Come In From the Cold

Curious about a humanist winter holiday celebration?  We were streaming live from the MIT Chapel on December 13, 2018.  Click here to watch.  Happy holidays to you and yours!

The Humanist Hub’s electronic bonfire glowing in the MIT Chapel

Come In From the Cold: MIT Humanist Community Winter Celebration

Music by Nedelka Prescod, Musician-In-Residence, MIT Chapel

Invocation, Nina Lytton, Chaplaincy Intern, The Humanist Hub

Firestarting, David Whitlock, Science Advisor, The Humanist Hub

Hymn to the Light by David Breeden: Nina Lytton

Rise Up O Flame: Nedelka Prescod

Fight with the Fire, by Gajanan Mishra: Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of MIT

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, by Nina Simone: Nedelka Prescod

The Body is Humankind, by Norman Cousins: Tomás Egeña

When Darkness Falls, by Josh Fox: Nedelka Prescod

Grateful, by Diane Warren: Nedelka Prescod

Sensory Awareness Meditation with Eucalyptus: Greg Epstein

Secular Sermon, Keystone Species: Nina Lytton

Seasonal Suggestions: TIM the Beaver

Some Type of Love, by Charlie Pluth: The MIT Chorallaries

Probably Up, by Lawrence: The MIT Chorallaries

Fire Extinguished: David Whitlock

Where is My Light? by Sherwin Wine: Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain, MIT

Arise O Ye of MIT +Take Me Back to Tech: The MIT Chorallaries

 Watch the video here

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

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)