One of the things I like the most about being a member of the freethought community is the fact that we, as members, prize debate and conversation above fawning civility. At least on the internet – maybe people are very different in meatspace. There are no sins in the freethoughtverse, except offering up a shitty argument. Doing that breaks the unwritten commandment of being a rational person: thou shalt not be boring. The inevitable outcome of a group of people all communicating with each other at the level of logical discourse is that oftentimes we see knock-down drag-out conflict over seemingly minor disagreements. Some people bemoan this fact – I revel in it. One of the ways we know that we are freethinking is when we disagree with each other – even those we deeply respect and whose views we otherwise share.
It is with that in mind that I say that I think PZ got this one wrong:
But freethinkers ought not to be shackled by rote and rites. And they especially should not be led by “chaplains” or whatever the hell they’re going to call them. No gods, no masters, no dogma, and no goddamned priests…not even atheist priests.
This was the conclusion of his post responding to an idea by Greg Epstein to create humanist ‘churches’ – secular institutions that perform the function that religious churches do, in much the same way. While I didn’t see the issue the way he did (I thought it was a nifty idea), I have been a Pharyngula reader long enough to know that I will get my ass handed to me for straw-manning or otherwise misrepresenting PZ’s position on an issue, so I waited to get a fuller explanation as to what the exact nature of his objection was. I participated briefly in the discussion on Twitter about the idea, but it quickly turned into a debate over optics and semantics, and I tuned out. Then I read this:
I wasted too much time in the #humanistcommunity debate on twitter, so I’ll briefly summarize: because I detest the church-like model of Epstein’s humanist chaplain concept, I must dislike organization, leadership, and community. It quickly became obvious that many people are incapable of recognizing anything other than chaplains and churches as a reasonable model for community.
This is annoying because we have quite a few models for godless organizations that avoid that pitfall. CFI. American Atheists. SSA. They don’t have “chaplains”! I wonder how they manage without collapsing?
Which didn’t really seem to clarify the issue much, and seemed more to be a valid criticism of the seemingly-dismissive way Dr. Epstein talks about the attempts by secular communities to do exactly what he proposes humanist churches do. What was missing, in my mind, was the argument why churches were a bad idea in the first place. Because I want to be fair to PZ (and to avoid, as best I can, the aforementioned skewering), I will try my best to lay out, from what I have seen, the source of his objections. I will then explain why I disagree.
Concern the firste – Ritualistic practices are bad
Churches are full of tasks performed symbolically and mindlessly, based on superstition and outright lies. It is antithetical to the tenets of the freethought movement to engage in mindless practices of any kind – we are supposed to be encouraging mindfulness, not its polar opposite. By importing ritual from religion, we are being self-defeating.
There is a great deal of validity to this concern; however, it ignores the existence of secular rituals that we engage in all the time. Perhaps the best example I can think of is a child’s birthday party. The kiddies are assembled around a table, the lights go down, and a flaming cake is brought into the room while everyone drones a song they all hate. It accomplishes nothing for the child or for the parents or the assembled throng, but it is a social rite of passage that is a cultural norm. It is how we recognize a milestone like a birthday. Examined rationally, it is stupid, and many people choose not to do it. Many others, however, enjoy the tradition and nostalgia of ritual.
In the same way, there are many who enjoy the ceremonial aspects of church for their own sake. Like kabuki theatre or military parades or convocation processions, there is an anthropological fascination that ties to our sense of community. Shared practices, shared experiences, shared traditions, may help cement ties within the community in ways that ad hoc practices cannot. This is particularly true of anyone who comes from another community (I, for example, like to go to Catholic mass in different countries/languages simply for the pageantry – not being able to understand the homily helps a lot too).
Concern the seconde – Priests as authority figures, or the establishment of a rigid hierarchy are bad
We have seen, on countless occasions, priests abuse their authority – an authority which they have not earned and is granted solely by social convention. Freethinkers should not have ‘exalted ones’ – respect is to be earned and not given based on title. There is nothing that an atheist priest can offer that a trained counsellor couldn’t.
When I met PZ back in July of last year, this topic came up in conversation. I stupidly asked him if he enjoyed being “a leader within the atheist community” – he politely responded that I was crazy. The whole point is to not have leaders who tell their acolytes what to think. He’s glad that people agree with him, or that he can introduce people to new ways of looking at things, but that there must never be an ‘Atheist Pope’. This perspective informed my own feelings toward the clergy.
That being said, I still think there are some models of leadership that we see in the religious community that are not inherently bad. When I was still an attendee, our church had a deacon. He was employed full-time as a landscaper or builder or something, but on weekends he worked at the church, helping with mass or other church functions. He was invited to our family functions sometimes, and was a great guy. We didn’t have any particular reverence for him, but when I was having my major crisis of faith in my mid-teen years, he was who I went to (our parish priest was an asshole). He was well-read in the scripture and apologetics, he got me to read Kierkegaard, and generally just listened while I griped.
My point is that there are ‘liturgical’ roles that may be missing from skeptical groups as they are that could be imported from religious groups. I think a deaconate approach (or perhaps even a rabbinical one) would accomplish the good while leaving off the bad. An freethinking imam (please can we call them ‘freemams’?) could be simply that – a learned person who the community can call up when times are tough to help them work through issues. If an atheist kid is having a tough time being bullied at school, the freemam could offer advice and support (instead of the kid having to go to reddit). If an atheist married to a believer is having difficulties resolving her relationship issues, she doesn’t have to go her wife’s priest for that kind of existential help – call up the freemam!
Concern the thirde – Churches are unnecessary, humanists can self-organize
We have simply to look around and see that humanists are already forming communities. We’ve figured out how to do it without a church, without priests, without the need for an Atheist High Command. At its very best (i.e., least harmful), Epstein’s idea is completely redundant and unnecessary.
Again, there is a great deal of validity to this concern. I refer, somewhat ironically, to our monthly ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ meetings as “nerd church”, because they are a community-building exercise that I engage in for more than just alcohol availability. They provide me with an opportunity to interact with a community I feel very much a part of, but can’t always find time to socialize with. I’ve made great friends at nerd church, and I certainly consider myself lucky to be welcome in that atmosphere. In fact, any and all people are welcome – skeptic or not. We may disagree with them right to their face, but we’d never tell them not to come back.
My biggest reservation with this concern is that it neglects the fact that many people derive more than just casual social interaction from their churches. Particularly in immigrant and black communities (and conceivably in Central American/hispanic ones as well), the church is the focal point of civil life. It is a resource not only for instrumental support like counselling and a financial safety net, but as an existential anchor. The prospect for many of “leaving the church” is not so simple as just getting to sleep in on Sundays – it has real repercussions. Setting up a humanist church speaks directly to those people: “you don’t have to ‘leave the church’, you are simply invited to switch churches. This one doesn’t have a god in it”.
There are also people who, for reasons ranging from social anxiety to alcoholism to age, do not like the pub atmosphere, and may not like other ‘social outings’ where they’re forced to make nice with strangers. Oftentimes, these people are the ones the least likely to speak up, so they just get left out in the cold. Or they just dismiss the idea out of hand and stay isolated from the community – being as godless as all-get-out but not identifying as ‘atheist’.
I am way over my word limit here, so I will bring this to a close. In my second post today I will offer my own thoughts on what an atheist church might look like. Maybe, through discussion, we can find a way to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in PZ’s concerns, without losing the benefits that I do see in the idea.
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