Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

I rarely post an essay on both here and on my homeschooling blog (Quarks and Quirks), but this one fits both. 

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“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

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Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound  when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not to believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

A Walk in the Woods

IMG_0434Yesterday I walked in the woods with my dear friend, sharing the sights and sounds of Stony Creek Metropark on a warming Saturday morning. We’d started a conversation an hour before, and there was still much to be said on both sides.  Or perhaps it began months earlier, after he talked me into reading Richard Dawkins’ controversial work, The God Delusion. I’d avoided the book, not wanted to read a polemic against religion. After reading just over half the book, I couldn’t complete it. It felt hostile and angry, not feelings I hold at all toward religion and religious people. And, yes, it held arguments against the likelihood of the existence of God that resonated with — and expanded on — my own. But I’d had enough.

Whenever the conversation began, its basic components remained the same. He feels the world is worse for religion while I maintain it’s given more to humanity than it has taken. He cites genocide, wars, hate crimes, exclusionary behavior, and a host of hostilities, all in the name of religion. He’s right, of course. Throughout history, religious differences and religious beliefs have led to atrocities, both large and small, many in the name of a god, or at least with the intent of doing what that faith believes is the work of their god.

Yes, he’s right. Terrible acts have been committed and will continue to be committed under the shelter of religion and religious thought. Religion serves to set a group apart, encouraging a community to share values and ideals. In the course of this setting apart, those different may be seen as in the way of the truth as that group perceives it. Those with differing views of the greater reality are sometimes seen as in conflict with that particular truth, which when taken to extreme, can lead to violence. But, I counter, plenty of hate has occurred without religion as a motivator. Racism and sexism, while fostered by some religious groups, run rampant through history regardless of religion. Mass executions under Stalin and Mao were not religiously motivated either. And some atrocities have multiple triggers, as in Darfur.

A bit of googling around lead me to dozens of poorly documented lists tallying the dead from both religious and nonreligious atrocities. The numbers go the way of the one doing the tallying — the religious cite higher numbers killed in conflicts not based in religion while the agnostics/atheists claim the count goes the other way. I’ve not the time nor inclination to do the math myself, and I’m fine with saying its a draw. Either way, human beings have committed unimaginable wrongs against others of their species in an astounding number of ways.

Humans find ways to divide. We’ve evolved to gather in community for protection at the very least. As a species, we thrive when we divvy daily tasks yet still stick together when whomever is perceived as the dangerous ‘other’ comes into our camp. We’re territorial, suspicious, and tribal. We don’t like change, and living in proximity of ‘other’ requires either change or the removal of ‘other’. Religion or not, I maintained, we have always and sadly likely always will battle ‘other.’

And so the conversation went, as we walked through the woods, debating the topic heatedly but without anger. We enjoy a good back-and-forth, which is good, since I seem wired to walk into one sometimes just for the mental stimulation, regardless of how strongly I feel about a topic. We did pause for a group of birders, not sure they’d share our enthusiasm for the subject, but otherwise, the debate continued through the woods.

What bothers me most in conversations like this is what I perceive as hostility against religion.  Now, my dear friend is decidedly not hostile against religion or religious people. He’s a tolerant, accepting chap, devoted to peace and human rights and as loving, kind, and smart as they come. He’s just not the hostile type. And yet I find my hackles raised when the conversation takes this turn. Suddenly, I’m ready to defend the tolerant portion of the religious, the part that includes my family (and his) and many of my friends (and his). It’s me against the anti-religious tide, and I raise my verbal staff to part the seas for the faithful and kind.

Well, at least I do put up a good verbal defense. Or at least I think it is. My dear friend (and for this and other traits I do love him), is unfazed, lobbing counterpoints to each of my replies. We’re without statistics, walking by water and through woods, stopping once to wait for a chipmunk to pass and again avoid trampling a butterfly. I talk about the good done by religious people, about churches and temples and mosques committed to helping the poor and downtrodden. I talk about the benefits of the institutionalization of values, such as the Golden Rule, a exhortation repeated in most world religions to treat others as one would want to be treated, to love as we want to be loved. We each attempt to measure the immeasurable to support our respective opinions.

Miles later, we’re no closer to agreement and not entirely out of fuel for this fine discussion. He’s calling me on my logical inconsistencies to the point where I just start pointing them out myself to save verbiage  I’m pointing fingers at overstatements and wanderings, at least as I see them. And despite my tone, I’m satisfied and happy. We don’t agree. We’re unlikely to agree on this one, and even if we started toward agreement on some middle ground, I’m not sure either of us would admit it. I’ve had to think deeply, and I’m sure I’ll continue to think deeply about the role of religion in this world. I’ll mull and stew.

And we’ll undoubtedly debate again, and I’m glad. These debates stir my thoughts beyond the subject at hand. I start to think about the motivations behind my stance. Sometimes, it’s just out of desire to be obstinate that I take the up to his down. But generally, like today, there is more there. With this question — the question of whether religion has given more to humanity that it’s taken — I found the strength of my attachment to the hope that religion could some day be tempered and moderate, used cooperatively as a point of shared general values of love and compassion for humanity. I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic that we’ll ever reach that point. We’re just far too…human. I’m just not so sure the balance leans are far into the red as some say. In the woods — in the peace of the trees and waters and residents of both, my friend at my side and my children’s futures in my heart — I have hope.

Pope Francis, Atheism, and Words of Thanks

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

I smiled while reading the Huffington Post piece, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics. (I’m assuming it applies to us agnostics who do good in the world as well, since the hair between the atheist and agnostic is the knowability of the presence of God.) Personally, the issue of my redemption matters little to me. I don’t hold to the idea of sins or sinners needing redemption. As human, I am fallible, and whether one calls those numerous failings human behavior, sins, transgressions against other living beings, or mistakes doesn’t really matter to me. And as human, I am accountable to myself and others for those shortfalls. I don’t see the role a divine being would have in my acknowledgement of my mistakes, my need to make amends, and my subsequent attempt to avoid those mistakes again.

And yet, to this agnostic, Pope Francis’s words matter. They don’t matter because agnostics and atheists are all excited about going to heaven, a place that doesn’t have meaning to those who don’t ascribe to the religious beliefs behind the concept (and I know that’s not the redemption issue, but it is bothering some Catholics, all of us nonbelievers thinking we’re a shoo-in for heaven). They don’t matter because atheists long for compassion from a god or knowledge that Jesus died for their sins (but plenty of us find Jesus to be a fine example of love and compassion).  They matter because they are inclusive in a way that past hierarchy of the church has not been, at least not in quite some time. They matter because intolerance for non-believers is alive in this country.

An unanticipated consequence of my movement from theistic Catholic to agnostic Unitarian Universalist has been awareness the negative view much of this nation has about nontheists. I’ve become a member of an untrusted minority. While I’ve been called a moral relativist and amoral by a few, overall, I’ve received very little heat for my lack of belief. Admittedly, I’ve chosen to associate with compassionate people of a variety of belief systems, but plenty of my friends are believers. Generally, I choose to listen to others statements of faith and their understandings of reality without injecting my own version. I identify as a UU, a faith tradition I’m glad to attempt to explain when asked, but I don’t go out of my way to say that I don’t believe in a god. That part just gets too sticky.

It shouldn’t be that sticky. I’m not pleased that I tend to avoid talking about that part of my understanding of the world. And I’m aware that too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, that we’re selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates. Others are just sad for my loss. I’d just like to be accepted as someone who works to do good in the world, who tries to love more fully, to show compassion more freely, and to work for a better world more often.

But I’m an adult, and I grew up in a faith-filled home, a variety of religious expression, and my own belief. I grew up sharing an essential belief with most Americans, and I felt, well, normal. My kids don’t share that experience.  My younger son, a staunch atheist since age five, a bit before I’d moved my hat to the agnostic peg, wonders if his atheism will limit him professionally. He has his eye on politics, and he’s well aware that this country, at least not now, sees atheists as amoral and suspect. They certainly aren’t presidential material, according to most Americans, he notes. As outspoken as he is, he learned early to curb talk of religion outside of our UU church, where varying opinions of divinity are regular Sunday school fare. He knows which of his friends are religious, and he has learned to listen but leave his own opinion aside, a task that I know is hard for him and that I’m certain has improved relations with others. It feels less than ingenious, though.

His older brother briefly considered scouting, wanting to be outside, light campfires, and climb trees with other kids. Then he read the Boy Scouts of America’s oath. “I can’t say that,” he told me. “I don’t believe it.” Now, given his preference for shirts without buttons and sleeping indoors, scouting was nixed for more than religious differences (and, yes, their stance on gays was another issue we had), this wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a moment reminding us that we stand apart.

So what Pope Francis said about doing good, and about atheists doing good, matters to me. It matters that the head of the Catholic church, a church to which a quarter of the US belongs, says that atheists are redeemed. It’s the message to believers that those of us who don’t believe are recognized as moral beings with the capacity of doing good, just as much good as a believer. Yes, I’ve read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that atheism is “…a serious problem of our time ” and “a sin against the virtue of religion.” Agnosticism can express “…a sluggish moral conscience.”  Catholics are not Universalists, after all, the part of my faith tradition that believed in inclusive salvation. And that’s fine.

I’m not expecting open arms from all the Catholics I meet, although most of those I know already welcome me that way already. I do hope that those who only saw atheists as morally depraved, least sad sacks of selfishness, or angry or ignorant people wandering lost will take Pope Francis’s words to heart, listening to the call of love and inclusivity of his words on May 22. Let’s do good together to make this earth better for all its inhabitants.

Peace.

Notes from a Once Catholic

I’ve written about having been Catholic. I’ve written a touch about being Methodist and Episcopal and much more about being UU. I’ve written about agnosticism and atheism as well, in both broad strokes and brief bites. What I’ve not said much about is the leaving of the faith that was with me in some form from ages 5 to 35. And I’ve said little with what I retain from that faith that filled almost three-quarters of my life.

It’s not an angry tale. It’s not filled with pain, shame, or fear. I was brought up in what I’d maintain is the best sort of Catholicism at one of the best possible times for a faith with a checkered history. From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, my Catholic base was at the University of Detroit. Until my undergraduate and graduate days, noon mass in the St. Ignatius Chapel — located in the Commerce and Finance building — provided my spiritual sustenance. Once ensconced as a student at U of D, I moved to the nighttime student mass. Aside from the latter having a bigger crowd with younger people, there was little different about the experiences. Both services were led by the same Jesuits, men of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. Both boasted  guitar-based music that was singable and relatable.

And, notably, neither were representative of what Catholicism would look like in the suburban parishes my then-husband and I would sample.

We tried. We tried half a dozen parishes over the next ten years, looking for a place that resonated. Since I was the family Catholic, I suppose much of that resonance centered around me, but we left each place in agreement — it just wasn’t working. I don’t imagine it helped that during that same decade, the Catholic church was swinging towards conservatism, perhaps the inevitable backlash against the liberal shift a few decades before. But not having lived the history of a more conservative Catholicism, I’d naively assumed that the accepting, loving place of social justice and radical inclusivity was a mature church — one that would never, in my mind, move backwards.

We baptized two children in two different parishes that felt entirely alike. There was a homogeneity to the Catholic experience of these decades. Families — mostly Caucasian — filled the pews, those with children in any associated Catholic school seemed to belong a bit more than those of us that didn’t. Laity seemed to play little role in the everyday workings of the church and almost none in the Mass. Gone was a message of social justice and inclusivity. Gone were women in the pulpit. And gone was a sense of belonging.

And so it went. Gradually, attending Mass became more habit than heart. I was growing uncomfortable with the Catholic Church as a whole and with the response of our parish and the larger Church to the ever-increasing number of cases of sexual predation within the Church. While that was not why I eventually left, the lack of seriousness which that continuing scandal received left me wondering why I was there. We could have just stopped going, drifting away, and had not one sermon on one Sunday been given, that’s likely what would have happened.

The priest was not our usual priest but rather an occasional giver of sacraments and sermons. He began urging us to think of the wonderful people we knew. The people who gave willingly of their time and talents to friends, family and the world. The people who focused love on their families and lived with integrity and love. All that was fine. And then: “If only they were Catholic.”

That was the end. We never returned. None of our parents were Catholic, at least at that point. Certainly they were fine people, devoted to their families, some within other faith traditions and some without any at all. Our friends certainly weren’t all Catholic. And as far as I could see, it didn’t matter. And why should it? Why should having selected (or having been born into) a particular faith tradition make you better than those from another tradition? The sermon wasn’t why we left the institution, but it was the gust that took me out of an institution that, for a decade, had increasingly been a poor fit for me.

It was more than intolerance of difference that was nagging at me. It was more than the minimally acknowledged pedophilia. It was more than the disappointment that the rest of the Catholic church was not what I’d thought of as Catholic — liberal, loving, accepting, and working towards greater inclusivity of women. All that was bothering me, but I was also tugged by the nagging doubt that all the rules and rituals that had attracted me at thirteen were not going to bring me any closer to meaning and truth. Not that they’d been completely meaningless all those years. Comfort came from those, and the sameness of the rites was an anchor when everything else around me moved.

So I left.  I moved to a less-restrictive faith, where I spent a few years allowing myself to sort through questions about prayer and about the nature of God. And I came out quite whole and quite agnostic. But decades of Catholicism left their mark, with the liberal leanings of the Jesuit Catholicism of my youth leading me towards what is inclusive, loving, and open to growth. It is what was planted in my youth, starting at five or six, that led me to the Unitarian Universalist church I cherish today. It is what showed me a faith community could be, illustrating the support, compassion, and quest for meaning and knowledge a spiritual home could provide. Without that upbringing, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to search for church after leaving theist traditions. I’d likely have been happy to stay home in my jammies with a paper and coffee.

I know many previous Catholic who looks back with mostly anger at the church of their youth. Some have been hurt by the church they encountered; others, excluded; still others, just disenchanted. Many remain angry, even years later. While I don’t understand the Catholicism I saw as an adult nor the conservative, myopic, male-centered view from the Vatican that is seeming to wrap itself tightly around the Church of today, I don’t revile it either. Where we’ve been informs where we are, and the person I am today — some of the best parts of who I am today — was forged in the Catholic Church.

On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.

Peace.

On Raising an Atheist (Part I)

My older son’s baptism into the Catholic church.

I’m raising an atheist. I’m also raising an agnostic, although that child has at times declared atheist status as well. I’m also raising two Unitarian Universalists, which as those familiar with that religious tradition is open to believers and non believers alike. That works, since my two kids fit into all three of those categories.

I didn’t intend to raise atheists, agnostics, or UUs. I was a practicing Catholic when my sons were born, meaning my then-husband and I attended Mass almost every week. So we baptized our children in that faith, twice promising to raise them Catholic.

By the time our younger was two, we’d left the church. After two years in an Episcopal church, we’d left that, too. The reasons deserve a post of their own, but for me, doubting played a leading role. A few years later, we’d settled into our current spiritual home, the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, beliefs in place: two agnostics and one atheist.

My younger son’s declaration of atheism occurred in the car, before we found our UU home. We were listening to NPR, and the story on the news was about religion. Someone asked a question about something, and I launched into a long, discursive answer that must have led to an explanation about theism, atheism, and agnosticism. I pondered the unknowable, explaining my agnosticism. My older, then nine, thought that word described him as well. He’s a thoughtful child, prone to taking the middle road and preferring to withhold judgement until all the data is in. My younger, at five, claimed atheism.  He’s a bastion of certitude on most every issue, rejecting fully or accepting wholeheartedly whatever direction his mental compass indicates. The issue of the divine was no different.

I can’t say I was surprised at their pronouncements. Switching churches and faiths then leaving church entirely was only part of their religious milieu.  The boys grew up in a liberal religious panoply, moving through three faith traditions in their young lives with relatives ranging from non-churchgoers to Reform Judaism to a variety of liberal Christian traditions. Over the previous year, while teaching ancient history to them, I’d taught world religions, delving into the beginnings and beliefs of Hinduism, Christianity Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam . Without thinking about it, I’d emphasized none over any other. I’d illustrated connections and commonalities and pointed out each faith’s take on the Golden Rule.

Yes, we still celebrated Christmas and Easter, with the crèche out for the former and church attended for the latter (at least until we didn’t know where to go). Yes, I read them Bible stories (and then stories from other faiths as well). Yes, we said grace at dinner, although in a rather perfunctory way. But my religious language had shifted over the previous four or five years, subtly, quietly shifted. The internal turmoil I’d faced when leaving Christianity had reverberated throughout my mind and soul, yet the external demonstration of that shift was barely perceptible.

What I retained with that shift, what deepened when I opened myself to the tightrope of doubt, was a sense that compassion, love, and inclusivity were the important foundation of each religious movement. They were what was sacred, inviolate. These central tenets of the religious life were what I taught my young boys to cherish and protect, not the rules, regulations, and texts that accompany them in the world’s religious traditions.

And thus I unwittingly raised an atheist and an agnostic. I didn’t figure all that out on that drive so many years ago. At the time of our discussion, I only marveled that I wasn’t fazed by their choices. Raised theist by parents who remain theists, revoking my theism required some mental gymnastics, a moderate amount of guilt, and eventual acceptance of where I ended up. I think I reached that acceptance that very day in the car, the day my boys defined their stance on the divine. It took another year or so to find a place where our beliefs and unbeliefs were wholly accepted, a place where questioning was the norm and the answers provided were designed to lead to more questions. There we remain, one atheist, two agnostics, and three Unitarian Universalists, bound in community to live lives full of compassion, love, and inclusivity.

Read on! Part II: On Raising an Atheist.

Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

In a recent post about religious freedom, I wrote about rallies held by the conservative end of the Catholic church. These rallies protested regulations prohibiting the picking and choosing of health benefits offered by employers, all in the name of religious freedom. I celebrated my own Unitarian Universalism and its tradition of respect for religious freedom, offering a definition of religious freedom a bit different from the one proposed by protesting Catholics.

A commenter, Robin, begged to differ, not about my definition but about Unitarian Universalist commitment to respecting the free and responsible search for meaning of those of all faiths. Robin notes that within many UU congregations, real and virtual, there is a marked rift between the values of Unitarian Universalism and the practice of individual UUs, especially in the area of respect for the beliefs of others. Especially when those beliefs are theist (especially Christian), this commenter notes a palpable distaste for from the Humanist/Atheist wing of Unitarian Universalists.

Sadly, I’ve seen this in my own congregation. I’ve overheard heated rants about Christians and theism during coffee hour. It’s embarrassing, given the UU commitment to supporting free spiritual searches by all and to protecting the worth and dignity of all humans. I’ve called this behavior out in meetings, meetings where we discuss where we are as a congregation on our road to supporting interfaith movements in our community. Sure, we teach our children and ourselves about the religions of the world, but that’s not interfaith work.  And badmouthing any religion in a church committed to supporting religious freedom is downright contradictory to even beginning true interfaith work. But for years, I hadn’t put together the connection between our lack of interfaith work and a bias against theism all too common in UU circles.

Along comes the UUA Common Read, Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. A few weeks back, I led a small group in a discussion on Acts of Faith, which is a mix of memoir and call for greater religious pluralism. Patel is a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to serving the world while promoting religious pluralism and true interfaith dialogue. Patel quickly points out that he means real interfaith dialogue, not just the sort where religious leaders gather and talk about common beliefs and threads. He seeks instead a group of people working for what all faiths believe is important — service to others — while encouraging interfaith dialogue among those present.

I’d venture a guess that most UUs would support that goal. Committed to social justice and open to the idea that there are many paths up the mountain, working side by side with those of other faiths should be a UU norm. It’s where Patel goes next that likely causes unease in some. Patel does not advocate gatherings of the most liberal of the world’s religions. Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation. Conversation. Not conversion. Patel reassures the reader and the leaders of youth that he’s not desiring to dilute anyone’s faith tradition.  He states, citing a particular conversation with a Catholic leader,

By proclaiming our strong commitment to our respective faiths, even intimating that we believed what we each had was superior, we had cleared the way for an honest conversation. Neither of us was offended by the other’s faith tradition. to the contrary, it had created a common bond – two men of deep but different faiths talking about religious cooperation. (165)

Not conversion. Conversation and cooperation, while accepting the differences, as stark as they may be. This is a tall order for anyone of strong conviction. Most of us like to be right, meaning we tend to protect the view we have of the universe even at the cost of relationships with others. To join with others with beliefs as strong as our own yet radically different takes a willingness to sit with some discomfort. To work with others who believe their path is superior to yours takes humility and the ability to let go of the ego a bit more than may usually be comfortable.

It’s hard. Honestly, it’s that kind of frank conversation that I generally avoid with my friends whose religious views vary most sharply from mine, although I’m not sure we suffer for it. Our long-standing bilateral commitment to friendship tend to keep us focused on what we have in common, which varies depending on the friend. These relationships, while definite bridges between disparate faiths, are not interfaith work. Simply, the faith is left out. We don’t encourage each other on our respective spiritual journeys, although we don’t ignore the importance of these journeys either. (See an earlier post, Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion, for one example.)

But what about Eboo Patel’s call to action? What about his call to have the conversations that actually accentuate the differences and encourage individuals to identify strongly with and practice their own beliefs while working side by side for the common good?  His assertion that this step is necessary if we want to reduce hate between faiths and make a more peaceful world causes me to wonder about the religious tradition I espouse and practice.  Unitarian Universalist, at least in principle(s) seem to be in a unique position to facilitate this. And yet, we too often don’t.

I don’t have an answer, but I think I have a starting point. It’s time to speak out against language that is antireligion. It’s time to call out the conversations in coffee hour, online, and in the pulpit that work against the goal of building respect for those who choose a faith other than our own. It’s time to identify what makes us uncomfortable and work within ourselves and our congregations, as well as the UUA, to combat the bias against theism that creeps into our conversations and decisions. I’m not suggesting we become doormats for the religious zealots who spread hate for all those who don’t share their beliefs. I’m simply suggesting we don’t become like them by producing our own rhetoric and hate.

We are, after all, a religion based on respect for all people and dedicated to supporting justice, religious freedom, and the rights of conscious. We can be part of the solution to  the rifts religious division causes in this world. We can do this while first understanding then respecting the depths of beliefs held by others, even when these beliefs are quite different from our own. We don’t need to agree with others or try to convert them to our way of thought. Religious pluralism puts into action radical inclusivity, and that’s about as UU as it gets.  Eboo Patel says it like this:

We need all those people — the hymn singers and the sun saluters, the Qur’an reciters and the mandala makers, the speakers of Hebrew and the readers of Sanskrit, the hip-hop heads and the folk music fans — and more. We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspirations and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to.

I fear the road is long. I rejoice that we travel together. (182)

Namaste. Amen. So be it. Peace.

One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

Common Ground: Reversing the Polarity Social Media Encourages

I’ve heard it said many times that the internet has increased our polarity.  Rather than increasing our understanding of the vast variety of viewpoints in our world, we tend to herd (yes, like sheep) with those who think and feel just like we do.  We go to forums and join email lists filled with people who validate our worldview, or at least a little slice of our worldview.  We pat each other on the back, celebrating how right we are in our way of thinking.  At our best, we patronizingly ask what those poor fools on the other side of the issue are smoking, shaking our heads with a bemused, knowing smile.  At our worst, we ridicule them amongst ourselves or to their social media selves, calling them names and judging their character.

We’re human.  We seek out other humans who are like us.  We look for a neighborhood that we think fits our family. We look for a church that matches our belief system.  We seek an education for our children that fits what we think education should be.  It’s human nature and completely understandable.

It’s also dangerous.

When the only voices we hear are the ones that validate our existing point of view, we miss the balance that comes from hearing what doesn’t match ours.  I’m not talking about the “hearing” that is followed by rolled eyes and online rants.  I’m talking about real listening to another side of the issue and to what the other person has to say.  Whether it be about politics, religion, a current community issue, or a standing social concern, the key here is really listening without judgement.

This is hard.  As  Unitarian Universalist, a member of a liberal religious tradition, I stand by the right for every human to search for what he or she finds true and meaningful, within the bounds of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.  That can really be tough, requiring far more breathing and pausing than I sometimes care to practice.

To be sure, listening to opposing viewpoints does not mean agreeing with them.  It doesn’t mean never presenting a respectful rebuttal or providing additional (neutral) information.  It does require an open mind and heart and some creative thinking.  It takes creativity and openness to look at the world through another’s eyes, if even for a moment.  It takes knowing where your own buttons are, remaining alert what might threaten to set them off.  It takes love — the kind of unconditional love Jesus taught– and compassion — the sort the Buddha demonstrated — to quiet the mind and just truly listen.

Why bother?  Because, at best, ranting and raving at the other side accomplish nothing.  Because digging in, calling names, and making broad assumptions is the job of two-year olds and teens (the latter of whom we rightfully expect better).  Because, like it or not, much of life is a mystery, as is all of the future.  None of us have the market cornered on the best way of living in this remarkably complicated world.  Really. And no amount of vitriol and rhetoric actually changes anyone’s mind.  Does the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” ring a bell?

Just try it.  Try it on your public media of choice.  The next time someone posts a favorable link about the politician you hate, the church you can’t stand, or the cure-all that you’re sure is garbage, don’t just move on.  Click through. (Judiciously — I’m not advocating damaging your computer or being irresponsible.)  Read the link.  It may be a one-sided rant full of — wait for it — vitriol and rhetoric.  Or, more often in my experience, it may be a more thoughtful look at the other side of a subject. Before cursing it on or off-line, look for what’s behind it.  Google the politician, church, or cure-all and read more.  Listen while you read, to the people behind those messages that drive you out of your mind.  Listen to their fear, their hopes, their concerns.  Listen to your own heart and mind, noting judgement and your own fear, hopes, and concerns.

Repeat this exercise until you kind of get it.  Not believe it (although that could happen), but just understand that there could be another valid way of looking at the world.  That other way may be in stark contradiction to yours, and you may be more opposed to it than when you first began your search.  That’s fine.  The point is to know what the other point of view is about. After all, it came from human beings (and, if it’s via social media, it came from human  beings you call your friends).  It’s worth understanding where they come from.

Don’t be surprised if your heart softens a bit, even if you hold your stance as tightly as before.  Don’t be surprised if you find it harder to lambaste folks you don’t know online and off, now that you have a better feel for them as human beings.  Don’t even be surprised if you now find it easier to respectfully voice your own opinion.

The secret is this.  The more you know about another way of looking at the world, the more you understand just a bit of the people behind those crazy ways that are not yours, the more you see how you are similar to them.  The woman who opposes all vaccinations? She has fears for her children, just like you have for yours.  That’s common ground.  The man who rages against higher taxes for national health care?  Perhaps he worries about not having enough resources down the line, like so many of us do.

We have more common ground than we think.  Our internet communities can make it seem like we have none, breeding hate, anger, and fear.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Until we see what we share and at least try to recognize the thoughts and feelings behind another’s point of view, we’re living neither the message of Jesus or the Buddha.  We’re simply practicing polarity.