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May 17 2012

Temple Talk

While in Madison a couple weeks ago for Freethought Festival, I got to meet James Croft, of Temple of the Future fame/infamy. You know, one of those humanists at Harvard who insist we need organized communities of nonbelievers to replace church congregations. When he gave his speech that Sunday, he introduced himself as one of those super-accommodationists, the faithiest of faitheists.

In reality, James seems to like messing with people, particularly if it can shake up their preconceptions. (You should have heard him calling to the students wandering past the windows who thought they were making light fun of us old people inside. Some of those boys might have fainted if there’d been an open window. Others probably would have been delighted, but that’s not getting this story any further forward. Unlike James. Ahem.) He is also passionate about changing the world to make it a more just place, and he thinks these communities are a way to make this happen.

James and I agree strongly on the first point. We don’t necessarily disagree about the second point, but I’m not sure we agree either, despite having put in a good bit of discussion on the matter Saturday night. I do mean discussion, by the way, even though we spent plenty of time poking at each other’s points. I’m in sympathy with the ends James wants to accomplish, even if I have reservations about the means.

More than just this being a friendly discussion, it was fun. It was political geekery. It was a complicating and contaminating of viewpoints. It was the kind of philosophical rumination that keeps college kids going all night, only about real and relevant issues. It was all too short.

So I asked James whether he wanted to keep it going. He wants to refocus his blog, and I enjoy the chance to sort out my ideas on the topic. Needless to say, he agreed. If not, this post wouldn’t be here.

So today James starts at the beginning. I asked him last week what values he holds that are most relevant to how he thinks about the project. That is, what is his primary motivation in exploring and advocating for your humanist temple? His answer will be up on his blog today is up now. Here’s a teaser:

Why is it that, in a nation explicitly founded to recognize the inherent rights of all, progressives can’t catch a break? Why is the fight for equal marriage so drawn-out and vitriolic, when so many other developed nations have made the shift? Why is it controversial to enact laws to prevent the bullying of gay kids in school? Why can’t I marry an American and have our love recognized at the Federal level? Why are reproductive rights so insecure, decades after Roe v. Wade? Why, oh why is the right of women to access contraception even under discussion? And why is it that, instead of steadily progressing on these issues, the USA frequently seems to take steps backward: it’s becoming harder to secure an abortion, the wall between Church and State is being undermined at its foundations, and every time equal marriage is put to the people of a state – Proposition 8, North Carolina – we lose. And the political center moves ever rightward.     

The short answer, I believe, is religion. In the USA, unlike back home, a strand of ultra-conservative religious belief has a huge impact on politics – an impact which far outstrips the number of people who actually adhere to such a regressive worldview. And one reason why we so frequently lose – even when they are on the wrong side of public opinion – is because they are better organized and more fired-up.

My answer will be here on Monday. I hope those reading our back and forth get some portion of the fun out of it that we will.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    Ah. He wants to herd the cats.

    Good luck with that.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    That would have made for a much less interesting conversation.

  3. 3
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    I think my main objection – probably not so much to James’ specific ideas, but to the overall concept of an atheistic, non-supernatural version of religion for humanists – is that this has been tried before, and usually the effort has either petered out, or run off the rails by actually turning into a simulacrum of a religious cult. As an example, check out Saint-Simonianism in the first half of the 19th century in post-revolutionary France.

  4. 4
    James Croft

    My first post is now up:

    http://www.templeofthefuture.net/community/definitely-diamonds

    Xanthe:

    Yours is a good objection – there are a number of now-defunct examples of nonreligious moral communities. But there are also lots of now-defunct religions, and that model is clearly workable, and there are examples of extremely successful nonreligious moral communities too. I am skeptical myself about the possibility of doing too much with communities like these, but I certainly think it’s work a try!

  5. 5
    John Morales

    “Temple of the future”, eh, James?

    Took you a while to realise the pushback to the term ‘chaplain’, but still you invoke ‘temple’?

    (Amazing!)

  6. 6
    James Croft

    Hi John,

    Did you perhaps read the extensive description of why I (in my personal blog) I use that phrase which can be found on the site? I use the term because it is part of quotes by both Robert Ingersoll and Felix Adler, both figures in the freethinking movement who I admire. These two titans of early Humanism were not afraid of language, and were willing to speak in an evocative way to reach wide audiences. I find them inspiring and exciting figures to think about and respond to in my work, so I took the term as the title of my blog.

    As for the pushback over the term “chaplain”, it is wrong to say we aren’t fully aware at the Humanist Community Project how that word is perceived – we have been well aware of that for quite a while. But, as I’ve explained to you numerous times before, it’s not easy to change the name of an established Harvard institution. Nonetheless, we are making progress on that front – an announcement is due shortly.

    Perhaps you would explain in detail your objection to Humanists like myself using, in a poetic manner, words like “Temple”? I still have not seen much of a cogent defense of your position.

  7. 7
    James Croft

    In case you can’t find it, here is my response to the question “why use words like ‘Temple’?”

    Humanists have a long tradition of using language more commonly used in religious settings in order to promote their ideals. The “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, a 19th Century Humanist known across America for his sparkling oratory, and the most formative influence on this site, was happy to use words like “creed”, “benediction” and “angels” when expressing his values. The name “Temple of the Future” comes from one of Ingersoll’s speeches, and he frequently made allusions to the Bible. Likewise, Carl Sagan, one of the greatest Humanists of the 20th Century, spoke of science as “informed worship”, and Humanist author Kurt Vonnegut referred repeatedly to the “soul”. John Dewey, one of the most significant American philosophers, sought to reclaim religious language for naturalists in his book “A Common Faith”.

    Such language, precisely because of its religious connotations, carries the potential for deep poetic and metaphorical resonance, and can be powerful. At the same time, I recognize that the use of religious language can make some naturalists uncomfortable. The potential for confusion is high: some might think the Temple of the Future is an attempt to create a new religion, or might misinterpret language meant metaphorically by reading it literally.

    I am sensitive to these concerns, and strive to use language that is linked with religious belief and practice sparingly and intelligently. I do not use the term “God” in a metaphorical way (as, for example, Dewey did), because I think this is unhelpful and unnecessary. I also try to make the metaphorical nature of my language explicit when it doesn’t ruin the flow of a piece. At the same time, I believe that some “religious” language, used in an intelligent and reflective way, could enliven and invigorate Humanist discourse and practice. I sometimes talk of “souls” and am happy to term my ethical values a “creed”. Occasionally I quote from various scriptures, among other literary sources.

    Furthermore, recovering the tradition of Humanism and freethought for a new generation is one of my explicit purposes, and that means being comfortable to quote writers like Ingersoll and Sagan even when they use language that might make today’s Humanists wary. I take the name “Temple of the Future” for this site for this reason. It would be foolish to repudiate the greatest figures from our past due to semantic squeamishness.

    Ultimately, naturalists have little to fear from religious language. We understand that all such language and all religious texts were created by human beings to describe aspects of their experience. There is no good reason to chuck out every piece of religious thought, writing and mode of expression because we have (rightly) chucked out God.

  8. 8
    John Morales

    James:

    Perhaps you would explain in detail your objection to Humanists like myself using, in a poetic manner, words like “Temple”? I still have not seen much of a cogent defense of your position.

    It grates. It offends my sensibility.

    It’s as helpful and as necessary as using the term “God” in a metaphorical way, and for the same reason — words have meanings, and a temple is a place for worship.

    (But then, I’m not in your target demographic; the social aspects of religion irritated me even more than the supernatural aspects)

  9. 9
    John Morales

    PS

    But, as I’ve explained to you numerous times before, it’s not easy to change the name of an established Harvard institution.

    Yes, you did. You wanted the imprimatur of the institution, so you worked within the available framework to “provide a comparable social and cultural experience to that of a house of worship”.

    Nonetheless, we are making progress on that front – an announcement is due shortly.

    Evolving already! :)

  10. 10
    James Croft

    It was nothing to do with my wanting the “imprimature of the institution” – an alum provided money to establish HCH decades ago in order to provide nonreligious students with the same sort of support religious students had got for many decades before. It was a question of equality for the nonreligious, and it happened many years before I was born. =P

  11. 11
    John Morales

    James,

    It was nothing to do with my wanting the “imprimature of the institution” – an alum provided money to establish HCH decades ago in order to provide nonreligious students with the same sort of support religious students had got for many decades before.

    I see. It was because of the money provided decades ago, not because of the Harvard name.

    I stand corrected.

  12. 12
    John Morales

    PS James, to be more charitable, you’re saying it was an historical contingency that you’re addressing.

    (My previous reads a tad too curt)

  13. 13
    James Croft

    John, I’m delighted to say that we announced today that the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard will now be known as the Humanist Community at Harvard. You are one of the first to know ;)

  14. 14
    John Morales

    Well, may I be the first to congratulate you! :)

  1. 15
    Temple of the Future

    [...] the creation of moral communities for nonreligious people. She’s introduced the dialogue here, and below is my first post in the series. I hope, alongside Stephanie, that this will be an [...]

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    The Limits of Bricks and Mortar | Almost Diamonds

    [...] Temple Talk [...]

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