Monthly Archives: May 2005

Respecting the Koran?

The International Herald Tribune for June 1 carries a fascinating opinion piece by Aijaz Zaka Syed, titled “The West’s Contempt for Religion.” Link (And no, I’m not creating a link to something printed tomorrow, it’s already tomorrow in Parish where the Herald-Trib is published.)

Syed contends that the West has developed a general contempt for religion due to the excesses of Western Christianity:

The church’s excessive control over its flock during the oppressive centuries leading up to the European Renaissance (remember the Spanish Inquisition? Or how the church persecuted Galileo Galilei for his scientific beliefs?) and its unreasonable opposition to all scientific inquiry and quest for knowledge generated a popular backlash. As a result, much of Western society banished the church forever from its life and day-to-day existence. More important, this hopeless conflict left a deep distrust and contempt for all religions in the Western mind that remains far from shaken.

Because of that contempt, Syed says that religion in the West has become something that is restricted to the individual, or at most to within the four walls of a church.

I’d like to think that I can understand religion as a matter of personal experience and conviction (in fact, that’s part of my religious system), yet it can still be something I take very seriously, and not treat with contempt. Yet Syed has a good point — Westerners do have a tendency to either condemn religion, or slide into fundamentalism. It would be nice to find a middle ground of respect.

In the mean time, Syed ends by saying:

Whatever Washington’s explanation [for the Koran desecration incident], this is certainly no way to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds. If this is what President George W. Bush had in mind when he promised ‘human liberty and democracy’ to the people in Muslim lands, the Islamic world would be better off without America’s gifts. Thanks but no thanks.

Nor will Americans win any global friends by taking the condescending attitude that all religions are bosh, and worthy only of contempt. Sorry, my anti-religious friends, but an American superiority complex can take many forms.

Ending the church year — or not

The end of the church year is coming up, and we’re all getting ready for summer, when things slow down. But I wish our liberal churches never slowed down, and I also I predict that within a few years, the most successful Unitarian Universalist churches will no longer take a break in summer.

In fact, I believe worship attendance patterns are already changing, and we ignore this change at our peril. This past weekend was Memorial Day weekend. On Memorial Day weekend last year less than a hundred people showed up, so even though this year we’ve been averaging well over 200 men, women, and children at church each weekend, we expected a light turnout for Memorial Day.

Our expectations were wrong. In spite of the beautiful sunny weather, we totaled over 160 people at worship, including the usual half a dozen newcomers visiting us for the first time. Fortunately, even though we didn’t expect that many people, we were prepared just in case that many people did show up. The senior minister was preaching, and we had a full church school program ready. I’ll bet this church may pick up two or three of the newcomers who visited this weekend, just because we were prepared.

It’s also clear that it’s especially important to have regular worship services, with your regular ministers(s), beginning in mid-August. Why? Because that’s when newcomers are most likely to check out your church, and they need to see what your worship services and church school will be like the rest of the year. If there’s no place for children to go (except child care), and if the worship service features well-meaning but inexperienced worship leaders, the huge number of newcomers that comes in August will never return. In fact, there is no longer a “slow time” — churches have to be at their best all year round.

I now believe that one of the forces that’s holding back liberal religion is our habit of closing down in the summer time. Not to be too cynical, but if church is so unimportant that you don’t need it in the summer or on holidays, why bother coming the rest of the year?

I want to be a part of a congregation that believes every week of the year is important. (And even if I can’t make it to worship, I’m not so selfish as to think that church schould shut down, just because I’m not there!)

What about you?

Chicago, 5.26.05

s soon as I got out the door of Northwestern Station, I heard an alto sax. A strange riff repeated four times followed each time by a quieter passage; then a slightly different riff a fifth above the first, repeated twice. Back to the first riff. Some of the echoes from the buildings around us made the riffs sound slightly out of phase with themselves, sounding a little sad, ironic, jerky, strange. The man playing it was wearing a navy blue pea coat and a tam that looked like a beret. Half a block after passing him, I finally realized he was playing a bebop version of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

I noticed the smile first: a private smile, unusual for walking the streets of the Loop during the evening rush hour. She was carrying a bunch of flowers wrapped in a cone of plastic film, and a small balloon. Blue blazer, about thirty. A good-bye party? A promotion?

Near the Art Institute, a young white woman unconsciously averted her eyes as she passed nine black women walking together. Two different cultures. The white woman walked quickly, dressed in conservative chinos and wearing no makeup, alone and self-contained. The black women walked slowly, dressed in going-out-to-dinner clothes, trading jokes and loud conversation.

Veterans with their American Legion caps accepting donations for veteran’s hospitals outside Union Station. They looked out of place among the hurrying throngs of well-dressed mostly young or middle-aged people streaming towards the station. Neither I nor anyone else seemed to stop for them.


Uh oh, here comes my evil alter ego, Mr. Crankypants. I better get away from the computer before he pushes me awa– ow! — I’m going already….

Heaven help us all, Mr. Crankypants made the mistake of getting stuck in bad traffic yesterday. Given all the crazies and their road rage these days, Mr. Crankypants no longer makes silly faces at drivers who do stupid things like slowing down for green lights or making left turns from the right hand lane of a four lane highway.

Mr. Crankypants was stuck at the railroad crossing on Route 38 east of Geneva, while a long slow train headed east — and just as it got clear of the crossing, another long slow train headed west. (At times, Mr. Crankypants almost feels jealous of my stupid alter ego, Dan, who gets to walk to work.) With nothing else to do for 15 minutes, Mr. Crankypants sat in his car and unwillingly had to read the slogans people stick on the backs of their cars and SUVs.

Most bumperstickers are boring. The ribbons are worse. The fish are the worst. Little cutesy child-like drawings of fish — plain fish, fish containing the word “Jesus,” fish with a little Latin cross, and fish with “Ichthos” in Greek letters pretending to have a classical education.

When the railroad crossing gates finally went up and rush hour traffic slowly moved eastward, Mr. Crankypants kept noticing the car fish on the backs of cars and SUVs. The way-too-cute fish with little itsy-bitsy legs that says “Darwin.” How coy. The vicious “Truth” fish swallowing the “Darwin” fish. How Christianly non-violent. The swarm of smaller fish ganging up on the “Jesus” fish. How bizarre. From there we headed out into da-da land, with a dead fish, a blue fish, and one fish that said “Sushi.”

Reporter Carol Kaesuk Yoon, in the article “Unexpected Evolution of a Fish Out of Water” [no link, story removed from Times Web site] from the February 11, 2003, New York Times, tells us whom we can blame for the proliferation of fish: Chris Gilman, president of a costume company in Hollywood. More than 20 years ago, after first seeing those Jesus fish, Gilman came up with the idea of the Darwin fish. Our voices heavy with sarcasm, let us all say “thank you!” to Mr. Gilman.

“Jesus” fish were never funny, hip, or cool, they were always just sad. “Darwin” fish and their evil spawn may have been funny, hip, and cool 20 years ago, but their day has come and gone. Today their only function is to annoy people who are so easy to annoy that it’s like — it’s like — it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

While he continued to be stuck in rush hour traffic yesterday, Mr. Crankypants fantasized about getting a bumpersticker made for his car that would read, “Please do not tease the Jesus freaks — Control your car fish.” It was a sad and lonely fantasy, but it kept Mr. Crankypants from swearing too much at the traffic. As of today, Mr. Crankypants started listening to audio books. Now his commute is much more pleasant, and he doesn’t notice car fish at all. Life is better that way.

Dissent within the non-profit

What’s the role of dissent within a non-profit organization? Here’s Peter Drucker’s answer, from his book Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Principles and Practices (Drucker includes churches as non-profit organizations):

…Important decisions are risky. They should be controversial. Acclamation means that nobody has done the homework.

Because it is essential in an effective discussion to understand what it is really about, there has to be dissent and disagreement. If you make a decision by acclamation, it is almost bound to be made on the apparent symptoms rather than on the real issue. You need dissent; but you have to make it productive.

About seventy years ago, an American political scientist, Mary Parker Follet, said that when you have dissent in an organization, you should never ask who is right. You should not even ask what is right. You must assume that each faction gives the right answer, but to a different question. Each sees a different reality.

Personally, I have found dissent to be a source of energy and inspiration in my work in UU congregations. Dissent may not be comfortable (especially when the people who dissent from me turn out to be right, as is often the case) — but a congregation without dissent would be dead.

Snarky evolutionist

Scientist and populizer of evolutionary theory Richard Dawkins has a delightfully snarky take on “intelligent design” in the London Times for May 21, 2005.

If you’re looking for a way to refute your creationist friends, Dawkins points out a common logical fallacy used by creationists:

If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: “Right, then, the alternative theory; ‘intelligent design’ wins by default.” Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right.


ll week I’ve been hearing Nighthawks calling as they fly over downtown Geneva. Loud, too. Sometimes their nasal “peent, peent” call sounded so loud they must have been just a dozen feet over my head. But somehow I never saw one.

Then last night, Carol and I went walking down toward the river at about seven o’clock. By the time we got to Second Street, I could hear that “peent, peent” overhead, but I still couldn’t see them. Carol was patient with me, even though I stopped every fifty feet or so — “That one was really loud! But I still can’t see it.”

She was patient with me, that is, until we got onto the State Street bridge, and I walked into her because I was looking up at the Nighthawks. “That hurt,” she said. I apologized, and then looked up again. Now I could see them everywhere.

Swarms of insects were rising up from the river — maybe Mayflies doing their mating flight, but I don’t know much about insects — thousands of insects, anyway. Hundreds of Chimney Swifts were flying over the river, chittering and flitting to and fro, feeding on the insects. And there were Nighthawks among the swifts, twenty or more of them, with their wings crooked back, fluttering back and forth, up and down the river, chasing insects and calling out “peent, peent!” No, more than twenty of them. Lots of Nighthawks.

Don’t ask my why I got so excited about Nighthawks last night. Maybe because of the flittery way they fly. Maybe because they only come out at dusk, or because they’re close relatives of Whipoorwills. Or maybe because they are one of the last migrants to come north, a sign that spring is coming to an end.

The sun set amid white and gold clouds. An hour later, the moon rose in the cool evening air, orange and huge on the horizon. Summer’s almost here.

Issac Asimov, humanist

Isaac Asimov, best known as a science fiction and science fact writer, was also president of the American Humanist Association up until he died in 1992. A re-issued biography, Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction by Michael White (1994/2005, Carroll & Graf), gives us a glimpse into the religious life of this prominent humanist.

Asimov was born into a non-practicing Jewish family, and had almost no experience with organized religion as he was growing up. Yet he recognized the deep human need for some kind of religion, and had his own attachment to religious community as an adult: an Ethical Culture leader officiated at his second marriage (to Janet Jeppson, a psychiatrist and science fiction fan); and when he died, his memorial service took place at an Ethical Cultural Center (presumably at the New York Center for Ethical Culture, which is located across Central Park from the Asimovs’ apartment, but alas the book does not tell us this little detail).

Michael White’s biography also points out:

Asimov took humanism very seriously and frequently gave talks about it as well as devoting essays and entire books to the subject….

….Asimov placed education and knowledge at the pinnacle of his beliefs and was strongly of the opinion that the ignorance of those in political power lay at the root of the world’s problems. Like many of his friends and colleagues, he lamented the appalling scientific ignorance of most people. This ignorance was all the more scandalous, he believed, in those who were otherwise highly educated.” [pp. 186-187]

Here Asimov is a lot like us Unitarian Universalists — we, too, believe that education is absolutely crucial, and over the years many Unitarian Universalists have worked to spread education.

Interestingly, Asimov once attended a Unitarian Universalist worship service. The story goes like this: Asimov was on the faculty of Boston University as an associate professor of biochemistry in 1956, a time when his writing career was really starting to take off. He published a story called “The Last Question,” in which human scientists pose the following question to increasingly more powerful computers: “How can entropy be reversed?” I won’t spoil the story for you, but finally they get an answer that has, shall we say, certain religious overtones.

Machael White writes:

‘The Last Question’ even became the subject of a sermon at the Unitarian church in Bedford, massachusetts. Asimov somehow discovered that one of his stories was to be included in a sermon, and decided to attend. He sat quietly and unobtrusively in the back row, listening attentively. He never related what he thought of the sermon.

One last tidbit from this revised version of this biography. Michael White again:

Isaac Asimov was HIV positive and died from complications associated with AIDS. I was aware of this at the time of the first edition of this book, but chose to honor the wishes of Isaac’s family and friends who did not want me to bring this fact into my account. Isaac contracted the disease after being given infected blood during a surgical procedure, but it was some time before he became aware of his condition and his decline was gradual. However, a few years before his death he learned the nature of his illness and wished to make it known to his public and to bring the matter out into the open. But… he was advised against this because of fears that the news would devalue his apartment in New York….

Highly recommended book for anyone who wants to know more about this prominent humanist.

Happy same-sex-marriage day

In case you had forgotten, today is the first anniversary of legal marriage for gays and lesbians in the United States. We’re still working on getting states other than Massachusetts to do same sex marriage, but now that Connecticut has legalized same sex unions, with basically all the rights of marriage, we’re making progress.

Good article on the topic on the UUA Web site today, at Check out the great picture of Cel and Meg’s marriage at First Parish of Lexington, almost a year ago today. When I served at the Lexington church, Cel was the treasurer for the religious education committee. I always said the coolest people at church wind up on the religious education committee.