Archive for November, 2009


The Phoenix on Epstein

Boston’s weekly alternative paper, The Phoenix, has an article entitled Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar. There is a lot to chew on in this article, but I’d like to particularly highlight this criticism by Tom Flynn

“Greg lays a strong emphasis on denominational life, but a lot of folks on the other side of the tracks are strong individualists,” Flynn explains. “They moved out of traditional religious backgrounds to move away from supernatural belief, but also as a way of emancipating themselves from a web of tight community control — and they’re not eager to step back into a local community.”

and this discussion at P.Z. Myers blog, Pharyngula

I do find it puzzling that some atheists react so negatively against the concept of community. I would think that pretty much everyone wants to have friends and a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. But to each his/her own.

The first rule of our Humanist community is that it’s voluntary. No one has belong if they don’t want to. It’s not like a religion, where you are obligated to show up on holy days, etc.

For myself, one thing I enjoy about being part of a community is that you can get to know a person slowly, and perhaps become friends over time. When I was a kid, I could become friends “at first sight” but now I find that it generally takes repeated encounters with another individual to get over the initial reserve that’s expected in New England. Being part of a community allows one the slow exposure to other people. In school, that happens all the time, but in the working world less so.

Another aspect of the article I would take issue with is that I think it overemphasizes ritual compared to what we actual do in the Harvard community, which is pretty much no rituals. Some of us meditate together as part of the Humanist Contemplative Group, but meditation is a sort of mental exercise, not a ritual with magical powers. The only rituals we’re on board with is the life cycle rituals like weddings and funerals. These need not be elaborate, but it’s nice to have some sort of ceremony to memorialize important life stages. None of these things need have a supernatural aspect about them.

I also wouldn’t say our ultimate aim is to cozily co-exist with religion. Rather, we aim to provide an alternative so that people who participate in religion to fulfill their emotional needs will find an avenue that also fulfills these needs without requiring intellectual compromises. But our rivalry with religious moderates is friendly, more like a Red Sox-Orioles game than a game against the Yankees, and we can collaborate with them on charity and service projects.


Pluralism and Humanism

Apparently many non-religious people think that Humanist organizations are unnecessary because most culture and organizations are secular after all. 

 I think the point that we as Humanists are trying to make is that the vast majority of secular organizations or communities are pluralistic.  They include people with religious beliefs. 

 Accordingly, Humanist institutions would be the only place where the atheist’s basic worldview, one that lacks supernatural beings and animation, would be explicitly shared by all or nearly all the other members.  Some people need to spend part of their time in such a social, intellectual, and emotional space.

 I don’t think we can frame ourselves as a mere general social outlet for people who can’t join a traditional religious organization because they do not believe in gods.  Such a “generalist” could join a new-in-town group, and I believe Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalist congregations are open to such people.

Nor can we frame Humanist community as a secular space for discussing existential issues.  Such a function could be performed by, for example, an “Existential Discussion Meetup.”  The problem with such a group is that it can include people talking about their relationship with God and still be considered secular because it lacks a religious focus.

 In the end, Humanist community and culture refers to the specific marginalization or exclusion of believers and their perspectives.  Why can’t we just say that?


Open Thread

To discuss anything related to Humanism, please leave a comment


Palin Claims No Fish Ancestors

Sarah Palin is a proud creationist; I wonder what her father, a retired science teacher, thinks about that.

Elsewhere in this volume she talks about creationism, saying she “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.” In everything that happens to her, from meeting Todd to her selection by Mr. McCain for the Republican ticket, she sees the hand of God: “My life is in His hands. I encourage readers to do what I did many years ago, invite Him in to take over.”


When The Gods Had Ceased To Be

Yourcenar plaque in Capri

In the afterword to Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, I read this quote, which she attributes to Flaubert:

Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.

The Romans of this period remind one of the United States of our current era, the hegemonic power that sees itself as the guarantor of the world order. I don’t say that in a critical way. Hadrian, in the novel, describes his dissent from the expansionisting policies of his predecessor, Trajan, and his shift to a defensive posture (e.g. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain). Late in this life, he faces the Jewish rebellion in Judea. The Jews of that time fought with suicidal tenacity that strikes me as similar to the fanaticism of the Taliban. But in taking on the great imperial power, they were utterly defeated, and Judea itself was renamed by the Romans as Palestine.

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, it seemed to me that Hadrian, and his predecessor Titus, who destroyed the Jewish temple, were horrific characters. Now that I am secular, I see it from a different perspective, and identify somewhat uncomfortably with the Romans, who were trying to keep a relatively peaceful multicultural realm intact against challenges by barbarians and religious fanatics. When they finally failed, Europe fell into the Dark Ages.


Dacey Decomposes Humanism

A piece by Austin Dacey takes a swipe at humanists.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

and Ophelia Benson says right on

It’s not, after all, as if humanists and/or atheists are like theism turned inside out – carrying all the same baggage but with minus-signs replacing plus-signs; it’s not as if we come complete with our own atheist music and atheist prayers and atheist temples and atheist holidays and atheist hats. It’s also not as if the ‘more’ that there is to life is necessarily a peculiarly atheist kind of more. It’s just more. Most of it is every bit as available to theists as it is to us. (I say ‘most’ because there probably are various senses of freedom, liberation, autonomy, that are specific to atheism, in the same way that there are various senses of protection, companionship, cosmic love, that are specific to theism.) We can all revel in poetry, music, nature, landscapes, relationships, conversation, learning, dance, play; feelings of wonder, awe, joy; chocolate, ice cream, weirdly fascinating stupid tv shows about real people being neurotic, chocolate.

In rebuttal, let me point to Emily Cadik’s piece on secular communities in The New Humanism

It’s true that if you are an avid orchid lover, you can find community among your fellow orchid admirers, and likewise for coin collectors and other hobbyists. But for those of us who are generalists, as I am, who are interested in a lot of things but not obsessed by any of them, it’s valuable to have a general interest community of people who are reasonably like-minded (we’re certainly not on the same page on everything).

No, we don’t want humanism to be a clone (or evil twin) of religion. But I would argue that religions evolved over thousands of years because they met human emotional needs, and some religion practices, like singing together and meditation, can be secularized and naturalized and provide satisfying experiences for some humanists who have a taste for these things.