Humanist Pilgrimage Reflection

Post 10 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

Below is my reflection from my second of nine trips to the Humanist Institute back in December. I complete my first year this April with a trip to New York. I now plan on writing these around each of my remaining trips, stay tuned!

Humanist Institute Reflection 2 of 9:

Flying to Washington D.C. for the second of nine meetings with class 17 of the Humanist Institute currently has me reflecting on journeys, pilgrimages, and transitions.

I began the Humanist Institute as a way to deepen my knowledge in my religious identity as a Humanist and to increase my understanding of the Humanist movement in its broadest sense. My first session, held last August, felt like jumping into the deep end of the pool. I am meeting new people, devouring books as fast as possible, and trying to grasp the interconnections of a slew of newly learned about organizations, ideological groups, and national figures as well as all the ways these overlapped and intertwined.

This time around I feel a greater sense of taking the next step on a journey, reconnecting with new friends, and a sense of visiting an important site of one of my personal connections to humanism, the headquarters of the American Humanist Association (in fact the first humanist organization I joined when I began to shift my identity from atheism to humanism).

What began for me as a personal educational process augmented by interaction and discussion with others of similar but complementary viewpoints is becoming much more about building a new community that stretches from coast to coast. I am seeing the minutiae of the freethought/atheist/humanist spectrum and the ways that these differences both give this movement strength as well as challenge.

The other part of this time is one of personal transition. It is between the major holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas widely celebrated in the US and in my own families. It is also a time when I am leaving a position in a Unitarian Universalist church I have held for the past three years to take on a new position at a small private university. My relationship to the Unitarian Universalist movement is in flux, but it will grow into something different. My relationship to the humanist movement is also changing as I begin to connect to the local secular humanist organization Humanists of MN and deepen my connections to the Humanist Institute and related organizations.

While all of this is going on I have also been reflecting on my changing level of connection to national movements versus state level and local ones. In the past year I have started working with national LGBT organizations as well as national humanists organizations.  In both of these spheres I have observed the tension between the local organization and the national vision of what the movement should do and when.

I look forward to 2011 with continued study within the Humanist Institute, a new position in Alumni Relations, and shifting focus in my freelance work. Building connections seems to be the continued theme personally, professionally, and philosophically as I continue my journey through the Humanist Institute.

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Good Without God – Book Review

Post 6 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

See Amazon page: http://amzn.to/foKkHb

Good Without God:
What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe

By Greg M. Epstein,
Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University

272 pages, published October 27, 2009

In Good Without God, Epstein writes an introduction to a huge population of the world – those who do not believe in God. I see this book as a great introductory text to a very large and diverse population of people. I don’t think it goes into great detail very often but instead keeps things simple and brief. That is the really great thing about this book, I really would recommend this to people who aren’t studying religions deeply or want to know every identity group within the nontheist/freethought movement and all the major historical figures that have done great deeds while not holding belief in the divine. There are many books out there that do these things but view that are actually casual reading on the humanist community and the many other names we go by.

I could see this book being used as the Humanist/Nontheist text in religious communities that teach about many of the world’s religious traditions (Neighboring Faiths in UU congregations as an example). I could see this being given to significant others/partners in mixed-religious couplings or other loved ones. This is also a great book for those who are looking for the first humanist book to begin to study on their own.

The biggest thing I enjoyed about this book was the lack of anger, the lack of attack of those that do believe. I struggle when reading other authors who seem to believe that you can convert from either a place of anger or of superiority over those “stupid enough to believe.” This book is a refreshing invitation. To hear a piece of what humanists believe. Does Greg Epstein’s words sum up each and every humanists notions of how the world works and why they are motivated to do what they do? Of course not, i doubt any book can do that for a gorup of people. I do however see this book as a great source of correct information about humanist philosophy and worldview.

People I have spoken with about humanist/atheist/freethought reading material often have had bad experiences and ended up angry after reading other popular authors. I feel confident that you will be pleasantly surprised with this book’s lack of venom. I hope this book and many more like it become the norm and not the exception in humanist writings.

My Own Humanist Pilgrimage

Post 2 of 40 of the Humanist Lent Writing Project

Humanist Institute Reflection 1 of 9:

In religion and spirituality, a pilgrimage is a very long quest/journey or search of great moral significance. Sometimes, it is a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. Members of many major religions participate in pilgrimages. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim. (wikipedia.org)

My pilgrimage  is a journey both of distance and of time. Years of change, thought, struggle, and questioning has gone into who I am as a religious person (for a brief synopsis see my first post). As with most people in the world I began as who I was told to be by my parents and progressed through adolescence into adulthood from acceptance to testing to reflection. My religious identity evolved and changed during this period to what it is today, but I in no way think the way I view the world now will be exactly how I will view it at 70, 50, 40, or even 30 years old. I think the words I use to identify my faith tradition will change less and less but there will be more subtle and nuanced changes that come with life experiences. I think of the people in my life who are recent parents and note the profound change in who they are and the way centers of their worlds shift to the little humans they now care for.

So that is the time part, life happens to us whether we try to resist or not, years pass. The other piece of a pilgrimage is the distance piece I think this is both moving physically far from where you are now on a quest and mentally moving far from where you started. Thinking and considering things that never crossed your mind before. For me both these pieces come together in my graduate program of the Humanist Institute.

Three times a year for three years I travel. I’ve traveled abroad and around the United States during college but somehow these trips are different. I now travel alone for one. Before I traveled with a class or at least others going to the same conference as myself, but now I make the journey alone which provides time for reflection. On these trips from the time I hit the airport until I come back I’m away from everyone I see daily. I think this gives these trips a mark of difference for me mentally. They aren’t a vacation or a conference trip, they are something more.

Between these trips I’m also exploring topics in rapid succession. I’m reading deeply of humanist history, world religions, philosophy, development psychology, spirituality, American history and politics (and that is only in the first year). I’m energized to make connections to community organizations and other people in the movement and thinking about projects to tie together what I am learning with the larger Humanist Movement (things like this blog).

At each gathering I’m with colleagues and fellow travelers. Some head national or local organizations, some are chaplains and celebrants, all are there to grow into something different and learn from those present. All of them are contributing to their local humanist communities in different ways. One of the main goals of the Humanist Institute is to train and develop humanist leaders. I see that happening in very real and powerful ways but I think there is something else going on that is less planned and yet far more important. The Humanist Institute is a place where humanist cultural heritage is being passed from generation to generation.

This cultural memory, the stories of days past, organizations started, and early leaders. These stories aren’t in the books we read to prepare, they aren’t on any lesson plan but they too are part of the education. They are the experiences that bind together a community. The jokes told and the meals shared that make a gathering of individuals into a community.

At the next gathering of the Humanist Institute — in mid-April at the New York Society for Ethical Culture — I hope to learn from folks and make connections between the current stack of books I am reading (about World Religions) to the previous two stacks of books I’ve read, skimmed, and made notes about. More importantly, I hope to soak up as much gossip, jokes, good food, and stories about days past. These are some of the most precious parts of these gatherings, the things that don’t land on publicists’ desk, or get into newsletters. The things that make us human.