Conor Robinson discusses humanist service, building bridges, and why atheists should care about their image


Conor Robinson is the director of Pathfinders Project, the yearlong global humanist service trip. A Teach for America alumnus, Conor graduated from Yale University in 2010, where he founded the Yale Humanist Society. Conor and the rest of the Pathfinders are currently working in Guatemala with Safe Passage/Camino Seguro, an organization whose mission is to empower the poorest at-risk children, whose families live in the Guatemala City garbage dump.

You were the one who came up with the idea of the Pathfinders Project and the Humanist Action: Ghana. Where did that idea come from and what motivated you to pursue it?

At the end of my first year of teaching in Los Angeles, some friends and I decided to start planning a trip around the world, but it became apparent that we had different ideas about what would constitute meaningful travel. I wanted to facilitate dialogue with the locals, which I knew would be more difficult if we were pure tourists, so I proposed the idea of service projects as a foundation for intercultural exchange. At first, they were on board, but my friends came to realize that the organization of the service projects undermined what was for them the most important component—spontaneity.

So we parted ways. By that time the seed of a larger idea had already taken root in my head. All around the country, nonreligious volunteering groups were increasingly using service as a way to build community among their members and improve dialogue with other groups. The conversation in the atheist movement was subtly shifting. More and more, major national and international atheist organizations were talking about service in addition to education and church-state separation. It was time for a program that could draw atheists directly into international service, one of the most profoundly humanizing experiences, and inspire atheists the world over to volunteer in their communities.

What has been the most difficult part of your journey so far?

Without a doubt, group dynamics. But that was expected. We spend every waking minute together, and we had never met until we came together in Los Angeles. It has been difficult, but we have gotten so much better. We hold weekly group discussions to work through things. Each of the Pathfinders knows they have to vocalize their needs to the group.

What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?

Without a doubt, the human interactions. Pathfinders Project has surpassed my expectations in that regard. Because we have toiled and sweated alongside them and expressed our humble desire to learn from them, people in every country have opened up to us. When you take the threat of judgment off the table, people will reveal their most true beliefs and desires.

Has language been a problem for the Pathfinders? How have you overcome that problem?

One of the things about traveling generally and being Pathfinders specifically is that we have to view the challenges as part of the adventure, part of the growth. Language has certainly been a challenge, but it has led to as much hilarity as it has led to frustration, and it has certainly helped all of us grow. Language was a factor in the selection of the Pathfinders Project partners and locations, but communication was challenging even in the early countries where English is an official language. One funny example of this is from Uganda, where the phrase “it’s okay” means the exact opposite as in the United States. In the United States, if you describe something by saying “it’s okay” you really mean it’s not very good. Or if you respond to an offer by the abbreviated “that’s okay,” which sounds exactly like “it’s okay,” you really mean that you don’t want any. In Uganda, “it’s okay” means “it’s amazing” or “fuck yeah, give me some!”

In Cambodia, we had several interactions with people that were completely nonverbal. On our last night in Kampong Thom, the matriarchs of the families for which we’d installed wells came to thank us as we were decompressing after dinner. We passed more than fifteen minutes exchanging remarks in Khmer and English without a translator, but it didn’t matter that we didn’t understand their words and they didn’t understand ours—the emotions behind the words were communicated through facial expressions, gestures, and tone.

Generally speaking, communication has been easier for me because I pick up languages and dialects quickly and I started with a greater command of Spanish. This means that I have been able to cover more content with locals, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I have had a more powerful experience. For example, when Wendy ventures out alone to explore Bogotá or Minca, it is far more courageous because she began studying Spanish on this trip. These daily exercises in bravery add up to increased confidence in just about any situation.

Some members of the atheist/humanist community, like Tom Flynn, have been very critical of humanist charity efforts, implying that it’s only being done in order to compete with religious charities and for public relations purpose so we can say “hey, look at the good we’re doing.” What would you say to him and others making similar arguments?

And? Sure, there is a desire to improve the image of atheists. But that’s not the main motivation for engaging in service and there’s nothing wrong with it anyway. The fact of the matter is that the current depiction and perception of atheists undermines our ability to engage with the religious in every arena, which is a requisite for achieving the goals of humanism. More troubling is that the negative image of atheists shapes our very self-perception. There is no doubt that humans are molded by the expectations society holds for them—so why the hell shouldn’t we be self-conscious about the image we are promoting? The nonreligious need to encounter images and stories of service-oriented atheists. And, yes, the religious need to see these representations, too.

Conor and the other humanist volunteers of Pathfinders Project will talk about their experience at FBB’s Humanism at Work conference in Chicago, July 18-20. Learn more and register at