Name: Werner R. Haag, Ph.D.
I grew up in New Jersey in a family of 6 speaking German as a first language. We went to Sunday School but by age 9 the family had drifted away from formal religion without much discussion about it. My father was a chemist and one day the new pastor criticized scientists. So, we just stopped going although we continued religious holiday traditions in a secular manner. I went to a private, all-boys high school, then studied at MIT, and did graduate work in Environmental Chemistry at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab. I then moved to Switzerland for Post-Doc work, got married and returned to the U.S. on an around-the-world honeymoon via Italy, India, Nepal, Singapore, Australia and Hawaii. Our family has strong ties with our cousins in Germany and I’ve travelled through Europe many times. Our cousins are pretty religious, but European Christians are not as fanatical as here in the U.S., so that does not impede a close connection. I’ve lived in California since 1985 – first continuing basic research in Environmental Chemistry, and then moving to private industry for a more stable income while raising a family. I have twin daughters who are currently in graduate school. My marriage broke up after 13 years when my ex-wife started getting extremely into astrology, an Essene diet (vegan with no cooked food at all) and finally joining a small cult.
Sports have always been an important part of my life: I was captain of the MIT Wrestling team, coach of the Swiss National Ultimate Frisbee team (playing in 2 World Championships), and a 3-decade member of the Bay Area Orienteering Club, which is navigating with map & compass while running cross-country through the woods. I’ve always enjoyed hiking and camping, climbed the 46 peaks over 4000 feet in the Adirondacks of upper New York State, and reached the summit of 49.7 of the 50 state highpoints. I also enjoy the arts by playing the violin and have been ballroom dancing for almost 20 years.
About 5 years ago I went into semi-retirement, working part time as a chemist and devoting my free time to teaching science to elementary school kids, coaching high school wrestling, orienteering, dancing, and now the ACSJ.
I found the ACSJ on the Meet-up site and joined because it gave me a chance to discuss atheism with like-minded people at the Wednesday meetings. It turned out to be a lot more than that, i.e., discussions about all sorts of atheist-related topics, plus fun times like bowling and dinners and picnics and community service. I continued with ACSJ for those reasons, and became involved in the philanthropy group, which has been very satisfying. But really the most important aspect has been the ability to feel more confident in public about my atheism, and no longer having to justify it or avoid the topic. I display my Atheist bumper sticker proudly, and no longer shy away from discussions about it. A lot of people have commented that I am “brave” to do so, but I’m glad to say that I no longer feel that any bravery is necessary. That’s really been an uplifting change in my life, thanks to ACSJ. Finally, the ACSJ has propelled me to follow through on researching and understanding how this strange phenomenon of religion, running counter-intuitively to all evidence, has so infused societies across the world. Who’s been my favorite speaker? We’ve had lots of fantastic talks, but– ummm, me? — not because of egotism, but because preparing presentations clearly enough to convey to others really forced me to think these issues through and understand them thoroughly myself.
Certainly ACSJ is important to the San Jose community as a place for socialization and mutual support of atheists and humanists. We need more such groups to promote reason in education and politics, and we need to get more young people involved. Its been shown that those with strong religious connections are healthier and live longer than those without – we can and need to build the same social ties to reap the same health benefits, just without the mythology. My hope is that we can help local high schools start Atheist clubs and support them by being guest speakers. Perhaps we could run a summer camp, or start an after-school program for teens. The latter would require a much stronger commitment of our members than we’ve seen so far in our philanthropic events.
Do I celebrate religious holidays or let my kids believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy? Sure, why not participate in the fun and good food and socialization – that’s all healthy. But of course I don’t take these things seriously or get caught up in the mythology. And kids should be told the truth about things like this, including sex, as soon as their natural curiosity gets them to start questioning them. Anyway, Halloween is even more fun, and Thanksgiving is more rewarding.
What’s the worst argument I’ve ever heard? That the fossils were put there by the devil to test our faith. That one had me rolling on the floor laughing, followed by tears of incredulity that our educational system could actually allow such an inane concept to be passed on. As Frans de Waal pointed out: “You have to be pretty immune to evidence if you don’t accept evolution.”