A Brief History of the Humanist Community

The Humanist Community was incorporated as the Humanist Community of San Jose, 7 July 1967. However, things started well before that in 1962 as a result of an experience of one of the founding couples, Bob and Marie Erdmann, when one of their kids came home from school and asked them, “Are we the only ones who don’t believe in God?”

At that moment Bob realized the need for a community to provide evidence that he and Marie were not the only ones. So they helped found the Humanist Community of San Jose as a chapter of the American Humanist Association.

In 1969 while I was working as Assistant Director of the American Humanist Association in San Francisco. And Bob was on the Board of AHA, he and I explored our joint interests and we ended up doing something unheard of in AHA. I was hired as Executive Director of the chapter. Bob recognized the need for more support in maintaining and developing the chapter. Since one of my functions at AHA included working with local chapters I had seen the need for more structure for chapters and wanted to try to explore models for doing that.

However, underneath my interest was the conviction that the world needs alternatives to traditional religions and that Humanism filled that interest for me. And, I felt there were many who would be attracted to such an organization. However, I overestimated the ease of doing this. Although we had a wide range of activities and membership grew to around 200 we lacked a solid financial base. And, because of my own lack of knowledge and experience I wasn’t able to get the Community through a tough period in 1976 when our primary source of income (the Humanist Renaissance Festival held on the weekend nearest Fourth of July) faltered when the city of San José established a competing event during the shared 200th anniversary of the U.S. and San Jose. The Community decided it could no longer pay my salary so I had to do other things. [And as an aside I got extremely lucky and ended up working for Santa Clara County which not only provided me a good salary for many years, but a satisfactory retirement including health coverage. And the opportunity to do Humanism in my spare time.]

The Community became inactive after I left and was considering returning its articles of incorporation when one of my HCSJ friends asked me if I would be willing to become the custodian of the articles of incorporation in the event future interests revived the chapter. After this happened circumstances led me to wonder if there might be interest in reviving the chapter. So in 1979 I decided to try. I checked old membership lists to contact people and see if there was interest in reviving the Community. Peter Bishop and Sheila Pastore stepped forward, and together we worked to do that. Our efforts were satisfactory and we slowly re-build the chapter.

In 1982 I felt the desire to gather together my thoughts and interests in building Humanist chapters. I had been exploring these ideas in articles printed in the Humanist Community newsletter which I edited. Since our newsletter was sent to all AHA chapters there was a lot of sharing of ideas there. I decided to put relevant articles and thoughts together so they would be available in one place. In doing this the book, “The Humanist Chapter of the Future and the Future of Humanism,” was developed. Twelve editions were printed up to 1993 when on-going events led to discontinuing this project.

One of these diversions came out of some good fortune provided by Peter Bishop which to understand a little background is needed. After getting his Ph. D. from MIT Peter took a job at PARC in Silicon Valley. He had looked forward to coming here because he was aware of HCSJ as one of the most active chapters in AHA. But when he arrived the chapter was inactive. My interpretation is that this left a scar on his psyche when he realized how fragile Humanist chapters are. As a result in 1989 when his stock options from participating in a start-up paid off, he pledged to contribute $100,000 to the HCSJ over a five year period (1990-1995) if we developed a business plan laying out a reasonable process making it likely that the group would be self-supporting at the end of that time.

A key component of the plan we developed was to hire an Executive Director to lead the chapter to stability. Peter searched the U.S. to find an appropriate Executive Director, but the right person turned out to be in our midst – actually part of the committee to develop our business plan. This was Bill Jacobsen (BJ) who was then working as Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. After being hired by HCSJ he convinced us that weekly meetings in the Palo Alto area were necessary in order to build a self-supporting community, so arrangements were made and after many months we started meeting every Sunday in Tresidder Union at Stanford. As part of these changes HCSJ became Humanist Community in 1992.

Another important event happened in 1994 when HC member Dr. Robert Stephens (inventor of Darwin Day) utilized his ability to write grants developed over many years at SRI to obtain a grant from the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust.   This grant of $37,100 was to rent an office with space for small meetings, buy a computer, purchase a domain name (humanists.org), set up a web site, increase the quality of our newsletter, and support our first Darwin Day celebration in 1995 with Donald Johanson, discover of Lucy as our speaker.

Although we were still struggling financially we had definitely met our goal of being self-supporting by 1995 having then an expense budget of $53,000.

From the very first the Community recognized that Humanists come in many varieties and stages of development. Therefore, no activity would fill everyone’s needs and interests. As a result we had a policy of encouraging persons to sponsor activities if they had a relevant interest that wasn’t being satisfied. Because of this we’ve always had a wide variety of programs and events. This was done with the caveat that persons should not expect great numbers to come, but to do what fulfilled their interests and if others didn’t share that interest not to take it as a personal rejection.

I earlier mentioned “The Humanist Community of the Future and the Future of Humanism,” which captured many of the key moments in the history of the Community as we worked to develop a model for a thriving relevant Humanist Community. Earlier this year (2009) this book came up in a conversation at the June AHA Conference in Phoenix and as a result I decided to make a few copies available to interested people.

By Arthur Jackson — 12/08/09