The following is a short talk I gave at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) back in 2012:
I really appreciate the opportunity to give my own personal testimony on the Sunday when the theme is “Freethinkers and Heretics”, because I do consider myself as a freethinker or heretic. Probably many of us here do. When I was young, my mother brought me and my sister to church on Sunday. At first, to the United Church in Collins Bay. Later, to the Christian Reformed Church just a few blocks north of here, presumably because the United Church was not sufficiently orthodox. At that time, I thought I should be a Christian. My first act of heresy, then, was abandoning the faith of my ancestors.
When I first started thinking independently about theology, I thought about the concept of “universal truth”. That is, is there a religion that would apply everywhere in the universe and at every point in time. I quickly came to the conclusion that no Earthly religion could possibly make such a claim. Later, in university, I took a course in world religions. And although Buddhism and Taoism appealed to me in theory, in practice they too seemed to miss the mark.”Freethought”, according to the Wikipedia, is the philosophy that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas. By that definition, I suppose I am a “Freethinker”. But I’m not really comfortable with the term, probably for the same reasons I’m not comfortable with the term “atheist”. Consider the question of “God”: Science doesn’t really tell us that God doesn’t exist.
Following the scientific method, the most we can say is that God is untestable. And if untestable, there’s always the possibility that there is such a thing. That is, to me, saying that there’s no God seems just as dogmatic as saying there is. Which is perhaps a heresy to most freethinkers.But to be clear, although I can acknowledge the possibility that there may be a God, since it is untestable, I find little use in the concept. Even those who do fervently believe in a God can have vastly different opinions about the deity. And so, at a practical level, I believe we must live our lives assuming there’s no such thing, and use our intellect and compassion to guide us. I like the quote attributed to the Italian heretic Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
The way I see it, science is the best tool we have to understand the universe around us. But scientists themselves are the first to admit that science has definite limits. (Or they should be.) While science can model how something happens, it can’t explain why. For example, why do some things seem to happen just when we need them to happen? Often, I want to know if there’s some specific reason for my existence. And, I think many of us have some vague sense of something just beyond our five senses. I know there are no definitive answers to these questions. But that doesn’t stop me from pondering them and considering the possibilities.
I first learned about Unitarianism in the early 1980’s from an article in the Toronto Star, and later, I started attending Sunday service at the First Unitarian Congregation, when Chris Raible was its minister. After a few years, I moved further away and stopped attending. So for a while, I considered myself a “lapsed Unitarian.” When we moved to Kingston in 2010, Sylvana suggested that we check out KUF, and I readily agreed. And soon thereafter, we signed the membership book. We came for several reasons: First, we wanted our daughter to benefit from the religious exploration program. Second, as newcomers to the city, we wanted to meet new people. Third, I liked the idea of a weekly spiritual retreat.
But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.
Lately, I’ve been participating in a number of UU discussion groups on Facebook. On-line, I see a lot of diversity among UU’s. So much so that, when I offer my point of view, I sometimes feel like a heretic. But the way I see it, the diversity is a real strength of Unitarianism. Many of us approach the great questions of “Life, Universe, and Everything” through spirituality. It seems that fewer of us deal with these questions analytically. Can we use analytical tools in matters of faith? I believe we can. For example, I think the validity and usefulness of the “Golden Rule” can easily be demonstrated empirically. And it’s the one principle that practically everyone can agree on regardless of faith, or heresy. And so, the way I see it, the “Golden Rule” is probably the closest we can get to the concept of “universal truth”.