This talk is about the individual’s longing to belong, and the role of politics and religion. It’s also about the essential search for truth, which is attainable in diversity, discourse, and debate.
Today I suggest we look at our UUCE community as the perfect place to practice all the ways we aspire to create the future of our American Democracy. Politics and Religion, arguably the two most divisive sectors of American society today, are similarly impacted by our lack of honesty and civility, and similarly positioned to change our world for the better if only we could commit to practice our principles with integrity and compassion. The admonition to avoid dinner table conversation about the two most divisive topics in America today, notwithstanding, I believe it is only by addressing them with civility and open hearts, that we can embrace the reality that all of us, here at UUCE and all over the country, are “We the People,” who are fundamentally responsible for the welfare of our democracy and our fellow citizens.
Our worship team subscribes to a service called Touchstones, a monthly journal edited by personnel affiliated with the UUA, that provides resource material (music, language, photos, artwork and videos) which may be used in sermons, religious education for children and adults, small group discussion, and daily religious practice. Each year has a theme, further divided into monthly themes, that subscribers may use as they see fit. This year’s theme is Deepening Connections, an important, ongoing process in relationships and in community. The relationships that we value are subject to various challenges from within and without, as are the communities to which we belong. As connections are deepened, relationships and communities become stronger, more resilient, and more meaningful. Deepening requires imagination, skill, and commitment, yet the rewards are enormous.
Contemporary society is plagued by isolation, loneliness, and despair. While social media facilitates connections and networking, it tends to be superficial and manipulative. Confirmation biases impact how we gather information, but they also influence how we interpret and recall information. For example, people who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. Even when people do get exposed to challenging information, confirmation bias can cause them to reject it and, perversely, become even more certain that their own beliefs are correct. Psychologists call the mental process which helps explain this behavior motivated reasoning. What is worrying is that motivated reasoning may actually reduce our ability to understand and interpret evidence, and so make us less likely to be swayed by reasoned argument.
This is illustrated by a recent Danish study which showed elected politicians (hypothetical) satisfaction statistics for two different schools, then asked them to identify the best-performing one. Around 75% answered correctly when the options were labelled innocuously (e.g. “School A” and “School B”). However, these results changed dramatically when the options were framed in terms of public vs private services (e.g. “Private School” and “Public School”), a contentious issue in Danish politics.
It’s easy to accept opposing views when they concern things you don’t care about. But you also have deep-seated beliefs that form a core part of your identity — that you’re a kind person, that your political views are correct, etc. Evidence that runs counter to these beliefs often causes cognitive dissonance — a feeling of immense stress and anxiety.
One of my favorite authors, Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree About Religion and Politics , wrote descriptions of two commonly favored views of Capitalism for one of his TED talks, and hired video artists to animate his narration. We’ll watch them now as examples of how perfectly credible, albeit contradictory, points of view often present themselves to us. Monitor how you feel as you watch and listen. If you have a clear preference, you may talk about that during fellowship time in our breakout groups.
During this part of the sermon, we watched two videos to examine different points of view. Feel free to take the opportunity to watch these videos for yourself.
There is a great deal of evidence to show that the truth is currently in short supply in our national dialog. But how do we know what is true? And is it really “The Truth” we’re looking for, or are we trying to discover what will work in order to achieve a desirable outcome? On the other hand, do we believe “the end justifies the means?” Or, perhaps the process is what really counts.
Haidt says when he was in his twenties, his moral sensibilities were clear. They were influenced by the world he grew up in, and they seemed simple enough.” As he grew older he found that there were often choices of relatively equal value that competed for his favor. Perhaps one choice which once seemed obvious was now challenged by another that he considered of greater value to him. It was complicated. He once was an activist who jumped into a protest or demonstration without hesitation. Lately, he feels he wants to spend time reading, thinking and talking in order to see “all sides of the issue.” He waited to act until he was satisfied that he had debated with others who could passionately defend alternate points of view and evaluate method and impact; only then did he engage in policy-making or activism.
Getting your “ducks in a row” is commendable before taking strong action, and yet how much easier it would be just to find someone you trust, and follow their lead. Like a movie critic who always seems to predict correctly which movies you’ll like. Even if you disagree with your friends on some things, it may be better to go along to get along. But at UUCE, we say we welcome all those who embrace our principles, and we don’t have any real mandate for adherence to those principles let alone require a signed pledge of adherence to specific beliefs. In fact, people who come to visit will decide for themselves whether or not they belong. What if someone who thinks they fit in shares beliefs that you find confusing or even repugnant? In fact, we expect people to work these things out for themselves by sharing their beliefs, being open about their values and moral choices. My observations tell me that some people don’t feel comfortable sharing their truth, because they sense that other members would disagree with them. Others might blurt out ill-considered opinions that are offensive to some, yet those who are offended say nothing. Do you think we have a responsibility to respectfully share our beliefs and be prepared to defend them. Are you perhaps inclined not to say anything that might offend someone even if you find you’re not saying anything controversial at all. Haidt would assert that “learning is the antithesis of comfort.”
In the last thirty years people have become more isolated, lonely, and less likely to develop deep relationships that foster connection and support. Our religious community seeks to deepen the relationships among us so they will be a much-needed support especially in times of crisis, when too many people have no one to turn to. With fewer Americans affiliating themselves with organized religion, which had been correlated with family stability and civic responsibility, Americans have lately turned to politics to find a sense of identity and belonging. It’s not surprising that both religion and politics provide this.
While I can easily imagine politics without religion; I refuse to imagine my religion without politics. The meaning of the word “politics” fundamentally describes how people in a group make decisions. The key to combining politics and religion is to carefully determine HOW we look at and talk about politics. Because people often see themselves, or are seen by others, as belonging to specific PARTISAN political groups, the labels applied to them can be the source of insult and injury as well as pride and loyalty. I would suggest doing away with partisan labels to allow people to see values and behavior more clearly. Just as in the Danish experiment involving public and private schools, and when job applicants are identified by numbers accompanying their applications, rather than photos and names that may reveal race and ethnicity. Humans are hard-wired to categorize, label and make quick judgements–this ability is essential to processing information and making life and death decisions. However, we are capable of adjusting our use of these skills in ways that serve us better. This is just one of many times we humans must set aside our reptilian brains and modify our behavior to achieve more gratifying outcomes.
Our congregations must strive to nurture and deepen connections among members, newcomers, and strangers. Let’s use our UUCE community as a place to practice the qualities of civil discourse that can welcome all points of view and learn from a diverse membership. Haidt delivered a talk to a synagogue in which he reflected on the Jewish Art of Constructive Disagreement. He described the practice of nuanced and respectful self-reflection, giving others the benefit of the doubt, engaging in civility and humility. “Cultivate humble conviction.” “Be righteous rather than self-righteous.”
The study of group evolution is a more recent area of study. It is foundational to the human species more than any other. Focus on the individual did not emerge historically until the industrial revolution and mass production made most individuals into cogs in the machine and only those who stood out as the inventors, the managers, the owners became influential and a model for all to admire, strive to emulate, or destroy.
Through much of history, the value of the individual has been negligible. This has led to disastrous outcomes. Our assertion of the inherent worth and dignity of every person leads to a very different calculus in how we treat each other, including those with whom we strongly disagree, the stranger, and even our enemy. This assertion can evoke mutual respect and compassion.
For Unitarian Universalism, our first principle of worth and dignity are present as an original condition of being, not of doing. Birth is understood as original blessing, not original sin. This principle calls us to our best selves as we seek to create and sustain a life that expresses our worth and dignity. In this, we have a sacred responsibility to support children in their noble endeavor of becoming their best self. This principle also demands that we treat others with extraordinary respect befitting their worth and dignity. When we do this, every interaction can be a mutual blessing. Our regard for another is the basis upon which a relationship can be forged. If we are dismissive, scornful, or judgmental, it is difficult to make a connection that will be deep or meaningful. However, when we assume the worth and dignity of another, and affirm our own worth and dignity, we have the basis for mutual respect. In place of a hierarchical arrangement, we stand on the same level, heart to heart and eye to eye. To assume that worth is inherent is to affirm that the other person is a treasure, a unique individual who has never been, nor will ever be again. It is to invite the best from another. To acknowledge dignity, is to make self esteem possible. The connection that is forged with this person can expand and deepen over time. Acting on the worth and dignity in others is truly revolutionary.
In an address in January 1980 at First Parish (UU) Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) said that, “Dignity is something human beings give to each other.”
He believed that if we do not do this, there is no other way that dignity can be acquired. Literary critics of Vonnegut’s work generally agree that the most important aspect of his writing was a belief in “human dignity.” As an example, Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, explores his concern that human beings are just machines, each doing what he or she is programmed to do. They are devoid of self-respect or dignity. For Vonnegut, the truest example of this reality are the American poor; people trapped in the mechanical monotony of just struggling to try to make ends meet. In our society, the poor are too often thought to be undeserving of respect because they have no inherent worth. This attitude disgusted Vonnegut. “The key solution to human problems, Vonnegut kept insisting, is to find human dignity for all human beings— even those who seem to least deserve it.” Vonnegut believed that dignity isn’t an exclusive privilege for the well-to-do or successful, but is intrinsic to simply being a human being……
Some question the principle of inherent worth and dignity, suggesting that the evil acts of some people undercuts the universal application of this principle. When we are selective about designating who has inherent worth and dignity, we divide humanity into two groups: the haves and have-nots. This is a slippery slope. How would we know? How would we choose? Inherent worth and dignity could no longer be based on being.
As Vonnegut knew, our strong societal bias toward “doing” concludes that our worth and dignity are conditional on what we do, not on who we are. It teaches that worth and dignity are external rewards, not internal realities. What are you worth when you are not doing anything? Nothing? Is it not obvious that the foundation for doing is being? The closer these two dance together, the better. It is not a case of either/or, but both/and; continuous interplay, not a binary reality. Ignoring the interplay of being and doing may make it easier to put people in boxes of good and bad, but it ignores human complexity, circumstance, and so much more. It also ignores the possibility of redemption following bad choices and terrible deeds, and conveniently excuses us from a wider, deeper, and more challenging compassion.
Obviously, a person by his or her deeds may forfeit his or her inherent worth and dignity as doing overwhelms being. And that may be a permanent reality, but redemption can happen when least expected, especially when least expected by the offender. The affirmation of inherent worth reminds us that life is sacred and valuable beyond any other measure. If this was widely shared, what a wonderful world it would be.