Sunday, October 19, 2014

Land of Nice Atheists

by Phil Zuckerman
Here in the States, people willing to call themselves “atheists” are a rare breed. When we gather for a convention or other social function, we find that we have certain traits in common, much like gamers do. Even more than gamers, atheists are brought closer together by the general population’s distaste for us. The same would not be true in Denmark. There, atheism is so common that there’s little to distinguish atheists from the general population. They are the general population. We atheists like to point at Nordic countries as models of modern society. There, we say, atheism is normal and life is good. Why can’t it be like that everywhere? Phil Zuckerman’s book Society Without God takes a close look at Denmark, with an eye toward what atheism, belief and Christianity are all about there. The Danish atheists, it turns out, are not New Atheists reproduced on a national scale. Surprisingly, these atheists say they’re Christian. They support “Christian” values, pay taxes to support the state church, and even have their atheist kids baptized and confirmed. Can you imagine American atheists happily watching their adolescent children affirm a Christian creed during confirmation ceremonies? Here in the US we take our religion too seriously for that, and our atheism too.   

Christianity is different in the US because we have never had an official church to suppress demagogues and to force religion to stay boring. The Founding Fathers supposed that people would use their freedom from state control to reasonably throw off the superstitions of the priests. Jefferson predicted that the nation would turn Unitarian. Instead, Americans used their freedom from state control to make religion more thrilling. Given free rein in the US, religious visionaries and hucksters have delighted the masses with apocalyptic visions, Doomsday predictions, faith healing, speaking in tongues, new revelations, and the “prosperity gospel,” according to which giving money to a televangelist will make the giver rich. In Europe, by contrast, the official churches kept religion reasonable, respectable and dull. The official church was your religion by default, so all it had to do to retain members was not drive anyone away. The resulting religion is so innocuous that atheists don’t bother to quit. If Danes don’t feel much need to go to church, neither do they see much need to leave it.  

Atheist Danes don’t just go to Christmas services; they get their kids baptized and confirmed, too. Unlike weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations are about religious identity and faith. Baptism makes an infant part of the Church, and in confirmation a young person declares faith in Christianity’s tenets. So why do atheist Danes baptize their kids and get them confirmed? When Zuckerman would ask them, they often said that it’s just what they do. A big part of religion has always been “what we do,” the customs and traditions of a people. Practically speaking, getting confirmed means a party and presents, so a youngster has little incentive to bow out. I went through confirmation in the Lutheran church I grew up in. Yes, there was a party, but there was also a year of preparatory education so we could know what beliefs we were confirming. The minister’s wife made clear that, if one didn’t believe the doctrines, one was supposed to back out of the process. Family pressure kept me in the program, and I went through the confirmation rite, but it was onerous to be pressured into publicly avowing things I didn’t believe. Atheist kids in Denmark don’t face any such inner conflict when they go through confirmation. The kids aren’t actually devoting their souls to the service of Christ. Confirmation is just what they do.

In the States, atheists complain about how much tax money is being lost by our not taxing churches. Many would like to take away religion’s special tax status, and many would like to see religion torn down altogether. Personally, I’m more concerned that we enforce the laws we already have against political campaigning from the pulpit and against inordinate salaries for clergy. But atheists in Denmark don’t begrudge a special status to the official Lutheran church. In fact, most of them pay a regular tax whose revenue supports the church. This arrangement, where the government collects revenue on behalf of official churches, is common in Europe but strikes Americans as bizarre. Most Danish atheists are happy to support the Lutheran Church as part of their cultural heritage. 

While most Danes are atheists, they often think of themselves as Christians who support Christian values. What do they mean by Christian values? Opposing gay marriage and abortion? Far from it. They mean being a decent person, helping the poor, caring for the sick, and the general welfare-state apparatus. As Zuckerman observes, the Nordic welfare state is the best realization yet of Jesus’ message that we are to care most for the people who have the least. US atheists are likely to claim that such concerns are merely natural elements of human morality, but this drive to help people who can’t help us in return only feels natural in a culture that’s been steeped in Christian idealism, as ours has. Nietzsche hated Christianity for the way it promoted concern for the lowly and equal rights for all. He saw and despised unspoken Christian ideals motivating the supposedly logical schemes of the utilitarians. Will atheists in the US ever speak admirably of these “Christian” values that they uphold and honor? Not any time soon, I’d reckon.

The atheistic Christianity of Denmark makes neither side in the US happy. Believers don’t want faith to be stripped from their sacred rites, reducing them to mere cultural traditions. Atheists don’t want to pay taxes to support churches, and we don’t want to send our kids to be baptized and confirmed in a church. Both sides take religion too seriously for going through the motions. But if Denmark’s example is too accommodating on both sides to work in the States, can we still learn something from it? If nothing else, Denmark shows us that the bitter animosity in the States between atheists and believers is not the only way.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Atheist Alliance of America Convention

Me and Steven Pinker
Last August I attended the annual conference of the Atheist Alliance of America, which conveniently took place just south of Seattle. It was my first exposure to the atheist community, and it was an eye opener. When I say that I wish atheists would dial back the negativity and dial up the empathy, my experiences at this conference contribute to that opinion. I’ve been to dozens of conventions, but this one was different. It was an annual convention, like most are, but it moves from city to city. That means the people at the AAA running the convention were not familiar with the local secular community, and the locals had never been to the convention before, or to any atheist convention for most of us. The locals demonstrated a desire to be part of something, but the AAA offered programming that leaned toward being against something. For a few hours on Saturday, I staffed the welcome table in the hotel, with a big “Atheist Alliance of America” banner high on the wall behind me. Most of the people walking by were not with the convention, and I’m sure some believers looked at me and figured that we atheists were gathered there to make fun of them. It was a little embarrassing to sit at that table because to some degree they were right. The negativity was bad enough to even turn off some of the atheists. My detractors accuse me of wanting to accommodate believers better. How about accommodating atheists better? 

How negative was the convention? Not all that negative. There were talks about secular volunteer work, news about a first-responder organization that’s in the works, a reading of quotes by and about the famous agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll, and some comedy aimed at atheists. But the anti-Christian and anti-religion slant was evident. One headline event was a documentary about how terrible the black church is. The film presumes that churchgoers are dupes, getting nothing from the church experience. We got Steven Pinker to speak to us. What luck, Steven Pinker! As atheists, we know our minds come from our evolved brains instead of our souls. Did Pinker explain to us how the evolved brain works? No, his lecture was about how religion has no evolutionary value. As if we atheists hold religion in too high esteem, and we need to have its down side spelled out to us. A debate over whether Jesus existed got big billing, too. Richard Carrier was there promoting the idea that Jesus never existed. This fringe idea is naturally popular among atheists. Carrier wisely chose not to debate against someone holding the mainstream, _Encyclopedia Britannica_ answer to the historical question of Jesus. Instead, he found a Bible-thumping Christian. Compared to the Christian view, the Jesus-myth idea looks pretty good. Presumably that’s why the consensus view was excluded from the debate and they didn’t invite me to take on Carrier. In addition to Carrier, there were two other Jesus-myth authors in attendance, and none of the three offer a plausible explanation for where the stories in the New Testament came from. Like creationism, the idea that Jesus is a myth has gone nowhere in mainstream scholarship but survives among die-hard fans. We atheists like to style ourselves as evidence-driven skeptics, but we’re human and we’re prone to tribal biases just like anyone else.

Could this negativity have been what people wanted? Yes, there must have been plenty of people there who ate up all the anti-religious rhetoric. Politicians and talk radio hosts know that us-versus-them talk is golden. We’re born ready to adopt tribalism as our way of life, and talking about the enemy gets our attention. I’d like to think that the Pacific Northwest is home to soft, nice atheists, but that’s a suspiciously self-serving opinion. Still, judging from the people I talked to there was more interest in community than you would infer based on the official programming. At first, I didn’t talk about being a Unitarian Sunday school teacher because I didn’t want to draw a hostile reaction. When I did talk about it, one con-goer accused me of indoctrinating children, but then I met two other Unitarians, including one who also loves teaching Sunday school. Maybe I should do a panel about Unitarians at my next atheist convention. In atheist community-building, the latest news worldwide is the Sunday Assembly. Several locals expressed a real interest in the project, but there was no official mention of it anywhere at the con. The guy who was running AV for the con is a secular humanist celebrant, and he recently gave an historic humanist invocation at a local city council meeting, but there was no information about the celebrant program. Nor was I the only atheist to be put off by the negativity. One attendee told me she walked out of some of the talks. Another said it was her first atheist event ever, and she wanted to know why there was so much attention being paid to Christianity. Her young son was along, and the event was billed as family friendly, but there were hardly any kids and not much for them to do. 

Sam Harris says that the critical posture that’s prevalent in atheism is driving away women. He’s half right. It’s driving away people who are more interested in connecting with each other as people than in tearing down outsiders. It’s not gender per se that’s at issue, but the net effect is to drive away more women than men. As a professional game designer, I know about communities that are full of brainy guys, and it can be a weird place, especially on the Internet. Let’s grow beyond that. Let’s get working on a secular community that’s more about what we can do together and less about identity politics, something that’s welcoming to a broader range of people. The AAA convention tells me that there are secular people looking for something. Let’s build a couple somethings.

Atheist Alliance of America: This national organization is distinct from the one that erects confrontational billboards at Christmas, the American Atheists. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Atheists Mostly Aren't Jerks

Grief Without Belief, part of a
warmer, friendlier atheism.
Last Sunday, I angered some of my fellow atheists with my provocative title (“Why Atheists Are Jerks”) and my unflattering portrayal of the atheist population (too critical). Today’s post is for the people I offended. I know that it’s nearly impossible to use reason to convince someone of something they don’t want to believe, but these atheists raised a lot of points, and it’s only fair that I address them. First, though, let me rephrase the two elements of my core statement from last Sunday.

1. People in the atheist community are more argumentative than average. 

2. Let’s make the atheist community less argumentative overall. 

Now here are a couple common responses, which are opportunities for me to clarify my position.

“I’m an atheist but not in the atheist community”
My post is primarily about the atheist community in the US, which basically means people here who interact with each other and with others as atheists. There are plenty of atheists who aren’t in the community, and plenty of people who don’t believe in God but who don’t identify as atheists. My concern is with the community because it’s my community and because the people in this community give others the impression of what atheists are like. 

“Believers just think we’re jerks because their beliefs don’t hold up to our logic” 
It’s not just believers who think atheists act jerky too often. Famous atheists cause controversies with their hurtful or tone-deaf blog posts and Tweets. The people who are provoked by these atheists mostly aren’t believers. Often it’s fans of these atheists who wish that they would keep quiet. On atheist message boards, atheists go after each other in ALL CAPS over hot-button issues, such as race or Islamophobia. This year’s Atheist Alliance of America convention had such negative, anti-Christian programming that it put off some of the attendees. This negativity is real; it’s not in the imaginations of the believers. 

“There is jerky behavior in every population” 
It’s true that there’s jerky behavior in every group, but some groups have more jerky behavior than others. Consider our opposites in the New Age movement. If atheists are people who don’t intuit a mind behind the universe, then our opposites are the New Age types, who infer meaning and cosmic intentionality in every coincidence. New Age leaders aren’t known for saying inflammatory things about rape or sexual harassment on the Internet. I’m on a forum for people who get all mystical about evolution and the history of the universe, and these people fall all over each other saying nice things about each others’ work. On atheist forums, I come across as comparatively civil, but on these New Age-y forums I’m a rebel and an iconoclast. It’s true that stereotypes are false. Not every atheist acts jerky all the time. But generalizations can still be true, and on a per-capita basis the atheist community generates a lot of jerkiness. Enough jerkiness, for example, to make the community less appealing to women, on average, than to men.

“It’s important to be angry”
I can agree with that sentiment this far, that it sure feels right to be angry. It feels right down to the very bones. If you stopped being angry, that would feel like backing down or giving in. That’s what anger is for. Anger evolved to help us get up the gumption to go hurt someone, or at least to help us stare enemies down because they can see that we’re really willing to hurt them. Anger did not evolve to help us think clearly, and certainly not to help us think clearly about our enemies. People, it turns out, make their moral, political and religious decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally. So if you’re angry, the anger is influencing your perspective, a perspective whose “factory settings” already bias it in one’s own favor. Martin Luther King got a lot done. Was he angry? If you want to define him as angry, then so be it. Be angry like King was. Would King have indulged in sharing derogatory memes on the Internet? We each have a built-in bias, distorting everything we notice and remember in our own favor. In particular, we tend to exaggerate the virtues of our own “tribe” and to denigrate the virtues of other “tribes.” You’re never getting past that bias while you’re angry. You’ll never be able to objectively assess the impact of religion on world history or the historicity of Jesus if you’re driven by faith or by anger.

Anger is unpleasant. People who are less empathic presumably don’t mind anger that much, but even so none of the people locked in online forum debates are really having fun. These text-based duels are more like a compulsion than a joy. “Someone is wrong on the Internet!” Look at the angry exchanges with believers over evolution or religion, and you’ll see that nothing productive is being generated from these virtual fights. Perhaps less empathic people get stuck in online debates because they don’t mind the arguing enough to drive them completely away. You may claim a right to be angry, and you have that right, but you’re exercising that right at the expense of other atheists.

Anger also moves product. People with books to sell love to stir up the base with messages that get people angry. Talk radio knows how to do that. Politicians know how to do that. Atheist leaders are making money by churning up more anger among atheists. What if people were making money by helping us achieve focus or tranquility instead of trying to raise our bile? Here Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, is an interesting case, where he’s selling insight and equanimity. Can we please see more of that sort of thing?

Friendlier Atheism?
One commenter asked how to express one’s atheism without being confrontational. For general guidelines, I recommend using conversation to build connections with people rather than to one-up them. From a young age, girls learn to use conversation to create connections, and boys learn to use language to compete. We should take a page from the girls’ playbook. For example, how do you respond when someone says “God bless you”? If I said to someone “Good luck,” and their reply was to sharply inform me that they don’t believe in luck because the universe is unfolding as it should (or something), that rejoinder would not endear me to the other person. When someone says “good luck” or “God bless you,” they’re just trying to be nice, and it’s best to respond in kind. Here’s a hypothetical exchange with four different atheist responses. My advice is to use the response that will make little old ladies think that we atheists are sweet and funny.

Nice old lady: “God bless you, young man!”

Atheist: [mad face, angry voice] “How dare you assume that I subscribe to your ancient, genocidal myth?!”

Atheist: [mock solemn] “And may the Force be with you.”

Atheist: [sincere] “I don’t actually believe that invoking God will do me any good, but thanks anyway.”

Atheist: [smile] “Thanks. I’m an atheist, but I need all the help I can get!”

How do we develop a friendlier atheist community? We can try to reduce the negativity by calling out the worst behavior. Vitriol is taken for granted, and by questioning vitriol maybe we can get people to reflect on it and see it for what it is. Tribalism is bad juju for a community that sees itself as enlightened. And we can increase the positivity, finding ways to improve connections among us, both online and face-to-face. Efforts such as the Sunday Assembly ( and Grief Without Belief ( are good examples of recent developments along these lines. In general we might not be the warmest, most empathic population on the planet, but we can sure do better than we’ve been doing.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Atheists Are Jerks

The chapter on atheism is revealing.
Atheists aren’t really jerks, but we sure can come across as jerks sometimes. I know I’ve been guilty of that. On the Internet in particular, we have a habit of being insulting, snarky, and offensive. You can review the #atheism hashtag on Twitter or Google+ for examples. Around Christmas, the American Atheists organization likes to put up mean-spirited billboards. New Atheist authors sell millions of one-sided, negative books denouncing religion. As a result of all this negativity, lots of people who don’t believe in God refuse to label themselves atheists. I’ve advised my college-age daughter to consider telling people she’s agnostic just so people don’t lump her in with the most vocal and negative atheists. Honestly, this harsh side of the community is something I’d like to see mellow out. It would be good for us in a lot of ways. This negative, combative side of atheism seems to arise from three sources. First, people are mean to us, and we often respond in kind. Second, humans are tribal, and atheists are no exception. Third, the community expresses a certain testosterone-friendly combativeness. Male atheists are the worst offenders, and the whole community is weighted toward males in its demographics and its personality.  Can we achieve a less male-dominated, less tribal, more likable secular community? Let’s hope so.

Mistrust: The US populace holds a low opinion of atheists, and online we like to swap links to the latest poll or psychological study to reveal these prejudices. We’re mistrusted more than just about anyone else, infamously on par with rapists according to one study. Here in my social circle in Seattle, where politically correct tolerance for every other kind of diversity is mandatory (hurray), someone occasionally says something derogatory about us atheists. Even Oprah doesn’t like us. One famous D&D fantasy world singled out atheists for supreme punishment in its imaginary afterlife. It’s no surprise that some atheists are angry. Occasionally, an atheist comes “out of the closet” in a hail of angry Facebook posts, horrifying their extended family. The anger, of course, feeds into the mistrust in a vicious cycle. It’s the angry atheists that stand out.

Tribal Conflict: The mistrust and the revenge hate are both sustained by primeval tribal instincts. To the believers, we atheists have rejected God and in doing so we have rejected the decent society that reveres Him. Since we don’t fear divine judgment, many believers suppose we’re free to be immoral. To atheists, the atheist community is their new tribe. Like any normal in-group, we unfairly smear the opposition, considering religious people to me more homogeneous and less praiseworthy than they actually are. A subtype of atheist, the anti-theist, goes after religion with zeal that feels a bit religious itself. Again, this minority of anti-theists makes the most noise, put up mean billboards at Christmas, and make us atheists look like haters. So we’re back to people not liking us.

Verbal Combat: As if mistrust and tribalism weren’t enough, the jerk factor gets kicked up a notch because atheists are more analytical and less empathic than average (see Big Gods by Ara Norenzayan). The less empathic one is, that is the less one intuits the mental states of others, and the less likely one is to intuit a personality running the universe. The more analytical one is, the more ones sees impersonal forces at work in the world. Since men, for various reasons, tend to be more analytical and less empathic than woman, atheism is more attractive, on average, to men. But really atheism is more attractive to the person who doesn’t notice when their spouse is upset, and most of those people happen to be men. This personality profile also fits people on the autism spectrum, a predominantly male population that is over-represented among atheists. Of course, all these correlations are statistical over large populations, not definitive in any particular case. Whatever gender they may be, people who are more analytical and less empathic are the sorts of people who say mean things on the Internet more often than average. In fact, the Internet is perfect for just these people, the ones who want to operate in the realm of abstract ideas (text) rather than the world of living, feeling people. Worse, without live human interaction to moderate them, Internet debates easily spin out into escalating insults and flame wars. On atheist forums, you can even see atheists insulting each other over hot-button issues such a drone strikes or circumcision. As sociologist Deborah Tannen has documented, women tend to use conversation to form connections more than men, and men speak to compete for status. On the Internet, it’s easy to hear virtual antlers locking in combat as Internet “bucks” clash over ideas. Sam Harris says that the combative, testosterone-friendly vibe in the atheist community drives away more women than men (link), and I think he’s right (regardless of why this difference exists). And the more men there are in a community, the higher the chance that a woman will run into a sexist pig, a harasser, or some other hazard. The male majority sustains itself by creating an atmosphere that’s less inviting to women than to men. 

New New Atheism?: Can there be a friendlier, gentler atheism? I hope so. First, we need to acknowledge our own biases. We’re tribal like anyone else. When we feel the urge to defend our tribe’s honor with insults, we should think twice. We’re extra-analytical and under-empathic. When we feel the urge to use our smarts to try to make others look or feel stupid, we should think twice. When we feel the urge to lock horns over our differences, we should think twice. If we want to develop into a well-rounded community, and a more likable one, then we need to intentionally work against our biases. With any luck, we’ll create a feedback loop in which friendlier atheism attracts friendlier atheists, creating an even friendlier community, and so on. A couple prominent atheists are already leading the way, including Alain de Botton (author of Religion for Atheists), Chris Stedman (author of Faitheist) and Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”). They don’t make as much noise as the combative atheists, but I trust they’re making a difference. 


“Empathy”: In Big Gods, Norenzayan uses the term “mentalizing” for what I’ve been calling empathy. It’s also called theory of mind or the intentional stance. The spouse who doesn’t notice when you’re angry is under-mentalizing. The spouse who is always reading something into your innocuous remarks is over-mentalizing. 

Gender differences: One can use the idea of gender differences to resist change (“nothing we can do”) or we can use the idea of gender differences to help men in a male-dominated field question their own assumptions of how people in the field should relate to each other. I favor the latter approach. 

Anti-theists: You can read about this particularly dogmatic and angry type of atheist, and five other types, in this article. According to this formula. I'm an RAA.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is Christianity for Losers?

Saint Francis worked to restore Jesus'
identity as a poor man.
Around AD 177, the philosopher Celsus wrote True Word, the first recorded major treatise against Christianity. Among other criticisms, he mocked Christianity for being popular among workers, slaves, peasants and women. It would we better, he said, if these foolish people would obey their masters. Christianity, Celsus seemed to be saying, was for losers. And he was right, all the way back to Jesus, a fatherless laborer from the sticks. What Celsus didn’t know was that Roman culture would one day absorb Christianity, turning it into a religion for bishops, emperors and other winners. Even so, Christianity has had a lot to offer the downtrodden down through the centuries, and still does today. 

Jesus was something of a loser himself, a laborer from the hinterlands of Galilee. He was evidently illiterate and possibly a bastard. His ministry appealed especially to the sick, to the poor, the crazy, to women and to children. The gospel stories feature common people, not just the kings and heroes that were standard characters in other literature. Early Christianity, as Celsus noted, appealed to people of lowly status. Especially in Paul’s churches, women could be prophetesses and apostles. The communities he founded were havens of egalitarianism. Only later would editors amend Paul’s letters to tell women to be silent in church and to make other concessions to mainstream culture. Slaves and women could achieve heroic status by facing lions in the arena, a spectacle that demonstrated their devotion and led to the faster spread of Christianity. Christians distinguished themselves by valuing some of the least valuable people in the Roman Empire: newborn girls. Girls were commonly exposed at birth rather than raised, except by Christians. Christians also tended the sick through plagues, establishing an enduring Christian tradition of care for the ill and injured. 

By the end of the first century, the first bishops had developed among Christian churches, and within a hundred years bishops would have control over the whole church. They established a patriarchal hierarchy modeled after Roman rule, a hierarchy that grew in wealth and power through the classical period and into the Middle Ages. Even so, a distinctive counterculture survived within Christianity. Commoners and women could claim direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit for their visions and revelations. The labor-friendly traditions of the Jews, of Jesus and his followers, and of Paul the tent-maker lent a certain honor to honest labor, standing in contrast to the labor-despising culture of elites everywhere. Charity has always been part of Christian practice, and a bishop’s income was traditionally equal to his territory’s charity. Bishops could take in more only if their churches also gave out more. Monasteries and convents provided security and organization for the people who turned to them, especially after Benedict established work as the rule for monastic life rather than just contemplation. Saint Francis one-upped Jesus himself by calling for compassion to a forgotten population of vulnerable individuals: animals. Later, Franciscan monks opened to door for today’s modern credit economy when they broke the age-old taboo against usury, lending at interest. In a campaign to provide working capital to the poor, they applied for a received a special dispensation to lend money at interest. That special dispensation spread until the old crime of usury became business as usual. Now common people can get loans, not just the rich.

As Europeans secularized, they put into practice the Christian concern for the most vulnerable. Nursing reforms, for example, created the modern, professional nurse, where previously “nurses” had been menial servant girls. Florence Nightingale spearheaded this effort, with Jesus as her inspiration. Nietzsche blamed Christianity for spreading democracy and egalitarianism. When the English utilitarians presumed that each person’s utility is equally valuable, Nietzsche identified Christianity as the source for this assumption. Quakers and other nonconformist Christians called for the abolition of slavery and eventually got their way. In the States, the black church served as incubator for community leaders. In the 20th century, this community gave rise to Martin Luther King, who called on other Christian ministers to join him in campaigning for the dignity of blacks and of the poor.

In the 20th century, the hot new expression of Christianity was Pentecostalism. It’s probably the closest thing today to a 1st-century Christian church. It appeals to the poor and has been spreading especially in South America and Africa. They have no bishops. Believers speak in tongues as early Christians did, a miracle that’s too spontaneous and unpredictable for any standard church hierarchy to condone. As for mainline denominations, you might find them out there supporting today’s “losers.” They run various programs to help the homeless, refugees, illegal immigrants, prisoners, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. In North Carolina, Christians are suing the state, demanding the freedom to marry gay couples.  

Christianity began as a counterculture movement, but almost immediately editors and other serious men went to work to bring the movement into line with mainstream, patriarchal expectations. In some ways, Christianity developed into its opposite. Instead of being a sect that pious Jews voluntarily joined, it became the default religion of an empire of gentiles, complete with Roman-style monarchs ruling as bishops. But Christianity still reflects humble beginnings as a home-grown, rural movement for peasants and outsiders.

Spiritual Identity and Mental Disability: A post about a “loser” who's welcome at church.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Assembly in Seattle

Sunday the 28th in Seattle
 In Seattle on the 28th, the Sunday Assembly is bringing together nonbelievers to sing, listen to a speaker, and presumably mingle. I’m going to be there to check it out, and if you’re in Seattle, you’re invited to come along. The Sunday Assembly has me curious because it’s the latest big news in efforts to redefine “church” for agnostics. It started as a single location in London, and now it’s spreading across the world. The 28th is the first session in Seattle. It’s common for atheists to assume that believers go to church and sing together because they think God wants them to. Since atheists don’t believe in God, most of us see no reason to gather and sing. But what if gathering and singing is something that originates not from doctrine but from our own primeval history? From the human spirit, one might say. What if there’s something to the experience that’s separate from any supernatural beliefs? That’s what I figure, and that’s why I’ve been following the Sunday Assembly. 

The Seattle chapter of the Sunday Assembly describes itself as “the best bits of church but with no religion and with awesome pop songs!” The Sunday Assembly’s motto seems to be “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.” It’s hard to argue with “live, help and wonder.” On the issue of supernatural belief, they finesse the issue. Probably they’ll never describe themselves as an atheist association, and that’s a prudent decision. And they don’t want you to stay away just because you believe in an afterlife. Their mission is to celebrate not “the one life we have,” which would exclude believers, but is instead to celebrate “the one life we know we have.”  

The Sunday Assembly has been in the news, but it’s not the first attempt to create a “church” without belief. Jerk Church has already spread from Oakland to other cities, including Seattle. Members, who call each other “jerks,” are mostly from the Burning Man community, and their “services” are casual, fun-loving potluck suppers, with plenty of booze, weed, and singing. They meet in homes without an authority figure running the show, sort of like first-century Christians. It’s an extremely personal version of church, a private event very different from the public church service that’s typical of mainline churches. The Unitarian Universalist Association provides a cradle-to-grave church community without a creed, and I’m happy to be in a congregation. The Atheist Alliance of America convention had a number of us Unitarians in attendance, but overall I think that UU is probably too churchy for most atheists. It was too churchy for me, at least until my late wife made me attend for several years. The Ethical Culture movement includes congregations with Sunday services, coming-of-age ceremonies, and other church-like elements. The movement started without the ritual elements, but they were added to the the repertoire by popular demand. Ethical Culture’s emphasis on rationality might appeal to atheists, but it doesn’t have a prominent public profile. The Sunday Assembly is expanding, which gives it an appealing story, positioning it as the most approachable “non-church” yet. 

It’s no accident that the Sunday Assembly, Jerk Church, and Unitarian Universalism all feature group singing. In Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade makes the case that singing and dancing together is a primeval ritual for group bonding. Jonathan Haidt says it activates the “hive switch,” generating group spirit. Once you see a biological reason that singing and moving together helps you feel connected to other people, the song “Kum Bah Yah” makes a lot of sense. The hokey pokey makes sense, and so do the Macarena, Zumba, and country line dancing. In addition to dancing, people sometimes gather to sing songs. Before radio, singing around a piano with friends was a common pastime. Perhaps those were simpler, happier times. Singing, however, is a real watershed moment, where the participant can go one way or another. Singing in a group is so awkward that some people can’t stand it. My Unitarian church has a contemplative service as an alternative to the regular one, and presumably that’s better for people who don’t like singing in a group. For many other people, however, singing together is elevating. They seek it out in choirs, churches or other outlets. Sunday Assembly is banking on providing a powerful human experience that secular people aren’t getting enough of as it is. That’s smart. 

While I’m curious about the Sunday Assembly, I can’t  say that I actually endorse it. It’s a promising concept, but social engineering is tricky and full of ways to go wrong. I’ve heard some great things about the Sunday Assembly and some discouraging things. Time will tell, and I’m hoping for the best.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Spiritual Atheism

Sam Harris's new book promotes meditation and more.

At the Atheist Alliance of America convention, I met a woman who calls herself a “spiritual atheist,” so naturally I asked her all about that. She said that most people are flummoxed but the phrase, but it seemed to fit me, too. We talked about her outlook and about a profound spiritual experience she’d had several years ago. She means a natural experience, the same natural experience that religious people interpret religiously. The idea of spiritual atheism sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that’s about the change. Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists, has a new book, Waking Up, that’s about spirituality without religion. Being a spiritual atheist might be the next big thing. So here’s my take on spiritual atheism. The human spirit is not literally real but it sure is real metaphorically speaking. Spirituality is about tending to that spirit. Spirituality is about art, self-awareness, connection, identity, community, morality, justice and transcendence.

Art moves the human spirit, and art is real. As a young man, I thought of poetry as a sort of weird code, a clever way to say something when you could just be direct instead. Poetry, I thought, could be mapped to rationality. It didn’t have a reality of its own. Then I married an English professor, and I came to see poetry as expressing precisely what can’t be mapped to rationality. On one level, I know that everything in my favorite Wallace Stevens poem is contingent instead of eternal. On the other hand, that’s still plenty real for me. It’s no accident that drama developed out of ancient Greek religion and that theater developed out of the medieval Church. Religions have promoted arts of many kinds and occasionally promoted science.

Spiritual experiences that humans have are real. If you’re overcome by a sense of selfless union with the universe, you’re really having that sensation. Meditation is brain exercise, and it can really change the way your brain processes your experience. Praying together, especially with choreographed motions, really helps people feel united. Traditional explanations for these experiences are probably all wrong, but so what? If the practices provide some benefit, it pays to figure out how to get that benefit with secular alternatives. Harris’s new book, in particular, is about liberating meditation from religion and giving it a place of honor in atheist spirituality.

Spirituality is something you practice, not something you believe. Atheists tend to see religion as comprising false beliefs, as if it’s a failed science. Seen through this lens, religion seems preposterous. As society became more rational in the 1800s, freethinking people began leaving Christianity and Judaism, an exodus that continues today. Spiritual practice, however, isn’t like science. In public, it’s more like theater, an attempt to make sense of the human experience and to move an audience. In the 1800s, the ethical culture movement started offering a rational alternative to church. To their rational meetings, however, they soon added ceremonies for the milestones that religions traditionally mark: birth, maturity, marriage, parenthood, and death. People wanted not just ideas but drama. In private, spiritual practice is like a regimen, an ideal, or a connection to something greater. For me it’s mostly meditation and reverence for nature. Religion may include false beliefs, but it includes real events and real, human experiences. Over the centuries, religions have found practical ways of building intentional communities and supporting individuals through the cycle of life. These practices have value separate from the beliefs associated with them.

Spirituality connects us to other people. Superficially, connection can mean coffee hour, potluck suppers, softball teams and choirs. Actually, it’s not clear that such connections are “superficial” at all. Alain de Botton notes that church communities are unusual in that they bring the generations together like few other institutions. More profoundly, connections can be revolutionary. Florence Nightingale reformed nursing, turning it from a lowly job to a profession with high standards, and she did all that by consciously following Jesus’ example of caring for the sick and tending to the needy. We can also think of the Red Cross, the YMCA, Gandhi and King. Connections within a congregation are an important part of the experience, too. When my wife got really sick and passed away, I got a good sense for what a church community can provide to a family.

Is spirituality about faith? Maybe. You could say that I have faith in the human spirit. “Faith” gets a bad rap because people use it to mean “blind faith even in the face of contrary evidence.” The dictionary definition, however, is merely trust, and I trust that the human spirit is worth taking seriously. Ultimately, if someone demanded that I prove that my position is right by some objective means, I wouldn’t be able to do so. Can I prove that there’s really any ultimate justice in lending money to poor Muslim women who can’t otherwise get loans? No, I can’t prove it, but I take it on faith. Can I prove that a funeral is really worth the expense? How could I even put a dollar value on it? Issues of human value, such as justice and morality, are judgment calls, which implies at least a little faith. It’s not blind faith in something that’s been proven wrong, it’s faith in something unprovable.

Maybe “spirituality” and the “human spirit” are the wrong terms for all this activity. A lot of atheists say so. If there’s a better term for it, I’m all ears. I like the term because it affirms our commonality with other people. For some people, that’s probably a reason to dislike it.

Here’s a previous post about my family’s experience in the church as my wife passed away:

Here’s a post about the welcome ceremony I invented for our Burning Man camp:

A post about what a “soul” means to an atheist:

A post about the Temple in Burning Man, a post-modern sacred space: