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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deborah Strod and Humanist ritual

Deborah Strod asks, Should Humanists Do Ritual?
(c) The New Humanism.
Scientist, health consultant, and social worker Deborah Strod has written a wonderful article for The New Humanism entitled, "Should Humanists Do Rituals?" After sharing various ritual ideas and examples, Strod says that, for her, what makes ritual special is the repetition and predictability of it. She claims that we need such "primal cues" in the various settings of our families and community lives. Here she sometimes slips into speaking about traditions rather than rituals, but then these two concepts have much overlap.

The article reminded me of the time I asked a Buddhist monk why he bowed to the statue of Buddha. He said the statue was just a piece of wood, and they don't even worship the person of Buddha in any case. Rather, he said, the reason he bows to the statue is not to give anything to the statue, or even to what it represents, but rather because of what it does to him and in him. He said that it helps him focus his mind, attention, and thoughts on the teachings he is about to practice. From that day on, whenever I enter a Buddhist temple or begin meditation, I bow to a symbol of the teachings on which I'm practicing. This realization about ritual also has made me think about how I behave and think when I am among people who pray. I do not pray, myself, since I do not hold a belief that communion with any such being is taking place.  But when I am in the company of those who are praying (and when they are doing so on their property or on their time when it is within their right and not an imposition or in an inappropriate manner), then I show respect by remaining silent, but not closing my eyes so as to mislead them into thinking I am praying. I have always done this. However, since coming to this realization about a natural practical role for ritual, I have taken to doing something else too.  Most of the time, group prayers lead by one person will include pleas that God help them to... (insert wise things to understand, focus on, or do here). When this happens, I use the words as a way to help me to focus on the same principles or ideals. I take that time to allow the priorities being invoked to come to the forefront of my mind. I still do not close my eyes but I have found that I indeed can get something out of the situation when I find myself in such crowds.  Of course, if the prayers are something strange like, "Lord help us to keep those homosexuals from marrying" that would be different, but I am not generally around such people.

Strod's article also reminded me of a Humanist Contemplatives Club gathering we had back in 2007. The topic of that discussion was also Humanist ritual. In that discourse, we came to a few conclusions.

1) We acknowledge that Humanists already engage in many rituals. These include various meetups, weddings, funuerals, baby namings, etc.

2) There seems to be a major distinction between rituals, based on why they are conducted. In one sense, you have the 'superstitious ritual' in which the practitioner believes these acts to be accomplishing something disconnected from the typical natural cause-and-effect we know of empirically. Examples include rain dances and prayer. The second sense of ritual is the 'symbolic ritual' in which the practitioner is conducting an activity in order to symbolize a concept. These rituals are designed to create a sense of solemnity, help us adjust our mindset and focus on the reasons behind the ritual, cement social interactions, and mark special events or notions. It was concluded quite easily that Humanist ritual must be exlusive to this latter form.

3) Future Humanist rituals should take advantage of the rich cultural lineage behind it. This includes elements of art, music, poetry, literature, and other elements by past Humanists or humanistic artists and thinkers. This should bring in a sense of tradition such that the ritual does not feel extraneous or contrived.

4) Rituals should be 'multisensory' experiences. They should tap as many of our senses as possible; having visual, audial, olfactory, and possibly tactile elements. Internally, they should tap both the intellect as well as the emotional, intuitive, and imaginative.

It was also mentioned that science fiction can be an inspiration for creative ideas. At the same time, a Humanist ritual must be something with real functional purpose - even if merely social or emotional - or else it will seem contrived.

I would recommend reading Deborah Strod's article. It is but one of many excellent articles appearing in The New Humanist lately and soon to come. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my own work will be appearing in the magazine soon. It is a magazine I'm proud to support because I think their take on Humanism and its future is right on course.

[Read: Should Humanists Do Ritual?]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Godless billboard now in Houston

Many may have heard of the various Godless signs appearing on billboard and buses around the country. Starting today, they've come to Houston...

The Houston Freethought Alliance ( is an alliance of local secular organizations. These organizations include the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, the Humanist Association of Montgomery County, the Atheists Meetup, and the Secular Center. Together, with funding from the national organization United Coalition of Reason, the billboard appears prominently at I-45 and 1960, near Ella Blvd.

The sign features a blue sky with clouds, and the words "Don't Believe in God? You are not alone" and includes the contact information for the Alliance.

This project is part of an active campaign to spread awareness of these organizations. Rather than criticizing others, the message here merely lets those who don't believe in a God know that there are others like them, and gives them a way to make contact with like-minded people if they choose.  In a world where the majority are theists, there are many people who feel rather alone in their atheism or agnosticism.

I personally don't find the God/no-God question all that important. I prefer Humanism not because of what I don't believe, but rather because it is about what I do believe. Humanist values are what's important to me, and that has to do with how we treat one another, being compassionate, and how we live our lives. I think we have a lot in common with our theist friends on those grounds. Having said that, it at least seems like the phrase "Don't Believe in God? You are not alone" is not a bad one.

The groups mentioned exist here in Houston for several purposes. Among them:
  • Providing a fellowship of like-minded people
  • Providing social get-togethers and fun events
  • Hosting intellectually stimulating speaking events and presentations on a number of issues from a naturalistic or nontheistic point of view
  • Helping to give a community support system to those who may not find churches something to which they can relate
  • Helping to connect people with secular celebrants who can conduct weddings, funerals, and other secular ceremonies
  • Doing charitable work in the community
  • Working to further education about naturalism, science, and reason
  • Working to support church/state separation and the rights of non-believers
Of course, there are many theists who find even the billboards as worded offensive or confrontational. In some other cities, similar billboards have already been vandalized more than once. It seems nontheists, merely by making themselves known, are seen as evil or beligerent by some, which is unfortunate.  Some of the billboards around the country say things like, "Good without God" or "Good for Goodness' Sake". The general message of all of them has simply been (a) to nontheists: that you are not alone and please contact us, and (b) to everyone else: people who don't believe in God can still be good people.

Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason said, "The point of our national billboard campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States... Nontheists sometimes don't realize there's a community out there for them because they're inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren't alone."

But reaching out to nontheists isn't the only goal of the campaign. "Our message is also to let people know that we are part of the larger community,” added Noelle George, coordinator of the Houston Freethought Alliance. "We're your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members. We're just like you except that we don't believe in a supreme being. Now we'd like the same opportunity as everyone else to be open about our views."

The United Coalition of Reason has launched a dozen advertising campaigns previously this year. Each involved billboards or public transit ads. They appeared in Boston, Massachusetts; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Morgantown, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Public Service Announcement: global warming real

I'm going to dispense with attempts at eloquent writing today. I'm also not going to worry too much about whether this post falls properly under "religion & spirituality". In fact, it does. It does because when people have extreme difficulties thinking rationally, being aware of basic facts about their world, and knowing who are insane charlatans and who are not - it has an impact on one's spiritual progress. That's not to mention that it also effects how we behave, which is a matter of ethics and our well being. Thirdly, there are obvious religious motivations behind many distortions on this topic.  Today, my goal is simple. I am fulfilling my ethical duty to use this tiny little soapbox to make a formal announcement for those who may not be aware...

Yes - Global Warming is real.
Yes - Global Warming is effected by human activity.
Yes - Global Warming presents real and impacting dangers for our future.
Yes - We can work to do something about it, to at least some degree.
Yes - The above is backed by HUGE amounts of scientific data, across a wide spectrum of disciplines, confirmed by independent researchers, and currently represents the massive consensus of the scientific community

If you're wondering what precipitated this, there is a huge stir going on lately about some hacked emails of some climate change scientists in the UK. To hear the various popular lunatics on talk radio describe it, one would get the impression that all of global warming was a hoax and now it's all come crashing down. Radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh claims to actually believe that global warming is a massive "liberal" conspiracy designed to help them redistribute wealth. Several other similarly witted talk-radio entertainers have formed a small but overly-influential chorus along similar lines.

Well, turns out the emails are pretty much two main emails about very specific matters in very specific studies, not really impacting global warming in general, even if they were showing fraud. More importantly, they don't even actually show any fraud when you look at the real meanings and references of what they were talking about. What's happened is that very opportunistic people have taken some of the wording, which would happen to sound conveniently suspicious if you didn't know any of the context and held it up, misrepresenting it in order to convince people of a conclusion they already believed - that global warming is a conspiracy.  What is sad, is that real news channels (not just Fox) have picked up the story and this feeds into that impression. Now, the UN is even looking into the matter, and you've got quite a lot of people out there buying this nonsensical version of events.

Included in this article is an embedded video by a man named Potholer, who is a 20 year journalist and science correspondent and who makes a variety of quality educational videos about science for the public. This video will give you a quick rundown on the situation. I highly recommend reviewing it...

[See other videos by Potholer on climate change and science]

PS - While I'm at it: YES - we really went to the Moon, Evolution is real, 9/11 was not an inside job, and space aliens did not build the pyramids (or at least, there's no reasonable cause to suspect they did).