The joy of walking

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Walking is good for the environment. It is also good for the body and the soul. 

A recent study suggests that walking may slow the aging process. But walking is not merely a tool for longevity. It is also an instrument of spiritual health. An MIT study found that walking increased markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic, often in response to the negative emotional effects of lockdowns and isolation.

So why should we walk? Because walking is good for the earth and for the human spirit.

Sauntering with John Muir and Henry David Thoreau

It is worth considering the art of walking on Earth Day, which also coincides with John Muir’s birthday. John Muir is well known as a conservationist. He was also a maniacal walker. In 1867, he walked 1,000 miles, from Indianapolis to Florida. In his account of that walk, Muir wrote:

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.

John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

To “walk with nature” is a metaphor, of course. It means to live in communion with nature. The phrase was employed by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. And it echoes the ancient Stoics, who taught us to live in accord with nature.

But the metaphor is grounded in the invigorating movement of the body in the world. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze.”

Henry David Thoreau published a famous essay, “Walking,” in 1862. Thoreau said that he spends hours each day “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Thoreau reminds us that freedom is a key to the art of walking. When Muir calls for us to “let children walk with nature,” he is encouraging us to allow our children the freedom to roam, to explore, and to discover the “divine harmony.”

Absorbing the world while walking

This is not as far out as it sounds. Walking creates a sense of interconnection. The pace of a walk is exactly right for finding yourself at home in your environment. We miss something when we zoom about, whether online or in cars. We are hard-wired by evolution to absorb the world at a walking pace.

In a car, the scenery passes by in a blur. But when we walk, we see individuals. When walking past other people, whether we say hello or avert our eyes, the stranger is present to us. In a car, we do not even notice the strangers we pass. Nor do we see the trees, flowers, birds, and animals. Walking opens the mind and connects us to the world.

This is understood by the world’s spiritual traditions. When I studied Zen, we did walking meditation. The rhythm of walking frees the mind. In other traditions, pilgrimages are filled with spiritual significance. And in some traditions, a vision quest includes a walkabout.

Walking for all

Not everyone has the leisure to walk. The Sierra Club began as a club for affluent white people with the leisure to hike and climb. John Muir was a man of his time who harbored racist ideas. And native peoples lived in the “wild nature” celebrated by Muir and Thoreau. 

The MIT study mentioned above found that the increase in walking during the pandemic was anything but evenly distributed by class, income, and race: Those with more income and leisure time were much more likely to engage in the practice.

Poets, philosophers, and explorers often forget their position of privilege. We must do better. We need a more universal approach to the joy of walking.

The freedom and joy of walking should be enjoyed by children of all races and classes. Poor children and children of color need to be introduced to the wonders of nature. And all children deserve to have safe neighborhoods and parks, where they can wander, play, and explore. 

There is something transformative about a multi-day backpacking trip through the backcountry.  It would be great if more people had access to that kind of experience. But it should be possible for all people to walk safely through their own neighborhoods. Let’s make sure that everyone has good places to walk.

Making the mountains glad again

When Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892, his goal was to preserve wild places. He said he hoped this would “make the mountains glad.”

These days, the mountains are not glad. The forests around Muir’s beloved Yosemite are dying. The ancient Sequoia groves have been devastated by drought and fire. We’ve got a lot of conservation work to do.

There is also spiritual work to be done. We zoom about, removed from nature, and from each other. We need to rediscover the pace of nature and find ways to walk with nature. To make the mountains glad again and to heal our own spirits, we must rediscover the joy of walking.

The post The joy of walking appeared first on OnlySky Media.

Tolerating the hypocrites: religious exemptions and the problem of belief

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Americans are skeptical of religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination rules. According to a recent Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans suspect that those who claim a religious exemption are “just using religion as an excuse to avoid the vaccine.” But let’s be cautious in judging other people.  It is difficult to judge the sincerity of our own beliefs. It is even harder to evaluate the sincerity of another person’s beliefs. That’s why we need toleration. There is wisdom in leaving other people alone, even when they are hypocritical and confused.

Atheists in foxholes?

Human beings are shape-shifters and opportunists. We adapt to environments. We respond to changing circumstances.  Sometimes, we make mistakes. Hopefully, we learn from them.  Stoic firmness is a rare achievement. 

Some philosophers go so far as to claim that character and integrity are mythological.  Situationism is the idea that character depends upon circumstances.  Education and culture shape our beliefs and our behaviors.  When in Rome, we tend to behave as the Romans do.

A related idea says that there are no atheists in foxholes. Phil Zuckerman has shown that this old adage is false. Some soldiers become atheists precisely because of the stupidity and cruelty of war. Situationism teaches that we can’t predict what we will believe until we are actually thrown into a foxhole. Some will turn to God. Some will turn away. And some will remain confused.

Our beliefs evolve in response to new knowledge and changing circumstances.  But mostly we fumble about.  And sometimes we change our minds.

The strangeness of belief

Beliefs are strange things.  They exist somewhere in the subconscious mind.  They don’t become manifest until they are put to the test or somehow called forth.  Until we are in a foxhole—or asked to wear a mask or get a vaccine—we don’t know what we might believe. 

If it is difficult to understand and predict our own beliefs, it is even more difficult to judge the beliefs of others.  It is not impossible to figure out when people are lying or deceiving themselves.  But it is more difficult than we might think. 

One difficulty is that declarations of belief are self-reinforcing.  When you declare you believe something, you tend to double down on that belief.  That’s one of the reasons that clubs, churches, and courtrooms ask people to publicly swear oaths and affirm creeds.  Once you state something publicly, you are more likely to believe it. 

There are liars and hypocrites.  But most people say what they believe and believe what they say.  And social systems reinforce creeds, oaths, and beliefs.  Our beliefs do not exist in isolation within our heads.  Rather, they are supported and encouraged by social institutions.

Some critics of secularism appeal to this idea.  They worry, for example, that when prayer and the Bible are taken out public life, people will abandon religion.  This worry is, in fact, a kind of situationism.  It suggests that religious belief is the result of social pressure and supporting institutions.  The religious critic might be right that when religion is removed from the public sphere, religious belief will fade.  The growth of non-religion in recent decades could be used as evidence to support a situationist theory of belief.

Toleration and inward sincerity

Of course, the Founding Fathers did not intend to undermine religion when they drafted the First Amendment.  They wanted to allow diverse Christian people to peacefully co-exist.  The Founders also tended to follow John Locke in thinking that religious belief required “inward sincerity” that was not susceptible to institutional pressure.  As Locke put it, “men cannot be forced to be saved,” rather, “they must be left to their own consciences.”

But freedom of conscience makes faith more difficult. Belief is easier when social institutions reinforce orthodoxy. In a secular system, it is up to us to figure out what we believe. This is challenging but worth the effort. Freely chosen beliefs tend to be stronger than beliefs that result from conformity and peer pressure. 

Tolerating the hypocrites

And now, let’s return to religious vaccine exemptions.  Some people may be lying when asking for a religious exemption.  But secular toleration encourages us to give people substantial lee-way when it comes to expressions of faith. 

Religious liberty allows us to figure out what we believe and why.  It also allows us to make mistakes and change our minds.  So long as the harm of an exemption is not too large, we should tolerate nonconformity.  We might even tolerate a few liars and cheats.  In the end, we all benefit from a secular system that allows us the freedom to figure out what we actually believe. We benefit from strong protections of religious liberty, even though some hypocrites may abuse their freedom and lie about the sincerity of their faith.

The post Tolerating the hypocrites: religious exemptions and the problem of belief appeared first on OnlySky Media.

Fighting the ‘apathy of impotence’

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A friend recently suggested that apathy is a reasonable response to a world gone mad.  He called this the “apathy of impotence.” The apathy of impotence grows from the feeling that there is nothing we can do to change a world afflicted by systematic and structural problems. Rather than beating your head against the wall, it is tempting to just stop caring. I fear that the apathy of impotence is one reason young people are succumbing to depression and suicide

I feel hopeless myself at times in the face of so many overwhelming social, political, and environmental crises. How do we create hope in a world that seems hopeless?

The climate example

At the risk of adding to the mountain of despair, consider an example. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an ominous recent report. We are probably going to witness temperature changes that go beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, without any real plan in place to prevent this. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, warned in response, “we are on a fast track to climate disaster.”

We’ve all witnessed the storms, the fires, the shifting seasons. It seems there is not much any individual can do about it. The world is constructed in a way that requires us to consume fossil fuels. Corporate interests and governmental policies are maintaining a disastrous status quo.

Yes, committed individuals can bike more, drive less, and eat vegetarian diets. But the impact of these individual choices are drops in the ocean. The real solution requires a change in the infrastructure, the economy, and the political system. Individuals feel powerless in the face of this challenge. So we lose hope and become apathetic.

Nero’s fiddle and the vortex of despair

As my friend suggested, apathy is not a moral failing but a reasonable response. If there is nothing you can do to make change, you might as well stop worrying. I once described this as the problem of “Nero’s Fiddle”: If Rome is burning and there is no chance you can stop it, you might as well pick up your fiddle and play, right?

This is dangerous. Apathy and despair create a vicious cycle. Instead of working to fix the problem, we give up—and the problem grows worse. The worse it gets, the more likely we are to give up. And so on. 

The vortex of despair is at the root of a number of problems that are best described as spiritual. Loneliness, sadness, and grief are often magnified by a vicious cycle. The lonely person mopes in her room, feeling left out. She convinces herself that she has no friends. She retreats to solitude and finds her worst fears confirmed.

Health problems are also exacerbated in this way. You know you should eat better and exercise. But that is difficult. So, you put it off and eat junk food on the couch. The next day you feel sluggish, which leads you to retreat to the couch again.  

Hope as an active and social virtue

How do we break out of that vicious cycle? One solution is religious. At Easter time, Christianity offers a story of hope. But secular and nonreligious folks must look elsewhere for a solution. One key is to understand hope as an active and social virtue. 

Hope is not something we passively receive but something we actively create. Hope grows from engagement. It blossoms when you work to generate it. Hope is also a social product. We become more hopeful when we are supported by others.

Hope without action is ephemeral. Passive hope is a mere dream that things will get better. But without action, things don’t get better. And thus, hopeful dreamers slip back into despair, when their passive dreams do not come true.

A more practical kind of hope grows from the realization that progress is only made by painstaking collective action. The philosopher Hannah Arendt directed our attention to this idea, with her concept of “natality.” This is the power of labor, birth, and creativity. Hope requires effort. Children are not born without labor and suffering. To create a better future, we must labor.

The apathy of impotence can be overcome by finding communities of engaged action. The vortex of despair is overcome by going out and getting to work. We find hope when we join together with others who are actively working to make change. 

Go to a public rally or protest. Participate in a political campaign. Register people to vote. In those social actions you will find like-minded people to support you and give you hope. You will also be actively participating in the labor of making change. 

The apathy of impotence can be overcome by hopeful social action. But this is not a panacea. There is no miraculous solution for big social and political problems. Rather, hopeful social action requires effort, engagement, and even some suffering. But it rests on the realization that things won’t improve unless we join together and get to work.

The post Fighting the ‘apathy of impotence’ appeared first on OnlySky Media.

As religion falls away, how will we support Generation Z?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A new study from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) shows that Generation Z (born 1997-2012) tends to be less religious and more secular than older generations, and therefore less likely to engage in behaviors such as saying grace or attending church.

The authors at AEI note that this demographic shift represents a significant change in our social and psychological lives. AEI tends to lean to the right and offer a conservative interpretation of things, so it is not surprising that they emphasize that loss of faith correlates with increased loneliness and decreased civic engagement.

But does that mean we should try to reinvigorate religion and persuade our youth to go back to church? It’s not so easy to put the secular genie back into the religious bottle. The solution is to nurture the youth in humanistic ways. We need to help young people find ways to create meaning and community in an increasingly nonreligious world.

The admirable circle of faith

In my own experience, it rings true to say that loss of religion can produce loneliness and disengagement. I often look with envy at the religious folks I know, who gather for shared rituals, food, and song—and who often engage in robust political activism.

Communities of faith provide networks of support that come to life in times of crisis. Faith networks bring food to widows. They support families who are grieving and overwhelmed. When my grandmother died, the church funeral was packed with people who had known my grandmother for a lifetime. There is something nice about being born, married, and buried in a nurturing community.

Faith communities have rituals and activities that bring people together in admirable ways. I have given a number of talks to religious communities. And I am usually pleasantly surprised to discover the pleasant camaraderie of these communities of faith.

One of those groups is a Mennonite peace fellowship. These are working-class folks, teachers, and farmers who gather weekly to discuss issues related to peace and social justice. They share a potluck meal. Then they listen to a speaker (like me). The evening closes with everyone standing in a circle, holding hands, and singing a hymn in four-part harmony.

The food is plentiful. The fellowship is fun. And the song is beautiful. I also admire the spirit of their discussions. These are folks who want the world to be more peaceful and just.

After these kinds of interactions, I feel that this is missing in my nonreligious life. There is something to admire in faith communities, and something is lost when faith disappears.

Secular freedom gained

I co-authored a book recently with Catholic theologian Peter Admirand. Peter asked me toward the end of the book whether there was anything like “tradition” and “ritual” in my secular life. The spirit of his question was about what makes secular life meaningful. He also wondered whether secular life isn’t somehow ungrounded and adrift.

I have to admit that there is some truth to this concern. I don’t have a faith community to support me, either in times of joy or times of grief. Nor do I have a ritual calendar to give meaning to my days. I admitted to Peter that I was envious of that part of his religious life. But I argued that what is gained in the secular life is freedom.

Humanists often focus on arguments about God’s existence. They may question the supposed sacred value of religious texts. Or they may worry about pedophile priests and corrupt religious hierarchies. But the positive value of humanism is its affirmation of freedom.

Freedom can be lonely. And it can leave us isolated and alienated. But that is not the whole of the story. Freedom can be used creatively to build community. Freedom is not easy. But this is true of any adventure. When traditional sources of meaning and community fall away in the rearview mirror, we realize it is up to us to make the journey meaningful.

Nurturing the lonely secular youth

The lonely secular youth described by the American Enterprise Institute’s report need help. It is not enough for the critics of religion to hammer away at religious institutions. We also need to build new supportive institutions.

We need secular versions of the religious potluck. We need to find ways to join hands and sing. And we need to create new rituals and traditions that resonate with life in the 21st century.

Above all, we need to nurture those who are struggling to find their way on the rocky road of freedom. Many members of Generation Z are anxious and afraid, and for good reason: These are frightening times. But the solution is not to go backward. Rather, we need to encourage the youth to go forward with courage and with the hope that life without religion can be meaningful, fun, and free.

The post As religion falls away, how will we support Generation Z? appeared first on OnlySky Media.

Secularism on trial: the public/private belief distinction

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A lesson about secularism was revealed in Senator Lindsey Graham’s strange interrogation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The Senator reminded us of the importance of the distinction between private belief and public impartiality. When we say that justice is blind, we mean that public officials ought to aspire to impartiality and learn to bracket their beliefs.

Senator Graham’s interrogation of Judge Jackson

Senator Graham asked Judge Jackson about the depth of her faith and the frequency of her church attendance. The judge responded by pointing out that there is no religious litmus test in the Constitution. But the Senator persisted, asking Judge Jackson to rate her religiosity on a scale of 1-10.

Senator Graham then admitted, “I go to church, probably three times a year… so that speaks poorly of me.” Jackson still refused to answer, saying that she was mindful of the need to separate her personal religious views from her obligation of impartiality as a judge.

Senator Graham asked whether the judge would be impartial regarding religion. Without allowing her to answer, he said, “The reason I ask these questions is, I have no doubt that your faith is important to you. And I have zero doubt that you can adjudicate people’s cases fairly if they’re an atheist.”

The point here is that diverse people, including atheists, should be able to trust the impartiality of the judiciary. Secular systems are administered by people from all walks of life. Our officials—our senators and our judges—include religious fanatics, occasional churchgoers, and atheists. Secularism demands that these officials set their private faith aside when they execute their public duties.

No religious test required

Senator Graham’s aggressive questioning was apparently a reaction to questions that arose during the prior confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Senator Graham seemed to be making a point about those who attacked Justice Barrett’s faith and impugned her impartiality. If his line of questioning appeared obnoxious when directed at Judge Jackson, he seemed to suggest, then similar questions were out of line when Justice Barrett was confirmed.

I have reconstructed Graham’s point here, trying to make sense of it. One could question Senator Graham’s style and strategy, as well as the melodrama of our Supreme Court confirmation ritual. But this seems to be what he was aiming at.

Of course, many were incensed by his line of questioning. Senator Graham was mocked by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And the Interfaith Alliance tweeted: “Judge Jackson is right – there is no religious test in the Constitution. While senators can ask how a nominee’s religious beliefs would influence their rulings, using faithfulness as a metric to evaluate a future Supreme Court justice is completely inappropriate.”

This is the important point. Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of our secular system. Article VI of the Constitution clearly states, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This means that no one can be barred from office because of their religion.

This holds for atheists as well. Nonbelievers cannot be barred from office and should be free to exercise their own consciences. This is true despite the fact that only one member of Congress, Senator Krysten Sinema, identifies as “unaffiliated.”

Bracketing our beliefs

Our religious beliefs, and non-beliefs, should be irrelevant in public life. But we often forget this.

In an era of identity politics, we have lost track of the basic human ability to bracket our beliefs. Some even go so far as to deny that impartiality is possible. But the interrogation of Judge Jackson reminds us of why we ought to cultivate the art of impartiality.

Judges, doctors, teachers, and others should keep their personal beliefs private. They ought to behave impartially when executing their professional duties. This is not always easy. But the goal is a noble one. And it assumes that it is possible for us to distinguish between private belief and public duty. We can do this—and we should.

Senator Graham admitted this in his claim about the atheist on trial. He said that a religious judge should be able to judge an atheist fairly. The reverse is also true: an atheist judge should be able to judge religious believers fairly.

Secular impartiality

Justice is blind, as they say. And that’s a good thing. Secular systems of justice assume that the distinction between private belief and public impartiality is real and meaningful. In a secular system, public officials can and should treat diverse people with dignity and respect, while keeping private faith out of public judgment.

Impartiality is difficult. It requires training and practice. And sometimes we fail. But we will all do better when we understand the importance of bracketing private belief.

In the United States, there is no religious litmus test for office. There should be no establishment of religion. Each of us is free to believe what we choose. But public officials should keep their private beliefs to themselves.

The post Secularism on trial: the public/private belief distinction appeared first on OnlySky Media.