a sermon delivered by
on Sunday, April 9, 2000
at Community Unitarian Universalist Church
in Daytona Beach, Florida
In the long and sometimes agonizing quest of humankind to answer the inevitable questions-Who am I? What am I doing here? What's going to happen to me? What is right and what is wrong and how am I to know?- We have developed several philosophies that attempt to provide some answers to these eternally baffling questions.
The predominant philosophy is that something or someone created all of life and this something exists apart from humankind in a dualistic way. What is necessary for us to do is to search for and to find this something and then we will have immortality, we will live in peace and harmony and love forever and ever.
Religions have been formulated with this dualism as their basis. In the West, of course Judeo Christianity is the religion that is most prominent. In other parts of the world there are Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and of course others all of which have strong adherents.
How did these philosophies begin? We are all familiar with the many Gods that were adopted by early cultures such as the Greeks and the Romans. Remember the Gods that ruled the world and produced the rain and the sun and the darkness and love and romance and war. We erected temples and invented elaborate rituals that were believed to gain the favor of the Gods and therefore be of benefit to us. If we displeased the gods then they would cause some calamity to occur which would cause us discomfort and pain. Thus the temples and the rituals gained credibility as a means of appeasing the gods and thus avoiding disaster. Many myths were invented that illustrated the dire results of disregarding what was believed to be what the gods intended.
Even then not everyone believed in the mythology of the Gods. There were some, notably among the Greeks, who believed that there were natural reasons for what occurred and expressed their opinions thereto. But the dualistic God mythology was so firmly entrenched that they were not heeded for long and eventually were harshly treated for believing the way they did.
A bald headed man was walking one day when suddenly he was struck on his head by a large turtle and was killed. An Eagle was seen nearby and the people quickly determined that somehow the gods were displeased and had caused the eagle to hurl the turtle down onto the head of the man to show their displeasure.
However, Democritus, having observed the same event as everyone else, gave it a more naturalistic reason for having happened. He had taken note of the fact that the eagle had developed a liking for the meat of the turtle but found it difficult to extract it from its shell. It learned to carry the turtle high above the ground and drop it onto a rock causing the turtle to break apart and release its meat. The eagle that had been sighted by the crowd had mistaken the man's shiny bald head for a rock and had dropped the turtle directly upon it in order to attain its meat. Perhaps Democritus was an early Humanist. Indeed Humanism was one of the Philosophies that was embraced by the Greeks.
This preceeding suggests two different world concepts. One in which God Created the earth and the heavens and defines our morality, right and wrong, for us. All we have to do, then, is to worship him and to perform rituals and to pray to him and to adulate him and follow his rules. This suggests an anthropormophic God, one upon whom humankind projects its deepest desires and greatest insecurities. This God is a sort of supernatural parent figure who enters into our lives and makes things happen to or for us. In this model woman/man is the central figure, earth is the central abode, the center of the universe. God directs woman/man in all their endeavors and sets their morality for them. He punishes them for their transgressions against him and rewards them for their particular devotion to him. All they have to do is to worship God and to pray to God and if they do this well enough God will reward them with eternal life in heaven. This has become the single most important reason for believing in a God.
There is however at least another world concept. In this concept we perceive that the Universe is so vast that it far out-shadows our galaxy and our sun and relegates humankind to a rather minor role in its unfathomable operation. The scientific approach has pretty well disengaged us from believing that we are central and significant players in the universe. In fact we are not even noticeable and the Gods that we have created don't seem to have any effect on the way we, or the Universe, operates. We have come to see there apparently is no heaven and no hell. The God, to whom we have projected our images of right and wrong, does not seem to have any knowledge of us nor any inclination nor ability to affect our existence. We find that we are no longer the "chosen" but are instead alone as we face an impersonal universe. Of course this a rather ambiguous philosophical position to be in. Indeed a good friend of mine admits that his humanism is not as warm and fuzzy nor touchy feely as other religious philosophies. Yet this faith in Ambiguity is perfectly comfortable for we humanists.
However we recognize that we do exist and it is possible, indeed, for us to be "king or queen" for a day which allows us to focus our attention on the here and now instead of some far away never-never or maybe-maybe land. We can, therefore, bring about that which is necessary to create a good life. We are the masters of our own fate and the captains of our own soul. This is Humanism boiled down to its essence. A way of life that teaches us that humankind must focus on what is right and just so as to contribute in the largest way possible to the fullness and freedom of human life.
How then does Humanism answer the questions that we have about
our lives? Especially morality that definition of right and wrong
that guides us as we travel along our life path.
Although this is a novel and suffers from the usual novelistic nonsense, (you know sex and some other sort of sensational activity), the basic question is a profound one. Does Morality exist without a God or at least a God concept? Can humankind develop a morality without God? The novel does not answer the question although you might feel you are led one way or the other. The question is one to which Humanism attempts to present an answer.
Just what is morality anyway and just how is it formulated in the first place. Theism, the belief in an anthropomorphic God, presents the idea that God knows what morality is and it is only through the knowledge of God that a person can be moral. Humanists believe, however, that morality begins at home, so to speak, with humankind. Since the beginning of time humans have gathered in societies and have defined morality, the right and wrong ways to live together, by their common experiences. The most effective moralities generally survive by virtue of natural selection. That is the societies that are most successful in living together tend to survive and to flourish while those that do not live well together tend to disappear.
It has been postulated that we cannot have morality separate from a belief in God. Yet Humanists, particularly during and after the Renaissance have pointed out that morality and religion do indeed exist separately. Religion on the one hand, has tended to be concerned with worship, structures, liturgies etc. and have focused on these items plus redemption, Atonement, Heaven and Hell, rather than on the ills of humankind. Most often the criteria for acceptance to heaven is to go to church and perform religious sacraments. I have been told numerous times that works will not get me into heaven, only faith in God and acceptance of Jesus will.
Humanism believes that the basis of morality lies in the facts and realities of human life. In John Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath, Jim Casy, the childhood preacher of Tom Joad, has ceased to be a preacher because in his heyday, he would preach a strong sermon and then choose a girl from the congregation and proceed to wrestle in the fields with her. He felt a great deal of guilt until he realized "that's what people does". It possessed no right or wrong as an act, but only as it affects the ability of humankind to be considerate of each other and to have compassion for each other and to live together in Peace.
It is here that we see the right and wrong and witness how they work. We experience, and therefore know, love and justice and peace and we can witness the positive effects they have on life. Although we often fall short we do see the way in an enlightened manner and we instinctively realize what will make life better.
We have been exposed to the fact of some elemental societies, which have existed quite well having no concept of a supernatural being or of an afterlife. Most of these societies possess loving and caring communities that treat each other with mutual respect out of love and consideration. The Native American cultures of North America serve us well here. It is common for Native Americans to view the creation thusly: God, or the Creator, takes a piece of him or herself and creates the rocks and the rivers and the mountains and the deserts and finally creates humankind. The beauty of this view of creation is that The Creator is a part of everything. The Native American thus experiences everything with a sense of reverence and awe and respect, as something of which they are a part and not something "outside" to which they pay homage.
Please do not take anything said here to imply that religion and morality are incompatible with each other. One of our most important tasks is to find ways to meld a humanistic approach into our regular religious practices, that is to join religion and morality into a system whereby we can take positive steps to correct injustice as we see it. This is what we strive to accomplish in our Unitarian Universalist Church.
Religion is essentially an arrangement between humankind and his/her God and the morality of God depends upon the expectations of humankind. Religion celebrates God and gives him/her glory. Humanism celebrates humankind and gives him and her glory.
The Humanist understands morality to be the ability to choose between right and wrong, as opposed to the more traditional view, which defines and assigns right and wrong to specific acts or actions. This is the position that Jim Casy had reached in Grapes of Wrath.
When humankind understands the issues involved in Human conduct; when it sees that true morality is the way of life and that immorality is the way of death to humans and to their communities;-----then there is no reason why humankind, conscious of its responsibilities and great opportunities thereby afforded to them, cannot be touched with reverence and awe. This is much like the Native Americans. There is no reason why morality and Social Justice should not be the object of the emotions that are such a part of religion. It then follows that Morality and Social Justice become a religion in the fundamental sense of the term. Now we can celebrate Morality and Social Justice and give them the glory they deserve.
Let us close with the parable of the cat. It seems there was an old Alley cat sitting on the curb when a young kitten scurried down the alley frantically chasing its tail trying to catch it. The kitten collapsed in exhaustion at the feet of the alley cat.
"What are you doing?" wearily meowed the old cat, whereupon the kitten said "I have just graduated from cat philosophy school and they told me that Morality and Justice were contained in my tail. I figured if I could just catch my tail I would have all the Morality and Justice I need."
"Well" said the old cat "I never went to cat philosophy school but as I have lived a long time, I came to realize that Morality and Justice indeed were in my tail. But I didn't need to catch it because it is so much a part of me that it follows me everywhere I go."
Go Now In Peace, With Love.