The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



Just what is religion anyway? People ask that question often, and usually get an unsatisfactory answer. The one you’ve heard from me, that it is the institution created within which human beings find and practice the purpose and meaning of their lives, is probably not wholly satisfactory either, but it’s the only one I’ve found that includes all the religions I’ve ever heard about. My colleague Forest Church said it more poetically: Religion is what you do when you know that you are alive and realize that you are going to die. The instinctive feeling — and I’m sure that it must be instinctive — that there’s got to be a reason for all this is answered by the practice of religion.

That’s why I was a little surprised when I read a National Geographic article about the discovery of what is surely the world’s oldest religious monument in southern Turkey when they asserted that it turned scholarly opinion on its head about the origins of religion. These rings of carved stones — carved with obscure symbols and pictures of predatory animals — date back to a culture of hunter/gatherers and there is no sign of any civilization anywhere around; nor in those days did the earliest civilizations about which we know even exist. Even the Fertile Crescent had not begun to be cultivated. I was amazed to learn that any scholar anywhere (and the Geographic implied consensus) had thought that civilization was a necessary precursor of religion. The religion of primitives might not be very sophisticated, but I would seriously doubt that it did not exist even in the most uncivilized of societies. Although prostitution has been called the oldest profession (probably as what the inventor of it thought was an attractive euphemism) there has never been any doubt in my mind that the oldest profession is that of the priesthood.

From our perspective the lives of these people must have been horribly brutal. Almost starving in the winter when food could not be found, huddled around their fires, in danger as both prey and predator, often dying in childhood or in childbirth — they needed all the help they could get. And they got it — enough to survive. Spring came again and food became abundant, they did have fire to keep them warm and cook the food they killed. The earth must have seemed full of both benevolent and inimical spirits, and the least they could do was worship them, either in gratitude or fear, to retain their favor or avert their wrath. Whether the coming together to create a sacred place to honor those spirits was the beginning of civilization as the article blithely assumes is more problematic. That, I suspect, was dependent upon the discovery of agriculture and the beginning of division of labor. Surely, however, religion preceded it though it didn’t create it.

As much as fear and gratitude, I suspect that one of the abiding springs of religion and its rituals is the aesthetic sense which seems to be as innate as any other of our senses. These is a lovely reading by Wendell Berry in our hymnal:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go a lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


Surely it is in the wonders and beauties of nature that our first fathers and mothers found the joy of religious faith as we still do. In its beauty and its awe-inspiring dance of the stars and of the seasons and of birth and death we feel our connection to all that is and learn our place in it. It is no wonder that for some the love of nature in itself is sufficient religion, and for even those of us for which it is not quite enough it inspires and reinvigorates us for the challenge of living.

Yet despite that help despair for the world grows in many of us these days, and even the glories of nature can only give us respite. Ideas and opinions are becoming more and more polarized as we refuse to listen to each other or try to understand one another and we begin to wonder whether with the kind of rhetoric we use we can even claim the quality of civilization. Political rhetoric has often risen to heights of nastiness and examples can readily be found from former eras of invective as poisonous as we hear today. The primary difference, I suspect, is that it is now impossible to escape hearing it. You don’t have to go to a political rally to hear one set of politicians calling another set names, you get it from all directions, immediately and electronically, but at least when they called Abraham Lincoln an ape (and they did) it was not, as it would be today, a racial slur. Those who deny the racial prejudice that drives much of the feeling against the president today have somehow managed to avoid some of its more blatant manifestations. I saw an anti-Obama painting on the back of a van not long ago that was simply a vulgar, racial slur, so disgusting I could not even bring myself to describe it. However, that is merely an avenue for invective that would exist anyway in some form. A real difference, I suspect, caused by the same thing that makes it so pervasive, the multiplicity of venues for expressing opinion, is that more people are completely polarized, unwilling to compromise, unable to listen to the other side of any question. When you have too much saturation, you need to begin to filter, and people choose their venues, unluckily not for facts but for whether or not they agree or disagree. The more information is available the less we will come in contact with information we do not care to hear. That, of course, tends to radicalize us and make us even less willing to hear contrary opinions and less respectful of them. With the loss of respect goes any need for civilized discourse. All we can do, I’m afraid, is refuse to be a part of it. Seek out the opinions not of those with whom we agree, but of those with whom we disagree. Learn the facts — real facts — before forming opinions ourselves. Stand by what we believe without rancor, with understanding for the opposition, without name-calling or ad hominem arguments. We can’t change other people but we can be what we wish others were.

One of the most contentious arguments is the question of freedom of choice in abortion, and I greatly fear that those of us who support it are losing ground. It is mostly, I think, the way the issue is framed. The anti-choice people have taken a high moral ground, and used evocative language and powerful PR to sway people. They talk about killing babies while we talk about women’s right to control their own bodies. Murder, particularly of babies, will trump any talk of any rights any time. The fact that they are not really babies is hard to convey and the stories of deaths of desperate women from botched back-alley abortions are too far in the past to hold much power. We can talk rationally about the difference between a potential human being and a fully developed one; we can get everyone except the fanatics to agree that if the woman’s life is in danger an abortion should be legal, but somehow we have not been able to convey the full horror of finding oneself pregnant with a fetus one does not want.  We don’t seem able to make people understand that a woman in that condition will do anything, anything at all, to end it, even at the risk of her life. Surely if we could find a way to convey that, people would realize that it is a torture that no one should be subjected to. Instead people seem to think from the arguments I read that it is a wholly fitting punishment for the crime of enjoying sex. The fact that men don’t have to undergo such punishment is, I suppose, irrelevant. When we confront this issue — and we must confront it; we can’t let it go by default — we must somehow learn to frame it in a way that is as powerful a moral argument as the false claim of killing babies.

Confrontation takes a certain amount of courage — sometimes a great deal of it — but political confrontation is perhaps the easiest. Sometimes it also seems the least effective since people are so widely insulating themselves from hearing anything they don’t wish to hear. Nevertheless, we must do it. That really is what the “Standing on the side of love” motto from the Unitarian Universalist Association is about. It’s not about gay rights or abortion rights or immigration rights or racial justice, but about standing up publicly for what we believe in, not just as individuals but as congregations. That might seem pretty straightforward and hard to argue with, but things with us are never that simple. The motto itself has come under attack from our newly articulate disabled people (yes, I know that’s not the politically correct term, but it presently escapes me) who can’t stand at all and argued that its very wording was oppressive to them by making them even more invisible. Even beyond that, though, there are some issues. I was talking to Gene Pickett not long ago, president of the Unitarian Association in the 1980s at the time when our continued survival was in doubt because of the past but recent controversies surrounding Black Power and the Vietnam War in our movement, when we lost money and membership because we couldn’t decide which side love was on. Or at least we couldn’t agree on it. Gene was saying that his support for the Standing on the side of love campaign was lukewarm at best, in part because he felt that we too quickly rush to judgment and fail to temper love with wisdom. Love, he argued, is never enough. He brought us successfully through those dark days. He is probably right.

Nevertheless, there is no question that there is power in speaking together and that it is necessary to stand up (or its equivalent) for what is right. It is necessary to confront systems of oppression or wrong wherever it may exist. It is also necessary, and takes more courage, to confront error in those you mostly agree with, or even love. That doesn’t mean tactless, in your face aggression, or even trying to convince your grandmother that her theological certainties are self-contradictory. Only harmful error and behavior need to be confronted, but to gather the courage to do that, to risk your good name or your relationships by disagreeing with others’ actions or opinions can be very hard. I am personally almost pathologically afraid of hurting people’s feelings, and the only thing that allows me to confront them when I do, which is admittedly as seldom as possible, is my realization that not to do so would create more hurt in the long run. I’ve put it off too long often enough that I know how sad the consequences can be.  Because, however, the consequences of confrontation can be hurtful, it is necessary to ask yourself those magic questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Will it make a difference? Only a yes to all three makes confrontation possible. The challenge, of course, is to make it kind if it fits the other two requirements.

One of the problems for me in this regard is that I can never be perfectly sure that I am right about almost anything. I know I believe in justice, but I am frequently unsure precisely where justice lies. I am absolutely certain I believe in following the truth, but I’m never perfectly certain I have completely discerned it. What makes it worse is that I have reached the age of worrying whether my dislike of certain changes is simply a function of hardening of the attitudes. After all throughout recorded history each generation has felt that the ones that follow it are dragging the human race to a new degradation. I’m definitely not there, but there are things that occasionally worry me, like dress. Sometimes, for example, I’m really taken aback by the way people draw attention to themselves by what they do to their bodies with multiple piercings and those hideous ear stretchers, and full body tattoos. I do remind myself that fashions change, and the nail polish that in my youth would have branded a girl as If not immoral probably fast (surely a term no longer used) can be very attractive. Not just pink or red, we get all colors of the rainbow, purple, green, blue, and some nails are even multicolored with designs painted on. I wouldn’t do it myself, and I’m not entirely convinced that the dictum that the only thing you should use to draw attention to yourself is the exquisiteness of your manners is wrong, but times change, and if you have good manners too, I don’t care what color your nails are painted. Or how many straps you show. I read recently that you could tell what generation someone belonged to (women only, of course) by the number of visible straps. However, there are some changes that I feel no shame in disliking. One is the sexualization in dress of little girls. Another is the increasing instability of families. Fiancé no longer means the person you’re engaged to marry, but the person you’re living with by whom you have a child — or two. If gay people understand the importance of marriage both legally and psychologically, why don’t heterosexuals? Studies show that children brought up in a family with two parents in general are much more successful than those who are not. I know that there are hundred and thousands of exceptions to that, and that kids can be extremely resilient — I was, after all, a single mother myself for a while — but in general the stability of a family is good for the kids, for the parents, and for society. And that includes, it seems, same-sex parents. It takes more than one person’s input to give stability and security to children. I know, of course, that there are laws requiring unmarried fathers to take responsibility for their children, and often they do, anyway, and there are wholly irresponsible married parents as well, but generally speaking still, I’m on the side of marriage and the family. Usually it just works better if you can manage it. And the good of the children we choose to bring into the world is a moral imperative. Even that, of course, must be tempered by wisdom and by circumstance. There are still no absolute right answers in this finite world, so we do the best we can, loving its beauties, confronting it horrors, and keeping our connection to one another.