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.)