— by Louise Baumberg —
The philosopher Descartes came up with a very rigorous philosophical method. One of his rules was that he would accept only those beliefs that appeared to him “clearly and distinctly” to be true – by clear and distinct he meant those statements which by their very nature could not be doubted, a parallel to mathematical statements such as 2+2=4. Therefore, he started by doubting everything that most people accepted to be true, until he was left with those things that he could not doubt. He found that he could doubt the existence of physical things for example. However, one thing he couldn’t doubt was that he was doubting! As doubting is a kind of thinking, it was self-evident that “I am thinking” was true. Following on from this came the obvious conclusion – “I exist”. Hence “Cogito, ergo sum” “I am thinking therefore I exist” or, more usually, “I think therefore I am”.
I was raised an Anglican and then moved towards the Quakers in my late teens. I still have a book that I called “A Personal Collection of Prayers and Quotations”, started when I was 19, and only continued for a few months. It contains many references to God, sources such as Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King, Muslim writers, the Bible and ‘Christian Faith and Practice’ (the Quaker collection of writings) – there is a strong theme of Universalism and social justice running through it.
For the next 10 years I then felt little need for organised (or disorganised) religion until my children were born. I think that I went through a gradual, and partially unconscious process similar to Descartes. In fact I think that doubting is a natural inclination of mine – I can doubt anything! When I have stripped back those things that I cannot believe to be true I am left with a few basic truths:
- There is the potential for good in every person – in the words of the Quakers, there is “that of God” in everyone.
- Humans have the responsibility to work for good in the world – nothing else is going to fix things for us.
- Everything starts from our relationships with other people, whether close or far away.
These are things, that I cannot doubt, or rather, belief in these is intrinsic to my very nature. This, I suppose, makes me a humanist. I could tick most of the humanist boxes, but I won’t waste time listing all the things I don’t believe in! As someone who cannot believe in a supreme being at this stage in my life, I can fit in with Unitarians, and of course I wouldn’t discount the possibility that this belief, or lack of it, might change in the future and if that should happen – then I can remain a Unitarian.
Before I started coming here, I was quite closed minded about religious beliefs – I think I was probably on the defensive from all the occasions when I was asked which church I went to. I could only define myself by what I was not. Now that I identify myself as Unitarian, I feel that I can be more open to ideas from people who have very different beliefs to me. I would therefore add another “self-evident truth”:
- There are many ways to live a good life – Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist etc.
And I can go back to the prayers and quotations in my book and see past the language to the meaning that they have for me. They all express my emerging beliefs, but this one in particular shows how a Christian hymn can express the personal beliefs of a doubting humanist:
Oh brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother:
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.
Then shall all shackles fall: the stormy clangour
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease:
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.