Inspiring Speech on Naturalistic Humanism

by Ron Knapp

What follows is an excerpt from an address by Ron Knapp to the Tolerant Atheists Group and the Omaha Coalition of Reason in Nebraska.

One of my many favorite poems comes from Sara Teasdale.  It is titled “Leaves.”  I expect that I may not be interpreting the poem correctly, but I love it because it seems to speak to me about my life, about what we now call “a spiritual journey,” what I describe as a religious journey.

Here is the poem:

ONE by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth.
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night–
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down–
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.

Sixty five years ago—I was seventeen years old—I decided to become a Methodist minister.  As a teenager, I had fallen in love with a rural Methodist Church called “North Prairie.”  North Prairie became the center of my life. I fell in love with the church, with Methodism, and with the minister, Jim Stansbury. There are ways in which, even now, I consider North Prairie the most important place in my life and the Methodist Youth Fellowship the most important experience of my life. It was there that a very shy young man could gain the confidence to be a public speaker that a very shy young man could learn to be a thinker.

When I was seventeen, I took a Methodist course of study that led to what was then called “An Exhorters License.” That meant I could conduct prayer meetings or assist the minister in worship. When I was eighteen I took another course of study that led to what was called “A Local Preachers License.” With that in hand I could do anything a minister could do, except baptism and serve communion, as long as I was under the supervision of an elder. At nineteen, armed with my local preachers license, and because the Methodists were very short of ministers at the time, I was appointed to two little remote country churches – Hope and Edenville in Michigan.  I served small Methodist churches while I attended college and all through theological school. Three years later I was ordained an elder. I thought the course of my life had been set.

Just three years after I graduated from Drew, a Methodist theological school, however, I decided I could no longer be a Methodist and a year after that I became a Unitarian Universalist minister.

“One by one like leaves from a tree,” wrote Sara Teasdale, “All my faiths have forsaken me.”  Over the years those words described me. I lost faith in the creeds. I lost faith in the Bible. I lost faith in Christ. I lost faith in Christianity. I lost faith in God. I became an agnostic. I became a non-theist. It has been decades now since I have used “God talk” or “God language.” The purpose of language, the purpose of words, it seems to me, is to communicate and the word “God” now carries so many diverse meanings that it no longer communicates.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I am, by definition, a religious humanist. As a religious humanist, I see myself as a humanistic theologian. I know full well that the word “theology,” in its derived form, refers to the systematic study of the nature of “God.” In the twenty first century, however, given what we know at this time about the nature of the universe, I believe that “theology” needs to be redefined as the systematic study of the ultimate nature of the cosmos. In a religious sense, what is the meaning of it all? I have come to the conclusion, given what we now know about the nature of the universe, that there is an essential oneness to the cosmos.  And that thought lies at the heart of what I call “Naturalistic Humanism.” Different labels can be used, I suppose, but the essential idea of what I call “naturalistic humanism” is, I believe, the only intellectually honest view of the human place in the cosmos. So this evening I am going to share with you some of the central elements of “naturalistic humanism.” I am going to deal with six central elements of naturalistic humanism.

BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION

We begin with the theory of biological evolution – with the fact of biological evolution.

“Charles Darwin saw a vision,” Loren Eiseley wrote in Darwin’s Century, which was written to celebrate the centenary of the death of Darwin.

It was one of the most tremendous insights a living being ever had…. None of its forerunners had left such a message; none saw, in a similar manner, the whole vista of life with quite such sweeping vision.

Darwin’s Century celebrates the vision hesitantly expressed by Darwin when he was only 28 years of age. “If we choose to let conjecture run wild,” Darwin wrote in 1837,

“Then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine – our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements –they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor – we may be all melted together.”

“Melted” or “melded,” I am not sure which word Darwin actually used. I find both on the internet. Both of them can be defined, however in terms of “blending” or “merging” – “To pass or merge imperceptibly into something else.” Or “To cause (units) to blend.” That must be the way Darwin used the word. All animals, including the human animal, are part of that “merging” and “blending” process termed “evolution.”

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” wrote Charles Darwin, that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.

Naturalistic humanism recognizes this grandeur and the human place in it.

April 25th, 1953: That was the date a revolutionary article appeared in Nature magazine, an article that led to the Nobel Prize. The authors of that article were James Watson and Francis Crick. This is the story of DNA and the double helix.

One of the things that the story of DNA and the double helix does is provide an understanding of the uniformity and diversity of a species, like the human species. We are all pretty much alike, you and I, male and female, black and white, gay and straight. The difference in terms of our DNA may be something like 2/10th of one percent.

There is a oneness to the human family.

Another thing that the story of DNA does is provides an understanding of the relatedness of all living things. The DNA structures that make living things one kind of species or another are variations on a common theme. All living things are members of one family. We all share some of the same DNA. And those who are closest to us on the evolutionary tree, like the apes or the chimpanzees, share something like 99% of our DNA. What this says to me is that life is a more basic fact than the particular species in which it finds expression.

For naturalistic humanists there is a oneness to life on planet Earth.

THE EARTH

“Man is still of the Earth, earthy,” wrote Rene Dubos in Only One Earth,Earth is literally our mother not only because we depend on her for nurture and shelter but even more because  the human species  has been shaped by her in the womb of evolution.”

“I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the same cells in sea weed, and that of stuff like his bones is coral made,” noted the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, and then added,

“I say that physical and biological law lies down with him, and wakes when a child stirs in the womb, and that the sap in a tree, uprushing in the spring, and the smell of the loam, where the bacteria bestir themselves in darkness, and the path of the sun in the heavens, these are facts of first importance to his mental conclusions, and that a man who goes in no consciousness of them is a drifter and a dreamer, without a home or any contact with reality.”

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life,” Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense Of Wonder:

“Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

I share these three pages from my “loose leaf bible” because they all point to the reality that we are all, as Rene Dubos puts it, “of the Earth, earthy.”

We are children of the earth. Our bodies, our brains, our senses, everything about us – our very being – has been shaped by the fact that we emerged through a process of evolution on this particular planet – Earth — whirling around a particular star – the sun – located in the backwaters of a galaxy – the milky way – which is, In turn, is located in a universe with millions and millions of galaxies.

I expect that the entire impact of this fact may be difficult to comprehend.

Human beings are, in all probability –or at least in so far as we shall ever know – unique in the universe! This may sound like rampant human egotism, but that is not the case. The same thing can be said of elephants and oak trees, and tapeworms and mosquitoes! They are all products of the particular characteristics of Earth. If there is, what is referred to as “intelligent life,” elsewhere in the universe, they will not be what we call human beings. They, too, will have evolved to be whatever they are by the peculiar characteristics of their worlds.

At the time of the Apollo moon landings, William Pollard, a theologian at the Oak Ridge Associated University wrote:

“There may not be another place like the earth within a thousand light years of us. If so, the earth with its vistas of breathtaking beauty, its azure seas, beaches, mighty mountains, and soft blanket of forest and steppe is a veritable wonderland in the universe. It is a gem of rare and magic beauty hung in a trackless space filled with lethal radiations and accompanied in its journey by sister planets which are viciously hot or dreadfully cold, arid, and lifeless chunks of raw rock. Earth is choice, precious, and sacred beyond all comparison or measure.”

If anything is sacred, for the naturalistic humanist, the earth is sacred.

COSMIC EVOLUTION

Human beings are children of the earth.  We are also children of the universe.

I remember very vividly when this thought first began to take shape for me.  I was in theological school – that was more than a half century ago – when I read an article in a magazine with the presumptuous name, The Intellectual Digest. In that magazine I read an article by several Princeton astrophysicists. “We now know enough about the nature of the universe,” the astrophysicists said (and I’m paraphrasing) “to say with a high degree of certainty that the very elements which make up our bodies were created in the center of dying stars.”

Billions of years ago, billions of years before life formed on this planet, perhaps fourteen or fifteen billion or so, there was a grand explosion beyond human comprehension, a grand explosion called the big bang, a grand explosion that set in motion the process of creation of everything that is. Here is how the astronomer Robert Jastrow briefly describes the story in his book Until the Sun Dies:

“Picture the radiant splendor of the moment of creation.  Suddenly a world of pure energy flashes into being; light of unimaginable brilliance fills the universe; the cosmic fireball expands and cools; after a few minutes, the first particles of matter appear, like droplets of liquid metal condensing in a furnace. The scattered particles collect into nuclei first, then into atoms; the searing heat and blinding luminosity of the early universe fade into the soft glow of a cooling cloud of primordial hydrogen. Giant galaxies form in the hydrogen cloud; in each galaxy stars are born, one after the other, in great numbers. Many of these stars are surrounded by planets; on one planet— the earth—life arises; at the end of a long chain of development, man appears.”

What a wonderful story! But it’s not the whole story. After that great explosion, and as the universe began to cool, there was time enough to create some of the elements, but not enough time to create the kinds of elements, the heavier elements, that are the building blocks of life. That took giant stars whose super hot furnaces could create the heavier elements and super novas, explosions of giant stars, which spewed those elements out into space. It took a long journey through space for some of those elements to reach the earth. Once they reached the earth, as I understand it, the surface of the earth was made of material too light to hold them so they sank into the depths of the earth, where they could not be used to form life. That took volcanic action to spew them back to the surface once again. Once on the surface they mixed with water and the potential for the long evolution of life began. Out of the stars and up from the earth, with the help of some volcanoes, have we come. That is the new genesis.

It is clear now that we are one with the universe, intimately related to the whole grand sequence of cosmic history. I once thought that my life began three or four billion years ago, with the dawn of life on Planet Earth, but now I know that it has much older origins, origins that go back to the creation of the universe, itself.

Now I know as Robert Weston has suggested, that I am stardust sprung to life.

Now I know that stars and galaxies and trees and rocks and mountains and animals and human beings are part of a single evolving process.

Now I know there is a oneness to the cosmos.

Be sure to check back in our next newsletter, when we continue with Ron’s thought-provoking and inspirational address on Naturalistic Humanism!