Spiritual Atheists, Humanist Chaplains, and FFRF Weddings
May 7, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Currently making the rounds. A qualitative study in Sociology of Religion looks at "spiritual atheists" in science. A call for Humanist Chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. And The Freedom From Religion Foundation becomes certified to perform weddings in Tulsa.
posted by KirkJobSluder (50 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
[Deleted a few comments - let's try this again, please. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 10:13 AM on May 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

There's a long history of marriage as a non-religious institution in European history. It took some doing for the Church to get it recognised as a sacrament. It'd be interesting if all that work comes unravelled.

I'm still reading the sociology of religion article, I'm surprised people got through it so quickly.
posted by ServSci at 10:14 AM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was underwhelmed by the Sociology of Religion article. I didn't get a clear sense of how the interview participants defined a non-theistic spirituality and the handful of quotes from the interviews wasn't sufficient for me. I don't doubt that spiritual atheists exist, and given how broadly spirituality is defined, I'd probably see myself as one.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:36 AM on May 7, 2011

I find this pretty interesting. I've long described myself as a scientific extinctionist, but I find that my life just runs better if I take some time to do little hippie rituals around important events in my life and the solar holidays. I really don't have magical thinking about any of my rituals, but they're certainly a spiritual expression of some sort. I also don't have any problem with being dual-minded about the universe. It's what works best for me, and I'm glad I've been able to find some kind of small expression of ritual which helps keep me centered and grounded.

Probably all psychological tricks, but who cares?
posted by hippybear at 10:39 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I dunno, a "Spiritual Humanist Church"? It sounds like it does little more than provide ammunition for fundies who delight in claiming that "Atheism is a religion, too!!11!!!"
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 10:54 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting, too, is the humanist chaplain thing. I suppose their chaplain services would be something similar to this one UU church I went to a couple of times, where the pastor was actually pretty much an athiest/humanist, so the weeks she was preaching the sermons were about finding kindness toward one's fellow man or exploring the clockwork of the universe or whatever and never mentioned god at all.

I'd support having those kinds of chaplains in the military. Anything which gets people thinking beyond their immediate moment has to be good when you're living such a stressful life.
posted by hippybear at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

And finally... those closing paragraphs of the final link bring to mind the strictures I've heard about getting married in the Catholic or Jewish faiths -- member in good standing, will promise to bring up children in the context of the organization, etc.

So, yeah... there is a bit of an "athiesm is a religion" thing... although it does kind of spread out the definition of "religion" to be any organized philosophical group.
posted by hippybear at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2011

The position of the chaplain in Western militaries and universities is very mysterious to me.

I worked as a chaplain's assistant at my college. I am now living in Japan. It's still possible that I could go to divinity school as a Buddhist and apply to be a non-Christian Navy chaplain, although this career path grows more unlikely every year as I come to appreciate Japanese secularism. But in the meantime I am hard pressed to explain the function of my once and future job to my friends. I feel like my experience could shed some light on the puzzle of the atheist chaplain.

I was supposed to provide "religious services" without tying the institution to any particular religion. I was supposed to attract people, not to my religious identity as would be natural for a sincerely religious person, but to the chapel in general and whatever it was that it was supposed to stand for. I was supposed to assist in the celebration of some holidays, but the way in which holidays were "approved" as chapel-related appeared arbitrary, with a loose connection to gods or Buddhas outweighing the more obvious question of cultural importance-- my chapel paid a great deal of money for the Indian community to celebrate Holi, with catered food and dancing, but the Asian community had to find their own funding to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Every Sunday was a "religious" event at the Chapel, but they alternated between religions in the most absurd parody of multiculti, meaning of course that attendance was quite sparse. Look at it this way: most people on campus were nonreligious so even though the chapel served "every community" it served none of these people. The people who were actually religious of course had a service every week, whether the Chapel paid for it or not, and probably felt uncomfortable that their Sunday ritual was being presented as a single option among many. Some of them would attend to extend some sort of olive branch to the chapel itself, but the benefits received from the chapel in return (besides use of the building and funding for that week, funds that of course belonged to the institution itself) was unclear.

Finally, the chapel sponsored political activity, but only progressive politics was approved by the chaplain. Okay, this last factoid is tangential, but I see it as the natural progression of the points listed above. In short the mission of the chapel was first and foremost to justify its own existence, and this was accomplished by "reaching out" to anything that could vaguely be considered "religious" at the expense of equally or more important nonreligious activities, even as more seriously religious people worked independent of the Chapel with no need for its money or support.

It's very easy to understand how a military chaplain was useful when there was a state church which all military men were expected to subscribe to. But the idea of a chaplain is inconsistent with a separation of church from institution. If it's okay to be an atheist in the army, or in college, then a chaplain is necessarily set up for only a portion of the institutional body, and the variety of religions dilutes its meaning further. If Pakistan's army divisions were given spiritual assistance by imams sponsoring radical right-wing politics, the U.S. would probably issue a letter of complaint. Yet much of the Western world has a military chaplain system. Why?

This being said, I can understand why atheists in the armed forces feel uncomfortable. The chaplain has influence on the unit, and even if the idea of "secular spirituality" is a bunch of nonsense, the mere presence of a chaplain meeting with all the Christians and Other Religionists in private to discuss all their problems in a non-psychological setting is enough to make non-religionists feel left out-- not to mention all the other events, services, and assistance the chaplain will naturally offer to theists in an attempt to justify his own existence. None of these things are actually necessary, seeing as Christians have natural inclinations to congregate and read Bibles even without the Army throwing money at them, but through the constant presence of these chapel services they become a normal part of military life. If atheists are meant to be in the Army, it's only natural that eventually they will want some control over that part of daily life on base.
posted by shii at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2011 [15 favorites]

"Spiritual" is one of those words I find funny, stupid and repellent all at the same time. Actually, come to think of it, it's the only word I feel that way about. Whenever I hear someone say something like "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual" I flag down a cab and go to the next county so that I don't end up on an assault or murder charge.
posted by Decani at 11:00 AM on May 7, 2011 [16 favorites]

I don't think that article is so bad. Sure the categories are slippery, but really people are largely self-identifying here. It's mostly about how people see themselves, though. I think that's alright. I thin what they mean is pretty clear. I have people tell me they aren't religious but are spiritual all the time, so I know how vague but pervasive this sort of construction is.

Personally, I don't see the difference between the two things but I may have just talked to too many spiritual religious people, and religious spiritual people, and so on... I sort of get the distinction people are making, I think, between participating in the communal thing and really feeling it all the time.

I think the last section of the article, on engagement, is really an interesting perspective on things and ties in well with the Chaplains and things in your other links. It's funny that almost everyone's definitions of religion and spirituality highlighted the Communal versus the individual, and then they found these:
"Of the scientists who were spiritual, about one-third specifically linked their spirituality with other-directed actions. For some, they used what we call an “engaged spirituality” to create a boundary between themselves and other scientists who are strict modernists—and whom these respondents think often do not reflect carefully on the implications of their science—as well as a boundary in opposition to the spirituality of the general public, which they think has fewer implications for other-directed practices."
For, at least, some of the spiritual scientists, their interest in consistency seems to have lead them back to the communal. I like that this critique of the simplistic "communal v. individual" dichotomy comes up in the evidence.
posted by ServSci at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

"By all powerful Atheismo, I proclaim that this post may be sacred or that it may not be, and that we should now bow our heads in prayer or not do so or do something else. For, lo, we are pleasing all of the people all of the time. Or we're not. But that's cool, too."
posted by Construction Concern at 11:22 AM on May 7, 2011

Yet much of the Western world has a military chaplain system. Why?

In the US, the evangelical Christian community has a disproportionately large influence int he military. They view military chaplaincies (as other chaplaincies) as a "mission field" through which they use their opportunity for service to "witness" Christ and make new converts.

I've mentioned before how I used to work in a missions organization overseas. One fellow, working with me for a brief time through a partner organization, spent two years overseas trying to get established in a field allocation. He demonstrated, time and again, an irritatingly inconsiderate fervency in his Christian witness and a grossly insensitive inability to adapt to other cultures. He eventually realized missionary work wasn't where he could make his best evangelical contribution, so he left the organization and...became a military chaplain.

That's not to say that all chaplains are rabid proselytes. Quite the contrary. But I've so often heard of chaplain positions discussed in mission strategy meetings as prime missions opportunities that one would be foolish to imagine that many chaplaincy positions in the military and elsewhere haven't been infiltrated by folks motivated as much by winning converts as by providing emotional support to those in need.
posted by darkstar at 11:31 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

In summary, one set of scholarly work views spirituality as simply a watered down religion that has benefit only to the practitioner, evidence of an overall decline in community, perhaps a rise in negative forms of narcissism, and indicative of overall individual and societal-level secularization. Another set of scholarly views about spirituality see it as providing a way to connect with the transcendent without the confinement of organized religion and with the possibility to generate concern for others and for the community. All of these perspectives point to spirituality as an important development in contemporary American religious life.

In other words, one set of scholarly work views spirituality as bad because it isn't religious enough, and the other views spirituality as good because it can be co-opted into religion. Either way, it's being viewed through the lens of religion: guess everything really does look like a nail when all you have is a hammer.

If you ask me, the scientists quoted in the first article are pretty clearly describing feelings and ways of thinking that we'd call secular. Even they point out that they "have an inherent sense that their spirituality is qualitatively different from that practiced by nonscientists". I'd say that this happens because we don't have a social framework for feelings of wonder, awe, joy, self-actualization, etc which aren't implicitly based on the supernatural... but having met many spiritual people whose beliefs are explicitly, absolutely supernatural, I'd suggest that "spiritual" isn't exactly it. It seems to me that these feelings, beliefs, etc. need to be examined in their own context -- not the context of either religion or "spiritualism" -- to be properly understood.

The last part of the article is especially bizarre: "These results do imply that what may be unique about scientists is their dedication to the pursuit of scientific knowledge. This pursuit would not be motivated only by self-interest—how to make more money or achieve personal success—but also by a desire to understand the vastness and complexity of the natural order, which both flows initially from their science and ends in an awe and wonder that is wholly beyond it." [...] "If, over time, research continues to reveal that modernity has not completely taken hold even among scientists at elite research universities, inasmuch as scientists as individuals are part of a broader growing societal-level scientific mindset, this research may provide evidence against some forms of secularization theory that assumes science leads only to secularization."

The study's authors seem to believe that "modernity" and "secularization" causes people to become robots that go BEEP BOOP BOP, MON-EY, BOOP BEEP PER-SO-NAL SUCCESS; their argument appears to be that anything that doesn't fit this incredibly reductionist model is therefore "spiritual", and thus quasi-religious. This kind of thing makes me want to introduce the authors to the human race -- they might find the experience quite, um, spiritual!
posted by vorfeed at 11:32 AM on May 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I tend to translate "spiritual" as "I do not attend church, please don't kill me for being a heathen in your Christian society." Look on OKCupid for instances of it. Try making that substitution sometime, it's interesting.
posted by adipocere at 11:51 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is absolutely a need for the sort of community support structures that a "church" provides, only for the Atheist, agnostic, and the uncertain communities. It is a very common thing for there to be almost a "resentment" of the massive support structure religious folks have.

Honestly, who cares what a fundamentalist goes and shouts. If someone uses the existence of a community center, space for non-theistic ritualism and spaces for the sort of things that churches provide in order to further the "atheism is a religion toooooo" thing... so what? They would do the exact same thing WITHOUT the existence of such a center.

No incitement of the "moral panic", but it is harder and more complex to be a kid each day, having a space for open-mindedness, or lessons, ethical discussions, and more is hugely valuable, no, I am not saying that "atheists have no morals" or something, the opposite, but meanwhile, there is a need to learn, talk about, and share in many areas, which are currently not addressed in the current situation, where it is sort of like "every atheist for their own self". Sure, that may be cool and fine for the "already grown up, already certain of their worldview adults"... but for young people, it sort of puts people at a disadvantage, and can lead to anger and feelings of being "alone". There actually ARE important things to talk about, to learn, and share, and to debate or discuss, hopefully in a non-judgmental space. Ideally, a humanist space would accept a person who did feel "theist", and wouldn't seek to "beat the wrong religion" out of them... the beauty of a human space is that it doesn't NEED to do the whole "either you are with us or against us"... I can imagine some extremely fruitful discussions occurring, and inter-group dialogue is only a good thing. Services not "teaching" any "single faith", nor attempting to "argue" about religion!

Just discussions, lessons, moral, ethical, scientific and yes, occasionally spiritual discussions. It doesn't hurt to talk about these things openly, but it can hurt to not be able, or have a space to discuss them openly. Our modern societies have a distinct failure in the realm of understanding "Justice" (yes, many misunderstandings come also from the "religious" groups, but it hurts us all when we are ignorant of important concepts such as this, and in this fast world, it is HARD to teach such concepts, and parents simply do not have the resources to do this on their own.

There will also be fundamentalists on the anti-spiritual/ritualism side who will express disdain and say you are just a cheap copy of "religious" behavior... well, they likely just need a hug too, so invite them along.

I understand that there are no necessary common bonds or common beliefs, and an atheist can come from any one of many "places" in terms of belief, or understanding of existence, or the scientific universe, some are deeply spiritual/religious people who have had terrible experiences with one or another Religious Institutions...
When you consider the avenues of assistance, and the avenues of discourse provided by the very existence of a "place" or "space", using shared resources, and pooled intellect and passion, where people may set aside the petty differences, and just communally share experience... the number of connections is so much greater for a person who happens to have been born to a religious family. Say what you will about the reasons, or the trappings, or the "implications" of belief; but there is value in the reality some people are born into.
posted by infinite intimation at 11:51 AM on May 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

There is absolutely a need for the sort of community support structures that a "church" provides, only for the Atheist, agnostic, and the uncertain communities.

Moving to a new town and finding a tribe is easy if you're church-minded. You pick a church and start going there. After more than a couple of weeks, people start to chat you up, and soon you have a pre-made community web that pulls you in.

Moving to a new town if you're NOT going to join a church to find community... is... really fucking hard.
posted by hippybear at 11:55 AM on May 7, 2011 [11 favorites]

Paul Goodman, anarchist writer, never married and said he did not need a license from The State to be with the woman he loved.
A chaplain in the service is as useful as the religious figure brought in to a cell to say bye bye to someone being executed: to provide solace for the State and Church doing that which the Church traditionally is opposed to: killing. But then as the chaplain was advised in Catch-22, though you have lost belief in god is no reason why you should not keep your job as chaplain. It is a good gig.
posted by Postroad at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2011

community support structures that a "church" provides, only for the Atheist, agnostic, and the uncertain

Anything to do with nature or science. For example in my area there is a group that centers around invasive plants with meetings and outings. There is a group centered around a local river, conservation and education. These types of groups are numerous and everywhere. They see the world in a scientific way, instead of explaining it through received wisdom. It's not religious or spiritual (druidism or whatever), but at the core, it's about interacting with the world in a rational manner, and not mysticism, celebrating life as it exists by learning about nature. Again, it's not a alternative religion, rather an alternative to religion.
posted by stbalbach at 12:18 PM on May 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

You may not need a license from the state to be with your life partner, but marriage still confers tangible benefits over cohabitation. While I don't disagree with your conception of chaplaincy in the military, there are distinct social benefits to those professing the majority creed, and I'm sure that having the services of a chaplain can help with the mental health issues endemic to military service - good enough reason for the infidel atheists and humanists to have their own. So it's not just the State that's benefiting...
posted by jtron at 12:19 PM on May 7, 2011

@shii: "The people who were actually religious of course had a service every week, whether the Chapel paid for it or not, and probably felt uncomfortable that their Sunday ritual was being presented as a single option among many."

Naw, not being raised under a rock, I was aware from earliest childhood that my religion was just one choice among many. When I went to an officially secular graduate school with a chapel holdover from its religious roots, that did some rotating of services as you mention, the issue was just that I already had a place I went every week, which had a community I was part of, and the weeks the chapel did "my" religion, that's still not where my community was. I wasn't particularly bothered or enthused by it; I'm glad they gave every religious group on campus the chance to use the space if they wished; but it didn't do much for me. No discomfort, just not much point. Probably mattered more to the undergrads without transportation options.

@hippybear: "find that my life just runs better if I take some time to do little hippie rituals around important events in my life and the solar holidays."

It makes perfect sense; humans are ritualistic animals. If they don't already have rituals to do, they create rituals. Sometimes stupid rituals. (I'm deeply convinced that if the U.S. had some sort of common coming-of-age ritual that was practiced at 18 or 21, there'd be less moronic "21 shots for your 21st birthday!" crap. I also think a lot of the weirder aspects of baby showers, that everyone claims to hate but people do ANYWAY, have to do with the total lack of recognition of pregnancy ritually in most Western religions. See also the bizarre little superstitious routines of athletes, litigators, et al.) But it's super-normal to create rituals for oneself, for one's family, for one's community, whatever, and it's why people get so up-in-arms about something pretty harmless like moving a high school graduation ceremony to a different venue ... it's not that the venue itself matters, it's the sameness of the ritual that matters, and the venue is part of that. It's why even if your kids hate a particular holiday food that you always make, the year you DON'T make it they'll complain bitterly about its absence, because that's part of the ritual!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:22 PM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yet much of the Western world has a military chaplain system. Why?

If you're fighting in battle, where you are killing people, you're going to have some emotional fallout and need support. Historically, in a society dominated by Christianity and prior to the widespread use of therapists, that would be one's pastor or priest. Thus, chaplains in the military. I'm sure evangelism is part of that, but there is a sense that those in the military could use spiritual/religious/moral guidance/reassurance/advice from time to time, and this is what a chaplain is supposed to provide. Certainly it seems like it might be complicated to go to your commanding officer for that sort of thing. I can see the necessity for atheists to feel comfortable going to the chaplain -- how do you reconcile your morality, which says it's wrong to kill, with the fact that you must kill in order to fulfill your orders? You can go to a therapist, yes, but therapists generally aren't trained in the moral and spiritual aspects of the human condition (although some are, and I'm sure there's a debate to be had there).
posted by linettasky at 12:44 PM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual" I flag down a cab and go to the next county so that I don't end up on an assault or murder charge.

Way to live up to every negative stereotype of atheists there. This is also why i can't take most atheists seriously, they are MORE concerned, dismissive, preachy and violent towards those who don't believe what they do than any of the other religions, much less the "spiritual but religious" people. I'm sure you don't even see the irony at all that you'd probably be frothing at the mouth about "atheist persecution" if someone on the other end of the spectrum said the exact same thing you about atheists.

Live how you want, believe what you want, but keep it to yourself unless asked, and if asked, don't be a preachy dick. If your beliefs make you want to do violence, you are right up there with Al Qaeda, Westburro (oh wait, even they don't do violence, just are dicks), etc. and you need to take a serious look at your life.
posted by usagizero at 12:55 PM on May 7, 2011

Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the sixties, when revolution was all the thing, but I think it would have been much more true to the way things actually happen to see major changes in science as the birth, often bloody and painful, of new science from the body of the old just the way new religions emerge, such as Mosaic Judaism, Christianity, Protestantism, etc.

And these scientific heresies often come complete with a prophet who goes off into the wilderness under the burden of a mighty confusion and, after much travail, receives a revelation (Darwin, Newton, Cantor, and so on), but who may not live to see the promised land (i. e., Wegener).

This is also true to my own personal experience of science. When I've encountered scientific ideas that end up changing the way I think about almost everything (calculus, Newtonian physics, thermodynamics, genetics, relativity, QM, fractals, chaos, sociobiology, etc.) I have had prolonged episodes of awe and ecstasy which can only be compared to religious conversion experiences.
posted by jamjam at 1:01 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

> Moving to a new town and finding a tribe is easy if you're church-minded.

Buying books is easy if you like suspense stories or romance novels because you can get 'em anywhere. But it's worth the extra time to get books you really like.

It's not that hard to meet people who aren't churchy even in a very churchy area. Yoga classes or meditation classes are great, and have the additional advantage that they will make you physically healthier. No matter where you are you can find science fiction fans, half of them are atheists and will lead you to others. Your local big town will have some sort of music scene that plays obnoxious music that would offend churchy people, and many people from your area will also be fleeing there to see music.

And, frankly, you probably just shouldn't move to an area where most of the people there don't like you because of your beliefs, or lack thereof.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:25 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is absolutely a need for the sort of community support structures that a "church" provides, only for the Atheist, agnostic, and the uncertain communities. It is a very common thing for there to be almost a "resentment" of the massive support structure religious folks have.

On the one hand, I can see this... but on the other, I have no use for it if it's simply going to reiterate mainstream values about things like community and justice (and that's exactly what "discussions" will end up doing, assuming they lead to any agreement at all -- the pressure to adopt the group's way of thinking is tremendous, especially for young children).

To me, atheism is very much about the self, about coming up with one's own answers to these questions; making atheism into yet another group activity means discouraging that process, and that leads to real resentment as people grow older and begin to realize that "their" beliefs are not their own. Can't wait to see a whole generation of a-atheists lashing out against the Atheist Church Space...
posted by vorfeed at 1:41 PM on May 7, 2011

And, frankly, you probably just shouldn't move to an area where most of the people there don't like you because of your beliefs, or lack thereof.

Don't do this. It's elitist and discounts a huge number of people who think like you who for various reasons don't want to live in giant coastal cities. There are plenty of reasons to live in places which aren't supposedly comforting liberal enclaves. And if you encourage liberal flight from the majority of the land mass of the US into the big cities, all you are really doing is surrendering most of the country to "the other side".

Besides, I never once said that people who move to new towns without interest in church are moving to someplace where people are disliked because of their beliefs or lack thereof. That's a horrible projection and stereotyping of middle America and you should learn a bit more about life outside your city before you make such sweeping generalizations.

Anyway, yoga or meditation classes, while excellent ways to meet people, do NOT have the kind of community web built around them which is inherent in churches. You can meet as many people as you want.... but that's not the same thing as finding community.
posted by hippybear at 1:47 PM on May 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Whenever I hear someone say something like "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual" I flag down a cab and go to the next county...

It's not the belief that bothers me, it's the announcement. Show me, don't tell me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

False dichotomy - there are plenty of places that aren't "comfortable liberal enclaves" but also aren't "places where most people hate you because of your beliefs". Things are going to get worse before they get better, pick where you live carefully...

I do agree, though, that it's very hard for non-believers to find community in that core sense. Religion has a lot to offer in this area. Even shared interests or even projects in commerce, art or etc. have the issue that people drift for various reasons, or simply have varying degrees of commitment. I personally have the music community, whatever that means, but it isn't quite the same by any means...

Also, I at least can have some sort of sustaining relationship with my neighbors simply because they know I'm a pot-head socialist unbeliever and have zero issues with it (in fact, my working-class neighbors on one side have said some extremely socialist things in the last year or two that have left me wondering).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:04 PM on May 7, 2011

I'm an atheist. I'm a dedicated atheist. I have a deeply meaningful, personal, committed relationship with atheism. I can't imagine how anyone could ever convince me that the war in Afghanistan is morally justified. I can't imagine any other atheist being persuaded of the war's morality. What need, then, for atheist chaplains?

Because those 9,400 atheist servicemembers are, in fact, not you?
posted by vorfeed at 2:52 PM on May 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm tempted to claim that I despair for humanity if that is the state of humanism, but it sounds a bit contrived. What sold them on this venture? Are they there simply because it's a steady job? Maybe the equivalent question: Were there atheist slaveowners? But of course there were.

Justification of evil is not monopolized by religion.
posted by fredludd at 3:02 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

[Please do not use ethnic slurs to make your points. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 3:18 PM on May 7, 2011

I am corrected. Thank you.
posted by fredludd at 3:22 PM on May 7, 2011

They are there because there isn't a switch, which says "ok, you are an atheist, you use logic, wisdom, and compassion-Bingo-Bango-Bongo", just as I would say the same of "Christian", or "Muslim", or any other conception. Everyone faces the ongoing struggle to find a way of living which is personally appropriate; there are murderers who are atheist, and there atheist masters of unquestioning compassion. The reason I made my other comment, and now this one is that it seems so clear that there is absolutely a need for that "guidance" and "learning" aspect of Religions, which must be taught either by parents, or guardians, or the internet... but all three are, as all people, fallible, and, I guess, I see so many reasons why community is better at helping to share these ideas. Joining the military doesn't make a person "bad".

Ahh, maybe I should have specified more on the "why" such a set of spaces would be valuable; yes, an adult who already has their worldview written, and knows their likes, and dislikes has little trouble finding a "group" that they fit into, or desire to engage with... I guess I was thinking beyond "a group", or people who one simply doesn't hate. The reason for my comment was for the kids, and non-kids who simply aren't "certain" that they "know all the wisdom, and knowledge of humanity" that they possibly can (and maybe this isn't a common view, but I see value in facilitating the creation groupings of people that aren't all self-selected "like minded", how do you connect those who "already know" they are interested in whichever particular narrowly defined topic, say, invasive plants, or river health, or "yoga" (which is sort of like taking a religious class and excising the religion anyway) with everyone else (and their kids, who likely would also be interested, but do not know, as they have not been exposed to such ideas since early life [just like some are "born" into religious life, and religious ideas are "common" or "natural", some are "born" into a more scientifically minded family, or non-theistic, or more communally engaged, environmentally aware, Free-thinking, etc.,] it is severely limiting to wider society if it is just the children of academics and free-thinkers who get "exposed" to... neat things).

I mean, I know such smaller, self-selected, narrow focused groups exist, and they absolutely are important, useful, and valuable and can (potentially, but not 'guaranteed' fill the role of "community"); I think maybe such groups would be a smaller, more narrow, or focused a grouping than I was picturing and describing (where the expeditions you describe could be like sunday school type thing [without getting into the 'cheap copy of religion' thing, a better word for it would make sense, I am using terms that have common meanings for clarity, not to signify a pseudo-religious "copy" of a religious tradition]).

I guess what I imagine, is a space where those two groups you described would be joined, and also with academic "classics" nerds who know about some ancients, and some evolutionary botanists, geneticists, anthropologists, ethicists, and on, and on, ethno-musicologists, musicians, artists, historians, and on, but yes, to be honest, were it 'me' initiating this sort of institution, it would allow for inclusion of people who are versed in the ideas of spirituality, or even who are 'of' a particular spiritual tradition; the many 'ways' of knowing... all are cultural constructs, yes, there are many "science and nature" groups; these would absolutely be central amongst the "lessons" (say, lectures/services whatever you need to title them to be comfortable, by local scholars/academics, amateurs) but I guess I am seeing a need for the 'other side of the coin', the "who AM I", "what does it mean that I can 'act'" sort of questions (which are still very important to "non-spiritual" people, and are complex and fraught with complexities as ever), and yeah, like many note, this is not just about mimesis, or "pseudo-spiritualism" (I perhaps over-emphasized the idea of accepting spiritual people; I don't mean "teaching primarily to them", I just meant that the beauty of not being capital R Religious is not needing to be teaching "at" them, or trying to teach the "them" out of them).

Is a university lecture "received wisdom"? Ok, yes, the "self" is "important"... Know thyself, know humanity. But it is pretty limiting to say "and that is the totality of all I care about". I am guessing you are an adult. Can you imagine being a child again; do you envy the community of Religions? I did.

Is it "expected" that the children of an atheist "must" simply "disregard" the ideas and discussions that religious folks have? Are the questions ostensibly asked in the mainstream religions not central to creating a community, society, and culture which doesn't torture people who look different? Or doesn't use drone bombing to kill potential bad guys, or values free-expression... and on and on, with issues which are NOT being "taught" in public school, and are not easily taught by "parents", and ideas which our pop culture is not helping to teach; how many movies, games and music are about glorifying wanton killing in revenge, or rampages, how many advertisements have this generation of people seen by the age of 17 telling them to indulge their passions (by purchasing this awesome product), to indulge their desires, to think of number one, got mine-ism, as opposed to how many are about the nuances of the less gory, less sexy parts of interoperating and being humans in complex societies, or asking the harder questions, even mainstream religious discourse seems to have relegated the nuances to back-burner status, and the focus, as in secular society, is on how to gain market share.

A comment above suggests that an "atheist doesn't need such guidance or lessons" and that the current wars are "religious"... I disagree, strongly perhaps, and the examples given of "non-religious" (even "anti-religious") people lending full on support, and backing, and credibility to such wars show (me) that there is actually not some magic that makes it so, as if by rejecting religion, one is suddenly the keeper of "pure logic", and "wisdom"... as in, it is clear that "atheism" can be tempered, and forged by violent passion, animosity, hatred, and all that other baggage which are often claimed as being solely in the purview of "fundamentalists". Finding valid logic, finding compassion, and those other woo-y things that are actually a large part of why we humans made it this far as a species, are HARD, they are a struggle; ijtihad is not simply an "Islamic" concept (it is, actually, as a word, but all people know its meaning, know the impact of it's implications on the living of life) EVERYONE has to face these struggles to find a center, to find a way forward, to find peace, or to welcome the difficulties of enacting change on the world, to find a personal balance between questioning societal orthodoxy, and following blindly, unquestioningly.

Or rather, for "me", as I approach parent-age, I want to see something beyond this "me" and "my beliefs-ism" end of story. Also, I guess, I see an "atheist" community/space/center as actually not at all giving central focus or a flying Yahoo! about "faith", or "belief", or other in-group-isms... that is the LOWEST form of atheism in my mind; ok, right, so you decided you don't wanna follow the mean mean G-d figure...right. What Next? What does this "decision" mean? And if these actually aren't question or things of any interest, what has lead to the decision that religion is "wrong". Which science leads to this idea? Which philosophical traditions?

For my mind, "atheism" is everything that comes BEYOND that "decision". As in, why? what parts of scientific enquiry, or facts, or argumentation, or logic cause this realization, or decision. Ok, so it isn't about being "good" for fear of "hell"; so what is good? How do we "share" (teach) this idea of good? And I guess the old writers, like Aristotle and the like, as well as various philosophers wrote about these things, and I don't want a "religion of Arendt-ism" or something, but, philosophy isn't exactly taught deeply in public school, and so people are left to look outside of "traditional" education, and for most, "private school" is not an option (many of which teach philosophical things, but in the guise of religion, and religious studies). So could anyone picture a space where, just like a pastor will take parts of the bible, and craft lessons, and messages out of disparate parts, and different authors, could humanist space do the same with the myriad philosophies and writers, and sciences that exist (I mean, Aristotle and his whole promotion of how to "be a good slave" is, to me, sort of like the "leviticus says some people are lesser" thing) parsing philosophy is HARD, and when people try to do it "alone", they can often dig themselves into a self-congratulatory rut of unthinking. They will then pass this unthinking on. Communities are valuable resources, even if only for testing our received notions and ingrained beliefs.

And seriously, just because the "justice" and "morals" discussions are old hat to "you", doesn't mean that you know what is what, nor that one's potential children will "arbitrarily" know these things, nor that any given single parent will have the resources, knowledge-base, or time to share these things. Community has a purpose. One is Free to self-define, and self-create, even define themselves in opposition to one's community, all from within a community. Just because someone joins this hypothetical community, it doesn't mean they "give up" their self-crafted personality, or goals, or ideals, or desires. It just means that children have layers of support, and parents have people they know, and can trust, based on learned interactions, and that people can Pool their resources, or do "collections" for worthy goals, or community resources, and many other things that collectives may do, which solo-flyers cannot.

The "lone-wolf" may be more nimble, may be better able to "sneak" up on prey, but they cannot encircle prey, nor do many of the other things that a pack can.

The reason "humanism" is valuable is that it allows for these (traditionally in the "wheelhouse" of religions) ideas to be shared openly, debated, possibly even rejected, without the in-group, out-group-ism and the "need" for certitude, nor absolutism which comes along with capital R "Religion".
posted by infinite intimation at 3:27 PM on May 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Finally, the chapel sponsored political activity, but only progressive politics was approved by the chaplain. Okay, this last factoid is tangential, but I see it as the natural progression of the points listed above. In short the mission of the chapel was first and foremost to justify its own existence, and this was accomplished by "reaching out" to anything that could vaguely be considered "religious" at the expense of equally or more important nonreligious activities, even as more seriously religious people worked independent of the Chapel with no need for its money or support.

TL;DR: so it was the usual Anglican chapel? (Minus tea with the Vicar?)
posted by orthogonality at 3:47 PM on May 7, 2011

What need, then, for atheist chaplains?

It seems to me that the chaplain system is one that can provide benefits to those in the services who call on it; these services extend beyond the spiritual to include: someone to talk to (I am sure this is something we have all needed atheist or theist), some one who can advocate for individuals (as mentioned in the article) and potentially provide other benefits. The problem is that these benefits are not necessarily available to non-theists as the system currently stands. Effectively the problem is not really a need for athiest chaplains, but that the US military system is not good at providing an alternative way to provide the benefits that having chaplains can provide to non-theists. Having atheist 'chaplains' is mooted in the article as an approach to resolving this issue and allowing benefits to accrue to atheists as well as theists. Is this the best solution to that situation? Possibly not. Is it a solution that might work without requiring lots of structural changes which will be politically/socially difficult to engender? Possibly.
posted by biffa at 3:49 PM on May 7, 2011

Moving to a new town if you're NOT going to join a church to find community... is... really fucking hard.

Unless you're gay, in which case you join a gym, and find a place with Bottomless Mimosas/Champagne to have Sunday brunch.
posted by orthogonality at 4:05 PM on May 7, 2011

I'm a spiritual atheist the same way that I'm a carnivorous vegan.
posted by Splunge at 4:05 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Unless you're gay, in which case you join a gym, and find a place with Bottomless Mimosas/Champagne to have Sunday brunch.

Unless you're gay and don't participate in the stereotyping which your scenario presents, in which case you're doubly-fucked. (and not in the kinky way)

And, again... gyms and brunch locales... don't actually have community built up around/within them like churches do. There's a different thing going on with churches which gyms / gay bars / D&D groups / music venues don't have. If you have no experience with churches, you may not be able to grok the difference, but it's there.
posted by hippybear at 4:11 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I honestly believe that God lead me to being an atheist.
posted by midnightscout at 5:15 PM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

infinite intimation has hit on something my family has experienced on moving, first to a small town, and then to a southern city. If you are not "affiliated" with a local church, then communities are hard to come by. Yes my atheist teenage son can go to nature/science meetups, but that's not the same thing as having a group of his peers to talk with week-in and week-out, where it's safe to speak freely about his view of the world and human nature and religion, and where they engage in regular rituals/sing songs/read teachings that create a familiar rhythm over the seasons and the years.

We did join the Unitarian Universalist church but it suffers from the same "trying to serve everybody and ending up serving nobody" problem that shii described. There were about 6 kids active in the UU youth group, and two of them were mine, and funding for activities was pretty tight so most times they got together it was for a fundraiser. At the same time, the evangelical megachurch down the road had a traveling skate park that they'd set up and let kids skate for free, with Christian rock blaring on the loudspeakers and a sermon following the skate session. Which would you rather go to?
posted by headnsouth at 5:23 PM on May 7, 2011

From my understanding, spirituality is better associated with scientific non-theism than any other notion that claims to know the not yet knowable.

tl;dr: Atheism is more spiritual than religion because it doesn't jump to conclusions when it lacks information.

The experiencing the vast unknown is by far a more spiritual experience than just making stuff up to explain confusing things.

I am purposely being more extreme and using straw people to balance out the comments suggesting that Atheism is not spiritual. (As a matter of convenience, I am simplifying religion)
posted by Knigel at 8:42 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

TL;DR: so it was the usual Anglican chapel? (Minus tea with the Vicar?)

On paper, it was nonsectarian, but in spirit indistinguishable from Anglicans in its political and spiritual orientation. The Chaplain herself was a Church of Christ pastor but regularly told students that her real job was "social justice".

This is a good discussion, I may have sounded a little harsh in my discussion of the position of a multifaith/atheist chaplain but I remain more confused by than critical of the idea. I definitely understand the cultural and historical importance of the job, but again, such a thing doesn't exist in Pakistan or Japan, and it seems to be submerged in a gray zone between religious and secular.
posted by shii at 9:50 PM on May 7, 2011

Sgt. Brad 'Iceman' Colbert : The point, Lance Corporal: we're supposed to be a recon unit of pure warrior spirit. We're out here, 40 klicks in enemy lines, and this man of God here, he's a fuckin' POG. In fact, he's an officer POG. That's one more layer of bureaucracy and unnecessary logistics, one more asshole we need to supply MREs and baby wipes for. And worst of all, worst of all, the motherfucker doesn't even carry a weapon. When push comes to shove even Rolling Stone picks up a gun but this fuckin' shill of God, he can't cover a sector, he'll never hump ammo or Claymores. This is a fuckin' war and we're here as warriors, so on top of everything else that's expected of us do we really need to drag him along and indulge in this make-believe bullshit?

Cpl. Josh Ray Person : Oh, no. Now not only do we have to worry about all the Charms you've eaten, but now Brad's just pissed off God.
posted by fullerine at 1:08 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I stopped identifying myself as Atheist as it became more and more a term associated with stupid, angry people. I almost came to believe there had to be a secret, hateful movement of fundamentalists pretending to be idiots calling themselves Atheists, just to discredit something I happened to hold dear.

Then I realized, the vast majority of those stupid, angry people- who told me I could not be spiritual because they related the term intrinsically with religion- were invariably angry, white, privileged first world men who had appointed themselves the arbiter priests of Atheism.

Angry, white, privileged, first world. Men, mostly.

I do not believe in God, or religion, but I do not want to be called an atheist if it means I have to be like them. I see the vast and sacred beauty that Carl Sagan saw- I feel the unending reverence that Bill Nye has expressed in his own words- I want everyone to know what loving kindness and compassion is; if these things exclude me from the cult, then atheism was never the right word for me, was it?

I will never be the type of person who feverishly enjoys mocking the mentally ill the way James Randi does; please, feel free to attack me if it makes you feel better.
posted by Bushidoboy at 6:32 AM on May 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Why atheist chaplains? Because there's an immense value in being able to talk to someone who has made a vocation out of talking to people and helping them through their troubles. I mean yeah, there are psychologists and counselors, but there's a stigma attached to them -- not as much of one these days, but it's not gone.

Your pastor or your chaplain, though, you go to just to talk through some stuff, or to get some empathy for a problem that doesn't have any good solutions. To help you sort through a moral or ethical dilemma, or to listen to your fears that war is ruining you to be a spouse or parent, that you're going to go home and wreck everything that you live for. Or, back on base, to coordinate help for the military families, to bring dinner to the new mom whose husband is deployed, to check in on the guy whose wife has been re-upped for duty yet again, or to help the soldier who came home with PTSD transition back into a peacetime environment. You don't have to have religion or spirituality in order to need or provide those services, and I think it would be great if they could come without any unnecessary prayers or God-talk attached. And I'm a frickin Christian.
posted by KathrynT at 9:45 AM on May 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Angry, white, privileged, first world. Men, mostly. [...] I see the vast and sacred beauty that Carl Sagan saw- I feel the unending reverence that Bill Nye has expressed in his own words

Looks like the only thing you're really bothered by here is "angry", then... and given language like "stupid", "secret, hateful idiots", and "feverishly enjoys mocking", you've got that part down, too. Loving kindness and compassion for everyone sure is easy when it doesn't apply to people you don't like!
posted by vorfeed at 10:15 AM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Looks like the only thing you're really bothered by here is "angry", then... and given language like "stupid", "secret, hateful idiots", and "feverishly enjoys mocking", you've got that part down, too. Loving kindness and compassion for everyone sure is easy when it doesn't apply to people you don't like!

Way to cherry-pick. Bushidoboy didn't say "idiot," he said "fundamentalists pretending to be idiots," and if he doesn't want to be like someone who "feverishly mock[s] the mentally ill" then I'd imagine that's because he's more inclined toward lovingkindness and compassion for those who believe differently than him, not less.
posted by headnsouth at 5:41 PM on May 8, 2011

In my eleven years in the Navy, I knew a lot of chaplains, and none of them have been the fundamentalist evangelicals that everyone fears (though some have been self-described evangelical sects). All of them know that they're there first and foremost to be there for everyone, regardless of religion and creed. Some come to them for religious advice and their training allows them to respond in kind to what's required to them. They're more than counselors as they not only deal with the psychological stress of the military, but also provide ethical and moral guidance, or many times just someone to listen to you that isn't in your chain of command. I'm not really Christian, but I talked to the ship's Christian chaplain about the stress of sea life and how I was feeling about my career and how he saw the world. It was really great experience that I've had many times in a decade.

The point is, I think there is a very real reason why chaplains continue to exist and that they should exist. Most chaplain tend to the atheist members of their flock with the same devotion as those of their beliefs, but if there's a humanist organization that would like to front chaplain candidates, and if these candidates can be for both the theists and the nontheists alike (and give advice on their flock's terms—not theirs), I would say that's a great idea.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:59 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do not want to be called an atheist if it means I have to be like them

Luckily, you don't have to act like them. You can act like the military chaplains in this post (you did read the post, didn't you, before commenting on it?), showing compassion and empathy to people in need. You can be like Sagan and Nye and Einstein and countless other scientists who react with joy and wonder to the beauty and mystery of the universe, and try to share it with everyone. There are no Atheist Police who will insist on you mocking or shouting at anyone, even if there are atheists doing lots of mocking and shouting out there.

Atheist is the correct term for a lack of belief in any sort of god. It doesn't mean "lack of belief in any sort of god, plus acting in a way that I find socially inacceptable".
posted by harriet vane at 9:28 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was designated as the Atheist Lay Leader of my platoon in USMC boot camp in 1990. Drill Instructors had a sense of humor...."Let us pray! Dear Powers That Be....."
posted by ergomatic at 11:09 AM on May 9, 2011

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