June 19, 2020

This week Temple of the Future is ending as an ongoing blog project. I began this blog in March 2011, with what seems to me today an impossible burst of optimism and vigor. I uploaded three posts in the very first day, a feat I’ve never managed since: consistency has never been my strong suit. Scrolling through the titles of those first posts I’m struck by the clarity of vision they possess: I had an extremely clear idea of what I wanted to do and to achieve with Temple of the Future, and I think, at least as far as my own life has gone, I have achieved it.

In March 2011 I was 28, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, and just one year out of the closet. Neither my decision to pursue further study nor my explosion out of the closet would have surprised anyone: I have always been both studious and flaming. But perhaps the depth of my engagement with Harvard’s Humanist community would have raised some eyebrows. I grew up in a nonreligious home to two parents who had never, as adults, attended church. While we are a family of talkers and arguers, religion was rarely the topic of our daily conversations. I had never been religious, so I had no dramatic deconversion, no terrible experiences with faith, and no yearning for a lost spiritual community: Humanism was not filling a religious void, for me.

Yet when I arrived at Harvard, retreating from the high school classroom after two disastrous years as a teacher, living in the USA for the first time, I struggled for a while to find people who thought – and more importantly who engaged with ideas – the way I do. As a graduate of Cambridge I am used to a highly critical, pointed, even sharp academic style, and that style was very much out of vogue at the Harvard Graduate School of Education – a school which is often called “Hugsee” for its friendliness and the softness of its approach. I found that people often considered my focused, forceful intellectual demeanor to be rude and inconsiderate, and therefore considered me rude and inconsiderate which, while true to some degree, was not true to the degree others thought (at least that’s what I felt). So I went in search of fellow critical thinkers, and I found them (surprise!) among the Humanist Community at Harvard. I also found, in the graduate student branch of this community, a group of friends whose acceptance and love helped me wrestle my demons to the ground and finally accept myself as gay – and, for that, I am profoundly and forever grateful. Humanism changed my life, and partly as a result, I dedicated my life to Humanism.

This was not my first encounter with Humanism: I had been to some Humanist discussions and engaged a bit with the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) as an undergraduate back home. But being in America – even the liberal, cosmopolitan East coast of America – showed me how deeply Christian the United States is. Our status as religious outsiders gave an extra edge to Humanist discourse and identity which I wasn’t used to, an intensity and a focus on god and the beliefs of others that always grated. Having grown up in the broadly nonreligious culture of the UK, I was never so interested in pushing back against others’ religious beliefs as I was in fleshing out a fuller, more robust Humanism, a lifestance which would do more than satisfy people’s intellectual problems with religion, which would reach every area of human life and invigorate it. Because I sometimes found the discussions of the Harvard Humanists thinly intellectual, I wanted to help Humanism recover its emotional and artistic side.

That’s what Temple of the Future was started to achieve: to express a vision of Humanism which was more than just an intellectual critique of belief in god and the problems of traditional religion, but which outlined a vision for human life which included the arts, culture, the emotions, and spiritual experience. This is, of course, always what Humanism was supposed to be – it was never philosophically opposed to the artistic or the emotional – but somewhere along the way, at least in its American incarnation, Humanism had lost its heart while becoming obsessed with its head. Temple of the Future was meant to challenge that.

And, in a series of sporadic posts over almost ten years, that’s what I did. During Temple of the Future’s run I exhorted Humanists to embrace group singing, consider the aesthetics of our gatherings, and get more engaged with social justice work, among other things. (One of my favorite blog series was one which incorporated all three of these concerns, a three-part reflection on group singing as a spiritual response to the Pulse massacre.) Indeed, as I grew alongside the blog, a concern with social justice became more prominent. As my engagement with the broader social justice world increased, I notice in my writing an increasing focus on the need for a secular social justice movement. As I grew up (and in many ways Temple of the Future chronicles my “growing up” from newly-out baby-gay to the seasoned elder-homosexual I am now) I realized how infrequently explicitly Humanist voices were represented in the broader social justice conversation. My disappointment and bafflement with the Humanist community for failing to consider the role of the arts and the emotions in life transformed, over time, to a sort of outrage or even disgust at the way in which many Humanists were silent about or even opposed to the great movements for social justice which have recently gathered force.

I don’t feel that sense of outrage so strongly now, in part because of what a new generation of social-justice-oriented Humanists have achieved, myself among them. Through our unwillingness to accept a disconnected and unconcerned “Humanist” movement, we have shifted the agendas of major national Humanist organizations toward a more forceful engagement with political and social questions – and if I can claim some credit for encouraging that shift, then Temple of the Future can be considered a success. Personally, I view it as a success: in the decade since I began this blog I was invited to join the Patheos network (this began as a self-funded enterprise with no readers!), have come to be a known voice within the Humanist movement, have made a career as a professional Humanist, and have said many of the things I wanted to say. Good job, blog!

There are two turning points I want to reflect on as I close this blog. The first is when I discovered that I might have a career as professional Humanist clergy. This would have seemed to first-post me as something of an oxymoron, but now it is my life: as Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis I help develop and direct a large community of Humanists the likes of which I could not have easily imagined when I began this blog. We do incorporate the arts, music, the emotions, and even the spiritual, in an attempt to create a community which is open to all aspects of human experience – and we do it well. I’m proud of the community I serve, and astonished that I was able to turn the passion of this blog into an actual career. I feel incredibly lucky. You can read all my posts referencing my congregation here.

The second is my participation in the Movement for Black Lives, which stemmed from my experiences in St. Louis, MO, shortly after Mike Brown was killed. It was a strange thing, to begin work as a trainee clergy person just before what will surely turn out to be one of the defining moments of the early 21st Century. Through this blog I chronicled my engagement with the movement which grew up after Mike Brown’s murder, and if I am proud of anything, I am proud of what I wrote about structural racism and how I brought the story of the uprising from my new-home-town to Humanist communities around the country. The new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement which is now transforming American culture would never have happened had activists from St. Louis not lit the touch-paper, and I am proud that I played some small role as a Humanist voice during that critical time. For perhaps the first time in my life, I can truly say that I was onto something before it became cool: Black Lives Matter! You can read everything I’ve written about Ferguson here.

I’d like to offer some notes of thanks, as I close:

  • To Kate Lovelady, my clergy mentor, a constant inspiration.
  • To Chris Stedman, fellow traveler and friend.
  • To my colleagues at the American Ethical Union, for welcoming me and trusting me with Leadership of your largest congregation.
  • To Steve Ahlquist, for opening my eyes.
  • To Debbie Goddard and the crew at CfI who knew what was up before that organization imploded.
  • To Jordan Crouser and Alex Gabriel, who provided art and design to help amplify my message.
  • To Dale McGowan, who has been an excellent editor of this blog network.
  • To Greg Epstein, Sarah Chandonnet, A.J. Kumar, and all the Humanist Community at Harvard, for sending me down this road, and helping me become myself.
  • To my readers, for enduring my foolishly-long blog posts, of which this is one.

There is much more to come, including a book announcement (hopefully soon!) and a new podcast. If you aren’t sick of me yet, you can listen to me weekly on my current podcast Ethics and Chill, which explores the ethics of pop culture.

August 10, 2019

I moved to St. Louis in June of 2014. I moved across the country, leaving the leafy walks of Harvard Yard and the coastal air of Boston, to a city I knew almost nothing about in a state I’d hardly ever visited, to do a job I had never done: I was to train as clergy for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a Humanist congregation. I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy the city or the work. I was giving up friendships and stepping away from the academic path I had walked for seven years. I was motivated by the desire to help people directly with my philosophical training, to use Humanist ideas to help people live better lives and to improve society – but I wasn’t certain this was the right way to do it. It was a leap of faith. Hah.

On August 9th, 2014 – not two months since I had moved to the city – Mike Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, and the city exploded. I wasn’t in town on the day of the shooting, or during the immediate aftermath, but I read the news and knew instantly that the Ethical Society had to take a stand. The Ethical Society of St. Louis was founded to uphold the equal dignity and worth of every person, and in my mind being shot and killed for the “crime” of walking in the street is not consistent with that principle. No unarmed person should end up dead after an encounter with the police.

But I was new to my position, and I was an intern (a paid, full-time intern, but still), someone training to be clergy but not clergy yet. I didn’t feel sure about taking a strong position on behalf of an of an organization I had just joined, when I knew there would potentially be backlash. It became very clear very quickly that many white St. Louisans were not on board with the protests, and that taking a clear position could cause some major problems. It is a tough thing to help lead a community through a crisis, especially when the community is split. Ultimately, though, I simply felt that no organization could call itself an “ethical society” without fighting for the right of people of color not to be summarily executed by agents of the state. It was foundational, for me: if we weren’t for Mike Brown, we weren’t for equal dignity, and that would make us hypocrites.

So the moment I got back into to town I started to attend organizing meetings with local clergy. We’d gather in church basements and halls and plan how we, representatives of the city’s faith community, would respond. This was not an easy thing: there were mixed feelings about the role of clergy in the protests, and differences of view among the clergy themselves. We were navigating political differences, theological differences, and personal differences. There were some experienced protesters among us, and some who were very nervous. There were some experienced protesters who were very nervous: the police had been nasty, and there were definite risks.

But quickly a series of actions were planned, then more, then yet more. The orange vests of activist clergy became a common sight on the streets of St. Louis, as we knelt in roadways, joined hands in city streets, rallied in public squares, hosted panel discussions and storytelling evenings and teach-ins. For a time I went to multiple actions a day, just going where the protests were. I volunteered with jail support, helping track people through the system, making sure we knew where our activist siblings were and hoping they were safe. I wrote articles and spoke when requested; I stayed silent and followed when asked. I did my best to be useful.

During my post-Ferguson activism I saw some of the most disgraceful behavior I could have imagined from police, politicians, and members of the public. Worse than I could have imagined. Police routinely acted in aggressive and illegal ways, brutalizing activists for no good reason. I saw people dragged from wheelchairs; glasses smashed; faces bloodied; children choked; teargas canisters fired into buildings; activists effectively kidnapped by police; politicians revel in open racism; police representatives relentlessly politicize their response to the protests; citizens driving their cars through groups of protesters; activists – friends – sporting incredible police-inflicted wounds.

I did not think this was supposed to happen. I was raised to think police were helpers, if not universally benign then at least generally reliable. I was raised to believe that our political and criminal justice systems were basically functional: there were problems, to be sure, but nothing that a bit of reform wouldn’t fix. I was raised to believe that my job was to wield my education and my intellect to tweak an essentially friendly system, so that it became ever more friendly – to push things a little further toward progress. The police response to Ferguson – and the reaction of so many of my friends – burst the white liberal bubble of my upbringing and brought me face to face with the unpleasant reality of the world.In a few intense and unpleasant weeks, I learned that many of my assumptions about the world were simply wrong, a function of my upbringing, class, and status rather than a universal condition of humankind.

My main reaction was rage. I was furious that the system I had been prepared to participate in was revealed to be a sham. It was a deep and troubling anger, ever-present, keeping me from sleep. After a three days of sleepless nights I decided to see a therapist, thinking I could maybe talk through my anger. But it didn’t help – my problem was not that I was seeing things that weren’t there, such that dispelling the illusions would bring peace. Rather, I was for the first time seeing things as they really are, trying to come to terms with the fact that much of my prior life was was lived in an illusion. I met Mysterio.

I think activists sometimes find it hard to understand why so many smart, well-meaning people seem unable to see the systemic injustices which shape society. Why don’t decent white people see racism? Why don’t decent straight people see homophobia? Why don’t decent men see sexism? I understand this all too well: to recognize how unjust is our society is to appreciate how much of our own lives is shaped by unearned privileges. If I were to really confront how advantaged I have been by my whiteness, my level of economic comfort, my education, my maleness, then what is left of me? Which achievements could I claim for myself? And if I were to truly confront how brutally society treats people on the margins, what sort of world am I living in? Why would I want to live in that world, a world of bias and cruelty and hate? When the world without illusions is more horrible than you can imagine, who would want to be disillusioned? I understand why Cypher chose to stay in the Matrix.

Of course there is another side to this: disillusionment let’s you see what’s real, and it’s only when we see what’s real that we can effect true change. Disillusionment is a precursor to liberation. Cypher was the villain for a reason: he chose comfort over truth, and never found freedom. That’s why, despite how much I hated it at the time, I thank the Ferguson activists for dispelling my illusions. I see clearer now – even if I’m never as comfortable. It is better to know you have to climb a mountain than to falsely believe you have to vault a molehill – only the former will get us to the mountaintop. But wow is it hard to wake from a dream into a nightmare.

This post is part of a series of ten reflections on (roughly) ten years in the USA. Find the series here.

July 31, 2019

Update: The American Humanist Association has started a petition to bring back the pillow! Sign now! Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, wrote a post about this also!

Unless you’ve already picked up your Humanist pillow from Target, you may be out of luck – they’ve already been pulled from the shelves.

Last week, a congregant at the Ethical Society of St. Louis posted a link to our Facebook group showing that Target was selling – rather surprisingly – a pillow embroidered with the word “Humanist.” Why they decided to sell this pillow I’m not sure, as it wasn’t part of a collection representing different religious perspectives, and it’s not normally the sort of thing I expect to see at major national stores. However, excited, I ordered one online and picked it up at my earliest opportunity. Here I am holding it outside the Ethical Society:

I have a Humanist Pillow!

I am quite impressed with the quality of the pillow. The texture is soft and nubby, the colors are attractive, and the stitching is clear and contemporary. It makes a great addition to my office, although I wish it were just a little bigger – 8/10.

Sadly, though, almost as soon as they began selling it, Target have removed the Humanist Pillow from sale! Reasons for this outrage are murky, but a friend informs me that it may have been recalled due to negative customer feedback! According to my friend Paul:

I went to the local Target after ordering mine online and they gave me the pillow, had me do an electronic signature, then took the pillow back from me and told me there is a recall. They refused to give the pillow and canceled my transaction.

I spent a half hour calling the black hole of customer service to be told that it was discontinued and recalled because of “customer feedback”. They said there was nothing physically wrong with the product, just feedback.

Disgraceful! Has Target bowed to anti-Humanist prejudice? Was the mere mention of Humanism sufficient to have them deny my friend his lumbar support even after he had made his order? We don’t know. What we do know is that the pillow is Target’s own brand, Room Essentials, so presumably was designed in-house, and that it has indeed been removed from shelves:

Humanist Pillow Listed For Sale
Humanist Pillow Removed From Sale

Target now has some serious questions to answer:

  1. Why was the Humanist Pillow removed from sale? Is it so dangerous that I should consign mine to the flames?
  2. If it was because of “customer feedback,” what was the nature of that feedback and why did they decide to heed it?
  3. Is there a secret Humanist in Target’s design department, and are they sending a subtle cry for help?
  4. Does Target hate the Humanist community, and would they also bow to pressure to remove Christmas Cards or Hanukkah items from sale?

Humanists everywhere deserve answers to these pressing queries! For now, I will sit and wait, my lower back gently caressed by the word “Humanist”!

July 18, 2019

A recent article in the LA Times has sparked an interesting discussion online: what should Humanists do about the increasing interest among many younger people in practices like astrology, crystal healing, and tarot? (Thanks to Diane Burkholder and Josiah Mannion for kicking this one off.) I think the question is a good one, because one of the challenges for the Humanist movement, as we seek to grow, is how we can remain true to our core values while being welcoming to people who are spiritually searching, or who find value in ritual practices which they understand themselves not to be based on a scientific understanding of the world. This is something I face every day as a Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, because while we promote Humanist values we are open to all – regardless of their beliefs about religion and spirituality.
 
I must admit a certain bias: for myself, as a queer person, I do not find these practices comforting or praiseworthy. In fact I find them scary and I do not feel welcome in places where they are being practiced. I grew up fascinated by tarot, astrology, crystals, parapsychology, and lots of other intriguing things, but I view it as an important part of my own intellectual and personal journey that I learned how to distinguish truth from falsehood. I came to recognize that these practices – while undeniably valuable for many people – are at least historically based on misconceptions about the world which can in some instances be incredibly harmful. I came to see myself as a truth-seeker – someone who values truth for its own sake and as a component of my own emancipation – and I value this when I see it reflected in the best of the Humanist movement.
I think Humanism should be a movement which quite fearlessly follows the best evidence, and which is willing to say: “This thing you really like – even sincerely believe in – is not based on secure evidence.” This aspect of our tradition is central to many struggles for justice, and it would be catastrophic for Humanists to simply overlook the undeniable fact that, historically speaking, things like crystal healing and astrology have been based on inaccurate understandings of the world, and have caused and continue to cause people significant harm. No movement which genuinely cares about human dignity could deny this and remain consistent. We also have a legitimate interest in the epistemic health of our community, and that can be undermined when people believe things which are not true. Even if no harm is obvious in the moment, we can never know where irrationality will lead.
 
At the same time, there is an undeniable sense of smugness and superiority which comes across when a lot of Humanists talk about these issues which is not only unwelcoming and mean, but also can be linked to all sorts of oppressive modes of thought which have no place in a Humanist setting. Too often it feels like people’s opposition to things like astrology is more about making Humanists feel smarter than others than about a principled search for truth. This is a tendency we should root out in our movement and in ourselves – I certainly have a lot of work to do still on that front.
Furthermore, to the extent that some of these practices are associated with the identities of marginalized people, it can be extremely difficult to critique them without furthering that marginalization. Anyone who appreciates why a Humanistic Jew might want to continue their Jewish ritual practice while understanding that much of it is historically rooted in a metaphysics they no longer hold, should also appreciate why indigenous people (for instance) might wish to maintain elements of their religious practice too, even if they reject the supernatural elements on which it may have been based. Humanists have a responsibility to be sensitive to the context and history of any spiritual practice – especially when majority communities and commentators pass judgment on the spiritual practices of marginalized people.
 
This presents something of a dilemma for those of us who lead Humanist communities: how should we react when increasing numbers of young people (people my age, actually!) turn toward astrology, crystals, tarot etc. for spiritual benefit? Personally, I think we need to be welcoming and non-judgmental toward people, and still insistent regarding our search for truth. Are people who are into crystals welcome at the Ethical Society of St. Louis? Absolutely yes, please come along! Our commitment to upholding your worth doesn’t vanish because you have different spiritual practices. Are we going to have a program promoting crystal healing, or a group offering tarot readings? No, I think we are not – just as we don’t have Bible reading groups. We have the responsibility to maintain the integrity of our own community, and to keep it a safe and welcoming space for those who have been harmed by the unscientific elements of these practices.
 
This may be a challenging position to take – it risks pleasing nobody and upsetting everybody – but I think it is the right one, because it is the only way to honor people’s dignity and their intellect, all at once.
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November 10, 2016

WARNING: This post includes vile racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist language.

So, it happened. Donald Trump is President Elect of the United States of America. I feel what all my friends are feeling: shock, disbelief, anger, anxiety, and despair. There’s a knot in my stomach and the feeling that something even worse is coming: a sword above my head, ready to drop. I feel afraid.

Worse, I feel cheated out of the life I expected to live. I’ve known for a long time that the progress of humanity is saw-toothed: we march forward some distance then fall back, and have to fight again the battles we thought we had won. We expand the circle of humanity, only to see it contract again, and we have to struggle anew to stretch it wider. I honestly believed I was living through a period of expansion rather than contraction, progress rather than regress. I now see that I was wrong, and that much of my life will be defined by a rearguard action to secure advances in civilization we had already made. That’s not what I wanted: I wanted to see where we would go next, what amazing things we would accomplish, as a species, once we moved past our prejudices. I mourn the country that could have been, had a more humane vision prevailed. I don’t want to live and work in a dark, mean place.

Yet I need to carry on, for myself, for the community I represent, and to uphold the Humanist values I care deeply about. So I’m asking myself, in the words of Jed Bartlet (the greatest fictional President ever), “What’s Next?”

Here’s what’s next, for me:

First, I’m going to be honest about how bad this is. Already, I have had friends contact me desperate for a way to flee the country. Some are scared for their lives, other suicidal. This may seem hyperbolic, but we must recognize the genuine dangers which face those who are already most marginalized during a Trump presidency. After Brexit in the UK, there were immediately reports of heightened attacks on racial minorities, and a feeling that the worst instincts of some in British society were emboldened  by their surprise victory. We will see that in the USA too. Those who were motivated to vote Trump by racial and cultural animus will feel empowered by his victory, and that makes things more dangerous for people of color, queers (particularly trans people), people with disabilities: anyone who has been scapegoated, minimized, and mocked this election is now in the firing line. Furthermore, the authoritarian and violent tendencies Trump displayed in the campaign will surely follow him into office – people don’t change overnight. These will be a profoundly disturbing four years, in which the worst elements of the Republican Party control all the major institutions of government. We will need to fight hard for every marginalized community simply to stay where we are. Things will probably get much worse.

Already some are writing that those who voted for Trump will soon regret it, and won’t get what they want. I can see where those authors are coming from: Trump will never be able to make good on his grander and more nebulous economic promises, partly because he’s never been clear on what he is promising. But perhaps Trump’s voters will get exactly what they want. Perhaps they want to hang effigies of niggers from trees outside their houses, or kick faggots in the belly, or never have to share a bathroom with a tranny, or stick it to a nasty bitch. This is ostensibly what they voted for, what was promised them in endless, violent rallies at which they chanted racist epithets and beat up protesters. Now their champion has become president. Why should they expect less of the same? We must prepare to fight evil, and resist the temptation to believe that this election was “really” about other things. Raw hatred was one of the things this election was really about. We have to deal honestly with that uncomfortable truth.

Second, I’m repudiating blame. I am going to resist the desire to blame anyone for this. Yes, I want to; yes, I have been; yes I think there is blame to share around. Am I to blame, for being too incrementalist in my outlook, and promoting candidates I though would be a reasonable next step rather than a wholesale political rupture? Are those with a more radical mindset to blame for promoting a narrative of false equivalence which sometimes went as far as to suggest that Clinton was worse than Trump? Are third party voters to blame, or the DNC, or cable news? There might be answers to these questions, but none of the answers make me stronger. Anything which is not pulling me together with others is weakening me, and blame fractures alliances. To get through this we’re going to need to hold each other tight, and fight together despite our differences. Nothing else is gonna get this done. Blame is deadly to me now, however satisfying in the moment.

Third, I’m going to try to understand why this happened. I am going to read everything I can, from whichever authors seem to have a reasonable view – or even just a popular one. I’m going to entertain wacky ideas and get outside my intellectual comfort zone. We can only fight something effectively if we understand it, and right now I don’t understand what happened in America. Time to do some study. That said, understanding is not endorsing. I’m not going to go out of my way to empathize with those electors who were driven by racist and sexist views and feelings. It is possible to understand the structural conditions which led to a Trump victory without endorsing or even sympathizing with the feelings of those who voted for Trump. To put it bluntly, I don’t care how deep an economic hole you’re in – there is no reasonable or ethical way to justify a vote for a race-baiting bigot. None. So, I will seek to understand, but I will never condone.

Finally, I’m doubling down on my work. Now, more than ever, community organizations like the Ethical Society of St. Louis are important. If we are going to fight back the worst of a Trump presidency we need civic institutions dedicated to the promotion of the highest human values. It’s extraordinary to see, all around St. Louis in the aftermath of this election, churches, synagogues, and community organizations opening up their doors for people to grieve, regroup, and prepare for what’s to come. I’m looking forward to a large crowd of people this Sunday as we look toward the future and ask “What’s Next?”

March 27, 2016

This is an extract from one of my Platform Addresses (think sermons) at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. You can listen to the full Address here.

A few years ago I attended a conference at Harvard, and at that conference was a panel of activists who had been making their names fighting for various different causes. One of them, a big young man, tall, broad, with long hair and an impressive beard, spoke passionately about his work on behalf of the people of Palestine. He told the story of how he and a small group of other young activists – all white, from wealthy nations – had traveled to the West Bank in order to try to protest what they considered to be the illegal occupation of that territory by Israel. They felt that Israeli forces would be less likely to act violently toward white Westerners than toward Palestinians, so they decided that they would use themselves – their presence, their bodies, their lives – as a way of keeping Israeli forces accountable for their actions. So they slept in Palestinian homes and came out at any sign of a disturbance, interposing themselves, if necessary, between the forces of Israel and their Palestinian hosts. The young man who spoke at the panel I attended at Harvard had been one of these activists, and the risks he faced were very real: in 2003 one such activist, Rachel Corrie, was killed at the age of 23 when she was run over by a bulldozer she was trying to block in Gaza.

I remember feeling hugely conflicted about his story – and that tension remains with me still. On the one hand, I thought him incredibly brave. Here is a guy, around my age (perhaps younger), willing to literally give up his life for other people, in service to a cause he believed in deeply. There is something, in my mind, admirable about that. Doesn’t that seem brave? Whatever you think of the cause he was championing, isn’t it brave to put yourself in physical danger for what you believe? To choose to stand between a bulldozer and somebody else’s house, because you believe that their life is as important as your own? That sort of self-sacrifice holds some ethical appeal to me. I find it impressive, and praiseworthy. I felt, hearing his story, a challenge to how I live my life, a feeling almost of ethical inadequacy: would I be willing to put my life on the line for what I believe? Should I be doing activism like his? Am I brave enough?

At the same time, something about his story disturbed me. I felt a sense of hesitation as if, while what he was doing seemed praiseworthy on the surface, perhaps there was something not quite right about it underneath. That image of the brave activist in their florescent clothing standing before a bulldozer was simultaneously awesome and horrifying. But I couldn’t quite figure out what the problem was. I just felt uneasy about it. I remember going home after the panel and working over it in my mind, trying to reconcile the simultaneous feelings of ethical respect and ethical uneasiness. I wondered whether my ambivalence was simply a defense mechanism, a way of finding some excuse, so I could have an argument against doing similar sorts of work myself, because I was scared of doing it. But the uneasiness persisted, and has stayed with me since. Whenever I think about that young activist’s presentation I feel those mixed emotions.

Why? I can think of three reasons. First, it seems to me there is something potentially irresponsible in willingness to give our lives for a cause. By holding ourselves responsible to some ideal we hold more important than our own lives, we risk relinquishing the more concrete responsibilities we have to other people. Our death affects other people and, in that sense, perhaps it is not only our to give. We are enmeshed in a web of relationships, and choosing to rip ourselves out of that web may cause untold effects on those with whom we are connected.

Second, if you’re going to die for an ideal, you better be damn sure that the ideal is a good one. I, skeptic as I am, am not sure that such a total commitment to any ideal is ethically wise. We remember the Jesuses and Socrateses of history – people who are said to have died for thing of which we approve – but we tend to forget that there are plenty of martyrs for much more suspect ideals. How do we know our ideals are the right ones?

Being willing to die for an ideal suggests to me a level of moral zeal which speaks to a lack of appropriate skepticism regarding your own ability to judge right from wrong. As an Ethical Humanist I believe we can make informed, reasonable judgments about right and wrong – but I don’t believe those judgments are ever final. They should always be available for scrutiny. You can’t do much moral scrutiny when you’re dead. Committing yourself to the death to an ideal looks a lot less heroic when that ideal sours. We cannot honestly know that the ideals to which we hold strongly today will be considered right and just tomorrow- so should we ever be willing to give our lives for them?

The final reason I’m skeptical of martyrdom, though, speaks more directly to Ethical Humanism, and our focus on relationships: once we have given our lives for a cause, we can no longer do anything for anybody else. We are not just giving up our lives, but we are giving up, forever, our capacity to improve the lives of other people.

Who can tell what good Jesus might have done, had he chosen a safer route? Perhaps he would be less celebrated in history, but more effective at changing his society? What wisdom might Socrates have uncovered if had relented just that once, and gone into exile – perhaps even written a book? What might the fiercely-principled Rachel Corrie have done with her life, had she decided to step aside for the bulldozer that day? She would have turned 36 last month. – what might she have achieved in the past 13 years, had she put more value on her own life?

And that, I think, is the crux of my discomfort: to decide that you are willing to die for a cause, a belief, and ideal, is also to decide that there are things which matter more than human life. The higher you exalt that ideal above your own life, the more you devalue your life in comparison. While being a responsible ethical actor means recognizing the value of the lives of others, it also means recognizing the value of our own lives, and taking that into account when we act.

Emily Wilson, in her book The Death of Socrates (another famous martyr), asks:

“I wonder whether it is really admirable to die so calmly, so painlessly and, above all, so talkatively.”

I wonder too: I wonder of Socrates, and of Jesus, and of those young activists in Palestine, willing to die for their beliefs, whether it is really so admirable. I am not saying they are necessarily wrong, but I am saying that on this Easter Sunday, it is appropriate to be skeptical of elevation of martyrs. Perhaps it’s time to stop asking “for what will you die?”, and instead start asking “for what will you live?”

July 18, 2015

Since moving to work at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, I’ve had lots of opportunities to work with clergy in my local area. As an atheist this is often fascinating, sometimes uncomfortable, and on occasion troubling. Yet, as Humanists seek to spread our perspective more widely in the world, we will find ourselves working with clergy a lot.

Even though many Humanists think of Humanism as something very different to a religion, when a panel wants a different perspective to traditional religious voices, or when a coalition seeks to broaden its membership beyond traditional religious groups, they will often seek out Humanist participation. Recognized Humanists within a community will be called on to offer our perspective in contrast to traditional religious viewpoints – so we better get good at working with clergy, and performing a similar service for Humanism as clergy do for their faith tradition!

With that in mind, here are five tips for atheists working with clergy.

1. Put forward your positive perspective

Clergy people tend to be great at putting forward the positive elements of their faith tradition: part of their job, after all, is representing that tradition in public. By contrast, Humanists sometimes focus too much on what’s wrong with other people’s traditions. It’s fine to criticize, of course: robust critique of inhumanity is bread and butter to the Humanist. But if everyone else is speaking about how wonderful their tradition is, and you’re solely talking about how terrible everyone else’s is, you will not come off well – and no one will learn anything about Humanism! So think about how you can convey the good things Humanism has done for you.

2. Tell stories

The most powerful and convincing clergy people I know are full of stories. Funny stories, sad stories, moving stories, stories which make you angry – they’re brimming with them! Humanists can learn from this. What stories do you have from your own life which demonstrate the power and richness of our worldview? Think of a few short, poignant stories which demonstrate something about the Humanist philosophy, and have them ready to use in case they become relevant. Even very short anecdotes can make a powerful point – ones which are about you and your life are best.

3. Understand that they will use a different language

Clergy will likely use language drawn from their religious tradition to describe their values and perspective. While this might be unusual or uncomfortable for you, it is second nature to them! Try to take it in your stride. There’s nothing wrong with clergy speaking from their own perspective, using their own language. They are trying to communicate their religion, just as you are trying to communicate your Humanism. So when they use language like “prayer” and “faith”, don’t let it disturb you – it’s not meant for you and doesn’t necessarily need to include you.

4. Be comfortable opting out

Sometimes, when working with clergy, you might feel encouraged to do things which go against your beliefs, like join in with a prayer. There’s no need to do anything which would make you uncomfortable: if you think about it, clergy have dedicated their professional lives to following and promoting a set of beliefs. They know what it’s like to have deep convictions and want to follow them. This means, quite often, that they respect the beliefs of others, and won’t be at all upset if you say that it is against your beliefs to participate in something.

5. Be generous but firm

The vast majority of clergy, in my experience, are people of good will who genuinely believe what they are doing serves their community. They are often smart, articulate, passionate people who have chosen a career path which will net them very little money and sometimes even little prestige. They have followed a calling and done so honestly. So, while being willing absolutely to call out what you see as inhumane in their beliefs or practices, try to be generous with the people, and recognize that they care deeply about their work and think they are doing good. At the same time, don’t be afraid to present your own perspective in a clear way: you have the same right to present your beliefs as they have to present theirs.

Follow these tips, and your work alongside clergy will go much more smoothly!

 

 


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