Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tonga

Sunday, May 29, 2005


Philocrites posted Saturday about the new Harvard humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein. Noting that the "language of reverence" is an issue for Harvard humanists, Philocrites captured this from the Boston Globe:

Liberal and conservative believers bicker over the particulars of belief, and humanists are no different, frequently disagreeing over the meaning of humanism and even vocabulary. Take a simple word like faith.

''I personally see a humanist as a person of faith," Epstein says. ''Humanism is a faith that people do have the strength to solve enough of their problems, if they work together and they care about one another, to live meaningful lives" without a belief in an almighty god.

But as he talks, senior Kerry Dingle, joining him and other humanists for a group interview, shakes her head. ''I really, really hate the word 'faith,' " she says. ''Faith is by definition believing something without evidence."

I, too, hated the word "faith" for most of my youth because it seemed to be the sole property of fools. As used, it almost invariably meant "belief in the incredible."

Fortunately, in the early 1970s I was lucky enough to take classes from a professor at the University of Tulsa. The professor, Harold E. Hill (yes, he capitalized on the Music Man identity), had a triple Ph D from Yale, in religion, anthopology, and something else (I have forgotten the third). He was an ordained Presbyterian minister as well, and co-taught a classes with various scientists; one of the most fascinating of these classes centered upon the works of William James. (I remember distinctly that Dr. Hill was more scientifically critical of James than was the "scientist"-- a research psychologist!)

Dr. Hill detested the word "faith' when it was used to refer to uncritical acceptance, and would break into rants when he encountered a phrase like "faith in miracles".

According to Dr. Hill, faith was a reasonable expectation for the future, based upon one's empirical experiences. One could, for example, have faith in gravity because one had experienced the functioning of gravity since the womb. A gravity failure-- when objects would behave in ways counter to the laws of gravity-- would result in a crisis of faith, among other crises.

Real faith-- and for him, as a Christian-- meant that he had seen evidence of the truth in Jesus's teachings (that love is critical to human survival, that forgiveness is liberating, that commitment to ideals of human goodness is evidence itself of that human goodness) and had a reasonable expectation that those truths would remain valid over time. Misplaced statements of faith, asserting a belief in the unbelievable, were acknowledgments of superstition and the power of magic.

Ironically, I took my first course from Dr. Hill only when the University of Tulsa dropped its requirement that all undergraduates take a course in religion (TU was founded by the Presbyterian Church). I abhored the idea of required courses,not because the concept is invalid, but because I was young, arrogant, and immature, and abhored much that was reasonable. Once I discovered that Dr. Hill's religion courses were intellectually and academically challenging-- and not indoctrination platforms-- I signed up for as many as I could get. Dr. Hill was (and is still) a great friend. I benefitted immeasurably from his mentoring when I was young; he inspired me to greater integrity.

Not unexpectedly, Dr. Hill spoke to the Humanist Association in Tulsa on 12 May 2005.