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"I went from God loves everybody to God saves everybody to God is in everybody."
August 27, 2012 9:47 AM   Subscribe

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader. Jerry DeWitt is a former Pentecostal pastor in the evangelical parish of DeRidder, Louisiana who slowly lost his religious faith. Last Fall, he went public with his atheism, committing what he calls "identity suicide," and instantly becoming "the most disliked person in town." Since then, Mr. DeWitt's lost his job, his wife, his community and may be losing his house, but is still persevering and working to help others who find themselves in similar circumstances.

Mr. DeWitt is the executive director of Recovering From Religion, who also run The Secular Therapist Project, which connects people in need to therapists who do not "allow their religious, spiritual or supernatural beliefs to inform their therapeutic approach." He is also the first openly-declared atheist "graduate" of The Clergy Project, (previously) a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs. More on Mr. DeWitt from the Washington Post: "Pastor’s loss of faith started with loss of hell."

Podcast Interviews
* Living After Faith
* The Angry Atheist.

Videos of his Appearances
* On his transition from Pastor to Atheist
* At the Gathering of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, 12/11: Thanksgiving vs. Tebowing
* At the Oklahoma Atheists and the UCO Skeptics, 2/15/12, Parts 1, 2, 3
* Another talk from 2/7/12.
posted by zarq (163 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite

 
I too am a former pastor who no longer believes. However, I left the ministry years before I got to that point and didn't have to go through the hell that Mr. DeWitt has had to endure. It is frustrating to see so much anger and animosity just because someone doesn't believe something. You would think you had done something tangible to people to create this kind of hostility, like stolen from them or physically hurt them.
posted by UseyurBrain at 10:01 AM on August 27, 2012 [30 favorites]


This is a difficult path to walk. May he find both the strength in himself and the support of others to help him in his journey.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:02 AM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


It probably goes without saying, but man are the comments on those articles rough.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:06 AM on August 27, 2012


My theist girlfriend and I (an atheist) listened to an interview with DeWitt this weekend. She and I have argued before about the implications of atheism -- for her, being an atheist represents human ignorance and hubris, tantamount to belief in the infallibility of science. I've argued, and Dewitt did something similar in the Science Friday (I think?) interview, that to the contrary, it is possible to both not believe in god and at the same time be fascinated and humbled by the vastness of space and the swirling glory of existence. Being a non-believer, that is to say, doesn't necessarily mean you have a cold, cynical view of reality, and in fact having an appreciation for the substance of the mechanisms by which nature operates can give one a deep sense of humility and aesthetics and even morals, all of which theists sometimes charge atheists with forgoing.

DeWitt was outed by an octogenarian friend of his great-aunt on Facebook (strange times, these) but still: it must have taken so much courage for him to espouse his convictions given his upbringing, profession and location. As a San Francisco native and current New Yorker, I've never had much resistance to my atheism -- of course there are my religious friends and professors, most of whom I respect and enjoy discussing these matters with. But I am so grateful that I can believe what I do without fear of "identity suicide", divorce, job-loss and becoming a pariah.
posted by andromache at 10:18 AM on August 27, 2012 [26 favorites]


Good for him. It can be terrifying to live according to the courage of your convictions, but it's definitely suffocating to live in the closet. I wish he had more community support.
posted by KathrynT at 10:19 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Evangelicals gotta evangelize.

The idea of an evangelical atheist is odd, but whatever I guess.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:25 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


..for her, being an atheist represents human ignorance and hubris, tantamount to belief in the infallibility of science.

Is that the objection? Isn't it a little...pot calling a white thing black?
posted by DU at 10:26 AM on August 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


I too am a former pastor who no longer believes.

Me, too. I was in ministry for about 15 years before I cashed it in. I had a bad experience with a church and was burned out on ministry for the usual reasons (it does have a very high burnout rate). Once out, I gradually realized that I didn't really believe in God anymore. I've been somewhat open about that to certain people, but I can't face the kind of complete life devastation that would happen if I really outed myself. I still go to church. I even preach on occasion. I still consider myself a disciple of Jesus in a lot of ways. He's my moral touchstone, I just don't believe in an afterlife.

I was lucky to have some training in addition to seminary that could be directed toward to different career. (After a spell of unemployment and severe underemployment.) My salary is half of what it was five years ago when I was preaching at the biggest church in my city, but my job satisfaction is enormously greater.

I don't think anything else quite compares to the pressure on pastors that have lost their faith. Not that it's the worst thing ever, but it is a category all to its own. You used to be the person who taught others about the most important truths in life; who exposed the fundamental realities of existence. And now you think that was all mistaken, but your former followers will tear you apart if you mention that.

I moved to a new town where no one knows me. It was for a job, not to escape, but having a fresh start is nice. I don't know if I could have held it together where I used to live.
posted by Alexander Hatchell at 10:27 AM on August 27, 2012 [39 favorites]


"I moved to a new town where no one knows me. It was for a job, not to escape, but having a fresh start is nice.

I understand this completely. I live in a large city and that has granted me a lot of freedom to feel and think as I want. I still am very careful what I say at work and at social events.
posted by UseyurBrain at 10:31 AM on August 27, 2012


andromache: "Being a non-believer, that is to say, doesn't necessarily mean you have a cold, cynical view of reality, and in fact having an appreciation for the substance of the mechanisms by which nature operates can give one a deep sense of humility and aesthetics and even morals, all of which theists sometimes charge atheists with forgoing."

The article says DeWitt listed himself as a "secular humanist", which was a phrase I'd heard before but didn't really get. I looked it up and was surprised to find that the philosophy fits me well. I have had a little bit of an internal struggle calling myself an atheist, partly because of the negative connotation given to atheism by many theists: the idea that rejecting god also rejects morality. But I absolutely refuse to believe that morality and ethics are impossible without a god. I do not accept this as true, because I have seen firsthand that belief in a god does not make one ethical, and that being an ethical and moral person does not require belief in any god.

So yeah, I guess I'm with him. Secular humanist it is.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:32 AM on August 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


Wow. I'm "in the closet" at work and around (some) family, but at least all my friends know (and could not care less). Can't imagine how hard it is to declare your atheism when so much of your life is wrapped up in religion.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:33 AM on August 27, 2012


Is that the objection? Isn't it a little...pot calling a white thing black?

Hah -- well, yes, I believe it is. But to take a charitable view of her argument (something my favorite professor, a died-in-the-wool Catholic, advised me to always do) she's saying something like: An unshakeable faith in science, which is I think called Scientism, doesn't have anything to do with disproving the existence of God or the ability for humans to Know All Things. I still don't think that means we were put here by a sentient, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator being, but I see her point. Also, I love her so sometimes she gets away with arguments I might not let slide otherwise.
posted by andromache at 10:34 AM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can remember being a teenager in the Southern Baptist church and having a crisis of faith. The questions that I had about how to reconcile the apparent hypocracies of the faith with the teachings ate at me for months. Finally after yet another youth Sunday School where we were told to get close to non-Christians, be friends with them and try to convert them, but in no way should we consider them true friends, I went to our youth pastor and explained to him all the doubts I had.

He was kind and understanding. He spoke to me of the greatest triumph of faith is continuing to believe when things don't make sense. He told me that God had a plan and my doubts would only make me stronger. When I brought up all the members of our church who showed up on Sundays but lived their lives in harsh, shallow, un-Christian ways, he told me that it was part of life. That some people can pay lip-service to faith and be confident while living a life that was not true. And some people would agonize over every doubt and question, trying to live a life that was true. He said that to be the second kind of person, I had to give myself over to God and let the questions float away and live a life according to the church.

I think at that point he wanted to me to be a good girl and hush up with the questions and get on with being a faithful member of the church. But it backfired. I could not pretend to believe when I didn't. I could not remain silent and go along with the faith while it made no sense. The only way I could live a true life was to walk away from God.

It's been a hard path from time to time, but I have yet to ever regret walking away that day. It sucks sometimes to not be able to find deeper reasons in life, to realize that all that really, really matters is this life. But nine times out of ten it's so liberating to know that I am responsible for my decisions and my mistakes and successes are my own.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by teleri025 at 10:34 AM on August 27, 2012 [33 favorites]


KathrynT: " I wish he had more community support."

There was a quote from DeWitt's former church's founding pastor in the Times article which really struck me:
"As we said our goodbyes at the door, Glass spoke again in his slow, Southern cadence, fixing DeWitt with his gaze. "The thing of it is," he said, and we all waited as he allowed a weighty pause to fill the air — "you’ve just got to keep your mouth shut.""

Pretty much everyone interviewed agrees that the town loved DeWitt as long as he was one of them. He might have been mayor one day. But the moment he began speaking openly about his atheism and his public rejection of his (their) faith, they turned on him. Pretty viciously, in fact. It seems as his sin wasn't just that he had become an atheist and rejected them privately, it was the public renunciation.

So in Glass you apparently have a Church leader who appears sympathetic to him, but won't challenge his parishioners to treat their fellow man properly. He'd rather blame the victim and turn a blind eye.

I get that a member of the clergy can only do so much, and that there's a certain amount of inertia involved when it comes to changing the minds of a congregation towards tolerance of outside beliefs, especially in evangelical communities. But damn it, the man's presumably a respected leader of his community who won't defend one of his former own from nasty hate mail, phone calls and a city-wide shunning. Disgraceful.
posted by zarq at 10:35 AM on August 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


JoanArkham:
"Can't imagine how hard it is to declare your atheism when so much of your life is wrapped up in religion."
And that is even if you can bring yourself to do that. I know a LOT of liberal Christians who are functionally atheist - how they live and reason has nothing to do with God. It is almost like they just can't let go of that last step of just saying, "I don't need to believe in God." I think a lot of this comes from marinating in the culture of the church and people around them. Not quite as overt a fear of becoming a pariah, but just an unspoken assumption that you always have to make room for God somewhere, even if it's in a tiny corner where science cannot reach. It isn't a step that requires as much bravery as coming out in public, but it does require a pretty big step of cutting ties to your culture in your mind.
posted by charred husk at 10:40 AM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


zarq: disgraceful is exactly the word. For a religion that hangs so much on the concept of Grace, even.
posted by KathrynT at 10:41 AM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hey also: I'd like to thank the commenters who have kept this thread civil and on-topic. OPPs with these tags have a predictable way of turning nasty pretty quick; nice to see one that's actually engaging with the post and not all lulz xtians/lulz atheists.
posted by andromache at 10:42 AM on August 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


The grace he displays in the face of the spurning and castigation he's received from his community is amazing. And the hostility expressed by that community is disgusting. (on preview, what KathrynT said)

I liked his comment (again, coming despite that very hostility), "At every atheist event I go to, there’s always someone who’s been hurt by religion, who wants me to tell him all preachers are charlatans. I always have to disappoint them. The ones I know are mostly very good people."
posted by Alt F4 at 10:43 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


"It seems as his sin wasn't just that he had become an atheist and rejected them privately, it was the public renunciation."

I wrote a pretty muddled post about this for my blog a while back. For the hegemony, it's okay to not be a part of their group so long as you at least want to be a part of their group. For them, the problem isn't not being like them, the problem is being okay with not being like them. The pastor made it clear that DeWitt was more than welcome to be an Atheist so long as he still went to church and never said anything about not believing in God.
posted by Legomancer at 10:44 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


zarq:
"It seems as his sin wasn't just that he had become an atheist and rejected them privately, it was the public renunciation. "
The thing is that DeWitt didn't fire the first shot. He attended a conference, word got around without him saying anything, and he got fired. From then on there really wasn't much reason to keep his mouth shut - even keeping it closed wasn't enough.
posted by charred husk at 10:45 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know a LOT of liberal Christians who are functionally atheist - how they live and reason has nothing to do with God. It is almost like they just can't let go of that last step of just saying, "I don't need to believe in God." I think a lot of this comes from marinating in the culture of the church and people around them. Not quite as overt a fear of becoming a pariah, but just an unspoken assumption that you always have to make room for God somewhere, even if it's in a tiny corner where science cannot reach. It isn't a step that requires as much bravery as coming out in public, but it does require a pretty big step of cutting ties to your culture in your mind.

Speaking as one such liberal theist - it isn't always because it's something you're afraid to let go of. In fact, I've even entertained the notion of whether I was atheist - and ultimately, I realized the reason I believe in the existance of a Deity is simply because, deep down in my gut, it feels weird for me not to.

However, that is also why I have always totally respected any atheist's assertion that "y'know, I just plain didn't believe it," because if it's as simple a gut-level "I tried but it just didn't take" thing like that, then there's no real arguing with that. We believe, or don't, as we are wired to. In my gut, I believe; in my friend's gut, he doesn't. And that's just that. (Although, the God I do believe in also doesn't care whether people believe in him or not -- as long as you're not a dick, it's all good.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:54 AM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


"At every atheist event I go to, there’s always someone who’s been hurt by religion, who wants me to tell him all preachers are charlatans. I always have to disappoint them. The ones I know are mostly very good people."

That's what's so insidious about religion, though. They are mostly very good people. However, they are "very good people" who will mostly put their religion ahead of their goodness when push comes to shove. That's what Pastor Glass does in this story, for example.

The biggest problem with religion isn't the charlatans, it's the believers.
posted by callmejay at 10:56 AM on August 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


KathrynT: "zarq: disgraceful is exactly the word. For a religion that hangs so much on the concept of Grace, even."

Meanwhile, the one person who seems to best epitomize it is being run out of town. :P

charred husk: "The thing is that DeWitt didn't fire the first shot."

True. But I wonder if they would still be attacking him so viciously if he had simply "kept his mouth shut" as Glass recommended.
posted by zarq at 10:58 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


He got fired because of his non-belief in the locally dominant religion? I find this shocking - that's illegal under federal law, not to mention whatever the local practice may be in LA.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:01 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Evangelicals gotta evangelize.

The idea of an evangelical atheist is odd, but whatever I guess.


Read the first link, and you'll see as others in this thread have pointed out, DeWitt's change from Christian Pastor to "faith healer in reverse" wasn't of his own choosing. He had read Dawkins for a while, and heard that Dawkins would be speaking at a seminar in Houston, about 3 hours away from his small town. He and his son had their picture taken with Dawkins, which DeWitt posted to his Facebook page, thinking no one in their town would know who he was. His grandmother's 84 year old cousin outed him, and then the town turned against him.

I don't think his choice to help others who are questioning their faith was because he had to evangelize, but rather he wanted to help. He was no longer to help people in tough emotional times, as he had done for the past 25 years as a pastor, so he continued helping as he could, in keeping with his new beliefs.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 AM on August 27, 2012


EmpressCallipygos:
"In fact, I've even entertained the notion of whether I was atheist - and ultimately, I realized the reason I believe in the existance of a Deity is simply because, deep down in my gut, it feels weird for me not to."
That makes sense. It's the reverse explanation I've always given when talking about "struggling with my faith" - a wall of something that just keeps me from wholly re-embracing any sort of religion. I've never really been able to fully commit to atheism either, though, and it almost feels the same. It's like I'm naturally a wishy washy agnostic.
posted by charred husk at 11:02 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, being from this region of south Louisiana I think his community's reaction is more complex than simply 'you're an atheist so now we hate you.' If fact, I don't think it's entirely about religion and is as much about identity and emotional security as anything. Southerners have always struck me (I was born and raised in the deep South, lived there into my mid-20s) as really kind of insecure people. Insecure about their intelligence and education, about their cultural norms, etc. So they click tightly together and enforce a pretty extreme unity of identity (christian, Republican, etc.) because that's how people are around here.

I've often wondered if it isn't a relic of 19th century political and social issues (most obviously, the Civil War) that still have yet to be reconciled with the contemporary world. It's certainly part and parcel of the extreme nature of political conservatism in the region, too. It could be that folks in regions with low income and education levels have pretty strict social norms because of the feelings of 'us against the world' such conditions engender, and that the Bible belt just has lots and lots of those communities.... But it's just SO MONOLITHIC. I now live in California's Central Valley, its Bible Belt well and truly, but it is so much easier simply living my life as a non-religious person here. Nobody asks me where I go to church or who my pastor is or assumes I'm married with kids because I'm a 40ish man or any of the other automatic assumptions and questions I face every single time I visit family back home.

So I think DeWitt is facing something much deeper than merely a reaction to his loss of faith (though that's certainly strong)--I'd bet his community is angry with him because they think he's rejecting them personally, who they are as people and what they value in life--when all that's really changed in him is that he no longer believes the mythology behind his day-to-day, practical, lived values. He's still the same guy, with the same heart, and still cares just as deeply about people as he did before. He just doesn't frame it all within religion or any other existential perspective specifically. But his community doesn't see it that way. From the article, it seems as if they feel he has rejected them in a deeply personal way, betrayed a very deep confidence as one of the few people in their community who as an authority reinforced and held steady their tribal identity.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:02 AM on August 27, 2012 [47 favorites]


He got fired because of his non-belief in the locally dominant religion? I find this shocking - that's illegal under federal law, not to mention whatever the local practice may be in LA.

you know, just because something is illegal doesn't mean it doesn't ever happen. Otherwise we wouldn't need lawyers.
posted by KathrynT at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Has no-one else noticed this:
On Dec. 1, his boss asked to meet him at a diner in town. Sitting at the table, the man took out two printouts from secular Web sites with DeWitt’s name on it. “He told me: ‘The Pentecostals who run the parish are not happy, and something’s got to be done,’ ”DeWitt recalled. “Half an hour later I was out of a job.” (His former boss did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)
That's his boss at his job as a building inspector, right, not at any church? Isn't that a massive lawsuit just waiting to happen?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


I wish there was a word like grace to describe the fundamental feeling of peace and rightness that some atheists and agnostics feel in the face of the universe. Something like, "I no longer experience the longing for grace, but what remains is awe for the universe." But awe is not quite the word, either. I guess I have never understood how people of faith expect someone to feel and believe something he or she simply cannot. Especially since the ineffably experience of belief is so core to the religious mindset. Why would they want anyone to fake it?
posted by Malla at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I know a LOT of liberal Christians who are functionally atheist

Not really christian but a liberal theist. I'd rather have god(s) exist and there be something other than non-existence after death, but hey, its not like I'd be disappointed in a lack of being once it happened.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:07 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Southerners have always struck me (I was born and raised in the deep South, lived there into my mid-20s) as really kind of insecure people. Insecure about their intelligence and education, about their cultural norms, etc. So they click tightly together and enforce a pretty extreme unity of identity (christian, Republican, etc.) because that's how people are around here.

Take a look at this: Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South
In the United States, the homicide rate in the South is consistently higher than the rate in the North. In this brilliantly argued book, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen use this fact as a starting point for an exploration of the underlying reasons for violence.According to Nisbett and Cohen, the increased tendency of white southerners to commit certain kinds of violence is not due to socioeconomic class, population density, the legacy of slavery, or the heat of the South; it is the result of a culture of honor in which a man’s reputation is central to his economic survival. Working from historical, survey, social policy, and experimental data, the authors show that in the South it is more acceptable to be violent in response to an insult, in order to protect home and property, and to aid in socializing children. These values are reflected not only in what southerners say, but also in the institutional practices of the South, the actions of Southerners, and their physiological responses to perceived affronts.In this lively and intriguing account, the authors combine bold theory and careful methodology to reveal a set of central beliefs that can contribute to increased violence. More broadly, they show us the interaction between culture, economics, and individual behavior. This engaging study will be of interest to students, educated lay readers, and scholars.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I realized the reason I believe in the existance of a Deity is simply because, deep down in my gut, it feels weird for me not to.

That's because of brainwashing as a child. I don't mean that flippantly at all, a huge part of my personal spiritual journey--the thing that allowed me to be an empiricist, actually--was realizing that had I not been told about God and such nearly from birth, I would have no reason to have devised that idea or explanation in the course of my life so far.

My perspective might change if I encounter a burning bush, of course, but if it weren't for all the stories hammered into my brain every week among Sunday school, church services, and youth group, it never would have occurred to me to think that there is a god in heaven listening to my every thought and who needs constant attention and praise from me. Seriously, would not even have occurred to me.

(The non-supernatural parts of religious faith (e.g., basis for morality), yes, I would have and do have a need for those things, but have found ample sources and models for those in the secular world.)

I think most people can't let go of the basic idea of God, no matter how amorphous or nebulous, for the same reason we can't let go of the idea that life should somehow be fair, despite the evidence: it's an idea we thoroughly absorbed as children and so it is at or near the roots of our imaginations.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:10 AM on August 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


Loosefilter, your spiritual journey is not the same as mine, so I'm not going to presume to tell you what you are right and wrong about in your own journey. I'll ask you not to do the same for mine, whether or not you mean to sound flippant in the process.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:12 AM on August 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


Loose Filter said what I was thinking - and what I've experienced. I am a born and raised southerner with quite a few ideas that don;t jibe with my southern heritage. By being an athiest, DeWitt is now "other" instad of "one of us" and I think it's that more than what he actually does or doesn;t believe that sticks in people's craws.
posted by pointystick at 11:13 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Malla, I never was a christian, and am pretty much an ex-jew these days, but I use the word 'grace' all the time to describe that sense of calm and rightness you describe. (It's an aspect of people that I really admire when I see it, and I enjoy noting its presence.) I had no idea that some people claimed it a the sole possession of their particular religion.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:13 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter: "That's because of brainwashing as a child."

Brainwashing is the use of coercive techniques to change someone's previously held opinion. One cannot be "brainwashed from childhood" unless as a child, they were forced to change their beliefs. I believe you are referring to indoctrination, meaning that as a child one was educated to a particular belief system, but discouraged from questioning those beliefs or examining them critically.
posted by zarq at 11:14 AM on August 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'll say that I agree with LooseFilter on the Southern thing (and Checkhovian that book looks great) not on the brainwashing thing.
posted by pointystick at 11:15 AM on August 27, 2012


1adam12: He got fired because of his non-belief in the locally dominant religion? I find this shocking - that's illegal under federal law, not to mention whatever the local practice may be in LA.

On the face, that's it -- he was fired for no longer believing in the Christian God.

But deeper than that, he was a local pastor that everyone knew, trusted, and admired. People turned to him when they were in need of support. And then he said he no longer believed in their support system, their religion.

That's a HUGE blow to people, to a community built on faith. Even if he got his job back, his life would still be miserable, because people wouldn't trust him, or at least would have trouble talking to him.

Religion provides stability and comfort in a huge, illogical, unfeeling cosmos. Christianity teaches that there's Something Better Ahead, even if it's not in this life. Your suffering, and the suffering of others, is only temporary. And anyway, this is all part of God's Great Plan, so don't worry about how things turn out, He's Got It Managed.

But what if this is it? Your suffering now is all you get? It's suddenly a lot harder to put up with the injustices in your life if this is your one shot at anything. You're left with ugly reality, no Divine Intentions shaping actions. Just people being people, nature being natural, and people colliding with nature.

When the pastor of your church, who has lead your community for the past 25 years, up and quits because he doesn't believe in God, the impacts are a lot larger than one person changing a job or major point of view. It rattles a lot of people in many ways, and it's hard to look at the pastor-without-faith as you did when he did have faith.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:15 AM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm amused that people here are incredulous that being a vocal (and by vocal, I mean admitting it to more than your most trusted friends and family) atheist deep in the bible belt can lead to being fired from non-religious jobs. It happens all the time. Yeah, it is illegal -- but it's usually hard or impossible to prove that the termination wasn't for another cause, and if you could prove it it'd be exhausting and bitter in a way that few people want to endure.

The fact is, there are very few actually non-religious jobs, in deeply religious communities. Every corner gas station is proud to be an upstanding, regular member of whatever church. They're proud to be pillars of they community since 1983, or whatever, which is explicit code for highly, proudly religious. They will advertise their jobs as "looking for someone who will help us continue to serve Christ through car repair", or whatever else.

If you're openly atheist, you will definitely not fit in, and no, it's not unlikely you'll lose your job. It's almost understandable, too... in such small towns, to not be religious really can be a case of, "look, you're not really fitting in with the team, and a lot of your colleagues are uncomfortable working with you".

I'm not saying it's super common, but it's definitely not so rare as to gawk.
posted by gilrain at 11:16 AM on August 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


As a (21st century North American) Jew this mystifies me. There is an entire humanist movement in Judaism, Reconstructionism , founded by Orthodox (and then Conservative) Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan was a respected instructor at Jewish Theological Seminary from the 1920s through WWII. Reconstructionist concepts have deeply influenced all forms of liberal Judaism in the developed nations, including Israel, South America, and Europe.
Humanism, agnosticism, and atheism have been acknowledged within mainstream Judaism since at least the time of Maimonides in the 12th century C.E. and his Guide For The Perplexed. While announcing one's departure from theism won't make one many friends in Orthodox circles, as long as one follows Jewish law to local community standards, it's considered more eccentric or puzzling, than heretic or justifying shunning and expulsion.
I guess thoughtcrime is more important than even the best acts to many American christians.
posted by Dreidl at 11:18 AM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Loosefilter, I was raised an atheist. My mother is an intellectual Quaker who explicitly does not believe in an interventionist, anthropomorphic God, and my father is a firebreathing atheist who has an active contempt for religion. I barely set foot in a church without being paid for it* until I was in my thirties. My first burgeoning realization that I believed in an Ineffable Force was derailed by the Bible study group I fell into in my late teens, who did more to turn me off of Christianity than anyone I've ever encountered.

But I still did, and do, believe. And when I found a church that doesn't require belief in an interventionist anthropomorphic God, that teaches that what you do is about a thousand times more important than what you think, that has a message of radical inclusiveness and non-exclusivity, I joined up. And I love it there. Brainwashing in my case has nothing to do with it.


*I'm a singer. Turns out a whole lotta churches don't give a rip about apostasy when you can sight-sing and have a two and a half octave range.
posted by KathrynT at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2012 [18 favorites]


On the substance of the actual article, the use of the word 'lost' in 'lost his faith' doesn't fit. He might have originally lost his faith, but the town found it before he could, if he was ever going to. Instead of hanging on to that faith, keeping it around in case he ever wanted it back, they through it into a macerator and shot the dust into his eyes. It probably ain't coming back after that.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:23 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dreidl:

Did you not read the Kaplan wikipedia article that you yourself posted?
In 1945 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis "formally assembled to excommunicate from Judaism what it deemed to be the community's most heretical voice: Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the man who eventually would become the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism... Due to Kaplan's evolving position on Jewish theology and the liturgy, he was also condemned as a heretic by members of Young Israel.
Thoughtcrime is not any more accepted in Orthodox Judaism than it is in Pentacostalism, not in practice anyway. You have to compare apples to apples, not oranges.
posted by callmejay at 11:23 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Forgot to add: while I am not as such surprised that a former preacher in the Deep South would be socially ostracized after confessing to their own atheism, I definitely think that it is deeply, deeply uncool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:24 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dreidl: "As a (21st century North American) Jew this mystifies me. "

Me too. But I hasten to point out that the Orthodox attacked and basically excommunicated Kaplan as a total heretic. Not surprising. They'd probably attack most Reform and Conservative rabbis if given half the chance, too.
posted by zarq at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2012


Or... what callmejay said. :)
posted by zarq at 11:25 AM on August 27, 2012


A lawsuit over the job would only entrench the problem. Sometimes obtaining justice is a Pyrrhic victory, costing more than is gained. It sounds like he's trying to move on, and picking his battles as best as the circumstances allow.
posted by anonymisc at 11:26 AM on August 27, 2012


Question to the Jews in this thread: is it true that Judaism supports questioning of beliefs and religion? I was told this by a Jewish friend, and that is a huge difference between the Christian churches and study groups I've attended. The Bible is The Word of God, ignoring all its translations and how it got put together in the first place.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:27 AM on August 27, 2012


I believe you are referring to indoctrination, meaning that as a child one was educated to a particular belief system, but discouraged from questioning those beliefs or examining them critically.

I stand corrected, I should have indeed typed 'indoctrination' as that is what I meant. I also should have framed my comment more explicitly personally, EmpressCallipygos, I certainly didn't mean to sound like I'm telling you what's going on in your mind. So my opening sentence in that comment should have been, upon reflection, "That could be indoctrination, I know it was in my case." But this being a written forum for conversation, I sometimes don't type as precisely as I ought to in the name of brevity (and still my comments are long as hell). My apologies for any offense.

And when I found a church that doesn't require belief in an interventionist anthropomorphic God, that teaches that what you do is about a thousand times more important than what you think, that has a message of radical inclusiveness and non-exclusivity, I joined up.

Those places wouldn't really be considered churches where I'm from, if they even existed there. Which they may now (I don't think so, though), but they certainly didn't then.

Chekhovian, thanks for the recommendation, will be reading soon.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:31 AM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


filthy light thief:

It depends on the denomination. Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist -- absolutely. Conservative, to some degree.

Orthodox? Not remotely. Questioning and debate are big, but must be kept within certain predetermined rigid borders.
posted by callmejay at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I realized the reason I believe in the existance of a Deity is simply because, deep down in my gut, it feels weird for me not to.

That's because of brainwashing as a child.

Interesting claim, whether we're talking about "brainwashing" or "indoctrination."

Are you saying that there's no way someone could have those "God feelings" unless he was pushed to have them as a child? They could never arise spontaneously? Do you have evidence for that?

I'd be surprised if you were right. More and more research is casting doubt on any explanation of a human character trait that relies on a 100% Nature or 100% Nurture cause. It's almost always a mixture, often a complex one. That's not to say that religious upbringings have no effect. In my experience, they tend to have a major effect. But religions upbringing cause religious sentiments does not imply that all religious sentiments are due to religious upbringings.

Or are you defining "brainwashing" in such a loose way that just being in a world in which Religion exists is brainwashing?

Even in that case, I'm not sure you're right. There's an experiment we can't try, but without trying it, I don't know how you can be as confident as you are: take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists? Does even one of them invent a religion (and come to believe in it)?
posted by grumblebee at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


If he ever truly believed in the historical and literal truth of things like the immaculate conception and the resurrection (and I always doubt that anyone in this day and age does) then I guess it's absolutely no surprise it is so easy for him to so easily accept the cultish crude materialism of Dennett and Dawkins to such an extent that he feels he must evangelize it himself. Like Žižek says, "theologians are the only true materialists - and, I might add, this is why materialists are the only true believers," which makes Zizek's claim as a materialist even more baffling to me. Hegelian Materialism?

Deleuze: "theology: everything about it is quite rational if you accept sin, the immaculate conception, and the incarnation. Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors. Underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift."
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even in that case, I'm not sure you're right. There's an experiment we can't try, but without trying it, I don't know how you can be as confident as you are: take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists? Does even one of them invent a religion (and come to believe in it)?

This is an experiment that has to have been run at least once. There must have been a time "before religion" after all. Someone must have posited the very first "god."
posted by yoink at 11:36 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


We're cool, Loosefilter. Thanks. (I disagree on the "indoctrination" point still, but that disagreement is now considerably more cordial.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian, thanks for the recommendation, will be reading soon.

As with all psych research, it should probably be taken with a grain of salt...but its a pretty little house of cards. And when I told my friend from southern Georgia about it he got very angry. Another time he gotten mad at me he's told me that he wanted to: "Smash my face with a wrench".
posted by Chekhovian at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Are you saying that there's no way someone could have those "God feelings" unless he was pushed to have them as a child?

No, I am in no way asserting such a thing. Please do not read too much into my initial statement in that comment, which I would like to officially amend as reading:

That's because of brainwashing as a child. That could be indoctrination, I know it was in my case.

As I mentioned, I misspoke and did not frame my second comment as personally as I meant it.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:38 AM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Those places wouldn't really be considered churches where I'm from, if they even existed there. Which they may now (I don't think so, though), but they certainly didn't then.

More likely than you think -- I'm UCC. It's a liberal church to be sure, but they read the Bible and have a big ol' cross in the sanctuary and say the Lord's Prayer and baptize in the name of the Trinity. Hard to say what they are if they aren't a church.
posted by KathrynT at 11:40 AM on August 27, 2012


take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists?

Atheism was pushed on communist Russia, and from purely anecdotal non-scientific experience, it seems the children of that generation grew up quite happily without believing.

Though naturally, if someone says "I can offer you life after death", people would like to hear more. Likewise, "But what does it all MEAAAAN?" is going to draw people to people offering answers. But non-religion seems like it may be the default for non-religiously raised people.
posted by anonymisc at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Question to the Jews in this thread: is it true that Judaism supports questioning of beliefs and religion? I was told this by a Jewish friend, and that is a huge difference between the Christian churches and study groups I've attended. The Bible is The Word of God, ignoring all its translations and how it got put together in the first place.

I have met some very liberal "humanist" catholics. I believe Doris Day, although i can't find the quote online, said something to the effect that the bible is meant to be "contemplated not investigated."
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2012


This is an experiment that has to have been run at least once. There must have been a time "before religion" after all. Someone must have posited the very first "god."

Sure, but we don't know if the initial impulse was honest or not, so the jury is out.

If we assume that religious indoctrination can create religious people and that the indoctrinator doesn't need to be religious himself (e.g. L. Ron Hubbard), there are at least two reasonably hypothesis. One is that the first priests were charlatans. If that's the case, they religion didn't spontaneously self-generate. On the other hand, it may be been started by true believers. I don't see how can can ever know.

If it was started by con artists, did they just experiment and discover that they could make people believe their stories? Or did they see some sort of proto-religious urge in people and capitalize on it?
posted by grumblebee at 11:43 AM on August 27, 2012


oops. Dorothy Day, not Doris Day.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's another aspect to all of this that many of you might be overlooking. He was, for a time, the community's connection to God. He welcomed their babies into the world, he performed their marriages, he prayed at their funerals. Imagine the feeling that comes from finding out that the man who bound you together before God doesn't believe in that God.

The man who promised that your departed loved one was in a heaven he didn't think existed.

Also: this reminds me of a friend who was becoming a Catholic priest. He was from a small south Louisiana town. Being a priest was all he'd ever wanted to be, from when he was a teenager. When he went to seminary, his local church bought him a car and new clothes. His studies and living arrangements were all taken care of for him. Just before he took his vows, he had a complete crisis of faith and quit. He walked away from his studies (though he was still a believing and practicing Catholic). Not only was he shunned by the community that had supported him (He was going to be THEIR priest!), but his family abandoned him as well.

He now works in the private sector. Still goes to church (a different parish) and still believes. But he can't go home again. And that's just tragic.
posted by ColdChef at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists?

Atheism was pushed on communist Russia, and from purely anecdotal non-scientific experience, it seems the children of that generation grew up quite happily without believing.

The key word in my post is "all."

I am not doubting that upbringing -- religious or atheistic -- is a factor. I'd bet it's a major factor. I am skeptical that it's the only factor. I am skeptical that no-indoctrination means zero religious people. There were certainly theists in Soviet Russia.
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on August 27, 2012


I empathize with this guy - I know people who are no longer on speaking terms with their families because they decided to leave the faith they were raised in.
posted by Anima Mundi at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2012


If we assume that religious indoctrination can create religious people and that the indoctrinator doesn't need to be religious himself (e.g. L. Ron Hubbard), there are at least two reasonably hypothesis. One is that the first priests were charlatans. If that's the case, they religion didn't spontaneously self-generate. On the other hand, it may be been started by true believers. I don't see how can can ever know.

I think true belief. We are wired very strongly to see causative links, and we are wired very strongly to see fellow minds. Without being taught that X is actually a strange phenomenon caused by Y, the natural state would be to assume X is an act of will by a third party.
posted by anonymisc at 11:48 AM on August 27, 2012


By third party, I really mean one of a vast pantheon of third parties :-)
posted by anonymisc at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2012


Hard to say what they are if they aren't a church.

Oh, I think they are a church, I just don't think many of my friends and family back home would see it that way. What I see in religiously conservative areas, in the deep South and in central California specifically, is a turning away from traditional denominations that allow for such things (worship without literal belief in Biblical creation or the resurrection, for instance) to independent 'bible chapels' and such, established and run by a single pastor or group of pastors. In the south it has born mega-churches and in California many, many unaffiliated, independent congregations. What I find they have in common is a reinforcement of the most literal version of Christian belief. In musical communities here I regularly encounter young people being home-schooled "for religious reasons."
posted by LooseFilter at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


ColdChef:
"Not only was he shunned by the community that had supported him (He was going to be THEIR priest!), but his family abandoned him as well. "
Their priest? Priests don't always get to pick where they end up and often get moved around a lot. I think they would have been disappointed anyways.

However, this also reminds me of my mother when I was looking at the priesthood growing up. A popular Catholic folk belief was that if one of your children became a priest you would be guaranteed a place in heaven. I wonder if some old world thinking like that was also in play, aside from the abandoning of material aid.
posted by charred husk at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2012


If we assume that religious indoctrination can create religious people and that the indoctrinator doesn't need to be religious himself (e.g. L. Ron Hubbard), there are at least two reasonably hypothesis. One is that the first priests were charlatans. If that's the case, they religion didn't spontaneously self-generate. On the other hand, it may be been started by true believers. I don't see how can can ever know.

This is getting to be a tangent, but an interesting one - maybe it's neither.

The common perception is that the earliest myths and the earliest religions were meant to be explanations for the "whys" of the world like why the seasons change and such; however, there is another school of thought that they were also meant to be personal behavioral examples. For instance, the story of the goddess Persephone going to the underworld every year wasn't just about "why winter comes every year," but also it was meant to be about "how we sometimes have to let some habits in ourselves die in order to let new things germinate and grow so we can grow as people." So the earliest myths were meant as a sort of early psychology rather than an early astronomy or biology or what have you.

So, it's possible that the earliest priests were just the ones who were best at thinking of parables that seemed to help people.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:53 AM on August 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


And ColdChef - you've pointed out how very lucky my own former-seminarian friend was; his family wasn't disappointed at all that he changed his mind about the priesthood. He had much the same experience as your friend (he even went to a seminary in New Orleans), but his family was always supportive, both when he went in and then when he dropped out.

(Actually, he told me that when he went to talk to his Monsignor about how he wasn't sure he wanted to go through with being a priest, the Monsignor just said "honestly, we were all kind of thinking the same thing ourselves," so everyone may have been secretly relieved.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:57 AM on August 27, 2012


Yeah, LooseFilter, I wasn't accusing you of accusing me or anything ;-). I see that same phenomenon up here in Washington state, and it creeps me out a little to be honest.
posted by KathrynT at 11:57 AM on August 27, 2012


Is anyone else finding the tone of the NYT article a little grating, like this guy's journey was all about repackaging himself? That's the way the first few paragraphs are striking me.

Anyway, favorited for further reading at home.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:58 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend Why God Won't Go Away: Brain science and the biology of belief. It's a very interesting take on how the human brain is wired for religion.
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


filthy light thief:

"It depends on the denomination. Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist -- absolutely. Conservative, to some degree.

Orthodox? Not remotely. Questioning and debate are big, but must be kept within certain predetermined rigid borders."

I am speaking from my own experience on the borderline between Conservative and Orthodox in the US, Canada, Europe, South America and Israel, currently at a non-denominational rabbinical college that offers Orthodox ordination to qualified students. Keep in mind it's difficult to get independent media (reading, video, the internet) in the highly-monitored family, social, and educational life of many Orthodox Jews, but I know dozens who have come to agnosticism or humanism through sources within the Jewish canon. And remain within their Orthodox communities. (To be fair, they are mostly "Modern" Orthodox, not Ultras/Haredi/Hassidic)
I'd imagine thoughtful Christians can come to a changed attitude the same way, as some posters have mentioned about themselves. Some Muslim input to this thread would be interesting. And the FPP is about a Christian.
posted by Dreidl at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2012


Their priest? Priests don't always get to pick where they end up and often get moved around a lot. I think they would have been disappointed anyways.

In South Louisiana, you've got more freedom than urban areas. It's not guaranteed, but it's likely.
posted by ColdChef at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2012


That's a good point, EmpressCallipygos--I've always been particularly enamored of Joseph Campbell's perspective that our myths and religious stories are clearly metaphorical and have multiple meanings and layers of wisdom to offer if they are read as such. The problems start when people begin to read metaphors as history. As Alan Watts wrote (another big touchstone for me), it's mistaking poetry for prose: no one goes into a restaurant, sees steak on the menu, and eats the menu--we understand that the menu represents something else, something real in a substantial sense. When one mistakes the symbol for the thing itself, all sorts of problems arise. (see also: flags, etc.)

To get back on topic, I really admire DeWitt's courage. He has the strength of mind to realize what he really believes in (helping people, loving his community) and living into that is no small task, as he unfortunately has learned. I am deeply sorry he lost so much, but I have much respect for him continuing to do the same kind of work--helping people, loving people--within a very different conceptual framework.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:04 PM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


it creeps me out a little to be honest.

KathrynT, I know, right? It makes me nervous, all these people just making it up as they go....and at least around here, they come up with some weird stuff (Quiverfulls active around anybody else? Those extended vans, always white with no windows, for their 8-12 children are a pretty common sight around here....).
posted by LooseFilter at 12:07 PM on August 27, 2012


So, it's possible that the earliest priests were just the ones who were best at thinking of parables that seemed to help people.

That rings very true to me - reading some of the laws of various religions, they definitely strike me as a manual focused on the practical issue of maintaining society, from the perspective of how the world would have been understood by people a very long time ago.

And before writing, important knowledge was kept alive by word of mouth, and stories were one of the most likely to succeed in keeping that word of mouth alive.
posted by anonymisc at 12:09 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


filthy light thief: "Question to the Jews in this thread: is it true that Judaism supports questioning of beliefs and religion? I was told this by a Jewish friend, and that is a huge difference between the Christian churches and study groups I've attended. The Bible is The Word of God, ignoring all its translations and how it got put together in the first place."

Depends on the sect, synagogue, your age and level of observance, but mainstream Judaism generally encourages skepticism and definitely encourages questioning. You're not supposed to take the religion on blind faith -- it's supposed to be an interactive, life-long process. By contrast, Orthodox Judaism only encourages skepticism or questioning within narrow parameters.

As an observant / non-secular, non-Orthodox Jew, if you express interest, you're actually pushed to ask questions, pose hypotheses and think critically. It's presented to you even from a very young age that your life as a Jew is a path of self-discovery and your relationship with your religious beliefs (assuming you have them) are very personal and between you and G-d. No one can dictate to you how observant you should be, or even whether you should be at all. America has been good to us.

Even strong agnosticism is not necessarily antithetical to being a Jewish theist.

Rabbis within particular sects often have different levels of observance. Conformity of belief may not exist between two different rabbis of the same sect on a given issue.

What's interesting about all of this to me as a theistic Jew is that mainstream religious Judaism (conservative and reform movements) pretty much has no problem with science or scientific principles. We don't generally consider them mutually exclusive. Orthodox Judaism is another story, though.
posted by zarq at 12:09 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


oops. Dorothy Day, not Doris Day.
posted by Golden Eternity


Don't worry. Que sera, sera.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm an apostate of 13 or so years now, and the only lasting effect ( in terms of being ostracized) is that much of my family still have the general sense that belief in God is the only source of morality.

What a deplorable strawman it is to ask "how can you have morality without God?" How can you have morality without eating potato chips with a dolphin in the pool?

I'm interested to read some of the links about the brain's tendency to be wired for religion; I've just figured it as a mental illness-- one, of course, which I perhaps still have.

I recognize that, and wonder whether there is some asinine credulity I might be lending to something even now, or if it's just a matter of getting out of the insulated cover of indoctrination. When I see others in my family growing well past my age and never adjusting their perspective to one that values logic and, um, reality, it... makes no sense to me.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:21 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


In the south it has born mega-churches and in California many, many unaffiliated, independent congregations.

I wonder if there are economic reasons for this. I doubt a pastor of a mega-church could make nearly as much money working in a standard congregation like Presbyterianism, and the proliferation of smaller unaffiliated church's allow an avenue for more people to make a living of some sort being a Pastor -- perhaps with a dream of someday becoming a mega-church.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:21 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even in that case, I'm not sure you're right. There's an experiment we can't try, but without trying it, I don't know how you can be as confident as you are: take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists? Does even one of them invent a religion (and come to believe in it)?

The problem with this is the conflation between the specific beliefs and practices of organized religions (which clearly do not spontaneously arise in children without any exposure to them) and "religion", which in modern times is a catch-all for a ton of unrelated practices, feelings, and beliefs which span the entire history of the world, many of which are not solely religious in the first sense.

Is a child who "invents a religion (and comes to believe in it)" religious in the first sense? If so, how is this different from a child who invents a fantasy world or a mythology and then comes to believe in it? Is a child who has "God feelings" religious in the first sense? If so, how is this different from a child who has "nature feelings" or "night-sky feelings?" When we say the brain is "wired for religion" because "intensely focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads us to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid and tangibly real", do we mean that we're wired for religion, or do we mean that we're wired for certain brain-states which we associate with religion?

To me this seems like a classic case of the hammer which renders everything a nail. At one point we're going to have to admit that human beings can have "religious" feelings and experiences without being religious in any social (or even personal) sense, rather than viewing these brain-states through one single lens.
posted by vorfeed at 12:23 PM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


This kind of story is why, as an atheist from a small town, I shudder when people talk about 'small town values' as if they are something to emulate.
posted by winna at 12:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


I think the biggest part of the question, "If a society grows up without religious belief, will they all be atheists?" is that we now have scientific explanations for a lot of things we didn't when all this religion came about. When someone has a question about why the seasons change, what happens to our brains as we die, or what those strange, enormous creatures in the ocean are - we now know and it can be answered.

If a society is born and raised without religion, in the world we have now with the scientific understanding we have now, it will probably be unlikely that anyone will spontaneously believe in God.
posted by Malice at 12:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


OPPs with these tags

Every last homie!
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've found these "deconversion" stories interesting for a while, but not unusual.

I'm one of the few who went from a casual atheism to theism. I was raised an atheist by a poet and a school teacher. And so, I never believed in a physical hell. Nor do I now. They were also not instinctively or dogmatically anti-religious. Religion, in their view, was just one way - perhaps the primary way - people organized. Aside from peripheral participation in some religious communities, they were open about their skepticism. It was poetry, theater and music that helped me understand my comfort with theistic beliefs - not doctrine or dogma.

I wonder how people fare who are raised in more rigorous intellectual religious traditions. The tradition I'm in, the Episcopal Church, has a long tradition of humanism and intellectual liveliness. Our practices are conservative, but the content is deliberately undefined. It's a difficult, ambiguous place in the culture wars, but it remains viable and useful. I wouldn't deny that the comforts I get from my religious practices are available in other places in the culture. But I don't see a need to jettison them either.

I would say that there's a variety of pieties in my congregation. Some are clear: it's the community. Others need a place in their minds for the transcendent. Others believe in an interventionist God. But it's a much more varied place intellectually than the culture wars would have people believe.
posted by john wilkins at 12:30 PM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


If he ever truly believed in the historical and literal truth of things like the immaculate conception and the resurrection (and I always doubt that anyone in this day and age does)

The Immaculate Conception is the quintessential gotcha belief (at least for Roman Catholics, in my experience). People will tell you that they believe in it when they have no idea what it is. I've won a few bets in my time with that one.

I was "raised" Roman Catholic, but never believed. Having seen it from the inside, I get the feeling that the sense of community and, to borrow an economic concept, the sunk cost, must be overwhelming for a priest, minister or rabbi. I'm surprised, but grateful that many of them come out as atheist at all, frankly.
posted by ODiV at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


To paraphrase Nietschze:

If you seek happiness, believe. If you seek truth, inquire.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


Hmmm...about the thousand infants.

Could be that magical thinking --> religious notions --> scientific thinking.

We could be religious by default, then think our way out of it as we learn better.

It's a tossup: Agnosticism or Atheism. Wishy-washy or arrogant.

In the meantime the true believers fo the loving christ are prepared to nail you, metaphorically, to the cross. In some areas, the metaphor isn't all that intangible.

I admit that not all Christians froth at the mouth. I'm still irked by the affable condescension.
posted by mule98J at 12:39 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, Malice, but what about the psychological ramifications of these same stories?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2012


The NY Times article is really moving, thank you for posting it. I feel for the guy, but at the same time I felt like I was watching a the first fifteen minutes of some horror movie. I wanted to take the protagonist and shake him and say "Get the hell out of here!"

His life could be so much easier if he just moved to a big city and started over.
posted by LarryC at 12:44 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


What struck me as true was the first comment:

If these people are really atheists, then why do they feel the need to proclaim their (non)-faith? If God doesn't exist, why is it so important to deny his existence, and to do so publicly? Do they feel the need publicly to deny the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (to say nothing of the Great Pumpkin)?

I live in the South. Religion, through billboards, bumper stickers, church signs, daily conversation, and Preachers screaming from every busy intersection, is being proclaimed to me daily. There is no escape. And yet this guy is annoyed that anyone would even feel the need to proclaim that they're atheist. Keep your mouth shut, and they'll just ignore you, is basically what he's saying (if you speak up, he might have to re-examine his faith, and that's a scary thing to him).

I don't think anyone can truly understand what religion is like in the South without living here. It's in the fabric of society, rivaled only by football. You grow up in religion, and people, for the most part, never question their faith. It's social, it's bonding, and you're risking quite a bit by rejecting it.

It's much easier to keep quiet than risk alienating yourself. I certainly don't hide the fact that I'm atheist/agnostic, but I don't bring it up at family gatherings (if I did, think of a needle being raked over a record, then complete silence), I could easily lose friends over it, and I have no doubt my non-belief could not only have me fired from a job, but prevent me from getting the job.

I'm liberal, agnostic, and don't want kids. In the South that pretty much makes you an outcast. But I'm not leaving. The food and music is too good.

I shudder when people talk about 'small town values' as if they are something to emulate.

I disagree. I've spent a lot of time all over the states, and small town values in the South do exist. And some of them are wonderful, and worthy of praise. The problem is some of them are not, and they overshadow the good. That's a shame.
posted by justgary at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


I'm liberal, agnostic, and don't want kids. In the South that pretty much makes you an outcast.

I wish we wouldn’t generalize so much. I’ve lived outside of Atlanta (which is not a small town, admittedly) for 10 years. The subject of religion has never come up, and has never played any part in any interaction I have with people. The liberal and no kids things do come up, but I suspect that happens a lot of places.

It’s just very odd to read blanket statements so often here about things that happen in "The South". I realize for some people it comes up a lot, so they feel like it must happen to everyone, but it’s just not true. It’s just the circles you mingle in. "The South" is a big place.
posted by bongo_x at 1:09 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


if you take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists?

Probably not all, but the best predictor of someone's religious outlook is location of birth. That kind of implies that in general, people don't challenge their beliefs or go looking for "the truth", they just accept what they were told as children.

Side notes:
1) I've always found the phrase "losing your religion" to be biased, I'd rather not see it used.

2) I prefer identifying as a "humanist" rather than athiest/agnostic, because to some degree, you can sidestep arguments about the existence of god. It's possible for a theist to be a humanist if you argue that god/god's will is not knowable and that the best we can do is work for the good of our fellow creatures.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:10 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


His life could be so much easier if he just moved to a big city and started over.

This is undeniably true. But as a liberal atheist with deep roots in the South, I'm glad he's stayed put. Because it's OUR HOME, TOO, and I'm not abandoning it just because my views don't jibe with popular opinion.

Besides, if I lived anywhere else, people would tell me I talk funny.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:11 PM on August 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


It’s just very odd to read blanket statements so often here about things that happen in "The South". I realize for some people it comes up a lot, so they feel like it must happen to everyone, but it’s just not true. It’s just the circles you mingle in. "The South" is a big place.

You're right. I hate when others do that as well. I should change that to much of small town rural south.
posted by justgary at 1:18 PM on August 27, 2012


I wonder if there are economic reasons for this. I doubt a pastor of a mega-church could make nearly as much money working in a standard congregation like Presbyterianism, and the proliferation of smaller unaffiliated church's allow an avenue for more people to make a living of some sort being a Pastor -- perhaps with a dream of someday becoming a mega-church.

Golden Eternity - I think that there is some truth to that. There is a lot of prestige (and fame and money) in being "the guy" (well, it's usually but not always a guy) who started a small church in his living room that grew to a mega church with x number of satellite congragations.
posted by beau jackson at 1:19 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


BitterOldPunk: "Besides, if I lived anywhere else..."

You'd miss out on the Waffle House. :D
posted by zarq at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2012


As Augustine redefined evil as absence of God's presence, so do I redefine it again as absence of access to Waffle House. ;)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:26 PM on August 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


Another factor in all of this is probably that the Evangelical subculture tolerates no deviation whatsoever from a very narrow set of (mostly political, these days) beliefs: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-Obama, etc.

I've seen this with my wife's cousin. She is middle class and (well) college educated, but she grew up in the evangelical subculture and currently lives in a small east Texas town due to marriage. Every time we post some leftist political stuff on Facebook, she sends my wife a conciliatory message, fearing that we reject her because of her political beliefs. Interestingly, her messages always state that she's not really as intolerant as her community, but she feels she has to play along. We tell her that we disagree with her, but we still appreciate her as family and as a person--agree to disagree and all that. Her seeming insecurity and fear of rejection seem weird to us.

It finally dawned on me that that's how her subculture works. If you don't toe the line exactly, you're completely rejected. Therefore, she expects us to do the same.
posted by tippiedog at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't think anyone can truly understand what religion is like in the South without living here. It's in the fabric of society, rivaled only by football. You grow up in religion, and people, for the most part, never question their faith. It's social, it's bonding, and you're risking quite a bit by rejecting it.

To put it extremely mildly.

Because if people in the rural South, as a whole or in major part, were to reject religion, they would have been risking-- prior to the rise of powerful central authority-- an almost inevitable outbreak of struggles for pre-eminence by large extended families, one against another, and the enormous toll of death and destruction such conflicts can leave in their wakes.

We all know about the Hatfields and the McCoys, but I think the deepest and most compelling exploration of the horror and tragedy of family feuds is Njáls Saga, set in Iceland and covering a ~60 year period not that long after initial settlement of the island in the ninth century:
The saga deals with the process of blood feuds in the Icelandic Commonwealth, showing how the requirements of honor could lead to minor slights spiralling into destructive and prolonged bloodshed. Insults where a character's manhood is called into question are especially prominent and may reflect an author critical of an overly restrictive ideal of masculinity. Another characteristic of the narrative is the presence of omens and prophetic dreams. It is disputed whether this reflects a fatalistic outlook on the part of the author.

The saga dates to the late 13th century while the events described take place between 960 and 1020. The work is anonymous, although there has been extensive speculation on the author's identity. The major events described in the saga are probably historical but the material was shaped by the author, drawing on oral tradition, according to his artistic needs. Njáls saga is the longest and most highly developed of the sagas of Icelanders. It is often considered the peak of the saga tradition.
Even in the face of the overwhelming power of our modern state and federal governments, I believe such feuds would have the potential to make rural life in the South a Hell on Earth.

Southerners have some very good reasons to want to remain "one in Christ."
posted by jamjam at 2:11 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nice article, good discussion, thanks everyone.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:24 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I see others in my family growing well past my age and never adjusting their perspective to one that values logic and, um, reality, it... makes no sense to me.

Well, the older you get, the harder it can be in some ways, especially if your family/spouse is embedded in a church. Also, not-thinking is something one can get pretty good at; sometimes I am fascinated by the ways otherwise intelligent people will come right up to the brink of an uncomfortable thought and then double backflip away from it. I would judge, but then I've done that too.

Churches have the nonreligious function of giving you somewhere safe to take your kids with the vague promise that they'll maybe not do drugs or have sex too soon and also be polite. Once you're in one, well, there's always someone who asks "Are you coming to X function or Y function?" and before you know it you're on a committee or you're a deacon or leading a Sunday school. None of which encourages you to ask challenging questions.
posted by emjaybee at 2:40 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Even in the face of the overwhelming power of our modern state and federal governments, I believe such feuds would have the potential to make rural life in the South a Hell on Earth.

As opposed to what Christianity has already made of many lives in the rural South (and elsewhere), even in the face of the overwhelming power of our modern state and federal governments?

I don't buy the idea that pre-Christian ways of living were necessarily "Hell on Earth", rather than different systems with different advantages, weaknesses, and harms. I also don't believe that a fictionalised saga which was critical of those same weaknesses and harms is a great example of how universally acceptable or inevitable they were. If Njáls Saga were an everyday expression of the "Hell on Earth" of life in Iceland -- rather than a particularly tragic outlier a la the Hatfields and McCoys -- then no one would ever have sung it. And it ends in reconciliation, at any rate...

...and besides, the Hatfields and McCoys were Christians, "one in Christ".
posted by vorfeed at 2:44 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


If a society is born and raised without religion, in the world we have now with the scientific understanding we have now, it will probably be unlikely that anyone will spontaneously believe in God.

Why does the universe exists, why can I apprehend it, is death the end of consciousness.

When I see others in my family growing well past my age and never adjusting their perspective to one that values logic and, um, reality, it... makes no sense to me.

I tend to think belief or a lack thereof is fundamentally a matter of temperament. There is nothing atheism offers which is particularly comforting; it's the people who can't stand being wrong or bear illogic once discovered who cease to believe.

Ev psych is generally untestable and therefore unscientific, but if you'll indulge a bit of wankery, in terms of encouraging beneficial group dynamics religion takes the contest in a walk. People usually blame it for war, but I'd say wanting other people's stuff is usually the proximate cause; religion just enables you to bind your people together more tightly and kill the enemy with more vim and less guilt. More importantly, it provides a sense of meaning; I don't think Maslow included it but personally I think that is a fundamental need for most people. I'm not, of course, saying that a non-believer's life cannot have meaning, I don't believe that at all. But when I am forgotten I will truly be gone; the meaning of my life has a time limit. (6 billion years or so at the outside. Probably less.) Most people don't find that particularly satisfying; there's no hope in it. People like hope; life's tough enough as it is.
posted by Diablevert at 3:51 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's how her subculture works. If you don't toe the line exactly, you're completely rejected.

If that fear weren't so tragic, it would be really funny, on account of it being wildly out of line with any one of a number of parables Jesus Christ allegedly told.

That poor woman, to not be able to conceive of a life where she doesn't have to be afraid of rejection by people who allegedly follow a guy with a message of unconditional love. It illustrates how the "coming out" of Jerry DeWitt and others like him is really a radical act of conscience. You know, like the ones the followers of Jesus committed.

posted by sobell at 4:21 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tend to think belief or a lack thereof is fundamentally a matter of temperament. There is nothing atheism offers which is particularly comforting; it's the people who can't stand being wrong or bear illogic once discovered who cease to believe. [...] But when I am forgotten I will truly be gone; the meaning of my life has a time limit. (6 billion years or so at the outside. Probably less.) Most people don't find that particularly satisfying; there's no hope in it. People like hope; life's tough enough as it is.

Likewise, there is nothing religion offers which is particularly honest; it's the people who can't stand the truth or bear logic once discovered who cling to false "hope".

Or hey, maybe different people are comforted and satisfied by different things, despite the fact that they don't seem very comforting or satisfying to others. The question of which way a questioning believer will go is fundamentally a question of what they value most, and I'm not sure that can so easily be waved away as a matter of temperament.
posted by vorfeed at 4:22 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not long ago, the atheist movement was the preserve of a few eccentric gadflies like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose endless lawsuits helped earn her the title “the most hated woman in America.” But over the past decade it has matured into something much larger and less cranky.

I will be 55 tomorrow. 5 years ago I came out as an atheist to my family. For most of my life I went through the motions of being a good Christian: I attended bible classes. I sang in the church choir. I worked at the fund raisers. I joined church groups first as a teenager, then as a young married woman, then as a mother. In short I have no doubt everyone thought I was a believer.

Why did I lead such a sham existence for so long? Because I did not want to hurt my family. My parents, my grandparents, my in-laws are all (or were while alive) devout people and I knew that it would shock and horrify them. My mother still struggles with this and my in-laws are still sure that I will return to Jesus. What I can't make them understand is I never was "with Jesus" because having that talk is too painful and they don't want to know the details.

I am so glad that times have changed and my daughter can be an open atheist without shame. I wish I had been braver and more true to myself but I am happy to be openly atheistic and confident that the world will continue to turn away from religion and embrace logic and science.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Golden Eternity - I think that there is some truth to that. There is a lot of prestige (and fame and money) in being "the guy" (well, it's usually but not always a guy) who started a small church in his living room that grew to a mega church with x number of satellite congragations.

This has always been a factor. Churches represent another route upwards to power, prestige, and (sometimes) wealth, and in at least some cases - such as many impoverished black communities from the immediate post-Civil War era up to the present - are virtually the only way to do so. In other times and places, such as the Soviet states before 1989, they represented one of the sole power structures outside the direct control of the state, and thus a channel for self-expression and resistance. I have to agree with the many people in this thread who are pointing out that religious structures and identity are often about protection and security, rather than just about the assertion of a particular belief for its own sake.

I remember hearing a speech given by a local pastor who was involved, back in the day, with the Freedom Rides - he noted that the powerful role of black preachers - and black preacher politics - in the movement was not just because of the Christian element in Civil Rights rhetoric, but because these were the natural leaders of their communities in an era when black political/economic leaders of regional, much less national, stature were virtually nonexistent. This was how aspiring black men rose in the world, and so they represented not just the moral conscience of the community but a titantic pool of ambition and self-conscious leadership as well.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:29 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oops, forgot to close ALL my tags!

Trying again:

Even strong agnosticism is not necessarily antithetical to being a Jewish theist.

Belief in one God or fewer is required to be a good Jew, is how I've heard it put.

There is nothing atheism offers which is particularly comforting;

I don't think that's true. Have you heard, "may you get what you deserve?" as a curse?

I look around at the world around me, at all the ways I benefit from other people's suffering (everything from my own relative economic security in North America to my treasured smartphone, and much more) and have accepted and enjoyed those benefits, then at the incredibly small and few things I'm doing to make things better, and I think it can be a great relief to believe there will be no judgment day.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:39 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Interesting claim, whether we're talking about "brainwashing" or "indoctrination." Are you saying that there's no way someone could have those "God feelings" unless he was pushed to have them as a child? They could never arise spontaneously? [...] Or are you defining "brainwashing" in such a loose way that just being in a world in which Religion exists is brainwashing?

These seem like extremal interpretations of 'brainwashing' to me. I doubt anyone ever uses the term 'brainwashing' in a way that implies that if you can be brainwashed to believe p then it's impossible to develop the belief in any other way.

Say that everyone at birth has a one in a hundred thousand chance of spontaneously developing a belief in God, but with a battery of subliminal messages hidden in advertising, you can raise the chances for each individual to one in ten. That seems like brainwashing, but it doesn't imply that belief in God cannot arise spontaneously.

I can't give necessary and sufficient conditions for the concept---natural language is made up of vague family resemblance terms. But a first pass at approximating a definition of brainwashing or indoctrination might involve (1) the fact that brainwashing increases the likelihood of one's degree of belief in some proposition going up, (2) that the degree of belief increases because of non-rational and non-inferential belief forming processes, and (3) that there is something normatively bad about brainwashing the person. (This latter condition could be cashed out in various ways: that it is not in the brainwashee's best interests to believe p, that it is not in her best interests to non-inferentially form a belief that p, that if the person were not brainwashed that then she would not want to be brainwashed that p, that it infringes on her rights, etc.)

I don't think you have to say that if a person can come to spontaneously believe in God, then all talk of brainwashing or indoctrination is unacceptably loose. It's no looser than any other ordinary speech.
posted by painquale at 5:59 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


jamjam - when i read the saga of burnt njal during my introduction to statistics class in college, i realized shit has not changed one bit in a thousand years. this blew my mind.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 6:08 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I do find the topic of religion in America particularly fascinating; what a powerful pressure cooker this country has been and continues to be. Those two great cults-turned-international-religions-- Scientology and Mormonism-- were predictive of how the diverse culture that makes up the U.S.A. could encourage outliers of religious belief.

Right now there are two movements that embody Religion in America: Patriarchal Biblical Groups such as Bill Gothard's Quiverfull movement and the Mega Churches such as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. One movement embraces hardship, large families that are home-schooled, corporal punishment, female subjugation, modest clothing, and adherence to some of the Old Testament Laws. The other embraces stadium seating, gift shops, coffee shops, small focus groups, and a replacement of traditional hymnals with projected lyrics on jumbo-trons. One asks you to return to the days before TV, the other uses large TVs to project the entire service. Both styles of American Christianity are growing faster than the old, established Protestant religions but the one that offers comfort, ease, and very little sacrifice other than showing up on Sundays is the one that is growing faster. Mega Churchs are usually non-denominational, number the congregation in 10s of thousands, offer very little in the normal religious trappings such as spires and stained glass, and restrict most music to live bands performing hymns from the last 10 years or so. They do their market research in order to give you, the local community, what you want. It's as American as MacDonalds and WalMart.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:49 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


"I don't buy the idea that pre-Christian ways of living were necessarily "Hell on Earth", rather than different systems with different advantages, weaknesses, and harms."

I'd challenge you to read this book and see if you feel the same way, it is very dry and academically written but just try to imagine the realities of the society that it depicts and that the early Christian church was specifically designed by Paul to resist.

It was Gandhi who said that 'A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members' and Greco/Roman society was actively and uniquely fucked up in this regard on a truly colossal scale without many ancient equivalents much less anything resembling a modern one. I suppose it is a good thing how really difficult it is today to imagine a world where your dignity and personhood as a human being would not be inherent to who you are but fundamentally relative and capable of being totally removed the moment you couldn't enforce it, but that was the reality of the day. This becomes clear from the way routine infanticide was not only accepted but universally celebrated, being trafficked in child prostitution was just what happened to children without someone to defend them, rape and slavery in military victory was an open and celebrated tool of genocide and subjugation of 'weaker' peoples as well as core economic policy, unselfconscious and shameless exploitation of women in chattel slavery was the dominant form of sexual expression, and exploitation and disposal of the weak was uncontroversial and embraced.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:57 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Having never lived in any kind of deeply religious area, I find the comments suggesting that religion is particularly key to community participation in the South really interesting. For anyone with a better sense of that context, how viable do you think this pastor's continued acceptance in his town might have been if he took Glass' advice to heart (prior to facebooking Dawkinspics, obviously) and just kept his mouth shut, while maintaining a stance of low-profile secularism? Say, he quietly stops preaching, continues working his construction gig, and is only rumored to have gone sour on religion, with no public proclamations of any sort to back it up?

More simply, does the profundity of belief actually matter that much compared to ostensible adherence to the community norm of belief?

I'm just curious as to how much this has to do with actual religious fervor vs. pre-Old Testament in-group/out-group tendencies. Sorry if it's muddled.
posted by passerby at 7:08 PM on August 27, 2012


If a society is born and raised without religion, in the world we have now with the scientific understanding we have now, it will probably be unlikely that anyone will spontaneously believe in God.

Why does the universe exists

Because conditions were right and a few cosmological constants hit the right values. Quarks, protons, hydrogen, trees, rocks, planets, and stars don't need a reason. They exist independent of any purpose we attempt to assign them.

why can I apprehend it

Because you have a complex, specialized organ that uses a dizzying array of electrical and chemical signals to process sensory information, make sense of the world around it, and even interact at a higher level with other people which gives rise to more abstract ideas such as "why." This organ has become so powerful that it can even study its own behavior. This organ is subject to a dizzying array of misguided actions, including attempting to assign such anthropomorphic principles as "purpose" / "why" to the universe.

(Seriously, even birds can apprehend the world and think critically. Thinking is not as special as you seem to think. Unless you're going to tell me that any bird that can think critically enough to fish must also have a soul to be so complex.)

is death the end of consciousness.

Yes. See the note above about an organ that is dependent on electrical and chemical signals, which when taken together result in an experience described as consciousness.

Done! Where's my prize? Seriously, snark is a poor substitute for critical thinking.

I do not claim that my answers are necessarily correct. However, I do claim that they are sufficient to answer the questions you posited without resorting to "god." We currently have sufficient answers for all of these questions without positing a Man In The Sky. The assertion that a group of people raised with scientific knowledge but no religious exposure would not invent religion cannot be dismissed solely with simple "why" questions.
posted by Tehhund at 7:23 PM on August 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Because conditions were right and a few cosmological constants hit the right values.

? If the nothing exists, in what context are conditions right? Where are these conditions if there is no universe?

See the note above about an organ that is dependent on electrical and chemical signals, which when taken together result in an experience described as consciousness.

This appears to be the case, but doesn't really explain anything. Our understanding of electrical and chemical signals does not explain in any way why they would be conscious. Its a complete mystery.

However, I do claim that they are sufficient to answer the questions you posited

No. These questions pretty much defy an answer, despite any explanation we may attempt to assign them.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:10 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


? If the nothing exists, in what context are conditions right? Where are these conditions if there is no universe?

Basically the universe can form from nothing for no reason because of Quantum Mechanics. Its like a blackhole exploding due to a QM fluctuation. Now inside the blackhole, there is no time, so there is no cause and effect. But QM fluctuations still happen.

The more interesting question then is, if universes just happen, there must be other ones out "there"....

No. These questions pretty much defy an answer, despite any explanation we may attempt to assign them

Properly done, Science doesn't produce "answers", just more interesting questions.
posted by Chekhovian at 8:20 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Basically the universe can form from nothing for no reason because of Quantum Mechanics.

If there is truly nothing, then there is no quantum mechanics either.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:24 PM on August 27, 2012


If there is truly nothing, then there is no quantum mechanics either.

If you're inside of a blackhole, time doesn't progress and spatial dimensions don't exist. So is there "something" there?
posted by Chekhovian at 8:43 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


How I've kind of assumed it worked is that time is a component of the universe, so it doesn't really make sense to ask questions about "before".

Maybe we'd best leave this type of thing to philosophers, physicists, and others who've had actual education in this field, but hey, it's MetaFilter.
posted by ODiV at 8:50 PM on August 27, 2012


If you're inside of a blackhole, time doesn't progress and spatial dimensions don't exist. So is there "something" there?

There is non-progressing time conceivably based on this explanation. Is this a "quantum vacuum state"? There are also the laws of physics (quantum mechanics or M-theory or whataver) that supposedly assign probabilities to "quantum fluctuations" or whatever it is that kicks off the universe in the first place.

The point is even any explanation must ultimately have unexplained explainer(s). In this case quantum mechanics or M-theory. Why quantum mechanics and not something else?

Maybe we'd best leave this type of thing to philosophers, physicists, and others

Which philosophers? Not Dennet I hope.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:58 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


take 1,000 infants and raise them without any knowledge of religion. Do they all grow up as atheists? Does even one of them invent a religion (and come to believe in it)?

"Religion", as in a set of codified beliefs, was late to the scene, though. Is it possible one of them anthropomorphize the sun? Only if they aren't taught in grade school that the sun is a massive ball of plasma undergoing nuclear fusion at the core. But they probably will be, so the "story" impulse can't manifest in the same way.

Religion's main function is group identity and hierarchical organization. But since these infants will not find the supernatural a fertile ground for these goals to manifest- because they'll be taught what volcanoes are before they invent Vulcan- you'll get other non-rational binding mechanisms.

Basically, you will have created 1,000 sports fanatics.
posted by spaltavian at 9:01 PM on August 27, 2012


I grew up in the South, and never really had faith in the existence of a god. I went to church, I said the prayers, but I never "felt" the presence of God. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that I was agnostic at best, but realistically pretty much an atheist.

I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but I have often wondered if there are a lot more people out there who purport to be Christian also have no real belief, but because it would be apostasy to admit such, that they toe the line and keep their mouths shut. Because it would scratch a particular itch I have if one day I somehow found out that like 30 or 60 or 90 percent of the people I grew up with admitted that they've always felt there was something wrong with them since they didn't actually have any real faith in the existence of god.
posted by nushustu at 9:02 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The point is even any explanation...

you'll get other non-rational binding mechanisms......Basically, you will have created 1,000 sports fanatics.

And Evo Psych speculators. And cosmologists.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:06 PM on August 27, 2012


The point is even any explanation must ultimately have unexplained explainer(s).

What's new here is that we have explanations that are to some degree testable through experiments and observations. Sure we don't have table top machines that can create pocket universes...but we have literally decades of careful measurements of Quantum Mechanical effects. Working backward from what happens in your collider to what happens in your big bang is hard yes, but its rather more rigorous than arguing about angels on pin heads.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:13 PM on August 27, 2012


I suppose it is a good thing how really difficult it is today to imagine a world where your dignity and personhood as a human being would not be inherent to who you are but fundamentally relative and capable of being totally removed the moment you couldn't enforce it,

This is part of why I'm both repulsed and interested - trainwreck style - with the Game of Thrones TV show - it's not really the focus, but it's definitely there - the feeling that most people are doing what they do because they think it's their best chance to survive another day in a world where might is right and the moment your might lapses, you perish. An undercurrent of desperation and unforeseeable high stakes behind even simple choices.
posted by anonymisc at 9:28 PM on August 27, 2012


Ev psych is generally untestable and therefore unscientific, but if you'll indulge a bit of wankery, in terms of encouraging beneficial group dynamics religion takes the contest in a walk.

When the zombies come, my money is on the Amish.
posted by anonymisc at 9:32 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


zarq: "Brainwashing is the use of coercive techniques to change someone's previously held opinion. ... I believe you are referring to indoctrination"

Uh oh. Grammer fight!
posted by Bonzai at 9:47 PM on August 27, 2012


How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists - I was there for this talk by Dan Barker, one of the founders of the Clergy Project. Really worthwhile for people interested in the perspective of someone who travelled the same path as Jerry DeWitt - that section starts at about 11 minutes. There's a (poor-quality) auto-transcription of the talk, probably better for skipping to parts you want to see rather than as a substitute for watching the video.
posted by harriet vane at 9:52 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


He may have been shunned by his whole community but there are no doubt a few hidden doubters there who now have an example of someone they respect and trust who is telling them, "You are not alone."
posted by Bonzai at 10:08 PM on August 27, 2012


Bonzai: Uh oh. Grammer fight!

Spelling Police check this board, so watch it.
posted by mule98J at 11:38 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd challenge you to read this book and see if you feel the same way, it is very dry and academically written but just try to imagine the realities of the society that it depicts and that the early Christian church was specifically designed by Paul to resist. It was Gandhi who said that 'A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members' and Greco/Roman society was actively and uniquely fucked up in this regard on a truly colossal scale without many ancient equivalents much less anything resembling a modern one.

We were talking about Icelandic society in 960 CE, not Roman society in 1 CE (I probably should have said "non-Christian societies" rather than "pre-Christian"). And even then, Roman society wasn't the only pre-Christian civilization, nor was it Hell On Earth. It was a "different system with different advantages, weaknesses, and harms", just as all human systems are. Including ours: sure, I'd much rather be an American, especially as a woman, but let's not kid ourselves about the realities of our own brand of force.

For one thing, go ask the children living off poisonous scrap recycling in China or mining for blood-diamonds in Africa how well we modern people treat our "weakest members". (Or you could stick close to home, and ask one of the 13 million undernourished kids in the United States). Then go ask the two million women and children sold into sex slavery every year -- with over 100,000 bound for Western Europe -- how much worse it would have been to have their dignity "totally removed the moment you couldn't enforce it", as if that's not already the state of affairs for them and for millions more around the world. And if those forms of suffering are too uncommon for you, then ask yourself why a full 80% of the world's population lives on the equivalent of less than $10 per day, with 40% earning less than three dollars, all while the Church Paul founded drips with gold. And then there's how fair things are at home...

The sheer scale of the abuses that go on in the global economy make Rome look like a bunch of backwater pikers. At least many ancient people had the fortune not to be Roman slaves; these days all roads really do lead to us.
posted by vorfeed at 12:00 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is nothing atheism offers which is particularly comforting; it's the people who can't stand being wrong or bear illogic once discovered who cease to believe.

Other than the idea that what we do actually matters and aren't merely the plans of some powerful entity. And that the universe isn't capricious. Both of those are tremendously comforting, as is the idea that there isn't an all-powerful being out there whose notion of "justice" is to condemn people to be tortured eternally.

But point taken. It's a different type of person that takes comfort in the idea that the shit that happens to you isn't personal.
posted by Francis at 2:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


And even then, Roman society wasn't the only pre-Christian civilization, nor was it Hell On Earth. It was a "different system with different advantages, weaknesses, and harms", just as all human systems are. Including ours: sure, I'd much rather be an American, especially as a woman, but let's not kid ourselves about the realities of our own brand of force.

Or about the Romans. Caesar once sold an entire province into slavery. 53,000 people who were formerly free in one go.

You mention two million people sold into slavery each year in the world. That's two million two many. I fully agree. However in 1860, over half the population of two states in the United States of America were slaves. And that was after the British Navy had been suppressing the trans-Atlantic slave trade for thirty years.

Things now aren't great. And they need to improve. But the notion that the sheer scale of the abuses now make Rome look like a bunch of backwater pikers is true only for two reasons. Rome was a backwater, and world population has increased from probably under 300 million in Roman times (or about the population of the US) to over 6 billion. We've come an almost incomprehensible distance from the time when Jesus casually commented that the poor would always be with us to the ability (although not the will) to prevent anyone in various countries being objectively poor. You talk about 80% of the world living on under $10/day. In Roman times World GDP per capita was around $500/year. If the average GDP per capita is less than $2/day, what do you think the proportion of people living on $10/day or less is? Or even $3/day or less is? We've come a long way - not that there isn't still plenty to do.
posted by Francis at 2:50 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


..for her, being an atheist represents human ignorance and hubris, tantamount to belief in the infallibility of science.

Relevant.
posted by Decani at 3:38 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Secret Life of Gravy: Right now there are two movements that embody Religion in America: Patriarchal Biblical Groups such as Bill Gothard's Quiverfull movement and the Mega Churches such as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

Only two?

Golden Eternety: The point is even any explanation must ultimately have unexplained explainer(s). In this case quantum mechanics or M-theory. Why quantum mechanics and not something else?

True, I have few objections to the retreat to plausibility as an aesthetic choice. It's not convincing to me because there doesn't seem to be much philosophical reason to put all of the eggs in one basket so to speak, and assume that the unexplained explainer is also the ground of moral conduct, and does so via specific history-bound revelation. Specifically my current doubt is centered on two things: the anthropic conceit that ipsum esse is something more capable of a relationship than the infinity of real numbers, and the frequently claimed paradox that deity is both universal AND separate.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:56 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


vorfeed: " Or hey, maybe different people are comforted and satisfied by different things, despite the fact that they don't seem very comforting or satisfying to others. The question of which way a questioning believer will go is fundamentally a question of what they value most, and I'm not sure that can so easily be waved away as a matter of temperament."

I suspect for some it's not necessarily what they value most per se, but where they honestly believe they might find the answers they're seeking.
posted by zarq at 6:35 AM on August 28, 2012


I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but I have often wondered if there are a lot more people out there who purport to be Christian also have no real belief, but because it would be apostasy to admit such, that they toe the line and keep their mouths shut. Because it would scratch a particular itch I have if one day I somehow found out that like 30 or 60 or 90 percent of the people I grew up with admitted that they've always felt there was something wrong with them since they didn't actually have any real faith in the existence of god.

This was the case with my husband and he too grew up in the South. It wasn't until he met me, an unabashed atheist, and we had many conversations about God, science, religion, afterlife, etc. that he decided he is not an agnostic, he is an atheist. There are far too many people, in this country at least, that never question what they are taught and never question what they believe.

Secret Life of Gravy: Right now there are two movements that embody Religion in America: Patriarchal Biblical Groups such as Bill Gothard's Quiverfull movement and the Mega Churches such as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

Only two?


These are the two fastest growing categories of religion, yes. What I find most interesting about the Mega Church movement is that they are getting their membership from older, more established religions rather than converting non-believers.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:59 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm up for talking about this, but I'd like to point out that I'm not really trying to get into a pissing match about which systems are better/worse than others -- I'm trying to point out that ancient societies were human institutions with different advantages and weaknesses. Looking at just one aspect of an ancient society (with a decent quality of life given the time and a parliamentary system which is still around today, in the case of the people of Iceland) and then declaring that the South would be "Hell on Earth" if we were anything like Those People is short-sighted in the extreme; all it does is take our own values, checks, and balances (and failures thereof) for granted, while denying the ancients their own.

But the notion that the sheer scale of the abuses now make Rome look like a bunch of backwater pikers is true only for two reasons. Rome was a backwater, and world population has increased from probably under 300 million in Roman times (or about the population of the US) to over 6 billion.

Sure, but that was my point: our system is global, so its weaknesses do much more harm than Roman weaknesses did. I didn't even mention the fact that we've started to affect the global climate in ways which might well turn out to be inimical to human life -- history may well judge us as the worst monsters in the history of the species, the literal creators of Hell on Earth. If so, then future people will probably have plenty to say about what a wonderful difference being "one in Christ" made. Some things are much worse than blood feuds.
posted by vorfeed at 10:57 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to jump in here and re-recommend the first podcast linked in the OP, not just because it's an interesting account of DeWitt's de-conversion process, but because DeWitt's talk is (for obvious reasons) spot-on Pentacostal in its delivery. As somebody raised Southern Baptist (now agnostic), it was a powerful reminder of how much of evangelical preaching is pure performance, and how easily the aesthetic could be borrowed for more awesome subversive purposes.
posted by Rykey at 3:13 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this thread is about religion AND has almost 150 comments AND has remained uncannily civil, on-topic, and interesting. Uh... thanks.

I think it can be a great relief to believe there will be no judgment day.

Curtis Mayfield put it well: If there's a hell below, we're all gonna go.
posted by Rykey at 3:52 PM on August 28, 2012


There are far too many people, in this country at least, that never question what they are taught and never question what they believe.

I agree, although I'm saying something a little different. My suspicion is that they DO question what they believe, they just never do so outside of their own heads/hearts, because to do so would be to question pretty much the entire foundation of the society in which they live.

And then there's maybe another group that absolutely refuses to ever let such questions of their faith into their own heads for the same questioning-their-entire-society reasons, which scare the shit out of them.

***

You remember growing up? The time when you realized "oh, hey, this is some serious shit I have to take care of, I can't depend on my mom or teacher or whomever to take care of this for me." It's going to be at different times/ages for different people: maybe it was when you went off to college, or when you got married, had kids, left home, whenever. The point is, it was really scary. It was in my case anyway.

I feel like a lot of Christians (and other religious people I suppose, but I grew up among Christians, so cut me a little slack,) have to grow up, but they always feel like - any time things get too much to bear - they can fall back on God to take care of them. So they get to continue to be little kids in a way. And that feels good: you get to let go of all of the responsibility of being an adult, and trust that there's someone else in the universe that knows better and is taking care of things in the big picture.

Now, imagine being in that mindset and supposing that there is no god. All of a sudden, you have to trust in yourself, with all of your flaws and problems, and trust in everybody else, with all of their flaws and problems. I would imagine that would be pretty damned terrifying. Because if most Christians are raised to think about things the way my church taught me, then they think that all of the credit for everything good goes to god, and all of the blame for everything bad goes to humans. So they're hard-wired to think of humans as fundamentally bad. So if god doesn't exist, if people are the best the world has to offer, then if you still think of people as bad, we're all fucked.

It isn't until you can let go of both the idea of god and the idea that humans are what's wrong with god's potentially perfect universe that you can stop being so scared of everything all the time.
posted by nushustu at 4:01 PM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Rykey: "Also, this thread is about religion AND has almost 150 comments AND has remained uncannily civil, on-topic, and interesting. Uh... thanks."

And as the OP may I also second this and say "Thank you!" to all of you who kept it that way. You've done an awesome job.

I was hoping this wouldn't devolve into a vicious snark-fest and am truly grateful that it didn't.
posted by zarq at 4:43 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


nushustu, that's a really insightful point. I wasn't raised to think of humans as essentially flawed, but I know plenty who have been. Maybe I wasn't paying attention during those bits, I'm not sure how I avoided it since it's one of Christianity's basic assumptions. And when I first admitted I was an atheist I definitely missed that feeling that humanity had a safety net, that there would eventually be redress for all the wrongs in the world.

Thanks for setting up such a nice FPP zarq - lots of good links to dig into! And thanks Rykey for recommending the podcast, I'd skipped those in favour of the articles but I've bookmarked it for later.
posted by harriet vane at 9:08 PM on August 28, 2012


Harriet, it might be that, if you're like me, the first step toward atheism was you sort of subconsciously rejecting the idea of humans being bad. Honestly, I think that's what started me down the road toward non-belief. It wasn't the whole "god doesn't exist." I'm still kind of on the fence about that, simply because I know it can't be disproven. But the "everything good: god. everything bad: people" pissed me right off early on.

As a kid, I remember thinking "that'd be like, if I pass a test, it's because I have a good teacher, but if I fail the test, it's because I'm a bad student." And that made no sense to me, because then why do ANYTHING? You can bust your ass and get nothing for it ever, but if you screw up, it's on you.

So that made me think, "why, if god is so good, does he need so much damned credit all the time? Why does he need us to remind him that we respect his ass all the time. If he's so freaking awesome, then why does he care about my pandering to him so much?" and that was step one into questioning EVERYTHING about god.

When you do that and finally come out on the other side, it's pretty great, because then you realize that people are AWESOME, and capable of awesome things, and we can make the world a wonderful place, if we can all just learn to be grown-ups. And not grown-ups in the sense that we can't turn our bedrooms into ballpits, but in the "welp, I gotta do this thing, because there is no other being smarter/more powerful than me that I can depend on to take care of it for me."
posted by nushustu at 10:17 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the traps to avoid is letting others define God for you, and then reject all religious life based on their definition. They’re just people, some not especially bright, and have no super powers. Everyone is making it up. Since no one knows anything, you get to decide.
posted by bongo_x at 10:57 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Right now there are two movements that embody Religion in America: Patriarchal Biblical Groups such as Bill Gothard's Quiverfull movement and the Mega Churches such as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church.

Tangential question for clarity's sake - are the mega-churches part of any one particular denomination, or are you thinking of just the notion of "there used to be a lot of little churches around for every denomination but now all denominations are gathering into mega churches so this is kind of like the wal-marting of religion"?

Asking as I always had it in my head that the mega-churches were more to be found among one or two specific denominations while everyone else sort of kept to what they'd always done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:50 AM on August 30, 2012


It's a weird claim to me that doesn't match the demographics I've been able to find. To me, it looks like Mormonism and Islam appear to be gaining the largest populations, while Buddhists and "nones" appear to be gaining the largest percentages.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:15 PM on August 30, 2012


Harriet, you're quite welcome. Glad you enjoyed it! :)

CBrachyrhynchos: "while Buddhists and "nones" appear to be gaining the largest percentages."

The Pew Religious Landscape survey from 2007 has breakdowns.
posted by zarq at 12:21 PM on August 30, 2012


The megachurches around here are specifically non-denominational. They don't subscribe to or submit to any authority outside of their own pastorate and membership.
posted by KathrynT at 12:31 PM on August 30, 2012


Kathryn, so in a sense they're pluralistic?
posted by zarq at 12:43 PM on August 30, 2012


I don't know if they (or I) would say that -- there's a lot of One True Way-ism about them.
posted by KathrynT at 1:01 PM on August 30, 2012


It's my experience that some independent Churches are independent either for reasons of history, administration, or a doctrinal sense that a larger coalition is doing it wrong.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:11 PM on August 30, 2012


See, that's what I mean, KathrynT - I get the sense that there IS OneTrueWay (or, a single denomination) in the megachurches, as opposed to them being more like "the unitarians use this on Monday, the Methodists on Tuesday, the Lutherans on Wednesday...." or any "You're Baptist, but you over there, you're Catholic? Heck, it don't matter, come on in!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:16 PM on August 30, 2012


It's a weird claim to me that doesn't match the demographics I've been able to find. To me, it looks like Mormonism and Islam appear to be gaining the largest populations, while Buddhists and "nones" appear to be gaining the largest percentages.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:15 PM on August 30

You do understand that I'm only talking about America. Mormons are 1.7% of all American adults and Muslim is 0.6%.

A Mega-church is usually defined as a non-Catholic church having at least 2,000 average weekend attendance. Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas has 30,000. Membership in Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California had grown so big in 2005 he had to hire Anaheim's baseball stadium in order to speak to the entire congregation at one time.

While there are Protestant Mega-Churches and even some Jewish Mega-Churches, by far the fastest growing are the Evangelical which stress the Bible as the Word of God and being Born Again. There were 10 Mega-Churches in America in 1970. As of last year there were 1,900. Some Mega-Churches such as Oklahoma's Life Church are franchising their names, but usually they advertise themselves as non-denominational in order to attract the greatest number of members.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:13 PM on August 30, 2012


You do understand that I'm only talking about America.

So am I.

Mormons are 1.7% of all American adults and Muslim is 0.6%.

Are you now changing your claim chowder from, "These are the two fastest growing categories of religion, yes?" That claim is wrong because Evangelical groups only experienced single-digiit growth barely above the rate of population growth over the last decade, in contrast to Mormons and Muslims who had double-digit growth. If your claim is that Evangelicals the largest religious grouping in the United States, that's not saying much because they're only ~25% of American adults.

A Mega-church is usually defined as a non-Catholic church having at least 2,000 average weekend attendance. Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas has 30,000. Membership in Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California had grown so big in 2005 he had to hire Anaheim's baseball stadium in order to speak to the entire congregation at one time.

Largely irrelevant because articles about individual congregations tell us nothing about the shape of religion across the entire population. It's like saying Catholics are the most influential religious group in the United States because the University of Notre Dame.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:11 PM on August 30, 2012


and even some Jewish Mega-Churches,

Welllll........ I know what the article said, but a thousand Jews attending a prayer service at a single convention isn't a "mega church." It's not even a "mega synagogue." And it's certainly not an example of a multiple "Mega-Churches" trend. There really isn't one in Judaism.

There are only two, perhaps three American temples that I know of who have been trying to turn themselves into "Mega Synagogues." They're all Reform. I've attended services at one, located in Houston. It's currently home to between 2200 and 2300 families.

It works for them, and more power to 'em. But there are a lot of reasons why more synagogues haven't been jumping onto the mega bandwagon. One is that it's a tactic which can only work in cities with large Jewish populations. There aren't that many Jews in the United States, and we tend to be grouped into the larger cities -- and most of those cities do have a lot of synagogues. (Houston interestingly enough is an exception to that. Lots of Jews, few synagogues.) So we're a bit of a dispersed population to begin with -- a situation which is compounded by the fact that nearly half of all American Jews aren't religious, don't bother going to synagogue at all and probably have no interest in becoming actual paying synagogue members. You can't become a mega-anything if you can't fill the pews.

So there's the population issue. Also, even though the Reform movement is more liberal and less ritual-oriented, many of their synagogues seem (at least as far as I can see,) loathe to use electricity in the form of television screens to run services during the Sabbath. Although I bet it wouldn't be a total deal-breaker for some.

But they're the only sect who would even consider allowing an in-synagogue television screen to run on Shabbat. The conservative and reform movements wouldn't stand for it in their synagogues.

There's a huge, ongoing debate in Jewish religious communities about ways synagogues can make themselves more appealing encourage higher membership rates. It's been happening since the 60's. There are consultants who make a very nice living teaching synagogues how to market themselves to young families. And there are sect-affiliated youth movements that help bond kids and teens to Jewish religious life.

But the mega synagogue thing hasn't caught on. I suspect it won't in the future, either.
posted by zarq at 9:19 PM on August 30, 2012


Sorry, correction:

"The conservative and reform movements wouldn't stand for it in their synagogues." should be "The conservative and orthodox movements wouldn't stand for it in their synagogues."
posted by zarq at 9:21 PM on August 30, 2012


I know a LOT of liberal Christians who are functionally atheist - how they live and reason has nothing to do with God. It is almost like they just can't let go of that last step of just saying, "I don't need to believe in God." I think a lot of this comes from marinating in the culture of the church and people around them. Not quite as overt a fear of becoming a pariah, but just an unspoken assumption that you always have to make room for God somewhere, even if it's in a tiny corner where science cannot reach. It isn't a step that requires as much bravery as coming out in public, but it does require a pretty big step of cutting ties to your culture in your mind.

Judaism also has many Orthodox Jews who outwardly seem like practicing believers- but they're actually just going through the motions and don't believe in any of it. There's even a name for them: Orthoprax. They're don't want to go as far as leaving their communities- they're most comfortable living the religious lifestyle- but they don't believe in it.
posted by shelayna at 12:07 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The megachurches around here are specifically non-denominational. They don't subscribe to or submit to any authority outside of their own pastorate and membership.

I've always known "non-denominational" to be code for "evangelical fundamentalist."
posted by Rykey at 1:40 PM on September 2, 2012


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