The Interview was originally published at Skepoet at the Crossroads of Critical thinking in 2009. That blog is now defunct. (Note: These interviews seem particularly naive to me now).
Continuing my mission to get an operational definition of humanism, I talked to Russell Miller. Russell is more of a rationalist and a slight cynic, but his honesty and his bluntness has amused me since I “met” him on Facebook a few months ago.
C. Derick Varn: How would you like me to introduce you?
Russell:Russell Miller – or was there more that you wanted from that?
I was raised in a religious cult for 23 years, and when I left, I slowly migrated away from Christianity and became an agnostic – and at the same time started adhering to the principles of humanism, although I didn’t really know that’s what they were.
C.D.V.: When did you start identifying as a humanist?
Russell: To be completely honest, this morning. No, it’s not because you’re nterviewing me, but because I went and looked up what it means, I’d never actually paid much attention to the actual term before. I have believed in reason and rationality for a long time, and in the idea that there’s no God controlling everything minutely, and that our morality comes from our evolution and what we believe is right, not because of something divinely inspired. So I guess I’ve been a humanist for a long time, and I’ve been familiar with the term “secular humanist”, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen it as something I can actually call myself.
I don’t really see labels as all that important, really, anyway. A label is something that you call yourself so that other people can pigeonhole you into a box they’ve already made for you – you’re just making a suggestion as to which box they’ll put you in.
C.D.V.:: What is your practicing definition of humanism?
Russell: Essentially, not being stupid. I don’t have a problem with religion, really. What I have a problem with is people who see it as an excuse to be stupid. It has a place, and that place is that which is fully separated from physical reality.
Humanism is a statement, to me, that reason and rationality is sacrosanct – that we have a brain to use, and using that brain is one of the most sacred and valuable things we can possibly do as humans – and that not using it is much more of a “sin” against our nature than any rule that the religious people could possibly come up with.
There may or may not be a God – but even if there is, such a belief isn’t incompatible with humanism – as long as you are not being stupid at the same time.
C.D.V.:: What broke you out of religious belief?
Russell: My story is a very unusual one. I was born and raised in the Worldwide Church of God, which was, to be charitable, an extremely conservative quasi-Christian sect, and to be entirely uncharitable, a mind-control cult. I tend to think of it as the latter rather than the former.
Throughout my childhood, I was taught quite a few things that, even to my young, undeveloped mind, made no sense to me. Why did we have to keep the Sabbath? Why was I supposed to be “apart from the world”? Why does God demand all of these stupid and frankly unreasonable things from me? Why did we have to give 20 to 30% of our gross income to the church?
These are things that I managed to repress and keep to myself for survival. However, on Christmas Eve 1994, the WCG did a complete 180 into mainstream Christianity. All of the rules I’d had to live under all of my life? Gone. Or at least, optional. But I was still very scared, so I left for a while, but went back to Christianity because I didn’t know what else there was. After you’ve lived in a mind control cult for years, it’s wholly insufficient to just push the members off a cliff, saying “You’re free! Fly!”.
But… as I continued, I found nothing of what I was looking for. I didn’t find “Christian” people – there was no love, there was no caring, there was no concern. Just judging and having to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. After attending a couple of different churches… one Sunday I just got up and walked out. And I never went back.
I think the argument could be made that I never truly believed – but it took me 23 years to learn that it was OK not to.
C.D.V.:: Other than other kinds of beliefs that you held that were equally irrational but non-religious?
Russell: That’s a tough question, because all of my irrational beliefs, because of the depth that I was involved in that cult, have either religion or my father’s psychosis as a basis. I think that to answer your question, I think the idea that I have no worth, that no one could possibly want me or love me.
C.D.V.: How did you move past that?
Russell: This answer is going to sound flippant, but years of psychotherapy. The only way to deal with these kinds of beliefs is to face up to them. You can’t push them aside, you can’t hide from them. You can only acknowledge them and move past them. And sometimes, you need help.
I think that one of the major disservices done to people by religion is the idea that Jesus (or insert God here) can heal you. No. Get help. “God helps those who help themselves”, and if you’re afraid that your beliefs are going to be destroyed by psychological help, maybe they’re not all that worth believing to begin with.
If psychological help were available or mandatory for everyone that needed it, I wonder how many people would be religious. Certainly not near the number that exist now.
C.D.V.: Also, strangely, the Worldside Church of God sounds like my experience with Orthodox Judaism (although, to be fair, I have never been an Orthodox or explicitly religious Jew) or New Kadampa Buddhists. Do you think these sorts of things are far more common in just slightly marginal groups than is assumed?
Russell: Slightly marginal groups? How about everywhere? Hell, even atheists can be dogmatic and stupid at times.
The problem is not that they’re common – they are, without a doubt. The problem is that they’re ignored. Religion is on a pedestal. All you have to do is invoke God, and immediately a large chunk of the population is going to assume that whatever it is you did, no matter how abhorrent, no matter how stupid, no matter how abusive or harmful, is God’s will. And then they will fight, sometimes to the death, to defend said behavior.
We, as a society, do not ever step up and say “I don’t care whether God ordered it or not, that is not acceptable.
I don’t care if you marry off 11 year old girls to 40 year old men in the name of religion, or if you just teach a child if they don’t pray every day the devil is going to get them and they’re going to hell. It’s all the same. It’s child abuse, and it needs to stop.
C.D.V.: How do you think rationalism affects politics?
Russell: It doesn’t. Because there are not enough people out there who think rationally for the politicians to listen to them. You can’t get a politician’s attention if you don’t represent the views of more than 50% of the people they represent, and I hate to say it, but more than 50% of the people out there are religious, and thus have to one degree or another already checked their brains at the door.
The only reason that rationalism has managed to get any foot in the door at all is because so many different sects are fighting with each other that they will take a rational approach to law on certain things just so that they don’t get wiped out by a slightly more politically powerful sect. It’s all about religions fighting each other. As much as I hate to say it, we don’t even enter into the debate – and when we try, there come the death threats and the demonizations and, yes, sometimes even true bodily harm. They have no interest in any kind of rational belief structure or government – until their own religion is threatened. It is only our luck that a significant enough portion of people can think far enough ahead to see what would happen if another belief system got the upper hand, and that based on that they try to make sure that none of them can.
C.D.V.: Do you think irrationalism has spread or declined with increased communication technology?
Russell: Oddly enough, both.
Do they have the ability to reach many more people than they ever did before? Yes. But the downside is more people than ever before have the ability to find out about them.
Many people, myself included, believe that the Internet had a big part in bringing down the Worldwide Church of God. They made a very effective effort to keep “Dissident” material from reaching the members – they were instructed to just throw it away unread.
But then came e-mail, and web sites such as “The Painful Truth” – and suddenly anyone who wanted to could learn what people were saying about them – and the ministers didn’t have to know. People started asking questions amongst each other, and emailing back and forth – and no one else knew.
Nowadays, the splinters are a shadow of their former selves – because every time they get a bite, that person just searches for them on the Internet – and nine times out of ten stay far, far away after reading what they find there.
For those who are more mainstream, it’s probably helpful and helps them to “convert” people they wouldn’t have been able to previously. For those more on the fringe – the Internet is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to them.