Lay Service – November 5, 2017
“Good Without God : Non-Theistic Beliefs and Practices”
The Worship Committee has invited three First Parish members to speak on this topic; Nick Woebcke, Victoria Grafflin and Tom Ostfeld. (This is the companion service to one on Theistic Belief and Practices that will happen in the spring How has God played a role in your spiritual journey.)
Nick Woebcke – My Non-Theist Address
Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law
This is our great covenant
To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love
And to help one another
These words build a home and a sense of order to us. All religions it seems are based on love, love between the self and a chosen God, or the self and the great unknown, the vast expanse of chaos and uncertainty. Love is the spirit of this church, because love implies harmony and belonging. And we want to belong to the world around us.
We do not seek dogma, we seek the truth in love, whether we believe in organized religion or God or not.
I thank the worship committee for asking me to speak today as a non-theist. But I personally do not consider myself to be a ‘spiritual person’. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about life in a higher plane, becoming enlightened, or finding my calling, or the greater meaning to it all. Being a UU has actually given me a pass and I’ve never really had to state clearly what it is I believe before. This speech, in fact, has been a little traumatizing for me in that I’ve realized just how little I know about my own beliefs. After a lot of soul-searching I can say with certainty that whether there’s a God, or gods, or nothing; I just don’t know.
Having been raised by two atheist parents, I had little exposure to organized religion growing up . One of the earliest memories of church that I had as a child was attending the First Parish UU in Wayland, Mass. FYI, an interesting fact: the bell in the First Parish church tower was forged by Paul Revere himself! Sunday school at the UU Wayland was discussions about the events in the Bible. I recall that we were allowed to ask a lot of questions and that there were no incorrect answers on how to interpret this great book.
But most Sundays were spent at the Woebcke household away from church. My parents’ general attitude was that religion was the ‘opiate of the masses’ and that it was full of superstition and contradictions. Sundays were a time to work in the yard or the garden, or to go for a walk in the woods.
Despite their lack of religion, my parents did set a good example. But, good or bad, my other source of right and wrong came from TV and movies. I discovered a kind of religious guidance in the ‘force’ from Star Wars, the ‘prime directive’ in Star Trek, and ‘being generally a good person’ from the Brady Bunch.
The ‘force’ in Star Wars was attractive to me (no pun intended), as something supernatural and good. As Obi Wan said, the force is, “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together”. It provided a mystical connection between people and things that were not visible, not measurable, not physical, and yet just as real.
In the world of Star Trek, there was the ‘prime directive’, which meant that a technologically superior species (the crew) should not interfere with the cultures or politics of another species. This shows respect, humility, understanding, and acceptance of differences between cultures.
With the Brady Bunch, TV viewers were given the opportunity to peer into the lives of a middle-class family. There was a constant theme of fairness and that good deeds would be rewarded as well as the benefits of honesty.
The idea of doing good and being a good person was part of living in harmony in society and the world around us. I was not expecting an eternal reward up in heaven.
Heaven, to me as a kid, was spending Sundays out in the woods. In the natural world, I witnessed harmony, destruction, creation, and death: all the mysteries of life.
According to geologists, the world was created 4.6 billion years ago. This is a long time. The best way to understand just how old the earth is to imagine the 4.6 billion years in a span of only 24-hours. So midnight is the creation of the earth and 24 hours later would be the present day. According to this model, the first living organism would appear at about 4AM. Dinosaurs show up near 10:30PM and then go extinct a half hour later! Where are human’s in this big clock? Humans show up at a minute to midnight! The founder of Christianity was born a fraction of a second to midnight, and the modern world of laptops and cell phones only the smallest nanosecond in geologic time.
Considering the incredible age of this planet, my own experiences are, of course, very small. My life, compared to the billions of lives that came before me, is just a tick of the clock or blip on the radar. What can I know that the earth and the natural world can’t teach me? If there is a spiritual realm to creation, should we not look to the natural world for these answers?
Humans have evolved only so recently out of this vastness of creation. It only makes sense to me then that the natural world should command much more respect and reverence than we have shown it. Despite our infinitesimal time on the planet, humans this past century have managed to initiate the 6th greatest mass-extinction of all life, and recently it was discovered 80% of insect species have disappeared since the early 1990s.
Our collective ignorance is mostly because the modern world has cut us off from the natural world. We live in a land of illusions, of tweets, and ‘fake news’. As someone who sees nature as the clearest source of spirituality, I hope we as a people can recognize the real destruction that our behavior is causing before it is too late.
The miracle of nature lends to the miracle of life, which provides a solid foundation for the contemplation of an afterlife and, if there is one, a heaven that exists beyond this universe.
I welcome further explorations with you all.
Victoria Grafflin – “An Exploration of the Interconnectedness of the Natural World and How That Informs Spirituality”
One of my earliest memories related to religion and beliefs occurred when I was young enough to be going to bed while it was still light out. I remember my mother coming to tuck me in. I was an anxious child, always needing lots of reassurance about everything, from the monsters that inhabited my closet and underneath the bed, to fears about the sun burning up the earth, nuclear war, and so on.
I remember my mother pointing to some clouds that could be seen through the window and her saying that one of them was my guardian angel who looked after me while I slept. It was a beautiful, completely reassuring story. A little while later, my father got home from work and came into my room to say goodnight. I asked him to tell me about my guardian angel. Without hesitation he said “there are no such things as guardian angels.” I was pretty disappointed but I knew he was really smart so I didn’t argue the point. That little story mostly describes the religious environment in which I was raised. My mother had no family and had rebelled against her Irish Catholic upbringing in Manchester, England. She never went back to church after being scolded by the priest for not attending one Sunday after working an overnight shift at her job. According to the story, she reamed him out in the confessional. I think I knew that my mother believed in God and of course guardian angels, but she did not do much to share her religious beliefs with me and my sister.
When I was young we lived at my grandmother’s house, so my father’s family (his mother and four sisters) constituted my extended family. Though they were nominally Quakers, the word God was never mentioned and there seemed to be an unspoken disdain for all things religious or spiritual, so religion was not discussed.
As you may imagine, I was spiritually adrift as a child. If anything compelled my spirit, it was my relationship with the natural world. A few years ago, Mark led a class here at First Parish called “Spiritual Autobiography.” One of the exercises we did in class entailed drawing a picture of the place where we felt most at home as a child. I drew a picture of a Dogwood tree in our yard. Just the act of drawing that picture felt like a prayer, invoking the way that tree wrapped its limbs around me and my sister and neighbors. Somehow that tree’s branches fit us all perfectly. We each had our own “room” in the tree. Exploring rain swollen streams with my friend Tania, or standing outside in the late autumn cold looking at the sky, smelling the air as the light faded, I felt most fully present and connected to the universe. My unmoored spirit soared in nature.
I would almost go so far as to say that I was a pan-theist, believing in the spirit of the rocks in the stream that allowed me to run, fleet-footed and not slip. But, I couldn’t quite get there. Much as I want to believe that there are fairy rings and such, I can’t do it. Likewise, the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, are to me, books compiled over time to tell stories and provide collected wisdom that is in some instances relevant to us today.
But I do believe that the world offers an immense dose of mystery and miracle that makes me feel like a simpleton, even in trying to describe it. Sometimes you witness or hear about something or notice inexplicable patterns and apparent coincidences in life that just seem too incredible or perfect somehow to attribute to a coldly rational world.
For example, you may have heard of the horrible mining waste acid lake in Butte, Montana where thousands of geese have lost their lives after making the fatal error of landing during their annual migration South. The deadly lake represents the worst kind of environmental destruction in the service of money. And yet, by their deaths in the lake, the Geese released an organism, from their bowels, that only geese harbor and that eats acids and heavy metals at an astonishing rate, thus helping to clean the polluted lake. I don’t know why, but this story, of all things, struck me as one of the most wonderous examples of how unfathomably amazing and persistent nature is.
Other than pointing out that I feel a spiritual connection to nature and am awed by it, I haven’t really explained what I think that oneness of everything means, So I’m going to try to describe how I see my spiritual connection not just to “nature” but to the universality of being.
Imagine looking at the earth from space. Now imagine seeing it in time lapse video and simultaneously being able to focus on a small detail – such as me. Through this time-lapse lens you can observe and follow me throughout my lifespan… and beyond. Now imagine that the picture you see of me is just of the light energy emitted by my collection of molecules and atoms, like an infrared image: I’m forming in the womb, a little cluster of energy, growing, amoeba-like. As I progress through life, I constantly shed a trail of energy, through the exhaling of carbon dioxide, sloughing off cells and their energy, randomly spinning off of my central mass as I move through space. Imagine also the colorful pixelated image of the molecules and atoms that I shed as they are absorbed into my surroundings. A little trail of blue light pixels travels down the shower drain, along with the drain’s own little trail of purple, steel molecules and they intertwine with the orange pixels of the water molecules and the yellow soap suds and on and on. And now imagine you can also see everything and everybody I encounter the same way as pixelated entities, expanding and contracting, losing and also absorbing little pixels of an infinite variation of shades of colored light. The picture becomes somewhat blurred and appears to pulsate and throb, everything moving and changing, even the non-living things. This is how I visualize the unity of everything that forms the central core of my spiritual beliefs.
But to what end? The picture I’ve just painted offers no guidance or wisdom about how to move my mass of energy through life.
Well, I also believe that the image I’ve presented is an infinitely simplified version of what this universality of being really is. But, somehow, when I imagine the world this way, it helps me make sense of those less easily explained things that I feel and observe. I am convinced that sometime soon, a scientist will tell us that she has discovered why it is that on any given day, multiple people who work in an office together show up wearing essentially the same outfit. Or why, when you walk down a sidewalk, a person walking at some distance in front of you will drift, as if pulled by an invisible force, right into your path.
I don’t believe that these types of patterns in life are just a coincidence and I also do not believe that it is magic. I do believe that the reason for these inexplicable occurrences is something measurable that we simply haven’t yet figured out how to measure. There is a river of energy that flows through us and everything around us and we have only barely scraped the surface of understanding what that means.
We are just beginning to understand how our individual lives impact others with whom we may have no direct connection. A recent body of research has found that the emotional state of an individual in a community affects the emotional state of many others in that community, even if the people don’t know each other. Some people have called it emotional contagion. How could that be? How much more connected are we to each other and to our surroundings than we realize as we go about our lives?
To me, whatever it is, the exigencies of the little energy pixels, the trails of electrons, or however that scientist is eventually able to describe it, it is what binds and connects us in a way that makes me care.
I tend to be fidgety. If you’ve ever seen me in church, you may have noticed that I am almost always shifting in my seat and fiddling with things. And sometimes, when I need to stop fidgeting I read the seven principals of Unitarian Universalism on the back of the order of service booklet. I contemplate them. My belief that I am part of everything and everything is a part of me means that “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” really is self-evident. And, of course “Respecting the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” speaks to me at the deepest level.
I feel at my core and on a daily basis that the good I do, even in the smallest way, is amplified by this connectivity and it compels me to go forth and to be.
Tom Ostfeld –
In 2014, the Pew Center conducted its most recent Religious Landscape Study, surveying the beliefs of more than 35,000 Americans across the United States. Over 70% identified themselves as Christian, 6% identified with non-Christian faiths, and another 2% fell into the “other” category. This by the way is where Unitarians are classified. Approximately 22% identified as “unaffiliated” or religious “none.” Out of that group, a mere 3% identified as “atheist.” Today, I am speaking to you as one of that mere 3%. I am a non-believer. I am an atheist.
In researching for this service, I learned that the term non-believer has a wide-ranging definition. For instance, many individuals who participate in earth centered religious practices consider themselves to be non-believers. For purposes of clarity, I’m going to stick to a narrow definition. You either believe in God, or you don’t. And when I speak of God, I’m not speaking of the more esoteric definitions of God, such as God as love, or God as nature. I’m talking about GOD. A supernatural entity, not necessarily male, that exists outside of the physical laws of the Universe, had a hand in its creation, and can intercede if it chooses to, on behalf of human life here on Earth.
Growing up, I was raised Catholic. My family, while not devout, was culturally Irish Catholic. It was simply part of who we were. To be fair, I suspect that our spiritual upbringing was probably more to satisfy the relatives than to satisfy my parents. Nevertheless, we dutifully attended Sunday mass, said grace before every meal, and even went to confession…occasionally. As the youngest of four children, I managed to avoid going to the Catholic elementary school where the nuns could politely have been described as “old school.” But, I was baptized, had first communion, confirmation, and was even an altar boy. I attended CCD, not “religious education” as we call it, all the way to high school, where I attended a Catholic high school.
Even at an early age, I had doubts. And these extended beyond just youthful boredom at being stuck on Sunday wearing uncomfortable clothes. By the time I was a teenager, I fancied myself an agnostic. Not entirely disputing the possibility of God, but too cool and intellectual to embrace it fully. And ironically, going to Catholic high school made me question the whole thing even further.
Catholic practice is steeped in ritual. Even today, I could probably recite the Liturgy of the Eucharist almost from memory. It gets ingrained in you at an early age. But here’s the thing I often observed. At Sunday mass, there were always a few true believers, but the majority seemed to just be going through the motions. It was all about the ritual and the muscle memory, and not about the meaning, or much less putting the teachings of Jesus into actual daily practice.
Coupled with my lack of spiritual enthusiasm, was a growing disenchantment with the moral strictures I was being taught. I was appalled at the tone-deaf response to the issues of euthanasia, birth control, and a woman’s right to choose. Nobody would ever accuse the Catholic church of rapidly changing to meet the social challenges of the times. That, for many, is its greatest strength. For me, it was just painfully archaic. Eventually, I stopped being involved altogether, and derived more grace from listening to a Genesis album than from the Book of Genesis.
Around 2001, Lauren and I began regularly attending a UU church. Initially, it was to rekindle participation in a choral group, like the one where we met in college. Frankly, I did not know what to make of the service. It seemed weird. No creed. No dogma. Barely a mention of God at all. I sarcastically referred to it as “The Church of Immaculate Convenience.” More on that in a minute.
Around this time, I also read a book called “Letting Go of God” by the comedian Julia Sweeney. In this autobiographical tome, Ms. Sweeney keenly documents her own personal journey from growing up Catholic to embracing atheism. To letting go of God. It is a deeply moving and funny book that still sharply points out the inconsistencies of the Bible, the supposed Word of God; Not to mention the more horrific passages which always seem to be conveniently ignored. She also learns about the movements of skepticism and rational inquiry, fields which I have become deeply interested in myself. It’s safe to say that while you need not be an atheist to be a skeptic, once you start to embrace rational thinking, the logical foundation for the existence of God grows razor thin.
So, you may be asking yourself, why am I here? What possible aspect of church, even in the form of Unitarian Universalism, could I find useful or enlightening? The simplistic answer of course, would be my involvement with the choir. Rehearsing and performing musical works is a joy of itself. And one of the few opportunities where I can scratch the creative itch. But certainly, there must be more to it than that. And there is.
The controversial Richard Dawkins argued in his seminal work on atheism, “The God Delusion”, that religion developed mainly as an outgrowth of tribalism. Likeminded people tend to organize into groups, social and otherwise. We seek contact with others to help us make it through life. As I stand here, I call myself a “non-believer.” But I would argue that everyone in this room is a non-believer, in a sense, as well. We have probably all experienced that moment when somebody learns you are a UU and says, “So what do UU’s actually believe?” And before we learned how to give a proper elevator pitch, the default answer was usually, “Well, you can believe what you want to believe.” But that’s not entirely true.
We don’t believe that the color of a person’s skin means that they are inferior, or somehow “cursed.” We don’t believe in restricting people based on gender. We don’t believe in denying rights to those whose personal lifestyle differs from the norm, so long as that lifestyle does not interfere with the rights of others. And we don’t believe in destroying the environment simply because we are the dominant species in it. No, you cannot just believe what you want, and be a UU.
And while there is no creed, there are the seven principles. And those principles focus on how humans interact with each other, and the world they inhabit. Nowhere in the seven principles is there any mention of worshipping God. It’s about treating others with respect, fairness and dignity. And being part of a living tradition that can grow, and change as the world changes. For some, this can include a belief in God, and for others, like myself, it allows us to participate in community without the need for embracing a higher spiritual power. What binds us together is not a shared belief in God. It’s a shared belief in humanity. And a shared belief in the power to do good.
Although I am an atheist, I am more Fox Mulder than Dana Scully. I WANT TO BELIEVE! I want to believe in God. It would be very comforting to know that we are part of some grand cosmic plan. But I want to believe in God in the same way that I want to believe that magic is real. That alien life not only exists but has visited our planet. And that if we just look hard enough, we would find a living unicorn. In my heart, I want to believe in God. But in my head, experience and logic tells me that it is highly unlikely God exists. Yet I try to keep an open mind. If evidence of God rises that can be scientifically tested and is not merely anecdotal, I would consider it and possibly, be convinced. But for now, I can live without that belief. I can live, without God.