Unitarian “Sermon”: One Humanist Perspective

The “sermon” I gave today at the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston:

Update: Video of my talk is now online here and the church has uploaded audio here.

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When Jeff asked me about a month ago for the title of my talk today, I gave him the title “One Humanist Perspective”. I intentionally kept the title generic, for one because I hadn’t started writing it yet, but also because I wanted to touch on a few different things that I’ve picked up over the years, and things I’ve personally found to be useful, while also tying those in to how they relate to humanism and the work we do at Humanists of Houston.

But as for why I specifically titled it “One Humanist Perspective”, I wanted to make it clear that when it comes to Humanism, there are many perspectives and no one definitive humanist position on a given issue. There are no holy scriptures to consult, no divine edicts to reference, not even really any “rules” per-se, and certainly no commandments. We do have the three humanist manifestos, but the authors of that had the same thought, as they specifically chose to title it “A Humanist Manifesto”.

So I tend to think of Humanism as being more about principles to live by and goals to strive for, in the best way that one possibly can with the means they have available. And while I can’t speak for Humanism as a whole, I can give my personal take on a few things that hopefully, some of you might find useful as well.

As a lifelong agnostic atheist who was never raised to be for or against religion, or even really exposed to it all while growing up outside of what you can’t help but pick up on from popular culture, I’ve come to realize just how abnormal an upbringing that is for someone who was born and raised in Texas.

And perhaps I should clarify what I mean when I say I’m both an atheist and agnostic. By agnostic I simply mean that I don’t know if a god exists or not, and it may even be ultimately unknowable one way or the other. As any good skeptic should be, I’m certainly open to the possibility, should compelling evidence ever be discovered. But I’m also an atheist in the sense that I simply don’t have a belief in the existence of any gods—quite literally an absence of theism—and on the whole I find the notion that no gods exist to be far more likely.

Anyway it really wasn’t until I was an adult, and began to learn about religions and really expose myself to them firsthand for the first time, that I came to find out about some of the popular misconceptions of a non-theistic worldview, particularly some of the perceived shortcomings that I never even knew existed, much less how widely held they are.

I remember one time I was visiting a conservative Christian church a few years ago, and the pastor said to the congregation, “You know how you’ve always felt that something wasn’t quite right with this world, and that this world isn’t where you’re supposed to be? Well that’s because it’s God’s way of telling every one of us that we don’t really belong in this world, and heaven is where we all truly belong.” I was pretty baffled by this, since I couldn’t say I had ever felt that way before, but I later came to find out that this was a prevalent theme in modern day evangelical Christianity, and one which I continued to hear repeated at other churches that I visited.

Taylor Muse, lead singer of the band Quiet Company, picked up on this when he chose the name of their 2011 album “We Are All Where Belong”. And on the song “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd”, he wrote: “luckily I held out long enough to see that everybody really makes their own destiny. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s just you and me, exactly where we belong”. From my standpoint, of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that I should feel any other way.

So what about the Humanist view on death, and the afterlife? I’m shocked sometimes to hear people say that if there’s no afterlife, our existence on Earth must somehow be pointless. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. The more I’ve come to the personal conclusion that I don’t believe in an afterlife, the greater the appreciation I’ve found for the life I have now, and the more precious I find every moment to be. And the more I try my best to make a positive contribution to the world while I still can. After all if there’s no afterlife in the supernatural sense, the only afterlife we have comes from the impact that we had on other people’s lives in the limited time we had.

Of course, when it comes to misconceptions about those with no beliefs in Gods, there’s nothing bigger than the idea that you simply can’t have morality unless it comes from a higher power. In one recent poll of Americans, when asked if it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person, a jaw dropping 45% responded “Yes”.

But I never even realized that this was “a thing”, so to speak, until high school when I heard someone make that claim for the first time. But even well before I understood the evolutionary roots of morality, before I learned that even babies, and even some animals, demonstrate an innate sense of right and wrong, and certainly before I had studied anything about philosophy or humanistic ethics, it had simply never occurred to me that believing in God might be a prerequisite to being a moral person.

And yet despite how widely held this misconception is, the reality is that atheists are dramatically underrepresented in the U.S. prison population, according to some measures by a factor of ten-to-one. That the least religious states in the U.S. are also those with the least crime. And that the countries in the world with the lowest levels of traditional religion are also those with the lowest crime, highest levels of happiness, and highest standards of living in the world, as sociologist Phil Zuckerman discusses thoroughly in his book “Society Without God”.

In a way, traditional religious morality says “God exists, so you must behave morally”, whereas humanistic morality says “If God doesn’t exist, we must behave morally”. Because without a divine overseer to enact cosmic judgement, and without the possibility of miracles to help save those in need, that leaves the onus on humans to help each other and try our best to make the world a better place, because if we don’t then nobody else will.

Certainly at the core of Humanism is not simply living a naturalistic worldview based on science and reason, but also one which is built on empathy, compassion, and a sense of reciprocity that influences everything you do. The Golden Rule is prevalent throughout the history of religious and philosophical belief systems, and humanism is certainly no exception, and for good reason, as empathy and reciprocity form the foundation of virtually all moral systems, religious or otherwise.

So what might a humanist perspective on the Golden Rule look like? Well in Western culture the version we’re all most familiar with is from the Bible, where Jesus says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Which differs slightly from the form which preceded the New Testament, particularly in Eastern religions and Greek philosophy which tended to focus on the avoidance of harm, essentially “do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you”, also sometimes known as “the silver rule”.

But both versions are not without their limitations. To do the most good in the world calls for far more than simply minimizing the amount of harm you do, whereas the Golden Rule of the New Testament can also be used to justify the imposition of your personal beliefs and desires onto others, even when it may not be what they want for themselves. And it’s certainly unfortunate that countless atrocities have been committed under the aegis of the Golden Rule when taken to its logical conclusion.

That’s what prompted the coining of the term “the Platinum Rule”, which resolves both limitations by saying, “you should do unto others as they would want done to themselves”. But it’s not hard to see where that can be problematic as well, for example if a child doesn’t want to receive a potentially life-saving vaccine, or if someone wants you to treat them in a way that you would consider unethical. And, of course, all three of these versions are essentially at odds with the very notion of a legal justice system, since taken to its logical conclusion we would essentially have no choice but to pardon anyone who is ever accused of any crime. As we can see, it’s simply not possible to follow any one of version of the Golden Rule without breaking it–not out of any moral weakness, but sometimes out of moral necessity.

Which is why Humanism isn’t so much about adhering to any particular set of rules as it is about following a set of principles, and trying to always make the best moral judgments you can in any given situation. And there’s nothing about humanism that says you can’t draw from the moral traditions of any of history’s religions or philosophies, and incorporate the best ideas they have to offer into the principles you choose to live by. That was the thought process behind humanist philosopher AC Grayling’s book, “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible” (again, note the “A”) which is modeled after the Christian Bible but also draws from “the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions”.

Another traditional theological concept I was never taught growing up was the notion of everything happening according to a divine plan, whether through the literal hand of god, or through some kind of cosmic fate. Humanism doesn’t have that. But the lack of such a component also resolves another problem with traditional theistic morality that you don’t hear much about, but is ultimately pretty problematic when you think about it. And that is the notion that since everything is happening according to some divine plan, then even the most horrific suffering must somehow be intended to serve that higher purpose (whether as a test of one’s resolve, to impart some kind of greater life lessons, or some other mysterious purpose). Which, if true, would not only mean it is potentially justified to stand by indifferently while someone is undergoing that suffering, but it could even be considered immoral to intervene since doing so may actually be going against that divine plan.

Now fortunately, nobody in the real world ever takes this dilemma to its logical conclusion in such a way, and virtually everyone, regardless of religious belief, holds at least some sense of desire to help those in need. But that isn’t to say that this issue has no effect on how people think and behave in the real world. For example, studies have shown empirically that when people believe in what has been termed a “just world”–meaning that they believe some kind of supernatural justice exists, whether in the form of a deity pulling the strings, or supernatural concepts such as fate or karma—they are actually, on average, LESS likely to be sympathetic towards those who have experienced hardship or suffering, even when that suffering is the result of factors they had no control over such as natural disasters.

Whether on a conscious level or not, it appears that there’s a natural inclination to rationalize other people’s suffering as potentially all being part of the divine plan, or perhaps part of the punishment that they’re receiving for prior transgressions. But Humanism offers no such “out” which might be used to excuse indifference to the suffering of others.

Some of you have probably seen this image before:

Now I would have probably used the word “nationalism” instead of patriotism, but the message is clear: Why should someone hold a sense of undue preference for something they had no role in choosing? But as many times as I’ve seen this meme, I’ve never seen an equivalent one for other aspects of a person’s self that were equally if not more unchosen. For example, aspects such as race, ethnicity, gender, and even in many parts of the world, religion. And it’s understandable why; while it’s not hard to immediately “get” what this is saying when it pertains to a simple accident of geography, it feels strange to even think about those other things in such a way, considering just how intertwined aspects such as race and gender are with one’s personal sense of “being”, even if they were ultimately no less random or arbitrary.

Now to be clear, this is not to suggest that the unique individual perspectives of those from specific backgrounds are any less valid, simply because they had no choice in the matter. Particularly when it comes to those who have experienced persecution or discrimination firsthand, only they can speak from such a position of lived experience that nobody else truly can.

But take myself, for instance. I happened to be born male, and logically speaking those who were born male should be no more likely to be against feminism and no less likely to fight for feminist ideals simply because of that accident of fate. But unfortunately the reality is quite different. While thankfully the feminist label has become increasingly embraced by both men and women, with many prominent men now joining the ranks of the powerful female voices in the feminist movement, the world of so-called Men’s Rights Activism (and yes, that actually is a real thing) which vehemently opposes feminist ideals, perhaps unsurprisingly consists almost exclusively of young men, particularly young men from highly privileged backgrounds.

And unsurprisingly, the same pattern holds true with pretty much every single other social justice movement, where those from a diverse set of backgrounds are in support of equality for the oppressed groups, and those in opposition consist of an incredibly narrow band of the demographic spectrum, specifically the one in the position of privilege which feels threatened by the specter of equality that the social justice movement represents. Would that be so true if those particular individuals truly accepted the fact that they had absolutely no choice in their own personal demographic makeup, and that they just as easily could have been born as members of those oppressed groups themselves? I don’t know.

But this notion doesn’t just apply to physical characteristics. Ultimately, even the person that you happened to be was decided by chance. The parents you happened to be born from, the body you happen to occupy, and even the brain that you happen to possess, all of these were essentially random accidents just as much as the country you happened to be born in. And while I realize this sounds a lot like an argument on freewill, this holds true even if you believe in the notion of “true” free will or in the transcendental soul, since after all you just as easily could have been born with a different soul.

Now one might ask how this pertains specifically to Humanism, as opposed to any other particular religious tradition, many of which also share similar themes of empathy and selflessness. And my answer to that is, I think it’s a bit more difficult if not impossible to truly recognize the utterly arbitrary and random nature of the life circumstances that you were born into under traditional theological notions of everything being part of a pre-ordained divine plan, or in some other way an inevitability of fate itself.

But recognizing that ultimately even the very concept of “you” being you was largely a roll of the dice, not just in terms of physical characteristics, not even just specific personality traits, but even the totality of what actually makes you “you”, makes one realize that you quite literally could have been anyone else, and that there is really no rational justification to preferentially place your own well-being and desires over anyone else’s, which is really not entirely unlike the flower pointing at another and saying “my pot is better than yours”, except in this case the pot doesn’t represent the country you were born in, but the person you happened to be. That to me represents true empathy, not just putting yourself into another person’s shoes, but actually putting yourself into another person’s self, and the recognition that the feelings and needs of others are no less valuable than your own.

Earlier we heard astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s take on another of the most common misconceptions regarding the humanistic worldview; the notion that without a belief in the divine, one simply can’t have true meaning or purpose in life. And while it wasn’t so much the focus of my talk today, the importance of scientific knowledge and of striving for a deeper understanding of the natural world is also certainly a core component of Humanism, and much like Dr. Tyson, I’ve also found that the more I learn about how the world works, the more enriching the experience of it becomes.

But if I had to pick the one thing that I‘ve found gives me the greatest sense of meaning and purpose in life, I would have to say it’s through advancing the cause of Humanism through communities such as Humanists of Houston. And I’ll share with you here a few of the ways we’ve tried to go about doing that.

One way is by focusing on more “traditional” humanist causes, by hosting guest speakers such as:

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Zack Kopplin, a Rice University student and secular activist dedicated to promoting the teaching of real science in public schools, and challenging legislation that is trying to undermine that.

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Taylor Muse, the aforementioned lead singer of Quiet Company, who shared with us—for the first time ever before an audience—his journey from Christian songwriter to religious skeptic, and eventually the headliner of the American Atheists’ National Convention in 2013.

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Daniel Moran, who ran for Texas State Representative as an open atheist, open bisexual, and open genderqueer, which was unprecedented in the history of Texas politics, if not national politics.

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And Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, an open atheist who was born and raised in Iraq, then obtained asylum in the U.S. after receiving death threats and founded the Global Secular Humanist Movement, which is now the largest online humanist community in the world.

But in addition to the guest speakers we host, we’ve also recently turned an eye towards greater community involvement through volunteering and activism.

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For example through our monthly collaborations with Atheists Helping the Homeless, where we’ve raised and distributed toiletries and other essential supplies for hundreds of homeless individuals.

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We recently held a fundraiser for Camp Quest Texas, a summer camp for children of humanist families, where we raised over $3,000 dollars which turned out to be the most ever raised by a local organization in a single year.

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We’ve held a series of demonstrations outside of the Saudi Arabian Consulate, to protest the sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 public lashes, simply for the crime of advocating secular and progressive views online.

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We participated in a demonstration outside the Mexican Consulate, in support of families of the 43 missing students from the 2014 mass kidnapping in Iguala.

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We also participated in a series of demonstrations as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to the string of incidents of police misconduct and injustices that have disproportionately affected the black community throughout the country.

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And most recently, just as BAUUC did we expressed our support for the ongoing fight for LGBT rights as we had a booth and a float in the Houston Pride Parade for the first time.

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Through events and activities such as these, we’ve made a conscious effort to make clear that we’re not just an atheist organization, or even an atheist organization per-se—nor are we an anti-religious organization, but rather one which is focused more on the promoting the humanistic values that we do believe in, rather than the supernatural ones that we don’t.

Thank you.

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