Interview with the the Spokesman-Review of Spokane Washington

September 30, 2000

Increased 'tribalism' could harm social progress; says award-winning humanist

By Michael Guilfoil, Staff writer

"Tribalism" -- the tendency of racial, ethnic and religious groups to encourage thinking in terms of "us" and "them"-- confuses individuals' moral compasses and threatens society, according to Canadian author Pat Duffy, Hutcheon.

"By encouraging the `dance of the tribe,'" she writes, "we may be undermining the very culture of pluralism that made it possible to welcome diverse subcultures in the first place."

Hutcheon, named Canadian Humanist of the Year for 2000, will speak here on Friday as the guest of Spokane's 125-member Humanist Focus Group. Her topic is "Can humanism stem the rising tide of tribalism?"

We reached Hutcheon earlier this week at her Vancouver, British Columbia, home and discussed humanism's role in contemporary Western culture.

The Spokesman-Review: When a stranger asks, "What is humanism?" what's your quick answer?

Hutcheon: We believe humans can only know the natural world, not the supernatural. The world is evolving, and we're part of that evolution.

S-R: Are there common misconceptions about humanism?

Hutcheon: The main one is that we're moral relativists. Some people think we don't have values al all.

The opposite is true. Because everything we do affects nature, we're morally responsible for what happens to the earth. Humanists emphasize morality a great deal.

S-R: How did you come to embrace humanism?

Hutcheon: I was raised in a nonreligious farm family. Dealing with animals is a good way to become naturalistic and humanistic.

And very early I developed the concept of people having imaginary friends. So when I first heard at school about all these gods and Jesus, I just put them in tire category of imaginary friend, the same as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

I first heard about humanism when I got to university and began taking courses in sociology, anthropology and the classics. During a course in world religions, everything fell into place, I felt so free and happy to realize I was a humanist.

S-R: The American Humanist Manifesto rejects "the dogmas and myths of traditional religions;" including the notion of heaven and hell. Are humanism and religion mutually exclusive?

Hutcheon: Only in terms of the nature of reality. We can get together on values.

S-R: What values do humanists share with traditional Judeo-Christian followers?

Hutcheon: Compassion, honesty, nonviolence, perseverance, responsibility--including, of course, social responsibility--a sense of justice, courage, a respect for the rule of law, a respect for life, and respect for human dignity. W e can all agree on that.

S-R: Do public institutions in Canada and America discourage a humanistic outlook?

Hutcheon: It's generally discouraged everywhere. Humanists feel like a beleaguered minority when we try to share our views. They're not usually welcome.

For instance, most newspapers have columns on values and religion, but very seldom do they acknowledge humanism.

S-R: One goal of the humanist manifesto is to encourage "the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate." What would such a world look like?

Hutcheon: In a way, it's already here. Technology and business interests have forced globalization on us in helter-skelter fashion, with no rules at all. If we're to survive, we need to develop a global village with some sort of political infrastructure-- what my generation called world federalism.

SR: Humanism relies heavily on science to help create a better world. What impact are personal computers and the Internet likely to have?

Hutchison: They're going to make it very difficult for authoritarian governments to keep their people down in the future because of the worldwide access to information. It's already opening things up.

SR: How have traditional religions managed to survive and prosper in the face of scientific evidence that challenges their central stories?

Hutcheon: They manage in two ways.

Fundamentalists fight the knowledge head-on, trying to refute it with their own models, such as creationism.

More liberal religions teach their followers to compartmentalize; they teach that there are a number of realms of meaning, and each realm has its own legitimate means of acquiring knowledge. Science deals with just one of these realms.

SR: Do you see the influence of tribalism growing?

Hutchison: Yes. There's a tremendous regression into tribalism, sped up in recent years by the destruction of political systems such as colonialism and communism. and the threat to nation-states posed by globalization.

In the face of all the insecurity these disruptions have caused, humans are turning back to the clan and the tribe for security and a measure of emotional stability.

SR: In times of crisis, religious people frequently pray to their god, their guardian angel, whatever. What do you do?

Hutcheon I always hope that things will turn out well. But that hope is tempered by the acceptance that death and suffering are a part of life, and I'm not that important in the scheme of things. Humanism teaches us that everything doesn't center around one individual.

As for life after death, whatever I leave the culture--books, ideas, or people who remember me--that's my only claim to immortality.