Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Unpacking Source #5, Humanism

This is the Sunday that I am speaking on our Fifth Source, Humanism, in cahoots with a fellow in the congregation who is a longtime Humanist and member of the American Humanist Association. It has been a lot of fun to work with him; he is such a gentleman, well spoken, scholarly without being obnoxious, and we enjoy each other's company.

It's been revealing, to investigate and preach on each of our Sources, finding the places where my religious thoughts are enriched by each Source and inviting my congregation to consider those places in themselves. For me, that's one of the most appealing things about Unitarian Universalism, that we have such a rich and diverse wellspring of meaning.

I remember when I first admitted to myself that I didn't believe everything in the Bible literally. It was when I heard the opera Porgy and Bess and the song "It Ain't Necessarily So", sung by the character Sportin' Life. It was the first time I had encountered actual disbelief through popular culture. Not that it hadn't been around for a long time, but it was my first meet-up with blatant disbelief, sung in a rollicking way that was absolutely irresistible.

I kept my heresies to myself for a long time----until I found myself surrounded by others who were equally, perhaps more, skeptical about what was fact and what was truth.

Now I am quite comfortable with the label of humanist, though I consider myself a small h humanist. I'm not a member of the American Humanist Association and I find some of their die-hard principles to be a little overstated. But generally I am in agreement with much of this philosophy. I just don't need to join a club about it nor receive the Skeptical Inquiry magazine.

I notice, when I do read the mag, that there are almost no women contributors and that the Association has not completely gotten over its earliest self-conception of being too scientific to acknowledge anything not provable by empirical means. These days, most humanists are willing to concede that you just can't measure everything and must needs take some things "on faith". Love, for example, is a bit hard to measure scientifically.

In UUism, humanism and "spiritualism" have been at odds in some ways, though the gulf is lessening. I wish there was a better word than "spiritualism", because that word harks back to the days of mediums and seances, which is a far cry from what I mean today. Perhaps a better word will surface as we continue along this track.

In any case, co-preaching means I only have to write half a sermon! And some of our time in the pulpit will be in asking each other questions. I am looking forward to the sermon. I'll post it for you, including my co-preacher's words, if possible.


LinguistFriend said...

Well, I think that I am a member fo the American Humanist Association, at least for the next 4.5 years since I re-upped last June. But I really ought to be a member of the UUCF and the Jewish Humanist group too, except that I suspect that they really would not know what to do with me. I recall how Dostoevsky wrote with great condescension and cruelty of a "remarkable capacity for the most contradictory sensations" of such situations (I will provide the Russian text to anyone masochistic enough to want it). But he was a rat.

Steve Caldwell said...

Rev. Ms. Kitty wrote:
"These days, most humanists are willing to concede that you just can't measure everything and must needs take some things "on faith". Love, for example, is a bit hard to measure scientifically."


Penile plethysmograph jokes notwithstanding, love may be hard to measure scientifically.

But "hard" is not the same as "impossible."

Perhaps one could look at correlations in brain functioning (measured by MRI or other instruments) with self-reported emotional state? Maybe "being in love" correlates with repeatable and measureable changes in brain functioning?

Additionally, when one person says that he or she loves another, one can observe that "love" affects behavior. Even though love may be an "intangible," this intangible emotion does interact the material world in a way that is in theory "scientifically measurable."

In the 19th and 20th century, the collision between traditional religion and the philosophies of humanism and methadological materialism happened over evolutionary biology.

I suspect the 21st century collision will be over neurobiology. What impact will neurobiology have on religion when spirituality, prayer, meditation, etc become measurable materialistic phenomena?

ms. kitty said...

Good thoughts, both of you. Thanks.

LinguistFriend said...

Well, one answer to Steve's question, is that lie-detector tests will be much improved. At one point I had to chance to go after some of that research support, and didn't (my expertise partly overlaps what is necessary). But one of my former doctoral students has used his expertise in the study of brain electrical activity in that area. He has also published a book on evolutionary neuropsychology. Steve is on the money, the relationships are that close, and that worrisome.