Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What is the atheist / secular humanist / freethought community missing?

Over the weekend, I was reading the paper edition of this New York Times article about a schism in a secular humanist organization called the Center for Inquiry. It's written as a profile of the Center's "exiled founder," Paul Kurtz, who has a different vision of secular humanism or atheism than the new leader, Ronald Lindsay. Things have turned very sour between them:

The center’s donations have fallen since Mr. Kurtz’s departure, which prompted warring blog posts between his defenders and Mr. Lindsay’s. Matters have not improved: on Wednesday, when Mr. Kurtz stopped by the center, where he still keeps an office, he found the locks had been changed. Mr. Lindsay told me that Mr. Kurtz did not need the new key because he “has no connection with us.”
I was surprised that this fact was put in the very last paragraph of a 5-column article. Isn't that the big news? The new leader is so hostile to the founder that the former effectively kicked the latter out of his office (just a few days before the article went to press). Instead, the article leads with a description of Kurtz's dogs — who are all named after famous "free thinkers" (John Dewey, Bentham, Voltaire) — greeting the reporter in Kurtz's driveway.

Anyway, what's the substance of the schism?
In books like “What Is Secular Humanism?” Mr. Kurtz has argued for a universal but nonreligious ethics, one he now calls “planetary humanism.” Its first principle is that “every person on the planet should be considered equal in dignity and value.” In his books, he explains how this principle can be derived from nature and from what we know of the human species.

And he contrasted his affirmative vision with recent projects under Mr. Lindsay, like International Blasphemy Day. (The 2010 version, held Thursday, was renamed International Blasphemy Rights Day.) Mr. Kurtz was also a vocal critic of a contest for cartoons about religion that included some entries that could be considered deeply offensive.

Angry atheism does not work,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It has to be friendly, cooperative relations with people of other points of view.”
Lindsay defended his blasphemy day in a blog post:
Two points. Although blasphemy may not, at present, be legally prohibited in the United States, many still hold the view that criticizing religion is socially unacceptable. Religion is considered a taboo subject.

I disagree. Placing religion off limits in social discourse is just another, gentler way of prohibiting examination and criticism of religion. In my view, all subjects of human interest should be open to examination and criticism by humans. . . .

Second, as many of you may know already, blasphemy remains very much a live legal issue in many countries --and therefore, remains a live issue for anyone concerned about human rights. Call a Teddy Bear "Muhammad" in some Islamic countries and your risk losing your head. Moreover, there have been repeated efforts --successful efforts I might add --to have various United Nations bodies condemn so-called "defamation of religion." This is a prohibition of blasphemy by another name.
I admire Lindsay's concern for free speech rights around the world. He makes a reasonable argument — when you look at it from a coldly rational standpoint. But there are always many different ways you could make a single point, and someone as smart as Lindsay surely realizes that people react not only to well-reasoned arguments but to the emotional impact of words. He could have still made his substantive point about blasphemy without putting the word "blasphemy" in the title of his event.

As I said, the NYT article is 5 columns long (which isn't very long — each column was a short fraction of the whole page). We see a photo of the 84-year-old Kurtz sitting in his armchair, holding his dog John Dewey, with an expanse of books behind him (books presumably written by the likes of his dogs' namesakes). These were the first 5 of 6 columns on the page, but the 6th column on the page got my attention. It was a few small text ads under the heading "Religious Services." One of the ads said this:
Love and Completeness are Your Spiritual Right:

Say Goodbye to Loneliness, Fear, & Lack! . . .

> Doors open 6:30

> Inspirational music at 7:00

> You are Welcome

> Child Care Provided
This is what "atheist," "secular humanist," or "freethought" organizations aren't offering people.

I don't think the main obstacle for secular humanists is that they're too "angry" (Kurtz's word) or too critical of religious people. Negativity can actually be quite effective. People of all religious stripes will vehemently criticize the societal elements they consider noxious; they'll criticize other religions and worldviews; they'll even criticize other people and strands of thought within their own religion. To criticize atheists or secular humanists for criticizing too much is missing their real shortcoming.

It's all too easy to dismiss the recent, popular "new atheist" books as if they're the real problem with secular humanism. This has become an obligatory flourish for secular humanists who are trying to position themselves as moderate and reasonable: "I'm not like those angry atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris." (This is often said by those who haven't read Hitchens and Harris closely enough to know that they're not identical; for instance, they disagree profoundly about spirituality.)

The problem with secular humanists isn't their negativity, but their lack of a positive message that matters to most people. As brilliant and subtle and right as the books in Kurtz's library might be, most people aren't interested in reading philosophical treatises. Secular humanism might have no shortage of reason and insight for those who are interested, but how many people (other than academic elites) are actually interested?

Most people don't look to philosophically coherent doctrines for guidance in how to live; they care more about belonging to a community. And I don't mean "community" in the abstract sense in which we've become accustomed to using it ("the gay community," "the international community," etc.). I mean real community made up of your actual neighbors.

I have never seen a self-proclaimed atheist or secular humanist advertising an event with phrases like "You" — whoever you are! — "are Welcome," or "Child Care Provided." If secular humanist organizations want to become more of a force for good than religion is, they need to create communities that are meaningful enough that people will turn to them, by default, if they need someone to help take care of their children.

UPDATES: Lots of discussion in the comments. Also, someone on Twitter tells me that "child care is always provided at the @fofdallas" — referring to the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas.

Short URL for this post: goo.gl/q7IR


Grobstein said...

You are probably interested in this guy (there are numerous press clippings on the site as well; he may also have been discussed on Mefi). I've met him and he seemed soft-headed, and I didn't feel particularly at home the once or twice I joined his "congregation." (Part of the reason atheism looks the way it does now, and is so lacking in warm fuzzies like "Love and Completeness are Your Spiritual Right," is because it is a refuge for people who think warm fuzzies are bullshit.)

PS I did the Mefi search and there aren't a lot of mentions of Greg Epstein. One is me (tangential subject). Another is klangklangston invoking him on a completely different topic: "That bald host [in some unrelated video] acts just like an asshole I knew in college (perhaps not his fault, but seriously, Greg Epstein was an egomaniacal douche in a shitty band, and he looked and talked exactly like this guy)."

PPS I'm very disappointed in Mr. Lindsay for perpetuating negative stereotypes about corporate lawyers.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, I'll defer to your impression of Epstein.

I actually think it's a serious problem if atheism and/or secular humanism are defined by "people who think warm fuzzies are bullshit." It reminds me of how some of the best chefs who specialize in vegetarian cooking -- Deborah Madison and Mark Bittman -- aren't vegetarians. They help people do a better job of being vegetarian, but they "get" meat -- they know what it is about meat that's important to people. This probably makes them more effective at creating (or helping people create) vegetarian meals with a mass appeal than the lifelong vegetarian who hasn't experienced a satisfying meat dinner. Even if the lifelong vegetarian gets higher marks for pure ethical rationalism, this may come at the cost of being out of touch with what most people crave.

Notice that the next comment after your comment in the Metafilter thread is by me -- making the same complaint I made in this post about how people criticize the "new atheists" with an egregiously broad brush. As you know, the Metafilter thread was about an article by Julian Baggini, which I could have linked to in this post as an example. People like Baggini (who wrote one of my favorite books) aren't substantively engaging with the actual content of the new atheist books; they're positioning themselves to their own advantage.

Grobstein said...

I meant to soften my take on Epstein and his project with some "your mileage may vary"-type dithering. Forgot. Consider it dithered. I don't know the guy.

I take your point about the fuzzies (somewhat dimly, as a person with one foot in the "warm fuzzies are bullshit" camp).

Atheism is in substance just a position on the existence of god. But it clusters (I suspect) with a general skepticism about authority and the feelings associated with group membership. This is why atheists sometimes call themselves "freethinkers," why organizing atheists is compared to herding cats, why alienated liberals are more likely to be atheists, and so on.

(Some other paragraphs on this subject that I don't have time to write just now but which can hopefully be suggested by thesis statements; apologies for this form:)

1. This tendency probably has its roots in how atheists come to their beliefs.

2. There is some circularity: outsiders become atheists; atheist institutions don't cater to non-outsider-types.

3. This story supports the idea of building warm, fuzzy institutions.

4. But warm fuzzies really are bullshit to some extent: "Love and Completeness are Your Spiritual Right" is probably a weak position.

5. False or meaningless beliefs (like in religions) are a comparatively efficient way to generate warm fuzzies.

6. At some margin we face a trade-off between fuzzies and the truth. (Like the vegetarian chef's trade-off.)

Do you recommend any of the new atheists' books? Like Baggini, I am hesitant to read them because I don't see them teaching me anything valuable.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Do you recommend any of the new atheists' books? Like Baggini, I am hesitant to read them because I don't see them teaching me anything valuable.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens is ... great. (I recommend the excerpts here if you're considering buying it.) Overall, I consider it a step up from Sam Harris's The End of Faith, though I'd recommend either of those books. Harris makes plenty of good arguments, but he has a blind spot (a very ironic one) for his own extremism and utopianism. (For instance, he calls on national leaders to start openly condemning religion on the world stage -- as if this would make the world a safer place.) Harris strikes me as someone who's studied a lot of philosophy and a passable amount of history; Hitchens writes as a world-class journalist who's witnessed history firsthand. Hitchens's book has more texture and character to it, while Harris is more interested in making the abstract case against dogma and for reasoned empiricism. Sometimes Hitchens sloppily leaves out some essential steps in an argument, in a way that Harris (who has a philosophy degree from Stanford) likely wouldn't have. (Here are the first 10 pages of Harris's book.)

I've read some of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, but not enough to have a firm opinion. Something about Dawkins's polemic irritates me in a way that Harris's and Hitchens's don't, so I'd say Dawkins is my least favorite of the three.

All these books have their own strengths and weaknesses that I could go into much greater detail if I had the time and if I had the books in front of me. I wrote a seminar paper in law school about Harris's book. So, I thought it was interesting and serious enough to stake my grade on a paper about it -- but I also wouldn't have chosen to write that paper if I didn't think I could point out some holes in the book's arguments. (I'd be happy to email you that paper if you want.)

I haven't seen Religulous, Bill Maher's movie; a friend of mine who has good taste in movies (and complex views on religion) said it's pretty good.

Alex Knepper said...

What can atheists rally around? A shared opposition. But to what? To religious influence in the government? To religion in people's lives? To religion as a cultural phenomenon? To Islamic extremism? To the Christian Right?

There are Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian atheists -- can they all unite? If I go an "atheist community group," it isn't like a Christian group, where they are assumed to share similar morals and all share a life goal: to trust Jesus and live according to his dictates. Come to an atheist group and you might have people who think like Sartre -- but also those who think like Rand. Or Nietzsche. Maybe Aristotle. Maybe Strauss.

So: no common morals, no common linkage that can serve as a starting point. An atheist honestly need not even oppose religious influence in people's lives. You can't organize a group around something so narrow. "Those who don't believe in God, come here!" -- So we can do what? So we can...talk about how and why we don't believe? OK. But for people like me, who are so beyond that, then what? I'm willing to help others come to that conclusion, but am I willing to stick around when they want to go, say, crusade against school prayer? To me, that's a stupid waste of time.

So our problem is: Now that we've established this negative, what next? Who knows? The very essence of freethinking is that it's hard to categorize and organize. I don't want to see atheists organize like that. It wouldn't do justice to such a heterogeneous group of people.