28 November 2006

Boycott the Super Bowl? Responding to Fundamentalist Scientism

The attitude of the staunchly anti-religion faction in the pseudo-debates about evolution are equivalent to my refusing to attend, or even play, any ball games because I believe the Superbowl is a phenomenal waste of money and energy which could be better spent in other, more constructive, ways. To throw out religion as a whole because some people’s religious beliefs are disagreeable, and more importantly because they have succeeded in touting their beliefs, can only be based on a failure to appreciate the difference between religion and one set of religious beliefs. Putting the focus of attention on the conservative fundamentalist factions of the religious and scientific communities and their pseudo-debate is a waste of time, except for the advertising that it sells. Media loves a pseudo-debate because both sides are entrenched, unwilling to compromise and can spew forth hot air time ad infinitum.

Consider my social critique of the Superbowl, which is the most famous specific instance of a single ball game in the United States. There is no reasonable argument against the fact that this particular game takes up a huge amount of resources. And I believe it would be very difficult to argue that the use of those resources has any significant positive effect on the world’s most pressing problems, such as global warming, poverty, war, etc. So, as a staunch supporter of using our society’s resources to resolve our problems before they should be given to making the elite owners of the sports world and their media counterparts richer through entertainment of the masses. Then I realize that even more is spent on the World Cup, not to mention the World Series, and then throw in all the other professional championship ball games and how utterly fanatical so many people are in their devotion to these frivolous activities, then you have to conclude that all those ball games must cause people to become delusional idiots who just don’t see the tragic reality we live in. Therefore, we will all be better off of we just boycott all ball games.

Here’s the problem with boycotting all ball games: Games involving the use of balls are a universal human activity. Ball games provide children with opportunities to learn vitally important motor skills and allow adults to exercise in a way that is engaging. Ball games are an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the game are well matched to the skill levels of the players. Accessing optimal states is an important way to increase the capabilities of individual minds. Thus, eliminating ball games entirely would deprive the world of important opportunities for learning, exercise, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that ball games should be eliminated is that it only looked at the social consequences of a particular kind of ball game, namely, professional championships that are widely covered in the mass media. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with how our society has chosen to depend on elite owned sporting and media sources for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the events then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in amateur sports, would be evident.

Here’s the problem with the fundamentalist scientism argument against religion: Religion, when understood in the broad sense suggested by Ninian Smart to include dimensions of ritual, mythology, doctrine, experience, social interaction, and ethics, is a universal human activity. Religion provides people with opportunities to consider ultimate meaning and purpose in their lives. Religion can provide adults with a forum for engaging in social and intellectual interactions that can influence their ethical choices. Religion is an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the religious practice are well matched to the capabilities of the practitioner. Thus eliminating religion entirely would deprive the world of opportunities for individual meaning, ethical and social development, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that religion should be eliminated is that it only looked at the doctrinal dimension of one kind of religious belief, namely the doctrines of conservative fundamentalism which is mistaken to be a salient example, or central prototype, of all religious beliefs. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with acknowledging the other important dimensions of religion, taking a critical look at what examples of religious belief are actually representative (or whether such representation is even possible), and with how our society has chosen to rely on elitist doctrines for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the conservative religious organizations then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in liberal religious organizations where doctrine is open to more inclusive democratic debate, would be evident. One logical course of action would be to promote, develop, or start scientific organizations that provide similar kinds of experiences and could compete directly with the conservative religious organizations, but I doubt that science is capable of producing an equivalent institution.

Religion is a multi-dimensional universal human institution and serves the needs of people in a variety of ways, just one of which is to cultivate a story about the universe and our place in it. Science is exclusively focused on the development of stories, true stories, ideally. I call the furor over evolution a pseudo-debate because the scientific truth is settled; what is happening now is a cultural growing pain, not a debate. The only problem right now is the proper role of science in our society. Does science have a monopoly on truth or do other institutions still have a say?

What I believe is that science, by it’s nature, is limited to making claims that it can back up with both converging evidence, logically consistent theories, and a psychologically valid story that enables us to acknowledge both the positive value and limitations of all previous stories on the subject. Evolution, as a body of converging evidence and a logically consistent theory, is already established truth. In order to have complete ownership to the claim of truth that the scientific community desires then they need a cultural story to put the previous stories on the subject into proper perspective.

The ones doing the real work of providing a cultural story that will make a real difference are people like Ron Schmidtling, Micheal Dowd, and Connie Barlow. Ron is a paleontologist, musician and artist who champions evolution through art that is respectful of the religious perspective (http://www.dinosounds.com/). Micheal, an ordained Christian minister, and Connie, a degreed scientist, are itinerant preachers of what they call the Great Story, a blend of evolutionary science and religion that puts evolution in religious, as well as scientific, perspective (http://www.thegreatstory.org/). I am sure there are other people doing the work, too, but these are the few people that I know about. They do not get as much media attention, but they are the ones who are doing the real work that will ultimately bring the conflict to resolution.

(I owe Rev. Bruce Bode, of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where I am a member, an acknowledgment for his “Dimensions of Religion” Sermon Series from September and October 2006. You can find the sermons on the web at http://www.quuf.org/sermons/sermons.html)

The articles that got me thinking on this topic:

WIRED magazine, November issue
"The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the
Crusade against Religion"


NEW YORK TIMES, November 21, 2006
"A Free-for-All on Science and Religion"

06 November 2006

Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society

Draft Statement of Conscience As Revised by Don Berg

(The Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Social Witness is given a topic by the member congregations at the annual General Assembly which goes through a two year process of study and reflection. Through the input of all UU's who choose to participate in the process a Statement of Conscience is presented to the General Assembly at the end of those two years which they vote to adopt or not, as a statement that reflects the concerns of the Association as a whole. In 2005 this is the topic that was chosen and on October 1st the commission published this draft for more input since this statement is due to be voted on in the June 2007 GA in Portland, Oregon.)

(original draft)


Our Westward journey is interrupted abruptly in the desert,

Progress halts when a solo wheel suddenly goes South.

Hot debates of current events are stoked into fires with the parchment sheaves of yesterday’s prophets.

We heat our rusting deformed ideals and then strike them with new discoveries and insights to forge a renewed sacred hoop carefully tempered for the strength to handle a rough road ahead.

We endure the heat and in the end admire the beauty of creation but also put it to the good work when it is ready.

The forged metal tire is married to the natural wood that fulfills the wheel’s useful function.

Back in place and properly balanced these vital parts restore the wholeness of the system that provides us with the freedom to make our journey.

We are thankful and hear the Call to continue, not because we are anxious to arrive, but because traveling into the West is about learning to flourish and thrive throughout the adventure of living this earthly human life.


Unitarian Universalists have strong convictions about how best to realize our moral ideals and have a long tradition of advocacy to alleviate the systemic causes of suffering and strengthen the systemic support for more global realization of joy and fulfillment. Our history honors many heroes who have taken public positions and acted vigorously on issues of great consequence including religious freedom, abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, and, in the present day, the freedom to marry. As Unitarian Universalists, we must affirm and reclaim the moral influence of liberal religion in global society.

Our moral values are grounded in the universal human experiences of well being and how humans come together in organizations, associations, businesses, religious institutions, and governments to mutually nurture the health and wellness of all beings. We are a blended family who come from varied backgrounds. We are drawn to a welcoming and inclusive religious community in which we might nurture our spirits and make a positive difference in our world.

What is the moral and ethical grounding of our shared faith? How might the moral and ethical grounding of Unitarian Universalism be given greater voice in civil discourse? We are called to respond to these questions, not only with a statement of conscience, but through acts of conscience that honor our individual and communal experience.

We understand "values" to be principles, standards, or qualities considered worthwhile or desirable by the person or group holding them. We understand "morals" and "ethics" to overlap with the primary emphasis in morals being the customs and habits of behavior through which we try to ensure human flourishing and the primary emphasis in ethics being the social, economic, and political contexts in which our behaviors play out.

The separation of church and state that is enumerated in the United States Constitution is designed to prevent the power, influence, and use of public resources under the control of the government from being wielded in favor of one religion. Those with conservative religious beliefs often speak clearly and passionately of their values related to controversial issues such as abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty, and the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately the tactics of some are not only proving effective at broadly influencing the government, but are also violating the principle of the separation of church and state.


Empathy is the source of our morality. From the findings of cognitive science we know that all human moral understandings draw primarily from the experiences of our own well-being and how we imaginatively extend our understanding of it. While this provides a universal experiential basis for the formulation of similar values, such as love, respect, responsibility, along with all the personal and social virtues taught in all religions, it also means that there is a vast diversity of ways and means to express those values and meet human needs. We base the logic of our moral thinking primarily on having empathy with others and taking responsibility for ourselves and the impacts that we have on the life around us.

A common expression of ethics and morality is found in faith traditions that include Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. Known as the Golden Rule, it is commonly stated as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This expression coincides with important philosophical statements such as Immanuel Kant's Ends Principle, which tells us to treat all persons as "ends in themselves" and not as "mere means to our own ends." These basic expressions of responsibility informed by empathy form a strong foundation for Unitarian Universalist morality and ethics.

An alternative way of stating the Ends Principle and Golden Rule appears in the Declaration of Independence, which says that "All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It asserts that people have the right to choose their own beliefs and chart their own paths as long as they do no harm. Abraham Lincoln called this statement "the father of all moral principles."

An international manifestation of these common principles is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The very first sentence of the Preamble states: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…."

Our Unitarian Universalist principles express the extent to which our well-being is not only dependent on our family, friends and neighbors, but to the whole human community as well as the entire web of life. These principles represent the use of empathy and responsibility to take the Golden Rule and the Ends Principle beyond simply our personal sphere of moral understanding to include how our systems of organization and social institutions also determine the effects of our choices. History shows us the dire consequences that follow when this common morality is either rejected or logically excludes the complex social influences on human behavior.

We are not divinely duty bound to obey, nor individually obligated to defer to, the moral dictates of our religious heritage, but we as a religious community choose to honor and respect all the sources of human wisdom. Our long history has shown that our highest and best ideals are optimally realized when they must periodically survive the gauntlet of being questioned, revised and resubmitted for acceptance as worthy of our devotion.


The moral values of Unitarian Universalism correspond profoundly with those moral values embodied in the founding documents of the United States and the United Nations. The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Charter embody freedom of religion, the right of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every person.

Yet the United States came into being on a land already inhabited. The subsequent violation of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, and the oppression of countless others fly in the face of the idealism of these founding documents. Our history until the recent consolidation of radical conservative ideologues in a variety of positions of power in the U.S. has involved the gradual realization of these ideals which continue to challenge us. Ours is still far from "a perfect union."

We aspire to a democratic pluralism, where each voice is heard and each person respected. Like the religious liberals who went before us, it is time for us to work together with those of other faith traditions to defend a basic principle of freedom: we are responsible for ensuring that no harm is done as we exercise the fundamental right, inherent in being human, to follow a life of our own choosing. Where we must understand that harm can be caused by not only our individual action but also our systemic organizational and social actions.


How might we be proactive rather than reactive in the public dialogue on moral values? How might we bridle our own temptation to arrogance and recognize and affirm the common ground of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the freedom of faith espoused in the founding documents of national and international governance? How might we discern, affirm, and live our moral values in our pluralistic global society?

As individuals, let us:

• Take every opportunity to draw attention to the agreement between the moral values embodied in the founding documents of our governments and the moral values of Unitarian Universalism;

• Reflect upon how our moral values inform our political views and behavior;

• Consider the formative influences of our individual conscience and how to evaluate what our conscience calls us to do measured by a criterion of the common good;

• Educate ourselves on interfaith matters;

• Study how complex systemic causes of suffering and injustice can be more easily communicated to those who are not familiar with complex systemic causation;

• Listen to people with whom we find ourselves in conflict, recognizing them as our neighbors, our kin;

• Offer our fellow citizens a model of religion that embraces empathy and responsibility over strict obedience; and

• Amplify our conviction that the application of our Principles and moral values guided by empathy and responsibility can improve our society

As congregations, let us:

• Respectfully affirm and celebrate the unity that underlies the diversity of our congregations;

• Utilize small group ministry as a tool for congregants to discern and apply our moral values;

• Explore and articulate the grounding of our social justice agenda in empathy and responsibility informed by concepts of systemic causation;

• Craft and implement a process by which congregational positions on moral issues can be established and articulated in the local community and beyond;

• Give our children and youth the language to describe themselves as Unitarian Universalists and the confidence to express their convictions and moral values;

• Encourage our religious professionals to proclaim our moral values in the public square; and

• Work with like-minded organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance and the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) to more profoundly recognize the pluralism of Unitarian Universalism and the religious pluralism of our world.

As an association of interdependent congregations, let us:

• Realize media opportunities to articulate Unitarian Universalist values and their application to living with respect and compassion;

• Do all possible to support civil liberties and the separation of church and state; and

• Work across faith, cultural, and national boundaries to cultivate a Beloved Global Community.

Through the exploration, discernment, and articulation of how our moral values are grounded in the basic experience of empathy and responsibility in concert with affirmation and celebration of the pluralism of our society, we will rediscover our faith as a living tradition whose grounding and practice will then be visible, audible, and valued in the public square.

02 November 2006

A Summary of My Philosophy of Social Justice

By Don Berg,

Co-chair, Social Action & Education Committee, QUUF

The result of our work is enthusiastic people living passionate lives in a joyful society.

We achieve that result through supporting our congregation to practice the four parallel processes of social justice work; service, education, action and witness. We evaluate activities that are presented for our sponsorship or support according to how they will contribute to both the ultimate result and to our congregation’s ability to improve their commitment to social justice work.

Enthusiastic people have the knowledge, skills, and information necessary to navigate back to optimal states of mind when they are lost. Optimal states of mind are defined by a combination of six qualities that have been drawn from research into optimal experience (primarily Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work), happiness, and intrinsic motivation. The six qualities of mind are agency, optimism, purpose, cooperation, cognitive order and cognitive complexity.

Passionate lives are guided by a balance of personal interests and the needs of the moral context in which that person is embedded and society provides abundant support for everyone to continuously discover and rediscover that balance. The moral context takes into account the five primary levels of our human scale of impact on each other; cells, individuals, groups, societies and life on earth.

A joyful society provides consistent access to optimal states of mind and provides appropriate interventions to assist anyone who loses, or is unable to, achieve optimal states of mind.

Service is the opportunity to directly meet human needs. There are three distinct categories of human needs:

1.our structural needs for air, water, security, food, shelter, and belonging;

2.our pattern needs which develop over time, as described by Piaget, Maslow, Graves, Cowen and Beck; and

3.our process needs for identity, understanding, freedom, participation, idleness, creation, affection and protection, which were described by Manfred Max-Neef (his category of subsistence is what I call structural needs).

Education is our inquiry into understanding our world and our place in it. Education is our training ground for becoming adept at accessing optimal states of mind through ever more and varied ways. Every discipline, field of study, form of intelligence, and formal practice is a vast hallway with abundant opportunities to reach optimal states of mind. Behind every door is a library of stories that tell us about our world and how we fit into it.

Action is how we build a sense of belonging to a caring community at the transpersonal levels of our moral context: the communal, societal and ecological. Through coordinated action we continuously improve the games that society provides for us to play. Through action we try to make the games we play fair and the playing fields level. Action is not about winning or losing, it’s about making all the games engaging and worthwhile.

Witness has two distinct traditional meanings and both are crucially important. In the Christian tradition it means to bear witness. For example the charismatic preacher asks, “Do I have a witness?” looking for his audience to validate the truth of an example or point he is making. Another example is when someone observes events of the world so that they will be known, i.e., in the Quaker and other pacifist traditions of being present to oppression, violence and the brutality of the powerful over the powerless. In these Christian traditions witness is a social act of affirming the truth of what is spoken or giving voice to those who do not have one.

In the Buddhist tradition witness is about achieving a state of mind in which we can perceive the events of the world without being a victim to the meanings that we habitually attach to those events. In our innate, naïve habit of constantly monitoring the world for dangers and opportunities we do not observe the world, instead we persistently judge and interpret events without being aware of how that constant practice can cause us to delude ourselves about what is really happening. In the Buddhist meditative traditions they develop a different habit of mind that allows for participation in and observation of events without the emotional and psychological attachment that normally occurs. The ideal of this form of witness is to be fully engaged with the world from the vantage point of observing ourselves and the world in a whirling waltz around our awareness.

The two ways of looking at the process of witnessing are both vitally important to achieving the desired outcome. We must develop both the personal ability to observe the truth without decieving ourselves and the ability to share our truth and affirm the sharing of others who speak the truth from their perspective. In this understanding of witness, then, we are not only charged with the call to observe in the world, but to observe in ourselves, as well. Therefore, this is a call to seek the artist as well as the activist, since both have uniquely honed abilities to observe the world in ways that are shaped by uncommon discipline.

Postscript: I have expanded on this piece on my web site School Of Conscience.org.