A thought occurred to me as I was mulling over Natalie’s vivisection of the odious Be Scofield. On my third or fourth time through Be’s interminable swipe at Natalie for having the temerity to point out the harms that religious thinking has on trans people, I managed to ferret out his point. Side note: why do people feel the need to secret their theses in a labyrinthine construction of verbose passages? Why can’t you just say what you mean? Anyway – Be’s inability to write clearly isn’t relevant to this post, I just thought I would express my beef.
Scofield, and those in his camp, think that religious edifices can be cannibalized to appropriate the things that it does well (social organization, community building, humanitarian aid) from the dangerous nonsense that props it up (i.e., everything else it does). One step beyond that argument is to state that those religions that do the good stuff with a minimum of the other stuff are a net positive and should be exempted from the blanket criticisms of religion that Gnus should rightfully be directing only at the worst offenders. After all, how can we make the assertion that all religion is bad if we haven’t seen them all? Shouldn’t we save our ire for groups that have demonstrated their harmful tendencies and let the ‘nicer’ religions skate?
As long as we ignore the fact that their argument is stupid, we can see the superficial appeal of using the scaffolding of religion for a secular purpose. Indeed, I myself have taken a very similar stance before – there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and church seems to address a need that secular institutions have not found a way to replace. Why not use religious institutions as a model? Are we rejecting it simply because religious faith is destructive, or is it out of spite and a vainglorious insistence that ‘we don’t need no steenking churches’? I have yet to receive a coherent answer to that question.
Listening to the Ask an Atheist ‘debate’* between PZ and Greg Epstein collided with these thoughts in an interesting way that gave me an interesting idea. Greg (and those of his ilk) keep talking about the need for atheists to develop a ‘post-religion’ understanding and system for exploration of human topics. That unlike the Gnus, he wants to focus on building a fellowship where we can congregate as non-believers and find answers to existential questions. At one point he mentioned that he was getting kind of tired of talking about religion. That got me thinking about what I really spend most of my time focused on, blogwise, and I realized that I don’t bash religion exclusively, or even predominantly. Sure, it comes up here and there, but I strongly doubt that I am known chiefly as an anti-theist (rather than, say, an anti-racist).
And then I got thinking about Greta’s fashion posts, and Natalie’s trans person issue stuff, and JT’s mental illness advocacy, and Dana’s rocks, and PP’s gorgonzola ravioli (or whateverre the fukke it is this week), and I realized that, without even meaning to, we have created precisely the kind of edifice that the Harvard Humanists are talking about. We don’t spend all of our time trying to tear down religion (although we do sometimes, because it’s fun) – we explore the things that make life meaningful. Not everyone likes Daniel’s philosophical treatises. Not everyone cares when Jason and I gripe about Canadian politics. Hardly anyone likes it when Jen puts pictures of her cat on her blog [mutter, mutter]. It doesn’t matter though, because there is a spot for a variety of interests. Furthermore, we are constantly putting in active effort to expand those interests to make it more universal.
The fascinating thing is that if you look at how the FTB edifice is structured, it looks absolutely nothing like a church. Despite accomplishing many of the same functions that Epstein’s crew look to religions to do – nobody could claim that we don’t organize, or have a community, or accomplish charitable goals – we have almost no similarities to religious institutions. We have no central dogma, we have no ‘leader’, and our ‘priests’ (there are now 30+ of my co-bloggers who hate me for making that comparison) are selected not based on any adherence to the party line, but because the consensus is that they have something new and useful to add to the conversation. Dissent is not only tolerated, it is encouraged and fostered (unless it’s stupid – then it’s pilloried with joyful gusto). We are, most assuredly, not the first infidel group (or the only group) to assemble in this way – it’s just that we’re the best (because we have Brianne).
Now I am not suggesting that FTB has discovered ‘the right way’ to assemble secularly, and I am certainly not saying that Greg’s idea (which I support) is ‘the wrong way’**. What I am saying is that there are undoubtedly (and evidently) ways to build community without the need for religious trappings. Furthermore, I think it is interesting and somewhat inspiring to see that we have accidentally created precisely such a framework here at FTB that other secular groups can emulate. I don’t know what the future of FTB is, but looking back at the last 9 or so months that the site has been live, I’m optimistic and excited to see what comes next.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
*Pro tip: a debate happens when you listen to the other person and engage their arguments, Greg. Not whatever you call what you did.
**Pro tip #2: this is the problem that Gnus have with folks like Scofield and Epstein and Stedman and any other faux-diplomat you can name. They, not we, talk about people ‘doing it wrong’ with very little compunction about throwing their fellow atheists under the bus to gain allies on the other side.