31 May 2015

Secularists getting more strange advice

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/molly-worthen-wanted-a-theology-of-atheism.html?_r=0

This piece felt really incoherent as a set of ideas being expressed. I'm not sure what the point was but I imagine I could pull a few bits out and make them make more sense.

I wasn't sure if she was complaining about atheists imitating churches or holding it up as some sort of ideal. Is gathering together once in a while to sing songs and eat cookies and cupcakes with people who generally share your worldview considered an example of a way people demonstrate their tolerance and decency? Isn't that one of the problems sociologically with religious organisations is the exclusivity and in/out group behaviors formed and reinforced by gathering together in a regularized way with people who already agree with you? Is this some form of rigorous tradition of secular society to perform the same basic traditional rituals as religions upon which it is drawing for strength and balance while contending with a heavily religiously structured worldview? Short version: Doesn't seem like that part of the piece had much of anything to do with anything else. Secular exchange of ideas has always occurred, in salons and cafes and coffee shops and universities and schools and articles and blogs. It isn't made more suddenly rigorous by placing it in a church-like environment to be worshiped. Neither is the moral functions of humanism or secularism necessarily reinforced by gathering in that way. Or at least no evidence is put forward to suggest that's how it works.

A secular community that lacks a set of common values isn't likely to gain much by trying to gather people together in the way that religious organizations do. One critique of such gatherings is that they can very easily stray into the "let's all bash religion" and become very boring, very quickly. People "recovering from religion" do seem to need more therapeutic release of this type, but eventually something needs to take the place of "I'm mad that people brainwashed me for 20 years" as a basis for secularity or it isn't of much use to anyone else. Much less yourself. Most people are engaging in this, to be fair, but the processes outlined in this piece don't seem to be suggestive of how that would work. People don't need to gather together to remind themselves and each other that god and religion are terrible things or wrong in some intellectual way. We already figured that out generally, often on our own. Maybe it feels good to know there are other people who agree with that position, but affirmation isn't a long-term strategy for social functions. I at least don't want to be told how awesome I must be for not caring about something that doesn't exist in reality. What's at stake is something else that isn't necessarily scratched by these arguments about religious theology that are easily undertaken, or at least those arguments need to be tuned in the direction of what could be a better ethos than religious dogmas often command.

I have generally very strange politics relative to most other secularists on a number of issues. I have a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward some of the hot button issues (gay marriage opponents, low-level religious discrimination, income inequality, teaching of creationism, etc). This makes me somewhat strange among secularists, but it doesn't make me "unusual" in that most people have variance of their moral and political views and what annoys them and grinds the gears into action. One insight that this gives me is that people are generally going to be a little off, and if you can put up with the way they are off, you should try to rather than trying to mold them into neat little boxes that all conform to a single worldview with only a single possible outcome or set of shared goals and ideals. It's not worth the effort in many cases.

I'm also fairly motivated to be decent to other people (most of them, most of the time, or at least indifferent rather than actively harmful), to try to be patient with people who are less verbose or technical in writing out ideas rather than immediately mocking them when they don't seem to be able to get to the point, or to try to help people who are suffering (sometimes not the most reassuring voice, but probably one people find useful all the same). I've also often heard from religious people that non-religious people (like myself) are typically less judgmental of others and tend to be more patient with difficult questions and the uncertainty they can provoke in people, which is often seen as a moral good that religious organisations and the associated societies of people they have cultivated do not always promote well. It is these values that ought to be highlighted in the move to have secularists be more accepted in society. That we are generally attempting to be decent human beings without exceptionally judgmental and exclusive attitudes toward those who are not like us. All of those values appear almost no where in the piece other than as a throwaway sort of "we'll show them we're good people" tact or as a general nod toward "tolerance". Meaning what exactly? That we also attend strange ceremonial rituals? That we also believe we have a set of moral codes that is superior? That a level of civic tolerance toward people who disagree (politely and peacefully) is bad? Those seemed to be the hallmarks of the piece. Those have little to do with being a good person, even in a humanistic ethos. I didn't see a way from point A to point C being laid out.

I sympathize with the questions involved as they are important questions. How are atheists likely to overcome significant social stigmas in a heavily religious society? How might more people be accepting of a secular moral worldview (and not dismissive of it)? How might more people learn to be appropriately skeptical of answers to difficult questions or religion, or science for that matter? How might people learn to be decent and kind to one another (or at least indifferent rather than fearful)? What is it that humanistic values or secular values offers positively in exchange for not having to get up on Sunday mornings? How are these difficult moral questions to be resolved in the absence of authority figures telling us what we are to do, how do we put them into practice? And so on. But almost nothing in this piece suggested a path toward resolving those questions. It suggested they are important questions and then threw in a bunch of anecdotes about going to a church that didn't have a bible in use instead and "some things Sam Harris has said". Suspiciously sounds like woo rather than science. (I'm not exactly in the Sam Harris fan club anyway as I've written about him a couple of times in takedown fashion).
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