Over 25 Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia (HAGP) and members sat in a large circle inside the community room of the .
They were smiling amiably at each other, but otherwise, not really engaging in conversation.
In fact, their gathering’s main goal wasn’t to talk at all, but rather to listen.
“This meeting is not a debate, we are not here to debate. ” Dr. Anees Zaka told the group. “We are here to better understand our points of view.”
Zaka received his doctorate in Christian and Islamic studies at Cairo University in the 1970s. He was there to be the moderator between the first meeting of members from HAGP and Calvary Presbyterian.
Zaka, who is a member of Calvary Presbyterian, said he also moderates similar meetings between Christians and Muslims at a North Penn Mosque.
He said that the idea behind the May 27 HAGP and Calvary meeting was to build bridges and dismantle misconceptions between each group’s beliefs.
“This is what we need now: Meetings for better understanding,” Zaka said. “You need to be open-minded to understand the other person’s point of view."
According to Zaka, this first meeting was an introduction to a potential series of meetings between the two groups. Those potential meetings would address social issues to which both groups hold a common stance.
The first meeting’s format featured 25-minute presentations by leaders of both groups:
- Martha Knox, president of HAGP
- Rev. Jay Scharfenberg, associate pastor of Calvary Presbyterian
Their presentations were essentially a general overview of each of their beliefs.
Prior to the presentations, Zaka was firm in laying down the ground rules, among which he asked the audience not to interrupt the speaker, and for audience members to write down questions on an index card that would be read after the presentations.
Scharfenberg spoke first.
According to Scharfenberg, he came to Calvary Presbyterian in order to further the community presence of the church.
During his online research of the community, he found HAGP, and saw that the group held regular monthly meetings, including a Secular Humanist Book Club, a Movie Night and a Program Meeting.
“I signed up to attend the group,” Scharfenberg said. “It is fascinating to see people expressing the same questions that I have.”
In his presentation, he said that he did not outright identify himself as a Christian, let alone a religious leader.
He joked to the group, whenever someone sneezed, instead of saying, “God bless you,” he would simply say, “Bless you.”
However, during one HAGP Program Meeting, when everyone was sharing why they became an atheist, Scharfenberg hesitated before speaking.
“I was ‘outed’ as a Christian,” Scharfenberg said with a smile.
But, instead of being tossed out of further HAGP meetings, Scharfenberg said that he was welcomed and encouraged to explore personal beliefs alongside the group.
“One of the things that attracts me to this group are a lot of the commonalities that we have,” Scharfenberg said in his presentation. “You guys are asking the same big questions we’re asking.”
In February of this year, the group’s welcoming atmosphere led Scharfenberg to suggest holding the May 27 joint discussion.
“She didn’t hesitate to say yes,” Scharfenberg said, recalling Knox’s answer.
Are you there, J.K.? It’s Me, Harry
Scharfenberg explained his general overview of Christianity by telling a story.
“Imagine you’re reading one of those Harry Potter books,” Scharfenberg said. “And in the book, Harry and Hermione start talking to each other, and they’re arguing about the existence of J.K. Rowling.”
By using this metaphor, Scharfenberg said he could better answer questions that leading atheists like Dr. Richard Dawkins or Robert Wright, might ask about who the Christian deity may be, as opposed to being a “spaghetti monster in the sky or a celestial teapot.”
“Think of God like an author,” he said, further explaining that such an author exists on an entirely different plane.
Going with this metaphor, Scharfenberg said that humans are characters and history is the story.
“What genre would it be?” he asked. “The genre is Romance. A romance between God and humanity.”
His presentation was titled “What is Redemptive Historical Christianity?” Through his narrative explanation for the existence of God, Scharfenberg proposed that humans are provided with a conflict (evil, death sin) and a resolution (the coming of a messiah), which Scharfenberg said could be understood through the reading of the Christian scriptures.
He also suggested that those outside the Christian faith could relate to such text.
“Something you’ll notice when you read through the Bible is that Jesus’ biggest conflict is with organized religion,” Scharfenberg said. “I mean, if you think the church is full of hypocrites, you’ll love Jesus.”
He went on to quote Christian scripture, in which Jesus was described to admonish community and religious leaders.
Scharfenberg further explained that Jesus’ reproach wasn’t necessarily toward organized religion as an entity in of itself, but rather toward religious leaders’ “us versus them” approach.
He said that such an approach isn’t exclusive to religion, as it could be found in politics (Democrats against Republicans), racially (Nazis or the KKK) and even in economics (the one-percent against the 99-percent).
“But, Jesus did not use an ‘us against them’ approach, it was an ‘us reconciling with them’ approach,” Scharfenberg said. “That’s an approach worth dying for, and that’s what he did.”
During his discussion, Scharfenberg also acknowledged how organized religion has become somewhat demonized over the years, citing the historic Crusades to the extremist Muslim attacks on 9-11, as well as the recent Catholic Church molestation scandals.
“That’s one of the reasons why I am here, to see our differences reconciled,” he said.
“The Secular Humanist Perspective”
According to Knox, reconciling differences and focusing on quality-of-life issues is also where the philosophy of human secularism begins.
“This is something, I would say, we share in common with what Jay was talking about at the end of his talk,” Knox said in her presentation. “Rather than viewing it as 'us and them,' secular humanists believe very strongly that we are one human family and it is our obligation and a joy that we are all trying to create a good life.”
Knox started off her general overview of secular humanism by describing it as a philosophy without a dogmatic structure of beliefs.
Since secular humanism is without such a structure, Knox said that secular humanists don’t necessarily share the same beliefs, and that they may be agnostic, atheist or pantheist.
“We don’t have a unified idea about that. We do have a unified approach,” Knox said. “It’s more of an approach to developing a personal code of ethics, and trying to live the good life.”
She explained secular humanism by describing the relationship between secularism and humanism.
Knox, who was raised Catholic, described the ‘secular’ portion of secular humanism as an understanding in skepticism.
“We hear a lot that faith is a virtue,” Knox said. “Secular humanists believe that doubt is a very important virtue.”
She said secular humanists recognize that they don’t hold ultimate answers, nor does anyone else – rather, she explained that secular humanists value more the questions that the observable universe continually provides.
“And, this is where the importance of the scientific method comes in,” Knox said. “Almost all people will agree that the world is round, almost all of us will agree that the sky is blue. And, that’s because science is something that can provide us evidence that we can all see and all share.”
She gave the example that prior to scientific observations, humans didn’t know the sun or other stars were giant balls of gas.
“As secular humanists, we love this, because this is the point where we can start to say whether some things are real, and some things are not … and what we can know, and what we can’t,” Knox told the group, adding, “We can still be in awe of the night sky for its beauty.”
For the humanist portion of the secular humanism philosophy, Knox described humanism as a personal ethical life stance.
“It comes back down to that this is our home,” Knox said. “It’s really about the human race.”
Quoting the minimalist statement of the International Ethical and Humanist Union, she said that secular humanists create a humane society, based on ethics and natural values in the spirit of reason and human inquiry.
“We really believe that we create meaning in this world for ourselves,” Knox said. “We choose to view human beings as having inherit worth.”
She referred to Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” in which the American journalist argues that advancing technology and communication provides the evolutionary opportunity for global cooperation.
She explained that by protecting the rights, safety and opportunity of others, people could foster a world society.
“I will internalize that,” Knox said. “I will look at a person from across the world who has a different culture than me, different beliefs, a different language and looks different than me in every way, and I will say that person is my brother, and that is my sister, because they are human beings.”
The Q and A Session
While each presenter received sincere applause for their explanations of their personal beliefs, the question and answer portion of the meeting did try to pick apart each of the presenters’ positions on a variety of issues; from the validity of the Bible to the meaning of existence.
However, whenever a particular question sparked overly spirited debate among group attendees, Zaka firmly, but kindly, regained control of the floor.
“Remember, we are here to build bridges with each other. We are here to enjoy each other,” Zaka would say.
“It could have devolved into screaming arguments,” Knox said, providing major credit to Zaka’s moderation.
“We needed someone very firm,” James Taylor, Upper Dublin resident and HAGP co-vice president said. “But, everyone did a good job in keeping it civil.”
Despite this, the final index-card question managed to strike a nerve with Knox, when it pressed the hot-button issue of .
Both Scharfenberg and Knox essentially believe that will become a legal right in the near future, however, Scharfenberg, , said he could not support the sanctity of such a marriage.
“I was sitting there, seething,” Knox said of Scharfenberg’s position on the subject. “But, because I see Jay as a person, I know him, and I see the bigger picture.”
“Who knows if they’ll ever agree on anything,” Herschel Elias said of the two groups present at the meeting. “But, it’s great that they could talk civilly together.”
Elias, whose father started HAGP, nearly 50 years ago, suspected that this was the first time in HAGP history that the philosophical group has hosted such discourse with a faith-based organization.
According to Knox, despite the Memorial Day weekend, the May HAGP Program Meeting was successful in attracting a large attendance.
“Too often we avoid divisive differences with other people,” Rev. , senior pastor of Calvary Presbyterian, said. “We need to have a format in which to do this, and I think it opened up opportunities for further discussions.”
Len Moskoff, a first year HAGP member and Upper Moreland Free Public Library board member, agreed.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity that we got so many people thinking about their own beliefs,” Moskoff said.
After the presentations and question and answer period, it seemed HAGP and Calvary Presbyterian members did feel more at ease to intermingle.
“I thought it was productive and interesting,” Eileen Childress of Willow Grove said. “It was wonderful that [Calvary Presbyterian] came and had a conversation with us.”
Childress is a charter member of the HAGP Willow Grove branch. Standing with her husband Jim, they agreed that this first meeting between HAGP and Calvary Presbyterian will help build communication between the two groups.
“The tower of Babel is back in this group,” Jim Childress said. “And, we’re hoping to tear the tower down.”
At the end of the three-hour long meeting, Knox called to attention that it was Scharfenberg’s birthday that day, and asked the group to join her in wishing him a happy one.
Without any hesitation, the group dove into an energetic chorus of “Happy Birthday” to Scharfenberg, who simply sat there smiling, as the group raised their voices in previously unheard unison.
The next joint discussion between HAGP and Calvary Presbyterian may take place at an HAGP Program Meeting by early September, and will likely address the issue of poverty.
For more information about the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia, visit www.hagp.org or call 215-475-2573.
For more information about Calvary Presbyterian Church, visit http://calvary-wg.org/ or call 215-659-0554.
For a more detailed background on HAGP, click on the links to these previously published Patch articles: