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Secularism Today

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.
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A. Eustace Haydon on Humanist Spirituality

A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, a Baptist then Unitarian minister, and for some years a Leader in the Ethical Culture Movement (AEU) had this to say on the spirituality of humanism:

© Clipart.com - used with permission

© Clipart.com

“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.”


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A Time to Mourn

I cannot fully celebrate anyone’s death. It would make me less than I want to be. It was Osama bin Laden’s celebration of death of others in the service of his ends that led him to inspire so much pain and suffering. I don’t want to be like that, even in a moment.

I mourn the pain that he caused to not just those killed by acts he inspired and planned, but to their families. I mourn the happiness lost to millions billions of people through the fear of terrorism. But I also hold just a small place to mourn the person he might have been but was not — the person he chose not to be.

I remember hearing just after 9/11 from someone who’d met Osama in college in America. That person remembered an evening when Osama was sitting at a piano and picking out notes and singing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I remember, in the pain and shock of what we call 9/11 as shorthand, thinking of what might have been had he not made some choice, somewhere along the way. I can mourn that self he didn’t become and could have become.

That humanity which he long buried in himself and stamped out so that he could do hateful things is one small part of what I mourn today, along with all the other human losses that choice he made led to.

One way we can refuse to be like Osama bin Laden is to stubbornly refuse to be drawn into the denial of any person’s core humanity in service of our own ends.

Yes, it was probably the lesser of evils BY FAR that he was killed rather than left to live and inspire more death and pain and suffering. But I mourn that killing him was the only alternative we could find, based on his own choices.

What Is Humanism?

Years and years ago, when I was ill with a serious kidney infection and sleeping in fits and starts, I left the TV on after tuning into some cable station that had had some relaxing music on it.  As I woke up, I became aware that there was a panel discussion about humanism.  I thought at first it might be humanists speaking when one defined a humanist as “someone who doesn’t believe something just because someone tells them it’s true or they read it in a book.”

Then I became fully aware that it was an evangelical religious channel, and the person gave this definition without a hint of emotion because they assumed everyone would be horrified at it, even without emphasis.

I can’t imagine believing something just because someone tells me it’s true or I read it in a book.

Since then, I’ve taken that as a pretty good description of “humanism” in the broadest sense of it.

But my preference is for the definition by John Dietrich: “Human responsibility for human problems.”

A. Eustace Haydon on Humanist Spirituality

A. Eustace Haydon, a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, Dean of the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago, a Baptist then Unitarian minister, 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.”

To sense our human at-homeness in the universe that sustains us and gives us life: this is the sense of spirituality which many of us who identify as humanists find in nature.

Wisdom

Originally posted online on December 26, 2002 – reposted because the original site is no longer current

In August, 2002, members of the graduating class at the Humanist Institute asked their class mentors, Harvey Sarles and me, to speak for three to five minutes on the topic of “wisdom.” Here is what I shared that evening:

In 1993 or 1994, I wanted to learn how to design web sites. So I took a few quotations from my long-developing collection of quotes, put them up on a free web site, and called the page “Wisdom Quotes.”

Three months later, I learned about a new style of page counters (which measure how many people look at a web page), so I practiced by putting one up on the Wisdom Quotes site. A few months later, I remembered that I’d put the counter there and looked to see what the count was. I was shocked: 500 people a week were reading that page!

The page has since grown and evolved into its own web site, and the number of readers has grown quite significantly — but I still remember and treasure that early surprise at its popularity.

There is a hunger in the world for wisdom — and I don’t think it is found, really, on a web site, or a bumper sticker, or in any book.

These ten students, whose passion and dedication have moved me for three years, are wise and I commend them to you as humanist leaders.

But being wise is not a destination. It is a journey. Wisdom which is not continually developed becomes mere dogma.

So, to you who are now graduating, I charge you: develop your wisdom continually.

A few more words on wisdom:


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