Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist: God Talk and Kurt Vonnegut

My father in law was an intimidating man. He was unreasonably tall, an Episcopal priest, and my wife adored him, so maybe it’s not weird that I needed some way to humanize him, a bit. Maybe that’s why I called him Father Dad.

For the record, he was not a fan. There may have been a glare and a raised shaggy eyebrow, and I may have pretended I didn’t see it; I don’t remember. I do remember, however, that the very first time we met, we talked about the philosopher Wittgenstein.

Now, if that does not sound like absolutely gripping dinnertime conversation to you, you can rest assured that the rest of the table agreed with you. Father Dad and I, however, were thrilled.

If you asked a philosopher if there was such a thing as a “celebrity” in the field in the 20thcentury, Ludwig Wittgenstein would probably be it. He revolutionized Philosophy not once in his career, but twice.

And since I am today a bit more adept at reading a crowd than I was 20 years ago, I will with great reluctance and significant discomfort summarize the entirety of the glorious 30-page entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by saying that what Wittgenstein was worried about was language. Specifically, he was worried about how philosophers can get lost in their words. That most of the problems of Philosophy were, in fact, games with words.

Father Dad thought this was great stuff.

As for me, I thought the Nicene Creed was not great stuff.

For those of you that did not spend a decade in the Episcopal Church, I should say that the Nicene Creed, which dates back the 4thCentury, is a statement of belief that many Christian churches recite during their Sunday worship services. If you’ve never read it, it’s an odd collection of statements. Does anyone remember it?

“I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible …”

I asked Father Dad about this – some years after the night we bored everyone to tears by talking Philosophy over dinner – and he laughed.

Yes, they are a weird collection, he said.

I offered that reading that list of affirmations made me uncomfortable.

Father Dad said to me, “Son, almost no one really believes every little bit of this stuff. And that’s okay. You have to reach behind the words. And behind the Creed, there is a beautiful story of tradition, hope, love and redemption.”

That suggestion stuck with me. “Reach behind the words.” I like that. I can’t always do it, but I like the idea.

The last time I followed his advice? Humanism.

To be quite candid, my direct and personal experience with Humanism was in warnings: “God-Talk really makes people uncomfortable.” When I asked why, I remember being told: “Oh, you know those Humanists”. But, I did not.

Sure, I knew that many UU’s called themselves Humanists. Many of you here today do so, as well, I’m sure. Many of you know that Humanism is one of the Unitarian Universalist six sources, and some of you know that Humanism directly informed our Seven Principles. But what do Humanists actually believe?

So, as someone who has serious issues with “gaps in knowledge”, I signed up for a class on The History and Problems of Religious Humanism this summer. And, as we heard from Rev. Dr. Murry, what I learned was quite different from what I expected ‘humanism’ to be.

I suppose that, had you quizzed me before this summer, I would have said that Humanism is what our non-UU friends might call “Secular Humanism”. There is no God! No religion is good religion! Separate church and state! All we need is science! This is what you might hear on a liberal TV show. But why would people with that strong a stance ever come to church? That seemed a little baffling. Clearly, I was missing something. It occurred to me that what I needed was a better guide.

Which brings me to the Kurt Vonnegut.

This summer, I was assigned to write a paper about a “famous Humanist”. Happily, we were given a list, and not knowing any better, I picked the only name on the list that was familiar – the author Kurt Vonnegut. In my early research, I did a quick Google search — as you do — and got this quote:

“If God were alive today, He’d be an atheist.”

I might have said out loud: “Ooh, this is gonna be fun.”

And it was. Over the next several weeks, I let Vonnegut became my guide to Humanism.

But I realize that I might be ahead of myself, though. You’ve heard of Kurt Vonnegut, right? Slaughterhouse-five would likely have been on at least one of your reading lists, somewhere back in your school history. Fun fact: Did you know that it was on the list of most-banned books in American history? It hit #28. So, if that book ever comes up in conversation, you now you have a completely legitimate excuse for never having read it. You’re welcome.

Did anyone know that Vonnegut was raised a Unitarian Universalist? He wrote: “As for religion, my family were rational people, and they decided the priest didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. What really shook them was Darwin. That sounded exactly right to them, and it put the Bible out of business. To them, this country did have religious documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They had no expectation of an afterlife. They were freethinkers. The Germans were so hated in the First World War, never mind the Second World War, that the freethinkers simply disappeared. They became Unitarians.”

Vonnegut goes quite a bit further in his 1992 acceptance speech for “Humanist of the Year” award granted by the American Humanist Association. That speech, which is also the title of this sermon, was “Why My Dog Is Not A Humanist”.

In the speech, Vonnegut explained that this award was “not the first time he’d been accused of being a humanist”. He said that the first time was in 1972 and

“the accusation stuck in my craw. And in the process of trying to cough it up so I could look at it, it occurred to me that a humanist, perhaps, was somebody who was crazy about human beings, who, like Will Rogers, had never met one he didn’t like. [pause]

That certainly did not describe me.

It did describe my dog, however.”

Vonnegut said that he turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica, where he found that Humanists were “strikingly secular in their enthusiasms”, valued rationalism above all, and also rejected the need for — or even the existence of — a supreme deity. Sadly, his dog, Vonnegut said,

“obviously worshipped not just me but simply any person as though he or she were the creator and manager of the universe”

Vonnegut was forced to conclude that his dog was not really qualified to be a Humanist.

For the record, when I explained this to my dog Baxter, Baxter was unimpressed with Mr Vonnegut’s reasoning. He did, however, permit me take him for a walk. I have to confess that, in our relationship, I have some ongoing suspicions about who is worshipping whom.

What I find most striking about Vonnegut — as a champion of Religious Humanism — is how he views science. He said: “As a Humanist, I love science. I hate superstition, which could never have given us A-bombs.” He went on to say: “Napalm, incidentally, is a gift to civilization from the chemistry department of Harvard University.”

The point that Vonnegut is making, I think, is not that science is flawed, or that religion is not flawed, or vice versa. The point is that whether Science or Religion, there is a single common denominator: human beings.

So, for Vonnegut, “science is yet another human-made God to which I, unless in a satirical mood, an ironical mood, a lampooning mood, need not genuflect.”

I wonder if the Secularists found Vonnegut funny. I suspect not. But his point stands. Humanism is, at root, about humans.

Humanism explicitly rejects God and any notion of supernaturalism. It cherishes the power of the scientific method and embraces Natural Selection, the Theory of Evolution, The Big Bang, and pushing the boundaries of human understanding of the universe we find ourselves in. Humanism centers humans, for perhaps the first time in the history of Western religion, as both a part of the world and worthy of their place in that world. It champions Human values, and celebrates human questions, and set as its goal the totality of human flourishing. And while it rooted itself in the western rationalist tradition, it also committed itself to pursuing the search for meaning both in a communal and an institutional context. That last bit is worth underlining because even as far back as the publication of the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, the signers were most emphatically not trying to kill off religion. Not at all. They well and truly believed that they were on a mission to save it. Save it from superstition, save it from irrelevance, save it from itself.

This is a very different program that the “no religion is good religion” crowd we might hear today.

My suspicion is that if it hadn’t been for World War II, Humanism might have gotten broader traction. But Evolution and Natural Selection also led to social Darwinism, and that led to the Holocaust. Science, the greatest tool Humanity has ever known, led to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science was clearly and emphatically “not enough” to make people good.

But a telling gap, and I almost hate to name it, is that those early Humanists also had a serious problem with language. An allergy to God-Talk. They wrote that ‘there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes’ and that ‘Man will learn to face the crises of life in terms of his knowledge of their naturalness and probability.’ Which meant that if you were worried about death, or suffering, or confused about the meaning of it all, well, ‘Buck up,’ the Manifesto said. Face those doubts with ‘reasonable and manly attitudes.’

I think you can see where secular humanism gets it’s warm and fuzzy bedside manner.

Today, 85 years after the first Manifesto, I wonder if what Humanism needs is something a bit less pedantic and bit more romantic. A Humanism of brokenness. Of frailty. Of weakness. Of pain. Of fear. One informed by the insights of modern science but open to the wisdom, and yes, the language of the world’s traditions. One alive with the power of human potential, but awake to irony, our foolishness and penchant for triviality.

As UU’s, what we have is Kurt Vonnegut.

“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

In his last book, Man Without a Country, Vonnegut made the following declaration:

“I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do. But I say with all my American ancestors if what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

I can almost hear Father Dad saying to me, “You have to reach behind the words. And just as there might be a beautiful story of hope, love and redemption behind the words of another tradition, there will be a beautiful story of tradition, hope, love and redemption behind Humanism. Are you reaching yet, son? Don’t get trapped in the word games.”

I’m trying, Father Dad.

And I invite you to try with me. As UU’s, Religious Humanism is part of our history, one of the many threads that are woven into the tapestry of our faith, named alongside Earth-centered traditions, the traditions of Abraham, and the direct & personal experience of transcendent wonder.

Humanism is bold, it is empowering, it is surprising.

And that, my friends, is where Kurt Vonnegut says we need to be.

“I don’t know about you,” Vonnegut once said, “but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves, “Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment”.

May it always be so.

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