Does My Faith Stand Up?

I was going through my files, cleaning things up, and found this piece I wrote back in 2001 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. It holds up pretty well as a representation of my Humanist thinking. I thought I would share it with you as a way to get my writing started up again.

During the first few weeks following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I received hundreds of emails from friends, internet friends, and relatives. Among these messages were the frequent forwarding of thoughts, penned by others, that my mail connections thought I might find useful. Not unexpectedly, some of my connections believe in a God. One of them forwarded an email, author unknown, which they found comforting. The email started out this way:

I had a very dear friend question my faith in God right after the terrorist attack on America. Her question was simply put, “Where is your God today?”

She was very hurt, as all Americans were, so I tried not to react defensively. Since that moment, I have prayed and grieved over the disastrous events. However, I believe I have the answer. I know where my God was the morning of September 11, 2001!

He was busy!!

The note went on to describe the many things God was busy doing that day. According to the note, that many individuals were supposed to have boarded the four jets that would later be used in the attacks, but didn’t. Others were supposed to have been at wrk in the trade towers, but weren’t, having been delayed for one reason or another. Apparently, an act of divine will also held the mortally wounded towers up for an hour, allowing thousands to escape.

This note struck me. I saved it, as I did all messages related to the terrorist attack. I would find it difficult to defend my faith this way. I feel badly for everyone whose faith has been so severely challenged by the events of the past few months, that they are compelled to offer explanations like this one. Whether this particular defense of faith is a good one is not really the issue for me. I don’t share the author’s belief in God, so I don’t have to search for a better defense of faith. Even so, I can’t walk away feeling smug about my Humanist faith, which doesn’t have to contort itself in this way. In the aftermath of the events of September 11, anyone with faith of any kind has to ask and honestly answer this question:

Does my faith stand up?

A family member and I have been exchanging somewhat heated emails about patriotism. They find it difficult to understand how I can question my government’s role in creating a world situation that could make such acts of hostility a possibility. They find it difficult to accept my conviction that conflicts of any kind are rarely black and white in the rightness and wrongness of any side. I find it challenging to understand their unquestioning rally to the flag. It explains a little to know that this family member served in the armed forces and came of age during, and in the aftermath of, the Second World War. It explains a little to know that I came of age during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and that I never served in the military.

At one point during those exchanges, I wrote something like the following:

I would have to believe there are many forms of patriotism. I have never been, and never will be, the “my country right or wrong” type. I recognize the incredible gift I have been given in being born in this country. I am proud of many of the things my country has accomplished. But I also recognize that blind, unquestioning love is not a good thing. Beyond city, beyond country, more than anything, I love people, most especially when they are at their finest. I love the police officers, firemen, and ordinary citizens who rushed to the aid of fellow human beings in the towers, many of whom lost their lives. I have a special place in my heart for Mayor Giuliani, who, more than any other public figure, rose to the occasion and let his people when they needed it most.

There was more, but I think you begin to get the point.

My love for people is not blind. I know that people are capable of both the best and the worst, a fact that has been profoundly confirmed by the events of September 11. But the core of my Humanist faith is that as horrible and misguided as the motives and actions of some can be, people, even sometimes those same horrible and misguided people, can be equally, and even surpassingly, good.

No deeply and honestly held faith is easy. World events continually challenge and force the reevaluation of every faith. Hard questions get asked. Humanists are spared the defense of a higher, all powerful, all knowing, supernatural being, whose actions, or failures to act, bring about such misery. But there are questions we must answer, too. If we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, how do we reconcile this belief with the liked of Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden? Would it ever be possible to act to elicit the best in them and ourselves? What should be our response to a Nation State that harbors and protects terrorists, allowing them, even encouraging them, to assault the innocent around the world? The answer in general terms is clear. The specifics can be troublesome. The answer is that we must respect whatever worth and dignity we find in others and ourselves, and act to preserve and enhance it. When we cannot readily identify worth and dignity in others, we at least have to act to preserve that which exists in ourselves. This applies to individuals, communities, and nations alike.

There was a news item about some youths, who in the days following the September 11 attacks, stormed into the restaurant of a man they deemed to be the enemy by proxy because of his Middle Eastern descent. They tore the place apart. The police caught the young men that same evening, but when asked to press charges, the restaurant owner declined. He couldn’t see how it would make things any better. A few hours later, the young men returned, apologized, and spent the night helping him to clean up the damage they had down. The owner clearly acted in a way that brought the best out in others.

There are times when there are no viable alternatives to a forceful, even violent response. An assault on our person, where the attacker means to do us bodily harm, must be met with a vigorous physical defense if retreat is not possible or would only invite further brutality at a later date. We are, at times, compelled to do harm before there is any chance of doing good. Our faith demands, however, that we understand when a forceful response is justified, and know that the good we can accomplish eventually is worth the bad we inevitably bring about in the short term. Humanists make it their business to act out of broad concern for humanity, rather than rage over any offense perpetrated against our community or ourselves. Humanist faith demands it.

Human beings are anything and everything but perfect. They are good and evil, right and wrong, lovable and hateful. They agree and disagree, fight and make up, make war and make peace. The only rational way I can handle this is through a humanist faith. I work hard to fulfill my own promise. I do my best to behave towards others in such a way that I demonstrate respect for their worth and dignity, and encourage, or at least not discourage or prevent, the fulfillment of their potential.

Humanists place their faith and optimism in the demonstrated capacity of people to do remarkable, even wonderful things. We believe in the worth and dignity of all living beings and seek to respect it. Our conviction is that we must conduct ourselves and the business of our institutions in such a way that we bring out the best in all.

Finding the Mother Community

Fox News Corp (FNC) has been on my mind. The release to the public of the 1.6 billion lawsuit legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems has painted a picture of a company and its executives that is about as venal as it gets. The brief makes it clear that Fox News Corp was aware that they were spreading lies to their audience without regard for consequences. Ratings and profit were of paramount importance. Fear of loosing ratings and profits to other outlets that would pander to their audience drove them to feed the wild claims of the big lie to their viewership. The result was January 6, 2020. This is not a one off thing.

For financial profit, Fox has for years radicalized its viewers and reaffirmed their most profound apprehensions and most malevolent biases. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox had to pander to what they had created or risk losing audience share. It chose the former, opting for demagoguery over democracy to make a buck.1


Murdoch’s company is being exposed for what it is: a disinformation-for-profit noise machine controlled by a vile billionaire and operated by a pack of jackals who distort and pervert the national discourse.2

Among the thoughts I am having is that the effects of this venality have been accumulating for a long time and they reach deeper and farther than the radicalization of a very vocal minority. I don’t think there are too many of us that haven’t had a relationship with a family member, relative or friend made more complicated because of it.

My dad and I had a very difficult relationship. I can’t blame that entirely on Fox News Corp, his main source of information, but vehement and bullying disagreements over politics was a threat that loomed over every family gathering.

My informal survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that my experience hasn’t been unique. All of us have at least one relative or friend that has been made angry by what they see and hear on Fox News and other outlets that feed distorted ways of looking at the world and one another. Estrangement is the other epidemic. Even the pandemic estranged us as we rallied to one political view of the crisis or another, making coordinated communal action difficult. How many lives were lost because of that?

I recently read Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard and came across this quote:

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change.3

Two concepts are important here. Societies and Ecosystems depend on relationships. Systems are composed of individuals. Systems composed of diverse individuals in strong relationship have a capacity to adjust to new circumstances and meet big challenges.

Suzanne Simard spent her life investigating the ecology of forests. In particular, the outcomes of forestry practice that clearcut old growth, diverse forests and replaced them with monocultures of commercially valuable trees. She noted early on that the saplings planted to replace the forest didn’t fare well. A large number of them languished and died. She wanted to know why. The question “why” leads her to the discovery that trees in a forest are dependent on one another, connected by a mycorrhizal fungal network connecting their roots to all the other trees in their vicinity, both of the same species and different species. The network enables communication and the rendering of assistance to their offspring, other trees of their own species, and trees of different species. A “mother” tree can distinguish its own progeny from the progeny of other trees of the same species. Trees can warn each other of incoming pestilence allowing trees not yet affected to mount a defense. She makes clear that forests have intelligence.

Clear cutting, a practice of industrial production, destroys the network of connection and monoculture lacks the partnerships trees form with other species to share resources back and forth as needed throughout the year and their lifecycle. Discussing the practices of the timber industry and industrial farming:

We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize factions instead of coalitions. In forestry, the theory of dominance is put into practice through weeding, spacing, thinning, and other methods that promote growth of the prized individuals. In agriculture, it provides the rationale for multimillion-dollar pesticide, fertilizer, and genetic programs to promote single high-yield crops instead of diverse fields.4

I think one could adjust this description quite easily to capitalism and authoritarianism. In capitalism, the system I know intimately, it is profitable to promote competition and domination through monocultures of factionalism fueled by anger and grievance. That is, to make a buck, some of us are quite happy to destroy the networks that make us strong and resilient.

What is it about the human animal that lets us go so astray of what is good for us or become enmeshed in an economic or political system that exaggerates our most selfish tendencies. Why is it so easy for us to be provoked into anger and why is anger so much more powerful than love? Why do we crave power and wealth? Crave it so much we ignore the irreparable harm we do to each other and the planet. I suppose one has to allow for the possibility that this too is a way of nature, but if that is so, nature is far more grim a proposition than one might suppose from a study of forests. But then forests have had a longer time to evolve into cooperative communities. My best answer so far is that we remain primal beings in spite of our “advances,” driven by a basic set of instincts that are easy to manipulate. I don’t know that anyone has ever found the equivalent of FNC in a mature forest.

One of the articles that caught my attention this past week was about a spontaneous Christian revival that occurred at Asbury college in Wilmore Kentucky. After a worship service with an apparently compelling sermon, a group of students stayed behind to pray and talk. Those who were there describe a feeling that filled the sanctuary:

People I have spoken with who entered these spaces describe encountering a “sweet presence,” “deep peace,” or “the quiet, heavy presence of God.” A sense of awe prevails. It is, one participant told me, as if “heaven opened up.”5

Word got out and…

… a stream of pilgrims has made its way to Wilmore. All of the auditorium’s almost 1,500 wooden flip seats are occupied; the walls and archways leading into the gathering space are crammed with people hungering to join in. Crowds have congregated in auditoriums and chapels elsewhere in town, singing and praying and reading the Bible.6

I am deeply suspicious of organized religion, Evangelical Christianity especially. But there was something about this “revival” that spoke to me of a deep longing for spiritual connection in community. It struck me as honest and real. Not of organized religion, but of a need for connection, community.

Apparently Tucker Carlson of Fox News Corp wanted to do a segment on his show but…

… was asked not to come to cover the revival, because it has nothing to do with politics or business. No one wants to pervert or disrupt what God is seemingly doing in this community.

We live in discontinuous times. Everywhere, it seems, we are being atomized, disconnected from one another. There is madness afoot driven by capitalist greed and authoritarian lust.

In Modern Spirituality Is a Consumers Choice Now Conor Friedersdorf discusses the atomization of belief which is partially but not solely attributable to a rise in the embracing of a scientific world view writes:

But this kind of (scientific) intellectual disenchantment remains a minority phenomenon. Most people who have fallen away from organized religious life remain exuberantly credulous: as G. K. Chesterton put it, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” More than four in ten Americans believe that ghosts and demons exist and that psychics are real; a third believe in reincarnation; nearly 30 percent believe in astrology. In Europe, the churches may be empty, but comfortable majorities continue to profess faith in God or some higher power.

I have generally had respect for what I call “religion on the ground,” which is religion at the local community level. It, along with shared history and rituals had the power to knit people together into resilient communities.

There is a lot of conversation about Indigenous wisdom. Four books I have read recently, Sacred Economics, The Gift, Braiding Sweetgrass and Finding the Mother Tree talk about it. We have to be careful not to romanticize native wisdom, but the message, over and over again, is that we have to recognize our connections to one another and to all life. We have to treat all life as a gift. This attitude is profoundly absent from capitalism and authoritarianism, which treat everything as a means to power, wealth and dominance, rather than as tendrils of connection and community and cooperation where we all not only survive, but thrive.

I am hopeful that we can find and learn to nourish our equivalent to mycorrhizal networks. I think this is a process that will happen at a local community level. That we can find and nurture “mother” communities all around the planet and nourish them. And then, in collaboration, we will work at riding ourselves of the pestilence of profit and power for profit and power’s sake.

  1. ↩︎

  2. Ibid ↩︎

  3. Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Kindle edition, location 3103. ↩︎

  4. Ibid, location 2285 ↩︎

  5. ↩︎

  6. ↩︎