Another subtle slur against atheists

“Tell me something about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.”  I’m sorry but that strikes me as condescending and patronizing as a “religious” response to someone’s self-description as an atheist.   It’s an especially egregious comment when it comes from someone (like a minister) who is supposed to be sensitive to people and have some understanding of the diversity of beliefs out there.  It’s another one of those subtle slurs, perpetuating the stereotype that atheists lack positive values and don’t believe much of anything. (Here’s my rebuttal on that.)  They might say they are just trying to find out more about an individual’s beliefs, but they are playing with words in order to imply that atheists are lacking when compared to other groups.

First off, how informative is any one word self-description anyway?  Let’s be clear that there may be some who identify as “atheist” who are very different than your average mainstream atheist.  But that will be true for any self-identification, be it Buddhist, Christian, Pagan, Hindi, Muslim, Jewish, New Age, or even many of the very specific creedal religions.  Diversity within a group  is not a bad thing and it shouldn’t be quashed so that we can all describe ourselves with one word.

With other groups there is often much greater uncertainty about what beliefs can be assumed based on the one-word self-description.  If someone says they are a Christian, what do you know about them?  Are they  just a fan of the beatitudes and the Christ example, or are they Christians of the hell-fire and damnation variety?  What core belief unites all those who identify as Christian?  A self-professed Christian may only be someone with a  vague understanding that  Christ, whether real or mythical, was someone to be admired and possibly emulated and may or may not  have had some plan for the salvation of man for either this life or in the next.  On top of that, the admiration for Christ among those identifying as Christian spans many opposing and contradictory images of who Christ was and what he may or may not have stood for.  Someone telling you only that they are a Christian, has not told you very much about what they believe at all.

When someone tells you are an atheist, they have probably told you a lot about their beliefs, if you’d only listen.  If they are using a label that comes with so much discrimination, they have probably given this a bit of thought. For many beliefs there is much more unity among self-identified atheists than self-identified Christians.   Self-identified atheists overwhelmingly likely believe in a natural world with natural processes.  They probably value and appreciate this life and are seeking to live it to the fullest.  Overwhelmingly atheists believe all people are related and are likely to speak out against racism, sexism and homophobia.   Likely they understand that this world is billions of years old not thousands, we got here through evolution, there is no guaranteed future and we have to take care of each other and this planet.

Atheist as a description, versus religious descriptions, may provide a better clue as to how a person is likely to feel about a woman’s right to choose, same sex marriage, stem cell research, death with dignity, the bullying of gay youth, as well as other issues where our ethics may be held back by an over-reliance on ancient texts.  Barring any evidence to the contrary I can’t believe that the other one word descriptions are superior to the term atheist for telling you quickly what a person might believe.

So treat an atheist like you would anyone else who gives you a brief self-description that leave you wanting to know more:  Ask them follow up questions.  It’s that easy.   But please don’t preface your questions with smug judgmental rebukes like, “Tell me something about what you believe, not what you don’t believe.”

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With friends like that…

I used to identify as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) and an atheist.  That’s getting harder and harder for many to do as these groups grow apart.   Some have asked, “Can an Atheist be a Unitarian Universalist?”  For this atheist the gulf between theism and non-theism within my UU congregation became too large.   Perhaps one day I’ll do another atheistic sermon as a guest speaker, but I probably won’t speak as a UU again.

UU’s are ok with atheism, as long as it’s not taken too seriously.  Be a good atheist, not a trouble maker.  When it comes to your core beliefs “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a good policy.  Even better call yourself an agnostic and be prepared to recognize and celebrate the many advantages gained from more spiritual perspectives. You are not an equal at the table in discussions of meaning and value.  Ancient books and traditions, sanitized of course, are much more deserving of respect than anything a godless person might develop through reason.

Even so, UUs are probably atheist’s best friends today.  But most UU’s that speak out and support atheism leave a lot to be desired.  Let’s look at a UU sermon supporting atheism titled Spirituality of Atheism.  This sermon is more sympathetic and appreciative of atheists than most.   It starts off decrying shameful bigotry committed against an atheist.  The sermon tells the story of an “outed” college professor receiving anonymous notes, threatening phone calls, having his car vandalized, his 9 year old son physically attacked, and enduring organized efforts by churches directed against him.  The sense of injustice and the sympathy offered is a good start.  We need friends who recognize the bigotry we face and speak out against it.

But then Reverend goes on and although he says he understands our anger, he ends up comparing prominent atheists to the anti-atheist bigots who harassed the college professor:

  • … “End of Faith” atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who espouse rigid, rampant intolerance against anything that’s NOT atheism, whose “one way, one truth, one life” mentality is just as narrow and fundamentalist as the bigots who attacked Dr. Zellner, except they’re going in the exact opposite direction.

I’m pretty well read as regards Harris, Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchens.  I can’t imagine what they all might have  all done to deserves this collective comparison to the bigots who threatened, bullied, attacked and vandalized the college professor and his family.  It’s not often you see UU’s even gently criticize religious extremist, but the kindly Dr. Daniel Dennet is fair game for a horrible slur.  I don’t want to pick on this minister, he seems more welcoming than most.  UU leaders and publications frequently refer to “militant” and “fundamentalist” atheists, terms they do not so readily apply to others.  I can never really figure out what these “new-atheists” have done that is so horrible.  But for this “ creed-less religion” harsh assumptions around atheism seems to be emerging as a dogma that needs no justification ,defense or calls for any further discussion.

As I mentioned earlier UUs are probably the best religious friends atheists have. Because they share a lot of similarities and common goals atheists and UUs should be allies and friends.   But when our best friends within that group equate us with those who vandalize, terrorize, threaten and attack, it makes me wish we had better friends.

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Practicing the Absence of God

Ok. This is a UU congregation, we can handle the doubt stuff. But promoting the absence of God? What are you talking about? That’s crazy. Presence good. Absence bad. Just Google it.

-  “Holiness is practicing the presence of God; worldliness is practicing the absence of God.”
-  Practicing the absence of God is the cause of all our mediocrity and failure.
–  No one would consciously choose to practice the absence of god.
–  God’s presence is goodness and heaven.
– The absence of God is the source of all evil.
– The absence of God is Hell.
Ok. It’s an uphill battle, but I’m going to suggest that the benefits of practicing the presence of God may have been oversold, and there may be some benefits to practicing absence. To push at the imbalance this sermon will challenge some popular notions.
First off, how well does practicing the presence of God work? Brother Lawrence the catholic Monk who wrote Practicing the Presence of God in the 1600s, said to pray without ceasing. His goal was to build up a constant personal union between himself and God. In 1896 in order to promote the social gospel, Charles Monroe Sheldon wrote, In his steps: What would Jesus do? He believed people would become more responsible for their fellow man by constantly identifying with Jesus. His idea was picked up by Dan Seaborn, a conservative Christian active in the Promise Keepers movement. He promoted the practice of wearing the WWJD bracelets in the 90’s. If such a thing were possible, do you thing the Christian socialist Charles Monroe Sheldon might roll over in his grave to see what happened with his WWJD idea?
What often happens when someone seeks a personal union with God? It’s hoped that practitioners will become more godlike, but often they end up crafting a God in their own image. Kids wearing WWJD bracelets might report that they become more Christ like, but at the same time their Christ becomes more like them. By constantly identifying with Jesus, it’s easy to lose perspective. They do what Jesus would and by implication their preferences become those of Jesus. It often ends up with another version of a blond haired, blue eyed Jesus who loves fried chicken, NASCAR, and football and dislikes democrats, foreigners and gays. Through this amalgamation of self and God, both they and the Christ they purport to follow become inauthentic weaker and poorer version of what they might otherwise be. People will always have their differences, but when they are convinced God is on their side, the stakes are raised. Certainly the practice of Gods’ presence can provide comfort, strengthen commitment, and harden resolve. A key question is however, does this practice tend promote growth or does it often help the practitioner to cling to narrow values.
Well maybe the WWJD example is too extreme. Seeking to know God through prayer could be considered a much more reasonable approach and not as likely to stunt growth. A lot of people believe in prayer as an unmitigated good, but what is the evidence supporting such a belief? Not a lot has been done to look at this. But what has been studied may give pause.
One study, took two very similar Christian denominations which differed on the baptismal issue of sprinkling or immersion. Members of both groups were asked to pray to seek to ascertain God’s will. What do you think happened? Well if you believe prayer could help you find out God’s will, you’d expect the answers to tend to favor one position or the other. They didn’t. If you think prayer helps bridge people and make individuals more understanding and open minded, you might expect that people determined that issue was not that important and become more accepting of the alternate position than they were before. That didn’t happen either. After praying all were more convinced that God favored their church’s position. Through deliberate intentional prayer, two Christian groups became more polarized on an issue than they were before.
The next experiment involved a variety of religious believers who held conflicting opinions on the issue of same sex marriage. The researchers recorded the positions of the participant and asked them to pray to see if they could ascertain “Gods” position. After prayer 68% of the participants felt they were able to asses God’s will. Now do you think that many of the participants had a “road to Damascus” moment when the scales fell from their eyes and they saw the truth of God and the error of their ways? … I wish it worked that way, but no. Everyone who felt touched by Gods presence found that God shared their opinion. No movements toward greater compassion or understanding were found. Not one. Think of the consequences, no longer did the opposition just disagree with an individual belief; they are now opposed to God. This type of false certainty leads to polarization which divides and separates people. It seems that often prayer does not induce change as much as it makes us comfortable with our own beliefs. When we do change, is it through prayer or does prayer just confirm a change arrived at from other drivers for other reasons? Might an absence of God perspective be an effective driver of change?
Now I have to admit I don’t have any good evidence to offer about potential benefits from practicing the absence of God. But I’d love to see it put it to various tests. When you stop practicing the presence of God, perhaps there is more room to recognize the needs of people. I think if you had a group of people opposed to SSM and they practiced the absence of God, while watching a half dozen episodes of Glee, unlike with prayer, you’d see some movement towards more compassion and understanding.
A Buddhist koan says Great Doubt, Great Awakening, Little Doubt, Little Awakening, No Doubt, No Awakening. I say it’s harder to move when you are tied to the ultimate, the infinite, or the ground of all being.
So what am I suggesting as a practice for the absence of God? Nothing specific but there are many opportunities for employing such practices. You’re creative, thoughtful, independent people. You should work on crafting the specifics that will work best for you. As you incorporate God’s presence so too can you incorporate an absence. First though, what do we mean by God? Since we’re in a UU Church it could mean a lot of different things. Ask yourself, “What do I mean by God or the divine?” Maybe your answer is a personal being, a pantheon, a collective conscience, the universe, the ground of being or some other concept. Maybe your answer is I don’t believe in such a concept. Whatever your articulated or unarticulated answer to the God question is, you can practice the absence of that. We can all seek to at least temporarily step outside the protective shield, which gives us certainty. What if our central understandings of the world are wrong, what if we looked at the world in a different way? What would disappear, what would remain, what does and doesn’t matter anymore. Such experiments might help us grow as people.
Sometimes we have to put our “truths” aside to change and grow. There is a danger in tying yourself too strongly to any belief system. We all have a tendency that may be too strong to cling to our beliefs. We do it in a variety of ways. Certainly the bumper sticker philosophy, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” doesn’t encourage a lot of soul searching growth. But we can also close our mind through over-reliance upon our scientific understandings. Trusting our inner feelings too strongly can inhibit growth as well. The idea that all belief systems are essentially equal and valid ways of viewing the world, can stand as bulwark against change because at its heart is says, nothing can trump my belief.
Assurance is a good thing that we all seek. But it needs to be balanced; too much assurance may be just as harmful as not enough. The practice of absence may be needed to keep our truths in check.
Before wrapping up I want to throw out a few more ideas from others around the absence of God in the hopes that they may spur thinking and help illuminate some potential benefits of an absence perspective.
Kurt Vonnegut in his otherwise unremarkable book Bluebeard introduced the concept of a non-epiphany. One of his characters had experienced a transcendent period of joy. His friend explained.
“You were experiencing a non-epiphany … The trouble with God isn’t that He so seldom makes Himself known to us. The trouble with God is exactly the opposite. He’s holding you and me and everybody else by the scruff of the neck practically constantly … Contentedly adrift in the cosmos, were you? That is a perfect description of a non-epiphany, that rarest of moments, when God Almighty lets go of the scruff of your neck and lets you be human for a little while.”
There’s not a lot positive available about practicing the absence of God. A Google search of “Practicing the absence of God” (in quotations) turns this service up as the #3 listing. We may be on a forefront here. The first two listings refer to Robert Prices’ Sermon with the same name.
Robert Price noted:
I am reminded of one of the great spiritual classics of Catholic Christianity … Practicing the Presence of God. I have come to think, by contrast, that what is needful is “practicing the absence of God.” To bathe and bask in the emptiness, the lack, the void.
He observed that an infinite God doesn’t leave enough room for people:
We must, I say, practice the absence of God. As the mystics of the Kabbalah said, God must contract, withdraw into himself for there to be room left over for the world to exist. God must retreat. He must decrease for you to increase.
And he questioned the comfort provided by God explanations:
When tragedy strikes, when loved ones die, is it comforting or edifying to you to imagine that God had some reason for killing them? Was the suffering of Job alleviated or rather compounded by his belief that God must have had a purpose in it? Why make tragedy worse by elevating it to the outrage of cosmic injustice? Some song asks indignantly, “Why do we never get an answer” to the problem of evil? Well, what kind of answer did you have in mind?
Price observes that, we seem driven for answers, whether they ultimately do us any good or not. The concept of God can enhance personal growth, but it can be a stumbling block as well. There are dangers in thinking we have a special tie, are imbued with the truth, that we have great understandings, that there are good unknown reasons for injustices, that we are protected from errors, and that someone/something else is looking after our brothers and sisters.In closing, let me be clear that today I am not asking anyone to abandon their practices of experiencing the divine, but rather promoting the benefits of a practice of absence. Consider the possibility that even if you have a richly rewarding practice of the divine, it might be enhanced, supplemental and better understood by also engaging in practices of absence.
May you at times bathe and bask in the emptiness, the lack, the void. May you enjoy uncertainty, the unknown, the unknowable and the magnificently mysterious? May you be flexible in your thinking and freed from the constraints of feeling that you must have all the answers, solutions, and a defined direction? And lastly I hope that at times when you are watching a sunset, viewing the stars, or taking in a magnificent vista, that you will experience the transcendence of being contentedly adrift in the cosmos end enjoy the grand experience that is a non-epiphany.
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Transfaith and Interfaith

Note-This Service had three parts that tied together.  A children’s part (Story for all ages), a description of the Transfaith movement, and the sermon titled Transfaith and Interfaith.

Story for all ages:

Welcome.  There is a Jewish tradition called Midrash where you tell the same story but with a little twist.  Telling the same story but changing it a bit here and there can help you explore ideas and learn. Perhaps some of you recognize the mysterious box and remember the basics of a Magic Box story we did a while back.   Imagine if you will, we live in an island kingdom of that’s kind of like where we live now, but kind of not.  Anyway one day the spectacular looking box shows up with stone engraving that says, “Open this in 1 year  and something wonderful will happen”.  Well this gets everyone very excited.   How would you feel if something like this happened?

(Draw out that some are happy and excited.  Raise questions of whether it’s bad or good. “Pandora’s box”.  Try to get a diversity of thought)

Some people in this story think about it and conclude “we must open that box” (The Openers) and others conclude “we must push that box in the sea”  (The Dumpers)  Well the people in the kingdom all turn to the King to see what he says. Now what makes me think he is smartest guy in our Kingdom is that he says “I don’t know”.  He decides that we should discuss it for the next year and then vote and let the majority decide.  Well most have very strong opinions and talking where we disagree is not something that everyone does well. Well the two groups (Openers and Dumpers) start to get very angry with each other.  I’m sorry to tell you if you don’t know this, sometimes grownups can be rude and call people they disagree with stupid, mean or maybe even evil. Sometimes children seem to be better at getting along when they disagree.   Hang on to that as long as you can.   I hope one day you’ll be part of making the world better for open and honest disagreements.

<Now the question for you today is how might this affect your friendships.  What if your good friend there and her family were dumpers and you and your family were openers?  Could you still be friends?  What if you had 4 good friends and 3 felt the same but one didn’t, would you not invite that one disagreeing friend to your birthday party?  Some churches likely would insist that all their members must feel the same way on this important issue.  Maybe they’d read a holy book to find the answer or a leader would figure it out through prayer and their members would be told the “right” answer.  We’re a little freer to have diverging opinions here.  But what about us at here could we still meet together when some of us disagreed on such an important issues?  Could we put our differences aside in the mean time for example to work together to collect cans for a food bank.  It could be hard.  Could we celebrate our differences on such an important topic? (Before going on let’s poll for group and see openers or dumpers).  We kind of have a majority here. Do you think it’s likely that our minority would continue to feel welcome as this issue gets more heated?

Imagine this situation most of us want to get rid of the box.  But we live in neighborhoods where almost everyone want’s to open it and also we work and go to school with people who are “openers” too.  Well, we come here to this congregation and we are happy to find many others who share our feelings. Although our principles and sources don’t really give us an answer it’s so good to be with others who agree and we start to think it’s part of this special place and we start celebrating it here and many act like it’s assumed UUs all feel that way.  The “openers” start to feel like outsiders and some stay home more.  Over time they really are a minority and this place is all about dumpers.    How do you keep something like that from happening?  I wish I knew the answer to that. That’s a good thing to talk with your parents about later, how do you treat others who disagree with you?> 

There’s a lot to think about.  But let’s pretend that time has passed and the community decided to open the box.  What do we find?

There’s a plaque carved in the finest stone and inlaid with rubies and diamonds and it says “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.     Hey, that’s what we tried to do here about the box.  Be friends and work together even though we disagreed.  Is that a good idea or a dangerous idea? Opinions may vary.  Some would be scared by this and others might think it’s a great idea.   I’d suggest everyone talk about this with your family and share what this means to you.

This saying that “we don’t have to think alike” to love alike is actually a part of our Unitarian heritage. The saying is credited to one of the founders of Unitarianism called Francis David. <pronounce Da Veed> He must have had the magnetism of a rock star.  He converted most all of Transylvania to Unitarianism largely through a debate with a leading Calvinist minister.  Then when the King, Sigismund of Transylvania decided to choose the one religion to be allowed in all of Transylvania, Francis David showed he was a real hero.  The different religions at the time were all saying “choose me, choose me”.  Well King Sigismund liked Francis David the best and was going to choose him.  But our hero Francis David said, why don’t you allow all the religions to have churches here in Transylvania and let each person pick what they think is best. Wow! That’s exactly what the King did.  He issued the edict of Torda in 1568, which was the first major step for both interfaith unity and religious freedom.  It is said to have been a major influence on Thomas Jefferson.  Can we have different opinions and beliefs on important stuff and still get along? Francis David a Unitarian hero thought so.  I think that’s why he’s credited with saying “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.  We might not always be able to remember and live that but it’s worth trying.

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The Transfaith movement

Transfaith is a new idea that puts a twist on the traditional interfaith perspective.  Some call it the new interfaith.  I don’t know if it will go anywhere, but it’s worth considering.  Transfaith is to interfaith as Google plus is to Facebook. In Facebook you tend to have a single wall with everyone out there.  Grandparents, college friends, coworkers, schoolmates, tennis partners, crazy Uncles….   A post can produce a flurry of conflicts that may eventually lead to hurt feelings all around. As a result, some of us clam up on Facebook and don’t talk about anything of significance.  Others of us stick with our principles and find our friendship base narrowing as our cousins, high school friends and others desert us.  Something’s gained and something’s lost with either approach.  Now Google plus is designed to have independent and overlapping circles of different sizes encompassing all kinds of groups.  The design is to allow spaces with differing behavioral expectations for sharing, debate, like mindedness, learning, and action. This interlocking circle approach can help to both to unify and broaden connections among people. Transfaith is hoping to do work the same way.

Most of the work in the Transfaith movement is happening on college campuses where younger people are challenging conventional thinking.  As is often the case with youth, they may have a mix of good and bad ideas.  I am not advocating or criticizing any of their particular issues today. I’m asking you to put such considerations aside and focus on their overall approach.  I’ve been keeping my eye on The Illinois Secular Student association (or ISSA) for a couple of years as an experiment as to how well their approach works and where it leads them.

They agree with core ideas of the interfaith movement. They want to build bridges and reduce the walls between people.  They advocate that people of differing world views come together for service projects and to learn about each other.

They diverge from the traditional interfaith perspective on some important issues.  One is they would like the tent to be more inclusive and welcoming to all people.  Interfaith implies it is just for people of faith.  Interfaith literally means between people of faith perspectives but  Transfaith is inclusive of  people from non-faith perspectives. Whatever your name or orientation, you can sponsor events identified as welcoming to Transfaith perspectives.  But the traditional campus interfaith groups have generally not been receptive to that type of outreach.

The most serious problem the secular groups have with traditional interfaith groups is that these groups have harsh views on atheist activism.  Members of the ISSA tried to participate in the youth interfaith movements.  They saw that interfaith activities served to unify, support, and protect religious groups that actively opposed equal rights and other pluralistic initiatives.  When atheists on their own time spoke out on issues of importance to them, they were called divisive.  They were lectured that Interfaith was about building bridges and that they should show respect towards ideas grounded in faith.   What they heard from interfaith leaders was that Interfaith was all about tolerance, acceptance and respect so you guys need to shut up and quit being stupid.

It seemed to many that if they wanted to work with people of faith they would have to abandon activism to work solely on outreach.  The ISSA however, wanted to express their concerns and values by speaking out and also work with others on service projects.  They believed they could criticize religious ideas and still work with religious people.     Their understanding was   that  genuine respect for people can not include respect for all their ideas.

So, how did that go? It is one thing to talk about how we might think the world works or wish it would work, but here we have a real experiment we can observe.

Activism was easy for the group and it got most of the attention in 2010.  They debated the Catholics and had a mass condom give away along with information challenging the Pope’s position that condoms help spread HIV.  This was done on Good Friday and called a REALLY Good Friday.  They debated and engaged with an evangelical student group called the Navigators, angering more than a few of their members in the process. But they really earned the ire of campus interfaith communities when they disagreed with the Muslim Student Association.  Protesting calls for censorship punctuated by death threats to Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Southpark fame, they planned to draw stick figures on campus sidewalks and label them Mohamed.  The Muslim Student Association wrote a very nice letter asking them not to.  They wrote back a nice letter insisting they meant no disrespect to the local community, but that they would take a stand on free speech.

National and local leaders of the youth interfaith movements pounced on the ISSA.  Newspaper articles and blogs castigated them. Their critics offered the observation that they could have made friends, but instead they only made a stupid meaningless political point.  They could have built bridges but instead they put up a wall.  Conventional wisdom was pretty down on the ISSA at the end of 2010, but what happened in a year?  Something wonderful or something horrible?  Did they throw away their chances to build bridges?  Had they demonstrated that since they didn’t think alike that loving alike was impossible?

A lot happened the next year and we’ll focus on their outreach. A Catholic college professor at Illinois University was fired for teaching traditional Catholic doctrine in a University course on Catholicism.  The ISSA and one of their leaders, Ed Clint, spoke up for the professor’s free speech rights. Noting that they personally strongly disagreed with Catholic teachings, they were equally adamant that the University was treating Dr. Ken Howell unfairly. Dr. Ken Howell was incredibly impressed by the magnanimity of Ed Clint.  I wish I had time to read you the sermon Dr. Howell delivered titled “The atheist as a good Samaritan” or share some of the words of praise and love the local Catholic community heaped upon Ed Clint for his principled support.

In 2011, the evangelical Navigators and the ISSA become major friendship groups as did the Muslim Student Association and the ISSA.  As a matter of fact, the ISSA became a bridge between the evangelical and the Muslim groups, fostering their friendship.  They also held service activities with the Campus Jain association, the Newman Catholic center and other religious and civic groups. The activities included board game nights, charity bake sales, Q&A sessions, debates, disaster relief and humanitarian outreach efforts.  They had a lot of fun and accomplished a lot of good. The ISSA won awards as an active student group.

Why was this group so successful? Why did they have a wonderful year? Maybe it was just a fortuitous group of people in a fortuitous time. But perhaps it’s because honest relationships are more real, more valued and more interesting.  Feigned respect and excessive carefulness may be stifling. Maybe celebrating diversity is better when we’re more honest about our diversity.

While they have flaws as every group and person does, I credit the secular student groups for their efforts to seek a balance between unity with all people whether of faith or not and their own freedom of expression. I’ll close with some quotes from Ed Clint from the Transfaith movement.

Respect is not a prescription to never argue, it is the guarantee a chair exists for my rival at the debate table, equal to my own.

The Transfaith philosophy is not about saying that Interfaith, its proponents or critical message is bad or wrong. It’s that the discussion about who is right or wrong about activism is irrelevant to the work.

<Separating> activism from cooperative efforts means chucking the Interfaith-y notion that theists are so feeble and immature that honest criticism will drive them away. To us, such a view is not respectful. It is an insult to religious people, which we should not abide. Some theists (and atheists) really are immature or insecure such that they can bear no criticism- but this cannot be presumed as some sort of rule of thumb. By default, the Transfaith view is that theists and atheists can bicker and argue, debate and protest… and when we’re done disagreeing, roll up our sleeves and work together on common projects. We know that honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.

Hmm… Honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.  That sounds a lot like what was inside the magic box.

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Transfaith and Interfaith

The good thing about today’s service is that you can disagree with everything I’ve said and its ok with me.  I don’t believe we have to think alike to love alike. Nor do I think that disagreeing with any of a person’s ideas is a denial of their inherent dignity and self-worth.  I may sound crazy to you, as I’m sure many don’t see criticism and challenge as part of a path to better relations. I don’t know if I’ll change any one’s mind about anything, but I’d like to hope I can plant a seed. I will raise questions from one background perspective, but more information from other perspectives will be needed for the best answers.

I like the idea that you don’t have to fit into a mold to be here.  I love the start of the service when we say whoever you are you are welcome.  But those feelings disappear whenever someone say’s something like, I’m so grateful to be here where everyone feels the same as me. When I hear that I think, Uh oh, if I don’t feel the same am I really welcome here?  What if I change my mind later?  Am I an intruder? Continuing the internet example, am I a troll?

Francis David’s words run through this service, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.  Loving alike suggests unity.  Not thinking alike suggests freedom and diversity. We value both unity and freedom but must recognize that there is a strong tension between the two.  Each needs the other but each can also crush the other.  Francis David may have said we don’t have to think alike to love alike, but I’m almost sure he never said it would be easy or that it would come to us naturally.  It doesn’t JUST happen.

An appreciation for loving alike may come to us more naturally than an appreciation for diversity of thought. We have so many inner drivers that make us want to be accepted and liked by others.  There are not, however, as many drivers that push us to appreciate the value of getting along with those who have uncomfortable differences.  Especially today, since our culture, media and technology allow us extensive opportunities to isolate ourselves from those who think differently and seek reinforcement from those who think alike. Positive models of disagreement seem to be increasingly rare.  From experience many of us may mostly know the dark ugly side of disagreements and seek to avoid or minimize any important perceived differences.  It’s a huge problem when the feeling that we must think alike becomes embedded in the core of our communities.

Celebrating diversity and encouraging freedom are often imagined as having positive attributes only.  Rose colored glasses provide the assumption that differences are only superficial and that we all agree at the core.  It’s hoped that diversity will bring only joy as in the sharing of foods, stories or other cultural treasures.  The truth is, it can be very hard to accept those who have ideas you disagree with.  But accepting hard differences is part of belonging to a truly diverse community.  With true diversity others’ opinions will challenge and frustrate you at times.   If there are no hard differences, you probably don’t have a diversity of any depth. When people insist we’re exactly the same underneath or that our words are different but we mean the same thing that may be the hollow ring of a shallow approach to diversity.  Thinking that different religious world views underneath are all the same except that they use different words and stories is fine as a belief system if that works for you. But if you insist others share your view, you may be a friend to unity but you are not a friend to freedom or diversity. 

Honest disagreement with respect can be somewhat like fire.  If controlled and careful it can provide a warm and comfortable hearth.  But let disagreement get out of control and it can become a destructive force.  Surely some of us are too reckless in our willingness to disagree and we need to learn caution, but on the other side some are too cautious and fearful of disagreements.

UUs face the same frictions that drove the launching of the Transfaith movement.  What tradeoffs will we accept between unity and individual freedoms?  Should we be like Facebook with only a shared wall where we are very careful with what we say? Or should we try to be more like Google plus and Transfaith where we have a big circle and smaller circles with differing relationships and rules?  Can we learn about each other as we find different forums to speak our individual and collective truths?

How free is everyone to be themselves? How careful do we have to be about others?   We want a safe space where the sharp edges of some of us don’t cause great harm as they bump into the soft parts of others.  But if everything is soft and fuzzy we lose something as well.

We are trying to build a home here where we can all come together as gentle, passionate, likeminded, fiercely independent individuals seeking rest, respite and the challenge of growth.  You have to admit, that doesn’t sound easy.  Surely that is a challenge for even a curious, courageous and compassionate people.

Frequently UU congregations lean toward a particular flavor.  One approach or mode of belief or style often becomes more central in the congregation and then the majority becomes less welcoming to those who differ.   I’ve heard there are congregations where there is little tolerance for spiritual language ever or even the consideration of anything beyond the natural world. Other congregations skew heavily the opposite way. Comfort in unity can cause congregations to drift away from freedom and diversity.

Let’s imagine this congregation going in two very different directions.

We could have a congregation of a couple hundred people that really did pretty much always think alike on most important topics.   This could be highly successful and it might be just what most people want in a congregation.   The narrow model certainly works for other churches and it might be the model providing the biggest happiest possible congregation we could have.  It would be a great home for some of us, but not so welcoming to others. The overall thoughts and beliefs shared through a narrow interpretation of our principles could be consistent with mainstream of UUism, but would a narrowly welcoming place really be Unitarian Universalist?

On the other hand this congregation could become big tent where any ideas are welcomed and we forget unity such that we grow to be a place of argument and division where we can no longer speak truth with compassion and love.  I doubt that such a place could survive, but in any case it would not be UU.

It’s a challenging road between the ditches of excessive unity on one side and excessive freedom on the other.      It raises the question of how big a tent we should have and who and what ideas are welcome in it?

I believe the UU tent, our congregation tent, interfaith/Transfaith tents, and our own personal tents must allow for unity and freedom and we should be willing to put up with some discomfort for that.  For the sake of freedom and diversity we need to learn to be comfortable with disagreement.  Maybe our golden moments are not just when every head in the room is nodding and people are smiling but also include times when we find ourselves shaken and contemplatively considering each other’s challenging truths.

As this service wraps up, I’d like us all to consider how we feel about the interfaith/Transfaith differences.  How narrow or how wide do we make our core of who we might meet in fellowship, work and love?  Certainly Unitarian Universalism is supportive of interfaith outreach.  I don’t know how open we might be to the new Transfaith type efforts. Do we, or should we, give people operating outside the faith perspective an equal chair?  It’s not only people in secular communities who might criticize faith perspectives.  For example, some in the Pan African movement see the Monotheistic religions as obstacles impeding African political unification.  They call for a relearning process (which is inherently critical) of some faith positions.  Are they outside our tent?   Or can we allow arguments both for and against faith perspectives? Can we treat people with differing perspectives on the faith divide as equals?   I‘m not sure how we’d collectively respond to that.

Should we encourage traditional interfaith to become more like the Transfaith umbrella?    What is your perspective on interfaith versus Transfaith efforts within the greater society?  What seems more valuable to you, advancing faith, advancing non-faith or bridging the two?  If you have  loved one’s on  the other side of the faith divide that might be easy to answer.  What gives us a better chance of making a more peaceful world:  Convincing everyone that deep down we are the same with only trivial differences, or learning how to better get along despite known deep visible disagreements?

Ed Clint of the Illinois Student Association (ISSA) seemed to echo Francis David’s words when he said honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.  Should he and the ISSA be the model for the big tent with his noble thoughts and goals in that direction, or do the divisive activities that disturb the interfaith unity disqualify them?

Early Unitarians had a problem with a leader who like Ed Clint was endangering the interfaith consensus.  David Ferenc held positions that were highly offensive to others in the interfaith movement of his time.   He spoke against their language of reverence. Many saw that language as a critical part of inter-faith commonality.  He respected Jesus, but based on his Unitarian perspective he did not think Jesus should be worshipped, adored, prayed to, or referred to as a deity.   His group was variously known as the old Unitarians or anti-adorationists.  His former mentor Georg Blandarata led an opposing new Unitarian faction which pushed for unity above individual freedom.   Despite cautions from his mentor and others, Ferenc continued to speak out and write papers challenging the inter-faith orthodoxy. Should David Ferenc have softened and played semantic games?  When they said knock it off David, he kept writing papers on the subject and preaching his vision.  I can imagine others telling him it’s ok to feel that way, but don’t go after others’ beliefs. Build bridges, show respect.   Why couldn’t he quiet down and gloss over his differences to please others?    He was an activist much like the ISSA students in Illinois.   David threatened the interfaith alliance by his actions.  What should have been viewed as more important, David’s freedom or the support of the greater inter-faith community?

The conclusion at the time was to side with unity.  The early Unitarians pushed Ferenc outside the tent.

Did the Unitarians of that time stand on the side of love by standing with unity or would the side of love have supported freedom?   I’m sure that was a very hard call to make at the time.  Do we stand on the side of love by supporting the unity of current interfaith perspectives or is the side of love with those who would include activists?  I don’t think that one is easy for us today.

Let’s find out a little more about David Ferenc.  You might accuse David Ferenc of being strong willed and stubborn, but you can’t accuse him of being an enemy of the interfaith movement.  David Ferenc is just an alternative translation of the name Francis David.  He was our Unitarian hero who magnanimously started the interfaith movement.  The movement he had so generously given birth to, had in its push for unity mowed down its major benefactor.  King Sigismund was dead and David’s Unitarian friends turned on him.    Principled but not political Francis David was judged to be a blasphemous innovator and died shortly after being incarcerated in Banda prison.  This hero was buried in an unmarked grave.

A poem was reportedly scrawled on the wall of his cell which included these words:

No power whatever can stay the progress of Truth. What I have felt I have written, with faithful heart I have spoken.

The balance between unity and freedom is critical.  Too great a focus on unity poisoned the early interfaith movement.

People and institutions all lose focus, make mistakes and get off track at one time or another.  One of the great things about UUism is that it is a religion that intends to learn, grow and change.  More remarkable than that, it allows and encourages individuals to learn, grow and change.  The challenge for all of us is: what do we learn, in what direction do we grow, and how do we change?  How do we balance unity and freedom? How do we balance diversity and common purpose?  How do we as individuals, as families, as a congregation, and as part of greater movements work to create spaces where people can come together in the understanding that we don’t always have to think alike to love alike?

There’s no Magic box, but maybe working on a Transfaith perspective can lead to something wonderful.

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Sharing Metaphors

Most of human understanding comes through our capacity to understand metaphor.  It is through metaphor that we are able to engage in the arts, science, reason and religion. Some metaphors bear wonderful fruit; others can become like weeds choking growth. May we come together and jointly work in tending our gardens of metaphors.

Tending your garden of Metaphors

For  Unitarians, metaphors are central to the principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  Additionally the principal to “support the spiritual growth of others within our congregation” hinges on successful interplay between alternative metaphors.

Can we do these things within a community that employs so many differing and often seemly conflicting metaphors? To be a successful community, I think we have to.  But there are real struggles.  We don’t always welcome different metaphors and we can be too protective of our own.

Some within our congregation may fear those of us who tend to be too literal.  Like Tim Minchin in the song we enjoyed, literalists can lose the main message by focusing on accuracy a little too much.  I can’t blame someone who fears that the more persnickety of us will suck all the joy, mystery and fun from life. Not everything has to be literally true to be useful and meaningful.  We will be poorer if we only relate to life by cold science or what can be definitively proved.  The search for truth and meaning can hit a big roadblock when literalists interfere too much.

On the other hand, more literally focused individuals are afraid of being hijacked by metaphors that go way too far.  If we use a little poetry like Einstein and Jefferson it ends up being taken as an endorsement of things we see as nonsense.  Take the concept of Karma for instance. I believe you will tend to be happier and more successful the more good you do.  Positive actions make you a positive person and you are better able to live with both good and bad developments.  But when someone invokes Karma to imply a supernatural keeper of a balance sheet that magically influences the world and we’re all chanting together for some divine intervention, that’s too far for me.   We all know the metaphor of head and heart, but really the heart is a muscle that pumps blood and what we call head or heart really is all brain. The metaphor of heart and head enables some to embrace ideas that much of our personality is outside our brain.  This too can be a roadblock in the search for truth and meaning.

There is far more diversity within our congregation than these examples.  Fear of diversity can make us seek a cocoon and hunker down to protect our metaphors from criticism. Our differing metaphors can put unwarranted distance between people. Sometimes we shun dialogue through fear of conflicts and criticism. During the children’s portion we saw that metaphors can be confusing and that we vary in our abilities to embrace differing metaphors.  Some may see an unbridgeable gulf between people of different metaphors.   My hope though is that we can have honest open dialogue and inquiry around our different metaphors.  It’s ok if others don’t embrace our metaphors.  It should be OK to question each other, to try to understand each other, and it should even be ok to say things like “I don’t get your metaphor”, or this is the problem I see with that “metaphor”.  We might all learn and grow from such exchanges.  I think it is important within a community committed to growth to share and discuss metaphors whether they are equally embraced or not.  Saying we just have different metaphors and stopping the dialogue there is a lot like the bumper sticker mindset which says “God said it, I agree, end of discussion”.  Talking about metaphors should help us with our individual gardens and better integrate us as a community.  I’d like to discuss some things to keep in mind that might make dialogue easier.  I’m sure we can come up with more.

Sometimes we wrongly assume that Contradictory metaphors are a problem

Two metaphors may be in conflict.  It doesn’t necessarily mean one is right or better.  They might instead be suited to different purposes.  To understand light, scientists have used different metaphors.  Understanding light as a particle helps us develop technologies that can convert sunlight to electric power.  Understanding light at a wave explains the refraction of light as it goes though a slit and leads to an understanding of optics. In truth light is not simply a particle or simply a wave, but both contradictory metaphors are valuable nonetheless.  Scientists manage to interact with others who employ conflicting metaphors.  Shouldn’t people who have different “life” metaphors be able to interact as well?

Truer or more accurate metaphors are not necessarily better

A metaphor does not have to be true to be useful.  Isaac Newton had a metaphor for understanding motion.  It’s really amazing; he showed that mathematical equations were a metaphor for bodies in motion.  Now Albert Einstein comes along with a metaphor that is strictly more accurate and truer. He even predicts that his metaphor will be shown to be more accurate by measurements which show the earth bending light.  It happened during an eclipse.  Einstein’s model was demonstrated to be conclusively more correct.  Did we get rid of  Newton’s equations?  No, the math of Einstein is way complex and too hard to calculate for most things and Newton’s equations do a great  job for most things we care about. So Newton is not exactly right but far more useful most of the time.

Similarly science can show flaws and problems in many metaphors.  But in many cases it may not provide a superior metaphor.  So it may be a good thing to stick with a metaphor that works whether it’s exactly true or not.  In many areas we go to older wisdom, because science, while maybe having some excellent facts, might not have caught up to the grand metaphors developed over the ages. That can be a smart thing to do.

On the other hand…Ancient and popular metaphors are not necessarily better

I just said science often does not improve on old metaphors, but in some case it may be able to.  Let’s look at an unfortunate human behavior and how different metaphors may explain and help us deal with that behavior.

Think of two people arguing and one or both comes completely unglued.  They become angry, irrational, unthinking and attacking.   Hopefully for most this is a rare occurrence,  where behavior departs radically from the norm.

What are some metaphors to explain this?  Overtaken by a demon?  Poisoned by negative energy?  The result of astronomical pulls that day?  Stress from the external environment?  Chemical, elemental or Chi imbalances?  There’s a bunch of things we could name.

One newer metaphor comes out of the school of emotional intelligence.  It recognizes that our brain is a kluge of different parts.  When we are in a high stress situation our primitive “reptile” brain can take over to protect us.  This reptile brain called the amygdala, shuts down our reasoning processes.   It focuses us on one of two modes, fight or flight.  During this amygdale hijack we become attacking beasts unable to reason or draw on our higher functions.

I find this newer metaphor much more useful and appealing than ancient metaphors.  From an understanding of this metaphor we can learn ways to block and minimize this response.  It also makes it easier to understand and forgive others who may end up in this situation.  Shouldn’t we at times compare new and old metaphors and ask which better foster growth?

Some metaphors have major flaws, shouldn’t we talk about them?

Metaphors can be a two edged sword. Aristotle cautioned, that while well applied metaphors can enhance understanding, the misapplication of a metaphor can confuse, confound and perpetuate misunderstandings

I want to be careful here and not be too disrespectful to anyone’s metaphors.  But some metaphors just focus on superficial similarities and posit connections that do not and cannot exist.  Ancient herbalists looked at the horn of a rhinoceros and saw a powerful strong protuberance.  An overly simple metaphor suggested that grinding this substance to a powder would help wealthy aging male customers achieve a similar state.  This metaphor was most unfortunate for the slaughtered rhino’s and provided no benefit beyond false hope.  We need to be on guard for metaphors that are overly simplistic.

Just being a metaphor is not enough.  Take the story of Jehovah ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  I’ve never been able to embrace that story.  I know “it’s a metaphor”.  But saying something is a metaphor should not be a get out of jail free card.  If you’re going to employ such metaphors you need to be accountable for tying it to some deeper meaning that can be extracted.

Some metaphors have old associations and can contain unfortunate vestiges.  Sometimes deliberate, maybe other times accidental.

They can tie us to paternalistic and chauvinistic ways of thinking, thereby marginalizing women.

Perhaps speaking of light as good and darkness as bad may have worked well in a homogenous culture.  But it can lead to bad connotations in a diverse culture with people of varying hues.

Some metaphors find themselves in the middle of culture wars as weapons to criticize and marginalize others.  For example an emphasis on “purity” as a positive virtue suggests that others are somehow impure, dirty or flawed. Not a very sex positive message.

Working together we can help ensure we are more sensitive about our metaphors.

Now while bad metaphors confuse from the start, what’s often more dangerous is good metaphors taken too far.  The concept of a computer virus works well at a high level, but when you get into the details of dealing with computer viruses the techies will likely find other metaphors more appropriate.   If they take the virus thing too far, they will mess up your computer.

Quantum mechanics is one of the weirdest things to come out of the twentieth century. It is so weird that Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of the theory, eventually concluded that it was fundamentally incomprehensible.  Some of the smartest guys on the planet try to understand quantum physics through metaphor.  Richard Feynman (one of the greatest) famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.    But many with limited exposure presume to understand quantum physics expanding upon it and positing all kinds of links between space, time, the universe, intentionality, spiritual realms and you name it.  Why don’t most serious physicists get caught up in the weird stuff and making grand sweeping pronouncements like these folks.   It’s because the Physicist don’t take their metaphors to extremes.  They know all metaphors are flawed when taken too far.  They don’t believe or expect these strange relationships to hold when you take it beyond the quantum level.   They listen to their colleagues who let them know when they’ve gone too far.

Summing up.

We need to watch our metaphors and make sure we don’t take them where they shouldn’t go.  Discussing our metaphors with others who hold differing views can help us keep them on track and protect us from over extending.

Metaphors are important to us, community is important to us.  I think we must have more interplay amongst our metaphors within our community.

I’ll be honest.  I’m often like Amelia Bedelia.  There are many metaphors I just don’t get.  In many cases I’d like to have a better understanding of others views.  But it is hard to share our views with those who don’t value them.  But understanding has to come before valuing.  Pretending to value and appreciate something you really don’t yet understand is patronizing and dismissive not respectful and accepting.

Please share your metaphors with me. I’ll share mine.  Let’s question each other, let’s be open to challenge, let’s probe their respective values, let’s all be open to change, let’s all strive for mutual growth, let’s look at our metaphors through the eyes of others, but also let us be willing to disagree, let us expect that we will be moved by differing metaphors, let us accept when our paths diverge, and may we  all grow a bountiful garden of useful meaningful metaphors.

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Additional material

Kids Part

You guys can do so much stuff and understand an awful lot.  It’s amazing.  How did you manage to learn so much in such a short time.  You were just a helpless baby not long ago.   One thing that helped you learn a lot is using metaphors.  That means you are able to understand new things by relating them to other things you understand.

Computer Virus.  Do you know what that is.  A lot of people that don’t understand much about computers can get their hands around that, because they know about viruses.  That’s a metaphor.  But  there are even more simple metaphors.

You know how you can catch someone?  Well you can also catch a fish, catch a ball, catch someone sneaking a cookie, catch what someone said, catch a nap, catch your breath, catch onto an idea, catch on fire, or catch me later.  Once you know about catching you can apply it to all types of things.  Though catching a ball is very different than catching on fire. Similarly you can drop a ball or you can drop what you’re doing.  These are metaphors-things that are alike but different too.

What does it mean when you beat someone?  I hope it doesn’t mean you beat them with a fist or stick. It could mean you beat them at a game.  If ____ says he beat up his brother this morning I hope it means he got up at  7 o’clock and his brother slept till 8.

So metaphors are helpful but can be confusing too.  We’ll read read a book about someone who is very confused by some metaphors.

Did you like the story?  Sometimes people have a hard time understanding other peoples metaphors.  How can you catch fish?  Hook, nets, speak, traps, … Well in Jesus’s time they would catch fish by lowering nets over the side of ships and they would pull them up full of fish.  Jesus told his followers he would make them fishers of men.  That was a pretty good metaphor for them.  But if you came from a place where people catch fish by stabbing them with a spear…  it might not be such a good metaphor.  So sometimes we have to work to understand each other’s metaphors.

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Intro to the Service

The Great Leap-

Some say a great leap occurred around 50,000 years ago. In this great leap we became behaviorally modern human beings capable of forming cultures with elaborate social structures, language, religion, art,  creativity, scientific thought, music, myth, and humor.  What was it that enabled our ancestors to make the great leap?  Probably not our thumbs, or our upright posture, or even our big brains.

At about the same time as the Great Leap, our close relative the Neanderthals were dying out.  The Neanderthals were tool users, with bigger cranial capacity. Our brainer but less successful cousins.  The Neanderthals may have spoken a language that was a mix between  music and speech.    This hypothetical Neanderthal  lingual system is said to have been  holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic so it is sometimes called ‘hmmmmm’

What distinguished our ancestors from the Neanderthals was the separation of a “Hmmmmm” type language into the two systems of communication.   Music and  language.  This separation  most likely occurred  in our African ancestors at the beginning of the great leap. The appearance of compositional language would have had a profound impact on our human capabilities. It lead to our capacity for metaphor.  The capacity for metaphor gives us the potential for explosive growth.  It enables us to understand new things by referring  to other things we already understand.   The capacity for metaphor underlies advancement in art, science and religion.

While we call to mind the unfortunate loss of our amazing cousins with their musical language, let us also rejoice in our acquisition of the great gift of metaphor.  May the lighting of this candle call to mind the illuminations, understandings and advancements that can be brought about through well chosen metaphors.

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Welcome to Atheist Sermons!

This site is a repository for various writings from a naturalistic world view.  The writings will focus on  thoughts of value that spring from a an atheistic perspective  The author’s perspective is largely that, “This world is so wonderful, we don’t need a bunch of made up stuff confusing things”.

My very first and favorite “Atheist Sermon” provides additional  background and can be found at this link:

http://truthdriven.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/sermon-beliefs-of-a-non-believer/

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