Interview: Dr. Stephen F. Uhl of STEM-CAN

By Susan,
Education Officer and National Coordinator

A new opportunity to unite local communities and their schools is being developed with STEM-CAN (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Community Action Network). I was able to speak with Dr. Stephen Uhl, whose work and vision for STEM-CAN has the potential to bring new opportunities to disenfranchised areas and their public schools.

UnitedCoR: You were closely affiliated with religion. What made you question your beliefs?

Dr. Stephen Uhl: The most specific factor that I can point to, these many decades after the fact, happened in the morning meditation, the half-hour meditation being a part of the regular monastic regimen. I was in the monastery chapel meditating on St. Thomas Aquinas’ classic “five proofs of God’s existence“. Frankly, I only remember one of those offered proofs, the other four being rejected out of hand as opinions: the “causality proof” is the one somewhat worthy of attention. This reasoning is familiar to many, so I summarize briefly here.

Everything is a secondary cause which is dependent for its existence on an earlier effective cause; that earlier effective cause was also a secondary cause which was caused by an earlier secondary cause; likewise that historic secondary cause was caused by a still earlier secondary cause… and on and on goes the aging historic chain of these secondary causes. However, says St. Thomas, our mind rebels and cannot fathom such a suggested infinite regression of secondary causes, so there must be an un-caused First Cause, which we call God.

That fateful morning I realized—more clearly than ever before—that this conclusion was really based on an unverifiable assumption, even though the Roman Catholic Church had taught officially and dogmatically that “God’s existence can be proven by reason alone unaided by faith.” This dogmatic conclusion of Rome was (is?) based on St. Thomas’ “Causality proof.” I had believed deeply that Rome’s claim of infallibility in matters of faith and morals was a valid claim; that morning’s meditation was the beginning of my agnosticism. If “Holy Mother, the Church” could be wrong in such a basic matter, could She be wrong in other respects?

UnitedCoR: Could you tell us about your journey from priest to psychologist? 

Dr. Uhl’s publicity photograph on the occasion of his publishing Out of God’s Closet, recounting many stories of his moving away from being a priest to a licensed psychologist.
Dr. Uhl’s publicity photograph on the occasion of his publishing Out of God’s Closet, recounting many stories of his moving away from being a priest to a licensed psychologist.

Dr. Stephen Uhl: While I was a Benedictine monk and priest at Marmion Abbey, I taught religion and mathematics while also helping with the counseling program in our high school (Marmion Military Academy) for nine years. Most of these years were fulfilling and enjoyable as I saw the growth of our residential and day-students become responsible young men. Besides a full teaching load, many of us monks left the monastery on weekends to assist parish priests with their extra Saturday and Sunday duties. These experiences outside the monastery were also fulfilling for the most part for some nine years.

On my road to full-blown agnosticism, I discussed my challenging personal theological and psychological battle with my spiritual director as well as the abbot (and others). The abbot thought that perhaps I needed some respite from monastic rigors, so he appointed me to the Development (fundraising) Office. This meant that I would have my own car and run my own schedule for the most part. I’d set this specific appointment to meet a potential donor at home some three miles from Marmion Abbey to solicit a large pledge. I was late for the 3:30 appointment, for I heard a tower clock strike 3:30 as I was going to my car.

The near-fatal October accident resulting from my speeding, besides bloodying the pledge card, convinced me of a couple of important things: when I saw the inevitable head-on crash coming, my desperate prayer (God have mercy on me if you are there, if I need you!) showed me that I was truly agnostic and not deceiving myself. The second important lesson that I learned was the fact that the “white light” that some report in their near-death experience can result from a bruised brain. (In regaining consciousness on the way to the hospital, I would repeatedly hear the ambulance siren, lose consciousness, see the famous white light, hear the siren again, lose the siren and see the light again.)

The doctors did a good job fixing the broken parts. Yet, as a convinced agnostic, my personal job now became leaving the Church and monastery with minimal scandal while becoming able to support myself. Fortunately, during my experience teaching math, I earned a Master’s degree in math pedagogy. With my experience and that degree, I had no trouble signing a good teaching contract with a nearby suburban school district. During those two years, I got to know a fellow teacher—a very special Special Education teacher—well enough to ask her to marry me. It was then that I could afford to quit teaching and work on the PhD in Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. While finishing the doctoral work, I served as school psychologist in a neighboring school district for two years. By that time, I was licensed to practice psychology in Illinois.

My independent practice of family psychology was very fulfilling in that heavily Catholic area of suburban Chicago. I can safely say that guilt contributed heavily to my earnings, and it was so refreshing to see the personal growth that quickly took place, as so many Catholic women realized how they could live with by the mantra of “no guilt, no shame, no blame; just responsibility.” For many of these guilt-laden folks, it was quite helpful to share my clerical background with them (Confidentially, I may have heard more confessions and saved more souls as a psychologist than I did as a priest…). Those were good years!

UnitedCoR: What is the mission and vision of STEM-CAN, the project you’re spearheading?

Dr. Stephen Uhl: During the years in independent psychology practice, I couldn’t get away much for vacation or travel; so in retirement, we traveled fulltime. While doing so, we contributed in minor ways to secular movements. Having settled down in Arizona, we got more seriously involved in supporting existing non-theistic organizations—local and national. As the number of “Nones” grows, the productivity of many of the non-theistic organizations becomes clear. At the same time, I got tired of the frustrations that are natural when attempting to argue faith: from the logical point of view, the argument is unwinnable; from the cultural point of view, the argument is pretty much won. Meantime, however, I noticed the far right conservative anti-scientific attacks on our public school system are becoming more intense. I think we cannot afford to let such anti-scientism proponents continue to threaten our pluralistic and secular public education.

The purpose of our founding of STEM-CAN Supporters, a 501[c](3) educational corporation, is to help local public school communities support their own local public school in many ways, but with particular emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education. We help local public school communities, especially less fortunate ones, with ideas and money to help their schools progress toward “100% graduation of caring students.” We do this because we know that school dropouts tend to become prison drop-ins. We also know that parents, neighbors and local businesses can contribute mightily to good, productive school spirit and improving graduation rates while enriching their own social lives; STEM-CAN works to enhance all these aspects of local community life.

UnitedCoR: What are your favorite stories about secular outreach?

Dr. Stephen Uhl: I’ve never been much of a storyteller, and at my advanced age the interesting details of most of such have slipped into non-existence. I doubt that anyone would be interested in how many Saturday night confessions of (not really) guilty Catholics I slept through. Similarly, no one cares about the very clever card trick The Amazing Randi showed me when I gave him a copy of my book, and only a psychologist or psychiatrist could appreciate the varied feelings experienced at the legal literal burning in a campfire the files of my individual clients with their infinite variety of reasons for feeling inadequate. Such journeys into the many human hearts convinced me long ago that St. Thomas was all wet when he defined man as “rational animal”. At the very least, he should have said “potentially rational”. I certainly don’t remember most of the nice things that were said FFRF’s dedication of the Diane Uhl Legal Wing or the Stephen Uhl Friendly Atheist Broadcast Studio in their new building in Madison, WI.

UnitedCoR: Out of all the programs you were able to support, why was the STEM-CAN project so important to you?

Dr. Stephen Uhl: STEM-CAN Supporters concentrates on the local community and its public school spirit. It is in the local community where the rubber meets the road. While appreciating the great good work that our national secular organizations have accomplished, we now want to mobilize local sub-groups, little public school community groups to use support funds efficiently whether for needed supplies, teacher awards, scholarships, prize money, social programs—whatever the local community or its own public school decides is the need.

Frankly, another reason for founding STEM-CAN Supporters was quite selfish. As you may or may not know, I was raised to adolescence on a poor farm in Southern Indiana. An important part of my basic value system comes from knowing how my investment of energy, time, or money is productive. The return on investment has commonly been very nebulous and hard to estimate in the case of our national non-theistic organizations. Currently, we at STEM-CAN are in the throes of developing reliable and detailed bookkeeping discipline to provide transparency in dealing with all funds—large or small—whether those funds come from our own donations or from others who become STEM-CAN Supporters.

UnitedCoR: How can readers get involved with STEM-CAN and what is the benefit to the local community?

Dr. Steven and Mrs. Diane Uhl
Dr. Stephen and Mrs. Diane Uhl

Dr. Stephen Uhl: Anyone interested in the STEM-CAN Supporters mission is encouraged to peruse our still-developing website, www.stem-can.org, for extensive information including contact data. Regarding finding the nearest group, remember we concentrate on the community of the local public school of the interested person. So the “nearest group” would likely be a couple of parents with children in the same local public school who see the clear need for increasing graduation rates of caring students, decreasing truancy rates, improving teacher recognition, improving community involvement and school spirit, establishing or supporting science clubs, increasing scholarship funds, enriching community social life, increasing classroom support programs, etc. These couple of parents contact a couple of near neighbors and businesses who want to help with solving specific local problems (or celebrating specific local victories). Where these sorts of programs need money, STEM-CAN helps with generous scholarship money or matching funds for specific needs.

These local STEM-CAN Supporters could well be a local sub-group of, for example, Metro Area Freethinkers, a local area Coalition of Reason, MADD mothers, the public school parents club, or even an existing Parent-Teacher Organization. The LOCAL community is where the rubber meets the road and where generous donors (individuals or businesses) can see what their contributions accomplish; all of this from a purely rational or scientific point of view without anything that smacks of divisive ideologies. (Wouldn’t it be great if a wide area CoR in three public school communities were to find three sets of leaders, each within their own local public school area to put their creative heads together, but separately, to form three local chapters of STEM-CAN Supporters!?)

Thank you to Dr. Uhl for this interview! When STEM-CAN has its public launch, UnitedCoR will link in with their Facebook and Twitter feeds, to help spread the word of this much-needed organization, as they will be working in local areas to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to students.