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"Word Problems"

We're now advertising Amador Publishers, LLC, as "the southwest's humanist publisher, dedicated to peace, equality, respect for all cultures and preservation of the Biosphere." Adela and I are members of the Humanist Society of New Mexico. Check out the organization's website at

We humanists have a problem, several problems. I call them "word problems." Several difficult words come to mind immediately: atheist, God, religion, creation, myth, belief. Let me share my own experience from forty-some years ago, when I took on the task of trying to change the way people use a certain word. The word is not as important as those I just listed, but I think you may find the story interesting.

The word is "reverend." The dictionary says, "worthy of reverence, deserving to be revered," and then it slides into the common usage --a title of respect for a clergyman. The word is an adjective, although some unaware persons use it as a noun, meaning simply "clergyman."v I couldn't stand the title, or label, when people tried to apply it to me. Finally, I did what we were taught to do in seminary. I resorted to "word studies."

"Reverend." The word appears only once in the King James Version of the English Bible -- in an obscure psalm, referring to YHWH, or God. "Holy and reverend is his name." The Hebrew word is translated in other places as "dreadful, fearful, awful, awesome [before my grandchildren's generation redid that word]." The Spanish translation of that verse makes it very plain: "Santo y terrible es su nombre." [Holy and terrible is his name.]

You calling me terrible? Dreadful? Awful? Only one is reverend, and that is God alone, I insisted in those days. And I really tried to get people to quit misusing the word. "Call me Mister." "Call me Harry."

I found a few allies among my young colleagues, and we got so far as the presbytery level -- that's the local assembly of pastors and elders who together act like a bishop in the Presbyterian Church. The Presbytery of Rio Grande went so far as to declare to the public all this word study stuff, and then to announce that only God is reverend, and then even to forbid all and sundry from applying the word to any mere human being. The story hit TIME MAGAZINE in an article, entitled, "Call Me Harry." My thirteen minutes of fame, I guess.

The result was not one ounce of change that I or anyone could perceive. People, and institutions, went right on calling mere humans "reverend." They're still doing it, to other people. I did get them to quit saying it of me. "Only God is reverend." And then I kept on thinking, and discovered that God is a myth, also, and the whole thing now lies somewhere between moot and ridiculous.

Reminiscing can be fun, but here's a more serious word problem: "religion." We've been reading, and writing, books about the role of religion among humans. See my FREEDOM FROM GOD: RESTORING THE SENSE OF WONDER. But we humanists are not in any kind of agreement on the meaning of the word religion.

Some think religion is a question of genetics. A raft of books suggests that religion is in the human gene collection. THE GOD GENE and WHY GOD WON'T GO AWAY state as much.

Others, and I am one of them, want to use the word "religion" as a sociological term, only. The ability and tendency to sense wonder is not yet religion. Religion is what many, but not quite all, have made of that sense of wonder. Religion is an activity of the human group; it is the organization, the institution, and all the tradition that has resulted over eons. And some of us think of religion as mostly a negative influence on humanity. "Toxic religion" seems, sometimes, most of the time, to be a redundant phrase.

Religion teaches children to fear and to indulge in self-hate. Religion squelches spontaneity and that childlike honesty. Religion teaches things that are not so.

Religion has kept oppressed people quiet and unrebellious. Religion has poisoned human sexuality for many millions. Religion has built insurmountable fences around human enquiry and persisted in teaching and insisting that authority knows best. Religion has fostered fear in the very young and the very old.

But I have been reminded recently, and need to be reminded often, given my own set of previous experiences, that not all persons who call themselves "religious" do all of the above-listed horrible things. There are decent, honest, sensitive human beings in the churches.

We humanists say we are looking for the "nones." That sentence is more puzzling and striking when it is presented orally. No, not "nuns." We're looking for those 20 percent of respondents who answer the religious pollster, when she asks, "What is your religion?" -- "none." We're looking for the "nones" -- and offering our society to them, if they're interested.

But we're also remaining open to those decent, honest, sensitive people who do not answer "none." We need to ally ourselves with them, whenever possible, in hopes that together we can find solutions to the very serious problems facing our species, namely war, and over-population, and climate change, just for starters.

So, let's learn to live with our word problems, and get past them. And let's be gentle with each other.

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Copyright © 2007 Harry Willson

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