The Congregation of the Lord

Which takes precedence: God’s law, or man’s law? If you ask a conservative Christian that question, most will answer that God’s law takes precedence over any civil law. But what does that mean? The Bible contains a large number of rules, laws, and commandments. In this blog post, I look at a couple of laws laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, which have relevance to the field of genealogy.

The first is Deuteronomy 23:2: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” (KJV)

A rather strict rule, that, applying even to the descendants of the illegitimate child. Even if your parents were legitimately married when you were born, you would not be allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord if any of your ancestors going back ten generations was born out of wedlock.

As an amateur genealogist, I can attest that it would be quite the challenge to prove that all of your ancestors going back that far were born legitimately.

In my own data, there are roughly three generations per century. Ten generations brings you back to the late 1700’s. On the Dutch side of my pedigree, I know the names of all of my 4th great grandparents, as well as all but two of my 5th great grandparents. To complete my pedigree going back ten generations, I would need to get information on everyone back to my 8th great grandparents. That can be as many as 2046 ancestors!

Clearly, few people can accurately provide proof that they are allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord based on Deuteronomy 23:2. If you believe in an omnipresent supreme being, then that being would know for certain, but you can never be sure.

You could take the approach that one is innocent before proven guilty. In that case if you can identify one bastard ancestor, the rule would apply to you and you would not be allowed to enter the congregation of the Lord. Since I do have a couple of illegitimate ancestors, the rule applies to me, as well as seven generations of my descendants.

In my case, the illegitimate ancestors are on the German side of my pedigree. Since it was not always easy for a couple to get permission to marry in the Grand-duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, even up to the end of the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for a couple to have a child (or two) before getting married. On the other hand, since the Netherlands was generally more affluent, illegitimate births were much less common there. So as far as I can tell, of my Dutch ancestors I know about, all were born after their parents were married.

But now let’s take a look at another rule, one chapter earlier, Deuteronomy 22:20-21: “But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: …

In a nutshell, according to Deuteronomy 22, for a marriage to be considered valid, the bride must be a virgin on her wedding night. And if a marriage is not valid, all children from the marriage must be considered bastard children. And then Deuteronomy 23:2 applies.

This means that for someone to be allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord, one must not only prove that all ancestors going back roughly three centuries were born legitimately, but that as many as 1023 female ancestors were virgins when they married. Based on surviving records, of course this would be an impossible challenge. But as before, all it takes is one case to prove that one is not allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord.

On the Dutch side of my pedigree, you don’t have to go very far. It’s not a secret in my family that my Dutch grandparents had to get married. Their first child was born in 1927 about four months after their marriage. Unless some sort of miracle occurred, my Dutch grandmother was obviously not a virgin when she married. (Coincidentally, that’s also true for my German grandparents, in 1926.) And as a consequence, all of my aunts and uncles, all 28 of my first cousins, and all of their many descendants are not allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord.

If you believe that God’s law takes precedence over any civil law, then you have a problem. Specifically, I know of two ministers of one particular conservative Christian denomination who are technically not allowed to enter the into congregation of the Lord by these particular rules.

One might argue that one cannot be punished because of the sins of their ancestors. But then you would put into doubt one of the most fundamental principles of conservative Christianity, the doctrine of original sin.

I don’t envy the conservatives. Almost certainly they can find a way interpret the Biblical laws in their own favor. But it would take some interesting theological gymnastics. One would have to argue that these verses do not really mean what they say. Or perhaps they can find some other verses that contradict these particular verses, in which case they would have to admit that the Bible is flawed and subject to interpretation.

You really have to wonder, by these rules laid down in the Holy Bible, is there anyone who is able to enter into the congregation of the Lord?

COVID-19, SARS, and Model Train Shows

Back in 2003, model railroaders in southern Ontario were eagerly awaiting the upcoming National Model Railroader Association convention in Toronto. This was significant since this was to be the first time the NMRA held their annual convention outside the United States. But as luck would have it, Toronto was hit with the SARS virus. Enough people canceled their reservations that the NMRA had to cancel the convention. A train show was still held in Toronto that Summer, but it paled in comparison to what should have happened.

(For some reason, the NMRA website still lists Toronto as the site of the 2003 convention.)

SARS was a big deal. However, for most of us in Toronto, life went on with little disruption. The outbreaks were mainly limited to a couple of hospitals, and all area hospitals took severe measures to mitigate the spread. By the time the danger had passed, the SARS virus took the lives of 24 people in Ontario. However, the panic resulted in the cancellation of many more events in the Toronto area, not just the NMRA convention.

Compare that to today. As a result of COVID-19, another corona virus, few places are free from infection. Currently, the United States is experiencing one death every 53 seconds from COVID. And that’s just the official count. The actual number of deaths is almost certainly much higher.

And yet, look at the attitude of many people in the US. I wonder this: Of the people who canceled their trips to Toronto back in 2003, how many are now actively taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus? How many are wearing masks? How many are practicing social distancing? And how many are attending events where people don’t take the virus seriously enough?

The latest news from the US is disheartening. The United States Supreme Court ruled that, in the state of New York, social distancing rules do not apply to churches.  This is insane! The virus doesn’t differentiate between secular and sacred spaces. Once vaccines are available and people get vaccinated, there will still be people who will refuse the vaccine. Infection rates will drop of course, but with people refusing to get vaccinated and with people still congregating in places where mitigation measures are willfully ignored, it will still take some time before the virus outbreak is fully under control.

Currently, churches are already a major source of COVID infection, and now will continue to confound public health efforts to contain the virus. How will this affect religion long-term? Even before COVID, church attendance has been dropping. But now that we’re in a pandemic, interest in church has been falling even further. Although there are still people who don’t take COVID seriously enough, there are a lot of people who do, and many of them see how dangerously out of touch many conservative preachers are. This can only drive even more people into the “nones” category. If there’s a positive to COVID, I suppose this is it: As the churches become even more of a factor in the spread of COVID, the ineffectiveness and dangers of religious practices will become even more obvious.




Introducing the Ex-UU Group

It’s been said that the only constant is change. This truism probably goes back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said “Everything changes and nothing stands still”. People change. Institutions change. Situations change. Change is all around us. Sometimes change is difficult. But sometimes change is what we need to do.

Back when I was in university, I was undecided what to do after graduation. I felt I should stay in school to get my Master’s degree. But I also felt I should move on. I decided to take what seemed the easier path and stayed in school. But within months, I realized I had made the wrong choice. I quit school, accepted a job at IBM Canada, and moved to Toronto. I never regretted that decision.

In 2010, my family decided to take a radical step and we moved to Kingston to be close to family. Shortly thereafter we joined the local Unitarian fellowship. It made sense at the time. We were with a group of friendly, more or less like minded people. However, as time when on and we became more involved with the fellowship, we became more and more uncomfortable. Something was changing. But it took a while before we began to make sense of it. (You can read about our decision to leave the fellowship here.)

Which brings me closer to the topic of this missive. Lately, we have been participating in one particular on-line forum on Facebook, The Gadfly Papers UU Book Conversation Group. I’ll try not to get into a lot of details, but the group reflects deep ideological differences among the Unitarian Universalist (UU) laity. Differences that may threaten the very existence of UU.

In a nutshell, the key issue is this. While it is probably a given that the vast majority of UU’s (if not all) want to see an end to racism, there is deep disagreement over how that is to be achieved. The UUA has embraced an extremely controversial theory called Critical Race Theory (CRT). It’s worth reading the Wikipedia page, especially the Critique section. One big problem with the theory is that critics of the theory are summarily dismissed with accusations of “white fragility” or being part of “white supremacist culture”. If the theory cannot be challenged, it cannot be tested, and therefore is bad science. I realize the social sciences can’t be as rigorous as the hard sciences, but I believe most researchers in the social sciences do try to make an honest effort to apply the scientific method.

Critics of CRT argue that there are better methods to address racism in society, methods that don’t alienate vast parts of society, including people who are making a sincere effort to stamp out racism. Within UU, good people have been thrown under the bus just because they disagree with the current CRT doctrine of the UUA. There is a serious chilling effect. Ministers cannot be seen as disagreeing with CRT lest they be accused of acting out of covenant. I leave it to you to decide how many of the Seven Principles are being violated by the actions of the UUA. (If you want another opinion on CRT, read A Perspective Based on 22 Years of Marginalization, by Jozef Bicerano, a UU for more than 35 years and also currently an active member of a UU congregation.)

But I don’t want to dwell on that. My point is that, for various reasons, people have left their UU fellowships (or Unitarian, in Canada). And as a result of the current controversy, more may well be tempted to leave. But as for us, we left two years before the Gadfly Papers made a splash at the recent UUA General Assembly meeting. As I mentioned at the start of this essay, people change and institutions change. Sometimes the only viable option left for someone who’s feeling unsatisfied is to leave their fellowship.

A few months ago, I jokingly suggested to someone that we needed an on-line support group for people who have left UU. As a result of the heated discussions on the Gadfly Facebook group, we decided to go ahead and start such a group. If you have already taken the leap and left a UU congregation, you are invited to join the Ex-UU group on Facebook.

Just to be very clear, this is intended as a forward-looking group. While group members may have strong feelings about their prior involvement with UU, it is not our place to engage in UU-bashing. And I want to make this clear, it is absolutely not our purpose to encourage people to leave their fellowships. Many of us still have a strong affinity with UU. As I’ve mentioned before, even though I no longer identify as Unitarian, I still have a strong respect for the Seven Principles.

We are a group of people who share our stories as we move forward in our lives. Some ex-UU’s are looking for different channels to support their humanist leanings, while others look for more spiritual outlets. There are a lot of different alternatives, such as humanist organizations or progressive Christian churches. Leaving a church can be difficult. We want to send the message to disaffected UU’s that they are not alone, and that there’s life after leaving a UU fellowship.

To further our purpose, we do try to screen prospective group members. When you press the “Join” button, you will be asked three questions: What is the name of your last UU fellowship? What year did you leave it? And do you agree to the rules of the group?

The group is simply a recognition of the fact that situations change. Some may well view the existence of the group as provocative. But I would argue that if someone sees the group as provocative, they don’t fully understand the Seven Principles. The fourth principle in particular talks about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. If you truly accept that, you must accept the possibility that your own search for truth and meaning may well lead you away from UU. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you are a former UU and would like to join with others, then please feel free to check out the Ex-UU group on Facebook.

Cheers! Hans


Some Thoughts on Unitarianism

It’s now been a little more than two years since we resigned our memberships in the local Unitarian fellowship. In a previous posting, I summarized the reasons behind our decision. As you might guess, there’s a lot more to our story than that. At various times, I’ve been tempted to go into more detail. But I never quite see the point in dredging up history. However, occasionally I do still think about my own beliefs, and how they fit in with Unitarianism. This post is a somewhat rambling collection of semi-related thoughts and musings.

I’ll start by mentioning one reason behind our decision to move on. Over time, as atheist humanists, we felt less and less of a connection to the congregation as it seemed to move increasingly towards more of a focus on spirituality. Ultimately, there were specific events that forced the issue, and by April 2017, we pretty much each had at least one foot out the door already.

Here’s an important point about Unitarianism. As a “creed-less” faith, the term “Unitarian” really doesn’t say much about one’s beliefs. There always seems to be the need to qualify the term, as in Humanist-Unitarian, Christian-Unitarian, Buddhist-Unitarian, etc. I don’t call myself a Unitarian, but if I were to, I’d have to say that I was a “Seven-Principles Unitarian”. That is, although I may no longer belong to a Unitarian fellowship, I still place great value on the Seven Principles.

And that leads to my next point. Many congregations have a particular focus. For example, many congregations in the US are distinctly Christian. Indeed, some Unitarians in the US can be more accurately described as anti-trinitarian Christians instead of Unitarians. Other congregations have a temperament that could be described as anti-Christian, where people cringe upon hearing the name “Jesus”. All of this fits within the umbrella of Unitarianism, since the faith gives its followers the freedom to develop their own personal theology.

That freedom to develop one’s own personal theology is clearly stated in the Seven Principles. Specifically, the third and fourth principles:

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

Note that there’s an important consequence of these particular principles. As I often state, if you truly accept these principles, you must accept the possibility that your own search for truth and meaning may well lead you away from Unitarianism.

In a sense, Unitarianism is not so much a faith, but rather a process. We are all on some sort of spiritual journey. Even if we don’t consider ourselves as especially spiritual, we all have values. And over time, these values may well change and evolve.

I’m now reminded of one thing that bothers me about the third principle, the term “spiritual growth”. The word “growth” implies a value judgment. When one says that they are growing spiritually, it implies that they are somehow better, or rather, more enlightened than before. And often, the conceit that they are more spiritually “awake” is accompanied by the arrogance that others should follow in their path. Although this conceit seems more common among followers of the more conservative denominations, Unitarians are not immune to this way of thinking. I’ve seen it among some of them as well.

One of the biggest challenges for any Unitarian congregation is finding a balance between different factions. The person most responsible for dealing with this challenge is the minister, who must not be seen as favoring one group over another within a congregation. Ideally, in my opinion, a congregation is best served without a minister. After all, the main reason most people join a congregation is to socialize with like-minded people. I’m sure many will take issue with that, but I stand by that statement. For us, meeting with some wonderful people every Sunday is the thing we miss most about our local fellowship. And just because we’ve left the fellowship doesn’t mean our own spiritual journeys have ended. It just happens differently now.

For me, I now find spiritual meaning in music. As Jimi Hendrix once said, “Music is my religion”.

If a congregation truly takes the Seven Principles seriously, it must be able to deal effectively with conflicting personal theologies. Members of a congregation must accept differing beliefs and values, while at the same time feel free to express their own beliefs and values. Members must not feel shackled by some tacit covenant in order to be seen as playing nice with others. While Unitarians talk about welcoming everyone, that must include giving everyone the freedom to express their beliefs and opinions, and to challenge others in a respectful manner.

That’s enough rambling for now.

Cheers! Hans



I am a “seven”.

That is, I consider myself a “strong atheist” on the Dawkins Scale. On that scale, one represents a “strong theist”, a person who believes 100% in the existence of a supreme being. Four represents someone completely impartial, believing that a supreme being is as likely to exist as not.

A lot of atheists consider themselves as six, or “de facto atheist” since, although improbable, there is always the slight possibility that some supernatural deity might exist. (“Agnostic” might be a better term.) Richard Dawkins, in a 2008 interview, suggested that he might place himself as 6.9 on the scale. And for some time, I felt that that was an appropriate number for me too.

But here’s the thing: Although people have been worshiping some deity or other for thousands of years, there has been no concrete evidence put forward by anyone that even remotely hints at a solid proof for the existence of a god. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if it weren’t for countless ancient myths and legends, some of which have been given such honored status that many people actually consider them literally true, with only their faith as support.

Strip way the old stories, and what are we left with? Setting aside the myths, and starting from scratch, would anyone have any grounds to theorize a supreme being? And if someone put forward a new theory positing a supreme being, without knowing anything about any existing religion, would that theory bear any similarity to any existing religion?

In ancient times, deities and spirits may have been reasonable explanations for various natural phenomena. But over the past few thousand years, we have steadily revealed the inner workings of nature to the point where supernatural explanations are no longer needed.

Although there is always the slight possibility that there might be supernatural agents at work, there are various possibilities: First, if there is a supernatural agent, if may simply be something that is just slightly beyond the reach for our current scientific tools to understand. For now. Alternatively, a supernatural deity may exist but chooses not to reveal itself. Or perhaps cannot reveal itself. If that is the case, it is for all intents and purposes equivalent to no deity at all.

If a god existed, it has had several thousand years to unambiguously and incontrovertibly present itself to humanity. We only have handed-down stories about various prophets who claim to know “God”. Or claim to be “God”. Just the fact that there is still nothing close to universal consensus among theists as to the nature of a supreme being is for me a strong enough indication that such a thing doesn’t exist.

I am a “seven”.

By the way, in case you were wondering about the photo at the beginning of this piece. I took the picture 40 years ago. I’m not sure how the scene came to be, but I thought a cross lying in a hole in the ground presented an interesting metaphor.

Cheers! Hans

Principles and Points

I’d like to start out by saying that, although we were members of a Unitarian congregation for a number of years, I was never comfortable calling myself a “Unitarian”. Since Unitarianism is a “creed-less” faith, the term is too non-specific for my tastes. Terms like “atheist” and “humanist” are much more descriptive of my beliefs. In fact, probably a majority of Unitarians in Canada identify as atheist or humanist. At least, that was probably true in the past at our local Unitarian fellowship.

Unitarians may not have a specific requirement for what they must believe, but they have a set of Seven Principles. I’ll repeat them here:

We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote:

1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

2) Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;

3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

5) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

6) The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These principles are fine, but they are not exclusive to Unitarianism. They are lofty enough that anyone can accept them, even those who wouldn’t even consider themselves as Unitarian.

The Seven Principles begin with an important statement, that every person has value, and is worthy and deserving of being treated with respect and dignity.

Compare the First Principle with the second sentence of the US Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The inherent worth and dignity of everyone is one of those principles that should be considered self-evident by any thinking and caring human being.

In comparison, read the Eight Points of the (now defunct) Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (CCPC):

1) Centre our faith on values that affirm the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life, the inherent and equal worth of all persons, and the supremacy of love expressed actively in our lives as compassion and social justice;

2) Engage in a search that has roots in our Christian heritage and traditions;

3) Embrace the freedom and responsibility to examine traditionally held Christian beliefs and practices, acknowledging the human construction of religion, and in the light of conscience and contemporary learning, adjust our views and practices accordingly;

4) Draw from diverse sources of wisdom, regarding all as fallible human expressions open to our evaluation of their potential contribution to our individual and communal lives;

5) Find more meaning in the search for understanding than in the arrival at certainty; in the questions than the answers;

6) Encourage inclusive, non-discriminatory, non-hierarchical community where our common humanity is honoured in a trusting atmosphere of mutual respect and support;

7) Promote forms of individual and community celebration, study, and prayer that use understandable, inclusive, non-dogmatic, value-based language by which people of religious, skeptical, or secular backgrounds may be nurtured and challenged;

8) Commit to journeying together, our ongoing growth characterized by honesty, integrity, openness, respect, intellectual rigour, courage, creativity, and balance.

I list the Eight Points of the CCPC in full here since they don’t seem to be available else on the internet. Clearly, there is a great deal of overlap between the Seven Principles and the Eight Points. Just as most atheists and humanists would probably agree with the Seven Principles, most would probably also agree with most of the Eight Points (expect, of course, for point 2).

As I mentioned before, the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity closed down a few years ago. They claimed that they accomplished their goals. I suspect the truth is that they were simply too progressive for most Canadian Christians.

To see a side-by-side comparison of the Seven Principles and Eight Points, US and Canadian versions, click here.

As a contrast, let’s consider another set of principles, the five points of Calvinism. These points are identified by the acronym TULIP:

Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)

Unconditional Election

Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)

Irresistible Grace

Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)

I won’t go into great detail about these points other than to contrast the first point, “T”, with the first principle of Unitarianism. While Unitarians believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, Calvinists believe in the total depravity of mankind. You can’t get a wider difference than that. You have to wonder how a Calvinist can treat any of their fellow humans with any degree of respect if they believe that everyone, and I mean everyone, is intrinsically evil.

Of course, most Calvinists can’t see the inherent contradictions in the Five Points. For example, they also believe that humans have no free will. That is, mankind is inherently evil not of their own choosing, but rather, because their god wills it.

It is interesting that if you debate a Calvinist and press them on the points, some will admit that they don’t actually believe in all of the Five Points. Even though they learned and accepted the catechism of their church, many Calvinists believe, for example, that man does have free will. These are the so-called “Three Point Calvinists“. (There are also “Four Point Calvinists” and even “One Point Calvinists“.) In the past, people have gotten themselves killed because they didn’t believe in the full Calvinist catechism.

I’ve always considered the fact that Christians can’t agree on basic principles one of the biggest arguments against Christianity. If there were a God, it should be considered a heresy that such a supreme being was incapable or unwilling to get its message out in a clear and unambiguous manner. Instead, we have thousands of different prophets each claiming to know what God wants of us, and few of them agreeing on all their claims. I must conclude that they’re all wrong.

I’ll conclude this missive with a quote from Thomas Jefferson in a letter written to John Adams in 1823:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god… his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.

Cheers! Hans

On Leaving The Fellowship

The Decision To Leave

It’s not easy leaving a church. We stayed with the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) for as long as we did because we valued the friendships we made there. I also very much enjoyed my volunteer duties within the fellowship, which included managing the website and editing the monthly newsletter.

Our decision to leave KUF was several years in the making. Over a period of about three years, our dissatisfaction gradually grew. By December of last year, we both knew it was just a matter of time before we would submit our resignations from the fellowship. That time came in the Spring with the selection of a candidate for settled minister.

Regarding that candidate minister, we read every word on her biography website. We both came to the conclusion that, although she seemed very qualified, and certainly very personable, she was not our minister.

The Theist – Humanist Divide

Unitarians are a varied bunch. One of the biggest challenges for any church is to balance the needs of all of its members. The biggest divide is between the theists who want a more spiritual church and the humanists who generally want a more rational, issues-oriented church. This is the so-called “theist-humanist divide”.

When we first went to KUF back in 2010, its services reminded me of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, where I sometimes attended service back in the 1980’s. In 2012, I gave a short talk in a series called “Personal Theologies” which reflected my views on Unitarianism: “A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth”. As far as I could tell, it was well received at the time. Here’s the key paragraph from my talk:

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.

Since then though, a gradual change occurred. The word “covenant” kept cropping up, defining how KUF members were expected to behave towards one another. I cringed whenever I heard that word, since it was often used in a context of criticizing someone. I often heard people accuse someone of acting not in accordance with covenant.

For us, Unitarianism was losing its edge. Accord among members was being seen as more important than issues. The fellowship was shifting that delicate theist-humanist balance in favor of some sort of feel-good spirituality. And the choice of candidate minister just seemed to shift that balance even more into the spiritual end of the spectrum. This was not the Unitarianism we embraced six years earlier.

We know that many people joined KUF because of social activism. We also know that some people checking out KUF don’t stay since they didn’t find the social activism they expected.

The Wider Context

Over the Summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened. My research led to an interesting finding, that the trend to a more spiritual church was not limited to KUF. Rather, it seemed to be a more widespread trend. The decision to re-brand Unitarianism was made at the UUA back in 2012. This was described in an article in Boston Magazine called “Selling God”. This paragraph sums it up:

What UU needs to survive, he [Dave Ruffin] believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

When I read this, it hit a nerve. After announcing our decision to leave KUF, I often told people that we left when it stopped feeling like a church and started feeling like a religion.

Another article I came across described exactly what I was feeling. At the, you can find a piece written by Michael Werner called “Regaining Balance – The Evolution of the UUA”. It’s worth reading the entire article, but here’s its conclusion:

Can humanism in the UUA be revived? I think so, but it must be led by a ministry that sees the need for the humanist lifestance to be unapologetically embraced as it once was. It will require courage and open minds to balance tolerance and reason, heart and mind. This form of humanism won’t appeal to everyone, but a return to humanism offers the UUA a chance to revive itself for the twenty-first century’s secular revolution.

To be clear, I don’t want to be seen as bitter about what happened. I still very much value my experience as a KUF member. And I certainly don’t want to burn bridges. I offer this in the spirit of the Unitarianism I used to know, to encourage people to think about their place in a changing church.

Cheers! Hans




I Am An Atheist

Some four decades ago, I read a book, a collection of essays by some famous scholar. In one essay, he promised to offer a proof for the existence of God, and I must admit, I got rather excited. I eagerly turned the page and continued reading. But I still remember my disappointment when the “proof” turned out to be nothing.

Frankly, no one would be more pleased than me if there were solid proof for a supreme being. I’ve often wondered if there is something just beyond what our senses and instruments can observe. Sometimes I wonder if I have some sort of “guardian angel” watching over me. And sometimes I wonder if there is some higher purpose to my existence.

But over time, I’ve come to accept the conclusion that there’s no proof for any supernatural deity. Indeed, no proof is at all even possible. How can there be? The best tool we have at our disposal for understanding the world around us is science. And yet, science can only deal with issues in our natural existence, not in some vague concept that exists in some hypothetical supernatural realm.

There is simply no evidence for anything supernatural. Over time, every phenomenon that was once assumed to have a supernatural origin has been found to have a natural cause. Consider lightning for example. It was once believed that thunder and lightning were caused by demons in the clouds. Churches, which were often the tallest structures in most towns, were often struck by lightning. Frequently, these structures caught fire. And bell-ringers, who were called upon to drive away the demons, were often electrocuted.

But eventually, one scientist, Benjamin Franklin, determined the true nature of lightning. Franklin used that knowledge to invent the lightning rod. Churches were reluctant at first to use this simple invention. But soon, most churches recognized the usefulness of this scientific advance.

Over time, my own level of atheism has changed. Since any concept of any possible supreme being is untestable, there’s always the possibility that such a being (or beings) might exist. But since such a being is not making itself obvious to us in this natural realm, it’s useless to belabor the point. The only reasonable conclusion is that there is no God.

Richard Dawkins proposed a seven point scale, where 1 represents a strong belief in God, and 7 represents a strong conviction that there is no God. For a long time, I was a 6. That is, a “de facto atheist”. But lately, I think I’m moving ever closer to a 7.

This is a big topic, and I’ll have more to say later.

Cheers! Hans


New Age Woo

I’ve always been interested in religion. I even took a course in comparative religion in university. During that course, I became interested in some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. And I enjoyed reading the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi.

But over time, I realized that, no matter how noble the original intentions of any religion are, inevitably all religions become corrupted. And that there’s nothing as dangerous as religious leaders and teachers who seem to feel ennobled by their “holiness”. Many may well be sincere, but even the most sincere can be corrupted.

Yesterday, in my wanderings through cyberspace, I came across Naropa University, a liberal arts school in Boulder Colorado. Initially called Naropa Institute when founded by Chögyam Trungpa in 1974, the school offers a unique “contemplative liberal arts education”. Although it claims to be secular, its programs are heavily influenced by Buddhism. It’s reputation is, however, questionable since its credits are not recognized by any other university.

By BuddhaNU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]


Chögyam Trungpa is an interesting character. Although revered by many, he clearly suffered from human failings. Here is a excerpt from the Wikipedia story on Trungpa:

In some instances Trungpa was too drunk to walk and had to be carried. Also, according to his student John Steinbeck IV and his wife, on a couple of occasions Trungpa’s speech was unintelligible. One woman reported serving him “big glasses of gin first thing in the morning.”

The Steinbecks wrote a sharply critical memoir of their lives with Trungpa in which they claim that, in addition to alcohol, he spent $40,000 a year on cocaine, and used Seconal to come down from the cocaine. The Steinbecks said the cocaine use was kept secret from the wider Vajradhatu community.

Trungpa’s successor as head of the institute, Ösel Tendzin, was no angel either. He lied about his HIV positive diagnosis and transmitted the virus to at least one of his students. Worse, Trungpa told Tendzin that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, his sexual partners would not contract the virus. (See Controversy.)

There’s more. According the RationalWiki article on Naropa University, one student fell under the spell of her dance instructor, which, it is believed, led to her psychological breakdown and suicide. In response, her parents established the organization Families Against Cult Teachings.

For more interesting reading, visit the blog The Boulder Buddhist Scam, written by a former student.

A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth

The following is a short talk I gave at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) back in 2012. Note that although this reflects my opinions at the time, given the changes in Unitarianism during the past five years, I’m not sure if this would be appropriate today at KUF:

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”.

Cheers! Hans