Mark Olson has an interesting post, responded to in part by Jason Kuznicki here, at least partly as a reply to things I and others have written lately about atheism and morality. It’s worth a serious response, but first there are a couple of misconceptions to clear up. He writes:
Atheism is defended often (see Mr Brayton) by the idea that atheism has the means to come up with reasonable ethical frameworks to live by and that God is not necessary for that.
I just want to make my own position clear on the subject. First, I am not an atheist, I am a deist. On the issue of morality, there’s no functional difference between deism and atheism, since I reject claims of revelation and don’t see any reason to believe that whatever created the universe (if anything did) takes any interest in human affairs, actions or fate. But still, I think it’s an important distinction in other areas so I want to be clear about it.
Second, making the argument that morality need not be based on divine command is not a defense of atheism at all. The question of whether morality needs to be based on divine command is an entirely separate question from the existence of God. Indeed, the issue really goes the other way: atheism, if true, is proof that morality need not be based on divine command simply because it can’t be based on divine command. It always baffles me to hear someone defending theism with the argument from morality; at best, it is an argument for why God should exist.
Anyway, those are nitpicks and I just wanted to clear up my position on those things before getting to the meat of Olson’s post. He continues:
However, unlike Mr Brayton, and other atheist bloggers and thoughtful people, look instead at the more average (and more importantly unexamined) life of the typical American. While the average American atheist or faithful spends little time in self examination, the faithful typical church attendee gets a 20-40 minute lecture on ethics, comportment, and so on (that would be the homily or sermon). As an added bonus, the rest of the service is laden in tradition (well quite often perhaps) and which build community and companionship makes connections and forms ties that bind as it where. The atheist on the other hand, does what on his Sunday morning?
I’m not actually going to be as dismissive of this as one might expect. I agree with him that many of the traditions of church, and the very nature of belonging to such a community, have real value. And I think a lot of people believe that even if they’re not theists themselves, which is why we have religious humanism. Most UU churches, for example, are made up primarily of religious humanists, deists and even many agnostics and atheists, who recognize the value of the community, tradition and ritual that churches provide.
Ritual is important in a society and most of our important rituals are church-related, from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as rituals for the passage to adulthood (or something near it) to marriage ceremonies to funerals. And certainly, church communities do act as support groups in a wide range of ways, most of them positive. On top of that, much of the great art, music, architecture and so forth has roots in the church and these are all valuable both to society and the individual.
Truth be told, I would say I even have a craving for such traditions and rituals, which I think is the result of living in such a transitory, disposable culture. I live in a country that has already turned the 1990s into an object of nostalgia (VH1’s “I love the 90s” for example), where “retro” means dressing as we did in the 70s. Meanwhile, there are families in Italy with bottles of wine or balsamic vinegar that go back generations, even centuries. Because of that, I take great delight in learning about older traditions.
I love it when I get to attend a ceremony from a religious or ethnic tradition that I’m not familiar with and I particular enjoy seeing such traditions mixed. I’ve had the privilege of attending a Jewish/Catholic wedding presided over by both a priest and a rabbi and featuring both traditions, from the lighting of the candles to the stomping of the glass. I’ve also attended an American/Bangladeshi wedding that mixed both traditions, which was incredibly interesting. And I’ve attended some very cool humanist weddings. At some point, I’d really like to see a Wiccan handfasting ceremony.
My high school French teacher, an enormous influence on me, was an agnostic who nonetheless was the organist for the local Catholic church. When I asked him about this he described himself as a devout agnostic. For him, questions of doctrine didn’t matter much. What he loved was the sense of tradition, the appreciation of beauty in art and music, and the sense of awe and wonder that it all inspired in him despite his disbelief. And I actually agree with him.
Despite my skepticism about the historical and theological claims, a well-sung version of the Ave Maria still brings tears to my eyes. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel fills me with awe. Handel’s Messiah or a well-played Bach symphony can still give me chills. You don’t need to be a believer to find beauty, passion, and inspiration in these things, nor do you have to be a believer to see the value in the traditions, ritual and sense of community that come with going to church.
My point is that Church, besides being filled with worship (which for the believer is worthwhile) has many beneficial side effects which need not be put down as an opiate for the masses, but is useful continuing education. What counterpart has the atheist to offer? So on the general Kantian (and amusingly secular) principle of “calling it a good if it could be made universal”, regular churchgoing (if not actual faith) should be practiced perhaps by atheists as well, no?
Well, no, I don’t think that means that an agnostic, atheist or deist should necessarily go to church (and I myself do not). Churches are not the only place to find a community of like-minded folks, nor are sermons the only way (or even, I would argue, the preferable way) to encourage self-examination. I can easily derive more self-examination from a 20 minute conversation with my father or any of a number of friends than from a month’s worth of sermons or homilies.
I would agree that most people need something in their life to provide the benefits of tradition, ritual and community. I would also agree that it is valuable and necessary to our well-being to encourage self-examination and contemplation of important questions. But bear in mind that the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living” came not from theology but from the pagan Socrates.
I would also venture to say that for many, perhaps most, going through the ritual of church attendance is nothing more than a formality. They go to church every week and nod off through the sermon, certainly not deriving anything of value from it or likely even storing it in their memory. It becomes little more than going through the motions. Certainly this isn’t true of all churchgoers, not by a longshot, but in my experience in many different denominations it’s pretty common.
A corollary to Socrates’ maxim, perhaps, is that the majority of people, regardless of whether they profess theism, atheism or something else, will live an unexamined life and there’s not much anyone else can do about it. Let’s face it, the majority of people in the world are too busy trying to survive to spend their time contemplating ethical dilemmas or the nature of reality. Philosophy is an artifact of relative luxury and wealth.
And even in nations like ours, where we ostensibly value education and abstract thought and have the luxury to engage in them, the majority of people exist as little more than automatons – programmed by the mass media culture, manipulated by advertising to play their appointed role as consumer (mostly consuming useless things, of course), easily led by the exploitation of their insecurity and the use of shallow catchphrases.
Incidentally, this is why I shrug when a survey says that some huge percentage of the public thinks evolution is false. Okay, so 47% of the public thinks that humans have only been on earth a few thousand years. Then again, 80% of the public can’t tell you what even the 4th of July is intended to celebrate and 45% of the public still wonders why Knight Rider was cancelled. If you hear someone talking in a faux-righteous tone about the “wisdom of the people” you can be pretty sure that they are in the process of exploiting the ignorance and credulity of the people for their own gain.
The average person, regardless of their church attendance or lack thereof, has no interest in discovering new ideas; they care far more about who Jessica Simpson may be screwing than about learning something they didn’t know before. They’re far too busy obsessing over whether they’ll look good in a swim suit this summer to consider whether they have obligations to their fellow man and, if so, how to fulfill them. Such matters elude the average man today just as surely as they eluded him in times past.
And this, frankly, is why I can’t say that I’m entirely sure that the Straussians are wrong when they say that religion provides a simple and easy framework that allows the average person to control their worst impulses and get along in society. That seems to be the core of Olson’s argument here, that for those who do not live thoughtful lives, church can provide valuable things they aren’t capable of providing for themselves, including a basic sense of morality and a support system that keeps them well constrained. Is he wrong about that? I’m not sure he is.