How Can Liberal Religious Educators Support the March for Science?

22 03 2017

In this age of divisive rhetoric, the need for collaborative work between groups from different faith traditions to heal ailing society is indeed growing stronger every day. Words and deeds of the 45th Republican administration have already got the Humanists, UUs and the Christian Left mobilized.

But consider the religious naturalists. These wild lilies may or may not be found in any church or humanist organization. They may or may not spin their stories or clothe their mission in the language of theism. But they are nevertheless engaged in deeply religious work.  In the words of Sophia Fahs, “life becomes religious whenever you make it so.”

For example, on November 29, 2016, MIT professors published a statement recommitting to shared values at the core of the university’s mission: rejecting every form of bigotry, discrimination and hateful rhetoric and action; endorsing open, respectful discourse of ideas from the widest variety of intellectual, religious, class, cultural and political perspectives; and upholding the principles of the scientific method, of fact- and reason-based objective inquiry.[1] More than 600 faculty and many more MIT community members have signed the statement. When we recommit and bind ourselves (religare) to our highest principles, this is a religious act.

Astrobiologist David Grinspoon recently recalled the words of Carl Sagan’s wife, Lynn Margulis.[2]  She challenged the notion of evolution in the small and in the large, and spoke powerfully about the role of symbiosis and cooperation in our understanding of how the world has come to be as it is. When we reread and reflect on (relegare) our sacred stories, this too is a religious act.

This Earth Day—April 22, 2017—the Earth Day Network and the March for Science are co-organizing a rally and teach-in on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[3] This is a vital moment for clergy and religious educators to join the effort to educate the public that health, quality of life, and the state of the world we leave our children all vitally depend on science.

Many clergy have already planned sermons around Earth Day. It is important to realize that 2017 is not a year of advocacy as usual. For one thing, the #ScienceMarch takes place on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. The #PeoplesClimateMarch takes place the next weekend, April 29, 2017. Satellite events will be happening on both Saturdays and during the week, organized both locally and in connection with #FaithClimateActionWeek.

In addition to sermonizing about science and climate action, 2017 presents a singular opportunity for liberal clergy and religious educators to minister to the science and activist communities.

In this pivotal moment, we can:

  • Hold space for and respect the leadership of Native Americans, on whose land we are guests and whose activism predates our own
  • Provide spiritual care to the organizers of and participants in the March for Science—for many this is a stressful first-time exposure to intersectionality[4]
  • Name religious naturalism, demonstrate that it flowers right in our own communities, and welcome religious naturalists into our congregations
  • Be mindful that many scientists are non-theists: If we #PrayForClimate, we must invoke and affirm reason, too
  • Provide a counter-narrative to the Right’s dismissal and demonization of “godless scientists”
  • Rally the environmentalists within our congregations, and renew the ties of allyship with activist groups that support science
  • Make new allies with activist groups at local universities
  • Invite congregants to make Brain Caps for the #ScienceMarch, and contribute unifying gestures, such as carrying the American flag, or waving a sign saying “Truth, Justice and the American Way!”
  • Put our bodies on the line—in Washington and in our local communities—by offering a ministry of presence in support of the scientists
  • Educate ourselves to provide community ministry at protests[5]
  • Witness the anger of the scientific community
  • Advocate for those who may be targeted by the police
  • Offer a ministry of hope, through words, gestures and songs that inspire love, courage and healing for the beautiful world we share
  • Discern a way forward beyond the March for Science, by engaging people in ethical conversations—using reason in relationship—about how we want to treat each other and the earth

Let us bind ourselves in love to all our relatives in the interdependent web of all existence. Let us reconnect with the story of science, and see the dedicated humanity and patient work that has illuminated and continues to illuminate the workings of this web. Let us choose to make a religious commitment to supporting justice through the human endeavor of science.





[5] Download The Protest Chaplain’s Handbook, by Abigail Clauhs:


Tribalism, Aloha and the Sit-uation at MIT

18 02 2016

Like many universities around the country, MIT is at a moral crossroads with the #Divest and #BlackOnCampus movements.  Students are demanding their educational institutions actually take action to deliver on the promise of a beloved community, an inter-tribal we.

With respect to climate action, I have experienced this firsthand. I am a core team member of MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership (MITacal).  I am the MIT community liaison to the Humanist Hub, acting under the supervision of Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain.  And I am a secular humanist chaplain in formation, educating myself with the Humanist Institute and at the Meadville Lombard Theological School’s Master of Leadership Program for community builders.

On October 22, 2015, FFMIT began a sit-in outside the MIT president’s office to protest lack of ambition in MIT’s much-anticipated Climate Action Plan. Among their demands, the students want MIT to “Divest!” from fossil fuels. The administration wants to “Engage!” with industry and government to take climate action.


Valentineʻs Day was Day 100 of #ScientistsSitIn


As an MIT Sloan School of Management alum, I know that “engagement” is a code word for organizational alignment – time for the proverbial huskies to wake up, step into harness and mush the sled forward

As a proponent of the engagement model, I suited action to the word and went over to the sit-in to engage with Fossil Free MIT.  I wanted to reassure the students that they would soon begin to see the hallmarks of engagement — a cross-functional team with an empowered leader, then appropriate organization and consensus building exercises, then delegation and funding for a series of deadlines and deliverables. I also wanted to provide a realistic perspective on how long alignment might take in an organization as siloed as MIT — more like herding cats than harnessing a dog team.  What a great opportunity for a mere Muggle from Sloan to help out the young Wizards of MIT!

At the sit-in headquarters, it was apparent that my prepared points were completely irrelevant to the existential distress — or, more plainly, rage — students were feeling. They did not want a lecture on industrial selling.  They needed to be seen and to be heard.

The first weeks were particularly rough. Students were alternately furious at what they perceived as the administration’s mutual-back-scratching relationship with the fossil-fuel companies, and dismayed to tears by the disregard for their reproductive futures and their families in vulnerable places around the world.

Immersed at the time in the Humanist Institute course on moral psychology and ethical development, the sit-in floor was a perfect vantage point to discuss FFMIT’s demand that MIT explicitly consider the ethics of its engagement with fossil fuel companies.

As time wore on, I began to see things differently.  It appears that MIT is in a liminal state on the issue of ethics, stuck in a grey area somewhere between “science is morally neutral” and “it’s wrong to knowingly harm others for money.”  Making an ethical decision about MIT’s posture to the fossil fuel industry would require the Institute first to admit the possibility of moral reasoning, and ask for help from another of MIT’s inferior tribes, the Squibs at the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, SHASS, the Radius Technology and Culture Forum, or the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.

Why Leis?

Weeks ground on into months.   To keep up my own morale, I imagined myself on the lanai with my Hawaiʻi ohana, talking story with my Aunty and cousins, singing, fingers busy with crafts. Unable to be with them in body, I engaged in spirit and began making leis.

In Polynesia, we make leis to encircle loved ones on special occasions, to mark accomplishments, to distinguish leaders and to welcome strangers with the Aloha spirit.  Aloha is not just a greeting. It is the core principle of an ethical system that enables people to live and work harmoniously together under stressful circumstances.

Aloha originated from a pragmatic response to the rigors of open ocean navigation. The Polynesian Triangle – extending from Hawaiʻi to Aōtearoa (New Zealand) to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) –is an area roughly the size of the surface of the moon.   Ocean crossings were the major challenge and opportunity of Polynesian life. Voyaging, say, from Tahiti to Hawai’i meant people had to live more than a month in close quarters in a fragile wooden canoe bearing livestock, plants and everything else necessary to survive. Crossings demanded tremendous courage, terrific teamwork, and epic self control.

“Othering” at sea was rookie mistake for open-ocean navigators, often fatal.

There were no maps or books. All the Hawaiian cutural knowledge – from the star map that guided the navigators to the ethical system that guided productive behavior –passed from generation to generation via memorization. Hawaiian culture is rich with practices that serve as mneumonic devices.

Just as aloha is not just a greeting, a lei is not just a gesture. A lei is a mnemonic device. For example, the circular shape of the lei symbolizes connection and relationship. The many flowers and colors symbolize the beauty of interdependence.

Individually crafted for each recipient, a lei represents a circle of love. In the old days, leaders wore leis made of red and yellow bird feathers, the brightest colors available. Today, faux feather leis – made of soft, sparkling yarn in beautiful color combinations – commemorate special accomplishments.

A Hawaiian cultural practice is way out of context on MIT’s Mahogany Row, and it makes a great conversation starter. The colors catch the eye and invite a closer look: each lei is made by knitting together two or more different colors: one plain; one sparkling or variegated. The finished lei is always more visually interesting than either ball of yarn. A faux feather lei is a literal demonstration of the beauty of diverse community.

“Save your lei to wear when we celebrate,” I’ve told each recipient, students and administrators alike. “Until then, keep it by your mirror. Every time you see it, remind yourself to be strong and kind.”   By sharing aloha in this way, I the spirit of love working inside me, making me stronger and more patient. “When you see these lei,” I tell the passers by, “know that we are all connected.”


Lei small file

A lei is a visual reminder of the beauty of diverse community


The more leis I made, the more conversations I had about leadership and theories of change. I realized that climate action leadership has a lot in common with ocean voyaging.   Climate action requires crossing from a mindset of “us vs. them” to a mindset of “everyone in the same canoe.”

The words of John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the pilgrim ship, Arbella, came to mind:

“For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities.”

Somehow, the MIT climate action community must bring its separate schools of thought into a human relationship strong enough to carry the discomfort of a free and responsible search for truth, then marry this truth with institutional power.

At MIT we have the usual dividing lines of religion and politics, ethnic origin and home culture.  And because MIT is, well, MIT, we do tribalism even better!  Students, faculty, administrators and alums are either Real Scientists or lesser beings.  MITʻs response to the sit-in says to me that the Institute idolizes science to the extent that engagement with SHASS, Sloan and the chaplains comes only as an afterthought.  As a corollary, those who could be most capable of helping  resolve the sit-uation at MIT appear to be those least likely to be asked.

So, it’s well past Day 100, and I’m still sitting.  As an alum, I’m sitting for engagement with and by Sloanies.  We have not been invited to help align MIT, but our knowledge of organizational engagement is needed.  As an undergraduate social scientist, I’m sitting with SHASS professor Sally Hashlanger  for engagement with the moral reasoning — under what ethical standards do we engage?  And as a seminarian and member of the Humanist Hub, I’m sitting for engagement with the human spirit, calling on MIT to recognize that students facing an existential crisis strong enough to keep them in the corridor for more than three months are students who require a different kind of pastoral care.

Right now, all I’ve got to work with is aloha and a pair of knitting needles. While sitting on the side of love with #ScientistsSitIn, I have knitted my thoughts together about STEM university chaplaincy and my studies at Meadville Lombard.  A secular humanist chaplain’s main job would not be to create a new tribe but, rather, to foster an inter-tribal, cross-creedal sense of we.

When we engage our diverse community in border-crossing conversation, we can practice and help others learn new approaches to acting and thinking.  I’m envisioning a community capable of:

  • Respecting both self and other while looking for the shared interest
  • Being open to new information even and especially in times of anger
  • Tackling challenges with both strength and kindness
  • Acting with both urgency and patience
  • Participating as both learners and teachers
  • Fusing idealism with practicality
  • Joining care with justice
  • Marrying truth and power

As the forces of heart and spirit begin to work with its mens et manus, the MIT community’s best days lie ahead.  Change takes everyone.

Testimony on Massachusetts Sen. Barrett’s Carbon Pricing Bill S.1747

27 10 2015

I got to the Massachusetts State House in what I thought would be plenty of time for the 1pm hearing on Sen. Barrett’s carbon pricing bill, S. 1747, before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy.   Ha! The room was packed, standing room only. I could barely get through the door. As the meeting began, the accumulated body heat was already sweltering.

A packed room for MA Sen Barrettʻs carbon pricing hearing #S1747

When my turn to testify came at 5:21 pm, here is, to the best of my recollection, what I said.

My name is Nina Lytton. As a resident of Beacon Hill, I am cognizant of the important role Massachusetts has played in the great moral moments in our country’s history.   We are at such a crossroads now, and once again have the opportunity to lead.

As a Princeton undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on incorporating market externalities into the price system. That was in 1978.   Over the years, I have become discouraged that our society would ever recognize what is truly priceless, the earth, our home. So you can imagine what a pleasure it is for me to testify here today. Thank you Senator Barrett, thank you committee, thank you fellow citizens.

As a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management, I endorse the previous testimony of MIT Professor Christopher Knittel and David Miller of the Clean Energy Venture Group.  As a fellow member of the MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership (MITacal), I support the previous testimony of my MITacal colleague, Jorge Colmenares.

I speak in moral support of the MIT student group, Fossil Free MIT, which is in the 6th day of a sit-in outside MIT President Rafael Reif’s office. Fossil Free MIT is asking the MIT Corporation for a more aggressive action plan on climate change. When I look into the eyes of these courageous young people, I see myself 37 years ago, graduating into a world that I was fairly sure would not be kind to my generation’s children. This indeed has come true.  My heart aches in empathy with the anguish of this generation: their reproductive choices are at stake.

We have been in this room already for 4 hours and 23 minutes. In the one minute that remains of my testimony, I have just enough time left to speak briefly for voices who have not yet been heard in this room.

First, I am testifying here as a community leader in The Humanist Hub in Harvard Square. We are a morally charged community comprised of the Religious “Nones.” The Religious Nones are a large demographic group in America. According to the Pew Research Center’s massive 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 23% of adult Americans and 36% of those born after 1990 are not affiliated with traditional religious organizations. The Humanist Hub supports Religious Nones in the Boston and Cambridge area, including humanists at Harvard and MIT. Our executive director is Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University.

Some Religious Nones are atheists or agnostics. Others are spiritual but not religious. Some are agnostic, non-congregating members of their childhood faith traditions. Others are indigenous people whose spirituality is part of their cultural practices or who, as I do, engage with an indigenous spiritual practice.

The Humanist Hub is a role model for how people can connect in a secular setting to support each other in personal growth as humans and also to act ethically together to make the world a better place.

As a humanist, I believe that carbon pricing is where reason, science and business meet compassion for young adults, for poor and vulnerable people around the world, and for the unborn – in a way that supports freedom of choice by individual citizens.

Second, by virtue of my extended family in Hawaiʻi, I am testifying here as a member of the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group. Carbon pricing is a way to begin to respect the interdependent web of all existence to which we all belong.  Aloha kākou.  Mahalo nui loa.

I stand with Massachusetts Senator Barrett in support of Carbon Pricing Bill, S.1747.