General Assembly 2010 Event 3039
Presenter: Dale McGowan
Sponsor: Liberal Religious Educators Association
Unitarian Universalists have a unique opportunity for bridge-building between theistic and non-theistic worldviews. Learn how to build communities that invite "engaged co-existence," a posture that celebrates a diversity of worldviews while inviting discourse and challenge, encouraging each toward its best expression.
PAT KAHN: Good afternoon. Just making sure that everyone is in the place they think they're supposed to be. This is session 3039, the Fahs Lecture. Welcome. My name is Pat Kahn. I'm the secretary of the board for the Liberal Religious Educators Association, better known as LREDA LREDA has sponsored the Fahs Lecture annually since 1974 in honor of Sophia Lyons Fahs, a pivotal figure in the last century who influenced our approach to liberal religious education in profound ways. I want to thank Janet Hanson and the Fahs Lecture Committee for bringing this year's speaker, Dale McGowan. Dale is no stranger to UU religious education. He's the editor of the book, Parenting Beyond Belief, which includes essays by two UU ministers—the Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons and the Reverend Dr. Bobby Nelson. His next book, Raising Free Thinkers includes contributions from LREDA member and chair of the RE Credentialing Committee, Jan Devor.
In 2008 Dale was named Harvard Humanist of the Year. He currently serves as the executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist, charitable, and educational foundation based in Atlanta. And personally, since I served the UU congregation of Atlanta I am really glad that Dale decided to move away from Minneapolis and come to Atlanta.
PAT KAHN: Your loss is my gain. Since his first workshop that he did for parents in my congregation three years ago Dale has become an annual event by popular demand, so I give you Dale McGowan.
DALE MCGOWAN: Thanks so much, Pat. Hi everybody. I want to first of all thank LREDA from the bottom of my heart for this invitation. I nearly passed out from excitement when I heard the invitation. No kidding. The topics I'll be talking about today are my favorites. These are the things that I just love to talk about. And this is just about my ideal audience, so the combination of those two things is really fantastic. But a few weeks into preparing my remarks I realized that the description I had submitted was actually too narrow for what I was going to talk about. I talk about community building and engaged coexistence and all this with humanists and atheists groups all the time, but a lot of what I recommend they do to build effective engaged communities is what you already do. And I realized I do all the time, I'm using UUs as examples of ways to build effective communities; things that some of these groups are looking to do. So for this group the described topic is really going to take me about 10 minutes. But you gave me an hour, so it occurred to me that I could actually use the remaining time to talk about things that I love but never have a chance to talk about. I mean things that really engage me.
This is the deep background behind my approach. I always talk about, oh here's the reason that I think religious education is important for kids. Here are ways that nontheistic parents can do it and so on, but it's much more meaningful I think if you can get some of that deep background. What is it that has helped me to come to those conclusions? What's the underlying philosophy there? So that's what I'd like to get into today. And then, toward the end I will get into some issues of parenting and community and so on. I'd like to really try to leave a good solid 20 minutes at the end for questions. So keep that in mind. So with your permission I'd like to start with some topics I first explored as an anthropology major at UC Berkeley, including folklore and the anthropology of religion and sociology and things like that.
OK, so I've been fascinated by essential questions for most of my life, much longer than I've been a parent. But now that I am a parent that fascination is something I specifically want to pass onto my kids. I want them to feel the same engagement with those questions. And one of the best ways to pass that on I think is by looking at the ways that human beings have addressed these questions through space and time and culture—take a look at the various ways we've done that. So that's what I'd like to start with today, and the fact is I can start just about anywhere. That's actually one of the points I'd like to make. Is that I can start just about anywhere on the map, but I've chosen to start in the forest of eastern Paraguay, in the homeland of the Guarani.
Traditional Guarani beliefs, like all beliefs, are fascinating and revealing. They bear the marks of the culture that created them, but they also contain those intriguing universals. Those elements of belief that go beyond a given place and time that reveal what it is to be a human. Those universal elements, or what I'm calling the warp of the human tapestry, that's the long threads that connect us to other cultures and places and times. And each culture weaves its own threads, that's the woof, which is the lateral threads across those common themes. So it'll be helpful to make sense of what I'm going to say to keep that metaphor in mind. Warp threads connecting cultures and woof threads unique to each culture.
And it's fascinating work to tease out those warp threads. That's one of my favorite things to do—the elements of our common humanity. The Guarani for example, have a creator God named Tupa who made the first couple, named Rupave and Sypave. One of the first gifts of Tupa to his new creations was the knowledge of good and evil. And representing evil is a devil name Tau, who in turned helped the first people bungle their special relationship with God. So it all rather rings a bell, I think. I love to look at something as seemingly remote from my own experience as Guarani religion, and recognize commonalities with the church on the corner or my own heart and mind.
Now when I was younger I saw the similarities between belief systems as a strike against them. And it is in fact, a strike against any claim of exclusive knowledge or any sort of special relationship to God. But there was one teacher in my anthropology program, in particular, who helped me see something much more interesting in those common threads. A window not on the divine, but on what it means to be human. His name was Alan Dundes. He was a folklorist at Berkeley, one of my favorite teachers. Dundes has defined folklore as elements of culture, stories, music, legends, proverbs, jokes, rights of passage, even something like graffiti—anything transmitted from person to person. Folklore includes those deep universal features and elements that are unique to each culture, but there's one other essential feature to folklore. Any given item of folklore changes over time and space, so variation is one of the key defining features. One of my favorite examples that he gave, I remember, was jump rope rhymes. This is something that not all cultures have jump rope rhymes, but virtually all cultures have rhyming chants that are associated with play. So there is some sort of a play that they do and there are rhyming chants to go along with it.
Well, there's this one particular theme that pops up in almost every culture in the world, which is the wish of the child to have something terrible happen to a younger sibling. Anybody remember any of these when you were a kid? Remember the jump rope rhyme about throwing the baby down the elevator shaft, how many floors will it bounce? One, two, three, four, five, and you keep going like this. This, for better and worse, is a human universal.
Jack and the Beanstalk, here's another example. A story that appears in many cultures. It's actually so common that it has—if you know the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, if anybody's studied that this is an index of tale types that appear in many different cultures. They're so common—these basics stories—that they've given them numbers. Jack and the Beanstalk is tale type 328, I think it is. Boy steals a giant's treasure, which pops up in a lot of cultures. So in the basic tale, a boy from a poor family climbs a beanstalk or tree into the sky, robs a giant by using his wits, kills the giant, and returns home with something valuable. That's the basic tale.
Now this includes the ancient mythic idea of a tree, a world tree that joins earth and heaven. And it also has clear connections to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. And it even hints at David and Goliath. Then there are the elements that vary from culture to culture. The same story is told in Italy, for example. But the boy is sent by the king to steal the giant's bedspread. In France the giant is a dragon, so there are these variables. In England—now this is the story that most of us have probably heard—Jack steals a goose that lays golden eggs and a magic singing harp. And like I said, that's the one I grew up with. But there actually is a version from the United States from the mid 19th century. In the U.S. Jack steals not a goose and a harp, but a knife and a gun. And so you say, of course.
But here's where we have a choice, I can and do bemoan the fact that violence is woven so deeply into the psyche of my culture that apparently the best thing a poor boy can bring home to his family is a couple of weapons. But I want to also look past the critique and see if there's something I can learn from that. My son, Connor, by the way, when he was 7-years-old and I told him this story, he had another critique of the story. I read Jack and the Beanstalk, the English version and at the end of it he was frowning. And he said, I hate that stupid Jack. I said, why is that? He looked at me like I was dense. He said, he breaks into the giant's house and he steals his goose. And then he breaks in again and he steals this magic harp. And then the giant chases him to get his own things back and Jack chops down the beanstalk and kills the giant, who didn't do anything wrong. I had never thought of that.
So yes, we can offer critiques but rather than only disliking the story for what it says about who we are we should also notice that the story is, in fact, saying something about who we are. It's reflecting us in a way more honest and unfiltered than just about any other mirror can do. We may not always like the reflection, but at least we can be glad for an honest mirror once in a while.
OK, one of the greatest contributions of Alan Dundes was showing that religion is, in fact, a form of folklore. Elements of culture that pass from person to person, and generation to generation, varying and diversifying as they go. And believe me, coming from Alan Dundes, calling something folklore is the furthest thing from an insult. Nothing excited Alan more than the discovery that something bears those earmarks of folklore, especially the presence of variations. That repetition and variation gives you both the human universals and one cultures fingerprints on those universals. Dundes saw its inclusion in the folkloric tapestry not as denigrating it, but actually elevating religion. If it's off to the side of the flow of time and culture, sacred and unchanging then religion is frankly, less interesting. But because religion shares the folkloric feature of constant variation it's much more interesting and meaningful, and revealing of who we are, and what we love, and what we fear, and where our aspirations lie. Saying that religion is a human creation doesn't make it meaningless. And as Dundes makes clear, it doesn't even say anything about the existence of God.
For example, knowing that George Washington almost certainly did not chop down a cherry tree doesn't say anything about whether George Washington existed. But it does say quite a bit about us that the story we chose to create and love and retell for 200 years was one that enshrined honesty as a particular virtue in our first president, as well as deforestation, I guess.
Now religions of the book are an attempt to freeze that folklore in its tracks. That's what is attempted by an authorized version. The synods of the fourth century tried to create a single Judeo-Christian story from the many variations that had already sprung up in the previous centuries. They selected a single set of authorized scriptures from literally thousands of existing texts and oral traditions. But as Dundes points out, even the single story they chose wasn't a single story. It contained a riot of folkloric variation and even complete contradiction. And the variation continued after the synods. Some didn't recognize the authority of the conclaves. Others did but mistranscribed the new canonical books. Others never even heard of the synods and simply kept going with their oral tradition. Others found it troubling that Mark, the oldest gospel, didn't mention the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, so they added it. Same with Paul's instructions that women must be silent and submissive in church. And literally, scores of other redactions and interpolations. So it's really no surprise that eventually the World Christian Encyclopedia was able to count 33,000 separate Christian denominations in the world. That's what happens when folklore is allowed to do what folklore does.
Now Dundes danced with delight at all this variation, at the revealed fingerprints of the individual authors in the passing centuries. We only get in to trouble when we try desperately to pretend that there is a single version and the God loves those best who can spot it. OK, let's go back to the forests of Paraguay for just a moment. There's someone I would like you to meet.
In addition to shared features, Guarani belief has its unique aspects. Including seven legendary monsters, each with its own domain. One is the god of caverns and fruits and I don't understand how those go together, but I guarantee the Guarani do. Another is the god of open fields, and the others are gods of sex, mountains, waterways, and death. And then the seventh one is the one I want you to meet. It's Jasy Jatere. Jasy is a little boy with long blonde hair and blue eyes. And he's lord of the siesta. Now kids raised in traditional Guarani homes may forget many things about their upbringing, but they always seem to remember Jasy Jatere. Jasy is said to wander villages at siesta time in search of children who are not sleeping. Though invisible as he stalks his prey, he suddenly becomes visible at the bedside of a child who is awake. Pop! And he puts her in a trance with his magic staff, and then leads a procession of hypnotized children to a cave in the forest where he blinds them with thorns and feeds them to his brother, Ao Ao, a cannibalistic sheep man.
I recently read an account by a short, blonde, blue-eyed German man who visited a village in eastern Paraguay. And he was pelted with grapefruit by screaming children. Now at first blush the legend of Jasy Jatere doesn't even make sense. You can't terrify a child to sleep. So this bedside tale begins to seem cruel and perverse, and it might be if the point was to get the child to sleep. But that's not the point. The demigod figure from Guarani religion was co-opted for a practical purpose. To keep children from getting out of bed and wandering into the very real dangers of the rainforest as the parents were sleeping, right? This is siesta time.
For as long as there have been parents there's been a willingness to scare our children safe. There's a river in the north of England called the River Tees and it is home to a mermaid named Peg Powler, who grabs kids by the ankle if they get too close to the rapids and pulls them under the water and devours them, belching out yellow foam. And the cap of Japan does the same thing with some added details I'll spare you. Kids in Slavic cultures have traditionally been warned not to wander off in public places because the witch, Baba-yaga, will drop from the sky, sweep them off their feet, and take them to her hut on chicken legs which is surrounded by a fence built from the bones of her victims. The Hiisi of Finland are said to live around crevices, large boulders, and the edges of cliffs, and to share that culinary preference for the very young.
Now it's easy for me, sitting in my Atlanta suburb to say that nothing justifies immersing children in this kind of terror. It's very easy to shake my finger, but I have any number of ways of keeping my kids safe while they nap, like locking our doors and living 4,000 miles from the nearest wild pit viper. Our neighborhood has very few chasms, no thundering rivers and many, many lawyers. One hospital is four minutes west of us, another one is nine minutes north. I can only imagine what lengths I wouldn't go to to protect my kids from very real, very fatal risks. So in the end I think such warning legends say a lot less about our cruelty than they do about the tendency of natural selection to favor the genes of those who will do anything to protect their children. It also says something about the usefulness of fear.
In evolutionary terms, being afraid is actually a useful thing. For most of the history of our species a healthy dose of fear, especially fear of the unknown and fear of difference has helped keep us alive. Those who have lived in a constant state of fear had been more likely to survive to pass those tendencies on. As a result there is a paradoxical way in which being afraid makes us feel safer. Our midbrain thinks that there is always something trying to kill us, so evolution rewards constant vigilance. Not being afraid feels unsafe. Filmmakers actually use this against us. Everybody's seen this kind of scene. I'm a fan of the West Wing and there was this terrible, terrible episode where Mark Harmon's character, who was a Secret Service agent, wandered into a robbery in progress in a grocery. And he realized there was something going on, he got very tense, he turned around, he found the guy, he pinned him on the ground, he put the cuffs on, and he relaxed. And I knew what was going to happen. They use this against us. I knew what was going to happen. He walked to the counter and he said, what do I have to do to get a Milky Way bar around here or something like that, and there was another guy right there who shot him dead.
That's how it works. We feel like dropping our guard is an unsafe thing, and so there's this paradoxical way in which being constantly afraid makes us feel safer. Part of the dynamic here—well, if we're relieved of one fear we immediately seek another. This makes us feel like we've named the evil in the world and are therefore, in control of it. That is frequently an illusion. Frequently there's a real danger out there that we haven't named but we get the false sense of it. And this tendency is by no means limited to the developing world. Whenever many of my friends and loved ones receive a frantic e-mail warning of pedophiles on Facebook or terrorists on the PTA they immediately believe it and forward it to everyone they know. And having named the evil they feel safer.
Now the irony here is that most of these friends and loved ones of mine live in a bubble of physical safety unprecedented in human history. Our average life expectancy has doubled in a century, and despite the constant claim that violent crime has never been worse the perpetual warning that you can't be too careful in this day and age. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that violent crime, in every category, has been plummeting for 20 years and recently reached the lowest point since records have been kept. Who would even know? Did you know that? Who would even know? But more to the point, who wants to know? We don't even want to know that. Our vigilance requires us to be under assault and so we live our lives in a state of orange alert and we encourage our kids to do the same. It's natural. But saying it's natural is not the same as saying it's good.
An overwhelming body of research has shown that fear also exacts a price. When we are afraid we are more selfish, less generous, we're less sympathetic, we're more likely to respond aggressively, and to assume the worst in others. We are less tolerant of difference, and less patient. We're more willing to blindly follow authority and more likely to behave both unreasonably and unethically. We become more distrustful of innovation. Chronic fear can even reduce the length of our lives. So to extend my metaphor, fear causes us to wrap ourselves in the woof—the threads that connect us only to those most like ourselves.
When we feel safe we're more likely to reach out along the warp, finding connections to others who are less like us, underlining our shared humanity. But when we feel attacked we wrap ourselves in the ancient protections of my country, my god, my people. Fear cuts connections and burns bridges. It divides us into camps and it paralyzes progress. In a nutshell more than any other emotional state, fear leads a person to become the opposite of what I want to be. It leads the person to become the opposite of what I want my kids to be. So one of the main goals of my parenting is to help my kids let go of needless fear. On a larger scale I actually think the single greatest contribution we can all offer to each other is a reduction in fear.
Fortunately, when it comes to the reduction of fear folklore can actually help, as well as hurt. As our circumstances change even our most terrifying tales tend to spin-off more benign variations. Many Guarani families now live in cities and towns, decades away from the specific dangers that gave rise to the warning legends. Many have converted to other religions, but Jasy Jatere persists as an element of culture. Even so, variations abound. Some still tell the original story even though it no longer has an application. Others now say that Jasy leads children into the forest and leaves them there to find their way home. That's still kind of scary, but it's better than being blinded and eaten. Other Guarani now say that Jasy loves children and he's simply a naughty spirit looking for playmates during the siesta. I happen to remember lying fearfully in my own bed, and some of you might as well as a child thanks to a bit of folklore you may know.
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Night-night. And I would lay there saying, if I should die! I might die! I mean, that's not the moment to remind a child of that. But again, historically it actually makes sense.
The prayer originated in New England in the 1700s. Child mortality was very high, and there was a deep fear not just of children dying, but of them dying unsaved. My mother echoed the words her own mother had recited, probably without thinking about it. In other words, she passed on a piece of folklore, surely unaware of the lovely modern variations that there are such as, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; guide me safely through the night, and wake me with the morning light." Variation, right? Perfectly nice. Now this constant variation is all well and good when we're talking about bedtime stories and Jack and the Beanstalk. But what about things that we don't want to change? What about our deepest values and beliefs? Those things we want most desperately to stay intact as we pass them from one generation to the next.
The answer for much of human history has been to declare such values and beliefs and traditions sacred by enshrining them in religion. In fact, one of the best definitions I've seen calls religion a kind of cultural amber. It's an attempt to take the values and ideas that we hold most precious and protect them from change and uncertainty. Uncertainty is deeply threatening to a human animal. We have a universal desire for stability, a wish to impose order on the chaos of the universe into which we've been born. Religion has traditionally served as a means of holding our most important values and beliefs still. Of taking them out of the stream of change, trapping them in amber. That's why many religious traditions declare certain ideas sacred and unchanging.
"Beware of newly introduced matters," says one hadith of Mohammed. "For every newly introduced matter is an innovation, and every innovation is going astray. And every straying is in the fire." You can hear that universal desire to define and preserve the good. For most of its history traditional religion has been literally conservative. It has conserved things. It has existed to protect those things we hold most valuable. Now there is a problem in that, of course. Values change, and often and rightly so. It was once a cherished belief that a woman's place was in the home. And that one people could justify enslaving another, and that homosexuality and religious disbelief were capital crimes. These and other values were beloved, in part for the order that they imposed on the world. And so they were enshrined in many of our religions. Any system that coats itself in amber—political, social, religious will gather and preserve bad ideas just as readily as the good. And by wrapping such ideas in sacredness traditional religion has often thrown a powerful road block in the way of progressive change.
Fortunately, there's another kind of religion. A radical experiment called liberal religion. And if you accept the idea that religion has historically been a conservative force, liberal religion is this wonderful oxymoron. It's actually an attempt to conserve the idea of progress. More than anything else liberal religion is a challenge to the very idea of the amber. By stepping away from dogmatic beliefs, liberal religion makes it possible to reexamine and move beyond ancient fears. It allows the discovery that our prehistoric fears of racial and cultural difference, for example, no longer makes sense and in fact, in an interdependent world, do harm. It allows the discovery that someone else's sexual orientation can and should be completely irrelevant to me. It makes it possible to see more clearly what needs to be done now to improve this world without feeling bound by the outdated concerns of the past.
OK, so there's just a little bit of the background that I usually never get to talk about. Thank you for indulging me in that. If I've timed this right it is now about 3:15. Look at that. Now I'll wake up and find out I haven't given the talk yet. Because that never happens. I can head into parenting and community building a little bit now. So how does all this perspective and experience make me a different parent?
First, it makes me want to raise kids who set aside needless fears. And this is not always easy, but I've begun to recognize that this is one of my fundamental desires for my kids. I'm still carrying that ancient midbrain around with me though; I'm not free of that. I'm still subject to the evolved tendency to stay vigilant, to stay afraid. It takes a conscious effort to put that tendency in its place and to not pass it on to my kids anymore than I can. But if I want them to be empathetic, courageous, open, and generous there's nothing more worth my effort. Step one of course is to model it by setting aside unneeded fear myself. And the best antidote for our evolved tendency to meet the world in this defensive crouch is to actually meet the world. So long as we huddle with people like ourselves, so long as we make an effective cartoon—so long as we do that we can make an effective cartoon out of those who are not like us. It's so easy to hate and fear someone of a different race or sexual orientation or culture until you actually meet and get to know someone of a different race or sexual orientation or culture. At which point the commonalities begin to overwhelm the differences. The warp trumps the woof.
In addition to helping to diffuse the common fear of atheist and atheism—this is one of the things that I try to do. I spend a lot of time trying to help atheists set aside their unneeded fear and misconceptions about religion and the religious. There's a tendency to focus on dogmatic fundamentalist horrors, which puts us in a defensive crouch. I cringe when I hear my atheist and humanist friends sometimes say that they're like-minded people to associate with. I really understand the impulse, but it makes me cringe because there's a way in which that is going to shelter us, it's going to isolate us, build walls around us, and it's going to increase fear instead of decreasing it.
Focusing on the worst expressions of religion also keeps us from seeing that moderate and liberal religious expressions have far more in common with us than they do with fundamentalism, which keeps us from building bridges and reducing fears again. Now lest I sound too reasonable, don't think for a moment that I always strike this balance instinctively or well myself. I am just a mammal. I have my own tendencies toward fearful vigilance.
Three years ago, just a few weeks after our family moved from Minnesota to Georgia I thought my worst fears had been confirmed when I entered my daughter Delaney's public school kindergarten classroom. The teacher had not yet arrived and several of the kids were touring their parents around the room. Delaney was taking me by the hand and she said, this is the art corner and this is my desk. And I missed the next several items on the tour because my eyes had locked on the whiteboard at the front of the room. This week," it said in all capital letters with two exclamation marks, and below the words was drawn a spectacular cross outlined in every color of the rainbow. So I stood frozen in my tracks considering my options. And if I object to this am I a carpetbagger from the north imposing my expectations on southern culture? No, there's no context that makes this OK. Or is there? I mean, if it was a crescent and star instead of a cross wouldn't I be applauding the diversity in religious literacy that was going on? Yeah, but the crescent and star wouldn't be getting the rainbow and exclamation mark treatment, right? That's what I was worried about. That's the problem.
I was going to have to say something. I didn't want to; I was new to the school. But what would I say and how? And I was still frozen in place, staring at this thing when a little girl wandered into view leading her dad by the hand and narrating the room. These are the books, she said, and this is the story rug. And this she said proudly pointing to the cross is what we're learning about this week: lowercase t.
So I've learned to distrust my own tendencies a bit to categorical thinking. When you believe as I do that Orthodox religion has done a tremendous amount of harm it is easy for vigilants to turn every lowercase t into a cross, and every cross into a thread. It's easy to hear UUs and others using spiritual language and to think that it represents a retreat to the old narrow meanings instead of a radical reclamation of the power and appeal of that language in a human and humane context. I want my kids to be willing to melt the amber, to challenge the idea that anything in any area of human life should be spared from questioning. I do this with the confidence that there is good trapped in the amber along with the bad. And that the good can withstand the scrutiny. The good can be rediscovered over and over by each generation, but the bad cannot ever be set aside unless we melt that amber. Now here's where you come in.
As UUs you have built your community not around shared beliefs, but around principles and purposes. Including some aimed directly at the melting of the amber, the call to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. the refusal of creedal requirements. The determination to seek wisdom in many traditions and in direct experience. Gratitude for religious pluralism—not tolerance, but gratitude. The specific inclusion of humanist teachings in the results of science among the valued sources of your living tradition. I often wonder if you are too close to it to realize just how radical that approach is. Yes, many other denominations today speak of ecumenism and tolerance. Many have done very well in that direction, but too often these are just agreements to coexist; to live side by side. UUs do something importantly different. You lay yourself open to the influence of diversity. You recognize the possibility or even the likelihood of being changed by it, and that is radically different. But there are challenges in suspending the shared creed and I know many of these come from my side of the isle.
Openness to religion, for example, is not always an easy sell for nontheistic parents. And I understand why this is. Many were genuinely wounded by religion as kids, or have been ostracized by family members for their choices. They want to protect their children from the torment they endured, and they often think that erecting a wall between their family and the religious world is the answer. I think this is a mistake. Exclusive exposure to any single perspective leads to tunnel vision and insular thinking, but exposure to multiple world views reveals religion as a fascinating human cultural artifact, and empowers our children to better understand and engage the world. UU minister emeritus Bobby Nelson wrote about this in Parenting Beyond Belief.
"Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from religious questions," she said. "If you do not provide the answers someone else will, and you may be distressed by the answers they provide." She's right. That's why I let religious ideas and stories and claims wash over my kids from every direction. They hear about baby Jesus and baby Hercules in the same breath. Yahweh shares the stage with the everlasting Brahman, and Jesus with Mithras. My goal in all this is not to merely bring my kids up to the level of their church-going peers in religious literacy, by the way. That is a very low bar, especially in the U.S. My co-author Jan, at the First Unitarian Society here in town put it this way in raising free-thinkers:
"The U.S. is both the most religiously enthusiastic and the least religiously literate country in the developed world. We believe with great fervor, but know very little about the tenants, history, and elements of our own belief systems; let alone those of our neighbors. Europeans on the other hand, show very low levels of religious belief, but thanks to formal religious education in the schools tend to have a very deep knowledge of religion. Because U.S. schools shy away from teaching about religion, religious education falls to the parents—all parents. Religious parents can take advantage of whatever religious education is offered at church, but often have the detriment of a single limiting point of view. Nonreligious parents reverse the polarity. The responsibility for the religious education of their children is primarily theirs, but unhindered by an organized doctrinal system we have a greater opportunity to bring multiple perspectives to bear and we must. Children who are ignorant of the elements of religion will be easy targets for religious zealotry and will be hobbled in their own free decision-making. Ignorance is impotence, knowledge is power."
I love that passage. She's right, religious education needm't be formal. In fact, I think most religious education is actually happening in an informal way. Parents and teachers should weave religious observations and questions into everyday conversation. We do this all the time in our family. I remember driving by a mosque with my then 4-year-old who pointed out the gold dome and said, that's really pretty. I said, oh yeah. That's nice. That's a kind of a church called a mosque. People who go there pray five times a day and they all face a city far away when they do it. That was it. I didn't get into the five pillars of Islam or anything like that, she's four. But at the age of four she can begin to assemble this knowledge of the world around her. And she went home and she drew a picture of a building with a pretty yellow dome on top. It's just that kind of a thing. As children mature—oh I'm sorry.
A few months after that actually, we saw a woman on the street in Saint Paul here wearing a hijab. And I said, hey remember the—well, she pointed out the woman. She said, hey look at that. And I said, well, you remember the mosque we saw—that church with the gold dome? That's what some people wear who go to a mosque. Again, little points of knowledge that are connected. And you do that about 10,000 times over the course of 18 years and you'll have a religiously literate child.
Now as children mature you want to include more complex information. No discussion of Martin Luther King Jr. is complete without mentioning that he was a Baptist Minister and that his religion was very important to him. Likewise, no discussion of the American Revolution is complete without noting that the majority of the founders were religious skeptics of one stripe or another. That's part of the picture. Talk about the religious components of events in the news, from stem cells to global warming to terrorism to nonviolence advocacy. It's all over the place. Every once in a while I have somebody come up to me at a convention and say, I'm perfectly willing to talk about religion, but it just never happens around us. You know, we don't go to church and so there is no religion around us. So I give examples. Opportunities are everywhere and not to be missed. it's about two weeks ago that I heard my son singing and practicing guitar. It was Leonard Cohen's, "Hallelujah." And when he got to this strange line, "she tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your thrown, she cut your hair." I asked if he knew what that was referring to and then I told him about the myth of Sampson, the hero whose power was contained in his long hair. That's actually one of the coolest, one of the most classical myths in the Old Testament. It's really a neat story. It only took about a minute, but he's not likely to ever forget that image. It's a very potent image. And on we go.
We attend church on occasion with trusted relatives. It is essential that children go beyond knowledge on the page and see and experience religion in practice. And as many different kinds as they possibly can. We actually lived in England for six months several years ago and they were in a Church of England school and that school went to a Hindu temple and Sikh Gurdwara as part of their religious educations. Fabulous. Our family actually just had this point driven home powerfully when we attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the weekend of the King holiday. Emotion, community, celebration, exhortation, the call to be a better person, these are all a part of the religious experience and I have not honestly given my children a religious education until they have felt that side of it.
We also invite our kids to seek out the opinions of others. When my daughter came to me, I think, she was about nine at that point and said, did Jesus really come alive after he was dead? I said, I don't think he did. I think that's a story to make us feel better about death, but talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth about a hundred times if you want. That last line is actually very powerful. It's something that's easy to overlook. The feeling that we all have somewhere in there that religion is an arrival. It's a point where you choose and you set your feet in cement. That's entirely an inheritance. That's something that we've sort of brought forward. We need to challenge that, we need to melt that amber right there. And say, I'll stand here and then I'll stand over there. I'll change my mind and stand over here and there will not be any punishment for where I happen to be standing at a given. time. That's a very powerful idea.
Now there is one major exception to all this openness. One idea that I simply will not give a fair hearing and that's hell. Every once in awhile somebody says, you should really give all ideas a fair hearing. But I will not say to my children, well, you might burn forever for guessing wrong. I don't know. I don't think so, but you might. If my goal is avoiding the paralyzing effects of fear hell is not a direction that we want to go. I can't allow them to be terrorized out of thinking by an afterlife of eternal punishment, especially one that's meted out for honest doubts. That's my main problem with hell. It's not even the eternal nature of it. It's the terms. It is designed as a thought-stopper, nothing more or less. It is fear trapped in amber, brought forward from a past in which conformity was prized as hedge against chaos. Again, I have to have a little bit of empathy for that. I live in a different time. I live in a time when I can control the chaos around me in various ways. So maybe there was a time when it was more justifiable to think in these categorical terms. We can let it go now and that's one of the nice things about melting that amber. But children who express any religious doubts or so much as ask open questions at school among their peers about religious questions are going to be told that they're going to hell.
They will typically, in my experience from talking to parents, they will hear by the time they're six. It's fairly unusual for a kid to get to age seven, eight, or nine without having had a dear friend tell them that they're going to hell. That's why it is important that kids have this paralyzing idea diffused beforehand in a safe place where it is not taken seriously. And that's precisely what I do with the idea. I don't just say that I don't agree with it. I laugh it to scorn. That's what I think we have to do with this particular one. Now fortunately, an increasing number of theistic homes are falling into the category of safe places as well in this topic. A PEW survey in 2008 found that belief in hell as a place where the wicked are punished has declined to 59% in the U.S. Why is that? Many analysts point to the increasing proximity of people have different world views. It's easier to hate and fear people of different religions when you don't know any. Belief in heaven is holding steady in the mid 70s, but hell is on its way out.
So to protect my kids from fear I laugh hell the scorn. And one of the most powerful things I've discovered is that I can get God on my side. I can allow them to consider the possibility that God thinks it's a stupid idea too. So I said, even if God exists, I picture him smacking himself on the forehead and saying, how can they think I would punish them forever just for doubts, just for thinking about something and getting the answer wrong? So sure enough, all three of my kids have heard from their peers that they're going to hell and all three of them were able to shrug it off and actually say, that's silly. Which I'm pretty proud of. So a bit here and a bit here, bit there all woven into the fabric of life. Neither denigrated nor exhausted, not separated from human folklore, but a valued part of it. That's the approach.
So heaven and hell, religious and non, us and them, we draw these lines and think categorically as a response to fear. It's actually one of the main ways that we respond to fear. Is by putting things in very neat categories. It's a very natural response, but it's one that leads us to an obsession with difference. One of the best ways to avoid that fearful us and them thinking is to blur those lines. And much of my parental energy is actually devoted to helping my kids avoid categorical thinking. I actually hadn't identified this until fairly recently. That this is something that we talk about all the time in various ways. Fortunately, one of the great narratives of the modern age has been the gradual dissolution of categories and endless wonder flows from that newly revealed world.
We now know for example, that race is an almost meaningless construct. It seems so real and it's a complete illusion. The concept of separate nations and cultures strains under the knowledge that we are all fairly recent Africans. Languages, once thought completely distinct from each other turn out to be recently diverged cousins. Even species, which seems so distinct as a category is really a constantly shifting category of convenience. My kids like to—in particular, one thing they adore is to chuckle at attempts to define humanness. This is what sets us apart from the animals. This has been a really enjoyable—a way to also let them see that science is a humble enterprise. Because science has declared the difference between humans and animals several times and been wrong. It's the difference is that we are tool-makers, right? Then you find the animals who make tools. The difference is that we have a form of language, we communicate between each other and then you see these animals that communicate between each other. It's empathy. You know, the idea of empathy. And then we see these representation of empathy in other primates. It's actually gotten to the point now where I don't know if you've read Jared Diamond's book, The Third Chimpanzee for example, but the strong consensus among biologists is that we are really a third species of chimpanzee. That the category homo—homosapiens and all the other past species is strictly self regard. That's all it is. That we should really be pan—we should really be a third species of the genus Pan, which is chimpanzees.
So yet had another line blurred, right? And wonderfully so. I think that enhances the world. If my kids decide as adults that they are nontheistic there's another line I want them to blur. That bright line that too many nontheists draw between themselves and theistic believers. Even if my kids are not religious by any definition I want them to understand and empathize with the religious impulse. The novelist, Gustave Flaubert came very close to my own position when he said, "Each dogma, in itself is repulsive to me. But I consider the feeling that engendered them to be the most natural expression of humanity." Whatever beliefs my children embrace I hope they will recognize that they share the human feelings that engendered the believes in the first place, even if they utterly reject the beliefs themselves. Now I have a favorite tool for doing this that I imagine a lot of you are familiar with for blurring the line between me and my religious friends. It's the Belief-O-Matic quiz. It was through the Belief-O-Matic that I learned that I am a Hindu.
OK, I'm not a Hindu, but more Hindu than Catholic as it turns out—19% and 16% respectively. I'm also one-quarter Scientologist, two-fifths Mormon and one-third reformed Jew. Belief-O-Matic is an online quiz at beliefnet.com. If you haven't taken this you have to do it as soon as you leave here.
You answer 20 multiple choice questions about your beliefs and the Belief-O-Matic will spit out not your one true and correct belief system, but the percentage of alignment between your convictions and those espoused by over 25 belief systems. I love this because it emphasizes warp over woof. It is the death of the hard and fast category. Now it turns out that I, a secular humanist, share over 50% of my beliefs with mainline Protestants, 73% with Theravada Buddhists, and 84% with Liberal Quakers. I actually have a secret desire for a particular evangelical aunt of mine to take the quiz, just so she can learn that she is 70% Islamic.
That's the result you actually get if you match the evangelical world view. The quiz is fun. But it also has tremendous potential to reduce fear. Saying that I am one thing and a person with another label is entirely another brings that age old fear of difference rushing to the surface, and it keeps us from forming community. Saying instead that our beliefs overlap by half or more puts things in an entirely new light. So if we move beyond beliefs into shared values and principles, as UUs have done, I guarantee my overlap with a lot of those groups would rise into the 80s and 90s.
Now what a difference it makes for our kids when we talk about belonging, in terms of shared principles instead of beliefs. What a difference. Now in the end my Belief-O-Matic shouldn't be too surprising. They underline the fact that we have all inherited the same wonderful and scary existence. Our responses to that existence are different, but they're also the same. And there's no better proof of this than seeing my own reflection in religion and folklore from every age and culture. Now consider for example, the oldest, surviving human story. The 4,000 year old epic of Gilgamesh the king, who feared death just like me. Gilgamesh seeks out, Utnapishtim, the last of the immortals, to learn the secret of conquering death. And when the secret turns out to be a plant growing under the sea Gilgamesh dives in, finds the plant, loses it to a serpent—what is it with the serpents? And then Gilgamesh goes home dejectedly to die. But having failed to flee mortality he tries in his final hours to come to grips with it instead. He would die, but would still achieve immortality through Uruk, the city that he had built.
I can yearn for immortality along with Gilgamesh whether or not there was any such person. Because like Gilgamesh, and the author of the story, and those who have told and retold it, I am a piece of the universe that woke up. And one of the things that comes with that scary and wonderful fact is the deep desire to not go to sleep again. I can love and understand the story of Jesus's sacrifice without needing it to be true. I can feel gratitude to Prometheus for his defiant gift and his terrible sacrifice because I share the human yearnings that gave rise to the story. They're all my stories as well. I can hear the terrible story of Abraham and Isaac—which I've called one of the worst stories ever loved—and marvel in what it reveals about me and my species, even as I bemoan that same discovery. Now the author of that story didn't create our willingness to do great evil without questioning the authority that orders it. That story didn't create that willingness, and the fact that we not only made up such a story, but venerated it tells me something important about who we are; something worth knowing. That doesn't mean I gave my kids the Abraham and Isaac coloring page I found online.
But they do know the story, and they know exactly how I feel about it, and that I believe they are capable of making up their own minds about such things. Simply railing against the Old Testament is really something akin to shooting the messenger. We placed that terrible story in amber because we loved what it taught. We felt that Abraham's absolute trust in God was so inspiring that the cancer at the heart of the story—that awful story—did not matter. So each generation has handed it with deepest affection to the very children on whose throats the blade of the patriarch rests. So yes, like my son and that stupid Jack, I have a serious problem with Abraham and his God. I actually have decided that the story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the measures I'm going to use of whether I've lost touch with my outrage over the course of my life. When I can look at that story, read that story again, and not be outraged then I'm going to know that I have to recover something of my humanity.
OK, so I have a serious problem with the story. That needs to be OK, by the way. We need to give ourselves permission to offer that critique. In addition to the good it has allowed that amber—the inheritance from dogmatic religion has allowed a safe haven for some of the worst ideas that we've had. But I can love and respect those who hold views different from mine even as I challenge those views and welcome challenge in return. This is one of the things that I work hard with my kids to do. To separate out respect for ideas from respect for individuals. Individuals are granted respect as people as a matter of course. That's a basic understanding that we have to do—have to permit or we're not going to be in community with each other, but ideas have to earn our respect.
I came to my current views on my own. It's the one thing that I value most about my world view. It's really mine. I'm very proud of that. Why would I ever want to deprive my kids of that authenticity? As a result, one of the things I tried to do in all of this is to be absolutely sure that I'm repeating the invitation to differ as often as I can. My kids know what I believe and why, and I think that's important. I've actually had people say to me once in awhile, I really don't want to indoctrinate my kids so they don't even know what I believe. They don't even know what my beliefs—that's a mistake. I don't think we need to hide ourselves from our kids. You are not indoctrinating as long as you then turn around to them and make it clear what you want them to do. My kids will know that I invited and encouraged them to overturn every rock and question every assumption. And that's all I would ever asked of a theistic parent. That they share the experience of their faith, but then say here's what I believe with all my heart. It's very important to me, and I think it's true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself. And I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind, you can change your mind a hundred times. There's no penalty for getting it wrong and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me. Can you imagine if that was the norm?
Imagine kids growing up with an invitation to engage the most profound questions there are freely and without fear. Now if a child raised in a church hears those same invitations from parents, and from the pulpit, and in Sunday school, that is religion without indoctrination and that's the brilliant experiment in human community that you are leading. Please keep it up. It is the way forward and I'm here to help in any way I can. Speaking as a humanist, speaking as someone in sort of the larger humanist community, we really need what UUs are doing. We really need the bridge that you provide, and the larger community that you're making possible. It's something that frankly, we're not very good at. And I think there are a large number of us who are getting very, very serious about getting better at it, and you're leading the way in that. So thank you very much for your attention and I'll take questions now.
CHUCK BERRY: Chuck Berry from central Pennsylvania. I don't have a question, but I have another plug for Beliefnet. We make up these [? sheets ?] at our fellowship and hand them to visitors, and put them up around town. It's one of our best recruiting tools. People come to the door and we give them—tell them about this. What if I'm at the wrong church? You want me to—
DALE MCGOWAN: Oh yeah, terrific.
CHUCK BERRY: So if anybody thinks they might forget the address or wants to steal one of these and hand them out yourself—I don't know where to put a pile of them, but don't forget to take this quiz when you get home. I'll put them on this little table.
DALE MCGOWAN: Yeah, that sounds fine. That's a very important point about this. One of the things that I think would be a very healthy thing in the world at large is for people to discover if they're in the community that actually matches their values. A lot of people are in a community that is their family inheritance, it's what they've always done. But one of the wonderful things about Beliefnet is apparently an extremely large number of people have gone on, taken this quiz, and found out they were Quakers. You know, people who are going to a Baptist church, going a Methodist church, going to Presbyterian—whatever it is, and they find out oh, actually, my beliefs line up with this non-creedal, non-dogmatic—I think that's a good thing to know. And my guess is that there aren't a lot of Quakers finding out they're Baptists, but it's possible. So I actually think the tradition is going to tend to drive us in a conservative direction. And knowledge, this kind of a thing can actually make things progressive. Yes?
DAVID JACOWAY: Yes, David Jacoway from Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis. I have two questions for you about language. The language of reverence issue, of whether we should use traditional, religious language in our discourse or whether we should avoid it because it would confuse—use it and reclaim it or whether we should avoid it? And the second one is that—a term that I've seen becoming more popular in humanist circles, to refer to supernatural beliefs as woo-woo. And I was wondering if you're familiar with that term and whether you—what you think about the use of that term?
DALE MCGOWAN: OK, first one. I actually have a friend who's just finished his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Edinboro and he has a blog called, "The Friendly Humanist." And he has done some wonderful writing about this idea, this question of reclamation of language. And he and others have essentially said the moment we have terms that are equivalent to a lot of the things that have been used historically in a theistic context, we can consider going to those terms. But at the moment there are a number of concepts and terms that I just don't think are captured by their secular equivalents yet. You know, maybe they would be through usage or whatever, but when someone says to me, "I feel blessed." It says something—I don't say this myself because it feels to freighted to me. But I'm aware that when I say, "I feel fortunate" or "I feel grateful," it's not quite the same. And I don't just mean because it doesn't have the theistic thing, but there's an additional gratitude element that goes beyond the secular language, and so I think it's a real problem. This is your experiment, right? I want you to figure this one out and then get back to me.
But what I want to do in the meantime is to help people to not make assumptions that it means something that it doesn't. I think a lot of people have jumped to the conclusion that the UUA is retreating into a Judeo-Christian tradition. And I don't think that's happening. I think that what's happening is a much more subtle experiment and a much more important one by saying—the world has expressed itself in religious terms for thousands of years in theistic terms, right? No, I'll say religious terms. And what you're saying is we want to capture and bring forward all of that power, all of that human emotion and power, wisdom and not lose it. Not just say we're cutting ourselves off from all prior expressions.
The example I use—my degrees are in music in addition to anthropology—and I'm not frankly willing to let go of Bach just because he signed all of his scores to the glory of God—every one of them. Soli Deo Gloria he signed at the end of the score. So am I supposed to go, oh, forget that one. You know, even the ones that aren't sacred music he always signed that. So I'm supposed to get rid of the Brandenburg Concertos because he signed them that way? No. You recognize that this is the way he expressed it. This was meaningful to him. It helped inspire him. Can we capture that, bring it forward, not lose that, but at the same time free it from what we need to free it from. That's a hard thing. I don't envy you the task, but I think it's worth doing.
And the second one was woo-woo. The problem with woo-woo is I think—it was language that originally was used appropriately I think, for quackery. You know, it was used for when people were doing intentional fraud and like a lot of this sort of thing it then migrates into inappropriate places. I'm personally opposed to dismissive language. I'm opposed to something that shows that somebody hasn't really tried. Whenever anybody's too darn sure in their reaction to something, to that point where they're sort of disgustedly dismissive—when I do that, which I do—I try to call myself on it. So I think that can frequently be an indication of that.
SPEAKER: I just wanted to mention that we hope to have this program available for viewing at the UUA.org website within a day or two, God willing.
CAROL WESTIN: Hi, Carol Westin from Stevens Point Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and I just wanted to thank you for your perspective as far as not having the urge to condemn religion as a force in this country like some of the recent authors with Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. It seems like that message there was that moderate religion is almost part of the problem instead of seeing a liberal, moderate religion as helping to solve a problem. So what's your comment on that?
DALE MCGOWAN: This is something that I struggle with. I am of the opinion now, I have come to the opinion that it's exactly what you said. I mean, when you recognize that the religious impulse is something that is answering human existential needs. That's why it's there. It is not—it's frequently portrayed as something that's been imposed on humanity by humanity, but also imposed on humanity. It's this thing. If we could just get this thing off of us everything would be fine. The thing is us. I mean, it's actually human nature embedded in culture. That's what religion is. And so the idea that, among other things, that religion will someday go away. I hear this—give it 50 years. That was actually the estimate about 75 years ago that that estimate was made. It's not going to happen. What I think we want to be doing is what you are doing, which is channeling that energy, channeling that human expression in positive directions. And it's happening anyway.
Anyone who portrays religion today as being a less positive force than it was 100 years ago or 200 years ago or something like that I think is doing a serious misreading of history. There's a tremendous amount of diversity and change and progress that's happened, and I think we need to be helping that. I do think that it's an opportunity. The one place in which I'm sympathetic is that I want to be sure that moderates are empowered and courageous enough to join us in the critique, to join humanism in the critique of fundamentalism. I think there is sometimes an unwillingness to do that because we don't want to divide, we don't want to criticize. We kind of push that away. I think this is one of the things that they're expressing. Sometimes we're left holding the ball, and we're actually in a less effective place to do it culturally. So yeah, but I agree with you that I think it's time for us to recognize that it is really an opportunity that we need to be supporting rather than pushing away.
MELANIE JORDAN: Hi, my name is Melanie Jordan from First Unitarian Society here in Minneapolis. And I was raised a humanist atheist. There's very few, I think, of us around that have started out that from age zero, so I've had an interesting life dealing with many different friends that have all kinds of faith. And I'm very open to everybody, and I've traveled around the world, and I have this really good friend who's Catholic and she—often we have discussions and she says, well Melanie, how can you have any hope? Or how do you go on? Or how do you live basically if you don't believe in God or in afterlife? And I was just wondering if you had any advice for—
DALE MCGOWAN: Oh.
DALE MCGOWAN: I do.
MELANIE JORDAN: I just kind of shut down and I think it's too big of a subject to even—it's like hopeless for me to get into it with her.
DALE MCGOWAN: I have so much to say about that. I mean, I could really go on and on. First of all, I understand it. I actually think there is an existential problem in being what we are. We don't have to pretend that there's not. It's a scary existence, but what I try to do is turn it on its head. And I talk to my kids about this all the time. You know, I had a conversation with my daughter when she was scared about death. You know, she's 6-years-old and she started doing sort of focusing in and going, oh, wait a minute. This is a real thing and it's going to apply to me. You know, there's that. I try to flip it and talk about how astonishing it is, like the reference that I made to being a piece of the universe that woke up. That's what I am, do I think about that on a daily basis? You know, I don't at all. I'm going about my job and getting irritated in traffic and whatever. I'm a piece of the universe that woke up and someday will go back to sleep. Most of the universe is never going to have that opportunity. And so the real wonder of it—I don't have to feel fatalistic. I don't have to feel depressed that it doesn't last forever or that there's no God or something like that. Focus on the astonishing state of things.
I mean, here we are, we're just all sitting in this auditorium and you're listening to me and I'm talking and all this. We should all be completely distracted by our own existence all the time. And that's what I really try to do with it. I essentially say, we have a choice. We actually have a choice. It's not so much that meaning is thrust on us by this situation, but we can choose it. Why not? Here we are, why not really think it's cool to be here and to be awake and to be experiencing this? So I think it's a real problem, but one that we can simply choose to move past. But there's a whole school of philosophy that thinks I'm wrong about that.
MARCIA WATSON: Well, thank you for that. That seems like a note to end on. I'm sorry not to be able to end on that note. I'm Marcia Watson from First Universalists of Minneapolis and I just wanted to throw in something quick that I think might give some sense of hope. It certainly gives me hope. I just finished listening to Teaching Company Audio by—ironically—Dr. David Christian called The Big Bang or Big History: Big Bang to Humanity. And to your point about what distinguishes humans from other species—where I think he said science is right now is that we have the ability to adapt through collective learning. No other species can share their learning to evolve the way we have. So through this collective learning we're using up more and more of the biospheres energy so we need to be working on some of those statement of conscience issues to address that ethical issue. But I find it very helpful. The audio itself and the books that accompany it I find very helpful, so I would recommend them to anyone.
DALE MCGOWAN: I'll look into that. Great, thank you.
MARY HELEN GUN: Hi. Mary Helen Gun, I'm from First Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts. And first of all, I love what you preach.
DALE MCGOWAN: Well, thanks. Thank you.
MARY HELEN GUN: Not being entirely a secular humanist myself, although I'm curious to find out what the overlap of our beliefs might be, I wanted to thank you first for the way you're role modeling for us. Calling yourself on behaviors that you would prefer not to see others engage in, like the dismissive language about other people's belief systems, for example. I really appreciate that sense of self-accountability that you are modeling for us and sharing with us.
DALE MCGOWAN: Good, thanks.
MARY HELEN GUN: And I also wanted to thank you for naming what I believe we do in our communities, but I think we're not very conscious of what we do in our communities. By which I mean I believe that we are actually living interfaith communities in our congregations. And what I hope will be central to my ministry is helping us understand, and name, and claim that that's what we do so that we can preach it more effectively in the world, live it more effectively. My experience is that the world is hungry for ways of models of living in interfaith communities. And I believe that when we actually bring our real beliefs into the room rather than leave them at the door and say, I used to be this, that, or the other thing that we bring more power to those conversations. So thanks for naming that word.
DALE MCGOWAN: Oh sure, absolutely. One of the things that I absolutely love about the UU process and identity is that it is so constantly searching. And I'm sure it drives you crazy. In a way you kind of want to arrive, but I actually Googled the phrase in quotes, "What is a Catholic?" What is a Catholic? I think it got 13,000 hits. "What is a Unitarian Universalist?" 176,000 hits. Because the question of who you are and what you're doing is a huge part of who you are and what you're doing. It's an absolutely fantastic thing. I've always thought that one of the great metaphors in Unitarian Universalism was your founding. Most denominations came about by fracture. Most denominations, you came about by the merger, the recognition of shared principles between two—I mean, just that by itself is an incredibly strong statement about what you are and how that's different and how that models a personal approach.
FRED ANDERSON: Fred Anderson, also [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And thank you for the hope that you have given me. I'm at the age when I'm seriously looking at exit strategies.
The reminder of the story of Gilgamesh has given me hope. I will go back and get my scuba gear and my snake repellent, and head out to sea. And for that I thank you.
DALE MCGOWAN: Oh, absolutely. You know, I'll also add, speaking of exit strategies, I just finished a book by Julian Barnes called, Nothing to Be Frightened Of. One of the finest meditations on mortality that I have ever, ever read. Funny and intelligent, and engaging. So that just came to mind when you said that. Yes sir?
SPEAKER: Yes, my name's [? Herb Glitzner ?]. I'm from Shelter Rock in New York. I wanted to focus for a moment on the meaning of fundamentalism, at least to Unitarians in 1550, 1600 and the allies that they had, liberal theologians in Amsterdam who were themselves—some of them from Czechoslovakia, they were refugees or they were Mennonites. And then turn on the other side on eastern Europe you had Unitarians from Poland and Lithuania, Transylvania in a community and they were in very direct contact. And together they created a document called, The Treatise on Tolerance, year 1600. And it was a fundamentalist argument that you did not have the right to not listen to another person's interpretation of the bible of theology. And that no person who had a religious group could say that you had to take his interpretation of the Bible as a basis for belonging or remaining in the group. And this argument was presented to the pilgrims in Leyden by part of the community in Amsterdam and it was given to George Robinson, their leader, in probably 1610, 1650 or so. And he read it and he said, you're absolutely right. We will never have a mandatory creed and they didn't when they came to this country.
What my interpretation is is that if you talk about the authority of the Bible, one way of looking at, which in some sense they must have done, was not to say, this Bible is perfect word by word, everything. But it's the best we have. It protects us from the fear. We can build on it, we can argue with each other about it, and that's the way to treat it. That it was not that you create yourself as blind. Rather you're obligated to listen every other argument made that looks at it differently so that you can make your understanding of it more perfect—the whole community. In Transylvania that's where they came from, that tradition. The minister that's here from Transylvania, he knows that document. In this country, almost no one knows it in the Unitarian community.
DALE MCGOWAN: Yeah, that's a fascinating part of the history. Thank you. One more question?
SPEAKER: This isn't exactly a question. My friend, Eda had a daughter named Berkeley. Berkeley's now 27. When she was 5, just learning to write she and her mother were in the car driving, having seen several Christian churches with the cross at top and Berkeley turns to her mother and says, Mommy, what is the big deal about little t?
DALE MCGOWAN: Oh really.
DALE MCGOWAN: Mouths of babes. Thank you all so very much.
PAT KAHN: I'm going to ask you to give him a big hand in just one second. I want to let you now that Dale will be signing books in that corner right back there. And now please.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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