A Silent Pulpit
The following is a summary of the presentation made by Law Professor Edwin B. Firmage at the February meeting of the Humanists of Utah
The ideal relationship between church and state is a tough proposition. In the past, horrendous crimes were committed in the name of the church, such as when St. Augustine interpreted Jesus’ words to mean “Force them to come in.”.. Because of the violent past, our country’s founders insisted upon a distance between church and state. However, the First Amendment right to free speech, we must also remember not to violate the third Commandment, that being taking the name of the Lord in vain. Some of the direct consequences of our concept of law come from fundamental religious notions, such as the idea of inherent human rights as embodied in our Bill of Rights. Then there’s the bearing of false witness, slander, the taking of oaths, mens rea (or criminal intent) and defilement. The legacy of “the importance of the individual” comes from the era of Enlightenment, which demanded reforms.
If we study our history, during the 1960’s, the Civil Rights Movement originated in the southern churches. I personally favor the clergy who marched with Martin Luther King for human rights. There are vicious happenings in the world which the church should be actively speaking out against. It’s sad that the influence and muscle of the church is used to fight such insignificant things as betting on horse races, liquor laws, and the like. Churches should be pulpit-pounding for more spiritual and moral issues, such as protecting our environment, reducing military spending, improving social programs such as education, and working for world peace. These are the subjects that are matters of faith and morals. The condition of our spirituality has more to do with the well-being of our environment than with opposing sex education, gambling and liquor laws.
We humans are vastly interconnected and must not be circumscribed by our own personal families. We should ask ourselves, “Who are our brothers and sisters?” There are gross injustices going on in the world, such as nuclear threats, inequitable economies, civil rights violations, and mass hunger. We must see the larger picture of humanity by saying to ourselves, “My humanity is larger than myself, larger than my religion, larger than my ethnicity, and larger than my gender.”
St. Francis Assisi, know as the patron Saint of the environment, had a deep reverence for the animals of the world. He conversed with the birds, and felt respect for the earth. After having many experiences with nature, I myself question the difference between the organic and the inorganic. How does on distinguish a plant from the soil in which it grows? We are all part of an ecosystem, and we should be spokespersons for the ecosystem, and not subjugate the animals or the earth to us, nor destroy it. In very few things are we humans unique. The pulpit in the civic square should address the environment and social problems of the day. The essence of humanism is not to concern ourselves with how we define God and kill each other because of our differences, but to concern ourselves with our brothers and sisters of the world, and attempt to make our heaven here on earth.
The church has traditionally feared anything new. I honestly differ with church authorities on the subjects of sex., the ERA, abortion and women holding the priesthood. I would love to see the time when churches take a stand and put the Earth in the forefront of their liturgy, where they invest themselves in the concept of one system of life, where there is no line dividing gender, race, religion, and animal, and where the oneness of humanity is emphasized. I would like to see a time when countries do not concern themselves with petty ethnic divisions, but rather with our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We simply cannot afford to ignore our ecosystems with thermal nuclear war at hand. We must see the larger picture of humanity if we want to survive.
We are taking God’s name in vain when we consciously exclude gays from a hate bill, when we vote against public housing, and when we fail to feed our hungry children in school. We must no longer have a silent pulpit on these types of social issues. Religions must not confine themselves to piety. They must open up to larger concerns such as recognizing the need for day care centers and public housing. They must work toward reducing the military budget and increase social spending for much needed projects such as highway repair. They must work toward eliminating racism; reduce poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. They must also provide for quality education, and eliminate war as a means of solving problems. These are the matters of faith and morals we should be concerning ourselves with. As the saying goes, “We must think globally and act locally.” We can accomplish this by putting pressure on the public person, and by encouraging an active, not a silent pulpit.
The faculty of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.
At a recent LDX-Evergreen meeting, I heard Brigham Young University anthropologist explain how he kept his LDS faith in spite of the knowledge he has of science. I was amazed at the lengths he went to in justifying and rationalizing his position. He is a fifth generation Mormon (that means that his ancestry dates from the beginnings of the church and carries with it an injunction to maintain belief and not betray that heritage) with close relatives who are or have been in leadership positions (this too carries that obligation).
Attending the meeting were a number of people who had left the church or who had become inactive because they no longer believed in it. A dialogue between the two took place. What I remember most was the depth of feeling that these people felt as the discussion proceeded. I sensed deep anger and hurt, a sense that they had been betrayed, lied to, and then cut off and ostracized. More importantly, they were having great difficulty getting past that hurt and anger. But when he said that he had no problem with evolution because “that was the way God chose to create man,” I concluded that he had more reasons to maintain belief than was apparent in his explanations, and I couldn’t make sense of it.
As I left, I recalled another instance last year when I heard another well educated man talk of his journey of faith. After than meeting, as I walked home with Ed Wilson, I asked what he thought of it, and Ed replied, “It sounded more like a journey of adaptation than a search for truth.” As usual, Ed got to the heart of the matter. For some, maybe there are some things more important than the search for truth.
In the next week, Ed Wilson has as his guest for a day, the editor of the International Humanist, the journal of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Don Page. Don was here to interview Ed for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the IHEU, in which Ed had an important part. There were a couple of free hours in the afternoon, and Don wanted to see what was important in Salt Lake City. We went to Temple Square, and I attempted to explain the history and theology of Mormonism. We also went to the top of the Administration building, and since it was a clear day we had a good view of the valley. Don Page is primarily a scientist, and as I explained, in general terms, what goes on in the temple, ending with baptism for the dead, I saw that he had a look of incredulity and astonishment. I have grown up with the whole thing, but at that moment I realized how ridiculous this could appear to an outsider. How to make sense out of it all? One can, if one looks at it as a whole, as an all-encompassing system which envelopes its members in an “all questions answered” theology, a “just obey and you will be saved” theocracy, constantly reinforced and justified by repetitive temple ritual.
We kept meeting several young lady missionaries who cheerfully offered to answer questions, give us a tour, or a Book of Mormon tape. They all looked the same: a well scrubbed look, dressed similarly, and wearing a dark blue overcoat. They seemed to be possessed of a self-assurance that comes from having complete confidence in the rightness of their cause. (I know, I was once a missionary myself.) As we walked away, we met a crowd of people coming out of a gate carrying small suitcases, having been in the Temple. They all had that same look. I then commented to Don, “Humanism can provide as complete and satisfying belief system as the LDS church, and it can make people just as happy as those people coming from the temple!”
I went on to explain that if LDS missionaries can find someone who believes in God and the Bible, they can build on that and make a convert. Doesn’t the supposition naturally follow that humanism could be able to find common belief based on science, build on that and make converts?
Later on that week, I read an article in the newsletter of the San Jose, California chapter of the AHA. We exchange newsletters. That chapter is one of the most successful of all AHA chapters, and associates with Stanford University. They hold many social events, weekly meetings and lectures, and have a large membership supporting the chapter. It could serve as a model for own chapter. This is the article:
The honest critic is a friend. William Whalen, a respected Catholic author, proves to be such a friend in his Faiths for the Few, a book which received the authoritative blessings of his church when it was published. Humanism, like Buddhism, is a non-theistic religion, a religion without a God, the supernatural, or sacred scriptures — a comprehensive and integrated way of life which includes the shared quest of ideals, and the celebration of existence. Humanists are confident that theirs is the religion of the future. The laboratory will one day provide the answers which people have sought in revelation and sacred books. Service to others will replace service to God as the ethical ideal. humanists will learn to concentrate on living to the fullest in this life, easing its pain, contributing to its art and beauty. For the moment humanists must face the realities of life, and its financial demands. Despite the impressive roster of humanists in science and the arts, the roll call of the American Humanists Association is shorter than many Catholic parishes. Humanism is supposed to inspire people to overcome [social ills], but it seems to convert many into freelancers who care little about spreading humanism, or helping the person next door. The potential for organized secular humanism is enormous, but whether the existing humanist groups will be able to tap this potential is doubtful. [Edited to eliminate repetition and sexist language.]
The article further reads:
I accept everything my good Catholic colleague points out. Indeed, our chapter takes these critical words as a challenge: the growing list of names on this page, the activities in this newsletter, and the kind of honest self-criticism Suzanne Paul will share with us this month — all augur well for the future of humanism. We’ve moved from free-lancing to community. Look out, Whalen, here we come!
This was partly an answer to my earlier questions. Humanism can provide a “comprehensive and integrated way of life.”
Last week Ed Wilson loaned me his copy of Towards a Better World, by Mikhael S. Gorbachev, which is one of his speeches from 1987. Ed had marked a passage which he thought should be used in the Journal:
Man rose above all other living creatures on earth on the wings of humanism. Today, five billion people living on this planet need humanism more than anything else. They need it for establishing good neighborly relations between individuals and states. The fostering of a new way of thinking is, in my opinion, instrumental in bringing about a radical turn in the life of the world community. Revolutions always begin in the mind. The way to save civilization and life itself does not lie in thinking up new technologies for ever more accurate and lethal weapon systems, but rather in liberating the mind from prejudices–political and social, national and racial–from arrogance, self-conceit and the cult of force and violence.
I believe that humanism will do what Gorbachev wants it to do. Can organized humanism have a part in bringing these changes to pass?
What do these serendipitous events mean to me? My conclusion is that the general theme concerned belief systems.
We all have a belief system. It begins at birth, and continues until we die. It contains basic information about our identity, and helps us make sense of the world around us, among many things. Religion can take up much of it, especially if it is as complete a system as the LDS theology. Because of that it is very difficult to leave, and when someone does there is a great void, and that can be the source of a lot of feelings, negative and positive.
For most of us here, humanism took the place of religion, and we incorporated that in a new belief system. My suggestion that humanism come up with a missionary plan is naive and foolish. Nothing will ever come of it because humanism can’t be defined that way. A humanist’s belief system is personal and individual, and can’t be dictated. We can’t say: “This is what you should believe,” nor should we even try.
A study of history can lead to the conclusion that the very movement of civilization will lead to humanism. However, as a new convert, I still have to ask the question: “Isn’t there some way we can help people build a humanistic belief system?”
Building a New Belief System
For the last three years I have taught a class at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City called “Building Your Own Theology.” The title of the course might make some agnostic humanists a little apprehensive, but the words theology, and religion are defined so broadly that it can encompass Humanism. The values of freedom to use ones experience and reason to examine religious belief, the right to choose ones beliefs, and tolerance toward the beliefs of others is at the very center of the course, and have characterized the Unitarian tradition for 500 years. The Unitarian church embraces pluralism, and it has made humanists like me quite at home.
The majority of people who attend the class are “come outers.” That is, they have become disaffected with the church or religion they were born into, and have left looking for something else. With the collapse of their religious faith, and alienation from their church, many people sense a void in their life, and they come seeking to fill it. Others, who were not raised with a church and its creed, also sense something amiss and come searching.
My experience suggests that people need a belief system to function. Beliefs are conclusions we have drawn from our experience of the world. They are the bedrock to which we anchor our lives. They help us decide toward which ends we shall live our lives, and what values and principles will enlighten our journey. Without beliefs, there is a kind of paralysis: we need beliefs to get on with our lives. I also observe that some beliefs are better than others. Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe that science and rationality are important instruments to use in this examining process, and that our conclusions must be consistent with our own personal experience of life.
The course begins with each person sharing the story of their own religious odyssey. For many, it is the first time that their story can be heard, and understood about why they no longer can believe in the ancient creeds. Each person discovers that there are others who share their doubts, and that they are not alone. Being heard and understood provides affirmation, and courage to continue the quest. A feeling of trust, concern for others and community often grows out of this experience.
The course mostly employs a discussion and sharing format of instruction. What happens in the course is very much dependent on what the individual participants bring to the group. Some topics discussed are human nature, God, ultimate reality, ethics, suffering, death, immortality, truth, authority, history, justice, good, evil, eschatology and meaning.
I like the course because it goes well beyond helping each participant discover what they do not believe. It helps them build and be able to articulate a core of possible beliefs. I am always fascinated by what kind of beliefs each individual will choose for themselves when given the opportunity of free inquiry. Most of the participants build belief systems that are skeptical of the supernatural, center their lives in this life rather than an after life, and place their hopes for the future in human endeavor.
I don’t believe the course proselytizes humanism, but in spite of this, most participants would probably feel comfortable with views expressed in the Humanist Manifesto II. I observe that the course helps people make a transition; it doesn’t make converts. People don’t come to this course unless they have leanings in this direction already. I believe it is a good course for anyone examining humanist beliefs, and I extend an invitation to all who read this article.
Theology? What Theology?
I refuse to have a theology. A theology involves assumptions about beings in a different dimension, things which cannot be perceived with the senses and I refuse to make such assumptions. I have a life-stance. Fortunately, I never needed to get rid of a family religion in order to get to that.
My parents were non-religious but very tolerant about it. When I wanted to go to church with my best friend they gave me the room to make up my own mind. I liked Sunday School, I even participated in the Christmas play, but after a year or so I decided that I couldn’t hear any God talk to me, and that it was silly to pretend.
I am a secular humanist. Before I came to America I thought that there could be no such thing as a religious humanist (that would be an internal contradiction), but I found out that I was wrong. Apparently, if you start out with a religion, and then strip away all the supernatural hogwash there will something left when you’re done, something like reverence or spirituality. I cannot talk about feelings like that because I don’t think I’ve ever had them; there have been moments of heightened perception, of everything fitting together, but I couldn’t call that religious.
The “fundamental” questions: whether there are gods, what is our purpose in life, etc., to me are non-starters, because they cannot be proven one way or another. I’d rather get my bearings from some facts we can all agree on:
- I am alive, here and now (and so are you)
- I will be dead in the foreseeable future (and so will you)
- I am unique in time and space (and so are you)
- Rules that involve both you and me should be based on reciprocity: I should not expect you to suffer what I don’t like myself, and vice-versa.
Those facts provide me with an outer limit of ethics, a set of rules that allows me to judge the conditions I find around me with enough goals to spend my life on.
–Mr. Anne Zielstra
My Journey to Humanism
I told a colleague of mind once that if it wasn’t for my belief in the Book of Mormon, I’d be an atheist. Science caused me to start questioning my religious beliefs. Isaac Asimov’s book, In The Beginning…Science Faces God in the Book of Genesis was very instrumental in opening my eyes to the first eleven chapters of Genesis. I had already dismissed the stories of Adam and Eve, the Flood of Noah, and the Tower of Babel as ancient myths. I cam to realize that not accepting these ancient stories as factual events created major problems in accepting the factual events created major problems in accepting the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and other LDS scriptures and writings.
I came in contact with some secular humanist literature, and then subscribed to Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. I decided I was a humanist at this point. I joined the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism as an Associate Member. Later I found a copy of the Humanist in the Uintah County Library, and sent for a membership and subscription. Then I received a letter from Anne Zeilstra informing me that I was not the only humanist in Utah. Would I be interested in joining the newly formed Humanists of Utah?
Only recently have I listened closely to the words of John Lennon’s song Imagine. It sounds like a pretty good humanist song to me:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
First Annual Membership Meeting
The first annual meeting of the Humanists of Utah was held February 20, 1992, and was attended by more than 50% of our membership. A brief history of the American Humanist Association was given by Ed Wilson, and the background of the founding of the Humanists of Utah was presented by Anne Zeilstra. Bob Green summarized the first year operations of our monthly Journal. Our Bylaws were reviewed and amended, and our first election of officers was conducted.
Edwin H. Wilson (Ed) told the fascinating story of today’s American Humanist Association being the result of a schism in the Unitarian Church during the early years of the 1900’s when several Unitarian ministers heading parishes in the western states began a movement to remove references to God from official Unitarian publications. He said the Unitarian officials in Boston referred to the movement as “The Western Problem.” When Unitarian headquarters moved too slowly to resolve the dispute, the Western Unitarian leaders decided to call themselves humanists, but maintained a loose affiliation with the Unitarian Association. Ed became a leader in the humanist movement, and eventually left his position of minister to the Unitarian Congregation in Salt Lake City, and moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio where he founded the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Inc. Ed’s talk made us all more knowledgeable of the history of humanism, and he was encouraged by those present to write a book detailing the brief outline he presented.
A sense of isolation motivated Anne Zeilstra to get the Humanists of Utah started. He related his family’s difficulty finding meaningful relationships upon moving to Salt Lake City. He said the people they met seemed to be totally involved in church related activities, making it impossible to develop significant communications with them. He told of contacting the A.H.A. and asking for a list of members in Utah. This led to his connecting with Ed Wilson, and the planning of a public meeting to see if local members of AHA and others were interested in forming a Utah chapter. Interest was generated, and today we have 46-members plus seven additional subscribers to the Utah Humanist journal. And the Zeilstra family now has many people with which they can have a relaxed friendship.
Bob Green told of his plans to solicit a variety of writers for future issues of our Journal, writers who will challenge us with issues of vital concern to humanists, and to a better understanding of humanism. Bob reports his making contacts at the University of Utah to find speakers who will explore humanistic ideas at our monthly meetings.
Amendments to our Bylaws were proposed, discussed and adopted that clarify the roles of elected officials and members of the Board. Annual auditing of the treasurer’s books was made mandatory. Appointments by the board of an editor for Journal, an historian, and a librarian were approved, as were Standing Committees and Ad Hoc committees as needed. The nominating procedure was clarified and election by secret ballot was made mandatory. The open discussion resulted in Chapter Bylaws that could very well become a model of clarity for other chapters of AHA, as well as other organizations.
Officers elected for one year terms are: President, Florien Wineriter; Vice President, Bob Green; Treasurer, Anna Hoagland; Secretary, Anne Zeilstra; Board members, Richard Layton, Martha Stewart and Edwin Wilson.
The social hour following the business meeting provided an opportunity for members to get better acquainted and exchange ideas for attracting new members, and enhancing the influence of humanism in our local community.
History is What We Make of It
I am somewhat pessimist about the future because I believe people have been lulled to sleep in this century. They believe that progress is automatic, that God is in his heaven and all is well; and that everything will turn out for the best. I concur with William James when he said, “In times like these, God has no business hanging around heaven.”
We have no guarantees whatsoever, and there are no guarantees that history is on our side. History is what we make of it. We have the freedom to choose one way or another. It is an open-ended affair, and no supernatural power says things are going to turn out fine. There is a necessity for us to believe that we must depend on ourselves. It will take our independence, our interdependence, our struggle and our wisdom to fight for the right.
In the long run we stand a chance of winning if we don’t just coast along, but take the attitude that we must fight the good fight, and make wise choices. The future is as free as we make it.
Sterling McMurrin, Ph.D.
Memorial Luncheon Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 20, 1992, Salt Lake City, UT
Every once in awhile, I read something that reminds me of how far I have journeyed from the confusing world of religion. An article in the December edition of Time Magazine made me aware of the giant leap I have taken.
The cover story was on Mary, mother of God, or Jesus, or both. It related how more and more people around the world are worshiping her, and as a result, arguments regarding her virginity, status and sexuality are rising to extraordinary levels. The religious feminists and liberals want to interpret Mary as a co-redeemer, and an independent human activist raring to jump off her sacred pedestal. Whereas the traditionalists want to keep her as a passive, non-sexual handmaiden of God’s will. And there are other arguments arising as to whether Mary was really immaculately conceived by her mother; whether Christ was miraculously conceived by Mary; and whether Mary was a perpetual virgin throughout her life, even though there are indications that she had other children.
After reading the article, I tried to relate it as tongue-in-cheek as I could to my husband (who was washing dishes). About half way through the discourse, he interrupted me with a “nip it in the bud” question:
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not talking about hell. I’m talking about heaven,” I retorted.
“Why?” he said, “I didn’t think we believed in it anymore.”
“Well, occasionally I think it’s good to see how much progress we’ve made by reading an irrational article like this one,” I remarked.
“Oh, you had me worried for a moment. I thought you were going to become a believer in perpetual virginity,” he said.
“Now there’s a thought,” I smiled. “Actually, I repented of that long ago.”