Previous section (Chapters 1-2)
III. “World Religions” Source
5. The Cathedral of the World
Page 82 (Church)
Pages 84-85 (Church)
Fundamentalists of the right and left claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics can make a similar mistake, only to draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. The whole light—God, Truth, call it what you will—is beyond our perceiving. God is veiled. Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But the fact that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly does not mean that in the light and the darkness, mysterious and unknowable, God is not there.
This passage gets a red flag, though, because in the latter paragraph above Church baldfacedly lies about his favorite whipping boys, those awful “skeptics.”
Recall that the “light” in Church’s metaphor does not symbolize the monotheist god—rather, it represents the “light” of goodness and truth (“call it what you will”—how kind of Church to allow us such freedom) that religious liberals believe is behind all of the commendable ideals of the world’s religions. The “light” may be equivalent with Church’s idea of “God,” but it is clearly not equivalent to, say, the Pope’s idea. (Or, I hasten to point out, mine.)
So what exactly are these dimwitted “skeptics ... conclud[ing]”? According to Church’s metaphorical description, we’re concluding that there is no “Truth,” meaning, beauty or wonder. To be a “skeptic” is to be a sad, nihilist killjoy. Needless to say, I find this outrageous.
I think this passage (which Church has repeated perhaps thirty times in sermons and other speeches featuring the “Cathedral of the World”) is a good example of the terminological bait-and-switch frequently practiced by Church, Buehrens and the rest of the portion of religious liberals who happen to be not particularly atheist-friendly.
First, they define “God” to mean something quite different than what orthodox monotheists (in this context, I think it’s worth noting that orthodox monotheists constitute a majority of the population of the planet) take it to mean. Second, these liberals notice that certain unwashed “skeptics” (or atheists, humanists, “secular materialists,” etc.) have stated that we don’t believe in God. Third, they write harrumphing attacks like the one above on “skeptics,” browbeating us for having the gall to doubt the existence of “that which is greater than all and yet present in each” or whatever idea of “God” they favor.
But they’re attacking a straw man. The vast majority of religious skeptics I’m familiar with understand “God” to mean ... exactly what the billions of orthodox theists tell us it means. That’s the “God” we disbelieve in. In Church’s metaphor, we “skeptics” do not deny the existence of the “light”; we just dispute (as does Church!) that it all originates from a few particular windows in the cathedral. Frequently we doubt that the light comes from outside the cathedral at all (as opposed to “out from within us”), and we are often distressed by the scarlet decorations on some of the more popular windows. That’s a far cry from Church’s insulting straw-man “skeptic”; indeed, it’s not so far divorced from the view Church himself expresses regarding the cathedral.
I should add that, again, there is nothing wrong with interpreting “God” in a broader way than an orthodox Christian or an ordinary atheist does. The problem comes when the liberal fails to understand (in Church’s and Buehrens’ cases, I fear it is quite intentional) that an atheist’s declaration, “I don’t believe that God exists,” almost always references a very different idea than the liberal’s. Importing a liberal definition of “God” into the sentiments of someone who doesn’t see it that way can only lead to trouble.
Pages 85-86 (Church)
On the first, surely a large number of UUs doubt that abandoning orthodox religion (which, significantly, is what many of us think “religion” means) “deprives us of a potentially deep encounter with” anything. Many of us are here because the religions we were brought up in were barriers to “deep encounters” generally; it was staying that was a deprivation, not leaving.
Again, “cosmic runes,” “mysterious forces that impel our being” and so on are ideas that have nothing to do with the lives of thousands of UUs, though a newcomer reading this book would obviously get the opposite idea. My way of seeing the world just has little to nothing to do with “mysterious forces that impel [my] being”; the book’s terminology once again puts me on the outside rather than the inside of Unitarian Universalism.
Church’s “second” problem, though, points up the more basic flaw with this paragraph: Church is playing fast and loose with the term “religion” in a particularly silly way here. “It doesn’t make any sense to reject religion,” Church argues, “because everyone is forced to come to terms somehow with the deep questions of life, and I’ve decided to call that exercise ‘religion.’”
Isn’t it obvious that the only real “problem” this argument highlights is the mismatch between Church’s understanding of the “R” word and whatever it is that blockheads like me are “reject[ing]”? The “problem” isn’t my rejection, it’s Church’s inability to understand or to convey accurately what it is I’m rejecting. (If “religion” has to be that broad, then, gee, I guess I reject “supernaturalism” or some such. What an absurdly semantic complaint.)
Again, here we have the bait-and-switch: Church sees someone saying “I reject religion,” imports his own definition of “religion” into that person’s statement and crows about how inadequate, if not stupid, the result is.
Finally, religious fundamentalists frequently accuse secularists (quite falsely) of “worshipping” reason, science, ourselves, etc., so it hardly feels good when a UU minister chimes in on that point. This is yet another example of a religious term being used in a very liberal manner (“worship” means something different to Church than it does to, say, Pat Robertson) without mention of the fact that not all UUs utilize the word that way. This one stings a little more, though, because of its similarity to a common slander.
Page 94 (Church)
Regarding this passage specifically, I would think that nearly any UU would find more fault with (a) a fundamentalist Sunday School that crams exclusivist, anti-gay, anti-science (etc.) hatred into children’s minds via indoctrination than they would with (b) some “free faith”-committed parent who worries about the coercive potential of an R.E. classroom. I am not convinced that (b)’s perspective would be terribly objectionable even if UU religious education were flawless. In contrast, the risk of (a) goes entirely unmentioned in A Chosen Faith, giving readers the clear impression that the authors consider the churchless parents they depict to be twits at best and child abusers at worst.
Of course, Church’s dishonesty regarding the term “religious” recurs here. Given the broad definition of “religion” Church has asserted (both in this chapter and on p. 5), I’d like to know how he thinks a parent could escape “impos[ing] religious training” on his children in the first place. If every single way of dealing with life’s necessary questions is “religion,” how could a parent possibly avoid “religious” child-rearing? (Indeed, how could any interaction any parent ever has with her child fail to be “religious” under this terminology?) Church seems to change his definitions to suit whatever aspersion he’s casting at the moment.
Regardless of how one sees the term “religion,” though, Church’s allegation that a childhood without formal religious education necessarily “deprives the children of any criteria for judging” is laughable. Surely no UU believes that “criteria for judging” on religious questions can only be gained in Sunday School! (Church and I—he a UU theist brought up by at least one secular humanist and I an atheist brought up in Protestant Sunday School—are ourselves shining examples of “criteria” that came from somewhere besides formal religious education.) I think the “criteria” he describes come unavoidably from living life; R.E. can be a valuable part of the journey, but it’s hardly a fundamental necessity. (And, of course, sometimes it’s a serious impediment.)
I get the sinking feeling that Church’s real problem is not that unchurched children are “deprive[d] ... of any criteria for judging,” but that they’re deprived of his criteria. Which doesn’t reflect terribly well on him—or, in this book, on us.
Page 99 (Buehrens)
Like most of the yellow-flagged passages, this one is hardly a deep affront—but the cumulative effect of a long series of convenient omissions like this one is the impression that the authors have never heard of a secular person who has any value as a human being. And, more to the point, repetition gives the reader the clear idea that such people certainly do not belong in Unitarian Universalism.
Page 101 (Buehrens)
It also occurs to me that conventionally religious American parents can feel threatened by a teenaged child’s decision that he does not accept the mainstream Christian beliefs they brought him up in. That kind of “threat” gets no treatment in this book.
Page 103 (Buehrens)
Here are my specific objections (the last six are more distressing than the first three):
- As an initial point, it’s clear that we’re not talking about a broad notion of “religion” here. Religious violence, C.S. Lewis’s “belief in God”—this is “religion” as theism and/or supernaturalism. Carl Sagan expressing non-theistic wonder at the immensity of the universe is not something that even the most “[z]ealous” atheist finds fault in, notwithstanding that it’s certainly “religious” by the definition Church has provided (or the one Buehrens describes in Chapter 10). Finally, the idea of “[z]ealous atheism” as a “pseudoreligion” necessarily presupposes that there is a narrower core to “religion” that such a thing can be “pseudo” to. By the broad conception the authors claim to favor, “Zealous atheism” is a religion. So no, Buehrens has something else in mind when he refers to the “religion-free.”
- “Violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion.” This phrase (which implies that the “zealots” in question are perverting their religions) is one reasonable interpretation of such violence, but it’s not the only one. It is not clear—not even to every UU—that “zealots” are necessarily wrong when they claim their religion supports the terrorism they commit.
- “Some people conclude that the world would be safer ‘religion-free.’” I submit that this is an absurdly shallow account of the skeptical objections to religious doctrine forwarded by people like Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Epicurus, Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca, Voltaire, David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Henry Huxley, Karl Marx, Robert G. Ingersoll, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Sanger, George Orwell, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry, Carl Sagan, Douglas Adams, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dan Barker, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, Wendy Kaminer, Paul Kurtz, Adam Lee, Michael Martin, P.Z. Myers, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasrin, James Randi, Gene Roddenberry, Michael Shermer, Victor Stenger, Julia Sweeney, or Stephen Weinberg. There is far more to skeptical criticism and rejection of religion than the mere point that many religions have promoted violence, but the impression you’d get from reading “Dialogue” is the opposite.
- “Try.” “Life as a secular person is futile. What fools these ‘religion-free’ mortals be.” Buehrens apparently believes that there isn’t a single person in the world who is successfully living a life of integrity and meaning that happens also to be “religion-free.”
- “Self-delusion.” This sends the same message. How dares a Unitarian Universalist minister defame another person’s (non-) religious journey this way?
- “Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit.” “To dissent from my belief system is to be a spiritual ‘vacuum.’” I find this flatly disgusting. (And just to prove that he means it, Buehrens repeats this sentence, verbatim but for an added comma, eight pages later.) Non-believing readers of A Chosen Faith will notice that this insult closely resembles a similar line that we are frequently fed by fundamentalist Christian evangelists: that “atheists have a God-shaped hole in their hearts.” (Uh-oh.) The striking similarities between right-wing proselytizing and several sections of this book are both ugly and hard to ignore.
- C.S. Lewis. This man was a priggish sexist and Christian exclusivist who would have been disgusted by Unitarian Universalism. In his vastly overrated apologetic works, Lewis’ treatment of nonbelievers (which, in his context, clearly includes every UU) was uniformly ignorant and degrading—plus, he took repeated nasty potshots at the “occult,” which is unquestionably the way he would have categorized modern Neo-Paganism. To quote this man as an authority on the nature of religious doubt is just outrageous. The sentiment Buehrens attributes to Lewis is a ridiculous, dehumanizing insult—par for the course for Lewis on this particular subject but beyond the pale, one hopes, within UUism.
- Quoting the Bible to prove the depravity of atheists. Just unbelievable. Presumably Buehrens forgot about Psalm 14 (and 53), which would have suited his purpose nicely:
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.Nonbelievers reading this book will get the message from this passage, quite clearly, that UUs’ conception of nonbelief comes straight from the Bible. Given that we don’t fare too well in that book, it’s no leap to the realization that we won’t do any better in UU congregations.
- “Demonic pseudoreligion.” I submit that no UU minister, ever, under any circumstances, has any basis to accuse any belief system of being a “demonic pseudoreligion.” What in the world is that phrase doing in this book?
There is some biting irony in the fact that this passage is at the center of a chapter titled “Dialogue.” On top of the obvious implication that there’s no point in conducting a dialogue with self-delusional, demonically pseudoreligious spiritual vacuums, the message that this placement communicates (it’s the only specific attack on any belief system in the chapter) is that the one thing bridging the gap between traditional religions and UUism is that they both find atheists disgusting. I have a hard time inferring anything else from this passage other than that Buehrens is interested in beating up secular people so that he can score atheist-bashing points with the godly readers on his conservative flank.
What a disgrace.
Pages 103-04 (Buehrens)
I guess the philosophical name-dropping (“as Jung was”) is more silly than offensive. I sometimes bring in Respected Figures to support my sentiments in one area or another, despite the weakness of the implied Argument From Authority, so I can’t be deeply critical of that little gambit. But here, we have no quotation, no demonstration that Carl Jung actually agreed with Buehrens on this point—not even the poor guy’s first name! Sheesh.
Finally, until I see some serious remorse for terrible insults he has fired off at nonbelievers (most prominently, the ones on page 103), I’m afraid that I can only be enormously cynical about any appeal Rev. John A. Buehrens makes to “mutual respect and dialogue.” How I’m supposed to respect and enter a dialogue with a guy who clearly hates my guts is beyond me.
Page 108 (Buehrens)
Again, consider the message that this passage sends to nonbelievers reading this book to satisfy their curiosity about Unitarian Universalism. Here we have a former president of the UUA boasting that he forces his children to attend Sunday School whether they like it or not. Is this a welcoming message, or will it alienate potential UUs? How many will conclude that UUism is no better—no less authoritarian—than the religions they have found meaningless or wrong? (Heck, if we’re forcing innocent kids into R.E. over their substantive objections, are we any better?)
Page 110-11 (Buehrens)
I’ve already mentioned the constant negative portrayals of secular people in this book (here “spiritual isolation”), and I’ve protested the “Nature abhors a vacuum” smear. (There is something pretty galling about being hit with the latter twice in one chapter, though. Buehrens is not subtle about his distaste for nonbelievers.)
This paragraph makes two specific factual accusations: (1) that children of “committed secularists” join cults at a higher rate than other children; and (2) that “the lure of the various isms ... may be more intense for those who avoid religion.” (Again, these claims make no sense unless we’re talking about a narrow definition of “religion,” rather than the broad view the authors sometimes claim they hold. The whole point of the broad ideas of “religion” occasionally favored by the authors is that under them, one can’t “avoid religion.”)
(1) and (2) are both very serious accusations. Buehrens is saying, in no uncertain terms, that you will either give your children to him, to his wife, or to someone (Jim Jones, David Koresh) far worse. For my part, I seriously doubt that either of Buehrens’ claims is true. I find it unconscionable that Buehrens supplies no evidence whatsoever for such damning contentions.
Making serious, defamatory attacks on a minority based on (what Buehrens appears to think is) mere conventional wisdom about that minority is a practice with a very ugly history. The similarity between this passage and some of the more regrettable instances of gay-, Jew- and race-baiting in history is very troubling.
Page 114-15 (Buehrens)
If those patterns, like our understandings of marriage, have roots in the Protestant Reformation, it is not simply because that’s where our historical roots as a movement lie. It is also where many of us have come from recently. A survey of our backgrounds in the early 1980s showed that 19 percent of all Unitarian Universalists were raised as Methodists—the largest single group among us. A roughly equal number came from other liberal to moderate Protestant denominations, and a slightly smaller number had backgrounds in evangelical or conservative Protestant churches. The number of former Roman Catholics (like myself) seems to be growing, and was very nearly equal to the Methodists. About 5 percent are of Jewish heritage. Some had little or no religious training. Others identify with non-Western religious traditions.
The second paragraph, on “backgrounds,” sends the message that all but a miniscule few UUs grew up as Christians. And none of them, apparently, were humanists—“little to no religious training” is where we’re relegated. In this passage, nonbelievers are put in the same category as (and indeed treated as) inanimate objects.
To give what purports to be a description of the full spectrum of religious diversity within UUism and relegate humanists and atheists to the “nothing worth mentioning” pile is pretty insulting.
Next section (Chapters 7-8)
2: Indeed, I’d say that “the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts [and] the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion,” for me at least, is something like the fourth-most important reason to dissent from (narrowly defined) “religion.” (1) The lack of evidence for anything supernatural; (2) the Problem of Evil; and (3) the clear support for violence, hatred and injustice that’s contained in the stated tenets and/or “holy” books of several religions are all, I submit, more pressing reasons to be nonreligious than the one Buehrens cites.
3: I’m skeptical that Lewis ever actually wrote this. The offensively anti-atheist tone makes the attribution plausible, but I can find no independent record of Lewis making this statement. However, a very similar quip—”When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything”—is commonly attributed to G.K. Chesterton, another priggish Christian apologist. ... Though that attribution is in doubt as well, because Chesterton scholars can’t find it in any of his works. Nevertheless, the “maxim may be the single most quoted line from Chesterton's prolific pen.” What is clear is that a large number of people enjoy hurling personal insults at atheists.
Among the areas in which I think the Chosen Faith authors stumble badly is in their research methods. (See also Buehrens’ unbelievable error regarding Cecil Dawkins in Chapter 8 and Church’s fumbling attempts to cite the first two Humanist Manifestos in Chapter 9.)