Monday, November 26, 2007

Boy Scouts and the Press

I had my first encounter with the press as a budding minister and, so far, I have to say I'm am very satisfied. Our local scouts hosted their second annual Ten Commandments hike the day after Thanksgiving. A group of 350 scouts, parents, and leaders walked to a number of churches in the local area, stopping at each to hear presentations by representatives of different religious traditions. Presenters included Jews, Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Baptists, Episcopals, Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Hindus, and Buddhists. At each stop, we were asked to address one of the 10 Commandments and how our religion interpreted that particular rule, as well as briefly discuss our religion.

I was assigned the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain -- which is enormously ironic since I am particularly fond of swearing. But, I explained that my interpretation of the commandment is that we should not judge or disrespect others vainly in the name of whatever we consider of ultimate importance (referring to Tillich's concept of Ultimate Concern). As an example, I asked the scouts to look at our principles in the hymnal and pointed out our commitment to the democratic process. I said that it would be wrong for me in the name of Democracy to disrespect another person's religion just because its structure was hierarchical.

In describing Unitarian Universalism, I told the scouts that the people they meet in one of our congregations might display a wide range of religious beliefs. I explained that they might find Christians, Jews and Muslims; atheists and agnostics; pagans, wiccans and pantheists; humanists and folks with many other views on the nature of god. Then, I told them that I am an atheist and that I do not believe that atheism and religion are mutually exclusive. That definitely raised a few eyebrows.

Funny, though, was that when the boys asked questions, they were mostly about the church building and our organ. One young man asked if Unitarian Universalists could also belong to another church. I explained that it was common for our families to have one UU parent and one parent of another faith tradition, and that these families often attend services at both churches.

A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette attended the event. She asked me about the conflict between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Boy Scouts. I explained my understanding of the situation and added that that conflict at the national level has not yet hurt our relationship with local scouting groups. Needless to say, I was amazed when the article came out the next day how much focused on what I had said. I was even more amazed at how well she quoted me and represented my comments. She not only mentioned my comments on atheism extensively, but also mentioned prominently our church's banner, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right." So, I was able to address both of the major issues of contention with the Boy Scouts in, I believe, a constructive way.

Of course, it remains to be seen if there will be any follow up on the article or comments from readers. I really hope that some folks will read it and try us out. I particularly hope that some teens who are questioning their religious beliefs will read it and realize that we are there as a noncreedal alternative as they search for truth and meaning in their lives. I know that as a teenager, I would have loved to know an adult I could talk to on these issues.

4 comments:

Ray Smith said...

Mr. Liebmann,
I read the Pittsburgh Gazette's article online with some interest, as I was associated with Unitarian and UU Churches for about half a century, and served in many key positions over those years. I'm currently affiliated with an Ethical Humanist group.

I find it interesting that you have such a good feeling about the Boy Scouts. It's clear that the BSA would consider you, as an Atheist, morally unfit to join their organization. If you ever tried to join, they would fight you tooth and nail, up to the Supreme Court if necessary.

That kind of religious bigotry and hatred is something that all open-minded progressives should oppose. Perhaps it's time to embrace the viewpoint of such notables as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and oppose any organizations which espouse such hateful (and, I might add, anti-American) principles as religious bigotry.

Bill Baar said...

Civil Marriage is a Civil Right for everyone?

If so, why license it? A license is the states why of discriminating against some marriages and for others.

Ron Paul neatly gets this.

The question then becomes as minister, will you marry any group who comes before you? As a sacred, not civil, right?

Jeff Liebmann said...

Ray,

Your points are certainly valid. It is our duty to fight hate and religious bigotry on every front. The question one must answer is what is the best way to do this?

There are many scouting organizations, most of which contribute enormously positive things to our society. Until just a few years ago, the Boy Scouts worked with the Unitarian Universalist Association and honored our Religion in Life merit badge. The point I was trying to make is that our churches can work with local organizations, as well as at the national level to reason with those whose policies discriminate against, not only atheists, but people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.

One way we can address this issue is to stridently debate these people in a public forum. However, in a society dominated by theist beliefs, our chance of success seems slim. We can also create our own scouting groups, which has happened, but that does not address the power of the much larger and influential organization.

That is why I believe that the best approach is to work within the Boy Scouts to convince the current leadership that atheists can be moral people and that heterosexuals have the same potential to abuse their charges as a person of a different sexual orientation.

Of course, I believe that there is room in the debate for all of these approaches. I think it is essential for the New Atheists and my colleagues in the Ethical Humanist movement to take the position you suggest. Combined with the provision of alternatives and an evolutionary approach from within, we can change people's attitudes and fight hate and religious bigotry.

Jeff Liebmann said...

Bill,

Regarding your first point, if I am reading Ron Paul's comments correctly, it seems to me that he is simply punting on the issue, taking a stand that is not likely to ever be enacted in our lifetimes. There is an historic civil component to marriage and government continues to have a stake in the institution. For instance, the state imposes age restrictions on marriage. But, beyond economic and social issues, there is a need for civil ceremonies to exist if for no other reason to be available for those couples who are not religious.

Regarding your second point, would I perform a marriage ceremony for anyone that came to me seeking a sacred ceremony? I have not yet met a couple for whom this question arose in my mind and, while I suppose the possibility might exist, I cannot think of an instance when I would be uncomfortable marrying any people seeking to live together in a marital union.

Your broad question, however, deals with the need for governmental licensing of marriage. In a perfect world, I believe it should be at least as difficult to get a marriage license as it is to get a driver's license (or a fishing license, for that matter). But, then, we require no licensure whatsoever to have a child, which in my opinion, may be the most important commitment of all. So, given the current reality, I have no problem with licensing marriage, so long as that license is available to all consenting adults.