At the Reason Rally, I was talking with a representative from one of the sponsoring organizations, and I mentioned that I was a member of Ethical Culture. “Oh, so you’re religious…” she said in a gently mocking tone. I rolled my eyes and laughed sheepishly. I probably wouldn’t label myself “religious” under any circumstances, but among the crowd gathered on the National Mall that day, I was probably one of the most “religious” people there. This conversation stood in stark contrast to my experience with my family in Brazil a few months earlier when I was outed to my cousins as an “ateu”. They were respectful of my lack of belief in God, but trying to explain to them that an officially non-theistic religion like Ethical Culture could even indeed be a religion was an uphill battle.
I stumbled upon Ethical Culture completely by accident several years ago when a wrong turn driving to pick up a friend led me to the meeting house of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, New Jersey. Although I was raised as an atheist, I had always wanted the kind of community that came with having a religion. Ethical Culture has provided such a home to atheists and agnostics since the 1870s and has a long history of involvement with Humanism, interfaith dialogue, and social justice. As an institution, it has always been outward-looking and concerned with putting “deed before creed”.
Our little Bergen Society has participated in a number of great programs such as starting a support group for LGBT teens in the 1980s, and it was also a founding member of the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee, which provides support for asylum-seekers. The Committee has continued to be a central project for our leader Dr. Joseph Chuman, a human rights professor at Columbia University. Our Sunday platforms consist of lectures from the leader, members and often outside speakers such as Dan Barker and Matthew LaClair. Children of members are enrolled in our Sunday School program, which provides comparative religion and ethics education. Among our members are doctors, college professors, physicists, biologists, lawyers and many other smart, interesting people who provide stimulating, intellectual conversation for me every week.
Ethical Culture (and the Humanist movement in general) does a great job about bringing good people together, but I still think we need to work on making good people better. Each society may have occasional workshops, initiatives, or relevant speakers address the audience on the subject of well-being and personal growth, but on an institutional level we have always been almost completely concerned with the way one treats others rather than how one treats oneself. To address this, I have been seeking empirically-tested ways to grow well-being and incorporate these techniques into what one might call a “Humanist lifestyle”.
So I roused myself out of bed on Sunday morning a mere five hours after passing out following six hours of driving home from Washington and started my four-hour drive to Cambridge. The meeting at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy that morning concerned mindfulness meditation and was led by Paul Fulton, Ed. D. and Rick Heller from the Humanist Mindfulness Group. It was a great talk, a good meditation session, and I think it provided a valuable primer for those new to mindfulness meditation. Although I had been initially skeptical about meditation when I first started researching it last year, the scientific evidence that has emerged in the last decade supporting real, measurable changes in the brain from meditation is hard to ignore. I have been practicing mindfulness meditation on my own for about eight months, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that a comprehensive wellness program should be introduced into our congregations with mindfulness meditation playing a key role.
As neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom…” Mindfulness meditation seems to be the key to building that space, and our Humanism determines how we fill it. Being good is not easy and requires real choices that cannot be approached mindlessly. Our mental autopilot will always choose the path of least resistance. If we want to live a life where we use reason to form opinion rather than vise versa, where we acknowledge our mistakes and biases but don’t blame ourselves for them, where we show kindness to those who are not always nice to us, where we are conscientious of our impact on others and our environment, then mindfulness must be among our top priorities.
So why should Humanists collaborate to develop a comprehensive well-being program with mindfulness as a key component? As someone who has worked to cobble together a lifestyle that uses proven methods for happiness that not only fit with but are strengthened by my ethics, I can say that the task is definitely exhausting. There is so much research out there to sift through, and not all of it is useful or even based on good science. Humanists everywhere could benefit from some kind of evolving corpus that does not just compile all of the literature but also plugs it into our existing ethical system and offers actionable programs that can be applied to both the lives of individuals and group activities.
The Humanist Community Project is creating such a corpus. By inviting people to post on a variety of issues related to Humanism, the HCP is creating a wonderful space for different ideas. But the HCP blog, as I see it, is almost like a subscription to a cooking magazine when someone might need a beginner’s cookbook. Suppose for a moment we send a brand new Humanist group a starter kit. What would we want to put in that box to turn it into a real Values in Action community? Whatever instruction we would want to offer would likely be the work of many hands but would provide a consistent path. If the Project produced such a document as a sort of field manual, a workbook, an e-learning solution, or even just a wiki, it could be an extremely valuable resource to help Humanist groups live the good life without God.