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Clergy Without A God, Humanist Churches On The Rise

Humanist clergy meeting at the Washington Ethical Society
Humanist clergy meeting at the Washington Ethical Society
Julie Zauzmer

WASHINGTON — The name of the gathering almost sounded like an oxymoron: the "Humanist Clergy Collaboratory."

A meeting to organize religious leaders — for people who don't believe in organized religion?

"Well," Amanda Poppei joked, "some people would say we're not that organized."

But the humanist clergy — spiritual leaders for people who don't like to talk about God but do like to gather for a moral purpose — are trying to get a lot more organized. The "collaboratory," which Poppei hosted at Washington Ethical Society, the 73-year-old humanist congregation that she leads in Northwest Washington, brought together about 40 of them for a first-of-its-kind gathering of non-religious clergy.

These clergy without a God say that their movement is poised to grow dramatically right now, as American young adults report a lack of religious belief in higher numbers than ever before, but also yearn for communal ties and a sense of mission in a tumultuous time.

"Even more since the election, we have folks say, "I'm really looking for a way either to feel hope or to do justice,"" Poppei said. The Sunday after the presidential election, dozens of distressed liberal Washingtonians showed up at her service, and many have gotten involved in the congregation. Now, Poppei sees an opportunity for not just her community but humanists nationwide. "To me it's just about, how can we maximize what we're doing to allow us to take advantage of the moment right now? I believe really strongly that being a person in a community makes you a better person. America needs it."

A belief in the power of humanity and the human spirit, without supernatural intervention.

Fueled especially by the millennial generation, the portion of Americans who say they don't ascribe to any particular religion has increased dramatically, from 5% in 1972 to 25% today. A small portion of those 25% identify as atheist or agnostic. The rest tend to describe themselves using terms like "spiritual but not religious' or just "nothing in particular."

These nonreligious people, of course, tend not to join religious congregations. But the clergy who gathered at Washington Ethical Society this week offer them just that.

Almost all of these clergy hold services, often on Sunday mornings like a church. Members of their congregations sing together, listen to sermons and often celebrate God-free holidays. As an alternative to theism, these groups proffer humanism — a belief in the power of humanity and the human spirit, without supernatural intervention.

"We need spaces for secular moral stories, to raise up ideals, as a hub for service. We can't do service as individuals," said James Croft, who is involved in the 400-member Ethical Society of St. Louis. "Congregations help people make sense of terrible events. Congregations do memorials, weddings, baby namings."

Croft and Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein are working on a book for Simon and Schuster called "Godless Congregations." He thinks the young activists who have been newly inspired since the 2016 election to get involved in the political process will turn to congregational membership too.

"That needs some sort of institutional home. That's what I think these communities can be. Resistance is a hashtag. Where do you go to resist?" he said. "We are primed for a regeneration of traditional civic ideals."

Humanists looking for gatherings have more options than they might think. At this week's meeting, Susann Heap of the United Coalition of Reason showed off a new app for finding hundreds of humanist meetings in dozens of cities, with activities ranging from secular meditation to charitable volunteering to God-free addiction recovery.

Heap, who was in training to become a minister in the Church of England before reading non-canonical gospels and other materials that led to a change of heart, explained the motivation for the app: "Why should a person who doesn't believe in a deity feel alone?"

Most of the clergy at this summit, who came from as far away as the United Kingdom and Saskatchewan, belong to one of various humanists movements: the Ethical Culture movement; the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which keeps Jewish culture but strips God out of it; the Unitarian Universalist church, which welcomes members to believe in God or not. Other humanist clergy lead unaffiliated congregations that have popped up across the United States and Europe, including Sunday Assembly and Oasis meeting groups.

Each of these denominations holds meetings for its own members. Poppei, who trained as a Unitarian Universalist minister and now leads a congregation in the Ethical Culture movement, worked with humanist Rabbi Jeffrey Fallick and Unitarian minister Rev. David Breeden to convene a broader range of humanists at Poppei's congregation for a two-day meeting this week. They think the last such meeting was in 1984 — and before that, in the 1870s.

Some of the topics of discussion sessions during the meeting: how humanists should counsel people who are dying or grieving; how people who don't have faith can still participate in interfaith programs; what should go into humanist liturgy or humanist clergy education; what "spirituality" means and whether humanists can or should lay claim to it.

We are primed for a regeneration of traditional civic ideals.

"Sometimes atheists, in my experience, they cede too much linguistic ground to theists, when it comes to spirituality," Sincere Kirabo, an organizer at the American Humanist Association, said in one of the discussion groups.

Barry Swan, the leader of a Rochester, N.Y., humanistic synagogue, agreed. "I have a faith in humanity. I can have faith also. I am also not a nonbeliever."

"I like to say I'm a believer in the potential of human goodness," chimed in Randall Best, the leader of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

The clergy discussed ways they could work together on future projects, like serving more humanist patients in hospitals, sharing scripts for faith-free weddings and baby naming ceremonies, and getting involved in social justice movements. The keynote speakers, Kirabo and Kansas City activist Diane Burkholder, spoke about the humanist community's need to do more to include people of color and address racism.

But for all the grand plans, Poppei boiled the explanation for what these non-religious congregations can do down to very simple terms. A new member came to her service recently, she said. The woman was in her 30s, had been an atheist all her life, and had never much thought she was missing anything by not belonging to a religious community. Except one thing.

"I didn't know, when I got sick someday, who was going to bring me a casserole," the woman told Poppei.

Now that she's in an Ethical Culture society, she knows where that supportive casserole will come from, Poppei said. "I think that's what people are looking for."

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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