Humanist Hub Blog

A Holiday Celebration for the Rest of Us

It’s cold. It’s dark. Are we seasonally depressed? Yeah. Tense over exams and work? Yeah. Difficult times for our country and our world? Double yeah.

If you’re passionately celebrating a religious holiday right now, great.

But if you’re not particularly religious, come and join atheists, agnostics and allies in the greater MIT community as we meet in the MIT Chapel (ironically enough!) on Thursday December 13th at 5:30 pm.

We’re going to create some cheer of our own, together. Emphasis on the together.

In the United States, some people cherish the idea that heroism is the ability to go it alone. But the American College Health Association’s 2017 annual survey of college students reports that 63% have felt lonely, with higher than average rates of loneliness in elite educational institutions. Self-care “solutions” are marketed as if loneliness is an individual problem divorced from the context of our lives, and anxiety is something that can be cured by spending money.

The notion of individual success or failure doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Life is first and foremost a collaborative endeavor. You’re not born alone, you don’t get educated alone, and what you accomplish you do by leveraging the contributions of others. You may not come to know all these people personally, but that doesn’t erase their contribution to your wellbeing. You don’t experience your full humanity alone.

The experience of loneliness depends significantly on how you’re embodied, and where. Many have difficulty because, at a macro level, our culture shames some, glorifies others, and that encourages tribalism.

We thrive places like MIT when we find ourselves among people who nurture us. The MIT community, with our inventive, compassionate people, is rich with opportunities for generative interdependence. The dark days of winter are a time to strengthen our friendships, build new links of connection, and relish the possibilities of our life together here on campus. This kind of togetherness is worth celebrating.

—Nina Lytton

Suggested Reading: Self-Care Won’t Save Us

 

Paradoxes of Ethical Leadership

MIT students, researchers, and faculty are shaping the future. Literally. Last week in discussion group, the ethical considerations of editing the human genome came up. There’s so much at stake, it feels overwhelming.

Are technologies like CRISPR a gift to humanity, or a curse, or both? The answer depends on us, we humans. On how well our moral compass guides us through market economics. On how inclusively we break trail into new possibilities for the human race.

I was struck by the relevance of a recent conversation with humanist ethicist Sharon Welch, a professor in my M.Div. program, to what’s happening here at MIT. In a forthcoming book, After the Protests are Heard: Enacting Civic Engagement and Social Transformation, Dr. Welch outlines the paradoxes of moral leadership in today’s world:

– There is no moral safe harbor, no course of action guaranteed to be free of risk, loss and negative side effects.

– The measure of our success is not the perfection of our efforts but our honesty, accountability, resilience and audacity in the face of unintended consequences and ongoing challenges.

– Finding what enables people to thrive in ways that are equitable and ecologically sustainable is more a matter of critical experimentation and risk-taking than it is a matter of moral and theological certainty.

– We may want the same thing, but for different reasons and may have the same reasons, but want different things.

– There is a fundamental lack of parity between the moral certainty of our denunciation of existing forms of injustice and our ethically reasonable uncertainty about the justice and feasibly of our cherished alternatives.

Let’s talk. How are you wrestling with the paradoxes of leadership? What helps you live creatively out of these tensions and opportunities? Where can we move beyond “us vs. them” to find generative interdependence?

Join MIT Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and I in the Chapel (W15) at 4pm on November 15 and again on November 29 to discuss.

–Nina Lytton

Chaplaincy Intern

She, He, and They: Forging a New Relationship

Steve Bannon is concerned that women are going to take over society.  Really?  The way he talks about it, it’s like it has to be either men in charge or women in charge.  Why this binary thinking?   Why always a ladder of rank where some are less valuable?  It’s time to question the idea of a moral hierarchy.  Let’s stop acting like crabs in a bucket, always squabbling about who’s on top.

If women did take over society and reorganize it, would the structure look like a pyramid?  Couldn’t it look like a circle of inclusion?  Or a web of life?

Can she, he, and they explore a kind of interdependence?  What would have to change about how your gender identity was socialized?

Join us in the MIT W20 First Floor Meeting Room on November 1 at 4pm to discuss.

-–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Inviting Your Input

Beavers are nature’s collaborators.  We don’t do anything alone.  I’m working with MIT’s new Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and the Humanist Hub to plan an MIT Community Holiday Celebration scheduled for Thursday evening December 13.  This date is right between the end of classes and exam week.

MIT students and community: we need your input and participation.  There are brainstorming meetings planned for the at 4pm in the Chapel on Thursday October 18 and in the Student Center first floor meeting room on Thursday October 25.

We are planning a secular celebration with uplifting songs, heart-opening readings, and intriguing stories about the mighty beaver.  We want to decorate the Chapel to bring out its coziness and uncanny resemblance to the inside of the beaver lodge, and to make the lamp posts and trees outside look a bit magical.  Of course we’re thinking about food afterwards in W11.  Something festive.  Certainly including cake.

There’s plenty of room for everyone’s creativity in bringing this idea to life.  Please let me hear from you about any interest in participating in the planning and/or hosting the event.

Back in the Jurassic Period, I was the Princeton Tigress.  That’s me, leading the parade down to the football stadium.  Remembering those days reminds me of what I love most about MIT: the collaboration.

-–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

The $weet Life

MIT Humanist Discussion Group meets Thursday at 4:30 in the Chapel, W15

This week’s topic: The $weet Life (with MIT Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein and Chaplaincy Intern Nina Lytton)

Cutthroat competition without (you fill in the blank) soon becomes bloody battle that leaves us emotionally, physically, ethically, and socially barren.

5-minute read: How to Reimagine the World for Eudaimonia by Umair Haque

 

–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Money Talks, Humanity Walks?

Who are we as humans, and how do we measure our worth? Can we talk about money, and all it signifies?  Let’s start the discussion with Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth.

Greenfield began her career as a photojournalist by documenting LA teenagers’ romance with wealth. Decades later, she returned to assess how those teens, now at midlife, were influenced by the culture of materialism that Hollywood spreads around the world.

Check out the trailer:

Greenfield noticed that no matter how much money people had, they still wanted more.  In LA and all around the world, she documents how money, celebrity, bling and narcissism are pursued obsessively—and without satisfaction.

Where are you in all of this?  How does the culture of Generation Wealth show up in your life at MIT?  Join us Thursday at 4pm in the Chapel to discuss.

For more information:

Greenfield makes the point that Generation Wealth is the culture that made Trump possible.

Why has our society “come to embrace the hollow values of excess and celebrity over more traditional values of hard work, discipline and simple human connection?”  Reviewer Sharon Waxman lifts up Greenfield’s college-aged son’s take on the damage done by obsessing on wealth.

Generation Wealth exposes the fallacies of marketplace feminism.  Eileen G’Sell lays it down in Salon: “In an age of excess, it’s women who lose.”

“Is enough ever enough, or is it fundamentally unAmerican to believe that someone can have too much money?” Reviewer David Ehrlich concludes that “happiness is something we must all define for ourselves.”

–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Press Release: Humanist Hub Announces Humanist of the Year Recipient

Some initial great press for our award in Democracy Journal. Stay tuned for more!

***

BOSTON, Oct. 1, 2018— The Humanist Hub is honored to announce Nick Hanauer as its Harvard and MIT Humanist of the Year. This award honors individuals whose life and contributions to society exemplify the values of humanism: compassion, integrity, creativity, and honesty, among others.

Humanist Hub executive director Greg Epstein, who also serves as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT, presented the award to Hanauer during a public forum on Sept. 30 at MIT. During the forum, titled “Capitalism Redefined: The Ethics of Wealth in a World of Rising Inequality,” American academics, artists, and philosophers discussed how communities can fix the glaring inequities in our economy.

“It turns out that most people get capitalism wrong. Capitalism works best when it works for everyone, not just the exceptionally wealthy,“ said Hanauer. “Receiving the Humanist of the Year award is an honor, and I’m enthusiastic about joining the Humanist Hub in guiding conversations about our economy and the growing wealth gap.”

Hanauer is most well-known for being a philanthropist and Seattle-based venture capitalist. An early investor in Amazon and the successful founder or funder of multiple businesses, Hanauer is a critic of rising economic inequality. He is respected in the Humanist community for his books and articles, including national bestsellers “The True Patriot” and “The Garden of Democracy.”

“Humanism requires us to apply critical thinking and compassion to the work of creating economies that influence the lives of billions of human beings. We need influential capitalists to speak truth to their powerful peers because things have gone awry, and we need to rededicate ourselves to justice,” said Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein. “Nick has worked tirelessly to use his wealth and influence for the greater good. He serves as a healthy example of success for students who hope to gain influence through tech and business.”

Past Humanist of the Year laureates include filmmaker Seth MacFarland (creator of Family Guy), documentary filmmaker Ann Druyan (creator of the PBS documentary series “Cosmos”), human rights heroes General Romeo Dallaire and Taslima Nasreen, as well as world-renowned scientists Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson.

About Humanist Hub

Founded in 1974, the Humanist Hub is an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to creating an inclusive community for the religiously unaffiliated. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drawing on the structures and best practices of religious communities, the Humanist Hub works to create a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and a better world for all. To get involved, please visit www.humanisthub.org.

 

Media Contact:

Ashley Nakano
anaknao@sterlingpr.com
Sterling Communications, Inc.
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Binary Thinking

We humanists fancy ourselves to be free to conduct discernment of our life stance because we reject supernaturalism.  But we seldom stop to think about the way biblical narratives have shaped western culture outside the church. This is the water we’re swimming in, and we don’t notice it.

 

I’ll give you a personal example.  When I came to MIT, my life philosophy was based on three then-unexamined assumptions:

  • Business was good, hence business school.
  • Technology was good, hence MIT.
  • Religion, as I had experienced it as a young child, was bad, so I left this behind.

See the pattern here?  I was an either-or thinker.  

 

Where does either-or thinking come from?  It started with my Sunday-school indoctrination into saved or sinner, heaven or hell.  Men have agency; women don’t. I now know that this is not the only flavor of Christianity.  Back then, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

 

Today I see binary thinking playing out in our political system.  Red or Blue. The mere suggestion of a Purple approach is shot down.  Culturally, we are entrapped in binary thinking.

 

But binary thinking is not a human universal.  Other cultures do not see good and evil as either-or.  For example, in the Haudenosaunee creation story, Turtle Island (North America) was shaped by the twin sons of Sky Woman.  One twin had a good disposition, the other an evil disposition. After the Right-Handed Twin did his thing to shape the earth, he created man out of red clay.  But everything the Right-Handed Twin made, the Left-Handed Twin hacked, promptly and maliciously.

 

This is the reason that rivers have rapids, roses have thorns, and that everyone has both a good heart and a bad heart.  Because of the logical structure of their creation myth—the left and the right hands shaping the world together—the Haudenosaunee have always recognized that people and institutions cannot be simplified into good or evil, right or wrong.  

 

If I had grown up on the other side of the St. Lawrence river, and had been socialized as a Haudenosaunee, I would not have been such a black-and-white thinker.  I would have begun my career with the idea that business, technology and religion are partially right and partially wrong, and can be used for both good and evil.  I think this story yields a more realistic way to look at the world.

 

As a young technology evangelist, back in the days when computer dinosaurs roamed the earth, I bemoaned binary thinking in others.  As The Prophetess of Unix and Open Systems, I heaped scorn on those who believed that customers (and their data) were Vendor A’s or Vendor B’s.  Can you imagine a world where you could not be both a gmail user and a Mac user? Unthinkable! Yet that’s the way it used to be.

 

It was MIT students who made me see my own tendency to think in black and white.  When I first sat down with Fossil-Free MIT protesters, I did so out of solidarity.  I had been a climate activist in college. I knew that Exxon knew–when Exxon originally figured it out.  At the time, I had unconsciously applied transitive logic to my assumptions, and concluded that there was nothing to worry about.  After all: business was good; Exxon was a business; Exxon knew it was harming the world. Therefore, Exxon would change its ways…  

 

Nope.  That’s not what happened.  My unexamined assumption had kept me blissfully unaware of the decision Exxon made not to act on what it knew.  I had a blind spot so big it hid the Koch money. It’s hard to admit this. But everybody has blind spots.

 

I still believe that business can be good.  That nothing allocates scarce resources better than a price system.  But now I’m looking through the lens of both/and, not either/or. So I acknowledge that business can harm as much as it can help.  I acknowledge the influence of both the Right-Handed and the Left-Handed Twin.

 

Just as business can do good, so can evil be done for the sake of profit.  The price system can allocate resources efficiently, or it can be rigged to rape our public lands for the profit of a few.  Just as technology can be a force for human flourishing, so can it be a force for human diminishment. It is up to us as humans–be we ethical, spiritual or religious–to name and claim our good.  

–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To continue questioning binary thinking…

 

No Such Thing as Generic Christianity

I used to be triggered by a binary understanding of Christianity

A liberal perspective on the Scourge of Black-and-White Thinking
A fundamentalist (and to me, offensive) perspective on left handedness

 

Links for Lefties and Former Lefties who were forced to switch

Other Theories of Handedness
What Being Left Handed Says About Your Culture

13 Facts About the Wonderful Left (with a video about kangaroos)

 

Our Last Event at 30 JFK

Dear Humanist Hub Members, Supports and Friends:

This past fall, our community talked in various ways about going through a time of transition, including uncertainty about whether we would renew our lease. It is now time to inform our broader community that a decision has been reached: we will be leaving 30 JFK Street this summer.

When we were preparing to move in to this space in 2013, we created the motto “Connect. Act. Evolve.” We have made so many extraordinary connections here these past five years. We’ve taken action together, though there is always more to do. Now, it is time for our organization to evolve.

We recently made an exciting announcement: in addition to our 40+ years of serving as a humanist chaplaincy for the Harvard University community, we now serve MIT in a similar, even expanded role. As the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT and a new “Convener” at MIT, I and we will have wonderful opportunities in the coming years to convene conversations on how humanism can help shape young leaders in ethics and technology. As a non-profit organization, we plan to take advantage of this critical moment by expanding our role at both Harvard and MIT starting this fall (despite the fact that neither university pays us any money: only individual supporters like you can do so!).

As part of these plans to expand our work on campus(es), however, we will be restructuring our public offerings for non-students, taking an extended summer break and then re-launching with some significant new ways of engaging the general public, starting this fall. Non-students who have been attending on a weekly basis or more will see a drop in the overall number of Humanist Hub programs (and opportunities for volunteer leadership); those who follow our work from afar or enjoy attending occasionally, however, can expect a significant upgrade next year in the ways in which we are able to interact with, and hopefully educate and inspire you! There will be a number of announcements in the coming weeks and months: watch this space.

Meanwhile, it is my honor to invite you to join us this Sunday, May 20 for our final official Humanist Hub Sunday Program at 30 JFK Street. As our final formal speaker at this location (and until September), I’ve chosen the topic, “On Loving a Complicated Family.” (1:30-3:00pm, 30 JFK Street). In the midst of change, which can be exciting but also confusing and frightening, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which humanism is about family. Humanists and allies believe, in light of evolution, that all of humanity and indeed all life on this planet is one interconnected family. Of course this macro-level family, like many of our micro-level families, is often far from what we wish it could be. And even more so when it comes to building communities to bridge the gap between family and the wider world.

How can we love and appreciate what it means to be human beings, connected to other human beings in such complicated ways, all across this enormous yet tiny planet? I can’t promise all the answers in one Sunday talk, but I am eager to celebrate with you by recalling many of the greatest insights explored during our five years and 1000+ programs here in these 3200 square feet of leased commercial real estate in Harvard Square.

We’d love to see you at this special celebration also featuring the Humanist Hub staff, lots of music from our wonderful Music Director Antje Duvekot, food from Mike’s Pastry, Otto, and more.

Evolution is always the end of what has come before; it is also the beginning of new opportunities and possibilities. With some sadness for the amazing memories we leave behind us in this space, we look forward with enormous gratitude to continuing to evolve together.

P.S. With the Humanist Hub making some big changes over the summer, the newly formed Transition Team plans to keep the community informed of the progress of those changes through the Hub’s newsletter. The Transition Team can be contacted at transition@humanisthub.org.

Humanist Hub Director to Serve Tech Leaders of Tomorrow

I am delighted to announce that the Humanist Hub has accepted a wonderful invitation to expand our work on campus. Having worked as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University since 2005, when I succeeded my friend and mentor Tom Ferrick, I now serve as the Humanist Chaplain at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to joining MIT as its first humanist chaplain, I am particularly excited to to have also been appointed as a “Convener” by MIT’s Office of Religious Life. This new role, held by a handful of the approximately 30 chaplains to serve the Institute, will empower our organization to convene public conversations on many of the most pressing issues facing the broader MIT community. I and we have been invited into these roles by The Reverend Kirstin Boswell-Ford, who was appointed last summer as MIT’s new Chaplain to the Institute and Director of Religious Life. I consider Reverend Boswell-Ford to be a true visionary leader: someone with impeccable religious credentials and an extraordinary commitment to interfaith leadership, who fully and deeply understands how to include humanists, atheists and the nonreligious. We will be very fortunate to work with her and with the entire MIT Division of Student Life.

Over the past several months, as events leading to today’s announcement have developed, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on just what kinds of conversations a humanist chaplaincy and community ought to convene. Inspired by conversations with many of our community members, and particularly by our wise and passionate Humanist Hub staff, I feel motivated to catalyze an ongoing dialogue on humanistic ethics in science, technology, business and society.

Kumail Nanjiani, star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Big Sick,” and an atheist, recently spoke out about the frightening lack of ethics in (the real life) Silicon Valley culture:

 

“As a cast member on a show about tech, our job entails visiting tech companies/conferences, etc. We meet people eager to show off new tech…Often we’ll see tech that is scary. I don’t mean weapons, etc. I mean altering video, tech that violates privacy, stuff with obvious ethical issues…we’ll bring up our concerns to them. We are realizing that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech…”

The connections between Nanjiani’s concern and shocking recent current events are obvious. Wikileaks, Cambridge Analytica, cultural biases embedded in artificial intelligence, nuclear tests, and weapons manufacturing may only be the tip of an all-too-quickly melting iceberg.  And, with the war on science at the US federal level, it has never been more important for the good people of the STEM world to speak truth to power.

The more I talk with students and faculty at both MIT and Harvard, the more I realize humanism has something profound to offer in this decisive moment. We are all, equally, citizens of this pale blue dot. We have only this one life, between birth and death, to seek meaning and define our legacy. We must not accept the institutions of the past as adequate when we know we are so far from the justice we can envision together. Our ability to reason and think critically is our greatest tool for understanding and shaping the world for good. And we are only human: imperfect, vulnerable creatures who must continually learn to love ourselves and one another if we are to make the extraordinary improbability that is human life joyful, just, and sustainable.

We must ensure that the brightest young minds continually discuss, debate, and expand on ideas like these, as they learn the skills that will shape our world. And I’ve found the MIT community to be extraordinarily receptive to doing so. That is why Sarah, Rick, Nina and I, along with the Humanist Hub board, advisors, and so many of our community leaders, are thrilled by the possibility today represents to work with an institution that shares the mission of bettering the world for all.

As can and should happen in times of possibility and promise, some of the details of this next phase of our work are still coming together.  We look forward to finding the way forward with our expanded community.

Of course, this new beginning will bring challenges – perhaps the biggest challenge for us is that we have to continue and increase our fundraising efforts to be effective in this expanded role. As well known blogger Hemant (The Friendly Atheist) Mehta points out, neither Harvard nor MIT have been or will be paying us any money to support our work – not even towards my salary or benefits. While we might wish these universities compensated chaplains differently (or, indeed, at all), our financial independence is precisely what ensures our intellectual freedom advance a vibrant, uncompromising vision for humanism. If we are to make a meaningful difference in the lives and future of MIT students, we can only do so because of donations from supporters like you. Please make a generous one-time or recurring donation, today!

For more information, please visit the Humanist Hub website. We’ve posted a new FAQ, and our press release. You can also see my revised bio, which says a bit more about some of the issues that are most grabbing my attention these days. We’ll be posting additional updates and articles about this story as they are available — look for them first at the Humanist Hub’s Facebook & Twitter accounts, and/or on mine.