Friday, March 27, 2015

Now Even Atheists Want a Religion

It all began with Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton.

De Botton is an atheist.  As much as he’d like to, he simply cannot bring himself to believe in the existence of God.e’s  But, he also has a slight problem:  he doesn’t like today’s secularism, either.  As de Botton sees it, society in recent times has become disturbingly indifferent to the pursuit of the moral life.  Making the effort to do good or to attain virtue is not viewed as a particularly worthwhile enterprise.  Rather, in this day and age, says de Botton, “[t]he notion of trying to be a ‘good person’ conjures up all sorts of negative associations: of piety, solemnity, bloodlessness and sexual renunciation. 

According to de Botton, the current secular society is in short supply of “high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance.”  Teachers, artists and philosophers don’t offer moral instruction or counsel, or think that this is even appropriate.  Art no longer seeks to edify or enlighten, but now exists for itself, an expression of the ego:  “We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be ‘bad art’ … and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good.”

Traditional religion, however, was not shy about providing moral guidance.  In the words of one commentator, it was happy to provide instruction on “how to live with others, how to tolerate other people’s faults, how to assuage anger, endure pain and deal with the petty corruptions of a commercial world.”  Notwithstanding his atheism, de Botton believes that we sorely need that sort of wise “religious” guidance and instruction today.  As he sees it, people have either over simplified notions or no idea at all about what it means to be a good person.

De Botton also recognizes that there’s a depth and richness in religion that secularism lacks:  “Religions are in the end too complex, wise and fascinating to be abandoned simply to those who happen actually to believe in them.”  So, even though he can’t believe in it, he yearns for that old-time religion.

But de Botton does not pin the decline in moral sensibility on any loss of belief in the supernatural – as many culture warriors contend.  Instead, he believes that society has stumbled largely because we have forgotten how to school the multitude in the weightier matters.  The traditional religious authorities had a low but realistic view of human nature.  People were fragile, sinful and vulnerable, and unable to create moral universes on their own.  Today’s secular institutions, by contrast, have a high and unrealistic view of human nature, says de Botton.  We are each charged with the task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws with little or no knowledge of the past thinking on these things.  It’s like being asked to figure out physics without any knowledge of Newton’s laws.  And then, we are expected to have the ability, on our own, to remember the key things we learn and to put these ideas into practice with little community support.  De Botton believes that this just doesn’t work.  At the risk of overworking a cliché, it takes a village.

The answer to this problem, says de Botton, is to reclaim the methods of religion without importing its beliefs:  “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true….”  Rather, we should look at “the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”  And so, de Botton proposes a godless religion: an association that respects moral traditions, doesn’t shy away from profound thinking, is comfortable telling people how they ought to behave – and, at the same time, does not require belief in the supernatural.

To this end, in 2008, de Botton established what he calls the School of Life, a church for atheists.  Headquartered in London, it also has locations in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgrade and Istanbul.  It offers classes, secular Sunday sermons, lectures, weekend programs, and counseling for individuals, couples and families.   It also runs a consulting and training service for businesses.And, of course, there is the bookstore, selling books and other items to help people in their quest for a more fulfilled life.”

Interestingly enough, the School of Life is not the only established atheist denomination.  More recently, in January 2013, another atheistic community emerged, calling itself Sunday Assembly.  Oddly enough, the founders of Sunday Assembly were not academics or philosophers but two British stand-up comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans.

While Sunday Assembly doesn’t quite have the philosophical underpinnings of the School of Life, Jones and Evans share de Botton’s respect for religion.  Both Jones and Evans “wanted to do something like church but without God.”  But their thinking is a bit more straightforward.  "There was so much about it [religion] that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in," Jones explains.  “If you think about church, there's very little that’s bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people. And doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of this is not to like?”

According to the group’s website, “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life.  Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more.  Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential.  Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.”

As the mission statement indicates, unlike the School of Life, these folks are bent on spreading the word.  There are now over 65 chapters in Europe, Australia and North America, including one in Pittsburgh.

Just to give you some idea what an atheist gathering looks like, here is one particular order of service for Sunday Assembly found on the web:
Introductory Remarks:  Theme of "wonder"
Reading:  Selections from Alice in Wonderland
Song (stand):  Don't Stop Me Now by Queen
Song (stand):  Superstition by Stevie Wonder
Song (stand):  Ain't Got No by Nina Simone
Power Point Presentation by Dr. Harry Cliff, a particle physicist, on the discovery of antimatter.
Now, however, fissures have begun to form between the various atheist denominations.  De Botton himself is a bit resentful of the more widespread Sunday Assemblies: “We want to wish the comedians all the very best on their venture, while modestly adding that we have been ploughing this furrow for many years and they shouldn’t therefore claim the idea as their own.”  He added an ominous note: “We wouldn’t want to start a schism so early on in the movement.”

And then, led by Michael Dorian, the New York Sunday Assembly chapter broke away from the rest of the association, calling itself the Godless Revival.

The New York branch wanted a purer more doctrinal form of atheism.  Unlike the Sunday Assembly people, the Godless Revival does not welcome believers, calling them “anti-atheists.”  Entertainment and humor still play a large role in their events, but gone is the respect for religion of de Botton, Jones and Evans.   Instead, the Godless Revival is openly contemptuous:  its events are frequently held in bars, and often include “de-baptisms” accompanied by complimentary tequila shots and followed by an “afterlife” party.  The group has adopted as its unofficial slogan a line from Oscar Wilde:  “If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh.  Otherwise they'll kill you.”

The New Yorkers accuse Jones and Evans of abandoning true-blue atheism in favor of a watered down, milquetoast, “big tent” atheism.   It’s as if they have been tagged as the Unitarians of unbelievers.  And there may be some truth to this charge. “How atheist should our Assembly be?” Jones stated in a recent blog post. “The short answer to that is: not very.”  “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity,” added Evans. “But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.  Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief.” And then, at a more recent assembly, Jones opined: “I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?”

The Godless Revival has also taken a different course from the Sunday Assembly as to liturgy and organization.  Gone is the idea that the organization represents some kind of atheist community.    According to its website, “The Godless Revival is entertainment; it is a show, not a service; those who attend are an audience, not a congregation. We tickle folks’ funny bones. We aim to show people a good time, not lecture them on how to live.”  We’ve now come full circle from de Botton.

The recent appearance of several atheist religions is certainly a curious, even puzzling, development. Many may protest, how can you have a religion that doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural? And then, how can you disagree about what you don’t believe in? Nonetheless, at least some atheists are interested in forming religious communities, and then, just like other religious groups, they can’t agree on what that community should look like.

Let me suggest this:  It may be that the content of belief is not all that important to religion after all.  Andrew Greeley, the late Catholic priest who wrote all those steamy novels, was a sociologist before he wrote pulp fiction.  And, mostly, he studied the sociology of religion.  One of the more perplexing questions to him was “How can someone who is intelligent and well educated continue to be a Roman Catholic in these times?”

According to Greeley, the research shows that people do not remain Catholic because they find its tenets appealing.  Indeed, as we well know, American Catholics are notoriously nonchalant about the “official” teachings of the Church.  A recent Pew survey shows that some 45% of all American Catholics did not know that the Church teaches that Christ is actually present in the Eucharistic bread and wine.  Another poll shows that 54% of American Catholics support same sex marriage, contrary to official Catholic position.  And, 86% of American Catholics say that artificial contraception is morally acceptable, and 40% say the same about abortion.  Clearly, American Catholics do not stay with the Church because they are passionate about its beliefs.

Rather, says Greeley, people remain Catholic simply because they like it.  They like it in part because it’s part of their ethnic heritage – perhaps a Western form of ancestor worship.  They like it because of the stories, both the Biblical tales and the lives of the saints.  They like the ceremonial rituals that mark both the passing year and the events of peoples’ lives.   They like being part of the neighborhood parish, a small hamlet inhabited by people you know in the midst of largely anonymous towns and cities.  So, apparently, people like being Catholic for reasons not too far removed from the reasons that Sanderson Jones likes religion:  “it's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people. And doing that in a community with wonderful relationships.”

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong explains that, until the modern period, the major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine.  St. Gregory the Great, an early church father, echoes this idea by emphasizing the importance of acts of compassion above any belief in doctrine:  “I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know [God], but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action.”  One does not achieve holiness by what he believes but by what he does.

And, why should the willingness to subscribe to certain pronouncements be the touchstone of religion, especially since religion itself acknowledges humanity’s astoundingly limited knowledge of ultimate things?  Lao Tzu says this of the Tao:  “He is beyond comprehension (being the rarest of things).  Try to reach His beginning, no beginning can be seen. Seek His end, no end can be perceived.”  Isaiah in his vision hears God say that, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  St. Paul says that we can see only through a glass, darkly, and calls God’s judgments unsearchable and his ways inscrutable.  St. Augustine also makes clear the incomprehensibility of God:  “This then is not God, if thou has comprehended it; but if this be God, thou hast not comprehended it.”  The 14th century Flemish mystic and writer, Jan Van Ruysbroeck, said this:  “And this is the highest knowledge of God which any man may have in this life: …that God is incomprehensible and unknowable.”  Islam says the same:  “Whatever you think concerning God – know that he is different from that,” says Ibn Ata’ Allah, a 13th century Muslim jurist and writer.  Why should belief occupy such a place of importance in religion when we have so little knowledge of the sacred?

Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford and a columnist for the New York Times who writes about religion, summarizes the human condition this way:  “The gods are invisible, the future is inscrutable, and much of life is bushwhacking over uneven terrain.”  I suppose that, in trying to find our way over this rough and unfamiliar ground, we may find some small comfort in the company of those who share our ignorance and uncertainty.   This shared company is the beginning of religion.

Note how fundamentally Christian de Botton's message is here.

Jones on Sunday Assembly


James R said...

In reading these stories and a few more related ones for which I searched, it appears that religion is abandoned in almost all cases for one of two reasons:
1. God
2. Belief

The first one is inscrutable and the second, personal. Both seem to be tied to some kind of certainty: a God that either exists or does not exist, and some belief that is true or not. How coincidental that that is how religion is taught to children.

Hopefully, we can abandon that religion for the religion where "we may find some small comfort in the company of those who share our ignorance and uncertainty."

James R said...

"I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something detached, something lacking any relationship. Now, the truth is a relationship! This is so true that each of us sees the truth and expresses it, starting from oneself: from one’s history and culture, from the situation in which one lives, etc. This does not mean that the truth is variable and subjective. It means that it is given to us only as a way and a life. Was it not Jesus himself who said: “I am the way, the truth, the life”? In other words, the truth is one with love, it requires humbleness and the willingness to be sought, listened to and expressed." —Pope Francis

"The truth is a relationship" takes more than a lifetime to understand.

Big Myk said...

Where did we ever get this guy from? Pope Francis conitnues to astound.

James R said...

There's so much here. Not that it hasn't been explained before, but it's nice to hear it from reflective atheists. Perhaps the era of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett has waned, and God and religion can again be considered as something other than what was learned at age seven. That straw man must burn. To be honest, I'm not sure how anyone can become religious without passing through atheism.

Big Myk said...

As to your first point about burning the straw man, I refer you to Francis Bacon: “It is better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him: for the one is unbelief the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity.”

As to your second point that the way to God may be through atheism, I give you George Santayana's meditiation on Bacon: "Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's that 'a little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.' At the same time, when Bacon penned that sage epigram... he forgot to add that the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them." When something is this good, it bears repeating, and I have: The Top Ten Definitions of God - 3

Big Myk said...

As an addendum to the prior comment, contumely is an old word which one commentator stated should be archaic by now except that it's still being used now and again.

Anyway, contumely is insolent or insulting language or treatment.