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Wherein atheists BAWW at ‘unaffilateds’ who become ‘religious’

May 3, 2009

So, while many atheists have rejoiced at the various news articles that have had great statistics for atheists concerning more unaffiliateds, more atheists, more agnostics, and more nonbelievers, with recent news articles suggesting that “unaffiliated” may not exactly mean a clean conversion out of religion and spirituality, people are now discussing why.

I wanted to comment at a few places on Friendly Atheist, but it seemed like there were just so many posters who…weren’t getting it.

I like what commenter Shane said:

I don’t think the “nonreligious movement” has to do anything. It doesn’t really exist as a stand-alone entity–it only has meaning in opposition to religious thought. It’s like starting a baseball fan club for people who don’t watch baseball. Doing anything under the banner of “non-religion” is just a recipe for failure.

Why can’t you get the community, affirmation, and companionship through volunteering or joining some hobby or sports team. There is enough real mystery in the world without having to make more up, but if you need that kind of thing there is tons of it in your local library. And it is hundreds of times more imaginative and powerful than the tripe you find in the Bible.

While it’s tempting to suggest that atheists need to come up with atheist sunday schools and atheist rituals and all these kinds of lovely programs…once again, atheism is not an encompassing worldview. Atheism is not a “culture.” And this mereness is its beauty.

At first…I was in full agreement…so we don’t need to make “atheist camps” and “atheist sunday schools” or “atheist churches,” and perhaps the “spiritual need” that unaffiliated people claim is unfulfilled (and which they fulfill later in life in religions) is just the need for plain social contact. So, I thought, why not do as Shane said and join a sports team? Join a club?

And that’s when I realized that I was making a grave error…a grave misunderstanding.

I first realized it when I read something another commenter, PrimeNumbers, wrote:

For the non-religious that want a church, community, or whatever, surely that’s what Unitarians are for?

It made me think back to the data that suggested that strict churches are stronger than relaxed or liberal churches. It’s an ideal that appeals to even me…no offense to Unitarian Universalism, but if I were in the market for a church, the UUs would seem too relaxed for me. At least with Mormonism, there are commitment goals — you feel more validated in the church precisely because you are following all those peculiar rules — not drinking or smoking, tithing, striving to attend the temple. These commitment costs keep people coming back and churn out those who will not commit.

And yet…many of the comments tended to the side of wondering what kind of fairy dust these “spiritual needs” unaffiliated people had could be…

…in every context I know of “spirtual” intails believing in magical crap. Deep emotional enjoyment, on the other hand, can come from something like a good book, spiritual is more hocus pocus.

But then…another commenter…I think…got it:

What I suspect is that many of the people here are at one end of the bell curve, and do not understand why other people would have a need that they don’t have. If Barker is right, then we need to seriously acknowledge this and stop telling ourselves, “well, I find no value in this, so this must be rubbish”.

What was it that some people get and some people do not get?

I think it’s that something about the nature of faith and spirituality is not merely reducible to regular socialization. Now, I’m not going to get all theistic and attribute this to a god or higher power, but regardless, it is something that cannot be so easily substituted.

I recognize that I utterly do not have it. I utterly do not understand it. It makes little sense to me. But precisely because I’ve been around so many people who have had their lives transformed for the better by…whatever…I recognize that, on a personal level, it can be important. I can’t just say, “I find no value in this, so this must be rubbish.” (Although, I will be bold and say, “I find no value in this, so I don’t think this points to anything universal.” )

This makes me appreciate what appears to be a difference in how we work. Whereas individuals fit for religions are transformed for their better by their faith, we are transformed for our better by an independent nature. I don’t know how to explain…other than to continue to say that atheism, as mere as it can be, as seemingly “cold” and “desolate” as it can be, is extremely liberating. It puts me at peace to not expect more than there is (and then be disappointed when things turn out to be as they normally are instead of as I falsely expected them to be.)

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  1. Most aithiest dont want to believe in GOD because they dont want to think that their is something higher than themselves.Look around the world is a masterpeice,someone had to paint it. The beautiful sky, the birds that fly,the trees.

  2. ghostwriter,

    I think this universe is rather too ugly and pathetic to attribute to a god who’s supposed to be good and holy (even with free will, mysterious ways, etc.). In fact, I think it would be an insult to attribute such scribbles on the wall (replete with diseases, hostility, 99.99999% of the universe potentially being hostile or incompatible with life, natural disasters, etc.,) to God.

  3. “I find no value in this, so I don’t think this points to anything universal.” )”

    Except that the results of an intimate, healed and forgiven relationship with Jesus ARE universal. Go to any country in the world and the character transformations that are brought about as the result of a true conversion experience are identical. In fact Jesus said, ‘If you don’t see these changes in a person’s character who says s/he has a healed relationship with Me, that person is a fraud.’

    It’s true that some people have taken hold of a belief in a belief about Jesus. They have gone through the motions and done the rituals. However, as soon as life presents an event that doesn’t cohere to the “belief” that the person had regarding Creator God, that person is soon gone. A loving relationship with Jesus on the other hand not only lasts through the tragedy and pain, it becomes stronger as a result of the suffering. This is something that Richard Dawkins talks about. He finds it absolutely confounding that people should grow closer to God, rather than reject Him in the face of difficulty. Nevertheless, this response is universal for those who have a relationship with God vs. a belief in a belief about God.

  4. What’s the point of “having your eyes open” if all they see is rubbish and meaninglessness?

    This isn’t an attempt to say atheists are incapable of appreciating beauty or that God is the only way to have any morals (at least, I’m trying to keep it from going there).

    But I just can’t get over this pattern I’ve witnessed in most encounters I’ve had with atheists online –

    This repetitive, monotonous obsession with the mundane. The tyranny of the ordinary. There’s an insufferable smugness about having no illusions, and being “all grown up now.” It’s like I don’t have permission to dream anymore because it’s all “silly.”

    It’s nothing so dramatic as “spiritual darkness” or anything like that. Darkness would actually be kinda interesting. But there’s nothing so interesting in the bulk whole of atheism I have encountered. The atheism I have encountered makes it almost like the entire world has been converted into a series of beige office cubicles filled with bitter people snapping off repetitive snarky one-liners, but otherwise completely ignoring each other.

    Too often, modern atheism comes across as that big ugly older kid down the street who teased you at age 6 for believing in Santa Claus.

    Sure, he might have had a point. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t still a dick.

  5. re makarios: So, that’s why people say the same thing about every religion and every philosophy and every worldview, and indeed, you do have, depending on what area you are in, different religions (with very different tenets) that each can inspire character transformations. And you can see people of all stripes with no transformation based on any of it as well.

    It of course leads to the idea that there is subjective meaning — and that’s important for people — but this is a whole lot different than saying that this is the one correct way. The jury is still out on this one.

    But I mean, your comment ends up being a No True Christian…No True Christian would merely have a belief about a belief in God…but if we have this criteria, then we eliminate the vast majorities of christians (or indeed, practitioners of any religion) and we cannot account for these things called “religions” that have sprung up and taken hold so well at all.

  6. I made this point over on Chantelle’s blog a couple months ago about religion being like love –

    Roger Cotes wrote in the preface to Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”:

    “Those who assume hypotheses as first principles of their speculations… may indeed form an ingenious romance, but a romance it will still be.”

    That is a pretty accurate statement of what religion does I think. It takes a bunch of hypotheses, and enshrines them as first principles – to which we then dedicate ourselves.

    No question – that’s not good science.

    But it is actually a great way to run a romance.

    Why should that be a bad thing?

  7. re Seth:

    I would not presume to say that any person should force his eyes open to see rubbish and meaninglessness. Rather, I’d just say that what feels better in the long-run for me is to not expect to see something that is unreal, because when I come to the realization continuously and repeatedly that reality is much dimmer, then this is disappointing. It is a letdown.

    However, if I have no bad faith expectations, then I am not let down. And IN FACT, when I see the true beauty that exists in the world, it is altogether more beautiful because it was not expected or taken for granted.

    Atheism isn’t about presenting something interesting. It’s not about presenting an idealistic dream. So if you don’t see those things in atheism, then…I don’t see a problem there. If you think atheism is so “ordinary” or “mundane” or “beige office cubicle,” then I don’t think this is because of a message that atheism proselytizes. I think it’s because we recognize that reality *is* ordinary and mundane. Obviously, the EXTRAordinary can’t be the ordinary. The supernatural cannot be the natural. Even “spiritual darkness” is much too exciting for reality — we are not in a fantasy novel.

    Religion and theism make us want a fantastic, extraordinary, supernatural beauty so badly that we marginalize the ordinary, mundane, and natural. And to me, this produces greatly unrealistic expectations about the world we live in that inevitably must come crashing down if we explore the world. If we have faith, then it doesn’t matter when it comes crashing down in this world, because we’ll just have trust in the world to come.

  8. re Seth message 2:

    Lemme see if I understand (which maybe I won’t).

    If you run a romance idealistically with false expectations and “first principles” about what love and romance entail, then when these false expectations are shown to be unrealistic, you have a crisis.

    So, my question would be…why not have love without false expectations, first principles, etc.,? You can still find and experience love, but if you are hurt, you are resilient — because you didn’t expect to be immune. If you find great compatibility, lasting success, then you are MORE GRACIOUS, because you didn’t take it for granted. Furthermore, you know you have to work at it, because you don’t have the unrealistic expectation things will just be handed to you.

  9. I don’t see “ordinary” that much Andrew. Nor do I wish to ascribe to a worldview that requires I do so.

    I like living in a world constantly suffused in light (and even darkness).

  10. If you want, I can cut and paste the whole quote from Chantelle’s blog which I think explains things a bit better (even if it is a bit random). Or you can just click her name in the sidebar and the post I commented on (titled “Faith”) is still sitting at the top. She hasn’t been blogging much over there lately (probably busy with school, and life in general I imagine).

    • *goes to Chantelle’s blog*

      *sees a long comment*

      I wonder whose name is going to be at the bottom of this? :D.

      I will say in response to your comment that I don’t think atheism is a “tyranny of the rational.” A lot of people (atheists at the forefront) like to say that people should be atheist because it is most rational or it is most scientific or whatever, but I think this is just adding personal baggage onto that (which I mean, that’s what people do).

      So, I think I see what you were trying to go with your love analogy, but it doesn’t make sense, because I recognize that subjective experience (emotions, love, etc.,) are incredibly important in my philosophy as well. These are proven experientially. Objectively, they could be meaningless. Objectively, they could just be chemical spurting in the brain. BUT…notice that ***objective*** thinking isn’t all we have. We have ***subjective*** thinking and interpretation. And I do not think this is incompatible with atheism at all.

      So, it’s not that we are throwing out any notions that we can’t prove. It’s that we have no reason to believe in notions that aren’t justified experientially and subjectively. As I say, I have no problem if you have genuine faith…because this is something you experience. But what about those who don’t have faith? What about those who have a different faith? There is so much variation experientially that this leads me to believe we do have a divide between the subjective and personal and the objective and universal. We have many truths…but Truth? Who knows?

      Does that make any sense…should I make my comments at Chantelle’s place as well?

  11. Re Seth:

    Fortunately, I’m not saying you need to ascribe to any such worldview.

    But that’s kinda the point of my message and the message of the article I wrote here. We definitely *do* see different things (and at best, this leads me to think that these views are both indicative of subjective experience rather than anything universal — we could, for all we know, both be looking at an object that’s green and then one of us sees it as purple and the other sees it yellow), and both sides are consistently terrible at trying to figure out the other sides. As I quoted, there are many atheists who just don’t *get* why people would be religious…what they see in it…so they try to reduce it to a number of factors. And then there are many theists who don’t *get* why people would be atheist…what they see in it…so they try to reduce it to a number of factors.

    My personal experience still show me that things make much more sense from an ordinary context, and it makes beauty much more beautiful. I do not say, as I wrote in a different article, that the supernatural, extraordinary, etc., are impossible or that people must reject these things. I am simply unconvinced, based on all that I have seen that this is how I should attribute things. As I said to the other commenter, I think it would be a great DISservice to attribute this universe to the supernatural.

  12. I am an atheist and a spiritual naturalist. I very well understand the appeal of the experiences of transcendence, awe, connectedness, peace, resonance, etc. I have written on the subject a few times:

    The Emotions I Formerly Called “The Spirit”
    How to produce spiritual experiences
    The Odd Sensations Produced by Neuron Fatigue
    Supernatural stuff
    Preparing Young Atheists for the Draws of Religion
    Parenting Resources for Non-Theists

    Evidently, I can’t post links, so I’ll just give the address of my blog’s topical guide and you can find links to my posts with the above titles there:

  13. Dear Hueffenhardt, you actually can use hyperlinks (a href=”whatever”) (/a,), but it just makes my spam filter go crazy and I have to manually de-spam the comment. But since I know you’re not a spammer, I can do that no problem.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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