A while back a friend invited me to join an exciting new discussion group forming on our little piece of the Good Earth.
Lots of smart people had expressed an interest in coming, he said. One expected member had once run for the state legislature, he said, and another one worked in Washington. D.C., rubbing elbows daily with the nation’s movers and shakers. The very cream of the mountain area’s intellectual crop would be expounding for my personal edification, he said, and I would be a fool to miss a priceless opportunity to be so edified. I’ll admit to feeling secretly flattered that he thought me of a level to exchange words with such luminaries, but sitting around and talking isn’t really high on my list of things-to-do-tonight and I hoped he could flesh out the offer before I verbally signed on the invisible dotted line.
“Sounds like it could be fun,” I said, deftly hedging. “What kind of a group is it?”
“Nothing too formal,” he assured me. “Just some people who like discussing philosophy, and politics and current events. We’re planning to meet once a month over dinner. Very casual.”
He was playing to my weaknesses, and the supper-shot struck hard. Still, it takes a lot to get me out of the house after 5 o’clock, so I pressed for details.
“Does this group have a name?”
“Not officially,” he said, with an offhand shrug. “But we’ve been playing with the idea of calling it the ‘Freethinkers Group’. You seem to have strong opinions about everything. I think you’d really like this.”
There are many gaping holes in my cultural fabric, and the term “freethinkers” was one of them. I envisioned a sturdy cadre of lofty souls bravely pressing the boundaries of intellectual achievement.
“But that’s not firm, or anything,” he continued. “In fact, one of the purposes of the first meeting will be to give our group a name and decide exactly what we’re all about. The worst that can happen is you’ll get a good meal, and if you don’t like what you hear you never have to go back.”
What the heck. He was right about my love of endless argument, after all, and there were a couple of restaurants I was looking for an excuse to try.
“What the heck,” I said. The first convocation of the Evergreen Freethinkers Group was held at the local Himalayan buffet, and maybe 10 people showed up. The failed statehouse candidate and Washington bigwig turned out to be the same person and, as far as I could tell, she was selected principally to serve as a kind of celebrity recruiting tool. She styled herself an “advisor and consultant”, but it took me less than five minutes to divine that she was a Washington lobbyist. Her presence in the group was not reassuring. On the other hand, the head Freethinker and the chef behind our little banquet for the brain was a person I knew well, and liked even better. And if most of the others were strangers to me, they all seemed nice enough, and nice enough is good enough in my book.
Supper was tasty, conversation sparkling, and my seat surprisingly comfortable, almost ergonomic, enabling me to shovel pork masala down the hatch at peak efficiency while waiting for somebody to say something somehow related to the group, or freethinking, or thinking at all. Trouble was, nobody did. I hate to take things on myself, but felt pushed into a corner.
“So what’s a freethinker, anyway?” I finally asked, a little slyly, trying to sound like I totally knew what a freethinker was and the question was really designed to open a broader discussion of the deeper nuances of that species. The response left me feeling even more adrift. Most of my fellow diners became instantly engrossed in the remaining contents of their plates. A handful leaned back in their chairs and exchanged those pointedly expectant looks people get when they’re deferring the question to someone else. After a long beat, somebody finally took a stab at it.
“Freethinkers are people who explore different perspectives on a variety of topics.”
“So that’s what this group is?” I asked, feeling intellectually, if not gustatorially, unsatisfied. “We just talk about stuff? It seems like we should have some guidelines, or at least a theme. Otherwise this is just a once-a-month supper club, right?”
“Well what’s wrong with a once-a-month supper club?” smiled one wag, feigning hurt surprise to general and vaguely relieved laughter. As I knew I ultimately must, I was rapidly establishing myself as the squeaky wheel and malcontent in their cozy little chat room. I leapt to damage control.
“I just mean I was under the impression this was some kind of philosophical thing. Did I misunderstand?”
“Oh, no,” said the lobbyist, throwing me a kindly bone. “It definitely is a philosophical discussion group. Freethinking is all about philosophy.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “Okay, so, just as a starting point, could you define exactly what the freethinker philosophy is?”
More plate-staring, more questioning glances.
“I guess you could say freethinkers have a humanist perspective,” said the lobbyist, finally. “In fact, I think we should call ourselves the Evergreen Humanists Society.”
Alas, once again my vast and comprehensive ignorance proved a humiliating barrier to understanding. In these enlightened times, I expect most everybody is familiar with Humanism, is versed in the Humanist agenda and prefers light Humanist tracts for summer beach-reading. I had exactly no idea what she was talking about.
“Okay, so what is a Humanist?” I pleaded, pathetically frustrated. “What is the Humanist philosophy?”
Uncomfortable silence. It was astonishing, really. I was sure that every other person at that table could have answered the question in their sleep, but clearly nobody wanted to. Perhaps feeling responsible for having evoked the Humanist specter before one so benighted as I, the lobbyist at last addressed me in that sweetly patient way usually reserved for the instruction of small children and the dangerously inebriated.
“Humanists believe in human solutions to problems instead of religious ones.”
Somewhere in the back of my murky mind the pilot light winked on.
“I’m not following. So we’re against religion?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “We don’t have anything against religion. We just don’t think it should have any influence on social, economic or political decisions.”
“Well I’m not sure there’s any way to avoid that, short of Thought Police,” I said. “People vote their conscience, and in America most people are religious. You can’t really separate one from the other, can you?”
“Oh, no, and we wouldn’t want to try. But we can educate people about the Humanist point of view and enact laws to prevent organized religion from imposing its moral agenda on the rest of us.”
“The rest of us being…”
“Anybody who doesn’t subscribe to the dominant religious viewpoint.”
With a whoosh and a roar the burner kicked in and I was suddenly afire with comprehension. My mess-mates, many of them pretty solid acquaintances, a couple of them good friends, were atheists. Well why in the world didn’t they just say so at the get-go? Were they afraid I was going to leap from my chair brandishing a crucifix and hose them all down with holy water?
“So humanists are athiests,” I pronounced, with a melting sigh.
“Oh, no. Many humanists are atheists, but they don’t have to be.”
“So a Christian can be a humanist, too?”
“Oh, yes, as long as they don’t let their private beliefs affect their public policy.”
“I’ve never met a Christian like that, but then I guess I haven’t met all the Christians, yet. So humanists think Christians are okay as long as they vote like atheists.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. We simply believe that the solutions to human problems lie in human reason, not in some higher power.”
“But if a Christian’s higher power tells them to feed, like, 10 zillion starving African children, that’s a solution to a big human problem.”
“But religious aid always comes with strings attached,” she said, plainly growing exasperated. “Christian charities have no right to impose their values on other cultures.”
I was going to point out that dead people have no values at all and ask how many shoes humanist ministries distributed last year, but the table was clearly losing patience with me. It belatedly dawned on me that no member of this discussion group had come wanting, or expecting, to hear a dissenting opinion. It was a meeting of the faithful, and I was the heretical fly in their communal bowl of thenthuck. Conversation continued in a desultory way for a few minutes, most of it geared toward soothing the lobbyist’s wounded psyche. I was uncomfortable, and I sensed most of my companions were by then uncomfortable with me. Still, the tapering banter was instructive of the humanist worldview. While they were wonderfully tolerant of virtually every religion on the planet, their indulgence did not extend to Christian philosophies. Any idea, concept or belief originating in the Bible but lacking the authoritative support of a competing philosophy such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Islam and some of the least restrictive Protestant Christian sects, was immediately and firmly dismissed as fruit of the poisoned tree. Their scorn was particularly bitter toward the Church of Rome in general and the Pope in particular.
“The Catholic Church is basically a religious tyranny,” said one fellow, with dramatic emphasis. “I personally find it incredible that anybody still buys into a bunch of 2,000-year-old superstitions.”
Heads nodded all around, and I knew I would not be returning to the Evergreen Freethinkers Group, or Humanist Society, or whatever other not-especially-descriptive label they ultimately chose to misrepresent themselves.
But please don’t misunderstand. People who know me will tell you I’m no champion of religion, Christianity or otherwise. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised a Catholic, went to Catechism classes both summer and winter until my 16th birthday, and have always found Catholicism’s deep historical continuity among its most appealing features.
Then again, I dropped religion like a hot rock the first chance I got. Yes, it was partly laziness and late Saturday nights, and partly a general boredom with the monotonous sameness of Mass, but mostly it was because, like many teens of my generation, I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, took Philosophy 100 because it sounded like an easy A, and joined in many a profound and chemically-enhanced debate with others of questing minds.
Thus philosophically fortified, I decided long ago that the Big Questions are called that because they’re quite plainly beyond the reach of our small mental faculties, and that anybody who claims to know The Truth is taking far too much on faith. I’m not just not-religious, I don’t consider myself particularly spiritual in any sense.
On the other hand, I believe in a higher power, if only because the world is far too miraculous to be the product of mere happenstance. I believe in moral absolutes, because as a student of history I’m familiar with endless disheartening examples of the ease with which the human animal can slide into brutality when not restrained by conventional conscience. And I believe in the continuation of the soul because it has been my observation that Wise Nature wastes nothing, and it would seem out of character for it to discard my consciousness, or yours, or a bug’s, or a ferret’s, or a humanist’s.
If anything, my rudimentary philosophy is a shabby patchwork of Socrates’ “Credo”, classical Stoicism and Kiri-Kin-tha’s First Law of Metaphysics, with a strong dash of Adam Smith as observed by Plato’s Third Eye. But if I didn’t take the humanist rejection of Christian philosophy personally – and I really didn’t – it still bothered me on practical grounds.
Driving home from the restaurant I thought for the first time in a long time of a story I’d once written for the newspaper. The local Catholic priest was launching a series of philosophical discussion groups aimed at high school students. The talks were supposed to be non-denominational, and if I had my doubts about that I still thought it would make an interesting article, and I was pleased to see more than a dozen kids turn out for the premier. Clearly sharing my skepticism, the students started out by doing their best to force the priest into a religious corner from which he couldn’t possibly escape. I was tickled, and secretly hoped they’d succeed, but it quickly became obvious that we in the audience were both over-matched and out-classed.
To my surprise, the vicar displayed perfect mastery of philosophical schools from Buddhism, to Taoism, to Zoroastrianism, to Islam, to Druidism and even animism, and he spoke of them all with unmistakable respect and, I thought, a somewhat less-than-perfectly-pious enthusiasm. Apparently as nonplussed as I was, one of the kids asked him how it was that a Catholic priest came to be so versed in the faiths of infidels.
“It’s standard teaching at the seminary,” he said. “Philosophy is a search for truth, and all religions are just searching for the same truth by different paths. Catholicism is one path, but there are plenty of others that are just as valid. By dismissing a philosophy – almost any philosophy – you’re depriving yourself of the truth it contains.”
And that, it occurred to me, was the problem with my freethinking friends. At any given moment, I thought, thousands of monks, priests, pastors and prelates are studiously contemplating and debating, pondering and weighing, in a relentless search for truth, and they’d been at it for more than 21 long centuries. Surely among them they’ve come up with something worthy of consideration. Yet those prickly humanists will reject out of hand the hard-won product of billions of man-hours of concentrated philosophical thought simply because of its tangential association with a historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth.
Say what you will about the official Catholic stances on gay marriage and female priests, but throwing that baby out with that bathwater is just willful ignorance, and that’s just bad policy. While deeming themselves the most enlightened of humans, my dinner companions were, in fact, among the most closed-minded, certainly far more so than that well-read Catholic priest.
True, humanists will probably never wage violent crusade against Believers, but only because there will probably never be enough of them together at one time to make a good show of it – even freethinkers aren’t immune from base natural passions. And if they’re not already on a non-violent crusade to prevent fellow citizens from acting upon their personal philosophies as their consciences demand, then what was the point of our most delicious supper?
Love it or hate it, and for all its many abuses, past and present, organized religion is the greatest force for good existing in the world today. And whatever your thoughts on the Pope, Catholic Charities International will do more to alleviate human suffering today than the American Humanist Society will accomplish from the instant of its foundation until the end of time.
I would ask of the humanists of my acquaintance only that which they would ask of the Christians of my acquaintance: Live and let live, Brothers and Sisters. If you don’t want to give up your right to the free and unfettered expression of your faith, don’t expect them to give up theirs. It’s a free country, after all, and that’s a foundational American philosophy. I never went back to the Evergreen Freethinkers/Humanists/Supper Club, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t miss me. I’ve been back to the Himalayan buffet lots of times, though. The sha momo is fantastic.