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The Science of Religion: Why Do People Believe or Disbelieve?
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Beyond Reason and Science: A Radical Challenge
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NACH/The Humanist Institute

Beyond Reason and Science:

A Radical Challenge

Vern L. Bullough

Humanism to meet the needs of the 21st century has to have effective organizations on the local, regional, and national levels, something that has not been true for much of this century. This paper offers a personal, and perhaps utopian, concept of what is needed to succeed and argues that while we need to continually emphasize science and reason, we also need to do more.

We put great emphasis on rational thinking and as much as possible we try to adopt the methods of science for testing our belief systems. At the same time we cannot rationally explain much that takes place and we recognize that the world is not necessarily a rational place in which to live. That is, accidents happen, unforeseen developments take place, and we are not very good at anticipating what the future will bring. We also believe that humans require more than material things since we have an inherent aesthetic sense which also is part of being human. We need music, poetry, literature, art—material things in one form, but one in which transcend and go beyond this in their appeal to the senses. We desire continual intellectual stimulation, love and affection, companionship, and friendship in order to live life at its fullest.

Humanism is not a limiting belief system but an all‑encompassing one. Everything that humans do or can do or dream of doing falls within our purview. This means to me that there are many directions a humanist can and will take. Humanists are into everything that can be defined as human activity. This very diversity raises the question of whether there is anything that lies at the core of being a humanist. By my definition, I think there is, and that is a concern for our fellow human beings, although the manifestation of this varies according to individual humanists. Such a concern for fellow humans is not limited to humanists, but our concern places a special burden on us since we cannot depend on outside forces or the next world to solve or attempt to solve human problems. We have to work in the here and now. We do not get merits in the next world for what we do now, and in fact we do not believe there is another life after this. We believe that all we can leave behind when we die is our minuscule contributions to making the world a better place.

This to me as a free thinker is the real appeal of humanism, the demand for commitment to help others but at the same time not neglecting the importance of enjoying the pleasures that life can bring. We recognize of course that there are numerous tragedies that we have to suffer through and that life at best is unpredictable. Yet we know we have to face our difficulties head on, and try to make the best of it, all the time retaining our belief in the potential that humans have even though we anticipate that many will not do so. The ascetic all‑forgiving life of St. Francis of Assisi is not for me nor is the masochistic self‑punishment of St. Theresa. I want to live life at its fullest in the company of friends and relatives and even strangers, but I also want to help others. This I can do as a teacher, as a nurse, as a writer, as a political activist, as humanist organizer, and also by contributing money, encouraging individuals, supporting good causes. My late wife, Bonnie, and I spent much of our life doing these kind of things more or less successfully, often in conjunction with others, and in recent years we have received all kinds of awards for it. I continue to do the same things without Bonnie but with the help of others, friends, acquaintances, fellow humanists, and loved ones.

I say all this because it then points out a dilemma for humanists, one that some of you are attempting to deal with here. What is the place of organized humanism in my life or in the life of others who think as I do. I have always supported humanist groups because they have given me a sense of camaraderie, a feeling of belonging, and often they would engage with me in some of my causes. In spite of my organizational titles, however, I have not been particularly active in local humanist groups, although I have attended many. The most intense activity I had with local groups was early on in my humanist development when I belonged to humanist Unitarian societies (not churches). Groups in Salt Lake and Chicago were important to me as I was seceding from a traditional religious group, but even at their best, I never enjoyed going to service on Sunday morning. The same was true with my more loose association with Ethical Culture and local humanist groups. I liked most of the people I met, often saw them in connection with other projects in which I was engaged, and many became close friends and remain so. I often attended special functions of the various groups and still do, but I was never a chapter stalwart, and now usually only attend formal religious services when I am speaking or going to a funeral or some ceremonial function. Part of the difficulty is that I know much more than the speaker on most of the topics under discussion on any Sunday morning, and partly I would rather do something else with my day off. This is undoubtedly being arrogant but neither the sermon, the readings, the music, nor the whole ceremony appeals to me and I usually find myself engaging in mind games with myself when I find myself sitting through such occasions. Still I do enjoy my fellow humanists, gain support and encouragement from them, and want to remain in contact with them. The question is how.

I know my reaction is not unique, because Unitarian‑Universalist divinity schools, Ethical Cultures societies, and individual liberal ministers and humanist leaders, have been struggling to deal with individuals like me for some time. The result, at least in the Unitarian-Universalist movement, has been to downplay the sermon, to emphasize an appeal to the emotions through music, poetry, and a general atmosphere of friendliness, yet keep activities within the confines of a traditional church. For some this seems to work but the difficulty is that while I like music, even religious music, I tend to go to professional concerts for this kind of appeal when I feel I need it. Occasionally I even go to poetry readings, or more often to special lectures in fields of interest to me, and quite simply the church cannot compete. For a time I believed organized groups could, and I was tremendously excited when I first attended Steven Fritchman's Church in Los Angeles, which in a sense reminded me of the evangelical revivals I once played professional piano for. The members of the Church were committed to various causes; the services were short, pithy—and like a three‑ring circus, with invited professional musicians and what have you; but even the charismatic Fritchman failed to retain his appeal over the long term although I made an occasional foray for a time to find what was new. It was that Sunday morning thing, more than anything else, which turned me off.

 All of this is background to the major question of what can humanism do to survive as an organization, instead of remaining a motley unorganized collection of individual believers. I think the answer lies in some of the things I have tried to emphasize, namely friendship, commitment, reinforcing each other, doing things together, consoling one another, offering ceremonies where pertinent and important to the individual or to a friend. 

Some years ago, on a return flight from a North American Committee for Humanism meeting, Paul Kurtz and I had a long conversation about some of the same things, a subject to which we returned several times over the next year, and I argued then, and Paul came to agree, that what we needed were Humanist Centers which allowed for a large variety of activity and provided a nucleus for involvement in many different projects. Initially I called them friendship centers. The term itself is unimportant, but I remain convinced that the concept if anything is even more important. In recent years some groups have begun to experiment with such centers. The San Diego coffee house/book store/meeting place was one example, the proposed Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles is another, and of course the Center in Buffalo is still another. We have the potential in New York City, here at the Ethical Culture building, and in its pioneering days it probably acted as such a center, but what worked in the past no longer does, and something different is needed. I should add that none of the humanist centers have yet approached what I originally envisioned. 

Such centers which humanists would join could give the emotional support which many of us periodically need, serve as a place to meet for ceremonies such as marriage, divorce, memorial services; act as exhibit hall, host traveling musicians, give periodic lectures, hold seminars, have nursery schools, and so forth. In addition they would have a drop‑in book store and coffee house, host changing exhibits, and engage in other such activities so people could browse and engage in conversation. They would also be a place where activist groups could hold a meeting. Most of the humanists would only participate in a small part of the activities but it would be there if they wanted more. Actually Conway hall in London approaches some of this but it is still handicapped by formal Sunday meetings and appurtenances of its nineteenth century past and here we are now in the twenty-first century. What it needs is a good coffee bar, book store, a drop in and browse place, some changing exhibits, and much less formality. I propose that the centers hold bridge games (in part because I play competitive bridge), dances, jazz concerts, and what have you, with preferred pricing for members of the center, and regular price for others. If the center were large enough it could have athletic facilities, even a swimming pool.

I have to admit that my thinking was probably influenced some by my Mormon background. Although the Mormons did hold services on Sunday, their church buildings, called meeting houses when I was young, served really as community centers. I acted in my first play in a Mormon auditorium. I also went to my first dance in one, played in a jazz band for a dance for the first time in one, saw most of the movies I saw as a child in one, performed publicly on the piano and later the organ for the first time in one, gave my first public speech in one, had my first teaching experience in one, was a boy scout in one, played my first basket ball game in one, and the list could go on. It was a Mormon Church which recruited me (and thousands of others) to dig the mud out of some houses which had been engulfed after a sudden torrential rain., sent me out to help a poor local woman who needed her garden dug up, and probably in fact helped form my social conscience about helping others. In fact it was the all‑encompassing involvement of family and the variety of activities that took place that made leaving the Mormon fold so wrenching as a high school student.

A second influence on my ideas was the secular Jewish Community Center movement on the west coast with which many of us could identify even though we were not Jewish. It provided for all kinds of activities in which members and friends, no longer active in any Jewish religious group, as well as those who were, to meet and renew friendships. For a time I was even a member of a such a center, primarily to use the swimming pool (but it kept closing on the Jewish holy days). It was also rather expensive which implied to me that my original idea of a friendship center had to be somewhat more economical. But even a less ambitious center could house a lot of activities, sponsored by a variety of groups, in which individual humanists have some interest.

Most importantly, a center has to fill our needs in ways which other organizations cannot do: by emphasizing the humanist family writ both large and small; by giving us a place where friends can gather and share thoughts and activities with like‑minded people when they feel the need to do so; by offering a place for important ceremonies such as marriage or funerals, and by offering a wide variety of activities so that even people like me will occasionally venture in to hear a lecture or participate in some other activity. The list could go on, but most of the things I mentioned above can be carried on without spending a lot of money. In sum, I hold that humanism attracts a variety of individuals with different interests, not all the same as mine. I think any attempt to follow the traditional church organizational model is doomed to failure. Reason and the methods of science provide our intellectual basis, but to become a humanist requires more, and for humanist organizations to survive they need to provide it. We as organizational humanists need to be innovative, think in different ways, and appeal to the variety of interests and causes which we have as humanists, and at the same time we need to serve our emotional needs.

This also means that we need to train a different kind of humanist leader than one to fill the traditional ministerial role. He or she needs to be a community organizer more than an expert on Biblical exegesis, although that too cannot be neglected. Although humanist centers can depend in part on volunteers, I think the key to long‑term success is a professional leader. The humanist professional, however, has to have experience in community organization, in business administration, in the philosophy and beliefs of humanists, in counseling, in teaching people of every age and condition, and of course it would help if they could walk on water. Since few can, we need to keep in mind that they too have human limitations. We need to abandon the notion of a church simply being a meeting hall, and we need to educate a new kind of humanist professional. Our success in doing so, will decide just how influential humanism as an organizational movement will be. While humanism can survive as a philosophy or a life stance without an organization, it will be far stronger with an organization that is expanding in new directions to meet changing needs. It will also appeal to a lot more people.

© 1999 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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