Atheism and Tradition Building

This year on 9/11 I saw a number of my atheist friends dismissing the whole notion of memorializing that nationally traumatic day or even of taking its ten year anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on its impacts on our nation’s values and history in the last decade. For some it was a spirit of “I remember the day, no need to talk about it”. For others there seemed to be an open hostility to memorializing anything. As though nothing need to be said about the past. It’s just past. “We all know what happened, let’s just move on.”

I also find there is a lot of resistance among atheists to discussion of how to build institutions which serve the functions religions have—inculcation of value, creation of forms and rituals for developing and expressing people’s “spiritual” sides and their construction (or discovery) of meaning in life. And, unsurprisingly, there is a lot of moral subjectivism that is instantly suspicious, even dismissive, of the kinds of discussions of intrinsic, naturalistic goods that I raise a lot.

There are some understandable philosophical reasons for people’s skepticism and I appreciate that the onus is partly on me to defend the idea that there are natural, objectively discoverable and defendable goods worth arguing about rather than taking a generally “live and let live” attitude about morality.  I understand, of course, anti-theists’ deep suspicion of religion and their mistrust that it can ever be purged of its corrupting tendencies towards faith, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism that make so much of it so evil in so many of its current and historic institutions.

But partly the problem may not be just good philosophical hesitations. It makes perfect sense that many who become atheists in majority monotheist cultures are likely to be people who are in the first place individualists. Not only bucking, but wholesale rejecting a dominant social institution like religion usually takes some intestinal fortitude and willingness to stand alone, completely comfortable abiding only by one’s own conscience. I remember as a Christian always admiring and being a bit intimidated by the bracing audaciousness of the few unapologetic atheists I would encounter. Their matter-of-fact willingness if necessary to offend and make no compromise with the dominant social institution of religion and with sensitive religious people always struck me as a sign of strength. I’d be lying if I said I don’t now relish that gadfly role myself as the village atheist in many circles in my own world.

And even many atheists who are not natural individualists probably become more prone to reflexive individualism as a consequence of their deconversions. Breaking decisively and uncompromisingly with monotheistic religious institutions makes it a natural next dialectical move to become generally leery of institutions and traditions as such. And many of those raised atheistically may from a young age have had a loose sense of the necessity of tradition unless their parents had some alternative emphasis on tradition in lieu of a religious one.

Then piling on top of all this, Western liberalism in general disposes us to individualism such that many atheists wind up either right wing libertarians or left wing moral individualists who prize the political rights of autonomy and pluralism not only as the highest political values but also, sometimes, as the highest moral values too. I get the sense from many liberals that the need to choose one’s own course in life is so sacrosanct that any moral argument that attempts to influence how someone else makes his choices itself borders on a violation of the right to choose without coercion. It seems like implicitly the feeling is that we must choose not only for ourselves but by ourselves with no one daring to try to change our values, as though this itself would strip our choices of authenticity and violate our rights.

But there are downsides to all of this moral individualism. Liberal atheists are generally more keen than other liberals to some of the downsides–we tend to recognize that secularism is a relatively rare and precious value that must be actively inculcated or it will be continue to be eroded by the increasing attitude that religion is a proper recipient of  numerous legal exemptions, acknowledgments, and other forms of governmental deference and promotion.

Liberal indifference to what people believe about the good life is extremely good from a political point of view. But when it comes to morality, the liberal’s continued indifference means limiting challenges to the bad conceptions of the good which corrode political liberalism when they inevitably seep into the public sphere. In this way, the liberal who rightly defends the rights of fundamentalists to equal treatment before the law is too complacent about challenging fundamentalist morality in the private sphere, lest they impose on anyone. Then when ascendent private fundamentalism turns political and wants to overturn what should be shared Western liberal political values, the liberals are stupefied and can only marvel at how such regressiveness can be so influential and to start trying to pander to the religious themselves just to keep up. And so the erosion of both the moral and political values of liberalism happen in tandem.

What conservatives seem to understand better than liberal atheists is that values must be aggressively inculcated generation by generation and that traditions, institutions, and narratives which unite them are of indispensable value for preserving and transmitting values. Freethinkers are far shrewder about the need for, and the means of, overthrowing decaying or stagnant values. But we have a long way to go in appreciating the positive need to offer people more than a “figure it out for yourself” subjectivism about morality and meaning in life. We need to be innovative cultural creators who are willing to passionately think and argue about conceptions of good lives, and not just be defenders of the political rights to pursue one’s own conception of the good in whatever uninformed ways you like.

Of course the New Atheist movement has made extraordinary initiating strides in this direction by raising non-theist consciousness, getting us out of the closets and onto the billboards, creating community, and making philosophical discussions about religion, epistemology, metaphysics, meaning, and ethics popular among atheists and in the public square in general.  And there are some longstanding humanist and freethinker publications and organizations which have been atheistic beacons for many decades.  

But I still sense a lot of reflexive suspicion of tradition itself (and not just of harmful blind traditionalism) among atheists I encounter. We are not nearly “all on board” about the value of creating the kinds of enduring, pro-active, value-creating and value-shaping institutions (including “religions”) and narratives that will give the movement long term cultural relevance and prove to the average person that with atheism they can still have robust resources for constructing meaning and community and for educating their children in values. People want coherent traditions. Atheists can provide them (multiple ones preferably to accommodate multiple genuinely good paths) in ways that resist faith, superstition, and authoritarianism as matters of first importance, if only our otherwise healthy individualism does not refuse all compromises with the need for healthy institutions.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • lexaequitas

    Hmm, well, I was there. So for me remembering the date is about remembering my co-workers who died. I suppose I’m not surprised that some atheists would conflate a dislike for superstition with a dislike for ritual, but I find it a bit misguided. Frankly, I have no problem with rituals, and it’s really probably my favorite part of religion (so long as they’re non-harmful or at least consensual rituals — not FGM/MGM, footbinding, etc.). Rituals are powerful. In Japan, businesses sing the corporate song each morning to promote cohesion amongst their workers. People often use personal rituals before tests or competitions to improve their performance (not sure it it works… but it might). They remind us of our values. The ritual of saying grace before dinner, for example, reminds us to be thankful for having enough to eat and that there are those in the world who don’t(yes, it typically references a deity, but without that reference there’s value in it).

    And as far as religious rituals, they do come up with the most queerly amusing activities and delightful costumes. If someone hates them, I think they may just have no appreciation for the surreal.

  • F

    What, precisely, would you hope to memorialize, and why? If I could understand that, or understand some tradition you would hope to connect with this, I (or others) might accept or embrace it.

  • Lxndr

    I’ve got to admit, I’m not a big fan of traditions. It feels like I am being strong-armed and coerced into doing something that has no point. This includes holidays, birthdays, the celebration of anniversaries, etc.

    Most atheists I know at least support birthdays. I don’t even like those.

    It just feels like traditions are the technical debt of society, constantly holding us back. But if that’s what people are actually craving, let’s give it to ‘em. And maybe some of them will even appeal to me. Which I could live with.

  • cholten99

    A lot of social rituals provide a solid public good that most people will voluntarily subscribe to (weddings, funerals, etc). Humanist, for example, provide a wide range of secular public rituals.

    However, traditions are “a long-established or inherited way of thinking” ( I.e. they are a thing that people do because “it’s what people do” rather than for a solid good-providing reason. We probably need better terminology.

    I’m all for secular gatherings to celibate life but people need a reason to form a group and happening to not believe in god/santa/unicorns isn’t really a good enough reason to form a cohesive group.

  • usagichan

    While I was reading this, I found that although I agreed with a lot of the sentiments something about the ideas struck me as odd. I don’t think the central premise is necessarily faulty, in that shared experiences/ rituals establish social bonds and provide reinforcement and cohesion in shared values (after all, living in Japan almost anything one does takes on an almost ritual quality, not to mention the huge number of festivals and functions that we have – from local Matsuri to the childrens gakko-nyu-in-shikki (school entrance ceremony)).

    After a while I realised that what struck me as strange is the idea of consciously establishing traditions – it seems to me that they become traditions sub-consciously, where they fill a need. Even in the case of modern traditions, I don’t believe that we set out with a view to “start a tradition” – rather a particular set of actions fulfill a particular need at a time, and those are repeated, until at a certain point the original reason for the actions fall away and the action becomes an end in itself – whether it is visiting a particular restaurant to celebrate an anniversary, or a parade commemorating the death of a 12th Century Buddhist monk.

    Of course the establishment of rituals could be considered a more intellectual exercise, but even here I generally feel it is less a matter of will and more a matter of the coincidence of a particular set of actions with a particular set of needs. Perhaps what we need is less the establishment of a new set of traditions and rituals, and more the development of an approach to existing traditions that allows participation or acceptance of their social and emotional function, without sanctioning the original (often sectarian) origins thereof.

  • Crommunist

    I don’t get the sense that atheists (of any stripe) are against tradition per se. My impression is that they (we) oppose tradition as being sufficient grounds for defending an abhorrent practice. This kind of appeal to tradition was expertly skewered in the Simpsons episode “Whacking Day” – traditions that cause harm should be criticized.

    You may be correct that we have a tin ear for the need to replace traditions with something else, but that hasn’t been my personal experience. My brief stint as an active member of the atheist community has taught me that traditions can be shared and developed among communities quite easily, without necessarily losing the values that underpin them. For example, none of us go to church, but we all recognize the power of community development and organization – plus ours have beer.

  • Neil Rickert

    One of the best parts of dumping religion, was that I could escape from the traditions and rituals.

    If atheism comes up with traditions and rituals, that will another reason to go with agnosticism.

  • P Smith

    My refusal to make a big deal out of the tenth anniversary is because the underlying problem has never been addressed, never mind solved. The US’s imperialistic foreign policy has only changed in that it’s gotten worse, more interventionalist and more self-interested which creates more animosity around the world.

    Invading other countries to control the the majority of the world’s remaining oil is not the way to do it, nor is supporting and enabling regimes that oppress their people or their neighbors. The world is a neighborhood. If you want to live peacefully, you have to be a good neighbor. Instead, the US continues to live by and practice the mantra and attitude of Michael Ledeen:

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

    The US wasn’t a victim on 9/11. It was blowback, a result of the country’s own actions. Don’t blame Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, blame Wall Street and its lobbyists.


  • Tisha Irwin

    I actively avoided anything to do with the memorials because I didn’t want to see the images again, and TV seems to be good at nothing other than repetitively showing those images over and over again.

    To the more general point, I don’t see any intrinsic value in ritual, and I’m not the least bit interested in joining an organization that does ritual for the sake of ritual. Meaningless rituals serve no function other than superstition (in mystical/religious environments) and/or brainwashing (in both religious and secular environments).

    I don’t believe for one second that the workers in Japan are better workers because they’re forced to sing together every morning. The fact that I was forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning for umpteen years of school means less than nothing in how I think of my country today.

    Getting a group to engage in a seemingly innocuous ritual is just one step in the path to getting them to engage in something nefarious. It’s creating a habit of following along.