Should Freethinkers Give Up On Replacing Religious Rituals With Their Own?

Should Freethinkers Give Up On Replacing Religious Rituals With Their Own? July 26, 2009

In reply to a reader of The Daily Dish on the pitfalls of “freethinkers’ groups” that try to replace religious rituals with their own (about which I commented here), comes these two remarks on The Daily Dish:

Your reader’s comment about “atheist Sunday school” is phenomenal, and gets right at one of the most important reasons I call myself a believer.  I started going to church after struggling with a lot of the questions about dogma and doctrine and what not, but what it eventually came down to was, in one convenient package I get thoughtful discussions on what faith in the modern world is like, a choir I can sing bass in, a supportive community, a trusted institution to which I can donate and which will distribute charitable funds effectively, and team in a local basketball league.

This emphasis on “one convenient package” is a crass, commercialistic way of confessing that what I have described in a couple posts the last couple days is true.  Religion’s appeal is in its ability to offer things like community, ritual, a central place to direct their moral energies, etc. all in one place and that people would rather sacrifice their intellect than to miss those things.  But this has nothing to do with truth.  The most you can hope for by way of thinking that is going to go on is going to be “thoughtful discussions on what faith in the modern world is like”—which essentially is only the process of rationalizing reasons to give for maintaining ancient superstitious beliefs, rather than thinking freely and innovatively about questions with no dogmatic faith attachments.

This can feel thoughtful and, indeed, there are many sophisticated theology spinners out there who can make what sound like intellectually respectable arguments.  But it’s no substitute for a non-dogmatic, faith free inquiry into the good life and the truths of the universe which do not have the essences of the answers prescribed 2000 years in advance of our present day discussions. The reader goes on:

Now, the atheists will no doubt turn around and say, “yes, but we could do all this without the religion stuff!”  Well, I suppose that’s true, but the question is, do they?  The answer is almost uniformly, “no,” and as your reader’s e-mail and my experience show, it’s not for lack of trying.  Why it doesn’t work is hard to say, but the failure of atheists to reproduce the beneficial aspects of religion should be something that concerns them more than it apparently does.

Well, that’s rather smug and premature triumphalism which contradicts itself.  First of all, the idea that the atheists have not lacked for trying to mimic religion is something of a joke.  There has been nothing like the concerted effort to create atheist institutions on the model of religious organizations.  There has never even been much agreement that atheists should want to do things like that.   Nonetheless, the movement towards atheists groups in America has only ballooned in the last few years.  It’s not like we’re looking at decades of failed endeavors (unless you count the Unitarian church as an attempt to do atheism with religious forms?)

The contradictory part is that first the reader claims that atheists have been desperately trying to ape religious forms and then accuses us of not caring enough about why we’ve allegedly failed.  So which is it?  Are we desperate to do this or indifferent?  And what’s the implication about why these things are not immediately successful and why this should bother us?  What if the reason it’s not successful has more to do with the fact that when people are free thinkers it’s harder to get them to share fixed meanings and beliefs in common, which makes it harder to implement rituals and other practices which reflect a communal agreement about the good life or the symbolic associations worth tying to different practices?  Would that be a flaw in atheism or its admirable non-conformist streaks hindering atheists’ abilities to assimilate with group-think and group-practice?

Yesterday, at a wedding, I thought a good deal about ritual and liturgy.  These can be powerful and sublime ways in which to live your life if you believe in what they symbolize.  If you believe certain things you can arrange all manner of holidays, songs, dances, recitations, and meditations to symbolically reinforce those things.  But the precondition of success in these forms is shared values and shared thinking that designs all those rituals and infuses them with their meaning.  But the trade off of all this is the loss of individuality and disagreement.  Of course, since the symbols are abstract things, there is some room for disagreement and personal interpretation of what the symbols mean.  But you’re still locking yourself into a limited symbolic repettoire and the more orthodoxly religious one gets the more suffocated in how you can interpret those symbols becomes.  And because these traditions stretch back thousands of years and because there are ridiculous things you’re demanded to believe on faith, there is a stifling of both imagination and inquisitiveness.

And, finally, and worst of all, all the rituals and liturgies are powerful tools for building irrational devotion of the sorts atheists do not want themselves to mimic.  There are dangerous powers that come with ritual speech, song, movement, etc., which have long made them the tools for turning people into obedient worshippers, bound thinkers, soulless soldiers, and all sorts of other cult-followers and blind sheep.

So, when I see that atheists have trouble rallying around some common set of symbols or ideals simple enough for a mass of people to group-think them together, I think that’s a bonus in favor of the variety of thought that comes without submission to a pre-given faith tradition.  And the lack of susceptibility to rituals is a bonus too.  The question is how to provide these things in a way that aids rationalism and does not create yet another irrationalism on the earth. How do you put ritual in the service of human reason, rather than in the service of subjugation?  That’s our question and we have only begun to try to figure it out.  While religion has spent thousands of years building up the notion that you should even expect “one-stop shopping” for your whole life, a Wal-Mart of the soul where you can get your ideas, your community, your rituals, etc., atheism has historically represented the break with the community for the sake of independent thought.

I have a huge number of doubts about the doctrines of the church, but as I’ve come to settle in to my church (they’re making me a deacon this fall — urf), I’ve come to realize that many other members harbor very similar qualms and objections.  Indeed my senior minister, when I was trying to decide whether to join or not, said, “you don’t have to buy everything here.  We just ask that we all try to work out the truth together as a community of faith rather than on your own.”

But the problem is that there is no truth in the community of faith, there is an insistence you sell out your right to the genuine doubts which have an openness to rejection of any and every faith in order to get that one-stop shopping of all the rest of your spiritual needs.  That “we just ask” is itself the roadblock to any genuinely free thinking.

Every time I get into one of these online conversations, I get the Crusades, Dobson, Randal Terry, and the Inquisition thrown in my face. Fine, if I’m going to claim the same faith as them, I have to reconcile that (I won’t here in the interest of brevity).  However, the cocksure assertions of what the “truth claims” that my personal faith and my church makes and its impact on the world aren’t effective rhetoric; I’d go so far as to say they’re pretty uninformed and clueless.  Atheists of the world: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with Christians (rather than doing what can only be describe as proselytizing), find out what they actually believe before you tell them why they’re wrong.

HA!  I for one know what Christians really believe but when we point out the logical implications of what those beliefs entail, you can’t just wave away those problems because you’re happy to rationalize away every unpleasant implication of your own beliefs rather than simply dare to think outside the “community of faith” and have to give up that church basketball league!

And a more hopeful reader writes:

Atheist groups are definitely coming around to the idea that churches have a powerful draw for the sake of community. The notion that you can have a freethinking organization with all the perks of church (like Sunday School) without religion is relatively new, but growing. And with growth come growing pains, such as your reader described. But for every flop like non-religious hymns (shudder), there are also such gatherings as picnics, movie nights, brunches, bowling events, you name it. Freethinkers (atheists, if you must) are coming around to the fact that their lack of belief in a god shouldn’t be the FOCUS of their gathering…it should be incidental. “OK, we’re all non-believers. Now, who’s up for Scrabble?”

Your Thoughts?

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