Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sheridan                   

    Affirming the Inherent Worth and Dignity for Every Person...

About Us
Our Location
Email List
Our History
Contact Us


Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Talk 2


Or  Keep Your Faith out of My Government"

By Janelle Gray [presented 1/7/07]

After I gave my first talk on this topic, Bill Bradshaw came up to me and asked: "Well, should we?!" (Tolerate intolerance, that is.) Apparently, I hadn’t answered the question and so I’m going to try again, but if I don’t get it answered this time, I think BILL should present the next talk!

This year, we are studying the sources that inform our 7 principles. My presentation relates closely to the source of "Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit."

Before I launch in to this, I’d like to review some of Part I of this talk—which happened last year and which I had no idea at the time would BECOME Part I (thanks, Bill . . . ). You may—or may not, if your memory is like mine—remember that I referenced a book called "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris.

Since then, Sam Harris has been in the news quite a lot, and has written a follow-up book called "Letter to a Christian Nation" that addresses the hate mail he got following publication of "The End of Faith."

Completely without his permission, I’ve distilled Harris’ writings and interviews to five main points (there may be more):

*First, that religious faith is responsible for many conflicts and wars in history. Obvious examples are the Crusades and, of course, 9-11. Harris writes: "In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger." (November 13, 2006, Newsweek) Ending faith may be critical to our survival.

*Second, contrary to what is often asserted by the faithful, morality does exist independently of religion.

*Third, unlike other modern-day disciplines, such as medicine or engineering, religious faith alone is not held to standards of reason and scientific evidence. In fact, it is taboo in today’s world to criticize religious faith.

*Fourth, religious liberals are responsible, largely via their tolerance, for legitimizing and allowing religious fundamentalism to flourish. Even the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. William G. Sinkford, while disagreeing with much of what Harris says, concedes that we may be partly at fault because "clearly the voice of the religious right has been enabled by our willingness to be silent for so long."

*And fifth, religious liberals, by venerating texts such as the Bible or the Koran while at the same time picking and choosing which passages to believe, actually have less intellectual honesty than religious fundamentalists who accept the texts literally and in their entirety.


I’m going to touch mostly on 3 of these ideas in my presentation: that religion has historically been responsible for bloody conflict, that religion is not held to the same standard of reason as other disciplines, and that religious liberals are to blame for the rise of fundamentalism.

In an attempt to be Biblical, at least a little, I shall put last things first! When I attended the MDD (Mountain Desert District) UU Conference in Denver this past October, I was surprised and disappointed that Sam Harris and the issue of whether or not liberal religious types are THE problem was nowhere on the agenda. There were many fine subjects addressed: the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians, opposition to the anti-habeas corpus bill signed by President Bush; work on global warming; the promise of non-violent communication and more, but not a word about Sam Harris.

Yet some of us—and I’m guessing that Jerry is one besides me—believe that the issues Harris raises are THE most compelling and urgent ones facing Unitarians, our country, and our world today. If religious liberals are responsible for the rise of fundamentalism because of one of our most cherished traditions—tolerance—what does that imply about the practice of our faith? Should we abandon our religious practice?

Furthermore, if our liberal religious tolerance is inadvertently giving rise to the very real threat of theocracy in the U.S., doesn’t that trump all of the other issues we’re concerned about? After all, I guarantee we won’t get ANYWHERE on gay and lesbian rights, abortion rights, stem cell research, and probably global warming if the U.S. ends up being a theocracy.

Backing up a little: as to the question of abandoning Unitarianism in the off chance it is part of the problem, I didn’t really have to think about this for very long. First of all, I’m not about to let the religious right force me to abandon my pursuit of spirituality. And although I could presumably develop my spirituality on my own, the ceremony and community of a fellowship is very appealing to me, and, I suspect, to you as well. So the answer, for me, is to stick with this church.

Still, the questions remain: how do we develop our spirituality in an organized church, honor our principles and not willy-nilly give legitimacy to religious fanaticism? Should we tolerate intolerance?

Now just so you can see the difference in the treatment of this topic by the amateur—that is, me—and the pros—the guys I’ll quote later—I’ll share with you my early thoughts on this topic.

I went back to the principles, which say absolutely nothing about tolerance. That’s right, the word tolerance is NOT in our principles and NOT in our sources. : I think we take "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning" to imply tolerance even though it does not directly use the word. And you could actually condemn other faiths based on this principle. You could say that there is very little freedom of belief in fundamentalist congregations and further, that blindly following dogma is not a search at all, let alone a responsible search.

Another principle that seems to have something to do with tolerance is the one that states "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our Congregations." That last emphasis is mine. It’s interesting that this principle could be construed to say that we do not have to accept anyone or encourage anyone outside of our congregations.

I don’t really like parsing our principles, and I’m sure you’re not buying it, especially since this aims at a negative.

We do know that reason, freedom and tolerance have historically been associated with Unitarians, until tolerance began to be thought of as not going far enough, as being a bit condescending and UU’s decided we ought to respect, not just tolerate, other faiths.

The word "reason" is also not in our principles, although it is used prominently in our sources. It occurred to me that reason and tolerance are sometimes contradictory. That is, in today’s world, it is easy to imagine a situation in which we can’t honor both reason and tolerance; in my last talk I gave the example of a friend’s belief that God helped select her pajamas. I think that’s why this is such a difficult issue for UU’s, or at least for me. We seem to be hoisted on our own spiritual petard, so to speak.

Now it’s time to hear from the big wigs! And maybe, finally, to get somewhere on this question: should Unitarians tolerate intolerance?

In a wonderful on-line UU World article entitled "Does Tolerance Disarm Religious Liberals", Warren R. Ross goes straight to the source. He calls Sam Harris to ask him if Unitarian Universalists are part of the problem.

Harris’ initial response was comforting. He says, "If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone a Unitarian Universalist, I’d be tempted to do so, because I doubt that people would then fly planes into buildings, blow up children at street corners, or bend U.S. foreign policy to conform with biblical prophecy."

But we don’t escape unscathed, either. Harris goes on to say that "Religious liberals tend to believe . . . that if only you consulted the holy books more closely, if you read the Qur’an or the Bible as they should be read, that you would come out with a moderate theology. They believe that people like Osama bin Laden and Pat Robertson have distorted their respective religions. I don’t think there is a shred of evidence for that."

Harris continues: "Insofar as you’re reluctant to criticize irrationality and sectarianism, you’re not offering what wisdom and rationality you could offer. No one is winning any points for holding their tongue, and to the extent that you are reluctant to offer a religious counterpoint, you are conceding the field to the dogmatists…. When your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand."

Ross, the author of the article, asks if, in practicing tolerance, we have disarmed ourselves with the taboo that it is impolite to criticize another person’s faith. Have we "confused tolerance with relativism and substituted sentimentality and wishful thinking for intellectual rigor?" Have we, in the name of tolerance, "permitted the militant dogmatists to dominate the religious discourse?"

He then goes on to interview three prominent UU theologians who, in a time-honored Unitarian tradition, completely disagree about this issue!

The Rev. Dr. William R. Murry likes Harris’ book and strongly believes Unitarians should not tolerate intolerance. He says, "I get a little impatient with the concept that we should tolerate all religions because people are entitled to their own beliefs. If a religion is based on ignorance and irrationality and totalitarianism, there is no need to stand aside and pretend that that’s OK."

The Rev. Bruce Southworth, on the other hand, makes a distinction between belief and action and maintains we should tolerate others’ beliefs as far as possible, but draw the line when wrong actions spring from those beliefs. "There are some beliefs that we can barely tolerate," he says, "yet need to tolerate because of the complexities of the right of society—as long as they are not turned into action."

Rev. Sinkford, our Association President, disagrees with Harris. He maintains that if we don’t respect the beliefs of others, no matter how disagreeable, we’ve abandoned our own principles beyond redemption. That is, if we do not tolerate even the intolerant, we have become, in effect, intolerant. "We have to remain as we are as a religious people," he says. He also points out that we "live in a highly pluralistic society with many sources of religious authority" and he hopes "we can begin moving toward a way of being religious people, which doesn’t mean striving to be right, but which understands that the pluralism within which we live could enrich all of us."

I found virtually the same point—much to my delight—in a book entitled "Faith and Politics: How the "Moral Values" Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together" by John Danforth.

Danforth is an Episcopalian Priest and a former Republican Senator from Missouri. I say I was delighted because it was extremely gratifying, not to mention a relief to learn that, like all of us here, an arguably conservative Republican is dismayed at the take-over of the Republican Party and U.S. Government by the religious right; dismayed at the blatant pandering to a religious "base" in order to win elections; and dismayed at the divisive turn in our nation’s political debate. For him, the actions taken by Congress and the President in the Terry Schiavo case were the ultimate betrayal of Republican principles, and a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the future of the USA.

Danforth makes the point that the root of the word "religion" comes from the Latin ‘religio’, meaning to bind together. At its best, religion has the capacity to draw people together and to bring about reconciliation. At its worst, it can be a political wedge driving people apart.

He writes, "The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life."

Ah ha! Right there might be an excellent answer to whether or not we should tolerate intolerance! If we become intolerant, we risk becoming divisive.

The error of the Christian Right, Danforth maintains, is in trying to "codify the requirements of faith in a legislative program" and as a result, straying from what he calls the Love Commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself, another version of the Golden Rule.

If you try to live by the charge to "love thy neighbor as thyself" its pretty hard to maintain an attitude that your way is the only way. So for Danforth, the love commandment and the "binding together" aspects of his faith work well in politics because they tend to engender humility and a lack of certainty. This humility, if heeded, can prevent a politician from foisting his religion on constituents. "The task of government is to hold together in one country a diverse public," he says.

Incidentally, Danforth would not describe the United States as a Christian nation. I found that very refreshing!

If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of listening to Rush Limbaugh and cohorts, or even catching a review of what they’ve said, you’ll know that the Christian Right is now loudly protesting what they erroneously claim as Sam Harris’ position: that Christians should not be allowed to participate in politics. Danforth adds welcome clarity to this issue. He says, "The question is not whether or not people of faith should engage in politics, but how . . . We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth . . . Faith in politics has more to do with the way faithful people approach politics than with the substance of our positions."

In an article in the Fall 2006 UU World called "Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11", Doug Muder strongly disagrees with Sam Harris’ portrayal of religious moderates "as insincere compromisers, torn between their sentimental attachment to ancient religion and their modern knowledge of humanist truth." His views are more in line with Danforth’s. "Conservatives," he says, "hold that the core of their religion is a divine (and therefore flawless) construction, communicated more-or-less directly to humanity by God. Religious liberals see their religion as a human product, constructed in response to intuitions of a divinity beyond human description."

This rigid characteristic of the religious right—that they alone know what is right—has great appeal, Danforth says, because it spells out exactly how a Christian should lead a faithful life. But in attempting to legislate such a life, the Christian right abandons not only the Love commandment, but reason.

Take, for example, public displays of religion. Christian conservatives presumably want these because they think they will improve morality and behavior. But if the Death Penalty does not deter crime, is there any reason to believe displaying commandments or a nativity scene will improve behavior? And, if the display leans more to one religion than another, then it emphasizes one religion over another and becomes divisive.

Likewise, religious conservatives imply that outlawing gay marriage will solve the problem of a 50% divorce rate in heterosexual marriages in this country—witness the title of the bill in Congress, the Marriage Protection Act. But it’s absurd in the extreme to say that gay marriage causes heterosexual divorce. As Danforth puts it, "As a practical matter, by prohibiting a same-sex marriage in Boston, Congress in Washington would do nothing to protect a heterosexual marriage in St. Louis."

And on the matter of stem-cell research, an issue close to Danforth’s heart because his brother died of ALS and his mother of Alzheimers, he says, "…the assertion that a frozen embryo, discarded during fertility treatment and destined for destruction, is morally indistinguishable from the child next door with juvenile diabetes . . . can be explained only on the basis of religious faith." In other words, not on reason.

The co-opting of politicians to advance a religious agenda, he says, is more than offensive. "It is a clear breach in the separation of church and state."

And that separation, as we know, is extremely important.

I was fortunate enough to travel to England this past September. I haven’t been to all that many historical places in the world, but I would say that in London—at Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London—you could not find better examples of the deadly mix of religion and politics.

At sarcophagus after sarcophagus in Westminster, the story was the same: you want to be Queen (or King) but your sister/brother/first cousin/aunt/uncle actually has the blood claim. Ah, but he or she is Catholic—or maybe it’s Protestant or Anglican—the details changed depending on the decade, but the results were always the same: kill your opponent in the name of religion. There was a disturbing, recurring and bloody theme of politics using religion toward a political end.

At the Tower of London, a modern-day "Beefeater"—a Tower Guard—in the hopes of a better tip plied us with bloody tales of political imprisonments, public beheadings, drawing and quartering in the Village Green while the peasants, with their picnic lunch and the children, watched raptly. He then turned us loose to explore the Tower on our own: from the magnificent, jewel-encrusted crowns and scepters to the 1500’s graffiti etched into stone by famous political prisoners to room after room of weapons.

Finally, after wandering first through a hall of cannonballs, then one—or was it two?—of swords and armor, and now one with bayonets and gunpowder, I could take no more. I wondered how we could condemn the video-taped beheadings in Iraq when we in the West have such a bloody history ourselves.

But I realized that the West learned from these things. We figured out wonderful laws to prevent such abuses: the writ of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy trial, the right to confront your accuser and so on. We learned that diplomacy was an alternative to war. And we learned how very important it was to keep church and state separate.

My talk is subtitled: Keep Your Faith Out of My Government. Before I discovered the on-line UU World article, before I finished Senator Danforth’s book, I was feeling that I would, once again, fail to answer the question of should we tolerate intolerance. And I couldn’t bear the thought of Bill’s disappointment . . . !

So I thought that if we are still uncomfortable condemning radical religions, we could draw a line in the sand by demanding that religion stay out of our government. In this we have friends on both sides of the aisle, the backing of our Constitution and the lessons of history. "Ultimately, the faith we need may not be in God," writes Muder in the UU World article, "but in the worthiness of democracy and human rights. If those values are truly universal, perhaps we can let other traditions find them by their own paths."

Although I think the mood of the country is changing for the better and will continue to do so, I heard a report on NPR just a couple of weeks ago that was a bit chilling. Again, it was an interview with Sam Harris. He said that he hoped his work would, if nothing else, allow the press to again ask the tough questions. If, for example, the President were to say that he regularly talks with God, Harris hoped the press would now be emboldened to ask, "How is that different than talking to Zeus?" The report went on to call Harris’ remarks vicious. Rather than gratitude, the news media apparently sees Harris and Richard Dawkins, who wrote "The God Delusion", as mean. This seems particularly ironic in light of the mean, vicious but also untrue remarks conservative commentators have made over the years. Harris, at least, is speaking the truth—and speaking with reason.

We Unitarians tend to think that our principles are so obvious that everyone agrees with them. After all, who doesn’t believe in freedom, reason and tolerance? Yet these are exactly the qualities that religious fundamentalists deplore. Harris may be harsh, but his words have been a wake-up call to religious liberals, cautioning us against complacency.

I’d like to close with these thoughts. Unitarians are in a unique position in today’s world. Unlike moderate Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. we have no sacred texts, dogma or even, arguably, theology. Thus, we don’t have to share a title—such as Christian—let alone historical text or common doctrine with fundamentalists. This fact should free us from what I call "the freeze": the shock and paralysis I, for one, felt when I first read Harris, that panicked feeling of, "Uh oh, I’m a religious liberal; I’m part of the problem. What do I do now?"

Furthermore, our sources encourage us to heed the guidance of reason, science and humanist teachings; our tradition is one of reason AND tolerance. Maybe we don’t have to pick one or the other; we can straddle both. We can act religiously in the true sense of the word—to bind together reason and tolerance in a nuanced way.

Senator Danforth urges all religious liberals to engage in an activism that emphasizes the reconciling qualities of religion. He counsels us to act with humility, stated forcefully, to be a clear voice of tolerance, to firmly call "to task those who claim too readily to monopolize truth."

So should we tolerate intolerance? Doug Muder, a UU writing in the UU World, says "The kind of tolerance that simply averts its eyes to avoid conflict is indeed as unworthy of our veneration as . . . Harris assert(s). But conflict-aversion is not the essence of liberal tolerance. . . The challenge of liberal tolerance is to remain in loving dialogue even with the unpopular, the unappealing, and the apparently wrong-headed. Authentic liberal tolerance calls on us to restrain our arrogance by remembering the human fallibility of our own beliefs, and not to forget the humanity of our adversaries, even if they seem to have forgotten ours."

Copyright by Janelle Gray



Please send comments to webmaster@sheridanuu.org