Covering the church-going atheist

Emblem illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality, titled "Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan", from Picta poesis,Religion reporters covering atheism should approach the subject as straightforward as any other group of individuals who believe in similar ideas about God, an afterlife, the reason for evilness in the world, and the need for community and morality. To assume that atheists come down on the same side of all those issues would be to engage in gross stereotyping and fail to give significant depth to covering a complex minority in the United States.

An article in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus‘s Vermont Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Horowitz of the Columbia News Service is an example of good coverage of atheism in the sense that the article avoids pigeonholing and allows the story’s subjects to direct the narrative:

Ken Novak, a marketing analyst from Evanston, Ill., is an atheist. But that doesn’t stop him from going to services on Sundays. While there, he leads a discussion group and a book club, listens to the Sunday school children sing and finds fellowship with others.

Novak, 54, is a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a religious group that focuses on respecting others and does not worship a deity. He found it 16 years ago when looking for a nontheistic moral education for his children, and knew right away that he wanted to get involved.

“It’s a place where atheists and agnostics can get what a lot of people get out of church and temple,” Novak said of the society.

Novak is part of the growing group of American atheists who have left traditional religions but still feel a desire to be part of a religious group. Many had a positive experience with religion before losing their faith and now miss the community, the tradition and the chance to talk about values with like-minded people. So they join religious organizations that are accepting of atheists, form churches just for atheists or even attend traditional theistic churches.

Christopher Chase, a reader and commenter on our Web site, said that the story is one of the first he has seen in recent memory discussing humanist churches. If that is the case, then religion reporters in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, should consider looking into this group and others like it.

An additional area worth exploring that could have been touched on in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus article is the source of these groups’ ethics and morality. Saying that you believe in tolerance, ethics, morality or treating other people the right way is just a conclusion without a meaningful definition. Do groups like these rely on any particular authoritative code, or maxim through which they interpret morality and ethics? Do they feel that they are necessary?

Photo is of an emblem by Barthelemy Aneau titled “Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan” illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality. Taken from Wikipedia and is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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  • Jerry

    An additional area worth exploring that could have been touched on in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus article is the source of these groups’ ethics and morality. Saying that you believe in tolerance, ethics, morality or treating other people the right way is just a conclusion without a meaningful definition. Do groups like these rely on any particular authoritative code, or maxim through which they interpret morality and ethics? Do they feel that they are necessary?

    There are, of course, many atheist web sites that explore just those issues. For example, there are some who look toward studies of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom such as http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/altruism-biological/

    And, even beyond that, atheism is almost as meaningless a word as evengelical. Look at the Wikipedia definition of atheism and you’ll see references to strong versus weak atheism; implicit versus explicit atheism and related concepts such as non-theism, anti-theism andhumanism.

    So if you really wanted to dig deeper, you’d have to find out which kind of atheist the people are.

  • Ken Novak

    So, I’m a religious atheist, a communitarian atheist, where the a- prefix means “without”, not “anti-”. I “tie fast” (a translation of the probable Latin root of the term “religion”) to a congregation of people, most of whom (I think) believe the natural world is all that there is, but that such a condition, if true, imposes a duty on us to take care of each other, and to actively learn what taking care of each other means, to the best of our limited abilities.

    The religion of my childhood was important, positive force in my life, but my belief in the existence of the supernatural just disappeared in my early twenties. I wandered in the desert for roughly ten years, influenced by Buddhist writings, but solitary. Ethical Culture provided, and provides, an environment in which I can practice being a better person by learning from others’ examples, experiences, teachings and tropes. I strive to be an equal opportunity learner, and that includes learning from believers.
    I treat the absence of a deity or deities not as a “fact”, but as my best guess and working hypothesis. I still work every day to be the person I thought I should be when I thought there was a god watching, with the exception of worship and prayer. I want to work in alliance with other good people, regardless of their faith, to make a better world together. That’s the kind of atheist I work to be.

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  • Dave2

    Do you really think reporters covering these stories should be pushing the agenda of those who think (despite the Euthyphro dilemma) that ethics somehow requires a theological foundation?

    I mean, should reporters also be pressing the atheists on where the universe came from, or how everything got to be so well-designed, or whether that than which nothing greater can be conceived could exist only in thought but not also in reality, or what explains all those fulfilled prophecies in the person of Christ Jesus?

    I don’t get it.

  • Dave

    Dave2:

    I think the implicit assumption is that most Americans, if asked for the source of their ethics, would point to either the church they now attend or the one they were taken to during their upbringing. The answer the explicit atheist would give would be interesting, though short of essential.

  • http://www.jrbenedict.com J.R. Benedict

    Christopher Chase, a reader and commenter on our Web site, said that the story is one of the first he has seen in recent memory discussing humanist churches. If that is the case, then religion reporters in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, should consider looking into this group and others like it.

    Feast or Famine apparently. There’s also an article in New York Magazine.

  • Pacotheus

    Unfortunately, the answer that most atheists would (and do) give to “where do you get your ethics?” is something to the effect that evolution did it or society needs it to prosper, etc. Which is nonsense inasmuch as war, slavery, human sacrifice, child abuse and all manner of bad behavior have a part of the gamut of human behavior and even the basis for social/political systems for as long as human beings have been around. Besides, evolution and the need for *some* order in society is not a sufficient reaso for an individual someone to refrain from murder or robbery or whatever *if* they are confident that they can get away with it. And Christianity is the *worst* in this regard because it teaches that you can get away with *anything* – which is why Ingersoll called Christian doctrine “crime on credit.”

  • Dave

    Pacotheus writes:

    Unfortunately, the answer that most atheists would (and do) give to “where do you get your ethics?” is something to the effect that evolution did it or society needs it to prosper, etc.

    I’m sure (from knowing them) that a lot of atheists would answer that their ethics derive either from their upbringing or from Enlightenment philosphers who tried to recreate common morals from scratch without relying on revelation or dogma.

  • skylights

    This atheist would cite those things already cited as pillars of secular ethics, plus point out that ethics is one of the major divisions of philosophy, and most ethicists keep religion out of their work.