Thursday, 26 December 2013

The BBC's divisive belief test

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian Universalist) invited me to present the Thought for the Day, on the BBC's Today Programme for Boxing Day 2013. The BBC overruled Sir Tim's invitation and selected an avowedly theist Unitarian minister instead.

Why was I prevented from presenting?

The BBC cited its editorial policy as the basis of this decision: 
"First and foremost, Thought for the Day (TFTD) is a unique slot on the BBC in which speakers from a wide range of religious faiths reflect on an issue of the day from their faith perspective."
Apparently, I do not have a "faith perspective."

Although the BBC has determined that Unitarianism is an acceptable faith (as evidenced by their invitation of another Unitarian minister), and although I am a fully-qualified minister of that faith with a thriving congregation, the BBC concluded that I do not "have faith" because I say that I do not believe in a god. 

This is not entirely a new dispute. In fact, last year, the BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics Aaqil Ahmed reportedly reviewed Thought for the Day in response to complaints but concluded that it should not be opened up to people of no faith.

So, what is going on here?

The BBC is intent on keeping Thought for the Day as a haven for the traditionally religious and, in order to do so, has established its religion department as the arbiter of who is and who is not a legitimate "person of faith."

One of the most beautiful things about Unitarianism is that it refused to establish any belief test for members - it is and always has been a non-creedal faith. How ironic that the BBC - a tax-funded corporation dedicated to serving all the public - has established just such a belief test for participation in TFTD.

Aside from my own situation and the absurdity of a qualified minister of religion being ruled as not a person of faith, the BBC's conservative stance is a dangerous and divisive one for our tax-funded, public media corporation to take.

In a changing world, words like faith, religion, and god have come to have very diverse meanings and there is little agreement about them. Am I a person of faith because I am a fully qualified minister of religion in a venerable religious tradition, or am outside that category because I say I do not believe in God? If one were to interrogate so-called theist ministers of most liberal Christian faiths, one would find that their beliefs do not fit within the commonplace understandings of God as omnipotent, omniscient and active in the world. 

The view that we either have faith or not is a false dichotomy and an exclusionary position to take in a society where many, if not most, people now seek inspiration and guidance from non-traditional sources. 

In a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, only 37% of UK citizens said that they believe in God. 33% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force.” Which group qualifies as "people of faith"? At a time when millions seek inspiration from TED talks, other web sites, lectures, books, and non-traditional religious community, for the BBC to consider only traditional faith to be legitimate appears increasingly out of step with reality.

The BBC's insistence that the inspirational message in its flagship morning radio programme can only be delivered by the traditionally religious fails to serve the majority of the British audience. It is incumbent upon the BBC to find ways to offer inspiration and guidance that will reach the people who need it.

Why an atheist celebrates Christmas

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian Universalist) invited me to present the Thought for the Day, on the BBC's Today Programme for Boxing Day 2013. The BBC overruled Sir Tim's invitation and selected an avowedly theist Unitarian minister instead. The following is the "alternative Thought for the Day" that BBC permitted me to present.

Like millions of others, here and elsewhere, my family and I celebrated Christmas yesterday. We exchanged gifts around a Christmas tree and later enjoyed a traditional feast. On Tuesday, I led a Christmas Eve service at my chapel in north London. We sang Christmas carols and we spoke of love, peace, justice, and hope.

For many listeners, my rather traditional sounding Christmas will come as something of a surprise. After all, I describe myself as an atheist, a label that disqualified me from presenting Thought for the Day.

To me though, there is no inconsistency in being an atheist and celebrating Christmas. While I don’t literally believe the stories underlying Christmas, I do very much believe in its most important messages. Christmas reminds us that hope can come at the darkest times. It reminds us of the sacredness and innocence and possibility of children - that any child - however humble their circumstances - could change the world for the better.

Christmas reminds us of the guidance of Jesus of Nazareth - who taught about accepting and loving one another despite our differences and who offered a vision of a world of economic and social justice. These are lessons that people needed to hear 2000 years ago. They are lessons we still need to hear today.

No tradition has all the answers or has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. I celebrated Christmas, and a few days ago, I looked to the winter solstice and Yule for its wisdom about connection with the natural world and its cycles. Just a few days before that, I turned to Hanukkah to raise up the lesson that oppression can be overthrown and that all people everywhere should have the chance to live in freedom.

As an atheist, I don’t believe that there is a omnipotent other who will intervene in earthly life to save us from natural dangers or to save us from our own worst impulses. It is thus because I am an atheist that I firmly believe we all need to learn and be reminded of lessons like those that come with Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent, Diwali, and many religious and nonreligious occasions. Without divine assistance, it is we who are tasked with creating an earthly paradise ourselves. Bearing such great responsibility, we need these teachings all the more.

And so, today, as many of us admire our gifts, and bask in the warmth of yesterday’s celebrations, I hope that whatever our beliefs or perspectives, we will all hear and incorporate the best of Christmas: Let us learn to love others more fully and more deeply. Let us learn to include the excluded and expand our circles of love to include them as well. And let us begin the true work of Christmas - to create a world of love, of justice and of peace for everyone.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Theism required for inspiration?

I will be on the BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme this Boxing Day at 6:50 am GMT.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and a committed Unitarian, is guest editor on Boxing Day. Sir Tim invited me to present Thought for the Day, a segment that has never (AFAIK) been presented by a Unitarian.

The BBC, unfortunately, denied Sir Tim's invitation because they concluded that it would be too upsetting for listeners to have Thought for the Day delivered by someone - even a fully-fledged minister of religion - who does not believe in God.

Instead, the BBC arranged for a theistic Unitarian minister to present Thought for the Day for Boxing Day.

At Sir Tim’s request, I will present an "Alternative Thought for the Day." Following this, I will be interviewed about the state of theism in the UK and elsewhere and about the potential implication of the BBC's position that non-theists can not offer a “thought” that can inspire.

I'm excited about this opportunity to offer a helpful message and to spread the news that you don't have to be a traditional believer to have values worth sharing and worth living.

Monday, 14 January 2013

"The bullfrog's friends" - a new wisdom story

Another new wisdom story - I'm on a roll! As always, feel free to use these stories as you see fit, although attribution would be nice...

Once upon a time, in a sluggish warm pond, there lived a bullfrog. He spent his days swimming through the water, eating whatever bugs he could catch, sunning himself when the weather was nice, and just generally lazing about. 

Occasionally, he would notice some of the other animals passing by his pond or swimming in its waters in pairs or groups. He noticed that these animals seemed a bit more contented than the animals that were strictly solitary. He saw that they were happier too - they laughed more readily, played more energetically, and - when things were difficult - they got through it more readily.

The bullfrog decided to find out what was going on. He hopped over to a duck and a goose who were paddling about on the pond and asked for some advice.

"Oh, you silly frog", said the goose. "We're friends! Haven't you ever heard of friendship? Surely you must have some friends?"

The bullfrog hurriedly assured the duck and goose that he knew all about friendship and that - oh indeed yes! - he had lots of friends.

But, of course, this wasn't true, and the bullfrog hopped away as quickly as he could. He realised then that that he was missing something that seemed rather important - friendship. So, he thought "I have to get some other animals to be my friends. Hmmm... How do to that though?"

He thought and he thought, until he finally decided he decided he had it figured out. When he wanted dinner, he would simply stay very still and then grabbed an unsuspecting insect with his sticky tongue. This friends thing must be similar!

So the bullfrog stayed very still. He waited and waited. Finally, a happy looking wren landed right near him. Thwpt! Out went the bullfrog tongue and it landed right on the bird's head. "Ewwww!" said the wren. "What do you think you're doing?" The bullfrog was trying to get his tongue back into his large mouth as he said in a garbled voice "I just want to have a friend..." The wren chided him, just before flying off, "well, you sure have a funny way of doing it!"

Alone again in the pond, the bullfrog felt dejected. "I don't think I'll ever have a friend at this rate" he thought. He realised that he actually knew nothing at all about how to get a friend or about how to be one.

In desperation, he decided he would try something different. Instead of trying to get a friend, he'd just listen to everyone he could to learn about them and try to see what they wanted. Once he had done that, he figured, he would know enough to get some friends.

His experiment started the next day. When he awoke, still drowsy, he saw a colourful fish swimming by. "Good morning fish" he offered. "How are you this morning?" The fish began to tell him about how his left fin was aching him but then he stopped himself "Oh" he said, "I suppose you don't really want to know. Just a greeting, right? I'm fine."

The bullfrog was about to dismiss the fish's complaints and move on, but he remembered about his plan to listen. "No, please tell me more." He said. "I'm sorry to hear about your fin. What's that like for you?"

The fish was taken aback, and he began to talk. He told the bullfrog about the sore fin. He told him about his many children. He told him what life was like deep down under the water. Thirty minutes had passed when the fish realised he needed to go. "Thanks for listening" he said. "Can we talk again?"

The bullfrog thought this was a great opportunity to learn how to get friends, so he quickly agreed.

Later that day, something similar happened with a passing duck. It was amazing how many stories emerged when animals were given a chance to share them. It just kept happening! A squirrel, a frog, a robin, a turtle... they all told their stories to the listening bullfrog.

The bullfrog just listened. He didn't feel inclined to talk about himself - and he never repeated what he had heard to anyone else.

As darkness came, the bullfrog reflected on what an amazing day it had been. He had learned so much more than he ever expected. Life was much more complicated and rich than he could have imagined. With all the many stories he had heard that day swirling through his head, the bullfrog finally fell off to sleep.

The very next day, the bullfrog was again looking around for someone to talk to. Preoccupied, he didn't notice that a hungry fox was sneaking up behind him. The fox snapped his jaws sure of a tasty frog breakfast, but the bullfrog had finally noticed the danger and leapt just in the nick of time. The fox's jaws grazed him though, and - thrown off course - he landed hard and head first on a stone - out of danger - but completely unconscious.

The bullfrog never knew how long he might have been out, but as he came-to he gradually became aware that surrounding him were dozens of animals - all of them eager to see him. All of them with a concerned look in their eyes.

"What's going on?" he croaked? "What are you all doing here?"

The animals looked around confused. The colourful fish with the sore fin spoke first. "Well, of course we're here. We're your friends!"

Monday, 7 January 2013

The twelfth gosling

A wisdom story...

It was springtime and a young mother goose had just laid a clutch of twelve very handsome eggs. She and the father goose looked at their eggs admiringly - wondering what future their little goslings would have. They imagined teaching them to fly, helping them to find food, and - when the cold weather came - leading them in the migration to warmer climes.

The goose parents took turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm. As they waited, they thought about the future of their goslings - wondering how many would be female and how many male - thinking of the day that they would themselves learn to fly and maybe even have goslings of their own.

Day in and day out they carefully tended the eggs. A week passed, and then another, and another. And then one day, after nearly five long weeks, as the father sat on the eggs he heard a faint pecking sound. And then another from another egg. As he moved to look, he saw tiny beaks appearing from two of the eggs.

The process of hatching was not easy. It was arduous work for the babies and they needed to rest often between bouts of pecking. After three days, though, eleven of the goslings were finally out of their shells.

But the twelfth egg was a bit odd. The gosling in that egg had pecked a hole large enough to get out of, stuck his head out, and then return to the shell! The goslings were all peeping in hunger, so father goose went to get food. When he returned, he and mother fed their little goslings - eleven of them standing on their feet and the twelfth still in his shell.

The goose parents began to be a bit concerned about number 12. They pecked the shell a bit. They tried to lure him out with food. But number 12 was set on staying put.

Weeks passed and the goslings all began to grow rapidly. Number 12 finally got so large that his shell could hold him no longer - as it burst, he joined his brothers and sisters walking around in the nest. And it was good timing too, because flying lessons were just beginning!

Mother and father goose showed their goslings how to flap their little wings and they took to it eagerly - practicing their flapping for minutes at a time, resting, and then flapping some more.

All except number 12, that is. Number 12 showed no interest in flapping or in flying.

At last, eleven goslings were ready and they took flight. It was an exhilarating experience for all of them and they returned excited and happy. Number 12 seemed unmoved. He instead took a walk to find some tasty grubs to eat and he thought to himself "that flying looks way too dangerous." I'm just fine staying here on the ground where it's safe.

As time passed, eleven goslings flew more and more and were eventually ready to leave the nest. Number 12 remained with his mother and father. They were happy to have him, but they worried about his future and what might become of him - a goose who would not fly.

And then, the days began to become shorter and colder. Mother and father goose prepared themselves for the long flight south. What would happen with number 12?

Mother and father took off and waved their wings good-by to number 12. Moments later, they heard an anguished squawking from the vicinity of the nest!

They turned back to see a hungry looking fox just inches away from number 12. They swooped down just in time, and as mother goose distracted the fox, father goose lifted number 12 into the air and carried him off. As soon as 12 was safe, mother flew to join father and 12.

What to do now? 12 was simply too heavy to carry all the way on the migration journey, but if his parents left him behind, he would surely perish.

They took turns carrying him - using all of their strength. But it was no use. Exhausted, father goose finally lost his grip and number 12 tumbled from the sky.

The parents were distraught. They had lost their dear gosling. They began to weep and other geese in the flock came to comfort them.

And then suddenly, there was a surprising sound. Honk, honk! - they heard behind them. And there they saw number 12 flying along happily to catch up with them. He seemed perfectly joyful. The parents were shocked but delighted

And as number 12 flew along he thought to himself "I nearly lost my life by trying to be too safe - I will never make that mistake again!"

Number 12 went on to have a happy and adventurous life and became a father many times over before he passed away, content, at a ripe old age.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A church thriving through the ‘tension between certainty and ambiguity’

This article was written by journalist student Zay Arguelles. I thank her for taking such care in getting it right and for letting me share her writing.

The banner in front of the Unity Church in Upper Street is sure to catch every passer-by’s attention. “Heathens and heretics welcome!”, it says in big bold letters. This phrase is not something normally associated with a church, if at all. But then, churches don’t normally have an atheist minister.

Rev. Andrew Pakula is from America and he came here six years ago to head the Unitarian churches in Upper Street and Newington Green. He earned a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the biotechnology industry. Eventually, he left his career as a scientist to pursue a ministerial vocation. Nonetheless, he remained an atheist and even anti-religious in some ways.

A common way of dividing the world is into the religious and the atheist. Here arises the conflict between Rev. Andy’s stance about faith and religion and his job. It is intriguing or rather confusing because of the whole baggage of stereotypes associated with religion. On the contrary, he said that the word religion can mean a bunch of different things and “Depending on how you use that and what you consider to be a religion, it can be quite different.”

When you look at the fundamental core of Unitarianism the fog of confusion starts to evaporate. Rev. Andy said, “I call it a ‘way’. Let’s call it a way. It’s not ‘We are all going to believe the same thing’. It’s about moving together, growing together, working together and making ourselves grow and the world more whole”. It’s clear that the emphasis of Unitarianism lies on being a better person, being in a community and making a better world without the dogma.

As it seems, Unitarians are encouraged to ‘believe what they want to believe’ but Rev. Andy differs. He argued that this is very different from ‘believing what your search or journey leads you to believe’, which is what they do. He explained further by saying “Personally, I want to believe in all-powerful supernatural being that will take care of all of us. I really do! I would love to believe that. That is what I want to believe but it is NOT what I can believe. What my search has lead me to believe is that everyone is sacred, that we are all connected and that we’re here to make each other more whole and happier. That’s were a search has led me to and it might change.”

Just like any other institutions, Unitarianism doesn’t go without criticisms. Many people say that this kind of open-minded religion is not sufficient for people who are really suffering. In response, Rev. Andy said he doesn’t mind other beliefs. “Even if I don’t think it’s true, I think any belief is fine as long as it encourages you to be kind, loving and compassionate.” Certainly, it has also been criticised for being too open - “Whenever you are not a doctrinaire... If there is any flexibility, they will say ‘Well, that’s too flexible’. ” This isn’t a problem for them though, as they identify Unitarianism to be in the grey area in the first place.

With this kind of openness, a lot of barriers and differences can exist. The minister admitted that when he does a service he always tries to use languages which are inclusive to all sorts of beliefs. He said there’s a range of people within the congregation but since they’re all rather open-minded it’s really hard for them to have conflicts.

As he tries to explain how the congregation works for very different people, he grabbed a box of power cord beside him and said “There are people who receive a package and the first thing they do is read the instruction from the first letter to the last letter and maybe read it twice. And other people just plug it in.” He then continued about how they created “a thing with very open sort of steps” – “Decide for yourself how you’re going to be a compassionate consumer, write it down, and commit to it.”

Although very different from the traditional types of religion, Unitarianism remains attached to a certain label or ‘ism’ and that comes as a challenge. Rev. Andy recognises that it is very hard to be associated with the stereotypes, especially in this country “where a lot of people want nothing to do with anything that looks, smells, or tastes like religion.” On the other hand, people need categories to think about things and Unitarianism is commonly dropped on the religious category because what else would you call it or how else would you present it? It cannot be avoided but he also doesn’t mind. In the end, he doesn’t care whether they are called a religion or not – “If people don’t want to call it religion because, by their definition, religion has to have central beliefs, then fine... It’s not a religion. I don’t care. It’s a way of being.”

With the Unitarians’ position between the religious and secular sphere, he said that “It’s very comfortable for me to remember that things are changing and we’re always midstream, somewhere. We are in the process of changing from one thing to another and we don’t know what that other thing is yet or how the world is going to change around us. What we do is stay with it, ride with it, recognise the ambiguity and keep going.”

We live in a society where everything is polarized and it is easier to identify things as black or white. But in reality, the world we live in is very much within the grey scale. There is no one truth and certainly nobody holds a monopoly on what it is. Unitarianism reflects that fact and allows individuals to live in harmonious disagreement within a community with a system that supports them into becoming the best person they can be. In the advent of increasing religious scepticism and secularism, it is indispensable that such institutions exist. Whether it comes in the form of Unitarianism or not, it’s good to know that it is there for those who need it.

Monday, 24 December 2012

A warm hollow in the cold

It was winter. The depths of December. The sky had become dark. The ground was muddy when it wasn't frozen over entirely. The cold winds blew through the robin's feathers as she huddled in the partial shelter of a hollow of a great old plane tree.

The cold had killed off all the plants the robin relied on. The insects had gone underground now and were safely hidden as they underwent their magical transformation. The autumn's seeds had vanished too - picked over thoroughly in the past months. 

And now she was not sure which was worse - the biting cold or the ache of her empty belly.

"There is no chance of reaching the spring", she thought. She had begun to lose hope. She despaired of finding enough food to survive. She began to welcome the cold into her breast. "Why not let it in so this suffering will end more quickly?" she thought. She stepped out from the hollow to bear the full brunt of the cold wind. 

Just then, she heard a shaky-sounding "hello." She jerked her head first this way and that, but it wasn't until she looked up that she saw a shivering red squirrel looking down at her from a higher branch. "Hello" said robin. "You look cold." So do you, said squirrel. "Yes" she replied. "And hungry too." 

"Hungry? Well, I can help with that. Follow me", said squirrel and he leapt from branch to branch until he reached a spot between several branching tree roots. Robin landed beside him. With a few seconds of scratching at the earth, squirrel uncovered a small stash of seeds. "Help yourself", he said, "I have stores like this all over the place."

Robin began eating so quickly, she forgot to say thank you. When she realised it, she was deeply apologetic and embarrassed. Squirrel just urged her to keep eating: "You have to keep your strength up."

When robin had eaten her fill, she said to squirrel "thank you so much. You have been very generous. Sadly, I fear I have wasted your precious food as I am so cold I will soon freeze to death." She noticed then that squirrel was shivering heavily. "Perhaps" robin said, "we could both fit into my hollow in the tree. It might be crowded, but we could try."

So squirrel scampered and robin flew back up the tree.

Indeed, the hollow of the tree was barely big enough to hold the two of them. They managed to fit in together, but they were so tightly wedged they could hardly move.

"Oh no! This is terrible" said robin. I'll go look for another place to shelter and you can stay here."

"No - wait!" replied squirrel. "You're not shivering anymore! I'm not either."

Although the space was cramped and more than a little bit uncomfortable, it kept both creatures very warm.

"You're right" said robin. "We shall stay, then."

And so robin and squirrel endured the harsh winter together.

In the spring, they prepared to go their separate ways. Robin spoke first "You know, you saved my life the day we met. I had chosen to let myself freeze." And squirrel replied "that's why I was in the wind too. I was ready to give up. It was only because we met and joined our struggles together that we survived."

Squirrel scampered off. Robin flew off. Both full of hope and much the wiser for having met on a bitter December day.