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Humanist group forges new bonds

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 12/31/2017 9:30 AM

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	Eastman Humanist Community president Gary Snider displays a collection of influential books on humanism at his home in Steinbach. While EHC meetings are free to attend, Snider said some of the group’s two dozen members participate discreetly to avoid negative consequences among family or colleagues.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Eastman Humanist Community president Gary Snider displays a collection of influential books on humanism at his home in Steinbach. While EHC meetings are free to attend, Snider said some of the group’s two dozen members participate discreetly to avoid negative consequences among family or colleagues.

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Secular humanists from across the Southeast have formed a new group to ensure likeminded individuals aren’t isolated in a region known for its overt religiosity.

Building "a safe, supportive secular community based on respect, reason, compassion and ethical actions" is the mission of Eastman Humanist Community (EHC), says president Gary Snider.

The group first gathered in September 2016. Many in attendance had three months earlier left their email address at a Summer in the City booth staffed by members of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM).

Snider recalled the occasionally awkward but supportive first meeting. As individuals opened up, they discovered that many had emerged from what Snider called "a church-centred life experience."

"The piece that was missing for them was the social side," he explained. "We had been made solitary, in some ways, by our experiences. It was really beautiful to see people coming together."

Before long the group established a meeting schedule and lists of topics to explore. They were encouraged by a collective desire "to find out what happens after leaving a church community that is the focal point for one’s meaning-making," Snider said.

That journey was harder for some members than others. As Snider explained, some were hurt or ostracized while transitioning to a secular worldview, and were still processing the experience.

The repercussions for members who left intensely traditional religious sects were tangible.

"They have received calls at odd hours of the night because they’ve left," Snider said.

Fifteen months later, Snider said many members are moving beyond the concerns of the past and "towards a more positive position for enjoying life."

Group interactions and intentional community afford opportunities for learning, growth, and self-expression that were not possible before, he said.

When it came time to choose a name, the group avoided confrontational terms, eventually settling on "humanist," which suggested inclusivity, ambiguity, and ethical responsibility.

"Humanism is more of an attitude than a doctrine. It’s more about the Socratic injunction ‘know thyself,’ and asks again and again what really constitutes the flourishing, well-lived, chosen life," Snider said.

Recently, this ethical imperative led a group of EHC members to volunteer with Operation Red Nose and lend a hand distributing Christmas hampers, Snider said.

As a group attended by mystics, atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and even a few churchgoers, diversity is another part of EHC.

"That does create a bit of tension at times," Snider acknowledged.

The group now has 23 formal members who have paid a $20 to $30 annual membership fee and agreed to a mission statement. Between 14 and 20 people attend an average evening meeting, Snider said, coming from Pansy, Richer, Ste Anne, Steinbach, Landmark, and Lorette.

Meetings occur in two locations. On the second Wednesday of each month, EHC gathers in the upstairs conference room at the Steinbach Superstore. Socializing begins at 7 p.m., with a speaker or program following a half-hour later.

On the third Thursday of each month they hold a more free-flowing evening of conversation at Sawney Bean’s pub at 7 p.m.

Both meetings are free to attend.

"We try to have a focus, a topic, a speaker, or an activity…and then we usually have lots of focus on socializing," Snider said.

Past speakers included an ex-Anglican priest, the group has lined up speakers on environmentalism and feminism for the new year. EHC has also discussed local "sticking points" like sexual diversity and gender identity, Snider said, and networked with South Eastman Transition Initiative.

EHC is also open to dialoging—not debating—with local pastors or church groups.

"The one thing we’re always encouraging our members to do is keep a conversation open," Snider said.

HAAM vice-president Pat Morrow said he was pleased to see a secular community established in Steinbach.

"One of the things we do is form these groups of likeminded thinkers in religious communities," he said.

"We always think it is best for the local group to take care of their own local needs. If they want to become an activist group, we’ll show them how to do that. If they want to learn more about humanism, we’ll show them how to do that. If they want to just have a social group, that’s okay too."

Morrow noted the Pembina Valley Secular Community meets in Morden, while a Brandon-based humanist community, which so far exists only online, began three months ago.

As EHC grows, Snider said members are keenly aware of misconceptions about humanists.

"We have received feedback that we’re causing social instability by bringing unnecessary doubt into the minds of people who are perfectly well-adjusted to a religious life," he said.

"We strongly resist the idea that we proselytize," he continued. "We’re more wanting to be an oasis where people can find resources and good conversation if they find themselves slipping away from church naturally. We’re not trying to change peoples’ ideas towards God or religion."

Other hurdles are more difficult to overcome, and prompt some members to attend discreetly. One such challenge is workplace culture, Snider said.

"We have members who are employed locally, and whose employers place a very high degree of value on religious conviction," he said. "Some of these people have said it’s not always spoken, but it is sensed that you need to be religiously or theologically centred in order to be right with the boss."

A second, more personal, difficulty is family relationships.

"Elderly parents would be intensely unhappy knowing that their child has maybe wandered from the true path. For those individuals, they don’t want to cause their parents undue hurt," Snider explained.

But he remained optimistic that meaningful dialogue between secular and religious groups can be practiced, as long as both sides are genuinely curious, keep lines of communication open, and avoid harsh, rigid, or judgmental labels.

Morrow agreed.

"Treat everybody as you want to be treated," he said. "Just…be a little nicer in conversations."

Challenges aside, Snider said the group’s mere existence in Steinbach is encouraging.

"It would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago," he said.

More information on Eastman Humanist Community can be found at eastmanhumanists.ca.

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