Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Is UU missing the "new" New Atheist boat?

One of the Sunday Assembly Boston committee members shared the October 2013 sermon above, with the advice that we keep in mind we are not just another group, but a new congregation that other leaders of other congregations are still trying to make sense of.

My thoughts.

Kendrick points to institutional insularity as a reason why UU is not connecting effectively with the population of religiously unaffiliated freethinkers coming out of the woodwork in groups like Sunday Assembly and Humanism; I wonder if there isn't another important factor: the language gap.

In his sermon, he uses terms like "transcendental", "faith", and "spiritual hunger". Now, I know what he means, but the register of this vocabulary seems to be a world removed from the science-infatuated, skeptically-inflected, irony-wrought idiolect of the new freethinkers. I can map his meaning onto my own ethical outlook, sure, but I fear I am not the typical case. For many more people among those he would be seeking to tell about UU, the ecclesiastical and vaguely supernaturalistic vocabulary of the UU tradition is likely to evoke a powerful response of suspicion and even disdain.

In my conversations with UU and HUU leaders and parishioners, I've encountered confusion, wariness, and even dismissal in regard to Sunday Assembly (and to the older project of re-orienting the Boston Atheists as a congregational group). These are folks who have good reason for wondering if we aren't a bunch of johhny-come-latelys, here to co-opt their place as *the* obvious destination for liberal-minded freethinkers in search of community as a connection to "something greater". I share this opinion because I think it is important that we keep in mind that our work in organizing SA isn't taking place in a vacuum; there are allies out there, that we can work with and learn from, and establish relationships of mutual aid, as long as we know that they are there, and are alert to the potential sensitivities. And I share it with full confidence that Kendrick is a certainly a potential ally.

Relatedly: After taking a few months off while occupied with wedding planning, I'll be restarting the Boston Interpath Workgroup with monthly meetings for discussion and position paper publication, in March 2014. If anyone here on the distro is interested in joining, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Joking about atheist church

A joke from a friend that came up in an email exchange in which we were discussing the meaning of Sunday Assembly Boston. She writes that she across it during the Bosnian War; she thinks it was told by a Sarajevan
Q: What's the difference between a Sarajevan Muslim, a Sarajevan Jew, and a Sarajevan Christian?  
A: A Sarajevan Muslim is someone who skips mosque, a Sarajevan Jew is someone who skips temple, and a Sarajevan Christian is someone who skips church.
The extension to our context is, of course:
Q. So just what exactly is Sunday Assembly? 
A. A place for atheists not to go on Sundays.

Historical lagniappe: About a certain king of the Caucasus, 10th-century Persian explorer and geographer Ibn Rustah writes:
He prayed on Fridays with the Muslims, on Saturdays with the Jews, and on Sundays with the Christians. 'Since each religion claims that it is the only true one and that the others are invalid', the king explained, 'I have decided to hedge my bets.'

Monday, November 11, 2013

What we can learn from Scientology

According to Patheos: "There is no personal deity in Scientology, so private rituals of worship and devotion are practically non-existent, replaced with diligence in spiritual practice and striving for moral uprightness."

In the spirit of learning from other traditions, I'd like to say: I'm totally stealing that emphasis on diligence and striving. (Albeit with the caveats that 1. "spiritual practice" can really only be meaningful when used to refer to introspective and cognitive methods of cultivating desirable knowledge and emotional states, and 2. "moral uprightness" is an ad hoc and utilitarian thing, to be invented and modified by the end user as needed, and doesn't exist 'out there' in some perfect Platonic form waiting to be uncovered by the truly diligent and spiritually pure.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Quote: "Religion not the crying need of India"

"Christians must always be ready for good criticism, and I hardly think that you will mind if I make a little criticism. You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen — why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the East is not religion — they have religion enough — but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats. They ask us for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics. In India a priest that preached for money would lose caste and be spat upon by the people. I came here to seek aid for my impoverished people, and I fully realised how difficult it was to get help for heathens from Christians in a Christian land."

(from a lecture delivered by Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda on 20 September 1893 at the Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, criticizing Christian missionaries for ignoring the needs of starving millions in India.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

from The Encyclopedia of Religion

"To say that man is homo religiosus is not to say something 'nice' about him."

(a throwaway line in Vol. 9; see also the entry for homo reliogsus in Vol. 6 )

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Faithlessness in fiction

Few things rile my impatience as the assertion that atheists can't be people of deep thought and values.

Randy Boyagoda, chair of English at Ryerson University, has written an essay for First Things which more or less accurately identifies the waning of explicitly Christian voices in contemporary literature:
I always have ready some recommendations of current writers who take the life of faith seriously in their work—the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the poet Geoffrey Hill, assorted scholars and reviewers writing criticism—but I realize they have a point. While religion significantly matters in minor literary contexts today (as with the eccentric popularity of Amish romance novels) and in vulgar commercial contexts (as with Dan Brown’s books), serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture.
(Emphasis mine.) There's an absolute ecology of unexamined, and I'd say indefensible, assumptions underlying the idea that identifies deep and thoughtful "informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are" exclusively with religiously informed understandings. The unexplored alternative to this idea is that certain author and artists may, by dint of the depth and richness of their understanding, have had to abandon "religious" (read: theistic) framings of the world. This is not a negligence on their part, but a feature of their engagement with reality as it comes. 

Boyagoda has a more sympathetic case, a less privilege-blind case, if he were using the word "religious" to encompass nontheistic worldviews, such as those aligned, e.g., with deep ecology or religious* humanism; but I see no evidence that he is doing so. Very well; we carry on with our own work in the larger pluralism outside the purview of sectarian commentary. You can be sure that the forthcoming companion site to Pen & Anvil's secular imprint, Secular Age, will do diligent work in focusing attention on new books from secular thinkers, and in promoting awareness of the many ways an atheistic worldview may nonetheless have consort with things infinite.

(I encourage anyone reading to recommend in the comments below any authors or books who are exemplary in this respect.)

_ _ _ _ 

* How good if it were more widely understood that the term "religious" can apply with equal usefulness to wholly nontheistic and materialistic traditions such as "religious humanism." Alas, most readers see "religion" and think a god-belief of some kind is involved (the case of some kinds of Buddhism not much changing these facts).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Brookes on Taylor's "Secular Age" thesis

"Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice [Oh? Which? -ZWB] — give us a richer understanding of our natures. [...] These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge. ¶ But [...] these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength." (NYTimes)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Louis CK on practical epistemology

In his feature-length stand-up show Live at the Beacon Theater, comedian Louis CK lays bare an oft-overlooked fact concerning the relationship between belief and behavior:
I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them. They're my little believies.
The show is available on Netflix (at around 6 minutes in) and may well be on YouTube.


Don't doubt for a moment that there is an ethical dimension to the lack of conformation between what one believes and what one does. As a good introduction, dial over to, and read William Clifford's 1877 essay, "The Ethics of Belief." The infamous, and terrifically portable, summary of his position on the matter: "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." A corollary: Since humans are all always guilty in one way or another of holding beliefs (of some sort or scope) that aren't warranted by sufficient evidence that we ourselves have worked through, it is the case that we (yes, all of us) are living always in a state of epistemic failure (here I almost wrote, "epistemic sin!). Knowing this is the beginning of rationality.


A corollary from Oscar Wilde: “The value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.” Contrast this to the wisdom theme of H.P. Lovecraft's tale, “The Call of Cthulhu”: “ he most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” If there were a divinity of perfect rationality, would we not have to call this being either insensate as a stone, or wholly mad? (See also Borges' story "Funes the Memorious" for a case example of how a perfect omnimnemonic could not in practice survive with his reason intact, free to live a life we could call human.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Humanism, aspiration, and the labels one identifies with

BU theology student Mario Melendez tagged me in a post on Facebook, the content of which I copy here:
To my Humanist brothers and sisters: I found the following definition of Humanism in a Doctor Who related article...yes, I know, I am a geek. Anyway, the author (a humanist himself) said: "The basic idea behind humanism is that humanity can, against all the odds and in the face of overwhelming evidence, be good. In the absence of God or gods, we can achieve greatness. It’s faith for people without faith.
[Aside: on the idea of "faith for people without faith", see this weird article in the Washington Post.] I think the gesture of the quoted definition is laudable. However, I'd offer the term "aspiration" as an alternative to "faith", for the reason that aspiration in its common usage entails ongoing action -- we do aspire, whereas faith is a thing one has and not an action one does. Further, the common usage of "faith" implies several epistemic concessions which I am not convinced a responsible person should be casual about making. Finally, I'd recalibrate the superlatives. E.g.: Are we up against all the odds, or are only some factors stacked against us?

My version would then look like this:
The premise of humanism is that humanity can, against the odds, and in the absence of supernatural powers, achieve greatness. Humanism is the aspiration that takes the place of faith in the lives of nontheists.
There's a lot of cultural work to be done before the word "humanism" (note the lack of capitalization) is widely adopted as the general term describing the various species of aspirational ethical lifestances of nontheists. But it's work worth doing. We aren't losing on the matter of the facts; where we have a lot of catching-up to do is in the generational domain of labels, implied and imputed values, and cultural cachet.


I came across a quote recently, from a sermon the UCC preacher and pastor William Sloan Coffin, Jr. gave in 1984: "You can act in such a way that people identify you with something greater than yourself." Which led me to wonder under what banner or emblem or label should I be working to associate my actions with. Because I have made a commitment, as an activist and community member and community organizer, to atheism, I have already made it a habit to wear my Friendly Neighborhood Atheist shirt when doing charity, or to make donations (most recently, to a boy in need of tuition to continue attending his grade school in South Africa, and to a no-kill pet shelters) "in support of" the Boston Atheists or the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts. But the entity of "atheism" or even "a [congregational] community of atheists" might be the wrong level of scale to really serve as a rival for "faith". What, really, is the salient distinction between persons of faith and persons without faith -- faith vs. skepticism? Faith vs. aspiration? Naturalism vs. supernaturalism? Here I almost wish to list religion vs. irreligion, but I'm actually inclined to include nontheist forms of community under the heading of "religion"; I justify this by pointing to an anthropological and sociological conception of "religion", in which the defining features are the shared experience and explicit values of a congregation or more widely dispersed identity community.

In light of which, I'd like to reconsider Rev. Coffin's words: "Act in such a way that people identify you with something greater than yourself." What kind of thing is that greater thing? For the Christians I have known, the answer would not be "faith", but Christianity. This suggest that capital-H Humanism would be the appropriately-scaled counterpart, and not the ethical type of humanism, or the epistemic disposition skepticism, or the broad lifestance category atheism. I fear, that the consequences of an identity label *on this scale* will breed sectarianism. Are you a Secular Humanist, or a Humanistic Jew? No, I'm a Boston Humanist. (Or a Positive Humanist, or a Humanist Plus, or a Cantabrigian Humanist, or a Reformed Secular Humanist, or...)

If this kind of label proliferation (or though of in other terms: this kind of community sub-division) is inevitable, it would be prudent to pull back and reconsider the rationality of Coffin's exhortation to affiliate one's actions with something greater than oneself. Jack Miles, in his book God: A Biography, writes:
Philosophers of religion have sometimes claimed that all gods are projections of the human personality, and it may be so. But if so, we must at least recognize the empirical fact that many human beings, rather than project their own personalities upon gods wholly of their own creation, have chosen to introject—take into themselves—the religious projections of other human personalities.
This suggests a great definition for (lower-case, generic) humanism. Rather than projecting the best qualities of humanity onto an unknowable (and, in my view, fictitious) being outside of ourselves, humanists take these qualities into ourselves. Humans give the credit for human goodness to humans. We claim as our own, the highest values common to human experience and culture across all ages and nations; and we accept as our responsibility the need to come to terms with a universe in which all phenomena are natural, and all life is a rare and precious occurrence.

The greater something a humanist identifies her actions with is... humanity. Or more precisely, human potential. This is probably too tautological to serve an an effective rallying cry, but is nonetheless where this casual analysis brings me. This circularity does suggest that humanists (and nontheists of all persuasions) are at a distinct rhetorical disadvantage. It isn't "their" divine mascot against "our" other-than-divine mascot; it's their mascot, God, against our nothing. And this will be the rhetorical terms of interfaith engagement and all forms of intersectional contact, until open-minded persons of good will are successful in challenging the rhetorical status quo.

Let this be another place where I vote for the general adoption of the term "interpath" (a term that I credit to theology student Derek Lewis Knox). Here is Coffin's slogan, now filtered through the interpath lens and thereby greatly altered:

Let your actions be testimony to the value of humanism as an aspirational path.

Good advice. And, potentially, a banner for secular-minded people to wave in response and kindred spirit to theists waving the faith flag.


NB: It isn't just the secular community that has to find a way through these knotty questions of terminology. The modern obsessive personality known variously as "nerd" and "geek" suffers a similar identity crisis. Not to worry; science will sort it all out.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On the "solitary leaker", and ethical autonomy

In case you didn't know what you should think about Edward Snowden's leak of NSA data-mining activity, authoritarian NYTimes columnist David Brooks has done the thinking for you.

His advice? We needn't worry about the government! We just need to have the right kind of trust in the "series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world" that infiltrate and delineate our culture. It's Snowden and other "solitary" young men with spotty high school records we need to fear! Why? Because they are just the sort to take it upon themselves to puncture the useful fiction of our civic life.

The problem exposed by Snowden's leak is not the gross overreach of government monitoring of private communications, but "the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds." We haven't been betrayed by our elected officials; Snowden betrayed us when he broke the confidentiality he was sworn to: "He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter." War is peace; ignorance is strength.
So why was it so hard for Snowden to trust Big Brother? My friend Jonathan Figdor, the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University, sees clearly how Snowden (and any thinking person) might suffer a crisis of civic faith: Maybe those institutions and authorities lost credibility when they violated the trust we had in them... Like when the banks got bailed out, but the middle class and working poor got evicted from their homes; or when Bush gave his buddies in the top .5 of 1% enormous tax cuts on the backs of the poor and middle class; or when Bush trotted out Colin Powell to make an erroneous case for war in Iraq and sent a lot of American troops to die overseas under false pretenses. Please, David, don't pretend like you have no idea where this lack of trust in authority comes from. It comes from years of abuse.
Speaking of uppity reactions to years of abuse, I guess Rosa Parks betrayed us all when she slipped the bonds of social propriety and refused to go to the back of the bus. If that analogy seems absurd to you, perhaps:

  1. You are an authoritarian, and view Rosa Parks' civil disobedience as salutary only because the larger culture -- its media, schools, and other authorities -- has endorsed that interpretation as safe; or
  2. You are ethically autonomous, and recognize that there is among human beings a moral obligation to one another that precedes (and indeed, gives rise to) the civic obligation to the rule of law. 

The dogmatist, the absolutist, and the authoritarian agree: A person is only as good as his or her word.

The relativist, the materialist, and the Humanist offer that a person who keeps his or her word without having a clean conscience has become an instrument of an authority's convenience... which is as good as definition I know of dehumanization. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Belief: Important, though grossly over-emphasized

I often remind people (theists, atheists, allies, assholes, anyone who needs reminding really): You know I'm an atheist. But, now that you know that, how much do you know about me? Exceedingly little.

Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, musters the same point in her guest column for The New York Times titled "Belief Is the Least Part of Faith":
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
Luhrmann calls it the problem of belief, and I agree that belief is a problem, though not just because it represents a barrier toward a feeling of community or unity among persons of different ethical and doctrinal commitments -- as a believer in materialism and rationalism, I think it is ethically urgent that we cultivate as widely as possible the practices of skepticism, irony, and empiricism, so as to fortify our culture and body politic against attractive but untrue and dangerous memes.

However: Luhrmann's purpose in his column is not to problematize belief, but to problematize the emphasis on belief as a sticking point of contention between believers and secularists. I agree fully with her perspective in this regard, and would offer this as a take-away:

The epistemic position any person stakes out on the question of theism (or any question of doctrine) is a small aspect of the much larger and manifold state of identifying with a particular worldview tradition. Far more important than what is believed, is how the belief is arrived at (a measure of warrant); whether the belief is consistent with other beliefs held by the believer (a measure of rationality); and which behaviors are engendered by that belief (a measure of moral merit). There are a great number of beliefs I as a staunch atheist hold, which are utterly unrelated to my view on existence of divinities.

My ethical commitments, in other words, like those of believers and nonbelievers of all sorts, have a relationship TO my faith outlook... but cannot, and should not, be reduced TO the fact of my belief or nonbelief. The human epistemic machine, with all its moral and philosophical sub-systems, is far too complex to be so reduced.

These facts should be known widely, since they have direct bearing on the way we interact with persons who identify with faith or philosophical traditions other than our own.


NB: Luhrmann notes "As the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, 'to believe' meant something like 'to hold dear.'" Quite so. Etymologically, the Germanic verb "to believe" can be thought of as "to be-love": "to love so as to live by." This word-fact should douse the torches of all those atheists who decry "belief" as an act of intellectual weakness. (Though the worst of the rhetoric is focused tightly on the intellectual treason of "faith"). Let the warning be: Semantic arguments may by semantic means debunked.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Secular" and "religious" are not antonymous

Over at Metabelief, Josiah is test-driving a bit of argumentative flair:
There is something that most atheist critiques of religion have failed to internalize. If there is no god, and there never has been, then religious practice is also a secular practice.
In the post comments and at Facebook, he's taking some flak for this bit of rhetoric; "You can't just redefine words to suit your activist aims", the criticism goes. Well, I'd like to don a philological hat here for a moment and point out that the semantic domains of "secular" and "religious." are not mutually exclusive. (As against a pair of words which do exclude one another, e.g. "faith" & "atheism".)

The first definition listed in the OED for "secular" indicates that the meaning of "secular" as "of the world" was used to differentiate monastics who lived "in the world" rather than in seclusion. And the first definition for "religion" gives its meaning as "a state of life bound by religious vows".... it is not until the third definition that any mention of supernaturalism or faith comes appears. (Keeping in mind here that the first definition is not necessarily the primary definition.)

The use of the terms "secular" and "religious" in the ways I describe above is not at all rare in historical sources (You can confirm this for yourself by a quick browse through Google Books). That we tend to use them as opposing terms at the present time, is a contingent happenstance of semantic drift or narrowing.

One textbook case of semantic change via pejoration ("the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time") is the drift in meaning of the word "silly" (from Old English sēlig). "Silly" originally meant "holy" or "blessed." What kinds of things are holy or blessed? Innocent things. What does innocence usually indicate? That a thing is deserving of sympathy, helpless, or simple. If a thing is simple or helpless, what does this show? That the thing shows a lack of good sense. Linguists who have studied historical texts can find attestations forming a smooth, continuous shift in the meaning of the word "silly", from "holy" through all these variations in meaning, down to the present sense of "showing a lack of good sense, frivolous." Now when you go around declaring theistic churches, clergy, and creeds to be "utterly silly", you can do so with a straight face and the best of intentions.

I don't know if it's been done, but I suspect that a historical study of the words "religious" and "secular" would show a similarly smooth shift in their meaning from broad to more narrow usage. Well, there's no ethical or logical reason we language-users would be barred from pushing things in the other direction. Semantic narrowing can be reversed through semantic broadening. That's not semantic violence, or a reckless disregard for the dictionary -- it's just the way language works. Some of the factors that influence linguistic change are deliberate, and some are unplanned.

Short put: there is no contradiction in saying that "(some) religions are secular" or "(some forms of secularism) are religious." These statements are unconventional, not oxymoronic. Whether such statements or ideas are rhetorically useful, is a separate question. I for one would like to see what Josiah works out.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What religion provides: context, comfort, wisdom (and mead)

Last night as we were driving home from Boston, JMD and I listened in the car to the twelfth lecture ("Britain and Ireland") in Prof. Paul Freedman's excellent, well-paced course on The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000. My ears perked up when Freedman related a passage from the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People earned him the title of "Father of English History." Here's a slightly abridged version of the relevant part of that lecture transcript:
[C]onversion represents a change in orientation, a change in orientation towards a larger world. Instead of a tribal and fragmented identity -- I'm not making a statement about the truth or non-truth of Christianity but about the sense of belonging to a larger world whose purposes encompass not only your group, but a larger group of people out there. 
And I think we can get a feeling for this from a famous passage of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, written in 731. And he is describing events of about a century earlier, when King Edwin of Northumbria summoned a council to decide whether or not to accept the Christian God. And the chief of the pagan priests speaks in favor of embracing Christianity. Even though you would think that he would be the defender of the old faith, he in fact speaks to this assembly, according to Bede, in favor of Christianity on the grounds that it tells us what went before us and what will come after us
And the passage goes like this, "And one of the King's chief men presently said, 'Thus seems it to me, oh King. The present life of man on earth, against that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at a feast with your chief men and your thanes in winter time. The fire burns, and the hall is warm. And outside, it rains and snows and storms. There comes a sparrow and swiftly flies through the house. It comes through one door, and it goes out another. Lo, in the time in which he is within, he is not touched by the winter storm. But that time is the flash of an eye and the least of times. And he soon passes from winter out to winter again. So is the life of man revealed for a brief space, but what went before, and what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right we should follow it." 
Now this is not why people necessarily converted because not everybody's really bothered by that. Most people figure, "Wow, I'm in the hall. It's warm. It's great. I'm having such a good time. And when I have to leave, brief though it will be, I'll deal with that." But it does explain some of the appeal of Christianity and why the invaders who were quote "pagan" converted. And indeed why people tend to convert to world religions like Christianity and Islam to this day. 
(Emphasis mine.) I see here three reasons given for conversion to Christianity:

  1. It supplied a sense of place in history and the cosmos ("it tells us what went before us and what will come after us")
  2. It afforded material and social comforts ("The fire burns, and the hall is warm. And outside, it rains and snows and storms."; It's warm. It's great. I'm having such a good time."). Importantly, according to Bede/Freedman, these comforts are presented in the here and now, leaving aside the offer of benefits in the afterlife: "And when I have to leave, brief though it will be, I'll deal with that."
  3. It offered knowledge to those seeking knowledge ("if this teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right we should follow it.")
I should think that any secular congregation worth its salt would need to facilitate the satisfaction of each of these forms of human yearning.


NB: A little later in the lecture, Freedman observes:
[. . .] The drinking hall is important, as you know from Beowulf. It is the manifestation of civilization. It is that protection from outside that Bede describes in the little sparrow anecdote. But it is also the center of government.
I think this fact deserves serious attention: that once upon a time, the place that supplied truth and warmth and comity, was not a holy airy spired church but the rough-hewn proto-pub where you got drunk with your buddies.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Suggested names for an atheist church

Prompted by the list of alternatives to the term "interfaith" that appeared on this blog earlier today, my friend Alex Vera wrote to offer his suggestions for the name of an "atheist church", each of which derive from the title of De Rerum Natura. Alex asserts that this epic poem of stoic philosophy is "a great starting point for all matters interfaith and euprasophical, since natural stuff includes all the above, but also leans towards naturalism within itself and, by reference to its author, Lucretius, an underlying sense of atheism/secularism."
  • barums (suggesting bars, where people of all denominations congregate for discussion and the consumption of alcohol)
  • brorums (more fraternal version of the above)
  • brostitutions (LOL)
  • rerumstitutions (a nice institutional ring to it, right?)
  • freerums (blending Freemasonry, De Derum Natura, and an endorsement of free drinks)
  • freereasonry (self-explanatory)
Would you accept an invitation to join the Brostitution of Freereasonry?


Other suggestions that have begun to come in over the transom:

  • secular society (suggested by Maria G.)

What's a word for atheist church? And crowdsourcing alternatives to "interfaith".

Were I to ask a typical American to tell me the name of that social institution where people who live near one another come together for the purposes of enjoying mutual aid, of developing a sense of shared interests and identity, and of professing their common commitment to certain shared values (or of exploring their understanding of certain core values), the answer I'd expect to get is "church." (Which answer might or might not be expanded to include the peer institutions of synagogue, temple, mosque, and so on.)

However, if I were to ask for the name of an institution that could be described just as I've done above, but whose congregants are additionally characterized by a common commitment to materialism (or naturalism, or secularism, or atheism), the word "church" seems no longer to apply. There really isn't any word in our vocabulary for a community institution that fills the role of a church for people of the secular persuasion.

Over the past decade, as I've done a lot of thinking and reading about congregational models of secular community, I've thought a lot about this vocabulary problem we secularists face in trying to put a name to the organized form of our coming together. Any time I came across a term in my research, I wrote it down. That list now runs to several hundred terms, many of which are quite weird but some of which seem quite workable. (For example, "congregation", "longhouse", and "assembly" -- as in the Sunday Assembly which this past weekend opened for business in the UK). I'll see about posting that list here sometime soon, to see what others think about this or that possibility, and to invite additions to the list.

An abridged and annotated list of terms will also appear in a future issue of Secular World magazine.

Look: we're here, and there's a lot of us, and we're working together, and though we're certainly not faith-based, we represent, in our shared commitment to reason and compassion, something which transcends the meaning of "neighborhood." It's time we had a name.


This isn't the only vocabulary problem we have. At a Winter Solstice brunch gathering yesterday organized by the Greater Boston Humanists, one Zach Alexander delivered a talk about the usefulness and limitations of "interfaith" engagement, and the limitations of the word "interfaith" itself (note the scare quotes). As has been noted by any number of commentators, and as was emphasized by Zach during his talk, the word "interfaith" is problematic. It would seem to exclude secular philosophies, lifestances, and worldviews, since adherents to these systems of thought tend to consider "faith" incompatible with their other ethical commitments. (NB: Conversely, the word "eupraxsophy" -- coined by Paul Kurtz -- by definition excludes theistic, faith-based, and supernaturalistic worldviews.)

When an audience member put Zach on the spot to ask if he could suggest a word to replace "interfaith", he observed that -- just as with "atheist church" --  there just doesn't seem to be a word that works. I think we should be able to come up with one. This isn't just semantics; if our ethical commitments prohibit us from celebrating or promoting "faith" as a virtue (which is a matter quite separate from our criticism of and engagement with "religion"), then it stands to reason that we're voluntarily giving up our seat at any table where "interfaith" work is being done. Are students involved with the Humanist Community at Harvard or eligible to participate in the White House-sponsored Interfaith and Community Services Campus Challenge? When the State Department organized the US-Indonesia Interfaith Conference in Jakarta, were representatives of secular community organizations welcome to participate? This semantic quibble represents an actual impediment to these and other venues were nonbelievers would otherwise have a chance to play a positive role in community and government.

To get the ball rolling, I've gone through some notes and typed up this list of alternatives to the word "interfaith". Some of these seem pretty feasible (I already use the words "intermural" and "pluralistic" where others might use "interfaith"), while others are a little out there, e.g. "intercistal" (not from cyst, but from cis-, as in cisgendered and cisatlantic) and "mondkonceptobla" (from the Esperanto words mond, koncept, and -obla, meaning "world", "concept", and "many").

Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! And please share the URL for this post, and invite others to submit their suggestions below, or by sending me an email. As submissions come in, I'll add them to the numbered list, along with the name of the contributor, and any notes he or she wants to provide about the source or inspiration for their suggestion.

Don't be afraid to suggest really wonky words! Brainstorming is an open-ended process, and it can be useful to see all sorts of untenable suggestions as well as ones that stand a chance of being pressed into usage.

Candidates to Replace the Word "Interfaith"

  • heteroethical
  • intercistal
  • intersocial
  • interistic
  • interoutlook
  • mondkonceptobla
  • intermural
  • interbelief
  • intertribal
  • multicongregational
  • interideological
  • interlateral
  • interfacial
  • interliturgical
  • interassembly
  • interfactional
  • interpositional
  • intercreed
  • intersystem
  • crosscommunity
  • crossperspective
  • multistance
  • crossconviction
  • interweltanschauung
  • transdoctrinal
  • multinotional
  • interdenominational
  • pluralistic
  • multiphilosophical
  • ecumenical
  • interminable (not a serious suggestion, but worth the laugh)
  • interthought (suggested by Hemaht Mehta)
  • rerumstitional (a play of superstition/institution, and De Rerum Nature; suggested by Alex Vera)
  • interatheist (Since no theist believes in all the deities humans have created, everyone is an atheist with respect to most of the deities. Suggested by Scott Romanowski.)
  • intersecularist (suggested by Andrew Wilke)
  • interhumanist or interhuman (suggested by Andrew Wilke)
  • metatheistic (suggested by Rick Mueller)
  • intercommunal (suggested by Josiah Van Vliet)
  • intergroup (suggested by Maria G.)
  • transfaith (proposed by Ed Clint at the 2010 SSA Conference, cited by Evan Clark)
  • interworldview (suggested by Evan Clark)
  • religiously diverse  (suggested by Evan Clark) 
  • metadiversity  (suggested by Evan Clark)
  • existential pluralism  (suggested by Evan Clark)
  • JIP (Justice, Interfaith, Pluralism; suggested by Evan Clark)
  • interconfessional (suggested by yours truly, following from the German use of the words konfession and konfessionlos)
  • interpath (suggested by Derek Lewis Knox, theology student at Andover Newton)

The horniness of bonobos as an argument for secular churches

(In which I relate some notes from reading to an argument for close-knit congregational communities. I emphasize, these are notes; I don't explicitly connect the dots here to argue that the two factors I discuss -- an innate tendency toward promiscuity in humans, and cognitive limits on our capacity to empathize with others -- suggest that secular "churches" are a good thing for secular folks. That said, I do think these factors support that conclusion; these notes are part of my process for preparing to make that case more explicitly. )


From Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá:
Could it be that the atomic isolation of the husband-wife nucleus with an orbiting child or two is in fat a culturally imposed aberration for our species -- as ill-suited to our evolved tendencies as corsets, chastity belts, and suits of armor? Dare we ask whether mothers, fathers, and children are all being shoe-horned into a family structure that suits none of us? Might the contemporary pandemics of fracturing families, parental exhaustion, and confused, resentful children be predictable consequences of what is, in truth, a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species? [p.109]
A reader with an agenda different from mine might wish to recruit the arguments laid out in Sex at Dawn to their own argument that a more sexually or erotically liberal society would lead to better outcomes than the present state of affairs. As it happens, my attention is attracted more to the prosocial rather than the prosexual potential of this line of reasoning.

As forcefully as Ryan and Jethá argue that Homo sapiens seems much more naturally (with all the caveats that attend that term) inclined to promiscuity than the standard narrative allows for, they imply that the current family and community structures incentivized by Western social mores is something of a mistake. Let's say promiscuity facilitated peace and cooperation in the small bands of foraging primates where our minds evolved. Setting aside the differences between the sexual habits of such a society and those of our own, we might focus as much on how difference that scheme of organizing social relationships or from our own.

Consider the answer seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune received when he explained to a Montagnais Indian man that the men of a culture that does not value strict monogamy face the danger of caring for children that are not their biological offspring:
Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe. [Sex at Dawn, p.107]
Which is the more favorable state of affairs -- a social system organized into many small units whose members are bound together by a sense of shared interest and identity made real by their geographical closeness, common investment in interdependent forms of enterprise, and internal bonds of kinship, friendship, loyalty, and attraction; or, a social system consisting of larger, state-sized units, whose members are unknown to each other but nonetheless bound together by the nonlocal facts of common nationality or ethnicity, political identity, and participation in a widely distributed and complex economy?

I suspect the most desirable state of affairs is one in which the smaller, village-sized units (call them assemblies or congregations if you like) are the constituent pieces of the larger, state-sized units.  Citizens who relate to each other only through the relationships mediated at the level of the larger unit are susceptible to political and commercial exploitation; yet isn't this the kind of relatedness fostered by commercial and social media?

A society structured so members can enjoy promiscuity without shame, household disruption, or threat of exploitation, might well be a society structured to maximize other beneficial kinds of interpersonal relationships. If you're close enough to copulate, you're close enough to care.


Some problems in utilitarian ethics relate to relatedness. (A classic example goes something like this: If the building is on fire, and you only have time to rescue one person inside, do you save 1) the rich man whose personal wealth and influence in the field of social justice means he improved the lines of countless people, or 2) the rich man's maid, who happens to be your mother?) But other problems in utilitarianism relate to distance. If you have five dollars to donate to charity, do you give it to the local mission to support a program to feed the poor in your city, or do you send it to the charity that works to feed the poor in a distant country?

I've long found myself saying that local is better, since it seems to me more likely to result in efficient and resilient allocation of limited resources. By circumventing the challenges of transportation and communication over a long distance (and across a wide social divide), more value can be converted into material aid rather than overhead. Consider this excerpt from Stephen Asma's essay at The Stone, "The Myth of Universal Love":
The feeling of care is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time — duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted. The limbic system can’t handle the kind of constant stimulation that Rifkin and the cosmic love proponents  expect of it. And that’s because they don’t take into account the biology of empathy, and imagine instead that care is more like a thought.
If Asma is arguing that "care or empathy is a very limited resource", I'd assert that the best way to distribute that resource is to the people with whom you share the closest social relationship. An argument favoring care based on proximity sounds to my ear like an argument favoring communities whose sense of shared interest and identity emerges from geographic closeness. Does this sound to you more like a neighborhood congregation in the physical world, or a distributed network of humans who interact online?

(The graphic above is taken from the essay in The Stone. It is a terrific visual representation of the utilitarian problem of proximity.)