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Archive for the ‘Humanism’ Category

Darwin and Religion for the Nonreligious


by: on December 24th, 2012 | Comments Off

As an agnostic appreciator of spirituality and amateur student of evolution, I like this article by the UK’s Chief Rabbi on Darwinian reasons why religion persists. Jonathan Sacks asks why it is that “still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith.” A couple of quotes point to his answer:

To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.

…It [religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

I agree, subject to the usual caveats that strong group identity can be highly toxic: viz, history of Christianity. Granted that in strong community groups we too easily give in to group-think, excessive elevation of leaders, and demonization of outsiders. Nonetheless, we need community. And it’s remarkably hard to create it among freethinking liberal/lefties. There’s a persistent hankering for community among many of the folks I know best. Still, new efforts are being made. From the American Humanist Association:


Nonviolence and Killing


by: on May 22nd, 2011 | 7 Comments »

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s killing a very active discussion emerged on the email forum used by the community of trainers certified with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. One thread of this conversation has been about responses to the particular event, and especially how to relate to the people celebrating Bin Laden’s death. This exploration was the primary inspiration for my previous entry (to which I still intend to come back). Another thread has focused on a more general question: can killing in any way be compatible with nonviolence?

This is by far not a new dilemma in human affairs. The Dalai Lama, one of the living icons of nonviolence, also engaged with this same question, citing a Buddhist scripture that suggests killing may sometimes be necessary, so long as it’s done with utmost compassion and in extreme and rare circumstances. Whether or not the stringent criteria implicit in the story were met in this circumstance, the Dalai Lama’s essential claim is that Buddhism, in principle, is not categorically opposed to killing.

Others, including Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist leader who is also deeply associated with peace and nonviolence, and others who embrace a consciousness of nonviolence, are suggesting that killing is never to be done. For some, true nonviolence entails the willingness to die rather than to kill.

Earlier today an NVC trainer from Germany who is also a Sikh posted on the email forum, and included this sentence: “Killing seems to be part of nature – the question to me really is, what is the consciousness behind it.”

With some significant changes and additions, I am posting here my response to this post. This is an invitation to engage with this question, with all questions, with complexity and with love. In our times, with what we are facing, I don’t believe that simple one-dimensional answers will do. I sense that paradox and complexity are essential for our survival.


‘Of Gods and Men’: A film of enormous spiritual power


by: on March 4th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

Lambert Wilson as Christian (left) and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, flanking a villager

A little-noted outgrowth of the current wave of popular upheaval sweeping the Arab world is that Algeria’s nearly 20 year rein of martial law has been lifted. Most of the 1990s were marked by a savage civil war that pitted a variety of Islamist insurgent groups against Algeria’s military regime and against each other. By the time it petered out early in the 2000′s, the massacre of whole villages, urban bombings, shootouts and assassinations had claimed 150,000 to 200,000 lives.

Eventually, this conflict engulfed the French Cistercian Trappist monastery situated in a remote village, where its monks were much loved by their Muslim-Arab neighbors. They incorporated them into their everyday lives, even inviting them to family weddings and other life-cycle events.

Michael Lonsdale, the dignified bilingual French actor, plays Luc, the elderly monk and physician who ran a much-needed medical clinic. From the vantage point of his once secular life, Luc is charmingly depicted providing advice on love to a village girl who tends the abbey grounds and seeks out his wisdom.


Guest Post: “The artist formerly known as Molly Norris,” By Christopher Stedman


by: on September 23rd, 2010 | 2 Comments »

Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.

How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.

However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.

For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”

I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.”


A Bar Mitzvah on the Jewish Frontier


by: on August 22nd, 2010 | 5 Comments »

I live in Espanola, New Mexico, a town of 9,000 people, mostly Hispanic and Native American, with a lot of churches but without a Jewish synagogue. I live in an agrarian mestizo community: most of my neighbors are of mixed Spanish and Native American descent dating from the arrival of Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Leaders in my community worry about passing their cultural heritage on to the next generation in the face of industrial encroachment. Rio Arriba County reminds me of Israel at the time of Akiva, immediately preceding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

Although I invited my Hispanic Rio Arriba colleagues to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, none came. Many of my more urbane Hispanic friends in Santa Fe were present. They lived in “the city.” Many had moved away for college and then returned. They were familiar with Jews. I wish I could explain the significance of the B’nai Mitzvah to my struggling agrarian friends. It has helped the Jewish people to maintain our identity in exile for thousands of years.


Be Ready for Overwhelming Joy


by: on April 19th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

Last week, I had the privilege of reading from my novel, Hold Love Strong, at Pete’s Candystore, a great venue in Brooklyn, a few blocks from 334 Manhattan Avenue, where once I lived in the middle of a friend’s apartment and often climbed the fire escape to the roof where I began to piece my life back together; or rather, began the process of reflection and self-possession necessary for living a full and meaningful life. After I read, Nadia and I had the chance to speak with Mira Jacobs, one of the curators of the event and a mother to a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Zakir, a name that means remembering and/or grateful. Talking about new motherhood, pregnancy, and childbirth, Nadia repeated a phrase a friend had recently said to her, and although she meant it in reference to having a baby, it is, I think, at the very core to the solutions of our present social and political problems, and thus what we — those of us who wish for a peaceful, humane world if not for ourselves then for our children — must do and anchor ourselves to in order for there to be the chance for the world we can imagine, the world we deserve.

“Be ready,” she said, “for overwhelming joy.”


Humanist Easter: Egg Art, Feminist Rabbits, Muddy Romps


by: on April 4th, 2010 | 5 Comments »

When I was a child, my family celebrated Christian holidays in a fairly standard secular way, decorating a tree on Christmas and hunting eggs on Easter, not to mention joining in the customary consumption of marshmallow peeps, “jelly bird eggs” (whatever those are), and other foods invented by companies with a clever eye for turning a profit from a holiday.

My version of Easter lacks the radical Christian religiosity that Nichola laid out in her recent post about Good Friday as a time “to look at the crucifixions necessary to preserve the fiction of Pax Americana, or any false peace maintained by force, whether violent or hegemonic.” It lacks the progressive rethinking of the resurrection narrative that Rabbi Lerner highlighted in his spiritual wisdom of the week post with a quotation from Peter Rollins. But it’s still one of my favorite holidays of the year.

On its surface, the humanist Easter I grew up with may have seemed drained of meaning to religious onlookers, but it was actually highly ritualized and deep in its own way. I want to share my family’s three main rituals — an Easter eve afternoon of collaborative egg art, the collective reading aloud of a surprisingly feminist bunny book from the 1930s, and a morning of romping, outdoor egg hunts in bitter spring weather — as a resource for nonreligious families who want to celebrate a secular Easter that’s about more than just candy.


Radical Passover: Celebrating Collective Resistance


by: on April 4th, 2010 | 1 Comment »

Why is there an olive on the Seder plate? Why is there an orange on the seder plate? And how can the liberation story of Passover relate to our modern-day struggles against oppression? Traditional Passover haggadot (the books of readings used at seder services) are full of answers but not to these questions. But then again, most seder plates don’t have olives and oranges on them …

I’m always interested in efforts to reclaim, reinvent, or renew religious holidays in ways that make them newly sustaining and politically energizing, so I was excited to learn through my friend Traci of a radical, anti-racist haggadah full of poetic writing and ideas about how to find new relevance and depth in the rituals of Passover: “The Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah Zine” by Micah Bazant and Dara Silverman. The authors intentionally did not copyright the piece and have made it available for free on the web, encouraging people to print it out and use it as the basis for a “choose-your-own-adventure progressive seder.” Traci used the zine as the basis for a joyful and politicized seder that I had the pleasure of participating in earlier this week.

Meet HuffPost’s New Religion Editor, Paul Raushenbush


by: on March 4th, 2010 | Comments Off

On February 24, Rev. Paul Raushenbush issued a call for articles entitled “Dear Religious (and Sane) America” to inaugurate the launch of the Huffington Post’s new religion section. According to the article,

HuffPost Religion is dedicated to providing a provocative, respectful, and hopefully productive forum for addressing the ways in which religion intersects our personal, communal, national and international life. HuffPost Religion will demonstrate the vibrant diversity of religious traditions, perspectives and experiences that exist alongside and inform one another in America and throughout the world.

Huffington is clearly trying to expand its reach and become one of the big players in religion media, much as it already has in politics, popular culture, and even business. Based on initial responses to the section, it appears to be well on its way.


Constraining Play: How Surrealist Art Can Nourish Our Political Imaginations


by: on February 27th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

In one image a winged bird flaps her wings but remains rooted to the ground. In another a fork-headed monster rushes by, a small bird fluttering at its heart. Nearby a masked bundle of writing appears to be stuck in a toilet bowl.

These are just a few of the uncanny creatures that emerged three years ago when some friends and I started playing “exquisite corpse,” a collaborative drawing game invented by surrealists in the 1920s.

So many of the drawings evoke unexpected scenes of constraint. The creatures are tangled up in themselves. They’re tangled up in each other. They’re tangled up in the surrounding environment. But unlike most images of constraint in pop culture today, most of the drawings portray structural constraints (such as the bird’s physical rootedness in the ground) rather than overt scenes of domination. Many of the surrealist creatures seem oddly joyful and calm despite their limitations.

The subtle entanglements in these pictures are not unlike the constraints that global political, social, and economic forces exert on radical efforts to build a more just and caring world.

(To see more collaborative drawings, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.)