In Part 1 of this two-part post, I described my time at a seminar hosted at an Evangelical church designed to address the morality of the Old Testament. While the Evangelicals themselves were kind and compassionate people, their intrinsic belief that God is real leaves no room for questioning him. All their questions are directed toward themselves, as in why they don’t understand the true meaning of a passage, not why such passages exist or why a god would use depictions of genocide to illustrate his loving plan. In stark contrast to the projected certainty of Evangelical apologetics stand the Unitarian Universalists of Bloomington, who make deep questioning and inquiry a priority and welcome all people—believers and nonbelievers alike. Some may deride them as being too open or wishy-washy, and while I can understand that criticism I feel it neglects the honest searching that Unitarian Universalists engage in. I have attended three services and Humanist Forums at this church and have come away each time with a better understanding of what I am looking for in a community. The services were enjoyable, and it led me to important questions as to what our Secular Humanist movement needs and why some are planning a Sunday Assembly in Bloomington. I believe the Unitarian Universalists offer a great opportunity for us to consider what we are attempting to create in a gathering for atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, and the like.
Order is Important
A difference between Unitarian Universalism and Evangelical Christianity emerged that weekend, and I feel it undergirds most of what I see to be inherent differences in world views. Unitarian Universalists speak of care and compassion primarily, then occasionally add spiritual beliefs. Evangelicals instead heap praise on God in supplication first and then see expressed love or compassion as secondary effects. This difference in order illustrates to me that Unitarian Universalists are Humanists first, while Evangelicals have a very low opinion of humans and see our rights as coming second to God’s. By acknowledging that we can have compassion, dignity, and morals intrinsically without need for a meddling deity, I find Unitarian Universalists to be quite compatible with my own Secular Humanism, and in some cases indistinguishable. When a separate group shares much of our beliefs they should be our allies.
Seeking Knowledge and Embracing Uncertainty
Another difference was their portrayal of texts: Evangelicals believe the Bible is the singular, true Word of the singular, loving God. Unitarian Universalists instead look upon history’s texts as containing insights into humanity and our struggles. They view these texts as an opportunity to reflect on humans’ endless searching for answers typified by the stories within, a point I believe to be both historically and sociologically accurate. They even offer classes on world religions and belief systems—something many Evangelicals would view as opening the door to Satan himself. They’re willing to be curious and “open-beliefed” as opposed to the certainty that Evangelicalism proclaims, and leave plenty of room for unanswerable questions.
It is possible to go too far in being open, as the quip “don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out” crudely illustrates. I will admit that I have heard mention of “spirit” and “faith” in the Unitarian Universalist services and even puzzling mysticism from members. As a Skeptic I question assumptions and beliefs, but part of learning how to be a good skeptic is knowing when to publicly speak up, and when to privately research and individually disagree. When the priority of those around you is to support one another in a lifelong journey of inquiry, there is little need to go around constantly poking holes. I believe that the best tool of a skeptic is patience, and is expressed through getting to know someone where in the process natural points arise to ask questions about their beliefs and assumptions. The church hosts a regular small group of members, The Humanist Forum, who meet every other week to discuss interesting topics. The last topic was “One or Two Big Questions” where the moderator asked for questions without easy answers. Most of the people spoke of concerns about the future of humanity and the global ecosystem, which are topics I find concerning as well. I found fellow seekers of knowledge who respect one another and are willing to say they don’t know over invoking an all-explaining god.
What I’m looking for
Attending church services brought me back to an inescapable part of my past, and it wasn’t a bad encounter. I grew up in a small, rural Methodist church, and while I frequently felt distant due to my disbelief, I nonetheless look back at that community with growing appreciation. A small assortment of people, about half family, came to this church every Sunday. What they were each looking for I can’t attest to, but I’m fairly certain of what they gained. In such a place, strangers and familiars alike are greeted warmly. From the sermon they would receive reassurances of their good nature and better things to come. Our music was frequently joyful and sometimes somber, but always melodic. Individual concerns and grief were shared and accomplishments celebrated. Regular potluck lunches after church prolonged their fellowship (in this context eating and talking, humans’ top two favorite things). What religious communities like the one in my past offer is something that makes doctrine and ritual mere myth and ceremony, something that gives these practices substance regardless of the actual beliefs contained therein. But what is it?
At the Unitarian Universalist church I was welcomed by many and spoke to many kind and compassionate people. Their service had time for quiet meditation. The music was familiar yet different, with lyrics about togetherness and changing seasons instead of Jesus. Four young adults, each a representative from a different continent (Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America) sang songs together for the children to illustrate the globally-shared nature of humanity. It seems that very real and good things happen when curious and joyful people gather together, and none of it is supernatural. If gathering together like this is necessary for human happiness, as I believe it is, where shall we Secular Humanists go? To the Unitarian Universalist churches, or somewhere else?
Taking Steps Forward
Critics like the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) are right to point out the obvious issues with the morality of the Bible and millennia of Christian practice. However, for believers who look no further past all the goodness they’re surrounded by, these objections sound absurd. And for good reason: these churches provide—not so much by their beliefs but by their practices—real and tangible benefits to members that are very hard to find elsewhere. When believers’ doubts take only a quick gloss to address, it seems to me that it’s not the beliefs that keep people in the pews but the social practices their churches embody. I believe that the major obstacle to many more people leaving their churches is our lack of such communal gatherings. When we don’t have a community whose explicit purpose is to build networks of interdependence I feel the perception of our worldview is of alienation, where we nonbelievers are independent and alone. When some argue that we have secular alternatives for social groups, they are correct to a degree. Special interest and recreational gatherings do promote forming friendships and bring a sense of collective identity, but is it enough? I’m not sure it is, and that’s why I’ve been to the Unitarian Universalist church to better understand how religion works. There are natural, material human practices in play that are worth examining and using.
Plans are underway to host a Sunday Assembly in Bloomington, and the big question I have is What will it be like? How much will it resemble a Unitarian Universalist service? How will it be different? How can we blend the best aspects of religion (the community, the food, the music, the warmth) and the best aspects of Humanism (questioning, autonomy, ethics)? In many ways it already exists in the Unitarian Universalist church.
Here’s the takeaway point: attending Unitarian Universalist services allows us to find what’s good in humanity’s history. As Freethinkers we’re not bound to taking the whole texts as Truth, and are therefore able to draw useful wisdom about our beneficial and harmful inclinations—much of which is timeless.
I attended events at two different religious institutions this weekend. One was at an evangelical church, with an author speaking on a topic very relevant to my interests: Old Testament ethics. The other was a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church and their Humanist Forum after, where the moderator asked for “big questions” that don’t have easy answers. The extreme difference in worldview—certainty of Truth versus seekers of knowledge—led me to questions that relate directly to potential alliances for our movement and plans in Bloomington for founding a Sunday Assembly. Below is Part 1 on evangelical certainty, and Part 2 will follow with intellectual curiosity and an examination of what we’re looking for.
Evangelical Christian Certainty
The seminar at a local evangelical church featured Dr. Paul Copan, professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Christian college. As apologist and author, he has written or co-written several books, including the seminar’s Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, coauthored with William Lane Craig. The opening chapter of his Moral Monster book is a brief criticism of the New Atheists where Copan derides them as angry, simplistic, and sanctimonious. To set a similar tone for his seminar, Copan spoke of the New Atheists as his main antagonists and hinted he would render them fools.
Biblical Literalism and Rhetoric
One of his main pillars of argument arrived soon: apparent moral issues are not really problems, as they are simply incorrect translations or out-of-context readings neglecting the proper historical context or genre of the Bible. Copan spent much time citing lengthy lists of Bible verses to build support for his argument that the genocide committed or commanded by God was really just rhetoric typical of the times. An example of God’s apparent support of genocide is in Exodus, with God speaking to Moses and company as the setting of the story:
My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (Exodus 23:23)
And another passage, telling of how Joshua did as the Lord instructed:
When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6:20-21 NIV)
As I’ve been reading the Old Testament it has struck me as odd that God promised he would clear the land of its inhabitants for his nomadic chosen people, yet pages later those damned (literally) Caananites were still hanging around. God’s promises to expel and exterminate the Caananites, the narrative of Joshua and others killing everyone inhabiting multiple towns, and subsequent stories chronicling the Canaanites’ steadfast survival are resolved by Copan, who claims that when these aspects of the Bible disagree one must interpret the commands for genocide as rhetorical flourish. Since the people who were to be exterminated are said to have survived, Copan concludes that the earlier passages are bluster. God and Joshua merely destroyed military forts, so women and children were not present and therefore no genocide was committed. I felt this was an inadequate explanation, given that Christians claim the Bible is God’s Holy Word. Why would God need to include such flourishes extolling and commanding the mass murder of men, women, children, and animals? Regardless of whether or not God “really” commanded genocide or whether Joshua “really” killed all the men, women, and children of Jericho, the words supporting genocide are still in the book. Why were those words, whether rhetorical or not, chosen by God to instruct?
When Slavery Isn’t Slavery
Similar to Copan’s previous argument that what looks like genocide wasn’t really, instances of “slavery” should be translated as “indentured servitude” which wasn’t nearly as harsh as slavery in US history. The opening prayer at the seminar included a request of God to “give him [Copan] the right words to say,” which, if believed, would strengthen my question of how all these people who believe God is directly leading them and giving them words can arrive at such different translations and interpretations of the Bible. My New International Version (NIV) Bible includes an extensive history of the production of that translation, and cites scholars from over 13 major denominations sourced from around the world. These experts translated one passage on slavery from Hebrew texts as:
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy one of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Leviticus 25:44 NIV)
If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NIV)
I’m not sure how one could interpret these passages as anything but the slavery we know of from all of human history: the ownership of other humans as property, and the exploitation of that property. There are verses that instruct kinder provisions for fellow Israelites who had fallen on hard times, but the text makes it quite clear that non-Israelites get no such mercy. Copan goes on to argue that God regulating slavery but stopping short of abolishing it was a moral improvement over surrounding cultures, and is adequate since God was limited in what he could get the Israelites to do. This was puzzling, as I thought Christians believed God is all-powerful and all-knowing. How such a God could be limited in what he can accomplish given that Christians believe he created both humans and the world we live in left me unsatisfied.
Taking a step back
It’s easy to get lost in a stream of biblical citations from every book of the Protestant Bible, and Dr. Copan spent considerable time summarizing many verses. He also cited many authors or scholars to support his arguments without giving any information as to why that particular person’s translation or interpretation is warranted. Christian apologists are experts in crafting systems of arguments and textual citations that are internally consistent, yet fail when one steps back and examines the context of their arguments. When each individual apologist creates their own set of translations out of ambiguous texts, they are engaging in a more extreme relativism than they accuse their opponents the New Atheists of. Shouldn’t the Word of God contain the Best Morality, not incremental “improvements”? Shouldn’t believers who all claim divine guidance and support agree on the very text their divinity provided?
Copan’s attacks on the New Atheists showed that he doesn’t see the difference between criticism of god as a philosophical concept and the Christian God who is presented as the same. When Dawkins and others criticize God they are frequently pointing out the glaring inconsistencies between philosophical questions of origins and the narrative of the Christian Bible. We have many reasons to doubt the historicity of the Old Testament, and attempts at buttressing the moral code of this ancient text fall flat. With their insistence on Truth embodied in a Book, apologists paint themselves into a corner with attempts to make sense of irreconcilable philosophies and texts. An alternative to this is looking at the Bible and other religious texts as important but not infallible guides to human behavior, and this practice at the Unitarian Universalist church will be examined in the next part.
There’s been a lot of debate about the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, mostly concerning the publicity such an event brings to creationists—publicity that some wish creationists didn’t receive. This same issue has come up when the Secular Alliance visited the Creation Museum operated by Ham’s Answers in Genesis, in that by purchasing tickets we are in effect supporting his work. It’s a valid concern, and it’s one that has kept some people from going to the Museum with us. My justification in the past has been that it’s important to see how ideas opposite our own are presented. Better understanding others’ positions and ideas is absolutely essential if we want to reach those who disagree with us by helping better formulate our questions and responses.
I would use the same argument for the debate, in that it’s a great opportunity to see what the main arguments from creationism are with the added bonus of not having to pay any money. We can see the best arguments being put forth for Ham’s position, and consider changing our own arguments accordingly to be more effective.
However, the most important element of this debate is the simple publicity it brings to our group. Bill Nye is an endearing figure for many people who grew up watching his television series, and many more people are interested in seeing him speak than might be interested in some of our other activities as a secular student group. This debate is even drawing many religious student groups, which we normally have little contact with.
In the end, this debate gives us an extraordinary chance at reaching out to students we normally wouldn’t be able to, especially given our limited financial and personnel resources. The attention Ken Ham receives probably will help his plans to build a “replica” of Noah’s Ark, and temporarily reverse the decline in attendance at his Creation Museum. At the same time, many secular student groups around the country are showing the debate and benefitting from the easy publicity for their own groups. I would say capitalizing on the hard work of others for the benefit of our student groups is a great way to offset any publicity gained by Ham, as long as we try to learn as much as possible.
Carl Sagan Day is fast approaching, and we’re excited about the lineup of speakers and events we have planned! For more info, visit sagan.saiu.org.
Carl Sagan, in our current book club pick The Demon-Haunted World, spends considerable time discussing skepticism and its application to science. Throughout the book, he recounts story after story of personal experiences and the extreme degree to which memories can easily be rewritten and experiences reinterpreted. He graciously gives enough background for each example so that the person’s mistaken ideas are seen in an understanding light. The reader can see that, if they were in the same position and had access to only those experiences, they might come to similar (mistaken) conclusions. Through these examples, he demonstrates that human experience is largely swayed by interior emotional states and external urgings directing interpretation. Several questions are raised, such as where do we draw the line for what is counted as “evidence”? Does feeling something more strongly make it more likely to be true?
By his examples of people being led into believing wholeheartedly in events that were complete fabrications, we can reasonably claim that human experience, no matter how “rational” or “reasonable” we presume it to be, is largely unreliable and subject to extreme distortion. For example, we now know that “strange” mental phenomena are an expected part of human neural activity. What determines how these phenomena are interpreted is largely social. Depending on a social community’s established interpretations, when someone in that community has a hallucination it can be interpreted as anything from a random side effect of pattern-matching networks gone awry to an ascendant experience of an alternate, normally-closed reality. All human activity is filtered through social constructs, such that even when someone encounters a novel situation, they are primed in certain ways to fit their experience into sensible forms. With this in mind, how can we possibly determine what is “real” if all we have are these sometimes-nonsensical senses?
Enter the scientific method: People have been testing the world around us for centuries now, and we have amassed a great deal of consistent knowledge about how it functions. While human perception is our only tool for understanding the world around us, it can easily lead us astray. What multiple people observing the same things brings us is consistency through repeatability. These repeated “sensings” allow us to get an average experience that we can say, with high confidence, constitutes reality. Science gives us a method to find consistent explanations that minimize expected human error, and with it we have learned much. Prayer has been used for thousands of years in an attempt to alter reality, especially the reality of illness, and yet there are many instances of demonstrable failure. With the consistency of science, we have developed disease treatments that work. We have been able to construct a history of our species, of life, of Earth, our solar system, and of the universe itself that is consistent and has great explanatory power for new findings in, say, epigenetics or particle physics. Our scientific understanding doesn’t depend on a select few experiences of “the divine,” which are inconsistent at best and completely contradictory when taken as a whole. In this great endeavor open to all, we have accomplished much through the equalizing and elevating practice of science.
Though nobody has ventured from Earth’s orbit since the final Apollo mission over 40 years ago, access to space travel is poised to become more affordable, available and commonplace than ever before. Recent developments in the space industry are promising dramatically cheaper access to space, and with that promise comes the possibility that long-imagined solutions to Earth’s environmental, economic, and energy problems may finally become viable. Imagine limitless energy beamed down to Earth from orbiting satellites, polluting factories moved off-world, and strip mines closed in favor of raw materials delivered from the sky. If access to space becomes cheap enough, all of these ideas can migrate from the imaginations of sci-fi authors into the real world.
It is no secret that NASA, the agency that put men on the moon and flew the Space Shuttle, is perpetually short on money. As the Space Shuttle retires to America’s museums, NASA is diverting millions of dollars from their own in-house spacecraft development to private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX that promise to deliver goods and people to space at a far lower cost than NASA has been able to achieve.
The key is launch costs, typically expressed as cost per pound to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Space Shuttle, developed with the intention of making spaceflight cheaper than ever, promised to deliver cargo for as low as $600/lb to LEO, but ended its career with an average cost of $8,000/lb. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can do the job for $1,800/lb, and Elon Musk believes that upcoming design improvements and scaled-up rockets could bring the cost as low as $500/lb. At that point, it becomes economically viable to do a lot more in space than just science.
One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet is power generation, but what if you didn’t have to burn any fuel in power plants? What if you didn’t have to worry about nuclear accidents or waste disposal? What if all the power you could ever need was simply beamed down from space? The concept of space-based solar power could make this a reality. The logic is simple: solar power is far more efficient in space, because the sunlight isn’t diffused by Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, why not build huge solar power stations in geosynchronous orbit, where the sun always shines, and beam the power to antenna farms on Earth in the form of microwaves? The microwave beam, when spread over a few square miles of receiving antennas, would be largely benign to living organisms and 100% pollution-free. The limiting factor to this idea has always been the cost of getting huge amounts of solar cells into orbit, but if SpaceX follows through on their promises, space-based power could be an enticing opportunity for profit. As we all know, if there is profit to be made, somebody will step up to the plate and make it happen.
Space also provides a perfect environment for exotic forms of manufacturing that aren’t possible in the gravity on Earth’s surface. In zero gravity, metallic alloys can be created that are impossible to replicate on Earth. Molten metals that would separate into layers when mixed on Earth will intermix perfectly without gravity. The vacuum of space is an ultraclean environment that allows manufacturing with none of the contamination issues of working on Earth. Additionally, extreme hot and extreme cold are available at a moment’s notice, simply through exposure to the outside environment. In fact, solar cells could be produced very easily and cheaply in space, making the construction of huge orbiting power stations more reasonable. But, where would the raw materials come from?
The ultimate promise of cheap access to space is profitable exploitation of off-world resources. One metallic asteroid, a few miles across, contains more gold, silver, platinum, and exotic rare-earth minerals than have ever been mined on Earth, in all of human history. One asteroid could make all the environmental damage of mining on Earth unnecessary, not to mention making the people (or corporation) that claims it unfathomably wealthy. This is the lynchpin of what makes space exploration beneficial to humanity: if the cost of access to space gets low enough to make asteroid mining profitable, every other idea about manufacturing and power generation becomes dramatically cheaper. All it takes is for the cost of launching your machinery to the asteroid to go low enough for even one company to believe they can make a profit. When that happens, American capitalism will do the rest, and the worst of our pollution and industry could finally be moved someplace they can’t affect our environment or quality of life.
This is why we should be excited about the future of space, even as the iconic NASA ships we all grew up with are put to rest. This is the answer to the skeptical question: “Why waste money in space when it could be spent helping people on Earth?” Space holds the promise of a solution to the trashing of our environment in pursuit of energy and industry, and even more tantalizing, a solution to scarcity itself. All it takes is for one person to look at the costs and say “Yes. We can make money out there.” The next space race won’t be driven by military paranoia and national rivalry. It will be driven by entrepreneurs looking to strike it big by fixing Earth’s worst problems.
The moon landings and the International Space Station were just the beginning. The next push into space could be just around the corner, and unlike the flags and footprints of NASA, this one won’t stop for anything.
The Secular Alliance book club will be reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan as our first pick of the fall semester. In it you’ll find his useful “Baloney Detection Kit” to carefully evaluate new evidence before accepting its implications. Also within is the story of the invisible, heatless-fire-breathing dragon, which no conceivable test can actually detect. Is it worth even saying it exists? Through analogy we can better understand the scientific method and what its findings entail. It’s a great book that’s sure to bring great discussion, so join us later in September for our first meeting.
Much of the media coverage of the Religious Right today is focusing on their portrayal of “religious liberty” and how the government, abortion proponents, and “the homosexuals” are infringing upon it. But who is oppressing whom? Are the rights of gays and lesbians to get the recognition and benefits of marriage being oppressed, or is it the “right” of the religious to have the laws mirror their convictions the true loss?
We’ll be exploring ideas of religious liberty throughout September, but our headline speaker is Rev. Steven Baines of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. We’ll also be examining the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, including the book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense which was cited by Justice Alito in his dissenting opinion. Through examining these resources we will better understand the “religious liberty” ideal as a tension between groups and their competing rights.
Join us at our weekly Sunday meetings to talk about these issues and more as we prepare for an active fall!
You may have seen some of our chalk around campus, especially one with the words Change the world with SCIENCE. What does this mean? It’s tricky because “science” doesn’t tell us what do do or how to behave. Scientific methods simply provide background information on issues, and the decisions are left to other methods, like politics, activism, and social movements. Sometimes, however, science provides us with compelling reasons because there is so much data pointing in a similar direction that the lines are obvious. There are some obvious lines today, like that one species has been able to affect an entire planet on a scale never before seen with global climate change. Another is that social institutions like marriage have changed many, many times throughout their history such that there is not “one way” or “originally-created” version.
The Secular Humanist movement believes in real change brought about by the hard work of many people—people who aspire for a world of equality, freedom of thought and speech, and sustainable living. We found our actions on the obvious lines of science applied to human need, including those in future generations. What sort of world are we creating for them? Are conditions going to be better or worse than they are now? What’s more pro-life than concern for global human suffering, future human suffering, and achievement of an equitable society?
You too can be a part of this movement. We have a lot of exciting programs for you to jump into. Just come to our callout on September 5 at 6pm in Fine Arts 015 to find out more. The Secular Alliance is the group to be in if you want to make a positive impact on the world without the divisiveness of rigid ideologies. We do good things because we can rationally see they are good, not because someone tells us to.
You may have noticed some changes to saiu.org. We’ve been touched by his noodly appendage and blessed with a new website! Aside from the new look, you can still quickly find out about our events and read engaging blog posts on our themes for the semester. And we have an exciting event planned for the fall that will be announced at our callout and posted here, so come back and stay informed!