Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Even though the Unites States is considered one of the most religious of all the world’s developed nations, people who self-identify as “nonreligious” is the fastest growing religious preference marked on current survey with 15-20% of the population. Among younger people, one in four marks “no religion.”
In the polls, of course, there is a discrepancy between those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic (which still carry a significant stigma) and those who simply answer the question – Do you believe in God? with “no” or “not sure.”
Clearly more people are claiming the right to think freely when it comes to matters of religion, and yet traditional religious values and pressures are still common place in our culture. In recent years more attention has been focused on the discrepancies of religious thought and science, andthe discrepancies within religious movements. Discrepancies can be seen as contradictions embedded in text and doctrines, and contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviors. More people are turning away from established religions, not only because our current scientific knowledge has outdated long held beliefs about the nature of the universe, but people are turning away also because of the harmful and sometimes deadly consequences that some religious stances cause against our brothers and sisters. It has been said that more violent acts have been justified in the name of religion than to any other cause. While some recent authors give this as one reason to challenge all religious belief, my own opinion is that people have used, and will use, any rationalization, religious or otherwise, to pursue violent means in certain situations.
But apart from the harmful and sometimes violent and deadly repercussions of some religious beliefs, there is another large grey area when it comes to matters of religion. This is the amount of doctrine and belief that simply doesn’t make much sense in the contemporary world, and yet is still clung to as articles of faith.
You may not consider yourself an atheist or agnostic, meaning one who does not believe in God, or one who simply does not know whether or not God exists, but you may prefer another term to self-identify as someone who is not religious. Maybe you consider yourself a skeptic, a cynic, a seeker, a rationalist, a freethinker, a naturalist, a deist or a secular humanist. See, so many labels to choose from! And just as there are variations and multiple diversities within religious traditions, there is a significant variety of differences among the fastest growing group of the nonreligious. I don’t want to take the time here to unpack that list of labels I just rattled off, but I do want to lift up a few definitions to help sort out the terms.
“Free thought” and “freethinkers” belong to a tradition where a philosophical viewpoint is formed, not on a religious basis, but rather on the basis of science, logic and reason. Freethinkers do not feel bound by outward authority, social traditions or dogmas and have tended to be liberal in regards to racial, social and sexual equality. In the United States, freethinkers were often involved in the abolition of slavery and in the women’s movement. One of the leading books to document this tradition in our own country is called Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. The list of prominent Americans range from the earlier times with folks like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and includes more contemporary folks like Margaret Mead, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. African American history has its share of freethinkers as well – from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to more contemporary times with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
The term “humanism” is probably the largest umbrella for nonreligious people, and some people who consider themselves ‘somewhat religious’ too. Humanism is broadly defined as a philosophy that is not based in theism or supernatural beliefs, but rather in the human ability and responsibility to lead an ethical life. Humanism broadly supports both personal fulfillment and the greater good of humanity. Is humanism considered a religion or a faith? No, not really although it does rely on a set of personal beliefs. Humanism, like free thought, atheism and agnosticism, could all be better called both a personal philosophy and a life stance.
Unitarian Universalism is no stranger to freethinkers and humanists. We are often called the “chosen faith” because we are sought out by folks who have found their previous traditions too restricting for their own conscience. Surveys done in the past fifteen years among Unitarian Universalists show about half of all UUs self-identify as” humanist” and there is a sizable portion of folks who refer to themselves agnostic. Between 20-30% identify as earth or nature centered, and a bit smaller percentage for atheists, Buddhists, theists, Pagans, and Christians. In 2005, a UUA study was released called “Engaging our Theological Diversity.” Next Sunday I’ll be talking amore about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, holding or covering this wide range of orientations.
Back in 1998, Chet Raymo, a longtime science writer for the Boston Globe newspaper wrote a book called Skeptics and True Believers, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Raymo is an author of several other books as well and a professor of physics and astronomy. He talks about the growing cultural divide in our country and the whole world between the two intellectual positions that he describes as ”Skeptics” and “True Believers.”
He writes, “We are Skeptics or True Believers. Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside – from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again“, redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.”
Raymo lifts up the issues and topics being wrestled in this great cultural divide. The questions apply to the nature of the universe and the contrasting views on evolution and creationism. He looks at peoples’ beliefs about heaven, hell, angels, aliens, miracles and astrology.
As a scientist, Chet Raymo, identifies himself as a skeptic, but he embraces the language of a religious naturalist. He resonates with what he calls the’ primordial religious experience of deep awe and wonder’ at the expanse and beauty of the universe. Raymo celebrates the accomplishments of science and the technological advances it has provided, including the outstanding achievements of Hubble Space Photography, but he acknowledges the current limits of science. There is so much we have yet to understand – not just about the universe, but about ourselves as well. And so added to the list of beliefs in which skeptics and believers disagree are the human questions about consciousness and soul.
Since Raymo’s book came out in 1998, there has been quite a stir provoked by best-selling authors identified as a movement called New Atheism. The term New Atheism emerged between 2004 and 2007 with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – known also as the four Horsemen, referring to the Christian Apocalyptic text of Revelation. The so-called New Atheists are less accommodating to religion, superstition and religious fanaticism than previous secularists. The stance of New Atheism declares that religion is no longer to be tolerated, but instead it needs to be actively countered, criticized and exposed in its contradictions and inconsistencies through the use of rational argument at every opportunity.
The New Atheists have been accused of being overly aggressive, vicious and rude in their arguments that challenge the taboo subject of religious faith. Even nonbelievers are known to take offense by their tactics of rationality. But the New Atheists don’t mind the accusations or the media attention. They subject themselves to the thorough skepticism that scientists undergo and don’t seem to mind the competitive spirit of rigorous debate, at least among opponents of their own choosing. The New Atheists have also been accused of reductive science worship and that while being outraged at religious violence targeting minorities like women and homosexuals, they do not include any vocal women or people of color in their ranks.
But as I mentioned before, there are a variety of perspectives represented within the growing tide of nonreligious people who are taking a stand to be heard and who are speaking out. There are a number of organizations working for visibility with their own leaders and leadership styles. And there are efforts for many of these organizations to come together in a coalition especially to lobby in Washington D.C. on legal matters. The lobbying efforts are challenging the resistance of the representation of nonreligious people in American politics and governance, and advocating for the continued separation of church and state in the schools, in the military, and in the courts. Religious freedom and freedom of thought is a foundational value of American democratic tradition, and yet these freedoms continue to be challenged in the public square.
At times, we may find ourselves feeling shocked by the challenging rhetoric of our day. We are shocked both by reactionary tactics to preserve a status quo that’s held as some kind of Golden Age from the past, and shocked as well by provocative and sometimes even militant resistance to the status quo.
We need to remember that historically marginalized people have often had to resort to provocative measures, even militant measures, in their attempts for recognition and acceptance. The challenge always is to not only think critically about the perspectives with which we disagree, but to apply that critical thinking to our own ideologies, assumptions and beliefs.
Our human knowledge and human wisdom grows through a process of confronting dated ideas with new perspectives and sometimes new information. I hope this morning’s service will be only one among many explorations and conversations about the role of religion in contemporary thinking and the many ways that Unitarian Universalists are free to engage with it.
There is no easy summary or convenient stopping place in this ongoing exploration, and so in closing, I offer two short poems by the poet Mary Oliver. The first is called “In Blackwater Woods” –
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
And the second poem –
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
May it be so.