Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday School for Atheists

The November 21, 2007 issue of Time magazine includes a story titled "Sunday School for Atheists," about how the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, California has been offering Sunday school classes for kids for the last three years. The article notes that similar programs are under consideration in Albuquerque, NM, Portland, OR, and Phoenix. It doesn't mention it, but the Phoenix group considering offering such a program is the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, a group which has meetings for adults, often with quite interesting speakers, every two weeks. (Kat and I are members, but we have a pretty poor attendance record.)

Also mentioned in the article are Camp Quest, a summer camp program operating in five states and Ontario, Canada, and the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, FL, the nation's first humanist charter school.

UPDATE: Mark at Protestant Pontifications has written a blog post on this Time magazine article, and I've submitted this comment:

When you write “But there is danger in thinking one can siphon off certain aspects of community and still achieve the same result - especially when trying to mimic the benefits of religious community,” do you mean to suggest that any religion can have such benefits, or do you mean to restrict it to Christianity (and perhaps Judaism)?

It seems to me that other religions clearly have communities with the same social benefits and same self-ascriptions of worship and spiritual value. Yet clearly not all religions are true, which means that either some of the participants are self-deceived or that the benefits do not require the religion to be true. I think the latter is better supported by the evidence.

Since I happen to think that there is no true religion, I don’t see the problem with what these humanists are trying to do. I’ve recently attended memorial services of deeply religious evangelical Christians, of a liberal universalist Christian, and of an atheist, and they each evoked the same emotions and sense of community and fellowship with the people at the services; in my case, I felt a deeper fellowship and companionship with those at the atheist service since those are like-minded people. The emotions were the same–a combination of grief at the departure yet happiness at the memories of the departed’s life–yet there was no self-deception about seeing the departed again in the future.

BTW, it is somewhat ironic for a member of such a syncretistic religion as Christianity to criticize an atheist group for “trying to mimic” a religious practice. Virtually every component of the Christian religion was appropriated from other religions, and that’s not even counting holiday celebrations. The most rapidly growing religious sect in the world today, Pentecostalism (from 0 to 400 million members in about a century), is also quite syncretistic, appropriating components of local religions everywhere it spreads.

The Christian CADRE blog has a post on the article titled "The Cult-like Culture of Atheism, Part II," which says that "If atheists cannot see how that is just another step on the road to finally recognizing themselves as a religion then they really need to think a little bit more about how they act." I've responded with this comment:
Humanism (which is not just atheism, it has specific positive tenets, and should be distinguished from "secular humanism") *does* recognize itself as a religion, and has for many years. The American Humanist Association is a 501(c)(3) *religious* organization. It has officiants who perform marriage and memorial services, it has groups that hold regular meetings and social events in most countries of the world. In the Netherlands, 26% of the population consider themselves humanists (vs. 31% Catholic, 13% Dutch Reformed, 7% Calvinist); another 18% are non-religious and non-Humanist.

BTW, "cult" is a term that, in my opinion, should be restricted to religious groups that have most or all of a set of features that include being centered around an authoritarian leader, requiring members to restrict contact with non-members, controlling all aspects of the group's lives, etc. Steve Hassan's book _Combatting Cult Mind Control_ has a good list of cult characteristics. Most sects of Christianity are not cults; there could certainly be atheist cults, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's American Atheists group was probably close to one, if not one, while she was alive.

I disagree with Mr. Ragland [another commenter who said this shows man to be a religious creature] about what this particular evidence shows--I think it shows that man is a *social* creature, though I think there are other reasons (put forth in Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained book, for example) to think that man is, indeed, a religious creature.


Mark said...

Thanks for the comment. My response is here and below:

Thanks for the comment, though I’m going to avoid the trap you layed of trying to address the truth of differing religions. The salient and animating difference between religious churches and atheist ‘churches’ is, simply put, a belief in God. As I openly noted above, I encourage the strengthening of communities in general and freely acknowledge that the humanist organizations mentioned in the article will achieve *some* of the benefits found in religious churches. However, when it comes to actually teaching morals and “values,” those taught in a secularist setting ultimately ring hollow.

As for being a syncretistic religion, I’m not sure how this weakens my argument. The irony I was pointing to is when atheists denounce organized religion and then turn around and make atheism itself into an organized religion. And again, one of the big differences has to do with a belief in God. There’s nothing alarming in various religions appropriating certain practices or liturgy, when relevant. But when a group largely opposed to religion itself, particularly organized religion, starts mimicking religious groups, one can’t help but chuckle.

Lippard said...

Mark: Thanks for the comment.

I think that it is fair to criticize any atheist who criticizes an aspect of organized religion and then adopts it for an atheist organization. But I'm not convinced that's occurring here. I think most atheists recognize that there *is* value to the social and community-building aspects of religion.

Peter said...

to me, it looks like a whole lot of church people just got even more scared. pretty soon they'll have to be promising miracles to folks just to get them in the door.

Lippard said...

BTW, Mark, I don't think it was a "trap," it was a genuine dilemma for your position. And keep in mind that there are *many* religions which do not involve a single God. Arguably, the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is not a single God, either. It's only the Bahai who say that all religions worship the same God (and thereby disagrees with all religions).

Kat Lippard said...


Why do you think that "when it comes to actually teaching morals and “values,” those taught in a secularist setting ultimately ring hollow"?

I think my moral values are just as strong, if not stronger, than a religious person because I don't have the 'threat' of eternal damnation or whatever. My moral sense was not imposed upon me, but acquired through reason and thought.

I also think it's funny when atheists have 'church' groups. One of the side benefits of being an atheist is sleeping in on Sundays.