Success and Failures of Contemporary Unitarian-Universalism

This is an address about our the current situation of our shared and chosen faith, the way it is organised, how it conducts itself, and its future prospects. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic in its approach, nor does it seek to besmirch or to eulogise. The address will look at some contemporary examples of successes and failures within Unitarian-Universalism, and tie these into motivational and especially organisational reasons for these effects. The scope of applications include the Unitarian-Universalist churches of the North America and Australia-New Zealand, the Unitarian and Free Christian churches of the United Kingdom and Australia-New Zealand, and indeed all those organisations that come under the umbrella group of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. In this sense, it is a very broad picture - but one which will also look at some local examples.

First International Meeting of the Sunday Assembly

In 2011 writer Alain de Botton graced our shelves with a text entitled Religion for Atheists. The argument was that the debate of whether or not what a religion says is true or not wasn't really that interesting. Although he agrees, most certainly, that the argument for God was thoroughly unconvincing what was important was that churches they provided community and consolation, they provided structured events through ritual, they offer meditative retreats and so forth. Perhaps, de Botton, atheists should have their own churches (a Temple de la Raison? I'm sure I've heard that somewhere before). Patrick McCabe's insightful review in Eureka Street notes that criticism came from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Rose. McCabe notes:

These criticisms demonstrate the gap between de Botton and other atheists. Dawkins and Rose's outlook is missionary, while de Botton's is pastoral. Dawkins and his ilk want to save souls from religion, and promote the good news of atheism. De Botton is more concerned with the spiritual needs of the existing flock.

What I Love About Philosophy

As a church-going atheist, I was very pleased to hear of this not-a-church "Sunday Assembly". It now means I have four different congregations to visit each month. One is quite spiritual, but also agnostic. Another is extremely political, and not very religious. A third is nominally Christian, but more interested in psychoanalysis and self-healing. And the fourth? Well, we're standing in it, and it is based on a very beautiful statement: "Live better, Help Others, Wonder More".

Such an appeal suits my love of philosophy. Around twenty years ago, I received a stiff piece of cardboard that said that I had a degree of expertise in loving philosophy, and since then I've continued this practise, often autodidactically by talking to the strange daimons in my head, sometimes with other people, and often at a group I convene entitled "The Philosophy Forum".

Pragmatic Philosophy, Verification, and Research Quality

1. The Revolution of Modern Philosophy

1.1 Most of the history of philosophy has been strongly associated with theology and metaphysics; allinvolve making universal claims about the nature of reality with the traditional classification in Aristotle consisting of ontology (the study of being and existence), theology (the study of the Gods, the existence of the divine, creation, etc), and logic. But much of metaphysics came under criticism with modernity; David Hume argued that much was merely "sophistry and illusion". Many metaphysical questions - considered important for hundreds of years - were considered unprovable, especially following Kant's limits to knowledge.

1.2 In the late 19th century there were the first rumblings of a major revolution in philosophy; American pragmatism (pragma - deed, act from prasso, "to achieve). Consider Peirce's axiom "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." (Popular Science Monthly, v12, 1878). It is a philosophy that make propositions which work, with derivations from empiricism and utilitarianism; it links practice and theory. Initial advocates includes William James, (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907), John Dewey (Democracy and Education, 1916, Knowing and the Known, 1949), George Herbert Mead (Mind, Self, and Society, 1934). William James encapsulated the pragmatists opposition to metaphysical speculations with the remark: "If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle."

Why Heresies Fail

As we know the word "heretic" derives from the Greek hairesis (hah'-ee-res-is), meaning choice. But not just any choice although we may refer, often in humour, to a person who does not conform to any established attitude or principles or even styles and tastes as a "heretic". That is not the sort of heresy that makes up today's discussion and nor does it constitute a 'heresy' in the historically understood meaning of the term. A real heresy, religious or political, is a position that challenges an existing totalising system, not just on matters of doctrine, but also its authority.

Philosophy of Urban Planning

"Some of my friends have suggested that such a scheme of town clusters is well enough adapted to a new country, but that in an old-settled country, with its towns built and its railway 'system' for the most part constructed, it is quite a different matter.

Is Islamic Jihad Comparable to Buddhist Mindfulness?

"Mindfulness" (Pali: sati) is the attentive awareness of reality, especially in the present moment and as "right mindfulness" (Pali: samma-sati) is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, the principle teachings for achieving the end of suffering. As a practise, this awareness is expressed as a calm study of feelings, objects of thought and perception, and the act of thinking (a type of meta-cognition). It is argued that "[a] key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative stabilisation must be combined with liberating discernment." [1]

The Damage and Repair of Misattributions

Albert Einstein
Misattributions are unfortunately commonplace. However their prevalence should be not be an excuse to let them go unchallenged. In a public sense, a misattribution can harm the reputation of a speaker as defamation (typically libel in the written form, slander in the spoken). In a political sense, misattributions are used to improve or denigrate organisations, policy proposals, etc. on the basis of an appeal to authority; in this case, the damage isn't limited to an individual, but rather to the capacity of the society as a whole to make rational decisions. Academics typically have very little tolerance for misattributions, seeing it as a type of falsification of data, and all that follows. Perhaps one of the best collections is the highly recommended They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, was compiled by Paul F. Boller Jr. (Emeritus Professor of History Texas Christian University, Oklahoma), and John George Jr. (Professor of Political Science and Sociology Central State University) and was published by Oxford University in 1989.

With the advent of social media the capacity to distribute such falsehoods is, of course, amplified. The combination of a general sense of information overload plus an enhanced capacity in distribution provides opportunities for an enticing quote (subject to confirmation bias), added to a pleasing image, along with superficial "voting" methods (such as Facebook's "like" button or Google's "+1") and capacity to "share". As a recent example, a friend added a picture of Albert Einstein with the quote: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left." Now being slightly familiar with the works Einstein, it just didn't sound like him. Call that a hunch; a subsequent google search reveals over three million references to the quote. But how accurate is it?

Art Instinct?

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

It was Darwin who first proposed an evolutionary theory of beauty. He surmised that art fulfilled two evolutionary functions. In respect of general selection, beauty is related to fitness. It also plays a part in sexual selection: the female selects the male on the basis of aesthetic criteria: think, for example, of the peacock’s tail, the bowerbird’s nest.

The Contribution of Unitarian-Universalists to Isocracy

Initially I felt some unease when approached to present today's address on 'isocracy'. I do not particularly care for presentations here which are solely dedicated to political issues that do not refer to our liberal religious tradition, least of all by members of the church. If I want strictly social and political discussion there are these organisations called "political parties" where one's contributions are far more useful and effective.

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