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San Diego humanists split over circumcision, anti-Semitism

James Harvey Johnson against Frank Mortyn

The local humanist community is abuzz lately with allegations of anti-Semitism. The current controversy stems from a January, 1984 issue of a local publication called The Truthseeker, published and edited by 84-year-old James Harvey Johnson. Johnson who is against, among other things, smoking, eating meat and consuming alcohol, heads San Diego free thinkers, a group of strongly atheistic humanists dedicated to debunking religious faith and committed to the examination and discussion of political and social issues. In that January issue of the group’s newsletter, Johnson examined the subject of circumcision, characterizing it as a “cruel, barbaric, painful, ancient, injurious, Jewish, superstitious ritual.”

Johnson how declines to comment on his statement, saying rather that he felt questions raised about his organization were posed by “Zionist spies.” The local chapter of the Anti-defamation League has monitored Johnson’s activities since 1949, however, and memos in their files point out that Johnson regularly advertises to sell such books as Jewish Ritual Murder, The Talmud Unmasked, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a tract widely distributed by the Third Reich alleging an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world).

Subsequent actions taken by another humanist leader, Frank Mortyn, only served to feed the growing furor in humanist circles. Mortyn serves in the 150-member Humanist Fellowship of San Diego, a group which, while retaining a rationalistic approach to life, is warmer to the idea of religion, or at least to the concept of the transcendental. The month following Johnson’s controversial statement, Mortyn headed a Humanist Fellowship discussion on the subject of circumcision. The discussion featured a pediatrician and a urologist, and although Mortyn claims that the talk was well balanced, some of his fellow humanists felt otherwise. Phil Paulson, chairmen of the Humanist Association of San Diego (founded in 1973), says that Mortyn’s decision to feature the subject at the meeting and to deride circumcision in subsequent issues of Mortyn’s own publication, the Humanist Century, exposes Mortyn’s desire to align himself with James Hervey Johnson.

In March 1984, Paulson’s Humanist Association voted to censure what appeared to be Mortyn’s agreement with Johnson’s anticircumcision stance. They demanded that Mortyn, as a fellow Humanist, denounce Johnson and his opinions. Mortyn printed a statement in the Humanist Century stating that he did not support anti-Semitism but likewise did not support favoritism toward Semites nor “unsubstantiated claims of racial egalitarianism.” When asked about his alleged ties with Johnson, Mortyn replies that he wants to “make it absolutely clear that Mr. Johnson is in no way connected with either the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego or the Humanist Century publication. “ The August edition of the Humanist Century does, however, list a San Diego Freethinker’s event at the Bonanza Family Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard on August 9, featuring a speech by Johnson.

Mortyn claims that Paulson’s concern is the result of jealousy. “My group has only been around for two and half years and has far outstripped his group,” he says. “We have more activities. We celebrate holidays, like Einstein’s birthday [March 18] and Thomas Paine’s birthday [January 29]. He’s jealous that we’re doing better than he is.” Paulson replies that the jealousy issue is nonsense. He says he feels that Mortyn is probably not anti-Semite at heart, but that Mortyn has been irresponsible. Fred Edwords, formerly a San Diego humanist organizer and now national executive director of the American Humanist Association of New York (the parent organization of groups such as Mortyn’s and Paulson’s), concurs that Mortyn has gone a little too far with the circumcision question and says that “Mortyn is basically a good guy, he’s just interested in examining issues that no one else questions.”

In the July issue of the Humanist Association of San Diego’s newsletter, Paulson writes that Mortyn’s denial of Johnson and anti-Semitism wasn’t strong enough. And if the August issue of Mortyn’s Humanist Century gives any indication of his attitude toward his fellow humanists’ demands that he pursue other issues, then Mortyn has no intention of easing up. The twenty-two-page tabloid is peppered with references to Jews, circumcision, and Judaism. In one article concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mortyn refers to the people who inhabited the area on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jerusalem and the River Jordan as being “unpleasant people indeed. Intellectually constipated. Obsessed with their obnoxious Jehovah, a barbarous deity from whom they thought they derived privileges of his ‘chosen people.’”

“He [Mortyn] is an embarrassment to San Diego Humanists,” Paulson says. “I want Jews to know, however, that humanists still welcome them. They should know that if they want to turn away from the supernatural, they can still retain their culture — it’s beautiful.”

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The local humanist community is abuzz lately with allegations of anti-Semitism. The current controversy stems from a January, 1984 issue of a local publication called The Truthseeker, published and edited by 84-year-old James Harvey Johnson. Johnson who is against, among other things, smoking, eating meat and consuming alcohol, heads San Diego free thinkers, a group of strongly atheistic humanists dedicated to debunking religious faith and committed to the examination and discussion of political and social issues. In that January issue of the group’s newsletter, Johnson examined the subject of circumcision, characterizing it as a “cruel, barbaric, painful, ancient, injurious, Jewish, superstitious ritual.”

Johnson how declines to comment on his statement, saying rather that he felt questions raised about his organization were posed by “Zionist spies.” The local chapter of the Anti-defamation League has monitored Johnson’s activities since 1949, however, and memos in their files point out that Johnson regularly advertises to sell such books as Jewish Ritual Murder, The Talmud Unmasked, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a tract widely distributed by the Third Reich alleging an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world).

Subsequent actions taken by another humanist leader, Frank Mortyn, only served to feed the growing furor in humanist circles. Mortyn serves in the 150-member Humanist Fellowship of San Diego, a group which, while retaining a rationalistic approach to life, is warmer to the idea of religion, or at least to the concept of the transcendental. The month following Johnson’s controversial statement, Mortyn headed a Humanist Fellowship discussion on the subject of circumcision. The discussion featured a pediatrician and a urologist, and although Mortyn claims that the talk was well balanced, some of his fellow humanists felt otherwise. Phil Paulson, chairmen of the Humanist Association of San Diego (founded in 1973), says that Mortyn’s decision to feature the subject at the meeting and to deride circumcision in subsequent issues of Mortyn’s own publication, the Humanist Century, exposes Mortyn’s desire to align himself with James Hervey Johnson.

In March 1984, Paulson’s Humanist Association voted to censure what appeared to be Mortyn’s agreement with Johnson’s anticircumcision stance. They demanded that Mortyn, as a fellow Humanist, denounce Johnson and his opinions. Mortyn printed a statement in the Humanist Century stating that he did not support anti-Semitism but likewise did not support favoritism toward Semites nor “unsubstantiated claims of racial egalitarianism.” When asked about his alleged ties with Johnson, Mortyn replies that he wants to “make it absolutely clear that Mr. Johnson is in no way connected with either the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego or the Humanist Century publication. “ The August edition of the Humanist Century does, however, list a San Diego Freethinker’s event at the Bonanza Family Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard on August 9, featuring a speech by Johnson.

Mortyn claims that Paulson’s concern is the result of jealousy. “My group has only been around for two and half years and has far outstripped his group,” he says. “We have more activities. We celebrate holidays, like Einstein’s birthday [March 18] and Thomas Paine’s birthday [January 29]. He’s jealous that we’re doing better than he is.” Paulson replies that the jealousy issue is nonsense. He says he feels that Mortyn is probably not anti-Semite at heart, but that Mortyn has been irresponsible. Fred Edwords, formerly a San Diego humanist organizer and now national executive director of the American Humanist Association of New York (the parent organization of groups such as Mortyn’s and Paulson’s), concurs that Mortyn has gone a little too far with the circumcision question and says that “Mortyn is basically a good guy, he’s just interested in examining issues that no one else questions.”

In the July issue of the Humanist Association of San Diego’s newsletter, Paulson writes that Mortyn’s denial of Johnson and anti-Semitism wasn’t strong enough. And if the August issue of Mortyn’s Humanist Century gives any indication of his attitude toward his fellow humanists’ demands that he pursue other issues, then Mortyn has no intention of easing up. The twenty-two-page tabloid is peppered with references to Jews, circumcision, and Judaism. In one article concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mortyn refers to the people who inhabited the area on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jerusalem and the River Jordan as being “unpleasant people indeed. Intellectually constipated. Obsessed with their obnoxious Jehovah, a barbarous deity from whom they thought they derived privileges of his ‘chosen people.’”

“He [Mortyn] is an embarrassment to San Diego Humanists,” Paulson says. “I want Jews to know, however, that humanists still welcome them. They should know that if they want to turn away from the supernatural, they can still retain their culture — it’s beautiful.”

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