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The outrage over Prop 8’s passage in California has yet to subside and the constitution has already been defiled again in that state—this time in Rancho Cucamonga, where city officials requested the removal of a billboard reading “Imagine No Religion” because it offended some residents.
The city acted after it received dozens of phone calls from fragile believers who apparently are not mentally or emotionally equipped to imagine no religion—hence they are believers. Sign company General Outdoor showed its cowardice by dutifully removing the sign, which was paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
This is evidence to me that religion is an issue we’ve made almost no progress on in this country. The message on the billboard that people found so offensive of course was inspired by John Lennon’s Imagine, which was recorded in 1971. The conversations about race, gender and sexuality in this country have advanced far beyond where they were in 1971. Only religion is mired in the tired old arguments of four decades ago, four centuries ago. The censorship of a message of hope reveals we remain hopelessly deadlocked.
As I watch many of the 20th Century’s foundational ideas and institutions crumbling before my very eyes and a new guard taking control in Washington, I’m reminded of the Hermann Hesse novel Demian, which includes the line, “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
To digress quickly, Abraxas is a mythical figure thought to represent both God and Satan in one entity. It’s a perfect fit for Hesse because much of his fiction centers on man’s conflicting natures at war within himself.
But, for these purposes, I want to focus on the line “who would be born must destroy a world.” Demian was published in 1919 just after World War I, the conflict that introduced mankind to the horrors of industrialized war and the efficiency with which technology could propagate death. Hesse, a German, had a front row seat to the destruction of the old Europe, and what he thought then to be the birth of a new one—hence, “who would be born must destroy a world.”
Sinclair, Demian’s main character, sees this as a necessary violence the world must inflict on itself—like the removal of an infected limb to prevent it from tainting the rest of the body. The first eight years of the 21st Century could be seen as a prolonged amputation of the outdated ideas and models of the 20th Century. September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a contentious 2004 election that ignited a culture war between “religious conservatives” and “liberal elites,” our diminishing standing in the world, outsourcing of any jobs that actually create material goods, and now our failing economy–the sum of all these events, perhaps, is the destruction of 20th Century America.
I look to Hesse and Humanism and find optimism in times such as these. Certainly we all wonder what new world will emerge from the smoking ash of a burned down yesterday, but the Humanist understands that wonder alone is not enough. We have no God waiting to fix what’s wrong with the world. That is a religious frame of mind: “there is nothing to do but pray; the rest is in God’s hands.” The Humanist has only reality. Religious people might see that as a bleak and desolate worldview, an existential crisis. I beg to differ. Because the Humanist controls his own destiny. We can’t simply cast our gaze skyward and beg for strength. It is up to us to build a new world and, relying only on our own intelligence and creativity, we can make of it what we wish.
As I watch our situation continue to deteriorate, I’m filled with hope that the leveling of America as we knew will yield a new and better age. My hope is that the more bloated superpowers of the previous century—like CitiGroup and General Motors—who fail and the more neo-cons we expel from Washington, the the more room there will be for the companies and thinkers of tomorrow. Advocating the expulsion of such institutions may sound radical to some, but I think it helps to think of it this way: would we have elected a one-term senator, black intellectual named Barack Hussein Obama President of the United States, had George Bush not completely laid waste to our government, our economy, our military, our constitution, our reputation and, subsequently, our sense of selves as Americans?
“Who would be born must destroy a world.” Sometimes the greatest progress springs forth from our greatest failures.
Omaha and Nebraska’s 2nd District went for Barack Obama in this election, marking the first time the city has voted for a Democratic candidate for President since 1964 and Lyndon Johnson.
As a resident of Omaha, I’m all-too-often reminded of our red-state reputation. A disturbing number of people here still drive around with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers and speak openly against gays and abortion and stem-cell research as offensive to their faith. And it’s all very nonchalant, as if there aren’t controversies raging about these issues elsewhere. Most of them are nice enough people. They’re just saying what they’ve been taught to think.
I think this signals a fundamental difference between the ultra-faithful and the nonbeliever. The former still lives in an almost child-like state, unable to move beyond or even question the mythology of their youth—be it tales of America’s infallibility or of invisible men who listen to your thoughts. The latter, on the other hand, eventually matures mentally and emotionally and comes to see the world in a new way.
So, does Omaha’s vote for Obama signal an ideological coming of age for the city? Probably not. Obama is a very religious man himself, and you can bet that if he were an atheist or really was a Muslim (as Republicans tried to paint him) he would have been lucky to get 10% of the vote here.
Sad but true.
California wins this blog’s “Irony in Governance” award after the state’s citizens voted to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage Nov. 4: a ban the state’s supreme court previously, and correctly, found to be unconstitutional just over five months ago.
I reiterate: the California constitution now includes a measure that the California Supreme Court said five months ago is unconstitutional. If your head didn’t just explode, feel free to keep reading.
This marks the second time California voters have been wrong on this issue, which leads me to question the state’s reputation as a stronghold for progressive liberal thinking. In 2000, voters approved a referendum banning same-sex marriage. State lawmakers made two efforts to reverse it, but Governator Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills.
Having no valid arguments to support them that aren’t based in religion, these bans are a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. These “laws” stand on two wobbly legs of “family values”–as if straight Christians are the authorities on that—everybody’s favorite book of fairy tales—you know, that great bastion of morality, the Bible, which also condones slavery, oppression of women and murdering children. I for one would rather have gay people raising kids in this country if it meant they wouldn’t be forced to read about atrocities disguised as “God’s teachings.”
What is perhaps most shocking, and disappointing, about the passage of Proposition 8 is that it came on a night that looked, on its surface, like nothing less than the coronation of a new liberal movement. I was one of the people saying this election signaled a fundamental shift in American ideals toward a more progressive, secular worldview. Now, seeing anti-gay measures passed in California, Arizona, Florida and Arkansas, I’m afraid I was wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, electing a black President is an important step. And I think we can say with pride that, while we may not have closed the book on racism by electing Barack Obama, it certainly starts a new and exciting chapter. However, when it comes to religion and conservative “values,” people are as closed off as ever. The passage of these ultra-conservative bills leaves me to believe that the Democrats owe their victories more to a mass protest against Bush and Republicans than anything nearing a fundamental reshaping of our values as a people. Sadly, Nov. 4 confirmed that we remain decades behind Europe and Canada culturally.
Of course the wild card in all of this is President Obama. He is a kind of composite American, straddling both sides of so many issues dividing this country: he is both black and white, at once religious and overtly intellectual, and a product of both modest Kansas beginnings and elitist Harvard Law School.
It is certain that Obama the Intellectual will not carry on empowering fundamentalist nut jobs in the manner of is predecessor, but it remains to be seen whether Obama the Christian will actually engage in the fight on behalf tolerance. He may simply look the other direction—afraid of enraging the overwhelming majority of his constituents who share his religious affiliation. I certainly hope it’s the former.
America finally has its 21st-century president. We desperately need him to find the courage to actively usher in some 21st-Century thinking.
I hate mission statements.
As a corporate writer in my day job, most company mission statements I see leave me with flu-like symptoms. They are almost invariably constructed of 50-word sentences and empty marketing speak, like “mission-critical,” “value-added,” “best-in-class” (what’s with the hyphens, mission statements?).
But if I had to write a mission statement for The Humanist Journal (as the guy next to me with the gun to my head says I must), I suppose it would be: To advance the Humanist position by educating people on the culture and beliefs of nonbelievers.
There, I did it. As mission statements go, I have to say it’s not half bad—a single concise, declarative sentence. But enough about what a great writer I am.
The purpose of this first post is to define some specific goals for this blog–not as a means to constrain myself to certain topics, but simply to give me an “angle” from which to approach massive subjects like religion, atheism and humanism. With the goal stated above, I am still free to tackle a variety of topics in this realm, but I will always have that principle to guide me when I pick a topic to write about, such as “living a meaningful life in the absence of god,” “Humanist morality,” or “what is Secular Humanism?”.
Notice that none of those topics signal any attack on religion. That is no accident. The intent of this venue is not to tear down religion, but to promote humanism or secularism in its many forms. Inevitably, a certain amount of print will be devoted to attacking various perversions of religion: religious bias, attacks on science, fundamentalist intolerance. Religious faith is an unfortunate delusion, but I don’t believe that faith itself is inherently dangerous to our society. Therefore, it is not my main target here. What I am really interested in is shedding light on who nonbelievers are, what they think and how we can all advance the humanist movement.
I anticipate three separate audiences for this publication.
Open-minded Believers – I hope at least some the readers who find this blog are open-minded believers looking to learn a little about atheism or humanism. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to convert anyone here. Rather, my goal it to educate believers on what atheists really believe in (e.g. we’re not amoral, debased, libertines who are lost in the cosmos without God).
Established Atheists – A major goal in starting this blog is to give atheists and humanists of all stripes a “place” to gather and share their thoughts with like-minded humans.
The Undecided – Approximately 14 percent of Americans classify themselves as “without religion.” Yet less than one percent of Americans call themselves Atheists or agnostics, according to the 2001American Religous Identification Survey (yeah, I know it’s old but still interesting). This isn’t really a problem in itself, people don’t necessarily have to identify themselves with certain labels. It’s okay to be a “religious independent.” But what concerns me in these numbers is that I suspect millions of these people do not believe in god, don’t subscribe to any religion, but won’t label themselves with the ‘A-word’ out of fear of discrimination or persecution at the hands of the religious majority.
I’m also convinced that there are a lot of people out there who don’t know what they are. They don’t know what humanism is, or secularism, and I’ve already covered the negative perception of atheists. All they know is they don’t like church and don’t necessarily believe in a supreme creator. I would compare this phenomenon to gay people who’ve yet to come out of the closet, but it’s more than that. It’s tantamount to gay people who’ve yet to even admit it to themselves, let alone others.
I cannot stress enough that this is the most important audience this blog can reach, because they are persuadable. People on either side are solidified in their beliefs and you’re not going to budge them. But I think some of the people in the middle could find this blog and read about humanism and say “hey, that sounds like what I believe in. I just never knew what to call it.”
I want to make it clear that I do not claim to be an expert. I’m not a professor, a historian, scientist or theologian. If you want authorities on this subject, there are some great ones out there—Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris are some of my favorites. These great thinkers have been at the forefront of a recent secular resurgence in mainstream thought.
But I think there is also a problem inherent in these men being the ‘face’ of atheism. Religious people have come to conceptualize atheists as elitist scientists and professors in places like Cambridge and Oxford. The average believer who rarely, if ever, encounters atheists in his daily life is able to convince himself that they are nothing like him. The are the “other”, the elitists in liberal universities and laboratories. Certainly they don’t live in my neighborhood. But the fact is we’re everywhere; they just don’t know it becasue, to this point, we’ve been very, very quiet.
This is my attempt to introduce atheism’s “middle class” to mainstream America. If we want to stem the tide of religious discrimination and the marginalization of atheist, rational belief, we need to “come out of the closet,” so to speak. There’s 29 million of us out there somewhere. It’s time our voice was heard, too.