Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Good Without God - Humanism's Unitarian Universalist Roots.

This post is one part history lesson, one part book report and one part personal philosophy. It is the story of the second oldest faith tradition in human history one that could currently be said to encompass the beliefs of roughly fifteen percent of the US population, forty million people, and about one billion people worldwide. By pure numbers alone it accounts itself as the third largest faith tradition of the all behind Christianity and Islam. At present it is the fastest growing “religious preference” in the United States and the only one to have increased its percentage of the population in every one of the fifty states over the past generation. It could arguably be called the single most influential source tradition within my faith of Unitarian Universalism: the Humanist tradition.

According to www.uua.org Humanism is defined as a non-theist tradition that focuses on human potential and emphasizes personal responsibility for ethical behavior. Rev. Sarah Oelberg, who is quoted in UUA.org, describes Humanism as including the following values:
  • Showing love to all humans is a worthy goal.
  • Immortality is found in the examples we set and the work we do.
  • We gain insight from many sources and all cultures, and there are many religious books and teachings that can instruct us about how to live.
  • We have the power within ourselves to realize the best we are capable of as human beings.
  • We are responsible for what we do and become; our lives are in our own hands.
That is a good nutshell but I think the book Good Without God, by Greg Epstein Humanist pastor at Harvard University, can do a better job of narrowing down the Humanist philosophy. We’ll take a look at Rabbi Epstein’s views on Humanism in a little bit. First though, let’s take a look back at the history of Humanism, a long and rich history, much of which Epstein outlines in his book, and one in which as a Humanist and a Unitarian Universalist I take great pride.
I said in my opening that Humanism is the second oldest faith tradition in human history and I think that is likely true. As Epstein puts it:
“picture what most likely happened the first time someone came up with a theory about God or gods, or goddesses, one of his family members scowled, bushy eyebrow raised, and grunted the equivalent of “Don’t be ridiculous!” If religion is ancient, the Humanism and atheism are most likely almost as old.”
After all, doubt is as much a part of the human condition as faith, and is arguably equally strong. Humanist ideas are as old then as religion itself. Indian thinkers were penning Humanist ideas in Sanskrit more than 500 years before the early books of the Bible were likely written. Greek thinkers like Epicurus and Eastern thinkers Confucius wroate about Humanist ideas as did Middle Eastern thinkers such as Ibn Al-Rawandi whom Epstein quotes, addressing God:
Happy human Humanist logo, white and golden ve...“Thou didst apportion the means of thy livelihood to Thy Creatures like a drunkard who shows himself churlish. Had a man made such a division, we would have said to him, You have swindled. Let this teach you a lesson”.

The Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Hindu words are all rife with the writings of free-thinkers who questioned the beliefs of the faiths of their countrymen all across the ages. From the earliest writing to the present day there are many who choose to look beyond the conventions of their culture and kin and find a deeper meaning solely within the human condition itself. Today, we call that Humanism. 

But, that word did not really come into our vocabulary until the early twentieth century. It was solidified with the drafting of the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, a document born of Unitarian and Universalist roots. Of the thirty-four signers of the document, eight of them were Unitarian or Universalist clergy. Humanism is deeply ingrained within our movement.
In 1998 a survey was conducted among Unitarian Universalists to examine the philosophical makeup of our membership. Fully forty-six percent of our congregants at the time identified as Humanist. Both Epstein and I lump many different belief systems into the Humanist bucket. I think that’s fine, there’s room at the inn. As Epstein says in his opening chapters:
“If you identify as an atheist, an agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, cynic, secular humanist, naturalist, or deist; as spiritual, apathetic, nonreligious, “nothing”; or any other irreligious descriptive, you could probably count yourself as what he, and I, would call a Humanist.”
So what is Humanism?
According to the third Humanist Manifesto:
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.”

Blah, blah, blah.
I am currently facilitating a Building Your Own Theology (BYOT) class, in it I am continually asking: what is it that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion? How can a non-creedal belief system with no dogma and no formal catechism be considered a religion? A dear and wise woman answered that for me. She said a religion is a belief system that informs all aspects of your life. I find that a very useful description.
Unitarian Universalism and more particularly our Humanist tradition, more than meets this criteria for me. It provides me with a framework for understanding myself, the people with whom I interact, the world around me and my place within it. There is a great song in the Unitarian Universalist supplemental hymnal Singing the Journey titled “Where Do We Come From?” We’ve sung it many times in our congregation. We all know it, many if not most of us by heart. 
“Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going? Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.”
How does my Humanism help me answer these questions? Let’s take a look.
Where do we come from?
This is perhaps the second most driving of these three questions in terms of its influence on religious thought. What is the origin of life?  Epstein handles this with his typical style:
“Our history began with the Big Bang…it continued with this galaxy’s first star, which appeared five billion years later and the Milky Way’s birthing of our sun five billion years ago. With the formation of the Earth a billion years later came the first living cells, and then two billion years after that came new kinds of cells that “invented” both sexual reproduction and the predator-prey relationship. These twin developments led to an ever-quickening spiral of change… (leading directly to)…humans, self-awareness... (and our)…creation of myth…religion…culture…and eventually…American Idol.”
The story of evolution holds an epic beauty that in my never-to-be-humble opinion has far more impact than any mythological creation story.  It doesn’t make human beings less special to accept that we are a part of a larger unguided process, it makes us more special. Out of the roughly five billion years of our Earth’s history humanity has been around for one twenty-five thousandth of that time. Let me say that again, one twenty-five thousandth…of that time. We are singular in history, unique, the culmination of every biological process since the dawn of time. But, as a Humanist I don’t pretend that the Theory of Evolution is an absolute certainty.
I have Christian friends who are wont to remind me that my “faith” in evolution is no different from their “faith” in God. Epstein reminds us to remind them that the question is not about whether one believes, but upon what evidence one’s beliefs are based. While we both share a faith, theirs is in something which cannot be studied or proven or even argued with any degree of certainty at all. Whereas my faith is in humankind itself, in our ability to think, and reason and through those faculties arrive at conclusions based upon the best evidence available at the time, and further on our ability to revise those theories when and if new evidence to the contrary comes to light. Epstein asks: would you want to fly in an airplane designed by an engineer with no advanced scientific degree, who in fact did not believe in science, and instead consulted the Bible or the pop for advice on how to build airplanes? Probably not. The scientific method is the single best tool humans have ever developed for understanding the underlying workings of our world.
Those who are in my BYOT class have heard me more than once say that I have a real problem with the word faith. To me it has always meant turning off my rational mind and accepting a premise because someone “said so”.  However, one of the first pieces of concrete awesomeness I found in Epstein’s writing is that I shouldn’t be allergic to the word faith. Rather, I should recognize that my faith is not in some improvable negative (i.e., God does not exist) but in the capacity of humans to “live well based upon conclusions and convictions reached by empirical testing and free, unfettered, rational inquiry.” In other words, as Humanists and as Unitarian Universalists we question everything, including our questions! We are, to use Epstein's phrase, the Keepers of the Question. And that is a holy calling!
What are we?
Which rules the day, Nature or Nurture? Or is it, as some religionists would have us believe, solely the guiding hand of our Loving Father that determines the person we are to become? Are we evil by nature as the Calvinists would have us believe, driven to serve only our own base natures and separated from the Grace of the Almighty? Is it only the belief in a higher power that cajoles us into good behavior? Even more important is the question of what constitutes “good” behavior. How can one know what is good? Or, as Socrates asks it: is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?
To my mind, it is our capacity for thinking, for rational action, that leads us to do good not the invisible hand of a faceless god. There are many species that have self awareness, the ability to understand that they are a unique, individual entity, to, for example, recognize themselves in a mirror. But it is a unique capacity of higher primates to have “other awareness”, to empathize, to be able to walk a mile, or even a few feet, in someone else’s shoes. That, is a capacity unknown to any other species. And that awareness, not just that we are unique, but that so are Tom, Dick, Sarah and Sally, is what leads us to goodness. It is our ability to think beyond our own needs and desires to the needs and desires of those around us.
This, by the way, is a fundamental truth outlined in every major religion in the world,a fact Epstein points out in his book. Reciprocity, paying it forward, treating people with the same dignity we would like shown to us, call it what you will. In Christianity it is called the Golden Rule. In Islam, Muhammad, all praise be upon him, said “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” Buddhists have been told: “hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Judaism, the Talmud instructs: “what is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” In other words, look inside ourselves for our own desires, project those upon our neighbors and treat them as ourselves.
To the Humanist something is only good or bad to the extent that is helps or harms humanity itself. We are singly the most cooperative species in the history of life to date. Our ability to come together in crisis or for a common purpose is evidenced every day! From people leaving their livelihoods and loved ones to rush to the aid of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 to the multi-day ordeal of a child lost in the woods and a community coming together to find him to the clean up efforts happening right now all along the Gulf coast. Ours is a community of goodness! If fully one quarter of those people self identify as agnostic or atheist or Humanist, then what is their driving urge? If we are baseless, false and evil in our core and only able to find good to the extent that we connect to a higher power, then the question should really be why are we as good as we are as often as we are?
It is my contention, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself in this, that humans more often than not, when given the opportunity, will do the right thing. When given a chance we will help those around us. When given the opportunity and when other factors, such as poverty for example, are not driving a wedge between ourselves and our humanity, we will choose to help rather than to harm, to uplift rather than to tear down. And there are examples of this all around us in our everyday lives.
Now that is not to say that there are not examples of evil in the world as well. Clearly there are. But they are not the norm. The very fact of their aberrant nature is what calls them out so loudly and why we are so appalled by them when they do come to light.
Where are we going?
I said earlier that the first of these three questions: where do we come from, was likely the second most driving from a religious perspective, this last question is without doubt, the most contentious. It is the one that drives us to look for a higher meaning in the first place. Where are we going?
For many if not most people this question means “after this lifetime”, but not for a Humanist. We freely admit that we simply don’t know what happens after this life ends. The most likely answer, given all of the available empirical evidence to date is that nothing happens after this lifetime. And that, quite simply, is the reason we need to have an impact now.
We gain immortality to the extent we impact the world during our lifetime. We gain immortality through our children, by guiding them to live a life of purpose, by passing our genes on to the next generation, and they, in turn passing theirs on to the following generation and on and on. We also live on through the work we do to make the world a better place.
Mother Theresa will not be remembered by her children and grandchildren, but she will be remembered but thousands, if not millions, for the work she did in providing solace and comfort to those in need around her. She will be remembered in that she paid forward, putting in place a framework to continue that work well into the future.
Warren Buffet will be remembered not only for his laudable contributions to the business world but for giving away his entire fortune to worthy causes, that legacy will stretch from this generation into the future beyond his children’s children’s children’s lifetimes.
I want to be clear that I think striving to better ourselves, to get that great job, or new house, or awesome iPod-thingy is not in and of itself a bad thing. Not at all! Warren Buffet couldn’t have given away forty billion dollars to charity if he hadn’t earned it to begin with.
But there are too many people, we meet them every day, for which the next great thingy IS their life’s calling. And what happens once that thingy is achieved? Does it make you happy? Sure! For about a minute. And then there is a new thingy or a better house or a higher paying job to get get get.
It should also be said that there is such a thing as too much austerity. I do not want to live in the woods and navel gaze or give up all my possessions and minister to the poor on the streets of Phoenix. And I don’t recommend that for you either - its much too hot. But a life of balance where we give as well as get, where we rest as well as work, where we look to the welfare of others as well as to our own, is a life of real happiness. At least in my opinion. My Humanist faith tells me it matters very little where we are going, what matters are the choices we make and the actions we take along the way.
We Unitarian Universalists would do well to remember our history. Ours are not “new age” philosophies, and ours is not a new age religion. It is a religion that grows from the strong roots of liberal Christian traditions that are ages old and finds truth in religious teachings from all over the world with histories longer than any of the Abrahamaic religions. It draws strength from the words and deeds of humans throughout history who have shared their wisdom with us and spoken truth to power. It acknowledges the power of the natural world to inform our lives and guide us to our higher selves. And, it recognizes that our own humanity and the human condition itself is as much, if not more, inspirational than any revealed truth. Unitarian Universalists don’t need the one perfect truth. Not as long as we continue to be the Keepers of the Question.

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