Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Talk at First Unitarian

The following is the video of the talk I gave today at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, followed by the text of the talk. Thank you to everyone who came out to hear me speak. 

The various battles concerning sexual freedom in the world today center on the human rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and the reproductive rights of women. 

Whereas the rights of LGBTQ citizens seem to be, at least in this country, in ascendency, issues surrounding women's reproductive rights, indeed the very issue of how we distribute the precious resource of health care, seem poised on the brink of a downward spiral.

Women's reproductive rights in particular are under real assault, and the very notion of women as independent and fully realized human beings is being openly challenged in pulpits and legislatures across the country.

There are of course many factors that contribute to the direction of social trends, but I would contend, without fear of a serious rebuttal, that the key driver against LGBTQ rights and women's health care autonomy is religious in nature.

I am a Humanist.

My beliefs are philosophical, not theological in nature.

I am an atheist, I live my life as if there is no God, no soul, no afterlife.

I don't believe in the religious ideas of faith, hope, charity or prayer.

Instead I champion the secular ideas of reason, optimism, compassion and action.

In one of my many roles as one of Rhode Island's most vocal atheists I sit on the steering committee of Visions of Faith, a new Interfaith effort emerging under the guidance of the Reverend Donald Anderson of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.

Let's be clear, I find the very word "Interfaith" to be problematic.

Faith, as it is usually defined, is a religious idea, one that speaks to the ineffable and unknowable

and while I accept the existence of ineffable concepts and unknowable propositions, I see no reason to pretend to find the answers in faith, religion or theology.

I accept that the tools I am able to access to understand the universe, my senses and my mind, are limited.

That’s okay with me.

So why am I willing to sit on a committee with ministers, rabbis and other clergy discussing the possibilities of Interfaith for the 21st century?

Because, after having attended a few Interfaith functions and carefully listening to clergy, it became abundantly clear to me that a secular voice was needed.

I sit on the steering committee of Visions of Faith because we secular people need to express our ideas about the place of religion in a secular society to the very people most interested in maintaining religious hegemony in our culture.

Many people and even most clergy are unaware of clerical privilege, but I invite you to think about what it means when we invite clergy to conduct the opening prayers of our city and state legislative sessions.

We are ceding to clergy and people of faith the role of moral leader in what should be a secular undertaking.

There is an assumption made in this culture that people without some form of religious faith lack morality, as if adherence to mythology is somehow a guarantor of ethical behavior.

Related to this is the automatic assumption of moral gravitas given to those who profess faith even when their actions and opinions are ethically questionable and are not supported by empirical evidence.

The enterprise we call Interfaith appeals mostly to progressive religious communities.

Conservative, ethnic and fundamentalist religious communities eschew Interfaith in part out of fear that exposure to progressive values might weaken their commitment to faith, which might be a testament to how fragile such faith commitments are, but I digress.

Progressive religious communities, for the most part, share my commitment to human rights and church/state separation, and have what I would call at worst a questionable relationship to reason and truth.

One place those, like me, with a progressive, secular Humanist worldview interact with those of a conservative, ethnic or fundamentalist religious orientation is during the public commentary phase of school committee meetings and legislative hearings around issues of deep disagreement.

Here are represented the values and opinions of those on both sides of some of the most compelling, contentious and important debates of our times.

This year saw the Rhode Island State House dome literally ringing from the cheering anti-marriage equality crowd in a protest that can only be compared to a religious revival meeting.

I saw a woman convulsing as her friends lowered her gently to the marbled floors of the rotunda as she began speaking in tongues.

In the legislative committee meeting room, advocates spoke for and against marriage equality, some using the language of law, some using the language of love, and some using the language of theology.

Few of the arguments presented that night directly engaged the other side of the debate.

For the most part both sides talked at cross purposes, expressing opinions their opponents did not find compelling.

Interesting side note:

After my testimony before the Senate, in which I stated my opinion that religious and theological doctrine should play no part in the workings of government, and that therefore it is improper to allow religious objections to marriage equality to influence public policy, Senator Harold Metts read me a passage from his Bible in response.

He literally opened his Bible and read it to me during the public hearing.

I began this talk concerned with how attacks on women’s reproductive health care rights seem to be growing.

Not only have state legislatures across the country introduced and passed odious restrictions on women’s ability to access reproductive, and by extension, all health care,
abortion is being used as a wedge to pry apart, disembowel and ultimately rescind Obamacare or any kind of national health care plan.

Further, because of the consolidation of hospital ownership and management
throughout the country, many women are finding that a full range of reproductive health care options are becoming unavailable at the local, Catholic run hospital.

In some circles there is pressure to sideline the issue of LGBTQ and women’s reproductive health care rights because it is felt that the deep theological rifts these issues present prevent coalition building with ethnic, conservative, fundamentalist or even moderate religious groups on important issues like immigration, poverty and gun control.

It is better, contend some, to find areas of common ground and tackle those problems we all agree upon.

I contend that this is a mistake.

Finding common ground can be an important first step towards civil and respectful conversation, but let’s look at the facts:

More than one in three women in this country have had an abortion.

Nearly all women have used some form of birth control.

Two out of five of us have a family member or close friend who is L, G, B, T or Q.

Sexual and reproductive freedom issues impact our health care policy, the way we define our families, our educational decisions, issues of economic opportunity and justice and the right to privacy.

Even our right of conscience, what Rhode Island’s founder Roger Williams called “Soul Liberty,” an idea that was enshrined into law for the first time ever on the face of the Earth 350 years ago right here in this city is at stake when we ignore or sideline these important human rights issues.

Are we seriously going to tell two men and their children that they can’t be a family because we need the Catholic Church on our side when we fight for sane immigration policy?

Am I going to tell a young mother that I can’t help her fight for her right to access reproductive health care because I’m too busy singing Kumbaya with religious misogynists who think of women as second class citizens?

When we talk of sexual rights, we are talking about a narrow but essential part of our right to privacy, our right to assembly, our right to expression, our right to dress as we please, our right to bodily autonomy, our right to safely walk the streets,
our right to make our own decisions regarding our health care...

Indeed, we are talking about our very humanity and our ability to freely negotiate the terrors and wonders of the world as fully autonomous and morally responsible human beings.

Progressive, secular Humanists like myself and their progressive religious allies need to start making a strong moral case for their side of the argument.

Simple appeals to science and facts, as needed as they are to undergird our arguments and assure that we are staking out rational ground, are not enough.

What is required is a willingness to use strong, moral language, based in reason and compassion, that serve as calls to action.

We need to let our voices be heard in the media, in government, and on the streets if need be.

I would encourage you to write letters in response to editorials and stories in the newspaper.

I would encourage you to call your state representative and senator and let them know how much you value the rights of women.

I would encourage you to take the time to get out and attend legislative hearings at the state house, rallies outside city hall and protests and counter-protests in the streets.

Let me leave you with a story, torn from very recent events here in Rhode Island.

On Thursday, August 1st, marriage equality became the law in Rhode Island.

Across the state people were celebrating, securing licenses and even getting married on the very first day such a thing became possible.

It was a beautiful, important day in Rhode Island history, so of course a hate group from Kansas had to arrive with their offensive signs and attempt to derail our joy with bitterness and despair.

When dealing with such offensive groups, many suggest the option of simply ignoring the offenders, in the hope that the media will lose interest and the obnoxious people will simply go away.

This has been the decades long de facto strategy for dealing with anti-abortion protesters who march outside clinics with their own offensive and hurtful signs.

This strategy doesn’t work.

These people will not go away if ignored.

Every day in this country women are forced to pass through a wall of shame erected by the ignorant opponents of reproductive rights, even if they are simply visiting the clinic for something as innocuous as condoms and as necessary as a pap smear.

When the hate group from Kansas came to Rhode Island, they found themselves vastly outnumbered at every location by people committed to equality and love.

Their hate could gain no traction.

Their signs were parodied and their protest songs were drowned out.

At the Providence City Hall supporters of marriage equality arrived early and got the spot on the sidewalk nearest the entrance.

Couples seeking marriage licenses did not have to fear passing through a gauntlet of hate but were instead cheered on by supporters.

The hate group from Kansas was left standing across the street, ineffectually praying into the wind.

The foes of sexual freedom do not have science and reason on their side.

They do not have love and compassion on their side.

They offer nothing in the way of optimism for the future but merely insist on a return to a dreary past of despair and broken lives.

For too long we have allowed the other side to frame and dominate our public discourse.

It is time for good people to stand up and fight for what is right.

To me, that’s what it ultimately means to a Humanist.

Thank you

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