Truth and Meaning: Newspeak

Truth and Meaning: Newspeak

Some of my favorite books are dystopian novels — stories of future worlds that see themselves as utopian, but are in fact nightmarish perversions of society. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian government and fundamentalist religious dogma.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell, presented the concept of Newspeak — a controlled language created by the state as a tool to limit freedom of thought. Newspeak made obsolete concepts that posed a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality and peace. Any form of thought altering from this narrative construct was classified as “thoughtcrime.”
Students of dystopian fiction see all too frequently the creeping influence of Newspeak in our language today, represented by euphemisms that hide a sinister agenda. We hear these phrases everyday in our media, but rarely see them called out for their real meanings.

Traditional Values — “Traditional” or “family” values are touted by people seeking to impose their definition of values on everyone by claiming that those values are somehow inherent or natural. It does not matter that facts do not support their claims. They simply shout louder and make up new facts that do seem to support their position. The most important value to many advocates of “traditional values” is privilege — the unearned right to deny freedoms to others that they take for granted and use to their own advantage.

Pro-Life — A “pro-life” advocate opposes reproductive freedom, from sex education to birth control to family planning to abortion, even when medically necessary to save the life of the woman. A “pro-life” advocate often cares only about bringing every fetus to term, regardless of the circumstances into which a baby is being brought, and without regard to the future health and well-being of the child, the mother, or the family.  “Pro-Life” is synonymous with “pro-birth” and “anti-choice.” The agenda of the pro-life movement is not to improve the welfare of children, but to control the reproductive lives of women.

Small Government — An advocate for small government is often really a classist who opposes public support of the poor and middle class while favoring government welfare for the wealthy. The small government advocate opposes civil rights for the underprivileged, but supports unabridged freedom for the privileged classes in society. They oppose any attempt to regulate guns, conservative speech, lobbying and campaign finances, but support the complete regulation of voting by the poor and minorities, access to reproductive health care by women and the ability to discriminate on the basis of one’s personal religious belief.

When the purveyors of Newspeak proclaim their beliefs as immutable truth, it is up to us to challenge their assumptions and to let them know that they do not speak for all Americans.

Truth and Meaning: Rationalizing Hate and Discrimination

Truth and Meaning: Rationalizing Hate and Discrimination

“I don’t hate anyone.” I must have heard that sentence at least six times last Tuesday night as opponents to a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance addressed Bay County commissioners. The proposed ordinance would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for all direct employment and services provided by Bay County, including services provided by any county contractors.

“But …” and then would follow the flood of uninformed and irrelevant venom directed at gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folk. “I don’t believe in discriminating against anyone …” would immediately precede reasons why Bay County should not protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Well, I have news for you. LGBT people face discrimination every day. They can be fired from their jobs because they are gay. They can be evicted from their homes because they are gay. They can be denied contracts and services because they are gay. And they didn’t choose to be gay anymore than you chose to be straight.

And here is some more news for you. Being gay is not a choice; it is not a “lifestyle.” No one “decides to become a woman one morning” (at least two people trotted that one out in their testimony). Gay people are not pedophiles lurking in public restrooms to molest your grandchildren — the fear mongering about bathrooms came up many times from opponents, despite the fact that the vast majority of pedophiles are heterosexuals.

You don’t get to decide whether you hate LGBT people. If you believe that government should not protect these vulnerable citizens from discrimination — protections you take for granted because of your straight privilege — then you are showing hatred toward the LGBT community. When you trivialize gays, and make stereotyped inferences about their character and morality, then you are showing hatred. When you dismiss the bullying and beating, the harassment and hurt experienced by LGBT folk every day because you don’t choose to see it happening, then you are showing hatred toward them.

And here is some more news. You do not get to twist the life and words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to support your hate. In his convoluted and mostly irrelevant testimony, Gary Glenn painted King as opposing nondiscrimination against LGBT people based on one article taken out of context and the opinion of one of King’s children. In fact, King would have been a champion of gay rights today because of his long-time and close friendship with a gay activist and because of his view of Christianity, says Michael Long, author of, “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” “Dr. King never publicly welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community. But he did leave behind a key for them — his belief that each person is sacred, free and equal,” says Long, also author of the upcoming “Keeping It Straight? Martin Luther King Jr., Homosexuality, and Gay Rights.” And despite the views of his daughter, her mother Coretta Scott King, was a vocal supporter of gay rights. One of her closest aides was gay. She also invoked her husband’s dream.

So, to Gary Glenn and the rest of the homophobes who opposed this ordinance, here is some last news. Though King was a Christian minister, he didn’t embrace a literal reading of the Bible that some use to condemn homosexuality. King’s vision of the Beloved Community — his biblical-rooted vision of humanity transcending its racial and religious differences — did not restrict people’s rights, but expanded them. Jesus preached a new covenant — one that rejected the old legacies of division and hated. He preached of a world of love and acceptance, a world that protected the weak and oppressed. Jesus never, ever taught you to hate anyone or to judge them because they are different. Jesus never, ever limited the definition of committed loving relationships to only heterosexuals.

So stop rationalizing your hate because you deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. Stop justifying your discrimination because you need to defend your straight privilege. And stop putting your words of hate and discrimination into the mouths of our greatest champions of love and justice.

The Unfulfilled Dream

My dear friend and mentor, David Bumbaugh, has written this article, his latest work exploring the dilemma of the lack of a clear Unitarian Universalist message — what defines us as religious people.  As an agitator and self-proclaimed windmill tilter myself (dare I say, a “pre-curmudgeon”), I identify with much of David’s frustration.  I, too, find enormously frustrating our lack of a clear answer to the simple question, “What is a Unitarian Universalist?”

David is correct when he points out that we too often let our fear of offending anybody steer us toward language loaded with ambiguity than fails to clarify or inspire.  But, as David points out, I suspect that his deep roots and prodigious contributions to our movement perhaps influence his perspective and weigh his hopes down with excessive expectations.

As a relatively new Unitarian Universalist (I’ve only been a UU for 25 years), I have no personal pre-merger history that influences my foundational thinking.  And, while I do fashion myself an historian, I believe this discussion depends far more on how we envision the future than the path we travelled to reach the current state.

I think one key piece missing from our equation will help define us as a religious denomination, both to ourselves and to the world.  Like other religious traditions, we interpret great truths; we help people cope with challenge and tragedy; we celebrate joys and life passages; and we educate ourselves and our children about our principles and traditions.  Specifically, however, we must declare boldly and proudly exactly what differentiates us from other religions.

For me, three things clearly separate us from most religions.. I believe that collectively they define us as a wholly distinct religious body.

  • Courage — Unitarian Universalism celebrates individual and collective acts of courage, specifically acts that challenge the authority of institutional power and dogma.  We not only elevate martyrs and people of great accomplishment to pedestals of admiration, but we encourage each and every Unitarian Universalist to do the same.  By holding no individual or congregation to creedal tests, we literally demand of everyone a commitment to crafting a unique philosophy of moral conduct.
  • Reason — Unitarian Universalism places the power of human thought above any sacred text, holy object, tradition, or vow of obedience.  The opinion of no single member of our denomination — be they minister, administrator, or even the President of the UUA — matters more than that of any other.  And, we promote the notion that Truth can be discerned through the application of reason.
  • Universal Love — Unitarian Universalism is not unique among religions promoting love of our neighbors.  We aspire, however, not to pick and choose which neighbor receive that love unconditionally.  This phrase also has the double meaning of portraying our love for our universe, a belief that all of existence is sacred and deserving of our caring devotion.

So, my “elevator speech” in response to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” is this.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion promoting the use of human courage and reason in the pursuit of universal love.

For me, that’s it.  No long preambles.  No “whereas” or “be it resolved.”  All of the rest can wait.  All of our principles and sources are covered.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Mystic


From: Middle English mistik, from Latin mysticus of mysteries, from Greek mystikos, from mystes initiate
Date: 14th century
2 of or relating to mysteries or esoteric rites: occult
4a: mysterious b: obscure, enigmatic c: inducing a feeling of awe or wonder d: having magical properties

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
A mystic is one who claims to know god immediately through a form of spiritual inwardness, as against knowing through sensation or through logical processes. They may report the experience of a sacred-human relationship, particularly of a oneness with a divine or trans-divine being or state.

Mystic is a word that has acquired much baggage, often associated with pseudo-science, magic, and the occult. Divorced of these exotic inferences, the mystic simply believes that there exists a reality beyond the material plane of ruled by mathematics and physics. The mystic accesses these realities through “peak experiences,” or moments of transcendence. Just as light exists as both wave and particle, the mystic believes that humans can exist in both the physical and the spiritual world simultaneously.

By including one’s perception to all realms of consciousness, the mystic opens themselves up to all fields of possibility. A common conception in Eastern thinking, the mystic pursues an egoless existence, seen as the route to authenticity, wholeness, and intuitive knowledge. The Western construct tends to connect the mystic with a deity, or some absolute divinity.

Atheist Definition: The mystic believes in a reality beyond the physical plane of human sensory perception, and through peak experiences senses this mysterious existence, transcending culturally imposed beliefs and conceptions. The atheist mystic connects intuitively with this alternate reality, becoming more authentic and whole.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Prophesy


From: Middle English prophesien, from Anglo-French prophecier, from Old French, from prophecie
Date: 14th century
transitive verb (i.e. requiring a direct object)
1 to utter by or as if by divine inspiration
2 to predict with assurance or on the basis of mystic knowledge
intransitive verb (i.e. cannot take a direct object)
1 to speak as if divinely inspired
2 to give instruction in religious matters: preach
3 to make a prediction

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
To prophesy is to conduct the act of revelation, giving an inspired message from God or the Gods. Usually a prophecy is associated with foretelling the future, but it can also include messages of inspiration or admonishment that reveal the will of God towards a particular people or even an individual.

Grammar plays an important role in determining the use of the term “to prophesy.” In its transitive form, the act of prophesying implies that the message originates from a deity (“The minister prophesied rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked.”). In its intransitive form, prophesying derives from the human speaker (“The minister prophesied in the Sunday morning sermon.”) In its intransitive form, therefore, anyone is capable of prophesying, to teach, to predict, or simply to make observations.

In this broader view, any oration in a religious venue can be viewed as an act of prophesying. Ordained clergy, who have generally received extensive instruction in religious matters and gone through a discernment process to prepare them for ordination, might be expected to regularly prophesy as part of the practice of homiletics (delivering sermons aimed at the spiritual needs, capacities, and conditions of a congregation). When viewed as a profession, prophesying might be considered an act expected of ministers to offer insight, inspiration, and instruction through preaching.

Atheist Definition: Prophesying is the act of speaking or writing to make observations, to inspire, or to teach others regarding religious matters.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Prayer


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French priere, praiere, preiere, from Medieval Latin precaria, from Latin, feminine of precarius obtained by entreaty, from prec-, prex
Date: 14th century
1 a (1): an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2): a set order of words used in praying b: an earnest request or wish
2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
Prayer is the means by which an individual or group attempts to enter into verbal or mental communication with a deity.

Prayers can be separated into two categories: prayer with and prayer to. When we are with others, either during a worship service, at a meal, or alongside one who is ill or troubled, we can pray with. Prayer with begins with listening to and caring about those with are with. Our prayers reflect their needs, the matters afflicting their minds and hearts. The purpose of prayer with is to let others know that they have been heard, that they have had the opportunity to articulate their fears, and that they are not alone in their struggles. Prayer with aims to help others find within themselves, their family, and their friends the resources to cope and to explore the wonders of existence.

If one does not believe in a deity, then what is the target of prayer to? We are all part of a universe of forces, fields, and life. We may never comprehend all of the levels of consciousness that exist in that expanse. As constituents in that enterprise, prayer to simply means asking for help from whatever resources there are – whether those resources lie in the depths of time and space, or deep within ourselves.

Atheist Definition: Prayer is the act of engaging spiritually with our inner selves, with others, and with the universe by reaching out and asking for help, support, and reassurance.

Another Definition

My attention recently has been drawn to words, particularly terms that challenge religious atheists. Another word brought to my attention in the past month deals with ministerial authority and discernment. That word is humility.

In my congregational polity class, we were asked from whence we will draw our authority as ministers. The author of one of our readings presumed that the pulpit for “serious” preachers has dimensions that are “scary and threatening.” Now, I might be willing to accept “daunting,” but the only nervousness I have when I am in the pulpit is simply the desire for service elements to go as I have planned. And even then, when worship goes in unplanned directions, the results can be amazing.

My source of authority, in the pulpit and throughout my ministerial development, has been human courage. As an historian, and particularly as a fan of Unitarian Universalist history, I cannot help but be infused with the numerous instances of courage displayed by my predecessors over the centuries. The enormous sacrifices paid by some, from imprisonment to even death, evidence the cost paid for our liberal faith. The bravery of countless women and men to commit heresy (“to choose”) when that choice ran counter to the dominant paradigm of society reveals the depth of our convictions. The dedication of our religious ancestors to acts of justice, acceptance, and compassion indicate the essential place of love in our collective theology.

When I stand in front of a congregation, I walk a path trod by many hundreds of others who have committed themselves to this task. I stand for the freedom paid for by the toil, sweat, tears, and even blood of comrades gone before. I speak with my own authentic voice since our commitment to polity does not bind me to creedal statements or hierarchies beyond the people I serve. I speak from my own experience because I can trust the wisdom and the capacity to reason of my congregants to think for themselves and to apply what they hear to their own lives. And, I prophesy because, as the author of that same article stated, I must say what I say and never compromise because that is how we grow and learn and be with each other.

When I have doubts, or question why I should assume this mantle of responsibility, all I have to do is to remember that I am not in the pulpit alone. I am with Arius and Origen, Servetus and David, the Polish Brethren, Murray and Ballou, Channing and Parker, and hundreds of current ministers and seminarians. My source of authority is the human courage to choose, to sacrifice for one’s beliefs, and to open oneself to others freely.

But, it has been pointed out to me that I can come across as “confident,” even “egocentric.” I have been cautioned to hone my humility. So, let’s look at this word “humble.” According to Wiktionary, the two meanings include:

1. Near the ground; not high or lofty; not pretentious or magnificent; unpretending; unassuming; as, a humble cottage.
2. Thinking lowly of one’s self; claiming little for one’s self; not proud, arrogant, or assuming; lowly; weak; modest.

Some of these meanings are, indeed, worth cultivating. As I become a minister, I am endeavoring to avoid being pretentious or arrogant, to pretending to be something I am not, or to assuming that I am more than I am.

But I find little value in thinking of myself as lowly and weak. And while I do not see myself as above others, I do represent the search for the loftiest of human concerns; our attempts to engage with our ultimate purposes. I am just a catalyst, here to play a small role to facilitate the reaction between souls and between each individual and the universe. Our liberal religious tradition is magnificent, and as its representative in that moment in time behind the pulpit, I would do it a disservice to aspire too much to modesty, and to regard it with too little pride.

Of course, the lines drawn here are thin. I can only hope that those listening to my sermons or reading my words sense the sincerity with which I present them. Not just as a candidate for the ministry, but as a human being, I aspire to greatness and to encouraging greatness in others. That is a humbling goal, but one that I strive achieve with every fiber of my being.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Religion


From: Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
Date: 13th century
1 b (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
4 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending in the last resort on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. Religion clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social, and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind,” while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it “a feeling for the infinite,” and Alfred North Whitehead described it as “what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

Some etymologists connect “religion” to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning “to bind.” Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Atheist Definition: Religion is the collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown.

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Spirit


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Date: 13th century
1 an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
2 a supernatural being or essence: as Holy Spirit or Soul
4 the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person
5 a: the activating or essential principle influencing a person b: an inclination, impulse, or tendency of a specified kind: mood

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
In some religions, spirits are disembodied entities that display the characteristics of individual persons, and are sometimes regarded as the souls of dead ancestors. Spirits can interact and even communicate with the living through dreams, illness, and unusual events which reveal the presence of a spirit. The soul is the immortal element in human beings sometimes regarded as our true self. The immortality of the soul gradually replaced the earlier emphasis in early Christianity that the central concept was the resurrection of the body.

One may assume that the human brain is the seat of information collection and processing and that the glandular system contributes much to our emotional responses. Does anything remain unaccounted for in that system of human physiology, requiring the presence of an immaterial sentience essential for personhood? If so, do we interact with other humans, other sentient beings, even inanimate objects in ways that do not occur on the material plane of measurable observation?

In recent years, thinkers such as Jung have postulated a collective unconsciousness based on the occurrence of acausal coincidence, and that some level of deep meaning exists in universal symbols and human archetypes as revealed in mythology. Others argue that the search for meaning and significance where none exist gives rise to pseudoscience and undocumentable paranormal practices.

Atheist Definition: Spirit describes those essential elements of individual identity that are immaterial and do not, therefore, adhere to physical or medical laws. An individual’s spirit may interact with others, or with all existence (Spiritus Mundi, the spirit of the world) in ways that may reveal shared experience or common affect from which one may glean meaning. If one is concerned with the association with Spiritism, then the word perhaps may be used interchangeably with the terms “mind” or “soul.”

Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Sacrament

During conversation after my worship service yesterday, it occurred to me that people whose theology has moved beyond the traditional construct of god could use a dictionary of religious terms. For one, we could benefit from having our own understanding of words commonly used in our culture. Two, such a dictionary might help us talk with our theist friends and colleagues and create better understanding.

So, herein I propose a possible format for such a dictionary, starting with a word I have been working on myself recently. I welcome comments and feedback on the usefulness of such a project.


From: Middle English sacrement, sacrament, from Anglo-French and Late Latin; Anglo-French, from Late Latin sacramentum, from Latin, oath of allegiance, obligation, from sacrare to consecrate
Date: 13th century
1 a: a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality b: a religious rite or observance comparable to a Christian sacrament
2 capitalized a: communion b: blessed sacrament
3 something likened to a religious sacrament

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
A Rite in which God (or Gods) is (are) uniquely active. Augustine of Hippo defined a Christian sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” The Anglican Book of Common Prayer speaks of them as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Examples of sacraments would be baptism and the mass.

For Roman Catholics, recognized sacraments include baptism, confirmation, ordination of clergy, the Eucharist (communion), confession, matrimony, and unction for the dying. Protestant churches largely retain only baptism and communion among their sacraments. Sikhs and Hindus recognize as many as 42 samskāras. These ritualistic rites of passage celebrate accomplishments of life and prepare the individual’s mind and body for full membership in the community. While these represent the recognized form of sacraments, what defines something as a sacrament more generally, that is, for someone who does not adhere to a specific religious tradition?

A common thread running through the many definitions one finds of the term is that a sacrament is an act that bestows grace through a material vehicle on a recipient, where grace (in the Christian theology) is God’s free expression of love. So, by consuming the wafer and the wine, God transfuses the faithful with his spiritual energy. The touch of water during baptism blesses a child with the enabling power of God. Generally, a sacrament requires the right matter (such as the wafer and the wine), the right form of action of ritual or ceremony, and the right intention on the part of the participant. The sense of such requirements prevents mundane or simply habitual practices from acquiring the important status of sacrament. Sacraments show that the grace of God lies not always in the invisible and the unknowable, but can work through specific matter, people, and institutions.

An additional attribute of sacraments recognized by various faith traditions is that, generally, salvation or the achievement of religious consciousness requires the performance of sacraments in a person’s life. Now, if one does not adhere to the belief in a god who would create any soul destined to an eternity of damnation, then no specific act is required to attain salvation or ultimate consciousness, which is inevitably inherent in every person.

Atheist Definition: A sacrament is a ritual or ceremony (perhaps related to significant life stages or rites of passage) during which one seeks, receives, and accepts through a physical act and form the sensation of unexpected energy from unknown sources, or the revelation of deep personal or universal understanding.