“Many atheists are still in the closet,”
May 31, 2015 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Wanted: A Theology of Atheism by Molly Werthen [New York Times] [Op-Ed] What do people who don’t believe in God believe instead?
posted by Fizz (176 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
The band led us in secular “hymns” like “Walking on Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.”

This is clearly a false-flag operation to drive us all back to church.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:22 PM on May 31, 2015 [67 favorites]


What do people who don't believe in Zeus believe instead?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:22 PM on May 31, 2015 [104 favorites]


Why does everything need a theology or a hierarchy? This is mission-creep at its strangest.
posted by parmanparman at 12:24 PM on May 31, 2015 [58 favorites]


What a dilemma! Not for me, an atheist, because I don't care.

The dilemma is for people who need to create a "them and us" scenario, and need a strawman "them."

There are people who collect stamps, and they can explain why they enjoy their hobby. People who DON'T collect stamps do not feel the need to explain why they don't.
posted by Repack Rider at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2015 [88 favorites]


What do people who don't believe in Zeus believe instead?

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!
posted by Fizz at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2015 [46 favorites]


I believe in the New York Times having some really stupid op-ed columns. I also believe that religionists' continued insistence that atheists MUST have some religion-surrogate is a clear indication that they don't understand the basis of their own beliefs.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:28 PM on May 31, 2015 [78 favorites]


"The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does..."

Is she suggesting nonbelievers know less about nonbeliever debates than Christians know about Christian debates, or than Christians know about nonbeliever debates? I'm trying to decide if she's wrong or delusional.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:29 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]


One reason capitalists and theocrats have been united against unions is that they provide many of the same social functions that churches do.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:30 PM on May 31, 2015 [34 favorites]


wait is this still a conversation? I thought we got over the whole "athiests exist" news story a few years ago.
posted by rebent at 12:31 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does

I will also confess to being ignorant about the history of people who don't knit. What did the non-knitters who came before me do? What led them to choose not to knit? Have I fully considered the sociological implications of not knitting? What does fill the scarf-shaped hole in my life?
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:32 PM on May 31, 2015 [135 favorites]


Theology is a rough fit as a relevant term for what's going on here, and that seems to be causing some confusion.

I'm reading the article as talking about a group of atheists who recognize that churches function in some ways they recognize as valuable, and are trying to found communities with these valuable aspects but woven around progressive values and a naturalist worldview.
posted by weston at 12:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [13 favorites]


I believe in the Bunk/Omar Principle - "A man must have a code." This one's always worked for me.
posted by sallybrown at 12:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


Well, belief is both a philosophical position and a set of practices. You can abandon the philosophy, and that has its own attendant difficulties, but practices are also hard to get rid of. Your routine is not the realized outcome of your beliefs; what you do is who you are. A lifelong atheist and an ex-Christian atheist may have the same beliefs, but they're never going to act the same. Scripture-based religions exacerbate this dilemma of identity, because they lead people to focus only on the philosophy of religious identity, and assume once you abandon that, you're free and clear. Based on what the article spends words on, it seems like the question should be "what do people who don't do God do instead?"
posted by lefty lucky cat at 12:35 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


Sam Harris is proving to be a bit of an ass and is currently in the business of embarrassing himself by trying to punch above his weight, but he has some very succinct and effective bon mots. One of my favorites is something like "we shouldn't even need the word 'atheist'; any more than we need a word for someone who doesn't believe in Astrology."

On preview, kind of what 0xFCAF is driving at.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:35 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


I used to say "I'm not an atheist; you are a theist". This always led to "ha-ha, you're right, but really, why..?"
Now I just say i've never heard anything convincing. Dull, but helps the conversation move on.
posted by librosegretti at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2015 [11 favorites]


In general, there is an interesting conversation to be had about secular, church-like entities, but this was a bad article.

Besides, not even all religious people attend anything even remotely like a weekly church service.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


What a silly question. As though the substance or content of the belief, of those who "believe in God," is some simple and entirely settled matter in the first place.
posted by clockzero at 12:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wait, they're still doing op-eds on Sunday Assembly?

At least they didn't call it an "atheist mega-church," a description that combines three factual errors in three words.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


beliefs, scheliefs -- where's our sacred music?
posted by jamjam at 12:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


The recent television-show-rehash-of-Neil-Tyson's-Star-Talk-podcast with Richard Dawkins, Eugene Merman, and Father James Martin was good stuff. Link, requires some sort of login unfortunately.
posted by XMLicious at 12:42 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the reasons I'm an atheist is that I *don't* want to go to church.
posted by jpe at 12:42 PM on May 31, 2015 [23 favorites]


Seriously. I don't sit around trying to perpetuate my ideology, sweat my theology or force a theology on anyone or any of that other nonsense. It just never enters my mind.

And to quote the ever-lovin Rust Cohle:

Detective Martin Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn't believe, what things they'd get up to?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Detective Martin Hart: Bullshit. It'd be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
Detective Rustin Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.
posted by nevercalm at 12:43 PM on May 31, 2015 [94 favorites]


where's our sacred music?

Most of Phillip Glass works for me.
posted by sammyo at 12:44 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]


For many people, church provides a friendly and supportive social group rich in practical resources, emotional connectedness to others, and an account of what makes human life meaningful. If your life already gives you all of these things, you probably don't feel the need to replace it with a humanist discussion society that's just a thinly disguised worship circle.

As an atheist, what's strange and sad to me about these movements is that they're just missing the larger problem, which is that nothing about our social and economic world is designed to provide and nourish any of those goods. Indeed, it's designed to fragment and dissolve them. No "ersatz church" can solve that, short of total social and economic revolution.
posted by informavore at 12:44 PM on May 31, 2015 [24 favorites]


FWIW, I didn't think that column hung together. It sort of meanders from pseudo-church, to the foundation of morality, to identity politics. It seemed like it was duct taped together.
posted by jpe at 12:45 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


Where I grew up the Unitarian Universalists had cornered the market on Sunday gatherings for atheists, especially those with children.
posted by carmicha at 12:53 PM on May 31, 2015 [29 favorites]


I didn't detect anything nearly as strong and tenacious as duct tape there.
posted by Splunge at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


I was under the impression that for people brought up in a Christian culture the Unitarian church (in Canada from my experience) was welcoming? I waver between agnostic and atheist and always felt welcomed in such churches. I liked them too because even in the 80s they seemed welcoming to LGBT people and kids that asked questions
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm all for people consciously reflecting on what they believe and why, but I don't see intellectual arguments playing the roles Worthen says they play. She writes: "As nonbelievers become a more self-conscious subculture, as they seek to elect their own to high office and refute the fear that a post-Christian America will slide into moral anarchy, they will need every idea their tradition offers them."

Of course people should be able to talk about their ideas and engage in dialogue or debate. However, the social science research on de-stigmatizing atheism (along with the broader work on why and how people change their minds), suggest that it isn't arguments that lessen people's revulsion toward atheists but rather exposure to atheists as people instead of abstractions tinged with prejudice about immorality.

Also, in line with Worthen's call for more rigorous thinking, I'd encourage her to better engage the complexity of atheist identities out there. I realize that op-ed's aren't complex treatises, but she says things like "Sunday Assembly’s close relative, the Society for Ethical Culture," which suggest a confused or incomplete understanding of the complex genealogy of American nonbelief going back to the 19th century.

Worthen seems to be seeking in-depth intellectual engagement at sites that function more for social engagement (though intellectual engagement does take place there). The "confident humanist moral philosophy" Worthen says atheists need has been developing since (at least) the Unitarian Humanists of the early 20th century and the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Its development continues today in the works of people like Sikivu Hutchinson and Anthony Pinn (Pinn even uses the term theology and situates humanism within larger African American religious traditions, though he's OK with people who understand Humanism as nonreligious philosophy/worldview/etc.).

Certainly Humanists can do a better job of publicizing this intellectual work, but it does exist and the lack of wider awareness (among both atheists and theists) has to be understood in the context of a dominant culture that stigmatizes atheist identities.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:57 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]


One of the reasons I'm an atheist is that I *don't* want to go to church.

I'm an atheist but I was raised in a Hindu household and one of the things that I did appreciate about our faith is that every devout Hindu has a temple in their own home, be it a small corner with a carpet and a few deities or focal points for quiet prayer. You're not required as a Hindu to attend temple, your faith is everywhere and accessible at any time. Just a bit of random Hindu knowledge. I believe Islam is also similar in this way. As well as a number of other faiths.
posted by Fizz at 12:58 PM on May 31, 2015 [14 favorites]


One of the reasons I'm an atheist is that I *don't* want to go to church.

Damn straight. I was raised in a religion, and I found it so repugnant that I now reject anything with even the vaguest trappings of organized worship. A Unitarian service or one of these Sunday Assemblies is just as anathema to me as a High Mass.

And yet, I'm not an atheist, because that would require a degree of certainty I don't possess. I suppose I could be best described as a dystheist agnostic: if any gods exist, they are evil, or at the very least unworthy of worship.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:08 PM on May 31, 2015 [22 favorites]


I struggle with the difference between belief and knowledge. Believing in some God can be entirely different from knowing of its existence, as the mental mechanisms are not the same.

Thinking long and hard about religion and relatively recent life experiences, I view religion and faith, at least of the Christian variety if not all the rest, as the imperfect solutions that arose after thousands of years of ancient philosophical thought on civil problems. The mainstream religions these days constitute a refactoring of the religions and faiths that came before it, trying to sum up the will and desires of the whole of humanity.

That said, my running hypothesis is that if Sunday Assemblies and the like take hold and manage some success, some of the same conclusions might be reached.

We who understand belief and knowledge may do fine without myth in understanding our environment. For others, it might be the only path to knowledge, as brains aren't produced in a factory and quality controlled on shipment. Our economy as it is wouldn't exist if they were.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 1:10 PM on May 31, 2015


Definitely reinventing the wheel. There is a reason the Unitarian-Universalists are known as "a half-way house for atheists". Me, I was born into the UU and have long since moved on to apatheism...
posted by jim in austin at 1:14 PM on May 31, 2015 [15 favorites]


It dawned on me a few days back how little practical relevance actively identifying as an atheist would have for me any more. I had a conversation with my workmates over drinks after work, and the question came up if anyone at the table identified as religious. Out of the six of us present that evening, nobody did, which was not a surprise. Goes for the rest of us, too, I think. One former employee had apparently been somewhat devout, but this was the first I'd ever heard of it. Non-belief has always been the assumed default around the workplace. (Finland, 25-35 yo. tech geeks.) Politeness generally demands that one's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, be kept to oneself.

I've been thinking about what the "win condition" for secularism would be. The prospect of universal non-belief is unrealistic even in the most Star Trek: TNG of possible futures, so for now the best I've come up with is a situation where the question of your non-belief doesn't come up, where you don't have to sacrifice a single thought to it. For me, that's already most days now, and the ratio is still improving as the country is further secularized. My last debate about religion must have been over a decade ago, and I find idea of engaging in one completely distasteful now. Once religion stops having the minor influence it still has in the political sphere, that probably eliminates the last reason to even theoretically ever have one. Much better to just change the topic or walk away.

What churches do get right is community building and maintenance, and the active encouragement to take part in some kind of charitable work. Secular people haven't really cracked that one yet; organized religion is the sort of massive common denominator to bring people together that we don't have. The various small communities that non-believers belong to are usually pretty tightly focused around specific interests, and religious folks also take part in them as well. I don't know that it really needs to be any other way, though.
posted by jklaiho at 1:16 PM on May 31, 2015 [12 favorites]


OMG, thank you for introducing me to the term apatheism. It's perfect!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 1:18 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]


This writer's talk about philosophy and "intellectual heritage" leads me to believe that what she is really interested in is metaphysics — what are the metaphysical beliefs of the atheist? She seems to think that most atheists are not interested in metaphysics, and are simply content with the idea that there are only local truths and only local interests and only local moralities, and that anything at a higher level of abstraction than this is no more than empty talk.

Yet, like many people of a philosophical bent, she reflexively notes that this very claim ("there are only local truths") is itself a universalist, absolute, metaphysical claim, and so she believes the atheist must eventually need some explicit metaphysical foundation for this claim. For her, it's not about not believing in Zeus; it's about a philosophically consistent worldview, which she thinks (for some reason) is necessary. This is why she says this atheist view is viable only in the "short term." But I think that probably most atheists are OK with not trying to work out the philosophical foundations of their views in the long term.

Does this really pose a problem for atheists? Is there a sense in which atheism implies that nothing transcends the individual, and therefore purely atheist "communities" will always be prone to greater fragmentation?
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:22 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


Each UU congregation or fellowship will differ in terms of how open & welcoming they are to atheists. Some were explicitly Humanist Unitarian churches before the U-U merger, like the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, home of early Humanist John Dietrich & now led by senior minister David Breeden. Others have cultures less welcoming to atheist, naturalist, and Humanist thought. My wife and I tried a local UU for about eight months before deciding it wasn't the place for us. I did, though, find individual humanists who attend the fellowship and have enjoyed their monthly meetings.

Denver's been trying to get a Sunday Assembly off the ground, though the SA approach really doesn't speak to me. There are several atheist and Humanist groups out of the Secular Hub downtown, but the meeting times aren't ideal for me time-wise (logistically, the UUs have a considerable strength in terms of offering preschool for families with young kids).
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:25 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Problem of Evil has always been the showstopper for me. Honestly, I wish the world were different. But it's not. Why would I want to get to together with other people and celebrate that?
posted by dashDashDot at 1:28 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


It's really depressing to see the vocabulary rainbow come out so that people can express the notion that they have no specific belief in god/gods while still not using the dreaded a-word. There is no surer indication of a stigmatized word than people euphemisming around it with words like "nontheist", "apatheist", "untheist", "ur-theist", "anti-un-ex-theist", etc.

It's okay to call yourself atheist even if you would change your mind if Shiva appeared before us and stopped the Earth, don't hang out with Richard Dawkins, and think about other things from time to time.

In fact, I wish you would, because this dancing around the word only serves to further the notion that atheist only means the most radicalized form of non-belief.
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:28 PM on May 31, 2015 [44 favorites]


Does this really pose a problem for atheists?

No. I like the Buddhist idea that metaphysics is a distraction from reality. And the "God" entity on Facebook sums up morality like this: "Don't be a dick."
posted by sneebler at 1:31 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


The fun thing about being an atheist is that you get to experience what it's like, as a privileged Westerner, to be subjected to pseudo-anthropological curiosity.

It reminds me of this old documentary about hippies.
Is there a sense in which atheism implies that nothing transcends the individual
Well, if you want to glue all your marbles together and you haven't any glue, you don't need to get all philosophical to guess what'll happen.
posted by klanawa at 1:32 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


I believe in sleeping late on Sundays. I believe that the universe is a marvelous place, because within it we may find delicious sandwiches. I believe that ritual and ceremony have their place in ordering reality, and that's why I watch baseball; but I also believe that we are all flawed and struggling, so I watch Atlanta Braves baseball. But mostly I believe in beer.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:33 PM on May 31, 2015 [78 favorites]


And yet, I'm not an atheist, because that would require a degree of certainty I don't possess.

Not for me. The lack of any convincing evidence for the existence of a deity stuck me into the atheist camp at about age 5, and I've been completely comfortable there ever since.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


Socialism, nowadays: Communism or weird Fascist cults back in the 20th Century: the Enlightenment before that.
posted by alasdair at 1:42 PM on May 31, 2015


Dealing with topics such as Unitarian-Universalism or Secular Judaism, or that person who shows up every Sunday who isn't a believer but the spouse is, and doesn't really care one way or another would require looking at atheists as neighbors and co-congregants. And that's something that the New York Times can't do, because the central implicit dogma of American journalism is that if it bleeds, it leads, even if the editor needs to buy the stage blood by the gallon to justify it.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:43 PM on May 31, 2015 [5 favorites]


I got kicked out of catechism class for arguing with the priest (I would be about 11 ?) because I thought that the story of Noah's Ark was preposterous and didn't make sense. The priest could have talked about myth, allegory, etc and used it as a platform for some enlightenment but instead I had to stand out in the hall until class was over.

In retrospect, I'd like to thank that priest; I might have wasted a lot more time before I threw in the religious towel.

Athiest here.
posted by parki at 1:46 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


where's our sacred music?

Atheists don't have no songs.
posted by immlass at 1:49 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


The London Sunday Assembly she talks about is not really "Church for atheists". For one thing, nobody goes to church in England anyway, Christians included. Secondly, we're C of E over here, our church services are not rousing feel-good gospel choirs things; they are, well, churchy.

What this actually resembles (and the clue is in the name) is school assembly. I appreciate Americans don't have this, but all school children in the UK regardless of religion are gathered together in the gym hall each morning for rousing songs (sometimes hymns like "All Things Bright and Beautiful", but also random things like "When I'm 64"), and any major school announcements are made. Now I write it down it does sound kind of weird, but all schools do it.

These people don't miss being religious, they miss being at school. I am completely fine with not being at school, myself.
posted by tinkletown at 1:49 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]


Where I live Sky has cornered the market on Sunday gatherings, this system still allows for the existence of evil and evildoers, and we call those people Manc.
posted by biffa at 1:53 PM on May 31, 2015


There is some confusion here between the social construct of a church, versus the existential construct of a theology. Replacements for the church are easy to come by, there are so many alternatives, like, oh, say, your organic composting clubs, community garden tenders, hacker's and maker's clubs, etc. But it's harder to find replacements for what theological beliefs provide -- a reason to continue in the face of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and suffering.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:56 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


where's our sacred music?

Long answer: that'd be any music, if you need it to be.

Short answer: A Love Supreme, same as in town.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:58 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


where's our sacred music?

Atheists don't have no songs.


I beg to differ.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:58 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


Whenever someone talks about this (or insists atheism is another religion) I always think of this Gahan Wilson cartoon. Which I'm sure a few people here will identify without even clicking.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:58 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think the problem with this piece was that she's using broad terms to describe a fairly specific group of people. She's not actually talking about "the average nonbeliever," but rather the kinds of people who want nonreligious congregations. But then she expands that, using the same language, to incorporate more nonbelievers, broadly. It's a little messy, and I can see why it would ruffle feathers. It's the whole "big A vs little a" debate.

That said, the response on this site has been really interesting. Nowhere do I see "I don't care about theology" expressed so forcefully than in conversations like this. Me, I grew up in the UU tradition, so these conversations were all over Sunday school. The most awful thing as a teenager was deciding not to go to church anymore and having them say "I'm glad you've given this some real thought." I mean, come onnnn, I'm trying to rebel here...

I've actually been thinking of finding a UU congregation again - I'm one of those awful people described in the article who wants a community spirit, so to speak.
posted by teponaztli at 1:59 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


Atheists don't have no songs.

*ahem*
posted by Fizz at 2:01 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


also Imagine
posted by philip-random at 2:04 PM on May 31, 2015


I hate that song so much. "Imagine if everyone believed what I believe, man the world would be great..." I'd go back to church again if I had a reasonable assurance I'd never hear it again.

Sorry, I think I'm sort of prickly today.
posted by teponaztli at 2:08 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]


Also God Thinks (Voltaire)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 2:08 PM on May 31, 2015


If any atheists are in the closet, it isn't due to any lack of "theology." It most likely has to do with the way so many Americans respond when you profess to be atheist. Basically, a lot of them act as if you had just admitted to eating babies.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:08 PM on May 31, 2015 [15 favorites]


For anyone who has embraced godless communism, there's I Read Some Marx (And I Liked It) (doesn't even mention any opiates of the masses unfortunately, IIRC)
posted by XMLicious at 2:13 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm reminded of the conversation I have so many times when people find out I'm a vegetarian. They say, "Wait, what DO you eat?" I reply, "Everything else." Many of them are still confused.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:26 PM on May 31, 2015 [12 favorites]


Do you eat fish?
posted by biffa at 2:29 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


It comes down to ritual and connection, really. Do you find small rituals to mark the big things in life ( birth, death, marriage, growing up, the seasons) comforting? Then a church-like organization might appeal to you.

Churches can also be useful in that they consistently bring one group of people together each week, allowing cooperation on large social-justice or other projects as well as creating a circle of people to call when trouble strikes (or for you to help when they are in trouble), which creates a feeling of human connection.

It's often having children that pushes people into churches, but when they stay it's for those other reasons. Life can seem awfully long and lonely sometimes; church gives you a place to be that's not alone at home, or at work, but a quiet space where you can mediate, be helped, or help others. And where you can mark the passages of your life or help others do so.
posted by emjaybee at 2:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


Christian here. I'd be more likely to vote for someone if she were an atheist.

I've spent most of my life as agnostic. I may wind up there again. Who knows. I personally am happier as a theist, I think because I find comfort in both the community and liturgy.

I teach philosophy. Most of my students are nominal Christians of some sort. I work really hard to impress upon them that atheism or agnosticism is an eminently reasonable position that many good people have occupied and currently occupy.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:39 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


Churches [MetaFilter meet-ups, Magic the Gathering competitions, book clubs, board game family nights, trivia contests at the local bar all do this very same thing.] can also be useful in that they consistently bring one group of people together each week, allowing cooperation on large social-justice or other projects as well as creating a circle of people to call when trouble strikes (or for you to help when they are in trouble), which creates a feeling of human connection.
posted by Fizz at 2:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's no reason to think churches don't work for some and MeFi meetups for other people. The point is what churches can be for people in terms of community, support, etc. I've gone to church and I've gone to bar trivia nights, and to compare them is frankly ludicrous to me. Maybe not for everyone - but that's kind of the point, isn't it?
posted by teponaztli at 2:45 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


For those wondering about the UU churches, it's worth noting that the Sunday Assembly started in London, in the UK, and has a lot of overlap with the New Atheist (and later Atheism Plus) and Skeptical movements, which were already pretty cohesive communities. The UUs aren't really known here, I think: Wikipedia suggests that there are only 15 UU churches in the country and, after being raised as a fairly involved Anglican and later keeping my toes dipped into the New Atheist and Skeptical communities, literally the only place I've ever heard them mentioned is Americans talking about them on Metafilter. Where I get the impression that they lack the bright-line separation from religion and spiritualism that a lot of people in these communities value. Humanists are definitely an option, and well-known in these circles, but don't do much in the way of regular services. So it's not at all a surprise that the people who wanted this formed their own movement, instead of joining an existing church.

And, yes, anyone who doesn't see why a non-religious (even anti-religious) person might benefit from a church with no God at the centre either doesn't understand churches or doesn't understand atheism.
posted by metaBugs at 2:45 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh absolutely. I was just offering up that lots of places function in the same way and achieve those same ends mentioned by emjaybee .
posted by Fizz at 2:46 PM on May 31, 2015


Ok but Fizz I've never been in a book club that that did anything like large-scale food drives or provided financial support to a homeless shelter, or that could host a funeral or wedding. There is nothing wrong with those groups, but they don't have the bandwidth to take on tasks of that size.

We raise 1000s of dollars for various charities (Planned Parenthood, animal shelters, etc.) every month as part of our normal function. We host an arts venue and a daycare center.

We also have book clubs, a loan library, a teen social justice group, music and knitting classes, and do a float for the local Pride parade. Plus funerals, weddings, etc. etc.

And we're a small church; others do lots more.

Replicating all the functions of a church without a church is not impossible, but it does have the massive advantage of centralization. Which is not to say I don't find experiments that try to do so interesting.
posted by emjaybee at 2:47 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


Christian here. I'd be more likely to vote for someone if she were an atheist.

Some of my religious friends (admittedly the ones who also exhort me to "like" FB posts about Jesus or repost them to ensure a miracle) suggest that I should believe "just in case." I wish they would follow their own advice and behave as though God doesn't exist and that we are, alone, responsible for ensuring the planet's safety. If more people believed (or chose to behave this way "just in case"), that there will be no Rapture to cure our environmental and social issues, we'd all be better off. Vote for science and data-based decision-making!
posted by carmicha at 2:49 PM on May 31, 2015 [15 favorites]


You're right emjaybee. I just wanted to offer up that there are many ways to be social and contribute to your local community. Churches are definitely a place to do everything you outlined but not everyone feels comfortable and you can find other non-denominational groups to still give back and feel connected to your community. But you raise very valid points.
posted by Fizz at 2:52 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm all for people creating communities around things they love, but one of the advantages of a church is that it does bring a fairly diverse group of people together (cue people saying "well, except they all believe in sky-fairy"). When I went to even a UU church as a kid, we were surrounded by people of all ages, all races. Republicans, democrats (although you see more of the latter in UU). Someone would die, someone else would have a kid. People would be jerky, or they could be really wonderful. There's something to be said for a community that brings you in close contact with people you might not always be connected to.

I find myself pining for a church environment, but I've stayed away because I'm not a believer - and the community orchestra I play with doesn't fill the gap. For some people, board games are enough, but I'm not sure where to find something that approximates the community I grew up with. I like to think I'd be dead before I went to a secular humanist thing - maybe I'll go back to God if I get tired of atheism, who knows. It's all very personal, anyway.
posted by teponaztli at 2:56 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


my religion requires that when I am dropping off this mortal coil, I get the best damn drugs imaginable.
posted by angrycat at 2:58 PM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]


As an atheist, what's strange and sad to me about these movements is that they're just missing the larger problem, which is that nothing about our social and economic world is designed to provide and nourish any of those goods. Indeed, it's designed to fragment and dissolve them. No "ersatz church" can solve that, short of total social and economic revolution.

The aspiring total social and economic revolutions that I'm aware of don't seem to have gone that well, particularly in terms of providing community and meaning. Maybe they're not really primarily political problems.

Churches do community and meaning well often enough that I don't understand why a church founded around non-theistic values and aspirations is something that should be rejected out of hand.

Well, OK, that's not *quite* true -- I understand a (theistic?) argument that belief and the quality of spiritual experiences works as a major component that help people feel folded-in with churches, and that without it any assembly is going to have trouble achieving the same thing. That argument even seems somewhat plausible to this theistic churchgoer; my experiences with church have a special quality I don't often seem to find elsewhere.

But there are things which are pretty close that I have encountered in secular contexts involving math or nature, maybe even more in the quasi-religious areas of the humanities. And people being varied like they are I can imagine some might have an experience enough like what I have at church that they could gather around it the way people at church do.
posted by weston at 3:28 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, I just came from the international meeting of the Sunday Assembly today. It's an interesting group. I'm peripherally involved, but the local chapter is pretty strong and cohesive for something only in operation a year or so: I've gone camping with these folk, on a paper lantern night parade, and to a cabin in the woods, and gave a talk/lecture on my academic specialty. I'm not sure on where this movement is going long-term (whether something like the Unitarian Universalists counts as "been there, done that") but I'm surprised how many representatives were here from the Deep South in the US: Nashville, Chapel Hill, etc. Secularlism is having its moment among American youth, perhaps due to the internet or the success of the gay marriage movement. The local chapter head is the daughter of a minister. For me, raised in the Northeast among freethinking Jews, atheism isn't a front and center part of my identity (the way by analogy non-Zeus believing is not) but when your relation to religion is a jarring change from your past, your heritage, or your community, the SA may be more essential.

The most coherent ideology seems to be openness and positiveness. That the founders are stand-up comedians helped the service be entertaining, but there may be an extraversion and exhibitionism involved in the insistence in being so life-positive without God that isn't so suited to my temperament: maybe instead of an atheist church I need an atheist monastery, but that's why I'm in academia.
posted by Schmucko at 3:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


oooh I'm an apatheist and I have a song!
posted by supermedusa at 3:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit."
-- I Corinthians 2:14
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 3:46 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


"And the person who allows their own science education to wither in the face of their own superstitions will consider the claims of Scientists foolish, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Intellect."
-- I Concatenated this 5/31/16
posted by gorgor_balabala at 3:55 PM on May 31, 2015 [23 favorites]


Oddly enough, a key thing for me has been not the falling away from belief in god or organized religion, but the falling away from organized Democratic politics. I'll get back to this in a bit...

I long ago rejected the Catholicism of my upbringing, but have never considered myself an atheist because I believe (feel?) that there is some sort of transcendent reality that we can, at times, experience (via art, ritual, social communion, looking up at the night sky, sex, magic mushrooms,...), and that underlies what people throughout history have thought of as god or gods. But I really dislike religion, for the most part. In my view, religion is to our innate spirituality what pornography is to our sexuality--and with that I mean that "good" religion exists, just as "good" pornography does, but it's rare. What is crucial is the degree to which either is used to exploit, control, or otherwise objectify people by taking advantage of their primal needs and desires. Religion has as abysmal a track record in terms of exploitation as the sex trade, and has arguably caused far more damage. But, hey, that's just me. My Dad was an open-minded non-religious guy, and he always told me that some people find a lot of comfort in their faith, and that should be respected. But then again, he lived most of his life prior to the theocratically-inspired "culture wars" (really, a sort of cold civil war). I haven't been so lucky, so I'm not quite as generous any more.

But people do need a sense of community and communion, and that's always been hard to find and maintain.

So, back to the "oddly enough:" since the Bush-Obama era that has disillusioned so many across the political spectrum, I and many in my community have turned to local politics and social activism and organization. I've noticed in the past few years that something sort of like a "church" has been developing--a community of people who know each other, socialize regularly, share a sense of urgency and a commitment to a few commonly-held ideals and goals. Could this develop into something like a church? I think it could, but it still needs some sort of anchor.

So, even though I didn't love the article, I don't think the basic idea is all that bad. If there were a Sunday Assembly near me, I'd definitely check it out. But I think they're trying too hard to mimic "what it's like to be a church," particularly with this idea that there needs to be a "theology." Shared values, friendship, a commitment to shared life goals... that seems like it might be sufficient. Maybe more than a theology, what's needed is the equivalent of a "preacher" or "council of elders" that would give the entity historical continuity and persistence.
posted by mondo dentro at 4:00 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


But it's harder to find replacements for what theological beliefs provide -- a reason to continue in the face of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and suffering.

Seems to me that theological beliefs provide a great reason to die: a perfect afterlife filled with God's love. As opposed to the infinite null that's really what happens. The latter seems like a far better reason to not die: it's not the fun outcome.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:00 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


"I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I! I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I!"
-- Pee Wee's Big Adventure
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:01 PM on May 31, 2015


"The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit."
-- I Corinthians 2:14


Reverend Lovejoy: Homer, I'd like you to remember Matthew 7:26. "The foolish man who built his house upon the sand."
Homer: [pointing a finger] And you remember
[thinks]
Homer: Matthew... 21:17.
Reverend Lovejoy: [confused] "And he left them and went out of the city, into Bethany, and he lodged there?"
Homer: Yeah. Think about it.
posted by Fizz at 4:18 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


Sometimes I wish I could take a pill that would let me, for twenty minutes, see the world the way an excessively devout person sees it. Complete faith in the deity of my choice, complete devotion to the religious beliefs and writings in that deity's wake, and a deep and overwhelming need to help/make everyone else on the planet SEE THE LIGHT.

I would have to experience this while securely strapped to a sturdy chair, so that I could not interfere with my prior orders to have me force-fed the antidote on minute 21.

In the meantime, I don't think I need Ms. Worthen to tell me what a proper nonbeliever should believe any more than I need a priest to tell me what a believer should believe.
posted by delfin at 4:21 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


And who says having an easier life is a life better lived? I don't need a reason to die, what a curious construction...another turn of the wheel. Its pleasant.
posted by sfts2 at 4:42 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I wish I could take a pill that would let me, for twenty minutes, see the world the way an excessively devout person sees it.

Oh, hey! I did that. It was called Active Christians Today!

I'm grateful for them. Their constant harping on the need to forgive my abusers really opened my eyes to the fact that I actually didn't believe in "god", probably never did, and only identified as christian and went through the motions because it was expected of me. So, yay super devout college "fellowship" group! Thank you for helping me ditch that particular shackle.
posted by MissySedai at 4:42 PM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]


One of the biggest drivers for me renouncing religion is I didn't want to get up early on Sunday morning and listen to people spout off a bunch of bullshit for one plus hours. "Sunday Assembly" sounds like the Dollar Tree version of a TEDx talk, which is already the Aldi version of an actual TED talk.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:44 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


As far as the idea that it's the life eternal, as promised by Christianity, that makes life meaningful, I'm of the school of thought that doesn't get how something without meaning can acquire it by being prolonged to eternity.
posted by thelonius at 5:02 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


carmicha: "Some of my religious friends (admittedly the ones who also exhort me to "like" FB posts about Jesus or repost them to ensure a miracle) suggest that I should believe "just in case.""

Tell them they can't say this to you anymore until they can accurately and completely summarize Pascal's Pensées and put the Wager into appropriate context, because he did it first and better and failed to convince you, so at the very least they need to start from that baseline.

It doesn't actually matter if you haven't read Pascal, because they'll never get around to it. But if you tell people they must complete a reading list before having dumb arguments with you, for some bizarre reason it actually stops most of them.

delfin: "see the world the way an excessively devout person sees it. Complete faith in the deity of my choice, complete devotion to the religious beliefs and writings in that deity's wake, and a deep and overwhelming need to help/make everyone else on the planet SEE THE LIGHT."

In my experience, the people running around trying to MAKE everyone see the light are often loud and noisy about it because their faith is shaky and they need the constant external reinforcement of others agreeing with them. I mean, not universally, some people are on fire with the zeal to share the truth with everyone. But, oh, 80% of noisy conversion specialists are desperately hoping that being noisily religious will cover up their creeping doubts about either God or themselves. (99% of Jesus-fish-on-the-car people.) Most people -- not all, but most -- I've known who are truly devoted to their God(s) are somewhat less noisy about it, because they're more centered and have a more internal strength that doesn't need so much community reinforcement. Even God and Martin Luther rested on the 7th day. I'm suspicious of Christians who never take a break.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:32 PM on May 31, 2015 [10 favorites]


And I, too, thought this article meandered and failed to hit the most interesting point, the continual rollback of public "third spaces" like churches and community clubs and parks and market squares where people can meet and interact and organize.

The second most interesting point to me is the need of humans for rituals (where they are lacking, we tend to create dumb ones -- American society doesn't do a good job recognizing the transition to adulthood, so people get rip-roaring drunk on their 21st birthdays because it's the only ritual on offer) and how this tries to meet that need. The THIRD most interesting point is talking about ethics and morality, because there actually are plenty of places to do that without needing to bring religion into it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:35 PM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]


Do you eat fish?

A old mentor-of-sorts of mine went through a divorce and started dating for the first time in 30 or so years. He once told me of a woman he'd been out with who was "some weird religion that can only eat fish?" Me: "you mean a pescatarian?" Yup, that was it.
posted by booooooze at 6:05 PM on May 31, 2015 [7 favorites]


No "ersatz church" can solve that, short of total social and economic revolution.

Oh ye of little faith! Did I not say "Brunch is sacred and he that hath brunch, let him impart eggs and bacon to him that hath none; and he that hath fries, let him do likewise"?
posted by ersatz at 6:42 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm a devout Unitarian Universalist. Meaning that I show up at church about once a month or so.

I'm definitely atheist. But I like the privilege that being a church-goer gives me here in the South, I must admit. As long as I don't get too specific about it, I can pass as Christian easily.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:14 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't believe in God, but I have a religious mindset and the contempt that many atheists have for the non-rational bugs me. Today one told me I shouldn quote Yeats because he believed in magic.
I believe in rock and roll and Grant Morrison and pastal pixel gifs and things I know are not true.
And there are few people I'd less like to congregate with than hardcore atheists.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:43 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I wish I could take a pill that would let me, for twenty minutes, see the world the way an excessively devout person sees it. Complete faith in the deity of my choice, complete devotion to the religious beliefs and writings in that deity's wake, and a deep and overwhelming need to help/make everyone else on the planet SEE THE LIGHT.

Try R A MacAvoy's Book Of Kells; for me that was 150 minutes of pure mainlined ecstatic Earth Mother Goddess Irish Catholicism from 1000 years ago conversion experience.

Thirty years later, saying the title to myself gives me chills and goosebumps.
posted by jamjam at 7:52 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alex Gabriel has a post on one aspect of the complexity among atheists that gets overlooked. The post is an edited exchange between Gabriel and Natalie Reed:
Gabriel: What makes it worse for me is that ninety percent of others in those [progressive] spaces are more-or-less atheists, but – wait – my atheism actually matters to me? Vicious and unacceptable!

Reed: Yeah, totally. But a lot of them have so internalised the notion atheist equals Dawkbro that they won’t even say to themselves that yes, they are indeed atheists, and do indeed think there are no such things as literal deities. What troubles me is that, like, it’s something that absolutely should matter to people. Religion is a big deal, y’know?

And it really does have very significant social impact. But I think most social progressives have ended up scared to allow it to matter to them because they’ve never even seen a version of strong atheism that wasn’t this ugly, aggressive, patronising white-cishet-bro thing. And it’s next to impossible for those of us who aren’t that to be able to successfully model such an atheism. For most people, there’s no framework for allowing their atheism to be meaningful at the same time as remaining conscientious about issues of imperialism, relative cultural power or the role of religion for marginalised groups.
I'm not quite as pessimistic about modeling a responsible atheism as Reed is but she certainly has good reason to be pessimistic. It's not that diversity doesn't exist; it's that the ways we usually talk about atheism make it hard for that diversity to be heard (as Reed says in the next paragraph). A discussion of such diversity in works like those of Worthen would go a long way in helping.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:09 PM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]


I Concatenated this 5/31/16
You are from the future!
posted by sjswitzer at 8:30 PM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


As an atheist myself -- stupid word but there it is -- I find it unfortunate that so many outspoken atheists are arrogant jerks; utterly convinced that it is their laser-bright intellect that allows them to see through this bullshit that others believe. And sure: the Ken Hams of this world say fantastically stupid shit and all the scorn in the world isn't too much to heap on them. Ditto for the ones who say God owns your uterus and you don't. And so forth.

But not everyone with metaphysical leanings deserves this kind of treatment, is stupid or a bastard, let alone a stupid bastard, and I rather think most of them are better people than say, the smirking dickheads of the Rational Response Squad.

An informed, thoughtful religious person can listen to all the arguments of an atheist and simply say "your description of the world seems to be true enough as far as it goes. I just don't believe that it describes all that there is." That is a decently respectable position and one which militant atheists hate, because it's not the fish-in-a-barrel literalism plus stealth theocracy that they prefer to engage with.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2015 [10 favorites]


The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does — because its institutions, like Sunday Assembly, tend to be tiny, relatively new and allergic to anything that resembles dogma. But nonbelievers should pay attention. Atheism, like any ideological position, has political and moral consequences. As nonbelievers become a more self-conscious subculture, as they seek to elect their own to high office and refute the fear that a post-Christian America will slide into moral anarchy, they will need every idea their tradition offers them.
Fucking tribalists ruin everything for everybody. All I want is to exist in the world without being obliged to believe in the numinous. Do I really have to put on clean trousers and go out to thumb-wrestle and sing, just to opt out of faith?
posted by gingerest at 8:45 PM on May 31, 2015 [14 favorites]


audi alteram partem, I liked that essay/exchange; thanks for sharing the link. I'm not sure I agree with it, though -- I'm strongly agnostic and mildly atheist, and I think that the aggressive atheists are just as "dangerous" (to use their language) as some of the theists. Mainly because I don't believe that any one religious belief system is the problem, as much as it is people twisting whatever belief- or lack-of-belief-system they have to further their own ends, and so I think it's completely reasonable to back away from the label. I think the loudest atheists, if they had the numbers of the Christian right, would be doing just as much damage. I don't feel comfortable identifying with a group whose ability to harm others is limited only by its numbers.
posted by jaguar at 8:46 PM on May 31, 2015


I think the loudest atheists, if they had the numbers of the Christian right, would be doing just as much damage.

I disagree, but damn if it wouldn't be fun to give 'em the opportunity.

As long as my state legislature is actively considering the mandated teaching of the Christian creation myth in science classes, it ain't the loud atheists I'm worried about.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:55 PM on May 31, 2015 [18 favorites]


and I think that the aggressive atheists are just as "dangerous" (to use their language) as some of the theists

I think Reed would agree with that, though I imagine she and Gabriel would stress the importance of discussing "just as 'dangerous'" within specific cultural, historical & political contexts.

As for outspoken atheists who aren't arrogant jerks, they're out there (though arrogance is judged differently by people in different contexts). One reason I'd say I'm still pessimistic though not as pessimistic as Reed, is that examples of positive atheism get little attention compared to the negative, even the positive atheists who are being hurt by prominent atheists and their sexism, racism and other prejudices (such as Stephanie Zvan discusses here).

Also via Stephanie Zvan's blog, Debbie Goddard's opening remarks (video) for the most recent FreethoughtBlogsCon.
I asked Debbie to provide opening remarks because, when I talk to her, I always come away with a stronger sense of what the atheist and skeptic movements are as a whole. I don’t just see my corner of them. I don’t just think of the loud voices. I see all of us, our history, and our interests. This was no exception.

I love this talk. It’s brimming with perspective. It’s funny. It’s compassionate as hell.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:01 PM on May 31, 2015


I disagree, but damn if it wouldn't be fun to give 'em the opportunity.

Given the documented problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the vocal atheist community, I can't agree that it would be "fun" to have them in charge, no.
posted by jaguar at 9:06 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]



Detective Martin Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn't believe, what things they'd get up to?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Detective Martin Hart: Bullshit. It'd be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
Detective Rustin Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.
posted by nevercalm at 12:43 PM on May 31

THIS!

Also isn't Atheist Theology a bit of an oxymoron?
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:11 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


I believe (feel?) that there is some sort of transcendent reality that we can, at times, experience (via art, ritual, social communion, looking up at the night sky, sex, magic mushrooms,...), and that underlies what people throughout history have thought of as god or gods. But I really dislike religion, for the most part.

Obligatory Jill Bolte Taylor
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


The main issues with the well known examples of outspoken atheists are similar to the issues with fundamentalist conservatives, which are black-and-white thinking and harshly judgmental attitudes, or a lack of empathy. Bill Maher views all of Islam as "evil," which is how many conservative fundamentalist Christians view it, but so do many "New Atheists." It's a reactionary view of other belief systems, devoid of history, nuance or geopolitical context. To them, it's not good enough to be a decent person if you are Muslim, because you represent an idea that is inherently wrong, full-stop. People don't live like that in their heads nor in their lives, and it's incredibly simplistic to reduce a person's morals and beliefs down to the idea that it all can be put in a bucket called "evil." It's moralistic crusader thinking, and it eventually leads to dehumanization and othering of anyone caught in its net, along a spectrum where subjugation, oppression and violence are the tools of choice. The rise of the "New Atheists" reminds me too much of the rise of the neoconservatives after 9/11: purportedly enlightened thinkers turning reactionary, moralistic and simple-minded, where concepts like "American exceptionalism" find purchase again.

I'm an atheist, but I prefer the compassionate transcendence of my practice of Zen Buddhism to living in a world of moralistic thinking and black-and-white labels. My practice welcomes theists, atheists and everyone in between. Buddhism and Catholicism have an historical connection through the Jesuits, and a number of Catholics are also practicing Buddhists. My Zen teacher calls himself an atheist, but he's reluctant to cling too much to the label. That's in the teachings, that clinging to anything is a mistake, even the experience of transcendence or being Buddhist.

It's not an evangelistic practice, so it's not to say it's better than anyone else's path, but I find that it leads to more compassion for everyone else and happiness in myself than before I started this practice, when my thinking tended to a more moralistic view based on "good" and "evil"- I was an atheist, but clinging to a black-and-white view of other people that never felt right nor lead to an improvement in myself. I go to a zendo regularly now, and my sangha is much like a congregation in the community sense, as well as a spiritual sense. But nobody there is too concerned whether anyone believes in God, or Goddess, or a pantheon. It simply doesn't matter as to the practice, which is private to each person and shared together, and which doesn't need theism but can coexist with it. It's possible to be connected to a spiritual community, find transcendence and walk a path that allows for theism and atheism without judgment or much concern.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:36 PM on May 31, 2015 [10 favorites]


Instead?

I believe we settled it, that we range between the lowest turtle in the pile to I don't know, but I'll know what it is when I get there.

Except for my weird Aunt Betty. God spends a lot of energy trying to avoid pissing her off.
posted by mule98J at 10:40 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


The average nonbeliever may know even less about his tradition’s intellectual debates than the average Christian does

This amused me considering that atheists and agnositcs did better on a 2010 Pew Forum 'religious knowledge survey included 32 questions about various aspects of religion: the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, religion in public life, and atheism and agnosticism' than religious folk.

I ran into an aetherist at my local coffee shop recently. Honest to G*d, he believed that Einstein was generally wrong and that a host of physical phenomena we chalk up to special and general relativity actually had to do with something like drag on light relative to a reference frame stationary with our solar system. Or something; my brain started to squeak sorting this out while he segued to megadoses of vitamin C to cure cancer. Why is it always retired engineers who go down these rabbit holes?

But he knew more about aetherism's intellectual debates than I do.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:03 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Perhaps it would be useful to emphasize a distinction between "without religion" and "without God(s)/supernatural." The article looks for Godless religion. "Spiritual but not religious" and so on are God-believing but irreligious.

Me personally I don't think there's a God, but my own atheism is way more about the "no religion" part i.e. I find "spiritual but not religious" more agreeable than atheism with rituals and morality.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:30 PM on May 31, 2015


Dad, the Cantor: You gotta make up your own mind about beliefs. And always remember it doesn't require belief to enjoy traditions or even sing prayers.
Mom: Are you at least going to try to marry a Jewish girl? I'm just saying. Jacob Simon. Marry who you love, okay? Don't worry about my feelings, I'll be fine. I'll always be your mother.

Always with my best interests in mind, these two
posted by jake at 1:18 AM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm an atheist--if I can be bothered to label myself--but my favorite flavor in recent years is to bring up the concept of ignosticism. Which, to me, basically says that the word "God" is a loaded word to say the least, and if someone asks you if you believe in God, you are to turn the tables on that person and ask them what they think "God" actually means. Only then can you give a yes/no/maybe to that person's concept of God.

Which is instructive in breaking down and revealing what said religious person actually believes. It flips things around to a really satisfying reversal of opinion; they have to prove to the atheist what God is to them.
posted by zardoz at 2:17 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Why is it always retired engineers who go down these rabbit holes?

My personal conjecture is that this is because we engineering/programming types are so used to things being designed that we tend to lose sight of the principle that 99% of what appear to be conspiracies are in fact just cockups.
posted by flabdablet at 2:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I coined a phrase for my belief system, "apatheism"; I really don't care whether deities exist or not.
posted by Renoroc at 5:23 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Apatheism
posted by dashDashDot at 5:49 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


He once told me of a woman he'd been out with who was "some weird religion that can only eat fish?" Me: "you mean a pescatarian?" Yup, that was it.

You should have told him that you believed in egalitarianism.
posted by Ned G at 5:54 AM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Religion is a big deal, y’know?

No it isn't.

It is to others sure, but it's not something I think about at all unless reminded of by others. It is the opposite of a big deal for me.

Atheist defines a mindset in opposition to religion, someone who looks for others to convince. I just call myself areligious. It's a mindset without religion, not one opposed to it. I would rather have a beer and watch baseball.
posted by bonehead at 5:58 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


My atheism doesn't look for others to convince. I identify as an atheist for a few reasons, none of which are to convert others to atheism. The term accurately describes the state of my belief toward deities within my cultural context. It is "in opposition" to theist religion to the same extent that theism is in opposition to atheist worldviews.

Given the amount of stigma against atheism within my culture and given that stigma decreases as people get to know atheists as individuals, I find it worthwhile identifying as an atheist to normalize the identity as one among others. It should be as unremarkable to identify as a Christian as it is an atheist, but in many place in the US, Christian identities are privileged at the expense of atheist identities.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:10 AM on June 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


A man's got to believe in something; and I believe I'll have another drink.

....aanndd on preview, I see that BitterOldPunk pretty much beat me to it...Dammit, BOP.....
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:12 AM on June 1, 2015


And, I should add, at the expense of other minority religious identities. It is in this political and ethical context that I would say religion matters.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:12 AM on June 1, 2015


What do people who don’t believe in God believe instead?

Anything, according to Chesterton. (Or words to that effect.)
posted by BWA at 6:49 AM on June 1, 2015


Fucking tribalists ruin everything for everybody. All I want is to exist in the world without being obliged to believe in the numinous. Do I really have to put on clean trousers and go out to thumb-wrestle and sing, just to opt out of faith?

Um, no?

I agree this is a badly written essay, but there's a weird amount of grar from a lot of fellow atheists towards those who seek some sort of communal feeling outside traditional church. Always the I LIKE SLEEPING ON SUNDAYS LOL! crowd feels the need to sneer at other people for wanting something they're not interested in.

No one's forcing you to do anything, obviously. So how exactly are these people "ruining everything for everybody" by getting together and seeking community? This is not a rhetorical question, I honestly don't get the anger.
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:00 AM on June 1, 2015


This is a very interesting conversation. It's one I have in my own head all the time. I am a staunch Atheist who is very active in my UU congregation. I have been chair of the Small Group Ministry Committee, I am presently the Chair of the Nominating Committee, I just finished leading our 7th and 8th grade youth through their year long Coming of Age program, and I even served as Congregational President for three years. Our world is a wondrous place full of things we may never fully understand. I accept that, but enjoy learning about those mysteries and being in community with others who feel the same way. I just wish more people would free themselves of the limiting shackles of religious dogma. I find belief in a deity to be intellectually lazy. It's like telling your brain to just give up, because it's too hard. It's boring.
posted by AJScease at 7:20 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


No one's forcing you to do anything, obviously. So how exactly are these people "ruining everything for everybody" by getting together and seeking community? This is not a rhetorical question, I honestly don't get the anger.

Because most of the worst horrors in history were brought about directly by people assembling for a common cause, and as such any phenomenon that involves communities built around shared belief must be regarded with the deepest suspicion.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:24 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"What do people who don’t believe in God believe instead? "

What does it matter? If you are so interested, then ask. Oh wait, I suppose you are.
I personally believe in increasing the love. Advancing scientific thought and discoveries. Trying to ensure everyone is treated with dignity.
Really though, why don't you ask what people who don't believe in riding bicycles do instead of riding bicycles? It seems an odd line of questioning.
posted by AJScease at 7:26 AM on June 1, 2015


Relevant to the discussion of how we talk about atheism is this post by Heina Dadabhoy. It isn't a response to Worthen but it speaks to the troubling features of media coverage.
I refuse to accept narratives that complain about the lack of diversity in atheism yet do nothing to promote those who are working to improve things. Such writing is complicit in furthering the damaging notion that atheism is the sole province of rich white men and erases those faces and voices within it who are struggling for recognition.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:34 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


there's a weird amount of grar from a lot of fellow atheists towards those who seek some sort of communal feeling outside traditional church.

I don't see it that way. There are likely as many ways of being areligious as there are non-beleivers. Some of us like to sleep in on Sundays, some like to go to meetings. If you like going to meetings, my reaction is: have fun! I'm happy to meet you for brunch after, but don't expect me to go with.
posted by bonehead at 7:40 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


No one's forcing you to do anything, obviously. So how exactly are these people "ruining everything for everybody" by getting together and seeking community? This is not a rhetorical question, I honestly don't get the anger.

"Ruining" is a strong word.

One of the things that atheism is often accused of by god-botherers is being a card-carrying religion on its own. Along with tying into what seems to be Ms. Worthen's thesis (everyone is religious in some form whether they realize it or not), it's used to push back against church-state separation (evolution is a secular humanist religious idea! you cannot teach that in schools without presenting creationism) and to paint atheists as an organized anti-God cultist sect, Satanism without the Satan. It pops up in some
strange places
at times.

Yes, there are militant atheists just like there are militant Christians. But it's not a simple binary. A light switch has more than two possible states; there's on, there's off, and there's disconnection in which the on/off position is irrelevant.

The people in Worthen's article are deliberately mimicking the FORM as well as the function of religion. I get the concept -- many of a religious community's side effects can be good ones, such as fellowship, friendship, a sense of belonging, bake sales, help-your-brother-in-need charity, yadda yadda -- but if you need those that badly, you can join a softball team, a book club or the Masons or something. If you are disconnected from religion, _as most atheists are_, this isn't bothersome; if they want to get up on Sunday and be weird let them.

But if you are actively pushing back against religion it's an obvious irritant because they come across as Uncle Toms to the atheist cause. Look, they're like children playing dress-up and going to church without understanding or admitting why! Obviously they need religion JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE DOES, right?
posted by delfin at 7:41 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


people who don't believe in riding bicycles

Gasp! The Tricyclitarian Heresy!

Seriously tho there are a hell of alot of questions I would want to ask someone who said they didn't believe in riding bicycles. Not that I would want to be intrusive or anything, but not being curious in that hypothetical circumstance seems much more odd than having questions.
posted by XMLicious at 7:44 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


if atheism is a religion, bald is a hair color...
posted by judson at 8:09 AM on June 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


In evangelical logic, bald IS a hair color because you are deliberately describing the state of your head as the diametric opposite of what NORMAL people have there. Some even SHAVE their heads so as to mock the natural order.
posted by delfin at 8:30 AM on June 1, 2015


Also, be very careful when mocking the devout and bald.
posted by delfin at 8:34 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Because most of the worst horrors in history were brought about directly by people assembling for a common cause

I'm an atheist, and I mean, yeah that's true. But to be fair, "people assembling for a common cause" also describes every positive and meaningful human interaction from getting together to build a village or hunt a mastodon, to the civil rights movement, etc. I think that *dogma* is the enemy, not spirituality or even formalized religious group. I think about this a lot: as an atheist, would I rather live in a world where no one believes in God? I'm not so sure of the answer. I worry that a lot of other atheists tend to pooh-pooh any sort of touchy-feely way of thinking about the world. For example, the libertarian "maximum market efficiency" way of thinking of humans terrifies me almost as much as some fundamentalist religious state, but for different reasons.

The most important thing to me as an atheist is to provide an example of a (mostly) moral, non-selfish individual and prove that religions don't have a monopoly on humility and good thoughts and deeds.
posted by freecellwizard at 8:37 AM on June 1, 2015


What do people who don't have pets do instead?

I'm not being snarky, this seems to me to be an entirely comparable question: a lot of people's pets are very close to the center of their lives, as close in practice as other people's religions. And yet this still seems a self-evidently silly question.

I don't have pets.

What do I do instead? Everything and nothing: everything I do is in some sense "not having a pet", but nothing that I do is a substitute for having one.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:44 AM on June 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Well, really, the only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in deities. That's not much to build a community around, is it? So anybody expecting that to happen is probably going to feel a bit let down at some point.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:44 AM on June 1, 2015


The human need for, and social power of, organization into communities of belief is an empirical fact.

Sure, you can say you don't need "church", and you can feel like you can function just fine on your own and by hanging out with your friends and family. Like me, many in this thread have a deep antipathy toward religion. Let's take that as a given. But I strongly suspect that it's only those with the privilege of being in a wealthy society that can experience non-communal individualism as "natural" or "productive" or "healthy." If you don't like "spiritual" language, why not fire up your imagination to think like a visionary swarm roboticist or complexity theorist? What are the abstract "things" that makes churches so effective? Why do the oppressor classes find churches so damn useful for their nefarious ends? Why did Saul Alinsky train organizers to start with churches? There are objective properties to be discovered in the nature of "churches" that would likely be of benefit to free thinkers, radical egalitarians and others seeking positive social transformation.

So, I saw this article as a ham-fisted, soft liberal, wholly inadequate attempt to articulate that. Yeah, maybe "church" is a bad metaphor, but it speaks volumes to me about the limitations of some self-identified atheists that they don't see that church-like social organization is powerful and important for the function of human beings and so might be something worthwhile for us counter-cultural types to think about.
posted by mondo dentro at 8:50 AM on June 1, 2015


But it's harder to find replacements for what theological beliefs provide -- a reason to continue in the face of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and suffering.

Seems to me that theological beliefs provide a great reason to die: a perfect afterlife filled with God's love. As opposed to the infinite null that's really what happens. The latter seems like a far better reason to not die: it's not the fun outcome.


Well yes, there's that, certainly. And the promise of an afterlife can encourage tolerance of all kinds of injustices and indignities (opium etc). But failing a metaphysical rationale for suffering, coupled with a firm rule against (obvious) self-annihilation, there really isn't a reason to continue through suffering if you can't come up with a good one. Which is fine, I suppose. I personally (currently apathetic; formerly atheist; formerly agnostic; formerly nominally Christian by training but always suspicious about it) can't shake a residually religious feeling about life full-stop, and have a hard time finding a rationale for it. (I mean I'm not really looking that hard, being apathetic.)

It is harder to cope with inevitable suffering absent the suggestion of a way it might not be senseless and brutal and a mere ephiphenomenon of an amoral universe rolling along. Appreciating absurdity, for e.g., helps in place of order-seeking when you're well clear of personal pain, but when you're right in the thick of it, it can be hard to hang on to your sense of humour.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:57 AM on June 1, 2015


Sure, you can say you don't need "church", and you can feel like you can function just fine on your own and by hanging out with your friends and family.

I'm not sure if by this you intend that "hanging out with your friends and family" covers all non-church forms of community, or that there are no non-church forms of community. If the former, that's not really very descriptive of I how I and a lot of my associates spend some our free time and energy, and if the latter, then you have a pretty narrow view of the scope of secular activities.

but it speaks volumes to me about the limitations of some self-identified atheists that they don't see that church-like social organization is powerful and important for the function of human beings

A great many -- perhaps even most -- of the people I know who identify as believers participate in NO church-like social organization. So if atheists and professed believers alike can find that they don't want to go to a churchlike thing (even if in the latter case it would be the socially easier thing) just how essential is it, really?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:01 AM on June 1, 2015


getting together to build a village or hunt a mastodon

I disagree that these are positive.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:15 AM on June 1, 2015


So if atheists and professed believers alike can find that they don't want to go to a churchlike thing (even if in the latter case it would be the socially easier thing) just how essential is it, really?

My "existence proof" was mentioned upstream: if church-like organization is so unimportant, why have aristocrats and theocrats spent so much time trying to stomp out unions, and, more generally, why do they continually shit on secular communities of practice (like academics, environmentalists, etc.)? Are they just mistakenly wasting resources seeing to it that conventional churches don't have any competition? Or are they accurately perceiving that such organizations have significant sociopolitical power?

I come to my belief in the need for "church-like" entities (as I described them above) from activist experience: it is a big weakness to continually have to go up against political opposition that can easily muster thousands every week from the pulpits. But aside from such political tactical issues, I also find that I greatly enjoy and find meaning in occasional small group (i.e., church-size) activities with like minded individuals sharing a common purpose.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:18 AM on June 1, 2015


if church-like organization is so unimportant, why have aristocrats and theocrats spent so much time trying to stomp out unions, and, more generally, why do they continually shit on secular communities of practice (like academics, environmentalists, etc.)?

I think it's a mistake to characterize all organizations of common purpose as "church-like." It creates such a fuzzy boundary that it renders your argument incomprehensible.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


My "existence proof" was mentioned upstream: if church-like organization is so unimportant, why have aristocrats and theocrats spent so much time trying to stomp out unions, and, more generally, why do they continually shit on secular communities of practice (like academics, environmentalists, etc.)?

Because unions, academic researchers and environmentalists do not tend to help aristocrats and theocrats gather as much power, money and influence as possible and to use common folk and resources any way they please. Quite the opposite.

Traditional religious churches in America? Aristocrats love them. Theocrats love them. They're one of the best ways to motivate an underinformed voter base to go out and support the elite's causes. In fact, they'd just as soon wipe out all obstacles for churches to remain tax-exempt while telling their flocks to vote a certain way and for certain candidates or risk their immortal souls. Authoritarian groups work together nicely when the relationship is of mutual benefit.
posted by delfin at 9:37 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


It is to others sure, but it's not something I think about at all unless reminded of by others. It is the opposite of a big deal for me.

If only it was that easy.

Just because you don't believe in someone's god doesn't mean that someone doesn't believe his god doesn't believe in you. Your attachment to that god increases in proportion to his followers belief that that they have a mandate. No matter how far you stick your fingers in your ears, the Pope still doesn't pays taxes, and you don't get to draw pictures of Allah without reaping the shitstorm.
posted by mule98J at 9:41 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it's a mistake to characterize all organizations of common purpose as "church-like." It creates such a fuzzy boundary that it renders your argument incomprehensible.

Well, we disagree. What you're describing is a property and limitation of abstraction, to be sure. I'm not saying that I have a specific solution to the problem of "what is it like to be a church" (and, even if I did, I could hardly present it in a comment thread). But I find it odd (as in, it's just not the way my mind works) that self-identified atheists, particularly those who are further self-identified as hard-core rationalists or even positivists, get so freaked out by the word "church" that they won't even entertain the possibility of having a secular version of one.

Are you disagreeing that theocrats hate unions because they fulfil a human social need that they want only churches to satisfy?
posted by mondo dentro at 9:42 AM on June 1, 2015


Traditional religious churches in America? Aristocrats love them. Theocrats love them. They're one of the best ways to motivate an underinformed voter base to go out and support the elite's causes.

Yes, this is the traditional enlightenment argument leading to the idea that we will only be free when the last aristocrat is strangled with the entrails of the last clergyman. I get it. But over the years I've concluded that this idea is erroneous, just as erroneous as a right-wingers are in thinking they can educate people to not be gay or to be sexual beings in general. People have something in them that is conventionally called "spiritual" and is the thing being exploited by what you describe. I believe this thing that, for want of a better word I'm calling spirituality, is intrinsic, as intrinsic as sexuality is. It needs an outlet. It needs a positive social function. Barring that, it is vulnerable to being hacked for the uses you describe.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2015


I also find that I greatly enjoy and find meaning in occasional small group (i.e., church-size) activities with like minded individuals sharing a common purpose.

Sure, so do I, and that was what I was referring to in the huge range of communal activity which is neither just "hanging with friends and family" nor churchlike in any sense not so broad as to be meaningless. Do you find that the atheists you know don't do or value these things? Because the idea that that is a characteristic atheist trait is a complete head-scratcher to me.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:49 AM on June 1, 2015


George_Spiggott: Do you find that the atheists you know don't do or value these things? Because the idea that that is a characteristic atheist trait is a complete head-scratcher to me.

I don't doubt you and many atheists like such communal activities. In fact, that's part of my point. What I'm suggesting is that devoting some introspection and rational thought toward what it means to value such communal activities might be a fruitful way to think about what "church like" could mean from a secular (or, at least, non-religious) perspective. I'm merely suggesting that being atheistic and/or anti-religious need not give one such a knee-jerk reaction to the word "church" that one won't even entertain it. I just don't agree that this gives a definition of "church" that is "so broad as to be meaningless."

I mean, is the problem mere semantics? The word "church" shall be taboo? That doesn't make any sense to me, but if that's all this discussion is about, it's much more boring than I thought it was.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:21 AM on June 1, 2015


I'm a complete atheist and I like going to live concerts instead of to church: better music and no theology.
posted by colfax at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


What I'm suggesting is that devoting some introspection and rational thought toward what it means to value such communal activities might be a fruitful way to think about what "church like" could mean from a secular (or, at least, non-religious) perspective. I'm merely suggesting that being atheistic and/or anti-religious need not give one such a knee-jerk reaction to the word "church" that one won't even entertain it.

I just get more and more confused. If the article is suggesting, or you are, that atheists consider forming a churchlike group that is specific to their atheism, well, some do. There are Humanist organizations across the world who have very regular gatherings and activities.

But for many people their atheism does not refer to a thing which is present but rather one which is absent, and centering a church on that seems absurd. (See above.) Such people may or may not engage actively in communal responsibility and endeavor, to pretty much the same degree that supposed churchgoers do, or don't, in reality. So I'm still not getting what this distinctively lame trait of atheists is supposed to be.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:35 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


The UU Church that I've attended for over a decade has debates every couple of years about whether it should be called a "Fellowship" or something other than "Church". There are quite a few atheists in the church who feel that "church" is too loaded as a Christian-specific term.

So, what does count as a "church"? Is there some critical mass of attributes like:

Meets regularly
Engages in Worship
Reads meaningful texts
Has meaningful sing-alongs
Does charitable work
Is a social center

etc.?

I do think "church" is pretty Christian-specific (though I'm quite OK with my UU church using it) because the local Jewish folks don't go to a Jewish Church, nor do our Muslim neighbors attend an Islamic Church. So I think there is a certain amount of Christian privilege going on if the default word for such a place is "church". No one is asking "are there atheist mosques?"
posted by Cookiebastard at 10:38 AM on June 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


So I'm still not getting what this distinctively lame trait of atheists is supposed to be.

There seems to be some defensiveness at work that's projecting something into my words that isn't there, namely that I'm saying there's some "distinctively lame trait of atheists."

I thought this thread was responding to the article in question to have a discussion about the possible merit of having some sort of church-like entity for secular people. I think there might be a merit in such a thing for some people and I attempted within the limitations of a MeFi comment thread to articulate why. That's it.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:52 AM on June 1, 2015


weston: Churches do community and meaning well often enough ....

Really? How often is that? And what kind of community do they 'do'? Because last time I checked, it was more often than not one where you had to check off a whole bunch of boxes (or at least pretend to) in order to get treated like a fellow-human.
posted by lodurr at 10:59 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


No one is asking "are there atheist mosques?"

If there were, and if the Call to Non-Prayer several times a day involved some kind of tasty snack, I might be into that.

But seriously, I grew up being brought to a UU Fellowship and I was always told it was not called a church because they didn't have a minister. Which made sense. Then they got a minister and continued to call it a Fellowship. Which made sense.

I've never thought of the word church as being particularly Christian-based (though wikipedia says it is), as we have e.g. Church of Scientology and things of this ilk, but the Unitarians are of Christian origin, so no logical conflict there. UUs: it's all good!

This thread has produced some of the most quotable comments I've ever seen in Metafilter. I think my favorite was the one about the Atlanta Braves, for which I'm going to substitute in my hometown Twins and use whenever possible.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:00 AM on June 1, 2015


I thought this thread was responding to the article in question to have a discussion about the possible merit of having some sort of church-like entity for secular people.

That's exactly what my last comment was about, other than the last sentence which is the bit you responded to.

There seems to be some defensiveness at work that's projecting something into my words that isn't there, namely that I'm saying there's some "distinctively lame trait of atheists."

Well, you've said this and a few things very like it:
it speaks volumes to me about the limitations of some self-identified atheists that they don't see that church-like social organization is powerful and important for the function of human beings
This is the point I've been trying to address. Again, there are many humanist analogues to churches, and conversely there are many atheists who think that's silly for reasons of... but why repeat myself? Go with or without God, my brother. Or sister if I've guessed wrong.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:00 AM on June 1, 2015


colfax: "I'm a complete atheist and I like going to live concerts instead of to church: better music and no theology."

Better drugs too.
posted by Splunge at 11:01 AM on June 1, 2015


Better drugs too.

Depends on the church. And the band.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:02 AM on June 1, 2015


In addition to (Christian) church-like groups, there's also a wide range of other varieties of organized atheism with each group attending to different local, regional and/or national needs and goals. Greta Christina discusses these groups:
Plus there are national conferences, international conferences, regional conferences, backchannel discussion groups, informal networks of colleagues and friends — all so that the people in these organizations and networks and groups can talk together: to strategize, to share information and experience, to commiserate, to celebrate, to offer and give support, to just enjoy each others’ company.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:06 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


it speaks volumes to me about the limitations of some self-identified atheists that they don't see that church-like social organization is powerful and important for the function of human beings

George_Spiggott, look at that word in I've bolded. If the shoe doesn't fit, I suggest you stop trying to put it on!
posted by mondo dentro at 11:07 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thanks to audi alteram partem I'm encouraged to dip a toe into freethoughtblogs.

I'd encountered it before but moved on without giving it much of a chance because of the bad taste left by so many other groups (Dawkins hangers-on, the Rational Response jagoffs and so on) who who wear the atheist badge like some mensa members wear that, and with even less justification: as some kind of signifier that their powerful mind renders them one of Nature's Elect; that their crystalline rationality is a signifier of a broad intellectual grandeur. It's repellant.

Freethoughtblogs looks like it might be better than that, or at least contain that which is better than that in a significant proportion. I'm in the latter category of those I spoke of earlier: I see atheism chiefly as an absence; I don't enjoy associating with atheism as a cause except to oppose theistical trespasses upon public responsibility.,
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:22 AM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]




What do people who don't believe in God believe in instead?

...that there isn't a God? And that's about it?

I'm off to read the article now, I guess, but the question seems weirdly put. The whole point of atheism is that you have decided not to bother with the theological angle anymore. Beyond that, if I want a social club, I'll join a social club. Or if I decide to become more of an activist than just voting for the least horrible politician available, I'll join a relevant political activism group.

I guess "what I believe in instead' is therefore board game night? Yesterday we played March of the Ants and Spyrium...
posted by Scattercat at 12:19 PM on June 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


If anyone was looking for things to believe, JG Ballard has written about some things that he believed. You could grab some or all of those, if you needed to.

I believe in the next five minutes.
I believe in the history of my feet.
I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.
I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.
I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.
I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.
What I Believe.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:17 PM on June 1, 2015


My grandparents were really into the Grange. It did everything for them that I think a church would have.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:40 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


My basic problem with organized atheism is that, while I don't personally believe in God, I also don't think that believing in God is particularly bad, wrong, or dangerous. I'm not in any way hostile to religion as a whole. I just don't share the impulse. Since organized atheism seems to be defined not by non-belief in God but by hostility to religion, there seems to be no room in it for me. That's fine, because I don't really see any need for organized atheism in my life, but I wouldn't feel comfortable with the movement even if I did feel like it would be beneficial to me.

But I also identify much more strongly as Jewish than as atheist, so that complicates things. Atheism is just a fact about me. Jewishness is a major component of my identity.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:23 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Since organized atheism seems to be defined not by non-belief in God but by hostility to religion...

This doesn't accurately describe the organizing principle of many atheist groups. For example, the Foundation Beyond Belief (one of the group's mentioned in the Christina post I linked above) provides a way for atheists to pool money for charitable organizations. FBB gives grants each quarter to different groups, including religious groups so long as those groups don't spend money on proselytizing. Another example is the Humanist Hub which has worked to both oppose anti-atheist stigma and cooperates with interfaith groups to support common goals, such as hosting Karenna Gore this past Sunday to discuss her Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.
posted by audi alteram partem at 2:42 PM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Theism. Atheism. Antitheism. Other variations exist, including those related to religiosity, spirituality, and The Cosmic Muffin.

No need to keep blowing smoke up the wrong butts. You have to keep granting, for the sake of argument, that some, but not all, red-haired men are assholes, before you can get on with the discussion.

When I die I hope I go to heaven, but not the one with Jerry Falwell.
posted by mule98J at 4:15 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is harder to cope with inevitable suffering absent the suggestion of a way it might not be senseless and brutal and a mere ephiphenomenon of an amoral universe rolling along.

I'm not sure how anybody could actually know this, especially given that the exact reverse is so easily arguable.

Personally I take a great deal of comfort from the indifference of the Universe as a whole. Helps remind me to get over myself.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 PM on June 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


There are people who collect stamps, and they can explain why they enjoy their hobby. People who DON'T collect stamps do not feel the need to explain why they don't.

I feel compelled to tell you about my hobby of not collecting stamps. I love stamps so much that I feel collecting them would be a grave dishonor. I forbid my numerous offspring to marry collectors or into a collecting family at all, where they would only drag my honorable family name through the mud, and assuredly delight in its filth like disgusting little orphan children playing in the diseased earth making mud pies without any productive industry nor delicacy, who assuredly need to be sent to bed after baths and spankings.

I have numerous catalogs where I carefully keep track of each stamp I would never collect, nor allow any postal service to befoul with their so-called delivery mark, those horrible ink stains across its tender face like prison tattoos, only to be admired by criminals and collectors- one and the same! I can tell you the history of so many stamps as well as the most rare misprints and commemoratives, and for each one show you the page in my catalog where it will never be placed nor admired, because I'm not driven mad with the foul disease and delusion of corporeal desire, unlike the rest of you.

Some people will tell you that stamp collecting is a grand and moral hobby, but then some people would eat their own children.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:13 PM on June 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Personally I take a great deal of comfort from the indifference of the Universe as a whole. Helps remind me to get over myself.

I know what you mean, sure. Insisting on mattering is petty, true, but if you do, some things are just genuinely tragic. From a certain perspective, sure.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:36 PM on June 1, 2015


I don't know why I'm Irish all of a sudden
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:40 PM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how anybody could actually know this, especially given that the exact reverse is so easily arguable.

Is it? I haven't seen an internally consistent argument for a (Judeo-Christian, anyway) god (all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving), given the whole problem of evil thing. Again, though, I haven't looked too hard. The answers I've come across all involve irrationality and mystery, which by definition I can't know or understand.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:59 PM on June 1, 2015


If anyone was looking for things to believe, JG Ballard has written about some things that he believed. You could grab some or all of those, if you needed to.

Another death-haunted atheist, Woody Allen, has a great answer at the end of Manhattan:
Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:51 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Underpants Monster: My grandparents were really into the Grange. It did everything for them that I think a church would have.

This to me crystallizes the power and the problem of the 'alternative to church as social-organizing function' problem.

The Grange was a particular organization for a particular social millieu -- all farmers or people who lived in farm communities (at least, by the time of TUP's grandparents and certainly in its current incarnation). And it wasn't value-free -- it had its start as the nucleus of a major political movement, and in any given community it has its own particular political orientation. Granges spawned candidacies, got things done in their communities -- but they required checking those boxes and playing the game.

It's also important to remember that almost everyone in a Grange was a church-going christian. If you weren't, membership in the Grange could make you slightly less-suspect, but it never made you a real member of the community. You still had to check the extra boxes for that.

So the only real problem the Grange solves is basically the same problem that we've been trying to solve (and at least here in the US, been blocked at solving with) the secular state: how to get things done that the local or state government wasn't going to do; how to better your local piece of society, as you saw the light; or, alternately, how to disseminate information that the state or federal government wanted to use to help people.
posted by lodurr at 3:32 AM on June 2, 2015


Sometimes I wish I could take a pill that would let me, for twenty minutes, see the world the way an excessively devout person sees it.

You just need to wear the right hat. (Popes have known this for centuries.)
posted by CaseyB at 6:55 AM on June 2, 2015


Maria Greene of the UU Humanists has a response to Worthen, making the case for UU congregations as one potential space (among many) for atheists wanting an organized group experience. The comments on the UU Humanists Facebook page reflect some of my feelings after attending a local Fellowship for several months, especially "feeling out of place." We also encountered some anti-atheist sentiment and less-than-fair summary of Humanist values that led my wife and I decide we would no longer attend. (We even have a young child, playing into the "tired but true joke" Greene references, but that wasn't enough to keep us attending.)

Not that I expect any group to be free from disagreement, but groups need ways to work through it productively, and that's often a challenge no matter a group's beliefs (just look at the trainwrecks over sexism within organized atheism over the past several years). Maintaining an engaged community within a non-creedal institution is hard work. Any community can say it is welcoming, but every community has shibboleths that some people just aren't going to be able to say. It's OK if some people want to frame meaning with terms such as religious and transcendent, but it's also OK if I say that's not for me, especially when the valued terms are constructed at the expense of devaluing (and/or caricaturing) other values, like reason.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:44 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


re: universalist unitarianism and secular humanism...

Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life!*
Abstract: In a recent book, Dinesh D'Souza takes on the arguments of recent bestselling atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Victory Stenger. I agree in important measure with both sides of this debate: I accept the standard scientific picture of the universe laid out by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Stenger, but agree with D’Souza–and Rodney Stark–that many of our most cherished ethical, political and even scientific ideals stem from our religious heritage. This motivates the question of how far apart an enlightened atheism is from the relatively enlightened version of Christianity that D’Souza presents.

As an enlightened form of atheism, I turn to teleotheism. Teleotheism is the view that God comes at the end, not at the beginning, where I am defining “God” as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” In this view, the quest to discover what are the greatest things that are possible is of the utmost importance. The best of our religious heritage is just such an effort to discover the greatest things that are possible.
also btw...
-Penn Jillette on atheism (vs. agnosticism; he's both ;)
-Barbara Ehrenreich, an atheist, on her mystical experiences
-Jonathan Haidt on evolution, self-transcendence and group selection/identity
-"Mood affiliation" is when an issue position triggers an emotional response. "Tribalism" is when you reflexively support your team or group.
posted by kliuless at 4:11 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


... our most cherished ethical, political and even scientific ideals stem from our religious heritage.

This would be a good example of something that is not even wrong. It's quite a bit like saying that our reliance on oxygen stems from humans always having breathed air.

The longer I live, the more examples of 'things that are uniquely human' I see being sourced to "primitive", "lower-animal" origin. A sense of fairness, altruism, awe at things larger than self, even respect for the dead -- you can find all of those things among animals.

Of course, one could argue that you can also find religion there. Which would still be begging the question.
posted by lodurr at 5:42 AM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Letters to the NYT responding to Worthen. From one:
The only thing that will change the minds of the people who believe, against all evidence, that secularism will cause America to “slide into moral anarchy” is to actually meet atheists and humanists, to recognize the decent, moral, freethinking friends and family all around them.
Also, The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog has a brief review of Melanie E. Brewster's (Ed.) Atheists in America. The reviewer, Hannah Scheidt, writes:
I found myself asking, as I worked my way through the narratives, who this book is meant for. The accounts were undeniably compelling and at times quite moving, and would certainly provide a valuable resource for contemporary atheists trying to make sense of their experience. In the hands of those wary, suspicious, or simply ignorant of atheism today, the collection could serve to humanize the atheist experience, making it more relatable. This is perhaps the most significant contribution of a volume like this: expanding the public’s understanding of contemporary atheism beyond the famous faces on book jackets and talk shows. From an academic perspective, the collection serves as a think piece, which might help to generate questions and hypotheses.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:36 PM on June 6, 2015


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