The earthquake in Haiti has left the country in ruins and resulted in untold death and misery. Now is the time to step up and help. As President Bill Clinton said the other day, the single best way to assist is with cash. To that end, please consider one of the following options:
Religious Naturalism is a positive worldview that finds wonder in a universe without any need for the supernatural. Nature is astounding and life is precious. What more is needed?
Nature is astounding exactly because it is self-sufficient; a creator god or supernatural manager takes away from the majesty of nature. And since consciousness almost certainly ends with brain death, the short time we have here makes life valuable beyond measure. It is indescribably unjust and tragic for any person to experience their time in poverty, ignorance, or misery. This calls us to improve our condition, to challenge ourselves and to help make a world where every person in every culture can thrive.
HumanLight illuminates Humanism’s positive secular vision. In Western societies, late December is a season of good cheer and a time for gatherings of friends and families. During the winter holiday season, where the word “holiday” has taken on a more secular meaning, many events are observed. This tradition of celebrations, however, is grounded in supernatural religious beliefs that many people in modern society cannot accept. HumanLight presents an alternative reason to celebrate: a Humanist’s vision of a good future. It is a future in which all people can identify with each other, behave with the highest moral standards, and work together toward a happy, just and peaceful world.
While I strongly endorse the idea behind this, I don’t like the name very much. In part, I think that this time of year extends beyond humanity, which is also about the cycle of the seasons and all that that implies. I do like the word “Light”, which is certainly appropriate to the holiday spirit. But if I were to make a suggestion, I would call it Winterlight Day.
This topic is coming a bit late, but perhaps we can mull it over and see if the idea survives until next year.
And so, a belated Happy Winterlight to everyone! We at Sacred River hope that it was filled with warmth, joy, and togetherness.
It is time to hear some different voices at Sacred River. You are invited to submit an essay regarding the following topic:
“Inspiration and the Natural World”
You are free to write a personal narrative, an exploration into American Transcendentalism, a treatise on physics, a photo essay, or pure fiction; you are only limited by your imagination. There is no length requirement.
The due date is November the 6th.
We will publish what we consider to be the best entries, but there is no maximum—considering how talented naturalists tend to be, we might end up publishing all of them! So let your voice be heard—inspire us!
Send your essay to email@example.com
The following comment was written in response to a theist named Bridget from the last Dawkins post [here is her original comment]. I wanted to present this on its own page since I think it begins to address some core issues in Sacred River.
Where does the evil and good come from?
“Evil” and “Good” aren’t substances or states, but moral judgments on behaviors and ideas. All judgments are products of the human mind grounded in the evolutionary necessity of primates to live together in a reasonably harmonious way. We are beginning to find the basic building blocks of human ethics, which are related to such issues as fairness, resource/mate protection, incest avoidance, and reciprocal altruism (to name a few).
As in language, the moral building blocks have evolved into complex structures that are now largely culture-based. These structures form in every group (churches, schools, workplaces, clubs, and even whole cities and nations), and the majority of them are implicit, meaning they are unspoken mandates and rules of thumb that guide how group members behave and interact. When someone violates a rule, everyone knows it, even when that rule isn’t written down. Humans are simply wired this way.
Although the underlying purpose of morality is logical—the creation of social rules that allow humans to live together in groups—individual morals or moral sets are not always rational or even beneficial. At one time, for example, slavery was considered perfectly acceptable by many Americans and was even justified with the Bible. Many people would now consider slavery to be an unambiguous evil.
This is why there is a movement to push morals into a principle-based system rather than attempting a set of absolute rules. For example, increasing fairness and decreasing suffering are “good” principles, but what those look like will change along with a changing society, just as the acceptability of slavery changed with the Civil War. This is but one benefit of a non-theistic perspective—we can approach goodness from a reasonable and compassionate place rather than by attempting to fulfill rigid decrees, regardless of their relevance or logic.
Where does the “self” come from? And please don’t say the self is a set of neuronal connections…that is ridiculous and has not been proven.
The experience of self does indeed stem from complex neural nets in the brain, although the total self certainly includes the whole body. This might seem ridiculous to you, but there is a great deal of empirical evidence for it (and no evidence to the contrary). True, we learn more about the creation of self all the time as we learn more about the brain, but it isn’t the mystery you are making it out to be.
What we call the self is constructed from many psycho-neurological mechanisms, including temperament, emotions, personality (a la the Big Five), subjective perception and awareness, motivations and bodily needs, working memory and long-term memory, worldview and heuristic sets (e.g. social roles), and what you would call thinking. The self is an emergent phenomena that arises from the integration of all these functions, each of which are borne in the brain and derive from a combination of genetics and experience, and shifts according to environmental priming (a great example of this is an experiment with Chinese-Americans: one group was shown American symbols and the other Chinese symbols: each group then interpreted a single image, with the first group preferring a Western concept of individualism, with the other preferring an Eastern communal perspective. So based on how they were primed, different “selves” came to the fore).
To learn more, I strongly recommend “The Developing Mind” by Dan Siegel.
I’m afraid you might be falling for what our ancient ancestors fell for: the assumption that anything we don’t fully understand in nature must be due to a supernatural agent. It’s as if to say that if something in nature is amazing and beyond our comprehension, it couldn’t have “just happened”. But why not? There is no reason to think that anything in nature required an external agent, and the more we learn about the universe, the more we must conclude that indeed no agent could have caused any of it. Nature is self-sufficient; that is part of its majesty.
The abundance of even non-religious conspiracy theories is yet one more reason to challenge faith-based thinking. But it isn’t all roses…
Pascal’s Wager essentially states that it makes the most sense to have faith in the Biblical God because if he is real then a believer will earn entry into Heaven while a nonbeliever will suffer for eternity in Hell, whereas if God is not real, both lose nothing (unless to say the believer loses his sense of reason, which seems a fair stake for the chance of eternal bliss). The matrix looks like this:
|God is real||Eternal Bliss||Eternal Pain|
|God is not real||[Reason]||no loss|
Pascal’s Wager is frequently offered by modern Christians as justification for faith, even though Pascal himself said that the wager is only enough to consider finding faith. Nevertheless, they will say, “You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain…and if you’re wrong, then Hell awaits you!” There are, of course, many logical shortcomings in this wager. For example, it doesn’t include the possibility that:
* The Christian god isn’t the correct deity
* God’s judgment is arbitrary
* God might also reward honest unbelief or punish dishonest belief
* Belief isn’t a necessary or adequate criteria for entry into Heaven
So, let’s take these issues into consideration in the following table, assuming the religion is Christianity with a “good” non-believer and an undefined believer:
|Undefined Believer||Good Non-believer|
|Christian God is real;
only requires faith
|Christian God is real;
requires faith plus good acts
|Heaven or Hell||Hell|
|Some God is real;
only requires good acts
|Heaven or Hell||Heaven + Reason|
|God is real;
but arbitrary or not Christian
|God is not real||Squandered life||Reason|
When we add these choices, then the best choice is to be a good non-believer, because she has the best possible outcome—she gets both reason and Heaven if God is real and rewards those who act good. Likewise, in this choice and the choice where God is not real, the non-believer gets to have a fulfilling life of doing good deeds, without any unnecessary emotional, physical, or material sacrifices in the name of faith.
If the believer is good, then he has two extra chances to get to Heaven, but no one can know for certain what qualifies as “good enough”. The undefined believer might be “good enough” in choice #3, but has nevertheless made unnecessary sacrifices that the non-believer did not make. If God is not the Christian god, then there is equal risk of the unknown, making a rational and good life that much more worthwhile. If God is not real, then the believer does not have zero loss: he has, as Dawkins’ writes, squandered his “precious time on worshiping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.” And Hell becomes less one-sided, since the believer might get there if he is not adequately good (e.g. the mass murderer who repents in the gas chamber).
On top of all this, we then need to take into account the likelihood of God’s existence. There are already many arguments out there about this, but I will keep it at this: God isn’t necessary. God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe, universal laws and processes, or how we humans came to be. There is no question in science that is best answered with “God”. This doesn’t prove his non-existence, but it does make it very, very unlikely, especially when we consider the countless number of gods humans have created and the complete lack of observable evidence for any of them. Virtually every universal theory that has arisen from religion has been shown to be wrong; why not just admit the concept of supernatural dualism is wrong altogether? With this in mind, we have to put the choices on a scale, with the existence of God being very unlikely and the non-existence of god being very likely.
The fundamental problem with all of this—as has been pointed out by non-theists many times before—is that one cannot be threatened into genuine belief. Faith requires that I honestly think that something is true. Any fear of being wrong does not, in itself, provide evidence that something is real.
And finally, I present my own Naturalist Wager:
If there is a creator God, then he created the universe and the world and humans. He also created your brain that is able to observe and reason and feel compassion. Looking at and learning about His creation using direct observation and empirically-based reason would honor His gifts, while making the world a better place for every human would honor the heart He gave you. If a loving creator God is real, it is reasonable to believe that He will reward you for your faith in Him and for the use of the reason and compassion He gave you. If God is not real, then you will have made excellent use of your life by fulfilling your ability to learn about and find wonder in the natural world and by making life a bit more worth living for those who remain.
In his latest book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins presents his own Alternative Ten Commandments. I enjoyed the list so much I wanted to share it here. [Edit: it has been pointed out that this list was not written by Dawkins, but only offered in his book. Whoever wrote it, I think it is a great list of principles. EDIT #2: It appears that the original list can be found here, written by one "Ebonmuse" who authors the site Daylight Atheism.]
1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
6. Always seek to be learning something new
7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
10. Question everything
There are already plenty of good overviews of religious naturalism, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to have one more. It certainly doesn’t stack up to the work of Jerome Stone [PDF], and I’ll probably update it over time, but I think it’s healthy to have multiple viewpoints that address a core set of ideas. Of course, I am no expert on religious naturalism, so I hope I can be forgiven a certain lack of unique insight or academic sophistication. For me, however, it is exactly this kind of exercise that helps develop a clear articulation of values and beliefs, an exercise that I consider to be central to my own personal progress. And you, dear reader, are naturally invited to comment and make suggestions.
It is wonderful to see articles and essays explaining the basics of science, especially in reference to religion and superstition. This one, titled “I Want to Believe: What Skepticism Reveals about Science“, is written by Michael Shermer and appears in the latest issue of Scientific American. You are encouraged to go read the whole thing.
What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide… I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.
Science is a method, not a set of dogmatic beliefs. As Shermer explains, “Science begins with the null hypothesis, which assumes that the claim under investigation is not true until demonstrated otherwise. [...] The null hypothesis means that the burden of proof is on the person asserting a positive claim, not on the skeptics to disprove it.” Of course, as he points out above, many people choose to see evidence where none exist because they have an emotional drive to believe. Or they wedge the supernatural into scientific gaps, assuming that “if science cannot explain X, then [the supernatural] explanation for X is necessarily true.”
This is where the understanding of science gets a little murky. Shermer continues:
To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analyses of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion. Just as detectives employ the convergence of evidence technique to deduce who most likely committed a crime, scientists employ the method to determine the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon. Cosmologists reconstruct the history of the universe by integrating data from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity and quantum mechanics. [...] Once an inferential or historical science is well established through the accumulation of positive evidence, however, it is just as sound as a laboratory or experimental science.
This is why the Theory of Evolution is so compelling…although we cannot observe all the mechanics of evolution happening in real time, the mountain of positive, harmonized evidence over multiple domains of study allows for a high degree of confidence, especially since the theory allows for testable predictions. And yet, the null hypothesis is still out there, waiting…the moment we find a reliable fossil of a dinosaur with the remains of a homo sapiens in its belly, science will admit that it’s time to go back to the drawing board. But—and this is where many theists get lost—it is not up to science to disprove that that fossil exists, or that God exists in our knowledge gaps, or that invisible pink unicorns roam the forests. Until positive evidence is given, there is no reason, other than emotional desire, to consider them to be true.
Shermer sums it up nicely:
Which one you choose depends on your tolerance for ambiguity and how much you want to believe. For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown.
This Discover essay by Sean Carroll is a brief yet fantastic introduction to the basics of science and its relationship with religion. Here is one of the best definitions of science I have ever read:
Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of “better” is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we’re always going to prefer the simpler one. The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.
He also sums up beautifully the reason so many scientists are non-theistic (see this study):
There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world. In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena.
I would add that the more we do find out about the workings of the universe and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, the less likely it becomes that supernatural forces will be found to play a role. Ultimately, ideas like god, spirits, and occult forces simply aren’t very useful in helping us understand how the world actually works.
As a matter of speculation, I posit that as science continues to naturalize the universe, many people more firmly cling to faith because of two things: anxiety and identity. (I’ll talk about the first for now, saving the latter for another post). The existence of a beneficent god and the promise of eternal life are powerful balms to existential angst. While it is easy to throw snark at beliefs in the supernatural, we would do well to recognize the very real anxiety that being alive entails. If people have been raised with faith as a way of coping with it, it is unreasonable to expect people to simply give that up.
Here is my wheelchair analogy (and please know that I have nothing but respect for our wheelchair-bound brothers and sisters): take a hypothetical group of people who were raised in wheelchairs from the day they are born. There is nothing inherently wrong with their legs, but this group believed it best to get around via wheelchair; they simply stopped questioning the practice and relied upon the Wheelchair Scripture to justify and guide them. By a certain age, the idea of not being in a wheelchair becomes a frightening thought…walking, running, and dancing seem intolerably difficult and dangerous. Eventually, their legs become atrophied and it would take a great deal of effort even to stand upright; considering the (apparent) comfort and safety of the wheelchair, learning to walk appears ludicrous and incomprehensible.
Non-theists have learned to “walk” and often look at the “Wheelchairists” with bewilderment…”Why can’t they they just get up on their feet like we do? Look, it’s great to walk and run and dance!” But looking at the world without the existence of their supernatural models is anxiety-provoking, and their innate ability to see nature alone with wonder and gratitude has been atrophied. Science is, in essence, killing their all-powerful Caretaker and taking away their eternity of bliss. While it is important to challenge those beliefs, it is equally important to have compassion for the anxiety that provokes.
In their desperation to hold on to their wheelchairs, many theists refuse to understand the nature of science. This is why pieces by Sean are so important, because they give non-theists a way of explaining science using relatively accessible language. But more than that, being able to talk about the magnificence of nature as informed by science can act as “walking lessons”, at least for those who would like to get out of the chair but can’t get past the fear of the loss of the support.
Albert Einstein once said, “Religion is concerned with man’s attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship.” To this I would only add that religion is also concerned with promoting the experience of transcendence. These four things—attitudes, ideals, relationships, and transcendence—are, put together, best served in a religious context. Of course, it is really the last item that tips the scale towards religion; exploring things like science or philosophy might inspire fascination, curiosity, and thought, but only for a tiny few might they lead to a transcendent state of mind.
This is a main reason why religion exists: many people have a strong drive towards transcendence. Song, dance, chanting, meditation, ritual, and other activities continue to be life-enhancing for many people, even when they do not contain an ounce of supernaturalism. The experience of stepping out of one’s “mundane”, every-day state of mind is key to what we call meaningful profundity, being the sense of deep significance and connectivity which lies at the heart of religious experience.
The movement known as Religious Naturalism has yet to move substantially beyond theory into practice, although it has started to establish the attitudes and ideals that Einstein described. Sacred River, of course, has its own outline for these things, including the Spiritual Streams and the Four Virtues, as well as our understanding of progressivism and the utility of allegoricalism. But we are far from having an established set of practices. This will, hopefully, happen organically over time.
As a general point of observation, it is past time for mainstream religion to stop offering a few things that are not on Albert’s list, especially those things related to explaining phenomena. Religion has a terrible track record of providing accurate descriptions of the material universe and its multitude of processes. Some of the worst abuses of modern religion, such as campaigns against birth control or gay marriage, are often predicated on factually false models of reality. Worse, religion tends to offer what it cannot possibly deliver on, whether it be a miraculous cure for disease, an escape from poverty, or even a never-ending life of eternal bliss. People have a natural need for a sense of control and comfort—after all, life is difficult and often unfair, painful and confusing. Many religions take advantage of this by soothing the needy with fantasies, resulting in an overall decreased ability for people to think critically, to face the natural world on its own terms, and to cope effectively with the existential angst inherent in human life. That nearly half of American adults believe the Earth is only 6000 years old is indicative of the profoundly toxic effects of deistic religion’s efforts to provide causal accounts of the natural world.
In light of this, Sacred River takes the position that the Religious Naturalist movement has several ethical obligations:
1) to advocate for science as being the most reliable way of knowing about the world,
2) to increase fairness, economic opportunity, knowledge, and well-being (both personal and ecological), and
3) to promote naturalistic means for people to cope with the inescapable agonies of life.
I hope that this list might lead to a wider discussion about Religious Naturalism and the obligations implied by our shared worldview. After all, Einstein said that religion is, in part, about ideals. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to hope that we might aspire towards an ever-more courageous, integral, beneficent, and open society grounded in a healthy combination of scientific understanding and transcendent inspiration.
The following talk by author Jennifer Michael Hecht is highly recommended. My own comments follow below…
Hecht brings up many wonderful points in her brief talk. A key point that is certainly relevant to Sacred River is the idea that atheism doesn’t have to be antagonistic towards the idea of religion/spirituality. No doubt many visitors here are familiar with thinkers such as Dawkins and Hitchens who are downright militant towards religion, and it is no surprise that they have become the public banners for non-theism. Although I myself agree with 90% of what they have to say, that 10% difference is rather critical, and it seems that Ms. Hecht is of like mind.
Specifically, I agree with her that there is a place for communal and personal ritual in our lives and that it is beneficial to seek out transcendent states, two things that historically fall under the provence of religion. I also agree that there is no need for gods or supernaturalism to have them. Hecht is one of those who believe that life can be fulfilling and wondrous without the need for the metaphysical, even while looking towards structures and models that we call religious.
Something that Sacred River hasn’t yet delved into is the subject of death, which Hecht rightfully suggests is a key component of religion. As she says, millions of people go to a building once a week to stare at an image of a dead guy. While Sacred River will not adopt the morbid elements of resurrection worship, it is important to address the meaning and import of death, to allow our knowledge of human mortality to make our lives richer and brighter.
We stand with those who say that non-theism can be much more than a movement of NO. Religious naturalism is one promising manifestation of that notion. While we at Sacred River explicitly reject supernaturalism of any kind, we also embrace human excellence, beauty and imperfection, the majesty of Nature, the challenges and comforts of intentional community, and our ability to transcend the everyday and see ourselves as part of the sacred web of being. The universe is so stupendously complex and amazing that—even as science offers the best way to comprehend it—it requires art, poetry, and music to even begin to capture our experience of it. And is this not one of key elements of any religion, to provide a system for transmitting an understanding of reality and what it means to be a living part of the world? At one time (and, alas, for many people still), God (and his supporting cast) was the best possible model for all we didn’t grasp; now it is time for new models that reflect the grandeur, terror, and ecstasy that is life.
It has a been a number of weeks since Sacred River has seen a new post and for that I apologize. Alas, life got in the way. Fortunately, it has all been good changes, but they have nevertheless left little time for writing essays.
But that does make me think of something to mention. This is more of an invitation to ponder rather than a full examination, but that itself makes the topic relevant. One of the core themes of Sacred River is the notion that spirituality is not a distinct branch of living, such as family or education, but is infused into all parts of life. From this perspective, spirituality is an approach or orientation towards living, informing everything we do. Yes, there are times we can set aside for specifically religious activity, but those events should ideally enrich or expand upon one’s everyday spiritual self.
I mention this because my own life has been filled lately with the pragmatic and common—travel, work, school, relationship, home. If I were to list out everything I’ve been doing the last few weeks nothing really stands out as exceptional or unusual, much less spiritually transcendent. While transcendence is a perfectly acceptable spiritual goal, it is not one of our key aims, which include meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Part of what I’ve been trying to do recently is to take time each day to examine all the things I’m doing and to put them into perspective. By that, I mean I try to see things holistically, to see all these mundane activities as parts of a larger and far more magnificent whole. In doing so, I’m reminded of my place within the order of things and of the splendor that is ordinary life.
There are times when we need to disrupt, to challenge, and to grow. There are also times to celebrate and bask in the joy of living. And yet in other times, it is all we can do just to cope and keep our heads above water. How we approach all of these times determines to a very large degree what our life ends up meaning and how we perceive it. A significant part of spirituality involves this very question of how we approach things like disruption, growth, celebration, relaxation, and coping. Frankly, I have nothing very wise to say about what such an approach should be—that is ultimately up to each person to decide based upon their own genuine sense of self. But at the very least I can remind you that we have choices about such things. And that we have such choices at all is what makes us such astounding, miraculous creatures.
Although Darwin’s birthday is on the 12th of February, it is he who has given the greatest of gifts. His theory of natural selection enabled a profound shift in our understanding of the world and its multitude of lifeforms. It is indeed far-reaching, perhaps even beyond his own imagination. And the theory has the benefit of being comprehensible—while the details of evolutionary processes involve incredible complexity, the underlying principle is relatively simple, beautiful even. And so, let’s take a few moments to offer our gratitude to a man who did so much to advance scientific understanding of this magnificent universe.
One of common elements of theistic religion is the belief in a beneficent force that is aware of and concerned about individual humans. I assume that people have a wide range of emotions about this force, from fear to awe to comfort. We non-theists lack faith in such a supernatural consciousness and so we are absent of the anxiety or hope of our actions, thoughts, and prayers being weighed on celestial scales.
But Nature is not without its forces, blind to the welfare of humans as they might be. It is possible now to understand the world in a way that is far different than the clockwork materialists of the Enlightenment. Religious Naturalists no longer see the universe as being filled with just a bunch of matter knocking about the proverbial pool table. Rather, we can see an intricate web of subtle processes, a metaphorical river of being and creation.
A virtuous person is one who intentionally seeks personal excellence. Of course, what defines excellence has been a topic of contemplation and debate for the entire history of humankind. Plato recognized four virtues: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. Christianity looks to traits such as faith, love, meekness, and chastity as important virtues. Submission to the will of God is the central virtue in Islam. The Buddha extolled compassion. Humanity, filial piety, and loyalty are Confucian virtues.
In all, there are countless traits and actions that world religions and cultures have put forth as exemplars of excellence. Starting with this foundation, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues have outlined a list of human strengths and traits that potentially lead to well-being—knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, each of which have a sub-list of yet more traits. No doubt research will continue to look into the scope and outcomes of various human traits.
Sacred River offers its own system of four cardinal virtues: Courage, Integrity, Beneficence, and Openness. These are not presented as immaculate virtues in the sense of a divine or revealed ideal. Rather, they are ways of being, both in action and attitude, in service to our central spiritual aim—leading a more meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous life.
Needless to say, I am thrilled that Obama was sworn in yesterday as our 44th president. Although I expect to be frustrated and even disappointed by him from time to time, I am ultimately hopeful and enthusiastic about our future. In his speech, he said a couple of things that I really appreciated.
The first was his mention of “non-believers”. Considering that about 13% of Americans are non-theists, it is about time that we were acknowledged. It will be a long time before being non-theistic will no longer be a political liability. But that journey starts with the understanding that we exist and that, unlike popular misconception, we are not minions of Satan, we are not morally rudderless, we are not withering in existential misery (at least not more than anyone else), and we vote.
The second was his statement that science will be restored to its proper place. It has been painful to watch the last administration treat science as an inconvenience at best, tossed aside whenever it conflicted with conservative ideology. But as many are now finally realizing, ignoring scientific data doesn’t make reality go away. Having a president who actually respects science is a huge breath of fresh air, indicated by Obama’s excellent appointment of Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. Let’s hope that this is but the start of a grand revival of science in America.
Ever since FDR first introduced prayer at the inaugural ceremonies in 1933, they have each and every one invoked a monotheistic god. A strong case can be made to say that including such prayers is inappropriate at one of our chief secular rituals. Nevertheless, they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. This year, with Rick Warren, the anti-gay pastor of the Saddleback mega-church, set to give the opening prayer at Obama’s inauguration, the issue has grown in significance. His support of California’s Prop 8, which strips the right of marriage from gays and lesbians, makes his participation especially abhorrent.
Since it is safe to assume that his prayer (and those of the other religious speakers) will again call on a personal Father-God, I wanted to write my own benediction from a naturalistic orientation. The following is hardly poetic or memory-worthy, but I will be reading it during Warren’s invocation, dreaming of a time when supernatural beliefs no longer have a place in our secular life.
On this historic day we inaugurate our new President and Vice-President, that solemn ceremony epitomizing the secular process of our enduring democracy. We offer our gratitude to those great minds that courageously embarked upon the American experiment, who had faith in the essential goodness of humanity and envisioned a country whose every citizen might equally enjoy the freedom, security, and opportunity that the rule of law might provide. We further give thanks to all those individuals, both civic and military, who have sacrificed all they have to forward the fortunes of our nation.
On this day, we grant unto President-elect Obama, Vice-President-elect Biden, as well as their families and members of their administration our support and our hope that they will find the strength and wisdom they will need in the coming years. In light of the challenges we as a nation face, may they never fall short of the fierce courage, unwavering integrity, compassionate beneficence, and broad open-mindedness they must have to fulfill the potential of their profound duties.
Despite the darkness of these days, we recognize that this can also be a wondrous time, a time of great renewal and revitalization. We must now reaffirm our dedication to a culture of social responsibility and environmental stewardship. Once again we must look to our own resources to refill the national vault, not only with economic prosperity, but just as importantly with our wealth of humanity—education, the arts, science and green technology, health care, and a new age of justice, liberty, and progress. The world is ready to look to us once again, not only as moral leaders, but as a partner in the struggle for a healthy planet and a lasting peace, and we must not, we shall not fall short of these sacred obligations.
Let us mark this day as a turning point in the journey towards the splendor that is our potential, a potential measured by our dedication to a world without poverty, injustice, or fear. A world where all humankind can embrace each other as the Great Family we truly are, and live as one on this divine earth as virtuous and responsible citizens.