What if we had followed the precautionary principle when antibiotics were coming on line? We would have asked such question as: What if pathogens evolve resistance? What if some people are allergic? What if antibiotics destroy normal flora? All these things happened, but guess what? Millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics. We have to consider the consequences of NOT adopting new technology as well as the risks of adopting it.
Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow discusses fast thinking, our first reaction that saved our ancestors’ lives when confronted with saber tooth tigers. He then contrasts fast thinking with slow thinking, the kind of thinking that led our ancestors to modify hand axes, invent spear throwers, and sew skin clothing. Continuing to think slow, people reasoned from principles revealed by sages, but they didn’t test the results. People believed Jews caused the plague in the 14th century, so they threw them down the wells. Nobody questioned the validity of that claim or that witches caused crop failures, making it necessary to burn them. Life was brutal in pre-scientific times. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the scientific method was formulated. The scientific method works to gain evidence based knowledge about the world. Phenomena are observed, someone makes a hypothesis about the phenomena, someone tests the hypothesis, someone publishes, someone else test the hypothesis. When new data need too many fixes to fit the old theory, new theories are postulated, giving rise to more hypotheses, testing and so on and on, from fire starting to FaceBook. Science explores, is pragmatic, goes with what works. Unitarian Universalism began with slow thinking. Michael Servetus was brutally executed in 1553 for his slow thinking that made him conclude belief in the Trinity wasn’t justified by the Bible. Using slow thinking, Unitarian Universalism explores to see which beliefs and practices work to make a good life for all, taking its inspiration from the words of the hymn, “To build the common good and make our own days glad.” At their best, Unitarian Universalists reason like scientists. Fundamentalist religion on the other hand is dogmatic, since the Word has already been revealed. Preachers persuade the congregation to choose the right path to salvation. Services emphasize emotion. Politics likewise persuades, using emotional rather than rational arguments. Its style is fast thinking, more like fundamentalism than like Unitarian Universalism. Instead of the crisis of going to hell, politics exaggerates any actual crisis and if there aren’t any handy crises, one will be invented. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone? Perhaps because it’s more efficient to change the world via legislation than to help individuals one at a time, Unitarian Universalism is now emphasizing political issues such as immigration and climate change. This emphasis on political action has changed the association’s emphasis from slow thinking to fast thinking. For instance, rarely are such concepts as the nutritional and moral superiority of those who can afford to consume local organic food questioned. But Unitarian Universalists should beware of failure to question such claims. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
After the 1961 merger, the Unitarian Universalist Association didn’t create a religion with theology, ethics, rituals, myths, and saints. Rather, it favored do it yourself credos and build your own theology. Myths and saints were replaced with a preoccupation for historical accuracy. Ethics were reduced to seven principles that members are not obliged to affirm. Little was known about nonaligned spirituality because Sam Harris, born in 1967, hadn’t yet written Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The people that subscribed to this atypical religion have tended to be politically liberal, taking on such social justice causes as racial equality, gay rights, and the environment. They wanted to get away from sin and guilt, hence original sin was eliminated and salvation wasn’t needed. Rituals like the Flower and Water Communion arose; people also began celebrating the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. Earth-centered rituals didn’t generate theological problems or bad memories. The Seventh Principle “respect for the interdependent web of all existence” to “guide us as we protect the planet” was added in 1984, and earth-centered traditions were added as the Sixth Source in 1995. Since Unitarian Universalism lacked doctrine, these new rituals, principles, and sources paved the way for radical environmentalism to move into the vacuum. Radical environmentalism has its own dogmas. Instead of God sustaining the universe, Earth and its ecosystems sustain us. Humans offend Earth by polluting, consuming, and mere existing. (We all produce a carbon footprint just by breathing.) Opportunities for guilt are rife, but sinners can feel righteous by sacrificing the consumer lifestyle. The radical environmentalist Greens are a religion looking for a church, the Unitarian Universalists are a church looking for a religion. Are the two are converging such that the religion of Unitarian Universalism is becoming radical environmentalism?
Two articles with different emphases in the Spring 2007 UU World issue show the Unitarian Universalism at a crossroads: “Centered in Gratitude” by Galen Guengerich and “Eating Ethically” by Amy Hassinger. The article by the Rev Galen Guengerich, senor minister of All Souls Church New York City, explains how practicing gratitude can make you a better human being. The eating ethically article also purports to be about living a more spiritual life. It begins by describing the horrors of industrial agriculture, and recommends eating organic food, grown by subsistence farming instead of modern agriculture, for the sake of the planet. Subsistence farming is backbreaking, mind-numbing labor. The article also fails to note that when everyone ate local organic food, famines were frequent. Organic food is more expensive because it takes more land and labor to grow a given amount of organic food. The article doesn’t mention people on a budget. Can only the well off be good UUs? Are the tastes of the elite the moral choice? The article claimed that transportation from a distance increases a food’s carbon footprint compared to local food. I did the math. The food mile fallacy doesn’t take into account the fact that long distance trucks that can transport thirty tons of food compared to a quarter of a ton in a local pickup. The article concludes by dismissing Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Didn’t those billion human beings saved from starvation have inherent worth? The two articles show the UUA at a crossroads. Should the organization emphasize the personal and spiritual, as in the Guengerich article, or the activist position as in the Eating Ethically article?
Rereading Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher, the classic first published in 1973, I could see how people thought it was visionary. How could anyone be against “economics as if people mattered?” But when you examine the text closely, Schumacher cites no data to back up his conclusions. Moreover, some things he says are the opposite of what has actually happened. For instance, he says, “People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get in large scale violence than people whose existence depends on world wide systems of trade.” The 21st century Age of Globalization with its world wide systems of trade is many times more peaceful than tribal or feudal times. Frederic Bastiat, 19th century economist said, “If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature points out when both parties trade, it’s win-win, but if one party raids the other, even if the raiders get the goods, they still have to pay the costs of the raid. It’s said that no two countries with a McDonald’s have had a war. We have an historical example of a system of highly self-sufficient local communities. It was called the medieval manorial system, otherwise known as the Dark Ages. There was widespread hunger, disease, illiteracy, superstition, and violence. True, the violence wasn’t large scale, but the small scale violence more than made up (by an order of magnitude) for the lack of large scale violence. There was nearly constant raiding and marauding in what historian Barbara Tuchman calls “private wars.” In the Middle Ages all farming was organic and food miles were short. They had to be because there were no ways to transport food when local crops failed. Yields were small, besides some land had to lie fallow or be used to raise fodder. Hence famines were frequent. Disease followed hunger. The Black Plague killed at least a third of the undernourished population after the Great Famine of 1315-17. People blamed the lepers, the Jews, and the witches for the bad times so they tortured them to death. The 14th century was a Small is Beautiful world. Was there culture? Not when most people were illiterate. Was there peace? No, there was almost constant war among competing fiefdoms. Was there liberty? Not for the 95% of the population who were serfs. (Serfs were one step up from a chattel slave – they couldn’t be sold individually, but they had to stay with the land.) Was there justice? Not if you recall the grisly public torture-executions for offenses that aren’t even illegal today. The Small is Beautiful idea has been rebranded as the eat local/buy local movement. A movement whose end result is a return to the 14th century medieval manorial system is not just nostalgic, it’s reactionary. If Small is Beautiful didn’t work in the 14th century, why would it work now? As religious liberals, we Unitarian Universalists need to dig to the root of movements like Small is Beautiful/ buy and eat local. Do they reflect our values?
Somewhere in Iowa, I was barreling along the freeway. All of a sudden I heard a loud pop from somewhere over my right shoulder. What caused it? Then I heard, “Blowout!” It wasn’t the voice of my ordinary mind chatter; it seemed to come from an outside source. The Voice continued, “Keep your feet off the pedals, hold tight to the wheel, and steer to the side of the road.” The Voice told me exactly what I’d learned in Driver’s Ed. I didn’t hear the Voice again until about ten years later while giving one of my first dog training lessons. Being inexperienced, I hadn’t asked the owners to put the first dog away while I worked with the second. The first dog, out of the action, gripped my leg from behind. “This dog is biting me,” the Voice said. I felt no pain whatsoever, but then I saw blood running down my leg. Again, the Voice had told the truth. Others who have heard voices believe they came from a supernatural source. Religious leaders have received spiritual and ethical teachings in that manner. Moses was given the Ten Commandments, Muhammad the Koran, and Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon on golden plates. Occasionally a seemingly divine voice tells the hearer to do something evil. Claiming they were acting under direct orders from God, renegade Mormons Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter.* The Society of Friends (Quakers) believes that every person has a direct link to the Divine. How do Quakers keep people from claiming their insight is Divine and must be obeyed? The person with the insight must bring it to a meeting of fellow Quakers for a process of group discernment. Among Friends, individual inspirations are subordinate to the meeting as a whole. I’m not a believer in the Supernatural. I hold that my Voice, which appeared to come from outside me, actually came from my subconscious mind. In my case, my subconscious mind was a repository of valuable advice. For all we know, all seemingly supernatural voices come from the hearer’s own mind. The Voice may range from true and inspiring as it was for Moses, be valid direction as it was in my case, or it may be an excuse for evil behavior. The Quakers know it takes a village to tell the difference.
*Jon Krakauer begins his account of Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven, with the story of the murder, then expands to a history of the sect, emphasizing the potential for violence because of the blood atonement doctrine and personal divine revelation (granted only to males). However, the state of Utah, 60% Mormon, has a murder rate of 1.8 per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 4.7 per 100,000.
Along with my house and car keys, I used to have a second interlocking ring for church building keys. I was active enough in the congregation to have been issued a master key and a key to the financial file cabinet. But the building air quality got so bad that in order to avoid an asthmatic cough, I needed to wear an uncomfortable painter’s respirator. I got so tired of fielding comments about it that I stopped volunteering in the office and attending church functions. Losing my beloved church family hit me like a death, but various mental exercises helped me to get through the grief. First, I drew a picture of a treasure chest. There, I wrote reminders of all the good memories: seeing friends every Sunday, church socials, making connections with new people, and giving such well received talks that people asked for copies of them. Below the treasure chest, I drew a trash bag where I put the bad memories: my chemical sensitivity not being taken seriously, not being able to attend worship with my partner, and fruitless meetings: with the accessibility group that met once, with the environmental committee who was saving the planet from carbon dioxide, the finance committee who refused my donation toward air quality improvement, and the building committee who took two years (during which time others also complained) to put air quality on the improvements list. The treasure chest and the trash bag helped my grief process, but the mature approach wasn’t enough. I needed something stronger – sour grapes! I grumbled about wasting time with people who couldn’t get it together to do anything to make the building accessible, a professed church value. I growled at the congregation, who used to be my kind of folk, but now seemed more concerned with their righteous causes than each other. After my sour grape harvest, I could savor the good memories from the treasure chest, just as I can reminisce about high school without wanting to go back. Moreover, it was a relief to no longer have to deal with the issues in the trash bag. Once I turned in my church building keys, my key ring became lighter.