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Can an Atheist Be a Unitarian Universalist? (Part 1)
As I've mentioned in the past, my wife and I have for several years been attending a Unitarian Universalist church in the New York area. Unitarian Universalism is officially a religion without faith or creed: its foundational seven principles are only about acting morally, and none of them specify belief in God as a requirement. By some estimates, as many as 46% of UUs are atheists, and the church as a whole supports marriage equality, secularism and other progressive causes, which makes it the perfect fit for someone like me - or so I thought.
My doubts were precipitated by a book called A Chosen Faith, which seeks to set out what it is that Unitarian Universalists believe. Beacon Press, the official publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, calls it "the classic introductory text on Unitarian Universalism". One of its two authors, Forrest Church, is now deceased, but was the minister of All Souls, a New York City-based church that's one of the largest and most influential UU congregations in America. The other author, John A. Buehrens, was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1993 to 2001 and is still an active minister in a UU congregation in Massachusetts.
I didn't read A Chosen Faith when I first started attending a UU church, which was an oversight on my part. But a few months ago, I got into a conversation in a thread on Butterflies & Wheels with a commenter who goes by Rieux (I bet some of you recognize that name!), who had some eye-opening comments about what was in it. Spurred by Rieux's comments, I set out to read the book for myself. It wasn't long before I saw exactly what he had been talking about.
Each chapter of A Chosen Faith is about one of the sources from which UUs have drawn ethical and spiritual inspiration. And when it comes to traditional, mainstream religions like Judaism and Christianity, or even New Age "earth-centered" belief systems, Church and Buehrens have nothing but praise and good things to say. But then there's the chapter on secular humanism. In it, the authors grudgingly recognize that atheism has a place in Unitarian Universalism, but they pound home a message about how dangerous it is, how we have to be sure not to rely on it too much, how we have to take extreme care to recognize its limitations. They call skepticism a "mercury pill": a useful medicine in small doses, a deadly poison if you take too much. (See Rieux's article for a much more detailed review of the anti-atheist language throughout the book.)
And then there's this:
Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer "religion-free." They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first — this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.
This language could have come straight out of a Christian gospel tract: saying that atheists are in the grip of self-delusion, that we're worse than the violent zealots we condemn, or that we're practicing a "demonic pseudoreligion". And, lest I overlook it, this passage clearly implies that it's necessary to believe in God to be a UU - or even just to be a good person. I expect this kind of hostile, sneering denunciation from Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but to hear it from the mouth of a Unitarian Universalist minister was an awful shock.
Granted, this book has no actual authority over me. There's no UU Pope decreeing dogma which every member must follow; every congregation is autonomous and run by its own members. In that sense, I'm free to reject these words as just another opinion, and an ignorant and prejudiced opinion at that. But I don't think it's that simple. This book was written by a past president of the UUA and the minister of one of its most influential congregations, and it's still being promoted as the definitive introduction to Unitarian Universalism by the UUA's publishing arm. If anyone can claim to be a spokesperson for Unitarian Universalism as a whole, it would be them.
There was one obvious step to take: I wrote to John Buehrens to see if he would defend his book when challenged. The e-mail I sent him is reproduced below, with minor edits to remove some personal details:
Dear Rev. Buehrens:
I'm writing to seek your thoughts on a subject that's been troubling me. My wife and I have been attending a UU congregation for several years. She's from a Roman Catholic background, while I'm an atheist, and when we found out about Unitarian Universalism, it seemed like the perfect fit for both of us - a way to meet in the middle, so to speak.
One of the things I like best about Unitarian Universalism is that it's a creedless religion, asking you only to live morally without requiring any specific beliefs, and welcoming all different kinds of people without prejudice. It was in that spirit that I recently picked up and read your book, A Chosen Faith. And, I'm sorry to say, I was shocked to find a great deal of ugly, spiteful anti-atheist rhetoric - in particular, this paragraph, in one of the chapters you contributed:
[omitting paragraph already cited]
Some of my good friends, my family members, many people I look up to and admire are atheists who see no need for religion, and I was incredulous to find them so harshly denigrated in the pages of this book. Really: "self-delusion"? A "demonic pseudoreligion"? That's the kind of language I would expect in a Christian fundamentalist gospel tract. I'm sorry to say this wasn't the only passage in A Chosen Faith that I found offensive, but it was one of the most egregious.
I was and am glad to be a Unitarian Universalist. I'm happy I've gotten to know my minister and the people in our congregation, and I'm thankful for the welcome and the fellowship I've enjoyed there. But I can say with confidence that, if reading your book had been my first encounter with Unitarian Universalism, I would never have joined. I would have dismissed it as no different than all the other religions that have nothing but intolerance and disdain for atheists.
It troubles me greatly that this book is being promoted to the world as an introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Do you stand behind these passages?
I sent this e-mail to John Buehrens a few days ago. I was honestly expecting no answer at all, or at most, a form letter. Instead, to my surprise, I got a personal response within a few hours. In an upcoming post, I'll reveal what it said.
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'
- Sci-fi visions of Mars have changed over time, in step with humanity's own obsessions.
- Once the source of alien invaders, the Red Planet is now deemed ripe for terraforming.
- Here's an extreme example: Mars with exactly as much surface water as Earth.
Misogynists in space<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1ODkzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDEzMzY4OX0.XEEPJJnp75idUXzutmJ5ZGo35WYKxmVEyIiSwDpMeE4/img.jpg?width=980" id="6c715" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2210c6d8590f7886eb6e4a89bcd6a50e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bMars \u2013 and Martians \u2013 were a staple of 1930s pulp science fiction." />
Mars – and Martians – were a staple of 1930s pulp science fiction.
Image: ScienceBlogs.de - CC BY-SA 2.0<p><em>"Oh, my God, it's a woman," he said in a tone of devastating disgust. </em></p><p><em></em>"Stowaway to Mars" hasn't aged well. First serialised in 1936 as "Planet Plane" and set in the then distant future of 1981, the fourth novel by sci-fi legend John Wyndham (writing as John Benyon) could have been remembered mainly for its charming retro-futurism, if it weren't so blatantly, offhandedly misogynistic. </p><p>Fortunately, each era's sci-fi says more about itself than about the future. That also goes for how we see Mars. 'Classic' Martians, like the ones in H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," are creatures from a dying planet, using their superior firepower to invade Earth and escape their doom. That trope reflected 19th- and 20th-century fears about mechanized total warfare, which hung like a sword of Damocles over otherwise increasingly placid lifestyles. </p><p>Closer inspection of the Red Planet has revealed the absence of green men; and now <em>we're </em>the dying planet – pardon my Swedish. So the focus has shifted from interplanetary war to terraforming the fourth rock from the Sun, creating something all those protest signs say we don't have: a Planet B. <span></span></p>
How to keep Mars from killing us<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1ODkzNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTgyNTcwNX0.V7I3VFPch0oV8YDx95ZLLZFY7zEcyqSiG5uCAiMu2hg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f092e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5ca3b60a81a5f003a3e1ef467cf95f1a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of the surface of the planet Mars, showing the ice caps at the poles." />
Mars today: red and dusty, dead and deadly.
Image: NASA - public domain.<p>Cue Elon Musk, who doesn't just build Teslas but also heads SpaceX, a program to make humanity an interplanetary species by landing the first humans on Mars by 2024 as the pioneers of a permanent, self-sufficient and growing colony.</p><p><span></span>Such a colony would benefit from an environment that doesn't try to kill you if you take off your space helmet. Martian temperatures average at around -55°C (-70°F), and its atmosphere has just 1 percent the volume of Earth's, in a mix that contains far less oxygen. Changing all that to an ecosystem that's more like our own, would be a herculean task. </p>
From Red Mars to Green Mars<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1ODk0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTE0NjA5N30.iloUVThQOBjnkP7HuLefzPlOeIDE8wOlfcXMQ7ZYDMw/img.jpg?width=980" id="f9ad2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="05032082590ebcf98a6830576ae3815e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bBefore and after images of a terraformed Mars" />
Before and after images of a terraformed Mars in the lobby of SpaceX offices in Hawthorne, California.
Image: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr - CC BY 2.0<p>So how would Musk go about it? In August 2019, he launched a t-shirt with the two-word answer: 'Nuke Mars'. The idea would be to heat up and release the carbon dioxide frozen at Mars's poles, creating a much warmer and wetter planet – as Mars may have been about 4 billion years ago – though still not with a breathable atmosphere.</p><p>Alternatives to nuclear explosions: photosynthetic organisms on the ground or giant mirrors in space, either of which could also melt the Martian poles. However, many scientists question the logistics of these plans, and even whether there is enough readily accessible CO2 on Mars to fuel the climate change that Musk (and others) envision. </p><p>Ah, but why stop at the objections of the current scientific consensus? Sometimes, you have to dream ahead to see the place that can't be built yet. In the lobby of SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, Red Mars and Green Mars are shown side by side. The terraformed version on the right looks green and cloudy and blue – Earth-like, or at least habitable-looking.<span></span></p>
Or how about a Blue Mars?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1ODk1MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTkwNjU4OX0.sdccROyaHpYcw9C8E-4iICzMA_GNXsZXzL1XGcqDink/img.png?width=980" id="1ba6e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b3325bff53cb4b13cf77bff877961338" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="wet Mars map" />
A map of Mr Bhattarai's wet Mars, in the Robinson projection.
Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission; modified with MaptoGlobe<p>But why stop there? This map looks forward to a Mars that doesn't just have some surface water, but exactly as much as Earth – which means quite a lot. No less than 71 percent of our planet's surface is covered by oceans, seas, and lakes. The dry bits are our continents and islands. </p><p><span></span>In the case of Mars, a 71 percent wet planet leaves the planet's northern hemisphere mainly ocean, with most of the dry land located in the southern half. </p><p><span></span>Most of the dry land is connected via the south pole but is articulated in two distinct land masses. Both semi-continents are separated by a wide bay that corresponds to Argyre Planitia. </p><p><span></span>The one in the west is centered on Tharsis, a vast volcanic tableland. To the north, attached to the main land mass, is Alba Mons, the largest volcano on Mars in terms of area (with a span comparable to that of the continental United States). </p><p><span></span>It's about 6.8 km (22,000 ft) high, which is about one-third of Olympus Mons, a volcano now located on its own island off the northwest coast of Tharsis. At a height of over 21 km (72,000 ft), Olympus Mons is the highest volcano on Mars and the tallest planetary mountain (1) currently known on the solar system. Olympus rises about 20 km (66,000 ft) above the sea level as shown on this map.</p>
A new civilization<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1ODk1Ni9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEwNzQ0Nn0.vKa0nNqKdMTfWYG6behUPPg9giToq3Lx6CsWQ70eqCE/img.gif?width=980" id="7f62c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bcffffaf301663a42758cf4cb8e11a76" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bSpinning globe view of Mr Bhattarai's wet Mars." />
Spinning globe view of Mr Bhattarai's wet Mars.
Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission; modified with MaptoGlobe<p>Mars's eastern continent is centered not on a plateau, but on a depression that on today's 'dry' Mars is called Hellas Planitia, one of the largest impact craters in the Solar system. On the 'wet' Mars of this map, the crater is the central and largest part of a sea that is surrounded by land, a Martian version of the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps one day this Medimartian Sea will be the Mare Nostrum of a new civilization. </p><p>To the northeast of the circular semi-continent is a large island that on 'our' Mars is Elysium Mons, a volcano that is the planet's third-tallest mountain (14.1 km, 46,000 ft).</p><p>The map is the work of Aaditya Raj Bhattarai, a civil engineering student at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu (Nepal). Talking to <a href="https://www.inverse.com/innovation/mars-with-water-map" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Inverse</a>, he said he hoped his map could help further the Martian plans of Elon Musk and SpaceX: "This is part of my side project where I calculate the volume of water required to make life on Mars sustainable and the sources required for those water volumes from comets that will come nearby Mars in the next 100 years."<br></p><p><br></p><p><strong></strong><em>Images by Mr Bhattarai reproduced with kind permission. Check out <a href="https://aadityabhattarai.com.np/" target="_blank">his website</a>. </em><em>Planetary projection and spinning globe created via <a href="https://www.maptoglobe.com/" target="_blank">MaptoGlobe</a>.</em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1043</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a><em>.</em></p><p>________<br>(1) The tallest mountain in the Solar system, planetary or otherwise, we know of today, is a peak which rises 22.5 km (14 mi) from the center of the Rheasilvia crater on Vesta, a giant asteroid which makes up 9 percent of the entire mass of the asteroid belt. <br></p>
Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.
- Anyone can start a business and be an entrepreneur, but the reality is that most businesses will fail. Building something successful from the ground up takes hard work, passion, intelligence, and a network of people who are equally as smart and passionate as you are. It also requires the ability to accept and learn from your failures.
- In this video, entrepreneurs in various industries including 3D printing, fashion, hygiene, capital investments, aerospace, and biotechnology share what they've learned over the years about relationships, setting and attaining goals, growth, and what happens when things don't go according to plan.
- "People who start businesses for the exit, most of them will fail because there's just no true passion behind it," says Miki Agrawal, co-founder of THINX and TUSHY. A key point of Agrawal's advice is that if you can't see yourself in something for 10 years, you shouldn't do it.
After a decade of failed attempts, scientists successfully bounced photons off of a reflector aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, some 240,000 miles from Earth.