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Secular Community: Greg Epstein at TEDxCambridge 2011

Secular Community: Greg Epstein at TEDxCambridge 2011


Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Tijana Mihajlović So, I’m really glad to be part
of this “We” session because, like it or not,
for secularists like me, the most powerful form
of connection to other people and to a community
throughout human history has been religion. Now, I am one of these people who human rights activist
Michael Ignatieff once described as having a very religious personality,
without a scintilla of religious belief. And so, I want to argue that we can have
a thriving moral and ethical community without God or religion. But, in order to show why and how, let me tell you a little bit
about my story. So, I first got interested in religion
growing up in Flushing, Queens, New York, which has been described as one of the
most religious neighborhoods in the world. And so, in my class,
my elementary school class, I had maybe 20 different
religions represented, so we got a chance to experience
each other’s congregations, and holidays, and even funerals. And I really saw the beauty
that is a religious community. But we never talked about belief because it made me have
this instinctive sense that, if one of those religions
was absolutely true, then the rest of them had to be, well – Anyway, I had a Reform bar mitzvah, but that only kind of confused
and a little bit annoyed me. I mean, all these secularist Jews
standing around, “Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu” –
“Are we done yet?” Right? You know, you can say, well, “Blessed are you, oh Lord our God,
ruler of the Universe,” but you’d think
that, if we’re really talking to the ruler of the entire Universe, we’d stand up and salute
a little straighter, right? That was my thought, and so, you know – You know, that just wasn’t working for me, but, in college, my interests
deepened a little bit. And my father died when I was 18, after a long struggle with cancer. And, you know, you’d think
that, going bald at 21, you know, maybe that was a good enough excuse
to start asking questions like, “Why do bad things happen
to good people?,” right? (Laughter) But at least I had the seriousness
to work to try to answer these questions. So, you know, I forgive myself for that. So, I went and I thought, “Well, you know, it’s not going to be
in the Abrahamic religions,” because, you know, for me, the idea of a god that has
all that interest in the commandment about your sex life – But maybe Eastern religion. And so, maybe I could achieve a Nirvana, or become a bodhisattva, or maybe everything really
does happen for a reason. Well, I was willing to study Chinese
for several years in order to figure out the answers, but, you know, when I finally got to Asia
and experienced this in person, I realized that the Buddhists
and the Taoists that I was meeting were no more enlightened
than the Reformed Jews from Flushing. And so, you know, I was ready to give up. I mean, maybe, I thought, I should
just become one of these people who pretend to believe
in order to connect. But then, I discovered something
that I found really interesting, and it’s called Humanism. And it was so rational that I couldn’t
believe I hadn’t thought of it on my own, and I was really excited
and surprised to find that it was an organized movement that had already existed
for about a hundred years. So, let me give you
the basic beliefs of Humanism as succinctly as I can. No heaven. No hell. We determine the nature of reality based on science, reasonable thinking,
rational thinking, and critical thinking. In other words, we worship the
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, anyway, humanist ethics
are determined by the golden rule, which is essentially: do unto others
as you’d have done to you; or the alternative: don’t do unto others
what you’d find hateful to yourself. And, you know, there is
a statement like this in every one of the world’s
major religious traditions, but, if you think about it,
it’s pretty much common sense. I mean, this is not something that, in any of the versions,
includes or requires a god. And so, I discovered this
and I was pretty excited. I mean, “Humanism,” I thought,
“will sign me up! And this is awesome!” And I still feel that way. But – the problem was
that human beings are flawed, with or without God, and the flaw that I began to discover
in humanist organizations was that they are sometimes
a little bit less communities and a little bit more like
there-is-no-God debating societies. And so, you know,
if Humanism was good without God, then I what I found was humanists often
express it a little bit more like this and a little bit less like this, and that’s self-defeating because I figured we were
never going to convince people to take this idea of Humanism
as seriously as a traditional religion until we recognized that, for most people, religion is not about – Well, it’s not about this guy, right? It’s about family, memories, connections, coffee cake, community. And this idea is not
without serious consequences or empirical justification. So, the noted sociologists Robert Putnam
and Richard Campbell, in their landmark work “American Grace,”
sociology of American religion, showed that religious Americans
are “better neighbors” than non-religious Americans. And what that means is they found that religious Americans are more likely
to give time and money to not just religious
but also secular charities. They are more likely to give blood, more likely to give up a seat on the bus, more likely to spend time
with a friend in need. But this has nothing to do with God, because an atheist attending
a religious congregation, say, to accompany a spouse, shows all of these positive effects, whereas a religious person
who doesn’t attend a congregation or, when they do, don’t get involved is no better than average. And this is not basic, by the way,
about liberals versus conservatives. Liberals involved in liberal congregations do just as much, if not more, good
than conservatives, but, if you look at people
who just get involved in things like book clubs
or sports leagues, they don’t show these benefits. So, the idea is that it turns out that, if you get involved
in a moral community that asks you to be a better person, surprise, surprise: you might
actually become a better person. Now, what do we do about all this? I mean, there are a billion
non-religious people – a billion in the world,
40 million in America, one in every four young Americans, like the Harvard students
that I work with. So, are they ironically doomed to get none
of the benefits of religious community without basically taking a “fake it
till you make it” approach to belief? Or, maybe, it is possible to have a thriving humanist
community these days, maybe even more so than ever. When I was studying Humanism, I found out that there was
a tiny humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, privately funded, and I thought, “Well, you know,
this little thing is interesting,” because Humanism is so underappreciated
and Harvard is so overap… Well, anyway – (Laughter) Eventually, they raised some funds to bring me on, at first
on a temporary basis, to figure out how we could grow
an organization like this. And, several years later, we now have a thriving humanist
community center in Harvard Square, overflown with four or five
meetings a week, with students, with faculty, with alumni, with anyone who wants to come
and get involved. And what we do is we discuss,
we debate, we meditate, we make food, music, and art, we help one another, we help society, and we hear each other’s stories. So, it’s a community. But of course there’s so much more
to learn about this, though. And so, we’ve decided to turn
the organization into a laboratory for the study of the development
of humanist community. We’re calling it the
Humanist Community Project, and I’ll give you a quick sense
of what we’re going to do. Let’s say you maybe want to get married, you want a meaningful ceremony,
without religion. What do you do? Well, you might ask, “Well,
how do I combine things like race, culture, gender?” Well, there are thousands
of humanist ceremonies like this around the world every year. Or, let’s say you’ve got a family, or when you do, you might want
a place for your kids, to, in an organized way,
learn what it can mean to be a moral, ethical person without God. Well, there are dozens of such programs
around the world today. Or let’s say that, you know, you just want
to get involved and meet people, right? I mean, what do the humanists do
when they get together? Well, I’ll give you a hint:
it’s not prayer, and only some of us
like the atheist choir idea. So, more often than not
these days, it’s service. There are wonderful service programs
helping the needy around the world in the name of Humanism. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we do just get together
for brunch sometimes, but the point is that there’s never been
a program anywhere in the world to link together all of these
different kinds of programs and study how they can thrive
even more together. And so, you know, that’s the idea. Over the next few years,
we’re going to create this laboratory. We’re going to put out a website
that we’ll launch soon, a book, a conference, that sort of thing. So, maybe, if you are non-religious, you’ve now discovered your community. But the point to keep in mind is: for humanists, it’s not enough
to not believe. Humanism is about action. And so, as humanists, we will thrive when we are known
not for what we disagree with, but what we do in defense of
and in affirmation of our values. So, let’s go out and make a difference. Thanks. (Applause)

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