Secular Humanism

I got my ethical foundations from my family but also from the secular humanist university milieu I grew up in without a hint of religion or god in that context. During the Cuban Missile Crisis I wrestled with the possibility of nuclear war, my own mortality, and was I destined to go to hell if there was a god which I was not believing in. For me, that concern did not change the “facts on the ground”, in the sky, in the heart, or in the laughs of children, where other people might feel the presence of a deity.

One could assume, that if I did not believe in god, then I was essentially saying that those who did were misguided and flat wrong. Though there is an obvious logic to this assertion, which I have pondered often, it has always irked me. Can’t I not believe in god and accept that you do, without my non-belief being seen as a statement invalidating your belief?

Years later after reading more about the theology and history of various religions and the profound impact Christianity in particular has had on American cultural development (something that was minimized in my public school history textbooks), I continue to try and construct a theological context that allows for atheists and believers without the two having to be in conflict.

The best I’ve managed to construct so far is to work with the conception of god from Aristotle and other classical Greek thinkers. They saw god as a totally unknowable concept that launched the universe in motion but was no longer involved in its playing out. If you wanted to try to understand god, your best bet was to try and contemplate nothingness. After reading that, I thought, could there be a deeper level of connection or knowing or whatever that was impossible to really define which many people interpreted as god? From my experience I could acknowledge that deeper level, but I have never thought of it as being associated with a deity, though I can appreciate that other people do.

Some of my more religious, more god-oriented friends and acquaintances have wondered where my ethics can come from if I don’t believe in a deity who will punish me if I misbehave. This appears to be a major concern of many people in our country and apparently a reason why “out atheists” have trouble running for high public office. How can we entrust a person with the reins of power if they do not feel they have to answer (like the Hebrew National hotdog makers) to a higher power?

So where do my ethics come from, if not from following god’s rules?

Well, first I guess from my parents and other mentors who have been in my life. My mom actually believed in god, but thought that religion was the bane of human culture, and responsible for most of the worlds wars and suffering. She never once that I could remember suggested that I should believe as well. I really don’t recall her ever talking about ethics in an abstract sense, or attempt to instruct me. She did tell me how she felt about things that I was doing or not doing. How upset and disappointed she was that I was not staying on top of my chore of taking out the trash when the kitchen wastebasket was full, since she needed me to pitch in and help with the housekeeping. Later, how grateful she was that I had taken on doing all the family laundry at the Laundromat.

My dad was not into ethical instruction either, but I learned from his example, for better or for worse at times. My dad (the PhD and college professor) would always treat other people with great respect, even those much less educated and of lesser circumstance than himself. I clearly witnessed this every day I spent with him. Of course, if he thought someone had done him wrong, then he would plot and plan to even the score somehow… an eye for an eye! And as I have said before, he also approached life as a grand adventure, and there are plenty of ethics to be derived from that orientation, including the importance of humility and bearing witness to beauty and grace.

Then there is the “Golden Rule”, which is so commonly referred to in passing, but its profundity is often overlooked. I have heard great theological scholars say that it is what all great religions really boil down to. When I finally faced my own anger at my parent’s divorce, and put myself in my mom’s and dad’s shoes, the Golden Rule became the main ethical principle of my life. I have been blessed by the important people (starting with my parents) that I have encountered in this incarnation caring about me and being of assistance to me, so I more and more focus myself on being of assistance to others.

I think a lot of my parents’ values and my own came out of or were otherwise nurtured by the context we lived in, a progressive Midwestern state university community drawing people from all over the world. A university exemplifies the possibility and the power (whether real or imagined) of human endeavor, particularly educated human endeavor directed towards helping the larger community.

There is the famous quote from Woodrow Wilson that sums it up: “There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” A secular university embodies this principle certainly in theory if not always in practice. My mom and my dad, their friends affiliated with the university and just the gravitas of the buildings themselves on campus all spoke to the fact that we humans were empowered with the capability of learning the great accumulated knowledge of human experience to solve the world’s problems and make human life better.

Though I can recall individuals to the contrary, it seemed to me that there is generally not a sense of aristocracy and elitism in a public Midwestern university that one might find (or at least stereotypically expect) in say the more exclusive Ivy League schools. I got the sense again from my parents and the other university affiliated adults (friends or my folks and parents of my own friends) that anyone of any race, creed or social situation was basically of equal merit and could equally benefit from the knowledge available in the hallowed halls and ivory towers of this institution of “higher learning”.

And again, in all this vision, in all these high-minded principles (at least as I was exposed to them) there was no place given to or even mention of god. You may call it hubris, but why should we humans surrender to a deity things we can figure out to do for ourselves?

I carried these values, even unconsciously, when I moved to Los Angeles. At first I found myself among people affiliated with the TV and film business, particularly those entry-level denizens like myself tying to break in to that business. There seemed to be a very different ethic at play in this group, one of deceit and whatever works and nowhere the idea of higher service to others.

For reasons of ethics if none other, I gravitated away from the entertainment industry and into feminism and the fight for Equal Rights for Women, joining the cause in Los Angeles that had been a strong motivation for my mother and my “Feminist Aunts” in Ann Arbor. Here was a movement dedicated to service to others, in particular the larger community of women denied their place at the table as partners besides their male counterparts.

In my more recent years, getting involved with Unitarian-Universalism, and lay leadership in a UU congregation in particular, I have become more interested in the common elements of the ethical frameworks that various religions (including Unitarian-Universalism) are built around. Certainly the basic UU principles, featuring the inherent worth and dignity of all people, promoting the democratic process, honoring the many paths to higher truth and meaning, and the interconnected web of all existence, embody a secular humanism that does not require the presence of deities but also does not rule them out.

I have studied history, the critical role religion has played in history, and the basic tenants of many of the world’s religions. I have wrestled with the various conceptions of…

* The one God, as either a male-identified actor in ongoing human affairs in the conventional Judeo-Christian sense, or as only the Creator who set in motion the forces of the Universe in the deist sense

* The Goddess as a female-identified actor, seen in more modern terms perhaps as Mother Nature or Gaia

* Polytheism, particularly of the Greek/Roman, Norse or Native American traditions

My feminism has encouraged me to embrace the idea of The Goddess as a counterpoint to the more prevalent view of the (generally male-identified) God, to extend the male/female equal partnership to the divine level of sorts. But in the end, after extensively processing it all, I can only acknowledge deities (God, The Goddess, Mother Nature) as metaphors for a deeper level of transcending mystery. I still put my final faith in we humans and our evolving consciousness and ability to chart our course and steward our planet.

2 replies on “Secular Humanism”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *