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Return of Humanism?

The other day on my wanderings around the district I had lunch with a group of men from one of our congregations. I mentioned to them that I had been noticing a growth in interest in humanism. My conversation partners received this report with the mixture of skepticism and hopefulness that one might expect from a group of veteran birders on hearing a report of a sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

I promised this group that I would relay more particulars. Since this is indeed something I have heard discussed a good deal of late, I thought I would make my report in the form of a blog. For the past twenty years spirituality — however defined — has been on the ascendancy in UU congregations. Often, Bill Sinkford’s Humanism — especially atheism — has increasingly felt itself beleaguered. A landmark for both those who cheer this and those who bemoan it was the 2003 sermon by Bill Sinkford calling for the re-appropriation of a “language of reverence” (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/4479.shtml).Those positively inclined to the current rise of spirituality have taken this as an important endorsement by the president of our association. Those negatively inclined have tended rather to view it as a worrying indication of their marginalization. Indeed, there has been a certain tendency both among its champions and its detractors to view humanism as a spent force, still persisting perhaps as an after-hours aging adult study group but increasingly far from the center of congregational life. The intellectual argument for this point of view is perhaps best set forth in Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism.I do believe that I have begun to notice a reversal of the momentum of the pendulum.The characteristic religious passions of my baby-boomer generation are not disappearing but especially among the youth and young adults I hear new notes sounding. Included in this is distinctly more sympathy for humanism and even sympathy for a rather evangelical form of atheism (if this combination of terms is permitted). I began to notice this two years ago when my wife and I taught a high school religious education class at Cedar Lane. Considering the humanist traditions of that congregation, I tended to consider this a characteristic of that congregation. However, I have repeatedly noticed this subsequently. Most recently, I noticed a brief mention in the new UUA “Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth: Summary Report”:
“One youth at the Metro New York District gathering shared that UU youths’ peers react strongly when they talk about God or a higher power. Other youth identified a ‘fear’ of spirituality and religion, especially Christianity.” (p. 24).

Itis sad to hear that the next generation is not doing much better with tolerance than my own. Yet it is interesting for me to note that this seems to be another sign that the great wave of interest in spirituality may now be giving way among our youth and young adults to something more authentically diverse. Seems like one of the features the post-9/11 religious landscape in UU congregations is a heightened sense of the dangers posed not just by fundamentalism forms of Islam and Christianity but by any dabbling in the more than naturalistic. While my own baby-boomer generation seems on the whole still inclined to continue their endeavors to make our lives and our congregations more “spiritual,” there is around the edges a different discussion emerging. People are reading with great interest books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A Meadville/Lombard student noted to me that, even more telling perhaps, is the interest on YouTube. “Atheism” by a film student, Zachery Kroger, has apparently become one of the most watched videos on YouTube (http://www.secularstudents.org/node/522). This rise in the new atheism was nicely reported in two articles that appeared in the Washington Post on September 15, 2007: “In Europe and US, Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402501.html) and “In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/14/AR2007091402199.html). What do I make of this? As Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, history is ironic in how it twists and upturns our greatest certainties and aspirations. Beyond that, the rising interest in atheism is a hint concerning what the features of the religious landscape are likely to be when us baby boomers finally give way to the next generation of leaders (which we must, eventually!).

Ian