Three Hundred and One

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:

“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”

The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).

“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”

Sermon: “Three hundred and One”

On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.

I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.

But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”

In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.

This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.

Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.

Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)

But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)

And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.

I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.

So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.

For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.

Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.

In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.

When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)

As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?

First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.

We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.

First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.

Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.

Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.

In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.

When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.

Notes

(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, religionnews.com/2022/11/27/who-is-trump-and-kanyes-dinner-companion-nick-fuentes/ accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.

The Silicon Valley Teen Suicides

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

You may have seen the article in the December issue of The Atlantic magazines titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” (1) It was reasonably well-written, but no one article can convey the true complexity of life as it experienced by teenagers here in Silicon Valley. Nor will I be able to convey that complexity in this sermon. But because I am a minister here in Silicon Valley who spends a significant part of my time with teens and their parents, I thought I would offer you my own perspective on Silicon Valley teenagers.

Please note that in order to protect confidentiality, I will NOT talk about any specific individual or family in this sermon. Instead, I’m going re-tell an old, old religious story about a famous religious figure. I’m going to disguise this old, old story by giving it all the trappings of Silicon Valley today. And even though I’m going to have to stretch the details of this old, old story a little, it is a story that can help us gain some insight into what it means to grow up in Silicon Valley today.

The story begins with the birth of a boy named Sid. Sid’s parents were very influential — let’s just say that they were very high up in government — and they were also quite well-to-do. Sid’s mother decided to give birth outdoors in the garden, so her personal assistant arranged everything, and her personal medical staff attended her during the birth.

Sid’s father did not attend the birth, because he was tied up with very important meetings. It was a day or so before he had time to see his wife and the new baby.

“What a good-looking baby,” he said.

“And talented,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he tried to walk almost immediately upon being born,” she said. “And….”

“And what?” he said.

“Let’s just say that we have an exceptional child on our hands,” she said. “We need to start researching preschools that can handle gifted and talented children. This boy is destined for Stanford.” This was the college Sid’s mother had attended.

“Or Harvard,” said the father, who was a proud graduate of that institution.

“But not Berkeley,” said his mother.

The baby’s father then called in various experts to assess the child, who all agreed this was an exceptional baby. The coordinating consultant delivered the final assessment: “In addition to great intelligence, this little boy has exceptional leadership potential,” she said. “I’d say he has the potential to rise to the highest ranks of world political leadership.”

“Great!” said his father. “Fabulous!” said his mother.

“Or he could wind up going into religious leadership,” said the consultant.

“Religion?” said the father. “That’s hardly practical.”

“Forget religion,” said the mother. “He needs to be totally focused on his career goals, starting now.”

Little Sid exceeded even his parents’ highest expectations. He was a total success at preschool, in elementary school, and in middle school. With no apparent effort, he got straight A pluses. When he took the SATs, he got 800s. His sports and extracurricular accomplishments were equally impressive. And the family psychiatrists carefully controlled Sid’s anxiety disorder and clinical depression with appropriate medications.

Being mindful of the predictions of the experts, his parents kept him carefully protected from religion; and from knowledge of poverty, serious illness, death, or anything that might cause him to ask religious-type questions. “Religion just gets in the way of making a living,” said his mother. “Let’s keep him focused on STEM learning,” said his father.

Sid was admitted to Stanford at age 16. His father bought him a house near campus, mostly so his personal assistant would have an office. Soon Sid met a beautiful girl, whose parents were also high up in government, and (with a little behind-the-scenes urging from both sets of parents) even though they were only 18, the young couple got married. It was a storybook wedding in Memorial Church, a dream wedding in Silicon Valley, two motivated, attractive, talented young people in the fast lane to brilliant success.

By the time they were 19, Sid’s wife was pregnant. Being even more brilliant than Sid, she quickly finished all her course work at Stanford and made a start on her graduate study. A Nobel prize winner, with whom she had already co-authored two significant papers, had already asked her to work in his lab. She told Sid, “I’m going to enjoy the baby for six months, then I’ll lean in and finish my Ph.D.”

After the baby was born, Sid felt at loose ends. His wife was completely occupied with the baby. Somehow, he felt dissatisfied with life. He started having panic attacks again. He turned to Channa, his personal assistant, and said, “Let’s go for a drive.”

They got into Sid’s customized Tesla, and drove around the streets of Palo Alto. Suddenly, Sid noticed there were these poorly dressed men and women walking along the streets of Palo Alto. “Geez,” said Sid. “Why don’t those people get some decent clothes?”

“They’re homeless,” said Channa. “They can’t afford to.”

Sid was shocked. He never knew that people could be homeless. Questions began to rise up in his brain, but he didn’t know how to answer them.

Then in the next block, Sid and Channa saw an ambulance parked on the street. The EMTs were giving CPR to someone lying on the sidewalk.

“What’s going on?” said Sid.

They saw the EMTs stop the CPR and pull a sheet over the body. “Well,” said Channa, “it looks like someone just died.”

“Died?” said Sid. Intellectually, he knew what death was, but he had never seen someone dead before. “They died? Channa, I need to ask someone some questions about death. And maybe about homelessness. Where can I go?”

“Turn in here,” said Channa. They turned into a parking lot. “Let’s go find the minister,” said Channa. They found the minister sitting in her office. She invited Sid and Channa to sit down, and asked what was on their minds. Sid told her what he had seen: a homeless person, a dying person. He told her about the birth of his baby. He told her about his questions. She sat there and listened calmly, then after sitting in silence she said, “Those are difficult questions. You will need to find your own answers.”

Sid went home. His mind and soul were in complete turmoil. What was the point of his studies, if people were going to suffer and die? How could that minister be so calm in the face of so much that was wrong with the world? How could he answer all the questions that tumbled through his head?

“I’ve got to find answers to all these questions,” Sid thought to himself. “If I stay here, my wife will tell me to ‘lean in.’ My mother and father will tell me to focus on my career. But I need to know why there are people who have to suffer by living on the street. I need to know why people die. I need to understand better what it means to be human.”

Sid decided the only way he could answer his questions was to leave his comfortable life and wander the world as a homeless person. He looked in the bedroom, where his wife and baby were lying asleep. He reached out to pick up his baby and kiss him goodbye. But then he thought, “If I lift my wife’s hand to take my son, she will awake; and that will prevent my going away. I will come back and see him when I have become a Buddha.” And he left. (2)

So now you know that Sid is actually Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha. In the original story, Siddhartha was the son of a king, but after seeing illness, death, old age, and a monk, he abandoned the royal life to become a wandering religious mendicant. I just changed a few details and transplanted this old, old story to Silicon Valley.

I tell this story because Siddhartha reminds me of some kids who live today in Silicon Valley. Siddhartha is a LOT wealthier than most Silicon Valley kids; his family was in the top one-tenth of a percent, while most families in our area are not all that wealthy, and where there are plenty of families who are just scraping by. (3) But the high expectations, that reminds me of Silicon Valley culture. The parental drive to make their child succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way the child internalizes the drive to succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way work or vocation is more important than family, that reminds me of Silicon Valley.

This brings me to a conversation I had with an adult in our congregation, who gave me permission to mention their remarks in this sermon. When this adult from our congregation was in high school a number of years ago in another part of the United States, there was a cluster of suicides in that high school. At first glance, the young people who committed suicide appeared popular and successful. But, says this adult, what connected those young people who committed suicide in that other time and place was their misery.

Misery is powerful emotion that acts to overwhelm other emotions. When someone falls into the depths of misery, it is hard to feel pleasure, pain, happiness, or hope. Misery is an unpleasant feeling, and when someone is in the depths of misery, they really want to get out of it.

When I listen to the story of Siddhartha, and we get to the part just before he left his family to become a wandering mendicant, I imagine that Siddhartha must have felt misery. Where did that misery come from? I imagine that for Siddhartha, his misery stemmed in large part from the fact that he was valued, not for who he was now, but for who he would someday be.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are young people growing up like Siddhartha, kids who are being carefully groomed to lead lives of power and privilege. We expect these young people to get good grades and do as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they can attend a prestigious university and get a job that will provide them with a great deal of money an influence. We require them to complete a great many community service hours, but we don’t really want them to reflect too deeply on homelessness or illness or death, or what those things mean to them. Our culture does not allow young people the time to find out for themselves who they really are.

If we never let young people think and do for themselves — if we program their every waking hour, just as Siddhartha was programmed — how can they make sense out of homelessness and death? How can they make sense out of global climate change, toxics in the environment, and a war in Afghanistan that has been going on for as long as they can remember? In his reflection, Mike Abraham said: “It can very well feel to [teenagers] like there are few real options when overwhelmed, since they haven’t had the opportunity to learn through small steps how to cope with life.”

The dominant culture tells young people: Get into a prestigious university, so you can get a good job and make lots of money. When we tell teenagers that their main purpose is to be successful sometime in the future, we are telling them that their only value lies in success. We are telling teenagers that human beings are not ends in and of themselves, but rather that humans are merely means to an end.

Notice that I’m not blaming parents of teenagers. Notice that I was very careful to say: “The dominant culture tells young people….” The parents I know love their children very much, and are doing they best they can. But in the face of such relentless pressure from the dominant culture, both parents and teenagers need support as they try to stay centered on love and human value.

I would like to suggest to you that one place parents and teenagers can get that support is in a religious community like ours. Religion is often denigrated in Silicon Valley, perhaps because religions like ours treat persons as ends in themselves, not means to an end. This is in fact a central value of Unitarian Universalism. Historically, the Universalists rejected the concept of hell because eternal damnation implies that some human beings have no value and can be discarded to be eternally tortured and punished. Universalism has changed and evolved over the years, and now we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; we have changed the wording, but the value itself remains constant: we treat persons as ends in themselves, not as something to be discarded, not as means to some other end.

Because our religious community affirms that persons as ends in themselves, we are a powerful antidote to the cultural norm that treats teenagers as less than human. Our teenagers do more than feed the homeless in order to get community service hours; that would be treating homeless persons simply as means to an end. Our teenagers cook and serve dinner to people who happen to be homeless, and then sit down and talk with any of the guests who want to socialize; they treat the guests as guests, as fully human. When we treat other persons as ends in themselves, we learn and re-learn that we too are not mere means to an end, but rather we are fully human.

And our teenagers do more than receive services from this religious community. We want our teenagers to be full participants in our religious community. Depending on their interests and skills, our teenagers might teach Sunday school alongside adults, or participate in social justice projects, or serve as worship associates. We have teens who are full participating members on both the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, our two most important committees. Our teenagers may, if they wish to do so, sign the membership book, which means they can both vote in congregational meetings and make a financial pledge to the congregation. And, as is true of many adults, many teens simply show up, and make a contribution simply by being here. Our religious community does not wait for young people to become something sometime in the future; we consider them to be fully human now, fully able to contribute to and benefit from our community.

The ancient sage and prophet Jesus of Nazareth affirmed that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Do that, and you will live,” he is reported to have said. (4) I am not so idealistic as to believe we can somehow stop all suicides, but I believe we can at least get our suicide rate down to the national average. We can do this by committing ourselves to loving, and be loved by others. When we place the highest value on loving others as we love ourselves, then success will come, not with academic success, not with success in the future, but with sharing our common humanity together in community. Whether you are over the age of 18, or under that age, we can treat each other as worthy of love for who we are, worthy of love right now, worthy of love simply because we are human.

Notes:
(1) Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves in Palo Alto?” The Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 5, December, 2015, pp. 62-73.
(2) My source for Buddha’s early life is Jataka-nidana: The Story of Gotama Buddha, trans. from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
(3) It should be noted that not everyone in Silicon Valley is wealthy or even well-off. “The percentage of students that participate in the Federal free and reduced lunch program is 8.8%,” according to the “Palo Alto High School 2014-2015 School Profile” (http://paly.net/sites/default/files/PalyProfile%26GradingKey1415_2014-10-16.pdf accessed 24 Dec. 2105 11:59 UTC). And for more on the effect of inequality on the lives of teenagers, see Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
(4) Luke 10.27-28.

Neuroscience and Liberal Religion

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

Reading — This morning’s reading comes Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, issue number 32:

The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain:

The armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.

Sermon — “Neuroscience and Liberal Religion”

In his reflection, Roy King talked about the wonders of science, and mentioned the Higgs Boson. Well, one Sunday morning the Higgs Boson walked into a Catholic mass. The service is about to start, and the Higgs boson shouts “Stop!” The priest turns to look at him, and says, “Why should I stop?” The Higgs boson says, “Because you can’t have mass without me.” (1)

But seriously:

We religious liberals like to talk about the wonders revealed by science. We find religious inspiration in what science reveals to us about the world. It may be less than correct to call the Higgs boson the “God particle,” as some journalists have taken to doing; nevertheless, what I have read about the discovery of the Higgs boson fills me with awe and wonder.

The wonder of science arises from observations of the world around us to which we apply our reasoning abilities in community with others. This combination of reason applied to shared observation reveals a wondrous world that can delight and astonish us. And this combination of observation and reason can be applied to the problems of living: we develop drugs to fight disease, we breed new varieties of crops to alleviate food shortages and hunger, we apply materials science and physics to develop photovoltaic panels. It can feel as though we should rely exclusively on reason as we determine how to live our lives.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been particularly aware of the wonders of a specific branch of science — the wonder that results from contemplating the recent advances in “brain science,” a loose term which roughly encompasses neuroscience, cognitive science, and portions of allied disciplines such as developmental psychology. If you’re like me, you are accustomed to thinking that you know pretty well how your mind works. For example, we all know perfectly well that if we want to carry out some action, first we decide what we’re going to do, and then we do it: I decide that I’m going to take a bite out of a bagel, and after I make that decision, I reach down and pick up the bagel to take a bit. That’s generally how we think our minds think: first we decide to do something, then we do it.

But this is not the way our brains work much of the time. The neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it this way: “Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you.” (2)

Another neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, did research in the 1970s on people who had had the neurons between the left and right brain hemispheres severed. In one experiment, researchers showed a different scene to each of the eyes of one of these people: the eye controlled by one hemisphere saw a snow scene, while the eye controlled by the other hemisphere saw a chicken. The researchers then asked the person to asked to choose another image that was related to the image they had just seen. When the eye controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain had seen the snow scene, the hand controlled by that same hemisphere chose as its related image a shovel — to shovel the snow, obviously. But the centers of speech and logic are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, which meant that when the asked the person to say why s/he had chosen the shovel, the left hemisphere was unable to respond (because the neural connections between the two hemispheres had been severed). So the person said they had chosen the shovel in order to shovel — the chicken manure. (3)

Our brains are extremely adept at coming up with reasons for our actions after the fact. You step on the brake pedal and you avoid hitting that red Toyota that’s backing out of the driveway in front of you; your brain makes up a story that you decided to step on the brake, but in reality your foot was stepping on the brake before you made a conscious decision to do so. Reason is a product of the conscious mind, and consciousness is a small part of our brain’s activity. Powerful though reason may be, we are not entirely reasonable beings.

Yet for us religious liberals, reason sometimes serves as a central tenet of our religious life. We have not affirmed traditional conceptions of a Christian God in the eighteenth century, when the Unitarians declared that Jesus was not God, and when the Universalists declared that God would not send anyone to hell. Today, half of all Unitarian Universalists call themselves humanists or atheists, and say that there is no deity, or deities, at all. The absence of God in our shared religious life appears to have left a kind of God-shaped hole, and I have seen people try to fill that God-shaped hole with reason. I don’t mean to imply that we try to turn reason into a god, but we do ascribe powers to reason that are not confirmed by science. We have developed a myth that would have us believe in supernatural powers of reason.

Here is one version of the myth of reason:

Some hundreds of thousands of years ago, hominids began to evolve brains that could reason. These hominids eventually evolved into the species Homo sapiens, beings who could think and reason. As time went by, humans became more and more reasonable, and we became able to penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As we gradually came into full use of reason, with its help we were able to develop science and technology, and at last we have come to the point where we can solve all problems facing us (that’s supposed to be a punch line, in case you want to laugh). The power of reason gives us the power to order human life so that as many people as possible — and eventually all people — can live out their lives in grace and beauty, and in freedom from want. And as our reason has grown, we have learned to dismiss old, unreasonable myths about the universe. We have evolved beyond the idea that we are not in control of our own destiny: we no longer believe, for instance, we have to sacrifice living beings to propitiate the gods. Some of us would say we have evolved beyond the need for belief in a supernatural being, for our reason shows us that there is no supernatural world.

This is a wonderful myth. This myth sustains much of our social justice work, for we believe that we can consciously reason out ways to reduce human suffering, and that reason will ultimately prevail over the forces of ignorance and stupidity that cause human suffering. And this myth sustains much of our ontological speculation, for we believe that we can consciously reason out the underlying structure of being and existence. But neuroscience and cognitive science have undermined a central belief set forth by this myth, that we can consciously reason our ways through life. We have far less conscious control over our lives than this myth would have us believe.

Since this myth of all-powerful reason is not supported by brain science, I’d like to tell you that brain science has come up with a useful alternative for the practical living of our day-to-day lives. But to the best of my knowledge it has not. Nor should we really expect it to: science is a powerful way of making careful observations, revealing the wonders of the world around us. It has not proven so useful as a way to structure ordinary life.

In particular, I am not aware that brain science has offered much in the way of useful research on organized religion. I have read about a study where scientists studied the brains of Buddhist monks meditating, and Christian nuns praying, and found that there were similarities between the two in terms of the parts of the brains which were activated by meditation in the one, and prayer in the other. (4) Not being a Buddhist monk nor a Christian nun, this is not of much use to me. I’m not part of an insulated group engaged in esoteric practices, I’m part of an ordinary congregation; and the problems I face, and that I see others around me facing, are problems for which brain science seems to offer no real guidance.

Let me give you an example of one such problem, taken from the life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson was perhaps one of the most reasonable of all writers in the English language, a thinker who epitomizes the link in Enlightenment thought between reason and morality. He was also aware of the limits of reason. In this morning’s reading, we heard Johnson tell us that reason can perhaps blunt the miseries and calamities of human life, but reason cannot do away with those miseries and calamities. He did not think that we could end all human suffering through the use of reason. For Johnson had directly experienced the limits of his own reason at least twice in his life. In his twenties and again in his fifties, he suffered some kind of breakdown. After each of these breakdowns, both he and his close friends felt that there had been times when he could be called “mad,” what we today would call mentally ill.

Arthur Murphy, in a brief biography, described one time when Johnson felt he was losing his reason: “In 1766 [Johnson’s] constitution seemed to be in a rapid decline, and that morbid melancholy, which often clouded his understanding, came upon him with a deeper gloom than ever. [His good friends] Mr. and Mrs. Thrale paid him a visit in this situation, and found him on his knees, with Dr. Delap, the rector of Lewes, in Sussex, beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” (5)

Mr. and Mrs. Thrale were deeply affected by this scene. Mrs. Thrale later wrote: “I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut [Johnson’s] mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe, and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal.” (6) The Thrales immediately took Johnson to their country home, where they nursed him back to some semblance of health over the next three months.

Johnson was not able to reason his way out of his state of mind. Nor does brain science tell us what Johnson should have done for himself. But what Johnson did to recover from his breakdown is supported by brain science; and for those of us looking for practical guidance in how to live our own ordinary lives, it’s worth hearing what Johnson did:

First, for all his genius and power of reason, Johnson realized that he did not have as much conscious control over himself as he would have liked to have had. Therefore, he realized that he had to rely on other people. When Mr. and Mrs. Thrale found him having a breakdown, he was able to let them take him to their country house and nurse him back to health.

Nothing about a willingness to rely on others contradicts the insights of brain science. Once we realize that our conscious minds aren’t in as much control as we’d like to think, it would be logical and practical to rely on the help and insights of those around us. Indeed, the field of cognitive science, particularly as applied to education, has shown that thinking and learning sometimes takes place, not within our individual brains, but in a shared social setting: that is, cognition may be distributed among several persons, rather than limited to the insides of one person’s brain. Thus it makes complete sense to get in the habit of relying on other people in our day-to-day lives. This is, in fact, one of the primary functions of a religious congregation like ours: to get us in the habit of relying on others.

Second point: As we heard in this morning’s reading, Johnson said in the face of life’s miseries and calamities, reason is of limited usefulness. And in the passage immediately following this morning’s reading, he went on to say what does help at times of misery and calamity: “The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects.” (7)

Think about Johnson’s breakdown, and the way Mr. and Mrs. Thrale took him off to the country for three months to recover. I’m sure Johnson could have found better things to do with those the three months than to be nursed back to health. But he had cultivated the habit of patience, and for those three months he was able to put aside his eagerness to work on his writing, and take the time to recover his mental health.

We don’t place much value on patience in twenty-first century America. But think of patience as a habit of mind that can be cultivated to get us through those times when reason isn’t going to help. It’s like the habits you form when you learn how to drive: you don’t have time to think about stepping on the brake when you see that red Toyota backing out in front of you, you just do it. In a similar way, we can cultivate the habit of patience.

Third, and finally, Johnson used religion as a mental discipline that helped him to reflect on himself, his morals, his failings, his strengths, his place in society and his effect on others. His written prayers often reveal great depths of personal insight into his character; and he went to Sunday services for much the same purpose: to engage in reflection and introspection.

From a practical standpoint, organized religion helps develop habits that not only give us insight into our emotions and motivations, and allow us to set up patterns in our lives to change our behavior for the better. Some brain scientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (8) Johnson coupled his habit of deep personal introspection with reflection on the highest moral values. Thus when he prayed or went to Sunday services, his neurons were wired to do some introspection and reflection; he was automatically drawn into remembering his highest values.

So we have seen that brain science is helping us religious liberals understand the limits of reason. We don’t have as much conscious control over life as we’d maybe like to think, and we may have to rethink liberal religion’s strong insistence of self-reliance. And as it turns out, maybe we should be looking at another aspect of liberal religion. We can find great value, not just in the speculative hyper-rational side of liberal religion, but also in the power of common religious habits that help us structure our lives so that we can get through the problems that face us in ordinary living. After all, that’s why we come here each Sunday morning: to renew the habits that help us get through another week of ordinary life.

Notes:

(1) Original joke appears to have been written by science comedian Brian Malow; see e.g. this 2009 video of Malow speaking in Berkeley, California.
(2) Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon, 2011.
(3) Information about Gazzaniga research taken from a lecture by David Hogue.
(4) See, e.g., this Reuters interview of neurologist Andrew Newberg.
(5) Arthur Murphy, “An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” c. 1792. In Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1835.
(6) Hester [Thrale] Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, 1786.
(7) Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 32.
(8) Phrase based on a theory developed by Donald Hebb in 1949. Neurobiologist Carla Schatz appears to have popularized this form of Hebb’s theory.

For background information about Samuel Johnson’s life, I also consulted Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1977) by W. Jackson Bate, and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791).