April 1997

Religion’s Broad Influences

Religious studies are key to understanding world history, literature, society, even art and music,” Professor Colleen McDannell told the March 13th meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Professor McDannell holds the Sterling McMurrin Chair in Religious History at the University of Utah and has been promoting a religious studies major since her arrival in 1989. The March 24th issue of Time magazine quoted Professor McDannell twice on page 75 in the lengthy cover story entitled “Does Heaven Exist?”

McDannell clarified the difference between studying theology and religion, theology being the study of religious beliefs in a seminary environment, while the study of religion refers to the effect of religions on cultures. “One cannot understand the world, past or present, without understanding religion.” She cited the current situations in Bosnia, Ireland, Israel and parts of Africa as examples of the powerful influence of religion in secular affairs. To further clarify, McDannell cited U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning the practice of religion but approving discussions about religion in public schools.

Many universities and colleges during the past 20 years have established departments of religious studies, making them a vital part of the liberal arts. McDannell was one of the first students at the University of Colorado in Boulder to graduate with an undergraduate degree in religious studies in 1975.

Utah is one of only 7 or 8 states in the nation that does not have a department of religious studies at any of its institutions of higher education. She said there seems to be a great deal of resistance to new programs at the University of Utah, and the administration of the Department of Humanities is opposed to a religious studies program. In response to a question from the audience regarding possible opposition from the LDS church, Professor McDannell said she has seen no evidence of such opposition and has seen some evidence that LDS authorities would support such a program. McDannell said many people fear that a religious studies program would be taken over by religious zealots and become an indoctrination program rather than an education program but she has not seen it happen at other institutions.

Professor McDannell cited three reasons for establishing a religious studies program:

  1. Religion is and has been a powerful force in world politics.
  2. Religion has had a historical influence in the arts.
  3. Students in the program gain a deep sense of what is significant in people’s lives and a better appreciation of the consequences of religious intolerance.

McDannell is the author of three books about the influence of religion. The first one is The Christian Home in Victoria America, the second, Heaven, a History, and the third, Material Christianity . She is working on a fourth book, which will deal with religion and photography.

–Flo Wineriter

Two Humanist Cultures

The Fall 1996 issue of Free Inquiry has as its chief topic the issue of “Defining Humanism,” a perennial topic among humanists, represented in this case by eleven authors, including one fundamentalist. These articles taken together paint a picture of how humanism is interpreted by various people within and outside, and they also suggest that the diversity of humanism is such that there will probably never be a definition or set of propositions that will please all humanists as a definition of humanism.

Considered as a “big tent,” humanism today includes religious humanists (most obviously, Ethical Culturists, and many members of Unitarian and liberal churches) and secular humanists. Historically, religious and secular humanism share a number of common features, among them distrust of divine revelation, a concern for critical thinking, and a conviction that morality is best understood as a human need that does not require the apparatus of divine blessing or unchanging moral codes. The differences, however, are significant, and while I believe they should not prevent cooperation between humanists on matters of common interest, they should not be brushed under the table either in a search for a dubious show of unity.

What I would like to suggest is that the differences between religious and secular humanism are best understood as reflections of differing cultural and individual temperaments. Culturally and historically, religious humanists operate and have their origins in institutions which are basically “churchly.” Institutions like Ethical Culture and the Unitarian churches follow closely the models of liberal Protestant churches: regular services (usually on Sunday), quasi-liturgical trappings (hymnody, vestments, candles), an “ordained” ministry, and built-in provision for ceremonies like weddings and funerals. While many leaders of secular humanism came from or spent time in such institutions, many others found and continue to find the culture of religious humanism vibrant and satisfying. For such persons, “religious” and even “spiritual” are positive words that humanists should not hesitate to claim as their own. The heritage of this culture is with such figures as Kant (who wanted philosophy to make room for religion), early Unitarians like Channing, and the New England Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, and Parker).

The culture of secular humanists has in many ways a different origin. While religious humanists sought to save religion from the onslaught of scientific ways of understanding the world (a process that began with the Deists in the seventeenth century), their secular counterparts abandoned the whole project and opted instead for varieties of atheism, agnosticism, and what came to be called “free thinking.” The heroes of this culture include the French philosophes (with Voltaire as chief), Thomas Paine (a Deist remembered far more for his attacks on religion than for his failed attempts to rationalize it), Robert Ingersoll, Nietzsche, and Mark Twain.

In some ways, the temperamental differences between religious and secular humanists resemble those between Catholics and Protestants. The “Catholic” (religious) humanists appeal to an ancient tradition that stresses the cultivation of social consciousness and emphasis on improving the human community by “selfless” service to others and to lofty moral ideals. The “Protestant” (secular) humanists focus instead on science, a rugged individualism, and a commitment to admit in their belief systems only those views that pass the iron tests of reason and evidence. Of course, one should not make too much of these differences, but I do believe they reflect a very fundamental difference in the way individuals understand humanism.

Ultimately, temperamental differences are individual. William James spoke of two kinds of philosophical temperaments: the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tender-minded are those of an idealistic, optimistic, and religious bent who try to understand the world through a set of grand principles, always on the lookout for “deeper” meanings, however vaguely understood. The tough-minded are the skeptics by nature, congenital doubting Thomas’s, comfortable with disorder and plurality, delighting in irreverence and individuality. My suspicion is that most of us have our feet planted firmly in one of these camps or the other by the time we reach early adulthood, and that we are not likely to change, although we can go a long way towards understanding each other and towards cooperation and mutual goals.

The fundamental cultural and temperamental differences between religious and secular humanism convince me that the two wil1 never be fully reconciled, nor should they be. I believe the tent of humanism should include room for both cultures. While my own temperament is firmly in the secular camp and I cringe at the religious language of “salvation” which, as the fundamentalist critic David Noebel aptly observed in his Free Inquiry article, still crops up from time to time in allegedly secular pronouncements, I do not see secularism as a kind of crusade against softer headed ways of thinking. Our best hope for maintaining a viable humanism is to keep the dialog open between both parties, each neither afraid to criticize nor reluctant to identify common ground. An understanding of the two cultures of humanism is at any rate a prerequisite for dealing with the issues of defining humanism in a way that goes beyond the tired rehearsal of doctrine from either camp.

–Don Evans
WASHline, December 1996
Newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists

Why I am an Agnostic

An agnostic is a doubter. The word is generally applied to those who doubt the verity of accepted religious creeds of faiths. Everyone is an agnostic as to the beliefs or creeds they do not accept. Catholics are agnostic to the Protestant creeds, and the Protestants are agnostic to the Catholic creed. Any one who thinks is an agnostic about something, otherwise he must believe that he is possessed of all knowledge. And the proper place for such a person is in the madhouse or the home for the feeble-minded. In a popular way, in the western world, an agnostic is one who doubts or disbelieves the main tenets of the Christian faith.

I would say that belief in at least three tenets is necessary to the faith of a Christian: a belief in God, a belief in immortality, and a belief in a supernatural book. Various Christian sects require much more, but it is difficult to imagine that one could be a Christian, under any intelligent meaning of the word, with less. Yet there are some people who claim to be Christians who do not accept the literal interpretation of all the Bible, and who give more credence to some portions of the book than to others.

I am an agnostic as to the question of God. I think that it is impossible for the human mind to believe in an object or thing unless it can form a mental picture of such object or thing…

The reasons for agnosticism are abundant and compelling. Fantastic and foolish and impossible consequences are freely claimed for the belief in religion. All the civilization of any period is put down as a result of religion. All the cruelty and error and ignorance of the period has no relation to religion.

The truth is that the origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. So long as men accepted miracles without question, so long as they believed in original sin and the road to salvation, so long as they believed in a hell where man would be kept for eternity on account of Eve, there was no reason whatever for civilization: life was short, and eternity was long, and the business of life was preparation for eternity.

When every event was a miracle, when there was no order or system or law, there was no occasion for studying any subject, or being interested in anything excepting a religion which took care of the soul. As man doubted the primitive conceptions about religion, and no longer accepted the literal, miraculous teachings of ancient books, he set himself to understand nature. We no longer cure disease by casting out devils. Since that time, men have studied the human body, have built hospitals and treated illness in a scientific way. Science is responsible for the building of railroads and bridges, of steamships, of telegraph lines, of cities, towns, large buildings and small, plumbing and sanitation, of the food supply, and the countless thousands of useful things that we now deem necessary to life. Without skepticism and doubt, none of these things could have been given to the world.

The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom.

The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.

Excerpted from the Secular Web

Christianity’s Zoroastrian Connection

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Bible scholars have shown strong evidence that much of early Christian belief and doctrine had its origin in pagan religious and philosophical thought. Zoroastrianism, founded by the Persian religious prophet, Zoroaster, around the beginning of the sixth century BCE, likely strongly affected the course of Judeo-Christian demonology, angelology, and eschatology. Indeed, “the intellectual depth of his system may well have exerted a profound influence on Western thought; Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers showed a great interest in his doctrines,” says Martin Schwartz in “Zoroaster,” in Microsoft Encarta.

Zoroastrianism placed upon individuals the responsibility for choice among actions reckoned as positive or negative, good or evil, ritually pure or impure. Merits accruing from right actions and right attitudes included the acquisition of self-control and rewards from Ahura Mazda, the “Lord Wisdom” and the source and support of all that is good. All evil is caused by Ahriman, the twin of Spenta Mainyu, the “Holy Spirit” or “Incremental Spirit,” a creative force. This concept of Ahriman appears to be the origin of the Judeo-Christian idea of Satan as the source and supporter of evil, which does not appear in the Bible until accounts of late Old Testament times.

As with the biblical Job, hunger, disease, violence, and other forms of distress often seemed to be in control of earthly life. Zoroastrian mythology projected divine rewards into the afterlife. There was no escape from divine retribution, evil for evil, good for good. On the fourth day after death, the souls of the righteous entered the realm of the blessed, a place of beauty and endless joy. The wicked went to a place of woe and suffering. After a final rite of purification, the formerly wicked joined the righteous souls to share in the reconstituted world of the pure. Finally, there was salvation for all.

Colleen McDannel and Bernhard Lang in Heaven, A History, point out that the first Jew to use a bodily resurrection was Ezekiel who, as a prophet active in the Babylonian exile, would have been acquainted with Zoroastrianism. In one of his visions, he recognized a vast plain covered with dry human bones, bleached by the sun. Such a plain recalls a Zoroastrian funeral ground, since the followers of Ahura Mazda never buried their dead. They let the bodies lie for a year under the sun so that the rain might fall upon them and birds devour the flesh. Ezekiel, after being shown the plain, was commanded to prophesy to the bones and announce their resurrection. Immediately the skeletons were resurrected with living bodies. Later, during the Jewish persecution in 167-4 BCE, the book of Daniel expected that “of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake.” Then Paul, probably the earliest Christian writer, taught that, at an appointed time in the future, a resurrection of the dead to bodily life would occur.

It is interesting that there are similarities between Zoroastrianism and Mormonism in addition to those between Zoroastrianism and Christianity. These include an initiation ceremony (Mormon baptism) at the age of seven or eight, wearing special clothing, and the brother relationship of good and evil spirits. It is not known for sure how or why these resemblances occurred, but it is possible that Mormon scholars close to Joseph Smith may have influenced him in his formulation of doctrine.