Category Archives: Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

Our first experience with Unitarian Universalism

So I said recently that we’d been thinking of visiting a Unitarian Church. Last Sunday morning we went ahead and attended a service of the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that meets on the Upper West Side.

We enjoyed it, and the found the congregation extremely welcoming. The building, which was built as a Universalist Church in the nineteenth century, is also rather more impressive than I’d expected. It also shows its Christian roots rather strongly—for example, there’s an altar with crosses built into it, and a mural of Jesus above it—but no one’s ever pretended that these roots aren’t there, and apparently they even cover these things up on occasion to give a more secular feel.

The service started with a welcome address, followed by the lighting of a chalice, while everyone read out the following:

May the light we now kindle inspire us,
To use our power to heal with love, to help with compassion,
To bless with joy, to serve the spirit of freedom,
In the fullness of community.

I think the tone of that is a fair indication of the tone of the whole “service”, and I believe of the movement in general.

Then there were some secular hymns and some communal meditation (basically communal prayer with the God taken out: an expression of what we hope for and what we are grateful for). There was also a reading—this time from Buddhist philosophy—and a sermon, entitled “Life is Not a Body”. I found the sermon the hardest thing to take. Although the communal meditation felt very like praying, I thought it made more sense than praying. If there’s a benign god who knows everything already and will (presumably) always do what’s right regardless of human intervention, what’s the point of praying to him? Indeed, if there isn’t such a being, believing there is and praying to him may make it less likely that you’ll get what you pray for, because you shift the responsibility of achieving it from your own shoulders (I recommend reading Dan Dennett’s take on this). But if you’re not praying to anyone, then simply expressing communally what matters to you may not be such a bad exercise: it focuses your mind on goals without this encouragement to shift responsibility, which may be useful. And, of course, it’s a bonding exercise. So I had no real problem with that. And although I don’t see much evidence to support many of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, there’s nothing wrong with having readings from a variety of sources every week: at the very least you learn something about other people and cultures.

As I say, it was the sermon I found the hardest to take. The reverend was essentially arguing in favour of a mind-body distinction (and she threw in the word “spirit” a few times). She claimed that, while our childhood bodies are different from our adult bodies, there is something that remains the same. She also invited us to imagine how easy it is to raise our arms, and then to consider how it must feel for people who have lost control over their bodies to the extent that they might want to raise their arms, but can’t: the body is broken, but the mind intact. I wasn’t convinced. Would she draw the same distinction between minds and brains? We are all familiar with brain damage that alters the mind. While this doesn’t decisively contradict the claim that the mind is something other than a brain-secretion (or however you want to visualise it), it shows immediately that the relationship between physical change and mental change is not a very good basis for drawing a strong line between the mental and the physical. Philosophers of embodied cognition would point out that even her example of raising one’s arm is problematic: that the shape of one’s mind is in fact intimately bound up with the shape of one’s body. Nor, incidentally, am I at all convinced that there’s any more “spiritual” or mental continuity between my 10-year-old self and my current self than there is between my body then and my body now.

But then I’ve heard similarly problematic views expressed at Humanist society gatherings (such as rather odd ideas of what discoveries in quantum mechanics mean for science), and it’s not as if there are not very interesting philosophical questions to be asked about the relationship between mind and body. The good thing about Unitarian-Universalism is that this sermon could not be taken as a statement of what the audience should believe, because there’s not much that Unitarian Universalists do expect you to believe. Sure, they have principles, like the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”, or “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” (which are hard to disagree with), and they claim to be working towards the “goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, which is not something I’m going to start campaigning against. And one of those principles is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, drawing partly from “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and results of science”. Which leaves empirical claims entirely open to challenge.

So I think we’ll go again.

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Experiences of Unitarianism?

One of the difficulties of moving to a new place is meeting people. This difficulty is heightened in a large city like New York, and heightened even more if (like my wife) you’re not working. We’re also expecting a baby at the end of September, and we’re well aware that having a baby can lead you to feel yet more isolated.

With this in mind, my wife in particular has been making various efforts recently to meet new people. And one thing she’s suggested is joining a Unitarian Church. She’s pointed out many times before (and I’m inclined to agree) that religious groups offer something that is not inherently religious, but which is hard to find elsewhere: a community of people of all ages and backgrounds, who meet once a week and do things together that encourage cohesion and bonding (choral singing, reciting, rituals etc.). Humanist groups should be able to offer this, but I have to admit that I haven’t found that they do as good a job as one might hope. They tend towards being discussion groups, which doesn’t quite achieve the same goals. This is partly because many Humanists understandably get really put off by anything that looks a bit too religious (I’ve mentioned this before). The problem is that many of these things that aren’t religious but look it really work for a lot of people (including my wife) who don’t want to get them bundled up with things she doesn’t see any reason to believe in. Now, I do hold out hope that Humanism can genuinely offer people the good things of religion with the superstitions and the deities and the fairytales taken out, and that it will one day do this properly. But it would be nice to have an alternative in the short term.

Which is why my wife’s been looking into Unitarian-Universalist churches. A friend of ours has had a good experience with them elsewhere, and I’m also keen to find out what they can offer. As I understand it, modern Unitarian Universalism is more or less Christianity with the God taken out (somewhat like Anglicanism, but more so). It sounds rather like Humanism with more ritual, though also with more readiness to consider that there might be deities and other supernatural entities and so on. My main concern is that this readiness may not translate so much into the good kind of open-mindedness, as into an ill-defined “spirituality” that is annoying and anti-rational. But that may well be pessimistic on my part. I’m sure there will be people like that (I’ve met people like that in Humanist groups, after all), but I think it’s reasonable to hope this won’t be the overwhelming tone.

But what have other people found? I’d love to hear your experiences of Unitarian Universalism, of Humanism (does your group do things others don’t?), or of other communities that offer something similar to what I’m talking about.

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Atheism and agnosticism

When people ask me (as some Jehova’s Witnesses did only a few weeks ago) whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic, I say both. This often surprises people, whether they believe in God or not. I also find that many people interpret atheism to mean a certainty that there is no God, and agnosticism to mean that you can’t make your mind up.

I think this is misleading. Agnosticism is about knowledge and (a)theism is about belief. Maybe some people can’t make their mind up, but I’ve made up my mind that there’s very unlikely to be a God of the sort that religious people promote (although I admit to the occasional sneaking suspicion that capricious deities of the Greek or Norse kind might be a reasonable explanation for the world). This is why I say I’m an atheist. However, I accept that there are things beyond my ken, that all sorts of metaphysical situations are at least possible (maybe we’re all part of a computer game written by some celestial nerd kid in his Mum’s basement). Even Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim absolute certainty. In my experience, it’s the religious who claim that. This is why I call myself an agnostic: to distinguish myself from those who claim absolute knowledge on such matters.

I think most atheists are, strictly speaking, agnostics in the same sense. Religious people don’t always realise this, which is one of the reasons they often think atheism is inherently arrogant. Which is one of the reasons I don’t just drop the “agnostic” as uninformative.

My mother, for the record, describes herself as an agnostic Christian.

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What the Pope might mean

So the Pope said something like this:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a [male?] prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

And people think this is an endorsement of condom use to help stop the spread of HIV. But that just seems a bad interpretation. It seems to me that what he said is rather like saying the following about cheating on your partner:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when your partner has sex with his secretary, where this can be a first step in the direction of an understanding, a first assumption of recognition, on the way toward recovering an awareness that your relationship isn’t working and that you can’t go on like this. But it is not really the way to deal with problems in your relationship. That can really lie only in a humanization of relations.

In other words, all I think he’s saying is that if someone uses a condom, that’s still a bad thing, but sometimes people do bad things for good reasons. But maybe I’m missing something. And no, I don’t really know what that last sentence means either.

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Why all the fuss about Stephen Hawking?

I’m a little confused by all the fuss over Stephen Hawking’s recent claim that there’s no place for God in theories of how the universe originated. First of all, I don’t get why people are treating this like some surprising new claim. They seem to be acting as if God had been the default assumption in physics until Hawking suddenly showed this to be unnecessary. This is obviously nonsense. The ramblings of Dr Lee Rayfield and his kin aside, God hasn’t played anything but a metaphorical role in physics, or science in general, for a very long while.

There are two questions being conflated here. The first is: “How did the universe come about?” In principle, God might help answer this question, but—as Stephen Hawking has pointed out—we don’t need him. Physical laws like gravity seems to do the job of explanation pretty well. Though, as I say above, this isn’t really news.

The second question is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” God never was, and can never be, a good answer to this. All God does is introduce a new entity. Instead of explaining the existence of other things, we now have to explain God. This has been obvious for a very very long time and should not be news to anyone. And answers along the lines of, “God’s outside time” or “God’s eternal” are irrelevant. The same could be said of the universe or any other entity we wanted to invoke, and the question would remain of why there is anything at all, be it God, the universe, or physical laws.

And that brings me to my last point: gravity won’t wash as an explanation either. Physical laws that we already know to exist are better explanations than God for why the universe exists, because they don’t involve introducing anything new. However, they still seem to be in need of explanation themselves. Stephen Hawking is not, in other words, answering the question of why there is something rather than nothing, at least not if “something” is (reasonably) assumed to include such things as physical laws. He is no doubt right that the spontaneous creation of the universe can be explained with reference to such laws as gravity, but this will not explain why there are such laws.

The thing is that there simply cannot be any answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, because anything invoked by the explanation must be a something that is part of the explanandum (that which is to be explained). Why is there something rather than nothing? There just is. Science and religion both fail before this question—not because it can’t be tested, or because the answer is beyond us; they fail because there is no answer to know.

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On choral signing and chanting: should humanism stay well away?

One of the things I like about humanism is that humanists tend to be happy about marking important points in your life, like births, weddings, and deaths, and so on, without feeling you have to get religion involved. I don’t believe, as some apparently do, that the practice of marking these things is simply a hangover from an older religious age, and that we should get out of the habit. I think the truth is that marking certain points in our lives, just as we mark important points in the year, is something a lot of humans are drawn to, for deep biological reasons. It just happens that, for much of human history, this sort of thing happened to be done in a religious context. If you want, you can see Humanism as reclaiming births, weddings and deaths from the clutches of religion.

Of course, you don’t even need humanism for this. All that humanism really provides is a philosophy and a community of people who have experience of doing this sort of thing. You could, I suppose, characterise the movement as the idea that religion has some good ideas (whether originating in religion, or entirely coopted by it) that we don’t need to abandon if we abandon belief in the supernatural. This doesn’t quite cover it (the promotion of reason is pretty central too), but I think it’s probably one of the main differences between humanism and non-humanist atheism.

Now, this is not to say that, to be a humanist, you have to organise a special ceremony for naming your babies, or even get married. You don’t. I don’t know any humanists who think couples have to get married. I do think, however, that a lot of people (probably most) feel a desire to mark these life events in this way, and that Humanism provides a good context to do it in.

This brings me to an important question I’ve been mulling over for a while: what about the other things that religion does that aren’t inherently supernatural or mystical? What about the singing, the coming together once a week and reciting the same thing with lots of other people? Should humanists do this? I’m coming to the view that, while they shouldn’t feel it’s central to humanism, they shouldn’t feel it’s incompatible with it either.

Some humanists I know hate this sort of thing, and feel it’s cultish. Well, that’s fine, and they don’t need to be involved. However, I think that this is precisely the sort of thing that attracts many people to religion: not a belief in magical beings, or the mystery of transubstantiation, or whatever, but a sense of community, and some strange sense of comfort derived from meeting once a week and doing something with lots of other people, probably much like what you did last week. And of belonging to a community that goes out and does things together, often for the good of other people. Why should religion dominate here? Why should religion give this to people, and humanism not?

Now, I’m not alone among humanists in having this view, but some humanists certainly feel some uncertainty about, if not revulsion towards, it (well, maybe not the doing things for the good of other people). These people, however, are not the ones humanists need to attract. This doesn’t have to be for everyone.

So, what do you think? Is this something you like the idea of? What could it involve? Is chanting inherently cultish and weird? What if you just met once a week and vowed in unison to live your life based on reason and compassion, and to try to reduce suffering where you find it? Would that be wrong and dogmatic? Do you feel that any of this is inherently religious and shouldn’t be allowed past the borders of religion?

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Islam is … bullshit

At least that’s the first auto-completion you get on Google now. As you may have heard, for a while “Christianity is” produced all sorts of offensive completions, as did “Hinduism is” and most other religions. Islam was strangely silent, and lots of blogs started crying censorship (some of them, like this one, still are). This seems a very reasonable interpretation. I’m not so sure, however. Three things make me think this was something else:

  • First, “Muhammad is” produced all the expected results, and calling Muhammad names is at least as bad as calling Islam names. Are Google really PC enough to censor “Islam is”, but not bright enough to wonder if there are other things that might enrage Muslims? This doesn’t add up to me.
  • Second, if they’re that jumpy about Muslims, why not block all search results for “[RELIGION] is”? That would be just as easy, and it would be consistent. Then almost no religious people would complain. In fact, the only people who would complain are the ones who complained about the Islam thing in any case.
  • Third, it didn’t really take very much to make them uncensor it, which suggests to me that they saw it more as a glitch to be corrected rather than a policy to be changed. I may be wrong about this; maybe it’s been like that for a very long time, and the fuss kicked up recently was actually big enough to worry them. Or maybe it’s connected with their decision to stop censoring themselves in China (i.e. maybe it was a big “stop all censorship [that people know about]” policy).

But I’m inclined to think not. I suspect it was either some weird error, or—and this is perhaps more likely—that it was just the work of one Muslim, or one over-PC person, in their censorship department.

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

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