Two easy pieces

September 17, 2011 • 7:22 am

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.

65 thoughts on “Two easy pieces

  1. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.

    Tell THAT to a Newton or an Einstein!

  2. 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.

    I challenge that remark. I’d like to see evidence.

    The last polling I saw on this issue was that most religious believers retained the religious belief they were raised with. Which means that many of them probably do NOT have beliefs that arise due to a “personal experience with a spiritual world” but rather because their parents taught them that they were “supposed to” and they haven’t yet seen any good reason to challenge that supposition.

    1. Allow me to express your point in less convoluted language:

      “Most believers simply can’t break free from the indoctrination they were subjected to in childhood.”

      But your point is very well taken, choice of language notwithstanding.

      From this point of view, I conclude that “believers” don’t actually “believe.” Their “belief” is just a (bad) habit. This in turn suggests that most church congregations aren’t actually religious organizations: they’re little more than social clubs with interesting side shows on Sundays. Which in turn leads me to ask, is it usual to give tax exemptions to mere social clubs?

      1. Yep, parental inculcation rather than personal experience, for many. And, yes, often it’s not a belief, but a kind of self-conscious assumption about themselves: When I was in hospital recently, I overheard every one of the people (all men over 60 or so) admitted answer the question on religion, “Church of England, I suppose”: Not one of them didn’t qualify it.

        For many of those whose “belief” does arise through personal experience, it seems that it’s of an infantile world of comfort and ſuccor, with God in loco parentis.

        /@

        PS. Apologies to those who don’t get the reference to The Vicar of Dibley. 😉

      2. RFW says, “Their “belief” is just a (bad) habit.”

        Right on. Indeed David Eller notes, “Religion is less about belief than it is about habit. So atheism is not so much refuting a belief as breaking a habit. And belief is a habit too – a habit of mind.”

    2. How is being raised in a religions tradition, taking your learning experiences about “meaning and values” in a particular context … how does that differ from “personal experiences”? It certainly is not philosophical reflection. Just the facts, m’am.

      from the New Yorker piece:
      Kitcher dislikes what he calls “Darwinian atheists” (that is, the New Atheists), who too often “think that once the case against the supernatural has been made, their work is done.”

      There you go.

      1. Being socialized into a particular church by default is not the same as having a transformative epiphany. Both are “personal experiences”, but only the latter should count as a bona fide “experience of a spiritual world”.

        1. You are very correct that it isn’t the same, but so what? These are the personal experiences that lead most believers to come to their beliefs, and it is their personal experience with the resulting meanings and values that encourages them to go on believing. Or not, of course. Many people go to college and emerge as knowledgable ignoramuses.

          It isn’t necessary to be St. Francis to be a Christian.

          1. The “so what” is that Gutting specifically said, “personal experiences of a spiritual world”, not experience of parents, or community, or whatever in the quotidian world.

            That that is where most believers’ faith come from is not disputed; what Gutting says is.

            /@

            1. Did your parents not guide your early experiences with whatever world is important to you? So sorry for you!

              a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center

              That’s what Christians see all around them. You guys apparently see a complicated clockwork of meaning and value. I’ve got nothing against that, since it works for you. As long as there’s meaning and value somewhere, as Kicher said.

              1. Don’t you dare presume what my parents did, Outlier. And keep your sorrow.

                I was brought up a Catholic, and I never had a direct personal experience of “a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center”, just heard a lot of talk about it in church.

                And then we stopped going to church when the priest demonstrated that the meaning and values of his “spiritual” world meant it was more important to attend social functions rather than find the time to visit and comfort one of his recently widowed parishioners (my maternal grandfather).

                So, the guidance I received from my parents was that simple human empathy was more meaningful and valuable than any so-called spirituality.

                /@

              2. “You guys apparently see a complicated clockwork of meaning and value.”

                We see a network of valuable social relationships, and are just as capable of finding meaning in them as you are. The only difference is we don’t feel obliged to invite God in for a menage a trois. So it’s not all about contemplating clockwork.

                But if all Gutting means by “a spiritual world of meaning and values” is a network of fulfilling social relationships with fellow believers, then that seems an unnecessary cheapening of the idea of spirituality, which ought to be reserved (as I said earlier) for genuinely mind-altering experience.

    3. I would agree, except that this “personal experience” does exist in the minds of believers. It is a manufactured experience brought on by music, prayer and interpretation of the sense of awe that one can be susceptible to. It is reinforced by the congregation telling you that the awe you experience is, in fact, spiritual in nature.

      It wasn’t until I moved away from my home church (to pursue a degree in theology, no less) that I began to realize how manipulative these people were. It is a cult in the truest sense of the word, all of it designed to “keep you in the faith”.

      Even after four years of separation, I retained a “spiritual” outlook on life because it was too difficult to give up the assumption that I would live forever somehow. It is a shocking thing not to come to terms with your own mortality until your twenties.

  3. “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.”

    This is a lie.

    Most people don’t pick their religion at all. They are born into a religion and stay there.

    The highest correlation with what religion you will be is what religion your family was. Xians will be xians, Moslems will be Moslems, Jews will be Jews, Mormons will be Mormons.

    All religions use various methods of thought control and violence to keep themselves going. What has ended up dooming the xian religion is well known. Without the power of the gun, noose, or stack of firewood, people are free to leave and think, and some of them do.

  4. It’s as close as that young adult whose boyfriend broke up with her, and in whose face a cult member saw a new prospect, and who eventually died of a treatable illness after the cult drained her bank accounts and refused her medical care. It’s as close as the lonely teenager who walks to a religious gathering for solace from his impoverished home life, and earns his access to 57 virgins by suicide bombing a marketplace full of people who worship the same god in a slightly different way.

    Yes, people are hurting! People have appetites for wonder and feeling a part of something bigger! Also, though, PT Barnum was right about suckers and their birthrate. So of course the people who wrote their essays are willfully blind as to the risks of a faith- rather than reason-based life – they have to be! Many, many of them are aware that they are running a grift, make no mistake. But the sincerely faithful can’t see how their worldview is of a piece with cults, terrorist cells, and those who cover the tracks of kiddie rapists; different animuses (animi?) to be sure, but the core of credulousness and gullibility is the same.

    And the pernicious lie that the godless are missing out on all the good stuff? Tell me that’s not motivated in part by the need to protect the core lie that there is no there there! The majority of modern American believers don’t “really” believe. They WANT to believe, they NEED to believe something, and they have been raised and conditioned to think they are not believing hard enough if they are not wealthy and content. Did I believe in Santa as a child because the holy spirit of Santa moved me? No, I believed because mom and dad told me to. When a religious person acknowledges this in one of these articles I will fall out of my chair – but to make that avknowledgment, they would have to fall out of their faith first.

  5. “Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.”

    Ignoring the role of drilling a particular god into a child’s head from an early age.

  6. “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.”

    Sort of true but not completely.

    1. The meaning that fundie xianity gives to people is to hate, lie, and be hypocrites, the three sacraments of their death cults.

    2. 40% of the US population thinks jesus is going to show up by 2050, kill 7 billion people and destroy the earth. This is their best idea? To sit around in a catatonic trance waiting and hoping for an Evil Space Wizard to show up and kill everyone.

    3. Quite a few fundie xians are Nihilists in the common meaning of the word. They hate science, the Enlightenment, democracy, and the US government. The xian Dominionists are trying very hard to destroy all that and head on back to the Dark Ages, with no little success. They all but own the Tea Party and the Theothuglican.

    4. Most No Religions are free to make up and choose their own purposes in life. It’s not that hard and usually far more rewarding than supporting and following some vaguely humanoid toad fundie xian leader in style with your money and time.

    1. The problem with Gutting is that the type of religion he is defending almost doesn’t exist. It’s all a bunch of strawpeople.

      Most people are religious because they were brainwashed and indoctrinated in childhood by their parents and church. The childhood programming is backed up by the usual social sanctions including violence and the threat of violence when the churches can get away with it.

      A lot of the more serious cults practice “shunning”. You can leave but it will cost you all your family and friends. The Amish, JW’s, and some of the fundie death cults do this.

      The vast majority of US xians have never read the bible and have no idea what is in it. The churches tell them what to think and what to believe and most people don’t care enough to bother to think for themselves or question it.

    2. People get “meaning and purpose” from all sorts of things. Fanatical sports fans get it from supporting their team. People really into knitting get it from making sweaters and swapping patterns and tips with other knitters. Star Trek fans get it from hanging out with other Trekkers and discussing the minutia of the shows and movies. Runners getting it from being with other runners and participating in races.

      Really, meaning, purpose, and community are not that hard to find. And frankly I prefer people whose notion of meaning is “Kirk could kick Picard’s ass” and “Yankees rule” rather than “gays are subhuman” and “If I kill unbelievers I will be rewarded forever”.

  7. The elephant in the room behind Ms. Daniel’s piece is that those spiritual but not religious people aren’t giving any money to churches. What’s a pastor with a shrinking congregation* and shrinking collection plate receipts supposed to do? I know, publish a diatribe insulting them by telling them they aren’t “challenging” themselves. Religion is a business and fewer and fewer people are buying what they are selling.

    *The UCC has fallen from 1.7 million members in 1980 to 1.1 million in 2008.

  8. Suddenly it hits that teenager: […]. 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.

    I SO thought she was going to say in that 2nd sentence:

    Suddenly it hits that teenager:[…]. I don’t need to make all this up for myself. There’s a community of folks who over thousands of years have … done just that already.

    But NO .. she had to ruin it!

  9. 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.

    Why not? The lives of happy and fulfilled atheists demonstrate that even if God exists, happiness doesn’t depend on sucking up to him, and thinking for yourself is not going to get you cursed with a wretched life.

    Once that’s established, then you can go on to argue that no god is worth worshipping who’d send good people to Hell for the crime of being happy without him.

    1. I think that’s one of the reasons the religious spend so much time trying to portray atheists as fundamentally unhappy people- they’ve got to make sure that people don’t actually catch on that the product they’re selling doesn’t actually have any effect on their well-being.

    1. Well, she does!
      But only the ones that think and do EXACTLY like she does.

      This is not uncommon amongst religious people.

      Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

  10. “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.”

    Yes, religion increases as “a byproduct of general insecurity”, but, no, it does not selectively attract individuals who feel neglected by social networks and government. When general insecurity, socioeconomic inequality, increases, religious fervor increases not only amongst those cut off from wealth and power, but even more emphatically amongst those who wield it. Religion is the tool of power, not a defense against it. Individuals cling to religiosity seeking self interested desire for power. No god is necessary to justify equity and community, but god certainly functions tyrannically as a justification for inequity.

    1. Very good! If I remember correctly, those are the major two observations so far.

      But alas, there are problems combining them and make an as of yet untested hypotheses.

      – Equal spread of religion among wealth may be less well supported.

      – Correlations doesn’t superposition or even combine.

      – We are faced with a sociological hypothesis to explain whatever will be the outcome of considering these factors together. Isn’t sociology like evolutionary psychology, having never established a tested result in the first place?

      These types of analysis looks good, but whenever I try to grasp them they seem to crumble and slip through my fingers. I am still amazed that Paul et al could wring out a sensible correlation out of this mess in the first place!

  11. Well for me, there is no need for evidence that God Really exist. It’s all about “faith” It’s like having a mother who died before you had your instinct, when you grew up, you know that you had a mother before but you can’t see her anymore because she’s dead but still you claim to that you have a mother before…http://shoe-hill.com

    1. Yes, it’s a fact of biology that anyone alive had to have had a mother, whether that mother happens still to be alive or not. Nobody needs “faith” for that. It’s possible that an orphan could find out about their mother by talking to people (older siblings, other family members, friends)who had known her when she was alive. Barring that, there would be some records somewhere of her birth, existence and death. The same cannot be said of gods. The existence of gods is not a discoverable fact about the world the way the existence of an individual is the result of that person’s having been given birth to by a woman. Giving birth is a common, normal event in human life. The fact of maternity surrounds us constantly whereas gods are remarkably hidden. As has been pointed out a number of times recently on this website, the invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.

      Gods vary from place to place, much like languages and culture but unlike things such as gravity, chemical reactions and other natural, physical properties. Could it be that gods are local, arbitrary inventions? I think that is the likely answer. The more humans examine the world, the more we see that gods are not there and not needed. Earthquakes, droughts, disease, thunder and lightning were all once thought to be the result of the actions of gods, expressions of divine displeasure at human actions or neglect. We now know that many of these phenomena occur on worlds where no humans live; they could not be messages to anybody. We now have better explanations for these phenomena. None of these explanations involve gods.

      Faith is a requirement of religious belief because there is no evidence of gods. This did not have to be the case. The world we live in looks very much like a world without gods because no gods have been discovered. There are no phenomena for which gods are the best explanation. Why is that? The active miracle-mongering gods of old have retreated in the advance of human knowledge. Gods who wish to be believed in and worshiped could simply show themselves. Why would such gods remain hidden and then condemn those who failed to believe in or worship them? The people who are alleged to have encountered gods directly in the holy books of various religions would have had no need of faith; they had proof. A world with gods that performed miracles (like restoring amputated limbs)or answered prayers or interacted with humans as they were wont to do in any number of religions traditions throughout history would look different from the world we actually inhabit. Faith would not be necessary, no more than faith is required of gravity or electromagnetism. Gods would be a discoverable part of the world observable by all, rather than a literary device concocted by a few.

  12. The more I read this stuff, the more I appreciate having been raised with the arrogance/ambivalence of agnosticism. Though my own life is defined by my dependence on empirical evidence, and the use of human logic to meet my needs, I accept the limitations of that experience re: defining either scientific or spiritual absolutes.

    God, etc. has been created to meet the needs of those who need God – I argue against God’s existence because of the absence at this point of time of evidence to support such a concept. However, the need to believe is obviously an emotional reality, and faith by definition, though illogical, therefore is beyond any explanation other than it meets one’s needs.

    The common ground for believers and non-believers is just that – it meets a need, and if there is one absolute, that may be it: There is no behavior other than that which meets a need, all of our needs being highly individualized and evolving out of our own very unique set of experiences (both nature and nurture). The very notion that morality even exists in either the secular or spiritual world presupposes the existence of something beyond needs, and there is certainly no empirical evidence at this point that that is true. Moral beliefs are merely the means by which individuals and social units describe their individual and group needs – they are ever evolving, and serve to both provide answers, and create more questions. For those of us in the secular world that provides for exciting exploration in all areas. Unfortunately for many in the religious community it is only a threat, and thus they are often prone to meet their needs with simplistic, and often aggressive, attacks on others.

    Time to move on to ?’s of free will!!??

  13. “the creeping nihilism that often attends the embrace of atheism”

    THIS. Easier said than done, and I have not seen much written on this phenomenon–we are so busy defending our atheist position that it is hard to turn and FACE this problem, at least I find that to be true. and I tend to find it “creeping” most when I am alone. Why should we fucking care when ALL OF IT WILL BE ENGULFED IN THE FLAMING RED GIANT DEATH OF THE SUN???(unless we have found a new planet….)I must say that I struggle with this, and that is when i feel the “loss” of my former religion, and bit jealous, if annoyed, with the blissful believers who don’t feel that angst.

    1. “Why should we fucking care when ALL OF IT WILL BE ENGULFED IN THE FLAMING RED GIANT DEATH OF THE SUN???(unless we have found a new planet….)”

      Oh c’mon. Our biosphere still has about a billion years left. Plenty of time to colonize the galaxy.

      According to a lot of xians, jesus is going to show up any day now, kill 7 billion people, and destroy the earth. The latest prediction is for October, 2011.

      You’ve got a month of life left according to Harold Camping. Send him more money for more billboards.

      1. Actually, it’s predicted that atmospheric CO2 concentrations will be too low in 500 million for plants to photosynthesize. I think it’s a solvable problems (if humans aren’t extinct). But, it will need to be addressed.

        I personally avoid nihilism because I have this one life to live and I’m not going to waste it feeling shitty that it doesn’t “mean” anything and because I can’t affect the heat death of the universe. Life and the universe don’t owe us meaning, purpose, happiness, fairness, or anything else for that matter. What you get is what you get.

    2. Frankly it’s not clear to me that being engulfed by the sun is a worse fate than singing hosannas for all eternity. Seriously, if the “meaning” offered by religion comes down to shamelessly flattering some celestial tyrant, or playing a bit part in a cosmic puppet show for his amusement, then I can live just fine without that sort of meaning.

      1. +1

        My father was brought up in a conventional religion, and when (aged about 8) he heard that in heaven they would all be walking by still waters wearing robes and singing praises eternally, he wondered if he couldn’t slip away and find an old reaper (harvesting maschine – he loved machinery) to play around.

  14. “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.”

    That may apply in the US, the Middle East or such places where belief in God is drilled into kids regardless of what their parents say, and they have to find their own way out of it.

    I’m a from-birth atheist in a relatively secular society, where we got religion for half an hour on Wednesday mornings in such a diluted, ecumenical fashion that it washed off pretty easily (and I picked up things like the Lord’s Prayer and parables by osmosis, which are useful bits of culture). So I’ve wrestled with believers and sometimes flirted with “sophisticated theology” but always from a default position of no god/dess/es that has been very easy to maintain. The question of a good life has always been on the what and the how, never on whether.

    Isn’t “evidence that there is no god” conceding a lot to the believers? That there is/are none is the default position, and it’s the claim that there is/are that needs evidence.

    1. Maybe in Japan and Sweden, but not in the US- I can’t remember the last time I spoke with a Christian who thought that it was their responsibility to prove that God exists rather than my responsibility to prove that God didn’t exist. In fact, in many debates I’ve had the religious guy has claimed victory because I couldn’t “conclusively” disprove God despite them never having presented any evidence that God did exist.

      About the first thing a religious person around here says the first time you mention you’re an atheist is “What if you’re wrong?” AKA the watered down version of Pascal’s Wager. There’s a definite assumption that not only does God exist, but it’s their god and not a different one.

  15. On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.”

    ..

    Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person.

    Well .. if you dread all that so much, maybe you should consider not ‘sharing’ that you’re a minister then!

  16. Link: “many meanstream churches in America are losing members”

    Freudian slip or intentional? How true in either case.

  17. 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.

    This is like complaining that doctors don’t have a replacement for the meaning and purpose in the pain of a broken limb, or the illness caused by physical viruses!
    The so-called sense of “meaning and purpose” is artificially created by the meme of religion. It has no bearing on anything that is real, true, or positive for its host mind.

    Why replace the symptoms of an addiction with more artificial stimulation?

  18. 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.

    Yes, but given that most believers have been culturally indoctrinated in religion from a young age, the standards for what constitutes “personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values” are really low. They look exactly like personal experiences of meaning and value in the natural world.

    However, believers often tell themselves that if they didn’t believe in God, then either the experiences wouldn’t have happened in the first place, or now they would start believing in God. Because appreciating a sunset or having something good happen after praying for something good to happen is just too inexplicable to be ‘chance.’

  19. I’d slightly agree with Gutting, that most religious believers do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. However, I think his “Rather…” is fundamentally wrong.

    First, the main way that most religious believers come to religion is by their upbringing. The single biggest predictor variable for eventual religious belief is what your parents/guardians raised you to be. Most people don’t convert. If he wants to call that “their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center”, I’m not buying it, any more than Gutting is bowing down to Baal.

    At a secondary level, some people do convert, of course. And yes, there’s at least tentative sociological data (EG: the book “Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion” by Altemeyer and Hunsberger) that even show what types of personal experiences lead people to religion. Oversimplifying: emotional stress, perhaps especially the death of loved ones.

    Where he makes is assuming that because that’s the (second) leading cause of turning to religion, it’s also the main cause of turning away. As happens, there’s also at least tentative sociological data (ibid) that shows that rational inquiry, and the failure of various aspects of religion to withstand such inquiry vis-à-vis various philosophical arguments.

    That said, he’s possibly right that an appeal that functioned to satisfy on more emotional levels as well as rational might make more (de)converts. However, that would seem most likely to help mainly with retention of the irreligious as irreligious. This, however, has the potential for significant benefit. Historically, about half of those who are raised “Nones” go on to be religious; contrariwise, whacking the GSS (filter RELIG16(4), RELITEN vs COHORT, latter grouped by decade) suggests this loss-rate seems to be diminishing among later generations; nohow, that might simply reflect semi-steady rate of religious conversion of life stressors.

    On another point, I’d say that Jerry’s claim that 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 neglects the motivated reasoning of human cognition. People dismiss premises because the implications are utterly unpalatable; EG, the rejection of Anthropogenic Climate Change by those who might have to change their lifestyles in ways they don’t want to. Similarly, I suspect that having the prospect of such reassurance at the end of phase II may make the prospect of facing phase I more palatable.

    Of course, I’m only an eclectically read amateur; no doubt a psychology researcher could clarify that.

    1. On another point, I’d say that Jerry’s claim that 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 neglects the motivated reasoning of human cognition. People dismiss premises because the implications are utterly unpalatable;

      On the surface this looks good, but I have several problems with this.

      First, while I haven’t studied “motivated reasoning” I have the uninformed impression it is ‘motivated reasoning’ – a “just so” story. That it has become popular among accommodationists (Mooney) makes me uncomfortable to use it before understanding if it has any empirical basis.

      Second, an older bona fide theory with empirical support is cognitive dissonance theory. Under that theory such dismissal comes with a cost, the cognitive dissonance. That may be allayed by choosing or reverting to the strategy offered by acquiescing to facts first and forming options later.

      I.e. doing what Coyne suggests is a possible choice and, as he notes, the easier one. I would expect people would tend to migrate towards it, even if in a haphazard manner.

      [Now I am bothered if I am using “motivated reasoning” in my analysis, whatever that really is. =D]

      1. My impression is that motivated reasoning itself is an expression of cognitive dissonance.

        What your reasoning neglects are (also empirically documented) anchor effects and confirmation bias. Cognitive dissonance can be allayed by rejecting either of the two dissonant ideas; however, the older idea tends to be better anchored. Evidence that supports that idea is looked upon more favorably.

        I’d agree Coyne’s approach is possible; however, note that my disagreement was as to whether the alternative was impossible.

  20. The pieces cited were mostly ho-hum boilerplate, but one phrase in Daniel’s (“the preacher who didn’t prepare enough”) struck a raw nerve in me, for two reasons. If what follows is too confessional, or otherwise inappropriate here, I trust you to do your job as moderator.

    Just before Thanksgiving 2008, the woman I’d shared the last 16 years with had a stroke, out of the blue, and died at the absurdly early age of 39. Her family, whom I’d hardly met since she had, at best, a stormy relationship with them, spent many hours with me at her bedside, and were a great comfort to me. Whether Cheryl had mentioned my atheism, I don’t know, but in any case I was invited to the funeral. I was moved by the recollections and poetry readings of her friends, and a stunning a cappella version of “Oh, how I love Jesus” by one of her cousins. (That’s when I cried.) The only false note was struck by the two preachers, who lost their way in the text, stumbled over their words, and to me, made a complete dog’s breakfast of their part of the proceedings. If anybody else noticed, they didn’t mention it.

    The other reason is something that happened just after the death of my mother, at 67, in 1997. One of the local vicars came round to talk to my father (who was, and still is, an ordained minister of the Church of England, though he gave up his preacher’s licence when he turned 80). My brother and I were asked to stay. The man was so inept, so focused on God’s will, and so devoid of human sympathy that my brother left in the middle for fear he would explode. I stuck it out with gritted teeth, and probably a horrible rictus of a smile on my face. Again, my father apparently saw nothing wrong with the episode.

    My point here is that as far as I can tell, these people can’t even do the comfort and ritual thing we’re being asked to accept as the reason for their continued existence, except by the goodwill of those they’re supposed to be helping, who give them a free pass on incompetence. What good are they? “Je voudrais que le dernier des rois fût étranglé avec les boyaux du dernier prêtre.”

    1. I had a friend die of a sudden brain aneurism about 4 years ago. He was a Buddhist/atheist (liked and loosely followed Buddhist traditions but didn’t believe in the supernatural aspects of it), but the funeral was arranged by his Born Again brother.

      I don’t think either the brother or the preacher ever realized just how close to starting a riot they came.

  21. Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments.

    What a grand concession, that is precisely what New Atheists have been reminding others! (And why they were saddled with the epithet “New” despite this being old knowledge.)

    Modulo the different observable pathways to religion, tradition and/or insecurity, few are tipped over by experiences and fewer still by esoteric arguments.

    Gutting, now go tell the theologians, the agnostics and the accommodationists the familiar observations you echo to Gnus. They may need to hear it!

  22. 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?

    I have a different response to this sort of sentiment from Jerry.

    First, I point out this is clearly not true for all people. The existence of a single fulfilled atheist is sufficient to disprove that hypothesis.

    Second, as to the question of whether this is true for some people, I’d assert that we don’t yet have strong evidence either way. I’d mention in passing that it’s somewhat elitist to assume without powerful evidence that many among the unwashed masses simply “can’t handle the truth” and must be told a comforting lie… but I do leave open the possibility that we may one day have powerful evidence of this (in which case it would no longer be elitist to believe it, it would simply be accepting reality). My gut feeling is that this is not the case, that the vast majority of people can handle the truth, spun properly. But I don’t have strong evidence for this either, so I leave open the possibility.

    And what do I conclude for this? That in the near term (and by that I mean decades if not centuries) it does not alter the New Atheist program one iota. Clearly, oh so clearly, it is the case today, in September 2011, that far too many people accept these delusions unquestioningly when they definitely do not need to; that religion oh so obviously has undue influence over public opinion and over policy decisions; that while we can’t yet say whether the world would be a better place with noreligion, we can safely say that we could spend the next thirty years reducing religion and confidently making the world a better place every step of the way.

    Are any religion’s idiosyncratic truth claims accurate? Not bloody likely!

    Is the world best off with no religion at all, not even a nice comforting UU-like religion? Not sure; I don’t think we can say right now.

    Is the world better off with a helluva lot less religion than we have now? YES!, and I don’t understand how an even remotely progressively-minded educated person can doubt this.

    As long as the 1st and 3rd questions have the answers they do, the New Atheists have nothing to apologize for.

  23. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.

    She must love the New Atheists then, since calling people on stuff and openly disagreeing with them is exactly what we do that seems to upset so many theists!

  24. “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:”

    You didn’t understand this at all. Daniel is talking about believers – they’re spiritual you know – who don’t do church because they think they don’t need to. The first two paragraphs of the second quote lay this out with beating-a-dead-horse repetition. Now, the third paragraph is theology, but it doesn’t really flow from the previous paragraphs. It feels tacked on, because the kernel of wisdom in the preceding is humanistic. Humans need each other. We aren’t at all perfect. So we need to put up with each other and work together.

  25. 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.

    that’s like saying the problem with getting someone cured of alcoholism is that you haven’t replaced the alcohol with a new drug.

    Why can’t we try being sober for a while?

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