October 2006

Creating Secular and Humanist Alternatives to Religion

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

by Cindy King

Is it possible to develop secular and humanistic alternatives to theistic religions of God and the promises of salvation? According to author Paul Kurtz, not everyone on the planet is fixated on the transcendental realm, or tempted by its false lures. Religion has declined dramatically in secular Europe, Japan, China and some other countries of the world.

Kurtz asks two questions: First, why does religion persist? One reason is the vast number of human beings who have been exposed to pro-religion propaganda through the ages by proponents of the Bible, Qur’an, and other so-called sacred books. Non-belief was punishable by death in many Islamic countries. Although Western countries no longer torture or burn heretics, all sorts of sanctions are applied to non-believers. The “transcendental temptations” are expressed by human beings overcome by fragility of life and yearning for deeper purpose to the universe; ergo, this is possibly one explanation for the current persistence of religiosity. The second question, is it possible to create nationalistic-existential-moral poetries and narratives of sufficient power and intensity to attract and supplant the ancient memetic systems of religion? Memetic refers to imitative process whereby humans transmit ideas, values, beliefs, and practices to each other. Kurtz claims that inherently fundamentalist religions are not only false but dysfunctional, insofar as they have blocked scientific research, denigrated individual autonomy, repressed sexual freedom, and denied the possibility of human beings solving their own problems without reliance on God. Religionist creeds have provided important support systems, and they have cultivated charitable efforts and bonds of moral cohesion.

Humanists differ from the religious in that they are unable to make the leap of faith required to believe in the messianic messages of the ancient prophets, even if reinterpreted in metaphorical or symbolic language. Humanists, skeptics, and rationalists affirm that they believe in the unvarnished truth and not mythological poetry. They prefer new truths and values, based on conceptions of reality drawn from scientific understanding, and not from the ancient religions classics. The humanist outlook relies heavily on cognition and reason. It is committed to the following principles: (1) the consistent use of objective methods of inquiry for testing truth, based on scientific method and critical thinking. (2) Conceptions of “reality” derived largely from empirical research; its cosmic view is naturalistic and evolutionary, and the human species is viewed as part of nature, not separate from it. (3) Sharp skepticism of theistic God or immortality of the soul, for it finds insufficient evidence for these claims. (4) The belief that human values are the relevant human experiences, interests, and needs, and that objective principles can be developed for realizing human happiness and improving the human conditions, including the belief in maximizing individual freedom and expressing altruistic concerns for the needs of others. (5) Commitment to the democratic society, predicated on freedom, equality, tolerance, and the right of dissent; respect for the open society and the rule of law, majority rule and that the minority have rights, and the separation of church and state. And (6) Recognition of our global interdependence; it believes that we need to develop a new planetary civilization in which all members of the human species are considered equal in dignity and value. This new planetary humanism seeks to transcend the ancient racial, religious, ethnic, national, and gender differences of the past, in order to develop a peaceful and prosperous world community.

Kurtz concludes by claiming the humanist can be effective in creating institutions that provide alternatives, and submits that humanists must satisfy the following conditions: (1) We need to confront directly the root existential questions about the “meaning of life” and respond cogently to the quandaries that trouble so many human beings. (2) We need to develop an appreciation for the ethical values and principles that are firmly grounded in human experience and reason; which, when rigorously tested by their consequences in practice, are yet sufficiently attractive to inspire dedication, a sense that life is really worth living, and a respect for the obligations that we owe to others. This includes a moral recognition that we ought to help build a better world for our fellow human beings and ourselves. (3) We need to appeal to the heart as well as the mind, the passionate and the emotional dimensions of life as well as the cognitive and the intellectual. (4) We need to use the arts to create new narratives that celebrate life (not deny or denigrate it). We need to arouse emotional commitment to inspiring humanistic values, the beauty of life and shared experiences, the joys of discovery and the satisfaction of reaching accords. (5) We need to build naturalistic alternatives to religion; become progressive battlers for beloved causes for the betterment of all living things. And (6) we need especially to develop communities of sympathetic persons committed to science, reason, and free inquiry in every area human interest; yet able to cultivate goodwill and moral regards for others. These institutions must demonstrate by example that it is possible to be a creative individual, a loving person and friend, a loyal member of the society in which he or she lives; yet be rational, effective, intelligent and empathetic to those within one’s communities of interaction.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

A healthy sex life, or what’s love got to do with it was the stimulating subject of Amanda Barusch, Professor of Social Work at University Of Utah. Beginning with a poetic quote from Plato, “He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love…will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty…beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting,” Barusch said that her goal for the evening’s presentation was that everyone gains one new idea.

Trained as a gerontologist in social work, Barusch has conducted a research study about the connection between sex and love, having interviewed 110 adults between the ages of 19 and 97 and studied 1200 people’s responses to an internet survey regarding their romantic experiences and beliefs.

A starting point is agreeing on a definition of a “healthy sex life.” Because health implies the absence of disease, one can define a healthy sex life as one that does not inflict illness. A more meaningful definition or, as Barusch explained, an “optimum” sex life which she said is both satisfying and fulfilling and provides one with a glow and warm feeling of connection and confidence. The life style might or might not include intercourse; Barusch even suggested that a celibate’s sex life can be as satisfying as a profligate lover’s.

For many senior citizens and especially true for women, Barusch asserts that sex is more than intercourse, suggesting that sex can happen when we connect with another human being, when we exchange glances with a stranger and feel communication, when we stroke a friend’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort, or when we and our partners share orgasmic rapture.

Therefore, a healthy sex life is a healthy human life where there is a universal possibility of connection. We connect with ourselves and with others in such a trusting manner that we are able to take risks, expose ourselves to the pain of others, break rules, make mistakes, and bear the consequences.

In defining a “healthy adult,” Barusch explored two approaches, the first coming from Vedic psychology and Eastern tradition which posits that a healthy adult is one who is “ever expanding,” and that there is an innate drive to expand or to grow, which is somewhat analogous to Freud’s “life instinct.” Fulfillment comes when we are expanding, and with love and sex, each new and long-term relationship offers the possibility of self-expansion resulting from changes and challenges and constant opportunities for growth.

Or in other words, infinite possibilities to finite lives because in an Eastern tradition, the ultimate goal of self-expansion is a kind of transcendence, a union with the infinite where we are able to perceive the organization and meaning of the universe. Thus a healthy sex life can lead to transcendence, as Barusch illustrated with a book she brought titled Finding God Through Sex.

To various degrees, Barusch continued, we incorporate others into our selves, we vicariously live through their experiences, and the love we share increases their intensity–all in a non-linear way. We share each other’s identities, experiences, statuses, and resources, thereby expanding ourselves on several dimensions.

Another perspective that Barusch explored is from Carl Jung, a colleague of Freud’s. Coining the term “individuation,” Jung defined healthy adult development as a process involving the integration of conscious and unconscious parts of the self which leads to an authentic and unique individual.

For Jung, striving for fulfillment and meaning are inherent to the human condition, representing a basic drive similar to Freud’s “life instinct.”

Jung favored living life to its fullest, suggesting that “the art of life is the most distinguished and rarest of all the arts,” and he argued that “for many people all too much unlived life remains over…so that they approach the threshold of old age with unsatisfied demands which inevitably turn their glances backwards.”

But Barusch emphasized that neither of these philosophies represents an excuse for infidelity or promiscuity. At the same time, they do not condemn those who act outside conventional boundaries either. The end result is that regardless of what we choose, both offer ways of understanding and enriching our lives and our relationships.

Barusch then said she could not leave this subject without adding what Freud’s definition of a healthy adult is–“to love and to work.” For busy Americans, this means to restore balance between work and love.

What does love have to do with sex? According to her research, Barusch stated that a vast majority of respondents, in the 90% range, describes a connection between love and sex while some say that love and sex are separate. One 75-year-old gay respondent said, “I think there is just sex, and I think that sometimes sex is just a recreational thing. And I think there can be love with no sex. It can be all ways, and if you’re lucky enough to have both, then that’s good too.” A 54-year-old straight woman echoed his views: “Well, you can have love without sex and sex without love, but both are better when they come together.”

In a contrasting view, one 49 year old straight man said, “I don’t really equate love and sex in the same breath. I think sex is something you end up giving and taking when you get married. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you love each other. I could go out and pay a hooker for sex, but that doesn’t mean I love them. To me sex is a physical act that ends up giving pleasure.”

From the research, Barusch formulated three perspectives.

  1. With love, sex is socially acceptable. Not surprising, this perspective was expressed primarily by women of all ages.
  2. Sex makes love better. Respondents of this belief said sex was the consummation of love or the “fulfillment of being able to act out love. 69 males said that sex was the “manifestation of love” and 65 females said sex “carries the feelings of love further.”
  3. Love makes sex better. One 62-year old Native American man said, “If you truly love that person and you have sex with them, oh boy there is a difference. Because you love that person, you just feel them and they feel you. There is more enjoyment.” Another man, aged 58, said, “because it’s that that-what’s the word I’m trying to think of? When you, you know, the feel that you want to help do something for the other person and they want to do something for you and it’s not because they have to. But it’s because they want to…does that make any sense?”

Barusch ended by saying that she agreed with these men that the empathy that comes with love doubles, maybe even triples the pleasure of sex, adding that what the last respondent said sounded much like “agapic” love where this saintly, giving kind of love providing pleasure comes from “doing for” our beloved.

Last but not least, sex with love and love with sex, can give one peace and acceptance not only of our minds and souls but of our physical, imperfect bodies.

–Sarah Smith

President’s Message

Books, books ,books, I buy far too many books and magazines. But I can’t help it. I suspect that many of you, at times, find yourselves in the same boat. Recently I purchased several at places as diverse as a yard sale, Barnes and Noble, and Costco.

Three of them are on current best seller lists. This is encouraging because they are books I would hope become widely read. They include the most recent book by Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which you might suspect are both decidedly critical of religion. The third is Bob Woodward’s State of Denial. I have finished Letter, and have include a review of it on page x. The other two I have only started by thumbing through them a bit, but they give me reasons to read on. Although I think I will need to take Bob Woodward’s State of Denial a small piece at a time. A large chunk of George W. Bush and his administration is likely to make me ill.

The yard sale netted me two books that have a weird juxtaposition. I picked up John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which I have never read. The second one is titled, The End Times Are Here Now, by Charles Halff. I picked it up because I have been looking for a source of reference as to what these religious “End Timers” believe, with citations of biblical chapter and verse. But these two books do make a strange contrast when side-by-side. On one hand JFK gives us a readable and enlightening narrative about individuals in history that stood courageously for principles they believed in. Then on the other hand we have a book that is filled with the doom and gloom of the biblical end times. Well, that’s enough about books.

Until our membership meeting in February, I will continue to remind the membership of Humanists of Utah that we have room on our board of directors for a couple of new faces. Please give it some thought.

Finally, I would urge you to be sure and vote. I think that humanists probably vote at a higher percent than the general population, and I’m confident that we understand how important it is to do so.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Boy Scouts Liable for Discrimination

According to The Humanist Monthly, August 2006, published by Capital District Humanist Society, the city of Philadelphia is challenging discriminatory practices of Boy Scouts of America. This is hopeful because BSA could really be a great program for young men if it welcomed leaders and members regardless of their religion or lack thereof, and sexual preference.

The Philadelphia City Council voted in 1928 to let the Philadelphia Boy Scouts use a downtown building rent free “in perpetuity” (the scouts pay for upkeep.) In 2003, the local council voted to adopt a nondiscrimination policy regarding homosexuals, but then weeks later ousted an 18-year old-scout who publicly acknowledged he was gay.

Now the City Solicitor has written to the president of local BSA Council: “For several years we have attempted to convince (your Council) that its discriminatory policies are untenable and violate the express City policy and law. Regrettably, we have been unable to obtain adequate assurances that the Boy Scouts will not, while headquartered on City property, discriminate. We believe that ejectment, subject to a fair-market rent agreement, is an appropriate measure that recognizes the many contributions made by your organization.”

Sherman Dickman

1/15/1915 ~ 9/4/2006

In Memoriam

Humanists of Utah expresses sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sherm Dickman. He was a long time chapter member who always provoked both thought and mirth. He encouraged critical thinking and respect for opinions contrary to our own.

Suggested Reading

~Book Review~

I read a couple of books this past month that I recommend for your consideration. One concerns contemporary U.S. relations with the Islamic culture, the other our relations with the cosmos.

The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton administration. This is an important book for anyone seeking some clarification of the Islam-Jewish-Christian relationship, particularly the fundamentalist arms of those religions. She says, “People of diverse nations and faiths ought to be able to live in harmony.” Does she believe we can? In her words, “I am an optimist who worries a lot.”

The View from the Center of the Universe is written by Joel Primack, a professor of physics, and his wife Nancy Ellen Abrams, former Fulbright scholar with a special interest in history and philosophy. For a decade they have been co-teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, titled “Cosmology and Culture.”‘ The central thesis of their book supports the theory the universe began with a Big Bang and will continue to expand endlessly. How humans use their intelligence will determine how long they will be participants in this phenomena. This book is a good balance of science and philosophy.

–Flo Wineriter

Secular Coalition for America

Member Recommended Websites

The Secular Coalition for America is the new Washington-based lobbying organization for atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans. Our mission is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all.

Secular Coalition for America