The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



You may know that I served on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Humanists for eight years. I hadn’t been a member before being asked to serve on the board, and even though I did become a life member, and am clearly a humanist (when I took the beliefnet test I came out 100% humanist and 100% Unitarian Universalist) I am still not really happy about identifying myself exclusively with a single strain of free religion, particularly when they appear to be going in a direction with which I am not entirely comfortable. It’s just as well that my term came to an end when it did. What seems to have happened is a de facto merger with the Unitarian Universalist Naturalists, a group of which you may not have heard, as they have only recently begun to define themselves, but that you may find both interesting and attractive. So I want to tell you about them and how they and the humanists found themselves in the same boat, and also why I’m staying on the shore. The story is a long river with several tributaries and tells us some interesting things, I believe, about organizations, their politics and identity, and the limits they impose upon the human spirit.

Some years ago the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees began to look at the question of affiliate organizations. To become an affiliate, you had to pay $20 and assure the board that your organization consisted primarily of Unitarian Universalists from several congregations and that you shared the values of the UUA. In return you got a measure of legitimization and two one-and-a-half hour time slots in the schedule at General Assembly. This had been the case for years when the board came to the realization that they had neither the time nor the money to discover how legitimate these groups really were. I suspect that what really happened, though you would never hear anyone admit it, is that they received an application from a group that they really didn’t want to be affiliated with, but that fulfilled the stated qualifications. They announced that they were ending the whole system of affiliated organizations, but suggested that there might be exceptions for certain coalitions. There was much righteous indignation among the long-time, established affiliates like the humanists, but they began looking around for the possibility of establishing a coalition. They drummed up little interest among the Christians and pagans, but faint but pursuing, they discovered the Naturalists who received their invitation with enthusiasm. They began shared programming. However, two does not a coalition make, and the Board of Trustees disaffiliated coalitions as well the following year. Nevertheless, the first step had been taken, and the humanist offering at General Assembly that year was a mystical paean to the religion of evolution. That may be a biased evaluation.

Now another tributary to this river: You may remember, also a few years ago, that there was a major flap over a news story that said that our then president, Bill Sinkford, wanted to put more religious language into our principles. That isn’t actually what he said, but that’s what people heard. What he was really talking about was being able to use the language of other faiths in interfaith situations without stomping out because they prayed and in order that they could hear what we are saying as well. I don’t think they have much problem understanding our language at all, but though he didn’t help his cause by talking about his own conversion to theism as part of the discussion, I thought he was right that some of us tend to get pretty snarky, even rude, about some of the traditional language of faith. The phrase, “language of reverence” entered our discussions. Sermons were preached, essays were written and the Rev. Bill Murry wrote the book, published by Skinner House (our in-house publisher), Reason and Reverence. He calls himself a humanist, and is, I believe, my replacement on the board, but it seemed to me that all the reverent language in the book had to do with the beauties of nature and the wonders of science — in effect, Naturalism, rather than humanism. The book was the focus of his lecture (sponsored by the humanists) at General Assembly, and was sold at the humanist booth in the display area. In his lecture he stated, “Nature is ultimate.”

And now for the third tributary: The Board of Trustees asked the Commission on Appraisal to look at Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws. Article II includes the purpose, the principles, the sources, the anti-discrimination clause and the freedom of belief clause of the Association. They agreed, and after studying it for four years, they offered an extensive amendment. I had wanted them changed, simply to underscore the fact that they are not sacred text, and, in fact, if I had my way, both the principles and sources would be removed from the bylaws altogether, since they are not enforceable structural rules as bylaws should be. That being the case, I regretted the necessity for opposing the changes, however, there were two things I simply could not accept. The most important was the watering down of the freedom of belief clause that to me is probably the most important set of words in the bylaws, but the one relevant here is the change in the word respect for the interdependent web of all existence to reverence for it. Right here is where I get out of the boat. I very seldom speak on the floor of the assembly. For one thing, it terrifies me. Give me a pulpit to lean upon and I can speak to any number, but a mere microphone to stand behind leaves my knees and voice trembling. Nevertheless, this time I could not let it go unprotested. I have a huge amount of respect for the interdependence of species in the natural world. I am awed by it; I stand in wonder; but I do not, cannot revere it. It is red in tooth and claw. No living thing can survive without the destruction of some other living thing. It’s the way nature works. We may, ourselves, if we are vegans or vegetarians, try to keep our destruction to non-breathing, non-feeling things, but they are still living and to live ourselves we must destroy their life. There’s nothing wrong with that or immoral, and as an omnivore I would take it even further to include that which is breathing and feeling; it is simply the way of nature, but it isn’t something to revere or even to like very much. Nor do I revere natural disasters that cause untold suffering, though I am certainly often awed and amazed by them. I do respect them. If a hurricane is coming I check my supply of batteries and ice, fill my bathtub and several gallon jugs with water, and hunker down, but with no reverence in my soul.

It’s easy, though, to see the attraction of Naturalism. How many of us might say that we feel more of a sense of the divine walking through the woods or along the seashore than when we spend an hour in church. How can we not feel some touch of the holy when we contemplate the vastness of the heavens and the stately dance of the galaxies? Who has not felt awe and amazement at the beauty of a dew-spangled spider web or a half-opened rose? What poet, even Carl Sandburg, the extoller of cities, has not written powerfully of the way in which nature calls us to something beyond this mundane world? Yet, it seems to me that that response is ours, that it is not inherent in the world or the universe. They are material, measureable, limited. They simply are.

Another thing that tends to make Naturalists lyrical is the process of evolution, the development of species from the simple to the complex. For me, however, it, too, shows the limits of Naturalism as a religious identity. Species arise, they flourish for awhile and then fade. Although humankind has in some ways managed to affect the process, I suspect that we will also one day become extinct. Naturalists are right when they say that we are merely one species among many, that we are ourselves a part of nature, inseparable from it.  However, there is that which we seek that cannot be found in nature. Our sense of it may have arisen within the entirely natural processes of evolution, but it is not found there, and that is the call to what is holy, the moral understanding, the need to serve the good and right. Nature, like science, makes no value judgments. It does not ask if something is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, loving or hateful. Those ideals belong to sentient beings, but they are not otherwise inherent in the natural world. It is the power of survival, not goodness, that ensures success. 

Naturalists also tend to be determinists, which somewhat surprises me, since modern science puts probability in place of necessity. If a photon can choose which hole to go through in a physicist’s photon sorter, as seems to be the case, a human being can choose which color socks to wear on a particular day. Although once a decision is made we may be able to trace each step that resulted in it, the choice is still open to us until it is made.  Actually, photons have even weirder properties than that. When you read about them it’s easy to fall into magical thinking, but it is simply a part of nature that we don’t yet understand, and may never understand, though I suspect it is one of those problems that will seem like no problem at all once it is solved. Determinism pretty much lets people off the moral hook, while the burden of free will keeps them on it, but with this, too, it is our own moral hook. Nature does not make those distinctions.

I have wondered what it is that humanism and Naturalism have in common that has enabled this de facto merger without question or even, it seems to me, recognition that the two are very different. Humanism, from its origins in Renaissance Christianity has always been intensely moral. That, in fact, is its primary characteristic, that human beings can and must work for moral outcomes without expectation of supernatural intervention. Perhaps it is that too much of modern humanism has become what its critics accuse it of, merely a euphemism for atheism and with no agenda except the rejection of the supernatural. If so, since Naturalism shares that rejection, other differences pale into unimportance, including its lack of a base for moral discernment other than the caring for the natural world. They also agree on the importance of scientific thinking and the scientific worldview.

Naturalists sum up their faith by saying, “Nature is ultimate.” I don’t think humanists ever said that humankind was ultimate, though the first Humanist Manifesto with its naïve faith in human goodness came perilously close. It was written before the Second World War and the Nazi holocaust, when belief in human progress was at its height.  Since that sad lesson in human evil, later manifestoes have been written that recognize the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility of human perfectibility. However, the recognition continues throughout that the world is seen through human eyes and measured through human understanding.  Its improvement, both moral and physical is based on human ideals and work. There’s a hymn that says, “Before the stars we all are small/Before the atom great. Between the two infinities/We walk our middle state.” Actually, that’s the gender inclusive version. It would be nice to think that that middleness gives us a special importance, but it probably simply means that given the limits of our perceptions and our instrumentation, we can see as far in one direction as in the other. However it happens, for humans it is human measured and human understood, and that is all that we can know.

To assign ultimacy to nature or to humankind or to anything that can be weighed and measured is a form of idolatry. It limits and defines what is sacred within boundaries that are too small and too often irrelevant to those things that really matter. Nature matters in a material sense because we are an integral part of it and our survival depends on it, but its beauty, which is our own perception and our own judgment is neither weighed nor measured but it is what is of ultimate value and partakes of the holy. In itself nature has no ideals of goodness, of justice, of compassion, even of truth, but those, too, partake of what is holy, and are perceived by us not as a part of nature to which they are irrelevant, but of transcendent, of ultimate, value.

We seem to want to define ourselves, to put ourselves into some kind of box, theist, deist, atheist, agnostic, humanist, naturalists, and when we do that we reduce our options, our freedom of thought, and our sense of what is ultimate, what is holy, to the boundaries of that definition. It can never be so reduced. We must serve the truly ultimate, those ideals that are found not in nature but in ourselves.