Reflecting on the 7th Principle

Today at Blue Hills UU I heard a message on the 7th Principle. This principle states that we (that is UU churches) covenant to affirm and promote:

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

When I hear this principle read out loud on a Sunday morning, I often picture a spiderweb. A web is an apt metaphor for our dependence on other parts of the natural world. Destroy one part of the web, even a single thread, and the rest will suffer. There is no “top” to the structure of the web, though you could argue that there is a center, a point of convergence where many lines come together.

If we acknowledge that all living creatures are related (and modern evolutionary theory points very strongly in this direction) then the web in our mind’s eye would go all the way back to that first ancestor. That initial life (whatever it looked like) would be our point of convergence, tying all of the diverse strands together.

When I reflect on the 7th Principle I acknowledge that other creatures are not just objects in relation to me, but are actually my distant relatives. Some species are more closely related to us than others, but even creatures as bizarre as starfish and sea cucumbers share a considerable amount of DNA with modern humans.

Some people, when criticizing evolutionary theory, will sneer and say that the theory implies that humans are “just animals,” as though that somehow speaks against those scientific findings. Who would want to be seen as “just an animal” after all? It’s not surprising that some have this attitude, given how prevalent the consumption of animal flesh is in our society and how poorly we treat the billions of farm animals that we consume annually. Not surprisingly, I have a different view. To say that the theory of evolution makes us “just animals” is a poor way to acknowledge the truth. The truth is that we are cousins to the whole variety of marvelous creatures who crawl, swim, fly, jump, hop and creep across this planet. The same natural forces which led to our awareness of the universe also gave rise to intelligence and feeling across the animal kingdom. And, let’s not forget that all of us animals rely upon plants, those indispensable sun-harvesters.

What the 7th Principle teaches me is that we should value the natural world, not because we have been designated as its overseers, but because we humans are part of nature too. In nature we can see our own power and beauty reflected in all of the 10,000 things which live under the sun.

 

leopard on road
a leopard, part of the “interdependent web of existence”

photo credit: Martyn Seddon

Creationists Talk About Darwinism

I really need to stop watching videos like this. My faith in the existence of transitional fossil forms, my faith in the existence of consistent sedimentary layers demonstrating an old earth, my faith in the existence of tree rings that go back further than 10,000 years, my faith in the existence of shared chromosomes between humans and chimps, and my faith in the existence of molecular evidence linking humans to all other living beings is now being severely shaken. Do not watch this video if you want to keep having faith in evolution; the rock-solid evidence and well-reasoned arguments which these proponents of Creationism present are very likely to challenge any “materialistic” notions you might have about human origins and set you on the dangerous path to becoming a seven-day literalist creationist Christian yourself.

Related Posts: The Debate Behind the Debate on Evolution, More Problems With Genesis, Reflecting on ‘Cosmos’

none but his Maker can teach him

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Essays, First Series)

I don’t believe that I have a “Maker,” but I do still love this quote. An atheist like myself might say “Nature” or “my unique life experiences.” I love the idea that there is something each of us is uniquely gifted towards. Maybe it’s a bit lofty, but it’s good to be inspired sometimes and to realize that the genius of those past greats is still available in us. We may work with different tools, but we are still capable of creating something new, something special that the world hasn’t seen before.

Robert Price on Skepticism and Historical Method

The title of this video is “Jesus is Dead” (not Price’s title) but really it has very little to say directly on that topic. Rather, this is a broad overview of why what many call methodological naturalism is the preferred view among academic historians (even among many who personally hold to supernatural views). The talk is incredibly enlightening and does a great job of explaining how the study of history has changed in modern times and what that means. Check it out if you have time (the main talk is only 35 minutes, followed by a Q & A).


related post: What is History?

Finding Myself

It’s the spring of 2015. Two years ago (for those keeping track at home) I was still fairly new in my non-belief.

Where I’ve come from

My religion taught me to continually distrust myself. It taught me to see my own actions and thoughts as problems. No personal failing was too trivial, no sin too minute to be over-looked by the all-seeing eye of my wrathful god. Leaving faith has been like shedding an old skin. It’s been both exhilarating and disquieting at times. Certain questions are bound to arise when one leaves behind a system which is as complex and absorbing as modern Calvinism. Who am I? Where am I headed with my life? What kind of person do I want to be? How can I be happy, now that God is essentially “dead” to me and the church community sees me as fallen and broken? What will I do? What will I say?

Fundamentalism taught me a false confidence, not in myself, but in the doctrines of my religious tradition. I could boast and brag of the gospel. I could proclaim that I held absolute truth, that the keys to the kingdom were in my hand. I could explain why my actions and thoughts were Biblical while others were in error. But it was all just a show, a thin facade. There was no “there” there. There wasn’t even a little man behind the curtain like in the Wizard of Oz.

When I was a Christian, in some ways it did not matter what I did; regardless of my actions and efforts I was still nothing without God. He received the praise for everything good I accomplished while I received the blame for anything bad. My entire sense of self-worth was dependent upon a father figure who would always remain elusive (at least in this life). We could only glimpse Him from the mountain top. For me those mountain top experiences included speaking in tongues, “worshiping in the Spirit” and evangelism. I often felt electrified when I was bold enough to share the gospel with a stranger. Despite my anxiety I always yearned for more after such experiences. I wanted to go even deeper and reach back to the source itself so I could feel that way all the time. I kept climbing back up the mountain and kept searching for ways to be even more godly, more righteous, more “in tune” with His mysterious will. No matter what I did, no matter what mountain I climbed, I knew that it would never be enough.

Life after God

But where could I turn for those incredible experiences now? Where would my yearning for more take me now that I was no longer fixated on Him? Would I be adrift at sea? Would I have to vainly tread water until being overwhelmed by despair and emptiness? This was the future promised to me by countless sermons and devotionals. In my gut I knew this as a Christian. Before my deconversion I never really questioned this description of apostacy. But what if there is meaning after faith? What if the end of “the purpose driven life” (to borrow a phrase from Rick Warren) could really be the beginning of a whole new kind of life with a whole new kind of purpose?

Over the last two years I’ve been fortunate to have time and space to “find myself.” I’ve discovered that there are people who are willing to accept me despite my views of the afterlife. Through Unitarian Universalism I’ve discovered that many of the good aspects of church–community, mutual support, intellectual stimulation, charity, meaningful ritual, music–can be retained without holding onto dogmatic beliefs about the afterlife. The glue of many Evangelical churches may be a set of shared supernatural beliefs, but it is certainly not necessary for other groups to follow this pattern.

I’ve also searched inside and found new ways to think about meaning. Inspiring poets, scientists, philosophers and video creators have lit a spark in my spirit. I’ve seen that it is possible to fill one’s life up with meaning, even while acknowledging that our existence is probably finite. I’ve seen that creativity can flourish and love can blossom without the carrot and stick of divine judgement (heaven and hell). I’ve seen that atheists, non-believers, ex-Christians and skeptics have a wealth of good to offer the world. And while we may be wanderers and pilgrims on a tiny speck, at least we are wandering together. Our lives may not have any sort of ultimate, transcendent meaning, but the meaning that they possess in the present is undeniable.

Where I see my life going from here

  • I want to continue to learn about the natural world. My curiosity about the cosmos feels endless. We live in a vast and wonderful universe.
  • I want to continue to learn about human history. I’m fascinated by stories of the past which provide me with wisdom and inspiration.
  • I want to grow in empathy and patience. I seek to challenge myself to live more in alignment with my own values about non-violence and compassion for other beings. A big part of this journey for me has been becoming vegan.
  • I want to continue studying anarchism and moral thought from a secular perspective.
  • I will continue to seek out practical ways to make the world a more peaceful and just place.
  • I want to pass on some of my knowledge to the next generation.
  • I want to have long-term goals, rather than living solely in the present. For me, this means thinking about what I’m going to do 15, 17 and 20 years from now as my kids grow up and leave the home. I have hope that I’ll be able to go back to school in the future and gain the education that I need to become a teacher. But, if I decide that some other profession or study suits me, then I’ll be ready for that as well.
  • I recognize that my actions and patterns in the present shape my future. If I live recklessly and destructively then I’ll never have the chance to realize my dreams. If I am impatient then I will probably not see my hard work pay off. On the other hand, my study of different philosophical schools has taught me that there’s a fine line to walk  between pursuing a noble goal and becoming obsessed with a goal and frustrated when life–with all of its unforseen complications–does not comply.
  • I want to keep writing.
  • I want to keep loving.
  • I want to keep giving.

This past year I’ve grown much more comfortable in my own skin. I now rarely feel apologetic about how different my beliefs are from those around me. I feel less of a burden to explain myself to others. My desire to get people to see things my way (rather than letting them take their own arduous path to gaining new knowledge) is also waning. I’m also growing much more used to the fact that I’ll be surrounded by staunch believers for many years to come. That’s OK. I don’t need them to fully understand me. I don’t need their validation in order to be who I am and to enjoy my life. I just ask that they treat me decently and with respect. For the most part, even the most devout Christians are willing to accommodate me in that regard.

I don’t see myself as “moving on” from religion, but I do see myself as steadily maturing in my own self-confidence and becoming grounded in my identity; I’m getting comfortable in my new skin. How could I return to that old, dried out husk?

walking through woods

time to walk forward

The air is so fresh and clear here. The sun is shining overhead. The sky is a vast sea of blue, dotted with white clouds sailing across it. The leaves are blowing on the dirt path. Ahead of me are endless miles of green. It’s time to walk forward.

 

forest image by Dustin Scarpitti