Are Communal Rituals Deceptive?

James Croft summarizes and replies to Tom Flynn:

Flynn begins by considering the function of collective ritual in religious congregations. He notes that such practices (although he is unhelpfully unspecific regarding which ones, only vaguely mentioning “touching, swaying, singing, and the rest”) “promote physical responses such as endorphin release, suffusing participants with a sense of well-being and, coincidentally, a heightened pain threshold. They create a feeling of solidarity and personal closeness—a sense that together the community can accomplish great things.” These might seem in-themselves good reasons to engage in ritual collective practice. However, he then offers a quote from Alan Greenspan to explain (explain away?) such benefits: they are examples of “irrational exuberance”. Ritual may be effective, Flynn avers, but its effectiveness is built on a lie: the community isn’t really that close, the people’s circumstances don’t truly justify their sense of well-being, and the local solidarity created by ritual is purchased at the expense of the global solidarity humanists seek in any case. We should fling aside such well-worn crutches, Flynn argues, and look reality squarely in the face. Case closed.

Two things are remarkable to this rationalist about the case offered here: first, Flynn begins and ends by examining “the function [ritual] serves in religious congregations”, without considering the functions ritual serves in any nonreligious settings; and second that no evidence or reasons are presented to accept Flynn’s view that the sense of wellbeing and solidarity created by collective ritual are in fact false.

The first problem is damning because there is no reason to believe that ritual serves precisely the same purposes in secular settings as it does in religious settings. If one of our strongest criticisms of religion is that it is based on demonstrably false beliefs then, obviously, rituals used in such settings to reinforce such beliefs will be objectionable. But consider the graduation ceremony: can we so clearly dismiss such a ritual practice on the same basis? Or might we recognize that the rituals associated with graduation actually point to something true and valuable, and therefore function in a way which is significantly different to religious ritual? More on this below.

The second problem is more damaging: Flynn simply asserts that the positive physical, psychological and social effects of ritual have a false foundation and, in so doing, assumes what he set out to prove (that collective ritual practice erodes rationality). But it seems obvious that this needn’t, in principle, be the case. Collective ritual could instead reveal to the participants the solidarity that truly does exist between them, for example (such as when sports teams use rituals developed from previous experience playing together to remind themselves of past victories). It could focus our mind on reasons for a sense of wellbeing that we tend to overlook. Ritual could, in helping engender a sense of solidarity and wellbeing, actually generate the very grounds for bonhomie that Flynn calls (without justification) “ungrounded”: it makes perfect sense to reply, in response to the question “Why is your community so close and happy?”, “Because we engage in regular collective rituals which make us so!” So there are many other ways of viewing ritual which do not succumb to Flynn’s critique, and he gives us no reason to prefer his view.

Further, Flynn’s assumption that the solidarity ritual might promote works against efforts to develop a more global sense of solidarity with humanity is flawed. As Kwame Anthony Appiah notes in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, it could well be that global solidarity must begin at home, close relationships with our own relatives and tribes providing the security to reach out to other people. In order to learn to love the world, we must first learn to love our mother.

Read More.

I’ve also written some things on the pros and cons of rituals in my posts, Sex and SpiritualityThe Dangers of Religion Itself, and Answering Greta: My Goals as an Atheist Writer. Several months ago on Camels With Hammers Eric Steinhart explored potential uses of numerous Wiccan symbols and rituals for atheists. A full list of those blog posts can be found at the end of his post introducing the series.

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Thanks for the shout-out! I’ll be responding to Tom’s response once I can carve out some time…

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Rituals help keep the masses enthralled to the Leaders’ dictates, they provide a framework to pump up the masses’ loyalty, and they’re a pageant to so the Leaders can bask in the masses’ adoration. Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will shows the efficacy of ritual. Any authoritarian recognizes the benefits of ritual to keep the unwashed happy.

    Yes, James, I’m talking about you and your buddies at HHC.

    • Nepenthe

      That really puts my family’s Easter egg hunt rituals into perspective.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    Rituals help keep the masses enthralled to the Leaders’ dictates, they provide a framework to pump up the masses’ loyalty, and they’re a pageant to so the Leaders can bask in the masses’ adoration.

    That’s all they ever do?

    Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will shows the efficacy of ritual. Any authoritarian recognizes the benefits of ritual to keep the unwashed happy.

    Yes, James, I’m talking about you and your buddies at HHC.

    James Croft is Hitler?

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      James Croft is Hitler?

      Well, perhaps I’m Leni Riefenstahl – she was at least a dancer and an actress.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Is Greg Epstein Hitler then?

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I think he once tried to grow a mustache…

    • ‘Tis Himself

      Are Greg Epstein or James Croft Hitler-wannabes? Probably not. Are they trying to take over the atheist movement and wrench it into something more fitting their plans? No doubt about it. I quote from the Harvard Humanist Community Project summary:

      This blog – an important part of the Project as a whole – aims to achieve three primary goals:

      1. To host community leaders and members who will provide concrete advice to help Humanist communities develop and find success. A number of posts from Humanist leaders are already up on the site, and each one offers suggestions for growing, energizing or furthering the goals of your community.
      2. To offer resources to help Humanist communities grow and improve their programs. As this site grows we will be adding educational curricula, discussion guides, ideas for Humanist ceremonies (weddings and baby-namings, perhaps), cultural resources (Humanist poetry, novels, music) and more!
      3. To share the results of our research into Humanist Communities. Over the next two years we will visit the best secular student groups, Humanist community organizations, skeptics groups etc., interview leaders and members, and write about what they’re doing which makes them so successful. We will also write reflection posts on or own experience at Harvard.

      They’ve got their hierarchy set up, they’ve already done the research to establish their “Humanist communities”, and they’ve even got a package of rituals to be celebrated in Humanist chapels. They’re all set and just need atheists to tug their forelocks, get into lockstep, and march off for the glory of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      In case you worry, ‘Tis, your comment went briefly into moderation because you used a word that I have designated for moderation simply because spammers use it a lot. It’s not you.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      It’s actually quite funny how you do this thing of quoting our innocuous statement of goals, and then interpreting it in this wacky fashion which basically turns it on its head. It makes you look like a complete plonker!

  • Grendels Dad

    I can understand being a bit suspicious of rituals as a way to build communities. In some ways they are analogous to faith, but where faith gives people unwarranted confidence, rituals give an unwarranted sense of community.

    A community built on mutually understood and shared values and goals can withstand disagreements. One built on shared emotions generated by rituals can fall apart as soon as the emotions pass.

    I have nothing against rituals, I even enjoy a few of my own. And if people who actually do share values want to use rituals to reinforce a feeling of community, fine by me. But communities that use rituals as a shortcut to feeling a solidarity that may or may not actually be there make my Carl Sagan brand Bologna Detector start beeping.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      A community built on mutually understood and shared values and goals can withstand disagreements. One built on shared emotions generated by rituals can fall apart as soon as the emotions pass.

      Interesting point. There’s an obvious analogue to the role of sex in love relationships.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      So, rituals would be good in the way that they track reality? Taking that away from what you said, what about rituals that keep us tracked to realities that are uncomfortable? Death is a concept many people seem to struggle with. Sometimes while walking my dogs, I’ll hear some rustling leaves and I’ll imagine a personified death following me. It causes me to realize my own mortality, and it causes me to remember that I am not owed life by the universe.

      Also, today I heard on a podcast (how fortuitous that I heard it today) about a Stoic ritual of taking some personified hero and creating a kind of imaginary friend who reinforces your moral behavior and “gives you advice”. You’re the one who is fully in control here, and you’re putting the words in your hero’s mouth. By externalizing, you can create some of the social pressures that will make hard moral decision-making in private much easier. While selfishness isn’t necessarily evil, having this external, imaginary manifestation of your moral standards keeps your value of self in the context of someone else who’s watching you.

      In this way, perhaps in a few situations rituals could enrich our lives by letting us deal with uncomfortable facts or make hard decisions. They become tools in the conscious construction of a way of building a better life.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    It took me a while to figure out my objections to the HHC’s attempted takeover of the atheist movement (okay, maybe it’s a little hyperbolic, but not that much).

    Epstein & Co. aren’t atheists, but rather humanists who happen to be atheists (well, most of them, because Stedman’s atheism is kind of iffy). Atheism is secondary to their humanism. I have no objection to humanism. I support its goals and objectives. I even consider myself a humanist. But atheism is not a necessary part of humanism and vice versa. There are lots of humanist goddists and libertarian atheists show how one doesn’t have to believe in gods to be a selfish, egoistic nitwit.

    HHC are pushing a “top down” approach to atheistic humanism. This is going to sound strange coming from someone who’s actually a senior corporate executive, but I’m not in favor of the top down approach, at least to atheism. For those unfamiliar with top down approach, first an overview of the system is formulated, specifying but not detailing any first-level subsystems. Each subsystem is then refined in yet greater detail, sometimes in many additional subsystem levels, until the entire specification is reduced to base elements.

    Basically the top down idea is authoritarian. As I said before, ritual has its well-defined place in authoritarian systems. That’s why James is such a big fan of ritual, it fits into his authoritarian plans to keep the hoi polloi in their place, ruled by their humanist, benevolent dictators. Why else would HHC be so strident about “we know what’s best for you, we will provide the leadership, don’t worry your pointy little heads about what’s happening because us Harvard boys will lead you to the land of stripper factories and beer volcanoes!”

    I don’t see any need for an atheist hierarchy with an anointed, self-appointed leadership to show us the way. If you want ritual, join the Masons or a marching band.

    Last but hardly least, Stedman certainly and others in that bunch probably are accommodationists. I’m a gnu atheist, loud and in your face about my atheism. Let Epstein et al drink tea with Bishop Spong and tell him that atheists aren’t a threat to his deist beliefs. I’ll go to the fundamentalists and tell them they’re deluded ignoramuses with zero evidence for their gods. And I don’t need self-elected leaders to tell me not to do that.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      It’s very odd discussing things with you, ‘Tis Himself, because you have this strange gig going where you open with outrageous, insulting and inaccurate comparisons (rituals=fascism!)and follow up with posts which would be reasonable were they not entirely divorced from reality. Pretty much everything you have said here is flat-out false, and I’ve detailed how in numerous discussions with you:

      HHC are pushing a “top down” approach to atheistic humanism.

      This is false. The description of what you mean by “top-down” does not remotely match what we actually do. We are pretty much doing the inverse of what you describe, in fact.

      ritual has its well-defined place in authoritarian systems.

      Granted. I acknowledge as much in all my posts on the matter. But it does not follow that ritual is therefore inherently authoritarian.

      That’s why James is such a big fan of ritual, it fits into his authoritarian plans to keep the hoi polloi in their place, ruled by their humanist, benevolent dictators.

      Where do you come up with this stuff? I begin to question whether you live in the real world at all.

      Last but hardly least, Stedman certainly and others in that bunch probably are accommodationists.

      That depends on what you mean by “accommodationists”, I suppose. But I have very little time for Bishop Spong.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      It’s very odd discussing things with you, James Croft, because you appear on the surface to be reading what I’m saying but you don’t actually respond to what I am saying.

      Before anything else, Croft, you once objected to me calling you Croft and until now I’ve not done so. However when I acknowledged your objections to Croft I asked you to call me ‘Tis. Are you too stupid to follow a simple request or am I too far down the food chain for you to bother? I realize I’m not a Humanist Chaplain (why do Humanists need chaplains?) but I got an MA from Harvard, so that should count for something.

      HHC are pushing a “top down” approach to atheistic humanism.

      This is false. The description of what you mean by “top-down” does not remotely match what we actually do. We are pretty much doing the inverse of what you describe, in fact.

      To use the old expression, that’s so much bovine feces. I’ve read your Humanist Community Project blog. You talk about setting up communities. You talk about setting up “educational curricula, discussion guides, ideas for Humanist ceremonies (weddings and baby-namings, perhaps), cultural resources (Humanist poetry, novels, music) and more!” You even talk about establishing a leadership. You may sugarcoat your authoritarian agenda but it’s not difficult to see how your goal is to establish a godless church with the Vatican in Cambridge.

      That depends on what you mean by “accommodationists”, I suppose. But I have very little time for Bishop Spong.

      accomodationist, n
      1. One who sucks up to goddists and shits on gnu athiests.
      2. One who sucks up to goddists and shits on gnu athiests while claiming not to suck up to goddists and shit on gnu atheists.
      Examples: 1. Chris Mooney, 2. Chris Stedman

      James, you and I will never agree on this. I see you as wanting to replace the Catholic Church with the Havard Humanist Chaplaincy. You’re convinced that you’ve got everyone’s best interests at heart and all would be peaches ‘n cream if only the unwashed masses would follow you.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      ‘Tis – my apologies for using the wrong name. I honestly hadn’t seen your previous post: I have very limited time to spend on these forums.

      To use the old expression, that’s so much bovine feces. I’ve read your Humanist Community Project blog. You talk about setting up communities. You talk about setting up “educational curricula, discussion guides, ideas for Humanist ceremonies (weddings and baby-namings, perhaps), cultural resources (Humanist poetry, novels, music) and more!” You even talk about establishing a leadership. You may sugarcoat your authoritarian agenda but it’s not difficult to see how your goal is to establish a godless church with the Vatican in Cambridge.

      This is just bizarre. We host resources which other communities (most of them not connected in any way to Harvard) make. We provide them for free on the website in case they are of use. What about that is authoritarian? You never answer this question because you are incapable of doing so: maintaining your criticism (which seems at this point a fanatical crusade for you) requires you to simply lie through your teeth about what we do.

      James, you and I will never agree on this.

      I do not expect anyone to agree. I do expect critics to display a basic level of honesty. and your deranged misrepresentation of our work is essentially a series of lies that have no reality outside of your mind. I would expect greater integrity in a freethinking critic than that

    • John Morales

      Humanist Community Project → Humanist Church Project

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      ‘Tis you sound like nothing more than a conspiracy theorist with this “evidence”.

  • Anat

    There is the ‘fake it until you make it’ aspect. Amotz Zahavi made the point that expressing an emotion facially made one experience that emotion, at least a bit. Smiling improves one’s mood, at least a bit. Obviously it doesn’t solve an underlying problem that makes one unhappy if there is one, but if one’s melancholy prevents one from acting to improve things smiling can be a first step out of a negative loop.

    I think something similar can apply to a group ritual and community building. A shared ritual can be used as an ice-breaker or as something to help bring together people who want to form a community. As long as people are aware that this is what is happening and they share that goal it is neither immoral nor cultish to do so. (If there is nothing besides ritual to form the community then it is an empty effort and I doubt the effects will last.)

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Amotz Zahavi made the point that expressing an emotion facially made one experience that emotion, at least a bit. Smiling improves one’s mood, at least a bit.

      Not in my experience, but perhaps I’m an outlier. Smiling if I don’t feel like smiling just makes me feel stupid.

    • Anat

      NathanDST – if I’m in a neutral mood and smile my mood shifts to positive. If I’m in a funk being determined to have a positive attitude helps to jump-start positive and helpful actions.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Like I said Anat, perhaps I’m an outlier. Smiling when I’m in a neutral does not shift seem to shift my mood to a more positive mood. And if I’m in a funk, being determined to be positive doesn’t make me more positive, or really seem to jump-start anything. If I’m in a funk, I actually have to do something that I usually enjoy to have a chance to get out of it. However, I’m guessing I’m in a minority, and that’s why “fake it till you make it” has never made sense to me, but others seem to think it does make sense. Different wiring, I guess.

  • John Morales

    Communal rituals are for people who either like or need communal rituals.

    They’re not everyone; me, they annoy.

  • http://heartheretic.blogspot.com/ Lance Armstrong

    I have experienced non-authoritarian ritual in the American pagan community. This is not a monolithic truth, some traditions are very structured, but in my experience organizing pagans is like herding cats. They value individual choice, and in many cases are refugees from Christianity who have already decided that they can leave a religious group, indeed an entire faith structure, if they don’t agree with it.

    I agree with some of the points that Dan Fincke raised in his response to Greta. There are practices that are part of religion that have value to people. They can be extracted from belief in fictions, and I do this in my personal life. I practice yoga, and I meditate. My teacher believes in chakras, and once tried to tell me the my obliques are involved in decision making. I don’t care about that crap, I’m there because I enjoy the practice. It has value to me, and I believe it has value to others. I think the same of ritual – that participation in symbolic acts can be significant, that myth can be a powerful and relevant thing in the same way that a moving drama is. Joseph Campbell comes to mind, as do some of Carl Jung’s ideas.

    These things are historically woo, but not inherently woo. I prefer to engage in them, and to politely engage other participants about my atheism when the opportunity presents itself. I look forward to the day when these activities are undertaken like theater, with the full knowledge that no literal truths are involved, and with all of society explicitly acknowledging that. I would love to see communities of atheists cropping up that participated in rituals that revered the cosmos in scientific, awe-inspiring terms. Until that is available to me with no woo attached I will seek transcendent experiences from the communities that offer them. I imagine that, like the pagans, atheists would form local groups and give these practices a local and personal flavor. An atheist Vatican is in my opinion doomed to fail by virtue of the nature of free thinkers, so I don’t think we need fear such a thing. In any case, there are a lot of ways to be an atheist, and mine includes some ritual.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      I would love to see communities of atheists cropping up that participated in rituals that revered the cosmos in scientific, awe-inspiring terms.

      Why? Why are rituals needed or desirable for that? Why should I want to “revere the cosmos”? Why should I want or need something that encourages me to view the cosmos in “awe-inspiring terms” (scientific or otherwise)?

      If I already am awed by the cosmos, why should I have a ritual for that?

    • http://heartheretic.blogspot.com/ Lance Armstrong

      I don’t think that you should Nathan, I just want those things for myself. I don’t think I’m alone, but neither do I think that my preferences suit everyone.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      A fair enough answer I suppose. I thought I had more to say to you about it, but now I don’t remember it was, so I’ll leave it at that.

  • http://www.withinhismind.com WithinThisMind

    Rituals are neither good nor bad. The purpose behind the ritual, however, may be another matter.

    Want to get together and sway to music? Fine. Rock Beyond Belief, go for it. Want to engage in meaningful dialogue or just a good bullshit session? Drinks at the local townclub Friday night at 8. Want to detox from dealing with all those shitheads at work? Shadowrun at my place, we’ll kill corporate overlords and take their stuff! Want to test your brain against your fellows? Poker/Game night.

    So, what is it, exactly, that you want, that does not already exist? When you say solidarity, are you meaning ‘brotherhood’ or ‘flock’? Based on what I’ve read of your HHC, it is my belief that you mean flock, which IMHO, puts your rituals into the bad category. Most of the ‘rituals’ you seem to advocate already exist, you just want a larger flock.

    And when you move on into ‘ceremonies’…well, that gets into the territory of flat out wooo. What’s wrong with just inviting your friends to a birthday party? Baby shower? BYOB BBQ?

    Are you just looking to meet new people? Get a hobby and check out Meetup.com. Dating pool? I’d list those, but this post would get way too long. A feeling of community? Join your local clean up the city group. Don’t have one? Start one. Take a class or two at your local activity center. Or teach a class at your local activity center. Campaign to get a local activity center.

    You don’t need a temple. You don’t need to invent ceremonies. The things you claim to want to get out of this pseudo-church of yours already exist, they just don’t come pre-packaged in a nice little bow. You actually have to work for them a bit. And speaking as someone who was once a member of a church, let me assure you that little bit of work is SO worth it. It tends to weed out the shitheads very effectively. Why would you want to eliminate that?

    Seriously, if all you are looking for is just a group of folks to sit around and hum kumbyah with, there is probably an app for that. I just have trouble grasping that you really have nothing better to do with your time than invent more silly ceremonies and rituals. Can’t we just DO something with our time?

    Build your church if you want. I’ll be planting a garden, or joining a book club, or taking another course at the community college. Something, ya know, productive or at least enriching.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    it makes perfect sense to reply, in response to the question “Why is your community so close and happy?”, “Because we engage in regular collective rituals which make us so!”

    I haven’t read James full article yet, but that jumped out at me as not making sense. What possible reason would I have for trusting that someone would be there for me when I need them, simply because we’ve shared collective rituals? James, are you using “close and happy” in a different way than me?

    When I think of myself as being close to someone, it means that I’m there for them when times are rough, helping how I can, listening to them, being a shoulder, etc. It also means I’m there to laugh and smile with them when things are going well. And vice versa. I don’t see this happening because of sharing regular collective rituals. Closeness happens from shared experience, but not shared ritual. And it also comes from occasionally taking a chance on trust, and being lucky enough to have it work out.

    As for “happy,” well, that’s relative. I had plenty of fun and happy times with my college gaming group, but I was not close to any of them. Yet, we had shared collective “rituals” (if you call gaming a ritual).

    I’m simply not seeing how that line, or any argument built off it, can make sense.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      This is an interesting question. I was trying to respond (perhaps a little unclearly) to the idea that Tom Flynn seems to have that if some positive feeling doesn’t have a foundation in reality it shouldn’t be indulged, and that the good feelings which come from singing don’t have such a foundation. I found that an odd position (and it got even odder in his reply to my reply) because it seems like his argument could be applied to any physical activity which promotes well-being. So, for example, I don’t see why we should be any more skeptical of the feeling of happiness we get from singing with others than of the feeling of happiness we get from going for a run. I’ll go into this more clearly in my next response.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      I look forward to your next response James. Maybe it will answer some of the other thoughts brewing in my mind concerning this topic of ritual.

  • consciousness razor

    As a lifelong humanist and vocal advocate of collective practices such as singing and ritual in humanist spaces I am frequently disappointed when those who respond with vehemence to such ideas refuse to provide an argument to support their view. “Music? Yuk! Ritual? Eww!”, they seem to say, their self-professed rationalism withering under the influence of their intense dislike for anything associated too closely with religion.

    Following the link, you’ll see it was more like “Atheist church? Yuk! Chaplains? Eww!” That is, if you’re capable of reading. No big deal. Music, church: same sort of shit, am I right?

    As this site grows we will be adding educational curricula, discussion guides, ideas for Humanist ceremonies (weddings and baby-namings, perhaps), cultural resources (Humanist poetry, novels, music) and more!

    I’ve been a musician my entire life. I write it, play it, listen to it and study it. I’ve been a humanist for most of my life as well. Does that mean my work qualifies as “humanist music”? Let’s suppose you wanted to commission something from me. I’ll ask about compensation later. First, what kind of music would you want? What are the criteria? Is there anyone working for your organization who is willing and able to determine what is and is not “humanist music” and which might be beneficial to groups around the country?

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Following the link, you’ll see it was more like “Atheist church? Yuk! Chaplains? Eww!” That is, if you’re capable of reading. No big deal. Music, church: same sort of shit, am I right?

      Ummm, this is not correct – PZ’s post is about me talking about ceremony and ritual. He talks about ritual for the entire post. He gives his view without any supporting arguments or evidence. It’s directly related to the topic of my post. Perhaps the title of Tom’s post (to which I was responding) confused you – Tom’s post addressed music very little. But PZ’s post here is a clear example of what I was talking about, so I think I read it fine.

      Let’s suppose you wanted to commission something from me. I’ll ask about compensation later. First, what kind of music would you want? What are the criteria? Is there anyone working for your organization who is willing and able to determine what is and is not “humanist music” and which might be beneficial to groups around the country?

      This is a fantastic question – just thinking about it makes my heart sing within me! I would love it if there were humanist organisations in a position to commission humanist music. What would that be? I think something I’d like to see personally are songs which express humanist values, or that talk about life from a humanist perspective. But I’m sure there would be many varieties of humanist music just as there are many varieties of religious music. I foresee classical compositions and settings of important humanist texts (a passage from His Dark Materials, perhaps, or Letters to a Young Contrarian), pop music expressing humanist values (I think of Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun), music expressing the wonders and majesty of science (like the Symphony of Science stuff). Many things.

      I am currently trying to fund-raise a bit to set up a humanist music competition. If you let me know your contact details I could invite you to participate! There is also an exciting festival of humanist music being organized in Stockholm, where humanism is forceful and lusty!

      http://www.facebook.com/groups/Humkonserten/

      Finally, our authors at HCP have thought a lot about music recently. Here are some of their (and my) thoughts:

      http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/03/07/humanism-that-sings-jodi-picoult-and-john-grant-at-the-hcp/

      http://harvardhumanist.org/2012/02/16/the-need-for-humanist-music-can-i-get-an-amen/

      http://www.templeofthefuture.net/music/the-profane-harp-humanism-and-song-part-one

      http://www.templeofthefuture.net/music/singing-together-no-please-no-or-sing-aloud-humanism-and-song-part-two

    • consciousness razor

      This is a fantastic question – just thinking about it makes my heart sing within me! I would love it if there were humanist organisations in a position to commission humanist music.

      You apparently mistook my questions for enthusiasm, and you didn’t really answer them. I think we should avoid it, because I see it as analogous to the Communist Party telling Shostakovich what to write, what it ostensibly thought was for the good of the Party. Sure, you can decide not to be so dictatorial about it, and I’ll agree that would be an improvement. However, it’s still turning art into propaganda, which (if not unethical) is anti-aesthetic no matter how benevolent your intentions may be. You might scoff at the term “propaganda” or offer any number of irrelevant reasons why I’m being terribly rude and uncharitable. Too bad, and I don’t care which ideology it is. It won’t be any less absurd than Christian rock, Buddhist opera or Islamic boogaloo. It would function as propaganda, but that is concealed by referring to the ideology and the medium employed (“humanist music”) instead of identifying it functionally. And I don’t want humanist propaganda.

      But I’m sure there would be many varieties of humanist music just as there are many varieties of religious music.

      That’s because whatever you’re talking about has nothing to do with music. The music can have more or less arbitrary qualities, so long as it serves the ideology in question: in this case, humanism. Do you care if C#alt in sixteenth-notes follows two whole notes of a-9 — is that humanistic? No, because it’s absurd to call music humanistic.

      I foresee classical compositions and settings of important humanist texts (a passage from His Dark Materials, perhaps, or Letters to a Young Contrarian), pop music expressing humanist values (I think of Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun), music expressing the wonders and majesty of science (like the Symphony of Science stuff). Many things.

      Lyrics are not music. Music itself doesn’t have any of that, but maybe the lyrical content is where you think we can find some humanism. Maybe then we could extend it to arts involving language, like novels and poetry. So should lyrics express a particular philosophy to have aesthetic value? Why are we only offering “cultural resources” which are valued because of the philosophy they express, rather than because of their aesthetic value? Why is humanism the overriding concern, if this part of your project is supposed to be for the purpose of aesthetic fulfillment? Why shouldn’t we go to any artistic event we want and leave humanism out of it, since society at large already offers tons of outlets for the expression and appreciation of art?

      From one of the articles you linked:

      So I’m often asked, how can we grow the Humanist movement? And I think the answer is to think of it less as an intellectual process and more as an artistic and emotional one, where we help people understand that Humanism is art, that art is Humanism; and that, if we can bring freethinkers together to appreciate Humanistic art, then we are doubly not alone. [my emphasis]

      This would be heresy if humanism were a religion, but let me just stress that it’s inviting trouble to blur the lines like this (or to obliterate them, as in this quote). It’s also nonsense.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I think I answered your question just fine – Humanist music, in my view, is music which expresses humanist values in some way. We can go back and forth about how music expresses a certain set of values (I believe values can certainly expressed through music which has no lyrics), but I don’t think that’s an unclear response. I even gave a series of clarifying examples.

      As for your points on propaganda, and this absurd analogy you draw with the Communist Party (what is it with you folks and analogies to totalitarian regimes), I think they depend on a strange and unsatisfactory view of how many people make music. Music is often created with the notion of exploring some idea, value or experience. I don’t see why Humanism shouldn’t be the subject of musical exploration. As a musician myself, I choose to make the music I make partly because of the values it expresses. There is nothing inconsistent in this whatsoever.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      I’m going to have to go with James on this one, speaking as a spectator of music only. I see no reason why art in general, or music in particular, can’t or shouldn’t express values. I find nothing ridiculous about “Christian rock” (other than it going against the instincts that church put in me regarding hymns and such) or other such things, and I’m not exactly sure why one would. Tim Minchin’s “Storm,” “White Wine in the Sun,” “Bears Don’t Dig on Dancing,” and others express value. Greydon Square expresses values, as does Baba Brinkman with “Requiem for Heaven.”

      I do disagree with James that “Humanism is art, and art is Humanism” as a blanket statement, as well as disagreeing that we should approach Humanism (or secular humanism, as I prefer) “less as an intellectual process and more as an artistic and emotional one.” I’m a secular humanist because I think I have good reasons for being one. Emotions are secondary to that, though still important, and art is/can be expressive of the intellectual and emotional aspects, but it doesn’t take first place by any means. “Reason,” after all, is one of the things most often emphasized as a humanist value.

      I can see that art and music are sometimes used as propaganda when they express certain philosophies, but I do not think that they are necessarily propaganda just because they express philosophies. How it is used after the artwork is created is what turns a song into propaganda.

    • consciousness razor

      I think I answered your question just fine – Humanist music, in my view, is music which expresses humanist values in some way. We can go back and forth about how music expresses a certain set of values (I believe values can certainly expressed through music which has no lyrics), but I don’t think that’s an unclear response. I even gave a series of clarifying examples.

      I don’t care which beliefs you assert if you’re not going to back them up. They don’t make any sense. All your examples pertained to lyrics, not music, and I asked several more questions to clarify what the disagreement is, which you didn’t answer. I don’t think it is necessary for music to be about humanism in order to be aesthetically valuable. If you disagree, then say so or answer the questions.

      This is being proposed because people value art and because they are allegedly lacking something in that department by not attending religious services. (I’m not lacking anything of the sort, but the claim is that some people are.) That doesn’t mean we ought to replace the kind of propaganda they’d get in a religious setting with humanism-flavored propaganda. There are all sorts of ways humanists can enrich our lives with art, even art that we think is connected in some way to humanism, without it being propaganda and without involving a humanist ritual of some kind.

      But your claim also seems to be that people want humanist rituals in particular, not just any aesthetic experience they can get in the public sphere, yet it’s not necessarily the case that music or other art for humanist rituals must be propaganda or even be about humanism. For example, one could use any of thousands of pieces of instrumental or secular vocal music for a humanist ritual. Instead, you want stuff that is explicitly humanist to reinforce the ideology, ignoring the vast literature that’s already out there, much of which is as good or better in terms of its aesthetic value. The point then is to spread humanism far and wide, rather than creating aesthetically valuable experiences with whatever art may serve that end. In other words, the point is that you want propaganda (however innocuous), not art.

      As for your points on propaganda, and this absurd analogy you draw with the Communist Party (what is it with you folks and analogies to totalitarian regimes), I think they depend on a strange and unsatisfactory view of how many people make music.

      I gave it as an analogy to illustrate what I was talking about, and for now I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on that point. You’re much too inept and powerless to compare to the Communist Party anyway. However, the thrust of the argument was (and still is) that you wouldn’t need to act like a totalitarian regime in order for propagandizing to be a problem. Do you agree with that or not?

    • consciousness razor

      For example, one could use any of thousands of pieces of instrumental or secular vocal music for a humanist ritual.

      I’ll correct myself here. You could also use sacred music of any kind, treating it the same way one would treat reading mythology.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      All your examples pertained to lyrics, not music, . . .

      Second time you’ve said something like that. Why do you say that lyrics are not music? Obviously you can have music without lyrics, so they clearly are not entirely necessary all the time, but if they are part of a song, then surely they are part of the music.

      That’s not really my primary question though. My main one is: what do you consider propaganda to be, and what does it do? And how is that inherently bad, whatever that is?

      I ask because I think I misunderstood your position before, so now I’m trying to make sure I get it right before I comment further.

    • consciousness razor

      Second time you’ve said something like that. Why do you say that lyrics are not music? Obviously you can have music without lyrics, so they clearly are not entirely necessary all the time, but if they are part of a song, then surely they are part of the music.

      I just want to communicate with clarity. There is a word that refers to organized sound: music. There is also a word, lyrics, which refers to words which are thus organized; that is, according to musical parameters, rather than linguistic ones in speech/writing or their appearance in the visual arts. We can take a song (which has lyrics) and remove the words by having an instrument play the vocal part, or have a vocalist hum it or use nonsense syllables, or sing the part with other lyrics — it is the same music. We can also take the lyrics out of the musical context they were put in, write them down, and call it a poem (or a lyric poem, if you like), or set them to another piece of music — those are the same lyrics. That’s the point: if you want to talk about these things coherently to make these kinds of distinctions, then you have to be specific about what is meant by the terms.

      That’s not really my primary question though. My main one is: what do you consider propaganda to be, and what does it do? And how is that inherently bad, whatever that is?

      Propaganda is communication (or any art work) that is supposed to influence people to support or oppose a cause. It may or may not do that, depending on how successful it is as propaganda. The connotation is usually distinct from persuasive rhetoric in general, in that the message gives a biased perspective or distorts reality in order to be influential, but that need not be the case. I didn’t say it was inherently bad, but having that as the purpose is not at all like making something so people will appreciate the art for its own sake. If appreciating art were supposed to be the goal, then you shouldn’t make propaganda instead, because that can easily undermine it in a number of ways, as I tried to explain above.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Thanks. That’s much clearer. Now I need to think about it some more.

  • KG

    Several months ago on Camels With Hammers Eric Steinhart explored potential uses of numerous Wiccan symbols and rituals for atheists.

    And what a ludicrous bunch of hooey that was!

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Right back at ya: basically, what a ludicrous bunch of idiots atheists are. Seriously: atheists can’t coordinate, can’t raise money, can’t build social institutions, can’t generate political action. Can’t do anything except be negative. My conclusion was that “atheists”, at least the ones that I dealt with here, were mainly males, almost certainly white and privileged, and highly anti-social. One lovely logic problem revealed a very high (and surprising) degree of mind-blindness. One might read “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism”. But hey: keep it up with the insults. It’s a good way to make people sympathetic to your cause.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      It’s the allegedly negative atheist movement that has made the first stirrings of actual organization, community, and identity among atheists. And the young movement already has plenty of people who are already gaining consciousness of the need to move to a more constructive stage and are constructively thinking about how to do that. And there are already resources and institutions being developed to do that from Parenting Beyond Belief to The Secular Student Alliance to the Secular Coalition for America to Recovering From Religion to the Clergy Project to, yes, Freethought Blogs, and on and on. The movement is growing and it is constantly diversifying and conscientious about diversifying.

      Inherently there will probably always be a strand of atheists who are also anti-social since being anti-social is an effective way to be inoculated against the social ways that religions trap people. And both the anti-social and those social people who were abused by religious practices are going to (in many cases quite understandably) have a sort of reflexive suspicion and antipathy to religious forms. But that does not make them all wrong, their suspicions not worth listening to, or their views representative of the majority of atheists for all time.

      The response of the most vocal commenters to the “Atheism and Wicca” series was routinely closed-mindedly negative but it’s prejudicial to judge the whole movement (or at least its future potential) by its crankiest and most reactionary representatives. It’s certainly not constructive. To be constructive, we must work with people as they actually are, however frustrating they may be. There is no other option. Quitting on atheists or atheism is not an option for anyone committed to truth, virtue, and human flourishing.

    • KG

      Seriously: atheists can’t coordinate, can’t raise money, can’t build social institutions, can’t generate political action. Can’t do anything except be negative.

      Oh, right. The Reason Rally was completely disorganised and negative, wasn’t it Eric?

      My conclusion was that “atheists”, at least the ones that I dealt with here, were mainly males, almost certainly white and privileged, and highly anti-social.

      Well, a lot of us have an antipathy to the sort of bullshit you were generating in industrial quantities, but I don’t think that can fairly be characterised as “highly anti-social”. As for the complaints about white male privilege, yes the atheist movement is too white and male, but quite a few of those calling you on your bullshit were denizens of Pharyngula, where the community is highly diverse, and privilege in all its forms is called out on a regular basis.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Well, James, if you share all those criticisms that I and JT and PZ and Greta and Blackford and others have been leveling then why are you wasting tons of capital begging bloggers like JT to read the freaking book??? They are going to JUSTIFIABLY hate it for the reasons you just outlined.

      This is not about just alienating commenters, it’s about alienating your potential allies by insisting they read a book that YOU think represents your side terribly in precisely areas they care about! And here’s my response to the mischievous tweakings of de Botton–fuck him. I don’t need his condescension and neither does the atheist movement. This is part and parcel with his elitist condescending picture of a future atheist religion. He’s a hack who gives philosophers and us constructive atheists a bad name. Why not just come out and say THAT on Twitter instead of defending him??

      Or are you just above all petty calls to prove yourself no matter who they are from. Not just piddily blog commenters but committed activists and bloggers and professional philosophers too?

      You and Eric are showing in this thread an enormous condescension to the people you want to convince don’t understand psychology or human needs well enough. Neither of you are proving expert at psychology or in treatment of people.

      For cripe’s sake, if THAT was your view of de Botton’s book I of all people should have known that by now. This is your communication failure.

      The two of you should stop lecturing the rest of us from the outside about how to build community while we’re actually doing it.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I’m not quite sure whree this reply was meant to go, but I’ll try to respond to it (I must admit I find some of it confusing, though). You ask why I’ve been encouraging people to actually read a book before criticizing the contents of that book. I cannot honestly believe you are asking the question. I would think the first requirement to have an honest discussion about a particular book is to have actually read it. To suggest that people read a book before expressing an opinion on it is not to defend the book, but to defend basic standards of intellectual honesty and integrity. If people read the book and then hate it then, as you say, they will be justified in taking this position. My goal is not to get people to agree with the book (as you’ve seen I don’t agree with much of it) but to raise the level of discussion about it to a basically reasonable level. I want to defend the right of an author to be read before being crucified, that is all. What is your objection to this? You prefer people to be poorly-informed in their judgments? The direct implication of your argument would be that I should discourage people from reading the book because if they read it they might end up disagreeing with me. I can’t think of many things less intellectually honest than that.

      Finally, your point about “lecturing from the outside”. Why do you draw me “on the outside” giving advice to you folks “on the inside”? That’s precisely the sort of thing that makes me arch my eyebrows. If you don’t agree, you’re on the “outside” of the atheist orthodoxy and have a lot to prove before anyone bothers to read what you say and consider it without ridiculous comparisons to Nazis and Communists. And attempts to engage constructively in intellectual discourse, like the perfectly reasonable exchange between myself and Tom Flynn we are discussing, are construed as “condescending advice from the outside”. That’s not how Tom saw it.

      Anyway, it frustrates me. I find it rather personal and insulting. But perhaps we can work all this out in person sometime. I want to learn some Nietzsche from you and talk epistemology!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      James, yes, we need to chat more directly some time soon. If not during this hectic end of semester, some time in the summer at least.

      To answer your comment—there are too many worthwhile books and articles to read in the world that there is no reason to read terrible books. This is a book that represents your (and my) positions terribly. So why recommend it to people who are already suspicious of our positions? I think I’ve read you talk about reading a number of more illuminating books lately. Why not recommend the good ones? JT, et al. were criticizing what they knew of de Botton’s positions and were judging the actual book not worth reading based on what they did know. If you know the book is as flawed as it is and would only put them off all the more to your own views (by association), why recommend it. This baffles me. It gave the impression you were endorsing the book to any casual observer. (It did to me and I’m slightly more than a casual observer.)

      Also, it helps when you show that you’re not interested in rituals, etc., of any sort whatsoever and distance yourself from the bad ones. This whole de Botton thing could have been a chance to define yourself in contradistinction and to show your New Atheist solidarity (which I believe is real and underappreciated) but instead you came off like you were advocating de Botton. Sorry, I find this mystifying!

      As for the outside/inside point, I was mostly digging at Eric there. You’re not an outsider. But I would emphasize that the New Atheists hostile to Harvard and FtB are both community building themselves. They’re part of the same basic project as what you guys are doing, even if there are some philosophical differences and this shouldn’t be cast otherwise.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Well I think what I’d say in response to that is simply that I wasn’t blanketly recommending the book to everybody (as you say there are rather better expressions of a similar idea), but I was encouraging those criticizing the ideas contained therein to read it. I don’t think it’s inconsistent or odd to say to someone “If you’re going to criticize that book, why not read it?”, even if you yourself think that the book is not the best representation of a set of views you hold. It is entirely within someone’s gift to say “I choose not to read it” but then I rather think you have to withhold much further comment. I would also say that I do actually think the book is worth reading, not because I think it is absolutely right but because I think it is provocative, quite beautifully written, and an interesting source of discussion points. So I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you seem to think it is.

      I entirely agree that we are all part of a very similar project with many shared aims. As I said in another reply on this thread I do try very hard to make it clear that I share the values of most New Atheists in my writing. I do actually take this stuff into account when I write my pieces! But what tends to happen is a particular quote from a piece gets noticed, and the discussion then revolves around that.

      But, we should certainly talk in person about all this. I find that has a way of bringing people into much better understanding of each other, even when they continue to disagree! Back to reading about Kant and Scheffler…

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Well I think what I’d say in response to that is simply that I wasn’t blanketly recommending the book to everybody (as you say there are rather better expressions of a similar idea), but I was encouraging those criticizing the ideas contained therein to read it. I don’t think it’s inconsistent or odd to say to someone “If you’re going to criticize that book, why not read it?”, even if you yourself think that the book is not the best representation of a set of views you hold.

      Are you kidding me with this, James? Are you really claiming this, that you were getting on people’s case about criticizing the book without reading it, when the people you were criticizing were clear that they were criticizing things de Botton said in an online piece(s)? Or in one case, a talk de Botton gave? Do you remember when JT pointed that out to you, and quoted me explaining why some of us probably weren’t going to read the book? http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/03/13/review-of-de-botton/#comment-33190

      You, James, who gets so tired of having his positions misread and misinterpreted (and yes, I agree that it happens to you), were misreading and misinterpreting people on that issue, and I have yet to see you acknowledge that! Damn it, you’re infuriating sometimes!

      James, I respect you. I like you. You were one of the first bloggers that I found when I started looking for community amongst atheists. You gave me hope, and I told you this when I was still using the pseudonym “Lucien Black.” You were one of the first to introduce me to the term “secular humanist.” Prior to that, I had no clue my philosophy and worldview actually had a name that fit. You were on my mind as an inspiration when I wrote “Something positive” at my own blog (though the challenge that starts that post was from someone else). I’ve disagreed with you on things, and still do, but you’ve also changed my mind about things. I’m taking time to study up on what you’re saying about ritual and community, and the work that HCP is doing, with an open mind, because I think that you’re someone worth paying attention to. But James, there really are times when you’re a horrible communicator, and there really are times when you come across as authoritarian or disingenuous or fucking pretentious –whether you mean it that way or not.

      *sigh* Dan, I apologize if this blow up was inappropriate for your blog comments. James, if you want to respond in a way that doesn’t need to be on Dan’s blog, you can hit me up on Facebook, or email me ( nathandst (at) gmail (dot) com ). Or whatever. Your big on personal, one-on-one interaction, and that’s the best I can give you when you’re on the East Coast and I’m in Minnesota. (Barring phone, but I’m not handing that out on a blog comment.)

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Wow I’ve really annoyed you! I think I did explain at the time why I thought it reasonable to ask people to read the book before critiquing the talks de Botton was giving about the book, but I honestly don’t remember where on earth I wrote that since the were so many threads on the topic! I am quite aware I was responding to people responding to talks and artices. But the talks and articles are talks and articles promoting the ideas explored at length in a book! So I think it is fair to say to people “if you are invested in these questions, and if you care enough to write a critique, why not become fully informed about the arguments by reading the book?”

      That is, in fact, what I say above – that people are criticizing the ideas that are explored at greater depth in the book, not that people are criticizing the book. Now, you might say that that’s perfectly legitimate, and that de Botton should be able to present the ideas in his book clearly in a short presentation. I think that’s unreasonable: when I go to a talk about a book I expect a partial sketch of that book’s arguments, and I recognize that I will have to read the book to get the whole thing. I.e. I give the speaker the benefit of the doubt (to a certain extent).

      Further, having watched video of the talks being responded to, and read the linked articles, I think the criticism of them has tended to be shoddy and prejudiced in itself. Take Shaun’s review JT responded to. It’s just shockingly poorly-argued in itself: it mangles the arguments de Botton made in the talk, and is internally inconsistent. It’s clearly motivated by prejudice against “Accommodationists”. It’s just not up to a reasonable standard.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Having said that, and having read the responses you linked to (a couple of which I hadn’t seen before), I do think it’s fair to say I should have been more clear about why I think there’s something wrong in just ripping apart those articles and talks. And I shouldn’t have just posted those one-sentence things about reading the book – that comes off douchey. My bad. I was getting rather pissed off at that point and I didn’t communicate my point very effectively at all. I can understand the frustration of others on seeing that, especially if they hadn’t seen some of the more in-depth discussions I got into about that on other sites.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      James, thank you. I still disagree with your critique on the reasonableness of “ripping apart” the freely available, online materials, but on a personal level, I can let that go. At least you acknowledge you weren’t always as clear as you could have been.

  • KG

    One of the great advantages of atheism is not being expected to take part in stupid, pointless rituals or listen to some priest, pastor, rabbi, mullah or chaplain rabbiting on interminably. Why throw away our USP?

    • http://www.withinhismind.com WithinThisMind

      Seriously.

      I mean, I LIKE sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

      I’ve more or less been an atheist all my life, but I still attended church until well into my teens because it was, ya know, ‘what you are supposed to do’.

      I’m thrilled that I no longer have to put up with that kind of boring crap. Everyone mumbling along out of tune to some badly scored melody? Mindless chanting. Stand up sit down clap along.

      It’s all part of creating this kind of false insider club. Us versus them, we are the in ones, see our clubhouse and secret handshake? Sorry, I’m kind of grown-up now, I don’t need that anymore.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    Yes, many atheists are trying to move to a more constructive phase. And James Croft is one of them, his work is important and valuable. But look at the nastiness he’s encountered here!

    • http://www.withinhismind.com WithinThisMind

      Yes, yes, how dare we not acknowledge we are sheep in need of a shepherd’s crook.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      He’s received a bit of nastiness, some agreement, and a lot of skeptical demands for explanation of how exactly rituals are necessary and how the abuses of rituals can be safeguarded against. There are in many cases legitimate questions and challenges raised. I don’t see anything inherently wrong in there being vigilant pressure applied to any one promoting rituals to prove that they won’t fuck them up and replicate all the awfulness atheists are working hard to escape and to rescue others from.

      The first three chapters of Alain de Botton’s book are appalling and infuriating as far as I’m concerned. They’re exhibit A of how to do this sloppily and regressively and risk collapsing atheism right back into the hands of authoritarianism (from which hands, for the record, it has never historically escaped any better than theism has).

      Croft needs to answer these pressures and demands for both philosophical justifications and morally and practically defensible blueprints. So do I. So do you. So does de Botton. Etc.

      All I ask from the critics is a little more imaginative willingness to even consider that there could be constructive answers and to have a more openminded willingness to turn them over, even speculatively and to try to answer their own questions too.

      But I don’t think that all the pushback is counter-productive. This is a grass roots movement. We’re here having the debates that will define the movement. Either we participate in them vigorously and in good faith or, well, what? Just concede cultural and public philosophical hegemony to authoritarian, nonsense-based religions that inculcate counter-rational epistemologies and promote regressive politics? No thanks.

      All I ask is that people argue in good faith and have open minds. While a few among the anti-ritual contingent is nasty and argues in bad faith, hardly all of them do. So I don’t care if the majority are against me here. It just challenges me to make better arguments addressing more of their concerns in the future.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The other thing I would stress, Eric, is that this whole process is happening very organically and ironically. Remember, the most vociferous anti-communal atheists you are reading are still Freethought Blogs readers and many of them active members of our online community. Which means, they are precisely the atheists already building an identity and a community whether that’s how they want to conceive of themselves or not.

      And there are atheists already linking up offline regardless of whether the internet-only atheists want anything to do with them.

      The ineffectiveness of atheism to undermine religion is really due to the great numbers of apatheists who don’t even care enough to agitate on these or any atheism or religion questions at all.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      What is it that sustains religion? The beliefs? Not at all. It’s the positive sociality.

      It’s the little old ladies, like my widowed mother, who need some social contact and comfort, who need a *very* safe place to go for social solace. It’s the young parents who want some definitive moral guidance for their kids. It’s the women who want to be able to find mates while minimizing the risks of harassment.

      Religion provides enormous pro-social benefits. So far, atheism provides none. What emotional or social comfort are you going to get from an atheist? What emotional or pro-social services does the “atheist” movement provide?

      If “atheism” ever hopes to succeed as a social movement, it’s going to have to move beyond the angry smart-assed anti-social privileged young white male demographic. It’s going to have to move beyond the hatred, beyond the mind-blindness, beyond the machismo.

      What is the ratio of male to female on FTB?

      What is the ratio of young to old on FTB?

      Or parents with young children? Or widows or widowers?

      Here would be a nice experiment: try to get the atheist bloggers on FTB to agree on a moral code of conduct. Any code at all. Something a core group of well-known atheists could agree on as the Atheist Moral Code.

      You could start with something like Bernie Gert’s “The Moral Rules”. But I bet the conversation won’t even get started.

      And think of the benefits: a universally binding morality for atheists – so atheists could answer the main political charge against them, namely, that they have no morality.

      What an amazing tool an Atheist Moral Code would be for the advancement of atheism. Far more powerful than any argument against the existence of the Abrahamic God.

      An Atheist Moral Code endorsed by FTB!

      It will NEVER happen.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I have to admit, Daniel, that though I support and welcome the critical pushback if it comes from an honest place of engagement, I hardly ever feel it does so from the critics on this site. I very infrequently get the sense that anyone is willing to change their mind after being presented with arguments, and very often I see posts being read in such a strange, twisted manner that it reveals the reader’s powerful prejudice against any such idea more than a willingness to think for themselves and keep an open mind. It’s a very toxic environment on here for freethinking, in my view – not because people disagree (which is essential) but because some of the most persistent commentators just won’t give other ideas a fair shot.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Also check out the replies to my most detailed account of what my vision of “atheist religion” might look like: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/12/21/answering-greta-my-goals-as-an-atheist-writer/

      Where were the pitchforks? This was even in the middle of Eric’s controversial Atheism and Wicca series that had lots of people on edge.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      Here would be a nice experiment: try to get the atheist bloggers on FTB to agree on a moral code of conduct. Any code at all. Something a core group of well-known atheists could agree on as the Atheist Moral Code….
      An Atheist Moral Code endorsed by FTB!

      It will NEVER happen. –Eric Steinhart

      Then you are ignorant of a great many discussions that have taken place on FTB that have concerned the morality of specific behaviors.

      Besides that, building such a code will do nothing to stop people from acting unethically just as it has never stopped True Believers™ from acting unethically. We’re human–products of evolution–and we atheists recognize that to our core. Of course most of us will agree on particulars, but by not buying into the whole mental slavery schtick that religions attempt to impose on humans, we aren’t going to allow ourselves to be beholden to inviolable codes.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Eric, you’re both being shortsighted and showing an ignorance of FtB.

      Let’s start addressing what you said by remembering that this movement is really roughly 6 years old in terms of any kind of identity and traction and institution building. Of course there have always been the Center For Inquiry and American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the “New Atheism” explosion that has propelled this dates to The God Delusion, as far as I’m concerned.

      If we want to be really generous we can go back to 9/11 and the internet’s maturation in the early 2000s. But I see that as all the initial seeding of the ground.

      So, why in the world would your mother so late in life take the slightest interest in becoming an atheist or joining an atheist group—even were it the greatest social group on the planet? Her whole life the only option was the church. We’re supposed to measure our success by whether we’re able to recruit little old ladies away from their religions? I mean, seriously?

      Now, the atheists were typically another set of old people–old men who were scientists or philosophy professors or techies, etc. The most striking thing about this movement now is that the Reason Rally was extremely and noticeably young. The Secular Student Alliance is thriving. The youth are the strongest “None” category. And rather than going back to religion after their drift away from religion, this is a generation we have some real hope will not just slip back into religion when they marry and have kids.

      YES, we need the institutions to provide those people alternative environments for inculcating values and traditions in their kids. But in the meantime, we’re inoculating them against passively succumbing to faith by helping them understand their non-belief as an explicit thing to be conscientiously adopted as a matter of identity and refusal of bad thinking, etc. This is a huge step.

      And if you at least read PZ, Stephanie, Greta, Ophelia, Jen, Jason, Ian, Natalie, Greg, The Atheist Experience, Sikivu, Kylie you will know that there are CONSTANT discussions about proactive measures that need to be taken to increase ethnic and gender diversity in the movement. I mean, CONSTANT. There are panels, there are huge internet smackdowns on misogynists, pushbacks against racism, etc. I mean, we have a reputation, if anything, for being moralistic about these things and the libertarian and MRA atheists find us insufferable for our commitments to various moral stands that go well beyond “dictionary atheism”. I mean, have you even heard of “Elevatorgate”? What do you think that was all about?? Did you follow the conflicts we’ve had with Reddit? Did you read my post attacking Reddit for its claims that atheism had to remain morally neutral to the point of not taking any measures to protect women against a hostile environment? http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/01/11/how-atheist-reddit-doesnt-get-it/

      Were you at the Reason Rally or the American Atheists conventions? Did you see the diverse lineup of speakers? Did you hear the numerous speakers talk about how to make us MORE diverse and get cheers? Have you listened to Sean Faircloth or Elisabeth Cornwell, both from the Richard Dawkins Foundation both EXPLICITLY address both the issue of diversity? Did you hear Cornwell’s discussion at the AA about how atheists can meet women’s social needs to prevent them from keeping their families religious? Did you follow the ad campaign for African American humanists last month? Did you see the speech about Hispanic outreach at the AA?

      The practical steps are all being done by numerous movement leaders who are keenly aware of the problems. Greta just spent the other day complaining about even having WOMEN’S T-SHIRTS at conventions. That’s how specific and vigilant we are.

      Complaining that because in 6 MEASLEY YEARS we have not been able to fully transform our movement from its traditional demographic is completely impatient and unproductive and judgmental. We’re doing the work. The movement’s leaders get the problems. And the ones that don’t get them hear it from Freethought Blogs all the time.

      Finally for now, no, FtB does not need a universal atheists’ moral code. We don’t need top down authoritarianism about values. We don’t need to replicate childish religious approaches to morality to prove we are sufficiently moral. And the reason we’re tagged as not having morality is NOT because we’re missing such a worthless bit of absolutism. It’s because of sheer religious prejudices about unbelief and about the nature of morality.

      But for what it’s worth, many movement atheists have taken the time to express their own basic moral principles, sometimes even in lists of 10!, and they usually come out marvelously without having to be ratified as binding for all in some eternally codified form.

      And the Freethought Bloggers have taken a ton of moral stances. Just read them.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      It’s the little old ladies, like my widowed mother, who need some social contact and comfort, who need a *very* safe place to go for social solace. It’s the young parents who want some definitive moral guidance for their kids. It’s the women who want to be able to find mates while minimizing the risks of harassment.

      And this is just narrow-minded, ageist, and sexist. Not every woman in her later years will be a “little old lady” who needs social contact and comfort and safety. It isn’t a universal need, just one that is particular to your mother and other elderly women. Not every parent wishes their children to go through a form of moral indoctrination; not every young person needs such a cage. And FFS, it’s like you haven’t ever paid attention to anything that’s ever been written during arguments about feminism on FTB when you say that women want to find mates while minimizing harassment risks.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I have to admit, Daniel, that though I support and welcome the critical pushback if it comes from an honest place of engagement, I hardly ever feel it does so from the critics on this site. I very infrequently get the sense that anyone is willing to change their mind after being presented with arguments, and very often I see posts being read in such a strange, twisted manner that it reveals the reader’s powerful prejudice against any such idea more than a willingness to think for themselves and keep an open mind. It’s a very toxic environment on here for freethinking, in my view – not because people disagree (which is essential) but because some of the most persistent commentators just won’t give other ideas a fair shot.

      I argue for comparable ideas, priorities, and values that you and Eric do, and yet I feel quite welcome here. Of course I get frustrated when I am disagreed with but I rarely feel like my meanings are twisted around on me. I write directly to their concerns and the readership is usually quite responsive.

      For example, the other day, I wrote a post http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/04/04/six-temptations-atheists-must-avoid/ in which I said:

      6. Finally, atheists should not go so far in trying to distinguish atheism from faith-based, authoritarian, patriarchal, supernaturalistic religion that we fail to take seriously the value of numerous psychological and social mechanisms for providing people with communities that help them integrate their values, their desire for philosophical coherence, their “spiritual” sides, and their psycho-social emotional needs. I have in the past done a lot of work to explore the potential pros and cons of conscientiously reclaiming and adapting traditionally religious mechanisms for meeting these needs. (However this ought to be done, it’s not by following too closely the sloppy and regressive recommendations and attitudes of Alain de Botton.)

      And I got roundly praised. No one threw a fit. No one twisted my meanings around. I got linked to by another Freethought Blogger who called the piece excellent. I heard from another one who really liked it also.

      If you guys want to persuade the movement to adopt your ideas then pitch them in the way that shows you genuinely share their priorities and anxieties and won’t fuck things up on them.

      And don’t buy into narratives that there are these deep rifts according to which Freethought Blogs is anti-community and the Harvard Humanists are pro-community. I refuse these dichotomies. They’re bullshit.

      And just because the movement cannot fix everything in a single leap and bound and just because it has not central, authoritarian structure to accelerate progress overnight, does not mean that there is not productive energy on the grassroots level to address all your concerns.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I mention my mom and suddenly I’m talking about ALL women? And suddenly I’m sexist? Try to say something positive. Try to avoid insults.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Fair point, Daniel – perhaps it’s just me they hate ;)

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      One thing I would note, though:

      If you guys want to persuade the movement to adopt your ideas then pitch them in the way that shows you genuinely share their priorities and anxieties and won’t fuck things up on them.

      I don’t like purity tests. I make a very strong effort to demonstrate the shared values I have with FTB commentators (and everyone else in this movement). But after a certain point there is a responsibility on the reader to act in good faith and take things like suggestions and offerings as good-will efforts. What greatly frustrated me is the demonization some people receive at the hands of a few which is, in my view, completely unjustified. And it does seem, from my perspective, to happen a lot.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You don’t like purity tests, James? Are you sure you’re the right guy to be starting a religion then? ;)

      Seriously, I do think the well has been poisoned in your case. So it’s not entirely your fault. But beyond purity tests, I think this is pretty simple: people are not going to trust you to be the guy who creates the mechanisms for values transmissions unless they know your motives are clean and that your values are the ones they want transmitted. In no small part this is because the medium is the message in the case of rituals and community structures. So you need to establish a great deal of credibility. As it should be! You’re dealing with a community that is wise to and detests unwarranted clerical authority. You expect them to just trust you to write their liturgy without knowing your priorities are theirs??

      Finally on this purity test point: The tests are easy if your focus is the same as theirs. When I started blogging I didn’t have the slightest interest in proving I fit the atheist community and was someone they could trust—because I had no idea the atheist community existed! I just was adamantly against religious abuses of truth and institutions and I cared so much about this that I never let a chance to make my unequivocal opposition to those things known. I never wanted to be mistaken on those points for a second because they were matters of utmost concern to me–even when praising some other feature of religion as good or calling for some adoption of a traditionally “religious” form.

      Now that writing style had the EFFECT of in-group signaling but I didn’t have to try, I wasn’t conforming to what I’m not. It just was me. I was a natural part of the group before I ever met the group!

      And I still am. So it’s natural. No fitting myself into a box required. Sometimes, I would like to cut to the chase and leave out the bona fides and assume having said them 100 times that the audience will assume them. But I don’t. Because that risks misleading the inevitably sizable chunk of the audience that is either new to me or still does not know me inside and out enough to give me benefit of the doubt.

      But it’s not hard for me. And from what I understand of your thought it shouldn’t be hard for you. And if you would take the time to do so, take the time to tell us what you think of de Botton trivializing all debunking of god’s existence as some sort of cruel humorous sport and showing no appreciation for the vital, moral urgency that drives many atheists to criticize religion. It would go a long way to establishing your credibility. THAT’S how you communicate with people who have just been crapped on by de Botton and convince them to still hear you out about atheist community and ritual building. You don’t just double down defending the lazy pseudo-philosopher because he’s just on “your pro-ritual team”.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I find that an odd critique. I spend an awful lot of my time doing precisely what you suggest. The difference is that the people who take such exception to some small portion of my views only ever see that small portion, and don’t bother to search more widely for all the other writing which says what you say I should say. And they do it with all the people they disagree with on here – assume the one post they’ve seen is the whole picture (and frequently don’t even read that carefully).

      If people are interested in reading my work on the issues you mention it is out there. It’s even, always, linked in my posts. But some people here are not willing to put in the effort to get a clear view. Case in point – if people read the whole post you excerpt from here, they would see I accept that ritual can be authoritarian a number of times, and say this must be taken into account. I mention my opposition to coercion. I.e. I do precisely what you say I should do – but nobody listens ;).

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Well, like I said, the well has been poisoned against you. I try to highlight your other stuff when I come across it. Feel free to send me FtB red meat if you want it promoted when you write it.

      I know you’re one of the “good guys”. It bothers me that you’re lumped in with others who are much less “New Atheist” and much more accommodationist in their inclinations.

      And this door swings both ways, you know. You often come in here and say that FtB doesn’t have constructive people here or that not all of the movement is being represented on the network essentially when I (and others like me) are here.

      Again, the best thing I think you can do is stop accepting helping perpetuate the narrative that there is really a fundamental divide between you and us. There may be with Stedman. I’ve read some things that lead me to think so. But I’ve never gotten that vibe from you.

      But again, where is your criticism of de Botton for poo-poohing atheists who spend time attacking religion as though they’re just in it for cruel, humorous sport? Did you bother to do that or do you think just telling people to read a book which is going to disregard their passionate concerns in the most trivial manner possible in the opening pages is magically going to change their minds? Do you think that it’s just a great thing that he perversely credits religion uncritically with creating the idea of a “universal brotherhood of mankind”? Do you endorse his notion of atheists emphasizing morality being a matter of attacking autonomy and infantalizing people?

      I’m only three chapters in and the book is a textbook case of not caring at all about all the anti-authoritarian gains the atheists are making and want most of all to preserve.

      Where’s your critique of de Botton on all these points? I’ll I’ve read from you is sulking that no one will read the book. If you have a takedown of de Botton’s regressive, lazy, condescending bullshit, please send it along and I’ll prominently excerpt it in a blog post.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      The reason why I haven’t addressed de Botton’s book yet is because I’m waiting for my review to be published in The Humanist before engaging in more discussion over it. I don’t take quite the same view you do – for instance, I don’t think it’s so much lazy as purposefully provocative and mischievous (I actually think it’s rather funny, and intended to be so. I.e. it is knowingly tweaking the noses of atheists at some points) – and I take it as a provocative work of popular philosophy, rather than as an attempt to rigorously demonstrate a given thesis. However, I do criticize it quite strongly. Here’s an excerpt:

      “But what of the premise? Is secular society as lacking as de Botton claims, and are religions the best place to look for remedies? Probably not. The primary flaw of Religion for Atheists is a lack of balance: he praises religion’s benefits while overlooking many of its flaws, while under-valuing the potential of human beings and the achievements of secular society. For instance, much of de Botton’s argument rests on an excessively dim view of humankind in which adults are really just like children, moments away from indulging our worst selves. He emphasizes that because “we are all in the end rather infantile, incomplete, unfinished, easily tempted and sinful,” we therefore require institutions and rituals to keep us in line. This view of human nature sits uneasily with the humanist emphasis on the goodness, dignity, and capability of human beings, both individually and in groups, and undercuts somewhat his arguments about the value of culture as a corrective. After all, it is the very same “infantile” people who create the culture that de Botton hopes will save us.

      Further, de Botton displays an equally pessimistic attitude toward the achievements of secular society. If psychotherapy is inconsistent and ramshackle, it is at least responsive to individual needs and respectful of the peculiar circumstances of life. The very uniformity and standardization de Botton praises in the confessional booth, while maybe of some value in promising a standard level of “spiritual service”, is also a great weakness, relying as it does on dogmatically-defined notions of sin which do not reflect individual experience. Secular responses to human suffering may, therefore, be better than de Botton credits.

      At the same time religion’s penchant for offering “guidance” might be much worse than he allows. Decrying what he sees as a “libertarian obsession with freedom” that infects secular society, de Botton argues in favor of the guiding hand that religions tend to offer, without giving any consideration to the fact that, too often, that same guiding hand has become a ruling fist. Indeed, the book suffers from a failure to recognize any dangers at all that might accrue if secular society were to consciously attempt to draw on religious practices. An appreciation of the potential pitfalls of his attempt to reclaim and repurpose religious practices would have gone a long way toward forestalling some of the criticism the work has received from other atheists.”

      And this is consistent with pretty much everything I’ve said so far regarding the book.

      But I have to say I still rather bristle at the suggestion that I have something to prove to rude, aggressive, anonymous people in blog comment threads. I’ve been working my whole adult life to promote enlightenment values, and they want to shit on me for half a blog post they read on someone else’s website? Seriously. What I do is evidence of what I believe.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    I’m not asking for lots of moral debate and discussion and argument.

    My challenge is clear: Find an Atheist Moral Code endorsed by all bloggers at FTB.

    And my claim is this: It will never happen. It can’t happen, given the anti-sociality of the atheists on FTB. It’s impossible.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Eric, first of all, there are probably dozens of permutations of fairly detailed moral codes that if you presented them to the FtB bloggers we would all say, “yeah, that, basically.”

      I am pretty sure of this, given our constant communications with each other. We share a ton of values.

      And I also am interconnected with a couple thousand identity-atheists on Facebook and the way the likes pile up on moral statements or memes that explicitly express moral codes even, shows a tremendous amount of shared commitment to shared values.

      The POINT is that the structure should not be aping the Ten Commandments. This is an utterly arbitrary litmus test you are asking us to meet. It proves nothing when we ignore it. We don’t have to answer every challenge thrown to us to prove we’re a community concerned with advancing moral concerns and a common set of values.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Of course you don’t have to meet this challenge. Who said you did?

      My point is that you can’t (well, the FTB collective can’t). It’s impossible.

      And in fact it ought to be a pretty simple thing.

      Here are Gert’s rules, taken directly from the Wikipedia article:

      Ten moral rules
      In his book Common Morality: Deciding What to Do, Gert proposes ten moral rules which, if followed, create a moral system. The rules are as follows:
      Do not kill
      Do not cause pain
      Do not disable
      Do not deprive of freedom
      Do not deprive of pleasure
      Do not deceive
      Keep your promises
      Do not cheat
      Obey the law
      Do your duty.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Really? You don’t think FtB can agree to those simple rules?

    • http://www.withinhismind.com WithinThisMind

      Do not kill

      Except in self defense or when otherwise necessary, such as in the defense of others.

      Do not cause pain

      Define pain. I challenge you to get through a year of your life, even with the absolute best of intentions, without causing someone pain. I hurt a young man just the other day, when after a couple hours of conversation regarding a topic of mutual interest, he asked me out and I had to tell him I was married. A couple weeks ago I smacked my son’s hand away from a danger he was about to touch. I regularly give my husband shots, which are very painful. This one is, unfortunately, just unrealistic as written. A certain amount of pain is just an unfortunate byproduct of existence. I’ll be generous and assume you mean ‘do not intentionally or through negligence cause someone unnecessary pain’.

      Do not disable

      What do you mean by this? Don’t go around kneecapping folks? Sure, I could get behind that.

      Do not deprive of freedom

      I deprive my son of freedom all the time. Right now, he is confined to the house until his room is clean. Have you thought this list through at all?

      Do not deprive of pleasure

      Oh fuck you and the horse you rode in on. This kind of thing is just rape culture at it’s finest. I’ll deprive you of all the pleasure in the fucking world if your pleasure involves harming or even seriously inconveniencing me in any way, from trolling to harassment to full on rape. You aren’t entitled to pleasure, really, especially since so many forms of ‘pleasure’ come at the expense of other people.

      Do not deceive

      Again, let’s be realistic here. Go an entire month without uttering an falsehood or otherwise obscuring the truth. Complete truth, mind you, as partial truths are often used as deception. And some deception is necessary. Here is one that women often use to preserve their safety – ‘Oh, you are just too nice’.

      Keep your promises

      If your word is given freely (in many extractions of promises, this is not the case) and in full knowledge of the consequences (which is also often not the case) and the situation has not changed (often not the case), oh, fuck, let’s just rewrite this as ‘unless it violates basic sensibility, try to keep your word if possible’.

      Do not cheat

      Define ‘cheat’.

      Obey the law

      If the law is just, I shall make every attempt to abide by it. If the law is unjust, I shall ignore it or actively work to oppose it. If the givers of law are unjust, I shall work against them as well.

      Do your duty.

      Define ‘duty’.

      There is no such thing as a ‘universal moral code’, and that’s why you won’t find FTB coming up with one. Morality is not some universal constant. It’s subjective, because there is no such thing as a ‘universal human experience’.

      And I’m sorry to have to point this out to you, but some people are ultimately just fucked up, and we have to deal with those people. It will never be a perfect world, and without a perfect world, there is no ‘universal morality’. Do not kill is a fine bumper sticker. I’ve known too many sociopaths to think it is truly possible for every person in the world to go through life without having to make the choice to kill, be killed, or allow someone else to be killed.

      I’ve got a simple ethic. If I don’t want to be treated in a certain way, I try not to treat others that way. It doesn’t hold up in all situations though, since a lot of folks act in ways I don’t act, and thus I have to treat them in ways I don’t like to be treated due to how they act. Ah, subjectivity.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    I got no idea whether or not FtB bloggers can collectively agree to Gert’s rules. But I think it would be impossible. After all, it would require coordinated group action oriented towards affirming a single group convention. It would require being pro-social.

    Here’s one way to prove me wrong: get together and all publicly endorse Gert’s rules. And not endorse them in a quiet little voice, in a carefully qualified scholarly footnote buried in some big long post, but make it loudly and visibly clear that you all endorse them.

    Of course, I’m not saying that you or FtB or anybody else should endorse Gert’s rules. But it should be pretty simple to either say yea or nay to Gert’s rules as a group, and to proclaim it publicly if you do so agree.

    And if the FtB collective doesn’t like Gert’s rules, it should be pretty easy to come up with another list. After all, don’t most people have basic agreement on what’s right and wrong?

    But Gert’s rules have the advantage of being clear. And they have been extensively debated and defended already. There is wide-spread agreement that Gert made a good list of moral rules. And if there are rules that FtB-ers don’t like, modification should be pretty easy.

    My guess (only a guess) is that as soon as you propose to your FtB compatriots: “hey guys, let’s try to formulate our agreement about some moral rules, an Atheist Moral Code; and let’s take Gert’s rules as a starting place,” you’ll be harassed and ridiculed.

    Here’s my conjecture: the atheists on FtB are so anti-social and so unable to coordinate that they can’t even agree as a group on a simple list of moral rules.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The question is not whether they’d all endorse the rules individually. The question is the purpose of doing so? How is this the function of a blog network exactly?

      And again, I reject the false dichotomy that we either accept your arbitrary challenge or we’re anti-social. Your contempt for a whole lot of people you demonstrably know a whole little about and your arbitrary demand that they prove something to you or be labeled anti-social is tedious.

      I know the group of people you’re talking with pretty well. You know how I know them so well? Because they’re really social and we have a really tight community among us behind the scenes. And they also spend a tremendous amount of their energies blogging and interacting with their commenters, which is all pretty social behavior. This is an entirely social endeavor, this whole blog thing. What they have antipathy towards is authoritarianism in belief and practice. What they are leery of is ritualism that might support authoritarianism. If they don’t see their place as pronouncing a Ten Commandments to their readers or don’t think that that’s the test of their social skills, you’ve hardly proven that they either take morality lightly or that they’re anti-social people.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Dan, this is far simpler than you’re making it out to be.

      (1) Either FtB can or cannot collectively come together to publicly endorse a clear list of moral rules. This task is neither hard nor complicated.

      (2) Steinhart predicts that the FtB-ers will not be able to publicly endorse any clear list of moral rules.

      (3) Steinhart says that the best explanation for point 2 is that atheists, especially those on FtB, are far too anti-social to engage in this sort of collective group activity.

      All these points are separate.

      And it’s really, really easy to prove me wrong on points 2 and 3. Since FtB is already a tight social group, in constant communication, just propose the project. See what happens.

    • KG

      It’s utterly bizarre to say that if a diverse group of atheists don’t have or can’t reach an agreed code of morals, that implies they are anti-social. You’d find the same problem with an equally diverse group of Christians, or Wiccans, or whatever.

      Aside from that, I’m not much impressed by the code you quote (or indeed, by any such simplistic list of dos and don’ts), because many of the items in it would require extensive qualification. Take “Do not kill” for example. What, we shouldn’t take antibiotics? After all, their whole purpose is to kill. Oh, you meant don’t kill members of our own species? Ah, that’s a woman’s right to choose out the window, then. Oh, you meant don’t kill people who’ve actually been born? Well, we’d better scrap the military then…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, Eric. I am not going to be manipulated into accepting your false test of sociability. I don’t like the authoritarian proclamation of ten commandments myself. This does not make me anti-social or unconcerned with morality. It makes me someone who does not think morality is better served with being made more simplistic and glossing over the existence of moral complexities or the intricacies of difficult values choices. I also don’t think that it is the place of even my blog, let alone, the whole blog network to presume to lay down moral prescriptions for others rather than to argue vigorously for them and appeal to others’ autonomous reason to accept their truth individually.

      Sorry, the Aristotelian, Kantian, and Nietzschean parts of my spirit reject the exercise of issuing a Ten Commandments.

      This does not make me anti-social or uninterested in morality. Not in the slightest.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      So my conjectures (1) and (2) have been confirmed.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Conjectures 1 and 2 prove nothing, but yes, congratulations.

      Now, if you’ll excuse us, some of us have actual atheist community building to do and actual work to do writing things that influence actual atheist ethics while you pronounce about the futility of the movement on your own.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Atheist ethics! I’ve recently heard there’s no such thing.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Not from me. But you’re so good with theory of mind that you cannot grasp other people’s categorizations besides your own, but instead fixate on one unproven premise, judge all else according to it and call everyone else inherently irrational, anti-social, or amoral for not seeing it in your terms.

      This is how you prove yourself just in this thread ill fit to lecture the atheist movement about how to engage people psychology. You can’t even deal with people’s psychologies. They won’t fit the logical system in your mind and so you retreat into it deeper and deeper and just convince yourself they’re all dumber and more amoral and more anti-social. It’s absurd.

      And I’m not going to be bullied by it. It takes a better psychologist than that to manipulate me!

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      What the heck does any of this have to do with “manipulation”? Do whatever you want, I could care less. I don’t claim that you do atheist ethics, you do.

      What is atheist ethics? If there is any such thing, you’d expect that the majority of atheists would agree with the majority of atheist ethics.

      After all, the majority of Christians agree with the majority of at least something that they would all call “Christian ethics”.

      So if there’s an atheist ethics, what is it? Where do I discover its contents? Where do I find out about what it tells me about how to live my life or how to interact morally with others?

      Here’s a pretty simple moral rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Would I actually have to manipulate you into agreeing with it? I agree with it. Don’t you? Wouldn’t an atheist ethics include at least the Golden Rule (which is found in almost every culture, both in religion and apart from religion).

      Here: Atheists ought to agree with the Golden Rule.

      What’s so hard about that?

      Or: Atheist ethics affirms the Golden Rule.

      Again, what’s so hard about that?

      Why would you have to be manipulated into any of this?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’ll see you at 5pm.

    • KG

      After all, the majority of Christians agree with the majority of at least something that they would all call “Christian ethics”. – Eric Steinhart

      Utter nonsense of course. There is, in fact, no more a set of agreed “Christian ethics” than there are agreed “atheist ethics”. Do Pat Robertson and John Spong agree on ethics?

      Even the “Golden Rule” is useless without some fairly sophisticated interpretation. Before I found one in a secondhand bookshop, I would very much have liked to be given a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Should I therefore have been giving out copies of it?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @KG – I love how you skip over the word “majority”.

    • KG

      Eric Steinhart,

      You have provided no evidence whatsoever that there is a “majority of Christian ethics” that a majority of Christians agree with. Who do you take to be in the majority, Robertson or Spong? Or neither? We know, for example, that most Roman Catholics, certainly in Europe and North America, don’t agree with their own church’s belief that contraception is wrong. Christians differ on when it is permissible to kill, whether one should obey laws one perceives as unjust, how much economic inequality is permissible or desirable, whether a Christian is “justified” by faith or by works, what rights non-human animals should be accorded, how children should be brought up… in fact just about every ethical question of any real significane. I am forced to the conclusion that you don’t actually think very much about either ethics or religion, or you couldn’t come out with such complete rot on such a sustained basis.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @KG – Keep up the insults. It’s a great way for atheists to make friends.

    • John Morales

      eric:

      [1] Here: Atheists ought to agree with the Golden Rule.

      What’s so hard about that?

      [2] Or: Atheist ethics affirms the Golden Rule.

      Again, what’s so hard about that?

      1. Well, the Golden Rule is predicated on others wanting to be treated the way one wants to be treated.

      Which would be peachy, if everyone had the same nature.

      (The Silver Rule is better, IMO)

      2. ‘Atheist ethics’? Mythical beast, that.

      You don’t get that some of us make our own ethical systems, do ya?

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      After all, the majority of Christians agree with the majority of at least something that they would all call “Christian ethics”.

      Complete and utter bullshit. I’m beginning to suspect that this Eric is the troll that shows up on Pharyngula every so often and starts going into fits of logic and telling everyone how illogical they are because they are atheists.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    (3) Steinhart says that the best explanation for point 2 is that atheists, especially those on FtB, are far too anti-social to engage in this sort of collective group activity.

    Or, the alternative explanation: that our sociability has nothing to do with whether we agree to an Atheist Moral Code. For example, you, Eric, seem to think the Golden Rule is an easy thing for anyone to agree to. I do not think that the Golden Rule is all that golden, for the same reason that John Morales gives. I can think of several things I’d like people to do to or for me that others would not care for.

    Or, looking at the list of rules you provided earlier:

    Do not kill
    Do not cause pain
    Do not disable
    Do not deprive of freedom
    Do not deprive of pleasure
    Do not deceive
    Keep your promises
    Do not cheat
    Obey the law
    Do your duty.

    Well, “Obey the law” is questionable. What about unjust, or otherwise unethical, laws? Should I obey them?

    “Do your duty” leaves open several questions: what is my duty? why is it my duty? who decides what my duty is? etc

    “Do not deprive of pleasure” How about drugs? Very pleasurable things, drugs. But often very dangerous. Is there ever a time that it’s permissible to deprive someone of the pleasure they receive from drugs? What about sadistic pleasure?

    Frankly, everything on that list has potential problems with it. Stated as absolutes like that eliminates the option and possibility of nuanced situations. Were there to be some sort of Freethought Blogs “decree” that those are the Moral Rules, I think that would be the day when “freethought” would no longer be a term that could be properly applied to this site. In general, I think the list provided works fine as general rules of thumb, but if and only if they are understood as non-absolute rules, with it understood that there are times when it’s better to break your promises (for example).

    In other words, you’ve asked Dan to propose an authoritarian project. I consider myself part of the FTB community, but that’s not a project I would support. Even the Humanist Manifestos acknowledged that not all the signers agreed with every point in the Manifestos. I would, however, support discussions and debates about ethics on FTB, and oh hey, that’s exactly what happens! In a social manner: sometimes heated, sometimes friendly, sometimes aggressively, but always socially.

    Regarding “atheist ethics,” I must disagree with Dan and others. I think that there are ethics, but see little value in adding “atheist” as a descriptor. If there are any truly universal ethics (I suspect there are), then wouldn’t they just be “ethics”? I can see the point to adding descriptors when referring to systems of ethics (“Kantian ethics,” “Catholic ethics,” or even “secular humanist ethics”), but atheism is too broad to justify it’s use as a descriptor for ethics.

    • John Morales

      Rules. Guidelines. Heuristics.

      All different things.

  • aaron

    (3) Steinhart says that the best explanation for point 2 is that atheists, especially those on FtB, are far too anti-social to engage in this sort of collective group activity.

    Seriously? You take a group of people who decide, not only to blog (which antisocial people also do), but also to create a community around common values and interests, who choose to spend extra time actively engaging with their commenters, and actively engaging with their fellow bloggers, antisocial? Because they won’t endorse a single authoritarian moral code?

    Starting a community doesn’t count as “collective group activity”?

    • http://www.withinhismind.com WithinThisMind

      Sure, I’ll cop to being anti-social if you really want.

      But I’ll also point out the problem isn’t me, the problem is society. Racism, misogyny, and bigotry are serious problems, even in the Atheist community, and I’m rarely in the mood to put up with such crap.

      Building a church won’t change that; if anything, history has shown it will solidify that and I see nothing from the HC supporters that leads me to believe otherwise.

      So yes, I’m anti-social. I’m also anti-bamboo shoots under my fingernails.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Giving up on social life because of social ills will doom not only atheists but humanity to losing out.


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