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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Parenting for Humanists, atheists, and agnostics

(c) New Humanist.
Apparently some couples in certain areas in the U.S. have faced difficulty adopting as atheists. Many other challenges face non-theistic parents as well...

Time magazine recently featured an article, Can Atheists Be Parents? In that article they describe how John and Cynthia Burke in 1970 faced some roadblocks in adopting their first child, and even bigger ones adopting their second. Eventually, they were able to adopt after some effort. God Discussion tells the rest of the story.

Even today, aside from outright discrimination against non-theists, parents face additional challenges. Common questions include: "how will my child be treated by other children and adults?", "will religious people try to indoctrinate my child when I'm not around?" Other questions relate more to their side of the fence: "how do I teach my child to be respectful of those with religious beliefs?", "how can I educate my child on reason-based conclusions while giving them the space to decide for themselves on religion?", or the more basic, "what do I say when my child comes asking about God?"

Humanists face these challenges, and another layer of obligations in passing along the many Humanist values and principles to their children which have little to do with the God question. The Institute for Humanist Studies has a section of their website dedicated to addressing parenting issues. Meanwhile, at New Humanist Magazine, Danny Postel writes about how he's addressed many of these issues with his own children. Another good site is a blog called Agnostic Mom: Raising a Healthy Family without Religion.

Lastly, there are two books of which I'm aware, on this topic:
Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion
Humanism for Parents - Parenting without Religion

Monday, August 24, 2009

Doug Muder on Humanist spirituality

Doug Muder.
Doug Muder is a writer in several sources, and frequent contributor to UU World magazine. One of his blogs is called Free and Responsible Search - a religious and philosophical blog.

A few years ago, he posted a link to a PDF of a presentation he made to the Humanist Society of Massachusetts. The presentation is titled, "Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?" I was excited to read his excellent essay, as it precisely captures what I try to encourage in Humanism myself. His paper covers the basics of Stoicism and other Hellenic philosophies, noting how they relate to Humanist values. It also has an excellent summary of spirituality, and how to tell good spirituality from bad spirituality.

Many thanks to one of my readers, Stephen, for making me aware of Doug Muder's work. I have already read a little more of it and look forward to exploring it further.

[Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bringing back compassion & Amazing Faiths

(CC) wolfpix,
Two things, first - here's an excellent little presentation by Karen Armstrong. She talks about how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been diverted from their moral purpose, which should be to foster compassion.

[View the presentation on]

Next, if you haven't heard of the Amazing Faiths Project you should check it out. It's an interfaith effort which started with a book, then went to hosting dinners where people of different faiths came together to share their beliefs (not debate!). I've been in two of these dinners representing Humanism. Their next dinner is November 12, 2009.

[Visit the Amazing Faiths website]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What is a Humanist minister?

(CC) alex_hanoco,
Since Humanists are non-theistic (atheist or agnostic), I often get asked just what a Humanist minister is, if I have a congregation, and so on...

The first thing I make clear is that, unlike religions that have ministers, Humanist ministers are not authority figures - in the sense that they have some special knowledge or perception that others don't. In Humanism everyone is expected to think for themselves and not based their beliefs on authority.

To 'minister' means basically to administer some service. I have been certified by the American Humanist Association as a 'secular celebrant' and, as such, can legally perform weddings in the state of Texas (and do every so often). I can also provide funeral services, baby naming ceremonies, invocations, and conduct other ceremonies as needed. The AHA requires that registered celebrants have references and sponsorship from known and reliable people in the Humanist movement, that they demonstrate knowledge of Humanist philosophy in written essays, and that they fit some other requirements. In addition to ceremonial services, some celebrants also provide additional services such as counseling as needed. I can technically do this if I wanted to, but have not taken any courses in it so I refrain from doing so on personal principle. Nevertheless I can refer those in need.

Lastly, since many Humanist ministers are, of course, enthusiastic about Humanism, they tend to know a lot about it and be well read on it. Therefore, while not an 'authority figure' in the sense of being able to declare 'truth', a Humanist minister is usually a good person to answer questions about Humanism or have speak or write on Humanism.

Many people may not be religious, or they may be marrying someone of another religion and prefer a religiously neutral wedding or funeral. These people still want their event to be reverent, solemn, and have a sacred sense to it. Humanist ministers are therefore expected to be able to talk about important life events in ways that affirm the best in us, are touching, and yet do not reference the supernatural. As more people question their faith, these sorts of services have increased in demand.

As for a congregation, I am the former President of the Humanists of Houston, but my being a Humanist minister was incidental to that. Nevertheless, most secular celebrants serve the Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers in their area, which largely includes members of the local organizations. I also consider my writings online to be a service of sorts, so it depends on one's definition of a congregation.

Here's a link where you can find a secular celebrant in your area:
The Humanist Society

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Controlling control, part 2

Mr. Roboto (Styx) is "just a man whose
circumstances went beyond his control".
(c) A&M Records.
[continued from part 1]

Why did the Stoics approach control in such an absolute way? Consider the following story...

Suppose you worked in an office and just received a promotion to "Head Administrator" (HA). You get a fancy corner office and many people report to you. "Now!" you think, "I am in control and things will finally be done right around here!" So after getting settled in you begin making some executive decisions and giving out directives, memos, and so on. Eventually you get a call from upstairs. You discover there is a person over you who is the "Chief Head Administrator" (CHA). Sensing your concern, he assures you that you are in control of your office - all he asks is that all directives be run across his desk first. Occasionally he may override your decisions if he sees a greater reason to. You might think you have "some control" over the office.

However, consider two columns - categories of situations. In the first column are situations where the HA and the CHA agree. In this column the HA always gets his way. Now consider the second column, where the HA and CHA disagree. In these situations the CHA gets his way and the HA does not. So, the CHA always gets his way, and the HA only gets his way, when it happens to agree with the CHA. The HA, then, is simply saving the CHA some work. Surely, if the HA were to leave, things would not work well, but you certainly cannot say the HA is in 'control' of anything. He is more like a decision-making proxy servant. This is how the Stoics viewed the notion of "some control" - as a farce.

(Incidentally, this is a similar notion to a description I once heard by a Promise Keeper regarding marriage. He said, "it is a partnership, but the man is the tie-breaker". Of course, in a group of two, a 'tie-breaker' is a dictator.)

In life, we also have a Chief Head Administrator and that is the rest of reality outside our will. We have the universe to contend with, and we only get our way when it happens to coincide with its way. Sure, we make decisions and should be responsible for them, but we must always keep in mind that, ultimately, we really don't control much of anything in terms of outcomes. The mightiest emperor that ever lived can rule armies across the globe, but see all his plans fall to nothing over a peanut that slips down the wrong opening in his throat. You can work out and diet your whole life only to have a random brain aneurysm and die instantly. You control nothing: not your wealth, your health, your friends, your possessions, your relationships, your reputation, nor your family.

So why do anything?

Well, there is one thing you control, and that is your will. That includes your dispositions and your choices. What many ancient philosophers said was that outcomes (our circumstances) will go up and down over the course of life. If we attach our contentment to outcomes and circumstance, we are in for a rocky ride. Rather, the only thing we should consider good in life is our virtuous choice, and the only thing we consider evil, our vicious choice - those are the things we can control and by attaching our contentment to our virtuous choices, only then will we be able to have a happy, contented life that is independent of, and transcends, our circumstances.

So, we do things in the world because they are the right thing to do, consistent with our nature as moral beings. If we pass by a swimming pool and see someone drowning, we help because it is our duty. But regardless of the outcome of our efforts, we can rest assured knowing that we made the best choice we could. After that choice leaves our brains, it is up to the rest of the universe to determine the outcome - the unfolding of all these interdependent events according to the laws of physics. The Buddhists speak of Pratityasamutpada or 'dependent origination' and the Stoics called that rational order of the universe the Logos. Christians much later incorporated a good deal of Stoic thought into their worldview, which no doubt inspired the notion of 'leaving things in God's hands' despite retaining an attention to our own duties. As the Christian Serenity Prayer, even later, stated:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

May we all know the difference.

Controlling control, part 1

Mr. Roboto (Styx) is "just a man whose
circumstances went beyond his control".
(c) A&M Records.
Many people have "control issues" but the "issue of control" runs a little deeper, and a little wider. The ancients realized the link between our approach to control and our happiness a long time ago...

Here in Houston I attended the small group called the Houston Stoicism Meetup, and the issue of control was discussed. In our society it's common to be told things like, "well at least you have your health" and this is seen as wise counsel. We also think that people who are deeply attached to their friends and family are 'well grounded' and 'down to earth' - they "know what's important in life". We think this way because we are comparing them to people who are attached to the pursuit of money, fame, sex, drugs, and so on. Yet, many ancient philosophers (East and West) would say that all of these people are vicious (vice-fillled) and foolish. None of them are on the road to a contented, flourishing life of deep happiness because they all harbor unhealthy attachment.

These attachments spring from a failure to understand and appreciate what we control, and what we do not control.

In our individualistic society some often speak of responsibility. Responsibility is a good thing, but this can lead to delusions about how the world works. It's easy to realize that we can't control the weather, we can't control acts of nature, and we can't control what other people do. But we might often think we can control our careers, our health, or relationships, our wealth, and more. Responsibility-preachers will tell us these things are in our power and if we just 'work harder', 'be more careful and thoughtful', 'plan ahead', and apply ourselves responsibly we can have whatever we want. Those of the more mystical persuasion might even try to convince us that we can control our good fortune by 'wishing really hard'.

Certainly our efforts can effect the chances of various outcomes, and we should apply them steadily. We are very fond of thinking we have "some control" over things. But the Stoics, at least, didn't deal in "some control". They said that you either control something, or you do not - period.

This position may seem a little odd to us. Perhaps we chalk it up to those primitives not having our sophisticated subtle look at things, but this would be a ludicrous mistake of ego and ignorance.

Why did they approach control in such an absolute way?

[Continue to Part 2]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The spirituality of time management

(CC) alpha du centaure,
It seems like there's always way more to do than there is time to do it. It creates a continual, low level stress factor that's always running through every minute of the day. Surely, then, there is a link between our spirituality and time management. Such a thing must impact eudaimonia. I would write about this but I need to learn what to do about this problem myself before I have anything valuable to share. I've done a fair job of streamlining my life in the past several months, but I've still got a ways to go before I can say I'm living wisely in any sense.
What I am planning soon to write longer articles on include the following:
  • The Watchmen on fate and determinism vs. choice and responsibillity.
  • On Control: What does it mean to 'control' something? What do we really control and what don't we? Understanding that is key to the good life.
  • Objectivism, my 2 cents. This has been a topic a friend of mine, Art, has been wanting me to address here, and it deserves more attention.
  • The spiritual life and listening to talk radio: some cautionary notes.
  • Race & the Math: the rational/ethical approach to our treatment toward those of other ethnicities.
  • Synthophy at the movies
I think I'll cook up the second item for now, since that one relates to my recent attendance at the Houston Stoicism Meetup. In the meantime, any suggestions on time management are appreciated!