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A sermon by Bruce W. Boucek for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on June 29, 2008

Praying for the Success of Atheism: The Role of Secular Humanists in the UU Church

There are two different themes identified in the title of this sermon that may seem to be at cross-purposes but that hopefully I'll be able to clarify.

Two responses that might be expected from such a title might include:

Why would anyone pray for the success of atheism?

And, isn't it a given that secular humanists play a role in UUism?

Well, I'll attempt to explain my interpretation or experience with both of those topics and hopefully tie them together in a meaningful way.

I believe that in discussing any important ideas that it is necessary to set the stage or identify the context and since my wife and I are new members of the church and so few of you know me or know me well I’ll provide here a little background about myself.

I consider myself a secular humanist, an atheist, a pacifist, and a UU. I don't believe that any of these self-applied labels lie at cross-purposes from each other. Each of them are inherently tied up in who I am and in how I observe and interact with the world.

I’ve been a pacifist as far back as I can remember – being a pacifist does not mean I’m passive.

My secular humanism and atheism although probably inherent to a certain degree are characteristics of myself that it took some time for me to clarify. Growing up in the UU tradition I believe helped to make that clarification if not only possible at least easier.

When I refer to myself as a secular humanist and as an atheist my definitions of those terms need to be understood as straying from the norm and perhaps at some point I’ll decide that both the terms secular and atheist are not ideal but for the time-being they work. And, I will always be a humanist - but not in the of the exceptional tradition; I don’t believe there is anything inherently special about “us” as human beings.

I am not an agnostic – although I may have been one for a brief period in my teens when I thought it would be cool to worship a vengeful pagan goddess – even if didn’t truly believe in her.

Humanism is frequently divided into two categories: religious humanism and secular humanism. Both elevate our humanity to great importance but religious humanism derives from theology whereas secular humanism derives from philosophy. I choose to place myself on the secular side of the split, however I don’t think that prevents me from being a UU. And, although I am an atheist one does not need to be an atheist to be a secular humanist. Secular humanism is a funny beast. It is a philosophy that can in practice appear similar to a faith.

Atheism is generally defined as the belief that there are no Gods and some divide atheists into two categories – theoretical atheists and practical atheists. The former actively and self-consciously deny the existence of God. The latter may actually believe in a supreme being or omniscient power but live their lives giving no conscious recognition to such a power (Louis Podjman). My atheism fits into neither category. I don’t believe the existence or non-existence of a supreme being or omniscient power has any bearing whatsoever on how I or anyone else lives their lives, unless they give it such bearing. However, I do believe that how we live our lives matters.

Being a freethinker and a UU was something I was born into. On my father’s side of the family I’m Czech and that extended family contains many Catholics but also centuries of freethinkers (if the anecdotal stories from my grandmother were true). My parents met at a UU event – I believe in Chautauqua, NY, and my maternal grandfather was a UU minister. William P. Jenkins. Although he died when I was in my early teens I’m sure he had a significant influence on my explorations of philosophy and theology.

My grandfather was not a UU by birth. He grew up in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which eventually merged with the Congregationalists and became the United Church of Christ (I like to think of the UCC as a close cousin of the UUA – the primary distinguishing difference being that a majority of UCC members believe in Christ’s divinity while only some UUs do). He went to Eden Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to become a minister in the church but realized somewhere along the way that his path was as a freethinker and did not hew to the strong Christian approach expected of him. He instead became a Unitarian minister. His longest settled ministry was in Toronto, Ontario. In 1943 when he started with that congregation there were approximately 100 members. When he left in 1959 there were 800. While in Toronto he also helped start many fellowships and smaller congregations that are now full churches in the Toronto Metropolitan area. He must have been doing something right.

My grandfather’s brand of Unitarianism required action. He was active in the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, and frequently spoke from the pulpit about a wide diversity of issues including topics that have not receded but that are still exceptionally contemporary such as censorship and police brutality. His ministry extended beyond the walls of the church via various methods including a 15 minute Sunday radio show titled “Lets Think Together.” And, he was regularly quoted in the Monday morning Toronto newspapers and in those days there were reporters regularly writing for the religion beat, some of whom ended up becoming members of the church. My grandfather was the president of the Unitarian minister’s association when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged.

A brief aside and an interesting bit of synchronicity – my Grandfather was the interim minister at Wellesley when John Nichols was invited to be their settled minister.

My grandfather was a humanist, I’d say secular humanist, and he practiced his brand of secular humanism as many others practice what they refer to as their faith. My grandfather never, at least not in my immediate presence, claimed to be an atheist, but, he did have a sense of humor. The title of this sermon comes from him, at least indirectly. In Toronto, in the days when my grandfather was minister, and my mom was still a kid it was common for everyone (even a minister) to have a cottage in the lake country. I grew up going to the same cottage. In that cottage, above the door to the bathroom, there was a neon orange bumper sticker sized sign that read “Pray for the success of atheism.” I suspect he got it from a well-meaning friend and while in one of his cantankerous moods decided it would be amusing to place it where it stayed until my family sold the cabin just a few years ago.

Regardless of whether he defined himself as an atheist, humanist, skeptic, what have you, my grandfather saw in that sign an opportunity to be provocative. He wanted his children and his grandchildren, and their friends to all contemplate what it means to pray and what it means to be an atheist. Among his friends and peers were many who held strong humanist leanings, including the author of the paragraphs I read earlier – David Rhys Williams who had been the minister at the Rochester Unitarian Church for years. He’s an interesting case – despite having been an original signatory to the first Humanist Manifesto, he believed, at least later in life, in the afterlife and had started becoming interested in parapsychology. This is consistent with being a UU. Ones ideas and beliefs are always evolving and sometimes take distinct forks in the road.

It was my grandfather’s voice and the voices of many of his contemporaries that I was raised with. They did not want religion, morals, ethics, to be handed out on a silver platter and never fully examined. They expected exploration and debate to be the priority not blind servitude.

When I think back on growing up UU I also remember the religious education courses. The courses provided in the YRUU curriculum at the time all had some value but there were two components that were especially important. One of those components was the visiting of the houses of worship of many of the other organized religions in our community. This spurred me on at some point to read most of the bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and many other religious texts. The other component was the history of Unitarian Universalism. The history lessons provided then still provide fodder for thoughts I have now, more than 20 years later. The two most important history lessons covered the early history and theology/philosophy of Unitarianism and Universalism. Unitarianism as a concept has been around since the beginning of Christianity and Universalism has been around for at least 300 years and probably longer. The primary tenet of Universalism is that everyone gets saved. No one is blocked from entering Heaven. For Unitarians the primary tenet is that there is no trinity. These two ideas run counter to most of the current accepted religious doctrines in the world, especially in those areas that are generally considered to be Western civilization. In the past these ideas were even considered heresy. And, some were even burned at the stake for those ideas.

For me the underlying principles, or the foundations, of Unitarianism and Universalism are humanist. I am, in a sense, a fundamentalist UU. I believe in the inviolability of our humanity and the absolute necessity to question our very existence. The inviolability of our humanity is what Universal salvation is all about. Unitarianism might be considered in a more nuanced way – although not necessarily more or less important than Universalism. Unitarianism has always been about questioning the dominant structures of faith and belief. The first significant historical account of this was the Nicean Council called by Constantine in 325 A.D. where many modern Christian religious doctrines were formulated and accepted. Unitarianism was not accepted. But, Unitarians of some form or another would occasionally seep through the cracks. One of the most important of these was Miguel Servetus. He was a physician, a linguist, and a contemporary of John Calvin. He was such an accomplished linguist that he could read many of the ancient religious texts. In his readings and translations he came to the conclusion that the trinity was not in fact consistent with (early) Christianity. He (as with many others who would later identify themselves as Unitarians and Universalists) was stubborn and lucky enough to be alive at the emergence of the printing press. So he published a book about this topic (and a few others) and to make a long story short angered John Calvin so deeply that he was burned at the stake in Geneva for his ideas. John Calvin thought he’d wiped Miguel Servetus from the face of the earth by also destroying all copies of his book. That however was not fully accomplished and one of three copies of that book made its way to Transylvania where it became an important document in the emergence of Transylvanian Unitarianism. The reason I’ve conveyed this story and made the comment about the more nuanced importance of Unitarianism, at least in my interpretation, is that Miguel Servetus believed that the quest for knowledge and truth and the dissemination of both were paramount to living a proper life regardless of the consequences.

My atheism and my secular humanism are but two of the outcomes that are possible for UUs. David Rhys Williams, in a continuation from my prior reading, goes on to state that “The honest seeker after the truth would not overlook the obvious probability that no one person, and no one age or clime or religion has ever had a complete monopoly of the truth; and that those who have made the most arrogant claims in this respect have often been the most emptyhanded.” (page 202) This statement is a succinct portrayal of why I choose to be a UU, why I choose to be part of this religious community, rather than just a member of the American Humanist Society or a cantankerous atheist off on my own. I mention human inviolability and the search for knowledge as being foundational to UUism but there is a third component. That third component is the dialogue and interaction that comes from being part of a larger community and this is why my wife and I, and now our son, have become members of this Church.

Note - some of the information contained in this sermon came from my mother – Karen Jenkins and my aunt – Anne Perry.