Today’s entry in our series of guest posts is by Bruce Johansen, a prolific freelance writer who also happens to be my first cousin once removed! You may remember my Mom’s guest post on NPS — it’s a family affair here. To that effect, Bruce offers a poignant and illuminating look into the recent memorial service for his father and the role religion did (and didn’t) play in planning it. It’s a real honor to share this affecting and insightful writing with you today — thank you for sharing this moving piece with us, Bruce.

“There Won’t Be Anything”

I remember it vividly. We were in the kitchen doing dishes, when my father said something that I could not quite follow.

“I guess there won’t be anything for me when I’m gone.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked.

“No funeral or service,” he clarified.

Still not sure I understood, I pressed him further: “Why wouldn’t there be a service?”

“Well,” he replied, “your mother and I haven’t belonged to a church in years.”

Bruce and father

Celebrating one of my father's last birthdays.

It was true. My parents had stopped attending church years (actually decades) ago, and at some point my father, for whom religion had once seemed most important, had drifted away from it completely. Even so, I assured my dad that having severed that relationship was no reason to think that there would be no service. We knew several people who could put together something wonderful and meaningful. It would not be religious in the traditional sense (no God language or prayer, for example) but it would serve many of the same functions.

In hindsight I wish that I had followed up with more questions. What would he like to have included in a service — readings, pieces of music, stories? I also found myself wondering what had become of the Christian beliefs that had seemed so important for much of his life, back when he prayed before holiday meals and attended church faithfully. At the time, however, I was mostly relieved that I had put his mind at ease.

When the Time Came

One night in June, a couple of years after that exchange, my father died. Since January 2008 he had suffered a series of physical setbacks, including two fractured hips and a stroke. As his health deteriorated, he often expressed his desire to die. Still, upon receiving the news, we as a family found ourselves unprepared, both emotionally and in practical ways. Suddenly we were confronted with the reality of his absence, and by numerous tasks that were new to us, many involving finances and stacks of paperwork. Fortunately we had a trusted financial advisor we could lean on for advice about that sort of thing. What was not so clear was how to mark my dad’s passing.

In families that have a strong connection to church, a funeral or memorial service is less of a quandary. The church is notified and conversations are held, hopefully with a trusted pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or someone in a comparable role. In most traditions, a service is scheduled, most often for the following week. There are certain prescribed rituals; expected music, commonly shared words. But what happens when that connection to church is lacking, and when members of the immediate family hold views about religion that range from humanist to agnostic to atheist? That was the context in which we, as a family, began our conversations about how to mark this chapter.

With few models to work with, two family members suggested that we think of the event as a “celebration of life.” Initially it was thought that this celebration would be held outdoors, in a park along the Mississippi River that in recent years had become a favorite site for family gatherings. An aunt who had planned and led two services — one for her mother who had suffered with Alzheimer’s, and the other for a dear friend who had committed suicide — could officiate. The service itself would be shaped around the sharing of stories. Most importantly, it would not be generic and impersonal.

While we liked the spirit that my family wanted to capture, my partner and I had our share of concerns. Some were logistical. Would elderly friends and relatives be able to hear if it were held outdoors? Would people find the spot and would it be easy to navigate? What if the day happened to be rainy or overly hot? Anything was possible in Minnesota in late August. After mulling over those questions, a decision was made to hold the service in the chapel at Macalester College, my father’s alma mater.

The next decision proved trickier. While I had no doubt that my aunt would do a wonderful job preparing and officiating, I thought that there could be some wisdom in inviting friends who had professional training and experience planning such events. From services I had attended, the best helped loved ones remember the person who had died and confront some of the deeper issues and questions that all of us face about mortality and the meaning of life. After some initial hesitancy, other family members consented, and I invited the assistance of two people in addition to my aunt, Susie: a good friend, Rod, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and another, Marilaurice, who is a long-time Catholic liturgist. All three would guide us.

The Potential Gift of Religious Practice

service

Pictured (from left): Rev. Rod Richards, UU minister; Marilaurice Hemlock, Catholic liturgist; Susie Stedman, experienced service leader; Carol Johansen, the author’s mother; nieces Erin Collins and Michelle Collins Zhao, and Bruce Johansen, all of whom joined Rod Richards and Susie Stedman in reading the story of the author’s father’s life.

As planning proceeded, the main challenge was to design a celebration that would prove meaningful, while not setting off alarms for the most anti-religious among us. Some family members lump all religion together with the most literal, fundamentalist brand. As for me, I have a longstanding appreciation of humanist religions. I also know many people who identify with and derive meaning from more traditional religions, who are smart and thoughtful, and who have a negotiated relationship with their religion. They may appreciate religion in metaphorical, not literal ways, or find in some of its parables useful lessons for how to be in the world, while rejecting other texts. Many of these people seem well grounded, fight for social justice, and treat others with an inspiring compassion, kindness, and love.

Those of us who hold a more nuanced view know that while religion can be a source of great suffering and terrible violence in the world, it can also elicit the best in people. And, as this story shows, religion — including the humanist variety that I am most comfortable with — also has the capacity to help people navigate the most difficult moments and questions in their lives.

What evolved from working with three people who possessed the right blend of skills and sensitivity was exactly the kind of celebration I had envisioned, and proved to be more than what my family had hoped for. The groundwork was laid through phone calls, email exchanges, and an initial planning session that brought the minister and liturgist, my mother, partner, and me together around a table on a Saturday afternoon. That casual exchange led to many good ideas being bandied about. By the end of our session the order of service was nearly set and to everyone’s satisfaction. The following Friday, the day before the service, all of us came together as a family, with our planners, and the final details fell into place.

The service that resulted captured who my dad was, and simultaneously grappled with the big questions about life, death, and what it means to be human. Between thoughtful opening and closing words came the sharing of my dad’s life story, music, poetry, silence, and a wonderful blessing tailored to my father’s life. Photo albums, carefully prepared by my brother, enhanced the story that was told. All of the elements were respectful of the beliefs and wishes of my family.

Every person present for my dad’s celebration of life left the campus grounds that Saturday knowing more about him than when they arrived. And for those who may have entered the chapel skeptical about or even hostile toward religion, the service demonstrated the potential gift that religious practice can be in helping people mark important passages of life. To a person, members of my family were sure that my father would have been pleased with how the celebration had unfolded. While his physical being was not there, much of his spirit was present.

Stepping Back

If I could step back in time, rejoin my dad in the kitchen that day, I would assure him with much greater confidence that the service planned would be one of reflection, respect, tenderness, and love; that his absence from church these past many years would not matter one bit; that our family could learn from those among us who are more “churched” than we, and that they could learn from us as well.

bruceBruce Johansen is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in American studies. He currently does research and writes reports for the DC-based FrameWorks Institute and devotes much of his time to community development work in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood. As a child, Bruce attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, and then, in his 20s, discovered Unitarianism. More recently he has found himself drawn to Ethical Culture and Buddhism as well.

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“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.” – Carl Sagan, Wonder & Skepticism

“Holy shit,” he said. “That is a dead body underneath that tarp.”

It was a Sunday morning. The air was quiet; many Columbus residents, I imagine, were seated in church pews. Nat and I were leaving the hotel where we’d spent the weekend and headed to the Ohio State University for the final day of the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Conference. We were in a hurry – conference proceedings were to begin at 10:30 AM with a panel on interfaith, and I was on said panel.

We were very glad to be leaving this particular hotel. Our room smelled like a wet dog, the carpet was sticky, and every available piece of fabric was stained. We aren’t high maintenance – just last month we slept on the ground for five days while camping in the mountains – but this place was something else. To cope with the horror we felt about being stuck there, we spent the weekend jokingly referring to it as the “Murder 8.” As we packed our things and went to check out, we made one last joke to bid the hotel farewell and alleviate the nervousness I experience anytime I do public speaking. “Bye bye, Murder 8,” we chuckled.

Boy, did we eat our words when we stepped into that rainy Sunday morning and saw yellow police tape outside our room’s window, crime scene investigators busily snapping shots, and a single hand protruding from beneath a blue plastic sheet.

Neither of us knew what to do. There was nothing to do, really, except get in the car. Man, I spend too much time worrying about minute things, I mused as we drove away, sick to our stomachs.

Trying to put the image out of my mind, I readied myself to talk about secular participation in the interfaith movement. The panel was comprised of myself, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta, a Christian Reverend who has done interfaith work with Atheists named Jonathan Weyer, and Lewis Marshall from Stanford’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics. During the panel, I spoke strongly in favor of interfaith cooperation and why I think it is important for secular folks to engage with religious communities in a respectful manner. I thought it went really well, but I admit I was surprised at the end when a significant number of the questions during the Q&A were directed only at me and seemed a bit pointed.

After the panel was done and the panelists had all shaken hands and expressed our mutual gratitude, several students approached me and asked me to denounce things some of my interfaith allies have said about Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). I said that I could not – and then everyone was asked to be seated for the next session. I never got the chance to reconnect with these students as I had to catch an early flight home. I can’t help but feel bad about the anger they expressed and my inability to offer anything to soothe them.

Noticing a trend here? Humor, shock, nervousness, anger: experiences get processed through emotions. They were the cornerstone of the conference experience; both my own – the friendships I built, the anxiety I felt before speaking, the shock of a random death – and those of others – the impassioned questions, the anger and hurt of some students, and the community constructed. Whatever we do, emotions narrate our experiences and guide our actions.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to share an illuminating conversation I had with a man I now count as a personal friend: Jesse Galef, Communications Director for the SSA, adjunct blogger for The Friendly Atheist, and stellar breakdancer. Ours has been an evolving dialogue: it started at the SSA New England Leadership Summit I attended this past April, continued during a conference call we were both on around EDMD, and most recently extended before an audience at the Center for Inquiry Leadership Conference last month where we were on a panel together.

During a break in the conference schedule Jesse and I returned to this ongoing conversation on our different approaches – what are often caricatured as “aggressive” Atheism and “accommodationism” – and why we practice them. At one point in the conversation, Jesse identified his number one goal as working toward a world rooted in “rationality.” I’m not sure why I didn’t fully recognize this before, but that is not a goal we share. I’m more interested in cultivating communities and relationships that develop broad coalitions of solidarity across identified lines of difference. Relationships of mutuality and respect. Relationships that account for – you guessed it – emotion.

Our approaches are different because our end goals are different. We both believe we are being pragmatic; it’s just that I pragmatically don’t think a solely “rational” world is achievable. Nor, emotionally, do I think it is preferable. Emotions do and always will play a sizable role in the decisions we make, and I think that when we try to divorce our actions from our emotions and rest entirely on “reason,” we end up making pretty irrational decisions.

panel

Three fourths of the interfaith panel. (photo c/o Roy Natian)

Take, for example, a recent blog post by my fellow panelist Hemant Mehta, who is also on the SSA’s Board of Directors. Writing about Anne Rice’s declaration that, though she still believes in Christ, she can no longer identify as a Christian due to the tradition’s historical bigotry, Hemant dismissed her statement and said he’d “pay more attention” if she abandoned her religious beliefs altogether. As Skeptigirl’s response post wisely notes, Hemant displays zero compassion in this reflection. There’s no sign of sympathy or even a practical appreciation for the ways in which her move advances our cause. There’s no emotion there, only superiority.

I love the Secular Student Alliance because they empower young people to create communities. They do such important work, and I am honored to be a member, contribute to the eMpirical, and speak at their conference. I celebrate where our ambitions overlap – I too want to see more secular students be vocal about our identity and actively create communities. But where we diverge is that I worry about the identity we model when engaging in things like EDMD, a contentious issue that came up several times throughout the conference and repeatedly in our interfaith panel.

I walked away from the conference solid in my conviction that things like EDMD and Blasphemy Day are bad for our community because they symbolize our worst characteristics and attempts at emotion-denying: a tendency toward intellectual superiority and a struggle to empathize with different experiences and identities (these go hand in hand). We say “it’s just humor” as if everyone should be expected to see the joke in how we mock their central tenants. I can’t help but notice in this a stark difference between humor that elucidates a truth and humor that just dehumanizes.

I’m proud of my non-religious identity but I also know that secularism is a sign of profound privilege, and we ought to exercise caution in how we navigate this reality. As Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry, keynote speaker Greta Christina, and others rightly noted, our movement is dominated by upper-class, educated, heterosexual white men. Why is this? Most people do not have the luxury of sitting around debating the existence of God, let alone taking an entire weekend to attend a conference on secularism, because they are preoccupied by just trying to live, to eat, to survive. Some reconcile the struggles and challenges of their existence with a belief in God.

I don’t think we need to treat “believing something different” and “sharing in humanity” as mutually exclusive entities. Our secularism needn’t deprive those who do not share in it of their dignity. We have the luxury of being able to devote our time to critical thinking and inquiry, so let’s use them for good. Let’s stop seeing the world in dichotomies of black and white, right and wrong, rational and emotional, secular and “delusional.” They just aren’t very useful; the world is full of information and we shouldn’t close ourselves off from any of it by thinking we’ve reached “the truth” while boasting that others haven’t. We must always aim for empathy and humility, not unabashed assuredness. If we cannot, we are just as guilty of what we accuse the evangelical religious of – exclusive truth claims that promote oppression.

Instead of cracking so many jokes at another’s expense, let’s listen to more stories, like the one my mother shared on this blog about how she learned to embrace the legitimacy of choices that differed from her own. As Eboo Patel, April Kunze and Noah Silverman write in Storytelling as a Key Methodology for Interfaith Youth Work: “Personal storytelling moves the encounter from competing notions of ‘Truth’ to varied human experiences of life, which possess the unique quality of being both infinite and common.” If we tell our stories and listen to those of others, we’re likely to learn a lot.

We may not believe in souls but we can be soulful. Let’s stop focusing so much energy on how we are “right” and on “promoting rationality,” lest we forget about our hearts. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive either. To quote from something I’ve written before:

My mom occasionally recounts a story about me as a child, a time I corrected a kid at a birthday party for calling sherbet “ice cream.” She always laughs when she tells it… As you might guess, in my youth being “right” held ultimacy. I corrected everyone who I felt was “wrong.” With age and experience, my perspective has shifted. I do believe it is better to be “good” than to be “right.”

I may not always get this right, but I’m trying to practice what I preach the best that I can. It helps me to ask in any given situation that begins to move into conflict: isn’t being loving more important than being “right”? A quick perusal of human history shows that when one person’s idea of “rationality” trumps basic human decency for others, we all suffer. Let’s learn from our mutual past.

Today I am not spending my time worrying about the folks who offered negative appraisal of my comments during the interfaith panel. I think instead of the family of that nameless person killed outside of my hotel.

I wonder how they are coping; I wonder if they are praying. I could understand if that family was appealing to a God in the face of such tragedy – I remember only too well the times I turned to God when experiencing loss.

Ask yourself this: if they are turning to God to process this experience, would you go up to them and tell them that they are wrong? Foolish? Deluded?

I shudder at that thought almost as much as I do the unshakable image of that blue tarp with a single hand exposed, reaching out for something. What he was reaching for we cannot know, but we can feel it if we try.

roger-ebertEsquire has a moving piece on Chicago luminary Roger Ebert. In it, he discusses his battle with cancer and muses on his impending death. It contains this spectacular bit:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

This was the first time I had heard anything of Ebert’s philosophies on death and dying, but it is not the first time he has written on them. After coming across the Esquire piece I did some research and found that he’s actually been quite prolific on the subject. In a blog published in April of last year, Ebert discussed his views on religion and God, speaking from what is, to me, a clearly Secular Humanistic perspective. Yet in the blog Ebert articulated his challenge with identifying as such (though in the following selection he does claim to be a Secular Humanist):

Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don’t. I avoid that because I don’t want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word. Chaz, who has a firm faith, leaves me to my beliefs. “But you know you’re one or the other,” she says. “I have never told you that,” I say. “Maybe not in so many words, but you are,” she says.

But I persist in believing I am not. During in all the endless discussions on several threads of this blog about evolution, intelligent design, God and the afterworld, now numbering altogether around 3,500 comments, I have never said, although readers have freely informed me I am an atheist, an agnostic, or at the very least a secular humanist–which I am. If I were to say I don’t believe God exists, that wouldn’t mean I believe God doesn’t exist. Nor does it I don’t know, which implies that I could know.

Ebert’s perspective resonates strongly with my own life experience. Our camp — home to Secular Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers and many more — is a disjointed and ambiguous one. I decided to plant my stakes in Secular Humanism. One tent over there is someone who holds a worldview that echoes my own but who calls herself an Atheist, which I do not. And this trouble with terminology is not just limited to our little patch of earth — across the lake, there are people who call themselves Christians but see things pretty much the same way I do. And so it goes.

Some of us elect to cast our allegiance to a particular label. I resisted doing so for a long time until I decided that it made sense for me. Ebert continues to resist and, while I applaud him for doing so, I will also claim him as “one of us.” My reasons for doing so may be selfish, but something tells me he might not actually mind all that much. Label the man what you will; his writings are well worth reading and we are lucky to have him contributing to our canon.

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