Saturday, May 17, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Religious Atheism

Occasionally, I am called an atheist by someone believing that by doing so they are insulting me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Largely, their misconception derives from the false assumption that atheism and religion are mutually exclusive. They are not.

Religion does not require god. Let me repeat and reframe that. Being a religious person does not require a belief in a supernatural being.

Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist, each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. “Religion” clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion "the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind," while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it "a feeling for the infinite," and Alfred North Whitehead described it as "what the individual does with his own solitariness."

Some etymologists connect "religion" to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning "to bind." Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Therefore, as an atheist, I believe that “religion” is a collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown. And, that meaning need not derive from or be directed by a supernatural source.

So, if you do not believe in god, but feel something missing in your “feeling of the infinite,” there is a religious community that welcomes your search for truth and meaning.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Abominations

“Abomination” is not a word one hears often in everyday conversation. I imagine that most people hear the word rarely during their lifetime.

Sadly, however, there is one group who uses this word obsessively in one particular context. Especially with the news stories about marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws, we have heard far too much use of this word in recent months.

So, lest anyone think that “abomination” is reserved only for their select purpose, let me provide my own list of things I feel are an abomination in America today.
  • With the most advanced medical system in the history of humanity, it is an abomination that some still fight against efforts to provide people in need with basic medical insurance.
  • When the wealthy get every financial advantage society can offer, it is an abomination that hard-working and honest people who need assistance are vilified and stereotyped as lazy.
  • It is an abomination that our military veterans suffer staggering rates of suicide and mental illness and that they must often wait months to receive medical treatment.
  • The selective misquoting of founders like Jefferson and Adams by so-called patriots to promote narrow-mindedness, bigotry and selfishness is an abomination.
  • The perversion of a religion of love and inclusion to persecute others is an abomination.
  • Capital punishment by any means is an abomination.
  • The ongoing treatment of women as second class citizens in the workplace and as objects for the sexual gratification of men in general is an abomination.
  • Assigning any validity to the irrational opinions of those who deny overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, evolution, contraception and the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity is an abomination.
  • That anyone thinks unfettered access to weapons of mass killing is in the best interests of this society is an abomination.

Truth and Meaning: Mythic Struggles

Every religion has its mythic stories. We teach our children in Sunday School classes and we share them during worship services. Our stories inspire us to want to act, and instruct us on how to act.

The mythic stories of my religion involve resistance. But our resistance has not been against tyrants or kings, but against ideas and prevailing social norms. Katarzyna Weigel and Michael Servetus were burned at the stake resisting the idea that every person had to believe what the majority of people believed. When Edward Everett Hale and Lydia Maria Child helped lead the abolition movement, they resisted the dominant paradigm that accepted that some persons can be treated as property. And when Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb died at the hands of racist cowards in Alabama, they resisted the notion that all people do not have the same inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some generations don't have the chance to write a mythic story. The great causes arrive only occasionally, and are often not recognized until they are past. But I believe that we are living through such a period right now — a period in which a shadow hovers over the land and whose minions march on many fronts. That shadow is Regressivism. That shadow is the delusion held by some that we need to return to a time that never actually existed — a time during which the masses lived contentedly under the thumb of a benevolent and privileged few.

The Regressive is a cunning adversary. He poses as the polite academician, the well-groomed politician, the business owner from humble roots, the preacher of a loving god. The Regressive promises freedom from fear, freedom from government interference, freedom from immorality. And you pay for these freedoms with sacrifices to the altar of gods of Regressivism. The price? Sacrifice the Other. Sacrifice LGBT folk because they are abominations. Sacrifice women because they cannot be trusted with the responsibility of reproductive choice. Sacrifice the poor because their labor has no value. Sacrifice people of color because they are inherently inferior. Sacrifice your safety because guns matter more than people. Sacrifice the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless, the immigrant, and the poor because they are not worthy.

And who resides in this godhead of Regressivism? Greed. Ignorance. Complacency. Power. Lust. Hate. Arrogance. Intolerance. These modern day golden calves demand sacrifices of blood and life and will settle for nothing less. And in return, they offer the banality of cable television, Twitter triviality, and the narcissism of a bloated America that wallows in wealth while half of the world starves.

But how can we fight these gods, whose resources to oppress us seem endless? We start locally and we start small. Throughout Michigan, towns are passing ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in nondiscrimination laws. Bay County adopted one small piece and Saginaw continues to wrestle with a much broader ordinance. Each time we take up this struggle, the shadow of Regressivism sends forth its soldiers armed with bigotry, a strategy of misinformation and the tactics of fear. The time is coming for Midland to enter the fray. The forces arrayed against us here will be strong, but we will prevail — we must prevail.

Truth and Meaning: Cults

The word “cult” possesses many personalities. Some use the term to describe loyalty or dedication. Films may have a cult following. Iconic people and things may possess a cultish aura of popularity.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance distinguish other meanings. A cult can be any style of worship and rituals associated with a particular idea, entity or philosophy. Sociologically, any religious group that represents a minority living in tension with the region’s predominant religion may be considered a cult. Evangelical Christians may label cults other Christian groups that do not accept specific historical doctrines, including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, among others. And fundamentalist Christians might typically label a cult any religious group that deviates from historical Christian beliefs, including all non-Christian religions of the world, as well as liberal Christian denominations.

I was reminded again this week of the latter definition when an online commenter labeled Unitarian Universalism a “cult.” This, however, is when the technical versus derogatory uses of a word can cause problems. You see, I come from a generation influenced by events, such as the Manson family’s brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969. After this event, the popular media considered a cult to be any small religious group engaging in brainwashing and other mind control techniques. This would include The People’s Temple (Jim Jones), the Branch-Davidians (Waco, Texas), Heaven’s Gate and the Aum Shinri Kyo (Japan).

For me, therefore, a “cult” consists of a group with very specific characteristics, which include:
  • Authoritarian Structure: A power structure like a pyramid, with all authority at the top.
  • Charismatic Leadership: A single, self-appointed leader, portraying themselves as a living prophet or messiah who alone interprets the truth and who alone makes decisions for the group.
  • Social Encapsulization: Physical and psychological isolation of members from the rest of society, often in communal arrangements.
  • Apocalyptic Beliefs: Leaders preaching the impending end of the world and imminent transcendence of the group.
  • Violence and Weapons: Stockpiles of weapons to counteract perceived powerlessness against enemies.
  • Deception and Exploitation: Confusing messages and ever deepening levels of commitment not apparent on the surface, as well as taking advantage of members through control of money and time, forced labor, and physical and sexual abuse.
Given these definitions, anyone familiar with Unitarian Universalism can see why associating that faith with the term “cult” is absurd. Unitarian Universalism exhibits none of these classic attributes of a cult and, in fact, generally presents polar opposite characteristics.
The cautionary lesson, therefore, is to use words carefully. Use a term if you feel justified. But be prepared to defend your use of the word when challenged by those with a different definition.