Many people think of atheists or secular humanists as hot-headed curmudgeons who do nothing but sit around mocking religious people and deconstructing arguments for the existence of God. Others associate atheism or secularism with immorality. Both characterizations of the non-religious are false; they are baseless stereotypes, predicated on anecdotal evidence and little else.
The reality is that the vast majority of atheists, agnostics, and secularists are moral, kind people who love life, work hard, care for their friends and family, and seek to do good. And some even do extraordinary good.
I’d like to profile just such an individual – Hank Pellissier, the founder and head of the Brighter Brains Institute. I recently found out about Bright Brains – and was honored to join their Board of Directors. I also asked Hank for an interview, excerpted below:
Phil: Can you tell me about Brighter Brains? What is it? What is its mission? What does it do?
Hank: The Brighter Brains Institute is named after an ebook I wrote called Brighter Brains: 225 ways to Elevate and Injure IQ. The books lists environmental factors that can help, or hinder, brain functionality. The Brighter Brains Institute (BBI) has a mission to aid human intelligence. Our activities are largely inspired by combatting challenges to the region’s mental health and offers remedies. BBI’s activities provide many of these remedies: mosquito nets, food, education, clean water, de-worming.
Phil: How did Brighter Brains begin? What was your role? What were your motivations?
Hank: I established the Brighter Brains Institute (BBI) in 2013. I was working for a think tank in Connecticut called Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technology and I decided I wanted to start my own “think-and-do” tank. The first two years we put on 10 conferences and debates; but now, we focus on humanitarian work and humanist activism. I regard my evolution to doing this as typical of someone who wants to “get involved” in helping the world. I am happy with my present strategic, educational and fund-raising work - to build schools, feed children, provide AFRIpads, etc, and I would be happier still, far happier, if I could spend more time in Uganda, talking to people. We recently raised funding to build a large Kahendero Humanist Hall; I would love to lecture there, plus befriend the people in our humanist communities. I feel very lucky though, that I am able to do something “worthwhile.”
Phil: Why Uganda?
Hank: I am very happy to be working in Uganda for many reasons. Here’s why — 1) it is very poor - this means a little money can provide great services. $1,000 can build a classroom, $1,500 can provide a clinic for a year, $44 can provide a teacher’s salary for a month, 10 cents can feed a child a meal. 2) it is interesting and beautiful to visit, with jungles, rivers, lakes, mountains, big animals, friendly people 3) it is safe, really. Not physically dangerous to travel there, 4) I luckily had contacts there, 5) I believe establishing secularism in Africa is a crucial concern for world peace. Doing this will save lives - by ending religious wars, ending AIDS fatalities, reducing population over-burden, saving gays from persecution and death.
Phil: If the schools and orphanages are "humanistic" -- what does that mean exactly? What is humanism?
Hank: We define humanism with the Ten Hum
DIGNITY: Proclaim the natural dignity and inherent worth of all human beings.
RESPECT: Respect the life and property of others.
TOLERANCE: Be tolerant of others belief and life styles
SHARING: Share with those who are less fortunate and assist those in need of help.
NO DOMINATION: Do not dominate through lies or otherwise.
NO SUPERSTITION: Rely on Reason, Logic and Science to understand the universe and to solve life's problems.
CONSERVATION: Conserve and improve the Earth’s natural environment.
NO WAR: Resolve differences and conflicts without resorting to war or violence.
DEMOCRACY: Rely on political and economic democracy to organize human affairs.
EDUCATION: Develop ones intelligence and talents through education and effort.
As you can see, only one of the ten principles is about religion (anti-superstition). The other principles are very important though — “Tolerance” for example, can refer to tribal warfare - there is intense tribal animosity in Uganda. The BaKonzo - the tribe we mainly work with - are often involved in deadly skirmishes. Also, I believe the primary “threat” humanism poses to the status quo is its assertion of women’s equality. We added four new humanist schools to our projects in the last year - all four schools are directed by women’s groups, who regard humanism as a philosophy that will secure them dignity and equality - by that I mean tangible gains, like support for girls education, access to condoms, access to abortions, ability to have an equal say in family planning, and an end to wife-beating. It is perhaps shocking, but in many tribes and regions of Uganda, males are not convinced women are “equal” as human beings.
Phil: Are the children indoctrinated into humanism? Are they forced to adopt humanist values and beliefs?
Hank: The children are not forced to adopt humanist values and beliefs.
Phil: But what if a child is a religious believer? How do your schools and orphanages handle that?
Hank: Our humanist schools allow children of any religion to attend. That is absolutely fine. The requirements we have are 1) the school sign must say it is a Humanist school; 2) there can be no priests or ministers on the Board of Directors; 3) There can be no religious indoctrination at the school, or religious imagery; 4) the Ten Humanist Principles need to be displayed on the walls, and explained to the children; 5) Our two lectures on Humanism must be read to the children; 6) The staff must defend humanism if it is attacked by the local priests and ministers. But the children are free to believe whatever they want. I have never heard of a child proselytizing at our humanist schools.
Phil: Tell me a little about the staff in Uganda — how did you find them?
Hank: I found Bwambale Robert Musubaho online in 2013 because he established Kasese Humanist Primary School in 2011. He is a fascinating, highly intelligent guy; an orphan who worked with way through college, now he is a humanist activist, educator, and successful entrepreneur. I flew there to meet him, and BBI subsequently helped build three additional schools for him - he is our most valuable contact and trusted advisor. Additionally, we know many people in the Ruwenzori villages near Kasese. When I was a writer for Salon.com an associate there was Douglas Cruickshank - he joined the Peace Corps when he was 56 and was stationed in Kyarumba (which is only 50 minutes away from Kasese). Douglas introduced me to most of the people I work with in Kyarumba now: Mama Teddy Ithungu, Joseph Kasibirehe, Mbusa Chrispus. After I established a humanist presence in Uganda, I met many more people. They found me. Especially women’s associations — they started contacting BBI asking if they could join.
Phil: Isn't Uganda very religious? Are humanists persecuted there? Are the children in your schools and orphanages in any danger from religious zealots?
Hank: Uganda is one of the most religious nations in the world, to a very dangerous extent. I recommend viewing the documentary "God Loves Uganda" to understand how messed-up Christianity is there. Religion is not “harmless’ in Uganda - it has deadly, evil, pernicious consequences. Many religion groups persecute gays in Uganda - gays have been killed, often, due to the homophobia stirred up by Christian leaders, especially Evangelicals, but also Catholics and Anglicans. Also, the anti-condom edits of religionists kill hundreds and thousands of Ugandans annually, due to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other communicable diseases. Plus, Uganda has an exploding population - it has gone from 4 million in 1960 to 36 million today. There’s potential disaster ahead — starvation, water shortages — if birth control isn’t condoned by the churches. Our humanist schools and clinics are verbally “attacked” and vandalized, but no one has been been physically harmed (yet). Our signs are occasionally torn down - most recently at Garama Secondary Humanist School - and local priests and ministers regularly tell their parishioners to take their children out of our schools, or harm will come to them. The slander is quite amusing and revealing - religious zealots say children in our schools are possessed by demons, the teachers are “Illuminati”, they say humanists want to make all children homosexual via pedophilia, and then kill them in sacrifices. We are regarded as “western” thus we’re associated with gay rights and abortion. The killing of children in sacrifices is an extrapolation on abortion. Interestingly enough, child sacrifice is actually present in Uganda, via “witch doctors” of traditional African religions.
Phil: How do you identify, personally? Atheist? Humanist?
Hank: I identify as both an atheist and a humanist. My points-of-view on religion are somewhat complicated. I have worked very happily with many religious people in humanitarian causes, and I still do - I appreciate the charitable impulse in Christianity, and the non-violence and compassion in Buddhism. I regard atheists who say “Everything about Religion is Bad” as ignorant and stupid. Religion has provided wonderful moral guidelines, that atheists should utilize as valuable “philosophies.” I believe, of course, that the deities, taboos, miracles and after-life promises and threats of religion are boring and ridiculous, but it is wrong, IMO, to discard the sensible moral guidance. I don’t ridicule religious relatives and associates anymore - I am nice to them; I believe they’ll come around to atheism eventually, and they’ll probably do it faster if I act tolerant and friendly. On the other hand — this pertains to recent politics — would I march in a crowd with a sign proclaiming my support for Muslim immigration? No I would not. I do not support any religious group, for any reason whatsoever. I am looking forward to the end of religion. I try to be polite and kind along the way, but in actuality, I don’t “respect” religious ideas if they are crazy, harmful nonsense. To summarize: in some ways, I accommodate religious ideas, and in other ways, I definitely do not.
Phil: What is your background? Were you ever religious?
Hank: I was raised Catholic; I left when I was 18 because I definitely didn’t want be a college kid who deprived himself of sex. I believe religion can offer ethical value. My Master’s is in Humanities/Religious Studies and my thesis was on Jodo-Shinshu imagery in the haiku of Kobayashi Issa; I’m presently interested in Buddhist ideas on Forgiveness, and in the humanitarian ideals of Cheng Yen and her Tzu Chi Foundation. I admire Buddhism as a “psychology” and a “philosophy.” I was interested in Quakerism, due to its history of social activism, and Judaism - especially the prophet Isaiah’s appeal for social and economic justice.
Phil: Does Brighter Brains Institute have any new projects planned in Uganda?
Hank: Yes, we do. We're launching a "Gap Year Humanist Uganda" program this week - it will be a combination of volunteering in the orphanage, schools, and clinics - plus weekend adventures, to see wild animals, hike in the Ruwenzori, and boating & fishing in Lake George, Lake Edward, and the Kazinga Channel. We are well-connected in a hot tourist area, near chimpanzee and gorilla reserves, and the Rwanda and Congo borders. We looking forward to volunteers who want to teach in our humanist schools, care for our orphans, and administer health procedures in our clinics. It will be amazingly affordable -- about $600 per month for basic room and board expenses. If anyone has questions they can email firstname.lastname@example.org