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Friday, June 28, 2002

Atheism is easy.

"We are all atheists now — or at least that's the way it seems," writes Jonathan Rée in Harper's magazine. "Atheism has somehow established itself, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as the ordinary punter's default position . . .

It fits perfectly with the one thing we moderns have always known: that the progressive rise of literacy, free expression, and democracy is bound in the long run to neutralize the toxic mixture of superstition, ignorance, manipulation, and self-hatred that constitutes religious belief. The power of enlightenment will drive the last of the crafty priests from the last of their poky priest-holes, putting an end to fanaticism, fetishism, and self-enslavement. Even now it is busy creating a world fit for humanism's happy heroes: the plucky, self-reliant, cheerful, libidinous, and uninhibited fun-lovers of the future." ("The Poverty of Unbelief," Harper's, July 2002: 13.)

Detect the skepticism? This is a wonderful essay, especially when Rée points to what I think is and ought to be the crux of the matter for religious liberals: "Those who sign up for humanism, atheism, or agnosticism are at risk of forgetting the larger and better part of what religious traditions are all about. They think that faithful religious believers are simply lumbered with a load of intellectual luggage that undeceived rationalists like themselves can happily do without . . ."

By the end of Rée's essay, I began thinking of it as a meditation on James Luther Adams's aphorism, "An unexamined faith is not worth having." But Rée has applied it to one mental block that afflicts Unitarian Universalism and impairs its growth: "The distinction between atheists and believers is perhaps beginning to lose its point: the real distinction is between those who are willing to be intelligent about the problems of existence and those who are not. And if tacit atheism has become the default belief of our age, it needs to be noted that it is no longer the badge of a courageous free spirit but, more often than not, the 'do not disturb' sign hung out by the intellectually inert."

[Originally posted to the now defunct UUYAM email list 6.28.02]

Looking for examples of intelligent engagement with the problems of existence? I recommend John Hayward's book Through the Rose Window: Art, Myth, and the Religious Imagination, the work of Paul Tillich, the resources of The Center for Progressive Christianity, and the excellent journals Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and CrossCurrents.

Posted by Philocrites, June 28, 2002, at 08:21 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Is Unitarian Universalism a 'new religion'?

Matthew Gatheringwater wrote:

It strikes me that both neoPaganism and UUism are new religions. Although UUs are connected to a historical tradition, our present incarnation is only forty-some years old; Pagans aren't the only one making things up as they go along!

In my view, to the extent that we UUs think of ourselves as a "new religion," we consign our movement to irrelevancy, intellectual confusion, and spiritual shallowness. But then, I don't think of "Unitarian Universalism" as a religion. I think of it as a community of congregations that share a number of liberal theological impulses and a range of traditions. If we are making things up as we go along, we're in serious trouble.

We may have a theological tradition, we may even have an approach to religion, we may still be (in a number of significant ways) a radically Protestant denomination.

We're a tradition that still depends on the grammar of Christianity, as it were, even if we prefer the vocabulary of other traditions — a point Jack Hayward makes in various ways in his writing.

(Originally posted to UUBooks)

Posted by Philocrites, June 26, 2002, at 01:16 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, June 2, 2002

Conflict and control.

Doug M. wrote:

Lying behind the "find the root causes of terrorism" argument is the assumption that we are in control, that we can change the way we are perceived by changing our patterns of action. I'm not sure I believe that any more. Do the rest of you believe it? Why?

No. Every society is a conflict of interests. Liberal societies have found relatively effective ways to minimize the internal level of violence arising from these conflicts. Sometimes, no matter how we try to change the context of a conflict, you and I cannot both have what we want. If we're lucky, we live in a society with customs, laws, and enforced limits that keep us from escalating our differences into violence, and that keep us in the game even when we lose. But innocence doesn't make someone safe, and the U.S. doesn't have the luxury of pretending not to have a whole range of complex interests in the world. Some people resent or hate the U.S. for reasons that I can understand and even sympathize with but some people hate the U.S. for some of the reasons I love it. I don't see a way around this.

The "international community," though, is not a liberal society. Persuasion only gets you so far, and then bargaining, manipulation, and force come into play. (This is true inside liberal societies, too, or we wouldn't need an executive branch of government to enforce a certain degree of fair play.) The U.S. can influence others' perceptions of American society, but only up to a point. Thomas L. Friedman has made it quite clear that much of the animosity toward the U.S. in Muslim societies is generated by their own governments and institutions for essentially local reasons. I want the U.S. to overcome its own corrupt and anti-democratic behaviors, but we would still have enemies and conflicts, and they wouldn't go away simply because we asked nicely.

Mark Juergensmeyer writes in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence:

One of the first rules of conflict resolution is willingness to accept the notion that there are flaws on one's own side as well as on the opponent's side. This is a sensible stand if one's goal is to get along with others and avoid violence. But what if that is not one's goal? . . . A warring attitude implies that its holder no longer thinks compromise is possible or just as likely did not want an accommodating solution to the conflict in the first place.

Liberals must be alert to the fact that some conflicts cannot be solved by accommodation without sacrificing fundamental principles. There's a proverb that says that any kind of peace is preferable to any kind of war, but I don't think that's true. Peace at any price may be too costly. The Rev. David Rankin once wrote (on the little red card about "Ten Things Unitarian Universalists Believe") that "no idea is more valuable than a single human life" but I can think of at least one idea that is worth defending forcefully: the idea that no idea is more valuable than a single human life. The threat liberal societies faced from Nazism, fascism, and communism, and the threat that Islamic extremism represents today, is the denial of this fundamental belief in the inviolable dignity of individual human beings and in the preferability of a liberal society. The painful paradox is that we sometimes have to defend this ideal by violating it.

[Originally posted to UUS-L 6.5.02]

Posted by Philocrites, June 2, 2002, at 08:36 PM | 0 comments

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