RED BANK — Ron Steelman stood at a podium in mid- December, addressing members of the Red Bank Humanists, an organization he founded some eight years ago.
At this meeting, the subject was humor, and Steelman, a burly, smiling and effusive middle-aged man, shared a story about Henry David Thoreau, who while on his deathbed, was asked by a clergy member if he had made peace with his maker.
“I never quarreled with my maker,” Thoreau replied.
The story elicited chuckles and knowing nods from the audience, as did some of the other jokes, anecdotes and observations offered by the members.
Another example: “What does a humanist say when someone sneezes?” Steelman asked.
There are three recognized answers to that, he said. “We acknowledge the sneeze,” is one. “Ick, eew,” would be another, though not a very nice one. And the third would be, “May Darwin bless you,” Steelman said.
Humanists, as Steelman and the group’s president, borough resident Steve Mitchell, explained it, embrace a belief system rooted in humanity and human behavior—and scientific explanations—instead of looking toward the divine or supernatural.
“We’re earthlings,” and look toward earthly explanations, Steelman said.
“I believe I could live a moral and ethical life without believing in God,” was Mitchell’s definition of who he is and what he believes.
The group meets every second Sunday at the Red Bank Charter School where its members socialize with other like-minded people, and discuss topics of interest.
Steelman’s own conversion, if that would be the appropriate term for it, began earlier. Having held these views for quite a while, the galvanizing moment came in 2001 when he watched on TV as some U.S. senators, standing in front of the Capitol proclaiming you can’t be a moral person unless you’re religious.
That pronouncement struck a chord with him. “I can say I’m a nonbeliever,” but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, he qualified. He said he believed in what can be known and experienced and learned. And, “To be good and do good without God,” he explained. “To me it boils down to that.”
During their monthly get-togethers, at the charter school (where their meeting is followed by an evangelical Christian service) the group selects a topic for discussions. Last November, it was hunger, and in January the topic will be separation of church and state.
With humor on the agenda Dec. 11, many offered jokes and funny stories while Mitchell played recordings by the late comedian George Carlin, includinga quip that he preferred to worship actor Joe Pesci because “He looks like a guy who can get things done.”) and some witty songs by performer Roy Zimmerman.
Barry Klassel, a humanist chaplain at Rutgers University, regularly attends meetings of the Red Bank The message of humanism is “We’re responsible for each other,” Kassel said. “I want to understand what it means to be human.”