Science in America

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A Bunch of Skeptics Walked Into a Bar….

This week Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub met for the first time. This group, organized by me on behalf of the Humanists of Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ, is an opportunity for Skeptics, Freethinkers, Humanists, atheists, and agnostics to get together for beverages and good conversation with other secular-minded people. 

For this first event we were pleased to welcome Dr. Brian Regal as our speaker. He shared with us about his research into the Jersey Devil. Far from a cryptozoologist, he is a historian who does what a responsible professional in his position should do: he goes to the primary sources.

His talk took us through the background of the legend of the Jersey Devil, providing the larger historical context before revealing his thoughts on the source of this fiction. It was a fascinating and engaging look at the social, religious, and political scenario of the pre-revolution American colonies.

Though this was billed as ‘a toast to the Jersey Devil,’ after hearing the talk I thought it more appropriate to toast Daniel Leeds. More than that I won’t say, preferring to leave it to you to read Dr. Regal’s articles online or – even better – to buy a copy of his book when it is published later this year or early next year (I’ll share where to purchase a copy and most certainly write a review later).

The next meeting of Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub will take place in December, although I have not yet picked a date. We all greatly enjoyed being at Marco Polo, and hope to meet there next time as well. What will be the theme of the December meetup? FESTIVUS, of course!

Keep an eye on the Beacon Humanists Meetup page, as well as the Facebook page and Twitter feed of Northern NJ Skeptics in The Pub for upcoming events. 

The Relief of Unbelief

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There are so many Bible passages that once seemed profound to me, and now feel irrelevant. One of these is Hebrews 2:14-15, which in the New International Version reads as follows:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

These verses are talking about how the death of Jesus on the cross is supposed to have delivered people. The key takeaway for me was always that as a Christian I had nothing to fear in death, something that for everyone else in the world is The Great Unknown. The trouble is, it didn’t work like that. I still feared death. I’d pray before a long journey, anxious that I’d have a car accident along the way. In darker hours I was uneasy about my faith, wondering if it was strong or good enough to really save me. Occasionally I worried that I might be believing the wrong things, as I thought I had earlier in life, first as a Catholic and then as a faith-only evangelical.Then there was uncertainty about exactly what happens after death. The popular view, not well supported by the Bible, is that people die and then go to ‘heaven’ and hang out with God and his angels and saints. Others belief in ‘soul sleep,’ where people who ‘died in Christ’ are unconscious until Jesus returns to earth and the dead are resurrected.

As you can see, there is abundant cause for Christians to feel insecure about life after death, leaving aside the fact that there’s no way to directly test and verify what people claim happens after death.

The first few days after my faith ended were a time of shock for me. I suddenly felt very alone. Then, clarity set in. I realized that all those times I thought ‘God’ had gotten me through, it was me surviving and overcoming…if not entirely on my own, with the help of friends and family. Then, after reflecting on the idea of returning to the non-existence that preceded my conception and birth, the fear of death fell away.

Mind you, I still fear dying and worry that if I were to die now it would complicate the lives of my children. Also, there are many things I still want to do before I die. However, being dead holds no fear for me, as it will simply be nothing. There won’t be a ‘me’ to know that I’m dead.

Although my values have become considerably more progressive since my faith ended and reason kicked in, I’m still fundamentally the same person. I haven’t become a rapist, murderer, or wanton glutton. However, I have become more accepting, and with that has come a sense of peace.

For me, unbelief is very truly a relief.

The Cloth on the Communion Table

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[Note: Though some details may have been lost over time since this was first told to me, what follows is a true story and the broad strokes of it are accurate, to the best of my memory.]

Nearly two decades ago a professor at a Midwestern Bible College told me a story that illustrated the dangers of taking any tradition too seriously. This professor was frequently called upon to consult for congregations going through internal conflict. He facilitated conversations and mediated disputes, attempting to maintain unity while upholding a Bible-centered approach to Christianity. So, it wasn’t unusual that he was asked to help Southern Illinios a church in crisis one weekend. From the sound of it, the situation was critical and assistance was urgently needed to keep the congregation together.

He arrived to find the church hall packed and people embroiled in fierce arguments. Angry glares and red faces on either side of the aisle, with one side representing those wanting change, and the other that wanted things to stay the same. The issue, as it was then presented to this professor, was as follows.

During the church service every Sunday there was communion. This is a traditional ceremony wherein plates with pieces of bread and others with little cups of grape juice are passed around after a Bible reading referencing the death of Jesus, perhaps with comments and most certainly with prayer. While this is a normal event in most Protestant churches, in most denominations this “Lord’s Supper” is celebrated once a month or else once per quarter. In this fellowship of churches this is a weekly practice.

A unique aspect of this congregation’s take on the ritual was that a white cloth was placed over the elements on the communion table, and after the reading and prayer by one of the Elders, a couple of Deacons would go up and remove it. It was somewhat like the ceremony around taking down a flag, with a Deacon on either end of the cloth, and they would fold to the center. Only after this was complete would the trays with bread and juice be picked up and passed around those gathered.

This odd little ritual, unseen in any other known congregation, added a couple of minutes to the time it took to have the Lord’s Supper. A group in the church was campaigning remove the cloth from the ceremony, while others fought to maintain the tradition. One side saw it as a waste of time, and the other as an act of reverence.

Hearing both sides out, the professor thought it over, then asked who among those gathered had been a member of that congregation the longest. All heads turned to an elderly woman in her 80s, a senior citizen who had grown up in the church. He asked if she knew anything about how this tradition had started, and why.

“Well, I always thought it was strange that we still used that cloth. When I was a little girl we met at a different location, in a rural area. In the summer it was terribly hot, and since we didn’t have air conditioning, we opened the windows. Flies from the hog farm across the road were attracted to the bread and juice, and so one of the families donated a cloth to cover them and keep the flies off. After the church moved to this new building with central heat and air conditioning, we just kept using a cloth to cover the bread and juice, even though we didn’t need to any more. I never understood why.”

Silence fell over the congregation. Then a few nervous chuckles.

What had been seen as a non-negotiable aspect of worship by some was revealed as a necessity that had become an ingrained and unnecessary tradition.

Earlier in my life I did some church planting mission work in Brazil. One thing I often reminded my team members of was that whatever we did, be it order of service, holidays celebrated or ministries started, would likely become traditions. It was unavoidable. The regular practices of any group become a part of its history and culture. While we could make openness to change a theme, with distinct communities of people this only goes so far. It wasn’t possible to avoid tradition-making, so I asked everyone to think carefully about what kinds of traditions we wanted to pass down.

Our best efforts in that direction could, I’m afraid, be entirely undone by something as simple as a cloth on a communion table a generation or two later.

Stay flexible, people.

Ross Llewallyn Talks About Sunday Assembly on The Freethought Prophet

Ross Llewallyn is an organizer with Sunday Assembly Atlanta, and he was recently a guest on The Freethought Prophet to talk about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Sunday Assembly, a secular community that gets together to celebrate life, this could serve as your introduction.

Also, if you live in New York City or its surrounding environs and would like to see Sunday Assembly here as well, you could volunteer to join our organizing committee and help us relaunch. Just let me know.

Upcoming Course: The Humanist Life Stance

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This coming January I’ll be taking the first course toward becoming a Certified Humanist Professional. The course, ‘The Humanist Life Stance,’ is a prerequisite for the other courses available to obtain this certification. It will be taught by Rev. David Breeden, the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society, and it will be held in that congregation’s facilities. I very much encourage Humanists who take their outlook seriously and want to go deeper in understanding and articulating it to sign up for this course.

For more on this course and to register: http://humanistinstitute.org/register-for-the-humanist-life-stance-now/

A New Phase For An Old Blog

There’s a story about a man who boasted he had George Washington’s ax. His friend was quite skeptical, and challenged him on it. The man was insistent: “This is his very ax! The head and handle have both been replaced a few times, but outside that it’s the same one!” I feel almost like that man when I talk about blogging here since January 2006. What do I mean by ‘here’?

When I began blogging regularly I was going through a tough period in my life. I’d quit full-time ministry the year before – the same year my father died unexpectedly – and was struggling to make ends meet for my family after a move to New Jersey. Blogging was an outlet for me, a way to organize my scattered thoughts while also connecting with other people who read and commented on my blog. In those days before Facebook and Twitter, blogging was the way adults networked socially online. Teens, for their part, were all into MySpace. Yes, that’s how long ago it was.

After a period of brainstorming before starting my blog I came up with the name: Igneous Quill. Phil Wyman once referred to it as my ‘fiery feather pen,’ and he got it right. My inspiration was the phoenix, a mythical creature I’ve identified with since I was a small child. Through my blog I reflected, ranted, and speculated as I sought my voice in a troubled time.

That blog started out on Blogger, and then after I bought the top level domains for ‘igneousquill’ I split it into three blogs on three different platforms with a specific set of topics for each. Ultimately finding this arrangement unsatisfying, I pulled the content of all three back together on a single site on Blogger. I bought the top level domains for ‘adamgonnerman’ and (I now think quite foolishly) let the igneousquill domains go.

As Google has apparently abandoned new development for that platform, a couple of years ago I migrated my content over to Tumblr. It could well be that Verizon/Oath/Yahoo will kill or let die this platform, in which case I am prepared to migrate on to SquareSpace or elsewhere. In any case, I have no intention of giving up on my blog.

This week I’ve set out on a new trajectory with my blogging. It has long seemed to me that the domains bearing my name should be associated with my current profession in Enterprise Agile implementations, rather than with musings on Unitarian Universalism, Humanism, and other such topics. Still, since I intend to return to ministry someday, and I have quite a bit I want to say on a variety of subjects, I decided to press on under a new name, distinct from my own. Thus, here we are with Icarus Invictus.

This blog, different from but continuous with what came before, is named in honor of a poem by Jack Gilbert that is like a secular psalm to me, one that I feel aptly describes my life, and which also informs my outlook. I’ll leave you with that for now, and let you find the meaning. Thanks, as always, for reading.