Sunday, October 20, 2013

Positively Humanist

There has been much talk lately, or perhaps there always has been, of atheism, religion and atheism as a religion.  There are various arguments for why it is and why it isn't and of course I have my own view, which I will share.  I would also like to outline the relationship between atheism and Humanism.

Simply put, atheism is the absence of belief in the gods.  That's it.  If you don't believe in the gods, you are an atheist.  The word-cell "a" indicates negation or opposition.  The root "theos" refers to god(s).  Thus a-theism indicates non-belief in the gods.  It doesn't seem that there would be anything else to add, but interestingly there are a few varieties of atheism.  Those who don't profess to know for certain, or even assert that certainty is impossible, are agnostics.  One can still hold the opinion that the gods do not exist, an agnostic atheist.  This is similar to the weak atheist, who does not believe that the gods exist, as opposed to the stong atheist who believes that the gods do not exist.  Yes, it is subtle, go ahead and re-read the preceding sentence. Strong atheists are also called gnostic atheists.  "Gnosis" from the root meaning knowledge.  They know the gods don't exist (whether they are right or not is beside the point).

Some theists are so strong in their assertion that the gods are self-evident, that they respond to skepticism as if it were simply another variety of faith.  If you are open-minded, let's just ignore what the subject of belief/skepticism is for the moment since it is typically such a contentious topic, the claim doesn't seem outrageous.  If you start with no knowledge or opinion on any subject, you consider it and then decide one way or another, isn't that an exercise of faith?

But, once you get past the shoulder-shrugging "it takes as much faith to be an atheist/evolutionist/round-earther" phase, the premise starts to fall apart.  Firstly, the method by which religious belief and rational opinion are formed are normally quite different.  Commonalities exist in the weight given to personal experience and testimony of others and the branch of theology called apologetics even apes many of the conventions in formal logic and secular philosophy.

As a methodology, rationalism thrives on doubt.  The most carefully constructed hypotheses, the most meticulously worded conjecture, the most painstakingly crafted publications are one and all subjected to criticism.  And this is not the shame of the method, but its glory.  Repeated logical assaults upon a sound theory do it no harm, but greatly augment the confidence we can place in them.  Similarly, erroneous teachings can be demonstrated as folly and dispensed with.  This is how the aether, celestial spheres, miasma, humors, four elements and many other scientific or quasi-scientific answers have been replaced by explanations that better fit the observable data.

The greatest gulf between religion and rationalism is when it comes to factual claims.  Scientific knowledge is accumulated piecemeal in jumps and starts.  Claims are fronted, debunked, argued, modified and eventually become verified so repeatedly that everyone assumes they were always evident.  Contrast that with religion, which typically attempts to explain the entire Cosmos, albeit with rather broad strokes, in one text or an oral tradition that can be conveyed in a mere few hours or days. But, the concise nature, not to mention the accuracy, of this narrative is only possible because of strong taboos against questioning it. Religions are famous for the brutality with which they attack those contradicting dogma.  Human nature being what it is, people can be tribal, fractious and even petty.  Scientists are no exception and one's life work may involve an emotional investment similar to religious faith.  But,that said, when the system is working as intended, the scientist is expected to reveal his discovery and the rest of the community is supposed to attack the veracity of its claims.  If it is true, then its truth will become more evident by being tested rather than being eroded by criticism.

So, if atheists typically arrive at their stance via reason and theists at least occasionally do, does atheism constitute a non-theistic religion?  I would say, no.  I would regard atheism as a philosophy, or more properly, merely one facet of a broader philosophy or system of belief.  Atheism, monotheism and polytheism are the result of a divine accounting.  One numbers the gods and falls into one of these categories depending upon his answer.  But, that hardly constitutes enough information to be regarded as a religion.

Specific religions typically exhibit a somewhat internally consistent character with regard to their stance toward ethics, social responsibility, nature and origin of the cosmos and the nature of the gods.  Two religions may be radically different from one another even though they may agree on the number of the gods. One would not consider Norse and Greek pagans as practicing the same religion.  Nor do modern Christians, Jews and Muslims consider themselves as all belonging to the same faith, even though they agree on Monotheism (and some even acknowledge worship of the same god).

Similarly, wildly divergent philosophies can emerge from atheism.  One of the favorite accusations theists hurl at atheists is that they believe in "nothing".  No valid basis for morality, ethics or values exists without the gods.  This might actually be true of nihilists.  But, it is not true of Humanists.  The differences between the two systems are even more pronounced than the contrasts between theistic faiths even though nihilists and Humanists may agree on the mythical status of the gods.

But, the most significant reason for my personal view labeling Humanism as a religion and atheism as not a religion is this;  religions express a perspective on the nature of ethics, the supernatural and the cosmos.  Atheism does not make positive statements about these, rather it make a statement about what one does not believe.  If queried about hobbies, few people would relate that they do not collect stamps, do not fly kites or do not belong to a fantasy football league.  In short, atheism is a logically negative stance.  Not negative in that it is unpleasant, incorrect or harmful, but negative in that it does not make a statement on what one does believe, but on what one does not believe.

In order to answer a query on one's faith with useful information, I answer with "Humanism" not "atheism".  Humanism makes a statement on what my values, beliefs and ethics are, not what they are not.  Most people who embrace the label "Humanist" are also atheists.  Humanists brooking some belief in the supernatural typically append something to the term Humanist, Religious Humanist or some such construct.  But, it does not follow that all atheists are Humanist.  Rather Humanists are a subset of atheists.  I do not deny my atheism if asked and it typically comes up pretty early in my explanation of Humanism if I'm asked details of it.  But, when I am asked what I am, I reply with what I am, not with what I am not.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


While I have written several posts providing justification of Humanism as a religion, even while it disavows supernaturalism, I haven't provided much in the way of motivation.  In other words, even if the philosophical, social and/or legal arguments for such a congregation being regarded as a religious community can hold up, why would such a body want to be regarded as a religious organization?

There are a variety of advantages inherent in status as an explicitly religious organization.  We might as well get this one out of the way first.  Money.  More specifically, taxes.  Religious organizations get the benefit of operating without having to pay income tax on the revenue they generate.  Most such communities operate on a small budget or on a budget in which expenses to service the community are quite close in proportion to revenue generated.  I won't deny that there is potential for abuse, but then, it is up to the congregation to demand governance and accounting such that they are aware of how much money is flowing through the organization and how it is being employed.  Fund-raising, accounting and administrative functions are vital for the effective operation of any organization.  But, it would deeply sadden me to see a temple calling itself Humanist that erects ostentatious, palatial halls and has paid ministers driving luxury vehicles. Of course, the churches, synagogues, temples and even telecommunications-based ministries that are currently recognized as religious and are not obligated to pay any tax on their income run the gamut.  Some are attended to by clerics who live Spartan existences having literally taken an oath of poverty.  Others enjoy all the epicurean pleasures imaginable. But, whatever one's intention, no taxes means more capital to apply toward the temple's goals.

The temple would only be one part of the tax issue, of course.  The contributions to the temple, as long as it is recognized as such by the state, constitute a tax-deductible donation to charity.  This means that congregants (or others who provide financial support for the temple) will pay a bit less in tax to the state because of their donations to the temple.  This makes the fund-raising for the religious community a positive-sum game.  Rather than the temple accepting X dollars for a given project from the congregation and that congregation then having X less as their aggregate, disposable income; the temple can collect X, but the congregation will be out somewhat less than X, since their contributions will not count as taxable income.  Whether our money is better off in the hands of citizens and churches or in the coffers of the government is a question to be answered by your political views, but that is the basic outline.

Another incentive for an explicitly religious organization is protection against discrimination.  While civility protects freedom of conscience and keeps people from savaging others for philosophical differences, some authorities can be pedantic about wording.  Since atheism or utilitarianism are philosophical stances, not religious ones, one may be discriminated against for employment, child custody or in a variety of other ways.  Thus, truthfully claiming that these are facets of belief that are present in one's religion may go far in protecting a Humanist from reprehensible, but possibly legal, prejudice.

Ceremonial recognition for clerics is also an important legal aspect.  There are areas into which access is denied for most people, for example prisoners of the state may only communicate with their attorney(s) and patients in Intensive Care Units may only be visited by immediate family.  However, in both these cases, specific exemptions are made for ordained religious personnel.  As it stands, should a Humanist be imprisoned or gravely ill, no matter how devoted to Reason and Ethics he may be or how much comfort or good counsel he might receive from a mentor in the Community of Reason, this person would not be admitted to see him.

Nor are those the only consequences of the special access of clerics.  When serving in the capacity of a spiritual or ethical adviser, clerics are virtually immune to subpoenas from the state.  They enjoy confidentiality similar to that of spousal privilege.  This is legally more secure than the secrecy of medical or financial records, as those can be opened by court orders.  The "sanctity of the confessional" has been repeatedly upheld by courts.  Humanist friends, mentors, advisers or philosophers can claim no such privilege.  However, if the organization is structured as religious and the advisor has previously been ordained, such protection would apply.

Such official recognition of the authority of clergy can touch other places in law and society as well.  The gravity and solemnity surrounding major life events  are often presided over by clergy who are recognized by the religious community as being appropriate commentators on the philosophical, ethical and emotional ramifications of births, maturity, deaths and marriage.  But, as significant as the first three can be, the last also constitutes a legal contract.  It would be reasonable for the state to hold a monopoly on presiding over the marital contract, while leaving the religious sacrament to be handled as each faith wishes (many nations do this and it seems to function quite well).  However, the United States has chosen to recognize religious marriages conducted by ordained ministers as validly forming a binding legal marriage contract.  I see no problem with this, as marriage has long been a religious sacrament as well as legal contract, however if the privilege is to be extended to one sect, it must be extended to all.  If you don't consider yourself as belonging to a religious sect, you'd better be a judge.  But, many people don't want to be married by a judge.  The transition from an independent adult to the center and/or progenitor of a family is a profound personal and social event.  They don't want a bureaucrat from the state to preside over it and they certainly don't want an advocate for a disparate faith to do so. 

Another opportunity for service is in ministering to people in jobs exposing them to extraordinary levels of stress.  Police, firefighters and members of the armed forces stand as a bulwark, protecting safe, prosperous, free society from crime, war and chaos.  As such, many rightly take great pride in their work and believe in their mission.  Even so, they often witness first hand the worst in society and the cruel random destruction of the world we live in.  It is entirely appropriate to have medical and psychological resources available to these workers, but such care is not always what they need.  Sometimes they need to share their experiences or concerns with someone who has an understanding of what it is that they face.  Chaplains often fill that role and are often ministers who currently serve or have once served in the force they council.  There are those who criticize tax dollars paying such personnel, but I support their mission.  Unfortunately non-theistic personnel are often not comfortable confiding in theistic clerics.  Sadly, this issue was recently addressed at the national level and our legislators specifically denied Humanists entry into the Chaplain Corps.

There is the analogy, often jokingly made, in the Community of Reason that organizing atheists is like herding cats.  Indeed, the characteristic independence and indifference to outside approval demonstrated by felines are typically regarded as virtues there, while conformity and obedience are more often prized by the more traditional faiths.  But, I hope that I have conveyed that there is much to be gained by working together.  We should not shun those systems, mechanisms and models that work, simply because we disagree with the ideologies or philosophies of those who have previously used them. 

Churches and Taxation
IRS Information about 501(c)3s
Humanists Refused Admission to Chaplain Corps
Seal of the Confessional
Seal of the Confessional(2)

Humanism and Jet Engines

Many years ago my father told me of the story behind the invention of the gas-turbine engine.  Forgive me if it is lacking in certain details or if some element of it is not technically accurate. But, here it is:

The reciprocating-piston, internal combustion engine had been around for quite some time and was the constant object of various scientists' and engineers' attempts to improve it.  Because the IC engine takes in air for the oxygen it needs, some people thought making more air available to the engine would allow for more power via more efficient combustion.  Various types of fans and compressors were tinkered with as were methods for powering these.  Superchargers, or blowers, used mechanical linkages to the IC engine to power their fan blades and are still used in some vehicles today.  But, the engineers in this story had another idea.

Rather than use some of the available engine power to run the compressor our hero noticed the force with which the engine constantly ejected exhaust into the air.  If this force could be harnessed, the compressor could be powered for free (ok, not totally free, but pretty cheaply).  Thus, the new system that emerged was an internal combustion, piston-driven engine that captured the force from its exhaust to force-feed itself air. The fan-like structure that turned airflow (exhaust) into mechanical power was called a "turbine", so the turbine/compressor system that enhanced the IC engine was named the "turbo-charger".  Nor was this innovation a flash in the pan.  Many vehicles, from sports cars to fire trucks, use turbocharged engines today.  But, there was something else.

Someone working on the project started thinking about the turbo-charged system as a whole.  The energy present in the exhaust, the efficiency with which turbines converted that into compressed air for the front of the system, the explosive force of the burning fuel/air mixture.  There was a part of the system that seemed like it might not be necessary.  Amazingly enough, this part was . . . the internal combustion engine!

As it turns out, a jet-engine in operation produces more than enough exhaust force to power its compressors, feeding itself adequate air to maintain combustion in its central chamber which, compared to the complication of pistons, crank-shafts, cams, and other parts present in an IC engine, seems pretty empty. In fact, a jet-engine of comparable size and weight can outperform an IC engine by a considerable factor, making it a popular choice in aircraft, where efficient power to weight ratios are in high demand.

Of course, this was outrageous.  The entire purpose of the turbo-charger was to increase the efficiency and power of the IC engine, not get rid of it.  While this view is accurate, it is also narrow.  The purpose of the system as a whole is to turn the energy of combustible fuel into mechanical power.  The internal combustion engine did that.  But, if you value space, weight efficiency and raw power over fuel usage and affordability, the gas-turbine does it better.

While this is a true story, it also functions well as a parable.  Religions are social engines that consume resources from society, but also provide for certain needs.  I've addressed the issue before, but people get a lot of things from religion in exchange for their time, money and advocacy.  A sense of social connection, advocacy for social justice, a mechanism for moral instruction of children, a forum dedicated to contemplating moral questions or issues for adults, the construction of an ethical ideal or exemplar to serve as a goal for people to strive towards in becoming better citizens, parents, children, friends or just generally better human beings. A place to wrestle with the question, "what makes a better human being better?".

And at the center of all this activity are the gods, to whose service all the previous are dedicated.  As an engine drives a car, so does worship of the gods drive religion.  Religion provides all of the aforementioned advantages in either direct or indirect service of the gods.  But, what if those ends were achieved by means that mirrored many of the superficial aspects of traditional piety while dispensing with superstition?  Critics might warn against a "spiritual void" the organization would leave if it ejected the gods.  But in our engineering parable above, it is in the void of the jet engine, the place once inhabited by the less advanced internal combustion power plant, that the reactions take place making the system so much more powerful. 

I am not against all religion.  It may even be that our species' social development has gone through a period in which superstition was advantageous.  Or perhaps it was inevitable, given our ability to think abstractly, make connections or detect patterns . . . sometimes even where they don't actually exist.  But, I think the time for that has passed.  Most people don't mill their own flour on stones powered by hand-cranks.  Nor do we travel by horseback or wind-powered boats.  While there will always be those who cling to old ways for whatever reason, most will recognize the value of innovation.  There are emotional, social and practical needs served by religiosity and religious organizations and we should recognize that.  But, we should also recognize that much of what we call religion has become outdated or been debunked.  We need a new kind of faith, one fitting for the 21st century, not the 12th.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Humanist Defense of Church -- Part Three

The Philosophical Defense:  In the previous two posts, I expressed my Humanist Defense of Church using arguments from precedent and sociology.  In this post, I'll make a philosophical argument.  I also think this is a good time to introduce the Creed.

In order for the Temple to function as a coherent entity, there are a few founding documents that are necessary.  While it seems that many religious organizations are headed by a leader who exercises total control, this is not universal.  Many church leaders have a great deal of responsibility for resources, facilities and programs, but are limited in their ability to exploit this to their personal advantage.  These extremes can be illustrated by a Catholic church, administrated by a priest, who is accountable to his local superiors in the diocese, but who has also taken an oath of poverty and lives on a quite modest salary, though most of his financial needs are met outside of his pay.  At the other end of the spectrum, a pastor of an independent church may not be accountable to anyone outside the church.  All donations would be accrued tax-free to the Church as a distinct financial entity, a 501c3.  But, the pastor can also act as the sole executor of this entity.  Though he may not technically "own" the money it accumulates (except for what is explicitly given him as his salary and is taxed as to any other private citizen) he can use it to buy buildings, houses, jewelry, luxury automobiles or whatever else he wants . . . "for the church".  As Humanists generally find excess and corruption distasteful and have a great deal of affection for democratic rule, a constitution would be one of these essential founding documents.  But, that's not really what this post is about.

The document I really want to share with you, and which is central to my philosophical defense, is the Creed.  A creed is a statement of belief.  The existence of a creed would greatly facilitate the growth of the Temple as it succinctly states what the community holds as true with regard to morality, supernaturalism and values.  A person taking great issue with some point of the Creed would very quickly rule themselves out as a potential congregant.  Those who feel strongly about the community will find the document handy for expressing to others, interested in joining or just curious, just what it is that we believe.  And, finally, if the legitimacy of the Temple is challenged, we will have an explicit statement of belief that every member of the Temple can point to and affirm belief in. 

The Creed might look something like this:
We hold that human beings, as self-aware entities imbued with reason, have moral agency. It is incumbent upon individuals to bear the responsibility for the moral choices that they make. To this end, both introspection and discussion are constructive and means by which rational ethical structures may be erected.

We hold that human life, freedom and dignity are good.  It follows that what promotes, protects and preserves these is also good.  The corollary to this is that which denies, destroys and degrades these is evil.  Where tension arises between these, reason must guide moral choices, informed by the principle that all individual human beings' interests are equal.
We hold sacred the free expression of values and beliefs. Abridgement of expression is an affront to human freedom and should only be tolerated when such expression is likely to cause net, manifest harm. Further, the exchange and examination of ideas provides the crucible in which rational, practicable ethics can be forged.
We hold that the evidence for an afterlife, supernatural entities and spiritual mechanisms is insufficient and inconsistent. If such exist, they are too remote, subtle or inscrutable to take into account. We disregard such possible factors, weighing moral choices instead on their observable or reasonably projected impact on human beings.
We hold the conscience in high regard and object to legal, societal or cultural pressures to make false affirmations of belief. Such coercion is the corollary of and is as detestable as preventing the expression of positive belief. Nor shall we insist on professions of faith from potential members, fellows or any other person. Respectful, peaceful dissent is as constructive as consensus.
We hold that the individual only is subject to judgment. While statistics and demographics may demonstrate disparate propensities in various populations, variations within such groups typically far outstrips those between populations. Thus it is only rational to assess individuals according to their virtues and foibles. Trivial aspects, like gender, race, nationality, ethnicity and sexuality are irrelevant to moral judgment.
We hold to the primacy of reason for revelation of the physical world. Objective observation, mathematical quantification of raw data and logical operations on such data to produce useful information is the most reliable mechanism for producing viable theories on the nature of the Universe and its contents. Such theories, once synthesized, should be subjected to scrutiny in order to be validated or debunked. Any experiments, computations, observations or other support for the theory should be replicable, else the theory remain mere conjecture. In this manner is aggregate human knowledge grown, enhanced and purged of error.
We hold that it is tyranny for the state to regulate the freedom of expression and association of its citizens. A state secular, but tolerant of all peaceful, law-abiding faiths is ideal. Where government interacts with members of any single faith, its interaction should be no more onerous or preferential than that with members of any other faith. Thus, we assert our right to any and all privileges granted by the state to any faith to the Community of Reason as well. Similarly, we claim all protections and exemptions to ourselves as are granted to any other faith community. This includes but is not limited to; legal recognition of marriages performed by our priestesses and priests, legally protected confidentiality between our laity and clergy acting in the capacity of spiritual or ethical advisers, legal protection from termination or workplace hostility based on our religious convictions, access of our clergy to restricted areas regularly accessible to clergy (Intensive Care Units, persons incarcerated by the State, etc.), taxation of our incorporated communities' income as any other church, temple, synagogue and tax treatment of any donations to them as such.

Simple enough?  Now, most of the Creed is common sense, or can be derived from the foundational values of reverence for human life, freedom and dignity.  But, here's where we get to the meat of my philosophical argument.  How do we come to value life, freedom and dignity?  That murder is wrong flows from the logical fact that it destroys life.  That rape and slavery are wrong stems from their violation of freedom and dignity.  But, how do we prove, empirically that life is better than death?  How do we demonstrate that pleasure is better than suffering?  There is no instrument or formula that can show that dignity and peace are superior to degradation and suffering.  We take these values as axiomatic.  While we believe them with all our beings, we cannot prove that they are valid.  We take them on faith. 

While you might think that superstition or the gods are the central characteristics of religion, I assert that the truest commonality is Faith.  The gods are diverse, numerous, facets of the same being, changing, eternal, destined for destruction, unreachable or our destiny.  Traditions make all manner of contradictory claims about the gods.  But, all religions require that their adherents believe something and meticulously tracing all doctrine back to the source, there will come an assertion that cannot be further divided and seems to have no argument supporting it.  This atom of belief must be accepted sans evidence or rejected outright.  The association of Faith with religion has so much cognitive force behind it that we even refer to religions with the word "Faith".  If that doesn't describe a religion, I don't know what does.

A Humanist Defense of Church -- Part Two

The Sociological Argument:  In my last post defending a Humanist organization explicitly presenting itself as a religious community, I presented the argument from precedent.  Here I present the Sociological argument.

Organizations, whether they be political, business entities, social or religious don't simply exist.  They also feature activity.  Whatever the hierarchical, financial or legal nature of their establishment, many would argue that their true nature is better discerned by what they do than by what they call themselves. 

So how would the Lake Area Humanist Temple be organized and what would it do?  Well, the founding of the Temple would consist of people who held certain similar values with regard to what constitutes right and wrong behavior.  This is pretty spot-on with virtually any religious organization.  As spirited as debate can get between some people with regard to how old the Earth is or how human beings came about, issues of morality have a far more substantive effect on daily life.  What you wear, what you eat, acceptable modes of speech, sexual behavior, and what responsibility people bear for their family, fellows in their faith or all other people are examples of mores commented on by various religions.  Few faiths are completely totalitarian, but there are behaviors that are out of line even for sects that place a high value on individuality and freedom.  The Temple would have its own recommendations for appropriate personal behavior, would exhort its members to abide by such and would be forced to disassociate itself from anyone who egregiously violated the most sacred tenets.

Then, there are the aforementioned questions of origin.  How old is the Earth anyway?  Is biological macro-evolution a reality?  You remember the link to "religion" in the last blog?  The very first definition for religion references a system of belief regarding morality and the purpose, nature and origin of the Universe.  Granted, it states "especially" with regard to supernatural agency, but that emphasis would be redundant if there was no alternative to such divine agency.  Our congregants in the LAHT do have a belief concerning the gods.  They don't believe in them.  That may not be the kind of "belief" that one might expect, but it is a logical and philosophical position with regards to the supernatural. 

The activity of the Temple may also put it more firmly in the realm of religious organization than in any other category.  Members may meet on a regular (or even irregular) schedule for services serving important functions strongly associated with religion.  Social interaction with others who are aligned with regard to their philosophical beliefs can imbue members with confidence in their moral convictions and reassure them that even though they may be a statistical minority, they do have a supportive community.  It is common to hear church members talk of being "energized" by attendance and fellowship with others of their faith.  A service would also feature a speaker expounding upon a topic directly relating to the system of ethics expressed by the Temple's creed.
In addition to such internal functions, the Temple could engage in outreach and service efforts aimed at the community outside its congregation.  One aspect of this might be announcing itself to the population at large.  Though Humanists generally don't make much effort to "convert" others, an organization making itself known may find people who are already Humanists more than eager to become involved.  They just need to know that the organization is there.  The Temple might also send its clerics into the community to serve Humanists or other non-theistic persons in the capacity of chaplains.  Members of the armed forces, police forces, firefighters and other emergency workers are frequently exposed to chronically high levels of stress and occasionally to brutally high levels of stress when reacting to catastrophic events.  While medical or psychological treatment is sometimes necessary, other times these people need counsel from a person who can understand what they are going through and non-theists often cannot get such from someone who believes in the gods.  Given the emphasis of Humanism on rationalism, education would also be a prime target for assistance from the Temple.  It could take the form of sending tutors to volunteer at local schools, setting up a program for providing a summer school program for children in poorly performing school districts or something else entirely.

These are only examples, of course.  But, these are the kinds of ideas that are floating around the Community of Reason.  My assertion is that the nature of such activity is a parallel to the activity of superstitious faiths.  They make statements about the nature and origin of the Universe, gods and morality.  So would the Temple.  They promote their view through gathering the like-minded and reinforcing their views via lectures, sermons and debates.  So would the Temple.  They provide a social context in which people can meet others in gatherings that exist expressly because of their philosophical similarities.  So would the Temple.  They serve as a mechanism by which resources can be aggregated and employed in a manner consistent with their moral philosophy.  So would the Temple.

Humanists might agree to form an organization for any number of purposes and many of these would have nought to do with religion.  But, an organization engaging in the type of behavior I have described above I would be hard-pressed to label anything but religious.

A Humanist Defense of Church

In my first post I explained that the purpose of the blog was to incite and host discussion of a Humanist organization explicitly organized and operated as a religious organization.  One of the most interesting aspects of Humanist thought is the fact that not all people are in agreement as to whether this is appropriate.  Indeed, many Humanists vehemently disagree with the idea that a body of people whose ethics, philosophy and perception of the materiel world are essentially identical to their own, should describe such a set of beliefs as a religion.  Though many Humanists, Free-thinkers and secularists are viewed, or even self-identify as, radically anti-religious, my assertion is that it is not the institution of generic religion that they are against.  Rather, they are against oppressive policies of a particular sect, or against the retardation of progress stemming from superstition.  I assert that an organization may be a religion in virtually every way, but not rely on superstition.  Thus, here I give my Humanist defense of "Church", divided into a few, easily digestible parts.

Here is the dictionary ( to be precise) definition of "religion".  It gives us a starting point and I'll be referring back to it occasionally to note how things match up.

The argument from precedence:  The idea of a religious organization that disavows superstition is not entirely new.  I almost hesitate to bring this first one up because dear Anton's theatrics are sometimes taken far too seriously, but here we go.  The Church of Satan, founded by Anton Lavey in 1966, hails Satan as emblematic of the exalted self.  Satanists revel in their individuality, sensual pleasure and are unapologetic about acting in their self-interest, not bothering with any pretense to outward benevolence.  Despite all the imagery and ominous phrasing, Satanists of the LaVeyan sect are not under any command from . . . eh, below? to wreak havoc and destruction on more pious mortals.  Quite the opposite, just as a Satanist fully enjoys his own freedoms and individuality, it is anathema to infringe on those of others.  Good Satanists make good neighbors, even if you personally think they are going to Hell. The odd thing is that while Satanists call the prophets of all other gods liars, their don't literally believe in their own Dark Lord.  The Satan is an allegory, a symbol.  The Church's members embrace the philosophy espoused by the organization, including the Satan himself.  But, he is only a symbol, like Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam or the Quaker oats guy.  These are all people that are used to embody certain characteristics and convey a message to the person to whom they are referenced, but there are in no sense real, flesh-and-blood personages nor are they intended to be regarded as such.

The Church of Satan is not unique in this regard.  Closer to my own heart philosophically, the American Humanist Association was founded in 1941 (though the inaugural members of the organization had been affiliated with one another for much longer).  Both, myself personally and the (for now, theoretical) Lake Area Humanist Temple are Humanist in belief.  I won't bother with too many details about Humanist belief as they will be provided soon enough.  But, relevant to this argument is the fact that the organization has a religious arm called the Humanist Society, which ordains clerics it calls "Celebrants".  Many jurisdictions in the United States have recognized such Celebrants as religious clerics as they attend to such ceremonial functions as funerary rites and marriages that have been recognized as legally binding (with the additional registration of papers with civil authorities by which all other religious clerics must also abide).  There are also Celebrants who serve as chaplains for other organizations, one Rabbi Greg Epstein serving as a chaplain for Harvard University. 

Many Unitarian Universalist and Christian churches that are theologically liberal promote the philosophy and ethics presented in (some version of) the Bible.  However, they may not necessarily abide by scriptural literalism.  In fact, some go so far as to express doubt or outright disbelief in the literal existence of the gods.  This may not make much practical difference in either their day-to-day lives or their sermons.  After all, if Jesus was a perfect moral exemplar, shouldn't we emulate his behavior whether he was the son of the living god or just a theoretical ideal?  So the question of whether it is inappropriate for a community of like-minded believers to call themselves a religious community is turned around.  The question is why should we insist on theism to determine whether the community is religious now, after having been so relaxed about it for so long?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Welcome to the Temple!

Or the virtual temple, anyway.  You see, the Lake Area Humanist Temple doesn't quite exist.  Not yet, anyway.  The temple exists as a thought experiment, though if there is enough interest it, or something like it, may exist in a more tangible form. But, what inspires this project?

For millennia, people have appealed to the gods for various reasons.  These include protection, victory, provision and many others.  But, one of the most important aspects of the gods was systematized codes of what constitutes correct behavior and belief regarding morality and the nature and origin of the Universe.  We often refer to this belief system as religion.

 Such systematized codes, religions, fulfilled very similar purposes even while they diverged wildly in their factual claims, central characters and promoted values.  Christians maintain that there is only one god that ultimately holds all power in the cosmos, all lesser beings ruling or even existing at his pleasure.  Some Buddhists hold that many echelons of intelligent beings exist in the materiel or spiritual planes and that through achieving various states of enlightenment or successive reincarnations, people can become devas, demons or godlike.  Many doctrines promise immortality to mortals while Norse pagans foresaw Ragnarok as the end of days in which even the gods would be destroyed.

Despite the immense variety of doctrines, religions as institutions filled many of the same roles in society.  Christian and Buddhist monasteries functioned as repositories of historical knowledge and philosophical thought.  Universities were founded by the coffers of Muslim kings to study not only scripture, but a vast spectrum of academic disciplines.  The gods and titans of Greece and Rome (or at least mortals' perceptions of them) had a profound impact on culture, art, politics and history.  And the dogma of the various faiths provided the masses with comfort, a moral guide and explanations (varying in degree of accuracy) for natural phenomena.

There is another tradition, however.  Perhaps as long as people have spoken of the gods, some have questioned even their existence.  Philosophers have speculated on and argued about the nature of beauty, morality, existence and thought for thousands of years.  They sought purpose in life through pleasure, suffering, mathematics, benevolence, self-sufficiency, community and other attitudes, institutions and cognitive edifices.  Some were near hermits or itinerant preachers of their philosophy, while others corresponded at length or lived in communities.

In this age Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, Unitarians and Humanists continue in this tradition of skepticism and typically meet and communicate via the Internet. Though it seems to some as if their only commonality is rejection of the gods, the real common ground is their reliance on reason.  Some doubt the existence of the gods, others refuse to pass judgement, while others still are absolutely sure that the gods are a fiction.  But, nearly all rely on observable evidence and the operation of logic as their methodology for reaching a conclusion about truth claims.

Though a commonality, this is a very broad value.  But, what if other common ground could be found in a sub-set of this community?  What if a number of individuals agreed on the basis for not just factual discovery, but a foundation for ethics?  What if they decided to pool resources, organize and form an entity to attend to charity, emotional needs, community service and ceremonial functions marking important life events like marriages, births and deaths?  A church.

This is the purpose of this blog.  To speculate on and discuss what such a church would be like.  How would it be organized?  How would it be governed?  What would it do in the community?  Is it appropriate to call it a church at all?  I hope you join me in the dialogue as we seek answers to these and the numerous other questions that are sure to be revealed.

Feel free to comment directly in this blog or email me at

Here is an event taking place in Baton Rouge that fits the theme perfectly.  Though this blog was in the making before I had heard of it, it did catalyze my writing a bit and I know Jerry personally!