First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“Reality Based Religion”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore  September 18, 2005




Which is the best guide for making life choices: reality or faith?

As Gini Courter, the Unitarian Universalist Association Moderator, lauded “reality based” sex education programs during the opening ceremony of General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas this past June, my mind was drawn to the question of “reality” or “faith” as the basis of sex education, a controversial topic in today’s political climate of faith-based initiatives.

I participated as a teenager in 1972 in the first Unitarian Universalist version of reality based sex education called “About Your Sexuality”.  Among other things, I learned about male and female anatomy, how to make love, how to avoid getting my partner pregnant, and all about sexually transmitted disease.  STDs sobered me and probably did more to slow me down than anything else.  Everything was medically accurate and reality based.  In the swinging ‘70s, I think it was assumed we’d be sexually active so my teachers wanted us to be safe and prepared.  The new version of this curriculum, Our Whole Lives, has a different approach.  It is still medically accurate and comprehensive but encourages abstinence and suggests alternative ways of redirecting sexual energy.  AIDS has sobered the free love generation who are now writing the curriculum.  What remains the same is the emphasis on learning to make informed, and responsible personal choices … based in reality.

Compare this with the fundamentalist approach teaching children abstinence without a full disclosure of the pleasures and dangers of sexual activity.  They believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  If you teach children all about sex they will want to do it. 

They seem to think keeping the joys of sex out of their young minds will prevent them from seeking it.  Sexual activity should be used to make babies not to have fun, say the Catholics.  Parents and pastors know that sex outside of marriage is a bad thing so children should just say no.  Children should have faith in the guidance of their parents and religious leaders until they are married and prepared to accept the responsibility of procreation.

In reality, this approach just isn’t working.  Research has shown that fundamentalist children who take the abstinence pledge engage in sexual activity at the same rates as those who don’t.  The differences the researchers did discover have implications for public health.  The pledge takers tended to engage in riskier sex without contraception than those who received medically accurate instruction such as our OWL program provides.

What got this sermon cogitating in my head as I heard Gini Courter’s words was how important the “reality based” part is for making any decisions.  I’ve been having some hip pain this summer that I was trying to treat myself by walking, doing some exercises, and basically wishing that it would just go away.  The location of the pain made me afraid I was suffering from hip joint degeneration. 

I finally decided I’d better go see the doctor.  The doctor looked me over, tested my joints, did some urine and blood tests and ordered an x-ray.  The report came back I had inflammation in my facet joints between S1 and L5 that was probably irritating the sciatic nerve that runs parallel to the piroformis muscle in the hip area on my left side.  Even though I’d never heard of a facet joint before, now I had reality based information I could use to seek treatment and guide my healing strategy.

Alternatively, I could have gone to a Christian Scientist practitioner.  The practitioner would have prayed, laid his hands on me and asked the divine to intervene in my body and bring healing.  Which approach do you think is going to be the most effective?  I might go see a faith healer, but I’ll ask for help based on what I know rather than what I don’t know.

The basis for the faith-based approach to guidance is trust in authority.  The authority of revelation, the authority of the minister, the authority of the parent, all these lines of authority provide the framework for guidance.  Because humanity is mired in sin, our judgment is impaired so we cannot make decisions for ourselves outside the authority framework.  Doubt yourself and follow the leader is the general rule.

The reality-based approach rejects authority as the primary source of guidance.  Early scientists proved to us again and again that the Catholic Church, the seat of all European religious authority, did not have the right answers about the center of the solar system.  Nor did it have the right answers about the evolutionary relationship between human beings and other life forms on this planet.  Moses, Jesus and Mohammed had no clue about quantum mechanics, DNA, germs, viruses, and the biological processes of conception and child development.  Their answers, frozen thousands of years ago, cannot adapt to the changes we have wrought by conquering the planet and becoming a threat to our biosphere.

In our capacity to use our minds and reason toward truth, William Ellery Channing, founding father of American Unitarianism, saw divinity in human nature rather than depravity.  In his ordination sermon delivered in 1828 for Rev. F. A. Farley titled “Likeness to God,” Channing proposed this heretical approach to religion:

…the likeness to God … belongs to man’s higher or spiritual nature.  It has its foundation in the original and essential capacities of the mind.  In proportion as these are unfolded by right and vigorous exertion, it is extended and brightened.  In proportion as these lie dormant, it is obscured.  In proportion as they are perverted and overpowered by the appetites and passions, it is blotted out.

For Channing, “God is another name for human intelligence raised above all error and imperfection and extended to all possible truth.”

The Protestant Christian tradition from which our religious movement emerged was not the first to begin to doubt the faith of traditional religion and look for guidance based in reality.  Greek philosophers questioning their mythology struggled with this question in a slightly different form asking, “What is the source of reality?”  Plato believed what is real here is but a pale reflection of an ideal that exists eternally and independently of reality.  That chair is an example of the eternal form, “chairness.”  The foundation for this thinking came from Pythagoras who began discovering mathematical principles that were reflected imperfectly in nature.  The foundations for our worldview today are scientific and mathematical ideas that are independent of any individual example.  As best we know, principles such as gravity and the speed of light are completely reliable here and throughout the universe.  Force equals mass times acceleration yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  For Plato, comprehending these eternal ideas and forms directly through contemplation rather than through worldly examples gave us access to the nature of divinity and to the understanding of reality.

His student, Aristotle didn’t quite see it that way.  He felt that humans had a role in creating these laws through the process of observation, measurement and categorization.  What is really real isn’t the ideal forms outside of reality but the material world we experience.  Those who followed him, like the Stoics, took his thinking the next logical step, believing that reality was only made up of what we could discover through the senses.  We didn’t need to depend on superhuman Gods individuals with specially revealed knowledge or privileged experience, we all could experience truth directly for ourselves.

Science is built on this foundation and has served the pursuit of knowledge well.  Individual researchers do experiments, observe the results and see the patterns in the results that reveal truths about reality.  We need not close our eyes and contemplate or pray to learn about truth.  We need to open our eyes and see what is really in front of us.

The problem, though, is this: can we trust our senses to perceive what is real?

All of us have seen magicians who appear to violate natural law by materializing objects out of thin air and then making them disappear, bringing order to a deck of cards that seems random, and even sawing an attractive assistant in half and putting her back together again.  Trusting the senses is a profound problem for someone with defects in perception such as those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.  They may see, hear or feel things that are created by their minds rather than their senses and become confused as to what is real. 

Unfortunately, to a lesser degree we all suffer from that same problem, researchers are discovering.  Our brains don’t perceive things directly.  They construct reality from our memory and sensations.

I’m sure many of you have seen the picture that appears to be either an old hag or an attractive woman with a hat but not both.  The picture is just a set of lines that we add meaning to through our process of perception.  A skin sensation may be for one person, hot, for another, cold.  This process of perception is highly prone to error, particularly in the area of human relationships.

For example, most relational misery comes from misinterpreting or exaggerating, say, someone’s tone of voice, filling in the unspoken message with suspicions and recriminations.  Mind reading is a dangerous way to understand what is really happening inside someone else’s head.

Philomena and I are sometimes critical of each other as we observe each other’s behavior. (for purposes of full disclosure, I’ve cleared this illustration with her)  Philomena prefers the kitchen cupboard doors to be closed rather than left open.  I don’t like it when she leaves her purse on a kitchen chair where I like to sit down for breakfast.  This subject, in various forms, has come up a number of times over our years of marriage.  After discussing our concerns with each other one day, we realized she didn’t notice all the times I remembered her request and closed the cupboard doors and I didn’t notice all the times she remembered my request and didn’t put her purse on the kitchen chair.  We weren’t aware or appreciative of each other’s internal attempt to change these behaviors -- albeit imperfectly.

Another problem with using reality as a guide is the limits of each person’s experience.  Maybe if I’d seen Moses part the Red Sea, watched him touch a rock with his staff then seen water gush out of the earth and eaten manna with the children of Israel, I’d view the Ten Commandments as the literal word of God.  Maybe if I’d seen Jesus come down from the cross, felt his cold dead body as it went into the tomb and witnessed it rising from the dead firsthand, maybe I’d be willing to believe in bodily resurrection.  Maybe if I’d listened to Mohammed recite the verses of the Quran and I understood Arabic, I’d surrender my life to Allah.

I had a startling dream recently about a powerful Asian spiritual teacher to whom I was listening.  I watched him slowly walk to a wall and stop with his nose practically touching it.  As I watched his face, I noticed there was light coming out of his eyes illuminating the wall.  He said nothing while he stood there but I could feel my witnessing this event beginning to shatter my perception of reality, which didn’t include people with phosphorescent green lights in their eyes.

Here, I think, is the crux of the problem: our lack of common experience.  I only moved away from my scientific atheistic thinking of my youth after a powerful personal experience of an all pervading and transcendent love during my college years.  My roommate didn’t understand.  Neither did my parents nor my sister.  They’d never had a similar experience and distrusted my personal report.  Was this an internally created, inspirational, psychotic delusion or was I tasting what is more real than ordinary daily experience?  Did I escape Plato’s cave for just a moment and get a glimpse of the projecting light rather than only seeing the shadows on the walls?

The postmodern view prevalent today claims that all reality is constructed and no one can be in touch with what is really real.  We are all hopelessly mired in our own illusions.  The illusions just change depending on where you sit.  Liberal religion is no better off than fundamentalism – we both are deluded, just in different ways.  The search for what is real to guide our religious lives brings us back home to ourselves as searchers.  Where do we put our trust?  For some who have found a reliable guide they trust over their own judgment, our approach to religious life will not be appealing.

If, on the other hand, you follow Channing and believe there is a faculty, an intelligence, a spirit if you will, in us that has a likeness to the divine and wish to grow in that likeness depending on your innate capabilities, you will need a reality based religious approach, an intelligent spirituality if you will, that uses your perception and experience as the ground of your development.

To aid in that growth, I was attracted in 1984 to insight meditation techniques which I believe to be an excellent method of using reality systematically to develop one’s mental faculties.  Watching my breath and noticing moment-to-moment sensations, emotions and thoughts has allowed me to penetrate illusion and misperception, strengthen my concentration and give me glimpses of insight into the nature of existence.  If this form of meditation is of interest to you, please speak with me or, better yet, come to my Friday night and Saturday meditation retreat here September 30 and October 1st.

There are other ways to ground your religious growth in reality here in our congregation.  Small Group Ministry creates an intimate small group setting to open up and discover what is really going on in one’s inner life through the practice of conversation and deep listening. 

Our many opportunities for social action and engagement offer an opportunity to respond to the larger reality around us with justice, equity and compassion and make a difference as well as be changed by that experience.  Our religious education program allows teachers to encounter reality through the eyes of our children and youth as we teach them how to develop their own faith, values and character within a Unitarian Universalist context.  Through our book clubs and adult education classes, participants explore reality through words and ideas.

We don’t reject other faith-based approaches – far from it.  We take in and appreciate wisdom and guidance from the Bible, the Quran, the Upanishads, science, literature, poetry – wherever we find it.  We add to their ideas the requirement that they be reflected in reality before we embrace and incorporate them.  In the words of William James, Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract.  We believe reality based human experience to be the most reliable teacher.

And yes, we still can be tricked and deluded.  There are no guarantees on this journey through life.  For Unitarian Universalists, reality is the anchor that keeps us sane in the storm of passions and perceptions.  We believe using reality as our guide increases our chances of living and loving well.

Ultimately we can’t rely on someone else to find what is real for us.  We must wake up and do it ourselves.



I like how Philip K. Dick put it:  Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Let us embrace what is real for, In the real, our search for truth and meaning will have satisfaction -- like it or not.

As Groucho Marx said:

I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal.


Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.  All rights reserved.