Beyond Aggressive Atheism

April 14, 2010

Check out this great post by my friends at the Interfaith Youth Core Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby that went up today in the Washinton Post’s Faith Divide. They talk about aggressive Atheism, which has been covered on this blog a lot recently, and link to NonProphet Status. Full post below:

Beyond aggressive atheism

By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby

Five years ago, atheism was all aggression. From Christopher Hitchens to Richard Dawkins, the best selling atheists advanced a particular discourse – one that was both antagonistic and destructive. The question they always answered was, “How many ways can I find to offend religious people?” But the question we always wanted to ask them was different: “How do you bring together people from all backgrounds around equal dignity and mutual loyalty?”

And over the last five years, whenever Eboo gave speeches at interfaith conferences about the Interfaith Youth Core, atheists, secularists and agnostics kept showing up. They would ask how they could be involved – what were they supposed to do in this movement?

We understood the confusion around their role. If all you did was look at the old best-seller list on atheism, you would think that all atheists were anti-religious. But times are changing – all it takes is a glimpse at the newest hit book on atheism, Good without God by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. Epstein’s book is a turning point for atheist discourse, diving into “what a billion non-religious people do believe”, not just what they are against.

From our experience at IFYC – not only do we work with young atheists but a quarter of our own staff are secular humanist – this generation of non-religious young people are paving a new way forward. Last weekend, Nara Schoenberg affirmed this in a Chicago Tribune piece on campus atheists. She writes about what it means to be secular on college campuses – how students are organizing through Secular Student Alliances, and what they are talking about when they meet.

Hemant Mehta, chair of the Secular Student Alliance’s board of directors, reveals to her: “And, personally, if my neighbor’s religious, I don’t really care. I’m less interested in the controversy, and I’m more interested in, what can we do with the beliefs that we do share?” Indeed, a recent Pew study found that 20% of young Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or have “no religion.” As Mehta and others point out, this doesn’t mean they lack values in common with their religious peers.

Atheists today are partnering with religious groups to do service projects; dialoguing and engaging with other religious groups and organizations on campus; and changing the public discourse through blogs, like Mehta’s Friendly Atheist and Chris Stedman’s Non-Prophet Status.

Sounds a heck of a lot like interfaith leadership to me.

So these days when non-religious folks come up after a speech and ask how they can be involved we point them to one place – their peers, who are pioneering interfaith leadership as atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

4 Responses to “Beyond Aggressive Atheism”

  1. jpjesusss said

    I am so all for secular humanist interfaith stuff (partly because of the influence of this blog), but this sort of oversimplification seems counterproductive to me: “The question they always answered was, “How many ways can I find to offend religious people?” It’s a typical demonizing sort of framing, and just doesn’t seem helpful. Not to mention that Hitchens and Dawkins (and often Dennett and Harris) are so often completely lumped together, when many of their important views are quite different, except perhaps when quoted in quick sound bites.

    Thing is, I don’t think it’s necessary to oversimplify in this way, or to lump them all together, in order to vehemently disagree with them, so I’m confused as to why this happens so often, except in that demonizing is so ingrained in how folks disagree with each other.

  2. You’re right — it is more complex than that. The word limit for those Washington Post pieces is something like 700, so it is extremely difficult to produce anything truly nuanced (I know from experience). Still, I think, this quibble aside, the piece is representative of a lot of what I stand for. Hitchens, Dawkins et. al. aren’t saying exactly the same things, but they have all said things that are problematic and prevent respectful, engaged interfaith cooperation.

    I appreciate your comment — the line between critiquing a broad, larger group of thought (and I do think those writers all camp beneath the same umbrella school of thought, even in their distinctions) and demonizing is a fine one. Thanks for this thoughtful comment; I will hold it in mind as I attempt to walk the line in my work.

  3. Matthew O said

    I think that, among the secular humanist types that are more charitably-minded towards religion, there is a widespread misunderstanding concerning why so many atheists act so savagely towards religion. I don’t presume that I can speak for all such atheists, but here’s one perspective.

    There are many beliefs and behaviors in this world that I find silly or incomprehensible or, at the very least, misguided. UFO abductions might be a good example. I don’t think that UFOs are running around giving “pro-bono proctology exams” to unwilling human participants, but it doesn’t really bother me that some people believe otherwise.

    Christian beliefs, on the other hand, I hate. I loathe them with a passion. While respecting people’s right to believe and preach what they will, I strive whenever I can, through persuasion and ridicule and whatever tools I deem potentially useful at the time (no matter how savage…excepting force, of course), to attain a state of as little co-existence with such beliefs as possible. Why?

    Because Christian beliefs fundamentally apply themselves to social control. This is the case with any set of beliefs that begins to talk about morality. Any set of beliefs that begins to preach about the “oughts” of human existence, the normative claims, inevitably affects the extent to which other people in society who are to greater or lesser extents persuaded by these moral claims will judge me and my behavior harshly. That is, there is no way that a set of beliefs with normative claims (about what other humans like myself should be doing) can remain simply a “private” belief. The minute that the normative claim is communicated to someone else, it begins to affect me.

    In contrast, people don’t really affect me when they discuss truth claims about whether extra-terrestrials exist and whether they abduct people. They are not preaching any course of action that I and other humans *should* be taking, and their discussions don’t have any bearing on how I will be judged and possibly socially-castigated. So I am perfectly willing to debate their truth claims in as charitable of a manner as I can muster.

    Now, when it comes to religions such as Christianity, it is a fair question as to what sort of tactics are useful for persuading minds away from Christianity. If I can be persuaded that my savage tactics aren’t helping my cause, then very well; I would then make my tactics a bit more sly and charitable. But my end goal does not change; co-existence is still not an option. My ultimate goal remains the wiping off of the face of the earth of all Christian thought that tries to muster the forces of social castigation against my way of life. (Theoretically, there could be breakaway strands of Christian thought that didn’t concern themselves with social control, normative claims, or social castigation, and I’d be perfectly willing to co-exist with these).

    One problem that I have with secular humanism is that it seems to be perfectly fine with the prospect of co-existing with (normative) Christianity indefinitely. Not only that—but secular humanism itself also sets itself up to act as a social control mechanism, making just as many claims about what “the good” is and about how I should live my life (and how I should be judged by others). In this sense, secular humanism appears to me to be almost just as onerous as Christianity. Both share some solidarity in believing that there are objective moral truths out there that can be discovered and used to socially-castigate people.

    This conflicts with a core principle of mine (and one that many atheists share, I think), which is that there are no objective moral truths, and that at the very best we can only conjure up moral opinions based on our personal feelings. This is, by the way, an activity in which I delight quite often. I love labeling various people and institutions as “evil” or “unholy” or “good,” while remaining perfectly cognizant throughout that the only things on which these moral opinions are based are my life experiences, personal intuitions, and feelings.

    If Christianity or secular humanism were to adopt such humility about their moral claims, and if this then were to lead their adherents to consequently judge me only on the basis of their life experiences, personal intuitions, and feelings (with the full cognizance that this is what they were doing and nothing more), then I might feel a little bit more charitable towards the prospect of co-existing with these sets of beliefs indefinitely. *Then* we could talk about inter-faith dialogue. But anything that requires me to compromise on my core principle of the non-existence of objective moral truth I forever declare to be my mortal enemy.

    Up to this point, all of these positions I have held since I became a self-described atheist back in adolescence. Where my thinking has evolved lately is in recognizing some need in myself, as well as in many others, I think, to believe in ridiculous magical things. Why I and many other humans seem to have this impulse, I have no idea, but I have found that it cannot be ignored.

    My question lately has therefore been: how can I reconcile my opposition to claims of objective moral truth and oppressive religious institutions of social control with my desire to believe in the ridiculous and fantastical?

    My tentative solution, I have concluded, is to explore what it might be like to engage in a religious practice that has absolutely no social implications whatsoever, that makes absolutely no claims about morality whatsoever, that leads to no judgments about people whatsoever, and that has absolutely no interest in social control whatsoever.

    What might such a religious practice look like? I have no inherent interest in rehashing some ancient esoterism, but it can be helpful to look at past templates when embarking upon unfamiliar territory, and one template that we might use (and tweak according to our modern context) would be the ancient “mystery religion.”

    The hallmarks of modern “mystery religions” would be:
    *their lack of moral claims
    *their non-exclusivity—one could belong to several different mystery religions at the same time, or a mystery religion and a “civil cult” or a mainstream religion at the same time, assuming that the latter are willing to share your adherence. This is only possible in a situation that lacks competing normative claims. Ordinarily, one cannot belong to two religions with contradictory moral injunctions. But the mystery religions have no moral injunctions.
    *their definition in terms of practice rather than belief. The important thing about a mystery religion is that one finds its practices satisfying. That is the motivation for creating the mystery religion in the first place, not social control. The truth-claims of a modern mystery religion would exist to serve and add character to the practices, not the other way around (as it usually is in most religions, with the practices serving the beliefs). So the exact nature of the truth-claims is somewhat arbitrary. The practice might be “worshiping.” What, then, to worship? I don’t know, Mithra, skyscrapers, the Headless Chicken God, some entity that one happened to encounter once on an LSD trip, it really doesn’t matter. Other practices might involve: chanting (in ecstatic praise of X), drumming (ditto), sacrificing something (for the sake of X), tattooing oneself (in solemn, everlasting covenant with X), ingesting a sacrament (to approach nearer to the divine presence of X)…the practice could be anything that allows oneself to exercise one’s impulses to connect with the realm of the fanciful, the ridiculous, the divine, the ecstatic, whatever you want to call it. One would do these things, and would invite others to partake in them, not because one “should” do these things, but just because of their inherent gratification of one’s impulses to experience “the divine.”

    And these diverse modern mystery religions need not even be kept secret. I think Scientology (which one might characterize as a horribly abusive and exploitative “mystery religion” gone awry from the get-go) has set a very bad precedent for secrecy and shown how that can be abused. So I’m all for free, open, pluralistic, non-exclusive “mystery religion”-esque practices that, perhaps in due time, would become renamed in a manner more representative of their true nature.

    In any case, this is my humble contribution from an atheist’s perspective to the discussion of what sort of religious practice, if any, might be compatible with a secular, modern, open, pluralistic, democratic society such as the one that most atheists desire, as far as I can tell. (Namely, a type of religious practice that doesn’t try to control human behavior based on supernatural evidence (no moral claims), and whose supernatural truth-claims are more or less irrelevant).

  4. […] week, Mehta and I were both mentioned in The Washington Post’s Faith Divide, a blog managed by Eboo Patel, Executive Director of […]

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