December 1994

Death: Celebrate Life

This past month I spoke at a memorial service for a life-long, close friend. As I looked over the group of people attending the service I realized how many of them had suffered the grief caused by the death of a loved one in the past few years. Many had experienced the death of a spouse, a parent, or a child and I thought how our coming together to celebrate the life of a friend helps us to understand our own grief, have compassion for the grief of others and generates a sense of community.

Celebrating life as we grieve reminds us how short and how precious are the bonds we develop with just a few other humans during this experience we call life. It reminds us of the very short time we have to share the beauty of a sunrise, the serenity of a sunset, a refreshing breeze, and a cleansing rain.

It reminds us that we, too, are drifting toward the end of life and we should take advantage of every opportunity to make life meaningful for our self and meaningful for those with whom we share this experience. The human condition is precarious and chaotic. Let us celebrate its uncertainty frequently.

–Flo Wineriter

The Religious Influence on Utah Legislative Decisions

“Values” affect all our choices; that is obvious. We choose a particular career because we “value” that profession. We might choose a particular religion because we value its tenets. “Values,” “Standards,” “Ideals” all permeate our choices–to one degree or another. However, what if my values, those beliefs that I hold dear, conflict with yours? Then what? How do we arbitrate, resolve, compromise, or just plain tolerate people or groups who have standards quite different than our own? What if these “conflicted” ideals lead not to just differences in hairstyles or clothing, but to the very core of our lives? What if our politicians hold and act upon principles which conflict with a portion of the population they have been elected to represent?

The potential for conflicted values is especially problematic in Utah since a majority of the population is of one religious persuasion. It would be unreasonable to think that religious beliefs did not affect the decisions made by Utah legislators. However is there some mark, some line, when voting one’s religious values is inappropriate? What is that line and how do we tell if it has been crossed?

In the open, intellectual spirit advocated by John Stuart Mill over one hundred years ago in On Liberty, the November 10th meeting of the Utah Humanists was a panel discussion [organized by Board Member Ron Healey] which addressed many of the issues in the preceding paragraphs.

Present on the panel were:

  • Kelly Atkinson, Legislator, Utah House of Representatives
  • Fred Finlinson, Legislator, Utah Senate
  • Lyle Hilyard, former legislator, Utah Senate
  • Susan Olson, Professor of Political Science, University of Utah
  • Chris Allen, Utah Society of Separationists

Panel Moderator: Shannon Bellamy, Ph.D., Faculty Member, Gore School of Business.

The discussion started by asking the panelists to respond to the hypothetical question of a woman pilot who was about to relocate to Utah from Dallas, was a southern Baptist Democrat, and was concerned about the religious influence in the community and in the Utah legislature. The responses were varied, the conversation was lively and animated, and there was no specific, concrete conclusion. In the spirit of John Stuart Mill, we should not be disappointed. The conversation itself keeps alive and open for public debate the question of how values influence the political process.

Did the panel discussion open our eyes a little? Did it make us a little more tolerant of others? My answer is, Yes! It seems to be a step in the right direction when Kelly Atkinson, Mormon and Utah legislator, says publicly: “It’s time for a lot of people [Mormons] to wake up and smell the coffee!”

–Shannon Bellamy, Ph.D.

AHA Board Report: Flo Appointed Treasurer

I attended the American Humanist Association (AHA) semi-annual Board meeting in San Jose, California November 10-13 and I am pleased to announce that I was appointed to the position of Board Treasurer. I feel it is an honor to give our Chapter a voice in the national affairs of the AHA.

The three-day meeting devoted a great deal of time to addressing the challenges of growth including finances, membership and public relations. One of the major projects we expect will enhance both growth and stability is in reformatting our national magazine, The Humanist. Within the coming year the publication will take on a more modern appearance with appealing covers, shorter articles, and more information about Humanism. The goal is to accomplish this without sacrificing The Humanist reputation of high intellectual standards and forthright approach to social problems.

Finding ways to improve communications between AHA and local Chapters was given a high priority. Chapter leaders and national board members have been aware of the seriousness of the relationship problems for several years but very little has been tried to improve the situation. The Board devoted several hours of discussion time exploring the problems and possible solutions. Board members were unanimous in wanting to find ways to make local Chapters feel they are an integral part of the national organization.

The AHA board meeting ended in an atmosphere of high hopes and a feeling of confidence that our goals will be accomplished.

–Flo Wineriter

On The Nature of Religion

Religion is the sum total of our knowledge and theory of the past and present, and the spirit with which we extrapolate into the future, or into the unknown. Religion is what the individual or the group does with its concept of time, as a guide to behavior.

Here are a few definitions of religion, to give some idea of the wide variety of thought on this subject:

J. G. Frazer:

By religion…I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and human life.

A. N. Whitehead:

Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

Paul Tillich:

Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit. What does…depth mean? It means that the religious aspect points to that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.

John L. Fischer:

Religion is the ritual cultivation of socially approved values…By values I mean lasting preferences for some person, thing, quality, state of affairs, or behavior. These preferences exist in individual members of a society or are learned by them from other members, principally their seniors…

Jane Ellen Harrison:

The religious impulse is directed, if I am right, primarily to one end and one only, the conservation and promotion of life…(1)…religion is a social factor and can only properly be studied in relation to social structure; (2)…the idea of a god is a by-product arising out of rites and sanctities, a by-product of high importance but nonessential; (3)…the function of religion is to conserve the common life, physical and spiritual; this function being sometimes aided sometimes hindered by the idea of a god.

These definitions have little in common. We can even find two quite different definitions by the same person! It is not surprising to discover a cynical reaction to this confusion. The present tendency is to continue in this contradictory state, to a great extent for the following reason: there has developed in recent years a flabby, sentimentalist attitude in matters of religion. By sentimentalist I mean one as defined by Chesterton:

The sentimentalist, roughly speaking, is the man who wants to eat his cake and have it. He has no sense of honor about ideas; he will not see that one must pay for an idea as for anything else. He will have them all at once in one wild intellectual harem, no matter how much they quarrel and contradict each other.

It is no longer permissible to be a sentimentalist. The growth of science has changed all this, through its introduction of the priority and necessity of evidence and facts. Whitehead summarized the new spirit when he said, “People now have to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts.” So we too must seek a realistic definition of religion that fits the facts: clearly, religion is not synonymous with theism. [Theism: Belief in the existence of a god or gods as the creative source of man and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world.]

The definitions of Fischer and Harrison give us a clue to a more general definition, and the clue is the word lasting. All definitions of religion involve time, either directly or indirectly: a time past, present, and future. Myths of beginning are of great importance in many religions. The assessment of the nature of human beings and their present condition is likewise prominent. Each religion, on the basis of its reconstruction of the past and its assessment of the present state, inevitably goes on to consider the future. It is here that we frequently find the crucial element of each religion. How does it extrapolate into the future, into the unknown?

These definitions also, either explicitly or implicitly, set humans apart from other creatures in one respect: we are aware of time–the past, the present, and the future.

I am now in position to formulate a definition of religion: Religion is the sum total of our knowledge and theory of the past and present, and the spirit with which we extrapolate into the future, or into the unknown. Religion is what the individual or the group does with its concept of time, as a guide to behavior.

This religion is the framework and guide for our actions, and is not synonymous with philosophy. Religion leads to behavior, to action, to doing, to the way we order our lives; and it needs to be repeated: religion is not the same as theism.

This definition makes it easy to deal with the supposed conflict between science and religion. Science is the most capable of our fields of knowledge when it comes to reconstructing the past, assessing the present, and extrapolating into the future. Science will, then, be a valuable and necessary part of our religion. Religion is not a separate, compartmentalized entity, but rather a summing up, a welding together, of all the aspects of our lives, as viewed in time.

In former days each culture was much more homogeneous than at present. Practically all members of the culture had a common heritage and the same current situation, and therefore shared the same religion. It is still true that most of what we believe and feel is conditioned by and learned from the particular society we belong to. One wouldn’t expect a Hindu to have a vision of Jesus; nor are we surprised to learn that Joan of Arc did not have a vision of Vishnu.

The major part of the “ritual cultivation” is done in some sort of social setting. The smallest unit that determines religious beliefs is commonly the family. In most cases, all members of a family are Methodists, Catholics, or whatever. But even in a family each person has a different environment: a slightly different school environment, a slightly different television environment, and other differences. Even in the same family, then, persons may have basically different religious beliefs. We are all individuals, adding some personal and original contribution to our “inherited” complex. To this extent, and to the extent that we act as individuals rather than as a part of a group, religion is “what the individual does with his own solitariness,” although most of one’s religion is obtained from some group. Nowadays this group can be very heterogeneous.

To obtain a grasp of time we need much information, from history, anthropology, archeology, and geology–especially historical geology. We need information about our traditions, the beliefs of the past, and how those beliefs have changed over time. There are many people today whose knowledge of geology, for example, is hardly better than what existed in the Dark Ages. For this reason their religion can be described as antiquated, superannuated, fossilized, and, in addition, shallow and without depth.

One of the most impelling, tantalizing, imperative, and oppressive parts of our environment is the unknown. From the beginning humans have no doubt had a urge to explain why things are as they are, to explain how things happen, and to explain where things come from. Many of the explanations have involved animism, ancestor worship, spirit worship, magic, divination, or astrology. It follows that many of the features characteristic of any system of organized religion are determined by the amount of knowledge (and ignorance!) prevailing at the time of its inception, and the spirit with which it tries to grasp and interpret the unknown.

In considering each source of knowledge or theory, and any system of religion based on it, therefore, we must always keep in mind the period in which it had its origin. Any over-all theory of humans constructed before Copernicus, who demonstrated that the earth and the human race was not at the center of the universe, is automatically suspect. It is by no means necessarily all wrong, but much to be doubted. Likewise, any over-all theory of humans and their place in the scheme of things that was constructed before the demonstration of the fact of evolution is much to be doubted. It possibly has a somewhat greater proportion of validity than a pre-Copernican theory, but it is still not to be taken at anywhere near face value. By this criterion we find that, since most of the theology of the various great religious groups was created before Darwin, then a great deal of it is probably of little value to us. We must read everything contained therein with a probing and questioning mind to distill the truths in the words from the parochialisms and the peculiar or outdated concepts of the time and place in which they were conceived. This search discloses that in every period there was at least some valid knowledge to which the human intellect was applied, so there is at least some valid insight to be expected from all systems of religion, no matter how ancient. Even the code of Hammurabi, dating from about 1750 B.C., is not completely invalid for us today.

At the same time that our critical examination is discarding the dross of outmoded and incorrect beliefs, it will reveal many customs and traditions that are not especially good or bad, or right or wrong, but more nearly neutral. In one sense this material is a burden to carry, and from a “practical” viewpoint should perhaps be discarded. Yet this material–such as hymns, folk songs, Christmas carols, and much religious music–is pleasant and comfortable, and lends continuity and pleasure to our lives. In these cases we keep particular items, as long as we do not attach literal significance to the outmoded world views expressed therein. As Aldous Huxley aptly pointed out, “if we must play the theological game, let us never forget that it is a game.”

It is even possible that at times, and in the short run, a wrong belief might actually be of value. As Jane Harrison states:

What, then, is the biological function of theology and myth?…Man finds himself in inevitable conflict with some and often many elements of his environment; he shirks the conflict. Just because it is harassing and depressing, he forcibly drives it out of his conscious life…Theology thus is seen to have high biological value. Probably but for its aid, man, long before he developed sufficient reason to adapt himself to his environment, must have gone under.

Since humans are aware of a future, and our religions involve an awareness of a time to come, all religions imply that our acts shall have value for the future. But a future for what or for whom? Here is where Jane Harrison hits the nail squarely on the head: “The religious impulse is directed, if I am right, primarily to one end and one only, the conservation and promotion of life.” Life for whom? Specifically, for humans, people–individuals, groups, or humanity en masse. But how can we know what is of value for people unless we know what people are? Again there is a simple answer: we must use every source of knowledge and theory available to us.

How or where can we start to determine what is of value for humans, now or in the future? I suggest here a few ways of thinking that appear to me to be forced upon us by our present knowledge.

We must always keep in mind the smallness of our knowledge and the immensity of our ignorance. Especially we must be aware that, generally speaking, ignorance is greatest in the areas of most importance–that is, in ethics and philosophy. Ironically, in these areas of least knowledge one finds assurance, even fanatical belief, that eternal truths have been stated in the various theological systems. The believer, probably realizing subconsciously how unsure this ground is, compensates with greater fanaticism. As Santayana said, “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” I am not, of course, suggesting that because we know little we should come to no conclusions or do nothing; this is patently impossible. I am suggesting that, even with the terrible realization of our Lilliputian knowledge, it is the depth and quality of our beliefs that determine the nature of our action or inaction. Our religion is strongly in evidence when we act as if certain postulates about the past, present, and future are, or are not, true.

Although I emphasized the limitations of our knowledge, I assert that we now have enough knowledge of human nature, and the nature of humans, to organize a very humane society, even a kind and gentle society. It is not lack of knowledge that prevents our achieving a benignant society, but the refusal to search out the facts and admit their truth. How can we organize a good society when almost everybody believes in barbaric, unscientific social Darwinism?

We know that humans are a real part of the universe, that the universe operates by certain laws, that humans are aware of some of these laws and make use of them. There is no evidence that these laws may be suspended by us or for us. It also follows from the fact of evolution that any pre-Darwinian theories concerning a supposed soul must be discarded, or drastically reinterpreted, in terms of contemporary biology and psychology.

We know that we are a social animal. Indeed humans, as humans, are not possible outside a society. Robinson Crusoe was human, but only insofar as he was previously connected with a group, a culture. If he had been brought up by wolves on that desert island there would be little hope of calling the product human. Consequently, we cannot define good or evil without reference to society. Yet a society is composed of individuals, and any change in society ultimately springs from individuals, even though the change is accomplished by a group. What is good for any one individual is generally–though it may not be–good for society. What is good for society is generally–though it may not be–good for the individual. This problem of balance between the individual and society is a problem of the greatest difficulty, and is a source of tremendous conflict in any set of religious beliefs. Nobody knows–or ever will know–exactly where the balance point lies. Each separate situation must be considered with the greatest skill, patience–and humanity.

We know that the universe is not simple. At this point in the development of our knowledge and intellect it appears that both of two conflicting ideas may be true. For example we believe that in some circumstances light behaves as a discrete particle, yet in other circumstances light behaves as a diffuse wave. Believing either of these propositions to the exclusion of the other leads to a caricature of the real world. Likewise, we must believe simultaneously the propositions that “Everybody is different,” and “Everybody is pretty much the same.” Believing either of these to the exclusion of the other leads to a warped world outlook. We must realize that any definition of humans must be colored by, controlled by, and framed within our awareness of time. Humans are not only what they have been, or what they are now, but also what they can imagine they might become. Humans are “something…which is real, and yet waiting to be realized…a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts…”

I have presented a humanist vision of reality, of ethical behavior, of religion. The historical record shows that our progress in finding the good, or the ethical, or the moral, whichever you wish to call it, has been based on our knowledge at the time, and by persistent and continuing experimentation with various theories of the nature of human beings. Examples of some of these postulate-experiments are: Catholicism, Calvinism, Nazism, and Humanism. It may turn out that the latter experiment will not be successful. But Humanism shows the greatest promise of success, because, almost alone, it insists on the necessity and priority of factual knowledge, and realizes that the theories will change as new knowledge accumulates. Whatever that “something which is a remote possibility” turns out to be, it will be under girded by a humanist belief system, a humanistic religion, as I define religion.

Condensed from Religious Humanism, The Journal of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, Inc., Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1990