To understand the full spectrum of the human religious experience, it makes sense to study unbelievers, who have almost certainly been exposed to religious beliefs but chosen not to accept them, as well as believers. Researchers in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo are surveying atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, etc., to try to get a handle on how they view and experience life. If you fall into any of those categories, consider contributing your data points. You can find the survey and more at the Atheism Rising web site. Yes, you probably live in a country that is WEIRD (or maybe WIRED or even WIDER, as a friend pointed out), but they’ve got to start someplace. (Although actually I’d be very interested in learning about the areligious in non-WEIRD cultures. On a somewhat-related tangent, I’ve long wondered what freethinking types did during the Middle Ages in Europe, for example, or in other times and places where everyone was assumed to belong to the prevailing religion.)
This Sunday (October 18, 2009) is the first-ever National Secular Service Day in the US. If you are areligious (atheist, agnostic, freethinker, humanist, etc.) and would like to help make the point that community service and altruism can be a vital part of a totally secular lifestyle, check out the NSSD web site for more information and a list of events across the country. (The event list search is very picky about formatting, so I would recommend browsing rather than searching.) Or devise your own way to mark the day.
NPR ran a story this morning on how young atheists deal with the holidays. The story focuses on a humanist student group at Harvard and on Harvard’s “atheist chaplain”, Greg Epstein. The story covers students in the group discussing whether Christmas carols have any place in a humanist holiday celebration–or if humanists can celebrate Christmas at all. I’m in the camp of those who say religion has no monopoly on candles and singing and gifts, and we can and should “reclaim” at least some elements of Christmas celebrations. (Or as Harvard student Dan Robinson put it, “You can listen to “My Sharona” without believing in the existence of Sharona.” I think Richard Dawkins said something fairly similar about sacred music in The God Delusion: something to the effect that you can enjoy the beauty of a Mass by Mozart, for example, without believing in the truth of the story it tells. [Sorry, I don't have a copy handy to check.])
It makes a lot of sense to me–I listen to both classical sacred music and opera in the same spirit, and I wrote this essay last year about my own feelings about Christmas music. When I first left the Catholic church in my early 20s I was more hard-nosed about banishing Christmas music from my life, but I slowly let it back in, as I describe in the essay. Something not mentioned in the NPR spot but, I think, germane to the argument about atheists celebrating Christmas, is that humans have been marking and celebrating the winter solstice since long before Christianity came along, and many of the traditions we associate with the holiday had roots in pagan customs. Christianity may have co-opted the yule log and the evergreen tree and so forth and made them part of the trappings of Christmas, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take them back for another purpose, to symbolize light and hope in darkness, the cycling of the seasons, etc.
However, harder-line atheists/humanists find it naive to think that you won’t have to jettison some of the old Christian trappings if you want to be an atheist. In fact, according to the NPR story, the debate sounds to Greg Epstein, the Harvard atheist chaplain, like the emergence of religious denominations of atheism. Sigh. Well, anyway, it’s something to think about. To add to the interest, Richard Dawkins recently referred to himself as a “cultural Christian” and said he likes to sing Christmas carols. For more about what this high-profile atheist has to say about Christmas, see these links to a recent BBC interview.
So what exactly is a religion? More specifically, does the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) count? The CFSM grew from an amusing letter to the Kansas School Board that requested equal time in the science classroom for the views of the Pastafarians, who believe that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Any scientific evidence to the contrary is merely the result of tinkering done by the FSM’s Noodly Appendage. Funny, yes, but the board at the time was considering whether to include Intelligent Design in the Kansas science curriculum, and the letter makes the serious point that if ID is taught as science, what’s to prevent any other set of non-scientific ideas from forcing its way into the classroom too?
The CFSM is now an official parody religion with its own book of scripture (The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and a largish cultural presence on college campuses and other hangouts of wise guys and science geeks. Or is it a real religion? This story from Live Science talks about the coverage of the CFSM at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. A panel will discuss Pastafarianism and its connection to the question of what makes a popular movement a religion. It’s a good question. Is Buddhism a religion, or Taoism? Both lack deities but focus on many of the same concerns as religions do. They’re both spiritual systems, I think, but I’m not sure if I’d call them religions. The CFSM is also in a sense concerned with what might very loosely be called spiritual matters, and it certainly shares some of the other features of religions (and it even has a deity).
It’s all tongue in cheek, so the CFSM is known to be a construct of the human imagination. I read a book years ago about an atheist who went to an Episcopalian church; as I recall, he was a little surprised to find others in the congregation who were atheists or agnostics. And I know there are people who call themselves “cultural Catholics”, who go to church for the community, the music, the traditions, but do not really believe what the church teaches about God and sin and so forth. (And certainly the drop in the size of Catholic families indicates a disconnect between official Catholic doctrine and Catholic behavior, even for those who are not cultural Catholics.) If people in mainstream religions can sometimes be fairly loose about their belief in the tenets of their religion, maybe Pastafarianism would count after all. I don’t really know how I’d define a religion, but I’m amused when I think of religious scholars addressing the question in the context of Noodly Appendages.
The New Yorker has recently weighed in on the flood of high-profile books about atheism. This book review by Anthony Gottlieb mentions Sam Harris (The end of faith and Letter to a Christian nation), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the spell), Richard Dawkins (The God delusion), and Christopher Hitchens (God is not great: How religion poisons everything). It also mentions several earlier critics of religion, praising David Hume’s more kindly worded debunkings of religion over the supposedly harsher attacks being written today. (To tell you the truth, I didn’t think The God delusion was all that harshly worded overall, and the parts of Breaking the spell that I’ve read also seem quite civil. I did find some passages from Sam Harris’s The end of faith surprisingly blunt. I haven’t read the Hitchens book yet but the title is certainly in your face.)
At the end of the review Gottlieb mentions a survey that indicates the number of atheists worldwide to be somewhere between 500 million and 750 million, although this is a conservative estimate because stats are unavailable for several populous countries. This puts atheism fourth in the rankings of belief systems, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. I’m very curious about how much ground atheism will gain or lose over the next couple of centuries. I’d like to think that rational evidence-based beliefs and natural (rather than supernatural) explanations will become the basis for humankind’s attitude toward life, including the big questions of what we’re doing here and how we should behave while we’re here. Gottlieb talks about how hard it is to imagine a world without religion, but what about a world filled with what Dawkins calls Einsteinian religion, totally naturalistic but potentially capable, in my opinion, of fulfilling the needs that are currently met for many by traditional religions? This quote from Einstein probably sums it up best:
“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
Last week Terri Gross talked with Richard Dawkins about his book The God Delusion on her radio show Fresh Air. I thought it was a good interview; if you’d like to hear it, you can listen to it online. That page also has links to a couple of older, related stories. As a counterpoint to Dawkins’s God-free take on reality, on Friday Gross interviewed Francis Collins about his book, The Language of God; a link to that interview is also available. For more about Dawkins’s book, you can also see the book review I wrote and the accompanying discussion.
Hey, there is at least one openly atheist politician in the US after all! One of the laments of author Sam Harris and others who write about reason vs faith is that religious beliefs are held in such high esteem in this country that it’s hard for an elected official to admit to not believing in God. This article from the Tri-Valley Herald says that Congressman Pete Stark of California identifies himself as an atheist. You can also read a press release from the Secular Coalition for America, which was offering a $1,000 prize to whoever could “identify the highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States.” Actually there are several other elected officials who identify as non-theist, but they are not in as high an office as Rep. Stark. Thanks to Ray for passing this one along.
If you’ve been following all the commentary on atheism lately, you might want to read this long essay that David Barash, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Washington, wrote for Richard Dawkins’s web site. In the essay, called “Biology and Bullshit”, Barash covers a number of recent books, including the new book by Carl Sagan, the three recent books by Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), several books on the possible evolutionary origins of religion, a couple of books in defense of religion written by scientists, and finally E.O. Wilson’s book appealing to religious conservatives to save the planet. Definitely a polemical essay, but it gives you the flavor of some of the relevant argumentation and discussion that’s been going on around this topic these days.