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"Humanists Debate Religion"
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Amador Publishers advertises itself as "a humanist press." All partners, Zelda, Adela and I, are members of the Humanist Society of New Mexico, a membership chapter of the American Humanist Association. I served as program chairman for four years. Our humanist self-definition, from page two of every monthly newsletter, states "Humanism is an ethical philosophy that derives its principles from science and reason rather than theology."

There is a debate going on among us humanists about how to deal with religion and religious people. Some are more tolerant, one would dare say, than others. We all agree that we respect individual persons, no matter what they believe or claim to believe. Some of us are more zealous, more "turned on," by our experience of freedom from religious ideas and authorities. My book, FREEDOM FROM GOD RESTORING THE SENSE OF WONDER, reveals some of that excitement from my own case.

Other humanists wonder why the group spends so much time and effort discussing religion. "I thought we were past that," some have said. Others have paraphrased the slogan of some Christian evangelists, about loving the sinner but hating the sin. "We love the idiot, but hate the idiocy." Many would say that verges on the unkind.

Other humanists are into what is called "cognitive science," in which scientists ask what is innate in human nature. "Hard-wired," they like to call it. Many of them seem to be saying that religion, and spirits and gods and all that, are innate in the genes, in the human brain. Some years ago one of them published a book, WHY GOD WON'T GO AWAY. It was quite unconvincing, and I suspected then that the book title was not the author's own, but was thought up by a marketing geek. My comment then was, "He can't go away. He is away." Even the prophet Isaiah complained, "Truly thou art a god who hidest thyself."

The heart of the matter is a misuse of the word "religion." It is a sociological term, and the roots of the word mean, "tie back." It refers to that which ties a human group together. There are some things that are innate in humans, but those things are not yet religion. Religion comes after, long after. Religion is organized, backed by "tradition," eons of it often. The more highly organized religions have priests, temples, scriptures -- they all have oral tradition steeped in authority.

Religion is very powerful, especially with reference to the young, but it is not innate. There are innate tendencies in humans, to be sure. One is the inclination to personify the unknown and the unseen. Those of us who know better find ourselves doing it, with reference to wind, storms, the cosmos itself. Our language and our instinct is to personify. Another innate tendency is readiness on the part of the young to believe what the older ones tell them. At one point that was a survival mechanism, saving time and trouble with reference to things like thin ice, weak tree limbs and wolves. The stories the older ones teach the young become very elaborate, with demons and gods and commandments. But all that content is not innate.

One can outgrow all that. One can figure out what really happened in one's own case. One can escape from it, and thrive, and live a morally upright life without it. In fact the uprightness seems more likely if the outgrowing process has taken place. Freethinkers, for example, are more consistently opposed to things like torture and war than Christians are. I talked recently with a nephew who left the Mormon Church, after marrying into it decades ago and becoming something of a local leader. The religion took up a larger and larger chunk of his life. He began to study the history of the whole business, and finally declared his individual independence, getting his life back, repudiating "organized religion." "The authority is phoney," he told me.

Two other facts indicate that "religion" is not innate.

[1] Buddhism, which is considered a religion, is older than Christianity, but it is non-theistic. Maybe it isn't a religion at all any more, but a well-developed philosophical belief system. There is no God in it. Millions of people are getting along without that.

[2] And Christianity itself is changing. It is on the wane in Europe. The churches are empty. And even in this country, the "nones" [those who answer "none" to pollsters who ask about one's religion] are on the increase, to a dramatic degree. People, like us, are getting along without God and religion.

We local humanists often comment to each other about what a large proportion of us have white hair. Some worry that it could mean institutional trouble in the future. But others note, "Well, it's hardly surprising. It takes a while to figure this out."

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Copyright © 2009 Harry Willson

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