonies in the mid-Eighteenth Century and settled in the North Carolina backcountry near what is now the city of Hickory (about 35 miles northwest of Charlotte). I live a short distance from land granted to my sixth paternal great grandfather by King George II in 1752. My ancestors fought the Cherokee and then their own neighbours and family (on both sides) during the American Revolution. They owned slaves and fought for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. They almost certainly supported Jim Crow laws in the South, but much of this history has been forgotten (or suppressed) for generations now. I’m currently in the process of researching and writing about it, sometimes in the context of current events, in a new publication on Medium. You can read a sample here.
Despite being raised and living in the Carolina “backcountry” my entire life, I managed to get a degree in Mathematics and recently retired from a successful 24 year career in software engineering and support at a Fortune 100 company. So I am a product of both a rural middle class upbringing and an excellent public education system, and I have been working on computer software with great teams in Shanghai and Hyderabad for the last decade while living amidst the corn fields and chicken farms of a small rural Southern community with a nearby progressive metropolis (Charlotte) and both an Apple (Maiden) and a Google (Lenoir) data center. Welcome to the New South and a global economy based on computer technology! ;)
What informs your personal humanist beliefs, as a worldview and ethic, respectively?
Like everyone else, my worldview is informed primarily by my life experiences and my education. Even though I majored in mathematics, I also studied philosophy and world religions (including Christianity) in college. I even explored Buddhism and Taoism in my personal life after leaving Christianity, but all my experiences and education informed a worldview based on naturalism, empiricism, scepticism, and humanism. But Taoism, absurdism (Albert Camus in particular), and other perspectives — including Christianity — still continue to inform my life. For example, I continue to find wisdom in Thomas Merton’s writings on Chuang Tzu or his devout memory of Adolf Eichmann.
In terms of ethics (humanism), it’s really pretty simple for me. John Lennon said: “All you need is love.” But it’s a little more complicated than that. So I’ve always liked Bertrand Russell’s maxim that the “good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” These are core humanist values that I learned from my (not terribly devout Christian) parents, but they were also reinforced by working at a local hospital emergency room for almost a decade while going to college part-time. If you don’t think love without knowledge can be problematic, I encourage you to spend some time in an emergency room or medical clinic.
What makes humanism seem more right or true than other worldviews to you — arguments and evidence?
At its core, humanism simply emphasises the importance of human agency and embraces reason and evidence as well as empathy and compassion. These are values that are shared by many people of faith as well as secular people who might not call themselves humanists. So I think it’s more useful to focus on how these core humanist values are shared by people who choose to add a supernatural aspect to it and call it religion. We can argue about whether the latter is right or true, but the former should be a given for any reasonable dialogue about what is true. After all, you can’t credibly use reason to argue that reason shouldn’t be embraced.
What are effective ways to advocate for humanism?
Start or join a local humanist group. If you are from the US, join the secular coalition in your state and lobby your local legislators on secular and humanist issues. Also, run for local office. If in the UK, join the British Humanist Association and either join or create a humanist group in your area. Write a letter to the editor at your local paper. Join a local interfaith group and share your perspective with others in your local community. At the Hickory Humanist Alliance, we are engaged in community service and an active member of the local interfaith council as well as a Secular Coalition for North Carolina endorsing group. We pick up trash along one of the roads in Hickory as part of the state’s adopt-a-highway program, and we donate to local charities that support the homeless. And thanks to the tireless efforts of our group’s founder, Gene Elliott, we are once again sponsoring what is expected to be the largest secular conference ever held in the Carolinas — ReasonCon3, featuring Lawrence Krauss as the keynote speaker. So I think it’s also important to keep educating yourself about humanism (and scepticism) in order to be a more effective advocate. But in the end, do something.
What is the importance of humanism in America at the moment?
First, it’s certainly growing. Ten or twenty years ago there were no humanist groups in this state that I am aware of. Now, there are numerous active groups in my own local area and across the state. These local groups provide much needed community for humanists, but they also ensure that humanists are visible in their local communities. Humanist values are of critical importance to our survival and future progress, and we need more advocates and community engagement at the local level.
The importance of humanism in America has never been more apparent to me than it is now. In our post-truth political era filled with hatred and anger and deep political divisions, we would all be well served to remember that “the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Humanists have long been catalysts for change because, as Carl Sagan said, “there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” We recognise both our responsibility to work together with others and the need to take collective action. In my view, nothing could be more important at this moment in our nation’s history.
What is the importance of secularism in America at the moment?
I’m the Legislative Chair for the Secular Coalition for North Carolina, and I think it’s critically important for local and state legislatures to hear from their secular constituents. While I support the work that the Secular Coalition for America, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, and other groups are doing at the national and international level, we also need to get more engaged at the local level. For years now a radical right wing legislature in my own state has been busy fighting marriage equality, expanding school vouchers, attacking women’s reproductive rights, and infamously targeting transgender people with unenforceable bathroom restrictions. We must continue to defend secular values at both the local and national level in order to preserve the separation of church and state and true religious freedom for everyone in our country.
What social forces might regress the secular humanist movements in the US?
In my view, liberal and progressive social movements regress when they embrace authoritarianism (or celebrity), dogmatism, and tribalism. As with humanism, the core secular values of separation of church and state, religious freedom, and evidence-based public policy are shared by many people of faith. Secularists, as well as humanists, need allies in faith communities to help us defend these shared values.
What has been the greatest emotional struggle in life for you?
I’m sometimes accused of being emotionally detached (a coping mechanism I honed while working in the emergency room), but my greatest emotional struggle is probably more worthy of a private conservation with a therapist than airing out here in a public forum. Sorry. ;)
Thank you for your time, William.