How is an atheist group like a bridge club?

In yesterday’s Sunday Review section of The New York Times, Susan Jacoby had an essay titled “The Blessings of Atheism.”  She’s tackling the perceived absense of atheists and secular philosophy in moments of crisis.  Here’s an excerpt, but my critique is about something missing in the piece, so you’d better read the whole thing to be fair.

One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot… The secular community is fearful of seeming to proselytize.

…Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.

Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.

The trouble is that, in the article, Jacoby never talks very much about what kind of consolation she’s got on tap.  She mentions that not dealing with the problem of theodicy frees up atheists emotional and intellectual energies for more practical work and that death-as-non-existence eliminates suspense, but doesn’t offer anything further in this article that I can spot.

And, contra Samuel Freedman, I don’t think atheist and secular organizations are absent after tragedy.  We know that secular groups and communities exist.  Whether we’re religious or not, plenty of us participate in them (alumni networks, book clubs, amateur theatre troupes, folks volunteering together, etc).  The article on restorative justice that moved me so much yesterday describes a purely secular system; the people using it were motivated by their faith, but the institution itself was totally secular.  Jacoby is right that atheism doesn’t get credit for these groups in the way that religion does for church groups, but they are certainly evidence of people doing good without structuring it around God.

But these groups, whether explicitly linked to atheism or not, do have a certain hollowness.  A lot of these associations are founded on storge, affection,  the lowest of the loves in CS Lewis’s meditation The Four Loves.  This kind of love is founded on long acquaintance which gives way to fondness.  You may know each other just through one interest (e.g. bridge), but people brought together by circumstance do genuinely care for each other, and long association can provide a vernacular of shared references that promotes intimacy and fellowship after crisis.

(In the middle of an unpleasant fight with a classmate in college, I was greatly comforted by a friend quoting The American President to me.  He was using the character’s lines as shorthand for a sentiment of support that might have sounded cloying or affected expressed in his own words.  I was cheered both by the idea expressed and that the person knew me well enough to reach for this common point of reference).

But fondness and familiarity is different by being united by a common purpose or philosophy.  In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes philia (friendship) as a meeting of the minds:

Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

But groups founded around atheism or humanism are likely to be a diverse mix of moral philosophies.  The definitions of humanism are always diffuse and bland enough to make room for everyone from Objectivists to Emma Goldman.  It’s great to be pro-human, but at some point you’re going to have to specify what manner of things humans are and how we know what is good for us.  Since many atheists groups are focused in activism, they’re more likely to touch on shared values than, say, Ravelry, but, since most of the most pressing fights for atheists are defensive, there still may not actually be much common ground beyond please, stop screwing with science class!

So, if groups focused on atheism are going to be sources of deep comfort for people in crisis, they probably need to factionalize a bit more.  If you want someone to help you make sense of the world, you need some level of confidence you both share some axioms in your epistemology and ethics.  And that’s a different and harder task than baking a casserole.

 

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Pingback: How is an atheist group like a bridge club? | cathlick.com

  • http://www.nature.com Agnikan

    Do factions require gurus?

    • Brandon B

      Groups are probably better off having leadership, if that’s what you mean.

      • grok87

        Sometimes even 2 or 3 gurus. From today’s gospel:

        When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
        He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali…From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
        He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.”

        And of course recall from the beginning of Matthew Chapter 3:
        In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

        So what Matthew’s Gospel makes especially clear is the continuity of the Gospel message as it passed from John to Jesus- they were a team, Jesus started out as one of John’s disciples.

        It’s a fairly common phenomenon I think. There is a good article on it in modern businesses here: “Two for the money- successful corporate duos” by Bill Briggs. Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, etc.
        Interestingly Bill Briggs also has an intriguing non-fiction book out called the “Third Miracle” about the canonization process and Mother Théodore Guérin.
        cheers,

        http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42403847/ns/business-us_business/t/two-money-successful-corporate-duos/#.UOuEA80iXek

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I would not say that anything secular should be credited to atheism. Secular means the common bond is not explicitly religious. This is mostly to allow different Christian traditions to work together. They would exist if there were no atheists.

    I have volunteered at secular organization that was almost 100% Christian. They just wanted government money and to avoid doctrinal issues so they kept religion out of it. In fact, I took a person’s involvement in such ministries as a much more reliable sign of their faith in Christ than church attendance. Even as you did it to the least of these …

  • deiseach

    I have to say that, when Ms. Jacoby invoked Ingersoll, my first reaction was Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures!:

    “I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen; and I cannot understand any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question. I did, indeed, retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity. But I certainly regarded Him as a man; though perhaps I thought that, even in that point, He had an advantage over some of His modern critics. I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time — all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; and I read nothing else; I mean I read nothing else on any other note of philosophy. The penny dreadfuls which I also read were indeed in a healthy and heroic tradition of Christianity; but I did not know this at the time. I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. It was Huxley and Herbert Spencer and Bradlaugh who brought me back to orthodox theology. They sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt. Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the free-thinkers unsettled the mind. They do. They unsettled mine horribly. The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all. As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll’s atheistic lectures the dreadful thought broke across my mind, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” I was in a desperate way.”

    • Frank Walton

      Ironically, Thomas Paine was not an atheist.

  • kenneth

    Why should atheist have to respond to crisis AS atheists? For that matter, why do Christians have to make sure they get seen as Christians, to get the organizational plug and image? Why can’t people just respond to human crisis as, well, humans? Pitching in for the sake of image polishing or PR face time as a primary consideration, or even a significant one, is not altruism. It is the mark of opportunists and parasites. It’s also what motivates much of the “charity” displayed by most Christian denominations in times of need. The public relations machine always runs ahead of the actual hands-on help in many instances, and religious leaders have a well-primed sense of grievance if their brand doesn’t get the exposure they feel it deserves.

    On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Christian leader pitched a hissy fit when Bloomberg denied them access to a microphone at the ceremony. For all they did during the attacks, they EARNED that right, you see. They actually said that. No group, religious or not like that is worth joining or emulating. You don’t want to play the same brand-building infrastructure that these sleazy hustlers use in national tragedies. There’s nothing wrong with keeping yourselves and your tribal identity in the background in such times. It’s where all the worthwhile people are.

    • jose

      Christians can’t respond as measly humans because they need to show off their god-given high level loves.

    • Iota

      Kenneth
      > Why can’t people just respond to human crisis as, well, humans?

      Because it’s unworkable, perhaps?

      Now, it’s one thing to let your religious or ideological identification dangle in front of you wherever you go. It’s plain silly and completely unproductive. In some cases it obviously is anything from bad taste, through hypocrisy all the way to sheer stupidity.

      A person waiting to be saved from a fire doesn’t care a fig for their rescuer’s self-identification. If I were drowning, I imagine I wouldn’t care squat if I got pulled out of the water by a Communist, Pentecostal Christian, Muslim, extremely concerned Environmentalist, Libertarian, a Catholic, a druid or a member of the Quiverfull movement.

      But if you really engage in something, soon enough your ID of this kind will start showing in your priorities, in options you reject, in HOW you attempt to make a difference. It’s also going to clash with how other people want to respond. “As a human” do you first feed the poor or first give education (we have limited resources, remember)? Do you rather give money to a charity or volunteer (having limited time), or just decide to look after your family and friends? What causes do you support? An animal lover might give money and time to a shelter or take on more animals than they otherwise would. A person most concerned for, say, income disparity, might protest this and say the most important thing to do is to give food, shelter, work and so on to humans (and we can take care of the other animals using what we have left over). A devout Catholic and a mainstream third wave feminist are very likely to spar, as soon as the subject of abortion comes up. A libertarian is likely to scoff at most attempts to fix anything using the state and compulsory mechanisms (like taxation). If massive reconstruction is going to take place, religious and non-religious people of various denominations might have very different attitudes to how far down on the priority list is a building for worship which one. And so on.

      It’s rather obvious. And it IS going to show, eventually. The bigger and the more long drawn crisis, the less chance everyone will work together “as a human”.

      Although obviously, I agree, that if you run into a burning building and, at the sight of a person needing help, say “As a [fill in the blank] I must take you out of here, in the name of [fill in the blank]!” there is something deeply wrong with you.

      • kenneth

        I don’t see a problem with the fact that people’s motivations for helping and their priorities are shaped in part by religion, politics, or whatever. I just don’t think much of the group identity maneuvering which says “we should make sure we’re seen doing good in uniform in this crisis because it would really boost our public image.”

        I don’t think the credibility of atheism or any other system ought to be weighed on the visibility of “.org” type groups in crisis situations or their willingness to proffer some deep cosmic explanation of why bad things happen to good people. If there’s one thing people in disaster zones don’t need, it’s theological speculation and out of town culture warriors mugging for face time on TV. People with those agendas are about as helpful as a cholera outbreak. It’s an effective PR ploy used by a significant number of religious groups, but it’s disgusting and not something atheists or anyone ought to aspire to as a movement.

        • Scott Hebert

          Kenneth: I rather agree with you, and, I believe, so does Christ.

          Matthew 6:2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.”

          ANYONE, and I would argue ESPECIALLY Christians, who requires that people know that they’re to receive their support remove most if not all virtue from their action.

          Now, I find this less of an issue if they promote themselves _as themselves_. So if the St. Vincent de Paul society takes issue with being excluded by standing on their good works, that’s one thing. But if they stand on the fact that they’re Catholic and thus ‘should’ be there, that’s something else.

  • Joe

    Atheists have a lot of groups to join. Freemasons, Lions Clubs, Junior League, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Moose and Elks Lodges are all Atheist groups aren’t they? Or at least totally secular? What about the secular culture has changed that keeps young atheists from joining these groups?

    • kenneth

      They’re non-denominational, but none are all that secular. Freemasons in fact bar membership to atheists and in Florida, a lodge master even banned pagans for being the wrong sort of theists.

  • Cam

    Other things aside, one good reason to have formal atheist groups is to provide support to young people who have been harmed by religious people rabbiting on about hell, demons, sin, judgment, an invisible proto-human that watches everything, and all other manner of primitive nonsense. Young atheists can also need comfort to help deal with ostracism and the worst of social pressures that religions bring to bear in order to maintain their existence. Faced with religious people claiming that atheists can’t actually exist, or are deluded, or evil, it can do a person good to know that they are not alone, and that they are not the insane ones after all. I think, while this is probably not common, atheist groups could also work to undo the harm caused to people’s sexuality by religion. Reform to our society’s shame-based, ‘purity’-based, woman-hating notions of sexuality that come from religion has been spearheaded by feminism, but atheism has a lot to say on the subject. Feminism and atheism have a good partnership on this one.

    • deiseach

      Pardon me while I stoop to pick up my eyes (they rolled so hard at your comment that they fell out).

      Why did you feel the need to drag in “If not for those pesky believers, everyone would be having as much sex of whatever kind they chose as often as they wanted!” in the context of speaking about what atheism has to offer on the questions of human existence, including human evil?

      The article was speaking of the Newtown school shootings, and how (in one sphere) atheism can be of value since it does not have to grapple with theodicy and so, for the grieving, can be a reality-based response to tragedy. There is a lot to discuss there; for one thing, I do not think that Colonel Ingersoll’s invocation of “The dead do not suffer” at the graveside of his friend’s child is very much different qualitatively from the conventional response of “They’ve gone to a better place” which the well-meaning offer mourners. Can you not visualise a bereaved parent answering such a platitude with “If you offered me the bargain that my child would be lying screaming and bleeding in my arms right now, I’d take it, because it would be so much better than lying in that box in the ground”? If the religious cannot be left off the hook by the loophole of heaven, what is the consolation that atheism can offer specifically, any better than Ingersoll’s ‘your loved one is not in pain, at least’?

      And if your response to any attempt to discuss the wider social role of atheism, its relationship to secularism or humanism, the problem of evil and what meaning can we create for ourselves or is even that self-creation ultimately meaningless is “Me want snu-snu!”, then do you see why it’s a little difficult to take atheist claims of being so terribly, terribly oppressed seriously?

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        It doesn’t take much thought to realize that the monkey’s paw option of obtaining our own satisfaction at the cost of a loved one’s unimaginable suffering is terribly selfish. I’d want my loved ones not just alive, but healthy in a way that some of them never were in life. But then, would they be the same people? That’s the paradox that makes me skeptical of a blissful afterlife.

        In my experience, a central step of dealing with grief is realizing that we’re not going to get what we want. So I mourn my own hopes and expectations along with my loved ones. There is also in my experience, a comfort in being able to honestly say, “I don’t know, and probably can’t know.” Then I can turn my mind to the pragmatic needs of the hour.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        If the religious cannot be left off the hook by the loophole of heaven, what is the consolation that atheism can offer specifically, any better than Ingersoll’s ‘your loved one is not in pain, at least’?

        I believe the difference (in the atheist’s mind) is that one of them is accurate and the other is not.

        Both “your loved one is in a better place” and “your loved one feels no pain in death” are less than satisfying (although clearly the former is preferable.) That says nothing about whether either is true.

        Loss happens, and it sucks. Pretending like it’s not a loss, or trying to ameliorate the pain by making up facts about reality, isn’t a good thing.

        • deiseach

          That’s the point I would have liked to see developed in the article and it wasn’t. What would Ms. Jacoby suggest or feel that an atheist viewpoint could bring to the consolation of grief? She invokes Ingersoll as an example:

          “He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer.”

          And yes, perhaps, if your child has been dying by inches of a terrible disease that would be some consolation that at least their suffering is over. But how is “perfect rest” any better without “in heaven” tacked on? Suppose that that is true, that dead is dead and gone, that all that is left is a heap of organic remains mouldering into rot and whatever memories linger in the brains of the mourners, who will in time moulder in their own graves and all that ‘living in our memories’ will be lost as well?

          What is the better consolation there? I don’t want an answer from the religious side of the fence, I want an answer from the freethinkers/secularists/atheists. How can you give any better consolation when Susan Jacoby says “It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

          It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. ” Well, great, yippee, hurrah, no problem of “why do bad things happen to good people” there. Your answer at the grave of the dead children of Newtown is (a) random events occur due to chance and (b) better gun control laws and intervention in mental health problems before they blow up in massacres.

          But what more consoling thing can you say to the parents at that very moment? “Your child is dead for no particular reason other than the vagaries of fate and the dice roll of chance where some people win and some people lose and there is no merit or blame or reason for it. All your hopes are in the dust. You do not have the presence of the one you loved any more. Yes, it’s horribly unfair, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. You could start up a petition about guns and that might or might not prevent the likes of this happening again, but given that there have been a series of gun massacres in American schools and presumably the parents in those cases also threw themselves into activism, don’t hold your breath over that. The one good thing is that one day you’ll be dead yourself and then – since you won’t exist anymore – you will not have to undergo this meaningless cruel infliction of pain.”

          What is this better response Ms. Jacoby feels blessed by in her atheism that is more than “When I see the poor or the sick or the misfortunate, at least I don’t have to blame God for it”? I’m seriously asking here, because she didn’t seem to talk about it at all beyond “Believers burned other believers back in the day for thinking that God wasn’t good or all-powerful”.

          The only good response in the immediate aftermath of loss, whether you’re a believer or not, is to shut up with anything more than “I’m terribly sorry, how can I help you?” and just be present for the mourner.

          • Darren

            Atheism has no consolation to give, no better place, no great reward, this is absolutely true.

            All Atheism has is an end to suffering, if suffering there was, and the acknowledgement that it is not fair. This wonderful person, who enriched our lives is gone, every happiness and sadness, every hope and fear, gone, and it does not make sense, and it is not fair, and it sucks, and it is OK to be angry about that, and it is OK to feel robbed, because you have been robbed.

            All Atheism has is the admonishment to hold tight to every glad memory of that loved one, to keep them alive in our hearts, and to hold even tighter to those loved ones that we still have, to appreciate them while we can, because one day they too will pass.

            It sucks. It’s not fair. Who ever said it was supposed to be.

            Is it better to live in a hard cold universe, with no one to help, in a world that isn’t fair? Or is it better to live in a universe that did not have to be hard and cold but is, with someone who could help but doesn’t, a world that could have been fair but isn’t?

            It is a sad fact, Atheism has no comfort to give, just the truth.

            Just my perspective, not trying to ‘win’ or provide any sort of deep insight into anything other than my sole view.

            And I completely agree with your last paragraph.

          • ACN

            “The only good response in the immediate aftermath of loss, whether you’re a believer or not, is to shut up with anything more than “I’m terribly sorry, how can I help you?” and just be present for the mourner.”

            Hear, hear.

  • keddaw

    When the fire department show up, or the cops, or any government help, that is a secular institution aiding the community.

    But secular != atheist. There should be no atheist response, just like there is no non-ghost believing response and no a-leprechaunist response.

    What Cam says has merit, but doesn’t need to come from an atheist group.

    • deiseach

      keddaw, I apologise. Hitherto, I had permitted myself to be irritated by some of your comments. By comparison with Cam, whose extraction of the point of Ms. Jacoby’s argument appears to be “Atheism = getting your ashes hauled”, you are on a par with the most serious and weighty of philosophical debaters on this topic.

      At least you have put up some kind of an argument other than “I’m young, I don’t want to be told what I can do, and why won’t chicks sleep with me? It’s all the fault of cultural purity brain-washing!”

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        Snark aside, emotional/psychological damage from religion is a real thing. Convincing pliable minds (particularly children) of the exitence of hell, inculcating a divinely imparted sense of guilt, and setting up a moral standard in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires is REALLY REALLY BAD- if you accept the premise that the underlying theology is false.

        Would you agree that if Christianity is false, then it is in fact a terrible thing for humanity? I would certainly agree that if atheism is false, then it’s equally terrible.

        • deiseach

          “setting up a moral standard in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires”

          Indeed, let us not intervene with the biological drive that makes male lions kill the cubs of the ousted male ruler of the pride! Why do we insist on prosecuting men who kill the babies of their girlfriends when it’s just another example of the circle of life?

          Curse those interfering Christians for acting as though this is a bad thing all because of their false theology!

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            let us not intervene with the biological drive that makes male lions kill the cubs of the ousted male ruler of the pride

            That’s not what I said, nor what I meant. Apologies if I was unclear- what I meant was that casting sexual purity as (one of) the highest of theological virtues and sexual impurity as (one of) the most greivous of sins (which is what happens in practice in most young-adult Christian circles) is outdated and regressive. It forces shame on young people who ought not feel such shame.

            It is a moral framework better suited to Biblical times, when marriage was largely a property transaction, and occured at or around the time hormones started to flow. In modern society, where marriage is a consentual choice motivated by considerations like emotion, love, attraction, and trust, people rightly wait much longer until getting married- and most spend an unfortunate dozen or so years with raging hormones and nothing to do with them. Demonizing any and all expressions of human sexuality outside of marriage causes uneccessary human suffering, and that makes it evil (IFF Christianity is false). Simillar arguments can be made for homosexuality, patriarchy, faith-based belief, and a myriad other doctrinal points of Christianity.

            Curse those interfering Christians for acting as though this is a bad thing all because of their false theology!

            Indeed. Curse false theology in all its forms, even if it occasionally gets the right answer.

            False theology is a bad map of the territory, and cannot be relied upon to produce correct answers. I would be surprised if you disagreed here. Just becaus I agree with you that slavery is wrong is no indication that my moral system will give the right output on other questions like contraception. If you use bad theology to occasionally arrive at good answers, you’re strategy is dominated by someone using good theology to consistently arrive at good answers.

          • deiseach

            Oh? And why do sexual mores get special treatment over other biological imperatives? If rules about who marries whom are absurd because in nature there are matriarchal/polygamous/same-sex matings, then why should not rules about who murders whom or who rapes whom be equally absurd because in nature lions kill cubs and mallard drakes rape female mallard ducks ?

            Funny how it’s always sex that gets this special treatment, but we don’t seem to rush as quickly to applying other aspects of how animals live in the wild to our own lives.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Oh? And why do sexual mores get special treatment over other biological imperatives?

            They don’t.

            Funny how it’s always sex that gets this special treatment, but we don’t seem to rush as quickly to applying other aspects of how animals live in the wild to our own lives.

            You seem to be the only one with any desire to apply aspects of how animals live in the wild to our own lives.

            I quote myself from below:
            The stronger a biological urge is, the higher the human cost of demonizing it, and therefor the higher the good must be to justify demonizing it. In the classic “evolution tells us to rape!” counterargument, the good achieved by curbing rape clearly and vastly outwieghs the human cost of not-being-able-to-rape (I fear the word “cost” may be misunderstood here, but alas).

            The biological urge of sex is extremely strong, particularly in adolescents, but the good achieved by strict abstinence appears to mostly be theological in nature. If that theology is wrong, then the demonization of sex is also wrong- and very wrong indeed, because it does in fact cause a great deal of emotional trauma and guilt.

          • Ray

            A further point. Far from being in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires, the moral proscription against murdering your girlfriend’s babies is demanded by the girlfriend and her baby’s evolutionarily motivated desire that said baby not be murdered. I’ve yet to see any evidence for an equally compelling evolutionarily motivated desire on the part of anyone demanding that adolescent boys not jerk off. But it would seem that the Catholic church disapproves of this as well (at least without the assistance of a duly designated priest.)

          • Ray

            In reference to my last comment, I usually try to avoid such cheap shots, but if you think my church sex scandal related innuendo goes too far, keep in mind that you are accusing an atheist of supporting murder on considerably less evidence. Log, meet speck as they say.

        • Steve

          Deiseach… I don’t recall anyone suggesting we moralize the actions of animals other than us which makes your cited example silly, though your criticism at least partially correct.

          Jake… Regardless of where your values come from, values that we find most common might be at odds with what we’ve be programmed with evolution-wise. We consider theft as ‘wrong’, yet stealing something might be beneficial to our being able to survive long enough to pass on our genes. We consider rape as ‘wrong’, yet waiting for consensual intercourse might not be beneficial in terms of passing on our genes. We consider murder ‘wrong’, yet the elimination of competitors might help us. And so on. Standards set up against our baser instincts aren’t necessarily bad.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Standards set up against our baser instincts aren’t necessarily bad.

            Agreed. But what would be bad would be to call drinking water a sin. Or breathing. Or sleeping.

            Certainly sex isn’t in the same category of biological imperitive as these things. But it is a biological “need” in the same sense as friendship, or marriage, or singing, or dancing, or laughing. It is an aspect of the human experience that contributes toward human flourishing, and to demonize it out of a misplaced desire for “purity” has simillar consequences to demonizing any of these other activities.

            There are plenty of religious communities that don’t allow dancing, or singing, or even marriage, and they still manage to have reasonably happy members. The point is not whether it’s possible to overcome this biological desire, but whether or not we should be willing to make the sacrifice it requires to do so. In certain cases- baby killing, rape- it’s clear. In other cases, like the ones I mentioned, people justify bad standards by appeal to religion rather than by appeal to consequence, and that leads to sub-optimal living. Sub-optimal living is just another way of saying “unnecessary suffering”

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Addendum:
            The stronger a biological urge is, the higher the human cost of demonizing it, and therefor the higher the good must be to justify demonizing it. In the classic “evolution tells us to rape!” counterargument, the good achieved by curbing rape clearly and vastly outwieghs the human cost of not-being-able-to-rape (I fear the word “cost” may be misunderstood here, but alas).

            The biological urge of sex is extremely strong, particularly in adolescents, but the good achieved by strict abstinence appears to mostly be theological in nature. If that theology is wrong, then the demonization of sex is also wrong- and very wrong indeed, because it does in fact cause a great deal of emotional trauma and guilt.

          • Steve

            I’m not denying that many religious based moral standards are poorly reasoned and ultimately the products of a superstitious lot. For me, an appeal to a values religious authority is like saying ‘I’m too lazy to consider alternatives to this’. However, you specifically claimed “setting up a moral standard in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires is REALLY REALLY BAD”. That is incorrect.

            You could debate what qualifies as a ‘need’, but unless it’s giving you a higher chance of living long enough to pass on your genes, it’s really not an ‘need’ from an evolutionary POV (though singers, dancers and comedians might get laid at a higher frequency then average so you might have a point there…). What might be beneficial to a richer life isn’t the same as something beneficial for progeny.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Well, what I said was “setting up a moral standard in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires is REALLY REALLY BAD- if you accept the premise that the underlying theology is false“, which I contend is correct. Violating a strong biological [need | desire | your-favorite-word] is in fact really really bad, unless we have a good reason to do so. Regardless, it sounds like I was unclear in my original comment, as I only intended sexual purity to be a single point in a list of things that religion has the wrong answers about, assuming the underlying religion itself is false.

            You could debate what qualifies as a ‘need’, but unless it’s giving you a higher chance of living long enough to pass on your genes, it’s really not an ‘need’ from an evolutionary POV

            Well, there’s a difference between a biological need and an evolutionary need. Evolution only cares about passing on your genes, biology is the mechanism used to convince you to take action in ways that are statistically likely to accomplish that goal (yeah, I know I’m attributing agency where there is none, it’s just easier to talk about it that way). Also, the individual is not the only unit being selected for.

            Biological needs do generally contribute to richness of life, because we are constructed so as to desire them.

          • Steve

            We’re talking in circles here a bit. Qualifying your “setting up a moral standard in direct contradiction to evolutionarily motivated biological desires is REALLY REALLY BAD” with “if you accept the premise that the underlying theology is false” changes nothing. Whether or not you follow the beliefs upon which certain moral standards are based changes nothing about such standards being consistent or contradictory to evolutionarily biological desires being really really bad.

            Again with regards to evolutionary needs, you’re the one who specifically brought up the evolution aspect then threw in biological ‘needs’ such as singing and dancing (though I probably wouldn’t classify these as needs either), which of course are not needed in an evolutionary sense. And of course evolution doesn’t care about anything. It’s an end product of an indifferent process. Biology is the study of life, not a mechanism for anything. You’re mixing and matching terminology.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            We’re talking in circles here a bit

            Agreed. As far as I can tell, I’m trying to say “overriding desires based on bad maps of reality is bad” and you’re trying to say “whether or not your map is bad doesn’t change the underlying reality”. I don’t disagree with your point (if that is indeed the point you’re trying to make), it’s just not the point I was trying to argue.

            Again with regards to evolutionary needs, you’re the one who specifically brought up the evolution aspect then threw in biological ‘needs’ such as singing and dancing (though I probably wouldn’t classify these as needs either), which of course are not needed in an evolutionary sense

            What I actually said was “evolutionarily motivated biological desires.” The desires themselves are biological- literally chemical reactions going on in certain parts of your brain. The reasons those desires exist in the first place are evolutionary- they provide a procreative advantage in the environment they were evolved in. I don’t see how this is a contradiction.

            Biology is the study of life, not a mechanism for anything. You’re mixing and matching terminology

            Biology can ether mean the study of life, the life itself, or “the biological phenomena characteristic of an organism or a group of organisms.” I was using it in the third sense. In this sense, the phsyical organs, chemistry, and brain structure of an organism is the mechanism by which the process of evolution enforces behavioral norms on a species.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Thank you for stating this. I’m having a really hard time commenting on the relevant topic, because I just can’t get past the way in which Jacoby and some of the commenters seem to be implying that secular and atheist have the same meaning. Or similarly that people who identify as agnostic, on the fence or “spiritual” are closeted atheists.

    • Cam

      Actually keddaw you’re right. I was thinking a secular group would necessarily fence-sit on claims that need to be refuted in order to provide proper support in some situations. If a kid is troubled because they’ve been told they could spend an eternity slow-roasting in satan’s kitchen, I thought an atheist group can affirmatively say ‘don’t stress, that’s bollocks’. But yeah, a secular group would offer that too, and wouldn’t need to label themselves atheist because that wouldn’t define them any more than rejection of any forms of untruths would define them, am I right about what you’re saying?

      Deiseach, the problems with purity, and other harmful ideas about sexuality created or perpetuated by religions, have less to do with the amount of sex people have and more to do with how we treat each other and how we think about our own sexuality. Your narratives betray a deep misunderstanding of what the objections to ‘purity’ actually are. Um this is OT though, sorry about that.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    In steps A+

    • leahlibresco

      Which I think is a pretty good sign, both because I support it’s specific goals and because it’s making people talk about what they do believe. Though I really wish treating women decently wasn’t an issue it was possible to factionalize over. (Not a problem limited to atheists, obviously)

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Something I’ve been a bit pushy about is that “atheism” is not a proper noun, rather it’s a characteristic of a broad diversity of philosophical views across multiple perspectives (including religious ones.)

  • Emily

    I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that groups formed around common epistemology and ethics are going to be stronger than ones shared around common interests. I think it’s more the case that groups where people make establishing a supportive and dependable community a top priority are going to give the best help and comfort in crises. In theory, it absolutely makes sense that this would be a higher priority for churches than bridge groups (or anything else based on common hobbies or interests), but in my experience, some churches are pretty awful at being communities, and some interest-based groups are really, really good at it. The reason people form relationships is less important than the work they put into creating and maintaining them.

  • Steve

    Secularism is a separate idea from Atheism. Secularism calls for an organization, typically the state, to be neutral in matters of religious belief. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god. All (or nearly so) atheists are secularists, while not all secularists are atheists. A secular holiday, say like July 4th in the US, is different from an atheist holiday (there are none). These are not interchangeable terms.

    There isn’t really an underlying commonality amongst atheists other than a simple lack of belief in god, though lacking belief might cause many of us to gravitate towards similar general world views and an appreciation of science to provide a reasoned evidence based explanation of our world. No myths or longstanding traditions or holidays. No fundamental rules or governing bodies. It would be silly if there were any such holiday specifically for a lack of belief in god as it makes as much sense as a holiday for a lack of belief in dragons or jedi. When groups predominantly made of of atheists celebrate anything, I suspect the celebrations have little to do specifically with a lack of belief in a god.

    With regards to consolation in times of tragedy, suggestions of ‘now they’re with god in heaven’ might provide more immediate comfort to many grieving people than ‘your time with them is over’. A general rule of thumb… if you’re uncertain what words might console someone, simply say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, offer your assistance as needed, but otherwise keep your mouth shut. Their grief dictates any conversation, not your beliefs. Im fortunate to say I haven’t had the type of grief in my life that those parents in Newtown had to deal with so I can’t speak to what sort of comfort I would respond best to, though I feel eventually accepting the truth that your time together was special but it’s over will ultimately offer a firmer if bittersweet relief than buying into the figments of someone elses’ imagination.

    For me I don’t really identify myself as an atheist unless it comes up in conversation. To me the argument against a god is far more compelling then the argument for. I find the argument for a spherical earth more compelling than a flat earth, but I don’t define myself as an a-flatearther. A wider specific common foundation that helps build that sense of a defined community, even if it’s a fantasy, comes easier for religious groups than it does for atheists. Atheism alone isn’t really a movement or even a philosophy, though secular humanism is. This wider community and groups of likeminded people, predominantly nonbelievers, is relatively modern phenomena, especially in the US. As these groups grow and learn how to function cohesively and effectively they will have more to offer.

  • Pingback: Humanism as community, not philosophy. | NonProphet Status

  • Darren

    More random thoughts on what Atheism might have to contribute in the wake of tragedy.

    Again speaking only for myself.

    In my days as a Christian, I was bullet-proof, quite literally immortal, and so were my family and friends. As an Atheist, I am a squishy bit of goo, distressingly easy to kill, and so are my family and friends.

    When I was a Christian, the merest suggestion that the guv’ment might be coming for my guns would have sent me into fits of persecution-rage. How dare they take my God given right to self-defense away! As an Atheist, I have serious reservations about providing to an optimized monkey ready access to means of easily ending the lives of two dozen innocents.

    As a Christian, hungry kids were the fault of the parents, for not working harder to feed them. As an Atheist, I think we should worry about feeding them first, then lets talk about parental responsibility.

    As a Christian, I thought that suffering built character, that rewards were laid up in heaven for our Earthly pains. As an Atheist, I think the only thing suffering teaches is how to endure future suffering, which is rather a stupid skill to want, and we really would be better off without it, thank you very much.

    What might my Atheism contribute? Perhaps a desire to fix our problems here instead of relying on some better world to balance the tally of Earthly injustice.

    …And I have yet to see an Atheist organization claim that the cause of Sandy Hook was a copy of the Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn.

    • grok87

      @Darren,
      hmm…
      i get where you are coming from. Here is the path I think your life is on:

      Evangelical Fundamentalist—-> Atheist ———-> Catholic

      We look forward to welcoming you in a few years! :-)

      Today’s gospel:
      http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/010813.cfm
      When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them,
      for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
      By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said,
      “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go
      to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
      He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.”
      cheers,
      grok

      • Darren

        ”i get where you are coming from. Here is the path I think your life is on:
        Evangelical Fundamentalist—-> Atheist ———-> Catholic
        We look forward to welcoming you in a few years! “

        Oho! Now that is amusing. :)

        I assume this is from my more liberal – social-justicy leanings of late? Growing up in the protestant heartland during the glory of the Reagan years, as I did, the Catholic Church was viewed with a great deal of skepticism by we proto-Tea Partiers precisely because of such Leftist shenanigans.

        Judging by Leah’s neighbors on Patheos: Catholic, though, it would appear that contemporary Catholics are much more in line with the Evangelicals and the Republicans. Were I in search of a Faith exemplifying Christian Charity and championing social justice, the Catholic church would no longer be on the top of that list. Perhaps the Church of John Paul might have made such a claim, but the Church of Ratzinger, Gingrich, and O’Reilly? No.

        I would more likely be attracted to the Quakers or the United Church of Crist, two lovely denominations that do not get nearly enough press, IMO. If I needed a bit of pomp with my Christianity, there is always the Episcopal Church. And if it was ritual, history, and scholarship I was after in addition to my newly Leftist views, I have always been fond of Judaism.

        In all seriousness though, I take you comment as a kind gesture, and so I feel a complete, though as brief as practical, answer is deserved.

        It would be worth noting that I recently attempted to change my mind in regards to the Catholic Church. To me, the philosophical arguments laid out through Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas make for a very aesthetically satisfying foundation. That, combined with some readings over in the God and the Machine blog and the blog comments of Irenist, a better example of an informed and thoughtful Catholic I have yet to find, presented me with a much stronger argument in favor of Catholicism than I had ever encountered.

        Despite my best efforts, I ultimately determined Catholicism to be untrue, and there were two main reasons why. At first read, the philosophical underpinnings appeared convincing. There is a lot to be said for a system which has such a high degree of internal consistency and is so aesthetically satisfying. At a second read, though, it occurred to me that just because a system is internally consistent and aesthetic, this does not make it true; The cosmology of Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” is brilliant and gorgeous (in my mind) and highly internally consistent. It is also completely fictional. At a third read, the A-A-T system collapsed quite suddenly; the satisfying philosophical arguments ending up in question begging or as simply false by the advance of knowledge.

        In addition to the crumbling away of what had appeared to be the strongest pillar of the argument, is the fact that the Catholic Church is a uniquely big pill to swallow. While cradle Catholics may have justification in picking and choosing which doctrines they really believe, a convert to the cause has no such luxury: you take it all, every last bit, or you don’t take any. This presents some rather significant difficulties, as despite it’s arguably better qualities, the Church has some real whoppers as well, as for example the absolute obsession God appears to have with just exactly where my sperm ends up.

        Not exactly 99 theses, but more than enough for me to reject the Catholic option when there are multiple alternative choices with similar or better positives and fewer negatives.

        Thank you for your kindness and concern, though.

        • grok87

          @Darren,
          You’re welcome. Actually when I read my post, after I posted it, I regretted my arrogance in thinking I could (fore)tell you something about your life based on reading a couple of your posts. I’m glad it didn’t come across that way to you…
          Re Ratzinger, Gingrich and O’Reilly, well we all have our crosses to bear…
          The catholic church has been around for 2000 years. Even though it may appear to you to have turned on a dime from “leftist shenanigans” during the 80s to now being “more in line with the..Republicans” I submit to you that that is unlikely to be the case- a majority of Catholics voted for Obama.

          Yes, isn’t Tolkien fantastic! I just love his books. You know he was a practicing devout Catholic right? I’d really recommend his letters.
          http://www.amazon.com/Letters-J-R-R-Tolkien-J-R/dp/0618056998
          They talk about the Hobbit/LOTR/Silmarillion a lot, and about his Catholicism and about his friendship with CS Lewis, etc.

          You seem to have thought through a lot of things pretty carefully. Best wishes and God Bless for your journey..
          cheers,
          grok

          • Darren

            Nah, I took it as a kindness.

            I shall have to check out the letters, thank you.

            It is uncharitable of me to throw up Gingrich and O’Reilly, on Leah’s blog at least. I have no doubt that you, Irenest, deaseach, and many others are as put off by them as I am.

            I fancy the US Republicans have found a way to parlay common cause on one or two prickly social issues into political capital in their courting of the Catholic vote.

  • Wrestling_Enkidu

    I find your critique right on Leah. I’ve noticed a near unanimous disagreement with my general moral beliefs among the atheists in social groups I’ve frequented, with rare hopeful agreement on websites like Less Wrong.

    A problem I see in factionalizing is that atheists are few and far between. The atheist groups I participate in are not generally large. If we were to split into groups based on morality, my group would be me sitting by myself, reading a book. Perhaps though, there are enough shared values among atheists that if we spent more time thinking about morality and scrutinizing our positions, we could come to some decent, if provisional, consensus on some basic moral issues.

  • Pingback: Can You Pick a Humanist Out of a Lineup?

  • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

    The trouble is that, in the article, Jacoby never talks very much about what kind of consolation she’s got on tap.

    Deiseach and ACN are of course right that the best response to tragedy often:

    whether you’re a believer or not, is to shut up with anything more than “I’m terribly sorry, how can I help you?” and just be present for the mourner.

    However, I suppose some atheists and humanists sometime have been and will be called upon to enact Ingersoll’s pastoral role at a graveside. Given my classicist predilections, I suppose I might look to the Epictetus or Epicurus for resources to aid in cobbling together suitable reflections. E.g., in his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus writes:

    Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest.

    I think that last sentence is an important reflection: a dead child, e.g., has not had a large portion of life, but atheist mourners might find solace in sharing reminiscences of how very pleasant that small portion had been. On his own deathbed, agonized by kidney stones, Epicurus took time to write to a friend that he was very happy, because he contemplated that he had lived a good, philosophical life.
    In addition to Ingersoll’s observation, echoed in the letter quoted above, that atheists may presume death to be painless, I think this reflection on the good of the late beloved’s life might offer most solace. I speak, of course, as a Christian, and so defer to the actual atheists hereabouts about how to handle such a situation. But for those who seek comfort, I do hope they find it.

  • Lynda

    What is this objective goodness that these atheists are claiming they acknowledge, abide by, share in? How can there be goodness without Goodness? Reason tells us that man naturally recognises goodness, which exists independently of man.

    • http://ms_daisy_cutter.dreamwidth.org Ms. Daisy Cutter

      ^ Word salad. Would that be the “goodness” you’re instructed in by the world’s largest pedophile organization?

      • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

        The world’s largest pedophile organization is NAMBLA.

  • Pingback: Honing Humanism – Is Humanism “a Philosophy”?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X