“Religion means asking the profound questions in life, and being willing to accept what we find – even if it contradicts that which we previously held to be true.” Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich
It occurred to me that many of our members, particularly Newbies, may readily identify the religious symbols on our order of service except, maybe, the one at the very top. The “Humanist Star Burst”. Perhaps also not realizing the deep connection UUism shares with a philosophy pre-dating Christianity by 500 years, and that endured 1000 years of the Dark Ages. So this month I’ll gladly step aside and let two humanist practitioners of the 19th and 20th centuries speak for me.
A LIBERAL DECALOGUE By Bertrand Russell
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.”
“A Liberal Decalogue” is from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 3: 1944-1969, pp. 71-2.
BR’s note: This first appeared at the end of my article “The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism,” in the New York Times Magazine, December 16, 1951
Another Humanist you should know: Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 – 1899)
Ingersoll was, in his time, the greatest orator in the United States. He was also known as the “The Great Agnostic”. Yes, Ingersoll wasn’t a religious preacher, he was a preacher for freethought. Although he was popular with the public he also had to deal with criticism from the establishment which also included preventing him from trying for elective office. He is one Humanist you should know.He was the son of a abolitionist-leaning Presbyterian preacher, whose liberal views forced the family to move many times. It was the bad treatment of his father by members of the various churches he preached at, including full blown church trials, that lead Robert to agnosticism.
Ingersoll was also a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. In 1876 he said: So our fathers said: “We will form a secular government, and under the flag with which we are going to enrich the air, we will allow every man to worship God as he thinks best.” They said: “Religion is an individual thing between each man and his creator, and he can worship as he pleases and as he desires.” And why did they do this? The history of the world warned them that the liberty of man was not safe in the clutch and grasp of any church. They had read of and seen the thumb-screws, the racks, and the dungeons of the Inquisition. They knew all about the hypocrisy of the olden time. They knew that the church had stood side by side with the throne; that the high priests were hypocrites, and that the kings were robbers. They also knew that if they gave power to any church, it would corrupt the best church in the world. And so they said that power must not reside in a church, or in a sect, but power must be wherever humanity is — in the great body of the people. And the officers and servants of the people must be responsible to them. And so I say again, as I said in the commencement, this Declaration of Independence is the wisest, the profoundest, the bravest political document that ever was written and signed by man. Centennial Oration (1876)
He was also a strong Humanist even if that term didn’t exist in his days. Also in 1876 he wrote: “Reason, Observation and Experience – the Holy Trinity of Science – have taught us that happiness is the only good; that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so. This is enough for us. In this belief we are content to live and die. If by any possibility the existence of a power superior to, and independent of, nature shall be demonstrated, there will then be time enough to kneel. Until then, let us stand erect. from “The Gods” 1876) His writings and speeches have been preserved and available in various online sites.
“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech” Cato, the elder. 243-149 BCE
“Hope is a waking dream” Aristotle
The ancients well understood the roller coaster that is life. A world of paradox. In life, it’s said, we are in the midst of death - nature providing for death in order to re-establish life. Days lengthen now, and in the expanding light we look back. In 2012 it was difficult to encounter a perennial optimist. Indeed, years back I titled a little book, “Hope’s Fool” for that very reason. Pluses and minuses to be sure. We survived December 21st, and many rejoiced when Obama regained his job, and hopefully his footing. But there was cliff talk, multiple young lives erased like a chalkboard from hell, and the legions of the still jobless. Too many friends and family (Bell’s only brother) vanished from view.
That little cherub symbolizing new times appeared, it’s nudity and even gender, tastefully concealed by the new banner of numbers. What trials and joy await this new birth? As with any new arrival, we can only hope it will be healthy -
Woody Allen in a speech to graduates had this to say. “ More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” As a fellow humanist I smile at Woody’s witty cynicism, but it treats lightly the “bottom line” for most humanists I’ve known. Namely, the survival, even flourishing, of our species, our planet and its creatures.
So we’re offered 365 more gifts. No real resolutions come to mind except, perhaps, to avoid the black and white thinking pervading the culture, and our world in genera,l whenever I possibly can. From the dizzying distractions and helter skelter of cyberspace, to the toothy truisms of TV’s spin and infomercials. As well as the usual wellsprings of wisdom (and contention), the Bible, Vedas, Koran, Talmud, even the Tao, Constitution and Bill of Rights. Drawing only what serves for another year’s travel along that path we all must tread. Change!
Particularly for UU’s, such times as these find us ALL venturing along roads less traveled. Wish me well on my journey, as I wish you well on yours…
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you since you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” Matthew 25:40
Surely the message at this most poignant and humanistic season of alL, Winter Solstice, is sharing. For example, many Christmases ago in the mud filled, rat infested trenches of WWI, the “Great War” to end all wars, we see a shining example. For a brief moment in time the German and Allied troops left their trenches in No-Mans-Land to share a cigarette, a bottle, laughter, and even a few songs and carols. Of course, the slaughter of sworn enemies to commence on schedule the following day!
Without delving into the symbols and traditions of this season passed down over millennia by virtually all religions, it’s enough to note dogma and division take a momentary backseat to our shared humanity. Even Christian zealots shift their attention from Revelations to earlier books of the New Testament. Looking down from the high ground of a fading year, we see in the valley below lights from countless tribal tents flickering as one in the night. If only for that fleeting moment, universal, humanistic wisdom is shared and the Golden Rule reigns, or is seriously acknowledged by most.
If the swords have yet to be beaten into plow shares, we briefly thrust them into the sands on which so many of us have built our houses. The children are treasured, adult hearts racing quickly as a child’s. Even hopes soar, because at other times of the year we’ve already seen what is possible. Young Israeli and Muslim children gathered at campfires together. Scrooge-like, some of our wealthiest insisting they’re taxed too little. If only such occurrences could become the norm! All seems possible as light, once again, chases away the darkness-
With the returning light, even our small chalice becomes more precious than ever. So we’ll give the kids that ecology magazine subscription. Schedule a few more walks in nature. Encourage the kids to walk or bike. No, better still, we’ll walk or bike with them! Record some of those beautiful nature specials on TV for family watching. If there are family roots other than English, we’ll dig them up and practice them with the kids. Play and listen to music together. Anything seems possible, doesn’t it?
Most importantly, we’ll remember the REAL reasons for the season-
“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit. Together we must work toward a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them” Gandhi
Existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, defines religion as the seeking of answers to life’s profound questions – and the willingness to accept what we find. Even if it contradicts what we thought before! This may well include a huge minority that has emerged in recent years. Pew polls indicate twenty percent of Americans now express no religious affiliation or particular god belief! An astonishing hundred percent growth going into the 21st century, but largely unheralded in mainstream media. Not a likely topic even for political banter except, perhaps, in a negative vein.
Is it conceivable this group may morph into yet another “silent majority” by mid-century? Not likely in the U.S. But it has already occurred in many European communities, including those with Catholic roots. There, state support of religion is waning, even stirring questions of taxation (gasp) for religious institutions. Much, it would seem, in accordance with Einstein’s proposal that if man is to survive, he shall have to drastically change his way of thinking-
Given the rambling, bloody trail left through history by one people of the book or another, many tunnels of hope have long been obscured, no less any light at the end of them. Many years back our own fellowship often ran a newspaper ad showing stacks of well known books. The caption read, “Most religions have one good book. We have many” It was quite successful. As is often the case even with that one humanistic rule running through every religion devised by humans. The Golden one, of course. When all else fails, we’re simply left to do the right thing.
Fortunately for us, the maxim,”reason in the service of compassion” has long been honored by Unitarians and Universalists alike. Particularly after their marriage in the Sixties. So unlike others who might tremble or fret when confronting this larger and least tolerated minority – we welcome them. Eagerly! Accepting them exactly as they are – and hoping to learn from them…
“All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his Facebook page where he has four million friends. Sept 11, 2012
Perhaps what His Holiness is really saying is we may have created God simply too much in our own image. An anthropomorphic god functions not unlike a tribal chief and not like an all encompassing, universal force. Many of our (Unitarian) forefathers visualized God in a Deistic vein – to be found everywhere in everything. Such a God would be inherently impartial when it came to rewarding us when we’re nice, punishing us when we’re bad, and protecting us from harm.
There’s much to account for the increasing interest in Eastern thought over recent decades, more easily allowing us to forsake our particular divinity in favor of compassion and an all encompassing “awareness”. Such thinking is nothing new in the East, and as a humanist I could quite comfortably don the spiritual robe of Taoism! Humanism has also produced such ethical guides as the “Golden Rule”, “Ten Commandments” (minus a couple, of course) and many other “religious” tenets.
When religions gather in ecumenical council together they have no apparent problems in adapting to each others idiosyncrasies, that is until they head home again. Then local power and prestige of the tribe come back into play. So perhaps what applies to politics applies equally to religion as well. Ultimately it’s all local!
For the first time in human existence we truly have the ability to gather in cyberspace and make our opinions heard. If we can vote for our favorite singer or dancer by the millions within minutes, why not more critical areas such as war, welfare or education? Probably why our politicians are so terrified of polls and referenda! Richard Dawkins remarked, while visiting our country, “There are forty-two million Americans who believe the world is about seven thousand years old. And they all vote!” So perhaps, as the Dalai Lama seems to suggest, religion may still be building more walls than bridges. At one time he was also heard to remark,”Of course I’m a socialist”, though it’s doubtful he said that in a group of his religious peers-
It appears that if we could just get religious folks as excited about saving their planet home as they are to affronts against their deities, we might finally be getting somewhere! Can there really be such a thing as “deity abuse” among the truly spiritual? Or for that matter sharing moccasins with the “other”? Although the bulwark of humanism is “Reason in the service of compassion”, the first part does make it increasingly difficult to suffer fools gladly. But then it’s always so easy to spot “sin” in others, as in golfing when our adversary always keeps better track of our score than we do! But as the Dalai Lama warns, perhaps we all need to “up” our game…
“One truth stands firm. All that happens in world history rests on something spiritual. If the spiritual is strong it creates world history. If it is weak, it suffers world history”
“Great men are those who see that the spiritual is stronger than any material force”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Along with these two UU icons, several Sundays ago we here at UUFEC delved into “spirituality” too. Remember?
In a time when spirituality often seems so nebulous, even artificial, who would associate the Emirate of Dubai or pop singer Beyonce with such a high minded concept? For that matter, what did you see on our media regarding the United Nations initiative World Humanitarian Day (WHD)? August 19th. A day set aside to honor humanitarian workers of every stripe and culture, risking their lives helping people escape the perils of calamity, conflict and hunger. Anyone hear Beyonce singing, “I Was Here” as part of the WHD celebration - reaching out to one billion people, on one day, with one message?
Talk about your spiritual “Happenings”. And it worked!!
Using the technical and online connections of people and organizations who supplied the WHD website, the U.N. estimated a total social outreach of the message to 1,132,204,110 people. And counting. So enjoy a little social soaring of your own. Check it out at www.whd-iwashere.org
What a beautifully spiritual reminder that every teeny, tiny bit we do adds to our own humanity. Whether it’s sharing the plate on Sundays, mentoring or volunteering. Even something silly as my new bumper sticker from No Labels that reads, “Stop Fighting. Start Fixing” It’s like throwing many seeds into the air just as nature does. It’s like Santayana’s butterfly in South America flapping its wings and causing a dust storm in Texas. So go enjoy the beautiful winging of Beyonce, so you too can say, “I Was Here”!
“The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – uncertainty, progress, change – into crimes”
“If God wants us to do a thing, he should make his wishes sufficiently clear. Sensible people will wait till he has done this before paying much attention to him.” Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
So is progress, maybe even survival, really doubtful? A recent TV exchange between two giants of journalism ( Bill Moyers and Chris Hedges) was e-mailed to some of you.. In his inimitable style, Hedges outlined in hugely pessimistic terms his doubts regarding human survival. When Moyers then asked why he continued as such an activist and agitator for change, even fathering four children? His reply was revealing. “Because I must”, was his almost sheepish answer. Then Moyers, somewhat hesitantly, inquired what was his guest’s religion was? “I am a doubter” Hedges responded.
It would indeed be difficult, gazing out on today’s world, not to join Hedges in his great doubts. With the movie “Bowling for Columbine” now ten years old, film maker Michael Moore also expressed deep doubts and shame following the Aurora theater massacre. My own little book on human foibles, “Hope’s Fool”, is now twelve years old. I might have written it yesterday. The Isaac Asimov film, “Humanism-Making Bigger Circles”, describing societal friction in the Eighties is now thirty years out of the can. It could have been filmed last week!
Here at a hypothetical table we still have an atheist at one end pounding his fist, declaring “There is no god!” – while an evangelical at the other end yells back,”There is! And I talked to him this morning”. Aren’t there bigger fish to fry than the usual theological variety? Here, with Homo Sapien out on an evolutionary limb, sawing away!
Oh, to have been in Zucotti Park, along with many other UU’s at similar Occupations throughout the country. In my mind’s eye, I can easily visualize the man who threw the money changers out of the temple, squatting there by my side.
Of course it’s eminently sensible to harbor grave doubts about our future. Just so long as they aren’t shackled to our old nemesis - Fear. Throughout history, preacher, profiteer, pontiff and politician have played fear and anger like a fiddle. And on we dance. Today even the old biblical adage, “By their deeds ye shall know them”, can be doubtful in an age of spin, PR and digital shell games. Just the same, free thinkers throughout the ages have encouraged us to doubt. Because like Hedges, we must! Peek behind the curtain. Perhaps even pull it down, at long last…