The Valley’s humanists have literally been wandering the urban desert for decades, meeting at motel and chain restaurants in Scottsdale and Tempe, but now the self-proclaimed “freethinkers” are months away from settling into a permanent home in Mesa.
Later this year, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix will complete renovation of a home at 627 W. Eighth St., and will meet on alternate Sundays.
“We have been growing,” said the group’s president, Susan Sackett of Scottsdale. “I became president in 2000, and we had about 50 members. We’ve got about 250 now, not that they all go to meetings.”
Her group faces some of the same problems that affect growing religious congregations. The Hometown Buffet in Scottsdale where they now meet cannot provide a child care area, and there is no easy way to furnish members with a lending library.
Sackett gave a list of past meeting places, explaining that finding a permanent site within five miles of Arizona State University had been the goal because it is a source of speakers as well as students open to free thought.
The chapter of the American Humanist Association raised its profile in 2004 by staging a five-state conference called Humanicon Southwest, drawing actress and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Julia Sweeney, an atheist who created the show “Letting Go of God.”
Harold Saferstein, 73, discovered the humanists about five years ago when he learned that Valley cartoonist Steve Benson, a self-proclaimed atheist, was speaking at a Freedom From Religion Foundation event in the East Valley. After the talk, Sackett stood to announce that she had humanist materials on a back table and that her group met regularly.
“I picked up this paper that tells what humanism is all about, and I found that is what I always believed, and I joined immediately,” Saferstein said. His wife followed shortly thereafter. Raised an Orthodox Jew, Saferstein later embraced the Conservative tradition, then became active in a Reform temple.
“We now consider ourselves cultural Jews, and we still honor the traditions, and a lot of our friends are Jewish,” he said, noting that humanism was not much of a leap for him.
Saferstein estimates a quarter of the Valley’s humanist group have Jewish backgrounds. “A lot of them are educated, and there is a higher incidence of freethinkers among educated people,” he said.
Another common background of humanists is Unitarian Universalism, which also emphasizes individual thought and an absence of creeds. Some participate in the programs of both.
Sackett, who calls herself an ethnic Jew, has taken part in Humanistic Judaism activities, partly out of honor to her mother. It was while working in 1988 as a television writer in Hollywood and as assistant to “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry that she got a close look at tenets of humanism. When Roddenberry lent her “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible” by Isaac Asimov, it led her to humanist literature and then to a personal transformation.
Humanism, she said, does not necessarily mean discarding a faith tradition.
Humanist meetings regularly draw people from as far away as Surprise, Goodyear, Maricopa, Sun City West and Gold Canyon. As with religion, some of the attraction is the social fellowship, Sackett said.
“It unites people. It gives them a commonality, and I think it is one of the reasons that people have like beliefs.”
Saferstein said, “One of the common things that most of us share is concern over the influence of the religious right on the legislature process, on separation of church and state and the electoral process.”
Humanists are sometimes lumped in with other groups that are denounced by fundamentalists as the cause of societal problems, he said. “That makes us feel we need to educate the public as humanists.”
Sackett said that while humanists reject supernaturalism, they differ from atheists and agnostics. “There is not necessarily a philosophy that goes along with being an atheist, other than ‘I have no belief in a deity,’ ” she said. “Humanism has a code of ethics that we follow that means responsibility for our fellow humans, that we care for them, that we respect the dignity of every human, and we don’t discriminate. We respect the environment, ecology and animal rights.”
“And we respect science and reason,” Saferstein added. “We understand that evolution is fact and not theory, and it annoys us when they say, ‘It is only a theory, just as gravity or the earth going around the sun are theories.’ ”
Humanism includes celebrations. “I am a humanist celebrant,” Sackett said. “I have actually been ordained by the American Humanist Association that does that.” It gives her “all the rights and privileges of any member of clergy.” She can officiate at weddings and funerals.
For weddings, couples commonly exchange their own vows, read poetry and celebrate with candles and music and “all the regular trappings of a wedding,” Sackett said. Humanist funerals don’t deal with the afterlife, but focus on memories and celebration of a person’s life. There can be moments of silence “where we can reminisce to ourselves ... and if someone was attending the funeral and they felt like saying a prayer, no one is going to stop them.”
The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix meets 9 a.m. alternate Sundays at Hometown Buffet, 1312 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, with book discussions and special events other Sundays at varied locations. Breakfast is optional. (602) 426-1313 or www.hsgp.org.