Thursday, 26 November 2009

PZ Myers profiled in New Scientist & do atheists need rituals?

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We're pleased to see that all that godless blogging has earned PZ Myers – whose blog Pharyngula is the world's most popular atheist blog by quite some way – a profile in New Scientist. And a very good profile it is, too. As we know from the times we've spoken to PZ (recording podcasts, for example), he's a softly-spoken and extremely friendly fellow, and nothing like the intolerant hardline atheist his opponents would like to paint him as. That's exactly how PZ comes across in the New Scientist profile, and in the process he expresses a sentiment I think we can all get behind:
Myers's inflammatory acts and language would lead one to suspect him of being overtly aggressive, yet in person he is soft spoken and his views seem rather measured. While he affirms the right of atheists not to respect religious differences, he adds, "We don't want that to lead to the point where you can say, 'You don't have to respect people being different at all.' That isn't true. I think diversity is a great thing. Disrespect for ideas, great. Disrespect for people, not so great."
Meanwhile, over on Pharyngula, PZ also touches on one of the big debates that's always raging within humanism – the extent to which non-religious movements should resemble, or provide a replacement for, religion (or that matter, whether they should even amount to anything that could be called a movement). PZ was addressing the issue in relation to the work of Greg Epstein, who is Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. He's the subject of this profile in the Boston Phoenix, which suggests that the conciliatory approach he takes in his new book Good Without God: What a Million Nonreligious People Do Believe could be more successful than the combative approach of the "new atheists" in gaining greater acceptance for non-belief,. particularly in the US. As a humanist chaplain, Epstein believes that humanism, if it is to be successful, must retain some of the ceremonial and organisational aspects of religion, saying such things "don't exist because God said so; they evolved because people needed them. Even if we're honest about religion, we're still going to need those human inventions."

PZ Myers, unsurprisingly, disagrees with this view, as he explained to the Phoenix:
"I think it is very, very nice of Greg Epstein to want to ape religion, and maybe there will even be some people who find his ideas appealing. However, I'd remind him that just as we can be good without god, we can also be good without rituals, good without sacraments, [and] good without priests and chaplains. . . . I can appreciate that he's offering a small step away from the old superstitions, but we can go so much further."
It's a debate we've covered lots of times at New Humanist, and no doubt it will continue to crop up again and again. Do you think the godless need chaplains and rituals, or should we be ditching that kind of thing altogether? Share your view by commenting on this post.


Margaret said...

I'm with PZ on this. I feel deeply uncomfortable about the quasi-religious yearnings of some self-styled humanists who'd like to replicate religious functions and services without god (so they say). They strike me as being agnostics who haven't quite come to terms with dispensing with religion in their lives. They use the word "spiritual" a lot, which is very confusing. Rituals, chaplains, and so on would mean organised humanism. For me, there's no such thing.

1minionsopinion said...

Maybe part of the problem comes in due to the "good" concept, since for many Christians, goodness is the very definition of God, this good without God idea is a paradox.

I wonder if more effort should be going into finding the sets of values each side can agree on and going from there.

They can hang onto the idea that the rules of man were set by a god, and we can promote the (very likely) idea that these values grew out of a desire to create a healthy beneficial society which is why we aim to keep them. Whether they're enforced by belief in a god, or by a legal system, the results can be the same.

Foomandoonian said...

Actually, I think there is a need for something. Religious people often get a great amount of support from their church communities, and I think there needs to be a real replacement for that or many will feel like they are leaving spiritual fulfilment and a likeminded community for... nothing.

Whatever it is, it can't be a 'church of science' or a 'community of militant atheists', as these won't serve the same purpose. Real or not, churches provide a sense of being a part of something special and important, and some humanist community centre is never going to be able to replace that.

I'm very interested to hear other's thoughts.

1minion said...

(First comment didn't really address the post. Sorry.)

I can see atheists and humanists perhaps setting aside a day to acknowledge a thinker or book (since some of us are into that already) but I don't think we'd need to recreate the look of a religion with ceremonies and traditional events done only because it's traditional to do them.

I think we should have the option to remain aloof or become Darwin groupies, or whatever way becomes the way we want to express ourselves as individuals.

Christopher Gray said...

While I very much share PZ's and others' frustrations at the halfway-house approach to breaking people's reliance on superstition, I grudgingly think we need to be more realistic in the way we understand people, and what makes them change.

Logical and rational approaches to understanding nature have obviously yielded incredibly rich results and diverse fields of study, but lay-people are not necessarily swayed by arguments that are heavily logical or rational. People are much more 'fuzzy' and swayed by non-rational gut feelings, emotions and other cognitive biases, whether we like it or not.

My father was a GP, and was constantly trying to educate many of his patients into better a understanding of their bodies and medicines, and quickly realised that you can't beat this information into them just by being right. People are, frustratingly, much more likely to listen to someone they like, who is gentle with their existing beliefs, however much of a mess they are, rather than someone who might just be right but insensitive, or 'shrill' as we like to be labelled.

So much as I hate most of the poor 'framing arguments' set up by Mooney et al, I do see the need for a more carefully considered approach that puts people's natural characteristics in mind.

As my father would say: "Slowly slowly catchy monkey."

mumfie said...

I'm with PZ on this as well. I think one of the greatest joys of being an non-believer is that I don't have to join anything at all.

I can be a quiet little atheist minding my own business or I can proclaim it very loudly. I can join an organisation that professes my un belief and champions its cause or I can join a group like Amnesty, for example, that is about everybody's rights, regardless of creed.

It's my choice. Nobody is saying to me that I must/ought/should join organisation X, just because of my beliefs or lack of them.

Having said all that, although I consider my views secular, I am a Humanist member of a SACRE, on the grounds that it's the only way to work together to find a solution rather than being confrontational about it. Both ways are valid, even necessary. But one panders more to religion than the other.

Paul Sims said...

Thanks for all your comments, and keep them coming. In the end, I think this one clearly ends up being a case of "each to their own". Now that's pretty banal, there's no denying, but it's also true.

Like "mumfie" says, a lot of people end up being atheists because they're just not into joining in with rituals etc. If there was one thing that contributed the most to me ending up as an atheist (and subsequently news editor of a heathen magazine!), it was all the mind-numbing Sunday mornings I had to spend in my local C of E church when I was a kid (the aim of which was to make sure I got into the local CofE school, I might add, but that's a whole other debate). Unlike a lot of people, I don't have deep-seated resentments against organised religion. I wasn't abused by it. But I was bored to death by it - some atheists say they actually quite like church services, the hymns, the music, etc. Not me. I can think of few things as boring as a church service.

Therefore, there were 2 main problems with the C of E faith I was nominally raised in - 1) I found it unconvincing, and 2) I found it boring.

So, no rituals for me, thanks. I'm with PZ on that. But some non-religious people do want them. Like I said, each to their own. Banal, but true.

Des Greene said...

Ritual also has been and always will be part of the human condition. It is hardwired into our cultural evolution. Religious ritual is only one of a spectrum of rituals (birthdays, anniversaries, commemorations etc.). The ideal is to retrieve ownership of ritual for the secular world. Ritual is a social occasion which provides a sense of unity and security for the celebrants. It is just part of life for us recently evolved humans.

Anonymous said...

I see atheism as something entirely different to belonging to any kind of community. I am an atheist, I don't believe there is a god. This has no influence on my life in any other way.

I am also a humanist because I found out about it and agreed with the opinions they have and so associate myself with the group. In the same way I would also join any other society that also held similar views to myself, for example the national trust or a band fan club. As many people I like being involved with like minded people. I like belonging to a community because I am human and that's generally what we do but I don't see the need for any kind of ritual or service behind it. Just knowing other people share similar views to me is more than enough.

Steve Fair said...

My atheism is a literal represntation of the word; "without theism". It doesn't have ritual, nor does it exclude it. I like to joke with my friends who find my lack of belief amusing by saying that I'm waiting for Richard Dawkins to tell me what to believe, but the truth is that I think an atheist life is simply devoid of the need for such ritual. I'm a member of my local Round Table - a non-religious organisation - and we have members of many faiths. The thing they have in common is a slight disdain for my lack of respect for belief, prayer and ritual. It's not an overt lack of respect where I take any action or say anything, it's just that I pay it no attention. Nor would I pay an atheist ritual any attention.

The beauty of living without religion, theistic beliefs, spiritualism or any other paranormal nonsense (to me, it's nonsense) is that I can appreciate every day as a great opportunity to live a life that helps others, helps me and means something to those I encounter. Religion and ritual aren't necessary for that.

If you bring in some sort of ritual, you are trying to make humanism have rules. Once that happens, many people who enjoy the insights that come with declaring oneself a humanist will simply drift away.

Eiskrystal said...

People who are used to having ritual in their lives might need it as they ween themselves off religion. The rest of us seem to be doing just fine without it. A necessary step perhaps but not one to get too attached to.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the people who are in thrall to religion aren't the humanists who respect/like a little bit of ceremony at important life events, but the ones who can't see it as anything other than religious just because that's predominantly how we've always thought about it.

Why does it have to be 'emulating' religion to celebrate or mourn in a slightly ceremonial way?

It's like saying that it's "aping" religion if you think about the origin of the universe or care about your fellow man. Half the point of humanism is to recognise that these are human things not religious things and get over it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending an extreme of ritual, where the dogma and doctrine become important. But ceremonies per se - weddings, funerals etc - aren't bad in and of themselves.

Anonymous said...

I agree with PZ on this, too.
I think there's only one situation when some kind of secular ritual makes sense: which is having lost someone through death.
But no for baptisms/name giving ceremonies and weddings: a child will grow into society over the years, and also a relationship is a process not an event.

DT Strain said...

It really depends on what your conception of ritual is. It's understandable that many of us in the West would conceive of ritual as being some kind of homage or subjugation. Then, for those who drop God, they'd be left to wonder why continue with the 'trappings'. However, in the East (and as had been the case in ancient Western philosophy), there is another conception of ritual which has to do with practices that aid the practitioner. Things that help focus the attention, get into a certain mindset, and provide a rich cultural tapestry of interactions with one's community. These are practical tools for human betterment. In this sense, those who have taken the time to investigate ritual will find there are many things of this nature that are not only compatible with a naturalistic worldview, but greatly helpful.

Dwight Gilbert Jones said...

In my book "The Humanist - 1000 Summers" the Humanists and the Jesuits together create an intermediate church for just this purpose.

The Jesuits forsake the supernatural and concentrate on being stewards and teachers.

The Humanists stop hammering religion as their forte and practice inclusive Humanism, wherein our collateral beliefs are private.

In the (recycled) Jesuit churches kids learn science downstairs while their parents learn fellowship upstairs, sharing songs that celebrate life and brotherhood.

Oh, and the Jesuits look after your afterlife too, keeping genetic and data repositories that...but I digress.

Safe to say that recycling the spaceships and preserving tradition and ritual works by my estimation.

David said...

Kicking in the heads of atheists one at a time...

PZ, I thought the Morris Police Department was going to save you from the wrath of God...

Mariano said...

Indeed, atheist activists have long attempted to establish an, as it were, atheist religion; some of which are in place already.

Some evidence is found here:

And this is not even mentioning the more generic atheist attempts at a styled spirituality:

Anonymous said...

The basic underlying conflict between neo-Darwin evolution on one hand, and ID Intelligent Design on the other is merely a resurfaced ancient feud between atheism and monotheism.

95% of academic biologists are atheists who must subscribe to neo-Darwinism to survive in the halls of academia.

PZ is one example of an academic atheist serving as a sort of self-appointed leader for this group.

What is atheism? This is a modern term for one of many types of primitive religions, such as paganism, polytheism, the worship of objects in nature, worship of idols (idolatry) etc.

The word atheism is a post War modern construct. If God existed, then that God would never have allowed the horrors, the evil, and scale of human suffering of WWII, therefore there is no God. Hence atheism.

The reality is that there is no such thing as atheism, as the atheist who negates the monotheistic God merely adopts a paganism, idolatry or polytheism in its place.

The above article deals with the idea of ritual in organized religion being copied by atheist organisations. Again this highlights the obvious fact that atheists who negate monotheism, merely adopt a form of primitive religion complete with their own set of rituals.

If one defines ritual as a set of observances repeated on a regular basis, then modern life is full of such rituals. Simple examnation of the average middle class day shows repeated activities which could be considered rituals.

In modern terms, this translates into the pursuit of one of many replacements for a monotheistic God, such as pleasure, money, social status, power, worship of self, various objects, electronic idols that absorb attention span, drugs etc.

Hence, modern day atheism is merely a modern form of idol worship, which was the cultural norm in ancient times. In site of this opposing culture of idol worship in ancient times, the story goes that one courageous Man saw the truth that idols cannot speak. This story of Abraham heralded the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism in ancient times. This was the idea that there was one God, one creator, one designer of the universe.

After thousands of years of civilization, we know that monotheism has won this ideological battle against idolatry. So why the resurgence and strength of atheism, idolatry and neo-Darwinism in our modern day science culture?

The answer to this is socio-econonomc and political. Neo-Darwinism is a necessary justification for unethical and predatory behavior of corporate entities which now control the mass media, government, science funding, university funding and economies of most Western countries of the world. This is the overwhelming basic fact which overrides all others, and is the basis for the current conflict played out between neoDawinism and Intelligent Design.

At the end of the day, Intelligent Design as a metaphysical argument against neoDarwinism is really a plea for help by the individual human drowning in a totalitarian world of mental and physical enslavement.

This is the world of evil corporate conglomerates that grow larger and stronger with each passing year. This is a world that represents evil, and must be opposed by all free men.