Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is humanism theologically tolerant?

OK, well this might be controversial, but I feel the need to say it.

Is humanist tolerant? Please note I'm not asking about humanism within society. Clearly humanism certainly believes in tolerance within society and I'm forever glad they are often the only people in the media calling for a separation of church and state.

No, what I'm talking about is descriptions of Unitarianism like this and adverts like this, discussed at Peacebang here, which say that humanism is one option, Christianity is another, God is one option among many.

The trouble is, humanism, by definition is theologically opposed to theism. This is very different from the relationship between Christianity and Buddhism. These two traditions may be vastly different, but Buddhism, by definition, is not opposed to Christianity, and Christianity, by definition, is not opposed to Buddhism. But humanism is consciously defined in opposition to Christianity and theism.

So to say that humanism and theism can both be in the same religion is indeed to make God optional. The problem is if God is optional God is not God. You can't have both humanism and theism in the same religion, one will always dominate. The problem with this kind of thing is that it says to people who are theists, "you are welcome here as long as you change your definition of God. As long as you admit God is not important." But what's the point in being a theist if you believe God is not important? What's the point in going to church if it's a place that insists that your ultimate concern is not ultimate? How does that grow your faith?

God is a transforming life-changing reality, not an idea for a discussion group. I go to church to grow in my walk with God. But if my church says "you can believe in God, but only if you think of God as an optional idea, and you admit that it makes no difference if you are in relationship with God or not" then I have a problem. Because God does matter, God is the ultimate orientation of my life. I cannot with integrity say that God is an optional extra, that is asking me to lie about the truths I have found in my spiritual walk.

Of course the word "God" is just a word that points to a reality, which, while transforming, is still deeply mysterious. I am prepared to accept that. I am prepared to go along with people who have a different understanding or language about God. But only by saying "what I call God you may call by a different name and understand in a different way" but never by saying "what I call God is something that doesn't really matter anyway."

I hope I have expressed myself clearly, forgive me if I have not.

14 Comments:

Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

I'll disagree that humanism and theism are by definition incompatible.

For example, Christian humanism [defined as "the belief that human freedom and individualism are intrinsic (natural) parts of, or are at least compatible with, Christian doctrine and practice] would be compatible with theism.

Furthermore, there are some Christians who would consider Buddhism (by definition) to be opposed to Christianity. This is what I discover when I read traditional evangelical Christian apologetics web sites.

The problem here isn't humanism vs. theism for theist Unitarian Universalists -- it's the non-creedal nature of Unitarian Universalism as it currently exists in North America.

Given the emphasis on non-creedalism and freedom of belief, modern-day Unitarian Universalism is by definition a "god or gods optional" faith.

Other than requiring a creedal affirmation for believing in god or gods, how would one change the optional god or gods into non-optional ones?

11:37 pm  
Anonymous A said...

But, I go to church to be uplifted, for help and comfort and to be reminded to strive to see the best in humanity. Why must I believe in god?

Naturally god is a subject for discussion groups, isn't everything? If it's important to you that everyone that you're in church with gets exactly the same things out of it that you do, then I suggest you're in the wrong type of church.

For me, god is not a reality. Full stop. I live with copious mention of god in church, because it reflects most/all of the congregations understanding of how things are and, more importantly, they do not expect me to agree.

I get out of it the things that I need without compromising my integrity - and my church is strongly theist and I am not. I don't really understand why the reverse cannot be true.

9:44 am  
Blogger Stephen said...

OK, let me put it this way. If someone says, "I don't believe in God" then that's a position I can respect. I may disagree with it, but I can respect it as an intellectually coherent position.

However is someone says, "it doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not" then that is an imposition onto my beliefs because it's saying that my beliefs don't matter, where they do for me. It seems to me it insults the integrity of the position of both the theist and the humanist.

So if the only way a theist and a humanist can get along in the same religion is if they both agree that "it doesn't matter whether God exists or not" then I think there's a problem.

My point is that it's easier to accept that something you don't believe in doesn't matter than it is to accept that something you do believe in doesn't matter. It does ask both parties to water down their opinions but I maintain it asks more of the theist.

If both me and an Australian have to agree that it doesn't matter if Australia exists or not, whose position is going to be more compromised? I've never been to Australia, and may never go, so it doesn't matter to me whether Australia exists or not. But for someone who lives in Australia, it's asking quite a lot of them for them to agree that it doesn't matter whether Australia exists or not, because Australia is the ground beneath their feet.

2:12 pm  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

From the first Humanist Manifesto:
FIFTH: Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.

SIXTH: We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of "new thought".

ELEVENTH: ...We assume that humanism will take the path of social and mental hygiene and discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.

So Steve- If my Divinity is anacceptable, and the time for my theism has passed, and my unreal hopes and wishful thinking are mentally unhygenic, how compatible can I be?

3:32 pm  
Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

Stephen wrote:
-snip-
"However is someone says, 'it doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not' then that is an imposition onto my beliefs because it's saying that my beliefs don't matter, where they do for me. It seems to me it insults the integrity of the position of both the theist and the humanist."

Stephen,

We're a non-creedal faith community.

I don't see how one can interpret non-creedalism so one considers it an imposition or an insult that we accept a wide range of beliefs in our congregations.

Institutionally, we accept theism and non-theism along with a wide range of beliefs in our congregations.

I'll ask again -- if this is unsatisfactory to you, how do you propose to fix what you see as a problem.

As long as we're non-creedal, you will have both theists and non-theists in UU congregations.

Then Stephen wrote:
-snip-
"If both me and an Australian have to agree that it doesn't matter if Australia exists or not, whose position is going to be more compromised? I've never been to Australia, and may never go, so it doesn't matter to me whether Australia exists or not. But for someone who lives in Australia, it's asking quite a lot of them for them to agree that it doesn't matter whether Australia exists or not, because Australia is the ground beneath their feet."

Your analogy might not work here -- the existence of Australia can be established through materialist methodologies. The existence of Australia is so factual that one would be obtuse and perverse to deny its existence.

Establishing the existence of god or gods is much harder.

7:18 pm  
Blogger Rich said...

I'm an atheist and a humanist both in the very loosest sense. I personally believe that "humanness" is much more important than anyone's definition of God. I think you'll find most Buddhists believe this also.

But that's not to say other people's definition of God is completely invalid. I learn an enormous amount from theistic teachings and I would strongly oppose any kind of militant movement to stamp out theism.

As Unitarians we are almost unique in being a religion that allows theists and atheists to attend with equal tolerance, and we can respect and learn from each other's personal worldview.

I subscribe to and read your blog, because I am enlightened by the viewpoint of a theist Unitarian, with often very different viewpoints to me. If I did not hear your viewpoint on the world, I would not be as complete a person as I am.

10:35 pm  
Anonymous A said...

However is someone says, "it doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not" then that is an imposition onto my beliefs because it's saying that my beliefs don't matter, where they do for me.

Actually, I think that works both ways. It depends what you follow that statement up with - I could equally feel that my non-belief is being denigrated. Think of the statement "it doesn't matter whether you believe in God or not, he's real".

From the point of view of sharing a religious community, it doesn't matter whether someone believes in God or not. For some people it also doesn't matter whether God exists or not - the most I would ask would be that you respect that I may feel this way.

What would you like atheist/humanists to do? Leave the Unitarian faith, pretend that they believe things that they don't, or just get along fine as they have been doing?

10:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a difficult issue - best wishes to all you out there trying to thrash it out.
Dudley Jones
jonesdudley@hotmail.com
ps I was going to say more, but everything just came out snark, so I deleted it.
pps Is it true that Unitarians in Eastern Europe are less atheistic than those in English-speaking countries?

11:18 pm  
Blogger jfield said...

I'm going to have to go with Stephen and against Steve on this one. This is more than a matter of non-creedalism. While one can read "it doesn't matter if you believe in God or not" to mean on a collective scale it does not matter to the whole what you believe. In the context of US Unitarian Universalism (and perhaps UK Unitarianism), I think this is hard not to perceive as a slight against the theists in our midst. Talk of non-creedalism is fine, but often it seems that there is actually an implied creed that you can believe what you want as long as it is not the religion of our ancestors (reference for fun the post on religion on Things White People Like).

On the other hand, I would not overly identify the humanism or non-theism practiced in UU congregations to heavily with the humanism of the Humanist Manifesto. The first Humanist Manifesto is explicitly supercessionist in its treatment of received religion. I believe that there are basic ethical problems with orthodox Christian supercessionism in relation to Judaism and that there are similar ethical concerns with "orthodox" (orthopractic? nominal? modal?) UU humanist or non-thesit supercessionist ideology in relationship to the Christian and Jewish traditions.

My particular semi-theism is not threatened by the "it does not matter" language, but I think it is dishonest to pretend that it is not something of an affront to some theists.

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Mike Killingworth said...

The first thing is stop worrying about giving offence. No one in this debate intends to give offence: to fret about whether the other person will take offence is simply to reveal the hole in one's own soul.

As I understand the humanist position, it goes something like this: the desired output is an ethical one - to live the good life (I'll assume for the purpose of this debate that everyone has come to an agreement on what that is.) The humanist then applies Occam's razor to argue that that output can be achieved without reference to God.

It seems to me that the theist has two possible responses:

(1) to deny the validity of the premise of the ethical output;

(2) to argue that the humanist has defined "God" too narrowly.

Conservative religion typically uses the former, liberal theism the latter response. For example, it's not clear how the humanist responds to Buckminster Fuller's claim that "God is a verb".

Fuller is really positioning himself within the Gnostic tradition - that God is to be known directly, not an externality to be prayed to (or, God help us, discussed abstractly).

As Unitarians, we are well placed to uphold Gnostic Dualism. I have my own thoughts on why so few of us do so, but I'll save them up for as and when SL writes a post on that topic.

I think we can at least agree that theist response (1) is invalid by asking: how would we tell a unitive spiritual experience from an outbreak of mental illness? The only answer I can think of is in terms of the ethical behaviour of the individual afterwards.

6:41 pm  
Anonymous b said...

I understand the conflict expressed in this blog entry to be a manifestation of the Great Unitarian Paradox.

Whatever I may believe in and however strongly, well-reasoned or based in experience, by joining a Unitarian congregation I am putting myself in the position where I may be asked to accept the person next to me may hold equally strong beliefs that are diametrically opposed to my own

How can we both be "right"?

For me, this is precisely the "heat in the Unitarian Kitchen".

And at the moment it is VERY hot!

I find it abolutely infuriating, but I love it!!

7:46 pm  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hello all,

Thanks for all your comments on this issue, and thanks for keeping the tone of the debate friendly, something that often doesn't happen when talking about this stuff. I particularly want to lift up Dudley for having the presence of mind to think before he spoke. A good practice.

In response to what's been said I want to say a few things. First, one of the frameworks that I work with is an existential not rational understanding of faith. What I mean by that is that something like "God" is a symbol and reality of a whole-life orientation, not just an idea to discuss. I think that makes "God optional" talk make much less sense.

I think my point is that "God optional" isn't possible. "God optional" tends towards a God-negative approach.

Steve and "a" ask what I want to do about this issue. That's a very good question. It's a question I often ask wonder when some Unitarians raise this issue. The honest answer is I don't know. I think the first thing I want to say is don't use a phrase like "God is optional here."

Beyond that I want to remain in dialogue to try to work this out with others. I suppose the thing I'm getting at is that when someone says to me, "you can be an atheist in your church? How come?" I honestly don't have an answer that makes any sense to me.

I think the question of non-creedalism is an important one. But I'll save that for another post I think.

10:32 am  
Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

Stephen wrote:
-snip-
"I think my point is that "God optional" isn't possible. 'God optional' tends towards a God-negative approach."

Stephen,

A "god-neutral" or "god-optional" approach may cause a congregation or a denomination to change demographically.

A food analogy comes to mind here. A restaurant that caters to meat eaters starts introducing vegetarian dishes.

Over time, one might see a reduction in the number of meat-eating customers and an increase in the number of vegetarian customers.

This demographic change could influence the menu choices which in turn could influence the customer demographics even further.

This analogy describes the move of Unitarian Universalism from its Protestant roots to where it is today.

Finally, to answer Joel's concerns about humanism as described in Humanist Manifesto I, I would suggest looking at Humanist Manifesto III:

http://www.americanhumanist.org/3/HumandItsAspirations.php

The only aspect of this more recent summary of humanism that is dismissive of religion is the following:

"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

And this is only anti-religious if one assumes that religion must involve the supernatural. It's possible that religion could move to a place where it's religious but not supernatural.

Two examples of religion without supernaturalism are Unitarian Universalism (for some Unitarian Universalists) and the Ethical Culture movement.

4:50 pm  
Anonymous a said...

I suppose the thing I'm getting at is that when someone says to me, "you can be an atheist in your church? How come?" I honestly don't have an answer that makes any sense to me.

This is a good question. For you, the answer would be to speak to some atheist Unitarians and see what they get out of being a Unitarian.

It's my understanding, that belief cannot be required - we all believe what we must. People who don't have a sense of god (and thus naturally, lack belief in his/her/its existence) may find deep value in a spiritual and religious community.

Belief in God, just like belief in most other things, is optional in Unitarianism. If God is real, then there is no *God without* option. Likewise if God is not real, then there is not *God with* option.

Interestingly, you must know completely different Unitarians to the ones that I know. Nearly every Unitarian (as opposed to UU) that I've met has been theist. Either that or the atheists don't feel able/comfortable to state their non-belief publicly.

2:16 pm  

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