By Dr. Patricia Mohr, UUCC 6-2-19
Call to Worship –
Two quotes about religion, Quote 1 from an atheist, Christopher Hitchens. This is actually the title of one of his books: “God is Not Great: Religion poisons everything.”
But here’s another recent quote from Andrew Sullivan: “Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.”
I’ve heard Unitarian Universalists called the religion for atheists. At the same time, I’ve heard people question whether it’s a religion at all. Today we’re going to address religion generally and why—or whether we need it.
Before I begin my sermon, I’d like to give you two definitions of religion to think about. The first is a global definition: a world view with accompanying practices and rituals. The second is a western definition: belief in a supernatural deity or power. So here are some questions for your consideration: “What is religion?” “Is UUism a religion?” “Do we want it to be?” “Do we need it to be?”
Good morning. Today we’re going to consider the nature of religion, but in good UU fashion, first we have to define it. Some linguists (not all—I’m looking at you, Donald Cooper) suggest that the root of the term is ligare, to bind together. I’ve already given you two definitions, but there are probably hundreds.
I’ve defined it myself simply as a community searching for meaning. You might already have guessed, then, that I don’t buy the western definition of religion as belief in a supernatural deity. Buddhism is an example of a religion that doesn’t posit a supernatural entity. UUism is another; it is not one of our principles and most UU congregations are made up of a variety of theists (including Christians and Jews), non-theists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, mystics, pagans, and others who don’t identify as any of these. So, if belief in the supernatural (an external entity who can change natural law) is an essential attribute of religion then no, UUism is not a religion.
But it’s really only recently (comparatively speaking) that religion became a matter of belief and not behavior. Remember that James says in the Bible that faith without works is dead. But monotheism and Christianity specifically flipped that around so that belief is what gets you to Heaven. It’s this interpretation of religion that brought on some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of a god: the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and societies that have allowed them to happen (e.g., the sexual molestation of altar boys and the cover-up by the catholic church and the outrageous and often criminal behavior of many preachers of the gospel). I’ve always though it was ethnocentric in the extreme for Christians to point out Islamic violence; sometimes I wonder if they’ve read the Old Testament.
All of this + the anti-science mindset of many has set the stage for the anti-religious rhetoric over the last 20 years from people like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (who was the author of that first quote, “religion poisons everything”). Indeed, these authors make so many good points about religious beliefs that I was a fan for a long time. When you look at religion in the US, it’s easy to become cynical. I didn’t realize that I was actually not just a humanist, but a religious humanist until I opened the religion box up a little wider and realized that they were all knocking down straw men, they were all talking about fundamentalist religion.
Fundamentalist religion is exclusive. You’re going to hell if you don’t believe in my god. That’s one end of the continuum. The other is 100% certainty that there’s no deity (& even Dawkins doesn’t claim that). I’m agnostic because I literally do not know—my favorite bumper stickers says “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either’). But one of the reasons I remain a member of this congregation and value it more and more as each day goes by is because it’s made me less of a fundamentalist agnostic. I continue to learn from the progressive Christians at the UUCC just how huge our tent is and why we need each other. I like to think that I’ve accomplished a little more moral humility (which is the description the Christian Science Monitor applies to the deficiencies of the new atheists).
Speaking of the many perspectives of the congregants here, let me describe for you a metaphor coined by the late UU minister, Forrest Church. He suggests a cathedral for considering possibilities of the world; the light of “God” shines through windows & from within us (& God is only one name for this light); we can only see a part of the cathedral, never the whole thing; the whole light (God, Truth, whatever) is beyond perceiving; we are part of the cathedral (interdependent web); the whole is always contained within each of the parts—this is Universalism.
Fundamentalists claim that light shines through their window only; they’ve been taught to worship at one window & throw rocks at others; if salvation is dependent on the right belief & we disagree then I must ignore, convert or destroy you. Skeptics – because of confusing array of windows claim there’s no light. And none of us can see the truth that shines through another’s window. Therefore—we must acknowledge the partial nature of our understanding, respect others’ truths & defend their rights to their truths & credit them with some measures of truth. (That’s where the moral humility comes in.)
OK, I’ve talked about the definition of religion and how UUism might be a religion, but I haven’t addressed a bigger question: Do we need religion in this post-modern, science-based world? As I suggested earlier, my answer to that question was once at best a question mark if not a definitive “no.” But my life experience (and likely my age) have changed that answer considerably. Let me pose a question to you though, “Do you need a group to help you find meaning and purpose? To help you discover your better, more moral self? Do you need a group to help you make the world a better place? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you probably need religion.
If you’ve read the Pew research (or a lot of other polls on religion) over the last few years, you know that a lot of millenials and younger people report that they are “nones,” not-affiliated with any religion. But most of these people are not atheists; a lot say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” It sounds to be like those people are saying that they don’t affiliate with a group, but they are still searching for some kind of transcendence, some way to connect to the cosmos that will give their life meaning and shape. One of the passages I read to you during the opening words was from Andrew Sullivan, who is convinced that religion is an inherent part of being human. Forrest Church says that religion is the human response to having to live and the knowledge that we will have to die.
I want to touch on the purpose of religion just briefly. Most laypeople and even clergy agree that religion does not help explain nature (Ken Ham’s creation museum showing a saddle on a Triceratops notwithstanding). So does it give us a moral code (as Freud suggests)? Durkeim thought it was social glue with a therapeutic power to help us manage our emotions.
In fact, a lot of writers seem to believe that the function of religion, the animating essence of religion, is the management of emotions— to reduce anxiety, stress and depression. It is a cultural system that provides existential meaning and hope. Through story, it trains feelings of empathy and compassion.
And it provides consolation for suffering. (That’s why I think my own perspective about this congregation has changed; you got me through Don’s death. As one writer puts it, even the music and stories can transform grief into a shared, more bearable sorrow.
Can you live a good life without religion? A lot of people seem to think so. Church attendance continues to drop every year. But Sullivan defines religion as a way of life that gives life meaning. He writes: “Science cannot replace it because it does not tell you how to live or what life is about. And while art can provide an escape from our daily tasks, appreciation of great art of music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost noting to say about morality or life.” He mentions the opioid epidemic as one outcome of a life with no meaning.
Sullivan was a close friend of Hitchens, and he talks a lot about their long conversations about Progressivism becoming the new western religion. But for him Progressivism is just another orthodoxy; the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion. In fact, Sullivan thinks that politics has become the new religion with the cult of the right in a fight with the cult of the left.
So we’re back again to the question of what is religion. This is a huge subject, so we absolutely don’t have time to visit all the notable writers and treatises on this subject from people from Voltaire to William James to Walt Whitman. But as you can easily infer from just this morning’s talk, many of the qualities of religion depend on community. Input and support from others seems to be a necessary component. I don’t think that supernatural belief is—but that may be because I’m a religious humanist. One of the glories of UUism is that you can make up your own mind about it.
And finally, one last observation about UUism. Yes, some Americans would not recognize this denomination as a religion (mention party incident a few years ago, meaning of hymn). But I would posit that our world view (as articulated in our principles) and our practices (especially as embodied in our work toward social justice) make us an exemplary religion—and exactly the right one for the perilous times in which we live, times that cry out for comfort, hope, and working together toward a better world for everyone. Forrest Church called UUism The American Creed, and I think that description is perfect. Can I hear an amen? Amen!! Thank you
“My religion is kindness. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. (Dailai Lama)
(from William Channing Garrett, a famous UU minister, in 1887) “We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion.’