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Dacey at the Beyond Belief Conference
Posted: 11 December 2007 07:45 PM   [ Ignore ]
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In the recent Beyond Belief Conference Austin Dacey poses the following question to Sam Harris-

[quote author=“Austin Dacey”]As the mansion of religion decomposes no new mansion springs up in its place, but instead a patchwork, a variegated garden.  And I wanted to ask whether you thought that science was the new mono-culture that rises up in the place of the estate of religion or whether it was just one part of that garden and what else is in that garden.  Is there a place for philosophy, for literature, for poetry, for laughter?

I found this to be particularly inspiring, as it illustrated an interest in the more humane aspects of life that must be addressed as religion becomes increasingly outmoded.  This addresses my earlier thread about Keeping Humanism at The Forefront of “The Cause”.  I think that most religious persons are religious not because of a cosmological direction of inquiry.  I think that they are religious despite inquiry, reason, science, and obvious contradiction that they deliberately oppress.  I think that they are OK with this.  I think that they are OK with it because they recognize that there is more to life than figuring out how things work.  And, I think that they are right about that point.

I love science and the insight that it provides and I love the pleasure of being scientific and rational as stimulation in and of itself.  There can be no other way of figuring things out, other than science and reason, that can work as well as science and reason.  But there are also moments in life in which it is appropriate to direct ones thoughts toward fantasies or toward pleasant distractions, or to work to stop thinking or to relax.  There are times where it is best to just be present and to just be an animal.  And, this need not be incompatible with a scientific and rational worldview.

This also seems to me the most useful and realistic means of moving society positively beyond religion.  Rather than telling religious people what is scientifically and rationally wrong with their belief, we need to help people to not want their belief.  We need to do this by presenting humanistic alternatives that are not only scientifically grounded, but that fulfill a sense of living morally and of living out a meaningful and purposeful existence, for them and on their own terms, better then their religion does.

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Posted: 11 December 2007 08:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Very well said.

One slight addition or modification…

Rather than telling religious people what is scientifically and rationally wrong with their belief, we need to help people to not want their belief.

I would suggest that we offer alternatives that fill the voids that religion addresses in their lives.  A caring community is part of that equation, among other things.

Offering an alternative that they crave, like they crave religion, may involve a marketing plan.  I would leave that to folks with more charisma than I posses.

Charles

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Posted: 11 December 2007 09:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I can see where Dacey’s question comes from, but, to a certain extent, I also find it to be the sort of question that harbors a fundamental confusion at its heart.  And so, to a certain extent, I find the question disturbing in its implications.  The last bit of the question is rhetorical:

Is there a place for philosophy, for literature, for poetry, for laughter?

What?!?  As if none of that stuff is possible without religion?!? 

If that is the implication of the question—though I doubt it is Dacey’s own view—then we have already ceded the argument (and culture itself) to the theists.  It is tantamount to asking: don’t you think humanity is going to erupt into moral chaos without religion? 

My own take on the matter is that religion has been hindering each one of those arenas of human activity—philosophy, literature, poetry, and especially laughter—just as much as it has hampered the progress of a universal ethic.  Insofar as the question is directed toward the humanist movement, I think of humanism more as the moral wing of atheism rather than the cultural wing: humanism provides an ethics of THIS world.  And it is not as if a Religious culture and a scientific culture are mutually exclusive.  Most of us spend most of our lives thinking neither of religion nor of science: that’s culture.  And so, in a sense, I want to say that nothing needs to come in to replace what is lost by religion; for it is bogus to suggest that it is somehow the source of culture in the first place.

Now, the part I agree with hinges on something that erasmusinfinity said:

This also seems to me the most useful and realistic means of moving society positively beyond religion.


This is a pragmatic question, or issue.  The ID movement had its wedge strategy, so what is our strategy?  This is a huge and important question.  In my opinion our strategy ought not be a secret strategy, like the creationists—that’s the first part.  For us, everything ought to lie open to view; nothing is hidden.  Of course, that’s not saying much, I admit.  But it is at least a foundation for a strategy.  Pointing out that most of our culture—or at least the best parts of it—are secular, not dependent on religion, is an honest start.

[ Edited: 11 December 2007 09:35 PM by Pragmatic Naturalist ]
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Posted: 12 December 2007 05:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Pragmatic Naturalist - 11 December 2007 09:31 PM

[quote author=“Dacey”] Is there a place for philosophy, for literature, for poetry, for laughter?

What?!?  As if none of that stuff is possible without religion?!?

I won’t speak for Dacey but, speaking for myself and my motivations for posting this quote, I don’t think that Dacey was at all suggesting that any of this stuff was not possible without religion.  I think that he is suggesting that it is possible without religion and that it needs to be addressed by us as humanists as religion erodes away.  And that it needs to be part of the package that works to dissolve religion.  That science, alone, won’t fulfill these tasks.

Pragmatic Naturalist - 11 December 2007 09:31 PM

My own take on the matter is that religion has been hindering each one of those arenas of human activity—philosophy, literature, poetry, and especially laughter—just as much as it has hampered the progress of a universal ethic.

Yes.  Culture doesn’t come from religion.  It has historically gravitated around it for political reasons.

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Posted: 12 December 2007 01:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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erasmusinfinity - 12 December 2007 05:19 AM

I won’t speak for Dacey but, speaking for myself and my motivations for posting this quote, I don’t think that Dacey was at all suggesting that any of this stuff was not possible without religion.

I agree. And I don’t think there’s much distance between us here.  I’m merely suggesting that we need to be (linguistically) careful not to lend any credence to the myth that religion somehow owns our cultural gems.

erasmusinfinity - 12 December 2007 05:19 AM

I think that he is suggesting that it is possible without religion and that it needs to be addressed by us as humanists as religion erodes away.  And that it needs to be part of the package that works to dissolve religion.


Part of the problem I’m referring to lies in the myth that when “religion erodes away” so do all these other important things, so that some new thing has to come in to “fill the void”.  The point upon which I think we agree is that these cultural matters are already there and so will not be damaged by a loss of religion.  Of course the wholesale loss of religion, to my mind at least, is a will-o’-the-wisp.  But as far as marketing strategies go, pointing out the non-religious bases of culture may have some influence on fence-sitters.

erasmusinfinity - 12 December 2007 05:19 AM

That science, alone, won’t fulfill these tasks.

Again, I agree.  But here too there is a myth at hand; one, I think, that is set up by the religious folk.  Namely, that if religion goes away, then all we are left with is science.  That is patently false, but potentially persuasive.  (Falsehoods are very persuasive as the god-myth itself attests.)  So, it’s a war of words that I’m referring to; an appropriation of the linguistic terminology of the debate that starts to stack the deck in the theist’s favor.  I’m arguing that we need to be on guard for these sorts of tactics, because they seem to be very powerful; we see this kind of thing in politics all the time.

Charles - 11 December 2007 08:40 PM

I would suggest that we offer alternatives that fill the voids that religion addresses in their lives.  A caring community is part of that equation, among other things.

The “void”, I suspect, is largely psychological, not cultural.  But I’d agree that part of these psychological qualms might be community-based (rather than surviving-death-based).  So, in this regard, it does us a disservice to allow the insinuation to go un-checked that a cultural void might open in the absence of religion.  Perhaps this is an overly nit-picky point, but I’m coming from the George Lakoff school of linguistic warfare.

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Posted: 13 December 2007 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I come from the George Carlin school of linguistic warfare.

Culture refers to patterns of human activity, and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. 

Basic human needs for human interaction, in social groups that have common views, is part of that.  When this type of activity becomes part of a culture, and part of a routine, it generates relationships between people, sympathy and respect, even love. If you want to label that as a psychological, fine. 

Regardless of label,  it does not alter the inevitable patterns of activity that evolve from fulfilling that need, that then become part of our culture.  Culture is not separate from this, but a result of it.

We were speaking of filling a void.  Does this not constitute a void?  Why did you come here to this forum? Was it not to fill the very void you deny exists?

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Posted: 13 December 2007 03:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Charles - 13 December 2007 02:21 PM

I come from the George Carlin school of linguistic warfare.

Culture refers to patterns of human activity, and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. 

Basic human needs for human interaction, in social groups that have common views, is part of that.  When this type of activity becomes part of a culture, and part of a routine, it generates relationships between people, sympathy and respect, even love. If you want to label that as a psychological, fine. 

Regardless of label,  it does not alter the inevitable patterns of activity that evolve from fulfilling that need, that then become part of our culture.  Culture is not separate from this, but a result of it.

We were speaking of filling a void.  Does this not constitute a void?  Why did you come here to this forum? Was it not to fill the very void you deny exists?

Yikes, I’ve been straw-manned.  Did I anywhere deny that culture exists?!?  No.  What I denied was lending credence to any sort of insinuation that suggests that when religion goes, so goes culture.  Yes, religion can be considered a cultural thing (it is certainly not a transcendental thing), but we cannot concede the link that many theists want to draw between culture at large and religion.  So my point is that there is no valid move from “Culture refers to patterns of human activity, and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance” to “without religion culture ceases to exist”.

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Posted: 13 December 2007 03:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Pragmatic Naturalist - 12 December 2007 01:40 PM

The “void”, I suspect, is largely psychological, not cultural.  But I’d agree that part of these psychological qualms might be community-based (rather than surviving-death-based).  So, in this regard, it does us a disservice to allow the insinuation to go un-checked that a cultural void might open in the absence of religion.  Perhaps this is an overly nit-picky point, but I’m coming from the George Lakoff school of linguistic warfare.

No, you were denying that the absence of religion leaves a cultural void.  I never suggested that you denied that culture exists.

Perhaps we could agree that it is not necessarily religion, but rather the absence of ritual activities associated with religious culture that would leave a void.

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Posted: 13 December 2007 05:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Charles - 13 December 2007 03:42 PM

No, you were denying that the absence of religion leaves a cultural void.  I never suggested that you denied that culture exists.

Okay, so maybe I straw-manned you.  But I don’t think we have much of a disagreement here, so maybe this is all moot. I think we just have a little vagueness in our terminology: specifically, the word “culture”.  I suppose that if someone were to extinguish astrology, one might say that that leaves a cultural void.  In that same sense, I’ll admit, if religion goes by the board, then a cultural void is left.  Let’s call that “culture” in the narrow sense.  So, when phrenology goes, or acupuncture goes, or alchemy goes, a void is left.

Charles - 13 December 2007 03:42 PM

Perhaps we could agree that it is not necessarily religion, but rather the absence of ritual activities associated with religious culture that would leave a void.

Okay, in so far as we are using “culture” in the narrow sense, then yes, I would agree that that would leave a void.  But I thought that we were using “culture” in a broader sense.  And I thought that Dacey was too.  I got that sense from the original quote:

[quote author=“Austin Dacey”]As the mansion of religion decomposes no new mansion springs up in its place, but instead a patchwork, a variegated garden.  And I wanted to ask whether you thought that science was the new mono-culture that rises up in the place of the estate of religion or whether it was just one part of that garden and what else is in that garden.  Is there a place for philosophy, for literature, for poetry, for laughter?

Here, the broader sense of “culture” seems to incorporate philosophy, literature, poetry, laughter, etc.  My point is that the loss of religion would leave no void in these areas; they would continue to go on flourishing in spite of the loss.  And, what’s more, I think that they have already been flourishing independently of religion.  So maybe religious philosophy and religious literature and religious poetry and religious jokes would go out of business.  But notice the qualifier “religious” in front of each of those human activities.  That, I think, is the clue that suggests we are here dealing only with a loss of “culture” in the narrow sense.  My only point is that a loss of religion does no damage to culture in the broad sense.  I suspect we generally agree on this point.  So in this digression I was just trying to figure out what was making it seem like we were having a disagreement.  A seeming disagreement is not a real disagreement.

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Posted: 13 December 2007 08:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I don’t disagree with you Pragmatic Naturalist that there already is flourishing art that is independent of religion.  There most certainly is.

I only asserted that in the deluded and manipulated minds of a lot of, if not most, religious people there are other reasons, despite religion’s cosmological absurdity, that drive them to continue being religious.  Many of them regard an atheistic world view as cold, callous, and without poetry or laughter.  They see only a world of stingy men in lab coats (atheistic scientists as they are sometimes called) telling them that the fantasy that they regard to be so wonderful is nothing but a sham.  They want to stay in their “spell” because it feels safe and warm and good to them.  They find beauty in their false enchantment.  They don’t want anyone raining on what they see as a parade.

You and I know that they are wrong.  They are not living in a parade.  The spell that they live under is not safe or genuinely warm.  It is a sham and science is not only correct about the world, but is even a source of beauty and delight.  Atheism is not cold or callous or without laughter.  It is better than theism in every possible way.  Not only for us, but for them and for everyone.  But such religious persons do not see what you and I see.  And we have to show them this beautiful flourishing world of secular art, music, literature, etc. that is out there waiting for them to discover.  And, this can probably do more to break their spell than even the best and most rational explanation of the natural world.

Also, as this spell becomes increasingly broken art will change, just as will the world.  If only…

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Posted: 13 December 2007 10:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Maybe I was just being too technical; because I agree with the spirit of what you say (but not the spirit in the sky). 

erasmusinfinity - 13 December 2007 08:16 PM

They are not living in a parade.

You’re right; but they are living in something that rhymes with “parade”: viz. a charade.  But—and this is the overarching point I think we both want to come to—putting things that way (i.e. that their lives aren’t parades but charades) doesn’t help our cause any.  Rather it may do the reverse; it may make them hold more “tenaciously” to their beliefs (to use a term from Peirce’s famous “Fixation of Belief”). 

This is a very difficult task—i.e. changing hearts and minds—but a righteous and noble one; for there is an ethics of belief (lucidly pointed out by Clifford’s article).  So we indeed need to be careful about how we put things.  And I suppose that that is the basis of my (rather minimalist) suggestion, when I responded to the Dacey quote above; viz. that part of “breaking the spell”—as you put it (differently, I think, than Dennett)—involves a linguistic task.  Part of that linguistic task means challenging those who equate words like “religious”, “spiritual”, “godly”, etc. (which are essentially meaningless terms) with evaluatively good terms like “culture”, “morality”, and “meaning” rather than equating them with evaluatively bad terms like “myth”, “superstition”, and “delusion”.  Belief without evidence can never be a good thing (Clifford makes this point clear).  It may, at times, be neutral; but it is never a good in itself.  So we must hold our ground and fix our minds on that point, not dogmatically, but pragmatically.  The political game is partly a language game.  (I forgot to mention Frank Luntz—the evil twin of Lakoff—last time, who also recognizes the power of language to influence our feelings and ideas.)  Playing this game carefully is my only recommendation, so far.

There is a sort of Nietzschean Will to Power at work here, in which the agents of the religious authority don’t want to loosen their grip on certain terms and therefore on certain memes (to get back to Dennett’s “spell”).  We’ve got to play this game too.  As I said before, we can do it with a clean conscience because we can, and should, openly admit that games are being played with words in attempts to influence people’s behavior (and minds).  We can win some (not all) hearts and minds without a fight, simply by letting them know that there is a meme game being played and that they are being used as pawns.  It is a consciousness raising with good intentions.  No one wants to be used as a pawn.

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Posted: 14 December 2007 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I think there are 2 additional points to be made here.

1) The oft repeated concepts are what ring true to people, even if they are false.  See article on recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer - “Difficulty in Debunking Myths Rooted in the Way the Mind Works”.  This is the reason so many religious folks find some things we know are not true to be undeniable in their minds. 

Overcoming this, not simply with the myths non-theists most frequently attack, but also with those myths regarding the uniqueness of ethical behavior, meaningful human activity and so on.  Attacking these obvious myths around religion usually does little good, as deep down, the majority don’t really believe it all anyway. 

However, they do strongly feel that we are not fully capable of participating in philosophy, literature, poetry, or laughter, because we are somehow lacking in a level of consciousness or enlightenment that only the religious possess.  This is a much more difficult myth to debunk.

2) The ritual human activity that accompanies religion, plays a very important role in peoples lives.  Social interaction, assistance for those who are going through difficult times, mourning, grief, shared joy in the accomplishments of it’s members, celebrating births, marriage, and on and on.

As non-theists we are aware of alternatives, however, I believe that if we were honest with ourselves we would admit that our alternatives are often lame in comparison.  We are seldom organized well enough to establish a community response to the basic human needs that are addressed by these rituals.  And as such, we do not enjoy the same benefits.

If we are to convince theists that our alternate methods are worthy of their attention and consideration, we need to be completely honest about what will be missing and how we compensate or adapt without such things.

I know there are many secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, that do feel a cultural void, specifically associated with community support.  We should be honest about this.  You and I might not feel this.  We may have a great group of friends and family, we may be healthy of mind and body, and feel very safe and secure without such things.  Religious institutions often provide that same safety and security for people who are not as fortunate as we are.  If we can offer an alternative for those folks as well as one that works for us, we are making a step in the right direction.

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Posted: 14 December 2007 02:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Very well worded Charles.  I agree with everything that you wrote in your last post.  Thanks for the contribution.

I also want to clarify that I do think that atheism and scientific skepticism are important components to the social progress that humanism espouses.  My only concern is that they are getting a lot more play these days then is the rest of humanism.  It ought be the other way around.

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Posted: 14 December 2007 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Agreed.  And I think it is due to the fact that it is much easier to employ skepticism, and science in debunking the obvious myths, than it is to deal with the humanistic issues.

I would challenge all here to come up with three ways secular humanists are addressing point 2 in my post above. 

While I think each of us could provide dozens of ways we are debunking religious myth, we have little to offer in providing alternatives to the religious rituals I mention there.  If I’m wrong I’d love to hear about it.

It really should be a priority.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 01:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Speaking fo myself, I did not abandon religious morality because of wanting to be loose about morality.  I abandoned religious morality because I consider myself to be very serious about morality and have found that a religiously based moral system is not moral enough for my liking.  That religious belief leads to immoral behavior and, taken as a whole, religious morality is immoral.  Indeed, religious morality is amoral because it is completely lacking in the acceptance of personal responsibility.  It suppresses real naturalistic determinants of right and wrong.

Of course, I also abandoned religion because it doesn’t make any reasonable sense.  But that’s another issue entirely, and is not the issue that I would like to write about here.

Your challenge is a constructive one, Charles.  It makes sense that this matter is little discussed on this forum, or any other place really.  It is not only a difficult to verbalize the matter articulately, but is even more difficult to realize practically.  As a category of atheist, secular humanists are part of a despised minority.  How can we even begin to sell ourselves as moralists when the stats quo has already decided that we are immoral?  I’ll can’t give a clear answer right now, but I can start with a story that is suggestive of a wrong approach.  A true story from just a couple of hours ago…

HOLIDAY CHEER by erasmusinfinity

I just went to the post office to mail off some solstice gifts to loved ones afar.  It was predictably quite crowded, and it was difficult to figure out where the end of the line to the teller formed.  So I broadly asked the mob near the entrance where the line ended.  After a few grumbles it became revealed that there were two separate lines, one for just buying stamps and one for sending packages.  I got into the package mailing line.

A few moments later a gentle and friendly man entered the post office, who repeated my inquiry in order to find his place at the back of the line.  He was also there to mail a package, so he found ihis place i line directly behind me.  As I said, he was very polite and well mannered.  However, he was wearing an enormous fur coat that must have involved the killing of several poor furry creatures.  Looking at his coat, I felt sad for the poor creatures that were sacrificed for his vanity, then I gave him a polite smile and he nodded back to me in a very friendly manner.

Then entered a third woman.  She pushed and shoved and tried to cut in front the fur coated man and myself.  The fur coated man very nicely explained to her that he was standing in the back of the line.

The woman snarled at him, “Fine!  Then I guess I’ll have to stand behind you and that dead… whatever!”

The man politely smiled back at her and she shook her head vigorously in disapproval.  After a few minutes, the woman reached into her purse and pulled out a photo album.  She tapped the fur coated man on the shoulder and asked him to take a look.  He politely glanced and she began to tell him about the pictures.

“This one is a picture of my dog Muffy” she said.  “I sure would be upset if someone were to hurt her.”

The man responded gently, “she sure is a beautiful dog.”

It seemed rather clear to me that the woman was being rude.  But how did she become the villain?  She was right (at least in my opinion).  The man’s coat was cruel and sadistic.  Some on this forum may disagree with me about fur coats being immoral, but I think that there is a useful point to be made, here, about how we should approach, or not approach, religious persons.  Unwittingly, and even though she was right and he was wrong, she had given the fur coated man a clear moral upper hand.  The rest of the people around gasped at how ridiculous she had been.

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Posted: 18 December 2007 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Charles,

Social interactivity and community are essential parts of any religion, and ways in which religion can have a positive impact on people’s lives. How precisely to model that in a non-religious context is difficult but not impossible. To begin with, there are already many secular (i.e. non-religious) organizations that create community, from clubs to sports teams to libraries to museums to schools and on and on. So one should not limit oneself to an overtly secular or atheist organization to find “community”.

But of course there are also overtly secular organizations that try to create their own communities as well. In NYC we have the Society for Ethical Culture, to take one prominent example. IIRC they have weekly meetings that provide something like the “ritual” one might find in going to church. One question we all must answer for ourselves is what place we see ritual taking in a secular community. Speaking personally, I dislike much of what passes for ritual. It seems to me forced behavior that takes the place of team colors—while it does work to create a more cohesive “in-group” feeling, I find it faintly belligerent as well. It’s a good way to single out the “true believers”, as those willing to go the extra mile in zealously preserving each jot of the ritual. (Which must, in itself, be rather meaningless or non-rational in order to be considered ritualistic). In that, it also works to ossify a sort of doctrinal approach to the group, and also create feelings of “out-groups” and marginal members. While I do see from a purely psycho-social point of view the value of ritual, as I say, I would not involve myself with any organization that made a particular point of fomenting ritual practice.

CFI is creating communities worldwide, of course, and so is attempting to provide for some of the social interaction that you crave. But this takes time—many years in fact—and a large amount of money. Buying a single building in Manhattan will take literally millions of dollars; yet without the building it is difficult to really provide for the social atmosphere necessary to build a group. So far as I am aware, of course, CFI is uninterested in ritual; for this reason I personally feel more at home in a CFI context than in a quasi-religious atheistic belief system, such as one provided by the Society for Ethical Culture or some forms of Unitarian Universalism.

Erasmusinfinity,

You raise a great point with your story. Living in a larger community with others means we must as best we can strive to preserve politeness between ourselves and others. I live near some rather religious folks, but it would never occur to me to walk up to them and criticize them unbidden. There could really be no possible advantage to doing such a thing. I certainly wouldn’t convince them, and would likely annoy any bystander who was on the fence about religious matters. This is one of the points that Dawkins himself has made about his own anti-religious writings: one has to make an active decision to pick up and read his books in order to hear his message. He is not out on the street accusing people of anything. And although he does pointedly confront religious people in his videos, those are either public figures or people willing to consent to the confrontation on camera.

I think in the long run the best PR that a secular, non-religious person can do is to try to live an honest, open, moral life, to be kind to neighbors, polite to strangers, and so on. Of course, sometimes we will be called on to argue our points of view, and say why we believe what we believe. But that’s a rare occurrence.

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