Chris Highland: Friendly Freethinker

Authors, Bloggers, Deconversion, Humanism, Naturalism, Podcast, Secular Grace, Unequally yoked
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My guest this week is Chris Highland. Chris is an author of over a dozen books, he was a Protestant minister for 14 years and an Interfaith (collaborative, open-minded, inclusive) chaplain for 25 years. Currently a Humanist celebrant, he has a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Seattle Pacific University and an M.Div. from San Francisco Theological Seminary

The more I interact with freethinking humanists and atheists the more great opportunities I see for building connections rather than breaking them down.

My highest compliment to Chris is that he has been doing Secular Grace for most of his life.

A revival of goodness and graciousness!

Chris shares his love of nature and beauty. We discuss humanism, nature and loving believing spouses.

I am a follower of Beauty


Friendly Freethinker Blog

Clergy Project

Why I am not an angry evangelical atheist

I’ve never felt “called” to be an “atheist evangelist”. I don’t feel the need to convert anyone to my viewpoint or use all the mocking memes out there to prove what a great apologist for atheism I can be.

Do we have to choose between aggressive religion and aggravated atheism?

I don’t see religion going away, so I think it’s much more productive to find ways of working with those faith communities who are open to it, and those seculars who are open to it, than complaining about them top score AAA points or RRR points.




Secular Grace

Support the podcast

Podchaser - Graceful Atheist Podcast


Additional music
Dakar Flow – Carmen María and Edu Espinal

“Waves” track written and produced by Makaih Beats


NOTE: This transcript is AI produced ( and likely has many mistakes. It is provided as rough guide to the audio conversation.

David Ames  0:11  
This is the graceful atheist podcast. Welcome, welcome. Welcome to the graceful atheist podcast. My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. As usual, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast on pod or the Apple podcast store and subscribe wherever you are listening. I want to thank my newest supporter Andy all the way from Switzerland. Thank you so much, Andy. Andy has inspired me to set up a PayPal account, as I've had a couple of people asked over the years to be able to give to the podcast but not on a recurring basis. If you are interested in doing that. You can send money through PayPal atheist. As always, I'm more interested in people's participation. If there are things you can do for the podcast, I'm interested in that more. But if you want to support financially, I will leverage that to make the podcast better on an ongoing basis. Thank you to all of my supporters over the years it is much appreciated. Special thanks to Mike T for editing today's episode. On to today's episode, my guest today is Chris Highland. He is the author of over a dozen books. He was a Protestant minister for 14 years he was a interfaith chaplain for 25 years. He is now a humanist celebrant, he blogs he has been featured on the rational doubt blog that Linda Scola runs, and he is a part of the clergy project as well. He has been very kind to send me two books from faith to free thought a natural journey. And nature is enough essays for free thinkers. I tell the story in our conversation, but I became aware of Chris's work on the rational doubt blog a couple of years ago, and thought to myself, Man, I really need to talk to this guy. And just recently he reached out to me, he had become aware of the podcast. It's just one of those times where here's somebody who has been saying the same things for decades that I've been trying to formulate over the last couple of years. As I say in the episode, Chris is doing secular grace. So I'm very excited to give you my conversation with Chris Highland.

Chris Highland, welcome to the graceful atheist podcast.

Chris Highland  2:47  
Great to be here. Thank you,

David Ames  2:49  
Chris, trying to summarize your bone a few days is quite impossible. I was unaware of the fact that you've written multiple books, 12 books, it sounds like you're a prolific essayist, you've written for rational doubts blog, and the citizen times. You're a speaker and instructor. You're a former minister, chaplain for 25 years and you're currently a humanist celebrant does that almost cover all the things that you do

Chris Highland  3:14  
makes me so impressed with myself?

David Ames  3:19  
I had become aware of your work a couple of years ago caught one of your articles on a rational doubts blog. And I immediately thought, wow, this is, you know, somebody who I have a lot in common with. And so it's been amazing, you happen to reach out to me just recently with a recent article of yours that was kind of along the same lines of a bit of criticism for the atheist community, and more importantly, how we embrace the believers in our lives, how we actually go about doing good in the world, rather than just debating one another and arguing. My summary for this concept is secular grace is the word that I use. And really, I'm just describing my brand of humanism, but my highest compliment for you is that you've been doing secular grace for most of your life, and I'm trying to just trying to catch up. So we will spend most of our time talking about your work. But I'd like to hear first, you know, you were a minister for a number of years. So clearly a very dedicated Christian. And now you're a humanist celebrant and a part of the clergy project to talk to us about your your faith tradition, and what what led to some doubts, and what was that process like?

Chris Highland  4:31  
Well, yeah, thank you. That's a That's a loaded question and so many ways. I have tried to approach that description of the journey in many different ways over time, through writing and speaking and just a lot of thinking about and reflection, but it's it's kind of my own personal Exodus as I think of it, but at least it wasn't 40 years in the wilderness. Maybe it was a little bit actually. But yeah, I grew up in the Presbyterian Church in Seattle. And that was my upbringing and got involved in youth groups, from Baptists to evangelical to Pentecostal through the high school years and ended up going to an evangelical college. And the kind of the saving grace, so to speak. And that experience was that in this particular, evangelical college, there was a pretty good philosophy department, and good world religion teacher. So I took classes and really began to blow my mind expand my mind to way beyond Christian, beyond conservative Christian, realizing that there's a whole spectrum of beliefs out there, and it kind of set me going on a lifetime of, of discovery and investigation and what's out there. And and why should I ever think that my beliefs are any better than anybody else's? We're just a part of, I'm only a particle in the in the big ocean here. Yes. And then at my home church pastor in the Presbyterian Church to his, to his credit. In fact, I just recently reconnected with him. He's in his 80s now. And he encouraged me to go to the Seminary where he graduated from in the San Francisco Bay area. So I went down there, partially because it was Presbyterian, because that was my my roots, but also because of the graduate theological union and Berkeley that had, you know, very wide diverse faculty in different kinds of religious branches. So that was my, my ministry, education, my seminary education for the master's degree, but went on to find that the pastor of a church was just not going to fit me. And I kind of fell into chaplaincy, and that has shaped that shaped my my career, my vocation, whatever, whatever you want to call it for a long, long time. And what what made that really special for me and kind of blew my mind even even more, was that these were, these were interfaith chaplaincy. So even beyond ecumenical wasn't just Christian. It was Buddhist and, and Jewish, and Catholic, and Protestant, and Sufi, and a bunch of different kinds of flavors of faith. I kind of think of that as my, my seminary education after seminary, it was it was really getting in the trenches with with people who were mostly outcast, marginalized by by the church communities by all religious communities. And those were my that was my congregation for a whole long time.

David Ames  8:24  
Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the healthiest things that believers and non believers can do is, is have exposure to that interfaith community right to hear cultural diversity, religious diversity, the wisdom of various different traditions, and just just like you say, have the humility to recognize maybe I don't have all the answers,

Chris Highland  8:48  
yes. And their wisdom. Wisdom is wisdom. And truth is truth. I mean, it just it doesn't really matter where it comes from. And, you know, even back in that evangelical college, one course I took one of our books that we were our textbooks, I guess, was the title of it was all truth is God's truth. And I thought, huh, that's already kind of breaking the mold a bit. All truth is God's truth. And now I would say, well, all truth is truth.

David Ames  9:24  
Yeah, yeah.

Chris Highland  9:26  
It really does open the doors and windows and, you know, that's, that's what it's all about to me.

David Ames  9:33  
Yeah. I think one other point of similarity is I often say that my I went to a very tiny, very, very conservative evangelical college, but I often say that my professors did too good of job. I wouldn't say they were quite as open as what you were describing, but the they taught me critical thinking and an investigation into the Bible and good exegesis and good hermeneutics and And that laid the seeds that that later I think led me away from Christianity.

Chris Highland  10:05  
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, I took up somehow I took a year of Greek in college, you know, mainly to study the, the Christian scriptures. But what we did was we read a lot of classical things. So I was reading Socrates in Greek, before it was reading some of the New Testament in Greek. So, I mean, yeah, that can't help but open the landscape. In a lot of ways, you know, the, the little stream that I grew up with, really became a floodplain with with lots of streams of thought. And when, when one of my pious professors said, well, here, why don't you read Nietzsche? And it's kind of like, Well, okay. That's dangerous. But I did it. And I really enjoyed the, the engagement with, with things that made my mind expand.

David Ames  11:04  
So I think you identify with the term free thinker more than some others. Whereabouts in time. Did you start to say, you know, I think I'm a free thinker now and not a Christian any longer?

Chris Highland  11:18  
That's a great question. I think that I think it was through Susan Jacoby's book, you know, the free thinkers book that she came out with. So we're going back, you know, 15 years or so. And just reading that history of secularism, particularly in American context, pretty much convinced me Hey, if I'm not in that tradition, I sure want to be and it gave me Yeah, gave me an identity are a way to identify that wasn't based on a negative. So I will say that I, I do. I just feel much more comfortable with with a positive like that. And then saying atheist, you know, I really have in my life that it's been all about trying to build bridges be constructive, creative, open lines of communication, where possible, and to refer to myself as a non theist or non believer all the time. I'm not one of those. I'm not one of those, like going through life and saying, I'm not a Republican, I'm not a Republican. Yeah, it's like, that's not a, you know, it's not an identity to live with. I mean, I like what you're doing, because it's, it's focusing on a really positive aspect, that really, in my estimation, I think you feel the way same way I do. It's very important to, to interpret and reinterpret what, what nonbelief is about. So it's not all non non non all the time.

David Ames  13:00  
Yeah, I absolutely felt it was important to have a positive statement. You know, so I personally liked the term humanism or humanist, yes, but I like to summarize it by just saying I believe in people. Yeah. You know, we were talking about wisdom earlier in that, you know, if from a more naturalists perspective, you know, religion is a natural phenomenon. It's a human cultural phenomenon. And so that, that wisdom is human wisdom, and we can borrow from it as much as we want.

Chris Highland  13:29  
That's right. That's right. And I I'm attracted to that, too. In fact, a couple of years ago, I became a humanist celebrant. And that was partly to, you know, my identity for so many years was a chaplain, clergy person who could work with people of many different backgrounds. And so I kind of people ask, Well, what do you feel like you missed when you let left? All of that left the church left faith? And part of it is that role of being a professional helper, I guess. And so becoming a humanist celebrant really opened up the opportunity for me to be, you know, to perform weddings legally, and be a part of that. So I was working with an organization over the past couple of years. That was a consortium of of humanist celebrants and performing lots of weddings. And I've just found out Oh, a lot of couples were was just grateful. It could be that someone could work with them wasn't going to impose beliefs and celebrate love with them. mean, I mean, what better thing can you do?

David Ames  14:49  
That's a pretty pretty good, pretty good deal. Yeah. For people who are in the clergy project, the personality type is someone who is wants to be a helper to be pastoral. And we don't need to be afraid of that term right to to be alongside someone as they go through their life events, the positive ones like getting married, or the birth of their children and the negative ones of losing losing a loved one. And so do you still feel that pastoral? Like, call if I could use the term?

Chris Highland  15:24  
Yeah, yes, I do. I guess, at times, I've called myself a secular chaplain. I've kind of just played with that for a while. I, you know, it's not all about titles, of course, and I, I don't need to be a clergy person any longer. But I'll tell you, even though the word chaplain has deep roots in Christianity, that became such a part of my life, that that I respect that term. And, you know, I respect the person, even, you know, a person who's an evangelical chaplain or any other kind, you know, I have my critiques. And I have my own experience, what I think was the most effective what worked the best for the most people kind of utilitarian approach to chaplaincy. But, you know, we, we were always focused my, with my team, working with the chaplain team working with Chaplain assistants, in various settings, whether it was a county jail system, or on the streets and shelters, other places. It was, you know, we had a guiding principle, and it was presence, it was presence ministry, and it was simply being with people. So that takes away a whole lot of extra stuff that people feel like they've got to, you know, you have to have your own agenda. And you've got to be able to convince people and all that kind of stuff and pass along something. And, as I say, you know, becoming a chaplain was really a way to to begin an education that you cannot get in a classroom. It just can't and, and the people that have something to teach are the ironically, I suppose, or sadly, they're the ones that we're not listening to, because we talk too much, or we have our own agenda.

David Ames  17:47  
So one of the things that I think, drew us to one another is that we have some criticisms of atheist culture, and particularly online atheist culture. I want to preface this conversation by saying that I think you know, you have plenty of Skeptic bone a few days. So we're not talking about not having a skeptical outlook. And the way I've said it is, you know, it, it's frustrating to me that immediately as people go through a process of, however you want to describe it, the loss of faith, questioning doubt. deconversion deconstruction, the first sources that they land on are going to be very debate oriented, a very aggressive, dismissive, you know, almost angry. And so you've, you've written a couple of these articles where you're saying, you know, does this actually benefit us having that stance towards other believers? Do you want to expand on that?

Chris Highland  18:49  
Yeah, well, it's Yeah, I guess I pick up on these a words like, Well, other than the, you know, aihole. There's also just aggression, aggravation, anger, you know, an anti anti is a big one. Yeah. You know, if your whole your whole outlook is to be anti religion, particularly, in this context, I find that number one, I find that sad. Number two, I think that a person needs to look in the mirror and deal with their own stuff. And unfortunately, some of us who want to hold up on me, none of us like to look in the mirror about some of this

David Ames  19:35  
stuff. Uncomfortable. Yeah.

Chris Highland  19:39  
And so I think that's where some of the pushback is come toward my writing. But, you know, I'm, I'm married to a minister, my my wife is still in ministry. She's very progressive and and she's a teacher and a counselor. And we've been together a long Time. So she's seen me through this whole process and supports me. And that's an unusual story. I understand. That's an unusual story. But But I think what I like to point out to people, and sometimes it's a, I do it in a pointed way, holding up that mirror and say, look in the mirror. It's when people attack religion in general, or religious people in general, oh, they're all deluded. Oh, they're all just, you know, in a fantasy world, they're all really basically stupid idiots. And whenever I pick up on that, I say, well, Where's that coming from? Obviously, they've had a bad experience. And that's what they've learned about religion, that's, that's their experience of religion? Well, you know, I was once in a, in a little splinter of, of Christianity of one religion in the world, I was distant, a little tiny branch. Right. And that, as I've already said, it took a period of time to learn that there was a whole lot more. So I like to encourage, let's just put it this way, I like to encourage people to look in the mirror that and see that, okay, I am angry, I may be very justified to be angry toward my little group, right? Or a big group of it's the Catholic Church, or, you know, some bigger the Southern Baptists or something, I understand I get it, you had a bad experience, okay. So you can get all angry, you want to add that tradition. But, but when you start pointing the finger to make blanket statements, then you're talking about Quakers. And you're talking about progressives of a lot of different religion, you're talking about, you know, Catholic nuns who are doing running soup kitchens, and all of that, you know, a lot of good things going on, out there, in the name of religion, I'm not saying, you know, I'm not going to be a defender of, of everything to do with religion. You know, and I, and I have my own critiques. And I expressed those in a pointed way too. But I, I've done enough self criticism and self critique and self analysis, to know that, you know, it's kind of like calling myself a free thinker. Once again, it's focusing on what can we do to heal ourselves? What can we do to bring people together to deal with what really matters? Does theology matters so much to people that they got to argue about it all the time? You know, and, I mean, one of my neighbors, and I'm kind of exaggerating, it's down the road a bit from us is Franklin Graham. Wow, Billy Graham's empire, you know, is down the road from us here, where we live in North Carolina. And, you know, I could spend my time attacking him and say, See, that's what those Christians are doing? Well, that's not that's, that's only a small part of Christianity. And it's, it's not a healthy part of Christianity. And I've written letters to the paper about him, and I've written blog posts on their, some of their deception when it comes to the Samaritans person and all that. But, you know, I'm not going to waste my time, just attacking one branch of Christianity, one small branch of religion, or religion in general. I mean, what's the purpose?

David Ames  23:47  
Yeah, man, several things that I want to respond to you there, I think, one of one of my observations of, of just friends of mine, so friends in the secular community, who, who's still very actively engaged with people online, and you know, in a in a fairly debate oriented style, so people that I care about friends of mine, that still do this, and I think it's part of the, you know, someone is wrong on the internet phenomenon. Right? It's just, you see something that you have a strong reaction to, and that actually should be your indication to slow down and think more. Before I throw anybody under the bus. This I do this too, right. I think that Twitter brings the worst out of me, I take a potshot at a apologist every once in a while, and I immediately think, why did I do that? You know, and there's trollish behavior by Christians and there's trollish behavior by atheists is one of the things that I like about your work and I'm gonna try to give a quote here. The more I interact with free thinking humanists and atheists that the more I see the great opportunities of for building connections, rather than breaking them down, and it's that change in focus right from correcting someone's mistaken belief, from your perspective, to seeing their full humanity and finding out which ways can we work together? One more. One more way of describing this is, you know, I think apologists often critique humanism to say, Well, you can't justify being good or doing good or goodness. And I think, why do you care? If we can do good together, and you have your justification, and I have my justification? Isn't that better for everyone?

Chris Highland  25:40  
Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, it does have to come back. I mean, humanism is great, because it's, it's about humans. And I'm a real nature guy. And I know you are too and a lot of this, we are common ground literally is, is the natural world. And we have to find ways of connecting. More people with that. That's one reason why I'm, I'm wearing my Yellowstone shirt today, to remind myself that, you know, the, the national park system, as I see it, in this country, is is made up of secular sanctuaries. I mean, this is the the secular answer to, to the church to sanctuaries is, and that's how John Muir and some of my, you know, my heroes might call them secular saints, sometimes, you know, people who have something to say about the natural world and want to draw people out kind of evangelists for nature. So, so how to do that in a way that that's inviting to everyone. And I love to, I love to say that I think this is responding to your question, let me know if it's not, but I can remember a time when I was in Yellowstone National Park, and I was observing a scene with a probably 100 other people. And it was a scene in a valley and there was a grizzly eating an elk. And there were bald eagles waiting to get their part of the snack. And then there was a moose that came running out of the woods chased by a wolf. And we all got to see that in one scene right in front of us in the wild in the wild. And he's kind of just I would just want to freeze that scene and say, okay, is that is that a Baptist over there? You know, is that a Catholic? Is that an atheist watching this scene? And it didn't matter? It's that sense of, it's that sense of awe and wonder and wildness, that I think, is really the core of our humanity. And why not? Keep urging, nudging us all toward that, instead of suddenly wanting to divide everybody up? Which is what religion tends to do? Why should atheism do that? Right? Why should atheism do the same thing that religion does breaking into this group and that group and getting and arguing and all that kind of stuff? There's a place for that, I honor a certain amount of what I hear from some of the more famous atheists the face of atheism out there. But I am concerned as you read in, in my one of my latest articles, I am concerned about what is the face of, of atheism? Partly because I want to, I wonder what is the face of free thought? What is the face of secularism? And if you ask people out there, you know, what do you think of or what do you think of if they only come up with these debaters and the agitators and the militants, and all those folks that are so anti religious, I want to say wait a minute, there's a whole bunch of us who aren't like that, right.

David Ames  29:20  
One of the things I've observed is the nature of social media is such that provocative tweets or posts get a lot of attention. So if you say something about, hey, we ought to be kinder to one another and love one another. It's, you know, crickets. Nobody responds, but if you say this group is stupid, you know, retweets and likes and so I've been very cognizant of restraint of restraining my desire to, to score points. And again, sometimes sometimes I don't live up to that but that but I'm aware of that as as a phenomena and so much of what we see, both in books and YouTube and social media is that the scoring of points is raised above actually trying to connect with one another.

Chris Highland  30:15  
Exactly, exactly. I've never been really a debater, I know I can, I can certainly I have a voice and I speak up and I write most of it, have my have had my shares of share of arguments and with people, but you know, a lot of this, I think David comes back to semantics. You know, I think I think choosing our words a little more carefully. Instead of speaking of religion, as I said, and some great broad brushstroke to say some religion, some religious people, some Christians, or as I said earlier, if you come out of some tradition that's been, you know, you feel like you've been abused, it's been at least a particular church you came from or whatever was, caused some trauma in your life and cause you agitation in your own life, then, then I understand you deal with that. But, you know, I like to bring up the possibility that someone could say, well, some in that church, now, I could probably spend a lot of time we could talk for an hour or more just about the Presbyterian Church, because that's what I grew up with. That's what I've known the best. That's what I was ordained in. I know that church probably better than any others. And I have a lot of criticisms. And here's the thing. I have a lot of friends, close friends and family who are members of the Presbyterian church now. Right, right. And so if I'm just going to say, well, Presbyterian, you know, the Presbyterian churches like this, well, someone's going to point out right away, and say, Well, Chris, don't you remember that other Presbyterian Church and what they were like, and don't you remember when they came out with this social justice statement? And they have these programs that are doing good in the community? So Oh, yeah, you're right. I forgot your right. So I forgot that I need to add a qualifier that says some Presbyterians. Yeah. You know, and so you do the same with with Christianity itself. You say, Well, yeah, there's a segment of Christianity that I have a real problem with, and I'm pushing on all the time, which is Christian nationalism, and some of that a member of the Americans United. And I, you know, I really believe strongly, we need to push, push back on all of that. But then I know a whole lot of other Christians who are anti that too. I don't want Christian nationalism either, right.

David Ames  33:26  
So you mentioned that your wife is a minister, and my wife is very much a believer, and we are navigating that together. And, you know, as I've often tried to tell her is that I love her for who she is, which includes her beliefs, right, that makes her part of who it's part of who she is. And I think of my my in laws are some of the most generous, loving, caring giving people I've ever met in my life. And they are both theologically and politically conservative. Right. So I mean, we have some disagreements. But so to point out that there are very, very good people who are believers is just a statement of fact, and we don't need to feel like we need to tear them down in order to work with them.

Chris Highland  34:14  
Right. Yeah. And I have a chapter in one of my more recent books on difficult conversations, and it relates a conversation with one of my family members. And, you know, she and I have some some very divergent thoughts. So these things, and we have some, some heated discussions, but we don't yell and scream, and we end by saying love you talk to you soon. Right. You know, and, you know, what's the problem with that? I mean, that really bothers some, some of the atheist circles that, that just think, well, you've just got to argue and argue and argue, and until you convince them well, that what is the difference between between being an atheist evangelist, and being a Christian evangelist, if you're just there to like you said to win, you gotta win, there's gonna be a winner and a loser. And then you can walk away saying, Great, I, I convinced them well, what did you convince them up that you're unable? Good for you.

David Ames  35:25  
One more quote of yours. I think this is from your more recent article, let me see if I've got this prepped here. I don't see religion going away. So I think it's much more productive to find ways of working with those faith communities who are open to it, and those seculars who are open to it, and then rather than complaining about them to score points, the point I want to jump off on is I think in some ways, there is a unstated or implicit and sometimes overt implication that secularism will just overrun religion entirely. And I think I agree with you, you more, I think religion is a human phenomena. And so I think it's not going away anytime soon. And so, if secular, as secularists believed that their role is to eradicate religion, I think that's a fool's errand. Yes. So I'm curious, you know, in what ways do you see that, that we could be more interfaith as secular humanists or a secular person and interact with people of faith in a positive way?

Chris Highland  36:33  
Yeah. Well, that's the That's the million dollar question, I think is what are we what are we going to do? What are we going to do now and into the future, when, you know, there are a lot of forces that want to fracture, fracture us and divide us? And really, David, I think it comes back to relationships. And, you know, I guess I get, some people probably get tired of hearing me say it, but I, you know, if someone has critiques of religion, but they've never talked to a Buddhist, or a Quaker, or even somebody in their own tradition, that that maybe wasn't in a small town in the Midwest or something, I don't know. Right? It comes back to relationships. I, I published a book a couple of years ago called Broken bridges. And it was, you know, really a collection of my, my essays that I write the columns are right for the Asheville citizen times. And the focus of that book, it wasn't a lot of, there weren't a lot of essays in there. But the focus was, you know, let's look at what's broken. And then let's make some decisions. Some bridges should just crumble and fall, let them go right now. Other ones might, maybe there's a way to repair those, but we're not going to be able to do it. One group of one faction of our of our culture or society is not going to be able to do it by themselves. So we have to find a way cooperate, and then then becomes that that real, free thinking moment when we say, well, maybe maybe a bridge over there would work better. Maybe we need to try something different. And what if that difference is, well, can we put aside our theological problems, our belief divisions, those broken bridges? Can we put those aside to finish this project, this program, work with these people deal with this issue, this this critical problem in our community, where it doesn't matter what you believe, or don't believe, right? That's, that's what intrigues me. And I will say that, you know, for 25 years of my life in those chaplaincies, I was working shoulder to shoulder with people that theologically No, I'm not there. I'm not going there. Right. But we didn't have the time. We didn't have the time to argue those things, or sometimes to even discuss them. It was it was okay, there's, there's that person over there who's dying on the street, what are we going to do for them? And then everybody adds their solutions to the to that issue, which might come down to that one person. And that's what that's what gets me charged up. That's what energizes me is not always focusing on the Broken bridges, but where where we can either repair or build a new one.

David Ames  40:00  
Yeah, I, I love everything about what you what you said, let's get about the business of, of doing good in the world together collectively. And if we're just focusing on the parts that we disagree about, we aren't effectively doing good in the world. And if we can just accept one another as in the fullness of each other's human humanity, we can work together and have a positive effect on on the world.

Chris Highland  40:27  
Yes, and I just want to add real quick here that I can already hear the criticisms because people say, Well, yeah, but you can't, I'm not going to work with those people are I can't, those people aren't going to want to work with me, maybe, you know, maybe that's true, that that's those, that's the broken bridges that maybe just need to crumble. But it might also be that, that you or I might not be able to, to make a connection, and build a relationship with that particular person, or that particular group or organization. But somebody else who has some, some, you know, relationships or connections that are already there, have some other way has some other way to make that connection. Let them do it. Right them do it if you if you can't stand Baptists anymore, because you came out of a tradition, where you just kind of you just can't stand it anymore. I'm not gonna deal with those people. Good, don't do it. But but others who, who are okay with that, and are open to that, and, and maybe have the time and the energy and the patience to try to try to build those bridges, let them do it. Right.

David Ames  41:40  
I think sometimes we need to step back and be more explicit about what our goals are. And I think you've touched on briefly here already, but one of our goals ought to be more secularism, more pluralism, meaning in the non scary version of that, right. So we're not saying more people who are non believers, but rather, freedom of religion and freedom from religion, right, that's ability to truly allow people there to follow their conscience and, and still give all rights and privileges and citizenship to everyone. And one of the things I think that the problem is, is that we we approach it as a zero sum game, sometimes like we, like we have to win, atheism has to win in some way, instead of what I think our goal ought to be is acceptance of everyone. And then that is truly a marketplace of ideas so that the best solutions can fall out of that. Why do you think it is? Maybe like, just give you a an impossible question, why do you think it is that we as human beings, we want to put people in a box and add categorize them? And and say, this is the other and this isn't? That person's not on my team?

Chris Highland  42:58  
Well, yeah, yeah, you're right, I'm not going to answer that. It's, it's, um, it does seem to be I mean, I guess we're tribal. And, you know, we want to identify somehow and with with one particular group of people, that gives us some, some way to make sense of our lives and give our lives meaning. And it's always the other, we don't understand them. We call them them. We don't want to deal with that group. Those people. And you know, what, what really changed me or let's just say, helped me evolve a more inclusive viewpoint is working with those folks who are marginalized the outsiders and, you know, working in a county jail for 10 years. You know, I was conducting seven gatherings a week, for 10 years in county jails, women, men, people and maximum security people and minimum security. And I had to go through some real change and you know, those people who are those people who are in jail, and I found out that there are some great people who end up in jail and some very hurt people who end up in jail and some very guilty people are in jail and some very innocent people who are in jail so I mean, just all across the board like that. And then the same on the streets working with people in the we do we all we always call them something that they don't have we say their home less home last. And, you know, we just we got to know people as people, right? Maybe they don't have a house. They don't have a permanent dwelling, but they're people. So it's I guess I'm gonna say it again. It's that relationship thing. It's like, it's like, Do you know any of them? Right? Know when when a family member told me a few years ago, they started complaining about, about gay people and all the gay marriage and gay, this and all. And I ended up saying, Well, what are your What are your gay friends telling you? That's a classic question. Yes. You know, and in applies in all these different areas people complain about all those people on the street. Have you ever talked to one of them? You know, do you know any of the names of those folks? And it does change things. So, you know, one of the things I'll say, to address your question, I think, David, is that the mentality we come to the world with? In other words, our worldview makes such a huge difference. If we see it as a battlefield. Right, where we're all you know, it's let's go out there and fight. We're the defenders, we're the defenders of reason and critical thinking and truth and all these things, you know, then I don't there's not going to be any hope for for people to ever work things out or find just find ways of working together. And you mentioned about, you know, should we be working on pluralism? Well, part of it for me is kind of flipping the question around saying, Well, where is the pluralism? Where is the cooperation already going on? And how can we participate in that. And I've seen it the most in interfaith communities. And I don't really like the word interfaith either. But it's a huge step forward from ecumenical which is just Christians working together, to people of different faiths working together. And then when when my wife was the director of a large Interfaith Council in the Bay Area, people like me were part of that, and and Wiccans. And some of the some of the, the Muslim members had a hard time with the Wiccans. And some of the, you know, hardcore, people of one faith didn't necessarily like the fact that I was there. And I would call myself a secular person. So so how do we, how do we look at a person and see a person instead of slap a label on them and say, well, let's go to the battlefield?

David Ames  47:58  
So I've got a question about humanism. But I guess I first need to find out is, is humanism, something that you identify as, is that a thing you care about? Or is that not a term that you use?

Chris Highland  48:10  
Yeah, well, as I mentioned earlier, you know, I am a humanist celebrant. So I guess I have to have some affinity. Well, I'm just gonna say that it's just it's just to me, it's just based on people being human together, practicing ethics. And, you know, whether people call it a religion or not, it doesn't really matter to me, because you as you brought up earlier, you know, I don't see religion disappearing, I see morphing, evolving, as it always has done. And if we're just talking about institutions, well, institutions come and go and leadership changes and dogma and creeds and everything, change over time. But the kind of religion I think we're talking about is is more what I get from people from some of the naturalists and scientists. You know, I love what Carl Sagan says about us. He, he used the word spiritual in spirit, and he didn't. He didn't throw that out. He didn't throw that the spirit words out with the bit with the Christian bathwater. And he went back to itself that I learned way back in college in Greek and looking at original languages that these some of these words came from very earthy, naturalistic things. It's a breath, it's the breath is the wind. Like you can't get more natural than that.

David Ames  49:39  
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Chris Highland  49:40  
So that's human.

David Ames  49:42  
Carl Sagan man, I can't say enough good things about him in that, you know, he so eloquently expresses hard science, and awe and wonder, and that's a that's a beautiful combination that is relatively rare.

Chris Highland  50:01  
Oh yeah, I get to be with Neil deGrasse Tyson this evening and a Gathering Online gathering by the Center for Inquiry. Okay. Neil deGrasse Tyson will be speaking for an hour and live and so it'd be kind of, that'd be cool. Like, a mini Carl Sagan.

David Ames  50:22  
That's right, he is carrying on the torch with cosmos. Yeah. Sorry, that was a bit of a digression on humanism, I often ask people who are active humanists. Why do you think humanism is, is so rare? Or people or the identification with humanism is so rare? Or another way of asking that is, why is humanism fail so badly?

Chris Highland  50:48  
Alright, well, I was suspicious of it for quite a long time myself. Partially because I'm such a nature person. So when you talk about the focus is on human humans. Right? I thought, well, that's not enough, you know, I. And so I guess I defined myself one time as a natural humanist or something like that. I think once again, it comes back to how comfortable we are with certain labels. And then we I think we need to be able to define those labels in a way. That's why I keep coming back to will, how am I going to define better do a better job of defining free thought, and free thinking? So my wife and I have a couple of years ago, we went on the freethought trail up in up in New York, and went to Elizabeth Cady Stanton's home, and Robert Greene. Ingersoll is home. And you know, just kind of all over the map, literally, to see, well, where did these folks come from? What were they thinking? And why are they why were they free thinkers? How were they free thinkers, and what did they focus on? And it was always a humanistic endeavor. It was something to do with with freeing with literally freeing slaves, freeing women to be fully members of the, of our society, freeing our minds from, you know, any kind of restriction, whether it's political or religious, or whatever. So, you know, to me, it just it's a constant self reflection, again, to say, Well, what do I mean by this word? And so I don't, I don't always feel comfortable saying, Oh, yes, I'm a humanist. In fact, I'm gonna be teaching your class, I teach courses over here at the university, on free thought, and I always pick one of the one of these folks, you know, these voices like Ingersoll, and yeah, and others to Frederick Douglass and, and some of these last names like Francis right, and Lucretia Mott, and I love these people, because you dig back into those, those people and they end those lives and what they were talking about. And it they always have something for us today, to help us define and redefine what we mean by terms like humanism, right? And being humanistic. What does that mean? Does that exclude the natural world? Well, I certainly hope not. Because we're, we're a part of it. We are part of nature.

David Ames  53:33  
Yeah, I I recently talked to a fellow podcaster named Sam Davis. And I mentioned that I feel like I came to humanism, late, I think we're already talking about sentient ism, you know, or, you know, the, you know, to broaden this to all levels of consciousness as it were, and, you know, to respect that. And so I definitely am very much open to that. And I think we've been talking about the nature part of naturalism. And that, you know, it's just important to recognize that we are, quite literally in a scientific, hard, naturalistic sense, interconnected with the entire ecology and that what we do to the environment, what we do to animals affects us so in a selfish way, we need to be concerned with that. So I never use humanism in the sense of excluding nature. But I think the thing that is important to me is people over ideology, right like that. I feel like we we focus so much on ideologies and those can be political, economic, religious, what have you. But when an ideology begins to hurt people is when it needs to be criticized and broken down. In my concern is we don't do a very good job of caring for one another. I talk about the homeless, you know, something so simple. My wife works with At the school district in a way that tries to help families that they are struggling with housing and that simple thing, having a place for a kid to go home to has a profound impact on that child's education. And you can make arguments all day long whether or not the parents are abusing the system. But that kid deserves the best opportunities possible. It's just something so simple as providing housing makes a huge impact. Yes.

Chris Highland  55:40  
I do appreciate when they're more secular voices coming out, and kind of taking this word secular and turning it around and upside down, and shaking it and trying to say, Well, what what is this, you know, how to be humans, you know, living together on this planet, and not getting to, you know, adding my own thing to it, I would say just, we don't we shouldn't get too hung up in our philosophical, theological, political issues and, and identities and debates, in my opinion, because it just, it just takes away from I mean, that's what I was gonna say earlier, is it you know, it's fine to focus on humans, and the best part of humans in terms of humanism. But then, as you were just saying, it's, it can't be anthropocentric or anthropomorphic. And if we fall back into that, then we haven't made much progress.

David Ames  56:51  
Right? When I went through my deconversion process, which was about 2015, and I started to think after the fact, you know, I think I want to speak into this world, I want to feel like I have something to say, I was very cognizant of trying to remember what it was like, as a believer. And I think, in our email discussion I mentioned, you know, I'm positive that it's not about intelligence, because I'm the same person, I was as a believer as I am now. So that, that helps ground you know, remove some vitriol remove some hostility towards believers. And then secondly, and this is where I want to get to with you. Because my wife is a believer, and much of my family and and friend group, are believers, that also helps ground me to remember that I love these people. And I, I respect them. And I think they are bright, intelligent, giving wonderful people. And you can stop me if this is too personal. But I wonder if you would talk just a little bit about what that was, like, where you went through a change of mind? How have you and your wife navigated that?

Chris Highland  58:01  
Yeah. Well, as part of what I've been writing about recently, that kind of got some people agitated. You know, because I was really talking about education matters, education matters. And if somebody is bringing up a topic about something, and I just didn't study that, or that it wasn't covered in my education, I would just say, you know, I, I don't really know what you're talking about, or I'm ignorant in that area. Yeah. And I think we just need to be honest about that. So, you know, that is to preface the fact that my wife and I both went to very liberal seminaries that had a lot of interfaith connection, she went to Union Seminary in New York City, and I went to San Francisco seminary, so on opposite coasts, okay. But we both got steeped in liberation thought liberation theology, okay. And which made a huge amount of difference because it gets you kind of away from a Bible focus, to to an action focus to a social justice, focus. And both of us came out of that. So that was a parallel, right to begin with. So Carol is my wife and I like to tell the story, we both get very amused telling the story that my wife and I met carrying the cross and it was a good Friday service at a Presbyterian Church. She had heard of me, I'd heard of her. She was doing advocacy work with immigrants, and I was working on the streets as a chaplain. So we'd heard of each other. We're both Presbyterian ministers. We show up for this, this Good Friday service, and someone had created this Big I guess it was. I don't think it was Styrofoam, but I think it was some kind of pressboard cross or something. And about four or five of us carry that up the aisle into this Good Friday service. So we kind of, you know, that's how we we met. But it was, you know, that event, in a sense, meant something different to us than maybe even some of the other people who were carrying that cross. And people who came to that service focused on Well, this is Good Friday, it's all about Jesus. It's all about Christians. It's all about being in church, without looking around to see, well, who's not here, who's not attracted to this kind of thing. And how divisive is that cross? For so many people? Well, she and I understood that from the very beginning. So I think, you know, that gives you have kind of a long background, but it's really, it started with us doing liberation kinds of work, which meant being out with a people presents ministry, inclusive, working and a diverse environment with diverse agencies and nonprofits. And so she she started this interfaith group, I was already doing interfaith chaplaincy. So it was, it was a natural, in some ways for us. So I, you know, all along the way. It really was. It made us love each other, for what we were doing and, you know, what we will be might see in the future for us doing together, which was kind of starts with marriage. So we just decided that we get along pretty well together and think a lot of like, when it comes to these matters, and she has a lot of criticisms of the church, her own church, the denomination, religion in general. She is a member of Americans United as I am, she's she's gets really upset about Christian nationalism, and a lot of that real. Yeah, boy, I mean, there's so many ways to say, you know, what I mean, all the crap out there that comes from various religious groups. But once again, we both have a background, we both have, actually, friendships, with colleagues, and others from a, from a lot of different faiths. And so, and now she's gotten to know some of my connections in the, in the secular community as well. And so we, we've decided to make a life of it. And it works pretty well. We certainly have disagreements, but yeah, like everything else. We've been saying, you know, it's really a matter of, you know, do I want this relationship does she want this relationship? How do we make that work? I don't go to church with her. But I actually know the pastors of the church where she goes, and her mother goes there to the family church for years. And I liked those folks and a lot and get get this a lot of the people that go to that particular church read my columns every week, and they really liked them. So that tells you something right there. Yeah,

David Ames  1:03:38  
yeah, definitely. One last thought here. I think that people like ourselves who have had a, a relatively long lifetime of faith and then subsequently find we no longer can believe I think we have a lot to offer to church groups, right like that, that they can learn something especially if we aren't being trying to be critical or trying to just tear them down.

Chris Highland  1:04:04  
Yes, and that's that's the purpose of my my writing almost all of my writing, you know, my columns as well as the books in my in my blog posts and other things. I'm always writing about these things and I I often come back to what one reason I really enjoy John Muir so much living in California for years and I've been to his boyhood home in Scotland and you know, he's just a I would highly recommend him to people of faith to people without faith doesn't matter. And I one of his his most succinct statements is in his journals where he says, the best synonym for God is beauty. The best synonym for God is beauty. So if we just would all take that and live with it. What does that mean? Does that mean to deny that there isn't beauty, that there's a lot of ugliness, a lot of death and disease and terrible things going on in the world. It's not denying any of that. It's just saying, if you're going to talk about a creative force in the universe, or within ourselves, bring it back, bring it back to nature, natural beauty, and work with that somehow. So now, maybe that's better, better than free, thought free thinker, and humanist and all that stuff. You know, I'm a follower of beauty.

David Ames  1:05:37  
That's amazing. I could not have thought of a better way to end up here. Chris, this has been an amazing conversation, can you let people know how they can get in touch with you. And then a topic we didn't touch on, but just maybe a plug for the clergy project? If we happen to have listeners that are working in the church in one way or another? I'm having doubts.

Chris Highland  1:05:55  
Yeah. So yeah, both of those. Yeah, I can be, you can read my writing and connect with me through C, which I also call friendly, free thinker. So friendly, free thinkers, sea All my books are listed on there, all my writings, and the clergy project. That's the, you know, clergy And if anybody is an in any kind of pastoral work, or clergy person, who's kind of making the transition out, and you either out with that, or still have to kind of stay in the closet, clergy project is a great place to get support and connect and network with other people. So and that's, you know, you can you can be as, as hidden as you want to be on the clergy project now, a little over 1000 people, I think now members of it. Yeah, I've been there maybe, I think 10 years I've been a member.

David Ames  1:06:57  
Okay. Wow, that's fantastic. Yeah,

Chris Highland  1:06:59  
that's a good organization.

David Ames  1:07:01  
Chris, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Chris Highland  1:07:03  
Thank you appreciate it very much.

David Ames  1:07:18  
As you can hear, nature is very important to Chris his book, nature is enough. He is talking about searching for the ordinary wonders in our extraordinary natural world. This is a 15 second clip of the bird calls that I heard on a recent kayaking trip. The audio is terrible. But I was out there, I was listening. I was seeing nature and I was thinking about Chris, this is my gift to Chris.

Final thoughts on the episode. One of the very, very exciting things about doing this podcast is all of the frustration that I described about people who are going through a deconversion deconstruction process, finding the angry or louder, more argumentative, more debate oriented voices is becoming less true. Because I'm finding people like Chris Highland. I'm finding people like Troy more heart. I'm finding people like Bart Campolo and Leah Helbling. I'm finding people like Sasha Sagan, I am finding people like Reverend bones is harder to find us maybe. But we are out there. That is incredibly meaningful and exciting to me to find another voice out there who is doing secular grace. And even though that is not a term that Chris would have used prior to this conversation, that is what he's been doing. He was doing secular grace as an interfaith chaplain. And he is doing secular grace as a humanist celebrant. In his writing, what attracted me to his work is that he is expressing secular grace and several of those ideas are really important. One is obviously just about relationships, as he describes it is about our connection with other people. And that's what matters and winning points or arguments is not the point. We also I think, agree that if the end goal of the secular movement is more pluralism, and more acceptance and freedom of religion and freedom from religion. attacking people of faith is the wrong way to accomplish that goal. At one point, Chris says he is looking for a real Bible of goodness and graciousness, that is secular grace. I also appreciate Chris's relationship with his wife who is a minister. And the more voices we can have on that are people who are making an unequally yoked relationship work in a loving and kind, generous and humble way, the better we all are. So I think Chris and his wife are a great example of that. I want to thank Chris for being on the podcast for sharing all of his lived wisdom for sharing his secular grace. And I want to make sure that you are where you can find his website at sea Of course, I'll have links in the show notes. He has written a number of books, those are all available on his website. Many of his essays have been published in a few different media, including the rational doubt blog that Linda Scola runs Lindell Escola and Dan Dennett are a part of the clergy project that we discussed as well, I want to give a huge shout out to the clergy project. If you happen to be paid by the church in some way or another, and you are going through doubt clergy project is the place to reach out, they know what you're going through, they've been there. And as Chris mentioned, you can have the level of anonymity that you want. For the secular Grace Thought of the Week, I want to just emphasize Chris's focus on nature itself. He talked a lot about John mirror and beautiful places in California, like Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon in Arizona, places where you can go where you experience or at just the grandeur of nature itself. And one of the things that we mentioned is to be cognizant of our connection to nature, that evolution works in such a way that there is a web of interconnectedness amongst us and I mean, this in the most naturalistic, non woo way possible. We literally are connected to the ecology and we are connected to one another by interdependence, by relationships. And all of that is critically important, selfishly, for the human race to succeed, we need to take care of the environment, we need to take care of nature. I really appreciate Chris's focus on bringing out the wonder and beauty of nature itself. As always, we have some amazing episodes coming up next week is going to be Vanessa. And she describes her story as opposed to dramatic church syndrome. She's incredibly funny and humorous, and has beautiful laugh and a wonderful life story to tell. We're going to then take a break over the Fourth of July weekend. There'll be two weeks there one week without a podcast. And then when we come back, I'm going to have Thomas, who is actually a relative of a previous guest, Jimmy that we had on a number of months ago. So we get to hear a different side of that family story. And then after that, we'll also hear from Daniel, who is the co host of that when belief dies podcast, he was a part of the interview team that interviewed me for my recent episode, and he has been actively participating in that podcast, so look forward to that as well. Until then, my name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist. Join me and be graceful human beings.

Time for the footnotes. The beat is called waves for MCI beats, links will be in the shownotes. If you'd like to support the podcast, you can promote it on your social media. You can subscribe to it in your favorite podcast application, and you can rate and review it on pod You can also support the podcast by clicking on the affiliate links for books on Bristol If you have podcast production experience and you would like to participate, podcast, please get in touch. Have you gone through a faith transition? And do you need to tell your story? Reach out? If you are a creator, or work in the deconstruction deconversion or secular humanism spaces and like to be on the podcast? Just ask. If you'd like to financially support the podcast there's links in the show notes. To find me you can google graceful atheist. You can google deconversion you can google secular race. You can send me an email graceful or you can check out the website graceful My name is David and I am trying to be the graceful atheist join me and be graceful human beings

this has been the graceful atheist Podcast

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