Sunday, November 18, 2007

"Darwinian Society" or "The Church of Natural Selection"?

Sacred Slut over at A Whore in the Temple of Reason recently posted a very interesting entry called “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest going over there and enjoying it. Doing so now would add context to what I’m writing about.

Some of us took mild exception with her decision to attend what is, in her words and theirs, a “humanist church”. I should say that I have no “right” to take such exception. Slut can handle her atheism in whatever way she thinks works for her (and her husband) in her life. Anyway, one thing about us atheists – we don’t believe in following some dogmatic principle that tells you what you can and cannot do. Most of us subscribe to a view of humans as intelligent creatures that are fully capable of living a moral and happy life without the interference of supernatural power. Beyond that, how it’s accomplished, no one much cares or, for that matter, has any business instructing others on.

But we do blog and comment in the spirit of an interactive community and it isn’t necessarily a bunch of self-congratulatory dialogue about how much more intellectual and superior our world-view is, over that of theists. We write these things to provoke thought and discussion and to hopefully assist each other along life’s path. While Slut doesn’t know me well, I assume she knows me well enough to correctly discern my motives in writing this.

My initial comment to her included this – “'Semantics', despite its derogatory connotations, has its place in framing the world and how we both see ourselves and want others to view us. How many times have you had to rebut the argument that "atheism is a religion"? Wow, how much harder to do so when you go to a self-described "church"?”

Understand that this is a fully secular gathering that Slut and hubby are attending. Here is their laudable “Mission Statement” - To serve the personal and social needs of those who follow the Humanist Religion of Freethought by offering a basis for moral values. We do this by working for a world with peace, justice and opportunity for all.

Man, I have zero problem with that kind of group. And if it gives Slut (or anyone who desires this type of community setting) a “peaceful, easy feeling”, a sense of place and a way to realize their ideals then I would strongly encourage this type of activity. I’d sure rather see the vast majority of our fellows attending a church like that, than any other religion I have heard about. Certainly it’s a hell of a lot better than a church with members handling poisonous snakes, speaking to each other in imaginary languages, conning money from members for faith healings, etc.

I can only speak to the issue of what works for me and why. Up until a very recent time in my life, I’ve gotten along quite well without any sort of group affiliation regarding my status as an atheist. Only through the great people I’ve met since blogging have I finally “joined” a group. I have to admit, I like this a whole lot better than simply living my life to best of my ability, as a non-believer. Even prior to this, I know I would have completely understood Slut's longing for a community setting.

As much as I enjoy this community though, I know that those who would stifle our efforts at encouraging others towards a life of humanist, free-thinking, skeptical rationalism would use anything against us that even appears to make sense to those sitting on the proverbial fence. Among their arguments is the one that we, in fact, are just another religion. Presumably ours is somehow associated with demons. I’m quick to point out that I no more believe in their devils and demons than I do in their gods.

But, personally, I just don’t even want to give them any ammunition. By calling my group a “church” or a "religion", I feel like I’m playing in to their hands. To me, it’s a small price to pay (not getting tax shelter) to call it a society, organization, club, or anything but a church.

Miriam Websters Dictionairy gives 5 definitions for the noun "church":

1: a building for public and especially Christian worship

2: the clergy or officialdom of a religious body

3 often capitalized: a body or organization of religious believers: as a: the whole body of Christians b: denomination c: congregation

4: a public divine worship

5: the clerical profession

I don't know how anyone else might read these, but I can't pick out a single one that I can parse enough to somehow defend against a theist who tosses it in my face and claims, "yes sir, your Atheist friend Slut seems to accept that you guys are just as religious as we are". I can still defend the concept that atheism isn't religion, but it would be a small semantic point that I would necessarily cede.

I just thought I'd put my feelings out here for further discussion if anyone wants to. May Darwin bestow his blessings on you.


Lynet said...

Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby. But humanism, now, that's more complicated. After all, we consider Buddhism to be a religion, despite the fact a certain amount of thinking for yourself is encouraged, and God-belief is not a requirement.

Personally, in an argument, I'd cut to the chase. The real question is not whether atheism (or humanism) is a religion. The real question is whether atheism and the various religions are on an equally good epistemological foundation.

The question of how to argue is of course separate from the question of how to handle the vagaries of public relations. It's worth noting the different ways that the descriptor 'just another religion' can be continued:

'just another religion where they probably worship satan'

'just another religion and not worth bothering with'

'just another religion with people just like us'

It's not necessarily a disadvantage. I mean, obviously we'd prefer it if they said 'not another religion because it's much more sensible than any religion could be', but if we can't have that (and we can't until they're all atheists, too), then I'm not certain that the word 'church' will worsen things. It might just as easily make things better.

sacred slut said...

Yeah, what Lynet said!! :)

To those who call atheism a religion I'd say: "Well, it's really not (and here's why) but call atheism a religion if you like. So what? Now go ahead an consider it on its merits."

Good post, though, and good points.

John Evo said...

You’ve made some very interesting points, Lynet. This is why it's good to kick these ideas around.

I am less than sanguine on your hope that it might make things better. I think the very reason that they want to say atheism is a religion is to equal the very lop-sided playing field of the "epistemological foundation" you are more concerned with.

It's not so much about "them" vs. "us" as the argumentation that is heard by people who truly are not sure where they stand and listen carefully to what the two sides have to say.

There are, I'm guessing, many "shaky theists" out there. They represent the "votes in play" in much the same way that independent voters hold sway in a political contest. The more of those who come over to rationality, the more theism loses its hold on other important decisions that get made in the public forums.

So all I'm looking for (or hoping for) is the best way to get to a point where the U.S. is more like other Western democracies and superstition is not a major factor in our daily lives.

That said, I don't have any tremendous problem with "humanist churches" (the Buddhism example was valid, especially since "humanism" does not equal "Atheism"). I would just frame it differently.

The Exterminator said...

Well, I don't want to make this a men vs. women thing, but I'm right there with Evo.

Atheism is not a religion. It's the exact opposite of a religion. There's no god and there's no spirituality. Yeah, some atheists are spiritual (count me out), but not as a result of their atheism.

To tacitly accept atheism as a religion is to imply that it has certain standards of behavior, a structure of belief, and various codified "rules." Anatheists -- those who would root us out of society if they could -- love to call us a religion because then they can say, "See. You also have blind faith in some things." This is not merely a matter of my taking offense at that suggestion. Once we're recognized as a "religion," we lose our ability to argue authoritatively against blind faith in any and all scientific or political contexts; we lose our ability to position ourselves as First Amendment absolutists; and, worst of all, we lose our ability to be independent of one another, if we so choose. An "atheist" orthodoxy will eventually set in, and many of us will find ourselves silenced by a tyrannical church-going majority. Sound familiar?

So I would hope that any atheists tempted to join a humanist "church" would give some consideration to the possible ramifications. Then they should go ahead and do whatever they damn well please. That's what we're about, after all.

A. said...

Reposted from my comment at "The Temple of Reason:"

I find it unbelievably ironic that a christian would call atheism a "religion" as though that somehow resolves something. I would simply answer "So what? Call it what you will? How do you define a religion?"

I can't help but think the entire "accusation" aims at somehow forcing us to admit we secretly think "there's something more out there" which does not necessarily follow.

Suppose I told you that every week I meet in a church basement with a fraternity of men. We quietly take our seat and spend the entire evening either reading or in silent contemplation. Sometimes we even listen to someone speak on a topic of shared interest. A religion? No. A chess club. Same format, but not exactly the same thing.

Are political parties religions? How about book clubs?

Bottom line: calling atheism a religion skirts the real issue. Who cares how you choose to describe us. Call us whatever you like, but you must still contend with the contents of our beliefs and they way we choose to handle ourselves and our disagreements as opposed to your own perspective.

You do nothing to undermine our position by attempting to put it under the same umbrella as your own, unless, of course, you admit that the practice of religion is in and of itself somehow anti-democratic, coersive, or oppressive. I doubt any theist would admit that, but, assuming they did, they must now explain how atheism is the same thing.

That is simply not possible, because atheism, even if you call it a religion, does not engage in the excesses of organized religion. Call it what you will, I'll take the "religion" of atheism over just about any other.

ordinarygirl said...

I will admit that I was very excited when slut first mentioned finding a secular "church". I really like the idea of meeting a community of fellow atheists in my area.

Now I don't know if I'd attend regular sessions, because I'm just not good with regular meetings of any kind. I think all those years of church growing up (3 times a week!) really made me resent any kind of regular meeting. But socials would be really fun. It'd be nice to meet people and see if we hit it off enough to be friends.

The good thing is that I was able to find a community of skeptics, atheists, and secular humanists in this area that meet pretty regularly. They lump their meetings together in a lot of cases too, which sounds good since I'm interested in both atheism and skepticism.

Anyway, that's all to say that I find a lot of good in what slut is looking for, but I'm not quite sold on the idea of something church-like for atheists. If it's forming a community of like-minded people who build friendships though (maybe just a fine line difference), that's the sort of thing I'm looking for.

PhillyChief said...

This issue won't die. I think it's a mistake to call atheism a religion if for no other reason than to deny that advantage to theists which I outlined here. Now of course there's more to not claiming atheism as a religion as outlined already here. I find the efforts to mimic religion by an atheist group as ugly and dangerous.

It's difficult to imagine a day when we win equality in this country or a day when religion itself wanes to a point where the religious are the minority but if and when that day comes we can't fall into the same ugly trap of advancing ourselves at their expense. I fear making atheism into something dogmatic like a religion leads to such an ugly inevitability, one which isn't far off from the South Park episode on atheism with Richard Dawkins.

The Exterminator said...

Many of us read and agreed with your excellent previous post: atheism is most definitely not a religion. What we also have to watch out for, though, as Evo points out here, and as you've stated in your comment as well, is atheist groups that see nothing wrong with emulating or attempting to mimic the worship experience. Yikes!

A. said...

Exterminator and Evo:
I agree with you both on not emulating the "worship experience," but from whence do you think that need would even arise?

What would an atheist worship and why?

I would also add that we should remain equally, if not more concerned with emulating religion's propensity for dogmatism. Forming a group gets scary, because inevitably some will begin asking "Who belongs?"

I think that inevitably comes down to who agrees? And that can only too easily be answered with resort to a creed.