Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in original creative, scholarly and journalistic publications and events. Our work has strong themes of well-being, sustainability, cultural enrichment and community building.


Leave a comment

An Interview with Noah Rasheta

As someone with a life-long interest in Buddhist philosophy from a secular perspective, a leading figure of the Secular Buddhism movement was high on my list of prospective interviewees. I am delighted, therefore, to have had the opportunity to interview Noah Rasheta, a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, host of the podcast Secular Buddhism and author of a book with the same title.

Noah studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humour. Please enjoy this audio and transcript and add your questions and comments below. The transcript includes extra material from our email exchanges so do have a read as well as listening.

I would like to mention here that Buddhism has a great deal to offer in terms of secular liturgy in the more literal sense, with its many stories, sayings and analogies. Many Buddhist teachings are presented in poetic, repetitive, reflective, and therefore liturgical, including those regularly used in their original or modified form by Secular Buddhists. I don’t think Noah thought of these as liturgy at the time of interview, which explains his answer to my question about liturgy but they certainly count as far as I am concerned. I’m sorry Noah if that wasn’t clear!

I am very grateful to Noah for taking time out of a very busy schedule to do this interview, and I hope my readers enjoy and engage with the content.

Best wishes to all, Anastasia

Noah Rasheta

Noah Rasheta

Recording of Noah answering the questions

Transcript

Anastasia: What makes Secular Buddhism different from religious forms of Buddhism?

Noah: Well, good question. From my perspective, I don’t necessarily see Secular Buddhism as an off-shoot or an entirely different form of Buddhism, compared to religious forms of Buddhism. I see Secular Buddhism more as an approach that people can take to studying Buddhism, whether that is any form of religious Buddhism. The secular approach is essentially the secular minded person who’s digging in and saying well I want to find what is at the core of these practices or rituals or beliefs, and I think Buddhism offers a lot of rich and valuable concepts and teaching and ideas. The secular approach is just to explore that, without the need of entertaining any form of supernatural explanations, whether that be demons, or ghosts, or realms or things of that nature.

Now Buddhism, in and of itself, is quite secular in nature as far as the doctrines that are taught in Buddhism are concerned. However, Buddhism usually adapts, and it takes the flavour of whatever culture it gets spread to. You have schools of Buddhism from certain parts of the world that might seem very different from other forms of Buddhism, like Zen Buddhism as compared to Tibetan Buddhism, as an example, and in the West you have a secular population exploring Buddhism, and Buddhism has taken on a secular approach in that environment. In the same way, it takes on a less secular approach in a less secular environment. So, in that sense, Secular Buddhism is just another flavour of Buddhism, teaching a lot of the same stuff.

I only express caution there because I don’t think that we do it justice when we try to separate Secular Buddhism as its own form of Buddhism and say that it’s probably more accurate than this other form of religious Buddhism because I think that is missing the point. I think that for a secular Buddhist who thinks their interpretation of Buddhism is more accurate than a religious form of Buddhism, they are making the same mistake as a religious form of Buddhism might make by saying that a secular form of Buddhism is not accurate. It’s not about one being better, more correct or more accurate than the other. It’s about the fact that as Buddhism spreads there will continue to be forms of it that adapt and evolve just because that’s the nature of how ideas work.

All ideas whether they be political, or languages themselves, do this. Languages spread from one place to another and the flavour of it changes, with certain slang, the accent etc., and if someone were to ask what the difference is between British English and American English, it’s not about playing out the differences it’s about recognising why there are two different forms because that’s the nature of how languages evolve over time, and I think Buddhism is the same. It’s the nature of how ideas morph and evolve over time and take on the flavour of a specific time and place, and Secular Buddhism is one of those flavours just like every other form of Buddhism.

Anastasia: What are the key sources of Buddhist philosophy and practice which have inspired Secular Buddhism (and you personally)?

Noah: Well, I’d say the key sources of Buddhist philosophy and practice which inspired Secular Buddhism are any of the key sources that have inspired Buddhism in general, which is any of the schools of Buddhism, whether we’re talking about Theravada Buddhism and the collection of works that they use and read from or the Mahayana schools of Buddhism and the Sutras that they use. All of them are sources of inspiration, or, just current Buddhism leaders, thought leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

Then, there’s a movement with scholar and former Buddhist monk, Stephen Bachelor, whose name is very much associated with Secular Buddhism, whose goal is to go back and re-read and re-translate a lot of these ancient writings and say, oh here’s a more accurate way of translating it, or a more accurate way of explaining this specific teaching or concept, and a lot of his work has inspired Secular Buddhism. He’s been at the forefront of this Secular Buddhism movement.

And for me personally, it’s been a combination of all of that. I find a lot of value in a lot of the religious schools of Buddhism, and their texts and their writings and their leaders, their current works and past works, so I think it comes from everywhere.

Anastasia: What are the key networks (and communities if relevant) that make up the Secular Buddhist movement?

Noah: I don’t know that there really are many yet. I’m trying to build one around my podcasts. The podcast has grown and it’s a pretty relevant community in the Secular Buddhist movement but there were podcasts that were out before mine like The Secular Buddhist podcast. Mine is called called Secular Buddhism. Stephen Batchelor does workshops and has a large following of the books that he writes, and his books serve as a way of introducing people to Secular Buddhism. I’d say those were some of the main ones right now. I’m not aware of any specific key networks or even communities and I think there’s a demand for it, and I think a lot of Secular Buddhist practitioners just find their sense of community among other already established forms of Buddhism, or mindfulness groups and meditation groups, and that’s how it is for now as there’s not a specific Secular Buddhism community.

(There is a Facebook group called Secular Buddhism which is a form of online social media community.)

Anastasia: What was your own journey to Secular Buddhism, and then to lay ministry and teaching through your podcasts and book?

Noah: That’s a good question. So, my journey into Secular Buddhism started as I exited another form of organised religion, a form of Christianity, and my beliefs were evolving and changing, and I was seeking some other way of understanding the universe, or life. When you have a belief system that has all the answers for you, and when that foundation you stand on starts to crumble, it’s really scary because that’s the way you understand yourself and the relationship you have with the universe, and that left a big void as I was trying to sort out how I make sense of all of this. I attended a couple of religious seminars that were presenting the meaning of life through the five major world religions of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and something stood out to me when the presenter was talking about Buddhism.

Up until this point it had been, who am I, why am I here, what happens when we die, and this is what Christianity says, and here are their answers, and this is what Islam says, and here are their answers, and when I got to Buddhism something that stood out to me was that the presenter said Buddhism doesn’t necessarily have answers to these questions. They’re going to flip it around on you and say that more important than knowing who am I or what happens when I die is the question, why do you want to know? And that really fascinated me. I realised it was very much a path that wasn’t about the answers but about exploring the questions themselves and that attracted me to Buddhism as a way of thinking.

The more I read – I started devouring books and listening to great courses and just everything I could about understanding this way of thinking – and by that time, I had a lot of friends and other people who were disaffected with religion, wanting to know what some of the other alternatives out there were to help you to understand life, and I started sharing what I was learning from Buddhism and found that a lot of people were really interested in hearing about it, so that’s what sparked the podcast. The podcast just grew and grew and grew and that led to the book.

Simultaneously, I wanted to formalise my practice and that led me to a lay ministry programme as a way of cementing and formalising the goal that I had to teach Buddhism and to I guess put a little bit more authority behind the things that I was sharing. So that’s what led me down that path, and the more I’ve studied it the more it made sense to me. Ironically, the more I study the more comfortable I get with just not knowing the answers to all of those big existential questions that led me down this path. I haven’t answered a single one but the desire to answer them has virtually disappeared. I’ve become so enthralled with the question of where did that yearning to know come from in the first place, why did I feel the need to know these things? All I gained in all of this, is a greater understanding of myself and my need to feel security in an insecure world – to feel some sense of permanence in an impermanent world – and that’s why I feel it’s a very good path for me, for my personality and the way my brain works.

Anastasia: A criticism often levelled at Secular Buddhism is that it is merely an individualistic applied philosophy and therefore lacks cultural richness, rituals and community (including the monastic tradition). Is this something you are addressing as a lay minister/Secular Buddhist leader, and if so, how?

Noah: I think this is a valid criticism. Secular Buddhism is very new. It is very much an individual journey. Most people who encounter or come across Secular Buddhism, they’re attracted to it because it is individualistic, because there’s no community, because there are none of the cultural attachments. So that cultural richness that you find in other traditions, we just don’t have it because it’s just a very new very sterile environment where people are often practising on their own.

I think the beauty of some of that cultural richness, well, it can be found in those other traditions and I think that’s why for me it’s been nice to blend my Secular Buddhist practice with some of the other traditions. The lay ministry programme I did was through a form of Buddhism that’s rooted in some of the Japanese schools of Buddhism and which has a lot of the cultural richness and rituals, which I don’t personally practice – I mean I did in my induction ceremony and some of the things I do from time to time with them but that’s just not me.

I’m not looking for any cultural richness. I’m not looking for any rituals. I’m not even looking much for the community aspect of it. However, I recognise the importance of community and that’s why building a sense of community around the podcast has been important because people want to stick with other people who are like-minded and talk about these things and so I’m finding that whether it’s through Facebook groups or the newest thing I’m building up with my Patreon podcast community, people enjoy having the companionship and the ears of other likeminded people to talk about these things. But almost all of us in the communities that are emerging are not interested in the cultural richness, we’re not interested in having any rituals and it’s becoming our cultural richness that we don’t have cultural richness, and our ritual that we don’t have any rituals. So, you give that enough time and it becomes its own set of problems but for now that seems to be working. A sense of community is out there but it’s not at all like these other communities that you find in other traditions.

Anastasia: What might Secular Buddhism bring to secular ‘liturgical’ scripts and events (e.g. annual, seasonal, lifecycle events) and so forth?

Noah: I don’t know. I haven’t given that any thought. I’m not entirely sure what if anything we could bring to that. Again, these are area that are pretty well established by some of the other schools of Buddhism and that’s part of their culture. With the Secular Buddhist approach it doesn’t seem like there’s a demand for annual, seasonal or lifecycle events. As that need grows, if it does, I’m sure things will pop up but for now I really don’t see that.

(Anastasia: I would like to add here that Buddhism has a great deal to offer in terms of liturgy, with its many stories, sayings and analogies. Many Buddhist teachings are presented in poetic, repetitive, reflective, and therefore liturgical ways, including those used in their original or modified forms by Secular Buddhists. I don’t think Noah thought of these as liturgy at the time of interview but they certainly count as far as I am concerned. I’m sorry Noah if that wasn’t clear!)

Anastasia: We often hear about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, which have been backed up by peer reviewed research and recommended by institutes such as NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). Are there other Secular Buddhist beliefs (or philosophical approaches) and practices which can help us to live mentally and/or physically healthier lives?

Noah: Well, Secular Buddhist beliefs is a kind of misnomer because what we’re trying to do through Buddhist practice in general is to analyse our beliefs, and if anything, to deconstruct them from the perspective of, there is reality as it is, and then there are the stories we construct around this reality, and those could constitute as beliefs. So, rather than having a new set of beliefs, Secular Buddhist beliefs, what we are trying to do is say, what if we are unattached to all of our beliefs? Sure the belief can be there, but if I feel the need that is has to be there, that is a form of attachment.

So what we’re trying to do in this approach is to understand ourselves, understand our beliefs, where these arise from, why do we have them, what kind of comfort does it provide, and could it be that it is actually providing more discomfort than comfort, and in that way, have better, healthier physical and mental lives. It piggy backs off everything that we’re finding in psychology, so whatever these other institutes are finding in terms of mindfulness and the benefits of mindfulness we go off a bat and say yes, that makes sense to us. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything additional outside of whatever Buddhism is already teaching; the concept of no self, the concepts of interdependence and impermanence. Those are the big key ideas in Buddhist philosophy that are being pushed through the Secular Buddhist lens as well.

Anastasia: Can Secular Buddhism help us to live more sustainably and meet our global environmental challenges?

Noah: I think it can but not more than any other thing helps us. Secular Buddhism and Buddhism in general are trying to help us to understand the nature of interdependence, the fact that everything we do affects everything else, and in that sense, I think what we’re producing is people who are more self-aware and who feel a greater sense of responsibility for how we live in the environment that we live in. So, in that’s sense yes, but I don’t know that Secular Buddhism is doing something beyond that. It’s trying to make individual people be more sustainable and, in that sense, if enough individual people are living more sustainably then yes, as a society we’ll be living more sustainably as well.

Anastasia: How do you view the dogmatic and superstitious religious traditions? Are they more harmful overall than they are helpful, or do they still have a place?

Noah: I think they still have a place. Everything has its place. I think we can become dogmatic and superstitious against dogmatism and superstition and then we’re in the same boat. I think any time a dogma becomes harmful it’s because its excluding every other way of thinking and that can be harmful in the sense that it’s blinding us to other potential ways of seeing things.

The analogy that’s often used in Buddhism is the five blind men describing the elephant. So, there’s nothing inherently harmful about one of the men describing the front of the elephant but how much more limited is the view, if that man describing the front of the elephant isn’t willing to listen to the person describing the tail of the elephant. So, I wouldn’t say that dogmatic and superstitious religions are necessarily harmful. Sure they can be to some degree if the specific belief and view that is held is harmful to other people who don’t hold that view, and the extreme obvious example here is of the suicide bomber who feels justified in taking the life of a nonbeliever because they believe the world is better of without the heathen in it. That’s a very harmful view but that’s and extreme view, and there are lower degrees to that and you could argue that can be found such as the views some religions have about homosexuality or other things like which that can be harmful but to just blanket say that dogmatic and superstitious religions are harmful, I don’t agree with that. I think it can be just as harmful for a non-dogmatic, non-superstitious religion to emerge and to become the very thing that it is fighting against, with its dogmatic non-dogmatism and its fight against any form of superstitions.

So that’s just something that we need to be careful of, and I think from the Secular Buddhism approach, the idea is always to expand the view, it’s never to restrict it and say that it is the right way, but to say, this is our way, and are there other ways, and trying to understand every single possible description of this elephant that’s here before us, which is life. Any possible explanation that may give me more insight is going to be welcome and if it’s harmful then I’m going to stay away from it, and if I see that it’s harmful for others then I may voice my concerns about that harm, but that’s how I view that, to that extent.

Anastasia: How do you balance the equanimity, which comes from a Buddhist approach to reality, with the need for activism and a prophetic voice which ‘speaks truth to power’ by calling out social injustices etc? Or, put in another way, how should Secular Buddhism respond to harmful human behaviours and harmful religious and political ideologies?

Noah: This is a very important thing right, in our day and age, because we have this culture of wanting to call out anyone who doesn’t hold our specific worldview or our specific political view and I don’t think that that’s right. There was a recent video which was circulating with president Obama talking about the harm that we’re doing with this call-out culture (see link below), and I think, regarding how Secular Buddhism should respond, I think it would be in a similar way, highlighting that first and foremost, life is complex, everything is interdependent, and what you would call, this good, and this evil thing, they’re interdependent because without good there is no evil and without evil there is no good.

That’s not to say then that we leave things the way that they are but what I’m trying to get at is that the world is a messy place. It’s very complex in nature – there are good people who do harmful things and bad people who love their families and who are doing good things in their community – there are drug dealers who pay for orphans to go to school while at the same time killing their enemies and causing all kinds of havoc. It’s just incredibly complex, so I think it’s dangerous when we try to put ourselves in the position of saying, I have it right and you have it wrong, and that we need to do things the way that I’m doing them.

So, we need to be careful about doing that in our voice of activism, and rather than specifically putting down the thing that we disagree with, put on a pedestal the thing that you do stand for, the thing that makes sense to you, and live by example. I think that’s a very important thing to do. I cannot recall a single instance where someone was shamed into changing their world view or changing their political view because they were shamed into it. It just doesn’t work that way.

I think the more we can just talk to each other, using rational discussion and communication tools, the more we can understand ourselves. So, I think from the Secular Buddhism approach, what we’re trying to do when we stand for something is just to highlight more understanding. I want you to understand how I view things not to agree with me. You don’t have to agree with me but I would want you to understand why I view it this way. And if you were to do the same thing back with an opposing view and help me to understand your view, then now we’re actually on to something because our goal is to increase our understanding of each other’s views, not to establish which view is correct, or which view is right.

Obama on Call-Out Culture

Anastasia: I totally agree with you about focussing on the positives about one’s own values and work rather than focussing on opposing or calling out others. I have been trying to do that with the Secular Liturgies Network from the start, though I have found that most people who contact me are far more interested in controversy and the ins and outs of what I do or don’t believe regarding religion, rather than the work I am trying to do in secular ethics, reflective practices and pastoral care!

I suppose what I was really searching for with my questions about activism was for an answer to the criticism that in my experience has been most often levelled at Buddhism – that is so much about personal growth and so pacifist and tolerant of other viewpoints that it cannot help in situations where there is a determined aggressor, whether than be a group with a harmful religious or political ideology. Activism can and should of course emphasise its own positive agenda rather than slagging off its opponents but it also needs to take a stand at times, which cannot help but be opposed to the views of other groups, even while it may listen to and respect the opposing views of individuals. There are individual, private interactions and then there is the public, political sphere.

This is of course very relevant today in many places. I suppose I was seeking a bit more of a response to that. The example most often brought up in discussion is Nazi Germany of course – what should a Buddhist have done in the face of the rise of National Socialism? This may seem like an extreme example, and as you say, there are many degrees to this sort of thing but in reality, in human history, violent and harmful ideologies and actions do happen all the time, and sometimes force of some kind is required to stop them. I suppose I was looking to explore all that a bit more.

One Buddhist teacher once told me years ago that under those circumstances a Buddhist should just submit, and in essence, die as a martyr for his/her cause but this doesn’t sit quite right with me. Another Buddhist teacher used an example of a violent mentally ill person in a village, saying a good Buddhist community would be able to restrain such a person in chains and yet also keep him happy and fully included at the same time – again that seems extremely implausible to me. I suppose I struggle with the way that some Buddhist teaching suggests we can always avoid conflict with others, when even for the most mild and gentle of people this is not possible all the time. We can avoid actually saying someone is wrong and we are right but isn’t saying politely that we don’t agree with them, and following a different path, pretty much the same thing as saying that we think they’re wrong and we’re right?

Noah: Thank you for clarifying the question a bit. I believe that one of the core practices of Buddhism is to act skillfully. I think the 4th noble truth is entirely about that and activism would certainly fall within that. I like to use the analogy of a bear coming into a campsite and terrorizing the campers. As a camper, I must do what is skillful to protect my family and my tent etc. It may be skillful to call the park ranger and have them shoot a tranquilizer to move the bear or if I sense more imminent danger, I may need to even shoot the bear. But it all depends on so many circumstances that will determine the most skillful course of action. This is how I view life from the Buddhist lens. Would I sit by while the Nazi’s invade my country? I personally would not.

I would fight when it makes sense to fight or run underground operations if that made sense or even subversion and sabotage if that made sense. I don’t know exactly WHAT I would do because it would depend entirely on all the circumstances that I might find myself in and I would hope that my Buddhist practice would allow me to me more aware and skillful in my specific course of action. I hope that clarifies my stance on that a bit more?

Anastasia: Thanks Noah, that’s helpful. It shows there is a wide range of perspectives among Buddhists as with most other groups. Some may be pacifists of a rather extreme sort but groups will vary. I grew up with a lot of Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist influence, which was essentially secular in its philosophy so I’ve long been a secular Buddhist of sorts. I’ve always found it very helpful but have not yet found a local community that takes that secular approach or a realistic/skilful enough approach to the very real challenges of life. The Secular Buddhism network is a very useful addition to the Buddhist schools and movements.

I still go to meditations at our local centre nonetheless, as I find them helpful, even though I ignore the supernatural and extreme pacifist elements of their teaching. There is still beauty in the imagery and stories, even if I don’t believe the magical beings are real, and of course, the core teachings are all the same.

Anastasia: How does the Buddhist understanding of suffering and attachment help us to empathise with and have compassion for other humans and nonhuman animals?

Noah: Well, I think that the biggest way that it helps is that it reminds us that we are all in this together. We’re all going through the same experience of being alive and experiencing suffering and of the difficulties that arise because we are alive. I’ve found that in my own personal journey the more I’ve understood this reality the easier it is to empathise and have compassion for others, regardless of how they view the world because however they paint their picture of, oh I’m so happy because I believe this or I’m so happy because I’ve go all these followers on Instagram or whatever, the picture is you can start to see through that and be like, no, I know that you, deep down inside, you experience difficulties in the same way that I do when things don’t when things don’t go the way that we want them to go and when things aren’t the way that we want them to be. We experience suffering and that’s universal.

By recognising that we’re all experiencing that from time to time to different degrees, I think that empathy arises naturally. It’s not, I’m supposed to be nice, why, because I was told that I’m supposed to be nice. It becomes natural to be nice because you realise, you’re are no different from me, and I have fears, and I have insecurities, and I have all these things that I try to hide about me, well, I don’t have to hide them anymore and now can see that you have yours too. I may not know what yours are but I know that you have them and that allows me to approach people differently, and I think that’s one of the big benefits of this very key teaching of Buddhism of Dukkha, the concept of suffering.

So, I think that’s how he Buddhist understanding of suffering helps us to empathise with others and more importantly here, it allows that empathy to arise naturally, not forced, because you’re not compelled and in the Buddhist tradition there are not commandments, right. You are told, hey be kind to your neighbour. There’s no reason to, you don’t have to be, so if I don’t have to be kind so I’m left with the option of then why does that still feel like the right thing to do and I can look into that and realise, oh because we’re all here and we’re all suffering and we’re all trying to make it better and to me that seems like a much more authentic way of feeling empathy than just saying, well, I’m going to be nice to you because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, so I pretend to be nice but deep down inside, I’ll judge you, and I’ll feel angry that you don’t do this and that you do do that. So, that’s how I view that concept of suffering in relationship to Buddhism.

Anastasia: Secular Buddhism seems to have a lot in common with the Secular Humanist approach (and that of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum*). Indeed, it has the potential to enrich Secular Humanist perspectives, ethics, reflective practices and models of pastoral care. Do you currently collaborate or have links with humanist organisations or other progressive faith organisations e.g. progressive Christianity, humanistic Judaism etc.?

Noah: No, I personally don’t. I’m not aware of the other people who are talking about Secular Buddhism if they have relationships with any of these organisations or institutes or movements but I think they’re worth looking into. I don’t really read or study their perspectives. I’m not entirely sure. I would assume we have a lot in common because the secular approach seems to be very similar to other secular approaches.

I’m very fond of the work that people like Sam Harris are doing, and the work that people like Neil Degrasse Tyson are doing to promote secular ethics and yes, I can see similarities with some of those approaches. I’d love to be more involved or know what some of those things are but now I’m not really aware of any or of Secular Buddhism trying to jump into something more than just what it is right now which is an exploration of ideas.

Anastasia: What are the greatest rewards and challenges of your work?

Noah: The greatest rewards are knowing that these concepts, these ideas, these teachings, really change lives. People send me messages all the time about how, whether its dealing with disaffection of religion or dealing with some kind of relationship conflict with a spouse or a partner or between parents and children. I see it all the time that these concepts and ideas are healing. They’re healing peoples’ relationships with themselves, peoples’ relationships with their loved ones and peoples’ relationships with their overall community and the environment that they live in and that they were raised in.

And that’s the biggest challenge by far, and that’s what I’ve experienced also in my own approach to all of this is that it’s a greater sense of peace. I feel like for so long I was on this trajectory of, I have to know things, I have to find the truth, the right path, have the right answers…and that’s slowly morphed into, now the journey is the journey of having more peace and more contentment, more joy and more peace and not even searching for answers anymore. I’m not interested in the answers. I’m still interested in the questions and the source of the questions but I’m not interested in the answers, and I feel that that’s been a great reward of this specific work and this specific path.

The greatest challenges, not entirely sure, I think I’d have to think about that a little bit. I think some of them are about being misunderstood. When you live in a community that has very similar sets of views and beliefs and you don’t share those, it can be challenging because you’re perceive to be an outsider. Or, even worse, in my case, if you’re still somewhat ‘in’, it’s like well, now you’re not really one of us. You’re not really an outsider because you’re not against us but you’re not really one of us because you don’t believe what we believe, so you’re kind of stuck. You’re not with us or against us, and I guess that’s a better place to be than against us.

And then there’s some of the push back I’ll get from other Buddhists, for example, like you’re bastardising Buddhism, I’ll get messages like that from time to time and I just respond with, I’m not changing Buddhism at all, if anything, study it a little bit more closely and you’ll realise that what I’m doing is the same, this is all the same stuff. We’re just presenting it with different approaches, different lenses, and also just the time that it takes to dedicate to constantly preparing new topics for the podcast episodes, taking the time to respond to emails and to the messages I get and things of that nature but it’s not really challenging, it’s a very rewarding work for me.

(*With its Nine Themes, the Secular Liturgies Network suggests that the focus of progressive faith and applied philosophical movements going into the future should be on improving the following: health and wellbeing, compassion and empathy, sustainability, social justice and equality, community-building, critical thinking and a rational/evidenced based approach to knowledge, personal development/growth, and cultural diversity, creativity and enrichment.)


3 Comments

A Conversation with my Old Self by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

The Secular Liturgies Network reflects a wide range of progressive, humanistic and non-religious ideas, practices and worldviews. This article is an exploration of my own worldview and how it has changed over time. I hope you find it an interesting and enjoyable read. Anastasia

Christian: Meeting my future self was bound to be traumatic on many levels but I’m especially saddened to find you have lost your faith. I can’t imagine that happening. How did it happen?

Humanist: I haven’t lost my faith in any of the values we hold dear. It’s the overlay of religious dogma and superstition I’ve left behind; the belief in a personal God; the theological superstructure that says the universe and humanity was created for a specific purpose and that things will unfold according to a preordained plan. Values like compassion, kindness, courage, freedom, equality, beauty and love; these aren’t the preserve of Christianity or any other religious faith. Indeed, they underpin almost all philosophical and religious traditions because they originate in universal human psychological needs and the development of pro-social behaviours, behaviours that are mutually beneficial. The ‘golden rule’, which states that we should not do to others what we would not like them to do to us, or alternatively, that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, is as old as humanity itself and common to almost all faiths and philosophies, many of which long predate Christianity. The rule arises from empathy and common sense, not from religion. We are safer and better able to thrive when we allow others to be so, and we are happier when we can help others and enjoy their success.

This is human-to-human morality, the morality which upholds human rights – the basic needs and rights that each of us has by simple virtue of being human – and the world needs this morality more than ever. If we then add another layer of morality, a set of principles supposedly commanded by God and revealed in ancient texts or by the mouths of prophets, then we end up with internal confusion and hopeless conflict because the two moral systems are so often at odds. Invariably, these texts and teachings, as is the case with the bible, are spoken and written by elites whose moral instructions work in their favour and are an attempt to control others. Thus, we have texts demanding people conform to a particular lifestyle, we have condemnation of anything that doesn’t conform, such as homosexuality, and we have the subjugation of women, all of which runs counter to the golden rule.

Biblical morality is a troubled mixture of humanist morality and the false morality of privileged male elites, and both are attributed to your God in various measures. It’s why you constantly struggle to resolve certain biblical texts with the commands elsewhere to love and show compassion for others. Once we break free from the false morality that is supposedly commanded by a supernatural being but is in fact the morality of the powerful and avericious, we are free to fully embrace the morality of the ‘golden rule’. You know yourself that your evangelical friends, regardless of their claim to be the only truly bible-believing people, pick and choose from the scriptures according to their social values just as much as all other Christians throughout history. They have no choice but to do so, when faced with all its internal moral contradictions, not to mention its factual contradictions. The title of ‘bible’ is itself misleading. Its contents are best referred to as the myths and legends of the Hebrew peoples. They make a whole lot more sense that way. Reading the bible is no different to picking up a book of Greek, Norse, Chinese or any other myths and legends.

Christian: It’s true that I struggle with certain texts. It’s also true that I don’t find the convoluted explanations given by preachers and theologians, which try to excuse them, as remotely convincing. Their feats of mental gymnastics lead to conclusions that are far less credible than the meaning of the words at face value, however shocking and unjust that meaning may be. However, it was Jesus that drew me to the Christian faith, not the writings of men who had clear bias. Of course, it’s through those writings that we learn about Jesus but it’s interesting that they never attribute to him that false morality of the elites that you speak of. Scholars say we can know little of the historical Jesus from the scriptures but even if this is true, the Jesus or ‘Christ’ depicted in the gospels, whether real or largely imagined, remains untainted by the twisted morality of those in power. On the contrary, he subverts the powers that be. If he weren’t real and very special in some sense, he couldn’t possibly do so.

Also, you’re saying that good values are just whatever is mutually advantageous and best for human communities rather than those things that are right in and of themselves. I used to think like that too, but then, as you know, I encountered a personal God. It gave me a much greater sense of clarity about what was right and wrong at a higher level than the human-to-human, and about how I could cleave to that path, sometimes in spite of myself. I took a step of faith in committing to the Christian path after reading the scriptures and coming to believe that Jesus was the God I had encountered, the incarnation of that God. After that, I found the Christian faith just worked for me. I felt a deep inner peace, I found hope for the future and for an eternity with God. It still works for me. I have someone to turn to whenever I am overwhelmed and no one else can help. I have someone to talk to when no one else will listen. I have someone to be with forever, who knows me through and through and loves me nonetheless.

Humanist: I know, I understand, and rarely can one person truly say that to another! It feels really real to you at times, the presence of a benevolent supernatural being. Also, I acknowledge that Christian theology can seem elegant and moving in some respects – a pure, divine being who reaches down to the depths of our suffering in order that we can overcome. It has its beauty and poeticism, like so many of the stories, myths and legends we humans have created to help us to make sense of life and cope with its tragedies, and to give us and our peoples a strong and distinctive identity and sense of purpose. However, the reality is that many people have these sudden transformative experiences of overwhelming peace and love, and they have attributed these to all sorts of different supernatural agents depending on their cultural context. Catholics encounter Mary, Buddhists encounter the Buddha and so forth, whether through internal feelings or hallucinatory visions. While it may seem as if there is some agency behind these experiences, they can be easily explained by the effects of chemicals the brain releases in times of elation, which are also released to protect and heal the brain in times of distress. And you were certainly distressed, very much so, having suffered months of unremitting anxiety. Your mind reached its darkest hour and in that moment your brain made a last-ditch effort to protect itself. It released a flood of dopamine and no doubt other neurochemicals like endorphins to bring you out of your despair. It’s incredible that our bodies have such a capacity for healing but there is nothing supernatural about it. Our natural world is just so much more complex and awe-inspiring than we tend to think.

With regard to the moral purity of Jesus, I have to disagree. The accounts do not portray a Jesus untainted with prejudice. What about the passage where he refers to a gentile-women as a dog? He is portrayed as having the same prejudices against women and other ethnic groups as his contemporaries, even while he bravely challenges the exploitation and prejudice against the poor. He is portrayed as progressive for his time but not progressive by today’s standards. None of this is very relevant of course because Jesus, and especially the Christ, are later hagiographical reconstructions of the noble or ideal human, and why should the vision of a few men who lived more than two thousand years ago be of such significance today? You are right to say that what we know to be true of the historical Jesus is very little and tenuous. While I’m not saying we do away with Jesus altogether, for he clearly had some admirable qualities, it is high time we came up with new role models for our more enlightened age, and held them in equal regard. Also, you talk about the implausibility of people deifying someone who subverts authority unless that person has some kind of special significance beyond their times but when various groups are vying for power, and one group wishes to manoeuvre itself into a higher social strata by gaining a popular following among the lower orders, a certain amount of rebellion is exactly what needs to happen. Jesus provided a convenient focal point for a personality cult, which would inspire social change. Besides, people have always been able to worship those who live according to altruistic morals, while living in a selfish manner themselves. Our species is hardly short on hypocrisy and stark contradictions between belief and lifestyle. The Epistles show clearly just how quickly the leaders of the churches, a new male-dominated elite, enforced social conformity and developed a new religious dogmatism, in spite of the counter-cultural qualities of its central figure and the significance of women in the earliest expressions of the Jesus movement.

With regard to your question about values, those I listed earlier can be seen as purely utilitarian, as you point out, but they can also be held as a rule because they are good for us in the vast majority of situations. And besides, we cannot go about calculating the utility of everything we do and see. It’s neither practical nor possible. We have to rely on general principles and weigh these up when they conflict. Thus human values can be seen as good in themselves, in spite of the fact they evolved out of a practical need for cooperation, and from our mutual desire for survival and flourishing. The fact that these concepts evolved to meet our needs and that there is a certain selfish element to every good and kind act, does not make these things any less desirable. It is more honest to say that we pursue certain things because they are good for us as well as others. Traditional Christianity has blackened our natural love and concern for ourselves and often asks us to deny ourselves completely in the service of others. Many evangelical churches, like the one you used to go to, even go as far as teaching that everything we do that is good is God doing it through us, and everything we do that is bad is from us. It is an understatement to say this is wrong-headed. It would be best described as deeply psychologically harmful, not to mention the fact that it is entirely impossible for almost everyone. In fact, if someone really behaved altruistically in that extreme sense, they would be quickly identified as suffering from some kind of mental illness with suicidal tendencies. Remember, the biblical Jesus himself was not purely altruistic. He is portrayed as desiring the devotion of his followers. He stood to gain a great legacy from his suffering and martyrdom (far greater than he would ever have imagined as it turned out!), and yet he is frequently described by Christians as the epitome of selflessness.

Christian: I know that many of the doctrines taught in evangelical churches are problematic, like the doctrine of total depravity which you touch upon, and I fully admit that the teaching about forgiveness is often simplistic and reduced to cheap sentiment. However, many Christians find a more reasonable balance between the various extreme theological positions. Christianity teaches us to love ourselves and to forgive ourselves because God loves and forgives us for our mistakes and misdemeanours. This has to be weighed against the call to repentance and sacrificial service.

I should also point out that there is a rational basis for my faith, as well as an experiential one. Otherwise, no one would believe unless they had had a similarly transformative experience. I am convinced there had to be a ‘first cause’, and that this first cause was then revealed to us through prophets and scriptures over the course of human history. But no doubt you’ll say, that if the universe is so incredibly intricate and ordered and complex that it had to have a designer with a mind that is even more intricate and complex, then this first cause or designer would also need a cause! I’ve heard theologians argue that this is missing the point because God is in fact incredibly simple (laughs) but that completely undermines the argument from design, and we fall back once again on paradox, one of Christian theology’s favourite but most meaningless devices, and a large dose of magical thinking. How can God be intelligent enough to provide an explanation for the universe but simple enough not to need explaining himself?

We have the same thing with Jesus. He is supposed to be fully divine and fully human, when of course, the definitions of those things are mutually exclusive. Then one hears Christian apologists talking about how things can be waves and particles at the same time, as if this analogy from particle physics is proof of paradoxes but of course, we know this is a misunderstanding and oversimplification of the science, not to mention the fact that it has no real bearing on language, Jesus or God. I’m starting to sound like you (laughs), and yet the idea that there are multiple dimensions to reality still appeals and still seems possible. Dualism is not yet entirely dead for me.

Humanist: (laughing) I would indeed say exactly what you predict and yes, you are starting to sound like me! Again, it’s a romantic story you tell about a first cause, whose mind is somehow reflected in the structure of the universe, and whose character has been revealed to humanity through prophets and scriptures. It is a story that is easy to grasp and tell, unlike the complex, baffling and sometimes seemingly conflicting theories proposed by physicists. Its elegance and simplicity, however, do not make it true. Ultimately, you have chosen to believe it rather than reasoned your way to it. It is not a necessary logical conclusion from the facts as we have them. It is mere conjecture. Surely the only honest thing we can say on the basis of reason and evidence is that we simply cannot yet know if there was a first cause or not? It seems to me that logic and reason are the lesser players here, and that an emotional connection with the stories of the bible in particular, is what you base your faith on. It is nonsense indeed to say that the universe requires an intelligent  (omniscient in fact) cause because it is so complex and yet ordered at the same time, and then to say that this cause itself does not require a cause. And you are right to point out that the subsequent claim that God is simple rather than complex, even though he is apparently able to communicate via prayer with billions of people all at once, is merely to use paradox as a device to circumvent reason – a device that can be easily used to claim any two contradictory things.

The greatest difference between you and I, is that while I think knowledge can only be obtained from reason and evidence, you believe knowledge can also be gained through what you call “revelation”, where God reveals information about himself through certain special humans and the things they write and teach. The problem then is that anyone anywhere can claim God has revealed him/herself to them, and indeed, many people have done just that, with very different conclusions! As you know, religious people of all faiths claim to have the revealed truth and yet they say very different and contradictory things. Even within Christianity, with its numerous denominations and sects, there is much dispute over what to believe, and the bible itself has many contradictory statements and stories about God and human history.

And regarding what you say about God teaching us to love and forgive ourselves as he has forgiven us, this assumes we need to be forgiven for being terrible and evil and selfish and so forth. Christianity not only asks us to do the impossible thing of denying ourselves but also, simultaneously, we are asked to do another impossible thing, to love and forgive ourselves after we’ve been persuaded we are dreadful by the very being that created us. It makes no sense to me. In fact, it is a really unhealthy and harmful view of ourselves and humanity. It leaves followers saddled with guilt, self-loathing and an overly pessimistic view of humans in general. Indeed, the doctrine of original sin, along with penal substitutionary atonement and those trite, judgmental notions of forgiveness you alluded to, are the most abhorrent aspects of orthodox Christian theology. Again, the human-to-human morality, at times expressed in the bible, for example, in the simple phrase ‘love others as you love yourself’, is much more sensible.

Christian: I agree there are some serious problems with orthodox theology, and I’ve long been uncomfortable with the idea that God is a father who allows the brutal killing of his son as a sacrifice for human sin, in order to satisfy some sort of perverse sense of justice, but of course, there are alternative theological interpretations of the events in scripture. I tend to believe that God became fully manifest in Jesus, a man who would give his life in the struggle to help the poor and marginalised, in order to demonstrate divine solidarity with his cause and in order to experience the depths of human suffering and show that even the very worst of it can be overcome. It is a story, a myth even, which is so meaningful to me that it becomes my truth as much as anything I might apprehend with my senses. I am aware though, as you will no doubt argue, that my theological perspective is not exactly mainstream.

As a humanist, you believe we humans create our own meaning but in that case you’re not doing anything different to religious people who create their own philosophy, beliefs, myths and so forth. What would you say to a person who creates his own meaning through a neo nazi ideology and feels fulfilled in the process? Sometimes a morality conferred from above, from a supernatural being and from revelation, and which is well established and widely upheld, holds more weight against evil ideologies and evil behaviours, whether it is true or not. I’m aware that I’m not talking now of the veracity of faith but of the expediency of it I suppose.

Humanist: As humanists we create our own meaning by making best use of our particular talents, opportunities and privileges, not by creating myths and ideologies which are either based on biased or selective information or which aren’t based on evidence or reason at all. We create freely but nonetheless within a framework of ethical values and a rational approach to knowledge. This leads to a commitment to the values I talked about above, which are shared across many societies, and which are demonstrably best for our well-being and flourishing. Neo-nazi ideology would be an anathema to us.

It is a very common mistake to think that secular and humanist values and goals constitute just one more exclusive ideology. They merely provide a framework within which all humans have basic rights and freedoms and in which all can flourish, both the religious and nonreligious alike. Humanism and secularism are not anti-religion as so many assume. Secular states protect the rights, including the worship rights, of those of all faiths and none. This can only be successful, indeed, multi faith and multicultural societies can only be successful, if individual human rights trump religious group rights. Therefore, religious group rights are protected as long as they do not harm individuals. There are frequent debates of course, about what constitutes harm, so there will be plenty of conflict where religious groups want to treat women and LGBTQ persons in ways that wider society views as harmful. This is unavoidable. However, while all other ideologies – both religious and atheistic – are exclusive, tribal and ultimately intolerant, secular humanism is tolerant of diversity at the deepest level. We are also committed to democracy as the best, though not by any means perfect, system of governance, a system which can be undermined by its own fairness, as we have seen in recent times with the rise of popularism!

We want to teach children liberal social values and critical thinking within secular schools, not to make them atheists but to protect their individual freedoms against dominant and oppressive cultures, religions and ideologies. Secular means multi-faith, and it is often forgotten that the term ‘multi-faith’, includes a wide variety of humanist, non-religious, progressive and atheistic world-views, the holders of which are often subject to discrimination, in spite of the fact that in societies like ours, they make up the majority of the population.

Christian: But militant atheists can hardly be described as tolerant and fair!

Humanist: Personality type has a lot to do with that. Some people have a tendency to be dogmatic about whatever they believe strongly. A dogmatic, rigid thinking person who is religious will be dogmatic and uncompromising about their faith, while a nonreligious person with a similar personality may be incredibly self-righteous about the way people should stack a dish washer or hang up the washing. Similarly, some atheists are arrogant and self-righteous about what they believe, and mistakenly dismiss all religious people as either brainwashed or stupid, probably both. I totally agree that this is very unfair and that such people should try harder to understand the psychological needs that religion evolved to meet, and to appreciate the artistic and theological sophistication of many faiths. The reality, however, is that most humanists are not anti-religious or dogmatic. We are simply nonreligious people who share a vision to make this world a kinder, fairer, more compassionate place. We are people who seek to grow intellectually and spiritually in order to be the best we can be and we encourage others to do the same.

Christian: What about evil? Don’t you believe there are such things as evil and goodness?

Humanist: It’s funny that a Christian should challenge a humanist on that subject! Isn’t the onus on you to resolve the conflict between an all-powerful, all-loving God and the presence of evil?! (laughs) Good and evil are human constructions that evolved to support pro-social behaviour. If incredibly harmful crimes are seen as evil, rather than merely unhelpful, then the social condemnation and punishment that follows is likely to be far greater and function as a far more effective a deterrent. Equally, if the rewards of doing a great service to others are many and profound, society will foster many more heroes. Moreover, some things are just so horrific to us that ‘wrong’ or ‘criminal’ are words that just don’t do justice to them, so a special word reserved for these alone, such as ‘evil’, seems better. At the other end of the spectrum, some things are just so remarkable that normal terms don’t do justice to them. Instead we say they are ‘divine’, or ‘miraculous’. Many nonreligious people use these terms, even though they don’t actually believe in supernatural forces or events. The word ‘God’ is itself used as a metaphor or superlative for those things that are too wonderful for ordinary words.

It is important to remember that the world is full of creatures that are suffering and brutally killing each other. It is also laden with awe-inspiring beauty and noble acts of kindness. However, it is only humans who label things as good or evil. These labels are incredibly meaningful to us alone. They help us to fight against those things that would harm or destroy us and to celebrate those that are beneficial but they are also easily misapplied. We can get into philosophical debates about deontology and consequentialism, asking the question of whether some things are just morally right or morally wrong in themselves but my view is that while moral maxims like ‘do not lie’ are useful, they are not final in all circumstances. Something that seems bad to us may actually turn out to be what we call ‘a blessing in disguise’, while something we perceive as good may turn out not to be. Consequences and contexts always matter. If you could lie to save a life then why wouldn’t you? What I’m saying is that yes, I can talk about something being awesomely good or heinously evil but I do so understanding that there is nothing supernatural about these things. Religious superstition only serves to make the things we perceive of as bad far more frightening by endowing them supernatural agency, in effect, giving them a lot more power and control over us than they deserve.

In reality, even the most terrible things, take murder for example, are caused by a whole lot of explainable factors. The guilty person may have lost their ability to empathise through abuse or neglect in early life. They may have even been born deficient in this regard due to faulty genetics or they may have later developed a psychological or mental health condition that caused them to behave aggressively. People often bring up the holocaust in these kinds of discussions but the reality is that even the holocaust emerged from plain old human tribalism and from a misguided and harmful ideology of the same kind that has often been produced by religion – consider the witch burnings, the inquisition, the crusades, Islamism and religious fundamentalism in general. It arises from flaws in our thinking, such as our cognitive biases, and our tendencies towards a range of pathologies of the mind. There is nothing particularly mysterious about Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or others of their ilk. They are simply sociopaths who suffered from delusions, megalomania, narcissism and so forth. This is why you will hear witnesses to terrible crimes describe the sheer ‘banality of evil’. Rather than give evil far more power than it deserves, humans must learn to counter what is harmful and promote what is in our best interests without thinking in terms of gods, angels, devils and spirits. We would be far better off learning to understand our cognitive biases and delusions and put sufficient checks and balances in place to keep society’s minority of sociopaths out of positions of power and influence.

Christian: I struggle with this a bit because of the otherworldly quality I perceive in things that I would describe as ‘divine’ and because of the opposite but equally otherworldly quality I perceive in things I would describe as ‘evil’. My faith somehow makes me feel more secure, and more confident that I will remain on the right path. It helps me to be a better, kinder person. It means that when I am tempted to do wrong, or when I feel hopeless or at the mercy of forces beyond my control, I can call upon an external being to help me. And I definitely feel safer around Christians than around the general public. I know that they know God is watching them, and I trust they are committed to following the way of Christ.

Humanist: You were always a kind, empathic person with a strong sense of justice and fairness. Your experience of anxiety and depression then further deepened your ability to empathise with the sufferings of others. There are two kinds of religious person, the kind who uses orthodox religious beliefs and practices to further improve their character, and the self-righteous, controlling sorts of people who use the same religious beliefs and practices to lord it over and oppress others even more than they might otherwise have been able to do. The former tend to cling to theological emphases on, for example, the loving nature of God, and on reflective practices like private prayer and meditation, while largely ignoring or being somewhat in denial of the much less palatable nature attributed to God in the scriptures. Meanwhile, the latter tend to emphasise divine justice over divine compassion, and take inspiration from the wrath and cruelty of the biblical God, in order to support their controlling agendas. They concern themselves with the public practices of religion rather than with self-improvement, ignoring or being somewhat in denial of the loving and merciful attributes of God.

This is why the Christian faith can lead to all the things you are deeply uncomfortable with in the church, just as easily as it can lead to an improved character and loving friendships. It can lead to the oppression and subjection of women, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, anti-science biblical literalism (including six-day creationism and young earth theory) and climate change denial, with no end to the undermining of expertise, research, evidence and reason. With regard to the need for something beyond and better than us, namely a transcendent God (particularly in times of crisis), one must simply point out that our need or desire to believe in such a thing does not make it real. Just because you want or would really like something to be true does not make it so. This doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of external things we can go to for help, namely, other people, information, research and so forth. These will most often and most reliably lead us to the answers, solutions and remedies that we need. There are times of tragedy when it is not yet possible cure an illness, solve a problem or put something right but there is always hope when we look to reason and science because with time and investment an answer may come. Theology, on the other hand, cannot give us anything more than it already has, and in the tragic circumstances I referred to, it is never enough.

I should also point out that loving, what in truth, is simply an abstract idea – God in this instance – does not necessary make us more loving in general. In fact, many religions demand we love this God at the expense of others, since God is apparently jealous for our attentions. In the process of making our love for anything real idolatry, it is the love of this abstract deity that becomes idolatrous. I have heard evangelicals say that we should be careful not to love our family members and friends so much that we love them more than we love this God concept. Such people show a cold and unhealthy detachment from those closest to them. Cults do exactly the same thing but to a greater extent. They separate people, both emotionally and physically, from their family and friends, especially those family and friends who are not in the ‘in group’ of the cult.

The only reason you feel safer around Christians is because you’ve become isolated from wider social circles and have been soured towards them by your supposedly loving Christian community. If you hear often enough that people outside the fold are bad and godless, it’s only a matter of time before you start to believe it. If you mix with other groups you will soon find they are comprised of exactly the same sorts of humans – some good, some bad, and most of them a mixture of the two. The idea that people behave better when they believe God is watching is an interesting one because it is actually true that the presence of witnesses (or a belief that witnesses are present) can make people behave more pro-socially. However, God is a different kettle of fish because he doesn’t intervene or report them. They know they can get away with a transgression if it’s only God watching, so they most often go ahead regardless. Belief in God only helps if it is strong and consistent enough, such as when a person is very devout, and even then, it often wavers in the face of temptation. Belief is a strange thing, especially belief in God. People put it aside temporarily, and sometimes in a flash, when it suits them to do so. Also, let’s not forget that many people do their evil deeds believing they are actually God’s will because they have worked to convince themselves of this or because the God of their scriptures does have his cruel, even genocidal, tendencies. You could justify a lot of evil deeds using the God of the bible for a start! There is no evidence that theistic societies are more moral or safer than secular ones. In fact, secular societies are some of the safest, most compassionate and socially just in the world. Evidence is mounting that certain kinds of secular societies, where far right and far left political ideologies are successfully kept to the fringe, are the most civilised of all.

Christian: You may be right that I’ve spent too much time around Christians. It’s ironic, considering the emphasis evangelicals place on outreach, that we spend most of our time with each other. Also, I’m with you on the idolatry bit. I totally see how people put their idea of God, a conception of God they have largely invented, before the people they should love and care for. I don’t consider myself an evangelical really. I’ve always been on the fringe of it, mixing with a more eclectic group of Christians, as you know. I’m certainly no creationist or fan of male headship.

But changing the subject a little, I’m curious, what do you think about death? I believe I will somehow return to God in a way that is beyond my understanding, to a perfect reality, along with everyone else who reaches out to God, and that includes people from all cultural and religious backgrounds with whatever name they use for God. I believe the beauty of our world is a mere shadow of what is still to come. I don’t believe in hell as a real place of eternal punishment for nonbelievers. I tend to think that all good people reach out to God in some way or another, even if it’s at the very end of life. However, in the case of those sociopaths who persistently do evil and are unrepentant, I believe they suffer an absence of God both here and in the afterlife, which in itself is a kind of hell. What do you think?

Humanist: I think much of religious belief is a means to console us and alleviate our fear of death. It is also a means to satisfy our sense of justice and fairness when it comes to what people deserve but I think this is a lesser consideration. However, death need not be feared in the way it so often is. A limited life makes every day of this one life we have more precious and beautiful, and the thought of living forever is actually a rather a tiring, burdensome one. If you speak to the elderly, those who are approaching death, you will find they often feel ready and willing to go. When we die, all our atoms and molecules go into creating something new in the circle of life. We are remembered for a while by those who love us but we often forget that our legacy is much broader and longer than that, it goes forth in all the tiny actions and words we spoke throughout our lifetime. Those of us who have children pass on our genes, ideas and talents and continue to live in many ways through them, but whether we have children or not, the impact we have on the world goes on indefinitely. The more we love and give and change things for the better now, the greater our legacy, and the greater our positive impact on the world for the benefit of future generations. We can die well and contented knowing we did what we could. Indeed, even the manner in which we die leaves its legacy for others, whether positive or negative. By making sure, as far as is possible, that we die a good death, with as little pain and as little regret as possible, we demonstrate how death is just another part of life, which can serve a good purpose.

Those who have witnessed many deaths and attended many funerals know that having a good death, or a meaningful funeral, doesn’t depend on the religious belief or non-belief of the individuals or families concerned. Many humanist deaths and funerals have been described as peaceful, meaningful and moving, while conversely, there are plenty of religious deaths and funerals that have been described as distressing, empty and hopeless. Hope, meaning and contentment are not the preserve of religious people. Rather, the experience we have depends on our individual attitudes and morality, and that of our family, friends and community.

Christian: I must confess, your perspective on death isn’t one I’ve ever heard before. It makes sense, and you express it with kindness and sincerity. I’m not entirely sure what I think about it yet but it’s something I will ponder when I am alone.

Going back to the bible, as you point out, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the contradictions in the bible and what the evangelical ministers rather unsatisfactorily call the difficult passages – the genocidal God of Old Testament, the sexist and homophobic passages and so on. Preachers get stuck in endless circular arguments, claiming the bible is infallible because a verse in it claims that it is so, or that every verse is divinely inspired because a verse within it makes that claim, and so you can’t possibly reject any part of scripture, however distasteful. Of course, you would only take notice of such arguments if you already thought the bible was infallible in the first place! Similarly, they argue that you have to believe Jesus was either a God or a madman because in the scriptures he didn’t give us the choice to think of him only as a great moral teacher. Again, you’d have to be already convinced the scriptures were 100% accurate and take all of them literally for that argument to be relevant.

There is also the popular claim that the New Testament stories fulfil ancient prophecies so exactly that they could not have been invented but accounts written decades after an event and clearly intended to convey a certain theological viewpoint are bound to fit the facts into the existing framework, just as far as is possible without arousing too much suspicion, and therefore, leaving a few inconsistencies as the bible in fact does. The idea that God had his guiding hand throughout the process of the scriptures coming together to comprise the bible seems less than credible to me, though not quite as incredible as the mental gymnastics used to try to make the ‘difficult passages’ morally okay.

Humanist: It’s freeing just to come out and admit it isn’t it? I found it so. Theology is basically a superstructure of belief that is based on completely flawed assumptions, often a sophisticated superstructure but a flawed one nonetheless.

Christian: It is freeing, I grant you that. I don’t often get to express my doubts and frustrations in quite so frank a way! However, it’s getting late, so, I suppose the big question for me to ask you now is whether you still believe in God?

Humanist: Certainly not, if by God you mean the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God, the jealous God who seeks our worship and our obedience and who intervenes in our affairs to condemn sinners and select a few chosen souls for paradise. A God who creates humans as they are and then punishes them for being that way makes no sense to me and couldn’t be more perverse. As I said already, I think ‘God’ and terms like ‘divine’ and ‘miraculous’ are metaphors and superlatives to describe things that whilst they are not necessarily remarkable in the grand scheme of things, are indeed remarkable, awe-inspiring and deeply meaningful to us in our own lives and in our limited spheres of influence and understanding; the kind of things that ordinary language seems insufficient to describe because of the weight of meaning we want to convey.

With regard to God as some kind of first cause, I am agnostic. We don’t have evidence to confirm or deny it, though we know enough to think it unlikely. If there is such a God, we certainly don’t know anything about it, and how should we define God in order to make it possible to recognise it or not anyway? I’ve heard God described as ‘the infinite mystery of the universe’ and other vague definitions but nothing that can really be grasped. While many humanists are atheists, many are agnostic. What we have in common is that we all seek to live the best lives possible with the knowledge that we have through reason and evidence. It’s an intellectually humbler way of living than the religious life in many ways, and that can only be a good thing. Religious people choose to believe there is some overriding meaning or purpose of life, some great story of which they are a part. It takes a great feat of the imagination to believe that. You have to believe at least 101 impossible things before breakfast! Meanwhile, humanists choose to stick to what we can really honestly know, even if that means living with a lot of questions and uncertainty, and we create meaning for ourselves within that framework.

Christian: Any yet, so many people find living within an over-arching theological structure binds them together with others in a way that nothing else can.

Humanist: Indeed they do. Religion has always been a great social glue but in helping tribes to stay together and loyal to communal values and goals, religions have also reinforced tribalism, the ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ mentality that results in more frequent and ferocious conflict and violence. We were once more successful because of religion’s ability to bind us together. It helped us cooperate to out-compete other human and competitor species’s for the earths resources. That’s why it evolved. It helped us to support each other to survive against external threats, such as other aggressive tribes, but eventually our mutually exclusive ideological systems became a threat to humanity itself, heightening the risk of mutually assured destruction. Religion’s ability to bind us into tribes is no longer of benefit to our species. We now live in huge numbers in a globalised, information-rich world, and our leaders have access to terrifying weapons that could annihilate not just external threats but our whole species. We have simply outgrown the old, traditional forms of religion.

We urgently need to find new, more inclusive, ways of nurturing human spirituality and building cohesive community. Thus humanism concentrates on universal human values, and I hope increasingly, on reflective practices that are useful to us all of us. Successfully building community around these values and practices is a harder nut to crack but we are slowly and steadily finding ways to achieve this alongside other progressive and universalist movements. I think humanist/nonreligious pastoral care and community leadership will have an important part to play in this.

Christian: So, you believe the ills of orthodox religion outweigh the benefits?

Humanist: Religion can help good people to be better but it can also make bad people a lot worse, as I said before. Good people choose to emphasise the kind and compassionate aspects of religion (the human-to-human morality I spoke of earlier) and they use it to improve our quality of life. Meanwhile, bad people take all the judgmental and despotic elements and use them to do far greater harm than they might have otherwise been able to do. Private religiosity, however, can be a very different thing to public religion. While the former may be comforting, the latter is very often quite the reverse. Most religions have helped those with power to form elaborate control systems in which many people have suffered oppression, subjugation and cruelty over hundreds of years.

I believe we will all be better off when humanity is free from traditional religion. However, we are just as much in need of ethical discussion and the reinforcement of morality through ritual, reflective practices, community and pastoral/spiritual care and leadership as we ever were. As we have seen in history, atheistic dictatorships are what arise when religious ideologies are simply replaced with political ones, and with rampant greed and materialism. We still have to attend to our ‘higher needs’, to our values, creation of meaning, well-being, self-actualisation and so forth in ways that best ensure our survival and flourishing in the long term. How I think we should go about all this is perhaps best left to for another conversation. I should be clear, however, that while inter-faith dialogue is great, I do not advocate any aggressive efforts to disabuse individuals or groups of their religious beliefs. That would be cruel and thoughtless, and certain religious group rights will need to be protected for a long time yet. My hope is that with greater access to information and education, however, the vast majority of people will eventually outgrow their traditional beliefs, and set about adapting and repurposing their stories, reflective practices and customs in accordance with a modern understanding of the world.

We must of course remain just as conscious as ever of nurturing and developing our spirituality; our thoughtfulness, wisdom, wellness and character, our sense of identity, meaning and purposefulness. My own spirituality, for example, is progressive and humanistic and just as vibrant as ever, and I take inspiration from the insights and practices of many of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions. I have no intention of throwing the babies out with the bath water when it comes to the world’s many religions and philosophies, including Christianity, and I hope that you at least feel somewhat reassured about where I have come to in my journey of faith, and why.

Christian: I believe I am reassured. It’s strange because I didn’t expect to be. I must confess I expected to find out you had experienced some terrible tragedy and become embittered and angry with God. I expected to find someone I barely recognised, someone who had regressed spiritually, but instead I found a much more confident, and if anything, more open-hearted, open-minded version of myself. It’s something I’m going to have to mull over until we meet again. I didn’t expect you to have such a positive and coherent worldview. I didn’t expect you to have grown so much outside the Christian fold. I didn’t expect you to be so kind, especially to someone you are presumably now embarrassed by. In fact, I’m rather sorry to have begun this conversation so full of assumptions…

Humanist: It’s okay. I understand. I was there, remember.

Christian: I’ve just got one more burning question though that can’t wait. What happened with your prayer life? Did you just stop praying one day?

Humanist: I just naturally moved from praying to a supernatural being, to understanding that my prayers were simply a way for me to express my deepest feelings and desires, and a way of thinking aloud. They became a form of meditation and reflective practice. Without wanting to offend you in any way, I’m convinced that prayer to a supernatural being is an act of self-deception, or put more positively, a feat of the imagination which is hard to sustain, hence why so many religious people struggle to pray and go through dry periods where they just can’t. It’s especially hard when people come up against the indifference of the universe to their individual needs and desires, and when life is unfair and cruel, because whatever excuses we make for him/her, it implies God has either abandoned us or wishes us to suffer. When I was able to be honest with myself, I admitted that prayer had always felt rather like talking to myself, or talking for the benefit of myself and anyone I was praying with, rather than talking to an all knowing, all powerful being. The God part had always been a work of the imagination, which was often faltering.

It’s the same with belief in the afterlife. Most religious people know deep down that this is the one life they know they have, and if you observe them, you will find they live according to that knowledge rather than according to their proclaimed religious belief. Very few religious people are, in practice, willing to sacrifice their mortal lives or indeed even elements of their lives for the promise of an afterlife. People were more willing to do so in the past, when life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but only because they had much less to lose. Indeed, they often had more to gain from renouncing privilege, power, wealth and sex by joining a monastic order, or even from becoming a martyr if their lives were characterised by persistent poverty and suffering. For the martyr, the legacy one would leave, indeed the waves one would set in motion among those who lived on, was sometimes worth dying for. The reality is that we ultimately know that we do not know, when it comes to the supernatural and an afterlife, whether we choose to believe in it and create such things in our imaginations or not. And every intelligent religious person knows there is absolutely no evidence that prayer has any impact on events. It has even been confirmed by numerous experiments. However, it is clear that prayer can have a positive impact on the people praying because of its reflective nature, and the way in which it can help us to reinforce our values and positive character traits.

Christian: It’s interesting. I’m not sure I agree but I understand where you’re coming from. As you say, many religious people, at the liberal end of the spectrum at least, themselves accept that prayer changes the pray-er rather than any external circumstances. It’s also true that religious people are often beset with doubt because of the lack of evidence for much of what they believe and because we cannot apprehend God with our senses most of the time. I will think about everything you’ve said. I must admit it scares me. It’s uncomfortable, and I usually take that to be an indicator that God isn’t in it and that it is therefore something to be avoided. However, that’s just a feeling, and I know it could be nothing more than the superstition instilled in me by living in community with so many Christians! It’s going to take time for me to process everything but I will process it.

Just one more thing, do you have an entirely naturalistic world-view then? I mentioned dualism earlier but I don’t think you picked up on it.

Humanist: I think a naturalistic worldview is the only worldview we can have if we want to stay sane. As soon as people start thinking in dualistic terms they end up distrustful of more and more of what they experience with their senses, or of what they learn through reason and the scientific method. You end up living with a dark undercurrent of fear and superstition. Also, dualism in religion has been responsible in almost every case for denigrating nature, especially natures which do not conform to the rules of those in authority. It has created hell for a lot of people, not just the imaginary place many religious people claim nonbelievers will go to when we die but a real hell on earth of exclusion, stigmatisation, discrimination, oppression and abuse. It’s okay to explore your dreams and realms within your imagination but it has to be understood that these are brief indulgences and not a lens with which to view reality as a whole. You wouldn’t want to be plagued by your dreams and imaginings, or for that matter, the spirit-realm imaginings of your religious predecessors, morning noon and night would you? We can still enjoy the metaphorical and literary sense of things, while knowing that it differs from reality. I think having a naturalistic outlook is a much healthier way to view the world, and it comes with substantial psychological and physical benefits. It also affirms the way we are and not someone’s idea of the way we ought to be –  usually white, male and straight – with everything else seen as either inferior or an abomination.

Christian: It seems to me that many Christians in the West already have a largely naturalistic world view in spite of the fact they give theoretical assent to the existence of a supernatural realm. Many are deeply uncomfortable with the more superstitious beliefs and activities of Christians in developing countries and in Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. There does seem to be an internal contradiction there, with people believing 101 impossible things before breakfast on a Sunday but living according to scientific and rational principles from Monday to Friday, especially in their day job. I suppose I am one of those with a largely naturalistic world view, who baulks at those who want to go around praying away territorial spirits, exorcizing the mentally ill and other such nonsense. However, I tend not to think this is hypocrisy but rather, I deem God to be so powerful that as long as I am close to God I have nothing to fear from anything evil in a spiritual sense, and so I never waste my time thinking about such things.

I agree it is problematic to take an obviously modern, enlightenment-influenced theological approach while also claiming to be bible-believing, and thus I have never claimed to be bible-believing in that literal sense. I am aware that others, especially reformed Christians do make such contradictory claims without realising the hypocrisy in it. However, as far as I am concerned, theology evolves and grows over time, with the information and knowledge we gain about the world, and so it should. Then this being so, you will ask where exactly our revelatory truth lies – the faith communities and their teaching, prophecy and traditions, in the scriptures, or in a mixture of these. It’s difficult to answer that, I grant you, but then the faith has endured and evolved for thousands of years somehow or other!

Humanist: A couple of thousand years is nothing the grand scheme of things, not even in the history of our species, and besides, the length of time something has been believed in, in one form or another, is hardly proof of its truth, though it could be said to be evidence of people’s limited understanding at a particular time, or of a persistent human psychological need, and it can certainly be said that persuading people to believe such things was useful to those with most power and influence!

Christian: Indeed, it is as you say. I suppose in the end, if you are a good person who won’t exploit religious revelation for your own ends, it all comes down to a choice of how you want to live your life. If you like the stories and rituals of a particular faith and it ‘works for you’ as many people would say, then why not embrace it, especially if it gives you a community of which to be a part?

Humanist: I would also say why not, if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these rituals, traditions and beliefs, and the communities that sustain them, are so downright abusive in their sexism, homophobia and so forth. They are guaranteed at the very least to be stifling rather than nurturing of the talents of the majority of their people. The churches that seek to make everyone an evangelist are the worst because suddenly everyone has the same perspective and mission, and follows the same course of action and lifestyle with very little of the natural variation of expression that humans have in abundance when they are free. It is a kind of slavery.

I certainly felt stifled, especially as a woman, and as an intellectual woman with leadership and creative ability, life becomes particularly unbearable in those communities. Looking back, I can hardly believe I was once part of a community, which viewed me as a second class member (albeit a somewhat rebellious member), and which frequently denied me the voice and the respect I deserved. Like many other women, I could never have thrived in those churches as the person I am. I would have had to suffocate the vital and most essential aspects of my being to live a lie. It reminds me of the fallacy of Pascal’s Wager, a favourite among so many evangelists, an argument which doesn’t convert anyone but seems to have quite a hold over those who already believe. It reminds me of when I pointed out to one of them that it isn’t true that you wouldn’t lose anything if you lived a Christian life and it turned out there was no God – you’d have lived a complete lie and wasted many opportunities for a wiser, healthier, and more fulfilled life. Many of those I know who left the faith, still regret the many opportunities they missed and things they suffered because of believing traditional theology and being part of religious community. This is quite apart from the fact that Pascal’s Wager is completely presumptive and could be applied to a whole host of deities, and indeed, any magical being anyone chose to invent, and is therefore completely irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t already believe in Christianity. You realise all this even more, when you leave those communities and begin to build more authentic relationships again.

Christian: (laughs) I never thought much of Pascal’s Wager. It assumes you can force belief, and that forcing belief is actually a good thing, better indeed, than just being honest with yourself and with God. It seems like false belief to me, and worse still, an argument that implies false belief is better than no belief. But then, perhaps I’m not much better in your mind because, well, I’m not offended in the least, but I’m assuming living a lie is exactly what you think I’m doing right now. Is that true?

Humanist: I’m sorry to say that I do think it is the case to some extent. It’s why I felt it necessary to break free. It’s why I gave my final fond farewell to the things I once needed as a crutch, and to the people I once loved, who I knew would no longer accept me. It’s why I leapt into a future that at first seemed alien to me but which turned out to be as natural as a cup of hot cocoa on a winter’s night.

Christian: Is that how life is for you now… natural, free?

Humanist: Life continues to have trials and tribulations as it always did, of course, but yes, I am now as fully myself as anyone could be, as fully free and anyone could be, and embracing that human-to-human ethics and humanist spirituality that I have always sought, and which traditional religion once threatened to rob me of. You see, when I saw how Christianity, and the Christians I was spending so much time with, were actually hardening my heart, hardening it to the stranger, the nonbeliever, the drunkard, the LGBTQ community, and ironically, doing precisely the opposite of what the man they claim to follow allegedly commanded, that I had the sudden realisation that I needed to get out, fast, while my open-heartedness and open-mindedness were still, for the most part, intact. In those who stayed in, I still see the struggle, the desire to love others but the constant and simultaneous pull of traditional theology toward judging and condemning them. I still see it, and even more sadly, in some cases, I watched the latter attitudes become dominant and the person’s true humanity be buried so deep it can no longer be reached.

I want to ask you a question now, you speak of Christian community but don’t you recognise your loneliness? I remember it well but I suppressed it. Don’t you miss your family and, well, your nonreligious friends? I always felt lonely in those church communities, painfully so. The churches were mostly soulless cattle markets for controlling men in search of submissive wives, and women enamoured of enthusiastic young men preaching about love (laughs). No-one was really interested in getting to know each other and all of them were deceiving themselves into thinking they were part of a loving spiritual community. Indeed, they had even created a spiritual hierarchy of sorts among themselves, a pecking order, with those who considered themselves purest and wisest at the top. The toxic stink of that pretension and hypocricy was high indeed! I never found true spiritual connection there, though I did experience it with a few individual Christians here and there, outside of regular church, among those who happened to be as devout as I was. The relationships in church turned out to be far less authentic and far shallower than I had hoped. When I left, I soon discovered just how few of those people actually cared two hoots about me. I had gone to church partly out of loneliness and a thirst for connection like everyone else but the churches only exacerbated and prolonged my loneliness. Our society is lonely for a number of reasons but those places of faith are often lonelier still, for those who do not fit in.

Christian: I suppose I do feel lonely. Sometimes I find myself crying silently on the way home from church, hoping that my tears will be dried by the bitter Edinburgh winds. I confess that I feel struck to the core when you articulate so vividly and passionately the things that are going on inside me, even though I should jolly well expect you of all people to know them. I’m glad that you came, in spite of all the discomfort I’ve felt. I’m glad that I can reflect on these things sooner than I might otherwise have done. In short, I am grateful, but I need time, as I said. Do you think that in a decade or so I’ll be just like you?

Humanist: I don’t know. We cannot know, and we must be content with that, but know this, that I love you, my young self, even though you sometimes make me cringe when I remember your mistakes. I see you often in the young people I meet. That makes me sound like an old woman but believe me, by the time you reach thirty-seven, you realise you know a whole lot more than you did a decade or so earlier.

Christian: I can believe it! And I can tell you have a great deal more clarity of mind, no doubt because you are no longer plagued with the particular anxieties of early adulthood. I have wasted so much time and energy worrying about the future and dwelling on the past but then that is, I suppose, one of the universal follies of youth. Meeting you has given me no small amount of comfort. Now I’m imagining what you might be thinking about your current self when you are forty-seven! No doubt that thought has occurred to you as well. Ah, but I see you must go now.

Humanist: I’m afraid I must. Maybe we’ll meet again someday, if it’s not too disconcerting.

Christian: Maybe so, except that I thought you didn’t believe in magical encounters!

Humanist: Magical encounters are just fine, as long as they’re fictional.

Christian: (laughs) well Goodbye then…

Humanist: Goodbye…