Occupy the Moment! An Interview with Author Rick Heller

Author Rick Heller is the editor of the online magazine, The New Humanism, a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Rick’s new ebook is a compelling look at the Occupy Movement entitled Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy. His writing has appeared in The Humanist, Tikkun, Free Inquiry, UUWorld, and Buddhadharma magazines, and in the Boston Globe and Lowell Sun. Rick is a facilitator of the Humanist Mindfulness Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has guided mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations at Occupy Boston. He holds a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University, and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree from MIT.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

RH: The beginnings of this book go back to a dharma talk by Andrew Olendzki that I attended at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. Olendzki spoke about how climate change was being driven by the contemporary economic system’s drive for more and more growth, and how that could be explained in terms of Buddhist teachings about greed. I had been researching desire from the perspective of neuroscience for a piece I wanted to write, and that all came together in an article that was published in The Humanist this past June. Then, when Occupy exploded—and at its core it’s a protest against greed—I thought it would be useful for people to know what greed really is and how one can overcome it.

You propose an environmentally-oriented “strategy” for redressing social and economic inequality. What are the key elements of this strategy?

RH: Climate change is real, and is driven by human activity. That means that even if the contemporary capitalist model of economic growth could lift most of the world out of poverty, the environmental costs will be daunting. But I also dissent from the view that all we need to do is to redistribute income so that the American middle class can consume more. Instead, I think that middle-income Americans ought to be able to say to themselves, “I have more than most people in previous generations ever did. I need to know how to enjoy what I have.”

Once people have the basics physical needs met—and I do think that government should ensure that—the rest of what we seek is psychological. The whole idea of “getting ahead” has to do with pursuing status. That’s psychological. The Mercedes and the McMansion are goods that are chiefly sought for psychological reasons.

But why not satisfy psychological needs directly mental practices such as mindfulness? That way, we could dispense with all the mining and manufacturing needed to produce goods that meet psychological needs, but have a heavy impact on the environment. I actually think that religiosity among the poor—and I grew up in a low-income home—is a strategy of using psychology to substitute for status-oriented goods. It’s just that mindfulness has a more scientific basis.

To be clear, I would like to see tax rates on the wealthy go back up to where they were say, in the 1960s. I highly doubt that would put a damper on technological innovation or productivity growth, which are driven by factors other than taxes. It’s just that I’d like to see the tax revenue that comes in invested for the benefit of future generations rather than consumed now.

Your book frames the Buddhist principle of “mindfulness” as an important life ethos. What role does mindfulness play in social change?

RH: In using the word mindfulness, I mean to include under its umbrella a number of related strategies, such as the cultivation of compassion, loving-kindness, and sympathetic joy. One of the important things I have learned from my exposure to Buddhism is that these traits can be cultivated.

Progressives often talk about the need for society to act more compassionately. But if people don’t feel compassion, then taxing them and spending the money on social services creates resistance and revolt. We need to teach people to feel more compassionate, and also to experience this as joyful rather than a sacrifice.

Unfortunately, we have been moving in the wrong direction. When last polled, about ¾ of college freshman said that being very well-off financially was a key goal for them. The individualistic goal of personal advancement is clearly a political problem for those who seek social change, since even though the 99 percent outnumber the 1 percent, it appears that a large portion of the 99 percent aspire to join the 1 percent!

Not that I ever wanted to be rich, but the practice of mindfulness has taught me to enjoy simpler pleasures than I imagined. So I hope we can turn young people away from the aspiration toward riches toward an appreciation of the richness of living in a healthy environment and having positive interactions with other people.

You describe yourself as a “secular Buddhist” and secular humanist. How do those belief systems dovetail with each other when it comes to social justice?

RH: The teaching of karma and rebirth in traditional Buddhism can be a barrier to working for social justice. These teachings suggest that there is a supernatural system that takes care of justice, making social action superfluous. I haven’t actually come across that view among Western convert Buddhists whom I’ve met. More common is the individual pursuit of liberation from suffering that doesn’t connect with the larger social picture of what contributes to suffering. There is a Bodhisattva tradition in Buddhism that encourages alleviating the suffering of others along with one’s own. There are “engaged Buddhists” who are active around issues of peace and homelessness. Buddhist communities in the United States are still mostly focused on getting established, but I think that turning outwards, especially at this moment when many young people are looking for alternatives to the pursuit of riches, would be a positive development.

Since writing the book, I’ve also gotten to know some people from India who are familiar through mindfulness through their own traditions. So I’d like to get mindfulness out of the Buddhist box and into the secular category both as a nod to humanism and in the interest of greater inclusion of all traditions that practice mindfulness. So I’m advocating “engaged mindfulness.”

In your introduction you state that you are “queasy about civil disobedience” vis-à-vis Occupy. What alternative model of protest would you propose for the future of Occupy?

RH: What I did not anticipate before Occupy, and have learned from it, is that occupying these public spaces for an extended period of time is a lot more powerful that just having a protest march and going home. Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of people to assemble, it doesn’t explicitly guarantee that the people will have a place they can assemble. The wealthy can rent out hotels and conference centers when they want to coordinate political action. But for the poor and unemployed, simply having a space to meet and continuity that helps in making plans is a real obstacle. It’s clear that the Occupy movement would not have gotten off the ground without the encampments.

So I hope Occupy does come back in the spring to have a strong and enduring presence in public spaces, and especially at universities. The Occupy protests started out in downtown financial centers and were only beginning to spread to campuses as the fall semester wound down. I hope schools will become more active in the spring. In particular, I think economics departments and business schools are some of the major culprits in creating the ideology that has lead to greater inequality and to the financial crash, so there should be no shortage of activity to be done on campus. Everything should remain non-violent, of course, both for reasons of principle and pragmatism.

But while it’s important to protest what we’re against, it’s also critical for Occupy and its sympathizers to envision what we’re for. As they say, you can’t beat something with nothing. These ideas don’t necessarily have to be in the form of proposals that can be passed into law. If you look back at the protests of the 1960s, I think their most enduring legacy is in changes to the culture rather than politics. So how can we change our culture to place less emphasis on money and more on compassion and loving-kindness? How can we get people to break their addictions to more and more consumption so that we leave something for future generations?

Rick Heller’s book is available at Amazon.


Occupy the Moment! An Interview with Author Rick Heller

Our Feminist Future

By Sikivu Hutchinson from The Feminist Wire

On the school grounds they call each other bitches with machine gun fury. This is the “new” term of “endearment”; a grand show of eye-rolling, teeth-sucking hardness to a world that chews them up, spits them out, and leaves them for dead, stranded between Virgin Mary and Jezebel. The righteous fury that they direct at and expect from each other is a function of criminal invisibility and zero expectations. Who would expect them to do anything more than pop out babies, latch onto some man, and live in the shadows of mainstream America’s white supremacist Barbie-Disney princess infantilizing caricature of womanhood?

When I first met Sanaa and Karin* as 9th and 11th graders while teaching classes for my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) feminist mentoring program, I was immediately impressed by their agile minds, sage observations, and sharp wit. Karin was in foster care after losing both her parents; Sanaa was one of six siblings from an emotionally turbulent home environment with little parental support. As the founder of WLP, which is based in South Los Angeles high schools, I train my students to do peer education on the everyday impact of sexism, heterosexism, misogynistic language, violence against women, and media imagery. Central to WLP’s peer training is enabling our students to develop a humanist critical consciousness about their shared struggle around paradigms of the sacrificial good black/Latina woman of faith. Continue reading “Our Feminist Future”

Our Feminist Future

Should a Woman Feel Sad About Her Abortion? F*!%k No!

By Sunsara Taylor from Sunsara’s Blog
There is absolutely nothing wrong, tragic, unfortunate, or sad about a woman choosing to get an abortion. Nothing.
Because being forced to have a child against your will is enslavement. Period.
Why else?
Because fetuses are NOT babies. Fetuses have the potential to become babies, but until they are born they have no independent social or biological existence. They are a subordinate part of a woman’s body. Any state, religious, or family intervention which forces – or even pressures – a woman into subordinating her life, dreams and health to incubating that fetus against her will is completely unjust and illegitimate. It is immoral and it is enslaving.
But what about her responsibility? If she didn’t want a baby, shouldn’t she have thought of that before she “opened her legs”?
Should a Woman Feel Sad About Her Abortion? F*!%k No!

Religion in Black Life

By the Anti-Intellect:

For me, being a Black atheist means thinking critically about the role of religion in the lives of Black people. For far too long, few have written about the negative aspects of religion in Black life, preferring only to write about the positives aspects. Yes, religion was something that our ancestors called upon to help them navigate a White racist world that insisted on their inferiority. But, religion has also been the site of much brutality in the lives of Black people.

If we were to grade the role religion has played in Black life, particularly Judeo-Christianity, I would say that it has earned a “F.” There are simply too many instances of religion being both tool of liberation and tool of oppression in the lives of Blacks. For example, the bible was constantly utilized to justify the enslavement of Black people. I’m sorry, but an “F” average is simply not good enough for a religion that makes divine and/or supernatural claims. Surely, there should be a better track record for something that is ruled by an all-powerful god?

We have been told by the gatekeepers of Black History that religion, and religion alone, has gotten us over. We fail to take into account the secular ways that Black people have utilized in their dealings with a White racist society. For every Bishop Henry McNeal, there has been a Frederick Douglass. For every Sojourner Truth, there has been a Butterfly McQueen. While it is true that Blacks have utilized religion, it has not been the only thing that we have utilized, and our failure to recognize this stunts our collective growth, and undermines what we think we are capable of when addressing the problems that plague our communities.

I would suggest that there is a very real danger in Black people thinking we are nothing without religion. We, Black people, were a people before we were indoctrinated, and we will be someone afterwards. This is not to suggest that religion cannot be a useful tool for examining the issues facing Black people but, more often than not, it is usually a tool of conservatism holding Black people back.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a religious Black person that uses her role in organized religion to critically examine issues facing the Black community. She is not of the conservative ilk populated by Black exploiters like Eddie Long, Bernice King, and Harry Jackson. These pastors participate in the degradation of Black life by insisting that we are simple, lacking in complexity, and diversity. That we are a people only, and always, marked by conservatism. They fail to take into account the diversity of Black life, instead insisting on its monotony.

As enthralled as I am with Reverend Irene Monroe, as a Black atheist, I insist on making it known that religion, nor belief in god, are necessary in Black life. I am not of the belief that Blacks should embrace a form of cultural nihilism, because one can be atheist and very hopeful about the potential for positive transformation of Black life. I simply do not believe that Black people need religion. We absolutely need structures for coming together, and so often this has been the primary role of religion in Black life, but this can be achieved without religion and belief in god. MORE @http://antiintellect.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/religion-in-black-life/


Religion in Black Life

Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers

On February 26, 2012 Black Skeptics Los Angeles will join with other black non-believers’ groups to observe a Day of Solidarity (DOS).  This annual event was conceived by Donald Wright, author of The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go.  Wright is a member of the Humanists of Houston.  We recently spoke with him about the purpose of the DOS:

The intent of my involvement with the Humanists of Houston, in addition to the benefits of being among more like-minded individuals, is to encourage more community service and outreach as humanists. We must become more visible in the community to offset the service provided by religious organizations. Our society needs to learn that it is not religion that gives people the desire to help and care for others.

The idea of a Day of Solidarity occurred as a result of me pondering Black History Month with more focus on black free thinkers and non-believers. I felt that an effort should be given to assemble black non-believers in our local towns and cities eliminating the need for expensive travel. I visualized a special day of observance once a year on the 4th Sunday in February to promote fellowship, share experiences, meet new non-believers, and discuss the lives of black non-believers that our typical history books omit. Also, this could be the opportunity to encourage community activism. The gathering is to be provided with minimum requirements and cost. Two or more people could meet in the park if the weather permits.

I am hoping the fellowship would be the most compelling part of the gathering. Since the beginning of my journey away from religion in 2006, I desperately needed and still need to meet more black non-believers. Fellowship, a sustaining characteristic of the church, is valuable in our society regardless of the group’s purpose. We need each other. Our technological advancements allow us to communicate with many people around the world, sharing information at the click of a button. We are meeting and making new friends online everyday. But no technology can replace the need for human interaction, face to face, the look into another person eyes during the moment of a true passionate expression, or the sight of sharing a gut wrenching laugh. Communicating through emails, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging can’t tell the whole human story.

For more information on the Day of Solidarity please contact [email protected].

Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers

Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa revisited

By Frederick Sparks

This was the first Hitchens piece I read, and it blew me away. Who was this man with the intellectual courage to challenge the popular conception of Mother Teresa? It was seminal in inspiring me to develop and enhance my critical thinking skills. From there I discovered his previous contributions, which were intimidatingly impressive in their depth and breath and substance.


I didn’t always agree with him (the Iraq War for instance), but I always admired his honesty and intellect. I’m glad he was here.

Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa revisited

The New York Times: Unbelievable!

By Naima Washington

I’ve spent several days thinking about Emily Brennan’s recent article on African American ‘unbelievers.’  As I understand it, the research for her article which ran on Sunday, November 27, 2011, began in 2010. I contacted Ms. Brennan but decided that I couldn’t really contribute to her work since she indicated that she was interested in interviewing African American non-theists who primarily network via Facebook and other social media outlets. I am amongst the eight or so human beings on earth who really doesn’t ‘book, ‘blog, ‘tweet, or ‘text.  I do communicate via e-mail with people I’ve also taken the trouble to meet face-to-face.  Nevertheless, I was happy to learn that someone would write an article which explores secularism and focus on African American religious dissidents.

Dissension—holding, and more importantly, voicing an opinion that differs greatly from the status quo—is probably as old as humankind itself, and is certainly not a new phenomenon to African Americans. James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, Morgan Freeman, Hubert H. Harrison; Flo Kennedy, Butterfly McQueen, Paul Roberson, Nella Larson; A. Phillip Randolph, Manning Marable, Bayard Rustin, J.A. Rogers, and Richard Wright represent only a few African Americans who have interrogated religious beliefs, some doing so during those times when any critique of religion would be met with serious repercussions. Our contemporaries who now question theism can more openly state their opinions, more readily access materials exploring religious beliefs through a critical lens.

Dr. Anthony Pinn, author and scholar at Rice University has been adamant in his assertion that dissent, atheism, and religious criticism are not new trends in African American communities.  One of his books, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, chronicles dissent, particularly religious dissent, as a factual part of social and intellectual African American experience.

In 2009, Houston-based engineer Donald R. Wright wrote, The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go. His life experiences as a former Baptist Deacon reveal what everyone who questions their own religious views wants to know: how and why a believer becomes an atheist. He has grounded his atheism in activism as the Vice President of the Humanists of Houston (a chapter of the American Humanist Association); founded the Radical Forum of Houston, and initiated the African American Non-theist Day of Solidarity [email protected] celebrated on the last Sunday in February.

In her latest book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, scholar and activist, Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson offers unique and thorough examinations of race, gender, glass, and religion as they impact on the communities of African Americans and other people of color while critiquing the roles and responsibilities of white secularists.  As a social critic, she’s written articles for many publications, is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and mentors young women of color.

Recently, Ms. AJ Johnson was appointed as the new Director of Development for American Atheists as that organization continues to promote secular values and attempts to concretely address diversity within its ranks. Raised in the ‘Bible Belt,’ AJ has studied and taught abroad and brings a unique perspective to her appointment along with her interest in issues concerning religion’s impact on gays, women, and slaves. Continue reading “The New York Times: Unbelievable!”

The New York Times: Unbelievable!

Damn Tim Tebow…

I got texts from 3 different disgruntled non-believing friends when that game went final.

Now of course we know we have the better argument : “You want me to believe in a god that allows 29,000 children to starve to death in a three month period is somehow intervening in Tim Tebow’s success on the football field?” And so on….

Still, it’s annoying to have to endure the knuckleheads’ preening until Denver finally plays a real team and loses to the….Packers in the Super Bowl?  We’ll be able to smugly say “What happened to Jesus?” then.

But will the apologetic be “We’ll he wouldn’t have even gotten that far were it not for THE LORD.”?

I give up.  I guess if iron chariots were too much for the Almighty to handle, Aaron Rodgers is an insurmountable challenge.

Damn Tim Tebow…

2011: Year of the Black Atheists

By Frederick Sparks

OK, the title may be a tad hyperbolic, but in 2011, we have seen increased media coverage of black nonbelievers.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s must-read Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values War was published in February, garnering rave reviews and enhancing the demand for the author as a speaker on the topics of race, feminism, sexual orientation, and politics as brought to bear on the secular movement.

In July, long time black publication Ebony magazine featured a piece by Alix Jules, director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, TX.  Jules emphasized that freethought involves taking full accountability for one’s life.

But the last few weeks saw a rush of articles, starting with a New York Times piece on black nonbelievers in late November.  Following the Times article, The Root, an African American focused online magazine conceived by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Facebook chairman Donald Graham, commenced a series (to the chagrin of some of their regular readers) on black atheists.   And finally, CNN’s religion blog posted a radio interview and accompanying write-up concerning the experience of Black atheists in the American south.

The exposure, incremental though it may be, has an impact.   The Black Atheist Facebook group (discussed in the NY Times article) has seen a 25% increase in membership over the past few weeks. And as I noted in a previous post, fictional depictions of black atheists help to normalize the experience of black nonbelievers .  It follows that the presentation of real life black atheist experience is even more useful.

But none of this exposure would have taken place without the hard work of many people over the past several years. A well deserved thanks goes to the local group organizers, writers, lecturers, online group organizers and administrators, and others who provide a space for black atheists to connect, share ideas and be active.  Let’s keep it going!

2011: Year of the Black Atheists

Faith Pimps, Secular Conspiracies

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In American politics, patriotism, race-baiting and faith-based pandering are the last refuge of a scoundrel.  And this political season militant GOP appeals to white Christian evangelicals have veered into neo-Cold War hysteria. One of the most powerful scenes in Orwell’s 1984 was when Party member O’Brien succeeds in brainwashing protagonist Winston Smith into believing that 2+2 equals 5.  The Religious Right has been practically virtuosic in its 2+2=5 mass doublespeak; convincing mainstream America that Christians are the new minority and that commie pinko “secular progressives” (Bill O’Reilly’s preferred “smear”) are at the helm of a socialist conspiracy.  The latest salvo in right wing doublespeak comes from Rick Perry, playing the Christian victim card in a desperate bid to remain relevant in the hinterlands.  Primed for the Iowa caucus, Perry’s new campaign ad opens with an alpha male declaration that he is not “ashamed” to say he is a Christian. The ad then blasts the very Christian-identified Obama’s “war” on religion, the indecency of allowing gays to serve openly in the military and the prohibition on prayer in schools. 

When Newt Gingrich coined the term “secular socialist conspiracy” to flog his new book in 2011 he was just another overpaid neo-con on the rubber chicken circuit.  In the years since he was forced out of the House in disgrace, he sleazed up to evangelicals with a Ted Bundy-esque conversion/redemption line—“humbly” laying his sins as a serial philanderer and ethics violator at the feet of God.  Now his rise as frontrunner in the GOP race ensures that Glock force culture war rhetoric, diverting attention from the GOP’s war on the working class, will continue to command center stage.  Good Christians know that poor children, who, according to Gingrich, never see anyone working in their crack-ridden, pimp-patrolled, drive-by riddled urban jungles, should rightfully be shoveling the shit of the bootstrapped middle class.  This is what God intended.  Poverty doesn’t speak the language of hard work, thrift and enterprise and poor children mean lazy Blacks and Latinos, shuffling from classrooms to prison cells.  In a rigidly segregated downwardly mobile society the GOP’s moral assault on workers’ human rights and protections for poor children is the perfect template for a fascist Christian nationalism.    

Faith Pimps, Secular Conspiracies