David Breeden is speaking all week about Eupraxsophy.
Hello, I’m David Breeden and the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and we are a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. And each week we go into some subject to think about how these things impact American culture, popular culture, where religious and philosophical ideas come from, and where they may be heading in the future. This week, we want to look at ways of being non-theistically moral. And these ideas go way back in time. I’m going to call it something that I have a hard time saying, and that is: Eupraxophy, which I won’t say three times fast because I can’t. But we’ll figure out why I can’t exactly say that in just a few minutes.
It is a term that was coined by a secular humanist, Paul Kurtz, who was the first person to take the term secular humanist and really embrace it as a term that could be used in a positive way. He was already a humanist, and when the term was used in a court case in the mid-1960s and then began to be used by right wing preachers, television evangelists attacking secular humanism, which wasn’t a thing. So Paul Kurtz took the term and said, well, guess what? I like it. We will look a little bit further into how he dealt with that, even issuing a secular humanist manifesto at one point. But he did come up with this idea that I want to trace a little bit and how he came there.
He later changed the spelling, by the way, Eupraxsophy. I’ll show you how the etymology is going to be working in just a moment. But the adding of the “s.” Does that does make a difference? Kurtz had this to say: “I think we will have to coin a new term in order to distinguish non theistic beliefs and practices from other systems of beliefs and practices, a term that could be used in many languages. The best approach is to combine Greek roots, and I have come up with the term Eupraxsophy. EU being the term “good,” the prefix for “good” in Greek, then practice, praxis, we still use that term. It never really became English, praxix, which becomes the term “practice” in the English language, meaning “to do” or “to embody” and then “sophy,” as in “philosophy.” Philosophy is the love of wisdom. This is “good doing wisdom” or “good practical wisdom,” maybe a little bit more English there. But that’s the idea that Paul Kurtz was going after: how to express some kind of a secular way of being, an affirmative, positive way of life. Here’s another of his books, called Exuberance: an Affective Philosophy of Life. I’ll talk later in the week about the foundation that he set up and how to get hold of some of his books, which are still available.
Kurtz had this to say: “Eupraxsophy is a non-religious life stance or worldview, emphasizing the importance of living an ethical and exuberant life and relying on rational methods such as logic, observation and science rather than faith, mysticism or revelation toward that end.” So you see exactly where Kurtz is going. We discussed the idea of Deism last week, and we saw that in the very early days, back in the 1600s, Deists were rejecters of the idea of revelation from some kind of God out there into the human mind. This is carrying on with this idea as Kurtz is having it.
Now, I should mention, this just came out recently, that Gallup issued the following news release: “US church membership falls below majority for the first time.” Here on Coffee and Wisdom, we’ve talked a lot about this. There has been some speculation that maybe the whole covid pandemic would bring people in the United States back to some kind of religious practice, despite the fact that the buildings are all closed. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Gallup has this to say: “In 2020, forty-seven percent of U.S. adults belong to a church or synagogue or mosque, down more than 20 points from the turn of the century, the turn of the twenty first century, a change primarily due to rise in Americans with no religious preference.”
“American membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50 percent for the first time in Gallup’s eight decade trend. In 2020, forty seven percent of Americans said they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and seventy percent in 1999. We’ve looked at a lot of the trend lines over time. This indeed is the trend line that the Gallup poll is tracing at the present moment. We’ve seen this happen over and over again. I’ve also looked at the decline in liberal Protestantism, especially in decline, so now below 50 percent in terms of actual membership.
But, of course, we know that membership–actually signing on the dotted line and actually going in and considering yourself something–are very different things. But it does open up even further, I think: How do we talk about morality and ethics in a world where, in a nation where, traditional Christian thought really isn’t the baseline anymore?
I will be mentioning this week several books, the writings of Paul Kurtz. There is a collection called Meaning and Value in a Secular Age. There is a book that I’ll mention a few times because it’s really groundbreaking that came out three or four years ago by Tim Whitmarsh, who is a Cambridge professor in the classics. He goes back into Greek philosophy and Greek culture looking at it, reading between the lines. It’s called Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. What he teases out is that there was considerably more atheism than people were willing to be up front about in ancient–especially Greek and Roman–philosophies. And I’ll also be talking about how the pre-Christian ideas of morality and ethics have been used and looked back at as a way to get at this. Pierre Hadot is a French scholar from the 20th century who started out as a Catholic priest, said “that’s not for me.” He became a philosophy professor in France and wrote a series of books on how ancient philosophy was actually the the center of moral and ethical thought anyway, and not the Christians who took over those ideas and then began to change them.
One of his books is What is Ancient Philosophy? And we’ll be taking a peek at what he has to say. Where Paul Kurtz got the idea of coming up with a Greek name is the Greek philosophical idea of Eudaimonia. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were aiming at eudaimonia. That was the big idea. Eudaimonia is often mistranslated as “happiness” That begins in the late 19th century, when, especially, British translators are working with usually Aristotle and Plato and translating them.
A mistranslation. That is: “the pursuit of happiness.” Actually, that mistranslation goes into the phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that Thomas Jefferson used. But it actually means something a little bit different. Something else. So you just saw that is “good” in Greek and then “daimon.” The the other term is “daimon.” A daimon, which is the good spirit, and a demon, which is a bad spirit. Daimon, the guardian, the genius, the spirit, the soul, something like that. So “how to have a good spirit” is really what is trying to be translated here. The term just doesn’t quite translate, but it literally means “human flourishing.” It’s a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous. So that’s what the ancient Greek philosophers began to talk about–a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous. That was the goal of ancient Greek philosophies that we’ll talk about a little more this week. As you know, “happiness” doesn’t get at what they were really thinking of as a moral and ethical life stance. Paul Kurtz did say this:”The meaning of life is not to be discovered only after death in some hidden, mysterious realm. On the contrary, it can be found by eating the succulent fruit of the tree of life and by living in the here and now as fully and creatively as we can.”
So that’s the word from the guy who embraced the idea of secular humanism back in the 1960s and continued writing into the nineteen nineties. Again, taking that “fruit from the tree of life”, just as Eve did in the myth of the Garden of Eden and enjoying what that means, good and evil.
At First Unitarian Society, we have aspirations that are indeed secular in nature. “We aspire to live joyfully and ethically in loving relationship with humanity in nature.” The people of First Unitarian Society have been exploring this idea for a very long time. And we’ll be talking about how humanism figures into this movement.
Wednesday night, 7:00 p.m. Central Time, Bibles and bBeer. I’ll be talking about “what not to say to a burning bush.” One of the more interesting facts of the Hebrew scriptures is that there is no theological discussion of what God might be. It’s just descriptive in stories. The only place where some theology about God occurs is when Moses is speaking to the burning bush. So we want to look at the terminology around that a little bit to see what maybe the ancient Hebrews actually thought about the concept of Yahweh, or God.
Thanks a lot. And we’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the good life. Thanks.