An Interview with Anya Overmann
February 17, 2021
Interviewed by Avi-Yona Israel, TSW staff
On her professional website, Anya Overmann describes herself as “a writer, a marketer, and an activist who loves to connect with and advocate for people with great ideas.” This is an understatement; after an hour-long conversation with Anya, I’m certain that she is one of the clearest-minded visionaries of modern times, and at the very least, my new personal hero.
Anya, a proud Humanist, was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where she attended the Ethical Society of St. Louis every Sunday as a child, an organization which describes itself as “a Humanist congregation, a place where people come together to explore the biggest questions of life without reference to scripture, religion, or God… to celebrate our journey through life and affirm our ability to live ethical lives without traditional religious beliefs.” Humanism is described as “a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively… espouses the equal and inherent dignity of all human beings, and emphasizes a concern for humans in relation to the world.” Secular humanists “consciously [reject] supernatural claims, theistic faith and religiosity, pseudoscience, and superstition.”
In some parts of Europe, humanism seems a self-evident value system, but in other places, like the religious United States, to devote one’s life chiefly to reason and humanity, rather than to faith in an afterlife and a god, can be considered a ticket to an unimaginably crap eternity. Anya — along with Noam Chomsky, Albert Einstein, Gloria Steinem, Katharine Hepburn, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, and Helen Caldicott, to name a few — thinks we could do better. The question is, though, can we?
This interview has been edited for clarity. Disclaimer: Anya does not speak for the American Ethical Union (AEU); her views on Ethical Culture are her own.
Avi-Yona Israel: I will just start by saying on behalf of The Seventh Wave that we’re super excited to have you in our issue about rebellious joy, because I can’t think of anything more rebellious than being a non-theist in America. Are you currently in the States?
Anya Overmann: I’m currently in Baja California in western Mexico. I’m actually down here with my partner looking for a boat so that we can live abroad and travel in a different way.
Avi Yona: You’re my hero. I’m going to get my husband to move into a tiny house with me. Anyway, on the subject at hand, I didn’t think that there could be anyone better to ask about rebellious joy than the President of Young Humanists International. Do you feel like a rebel?
Anya: It’s kind of funny because when I was a kid, I was really into the idea of being the first female president of the United States. And as I aged, I was like, that is not my path at all. I cannot think of anything I’d want to do less. But there was still some element of leadership, especially female leadership and trying to incorporate my values into a large scale leadership role, that really appealed to me. Finding myself here has been really fulfilling and it’s a completely different way to pursue what I’ve dreamt of being since I was a child. So yeah, I guess I do feel kind of rebellious in that sense, just because not a lot of people know what “humanism” is. But when they learn what it is, they’re like, OK, that makes a lot of sense. While people might not identify as humanists themselves, they can certainly align themselves with several of the life stances and principles that humanists stand for.
Avi Yona: Can you describe humanism for us, in your own words?
Anya: I grew up in Ethical Culture, which is a sect of humanism. At this point, it’s pretty much exclusively in the United States, but it originated in Europe and it came from a Jewish guy that wasn’t really pleased with Judaism but loved certain elements of organized religion that were centered around community and life milestones: baby naming, weddings, memorial services. Both of my parents grew up Catholic and decided before I was even born that that was not their thing. They decided not to be religious.
When they had children, they sort of realized, Oh, crap, we can’t just allow them to move through the world with no religious education, because then they don’t know anything at all and have no point of reference for anything. So, we ended up going to the Ethical Society of St. Louis. We started when I was in kindergarten, learning about morality and ethical principles, just how to be a good human, how to use those teachings to be decent. It is more inclusive and accepting of other religious viewpoints — the motto is “deed before creed” — and the whole idea is that it doesn’t matter how you justify doing good; the point is just to do good. This is the only life that we have that we can point to with certainty. And with that being true, we have to to live in a way that upholds human life with dignity and respect. We value science, reason, and the rights of other human beings, and we do everything we can to uplift those, be it through politics or social means. It’s not a religion, it’s a life stance about valuing humanity at the end of the day.
It’s not a religion, it’s a life stance about valuing humanity at the end of the day.
Avi Yona: That was an incredible explanation. Now, is atheism different from humanism? And isn’t there an internal conflict in being religious and being a Humanist?
Anya: Those are two really good questions. The main difference between atheism and humanism, the way that I see it, is that atheism is an identifier of what you are not. You are not a theist. That’s great. That just means that you don’t believe in higher powers; it’s different than believing that humanity has inherent worth. That must be upheld, and it’s different than believing that science should be valued over religious belief.
In my experience, a lot of people that break from a religious background swing into atheism really hard because it’s this pendulum effect, right? And they end up being really resentful of religion, and rightfully so. I mean, it can hurt people, so it’s a really understandable resentment. When people swing out of it, they swing out hard. When they become atheists, they mean it. To me, that’s just a swing in the other direction, not a settling point. It’s a stepping stone for moving to a different set of values. And instead of identifying as something that you aren’t, you’re moving into a new set of values, identifying as something that you are. I think a lot of atheists who struggle to move forward are really caught up in identifying as what they’re not and being angry. And that’s a really tough place to form your identity.
I think that’s why a lot of religious people criticize atheists as being really angry: because they are angry, and they have a right to be. But to hopefully move forward and envision a better world, we do need something else to push us forward.
[Religion] can hurt people, so it’s a really understandable resentment. When people swing out of it, they swing out hard. When they become atheists, they mean it.
Avi Yona: Nihilism is a bit easier to come by when you’re hurt or threatened in some way. Like after a breakup, people always say, “I’m never going to date another person again!” instead of “I’m going to choose a better person next time.”
Anya: I was just having this conversation yesterday with my partner about comparing atheism to nihilism. There’s a lot of similarities there. It’s just an absolute, and by identifying as something that you’re not, there’s no way to unbox yourself. But with humanism, you are able to break free of that and be like, OK, there’s no god. Now what? There’s a clear path forward from not believing. And that’s the main difference that I see with humanism: it’s finally the settling point with the pendulum. In another metaphor, atheism is a stepping stone. You’re angry for a while, and then you’re like, OK, now I need to do something with that nonbelief rather than just sit here and stew in it. Humanism is healthier than just sitting there and stewing and being angry at religious people all the time.
By identifying as something that you’re not, there’s no way to unbox yourself.
Avi Yona: As you’re talking, I’m just thinking to myself, this doesn’t feel like an explanation of a value system, because there’s so little yelling. It’s hard to find value system creation with a functional purpose, it’s just a lot of bravado and threats. I would think step one in invoking more humanistic principles in the world would be like talking to people like you want them to be emotionally intact when you leave them, right?
Anya: You’re spot on. To answer the other question that you had about the ethical culture being inclusive of people with theistic beliefs: yes, there’s a lot of in-fighting. There’s this effort to be more interfaith and bridge the divide between religious people and non-religious people, but a lot of people that ended up there were raised religious and angry that they were so hurt by religion. It really requires a lot of forgiveness, and I guess, a lot of foresight to be able to say: yes, religion has been awful to human beings, but how can we work with people that are still religious to be able to to move forward with our shared values? Because we do have shared values. It’s just that we don’t execute them in the same way.
I go back and forth on whether that’s the best use of our time. We have these really important social justice issues that, if we did work with religious people, we might have a better shot at moving forward with. In St. Louis in particular, that has really been highlighted since Ferguson. The way that the Ethical Society got involved was we realized, hey, there are a lot of religious organizations in town that really want to advocate for Black Lives Matter, and we want to get involved. It’s an overly white organization, and that’s one of the criticisms against humanism in general: it’s very white, it’s very male, it’s very Western. And those are things that I, recently becoming president of Young Humanists International, continue to bring up. I feel obligated to say we have a really long way to go, and we are really comparable to a lot of organizations that we detest because we don’t address these issues enough. It’s just a continued point of contention, especially between the older generations that have been doing this for a long time and the young people that are now coming in thinking, why have you been doing it like this this whole time? You could be doing this better!
Avi Yona: There’s definitely a different burden going through the glass ceiling for women and people of color in the last couple of years because it really is no longer acceptable to ascend and not take anyone with you or look after your community in some sort of way. And so I do think that when we inherit the CEO positions and things like that, it always seems like we’re trying to change too much. But it’s just like, no, no one else changed anything, so now I have to change everything.
Anya: Right, exactly. A lot of people take that as an attack, even within humanism.
Avi Yona: It may not have been as diverse as it should have been, but did you actually enjoy going to the services or meetings? I don’t know what the appropriate term is.
Anya: Oh yeah! We call them platforms. It’s so community oriented and it really does take the pieces of religion that work best and bring people together. It just works so much better when it’s not built around shame and guilt, and the pillars of religion that keep people coming back. I really did enjoy that. And I have lifelong connections from attending those. As a kid, I wondered, why do I have to do this? I’m glad that my parents made me do it because there were benefits that I didn’t see as a kid. And being able to have that community that I can fall back on and rely on for support is just invaluable.
Avi Yona: I think, unfortunately, the power of the human social mechanism gets conflated all the time with the worth of the actual services. The idea that any of the benefits of church or a church-based community could be realized without its humanist properties, it’s ridiculous. It’s sort of like, you can have society without church, but you can’t have church without society, right? So humanism has got to be the foundation. And then if you want to throw anything else on top, it has to fit within those humanist constraints. But a lot of people have turned the idea of a god into a financial boon of some sort, whether it’s ancient royalty saying that the meek shall inherit the earth or something more modern, like a megachurch leader saying that a god wants me to have a Ferrari. Do you think that there is a fundamental relationship between capitalism and Americans being able to build any value system at all?
Anya: One hundred percent. You really can’t look at religion in the United States without also looking at money and the way that capitalism has played a role, especially because they have to prey on vulnerable people to sustain the capitalist system, and to sustain it as a physical, tangible place with salaries and people that work there.
Religious organizations are supposed to be nonprofits. They’re supposed to be tax exempt, but they have to make money somehow to sustain themselves. If they didn’t have money, they’d suffocate. It intertwines with preying on people’s shame and guilt, and I don’t think you can pull those apart. That’s part of the reason why so many humanists are so timid around the idea of promoting humanism, because we’re so sensitive to proselytization and we just don’t want it to come across that way. We want people to come to humanism of their own volition, to conclude on their own, instead of more damnation. And it’s unfortunate because I’m a marketer and the marketer in me says, well, we have to put the ideas out there. How are people going to find out about humanism unless we promote it?
Still, allowing people to use their own critical thinking skills to come to their own conclusions, that’s humanism. We wouldn’t use any methods that weren’t humanist to attract people to humanism. So it’s a touchy thing and it’s understandable. I mean, we do want to be really careful about framing new ideas to people, especially when you’re trying to prove that these new ideas are not going to manipulate you.
You really can’t look at religion in the United States without also looking at money and the way that capitalism has played a role.
Avi Yona: I think it’s also a little bit of a different struggle because you’re doing all of this with adults who already have the sort of formative idea of how the world works, whereas at least in America, Christianity gets at people before they can talk: the imagery, social scaffolding, the holidays at school. It’s much, much more of a pervasive context. And it may not have always seemed that way. At some point, I’m assuming most non-native Americans were Christians, in which case it wasn’t oppressive to anyone they cared about. Whereas now, I think that it can much more easily be argued that it is forced upon people. Should humanists be trying to get in at that same level, preschool, kindergarten? Is there ever going to be a chance to bring massive amounts of people into the fold if you all don’t get there first?
Anya: That’s why there’s a huge effort, particularly in Europe and in the UK, to push for humanism in schools, at the elementary school level, all the way up to secondary education. There absolutely needs to be a humanist presence, especially when religion already has presence there. And that’s not even really legal in a country that claims it stands for democracy and separating church from state. We follow a calendar that is Christian for the most part, and I don’t celebrate any of those holidays, but those holidays dictate a lot of what I do. As someone that was raised non-religious, I frequently wonder, is it really so hard to envision a world where we don’t force any religion on anybody for any reason? I think it is really hard for people to envision that, but for me, it’s really not that hard. Learning ethics and philosophy at a younger age is super beneficial in that there’s way less of a need for people to fall into religion. And humanism doesn’t have to be compared to religion in that way. Humanism is just democracy, logic, and science. It’s more normal than people make it out to be.
As someone that was raised non-religious, I frequently wonder, is it really so hard to envision a world where we don’t force any religion on anybody for any reason?
Avi Yona: I think that it’s pretty obvious that some conflict between religion and humanism has affected everyone’s life, whether it’s terrorism, charities, colonialism, abortion. How has religion in the world around you affected you personally?
Anya: My atomic family is non-religious and all identify as humanist, but my extended family is still really, really Catholic. And I struggle to maintain relationships with those family members, not just because they are so religious, but because their religion is tied up in their political and world view, more so now than ever. I have hard boundaries and I struggle to justify maintaining those connections when their values are coming through in such an extreme and unforgivable way. I can’t justify that. That’s probably the strongest effect that religion has had on me personally. The whole argument that you have to stay connected to your family, I can make my own family through human connection. Why would I justify keeping toxic people around when I have the option of removing that, and maybe reconnecting with them later? Or not. You can actually choose your own family, if yours sucks.
Why would I justify keeping toxic people around when I have the option of removing that, and maybe reconnecting with them later? Or not. You can actually choose your own family, if yours sucks.
Avi Yona: I recently had to go through the process of exorcising a toxic family member. And honestly, the most powerful listicle-style tip that I came across was: if you’re going to do it, don’t beat yourself up about it afterwards. The whole reason you’re doing it is because this energy eats at you all the time, right? So then don’t let it. And it’s like any addictive or abusive behavior. Your mind clicks in and out of this coping mechanism that you’ve developed time after time, but it’s not a correctly contextualized part of your reality. And that makes me think of the fact that you hear people say, well, it’s not all Christians or it’s not all rich people or it’s not all men, it’s not all cops, but I think that’s where humanism is really missing. There’s this individualism, the idea that you can be a proud part of a group, reap benefits, but then take no responsibility with regard to the actions of that group as a whole. Is there a place in the American religious landscape for humanism to be injected, or is it fundamentally at odds, do you think?
Anya: If you identify as a part of a group, you do own some of that group identity, and that means having to field criticism: you have to take the bad with the good. And that’s what I think people struggle with, especially in the US. It’s the No True Scotsman fallacy, and you can do that forever. There’s no limit. But then you’re not truly a part of a group anymore. You’re just your own person. And so why not identify that way? As humanists, we can be more inclusive and more diverse with intentionality, and uplift people in a way that we haven’t done before. And we can take this criticism and not be defensive about it, take it in stride in a way that no other organization is doing. Literally right now, in the impeachment hearing, Jamie Raskin, who identifies as humanist, has been one of the leads in saying we have no choice — we have to hold these people accountable. I think that’s huge for young humanists in particular, because we’ve seen through religion, through politics, through social circles, people just not being held accountable time after time. I’m really excited to see a Humanist advocate for accountability on the grand American historical stage.
Avi Yona: As the political landscape is shifting and we’re moving into 2021, how are humanist principles informing your path forward?
Anya: I think that as we’re sort of witnessing this massive shift in our political landscape in the US, people are starting to wonder, how the hell are we going to move forward from this? It’s hard to envision what’s to come. It is undeniable that the US, as a single speck on a political spectrum, is extremely right-wing by any global political standard. A lot of people in the US struggle with that concept because they just don’t know what they don’t know. As a Humanist, and being a bit more global than the average American, it’s really not hard for me to look at what we have and say that it’s utterly right-wing. Even our left-wing party is right-wing. I think the way forward is more left-leaning. And again, that feels like an attack for a lot of people because of this rugged individualism. But seeing it that way is just so limiting.
Humans are so much more successful, in every respect, when working together and and agreeing to support one another, so I don’t think there’s any better way forward than supporting people. And in practice, that looks like universal health care, a way higher minimum wage than fifteen dollars. We could have been making incremental changes over time and it wouldn’t feel so extreme, but now that we’ve been blocked from doing that for this long, we have to make these radical sweeping changes. And it feels really difficult. Regardless of what side of the spectrum you’re on, it feels really, really hard. But we don’t really have a choice. We’re either going to fail or we’re going to move forward. Given the American nature, we will probably push forward and make this happen. But it’s going to be a really steep uphill climb.
We could have been making incremental changes over time and it wouldn’t feel so extreme, but now that we’ve been blocked from doing that for this long, we have to make these radical sweeping changes. And it feels really difficult.