On Freethinkers’ Groups

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers was unimpressed with his experience with a freethinkers’ alternative to church:

I was raised Southern Baptist. One of the few reasons I miss organized religion is the social aspect of “church as an event.” In Kansas City some years back, there was a freethinker’s group called the Eupraxophy Center. As an atheist, I was attracted to it for its “Sunday School Without Religion,” which promised to be a way to converse with like-minded individuals and discuss issues and ideas related to a god-free life.

For a while, it was just that. Eventually, though, it became a sadder, almost desperate attempt at emulating religion – they sang “free-thought hymns”  and made pronouncements of purpose and affirmations of worth. It was all done with a sort of blissful arrogance and the air of superiority that only an intellectually insular splinter group can have. It reminded me of the “People’s Front of Judea” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A group of outsiders, all sound and fury, and as disconnected from a practical reality as any religion.

(I am now a practicing Brianist. Behold the shoe.)

His mention of the arrogance of explicitly freethinker group meetings made me wince from a bad memory of my own one experience at such a gathering.  The lack of self-awareness of the cult-like recitations of the inherent greater knowledge and freedom of thought by all the organizers was really creepy and annoying.  While statistically, atheists and skeptics do indeed generally come from the smarter end of the population, and while I am convinced of the intellectual superiority of an atheistic perspective on the world—this is too little of one’s total thinking and insight into the world to go running around patting yourself on the back for overall superiority towards your fellow human beings.

And, in fact, ironically I think finding one’s way to atheism takes relatively little rational thought, the question is so relatively easy to answer compared to the incredible work involved in reaching other true propositions in the various domains of knowledge.  I personally am convinced most of the barriers to abandoning religion are cultural and psychological, rather than a problem with people’s logical abilities.  There are profoundly difficult walls insulating many believers’ minds from the simplest and most obvious inferences and those walls often have nothing to do with the native intelligence or other aspects of the character of the believer in question.  And getting through those walls involved the luck of the right psychological disposition for many of us.  It’s not something I’m sure we should feel entitled to pat ourselves on the back for.  I’m not sure how many of our virtues we can really take that much credit for choosing.

Our virtues, even and possibly especially the intellectual ones, find us.  If we are indeed worthy of the special designation of “freethinkers” it may very well be that we were nonetheless bound to be freethinkers given our natures and that those who bind and subjugate their thought to tradition on religious questions are likely to have been bound to traditions against any real alternative by their own psychologies and cultural conditioning.

So how do you make up for people’s needs for rituals, meditation, self-consciously ethical community, etc. which turn them to religions without merely religion-aping (as in the corny attempts to copy religious forms directly or this smugly self-righteous overestimation of a particular group’s superiority based in its confidence in one of its opinions and its overestimation of its praiseworthy freedom in coming to them?)

I think it is vitally necessary that atheists do find ways to constructively organize because I do think the heart is the biggest obstacle to the truth—in the exact opposite ways that Christians make that accusation.  They blame the non-believer’s unbelief on their supposed original-sin-induced wickedness, whereas I think the believer’s problem is the normal human cognitive propensity towards fallacious thinking (which we all share to an extent) combined with tremendous familial and cultural psychological pressures against asserting the obvious.

Religion both meets and exploits various deeply human needs and for the sake of those needs, in innumerable cases people wind up committing to irrational beliefs and practices as the trade off for meeting those deep needs.  Atheism is itself just a philosophical position that covers a few major questions but if it is to be able to counter religion’s influence, atheists need to be skilled in pointing people to alternatives for their other psychological and cultural needs or many people will continue to turn to religion for the fuller package deal and happily accept the trade off of irrationalism as part of the bargain.  If organizing people around the rallying flag of our distinguishing philosophical position (atheism) is the way to most efficiently and counter-religiously accomplish this goal, then I’m all for it.  The question though is how to do it without coming off like a poor man’s religion.

Your Thoughts?

  • Lowrack

    Religion is successful because it meets certain needs, but also, and possibly more importantly, because it is supported by strong cultural and psychological pressures, as you stated. The problem, then, for atheist organizations that seek to meet similar needs for atheists, is the lack of cultural and psychological pressures that prop religion up like a crutch. Without them, there would be little to compel people to go to a church every weekend.
    People go to church because their family or friends go to church, or because they are searching for something in their lives. Once they get there they are inundated with messages that tell them it’s “right” to come to church and “wrong” not to. They wish to be accepted, they want to do the “right” thing, and they feel guilty if they fail to return.
    Atheism can’t compete with that, because atheists don’t attempt to brainwash other people using guilt, fear and desire for acceptance to pressure you into coming back. Atheists don’t have cultural and psychological pressures to use as weapons for the purpose of convincing people, however unscrupulously, to convert to their way of thinking. Even if they did, they would probably not use them, because it would be morally reprehensible to knowingly deceive people for your own gain.
    Atheists will never be able to emulate religion, nor should they try. Any attempts aimed at uniting an atheist community need to start from a fresh perspective; preferably one that holds itself to higher standards than religion.

  • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

    “So how do you make up for people’s needs for rituals, meditation, self-consciously ethical community, etc. which turn them to religions without merely religion-aping (as in the corny attempts to copy religious forms directly or this smugly self-righteous overestimation of a particular group’s superiority based in its confidence in one of its opinions and its overestimation of its praiseworthy freedom in coming to them?)”

    This is the primary question which drives my upcoming site, Temple of the Future. It is not, as you point out, an easy question to solve at all. I think one answer is a commitment to a true spirit of experimentation. Although it may sound odd, it is possible to “experiment with ritual” by gathering honest feedback from participants as to what worked, and what didn’t, and being willing to change practices on the basis of the response.

    Also, I think delineating certain boundaries in advance is very wise. For instance we aren’t going to use the term “God” at all, since it just leads to endless confusion.