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Humanist Essay for May 2013
"The Circle Way"
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Humanists hold a naturalistic philosophy versus a supernatural belief, thus we dispense with gods and religious doctrine. The roots of secular humanism grow out of and in reaction to the Judeo-Christian religions. We still tend to explain ourselves in the context of our opposition to what I call the He-god of the Old Testament and the Christian Bible. What we are is not that. Not authoritarian, not patriarchal, not superstitious, not seeking salvation in an afterlife, not accepting myth as history or ancient texts as revealed wisdom that supercedes direct experience and observation. Humanism is post-religion - an innovation in consciousness, social organization and problem-solving that has been developing for many centuries and is gradually coming to predominate modern thought.

Where things get dicey is this concept of "spirit" - not a god spirit but our own. Something is alive within us. If we acknowledge that we are part of nature and subject to its laws, then that spark or spirit as we perceive it must be part of other living things as well. Religions have claimed certain traits exclusively for humankind as imbued by a creator, but science is finding more and more of these in other species: play, decorative art, the concept of fairness, tool use and language, to name a few. Science has allowed us to cast off the theistic notion of human superiority (below God but above Nature) in favor of placing us squarely within this marvelous system of unknown and possibly unknowable origin. The resulting sense of wonder, curiosity and aliveness is for many of us close if not equivalent to a spiritual feeling. But the word "spirit" still rankles - we wouldn't want to be misconstrued as holding an irrational belief in something outside of our physical existence.

Be that as it may, the spirit is strong in New Mexico. We live alongside indigenous peoples whose philosophy and traditions are far removed from those of our puritanical predecessors. If we put aside our antagonism for anything religious or ritualistic, we might recognize a form of humanism and kindred naturalistic attitudes that can help us reconcile science and spirit.

My friend Stephen Sachs, a PhD in Political Science, has written an unabashedly spiritual book of commentary and poem-prayers Walking The Four Directions based on his participation in many Native American ceremonies. In the wake of several mass killings this spring, from intentional slaughter to industrial accident, I was struck by this passage, which refers to the circle in ceremony and as an organizing social principle:

"Reverence for all of nature, of which people are a part, guides the behavior expected within community, which is primary to one's identity. In general each individual seeing him/herself in relationship to all others in the community feels a responsibility to act properly and cooperatively, to maintain a harmonious and balanced set of relationships. Everyone affected by a decision must have a say in its making, for places in the circle have no meaning without the whole of the circle. Likewise there is no circle without each of the individual locations, with their unique way of seeing and contributing to the whole."

This is at once a spiritual and rational stance. In our modern society, we can be technologically networked to the world, yet actually quite isolated. When too many are left out of the circle, disruption and destruction ensue. The Native American concepts of balance, beauty and community strike a strong chord with me, as I find myself more often describing my philosophy as naturalistic rather than nontheist or agnostic. It puts me in the circle instead of outside of it. The circle is not only the blessing way and the beauty way, it is the humanist way.

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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