Words Worth Reading: The Mother's Day Proclamation

As you probably already know, today is Mother's Day. But I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I'd like to share it with you.

Given how rampantly commercial Mother's Day has become, you might be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that it was dreamed up by the jewelry and greeting-card companies. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Although the holiday did become commercialized soon after it was established, so much so that one of its creators spent the rest of her life protesting it, it was originally created for a very different reason.

In response to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, Mother's Day was first conceived of as an explicitly pacifist holiday by the radical American feminist, abolitionist, and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870, expressed her belief that women had a political responsibility to shape the society they lived in by opposing all war and violence. It's an amazing piece of writing, and if you can overlook the biblical quote added as window dressing, it's still well worth a read:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

May 8, 2011, 1:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

Charity Yes, Interfaith No?

We atheists are nothing if not argumentative, and the latest argument is over whether an atheist can or should participate in "interfaith" charitable work. Chris Stedman, a member of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, asserts that "we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion" by participating in interfaith projects as often as possible. Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight were unimpressed, pointing out that there's something paradoxical in a nonbeliever participating in a movement explicitly based on faith. I especially like Jen's comment:

What do you call interfaith volunteering where atheists participate?


...Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it's the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith.

This is a personal dilemma for me: the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend supports a local food bank called the Interfaith Nutrition Network, and I've donated money to support their efforts in the past. I felt some uneasiness about donating for just this reason, but as the INN is non-sectarian and the need is great, I decided at the time that the potential good to be done outweighed other considerations. I suppose, then, that I either have to declare myself a hypocrite or else conclude that atheists can rightfully participate in interfaith efforts at least sometimes.

Still, something about the notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And to be honest, I think it's Chris' scolding, condescending tone. (Yes, I'm making a tone argument!) For one, he describes himself as a former "rejectionist atheist". This is clearly meant as a pejorative, but I can't see how it wouldn't apply to all atheists, unless he means to compare the "bad" atheists who speak out forthrightly about their rejection of religious belief with the "good" atheists who don't. And then there's this:

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people's mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge - but not yet enough about love and compassion... Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we've got no business saying that "religion poisons everything."

This treads dangerously close to saying that our arguments against religion are invalid if we don't do as much interfaith charity work as Chris Stedman thinks we should. I happen to agree that everyone should do whatever they reasonably can to make this a better world. But I emphatically deny that this has any bearing on whether one's views on religion are factually correct or should be voiced in public. We can (and should) say that religion poisons everything as often and as loudly as we like, no matter how many dollars we've donated or hours we've volunteered.

There's nothing wrong with atheists working together with religious believers to advance moral goals that we have in common. I've advocated this myself in the past. But when we cooperate with religious groups, we should be very careful to do so as equals. Participating in "interfaith" work undermines this. It means that you're starting out on their turf, and it lends credibility to the harmful frame that faith is necessary as a source of morality - especially when you make a big deal out of how it's essential for atheists to do "interfaith" work. I have an alternative suggestion: Why not just do regular charitable work?

It's not as if we're not doing this already. Atheists have the largest lending group on Kiva. We have the Foundation Beyond Belief and other secular charities. We organize food and clothing drives, book drives, blood drives. We participate in disaster relief.

It's perfectly fine for Chris Stedman to call on atheists to do more, but he should acknowledge these already meaningful and substantial efforts. To do anything less is insulting to the nonbelievers who do work toward making a better world (and, again, reinforces a pernicious religious stereotype that no genuine good can happen that's not done in the name of "faith"). Interfaith work per se isn't necessarily bad, but using it to scold your fellow atheists most definitely is. Rather than trying to prove that we can be good people just like theists, we should just be doing good, in whatever ways the opportunity presents itself. The rest will follow naturally.

April 25, 2011, 8:16 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments

Thoughts on the Occasion of My Marriage

If you're a regular reader, you probably know that I got married last month. Until now, I haven't said much about the event itself on Daylight Atheism. But now that I'm back from my honeymoon (slightly sunburned, but happy!) and I've had some time to reflect, I wanted to put into words some of my thoughts on what marriage means to me, as an atheist, and explain why I chose to enter into it.

But first of all, let me address the most obvious question: Should an atheist even want to get married? Isn't marriage an intrinsically religious ceremony? After all, weddings usually take place in churches (yes, ours was in a church) and are conducted by clergy (yes, we had a minister - more on this in a minute). Doesn't that mean that a committed atheist should refuse to enter into one?

I do acknowledge that, for most of Western history, marriage has been performed in a religious context. However, I don't concede that this makes it an intrinsically religious ceremony. Rather, it's because organized religion has always tried to take exclusive possession of whole areas of human life, and proclaim that it alone owns these experiences which are common to everyone. Just so in this case: marriage is fundamentally an expression of love, and religion doesn't have a monopoly on love. Atheists seek companionship, fall in love, and pledge our commitment just as theists do. Why, then, should we not mark the occasion with a marriage ceremony? Why not take the ritual, strip out the religious trappings we don't accept, and reclaim it as a secular, human rite of passage that nonbelievers also participate in?

And that's just what my wife and I did with our wedding. We planned the ceremony to match our beliefs, keeping the traditions we accept, omitting or changing the ones we didn't. We've been attending a Unitarian Universalist church for the past year, an entirely dogma-free religion that emphasizes ethics and community and has no requirement that its members believe in God or anything supernatural. The ceremony was at Shelter Rock, a huge, gorgeous UU congregation on the north shore of Long Island, and was performed by our minister, Hope, a wonderful woman whom both of us respect deeply.

So then, back to my original question: Why did I, as an atheist, choose to get married?

First, there are the practical reasons. It sounds tactless to mention, but I'd be lying if I said I never thought of it: Marriage isn't just a religious rite, but a civil ceremony that brings considerable civil and legal benefits, including many that are impossible to obtain any other way.

Of course, these protections are held out as an incentive to couples like us, even as they're denied to gays and lesbians. That these civil benefits are denied to mature, consenting same-sex couples due to religious prejudice is something both my wife and I feel passionately is a grave injustice. That's why we chose the following passage to be read at our wedding. It's an excerpt from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case where the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid marriage to same-sex couples. Even in the dispassionate language of the court, this ruling was full of poetry:

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.

The union of two people is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.

Without question, civil marriage enhances the welfare of the community and is a social institution of the highest importance. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and a connection to our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.

But there was more to my decision than this. Although the civil benefits of marriage are non-trivial, even without them we would have gotten married anyway, and the last paragraph of that ruling hints at why.

I said that atheists feel love just like everyone else, but I want to say more than that. I believe that love is the quintessential human emotion, the one that most truly defines us, that inspires all our noblest endeavors, and that gives expression to what is best in humanity. But love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied. Like one candle lighting others, it spreads without diminishing its source, and brings greater joy to every person who partakes of it than any of them could have had alone.

This reasoning is both why I got married in the first place, and also why we had a ritual to mark the occasion. I believe that life's challenges are better confronted together, rather than alone, and a two-person partnership is the simplest and most stable way to accomplish that.

At the most fundamental, our marriage isn't a civil ceremony or a religious rite, but a mutual obligation, a promise given freely and in awareness of its weight and solemnity. We pledged to make our partnership an enduring one, to remain faithful and true to each other, to share our happiness and support each other in times of trouble. And it makes this pledge all the more weighty that we made it not to each other in private, but before our gathered family, friends, and loved ones. We invited them to be there because we wanted them to bear witness to our decision, but also because we wanted to share our joy with them!

My wife and I have both found much good in our partnership: we complement each other's strengths, we comfort each other in times of pain and sorrow, we challenge each other to grow and mature, and we've each found that the things we love separately are even sweeter when shared. And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you're in love, you want to tell the world.

And it's in that spirit that I'll close out this post. We wrote our own vows for the ceremony, and if you'll forgive me, I'd like to share mine:

Dear MissCherryPi,

Before we say our vows, I want to tell you why I'm here today.

You know that there are some things I don't believe in. But today, I want to tell you about some things I do believe in.

I believe in sunrises and sunsets.

I believe in hikes in the woods and walks on the beach.

I believe in traveling the world and exploring places we've never been before.

I believe in good books, good conversation and laughing at shared jokes.

I believe in picking pumpkins in autumn, decorating the tree for Christmas and drinking champagne on New Year's.

I believe in watching fireflies on summer evenings and stargazing on dark clear nights.

I believe in all the beauty, the mystery and the wonder of life, and I believe that these joys, like all joys, are multiplied when you have someone to share them with. And I'm here because I want you to be that person.

There's no one else I'd rather spend my life with. I love your shy smile, your sweet laugh, your sense of humor, and your adventurousness. And most of all, I love the way you make me happier than I thought anyone ever could. That's why I'm here, and that's why I'm marrying you today.

June 23, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink57 comments

Unitarian Universalism: A Matter of Definition

Both Greta and Hemant have commented on the full-page ad run by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the latest issue of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since I have a copy of that issue, I thought I'd say some things about it as well.

The FFRF ad that ran in the fall 2009 UU World. Click to enlarge.

No one, of course, is denying that UU World would have been completely within its rights to reject the FFRF ad if they had chosen to. But that isn't what they did. Instead, they accepted and ran the ad, which means that editorial staff at a fairly high level must not have seen any problem with it initially. Only after the magazine was published, and after some readers complained, did they apologize and state that it shouldn't have been run.

I think it's obvious why UU World's staff didn't see a problem with the ad: a significant percentage of UU members are atheists. By many definitions, I'd be one of them - I occasionally attend a UU church with my fiancee, and I'm not the only atheist in the congregation by any means. In fact, I'm fairly certain that atheists are a plurality there. This seems like a perfectly logical place for the FFRF to advertise, because the ad does speak to a large and important part of UU membership.

Granted, the FFRF ad contains some quotes criticizing religion in general - particularly the one from Butterfly McQueen, which equates religion with slavery. Since Unitarian Universalism describes itself as a religion, I can understand why some UU members were offended.

However, I don't think the fault lies with the FFRF. If anything, I think Unitarian Universalism is to blame for all the fuss. Long ago, they made a choice that's led to much confusion: they brought in traditional religious terminology to describe themselves, but the way in which they use those terms in practice is very different from how they've historically been defined.

The fact that they call themselves a "religion" is example #1. UU has no sacred text, no statements of dogma, and no formal creed. It doesn't even require a belief in God, and it proclaims that atheists and agnostics are welcome in its congregations. The only thing that connects UU members is a set of seven principles for moral behavior, which you can justify to yourself in any way you like.

Needless to say, this is not how the vast majority of people would understand the term "religion". The historical meaning of that word has always included some supernatural component and some set of shared beliefs, and UU has neither. But nevertheless, it's chosen to call itself a religion. Doubtless, this was a marketing decision: it expresses the point of this activity in a way that outsiders can easily understand, makes it seem more familiar and appealing, and not coincidentally, allows UU to make a play for its share of the automatic respect and deference that always seems to accrue to anything calling itself a religion.

But a consequence of this is that UU members will naturally perceive themselves to be among the targets of any attack on "religion", even if the people who uttered those statements were clearly thinking of a completely different kind of belief system. As I said, it was this unfortunate choice of wording that's led to so much confusion. I strongly doubt that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has any complaint against Unitarian Universalism - in fact, there's undoubtedly a substantial overlap in their membership! - and as long as they continue to welcome atheists and support the separation of church and state, Unitarian Universalism has no reason to fear any goal the FFRF might seek to accomplish.

This is a situation where Unitarian Universalism has put itself in the line of fire, so to speak, when it didn't need to. UU isn't truly a religion in the sense of the word that the FFRF and other atheists criticize; it's more like a secular humanist philosophy, one that just happens to dress in trappings of religious language. What this story really shows is yet another example of the negative effects that follow from society automatically assuming any religion to be worthy of respect and deference.

September 21, 2009, 6:56 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments

An Atheist in Church

This past Sunday, I went to church and had a wonderful time.

No, I haven't converted, nor am I thinking of doing so. I was there to accompany my girlfriend, who's a lapsed Catholic and is seeking a new church to attend. We went to a Unitarian Universalist church on Long Island. That Sunday there was a relatively small congregation, I'd guess between thirty and fifty people. The church itself was a pleasant modern building with a high, sloping ceiling and tall picture windows in the back. There were bookshelves along the back walls and tall, potted plants everywhere. One wall held two long lines of plaques commemorating the people through history who were persecuted or martyred for their belief in Unitarian Universalism - a startlingly large number. Evidently, the idea that all human beings will be saved has often been a dangerously heretical proposition.

I've been to UU services before, in college, and this one had many of the same elements. The service opened with a ceremonial ringing of chimes and then lighting the chalice, a traditional Unitarian Universalist symbol, as well as a peace candle. One member then led the group in a recitation of UU's seven principles, followed by a hymn.

The next part of the service was also at the UU service I attended in college. It was called "Joys and Sorrows," in which each member of the congregation who had either joyous or sorrowful news was invited to come forward, share their story with everyone present, and light a candle to signify the emotional resonance of the event. A lot of people had stories to share, perhaps a dozen, and everyone who participated seemed genuinely eager to step forward.

Most of the service after this was broken up into several brief speeches and sermonettes, each given by a member of the congregation. A young lady who couldn't have been more than 13 or 14 spoke on the topic of "What Would a Unitarian Universalist Do?" For her age, she was one of the best speakers there that day. I think there are great things in her future if she stays on this path.

Continuing this theme, the day's sermon was titled "Living Our Principles." The minister (who hadn't spoken until now, and who didn't do all that much talking compared to the length of the entire service) spoke about working at an interfaith clothing drive, and how she reminded herself to show patience and compassion while dealing with the people who made use of it.

Afterward, there was coffee and food. There seemed to be a real sense of community and friendship among all the people there, most of whom stayed after the service to chat. I had wondered if anyone would recognize my girlfriend and I as newcomers, and at least two people did: the director of the church's youth program, as well as the minister herself, came over to meet us and asked us if we were new. This church must have a very good community indeed if its employees can tell by sight whether someone is a regular visitor.

All in all, I'm happy that I went. I've always had a soft spot for the Unitarian Universalists, and if I were religious, that's almost certainly what I would be. The closing hymn at the service I went to was John Lennon's "Imagine" - how could an atheist not love that? I don't plan on making attendance a weekly habit - I just don't feel the need - but I wouldn't be opposed to going back.

I like the idea of a religion built on community rather than on shared dogma, which lines up nicely with the humanist churches I imagined in "What Will Replace Religion?" UU is itself a thoroughly humanist belief system, with nothing in its principles I could disagree with. I think the UUs largely lack the dangerous exaltation of blind faith and dogmatism that characterizes so many other religions, and if UU gained more ground, I wouldn't be at all upset.

However, I think a person coming from a traditionally religious background might have some difficulty understanding the appeal of UU. After all, it's nearly unique among established religions in not having any established dogma or official creed. A churchgoer who's used to being told what to think each week from the pulpit might find the doctrinal looseness disorienting. And people for whom belief in God is an integral part of their lives are unlikely to feel satisfied here. The only time God was mentioned during the service, in my recollection, was to point out that it doesn't matter whether he exists, because that wouldn't change the moral obligations we have toward each other.

I'm intrigued by the phenomenon of people retaining the trappings of their faith for cultural and historical reasons, while casting off the supernatural beliefs and dogmas that long accompanied them. This has long been noted among secular Jewish people, and I see it starting to happen more and more among Catholics as well. Unitarian Universalism is a more explicit step in this process, recognizing the importance of community without requiring the hoary superstitions that have long accompanied it. From origins in liberal Christianity, UU has evolved to a point where it can - and does - embrace atheists and humanists without qualm. (As many as 46% of UUs may be atheists, according to a 1997 poll.) This could well be an effective rebuttal to propagandists who claim that atheists don't do charity work - we do, as part of the UU church and many other organizations - or that religious charity would cease if atheists became predominant. UU is an effective testimony that supernatural beliefs need not accompany the desire to do good.

April 17, 2008, 6:46 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink57 comments

Golden Atheists

The popular aphorism "there are no atheists in foxholes" implies that people can only be atheists in times of comfort and security, and that if the end of life is in view, they will inevitably cry out to God to save them. I wish everyone who uses this thoughtless and insulting slur could meet Claire Hull:

Claire Hull rarely misses a Sunday at church. That's remarkable for two reasons: She's a 91-year-old with a replacement hip, and she's an atheist.

Yes, you heard right: Ms. Hull is a 91-year-old atheist. And from all accounts, she's still living a life as rich, full and rewarding as that of many people far less than her age, reading three books each week and taking an active role in politics and her community. I hope I can accomplish half as much at that age!

So why is this atheist grandma at church on Sundays?

One of Hull's greatest loves is people, which is how an atheist ended up being a steady churchgoer at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tacoma.

"I believe in people and ideas," she said.

Any atheist should be proud to give assent to such a concise and expressive creed. While we have no truck with notions of gods and other mythical beings from our past, we do focus our concern on the truly real and important things: the well-being of our fellow humans and the rich life of ideas we can conceive.

For an atheist, the Unitarian Universalist church is a good choice. Unlike most churches, it's free of dogma and doctrine, leaving each congregant the freedom to make up their own mind as they see fit, and usually promotes a commendably progressive and humanistic viewpoint. I've attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church myself, and I enjoyed the experience - if I were a religious person, that's where I would go.

And for the record, the redoubtable Ms. Hull is not the only golden-aged atheist out there; far from it. I myself had the privilege of meeting another one.

This happened during my junior year of college. I was on the bus home after a day on campus, typing up some notes on my laptop, when out of the blue an elderly Middle Eastern gentleman sitting across from me started talking to me. I admit my first thought was mild annoyance at being approached by a stranger, but I had nothing important to do, so I was polite.

He asked about my laptop and my major, computer science, and it transpired that he was auditing classes at my university because, he said, he wanted something to do and he doesn't think you're ever too old to improve yourself. I was fairly impressed by this.

Then, without any suggestion on my part, he started talking about religion. I thought it was an odd topic to bring up with someone you'd just met, but he did, and to my amazement, I learned he was an atheist. In just a brief conversation, he expressed his view that there was no life after death, ridiculed religious exclusivity and salvation based on holding a particular belief, and stated his opinion that, if there was a heaven, one good deed would do more to merit acceptance than a lifetime of faith. I was completely absorbed in the conversation by this point, and since I didn't want him to think I was just agreeing to humor him, I even showed him the "Born Again Atheist" button on my bag (which got a smile from him).

Needless to say, I was very impressed by all of this. He told me that he was 90, and a 90-year-old speaking frankly and with no fear about death is truly something to be praised. I asked him a bit more about himself and learned that he was a surgeon for 50 years, now retired. (Back when he used to practice, he told me, there were no specializations - you were just a surgeon in general.) Just think about it - a 90-year-old atheist surgeon!

We talked about a few more things before my stop came up, and I was actually sad when it was time for me to shake his hand and get off. When I got back to my apartment, though, I looked up his name on Google and found his name on an issue of my university's newsletter - it said he was the owner of a valuable collection of ancient, original Persian art, which he'd loaned to the college art museum.

These stories show that atheism is a view that any person at any stage of life can hold with courage and pride. In contrast to the apologists who smugly proclaim that even the slightest intimation of mortality will drive a person into the arms of religion, we atheists know that a life well-lived leaves no reason to fear.

September 24, 2007, 7:38 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink16 comments

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