Tag Archives: humanism

Discussion starter

“God Talk Checklist,” which you’ll find below, is something I came up with for our Coming of Age group. The youth who are participating in the Coming of Age program will be writing a statement of religious identity to present during a worship service in the spring. So how do you get someone to come up with a statement of religious identity? Well, in our society, many people equate God and religion, so one good place to start figuring out your religious identity is to think about where you stand on the God question. That’s what the checklist is designed to do — get you thinking with some degree of precision about where you stand on the God question.

Because the youth and adults who were present tonight found this to be a useful tool for starting a conversation about the God question, so I thought I’d share it here. Remember that it’s designed to be used in a group setting, where you fill it out and share your responses with other people. The checklist starts below the jump.

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Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons. Continue reading

Unsystematic liberal theology: God

Fourth in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Religious liberals perceive themselves as being profoundly ambivalent about God. There are the death-of-God people, there are the humanists, there are the moral atheists, there are the traditionalist theists, there are those who tell the local clergyperson, “I’ll believe whatever I want to believe.”

While most religious liberals believe that they can never agree on questions concerning God, in fact we religious liberals all share several basic beliefs about God:

— We all share a belief in heterodoxy, that is, that our opinions about God will differ. Some of the more theologically sophisticated among us are aware of the wide variety of definitions of god/divinity among those who are more orthodox within their faith traditions; proving or disproving one conception of god/divinity does not prove or disprove other concepts of god/divinity (e.g., disproving Karl Barth’s God does not disprove the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna); thus a firm belief in heterodoxy seems the only sane response to the bewildering variety of of proofs and disproofs and beliefs and disbeliefs in gods, goddesses, and other divinities.

— We all share a belief that regardless of whether or not god/divinity exists, we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We do not believe it is acceptable to say, “It is God’s will that your baby died”; we know it’s the drunk driver’s fault, or the fault of the drug-resistant staph infection that we are unable to cure, or the fault of a random accident. A theological term for this is the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; that is to say, whether or not you happen to believe/disbelieve in god/divinity, from a functional perspective we all believe that humankind is ultimately responsible, allowing of course for the possibility of random chance.

— Generally speaking, we are less interested in ontology, and more interested in practical ethics. While we do have energetic ontological arguments, e.g., about the existence or non-existence of God, we are more inclined to work to make the world a better place. Those who are more interested in ontology than practical ethics are not likely to remain religious liberals for long. Thus over time the fundamentalist humanists who insist on an orthodoxy of non-belief in God get frustrated with religious liberalism and drift away to form their own orthodox humanist groups; pagans who insist in absolute belief in goddess/es over time find that they are more comfortable in orthodox pagan groups; etc.

Because we are so committed to heterodoxy, it may seem hard to understand why we religious liberals spend so much time arguing about God, when arguments about God are really appropriate only for the orthodox (who actually want to make other people think and believe just like themselves). However, we have to remember that the surrounding culture is dominated by orthodoxy as a mindset; it is a culture in which it is difficult for heterodoxy to survive at all, let alone thrive. It’s a miracle that we manage to hold on to our heterodoxy at all.

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

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Notes on our theological boundaries

These notes are addressed to my fellow Unitarian Universalists, although they may be of some interest to other liberal religious persons. I’ve been thinking about this question: Where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in? Mind you, these are just notes — which means your thoughts, reactions, and comments will be most welcome. Continue reading

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.

Voice from the past

I’ve been looking through old copies of our church’s newsletter, The Pioneer, dating back into the 1950’s. In June, 1962, Rev. Charles Lyttle, then minister here in Geneva, printed part of an old letter from Rev. R. L. Herbert, who had been minister in Geneva from 1874 to 1880. Rev. Herbert went off to serve in the Denver, Colorado Unitarian church, and in 1881 he wrote this to his former church in Geneva:

“And to all of you in that dear congregation I write again to say: Do your best to banish superstition. Be brave for truth at any cost. Do not bow to any fashionable lie; and chiefly, in thought and life, teach the nobility and excellency of good character. Prove by these fruits that you believe in the best doctrines. Then, every day, winter and summer, you will make to be Flower Sunday and this earthly life heavenly!”

[If you’re a UU history nut like me, it’s clear that Rev. Herbert was moving into humanist beliefs even at this early date. Herbert was the one who got our congregation to substitute the phrase “practical goodness” in our covenant, in place of the original “practical Godliness.”]