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Archive for the ‘Humanism’ Category



Why Atheists Choose Religion

Feb18

by: on February 18th, 2010 | 42 Comments »

The idea “to be religious is to be a theist” as Christopher Hitchens stated in his debate with Lorenzo Albacete is a quite ethnocentric claim. It is true that in the West we have often associated a theistic God with religion, but this neglects Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism and numerous religious traditions which have adopted a deistic, pantheistic, panentheistic or other understanding of God. And as I pointed out in my critique of Hitchens last week, Unitarian Universalism contains 19% of people who identify as atheist/agnostic.

In the over 140 comments I received from my post “Christopher Hitchens: The Orthodox Protestant Atheist” both on the Tikkun site and in the version crossposted on Alternet.org there was both surprise and disbelief that atheists could be religious leaders. I described how I am in seminary at Starr King School for the Minstry studying alongside atheists and agnostics who are in training to become religious leaders and ministers. This seemed to be an oxymoron as for some of the respondents all religion is evil and always associated with God. So I thought it would be helpful to include a few statements from atheist students in seminary studying to be religious leaders.

From a fellow atheist seminarian at Starr King:

First, I think there is a difference between being an atheist and being anti-religious. They are orthogonal. There is also a difference between being anti-religious and being opposed to the effects of particular religious traditions. These terms should not be conflated. Since when did not believing in God mean that you are opposed to other people believing in God and or practicing religion regardless of whether they believe? I am an atheist. Just to be clear, by that I mean I don’t believe that there is a god, a higher consciousness, or a spirit. I am also opposed to the effects of certain religious traditions. But I am not by any means anti-religious. I don’t deny the value that religion or religious practice, (whether actual belief in god and the afterlife, or simply liking the pretty candles at mass and multiple opportunities for community) brings to people including myself. Religion has a lot to offer and to deny that is to deny the complexity of the human condition.

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Christopher Hitchens: The Orthodox Protestant Atheist

Feb9

by: on February 9th, 2010 | 97 Comments »

Despite having engaged in numerous debates with Christians, Muslims and Jews across the liberal/conservative spectrum Christopher Hitchens still holds to an amazingly ignorant understanding of the liberal religious heritage. His understanding of who is and who isn’t a Christian is perhaps the most disappointing and surprising piece of evidence for his myopic interpretation of religion. While rejecting conservative Christians’ theological claims about God, the Bible and Jesus, he accepts their understanding of who is and is not able to be considered a Christian. In a recent interview with Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian Universalist minister and self-professed liberal Christian, Christopher Hitchens paraphrased C.S. Lewis to explain the boundaries of who constitutes a Christian. It’s not surprising then that a recent blog post by Dr. Ray Pritchard of “Keep Believing Ministries” for a conservative Christian site called Crosswalk was entitled, “Christopher Hitchens Gets it Exactly Right.”

During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, noted atheist Christopher Hitchens laid down some seriously good theology… In one of the delicious ironies of our time, an outspoken atheist grasps the central tenet of Christianity better than many Christians do. What you believe about Jesus Christ really does make a difference.

What did Hitchens say?

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Why is Hitchens so quick to accept such an orthodox interpretation of the boundaries of Christianity? His brain seems to short-circuit when he has to think about religion in complex ways. He wants to hold firmly to an either/or dichotomy–the very same one which he is critiquing fundamentalism for. In debates he has stated that he is “Protestant atheist” meaning that he recognizes the validity of the various reformation movements which liberalized, expanded and diversified Christianity. But which denomination of protestant atheist is he? This isn’t clear but it is apparently not one which falls outside of his or C.S. Lewis’s orthodox boundaries of inclusion/exclusion. Isn’t is shocking that of all people, Christopher Hitchens is in agreement with the many forces in history which have led to the extermination, torture and destruction of “heretics” for simply believing the “wrong” form of Christianity? Since when is Hitchens so concerned about who is and isn’t a Christian?

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Good Deeds on a Small Scale #3

Feb6

by: on February 6th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

I’m fascinated by the germination of good deeds. Where do they begin? How do they grow from a mere idea to an actuality?

On the 26th of January, I caught up by phone with José Chavez, a custodian in the San Jose, California, Unified School District who’s been instrumental in creating a library for the village school in Limón, Michoacán, Mexico, where he grew up. (I learned of his project through a librarian friend who was soliciting books in Spanish.) Not only did he lead the library project, but he helped (physically) build a concrete plaza and paved areas in the village. When that was finished, the priest in the village called him up and said, “Why don’t you help us make a little room behind the church for people to meet?” So he raised $3,000 from among his friends and relatives in the immigrant community, many of whom gave $50, $100, $200.

I imagine that many people, like me, dream about all the good we’ll do someday when we acquire enough wealth to have a personal foundation. Here was a working class person who didn’t wait to be rich before taking action.

Below are extracts from our conversation:

LK: Tell me about how you started this library.

JC: I was born in Limón, Michoacán, and when I came here in 1974, I was thinking one day, ‘We don’t have any books [in the village].’ Three of us came from the same school, and [when we went there] the government only gave us three or four books, so I said to my friends, “Why don’t we try to build a library for the kids in that school?” So we [Salvador Andrade, Mario Andrade, and José] filled out an application to the government in Sacramento [Mexico] to see if the government will help us. The government said it would give 75 percent, if we would give 25 percent. So we started to collect the money [from other immigrant friends and family in the San Jose area].

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What the New Humanism offers spiritual progressives

Nov10

by: on November 10th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

Picture 4We have been talking with our friends at Tikkun for some months about a new online magazine that is now well launched. Tikkun Daily asked us to introduce ourselves to you. Rick Heller is our editor and he has written the following to explain why “spiritual progressives” may appreciate what our authors have to say.

Rick Heller writes:

Readers of Tikkun and spiritual progressives are cordially invited to peruse the new online magazine, The New Humanism, a publication of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. Secular humanists get a little nervous around the word “spiritual” because we don’t believe in the supernatural, but to the extent that it refers to positive emotions like love, joy and empathy, we’re spiritual too. Humanism is a philosophy of life that is socially progressive. Although humanists are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or otherwise non-religious, not all non-religious people are humanists. An emphasis on compassion distinguishes humanism from the libertarian atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand, while a respect for democratic processes separates humanism from communism as practiced in the former Soviet Bloc.

There’s also a bit of a distinction–a much smaller one–between the New Humanists and the so-called New Atheists.

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Religion, law, and the politics of human rights

Nov9

by: on November 9th, 2009 | Comments Off

New at The Immanent Frame: Talal Asad and Abdullahi An-Na’im both stand at the forefront of the challenging and constructive exchange taking place today between European and Islamic traditions of political, legal, and religious thought. At a recent event organized by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the two scholars traded questions and criticisms concerning the concept of human rights. Moderated by José Casanova, the discussion addressed the intrinsic limitations and historical failures of the language of human rights, as well as its formidable capacity to challenge autocratic and state-centric distributions of power, creating openings for democratic contestation and political self-determination. A short excerpt of the exchange has been posted at The Immanent Frame and a complete transcript is available for download here (pdf). You can also watch video from this event at here & there.

Interfaith Youth Conference: What a Thrill!

Oct29

by: on October 29th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

In one room, young Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, secular humanists, and others cluster in a circle to learn strategies for facilitating constructive interfaith discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Down the hall, more young people — bareheaded or wearing headscarves or kippot — crowd together to discuss multifaith intentional living communities, learn about the Baha’i faith, create videos about youth-led interfaith activism, and train to volunteer as advocates for undocumented immigrants.

Talk about a rich space for conversation.

ifyc1All this happened during one morning of the Interfaith Youth Core‘s 2009 conference, which took place October 25-27 at Northwestern University, just north of Chicago. The conference brought high school and college students engaged in interfaith work together with religious leaders, politicians, and authors interested in interreligious cooperation. Speakers included Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard; Tikkun Daily blogger Joshua Stanton, who founded the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue; Rami Nashashibi, the inspiring director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network; Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who has worked with Tikkun to garner support for a Global Marshall Plan; and others.

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When Must the Secular and Religious Work Together?

Sep22

by: on September 22nd, 2009 | 1 Comment »

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

There is huge scope for the secular and the religious to work together! We are currently missing far too many of those chances. Believers and nonbelievers tend to look down on and mistrust each other. The emphasis on belief, creed, and ideas — the ways we understand and describe our experience of the world — tends to overwhelm an emphasis on our actual shared experience, and on ways we could care about and for each other, and pursue shared goals.

Look at how various atheists have been promoting Islamophobia. Some secularists are so overwhelmed by fear and distaste for Islamic beliefs and for existing Islamic states that merge religious with political power, that they cannot conceive how to make common cause with the uncountable millions of Muslims who are simply trying to lead good lives in peace.

Maybe it’s obvious that secular ex-Muslims might be the ones who could teach secular non-Muslims how to do this. But how many prominent people have come out in public as secular ex-Muslims? Here’s one, and a very interesting and eloquent one at that, and my thanks to Danny Postel for sending me the link.

Check our Hussein Ibish’s post yesterday: “Why an agnostic and secularist fights for American Muslim rights and against Islamophobia.”

Caspar Responds: Humanist Religion IS a No-no

Sep16

by: on September 16th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Over at the New Humanist blog, Caspar Melville writes:

That nice Dave Belden over at Tikkun magazine has paid me the compliment of disagreeing with a piece I wrote for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, in which I argue against Dave’s notion that humanists need to organise themselves like religious communities, have services, rituals, build a community that sort of thing. Dave thinks I am too individualistic and we will never heal the world if we can’t build a strong ‘base’. He may well be right.

His perspective, I think, would be that being a humanist implies a desire to improve the world – for humans and other animals – it’s a commitment to a kind of activist attitude. (This is well expressed in Tikkun’s strapline, they want to ‘mend, repair and transform the world’). I wonder if my own humanism isn’t more of the “I don’t believe in God, I’m fascinated by what humans have done, do and might be capable of (good and bad), I want more peace and love, less war and greed, but life is short and full of sorrow (and plenty of laughs), most human endeavours and ambitions are fragile and misguided, if not ludicrous, and much harm is done by those with grand visions, so I don’t want to join a movement, any movement, and I will choose my friends and confreres from the weird and (often) wacky individuals I gather to myself, for possibly perverse and certainly unexamined reasons, along the way,” sort. Not a very snappy slogan, I grant you, but my own. I admire those with the courage to believe they can change the world and the drive to try – but they scare me too. So, good luck with your humanist religion, Dave, but include me out.

What about you?

Well the last line was irresistible, so of course I left a comment much longer than Caspar’s post–I’m the Dave on his site here. The next two comments side with Caspar. It’s fun to get out among the movement-phobic.

Why Is Humanist Religion a No No?

Sep15

by: on September 15th, 2009 | 18 Comments »

Caspar Melville

Caspar Melville

I am happy to find myself being quoted on the Guardian website by Casper Melville, editor of the New Humanist.

Belden (who is now managing editor at the non-denominational spiritual US magazine Tikkun), in a piece entitled Is it time for humanists to start holding services? wrote that while humanism had done well to meet the philosophical challenges set by religion, it did less well reproducing the kind of “vibrant social connections” that religion provides. He was rather stirring, in fact…

Caspar has a go at demolishing my argument–that humanists need to build congregations–in the kindest way, intelligently and entertainingly. (The New Humanist is full of English wit and irreverence and always a good read, with great cartoons.) Caspar’s main point is that any kind of ongoing community, with attendant meetings and formalized (gasp!) rituals, necessarily involves groupthink, and disapproval of outsiders.

As if unattached humanists don’t suffer from these traits themselves? They don’t look down their noses at the religious and judge them?

Caspar, it comes with our humanity. We’re tribal. We ALL have to struggle against groupthink, devaluation of outsiders, unhealthy reliance on charismatic leaders and so on. Those problems are not confined to formal associations, they just become more visible there, and therefore in some ways are easier to identify and guard against in communities, IF their members have their humanist and skeptical wits about them.

We need more humanists to help work out how to do this!

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Spiritual Wisdom of the Week

Aug25

by: on August 25th, 2009 | 1 Comment »

This week’s spiritual wisdom was written by Harold W. Becker, president and founder of The Love Foundation, Inc:

(Photo courtesy of FlickrCC Photos8.com)

(Photo courtesy of FlickrCC/Photos8.com)

From the laughter of children at play to the golden rays of the sun beaming through the sky at sunset, the eternal song of love permeates all creation. Each beat of our heart pulses to this rhythm in a majestic and graceful dance connecting us to everyone and everything. Life is magnificent when we quiet our outer selves and become fully present and aware of our own loving essence.

To know this grander love is to go beyond the sensation of a first kiss or a mother’s tender touch in time of need. Although these extraordinary expressions reveal the existence of love, there is so much more. This universal love is unconditional and its very presence ignites our passion and our compassion. It breathes life into our being and sustains us. It encourages and illuminates the infinite possibilities while simultaneously providing all that we require to be alive.

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