Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Atheism, Churchgoing and Morality

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.

Comments

  1. #1 phillip
    April 7, 2006

    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?

    This one goes for a run/bike with friends: building a community and often discussing matters of ethics/morality. The church is not the sole domain of these issues.

  2. #2 KeithB
    April 7, 2006

    Well, if you go to an Ethiopian Christian Wedding, be prepared for the long haul. The *wedding* lasted about 3 hours! With the message taking most of it. (It is always a bad sign when they have the Bride and Groom sit down.)

    The food at the reception was excellent, though. I was only the sound guy, but hey invited me to the reception which I thought was cool.

  3. #3 steve s
    April 7, 2006

    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.

    I’m actually going to try a UU church this weekend for this very reason, despite being a hardcore atheist.

  4. #4 Soldats
    April 7, 2006


    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.

    Or the opposite could be just as feasible. Religion, being the opiate that it is, leads the undeveloped mind to percieve the often repeated message from authority over deduction from self-examination. When one is accustomed to being spoon fed through the developmental stages of their life, it is quite reasonable to expect them to continue such feeding – whether from god, government or advertisers.

    You could therefore, just as well say: They aren’t capable of providing for themselves because church has provided it for all their lives.

    Returning to Mr. Olson’s argument regarding the average American, it is most probably that they are prey to this syndrome of indoctrination by authority that is forced upon them from a young age. Which leads me to doubt that any average American would be a self-described atheist in the first place, rather, they would self-describe as being a churchgoer by routine and soporific by upbringing.

    It would come as a surprise to me that one with an unexamined life could somehow stumble upon atheism. The very arrival at such a conclusion demands examination of not only one’s environment, but of one’s innermost self as well.

  5. #5 Caliban
    April 7, 2006

    I agree that there will always be a percentage of the population that will need something like a church to avoid isolation and have various needs met. I certainly don’t begrudge them that.

    My own experiences in catholic and evangelical services seem to me to be more of an expresion of sectarian tribalism than one that embraces a larger community.

    The seductive power of belonging to tight-knit, evangelical church comes from thier militant identity as xians set against the larger community. For the evangelical xian, the larger community is nothing short of a moral wasteland filled with lost souls, temptation, sin and demonic manipulations.

    Under such beliefs, i can easily imagine how our communities would benefit without such tribal groups.

    And while, of course the art of Michelangelo and other rare geniuses will always produce awe, i have to say the more traditional church services i attended for years left me bored to tears. It was something to be endured. And i have never felt the desire to return to them.

    I wonder what the communities in the highly atheistic, scandanavian countries are like?

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    April 7, 2006

    Caliban makes an excellent point. The downside of that sense of community one can find in a church is that the sense of community can easily be turned into a sense of tribalism. That is particularly true in fundamentalist denominations where they are sure that they and only they possess the truth, directly from God, and that anyone who disagrees must be in the grip of the devil himself. That can result in isolation just as easily as it can the opposite.

  7. #7 Mr. Upright
    April 7, 2006

    Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel fills me with awe.

    I once had this conversation with a colleague (art professor with a very strong Catholic background) who asked, “how can you see a cathedral and not be awed by the power of God?”

    My response: “every time I see a cathedral I am awed by the power of faith that would inspire people to create such works.” I guess that’s a pretty humanist position.

    I feel the same way about the Coral Castle. Some people see it and wonder what secret forces of the universe Ed Leedskalnin must have tapped into to build the thing. I see it and am amazed by how much one crazy, lovesick guy can accomplish when he puts his mind to it!

    I can’t say that the others “appreciate” it any more than I do.

  8. #8 WJD
    April 7, 2006

    Soldats said:

    It would come as a surprise to me that one with an unexamined life could somehow stumble upon atheism. The very arrival at such a conclusion demands examination of not only one’s environment, but of one’s innermost self as well.

    I agree with the part about examining one’s environment, but not about “one’s innermost self”. Atheism does not come from inside, but from observation of the world around us. I see it sort of in reverse though from the way most people do. Atheism should be the “default” position from observing a world in which there is no evidence for a God, nor, really, any reason to posit the existence of a God in the first place. The need for examination comes when you are constantly told from childhood that there is a reality that is contrary to what is observable in the real world.

  9. #9 shargash
    April 7, 2006

    You could therefore, just as well say: They aren’t capable of providing for themselves because church has provided it for all their lives.

    Bingo! Now it may not be true for “second generation atheists”, every atheist I know was “born again,” if I can borrow a phrase. We came to atheism out of some kind of religious tradition because of a deep reflective sense. While some religious people have that reflective nature, the majority of church-goers simply sit in church Sunday mornings sucking up regurgitated pablum. If you take away the pablum, what do they have?

    For that reason, I strongly encourage people who are not introspective and reflective to get themselves to church. Despite their many flaws, the established (non-fundamentalist) religions serve a useful societal function by civilizing the brutish natures of most people. When churches fail to fulfill this role, you wind up with behavior unconstrained by anything, inner or outer.

    The prisons of this country are not filled with atheists. They are filled with Christians for whom the church was not sufficient moral restraint.

    Oh, and Mark Olson wants to know what I do on my Sunday mornings? Usually, I sleep in. But then I went to university for four years and have read hundreds of books and spent thousands of hours pondering the deeper mysteries of life, the universe, and everything. How many Sunday-morning pablum suckers can say that?

  10. #10 Tanooki Joe
    April 7, 2006

    I dunno, most sermons I’ve heard usually have rather little to do with ethics and are usually focused on more esoteric aspects of theology.

    Besides, as sermon is, quite frankly, a poor tool if your goal is self-examination. Some sort of philosophical discussion or conversation — much better. Besides, its not like, oh, you could think about things on your own time.

  11. #11 Chance
    April 7, 2006

    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.

    Actually I agree with it for the most part. I go to church often but really don’t feel overly compelled to do so. Much of the sermons are mindless but sometimes they can be inspiring.

    I’ve watched cartoons of ‘Jesus:superhero’ complete with cape and heard excellent sermons on why every man should have a dream. I have heard attacks on evolution and the big bang and seen a man with cancer surrounded by the congregation hoping to heal him. I know it won’t but I feel the man benefited from the warmth of the people.

    In short I’ve found many in churches, perhaps most, don’t buy (m)any of the doctrines. But wish to belong and be told it is ok. I find this very human. I’ve also seen vile disgusting attacks on other groups. It’s a mixed bag.

  12. #12 raj
    April 7, 2006

    From the post (of which I haven’t read much)…

    First, I am not an atheist, I am a deist.

    I am an agnostic. One for whom the existence of a god is not particularly important. So I don’t go around trying to find evidence for the existence of a god.

    I have found it interesting that, most people who are deists–or christians–whether or not their god exists isn’t particularly important. Why do I say that? Because they aren’t particularly interested in trying to find evidence for the existence of their god, either.

  13. #13 Norman Doering
    April 7, 2006

    I’m an atheist, but I grew up in a Christian family and went to church — it bored me, didn’t really teach me any moral lessons in spite of all the moral preaching.

    What got to me were Mark Twain’s novels, “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn.” Later, “Lord of the Flies” and more.

    I don’t even grasp how something as horribly boring as a church ritual could ever spark either self-examination or moral thinking. It seems to me that stuff has to come through good art — movies and books — that’s where you learn about human dignity and confront moral questions that you have to think about.

    Religion at best offers a pseudo-morality too full of absolute rules and no sense of why those rules are needed and why they are not absolute nor could they ever be.

  14. #14 Matthew
    April 7, 2006

    Most people who go to church do not think about philosophy; they are told what their philosophical positions should be by a supposed authority. I think that’s a flawed method of studying philosophy. There are no authorities with philosophy for the only tool necessary is your mind. Like Socrates did, it should be about discussion not preaching.

  15. #15 Roman Werpachowski
    April 7, 2006

    Hmm. What about the people brought up as atheists who later became religious?

  16. #16 Norman Doering
    April 7, 2006

    Hmm. What about the people brought up as atheists who later became religious?

    Name one.

  17. #17 Roman Werpachowski
    April 7, 2006

    My mother, for example.

  18. #18 Ed Brayton
    April 7, 2006

    There are lots of people who were brought up as atheists and later became religious. One of Madeline Murray O’Hair’s sons is an evangelist. There are also lots of people who were brought up religious and later became atheists. In neither case is it evidence of anything at all.

  19. #19 Ian Gibson
    April 7, 2006

    I consider myself an atheist (I take atheism to entail a rejection of theism, but not a positive denial of a creator god. So you could also technically say I’m an agnostic), but I’m wondering what real differences there are between atheists and deists.

    Presumably, a deist thinks that a god created the universe but then took no further interest in it? As an atheist, I take this as one of several possibilities, but see no reason to assert it as a positive fact (and in fact think it is unlikely, taking into account Occam’s Razor). Further, I don’t see how it would even be possible to know whether such a god, who would be (by definition) external to the universe, existed or not.

    For practical purposes, how does a deist differ from an atheist? Is the only difference that the deist would take what I see as one possible ‘first cause’ as the ‘first cause’?

  20. #20 Norman Doering
    April 7, 2006

    My mother, for example.

    So, ask her.

  21. #21 Norman Doering
    April 7, 2006

    I’m wondering what real differences there are between atheists and deists.

    I think it starts by defining what you mean by God.

    So, Mr. Brayton — What’s God?

    What is God without religion?

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    April 7, 2006

    Norman Doering wrote:

    So, Mr. Brayton — What’s God?

    I have no idea. I don’t presume to know anything about what might have created the universe. My best guess at this point is that something did; beyond that, I don’t think we have any basis for speculating on the nature of whatever that might be, since I reject claimed revelations. For all I know, whatever did it may be dead. Or inanimate. Or it might never have been. I make no positive claims about it at all.

  23. #23 Norman Doering
    April 7, 2006

    I make no positive claims about it at all.

    That’s not deism! That’s atheism and agnosticism.

    Deists have certain ideas about God. At least the idea that God was conscious and intelligent.

  24. #24 MikeN
    April 8, 2006

    As far as ceremonies/rituals go, they don’t particularly need to be connected with any cosmic/moral significance.

    Of the four universally-celebrated Chinese festivals, three (New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival)have long lost any religious meaning; the fourth, Tomb-Sweeping Day, is a tribute to one’s own ancestors.

    Births and weddings aren’t sacred events; tellingly, perhaps, only funerals are distinctly religious.

  25. #25 shargash
    April 8, 2006

    Hmm. What about the people brought up as atheists who later became religious?

    The reason I brought up atheists who started out religious was to make the point (poorly, as it turned out) that someone who converts as an adult does so as a reflective process. The same would apply to someone who starts out as an atheist and converts to a religion. You don’t just wake up one day and pull a new set of belifs out of a hat. It is a long process that involves a lot of reflection.

    I tried to make the point in response to the absurd idea that, because atheists don’t sit in a church on Sunday morning, they must not get any other exposure to ethics. The underlying assumption there is that people who do sit in a church on Sunday morning are more ethical than those that don’t.

    My personal experience is that atheists spend far more time considering ethics and philosophy than the average churchgoer. The same would be true of atheists who converted to a religion. I have never, however, met such a person. And my personal experience is that atheists are at least as ethical as your average churchgoer.

  26. #26 Treban
    April 8, 2006

    The reason I brought up atheists who started out religious was to make the point (poorly, as it turned out) that someone who converts as an adult does so as a reflective process. The same would apply to someone who starts out as an atheist and converts to a religion. You don’t just wake up one day and pull a new set of belifs out of a hat. It is a long process that involves a lot of reflection.

    I have a very close friend who is a Christian, converted from third generation atheism. And believe me, she struggled with her husband’s faith long and hard – then managed to connect with the right person, purely by “accident” and discovered her own faith. I believe it takes as much introspection to make a decision like that one. Too, I think it is easy for a second or further generational atheist to just be with no thought or attention given to their “morals” than lazy, unimaginative christians. Funny thing is, I think that those folks manage reasonably well not to become sociopaths, despite a lack of moral introspection.