Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

Choosing to Wound: "A Chosen Faith" Chapters 9-10

(This post is the fifth section of Choosing to Wound: Why A Chosen Faith Harms Unitarian Universalism, my response to Forrest Church and John A. Buehrens’ best-selling “Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” To read my essay starting with the introduction, please click here. You may use either the internal “Previous section”/“Next section” links or the forward arrow/backward arrow LiveJournal buttons (above) to navigate the essay.)

Previous section (Chapters 7-8)

IV. “Humanist Teachings” Source

The approach of both Church and Buehrens to the humanist Source chapters is that of thoroughgoing theists who detest ordinary humanism—and who therefore are searching for a way to defend some kind of humanism in the eyes of their readers. Further, the authors clearly see their readers to be theists who are more conservative than the authors. This necessitates a plethora of unquestioned “God” language, not to mention a really troubling amount of humanist-, rationalist- and atheist-baiting.

I find deeply distressing the extent to which these two chapters carry an intemperate attack on the beliefs of the large proportion of UUs who consider themselves humanists. The earlier chapters did not assail believers in Judaism, Christianity, “World Religions,” etc., at all (though they did bash skeptics). Unitarian Universalism deserves better than this.

9. Beyond Idolatry

157-58 (Church)

Yellow flag

The word humanism is blasphemy to many deeply religious people even today, more than half a century after [the first Humanist Manifesto] was composed. It suggests godlessness, sacrilege, and immorality. Yet The Humanist Manifesto[4] is a profoundly spiritual document. Yes, it rejects superstition, while calling for the exercise of reason in matters of faith, but it also expresses deep commitment to the commonweal. ...

In far more important matters than good manners, but in those as well, God doesn’t make us do anything; we are responsible for our own destiny, and capable of making it better. “The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good,” the signers wrote.

A few strong implications in this passage are worrying; they serve notice to any ordinary humanist reading this book that the viewpoint defended in this section of A Chosen Faith will bear little resemblance to her actual beliefs.

The first two sentences connect the term “humanism” with “godlessness, sacrilege and immorality.” Church then makes no attempt whatever to question the connections between those ideas, leaving the impression that humanism is generally godless and therefore sacrilegious and immoral—but that the first Manifesto isn’t those things, because it’s “spiritual.” (A real live humanist might wonder why Humanist Manifesto II, published in 1973, is only mentioned in passing in this book; I suspect it’s because that one is insufficiently “spiritual” for the authors.[5] Never mind, of course, that it’s an important part of the “Humanist teachings” the Sources cite, and it’s considerably more relevant to the modern world (the lexicon especially) than the 1933 version is.)

Most humanists, I think it’s clear, wouldn’t see a “deep commitment to the commonweal” as something that makes a manifesto “profoundly spiritual.” (Is the Communist Manifesto “profoundly spiritual”? It’s more outspokenly “commit[ted] to the commonweal” (arguably too much so, of course) than any other document I’m at all familiar with. But that seems to me a very silly extension of the idea of the “spiritual.” What political tract is not, at least according to its fans, “commit[ted] to the commonweal”?) Any humanist reader who doesn’t see her belief system as particularly “spiritual” should probably be getting the hint by now that Church and Buehrens are aggressively disinterested in what she thinks.

Finally, how in the world “God” popped up in this context is beyond me. Not one of the (now three) Humanist Manifestos is, at least on its face, at all about “God.” In my initial reading of A Chosen Faith, this passage dashed my hopes that the humanist-Source chapters would be a respite from the authors’ continual policy of arrogantly lecturing me about what “the real God” (as Buehrens put it in Chapter 8) is, does, wants and deserves.

158-60 (Church)

Red flag

[The first two Humanist Manifestos] exemplify our fifth source of faith: the humanist teachings that counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against the idolatries of the mind and spirit.

The inclusion of a warning against idolatries of the mind and spirit is not an afterthought, it is absolutely critical to the integrity of our faith, protecting even science and rationalism from becoming idols. Rationalism as an idol easily becomes rationalization. Science and technology without awe and humility about how they are used too easily become threats to both nature and humanity, as our nuclear age has shown. Mere freedom from traditional theistic belief does not guarantee just or responsible social behavior. Idolizing such freedom can lead either to self-absorption and “possessive individualism” or to the many idolatries promoted by consumerism and by manipulative would-be messiahs.

James Luther Adams wrote that “idolatry occurs when a social movement adopts as the center of loyalty an idol, a segment of reality torn away from the context of universality, an inflated, misplaced abstraction made into an absolute.” Adams lived in Germany during the 1930s. He watched with horror as Nazi propaganda about the greatness of “Deutsche humanismus”
[6] coopted many of the most humanistic religious liberals. The only effective religious resistance to the powers and principalities of evil came from neo-orthodox stalwarts such as Karl Barth and the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Given the dangers of idolatry, it may paradoxically be our very liberal virtues, the things of which we are most proud, that are most likely to betray us.

Church’s brief attempt (four paragraphs) to say something—anything—positive about humanism being concluded, he swerves into the main focus of both chapters in this purportedly “humanist” section: idolatry. (Buehrens, a chapter later, dispenses even with the formality of mentioning humanism before railing at idolatry.)

Never fear, though—this chapter is indeed all about humanism. About how it is idolatry.

Once again we have a flood of commentary, exclusively negative, about science, rationalism, technology, atheism (“[m]ere freedom from traditional theistic belief”—again with that redundant “mere”!) and so on. Early on in my first reading of A Chosen Faith, I held out hope that the chapters on the “Humanist teachings” Source would finally give me some reason for optimism that my viewpoint would be respected within UUism. No dice: both Church and Buehrens take this opportunity (and especially the Source’s mention of “idolatries of the mind and spirit”) to beat traditional humanism senseless.

Not even having described a single good thing that science, technology, rationalism or atheism does for us, Church still (or instead) proceeds to alert us to the appalling consequences that they promise if taken too far.

Both of the authors’ chapters on the “Humanist teachings” Source (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of their book) depict humanism, reason, science, and religious skepticism as a philosophical variety of radical chemotherapy: these schools of thought, they tell us, can be effective in small quantities at eradicating metastasized “fundamentalism of the right,” but Good God, you’d better cut your dosage once the cancer has been wiped out—otherwise, the drugs will flatly kill you.

I find this account of some of my most dearly held feelings extremely disrespectful. For me, the important thing about such “Humanist teachings” is not that they can go awry if used in unreasonable ways (for what “teachings,” however good, are immune from this criticism?) but that they open enormous vistas of truth, value, wonder and meaning that otherwise would be hidden from us. There is not the slightest hint of this merit—of the goodness of the very ideals that brought me into the UU tradition—in A Chosen Faith. I think that’s a travesty.

The Nazi reference is gratuitous and shameful. The implication that the National Socialists “coopted” humanism, but not orthodox religion (excuse me?), to suit their political ends is an absurd lie. (Reichswehr belt buckles read “Gott mit uns,” not “Der Mensch mit uns.”) I don’t understand what the point is here—is Church saying that we’d be better off “neo-orthodox”? That overweening “liberal virtues” are to blame for the rise of Nazism? I find it hard to see anything here but an extremely offensive (and historically ridiculous) attempt to show guilt by association. The fact that a Hitler disciple slapped a humanist label (or, for that matter, a Christian one) on his hatred surely would not make that propaganda effort correct!

161 (Church)

Red flag

Because of our tradition and our self-image as a “faith of the free,” some people who come to our churches calling themselves “free-spirits” are hell-bent on fighting the evil of an organized anything. They enter our institutions as fierce individualists, rebellious religious adolescents, champions, above all else, of their precious freedom. Vigilant about protecting themselves from even the slightest restriction, they vigorously censure any word or action, in worship or elsewhere, that might offend their often very brittle and “reactionary” sensibilities. Our real problem is that many of the free spirits who insist on joining our institutions know how to do only one thing when they find themselves within it: they know how to savage it.

I’m befuddled by this passage. It’s a frenzied (and weird) diatribe against somebody, but it’s hard to tell exactly whom. In any case, it seems to me that a rabid attack (full of the usual Chosen Faith personal insults) on “‘free-spirits’ [who] are hell-bent on fighting the evil of an organized anything” is at least a very odd thing to include in an introduction to UUism.

The location of this jeremiad in the book (i.e., in the “humanist section”—of course, the authors see it as the “idolatry section”) hints that Church may have his beloved “skeptics” in mind here. And “fierce individualists” who “vigorously censure any word or action, in worship or elsewhere, that may offend their often very brittle and ‘reactionary’ sensibilities”—that sounds a lot like the authors’ perspective on nonbelievers. I feel Church’s crosshairs right on my forehead.

Regardless of the target, “hell-bent on fighting the evil of an organized anything,” “rebellious adolescents, “precious freedom,” “vigorously censure,” “very brittle and ‘reactionary’ sensibilities,” “they know how to savage it”—that garbage isn’t an argument, it’s a character assassination. This passage is not putting UUism’s best foot forward.

162-63 (Church)

Red flag

When reason is reduced to rationality, it too can become an idol. We lose track of the spirit, even of such documents as The Humanist Manifesto, by focusing on the letter. The more legalistic thinkers among us believe that in order to be intellectually legitimate, any opinion we hold, religious or otherwise, must be verifiable as fact. Such people resemble fundamentalists of the right; they are fundamentalists of the left. Such people hold that anything that is not rational is irrational and therefore is to be rejected. A sound reason knows its own limitations. It suggests that beyond the rational lies a transrational realm. We enter it in our dreams; we enter it in moments of worship. We enter it singing, when the tunes are good, even if the words are not. We enter it in lovemaking and dancing and stargazing. We break through to a transrational realm beyond knowing or naming.

I am aware that there are humanists, including UU humanists, who are too quick to dismiss any testimony that is not thoroughly and entirely rational in character. This is silly, and I too disagree with them. But Church decides to concentrate on them rather than to say a word about the thousands of tolerant and courteous ordinary humanists who vastly outnumber the über-rationalists. I find that seriously disrespectful.

But the decree that “a sound reason ... suggests” the existence of “a transrational realm,” given Church’s explanation of the latter term, seems to me ludicrous—and I assure you that I am not alone among UU nonbelievers (and potential-UU nonbelievers) in seeing things that way.

No one but the aforementioned über-rationalists denies that reason has limitations (UU Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, a hero of mine who is a proud humanist, has written that “[s]imply, reason cannot answer the question, What constitutes human good? And it cannot tell us what it is that we most deeply want”). But to give these limitations a nebulous (at best) label like “a transrational realm” that we “enter” in dreams, worship, singing, etc., seems to me—and to a very large number of self-declared humanists—a terrible idea.[7] The fact that reason does not answer all of the questions in human life does not imply that some “transrational” entity will, either. (And precisely how is this an improvement over the orthodox monotheist god?)

Most relevantly, this passage is pure poison for any ordinary humanist, whether she is inside or outside UUism. The reflex nonbeliever reaction to a sentence like “We break through to a transrational realm beyond knowing or naming” is eye-rolling, if not sharp stomach pains.

This is just not the way to appeal to nonbelievers.

163-64 (Church)

Red flag

By ignoring this reality in a narrow attempt to guard the portals of rationality against all intruders, we betray the teachings of both reason and science (which, together with our rejection of idolatry, comprise the wellspring of our faith’s fifth source). Many leading scientists are far ahead in this regard. Recent discoveries in mathematics, cell biology, and quantum physics make no apparent sense, at least not according to the known canons of rationality. In probing the mysteries of the universe and the mind, researchers on the edge of discovery find themselves moving freely between the rational and the transrational realms. The physicist Alan Lightman writes, “Of all people today, I think scientists have the deepest faith in the unseen world. The greater the scientist, the deeper his [or her] faith.” Even allowing for hyperbole, where does that leave people who respect science but who don’t know anything about it? Having traded God for “truth,” they are left with neither.

The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich once said that “the first word of religion must be spoken against religion.” When spoken, it is almost always a word of warning against idolatries of the mind and spirit. This is not merely a negative, or critical, function, for it liberates us to heed the guidance of reason and science with open, instead of dogmatically focused, eyes.

I’m unaware of what “teachings of ... reason and science” point toward the existence of a “transrational realm.” Again, reason and science have limitations, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to invent a signifier for “stuff that reason and science don’t cover” and think that that answers anything. It’s really just giving a new name to “I don’t know”—and I don’t see why that’s profound. Indeed, it’s the very oldest problem with the traditional “God” concept.

The entire “Many leading scientists ... transrational realms” passage is very hard to swallow. I am extremely skeptical that “recent discoveries” in math, biology or physics in fact contradict reason: such discoveries may seem counterintuitive to Forrest Church (or to plenty of other people with zero formal training in the subjects in question), but a UU minister’s personal intuition is actually not the same thing as reason and the scientific method.

To make matters worse, Church is dishonestly ripping Dr. Lightman vastly out of context: in the actual passage, the “faith in the unseen world” Lightman mentions means belief in things, such as subatomic particles and stars that are billions of light-years away, that we can’t see! Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it’s “transrational”![8] The connection Church attempts to draw between “great” scientists and the “transrational” disregards the fact that scientists are by far the most atheistic and rationalistic occupation in the world. An actual study (published in 1998, the same year as the full edition of A Chosen Faith) performed on the question Church addresses in fact found that, "among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total. .... Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by [U.S. National Academy of Sciences] natural scientists."

In summary, this section of Church's chapter is dreadfully dishonest.

The worst part of the first paragraph above, though, might be the last two sentences: first, Church rhetorically wonders about the fate of people who “don’t know anything about” science—which I find seriously ironic, given the material he’s just written. Then he brings out his dagger again for those disgusting atheist people: “Having traded God for ‘truth,’ they are left with neither.” This is really hateful trash; outside of Chapter 6 (Buehrens’ reprehensible “Dialogue”), this passage is the worst stuff in the book.

I think that particular logical progression deserves some examination. “[P]eople who respect science but who don’t know anything about it”—whom does that describe? What beliefs, or non-beliefs, do they hold in common? It certainly seems to me that such people come in all shapes, sizes and belief systems; surely members of that group can be found pretty much anywhere. Lots of people, of all different kinds, have plenty to learn about science.

No, Church responds, they’re all atheists. The “people who respect science but who don’t know anything about it” are the same people who “hav[e] traded God for ‘truth.’” That’s not just bigoted, it’s ridiculous. I submit that there exist at least one or two deeply God-fearing people who seriously misunderstand science.

The final paragraph in the instant passage just carries a few more nicely biting ironies. First Church turns Tillich’s point on its head (Tillich talks about a “word ... spoken against religion,” and Church turns it into a word against science).[9] Then he accuses rationalists of having “dogmatically focused eyes”—which, in light of the unbelievable truth-bending of the previous paragraph, is just incredible.

In my experience, humanists do not appreciate ministers making a mockery of reason and science. In this passage, Church manages to do that and to fire off a few more personal insults at us. This is deeply troubling.

165 (Church)
Red flag

We are all individuals, of course, but sovereignty lies in the corporate body, not the individual member.

What in the world?

This is just bizarre. UUism is The Borg Collective? The Hive Mind?

I realize that Church might brand me a “fierce individualist” and/or a “rebellious religious adolescent” for this, but I humbly submit that moral sovereignty in fact lies in the individual. I guess I always thought that that was the basic principle of “liberalism.” I also had the idea that some organization’s First Principle was “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Which, well, seems kind of individualist to me.

But maybe I’m wrong?

166-67 (Church)

Red flag

The original Humanist Manifesto, signed by thirty men and no women,[10] was written without benefit of these new, transformational insights into the nature of our shared being. ...

With its subtle interplay between reason, science, and resistance to idolatry, the humanist tradition continues to change and grow. As long as we remain true to the humanist spirit, that growth will continue. We will respond to the forces of retrenchment by tapping the transformational power of new models of interdependence and community, which are unfolding in the writings of feminist and liberation theologians, and we will continue to encourage scientific exploration into the nature of our shared being.

In traditional religious language, we have moved from defending (or even attacking) the bastions of the Kingdom of God. Today, our challenge is to codevelop what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community”—the work of love being shared and justice being done in a realm where that which is greater than all is present in each. In that sense, the Beloved Community may also be “the commonwealth of God.”

With this passage, the alienation of ordinary humanists is complete. It’s now clear that, to Forrest Church, any humanism that does not adopt his favorite “new, transformational insights into the nature of our shared being” (and it’s clear that he’s talking about the outlandish “sovereignty lies in the corporate body” stuff!) is illegitimate. Seeing Forrest Church lay claim to “the humanist spirit” and declare that he and his own will “respond to the forces of retrenchment” (presumably, that’s those of us who consider ourselves non-”transformed” humanists) is truly ominous. “Retrenchment” is a war word, and it’s very frightening in this context.

Then we’re back to our usual program—Church preaching “God” at us. Once again, I’m left wondering why in the world he thought these were appropriate points to make in a chapter that was supposedly written to explicate the “Humanist teachings” Source.

10. Mind and Spirit

169 (Buehrens)

Yellow flag

[The chapter begins:]

We only know two things for certain: “I am,” and “I will die.” Religion is our response. Whether it is spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, inherited or chosen, we all have a religion of some sort or another, for religion is not merely a matter of belief or affiliation. It is a matter of how we choose to live.

As a philosophical aside, the claim in the first sentence is fairly clearly false. First, David Hume demonstrated that Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is not a valid argument. Second, “I will die” is a prediction of the future—and quite clearly any such prediction is to some degree uncertain. (How do you be absolutely positive that you’re not going to live forever?) Finally, I submit that “The universe exists” is something that we can know for certain, notwithstanding Buehrens’ statement. These points are not particularly damning criticisms, but starting a chapter with a philosophical howler seems to me a bad idea.

The remainder of the above passage merely states a liberal idea of the term “religion,” similar to the definition Church provided back on page 5. The content of Buehrens’ definition isn’t particularly objectionable, but it would be nice if (1) he didn’t state it so dogmatically and (2) he gave readers even the tiniest hint that not all UUs agree with him on this point. The implication from this passage is that people who do not see “religion” this way are not welcome in UUism.

And, of course, Buehrens has entirely failed to stick consistently to the above definition of “religion.” On p. 110, he warns against “avoiding religion altogether,” which on the above terms is impossible. In his horrible paragraph on p. 103, he mentions “sweep[ing] the demon of religion out the door,” which has the same logical problem. Later in that paragraph, he blasts “zealous atheism” as a “demonic pseudoreligion”; with this chapter’s broad idea of “religion,” how can any worldview be “pseudo”? (Every perspective on the world is a full-fledged “religion” on the above terms.) Back on p. 19, he describes his father, who “had little use for religion at all.” And finally, on pp. 114-115, Buehrens trumpets the “dynamic religious pluralism” of UUism but conveniently forgets to mention any humanist or other nontheist perspective (or any kind of Earth-centered spirituality).

The problem is not that Buehrens and Church describe liberal definitions of certain terminology (“religion,” “faith,” “God,” etc.) in this book, but that (1) they abandon these definitions when doing so helps to denigrate their enemies and (2) they otherwise give the distinct impression that the liberal definitions are the only ones allowed in UUism. This is distressing.

169-70 (Buehrens)

Yellow flag

Without an ability to test the spirit by the mind and the mind by the spirit, we run the risk of worshiping a part for the whole. That is the definition of idolatry. In the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister Sara Moores Campbell, “Bringing ourselves into balance requires that we release the faculties of feeling, intuition, and imagination from the pejorative rank as ‘emotionalism,’ ‘mysticism,’ and ‘fantasy’ and integrate them with rational inquiry in the search for the real and the true.” .…

A staunch religious humanist like Khoren Arisian, minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and former leader of the Ethical Culture Center in New York City, finds most “God-talk” something he can live without. His religious response to life is rooted in nature and the human mind. But Arisian does not hesitate to speak about spirit and spirituality. “Spirituality,” he writes, “is a potential aspect of all life. It’s not a given quantum, nor is it to be found in exclusive places. We bring it into existence through the relational dimensions of our being. The spirit when it’s unlocked moves us toward others [and] helps us feel responsible for the well-being of the world.”

Buehrens’ perspective on idolatry, like Church’s, purports to be an even-handed one: he’s concerned about the “ability to test the spirit by the mind and the mind by the spirit.” And yet every single actual example given by either minister is of the “too much mind” variety—case in point, the one Buehrens quotes from Rev. Campbell. The message is exceedingly clear which kind of “idolatry” the authors are in fact concerned about.

Buehrens (unlike Church) does make one passing reference to the “too much spirit” side, on p. 173. He admits that some unspecified “religious responses ... are more fearful and self-serving than they are faithful and inclusive. This is why we do well to keep our rational and critical faculties in play.” He then quotes four (groan) Biblical passages to buttress this point. But Buehrens mentions no examples of deficient “responses” and quotes no critic—other than that great secularist tome, the Bible—of overzealous “spirit.” He also makes no attempt to explain how we are to discern whether a given “religious response[ ]” is a bad one (“fearful and self-serving”) or a good one that’s therefore off-limits to our “rational and critical faculties.”

What if I think that there are some “spiritual” ideas concerning the world that aren’t self-evidently “fearful or self-serving” (say, astrology, Calvinist theology, the Free Will Defense) but are still very likely wrong? Is that idea an idolatry of the mind? Every actual exercise of “rational and critical faculties” mentioned in this book is attacked ruthlessly by the authors—except, of course, for the authors’ own arrogant out-of-hand dismissals of conservative theologies. “Freedom for me, but not for thee.”

The second paragraph above is noteworthy because it, 169 pages in, is the very first explicit mention of a real-life nonbeliever in this entire book that isn’t an insult. (There is exactly one more later on: on p. 189, Church describes his father as a “secular humanist” and notes how the elder Church revered “a star-studded summer sky.”) But apparently the only reason Rev. Arisian merits mention here is because he values the idea of “spirituality.” (Same thing with the elder Mr. Church and appreciation of nature.) Apparently there’s nothing else relevant or worthwhile about Khoren Arisian.[11]

172 (Buehrens)

Red flag

Like most Unitarian Universalists, I respect those whose spirituality may differ from my own, convinced that what we have in common is likely to be far more important than what may divide us.

A great scholar of world religions, the late Mircea Eliade, based his lifelong study of the wide variety of human religious responses on a similar conviction. In an interview just before he died, he spoke about the need for a “new humanism,” grounded not just in reason (where each human mind says, “I am, and I believe—or disbelieve”), but in the recognition of a universal spirituality, infinitely various in its creativity.

The first paragraph, as applied to “most Unitarian Universalists,” is a correct and generally laudable statement of a common UU tenet. I would say it’s solidly humanist, too—as the ancient Roman humanist Terentius put it, “I am a human being, so nothing human is alien to me.”

But it’s a far different thing to read such a claim of “respect” from Rev. John A. Buehrens. In this book alone, Buehrens has thus far:
  • Condemned people who “avoid [the] uncomfortable ideas” of “what God might be asking of us ... by focusing on what we might require—in a faith, a cause, a tradition, a God.”

  • Approvingly [mis]quoted Dag Hammarskjöld to the effect that “we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated [sic] by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

  • Declared that people who “try” to live “religion-free” are “too often ... only practic[ing] a form of self-delusion.”

  • Informed those selfsame people, on two separate occasions, that “Nature abhors a vacuum(,) and so does the human spirit.”

  • Approvingly quoted obtuse conservative-Christian apologist C.S. Lewis to the effect that “the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything.”

  • Quoted the Bible at atheists to demonstrate that we are “making room for an evil spirit worse than” religion.

  • Declared “[z]ealous atheism” a “demonic pseudoreligion.”

  • Warned that “avoiding religion altogether” (a self-contradictory phrase on Buehrens’ terms) leads to “spiritual isolation.”

  • Berated non-religious parents for “rais[ing] their children in a spiritual vacuum.”

  • Alleged that such children are more likely to join cults, follow gurus and be “lure[d]” by “isms.”

  • Dismissed the Problem of Evil by quoting a cartoon and concluding that “[t]he something missing” identified by Problem-conscious people “may be you, it may be me,” but it can’t be “God.”

  • Alleged that our ability to treat our neighbors with respect “depends on the depth of our ability ... to love the Ground of Being with all of one’s heart and mind and strength.”

  • Consistently referred to non-believers in derogatory terms and leveled ad hominem attacks at us and our beliefs.
It is awfully trying to see a man who clearly has nothing but bile for me and for others who hold similar (non-)beliefs claim that he “respect[s] those whose spirituality may differ from [his] own.” He does nothing of the kind.

Buehrens’ call, in Eliade’s mouth, for a “new humanism” is more than a little troubling in light of the fact that he has not said a word about the “old” humanism in this entire chapter, or indeed the entire book. To have both authors, now, implicitly calling for an overthrow of what most self-declared humanists (both inside UUism and outside) consider to be “humanism” is a menacing prospect. And surely this trope can do nothing but alienate nonbelieving readers of A Chosen Faith who are reading this book to satisfy their curiosity about UUism.

I find it painfully ironic that the two chapters of this book that are ostensibly based on the “humanist teachings” Source are in fact severe attacks on humanism. What nerve.

173-74 (Buehrens)

Red flag

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide. It acknowledges that it is not equal to the whole of truth, that it legislates and tyrannizes over a village of God’s empire, but it is not the universal immutable law. Every influx of atheism, of skepticism, is thus made useful as a mercury pill assaulting and removing a diseased religion, and making way for truth.”

This image is a good encapsulation of A Chosen Faith’s perspective on atheism, skepticism, humanism and nonbelief writ large. Such philosophies, according to this book, are “useful ... mercury pill[s]” when they are used to “assault[ ] and remov[e] a diseased religion”—i.e., one of the religions that the authors happen to dislike—but once those diseases are gone, the “mercury pill[s]” are useless, if not harmful, and should therefore be discarded. Take too much “mercury,” and you’re in big trouble: you’ll become a spiritual “vacuum,” a “demonic pseudoreligionist,” your children will join cults, etc. It’s hard to imagine a “compliment” more backhanded than this one: mercury, as both Emerson and Buehrens clearly understand, is a potent poison.

I have read plenty of wonderful sermons and essays from Unitarian Universalists describing the vast power and meaning that humanism, atheism, science, reason, etc., have to those of us who value them deeply—and how much those (a)theologies have been a rich part of Unitarian Universalist history and community. Some of these pieces have come from ministers, some from laypeople; and while most of them have been written by nonbelievers themselves, a notable number have been written by UU Christians, theists, pagans and others. It is these latter sentiments that make me feel that my fellow UUs value me and my perspectives.

The insults and backhanded “praise” from A Chosen Faith have precisely the opposite effect.

I would also contend that the religion described in this book is “afraid of science,” as Emerson put it. Surely it’s hard to ignore the fact that this book’s treatment of science consists almost entirely of repeated dire warnings of the threat science poses to all that is right, beautiful and true; what can one call that attitude but “afraid”? Moreover, witness Church’s lamentable misrepresentation of Alan Lightman in the previous chapter, or his ominous pronouncement that “Whenever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as are the gods we pride ourselves for disbelieving” in the next one: am I crazy to see fear all over those tactics?

169-70 (Buehrens)

Yellow flag

As our nuclear age and our ecological crisis so painfully demonstrate, without a larger sense of purpose and relatedness, the products of science and the human mind can themselves become dangerous idols.

The same trope continues. The only thing worth noting about science, reason, atheism, etc., is how dangerous they are if they’re taken too far.

I can think of an enormous number of examples of terrible things that have come from “spirit” being championed at the expense of “mind.” Apparently Church and Buehrens can’t think of a single one, considering that they never name any.

I would also argue that “a larger sense of purpose and relatedness,” in this particular context, is a perfectly rational notion. It’s irrational to nuke the human race off the face of the earth. It’s irrational to degrade the environment to the extent that we cause famine, disease and death. It is anything but clear, especially to a humanist, that the problems of “our nuclear age and our ecological crisis” will be solved by relying less on “mind”!

The main problem with “spirit” is that there are several extremely destructive (and, in many cases, almost certainly false) “spiritual” ideas held by large numbers of people. Buehrens’ and Church’s preferred “spiritualities” are likely less dangerous, but the authors give us no explanation of how we are to tell the good “spirit” from the bad—‘My faith is better [more ‘authentic’] than Pat Robertson’s faith’ is about as well as they can do. The tactics I favor (chiefly reason and science), they denigrate as idolatry.

So how, pray tell, can we ever “test the spirit by the mind”? When I’ve tried to do that, Buehrens has called me a spiritual “vacuum.”

Next section (Chapters 11-12)

4: The name of the document is A Humanist Manifesto. It’s a minor point—though it is notable that Church prevents his readers from noticing the humility of the actual article ("A") that the first Manifesto's authors chose. In any case, this comes off as sloppy at best to me. How interested is Church, really, in understanding the perspectives of humanists?

5: Church does mention Humanist Manifesto II in passing on p. 158—and gets both its title (there’s still no “The” in Humanist Manifesto II) and its publication date (he’s off by three years) wrong. This seems awfully disrespectful to me. If I wrote a book criticizing “The Bibble,” wouldn’t that raise some hackles?

6: Call me a pedant, but in German one capitalizes the nouns and begins the adjectives with lower-case letters. Church gets this precisely backwards. Plus, “Humanismus,” like every “ismus” noun, is masculine, not feminine—so that the proper nominative formulation is “deutscher Humanismus,” not “Deutsche humanismus.” Do these elementary blunders constitute sufficient grounds to question the reliability of whatever source Church (or Adams?) is basing this allegation upon?

7: I think the resort to “a transrational realm” of this kind sells out reason entirely.

Church, for example, declares on pp. 6-7 of A Chosen Faith that the orthodox Christian beliefs about Jesus’ life and resurrection are untenable because they are “dogmatic propositions of faith. They can be confirmed by faith alone, and a mighty leap of faith at that, for they stand in direct contradiction to nature’s laws.” The orthodox Christian response to that (thoroughly rationalist) argument will be to defend her use of “faith,” of course, as the very epitome of a “transrational realm”—but Church conveniently forgets to care. Clearly he grants himself the right either to defend “transrational” beliefs to the death (as on pp. 162-63) or to dismiss them haughtily as “dogma” (on pp. 6-7), according to his whim. Considering the nice glass house he builds for himself, he sure seems to like throwing rocks at me.

8: Here’s the original text from which Church took this—from a Lightman short story called “Conversations with Papa Joe”:

“One thing I have to tell you about modern science,” I finally said, “is that it has galloped off into territories far beyond where we can follow with our bodies. What we experience directly with our human senses is only a small fraction of the world around us. But we very badly want to see what our eyes cannot see, and hear what our ears cannot hear. We want to know about places beyond the stars and about happenings before the earth was formed. So we’ve built enormous machines that dissect the insides of atoms. We’ve built telescopes that peer out to unimaginable distances and instruments that record colors invisible to the human eye. Our theorists have worked out equations to describe the beginning of time.

“A lot of what we now believe about the world has come to us only by looking at the readings of our instruments and trusting the logic of our calculations. Of all people today, I think scientists have the deepest faith in the unseen world. The greater the scientist, the deeper his faith.”

(Emphasis added.) Lightman’s point obviously has nothing to do with any “transrational realm,” and the “faith” mentioned above is a fundamentally different thing (it comes solely from the evidence gathered by those instruments—i.e., it’s entirely rational!) than the “faith” accepted by the conventionally religious and rejected by the nonbelievers Church is assailing. What we have here is our old friend, the “faith” bait-and-switch.

Worse, Forrest Church surely knows perfectly well that the above sentiments have nothing whatever to do with a “transrational realm” or with his nasty slurs at skeptics. Church made his point only by eliminating the (thoroughly rational and ordinary-science) context of the quoted sentences. His use of Lightman is atrociously dishonest.

The episode serves as a warning to any atheist or skeptic who has a notion that she can use words like “faith” and “God” without having them misunderstood (or, as here, knowingly misrepresented). As Einstein and Hawking have learned, when nonbelievers (and especially scientists) speak in traditionally religious terms, they open the door for enormous lies about what they actually believe.

9: If only A Chosen Faith’s authors actually followed Tillich’s advice! (He’s got some terrific points, if you read his remarks in their actual context.) There are plenty of “words” that intelligent and thoughtful people have spoken “against religion,” per se, in human history, but Church and Buehrens never see fit to take any of them seriously—preferring instead to lambaste those skeptical speakers.

And do I need to point out that (once again) “religion,” as Tillich uses it, clearly does not mean “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”? (Again, read the original!) If that’s really what Church and his fans think when they see the word “religion,” aren’t they forced to conclude that what Tillich is saying is simply nutty?

10: I note that neither Church nor Buehrens takes any potshots at the Bible or its authors anywhere in A Chosen Faith. The New Testament was almost certainly written by “no women,” too (goodness knows about the Old), but Church and Buehrens neglect to mention that. This book is open season on humanists.

11: Rev. Arisian is one of the most prominent and eloquent voices of UU humanism in its history. That this book only mentions him to show that he’s okay with “spirituality” (rather than quoting any of the myriad wonder-ful things he has written that are centrally relevant to the “Humanist teachings” Source) is just insulting.
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