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Religion...no thanks. The first Humanist group forms in Northern Michigan

Anne Stanton - March 9th, 2009
Religion...no thanks. The first Humanist group forms in Northern Michigan
Anne Stanton 3/9/09

If you don’t believe in God or a supernatural power, can you still live an ethical life?
Members of a relatively new group called the Grand Traverse Humanists think so.
“Some people have the misconception that if you don’t believe in a higher power, you don’t have a moral compass. I don’t have an experience of God or divinity, but I want to do the right thing. I’m just not dependent on a supernatural power to tell me what is right or wrong,” said Heather Kingham, a teacher who recently moved to Traverse City from Portland, Oregon.
“Humanism holds humans responsible for the Earth’s destiny and our destiny. We’re not waiting for God to make it better. It’s up to us to make the world a better place,” Kingham said.
Kingham was wearing a Humanist t-shirt to an interview in the basement of Horizon Books to talk about the new group and its philosophy, which asserts that humans have the ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity—without supernaturalism.
Along with Kingham were Bill Mudget, president of the group, and Joyce Braeuninger. All three say you don’t need religion to live an honest, useful and compassionate life—which they strive to do.
Kingham grew up attending an Episcopalian church every Sunday and was confirmed at the age of 13. She was encouraged to believe, but religion never made sense to her.
“Finally I decided to go with what did make sense to me,” Kingham said.
After believing in her non-belief, she felt more at peace and found like-minded people in a Portland Humanist group. The Portland group is large and takes on a number of community projects, working for social justice issues, much like a church.

BEYOND RELIGION
Mudget formed the Grand Traverse chapter with Fred Utting in December of 2007 under the auspices of the American Humanist Association, a national nonprofit. Their meetings are monthly and have mostly been educational. For example, one meeting demonstrated a mock non-religious wedding, performed by celebrant Jacquie Freeman.
“And then we held a meeting at the Life Story funeral home—a local place that celebrates a person’s life. If you don’t want religion involved, it won’t be. They prepare a video and a booklet about your life. So many religious funerals—and weddings—are more about the religious service than actually celebrating the people who died or are getting married,” Mudget said.
Mudget also grew up in a deeply religious family, but his belief changed after getting into college and delving into the library’s book collection of the history of religion.
“After I looked at all of them, I couldn’t pick out which religion was right. If one were right, that would mean all the others were wrong. Then it dawned on me that all the stories of God came from the same place—someone made them up and wrote them down.”

FACING DISCRIMINATION
Mudget said it takes a certain amount of fearlessness to admit you’re not a believer, especially in Northwest Michigan where the vast majority of people are Christians. He believes
the percentage of Christians is even higher here than the national statistics: about 82 percent
identified with a Christian religion, according to a 2007 Gallup poll.
Mudget said that in a country that is constitutionally based on freedom of religion, he has found barriers. He was intensely involved with the Boy Scout organization, for example, but withdrew because he was unwilling to affirm his belief in God, which the group requires.
“As an elementary teacher, I had to lead the children saying the Pledge of Allegiance for 30 years. I was required to do that. It’s the same kind of thing with so many organizations where you have to profess your belief in a higher power. And, therefore, many people don’t join those organizations or they lie and do join them.”
Anyone who “comes out” about his or her non-belief in God will find it very hard to get elected into public office.
Humanists want to avoid that kind of discrimination, which is why so many remain in the closet. And that’s one reason this Humanist group exists, Braeuninger said—so people don’t have to feel alone and afraid to say what they really feel. As more people become more honest about their beliefs, they’ll also become more accepted in society, she predicted.
Mark Elliott, another member of the group, said he was glad to find like-minded people who believe in rational thought and morals that are not based on the edict of a supernatural power.
“I got involved with the Humanists because, as a man of science, I was very concerned about religious fundamentalists teaching creationism in the public schools. Indeed, the biology textbooks here in Traverse City were censored by the school board, and had portions cut out which referred to contraception and abortion. We actually purchased a textbook for our own personal use, and when it arrived, I was appalled to find sections of pages missing, literally cut out with an Exacto knife,” he said.

HOLDING HUMANS RESPONSIBLE
The group is small—about 24 people attended the last meeting, but the future agenda is filled with speakers from all different organizations, ranging from the Inland Seas Association to Planned Parenthood. As more members join, the group wants to find useful ways to serve the community with compassion.
The speakers are in line with the Humanist idea that it’s up to people -- not a religious deity -- to make the world a better place.
“If we screwed it up, we’ve gotta fix it,” Mudget said. We humans—not some supernatural force—have to take responsibility for what we do on this earth.”
The Grand Traverse Humanists meet the second Monday of each month at the Traverse Area District Library at 6:45 p.m. To contact them, email gtbhmudget@charter.net.
 
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