Mohandas Gandhi acknowledged that reading William Salter’s Ethical Religion was an influence on his own developing thought.* The book was created from a collection of addresses Salter gave in his early years as Leader (equivalent of a minister) at the Chicago Ethical Society, and was published in 1889.
The following excerpt is my slight update of Salter’s words, using more modern language where his dated words might distract from his message for many of today’s readers. The original can be found and downloaded for free at Google Books.
At its core, “secular” is the opposite of or in contrast to “sacred” and by extension “religion.” (”Religion” is a relatively new concept in human culture, as we use it today. “Sacred” and “secular” are older.) Coming from the Latin, its derivation is from “worldly” or “temporal” as contrasted to “eternal” or, I suppose, “other-worldly.”
The term “secular” is used today in several different ways — ways that are in tension with each other, with real implications. That’s true for those who use the term for something they support, as well as for those who use the term for something they oppose.
Pope Benedict XVI said, “There is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West … a world without God has no future.” Mitt Romney, running for President in 2007, equated “secularism” with “radical Jihadism.” Newt Gingrich denounced “secular fanatics,” and wrote about Obama’s “secular-socialist machine.”
In this article, I’ve tried teasing out four different meanings of the word as used especially by those who support secularism. There’s obviously some connections between them; they are, however, somewhat in tension.
For all of us — but particularly for the children in our lives: in the aftermath of yesterday’s bombing.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, not to feel this as close to home, with all the news coverage, with all the videos, with all the photos. We can remember how rare such incidents are, at least in the United States. But it still feels real, and close. Our fear systems may be triggered. We can respond with the unthinking natural responses: aggression, withdrawal, denial. Or we can make a choice to shake off our fear and respond differently, including with social engagement.
Not everyone responds the same way. I’m someone who needs information, as much as possible, in order to gain back my rational self in such times. Some need to get away, to more peaceful activities: a walk among tall trees, playing a game with family, just doing a normal day’s work.
Gradually perspective sets in. For me, it’s the knowledge that so many helpers stepped up and stepped in. The immigrant peace activist who lost two sons, one in Iraq and one to suicide, helping to save another man’s son by holding tight his tourniquet. The surgeons, the nurses, at the hospitals. The medical people who rushed to help and save lives, some after having just run 26+ miles themselves. The bystanders who tore down a metal fence to get to the injured. The thousands in Boston who reached out to runners who could not get to their rooms and belongings, to say, “stay with me, I’m here, you’ve got a place to go right now.”
Those are the lessons our children need to hear. Those are the role models we all need to hear. Perhaps one person, perhaps a group brought on the bombings. More than a hundred were injured. Far, far more stepped up to give of themselves, to bring peace and support and understanding. That is a far more important lesson.
And it’s one that gives ourselves and our children something to hang on to. We are not powerless in the face of such tragedies. We are immensely powerful. Every peaceful act we do, every kindness we do, may influence someone, in ripples, every bit as much as harmful acts will do.
We can make the choice to bring more kindness and peace to the world. So what kindness will you be doing today — for yourself? for your children? for strangers?
Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center credited Clarence Darrow as an inspiration for practicing law in a way that helped the powerless. Clarence Darrow is remembered as someone whose motivations came from outside traditional religion.
Clarence Darrow’s father had studied to become a Unitarian minister at Meadville Theological School (then in Ohio), inspired to leave Methodism over slavery. He had been ordained, but doubts concerning God led him to start his own manufacturing business, instead. His wife also was what at the time was called a freethinker. They did name one son Channing, presumably for the early Unitarian leader, and another Everett for Edward Everett (the same Unitarian whose oration preceded Abraham Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, and was a contrast in its length of 2 hours compared to Lincoln’s very short address). Clarence was named Clarence Seward, remembering the ardent abolitionist and Republican Party founder who served as secretary of war during Lincoln’s presidency. (Darrow became associated with the Democrats in his own adulthood.)
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I read in the news was the horrible news from Colorado. An audience full of excited mostly-young people had gathered for a midnight showing of a much-anticipated movie — and a gunman took advantage of that full theatre to … do what? Get noticed, I imagine.
What does it take to blind oneself to the natural emotions of empathy and compassion in order to do such a deed? It’s beyond me; I only know that it’s happening more and more often. It’s also enabled by the availability of technology that makes it possible to fire hundreds of rounds without stopping to reload — and giving anyone an opportunity to stop the bloodshed. And the ability to gather such supplies without calling any attention to the one who is preparing for a massacre.
What response does the tragedy call for from us? To hug our own loved ones, first, remembering that life is sometimes tenuous. To continue, or begin, to do the work of teaching empathy to children and adults. To reach out to anyone we know who was touched by the tragedy. To help our own children and grandchildren understand that this is actually very unlikely to happen to any one person (the ubiquitous media makes it seem so close, especially to young children who don’t really comprehend distances and statistical probabilities).
It also calls for a moment of reason and compassion — to not quickly buy into conspiracy theories, political or religious explanations, or even to try to find what’s to “blame.” The reasons are complex in any such incident. There are no easy answers, and no easy ways to prevent the tragedy.
For me, I don’t want to add to the shooter’s fame by repeating his name. If I’m right and one of the primary motivations today for such mass killings is to “make a name” — to get famous — then I won’t be complicit in that.
But my heart goes out to the injured, to the families and friends of the injured and dead, to the people who escaped and who will still be scarred from the memories, to all who are scared and scarred by such events.
I find myself even more resolved to do my part in building a more peaceful, more compassionate world.
From William Salter, an early Ethical Culture leader; adapted by Jone Johnson Lewis:
A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:
“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”
Compassion without reason is ineffective; reason without compassion is destructive.
“Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” – Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897
How the National Prayer Breakfast invitation edited Thomas Jefferson:
“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
How can you make resolutions you’ll actually keep?
Making general resolutions to change (”I’ll lose weight” / “I’ll stop smoking” / “I’ll do something about my job”) rarely results in actually achieving what you resolve.
Those general statements are good starts, though.
Think smart. That’s S – M – A – R – T — a way to look at your goals, to make them work for you. New Year’s resolutions are one kind of goal.
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