Heartening debate about atheism in the New York Times

January 25, 2013 • 7:55 am

I think this is a sign that atheism is becoming more accepted, for I can’t imagine a piece like the one I’m about to describe being published fifteen years ago.

Three days ago, the “Room for debate” section of the New York Times published a series of six short pieces under the title “Is atheism a religion?” (Actually, the accompanying notes said that the question was also “Can atheism replace religion?”) And while three of the six commenters groused a bit about atheism (we’re too strident, we can’t replace religion, etc.), all of them said something positive about it. Further, the other three were what religious people call “militant atheists.”

In other words, the piece takes serious note of the growing prevalance of nonbelief in the U.S.  Those who say that nonbelief won’t spread until we propose a replacement for religion are wrong; it is spreading.  And I think the internet is largely responsible for it, as it gives isolated atheists an online community and a sense that they aren’t alone.

Here are snippets of the six pieces, but they’re short, so go read them yourself.

Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing. . . . Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share. Feeling love is beautiful. Feeling the earth is 6,000 years old is stupid.

  • Phyllis Tickle (founding editor of the religion section of Publishers Weekly and author of Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters:”What atheism lacks is mystery“:

What atheism does not have is the architecture of mysteries. One might even argue that, to the extent that atheism lacks sacred story and narrative thrust, it also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of religion. Likewise, the perspective of atheism is caught within the created order, while that of religion, by definition, exceeds it.

It follows, then, that atheism cannot replace religion. . .

Will atheism replace religion? That is not our goal (obviously), but neither is it our concern. We started The Sunday Assembly – think of it as part foot-stomping show, part atheist church – because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.

Somehow that church just doesn’t do it for me.

Unfortunately, a great number of atheists do seem to cling to heterodoxy the way the most toxic of believers cling to orthodoxy, turning their irreverence into a stubborn religion unto itself. These are the people you see in online forums calling churchgoers “morons” or “brainless,” displaying the same hubristic arrogance they claim to despise when it comes from the other side. Still, I think the lion’s share of the new era of atheists understand that atheism should be less about the degradation of religion and more about a celebration of the power and potential of the human being sans any omnipotent higher authority.

Nothing new here. “Celebrating the “power and potential of the human being sans any omnipotent higher authority” means the rejection (via “degradation,” if you will) of religion.

We should create a culture that affirms a secular world view, alongside religious world views. For example, the U.S. military suffers from daily suicides and a rising epidemic of post-traumatic stress. In response, the military has developed “spiritual fitness” solutions that emphasize gratitude to God, a supernatural connection with the living beings and a higher power, and reliance upon prayer and scripture. This approach leaves out a crucial element of fitness: approaches that apply to nontheists as well. Atheists, humanists and other nontheists struggling with the difficulties of military life feel ostracism rather than assistance when spiritual remedies are tailored to traditional religious belief.

As for atheism replacing religion, even Christopher Hitchens said that religious faith was “ineradicable” as long as human beings fear death and each other. Atheism is — and will continue to be — a lively alternative for those weary and wary of institutional religion, those who find transcendent explanations meaningless or intellectually unsatisfactory, and fret over the dangers of religious triumphalism. As there is no shortage of people in the United States who find religion worrisome in public life and tedious in private, there is an ever-larger audience willing to entertain the possibility of a post-religious life. Atheism might never replace religion, but it certainly is giving bad and boring religion a real run for the money.

Reading these pieces, you’ll find none of the condescension of people like Terry Eagleton and none of the specious arguments of people like Alvin Plantinga. What you’ll find are people struggling to come to grips with the tide of history.

h/t: Michael

70 thoughts on “Heartening debate about atheism in the New York Times

  1. Well, we do find some intellectual flatulence in the Phyllis Tickle comment. “What atheism does not have is the architecture of mysteries.”

    There I go being all strident again. But one does grow weary of such airy-fairy nonsense.

    Still, I agree. You would not have seen such a conversation in a prominent place a decade or so ago. Progress does happen.

    1. As if “architecture of mysteries” means anything more than “scary ghost stories designed to keep the kids in bed at night”.

        1. We can always fall back on scary alien stories to keep the kids in bed at night.

          Or scary christofascist, fundie, Tea Party, and Gibbertarian stories.

          Which have the (dis)advantage of being both real and common.

        2. In all seriousness, indeed.

          Why should atheism posess the “architecture of mysteries”, as if such a thing were a necessary component of anything/everything?

          We can satisfy our desire for the fantastic in other ways.

          But I’m not sure her assertion should even be granted in the first place. What drives scientists to investigate the cosmos if not a sense of wonder and mystery? “What is that? How does it work?”

          1. One might even argue that, to the extent that atheism lacks sacred story and narrative thrust,…
            I’d have thought the truth about the origins of the Universe, of the earth, of life, and of human history have heaps of awesome story (Not sure what she means by “sacred”) and narrative thrust.

            it also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of religion.
            Again, not sure what she means by “transcendence” other than “awesome feelings”. And beauty is a hallmark of religion? I know that every time I hear “How Great Thou Art” or “Amazing Grace” I want to scream. And I appreciate Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion in spite of, not because of, their sacred story and narrative thrust.

        1. The New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was given to exclaiming, “I accept the universe!”

          The British writer Thomas Carlyle, upon hearing this, commented: “Gad! She’d better.”

  2. Regarding Ms Tickle’s comments:

    I have no idea why people think that deciding that you are an atheist is the sort of lifestyle choice that must affect every aspect of your daily living.

    It’s as if having decided you are not into betting on horses; everyone suddenly wants to know: how will you fill the void?

    Also, if I want “mystery” I’ll read nice crime novel.

    1. +1

      Tickle: “…the perspective of atheism is caught within the created order, while that of religion, by definition, exceeds it.”

      So … it’s imaginary, then?

    2. “[I]f I want “mystery” I’ll read nice crime novel.”

      If I may, let me invite you to read one of mine.
      [JAC: I’ve edited this to remove the link and to let people know that you’re not to use this site to advertise your own website, book, or whatever]

          1. Sorry, Jerry. As I say, I hadn’t intended to intrude in any aggressive way; the mention was meant as an aside. And I promise you there was no sham involved. 😉

        1. They’re genuine. The two earlier books in the series were well reviewed by Marilyn Stasio in the NY Times Sunday Book Review and by others elsewhere.

          When someone mentions that she likes to read mysteries, either in person or online, I feel prompted to mention mine. Writing fiction for a living is a tough business, especially these days. That said, all I’d meant to do was post a link for someone who’d disclosed an interest. I did not mean for the jacket image to show up, and if I could have taken it down I would have.

          1. Now see, if you’d post under your real name (or nom de plume), or simply make your user name a hotlink to your website, I could follow up on your suggestion even though it’s been edited…

            1. Yeah me too, I’d at least have had a look. I’m surprised that someone with a need to publicise himself posts anonymously. I use a pseudonym but I don’t need to advertise my activities.

            2. Well, my real name is Don, for sure. I’m not hiding, nor am I trying to be aggressively self-aggrandizing. (Posting a hotlink is not something I’ve thought of doing, so I haven’t looked into how I might do that.) Usually, when the topic comes up in an online discussion–that is, when someone says, “I like to read mysteries”–I simply suggest that she might like mine. That kind of approach often works out well (though of course I understand Jerry’s objection). Mystery/crime a crowded genre and even with strong reviews it’s quite hard to get attention, much less any real traction. Beyond that, the shelf life of fiction these days is a month or two at most.

              1. While I don’t have a blog/website myself, my understanding is that if you put your url in the website window of this comment form, your user name will appear as a hotlink to that site.

                Sorry if I sounded abrupt. It took me a while to realize that, and I shouldn’t assume everyone else does.

                Count me as always eager to find a good mystery book!

  3. [atheism] also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of religion.

    Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say that truth, rather than myths and wishful thinking, has the greatest beauty.

    1. I find myself curious as to what is beautiful about nailing someone to cross. Or refusing polio vaccines. Or herding people into gas chambers (Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day).

      What beauty religion has was produced by people. People who will also bring beauty to atheism.


    2. What is beautiful about lives wrecked by toxic religion?

      What is so good about kids killed by faith healing or torture murder disguised as discipline?

      What is so good about endless fear, hate, lies, and general craziness?

  4. lol.

    Well church goers ARE morons. Not morons in all facets of their lives but morons when it comes to assessing the evidence for an invisible guy in the sky.

    If they do know that there is no evidence for God and still choose to believe and worship, then that IS moronic! lol.

    Now if they don’t have the tools to be able to assess the evidence, then they should go study and learn whatever it is they need to. For example, if they don’t know why Adam and Eve can’t possibly exist, then go learn about population genetics. If they don’t want to, then that’s just lazy. If they really can’t understand it, then they really ARE stupid when it comes to that subject matter!

    There really ARE stupid people you know! lol Just like there really ARE intelligent people. The worst possible thing you can do in education is to coddle people’s stupidity.

    Shit should not be dumbed down for people. It’s people’s job to step up and to understand shit.

    1. You can’t expect people to “step up and understand shit” when the education system is fundamentally lacking mechanisms to cultivate critical thinking. People have enough to worry about without thinking that they have a moral duty to read about population genetics, and you speak from a rather stuck-up position of blind privilege to say such a thing.

      While the most prominent believers are those who obviously don’t know a good argument when they see them, the majority of religious citizens are just well-meaning people in search of the truth who have been hood-winked by a vile and self-serving institution that sells convincing lies. In the 31st century, people are going to look back and think that a lot of the crap you and I believe in – probably stuff to do with politics and ethics – is positively barbaric, but would they be right to call us morons? No. We are products of our time and culture, and there is a lot of baggage that comes with that – millions of people are simply raised in such a damaging way that they are incapable of seeing how they are wrong. They are not morons.

      1. lol.

        […People have enough to worry about without thinking that they have a moral duty to read about population genetics…]

        I think I also belong in the set called people. I too have enough to worry about. So that’s a stupid reason not to learn shit. That’s just simply playing your little red violin.

        […you speak from a rather stuck-up position of blind privilege to say such a thing…]

        Ummmmm actually knowing how shit works is not stuck-up. lol. It’s called knowing how shit works.

        And please define privilege (i.e., upbringing, race, economic situation). Which blind privilege are you imparting that I have?

        […While the most prominent believers are those who obviously don’t know a good argument when they see them, the majority of religious citizens are just well-meaning people in search of the truth who have been hood-winked by a vile and self-serving institution that sells convincing lies…]

        […In the 31st century, people are going to look back and think that a lot of the crap you and I believe in – probably stuff to do with politics and ethics – is positively barbaric, but would they be right to call us morons? No. We are products of our time and culture, and there is a lot of baggage that comes with that – millions of people are simply raised in such a damaging way that they are incapable of seeing how they are wrong. They are not morons…]

        Just more excuses and red violin playing.

        And Yes! I am perfectly happy to be called a MORON by 31st century peoples if in fact shit that I know now can be demonstrating to be wrong.

        For example, here is something I AM moronic about. I am moronic about all things related to the maintenance of an automobile. Now learning about how to maintain the engine, powertrain, brakes, etc. takes time and it simply does not interest me to go and learn that stuff. So I simply choose not to.

        1) So I can’t complain if mechanics “hoodwink” me in maintenance fees if I have no idea what they’re talking about and how to even assess whether or not they are bullshitting me about something that may be broken.

        2) So I am moronic on the topic of automobile maintenance and I am lazy about learning all about it. Now I can go and attempt to learn about it and it IS possible that it won’t make sense to me and I won’t get it, then I actually AM stupid about the mechanics of automobiles. So the choice is up to me to spend more and more time learning about it so that I don’t get hoodwinked by auto mechanics.

        It really is that simple. lolz. So please go play your red violin elsewhere. Because if people get to a certain point in their life when they no longer have the capacity to learn both new and old shit, then they REALLY ARE stupid on those things.

      2. I remind you of a truism: fifty percent of the population is below average intelligence. [True to the last detail only if “average” means “median” and “intelligence” can be measured by a single number, but, as they say, close enough for government work.]

        Critical thinking, even of the simplest kind (“where does it say that?”; “how do you know that’s true?”) is definitely in short supply. Over on the CL science forum, someone opined earlier today about the perfect masonry of the Great Pyramid and how on earth did those wogs manage that? Rebuttal was in the form of a photograph showing that the bulk of the Great Pyramid’s masonry is actually extremely crude. The original poster hadn’t even bothered to look up such a photograph, a few clicks away on Google images.

        There’s a very odd conundrum: the stupids are quick to accept all sorts of nonsense that they read or are told, e.g. “Aliens built the pyramids”, but when it comes to intricate scientific matters they are extremely loath to accept scientists’ word for it. I wonder if this phenomenon is actually that they easily accept what they can understand, no matter how false, but balk at what they cannot understand, no matter how true.

        1. lol.

          Yup exactly. They think shit they can understannd automaticallyl makes that shit true!


          Anyways, I am a well intentioned individual (i.e., I wished someone at lunch earlier, a nice day) and I have enough stuff to worry about (i.e., rent) so I am not going to look more into the perfect masonry of the pyramids, I’ll just accept that superior Alien beings built them since they are so perfect.

          So when someone comes along and tells me I have to behave a certain away or that my life has a special meaning cuz Aliens built the pyramids, I’ll just believe them since they two are well-meaning and well-intentioned peoples.


        2. I think the phenomenon is often also caused by resentment.

          “Those know-it-all scientists just think they…know it all. Well, I’m going to decide that they don’t! Harrumph!”

          1. I still don’t get how knowing how something works is stuck-up and is due to “blind privilege”. lol.

            Does that mean that by definition, the non-privileged are dumb?

            Does that mean that to be non-stuck-upped you have to pretend to not know how shit works in order to relate to the “well-meaning” people that don’t know how that particular shit works?

            Sounds condescending to me!

    2. From my perspective, anyway, I don’t see those from the atheistic side going out of their way to brand the faithful as morons etc without provocation. It’s when we are first assailed for failing to understand woo in strident terms. Typical bully tactic – provoke the other person, and then cry foul when they strike back.

      1. Nah it is all about a certain attitude towards understanding and learning.

        It is how people handle being wrong.

        Religious people with their “sensitivities” don’t sit well when they’re shown how wrong they are. lol.

        If someone showed me how wrong I am about something (and as far as I can tell they are correct), then I’d thank that person! It’s that simple.

  5. They were all good or interesting articles, except for Phyllis Tickle. Our ‘sacred story’ is that of the universe. It wasn’t until we started criticising the gods and the doctrines of religion that we progressed. Progress and science can’t happen without that criticism. Understanding the nature of nature and exploring the universe is our ‘narrative thrust.’ If you think that reality lacks beauty then you have spent far too long living in fantasy. Although I agree atheism it cannot replace religion, it doesn’t need to be replaced. The practice and the teachings of religion should be ending.

  6. What not-stamp-collecting does not have is the architecture of mysteries. One might even argue that, to the extent that not-stamp-collecting lacks sacred story and narrative thrust, it also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of stamp-collecting.

    It follows, then, that not-stamp-collecting cannot replace stamp-collecting.


  7. The program of atheism by and large has not been successful. The facts are the vast majority of people on this planet believe in a god of some sort. Although the actual number of nons; i.e. non-religious has increased, the actual number of people who do not believe in a god has not changed much over several decades. Perhaps Calvin was right when he said that human beings posses a kind of sensus divinitas. Of course time will tell. Twenty years from now it may be a very different story. I apologize in advance for any offense these words may cause anyone.

    1. The program of atheism by and large has not been successful.

      This is completely wrong.

      The fall of religion has been wildly successful and is continuing to be so.

      The big story in religion is the rise of the nones. In one century they’ve gone from about zero to over a billion people worldwide. The nones are the third biggest religion if they were a religion.

      What is failing is xianity. US xianity loses 2-3 million people a year and is predicted to fall below 50% around 2030-2040. It is self destructing in a morass of lies and hatred while we just stand by and cheer them on.

      1. I dispute that nones would be only the 3d largest group.

        The observation is Pew statistics, who have an interest in keeping the numbers down. They are using meta-analysis, which is known to be 60 – 80 % correct depending on the quality of the underlying data. Here we would suspect bad data (churches reporting not religiosity, but formal religion) so perhaps 60 % likelihood for correctness.

        The IHEU worldwide gallup poll I link to below has only 3-5 % error. And it shows nones as the 1st largest group, with a reasonable trend from their first such poll.

    2. Offence? Why so? This is a place for discussion…

      Re your hypothetical human 6th sense [not accessible to our evolutionary cousins presumably?]

      Philosopher Stephen Maitzen doesn’t agree with you on that old sensus divinitatis & he supplies a good argument for his position:- LINK TO PDF

      Abstract: Divine hiddenness and the demographics of theism

      According to the much-discussed argument from divine hiddenness, God’s existence is disconfirmed by the fact that not everyone believes in God. The argument has provoked an impressive range of theistic replies, but none has overcome – or, I suggest, could overcome – the challenge posed by the uneven distribution of theistic belief around the world, a phenomenon for which naturalistic explanations seem more promising. The ‘demographics of theism’ confound any explanation of why non-belief is always blameworthy or of why God allows blameless non-belief. They also cast doubt on the existence of a sensus divinitatis : the awareness of God that Reformed epistemologists claim is innate in all normal human beings. Finally, the demographics make the argument from divine hiddenness in some ways a better atheological argument than the more familiar argument from evil.

      My own argument is the same as Dennett’s ~ that the apparent sensus divinitatis is an evolved survival tool ~ seeing purpose behind that rustle in the bushes is going to keep you alive longer

      1. Humans seem to just believe in silly things that have no proof.

        The Easter bunny, elves, fairies, UFO aliens, Bigfoot, supply side economics, gobal warming denial, faith healing, leprechauns, Geocentrism, and the common one, gods.

        It has more to do with religion hijacking parts of our evolved brain than anything else.

        Despite that so called sensas divinitis, there is no agreement on which religion is the true one. In fact, new religions and sects arise every year in an ever expanding cloud of disagreement.

    3. I think it’s too soon to say atheism won’t succeed, especially since many believers live in countries where civil governments actively support religion, and even criminalize heterodoxy. As Jerry suggests, only since the advent of the internet has atheism begun to have a voice that isn’t squelched even by the casual censorship of an editor who doesn’t want to offend his subscribers.

      1. The internet is indeed an important tool. Remember, social and political connections are made and strengthened every Sunday morning in this country. Joe Baptist chats with his legislator, his dentist, his plumber. Atheists until now have had no good way of communicating with and supporting one another. I am so grateful to the internet for giving me Dan Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Greta Christina, and Jerry.

    4. Unfortunately for you, statistics doesn’t agree.

      Nones are now worldwide the single largest group at ~ 36 % @ 3-5 % error. [ http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf ] Of those, atheists are now ~ 13 %, an absolute increase of 3 % or a relative increase of ~ 25 % over 8 years.

      Compared with that group, religious christianists would be ~ 26 %, combining the IHEU statistics with the Pew statistics. [ http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/religion-dying-off-nones-are-worlds-third-largest-faith/ ]

      1. I should note that the 3 % increase seen in atheism drowns in the 3-5 % error. But if it is not statistically valid, it is still believable that the subgroup increased when the nones increased overall.

      2. The survey you quote is not a measure of “the nones” but of religiosity. Some of data sources also look dodgy, but it is difficult to make a proper assessment without having the details rather than an extended press release.

        In any case, at a global level the most religious societies tend to have the fastest growing populations.

    5. [… The facts are the vast majority of people on this planet believe in a god of some sort…]

      Ergo Morons! lol. How much more plainly can one put it?

      Perhaps in due time scientists will figure out the underlying causes that give rise to “belief” or religiosity.

      Then when they do figure it out and it turns out to be a quite complicated process where theytry to explain it to the actual “believers”, those same believers will be too moronic to understand anyway! lol so wtf?

      Easy solution is laugh them out of their delusion. Make stupidity unacceptable. Or at the very least make it unacceptable to cry “insensitivity” for having your stupidity and ignorance pointed out to you.

    6. Don’t know what you mean by a “program of atheism”, but in the developed world the proportion of people who can be classified as theists has declined markedly, according to data from the most scientific survey instrument we have — the International Social Survey Program. This is a subset of persons without a religious affiliation (also growing), but it is the group to look at if you are interested in “the actual number of people who do not believe in a god”.

      So on purely empirical grounds, your statement is incorrect.

    1. The scientific world is replete with mysteries of the highest order. To name just a few off the top of my head: the nature of dark energy and dark matter; the exact and true chemistry of how “life” first formed; the full story of the evolution of eukaryotes; the actual methods the ancient Egyptians used to raise two-ton stones hundreds of feet to the upper layers of the Great Pyramid; whether the scattered language isolates of Eurasia (Basque, Ket, Burushaski, et al) are the remnants of a once-continent wide language family; the full stories behind the Flores island “hobbits” and the Denisovans.

      Solve just one of these mysteries, and your name will go into the history books.

  8. All in all a very interesting read. I particularly agree with the comment on the kind of atheist who spits vitriol at theists as being a pointless exercise. I agree with Richard Dawkins who says that ridicule will change the minds of hoverers. Good ridicule is an artistic form and does not resemble spite or intimidation.

  9. Penn Jillette’s statement that “love makes no universal claims” reminded me of Mencken’s observsation that “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” Surely love makes some universal claims. 😉

  10. There are a couple of Tolkien quotes that best sum up the question:

    [Sauron] weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of his reckoning. (from Fellowship)

    [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.
    From Two Towers

    Well, he was religious himself, but the gist certainly applies.

  11. I have detected the ice breaking from the other side, too. Every year I get an Xmas letter from my late cousin’s former husband, who is of the holy-roller stripe, who was once planning to write a book disproving evolution. He is also a Bible-belt state legislator. I always shudder at getting the annual missive, because they’re always filled with stuff like “open your heart to Jesus’ love”. But this year, he said something to the effect of “you have to conclude that either Jesus was the greatest person who ever walked the earth, or the greatest fraud of all time.” Of course, he went on to say that he chose the former, but at least he’s brought himself to entertain the existence of the alternate view.

    1. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is probably that both assertions are false. From what I’ve read of serious historical analysis of the Jesus story, he was probably a modest itinerant rabbi opposed to the formalism of the Pharisees (“the Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath”), whose message and story Paul took up and ran with and, to use the contemporary phrase, thereby caused it to go viral.

      What is unquestionably “great” is the religious institution that grew out of these humble beginnings, but Jesus himself was probably neither great nor a fraud. The fraud is more likely to lie with those who confabulated the true story.

  12. Well, it would be nice if atheism were the tide of history, but let’s remember that a famous philosopher has said “The tide comes in, the tide goes out; never a missed connection”. The tide may be coming in now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go back out. Extrapolating the end of religion from small (and local) time series isn’t a good idea. Still, it would be nice.

  13. I apologize for arriving at the party so late so I’ll try to keep this short (while trying to anticipate others’ objections to my argument).

    Setting the all the goofy “Sophisticated Theology”™ aside, personally, I do not have much in the way of a herd instinct–I never got choked up at high school pep rallies and do not follow professional team sports at all–I do readily acknowledge the reality that, in general, many of our fellow human beings seem to flourish better when they are members of a supportive community. Studies purporting to show concrete benefits of being religious on health, longevity, etc., have been (rightly) criticized for assuming that any “benefits” seen were from being part of a religious community as opposed to belonging to supportive social network (though I doubt Facebook counts here) that one can turn to when things go sideways.

    Having been raised in a very religious (evangelical/fundamentalist protestant, to be specific) home, I have experienced “prayer chains” in action. For instance, in the aftermath of a tragic death in a family, phone calls are made alerting others and yes, people are certainly wasting their time and energy beseeching a non-existent, invisible friend, but those “prayer chains” also accomplish real human good. Substantial portions of those phone calls are devoted to laudable, and needed, efforts at arranging for cooked meals to be provided to the grieving family (as in: “I can do dinner Thursday, who can do Wednesday?”), seeing to small children (if any), offering spare rooms to out-of-town family coming to the funeral, help shuttling people to and fro, offering to do the laundry, the dishes, or any of the other myriad daily chores that might fall by the wayside as the affected family deals with their grief.

    Right now, in the United States, this kind of real-world, compassionate, help is supplied almost exclusively by religious congregations. The countries of Northern Europe seem to have not “replaced” organized religion with anything and they are doing fine…but there are a few quirks of U.S. demographics that I think need to be factored in. Many U.S. states, especially west of the Mississippi, are as large as some European countries, and for those in the U.S., packing up and moving to a new state happens all the time. It would be instructive to see data comparing European nations to the U.S., asking a question like “How many hours by car is your current residence from your nearest relatives or place of birth?”

    In 2004, I moved from Puget Sound in Washington State, to Odenton, Maryland for a job at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC–a move, according to Google Earth, of 2,300 miles, to a city in which I knew no one. An equivalent move for a European would take one from Gibraltar, eastward through the heart of Europe, to a point about 126 miles southwest of Moscow. Being a bit of a loner and an adventuresome soul, the move did not trouble me greatly, but not everyone is like that, just as some people struggle with algebra while others can ace a third semester college-level calculus course without breaking a sweat.

    Often, when “average Americans,” or their spouse/significant other, has to move for a new job, an entire family is uprooted. Though the mega-church “bubble” burst some years ago (thank goodness!), one of the things that fed that “bubble” was the influx of people to populous exurbs who needed a sense of community in their new and unfamiliar surroundings. American fascists: the Christian Right and the war on America, by Chris Hedges, gives a nice overview of how mega-churches filled their pews by addressing a genuine sense of “rootlessness” on the part of many in our very mobile society.

    Treating the need of many of our fellow creatures for a sense of “community,” a need bequeathed to humanity, and in a greater or lesser degree to each of us, by our evolution as social primates, as a character flaw or moral failing on their part, is actually a failure of empathy for others on our part.
    “What do you mean you can’t get the hang of factoring a polynomial? What are you, stupid?”

    20 years ago, my brother-in-law was shot and killed at the age of 21. Though my (now ex) wife and I were not churchgoers (I was well on the way to being a militant atheist), some of her parents close friends were, and were it not for their kindness (however batty their beliefs might be) there were several days that, were it not for others providing hot, cooked meals, our daughter, who was two years old at the time and really did not understand why all the grownups were crying so much, might have gotten nothing but fast food to eat. From having gone through this (albeit mostly as an observer), I saw how accepting such help from those you already know and trust is much more reassuring, even with the supernatural nonsense, than it would be from strangers representing the local chapter of the “Rational Compassion Rapid Response Squad” (a totally made-up entity). Nor are these needs the sort that governments, no matter how enlightened (and I am very left of center on such things), are suited to address.

    No matter how odious, false, and destructive religion is and has been, it has profited by meeting real, legitimate, human needs that are utterly divorced from the (lack of) content of religious beliefs. In the area of meeting the very real needs of our fellow human beings for simple human fellowship, in good times and bad–and I suspect that need, as a part of human nature, is no more likely to go away in the near term than, say, the fact that humans are a mildly sexually dimorphic species–we must, and can, do better.

    1. Agree with the important points you make. Even here in the UK, where the issue of great distances is less of an issue for most people, for some people there is still a need for this caring infrastructure to supplement that of friends, family and state provision (which is, of course, far better in Europe than in the US). That’s where local humanist groups come in – ours has recently set up a hospital visiting rota for one of our elderly members who has no local family. And that’s the type of need that the Sunday Assembly in London is meeting (as quoted in the NYT article).

      Apart from meeting normal human needs, this type of “faitheism” also seems to provide a valuable bridge for people who have had a religious upbringing but have clearly become atheists (and I guess those who are secret atheists but who fear losing the community they so value.

      Those atheists who don’t personally feel such a need should surely welcome making the transition from religion to humanism/atheism easier. We probably need more of it – especially in the US where religion has such a strong hold. http://faitheistbook.com/ looks like an interesting example of why that is.

      1. Good deeds, like the visits set up by your humanist group, are… well… good. I don’t think there are many (any?) atheists who would dispute that.

        The point we strident/shrill/militant non-believers are trying to make is simply that religion is not a requirement for such things to happen. These are human responses, not religious responses, to the human condition. We probably all agree that we need many more humanist organizations like yours. And I think more will spring up as the idiocy of religion wanes. We just need to leave behind all of the mind numbing mumbo-jumbo.

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