Doug Long of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, sent a typical response to Dan Kennedy's essay, "Are You with the Atheists?" (January/February): "A hearty YES. Just as I am 'with' the African Americans, women, gays, and many other people whom our larger society sometimes treats as outsiders. I hope that UUs will welcome atheists."
Of the seventy-one responses we received to the January/February issue, twenty-five took issue with Kennedy's report on an American Atheists convention.
Jeanne Easson of Richton Park, Illinois, writes: "We live in a society that allows children to be excluded from clubs because they will not state a belief in God. This nontheist does not experience this as 'trivial.' The extremism of the American Atheists is an overreaction not to the fundamentalism of the right but to the fundamentalistic culture of our nation as a whole."
And Jack Betterly of Albuquerque, New Mexico, argues that "compared with the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islamwhich usually mean by 'God' a Creator with a plan and an identity apart from the universe who controls it, intervenes in it, and judges itHindus, Buddhists, and Taoists are essentially atheistic. The atheistic position is therefore far more common and widespread than theists care to believe."
In January, David Singelyn of Warner Springs, California, anticipated war in Iraq: "If the media, in their once honored role as the eyes and ears of the American people, continue to see no evil and hear no evil in the corporate takeover of our government, and in this government's forceful taking of a sovereign nation for its resources, then the media deserve the wounded America that their disregard for honesty in reporting will bring about, an America in which the media's role will be reduced to the function of Pravda in the USSR of old. As for myself, a citizen of the land of the free and the home of the brave, I stand tall and say loudly, 'Not in my name.'"
Although I've never met Ellery Schempp, profiled by Kimberly French in the January/February issue ("A Victory for the Heretics"), he may be the reason I am a Unitarian Universalist today.
In the 1950s I was subjected to public school-sponsored religious practices in rural east Tennessee similar to those Schempp faced in suburban Philadelphia. I, too, found them offensive. In the early 1960s, while preparing to become a teacher, I learned of Schempp's constitutional challenge to public school religion. It was then that I learned the Schempp family was Unitarian, a religion with which I was unfamiliar but found interesting. Six years after the high court ruled in Schempp's favor, I studied the impact the ruling had on religious practices in Tennessee public schools for my master's thesis. As a teacher and principal I tried to assist colleagues and my students' parents in understanding what the Supreme Court had and had not ruled in Schempp and related cases.
Later, still curious about Unitarian Universalism, I checked out the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, and after several years as a "friend" of the congregation, I joined. In 1995 I became a founding member of the Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I often attributed my introduction to Unitarian Universalism to Ellery Schempp and his courageous fight to bring about this landmark Supreme Court interpretation of what is and is not a constitutionally proper public school approach to religion.
I thank UU World for reintroducing me to one of my most admired contemporaries.
While I appreciated Wendy Kaminer's informative if sometimes angry "Fear vs. Freedom" (January/February), her closing paragraphwhich states that "a democratic government isn't based on trust. It's based on skepticism"disturbs me greatly.
What we need is more trust, not less. This does not mean checking our skepticism at the door, as the two are not opposites. Skepticism recognizes that people are imperfect and make mistakes. Trust is a deeper faith that keeps skepticism from becoming suffused with fear and turning to cynicism. True freedom and a lasting peace can only be found by fostering a world in which people care, and in which we trust in the caring of others and the nature of the universe.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Tom Stites writes in the January/February UU World ("Living by Our Faith"): "In less than two years, we have encountered a steady stream of new things to fear: terrorism, a sputtering economy, war in the Middle East, criminal plunder by executives, a political lurch to the right, suburban snipers, an accelerating erosion of civil liberties." I find it impossible to believe that I will receive anything remotely resembling an objective view from someone who lists terrorists, criminals, and snipers with those who hold beliefs on the political right.
He goes on to say, "Fear has the power to overwhelm rationality." May I suggest that his own fears have done just that. His ability to ignore the already visited fear of death by terrorist act and focus on his anticipated, and in my opinion, imaginary fear of the loss of some level of liberties is astounding. To put it in the vernacular: Get real.
He reminds me of the story of the African Bushman who was caught out in the open by a pack of hyenas. He ran, and as the hyenas got closer and closer, he was heard to mutter, "I hope they don't give me fleas."
Wendy Kaminer's article positively glowed with hatred for the Bush administration. Has our faith of compassion, reason, and tolerance become captured by leftist ideologues who defame their political victims in the usurped name of liberty?
If true lovers of liberty (this should mean all Unitarian Universalists) do not realize that the Kaminers of the world are crying wolf for partisan, ideological reasons, we will be in trouble when liberty is genuinely jeopardized. Claiming liberty is at risk when the Bush administration is making a good faith effort to combat terrorism and prevent a repeat of 9/11 is to discredit our faith as a bulwark in the true defense of liberty.
James D. Skow
Boys and Scouts
Neil Chethik's "What Should We Do with the Boys?" (January/February) spoke to me because our family has drifted away from our local Unitarian Universalist church in part because of the reluctance of our sons to attend.
UU World has in the past run extremely negative articles about the Boy Scoutsand the Boy Scouts definitely have some shortcomingsbut our family has enjoyed the Scouting program. As a Cub Scout den leader, I regularly had action-packed hours that usually ended with boys and me beaming about what we had learned and how much fun we had. (Incidentally, Michael Gurian writes positive things about Boy Scouting in his latest book, The Good Son.) It wasn't a conscious decision, but as time went by, we have done more and more Scouting and less and less "UUing."
I'm not anti-men. One-half of my nurturing parents are men. I collaborate professionally all day long with men. I have even chosen to share my life with a loving partner who is a man. But I am not convinced that people who are male require extra attention or special handling to compensate for all the benefits society denies them and instead confers to people who are female ("What Should We Do with the Boys?," January/February). The whole world is organized specifically for men and boys! I'm not suggesting we mistreat men and boys; I'm insisting we have not even come close to preventing the mistreatment of women and girls.
I refuse to be post-feminist until we all live in the post-patriarchy.
Mary Elizabeth Kunkel
I found myself somewhat puzzled by Neil Chethik's article. He raised good questions, came up with sound answers, and then proceeded to dilute them with gender stereotypes. The inherent problem with any type of education is that there are different learning styles that have different needs. The article identifies quiet and less-than-quiet learning styles and makes a good argument that our religious education often favors the former. What puzzles me is why he then recasts that perfectly valid assessment in gender stereotypes. If the problem is that we are not meeting the needs of the less-than-quiet learner, let us address that problem.
I refuse to be post-feminist until we all live in the post-patriarchy.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
At Their Worst
Dan Kennedy has said some of the things about militant atheism that should have been said long ago in Unitarian Universalist circles ("Are You with the Atheists?," January/February). Atheists, at their worst, can be as nasty, as self-righteous, and even as violent as Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.
The twentieth century was the first in which militant atheists gained significant political power. Quite often the results were horrifying. In Communist China, cadres destroyed Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian temples and herded monks and nuns into slave labor camps. Thousands of Jewish, Christian, and pagan religious leaders were murdered or imprisoned during the Stalinist years in the Soviet Union. Similar atrocitiescommitted in the name of "reason" and "progress"have been seen in Cambodia, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and other nations.
Be grateful for the wall between church and state that protects U.S. citizens. It's a barrier that also defends Unitarian Universalists and others from government persecution directed by antireligious bigots. In order to appreciate the experience, talk with the Unitarians in Rumania who suffered through decades of Communist tyranny and abuse.
More Than Words
I am a dyed-in-the-wool, bone-deep atheist. However, my reaction to American Atheists has been exactly the same as Dan Kennedy's: Holy cow!
Yet every dictionary I have consulted defines God as a divine being. It's this matter of definition that rankles atheistsboth in-your-face American Atheists types and quieter, more contemplative nonbelievers. In our culture the generally agreed-upon definition of "God" is a supernatural being that sees, hears, and interacts with human beings. When liberal theologians and religious intellectuals use the word "God" to mean precisely what the general populace means by "not God," atheists see this not as a matter of semantics but rather as a matter of dishonesty. Do you believe in God, or do you merely believe in the word "God"?
If you don't believe, using the word may be an invitation to subconscious emotional confusion at best, and serious mind-body malfunction at worst. For a religious metaphor to be honest, it must be literally as well as figuratively true.
Unlike Kennedy, my answer is, "Yes, I am with the atheists"the Unitarian Universalist atheists who respect the rights of others to choose their own beliefs, their own terminology, and their own definitions.
Dan Kennedy's article expressed the dilemma of Unitarian Universalists who are agnostics (functional atheists), yet who are disturbed by the narrow rigidity of militant, organized atheists.
This gulf between different types of doubters is significantbut I wish Unitarian Universalists could approach the whole question of belief from a different basis: honesty. Scientific-minded searchers should follow honest logic in seeking truth. The focus should be: Can we find any evidence for the super- natural gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, saviors, miracles, etc., of the dominant religions? If we cannot, how can we voice this honest conclusion without sounding like the aforesaid militants?
Our current denominational practicemostly staying silentisn't quite satisfactory. Worse, when some Unitarian Universalist leaders invoke God in an abstruse sense, they sound like orthodox bishops and TV evangelists, giving an erroneous impression that most UUs embrace the supernatural. Our quandary might be solved if our denomination adopted a statement like: "The UUA takes no position on the existence or nonexistence of God. Members are free to reach their own conclusions about this profound question." This would make it clear that Unitarian Universalism is different from all other faiths, and would explain our difference from atheist groups.
James A. Haught
Charleston, West Virginia
Belief in God: If you've got it, flaunt it. If you lack it, then move on with the things you do believe in. Atheist Unitarian Universalists need to be more open, articulate, and specific about the humanist values we do advocate. Unitarian Universalists may confuse people by welcoming all religions to fellowship if we fail to stand up for our own values.
As a stellar astrophysicist, I was gratified to see the portrait of one of our own, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, in UU World ("Looking Back," January/February). I must take issue, though, with the article's characterization of the reaction of leading astrophysicist Henry Norris Russell to her thesis work on the high hydrogen content of stars.
While this matches the stereotypical feel-good story of science (brilliant youngster challenges wisdom of old graybeards, they're skeptical, she's later proven right), it at best is only part of the truth.
Payne herself did not initially believe her results, because they contradicted what everyone believed about stellar composition and because they did not work in the best models of stars then available, those of British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington. Russell was simply making an honest statement about the astrophysical knowledge of the day.
Later, in his paper about hydrogen abundance, he used a different method and did credit Payne as reaching the same conclusion. It's a very powerful statement when two skilled scientists derive an identical result using different paths. A conclusion that contradicts established theory should be independently verified before one can be confident of its accuracy.
While the sexism rampant in my profession barely half a century ago is stunning, I note that Russell acknowledged Payne's talents and considered her fully worthy of a professorship at Princeton or Harvard (he felt the same way about another great female astrophysicist, Charlotte Moore-Sitterly), but also knew that he wouldn't be able to effect the social revolution required to have a woman appointed to the science faculty of such tradition-bound institutions.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics, Allegheny College
Colleen A. Patrick erroneously classifies Henry David Thoreau as a "Unitarian animal advocate" ("Barnum the Beast," Letters, January/February).
Thoreau was not a Unitarian. He was raised in a Congregational-Unitarian household, but he quit the church in 1840 and rarely thereafter attended any sort of organized church service. He said that he was a "mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher."
Thoreau was not an "animal advocate," either. He appreciated the beauty of nature and wrote frequently of his love and respect for the animals he saw around his beloved Concord. He even experimented with vegetarianism from time to time, but he was not above trapping, killing, or eating animals.
In 1856 he visited P.T. Barnum's Museum in New York City. He wrote in great detail about the stuffed cougar and jaguar he saw there. He was fascinated!
West Acton, Massachusetts
UU World welcomes letters to the editor. Please address to "Letters," UU World, 25 Beacon St., Boston MA 02108, or e-mail us at email@example.com. Include your name, address, and daytime phone number on all correspondence. Letters are edited for length and style; a maximum length of 200 words is suggested. We regret that we cannot publish or respond to all letters.
A news article about a congregation that buys "green tags" to subsidize renewable energy development projects ("Vermont fellowship supplies energy," March/April, page 49) misstated the location of the nonprofit that manages the program. The Bonneville Environmental Foundation is located in Portland, Oregon.
The name of a minister quoted in a news story, "Congregation rallies when town loses power" (March/April, page 50), was incomplete. The minister is the Rev. Meg Barnhouse.
"Books by UU Authors" (January/February, page 58) listed the wrong congregational affiliation of John L. Swanson, author of Communing with Nature. Swanson attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, Oregon.
An obituary for the Rev. Gerald Fabrique Weary (January/February, page 50) should have mentioned the bequests made by Caroline E. Veatch and her sister Della Evans at Weary's invitation during his ministry in Plandome, New York. The Veatch Funds, given to the North Shore Unitarian Society in 1953, have provided millions of dollars for Unitarian Universalist programs ever since and are now administered by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York.