On My Mixed Beliefs – Part II – Humanism

In part one of this series, I talked about how my long time exposure the traditions of Quakerism shaped my quasi-religious beliefs. Their tenets of nonviolence, belief in shared divinity, and respect for individual rights and opinions have all had a profound impact on my views. However, it would be too simple to say that my beliefs start and end there.

I am also a firm believer in at least some of the ideas of humanism. From the link:

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

The more I read and learn, the more I am amazed by what we have accomplished as a society. We live in a time of remarkable progress, where technology advances at an astounding pace. Here’s a very clear example. Just before I was born, the Apple II+ computer came out in June of 1979. For the low price of $1,195 (around $3,800 in today’s dollars), you got up to 64kb of memory, a CPU capable of up to 2MHz, and 5.25 inch floppy disks as the main storage medium. By the time I graduated high school in 1999, you could purchase a computer with a processor 200-300 times more powerful for less than half that original price (for reference, this is the iMac G3, which retailed for $1,299 (around $1,800 adjusted to today’s dollar value).

Even outside of technology, progress has been amazing. Even though it seems every day we hear about war, famine, or some other tragedy, the data simply doesn’t support the narrative that the world is falling apart. Quite the opposite in fact! Here’s some examples that turned my head:

-The mortality rate of children under age 5 has dropped from around 160 per 1,000 in 1960 to 36.25 in 2012.
-Between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of people in Africa who had access to improved water sources increased from 58% to almost 90%.

I could go on and on about this. It’s utterly fascinating to see just how far we have come, and equally frustrating for me to hear doomsday prophets or those clamoring for a return to “simpler times”. I don’t know about you, but I rather like that I don’t have to spend hours and hours each day in the sun, doing backbreaking manual labor, all for the sake of getting minimal nutritional needs. And let’s not forget that modern marvel, the washing machine!

Some might say that my humanistic beliefs inherently clash with my spiritual beliefs, but to me this makes no sense. Just because I believe in the utility of human beings doesn’t mean that I cannot also believe in a greater power. Why can’t the marvel of human progress co-exist with the experience and faith in the divine? Must things be so black and white? Why could we not believe that God set things in motion, then stood back and allowed His creation to develop largely on its own agency, perhaps with some tweaks here and there? Would not God make human beings capable of wonderful things on their own accord?

I think it will take another post to fully explore just how I believe that the staunch rationalism and empiricism of humanism can live peaceably with faith, but for now, it’s sufficient to say I see no reason why I cannot take from both. Perhaps this is just another example of how I try to be a pragmatist at heart, and reject dogmatic ideals for flexible and open-minded thinking. Then again, I always say I’m as much of a biased moron as anyone else, but perhaps I’m just a little more aware of it.

On My Mixed Beliefs – Part I – Quakerism

I grew up in a family that had a diverse background when it comes to religion. My father’s entire family was raised in the Jewish tradition, whereas my mother’s was traditional New England Protestant. I had tastes of both in my childhood.

On my father’s side, we often spent many traditional Jewish holidays having meals at my great aunt’s house in downtown Philadelphia. I became intimately familiar with various cultural staples such as matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and the ceremony of the menorah. We were never members of a synagogue though, nor did I go through any of the traditional coming of age rites such as a bar mitzvah (though to my parent’s credit I am pretty sure that I could have if I so desired). I could not tell you much about Jewish history, other than some basics such as the story of Moses.

On my mother’s side, my only real exposure to the Protestant religion was when I would go to church with my grandparents. I have only a few vague memories of this; the high ceilinged, white cathedral interior of their church, the heavy vibrations of the pipe organ, and the smell of all the old books and Bibles in the pews. Overall I would say these experiences really had little or no effect on me, as I was very young at the time, other than perhaps to increase my disdain for organized religion in general.

Unsurprisingly, I would say that the most profound influence in my beliefs was the culture that surrounded me when I was growing up, namely that of Quakerism.

Who are the Quakers? No, we are not, as a co-worker once remarked, “those people that wear the hats and dress all in black.” (No offense to the Amish intended!) From Wikipedia:

Quakers (or Friends, as they refer to themselves) are members of a family of religious movements collectively known as the Religious Society of Friends. The central unifying doctrine of these movements is the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine derived from a verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9.Many Friends view themselves as members of a Christian denomination. They include those with evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional conservative Quaker understandings of Christianity. Unlike many other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has actively tried to avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. As of 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world.

If I had to pick three things that I learned from Quakerism, they would be:

  1. The idea of “That of God In All Of Us”, or what I’d call shared divinity.
  2. The Peace Testimony
  3. Consensus

I’ll go through each one here in more detail.

That of God In All Of Us

Of all the things listed above, I would say the part of Quakerism that resonates with me the most is the idea of “that of God in all of us”, or that a piece of the divine resides in all living beings. From this belief emerges a very flat and open culture, one that I think is best embodied in the practice of traditional Quaker un-programmed meeting.

For all of my childhood, we lived on the campus of a private Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, Westtown School. I have fond memories of this place, with its lush forests and winding trails through fields and orchards. I consider myself extremely blessed to have been able to experience both the educational and cultural / social aspects of life at Westtown.

One of the most defining parts of my upbringing was the weekly Quaker meetings for worship. These were the equivalent of Sunday church services, but they are quite different from more traditional organized religious services. People gather in an empty hall and sit on simple padded wooden benches. These are arranged in such a way as to face an elevated line of benches, known as the “facing bench”. This is where the “elders”, or more senior members of the meeting, sit. Once gathered, we would sit in silence for around an hour. From time to time, someone would stand up and share something that was on their mind. Friends call this being “moved to speak”, in that someone feels the need to stand up and express themselves. These were not necessarily limited to discussions of faith; in fact, more often than not it was simply a forum for people to talk about whatever was on their mind to the community. At times this led to rather contentious “discussions” during controversial times, such as when a student was suspended for reasons others did not agree with. But it also resulted in what I’d describe as a profound sense of openness between members, where everyone felt at liberty to share whatever happened to be on their mind.

It was from these mini sermons that I came to appreciate the idea of the divine in everyone. Central to Quaker beliefs and practice (at least in the more liberal meetings) is that no one person can speak for God. Anyone could be moved to share, and by creating such an open forum, the diversity and breadth of material and discourse was greatly widened. You had Buddhists speaking alongside devout Catholics, alongside atheists. As long as you were respectful, you were given a pretty free reign to speak your mind.

Peace Testimony

Another of the Quakers’ central beliefs is of the wrongness of violence. The most visible evidence of that today is likely the American Friends Service Committee, which has been working since 1917 in various anti-war activities, such as assisting peace church members in achieving Conscientious Objector status, or assisting in non combat efforts during times of war (such as medical corps). While I have been fortunate not to have to decide whether to participate in war during my life, I feel nonetheless very strongly in the general immorality of war. I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself (isn’t that a rather Quakerly statement?), but I feel as though this belief at least in part comes from the aforementioned idea of shared divinity. After all, if there is something sacred in each of us, how can we cause another harm? And war is nothing if not harmful, in all its forms. All one need do to understand this would be to read Mark Twain’s short story, The War Prayer, a brilliant and chillingly honest view of the horrors of armed conflict.

“O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it.”

Consensus

Though I have never witnessed it first hand, I have learned that Quakers believe strongly in a consensus based model of decision making. In other words, “Consensus requires that every member of the business meeting consent to an item of business to pass it. If one person blocks consensus, that item is not passed.”1 This may sound like a recipe for bureaucratic hell (and from talking to my parents, who participated in many Quaker meetings for business, it sometimes was), I think it provides another example of Quakerism’s profound respect for individual opinion and freedom.

Governing by consensus is inherently a voluntary process, as every member must agree to proposals. Mind you, this does not mean you must agree with the proposal. Quakers may “stand aside” if they believe that a proposed action is wrong, but do not wish to block its approval. In this way, I think the practice gives a way for people to show their objection to ideas while not forcing them into becoming obstructionists.

I should note that I do not believe that governing by consensus is viable at any large scale. Can you imagine trying to get an entire town, let alone an entire county or state to agree on anything together? But that hardly makes it any less of an effective and respectful means of governance. If anything, it may contribute to my growing belief that large scale democracy may be headed for failure. (Another post? Perhaps.)

Quakerism truly has had a lasting impact on my beliefs. The idea of shared divinity, the staunch opposition to war and violence, and the inherently voluntary nature of Quaker society all appeal to my moral foundation of individual liberty and respect for others’ person and property. Related to that note, I think Quakerism may well have been a reason I naturally gravitated towards the tenets of classical liberalism.

But it would be too simple to say that my beliefs end there, for I am also what I’d consider a humanist. Aren’t the two rather incompatible you say? I think not, but that will all be part of a later post.


  1. http://quaker.wikia.com/wiki/Consensus