Most Humanists I know don’t use the term religious experience, at least not when they talk about themselves. In a world plagued by religious war, religious terrorism, and politicians who claim to know how God wants the rest of us to live, it is tempting to shake off all things religious like a rain-soaked dog shaking water off his coat. Can’t we just make sense and leave all that nonsense behind us?
And yet, when I follow where that idea leads, I wind up asking another question: Where does my unshakeable faith in the power of sense-making come from? Your faith (if you have it) may rest on solid, reasonable foundations, but mine is rooted in experiences of awe and wonder, and in moments when visions of a world-that-could-be overwhelmed my perception of the world-that-is.
That may not be a very sensible source, but it’s the only one I’ve got.
The book that changed my life really shouldn’t have been on my family’s shelves at all.
Years before my parents married, my mother had made one of those typical Book of the Month Club mistakes: She didn’t get her reply card in on time, so she wound up buying The World’s Greatest Thinkers, a four-volume set of excerpts from the classics of Western philosophy. It sat undisturbed in our bookcase all through my childhood, until one day during my junior-high years, when I wondered what was in it.
I don’t remember for sure, but I can guess what roused my curiosity: the “world’s greatest” in the title. I loved The Guinness Book of World Records, and a few years later I would pour over The Book of Lists. To this day, I am easily sucked into sports-network countdowns, like “The Top Ten Left-Handed Quarterbacks of All Time.” If this book contained an all-time top-ten list of thinkers, I had to see it.
It didn’t. But that’s how I met Socrates.
I don’t mean that I started learning the philosophy of Plato. To teen-aged me, Socrates was a character like Captain Kirk or James Bond. In The World’s Greatest Thinkers I watched him argue for his life, lose, and then counsel his friends through the process of his death.
I had never known anybody like him.
He was reasonable and thoughtful. He followed an idea wherever it led, and if he had faith in anything at all, it was that knowing the Truth (whatever it turned out to be) would be better than not knowing it. Even if you never figured it out, understanding that you didn’t know the Truth would be better than imagining that you did.
I had just come out of a Protestant confirmation class, where I had learned that the Bible was the literal word of God. I had memorized the Apostles’ Creed, dozens of King James Bible verses, and most of the answers from our Lutheran catechism. I had been taught not to follow an idea wherever it led; if it led away from orthodoxy, I was supposed to turn around and come back.
So I understood perfectly why Athenian parents considered Socrates a corrupter of the youth. My parents might not have wanted to execute him, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t approve of me reading this book, if they knew what I was learning from it.
That’s why I didn’t tell anyone. My secret admiration for Socrates was my first Humanist religious experience.
Not long after meeting Socrates, I met Euclid. Tenth-grade geometry was my first exposure to reason in its purest form. It was mind-blowing. Who could have imagined? Debates about the nature of God or the best form of government have raged forever, but for 23 centuries all reasonable people have had to agree that the angles of a plane triangle add up to 180 degrees. The argument isn’t just persuasive; it’s proof.
As I watched the building blocks of certainty pile higher and higher, I wondered what else this way of thought could do. And I had a vision: Maybe all the world’s apparent complexity just masks a small number of basic truths, endlessly combined and recombined into elaborate patterns. What if human wisdom could find those basic truths, and lay out those patterns in a way that all reasonable people could see and understand?
If that could happen, then someday there could be peace not imposed by the victor of the last war, justice not enforced by courts and police, and political unity not reached by compromising on the lowest common denominator. Maybe someday peace and justice and unity could be achieved through shared insight into the nature of things.
Both the beauty and the awesome urgency of that vision have stayed with me, affecting my decisions and causing me to stick my neck out when I otherwise wouldn’t.
If I want, I can justify those decisions and actions in reasonable, non-visionary terms, but that description leaves something out. Acting against my reasonable calculations may feel whimsical or foolish. But disowning that Euclidean vision, acting as if it were some silly thing that I have since grown out of, would betray the person I used to be.
I suspect that’s exactly how religious people feel about their religious experiences.
I also suspect that I’m not the only Humanist who has these kinds of stories to tell. But if my birth-religion silently encouraged me to exaggerate about life-changing experiences, the pressure I feel in Humanism is to tone it down. It’s fine to describe the mistakes you found in your previous beliefs, but to describe the origin of your passion for reason is unseemly.
That focus on the mistakes of others strikes me as a backwards way to promote your point of view, like a farmer who keeps pulling out weeds, but never gets around to planting. Passion is the seed, and you can’t plant it in others without showing them your own. When I tone my stories down to their most reasonable core, I wind up with a road map of where I’ve been, but no explanation of why I went there. Why would anybody else want to take that trip?
Consider, for example, the story of how I became a Unitarian Universalist. If I want, I can tell it in a very sensible way: I read the UU Principles in a pamphlet. Agreeing with them, I decided to check out a nearby congregation’s Sunday service. I enjoyed it and met like-minded people at coffee hour, so I stayed.
All that is factual, but it’s not what really happened.
The only thing I really remember about that Sunday was that the reading was from Bertrand Russell. I don’t even remember what it said. But Russell would have been anathema in the church where I grew up, so it was astonishing to hear his words read from a pulpit.
It was, I suspect, the astonishment that affected me, not the content.
But whatever the cause, something gave me a vision. It wasn’t that I had found the long-lost tribe of Bertrand Russell. That would have been interesting and might have kept me coming back for a few weeks, but I doubt it would have changed my life. Instead, my vision was that I had somehow stumbled into the Tribe of Humanity. Perhaps I was in a place where no one was anathema, where people did not split the world’s library into Our Books and Their Books. Maybe I had found a community that claimed all the world’s wisdom.
I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist ever since.
Over the years I’ve seen many individual UUs—and sometimes even whole congregations—fail to live up to that vision. But even when the Unitarian-Universalism-that-is disappoints me, my faith in the Unitarian-Universalism-that-could-be remains unshaken.
My old friend Socrates used to make this analogy: Reason is like a charioteer, passion like a horse. As important as it is for the charioteer to provide direction, without the horse he's not going anywhere. At its best, Humanism is not just a set of ideas that make sense. It is a life-changing and world-changing way to be human. But none of that change will happen without some horsepower.
Whether we generate any horsepower or not depends in large part on how we tell our stories. Sensible stories may explain how we got here, but the visionary ones capture what moved us—and what might move someone else.