Two new pieces on atheism and spirutuality have just appeared. Neither is worth close scrutiny or dissection, but they’re worth a quick look and a bit of thought.
The first is a new piece by Gary Gutting in The New York Times “Opionator” section: “Beyond New Atheism.” Gutting begins by faulting the New Atheists for misunderstanding why most people are religious:
Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.
That’s deeply confusing! What New Atheists have tried to do is show that a) there is no evidence for a God, so there is no center, and b) you can ground meaning and values in secular ideals. Mostly, however, Gutting says that the major problem with New Atheism is that we don’t have a program to replace the sense of “meaning and purpose” that religion gives to people. He touts Philip Kitcher’s essay, “The Joy of Secularism,” as an example of an atheist who takes this problem seriously (see also James Wood’s essay on this in the New Yorker).
Fair enough, except that that issue hasn’t been completely neglected. Many, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have talked about how we find meaning and purpose within ourselves rather than by being servile to a deity. And others, including myself, Greg Paul, and Frederick Solt et. al. have talked about how a reformation of society, making people more “secure” by fostering economic equality, health care, and less general dysfunction, will, according to sociological data, be likely to diminish religion’s hold on people. The underlying idea, for which there’s much evidence, is that religiosity is a byproduct of general insecurity, so you turn to God when you don’t feel that you have a social network or a government that cares about you.
As for this plaint by Gutting,
Many others, however, need convincing that atheism (or secular humanism, as Kitcher prefers) has the resources to inspire a fulfilling human life. If not, isn’t the best choice to retreat to a religion of hope? Why not place our bet on the only chance we have of real fulfillment?
Well, first I’d point Gutting to Sweden and Denmark, where, as Phil Zuckerman has shown, two largely atheistic societies are filled with people having meaningful and fulfilling lives. Why is that?
Second, I’d point out to Gutting that if there is no evidence for God, than the “only chance we have or real fulfillment”—being religious—gives you as much chance as buying a Powerball ticket. Phase I of the New Atheism simply involves convincing people that there’s no evidence for God, and from that convincing much else will follow (yes, including some angst). But how condescending of people like Gutting to say that the people need their religion, even if it’s wrong, because they need hope! Of course atheists must deal with the issue of the creeping nihilism that often attends the embrace of atheism, but to dismiss New Atheism because it doesn’t deal with social support is a serious mistake. You can’t approach phase II—the reassurance that one can have a good life without God—until you complete phase I: the evidence that there is no God.
The second piece is a remarkably splenetic diatribe by one Lillian Daniel—a minister of the United Church of Christ, who, over at PuffHo, kicks serious butt among those people who claim to be “spiritual” but are too pansy-ass to do what they should: become religious. In “Spiritual but not religious? Please stop boring me,” we have stuff like this:
Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Unfortunately, many people who have these “spiritual” experiences (I am increasingly reluctant to use that word) don’t believe in God or a handed-down, made-up religious tradition.
Daniel’s piece is a precis of a much longer attack on spirituality in The Christian Century, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.” I think it’s worth reading simply because it’s so amazingly clueless and unintentionally hilarious in its assumption that inside everyone who loves a sunset, or weeps at the strains of Beethoven, is someone hungering to drink the blood of Jesus:
But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.
It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.
Suddenly it hits that teenager: I don’t need to invent God, because God has already invented me. I don’t need to make all this up for myself. There’s a community of folks who over thousands of years have followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he was raised from the dead to show there is much more to life than you could possibly come up with. And as for the resurrection, try doing that for yourself.
She also makes a few digs at National Public Radio. I weep for the parishioners who have this woman as their pastor. But why the invective against the poor “spiritual” folks? Well, many meanstream churches in America are losing members, and the attempt to rope in the “spiritual” may be a desperate measure to stem this tide.