We live in a period of rapid technological and social change unparalleled in the history of the world. A significant number of trends, developments, and scientific discoveries have converged to create a situation today that many find confusing, others find threatening, and some even find thrilling.
Whether we're talking about global satellite communication, space travel, the information revolution, genetic engineering, new birth technologies, or exciting fossil discoveries -- science and technology are transforming the world's values more dramatically and more completely than organized religion has ever been capable of.
Let me explain:
In the early 1960s, the birth control pill became widely available. This brought increased attention and acceptance to contraception and family planning. It also reduced the pregnancy risk for those wishing to enjoy sex outside marriage and allowed women more control over their own bodies. In short order we saw family size in the developed nations shrink, sexual freedom expand, and the women's rights movement rise to social prominence. Today, majority values about sex outside marriage, age, family size, population control, and the place of women in society are very different from what they were prior to the sixties.
But the revolution isn't over. Today we have the new birth technologies: in vitro fertilization, sperm and egg banks, the ill-fated surrogate parenting, and soon, advance selection of the gender of one's offspring. Such developments force a whole host of new moral and legal dilemmas upon us -- requiring, once again, the development of a changed set of ethical standards. We will think differently tomorrow because of the technologies we assimilate into our culture today.
Biotechnology is another developing area. This includes genetic engineering, patenting of new life forms, cloning, and possibly trans-species hybrids. With these developments, the features of each life form will become capable of modification. One benefit will be that genetic diseases, normally treated again and again in each generation of an afflicted family, will now be wiped out of the line altogether. Like some communicable diseases, some genetic diseases will be brought to extinction. With nearly the same license that we have manipulated machines in the past we will soon begin to manipulate organisms. There can be no question that this will have an incalculable impact on our values about life and about the quality of life.
Recent developments in medical technology have already forced a plethora of new ethical issues upon us. In fact, we have come so far that professionals now disagree on when a person comes into existence and when a person actually dies.
Does human life begin at conception, at the appearance of brain waves, at birth, or some time after? What we decide affects our views concerning the freezing of embryos, the rights of such embryos, fetal adoption, a mother's prenatal care obligation, the atmosphere in the birthing room, and selective nontreatment of defective newborns.
Does human life end with the death of the heart, the death of the brain, or the loss of "significant life?" What we decide affects our views on hospice, living wills, and euthanasia. It also forces us to decide in the future if it is OK to use comatose individuals as "living" organ banks or, as Dr. Kavorkian advocates and I oppose, harvest death-row inmates for their body parts. Medical technology is daily changing our values concerning human life.
Global satellite communication has made the world smaller and has increased public interest and involvement in international politics. We can now watch a war, or a democratic revolution, as it happens, and from both sides. And we can see how actions taken in one place affect the environment in some other. The slogan, "Think globally, organize locally" sums up much of the resulting politics. And through the video cassette recorder and cable TV, individual choice in information gathering has been enhanced. No longer do people need to get their ethics, their esthetics, or their politics from a common source. The existence of alternatives and options in almost everything has the potential to limit the influence of mass propaganda and bolster minority movements.
Then there are computers. Through desktop publishing, any computer owner can become a publisher. Home computer modems make possible individual information-gathering on a global scale. In short, private and individual choice is also enhanced through the computer, as much as is the power of individuals to invade the privacy of others, spread software viruses, and so forth.
Space travel can change our goals. We may, in time, no longer be limited to this globe for our pursuits and interests. Colonies in space will, as have all colonies in human history, bring into existence alternative societies and novel ideas. Different visions of life's purpose will emerge.
Meanwhile, startling fossil discoveries of our evolutionary ancestors are giving us an increasingly clearer view of who we are and what we are about. The irony is that these discoveries are coming at a time when we are developing the capability, through genetic research, to change the very natures we are just coming to understand.
The conclusion from all this is clear. Technology changes society and changes values. We find ourselves today in the midst of an incredible transformation -- one that is wrecking havoc on our entire culture.
Because so many people cannot deal comfortably with the moral dilemmas raised by the new technologies, one reaction has been a backlash. This backlash is a repeat performance of past reactions to change. In every age where the old ways were uprooted by new technologies, there were those prophets of conservatism who sought to put the genie back into the bottle. During the industrial revolution, for example, orthodox preachers fumed from the pulpit against the new machines. Congregations were told that God never intended his children to travel as fast as a steam locomotive could take them, and that people were in danger of losing their souls if they sneezed while aboard such a swiftly moving conveyance.
Today, not wishing to echo the cries of the Luddites, modern fundamentalist preachers utilize the new technologies to more effectively cry out against the changes in moral values that these same technologies bring. Few things are more ironic than listening to a preacher, broadcasting over satellite, condemning the rise of globalism -- or pontificating on cable TV or a videocassette, as he complains about people making too many individualistic choices and "doing their own thing."
And these profound Bible pounders have given the new values a name. They call them SECULAR HUMANIST VALUES and they blame them on the existence of a small document called "The Humanist Manifesto." And they blame the spread of these values on a small cadre of organized Humanists in the American Humanist Association. Oh, the flattery of it!
In the rush of history, if the past is any indication, these reactionaries will fail. The world will change, and they will either change with it (proclaiming that these changes had been advocated by them all along), or they will resist the changes and become entrenched in their own ways, living in their own communities, much like the Amish do today.
And given that these changes have been proclaimed by them to be Humanism, Humanism will triumph. As Humanist Manifesto II declares in its opening sentence, "The next century can be and should be the humanistic century." Certainly some of the values that naturally derive from certain new technologies are humanistic. Among those that I have mentioned or hinted at are: free inquiry, free choice among alternatives, individual liberties, increased opportunities for self-realization, a breaking down of mass propaganda and dogma, laws and ethics that take into consideration situations and circumstances, open-minded attitudes on human sexuality, global thinking, participatory democracy, and a greater appreciation for the power of the scientific method.
For these reasons, Humanist Manifesto II begins with an optimistic view of technology, declaring:
Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life- span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.But it follows this with a warning:
The future is, however, filled with dangers. In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, overpopulation, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and biochemical disaster.In short, there is no guarantee that a humanistic USE of these new technologies will prevail. That's up to us, and we have a tremendous job ahead. We have no time to wonder if Humanism and Freethought will survive. It is our job to make sure that they survive, to create a future for Humanism and Freethought, lest there be no future at all.
And that brings me to the specific Freethought challenges we face right now, in the 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, as democratic change sweeps the globe, the ironic effect so far has been an incredible growth in religiosity and irrationality. Let me share with you a few examples.
For all of us here, the place to begin is at home. Recent surveys in the United States (still the most technologically advanced nation in the world) indicate that American students continue to score near the bottom of the heap in science, and that 47% of Americans in general reject evolution and believe in creationism!
According to Emerging Trends, 95% of American teenagers believe in a god or universal spirit. Of those 16 and older, 32% say they have experienced God's presence. Teenagers who pray when they are by themselves number 75%; who read the Bible when they are by themselves, 44%.
Yet, contrary to religious expectations, the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of the young is at its lowest ebb in 30 years. Science magazine recently noted a "fall in test scores, the doubling of teenage suicide and homicide rates, and the doubling of births to unwed mothers."
Humanists and Freethinkers owe it to the next generation to guarantee that there is an increasing access to the rational alternative.
And it's not just traditional religious fundamentalism that deserves our attention. The next century won't be rendered a humanistic century merely because it isn't a fundamentalist century. Humanism is not the name for what you get when you don't have a dominant fundamentalism. There are many things that are neither fundamentalism nor Humanism, such as mysticism and the New Age movement. With the assimilation of the new technologies, it could be these ideas that dominate instead of ours.
Such fashionable religions and therapies, in one way or another, play on the excitement of changing times to offer ever more outlandish concepts. Whether we're dealing with the pseudo-technologies of pyramid power, psychic surgery, or channeling; or the self-help strategies of meditation, aural reading, or Scientology processing, phenomena generically labeled "New Age" have affected the thinking of millions.
Again, this is nothing new. During the period of major transformation at the dawn of the Middle Ages, a mass of new religions sprung up to capture the public imagination. The same thing happened again during the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Exciting times bring exciting ideas -- and anxiety. And fast on the heels of anxiety are new therapies promising a cure. That's why we have a New Age movement in today's "age of anxiety."
But it isn't enough just to know this. It isn't enough to merely understand why such things happen, to say to yourself: "Golly, that's too bad, I guess people really go nuts during changing times. It's a good thing I still have my wits about ME!"
What is needed is action. Humanism should thrive during changing times. The Humanist alternative to traditional belief should be vigorously promoted in a way that answers the nagging questions in the minds of the people. For it is in Humanism that we have one of the most revolutionary and beneficial philosophies there is, its advocates having waited a long time to witness the dislodging of the old values -- and yet nothing happens. Humanists, of all people, have been the slowest to leap into the breech, to capitalize on the changes occurring in the public mind-set. Yet the opportunity is ready-made for just such an entry.
Proof of this can be found in the rapid and surprising growth of the New Age. Contrary to the way many Humanists think, the New Age is not merely some new superstition to replace the old. Though it certainly has its share of nonsense and foolishness, it also has some important parallels with Humanism and Freethought. Let me list a few ideas that are shared by many followers of the New Age and by almost all Humanists and Freethinkers. These ideas are:
This, then points up the problem: the reason why most of those initially attracted to the New Age haven't found a better home in Humanism or Freethought.
In part, it's the absence of an effective publicity campaign by Humanists and Freethinkers. But those who somehow do manage to stumble upon a Humanist, Freethought, or Atheist organization, often find themselves either in a den of anti-religious nay-sayers, or in a loosely organized and ill-defined political caucus. There is rarely much offered for the serious seeker of happiness and the good life.
Sure, there's an occasional Unitarian or Ethical Culture pulpit homily about living better, but that's a far cry from intensive classes, self-help study courses, and organized therapeutic retreats.
As a result, the word "Humanism" more often conjures up in the public mind images of windy Manifestos, Bible bashing, and intellectuals lecturing endlessly about reason, science, and civil liberties. While Humanism indeed involves all of these things, it's also a philosophy of joy, personal fulfillment, and emotional liberation. It's a philosophy that can bring peace of mind and self-mastery.
But heaven forbid that we should ever tell anybody!
Is it our classified secret? Do we prefer to engage in purely intellectual discussion, to prove, for the umpteenth time, that mind-body dualism is a myth?
Yet, after we've proved it, do we do much with the information? Do we now more fully enjoy and celebrate our bodies? Our feelings? Our senses? Do we live our values like the New Agers do?
The reason the New Age promoters, the growing Yuppie mega-churches, and even the evangelicals have been able to benefit from changing times while we haven't is because we have too often looked down upon efforts to make our philosophy personally relevant and emotionally satisfying.
I think the time has come to get serious about applying Humanism and Freethought to the basic needs of people: to healing the hurts, sharing the joys, and expanding the horizons. The time for a lopsided "left-brained Freethought" and Humanists who have become "God's frozen people" is past. We have a rewarding and balanced philosophy that we can teach, in a warm and loving way, to our fellow human beings. We won't be so arrogant as to IMPOSE it, but we can be caring enough to share it. Up to now, we have selfishly kept it to ourselves and our small circle of friends.
The next century will be the humanistic century only if we change our ways, open up, and reach out to others. And our outreach must appeal to them not only intellectually, but also emotionally, aesthetically, sentimentally, and even physically.
The most successful Atheist and Humanist groups around the world do this. For example, during my travels in India I met with the people of the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada who were active in counseling battered women, rehabilitating criminals, providing birth control services, helping people develop a rational life-style, even teaching "atheistic" dances.
We like to think of Indians as "third world," yet Indian Humanists are far more advanced in the expression of Humanism than we are. When we look at ourselves, we should ask, how different, really, are we from our conservative church-bound brethren?
A startling answer was uncovered a few years ago in a study of Humanist groups worldwide conducted by Beverley Earles and financed in part by the American Humanist Association. Dr. Earles found that leaders of Humanist organizations and Ethical Societies in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Luxembourg all complained about the same constellation of ills: small membership, poor participation among those who were members, and an infrequency of young people and families among those who did join or participate. Together with these common complaints was a common explanation -- the claim that Humanists are such individualists that they are non-joiners. Put more cleverly, they argued that the art of Humanist leadership is the ability to "organize the unorganizable."
Beverley Earles, however, concluded that "this notion is nothing less than a psychological rationale that cushions the blows of repeated failure. It has evolved as a myth to account for an assumed and irritating attractiveness of churches . . . " Her research revealed that, in terms of membership-to-attendance ratios, Humanism fares no worse than traditional religion! According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the attendance rates among Protestants average between 35 and 40%. The largest attendance figures are held by the Mormons, but that is only 50%. Although Humanist groups, Ethical Societies, and UU churches have fewer people to start with, their attendance rates fall into the common 35-40% average. So the argument that Humanists and liberal religionists are unique in being non- participants doesn't hold up too well. Instead, it would be more accurate to argue that, with the secularization of Western society, most people in the developed nations are non- participants. One cannot, therefore, point a finger only at Humanists and Freethinkers.
And since the problem is generalized throughout our culture, one must ask if all the groups: Humanist, liberal religionist, and traditional religionist are each doing the same mistaken things. Beverley Earles found out that the answer is, essentially, yes. One should not be surprised at this. If all these groups complain about the same problems and use the same excuse to account for them, then it is likely that they are all repeating the same error. Let's look at this error, first from the standpoint of Humanist and Freethought organizations.
Local chapters of the American Humanist Association, the Council on Democratic and Secular Humanism, Atheist groups, Rationalist societies, Freethought organizations, along with Humanist community groups in many countries, often continue to follow the lecture/discussion model for meetings. They seem to operate on the assumption that if they can only get good enough speakers, they can increase the level of participation of their members, start attracting large crowds, and begin to change the hearts and minds of the majority. Yet this method often fails and we constantly hear the same complaints and excuses. The lecture/ discussion model for meetings developed out of the nineteenth century Freethought movement and today's Humanists and Freethinkers, in their inability to give it up in the face of repeated failure, show that they are just as tradition-bound as are the conservative religionists who they criticize at those very gatherings!
Ethical Culture Societies and UU Churches are just as locked-in to this approach. A liberal church service is little more than a lecture/discussion surrounded by ritual and song that is held on a Sunday morning. In a way, this is even worse. At least secular Humanist organizations don't generally expect their members to get up on a weekEND morning at about the same time as they do for work during the week, get dressed up, and spend part of a nice day cooped up in some building -- not when they could be out enjoying nature or living the good life! The irony is that some UU churches, realizing this, close up shop for the summer -- which only acknowledges the error without really remedying it.
If Humanists, Freethinkers, and religious liberals are really willing to question tradition, this is the tradition they should question. But what, then, is a better model if this one is so wrong? The answer was also revealed in Beverley Earles' study.
She found that providing a variety of activities, including singles groups, activist committees, parties, dances, and excursions, brought in a larger and more varied group of people.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch Humanist organizations have been able to attract 50% of the non-believing population, including large numbers of young people, to the Humanist movement. Since non-believers represent a sizeable segment of the general population in that country, this amounts to as much as 20% of the Dutch being involved with Humanism in some way. How have they done it?
Part of the explanation lies in their multi-faceted approach. The Dutch realized early on that human beings, even humanistic human beings, are not simply intellects on legs. People are also social, physical, and emotional beings who are interested in activities that appeal to their aesthetic, gastronomic, muscular, and jocular sensibilities, to name a few. So the Dutch developed a wide range of programs that invited interested people to pick and choose as they wished and contribute as much or as little as they liked. They offered a smorgasbord, and it worked.
A glimpse of this success has been seen in the United States with some chapters of the American Humanist Association, some UU Churches, and some Ethical Culture Societies. These have broken through the limited lecture/discussion program model to also schedule outdoor excursions, music, gallery tours, celebrations, and a lot more. Their programs are held at various times and on various days to appeal to more people. But such instances are rare.
So, it's the multi-faceted approach that makes an organization popular. As a response to traditional churches, many Secular Humanists have suggested the creation of "Humanist centers." They feel that the public center that appeals to a variety of human impulses is an organizational model for the future. The most successful liberal and conservative churches are now moving in that direction and it is making them more effective competitors in the marketplace of ideas. If Humanism and Freethought are to have a place in tomorrow's world, Humanist and Freethought organizations in the United States will have to adopt this method wholesale.
And they need to develop study-courses, programs, and one-on- one interactions that provide actual therapeutic benefits to people. There are individuals out there suffering guilt and anxiety because of traditional religious indoctrination. We can help them. There are people who already have outgrown such beliefs but who have nowhere to turn in times of trouble. We can help them. There is a vast audience for self-help books of all types, an audience made up of people who want to be more effective, more organized, more motivated, and to feel better about themselves. We can help them too.
It is entirely consistent with modern Rationalism to teach the good life as envisioned by Bertrand Russell, a life motivated by love and guided by knowledge, a life of reason and compassion.
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their 1954 book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they wrote:
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.Referring to this attitude as "zest for living," they were following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal and distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things until they have enough, and know when to stop.
Our various organizations need to promote this sort of joyful living. We need to offer classes and courses, videos and home-study guides, books and periodicals, support groups and get-togethers.
And we need to offer programs that help people liberate themselves. The most successful program started by the American Humanist Association works right along these lines. It is called Rational Recovery, a substance-abuse program for people who are fed up with the traditional religiosity and frequently addictive nature of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. It is for people who want a rational approach to ending chemical dependence.
This program, as well as one called Secular Sobriety, is successful because it meets a crying human need. It helps people in trouble and it helps them grow. The New York Times, Newsweek, leading TV talk shows, and numerous other publicity channels have given Rational Recovery massive free exposure. And the results have been overwhelming. Jack Trimpey, the founder of Rational Recovery, has been inundated with responses that keep his phone ringing off the hook daily. He and his wife had to quit their old jobs to devote full time to this program. James Christopher, founder and creator of Secular Sobriety, has had to do likewise.
AHA chapters, CODESH chapters, UU churches, and others have gotten behind Rational Recovery and Secular Sobriety to make them the fastest growing Humanist endeavors in the country. It just goes to show you what can happen when Humanism is applied to meeting emotional human needs in the here-and-now.
But this might only be a beginning. There are so many areas of life where an applied Humanism could make a real difference. And in doing so, it could begin to supplant the powerful influence of the New Age movement. It could begin to do for people what the New Age only promises to do.
One subject that is ripe for a popular rational program is that of the American tendency toward feelings of guilt. As one learns in Anthropology 101, there are guilt cultures and shame cultures. Well, this country in many ways is a guilt culture. The episodes with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart are adequate testimony to that.
But we have a philosophy of liberation that can act as a counter to such tendencies. If they chose, Humanist and Freethought organizations could become recognized as centers where people come to find inner freedom.
Ours, in many ways, is an anti-guilt philosophy. But you'd never know it to come to one of our meetings! It's not something we like to talk about. (Do we feel guilty about it?) And if we have successfully dealt with our own inner pain, that doesn't necessarily mean we want our group meetings devoted to helping others deal with theirs. So nothing gets done. And those pained by irrational guilt and anxiety turn to their nearest New Age practitioner, or visit their local church or temple, in hopes of finding that solace the Humanists and Freethinkers failed to offer or give.
You see, we needn't define our philosophy exclusively in abstract and intellectual terms. It can be an emotional thing as well. And, what's more, one shouldn't have to be an intellectual to be one of us.
Let me repeat that: One shouldn't have to be an intellectual to be one of us.
It is perfectly legitimate for Humanists and Freethinkers to promote a program that would appeal to people of fewer intellectual interests. What would be wrong with a more emotional Humanism?
I remember speaking to one woman who I found to be in general sympathy with Humanist ideas. But she told me she still liked to go to church. So I suggested that she consider the Unitarian-Universalist denomination. Her response was interesting. She told me that she had tried them already. I asked her if she had found herself in disagreement. She said "No." "What was the matter, then?" I asked. And she said, "There's no excitement there. I don't FEEL anything!"
There are millions of people like her -- people who are Atheists and Agnostics but who aren't intellectuals -- people who have liberal attitudes, but want some excitement, some emotion, some (dare I say it?) religious adventure.
And that's what the New Age offers -- religious adventure for people of tolerance.
Just think of the fun and exciting things New Agers get to do.
First, they get to go on a great journey of self-exploration.
Second, they get to make thrilling discoveries that can increase their happiness -- sort of like going on a treasure hunt through inner space.
Third, they get to participate in invigorating ceremonies and unifying rituals.
In short, for the New Ager, philosophy is fun!
Well, I think Humanism and Freethought can be fun, too. I think there are humanistic voyages of self-discovery. And I think there can be non-ritualistic ceremonies that express our ideals and principles.
Perhaps most intellectual Humanists and Freethinkers won't be interested. But that's OK. I'm not saying this particular approach is for everyone -- anymore than a purely intellectual philosophy is for everyone. All I'm saying is that the Freethought movement can become broader without abandoning its principles. It can appeal to the non-intellectual or non-political individual without sacrificing any of its intellectually-discovered conclusions, or giving up its present intellectual activities.
So I say, yes, there can be a popular Humanism; a Humanism that reaches out to people where they are; a self-help Humanism; a Humanism that is fun, is exciting, is full of adventure and self-discovery -- and which doesn't require a Ph.D. or membership in Mensa.
If you think such an approach will get nowhere, consider this thought:
What if Christianity had only appealed to intellectuals? Would it be the world's most popular religion today? Or would it survive only in learned enclaves, easily overpowered by the far more popular forces worshiping the one and only crucified savior, the dead and risen Adonis.
The Roman Catholic Church appealed to both intellectuals and more ordinary people. That is part of the secret of its success. The New Age is increasingly attempting the same. Our world view rests on firmer ground than either. All it lacks is popular support. But that popular support is there for the asking. All we need to do is apply our philosophy to the meeting of ordinary human needs. All we need to do is speak in ordinary language with an affirmative Rationalism.
And then we need to promote ourselves like crazy. Yes, promote ourselves! This is something else we don't like to talk about, yet it is vital if Humanism and Freethought are to grow. I'm referring to marketing, something that is often viewed as a dirty word in Humanist and Freethought circles.
You see, to many of us, Humanism isn't supposed to prosper -- lest it cease to be truly Humanism. This is the failure mentality, the death-wish brought on by an unrealistic level of idealism that equates popularity with impurity. Fundamentalists don't suffer from this particular delusion. They market their religion like profit organizations market consumer products. This accounts for their incredible success all over the world, and all out of proportion to the truth value of their claims.
If Humanism and Freethought are to have a place in the future, they will have to shed their fear of marketing and begin to directly and forthrightly advance their ideas in the world. A significant portion of the budget of every Atheist group, Freethought society, and Humanist organization will need to be devoted to promotion.
It's time to spread the "good news" about our way of life.
The changing world of modern technology is creating ethical issues that are breaking down the old consensus on values. A void has been created. This is our opening. This is our opportunity. The trends are in our favor if we will but seize the moment, ride the wave, and deliberately propel ourselves and our ideas into the future.
So, let's begin to think of the 21st century as our century, and the century of our children and grandchildren. Let's let humanistic values be our legacy to the future. Let's make them relevant to the daily lives of people. Let's make them fun. And let's promote them with all the vigor of our conviction.
We have nothing to lose but our minority status.
This is the text of a talk delivered at the 1992 HUMCON in Cherry Valley, California. Its author, Frederick Edwords, is the executive director of the American Humanist Association.
© Copyright 1992 by Frederick Edwords
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