As you have probably guessed from the blog drought around here, it’s the end of the semester. That means tons of grading, office hours, meetings with students, deadlines to meet, and all around not much time for blogging. Final exams are this week. Once those are graded I reach the promised land of summer break. So regular blogging will resume shortly.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post I wrote for the Oxford University Press blog. I offer a few thoughts about my two recent experiences with atheist gatherings: The Reason Rally and the American Atheists Convention. I enjoyed both events immensely, but I also offer a few gentle criticisms. So go read the post and let me know what you think.

Comments

  1. #1 BathTub (Nigel McNaughton)
    April 30, 2012

    My Copy of Among the Creationists arrived. Are you aware of any copies further south than Wellington, NZ?

  2. #2 JimR
    April 30, 2012

    I attended TAM 2003 where atheists were a majority, but not 100%. There were complaints from some attendees about the fairly blatant attacks on religion by some of the speakers. I was surprised there were any religious people there. Other than some local meetings, I have never been to a large gathering of people who are nonreligious.

    I contend that the very basis of the grouping, the NOT something, identifies the lack of a cohesive basis for bonding. Atheists are not fervently for something that creates a common bond.

    If someone can identify a unifying positive theme, then books can be written and authors can hit the lecture circuit. Religionists can be fervently committed to a symbol that requires no rational basis. Atheists on the other hand have logically arrived at their belief. I have not found anyway to communicate the profound, transcendental beauty the universe holds for me, because I see it unclouded by a religious overlay. I have felt that I shared that feeling with others, but we did not discuss it.

    Some atheists I have met are still angry and rejecting their past. It would be especially hard for them to share a new vision. We could help if we could build symbols and ways of thinking that help one shed the blinders religion requires.

  3. #3 eric
    April 30, 2012

    I contend that the very basis of the grouping, the NOT something, identifies the lack of a cohesive basis for bonding. Atheists are not fervently for something that creates a common bond.

    If someone can identify a unifying positive theme…

    For TAM, I would think the unifying positive theme would be skeptical investigation of miracle claims. A second one might be a desire to put con artists out of business.

  4. #4 Wow
    April 30, 2012

    “If someone can identify a unifying positive theme”

    How about: “You don’t need someone else to tell you you’re special. YOU tell you that”

    Please, what is a positive unifying theme for religions?

  5. #5 Tony61
    April 30, 2012

    Jason says, “Perhaps a term like “humanist” is more positive.”

    While I agree that identifying with the negative term “atheist” may be counter-productive, I don’t think “humanist” is truly inclusive enough. Not to get too caught up in terminology but I would prefer “rationalist”, a person who eschews supernatural or irrational explanations for our observed existence; or perhaps “empiricist”, a person who relies on his/her 5 sensory inputs to determine reality.

    If someone asks me I say that I am a “rational empiricist”. I’ll be looking forward to your next book on atheist gatherings. ;-)

  6. #6 Gingerbaker
    May 1, 2012

    “Are we in danger of being just as insular and dogmatic as the religions we decry?”

    Well, we are certainly opinionated, but I don’t think it is dogmatism. Show us good evidence, and we will change our minds.

    Insular? It seems like we read and talk about books, articles, and arguments from the other sides of the aisles all the time. Is it our fault that we just don’t seem to get any new or compelling arguments for belief in deities?

    Was it your impression that fundamentalist Christians kept up with atheist literature?

  7. #7 Wow
    May 1, 2012

    “Was it your impression that fundamentalist Christians kept up with atheist literature?”

    I’ve read books xtians have wanted me to read (and Bhuddists, Jesuits, and anyone else who wanted to palm their psalm on me in the street). I’ve TRIED to get them to read books I’ve read but they refuse. Absolutely refuse.

    The last one was an exchange at work: they gave me their mormon booklet to read, I gave them “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett. I read their book, several weeks later, handing the book back, I asked if they read mine. No. They still had it at work, unread.

    They asked if I wanted to talk about the book and I told them no, I wasn’t interested, and please give me back my book.

    Since then I’ve not bothered reading anything a faithiest has wanted to give me.

    Closed minded?

    Not the atheists. The theists.

  8. #8 Kevin
    May 1, 2012

    At the atheist reason rally, Tim Minchin’s lyrics draw attention to an important point. Although he refers specifically to spontaneous remission or misdiagnosis, there is no opposition between the world of prayer and the world of physics. While the laws of motion may physically move the physician, for example, they do not spiritually move him to practice the profession. 

    One commonly given reason for becoming a physician is the desire to help people. In a sense, this desire can be said to be the final cause of, say, a surgical cure. This is different from claiming that it is the efficient cause of the cure. The proof of the efficient cause would be scientific. The proof of the final cause would involve the testimony of the surgeon, although it is capable of being a fact.

    To understand God as the final cause of our good fortune is to combine Revelation (that He wills our happiness) with the metaphysical understanding that He is the First Cause of our being. That is, even if the efficient cause of our good fortune is a mere fact of existence, such as spontaneous remission, our experience of it as good is dependent on the source of our existence. 

    This says nothing, however, about the problem of suffering. It is an expression of worship by someone who already believes in Christ, rather than a motive (i.e. worldly gain) for conversion.

  9. #9 JimR
    May 1, 2012

    Free Inquiry has published a wonderful essay, “The Enlightenment, Naturalism, and the Secularization of Values” by Alan Charles Kors. It is available at http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=index.
    Together with “The History of Humanism (Introduction)” by
    Gordon Gamm, it suggests that “naturalist” is an appropriate name for atheists. We do not accept unnatural explanations (magic or religious). If we cannot explain something we add it to the collection of things of which we are ignorant, and wait for future knowledge to be applied. I like this idea.

  10. #10 TFJ
    May 2, 2012

    There is a natural tendency to conflate skepticism and atheism. The 2 do not necessarily go hand in hand, although it can be argued that the one often follows from the other. An atheist is simply one who lacks a belief in any gods, and yet there are those who would insist that atheism should somehow be linked with a certain political opinions. It’s hard enough combatting the theists with their attributing of atheism to all manner of spurious motivations, so I personally think it best to not attach any baggage at all to the word ‘atheist’. If you are also a so-called political progressive, a radical gender feminist, pro-choice etc., then please do your fellow atheists the courtesy of not linking those things with atheism as they do not necessarily agree with them.

  11. #11 TFJ
    May 2, 2012

    #10 was not aimed at any preceding comments. Apologies if anyone read it that way.

  12. #12 TFJ
    May 2, 2012

    Perhaps I should have read the linked article before commenting. I see that Jason pre-empted some of what I said in #10 about diversity.

    At the atheist gatherings, no one was threatened with eternal damnation for being critical of a speaker.

    I have to say that there is more than one prominent atheist blogger coming very close to emulating that behaviour in their disagreements with other atheists.

  13. #13 Tore Bye
    May 3, 2012

    Even though disagreement and not consensus is the driving force of progress, it is sometimes good to be among people that agree with you.

  14. #14 Wow
    May 3, 2012

    Show me where there’s anything useful in a disagreement about whether the ratio of the diameter of a circle and its circumference is precisely Pi.

  15. #15 Ian Kemmish
    May 3, 2012

    “These are my people. I felt entirely at home at these gatherings”

    Surely this is precisely what being a member of an organised religion gives you? The knowledge that you have ties and allies other than simply of blood?

    It also struck me that perhaps you see such a strack dichotomy only because of the specific types of meeting you choose to attend? Would you still see preaching and damnation if you attended Shinto or Hindu gatherings? Would you still see rational argument instead of emotional manipulation if you were locked in a room with, say, Prof. Dawkins?

  16. #16 Wow
    May 3, 2012

    “Would you still see rational argument instead of emotional manipulation if you were locked in a room with, say, Prof. Dawkins?”

    Yes.

  17. #17 TFJ
    May 3, 2012

    @15.

    Ideally, at least, atheists meet to affirm their lack of conformance to religious dogma and their right to obey the dictates of reason and their own consciences. Religious community is all about adherence to dogma, Hinduism included. The New Agey western Hindu inspired stuff is not representative of Hinduism as actually practiced by cultural Hindus. This is why I am not in favour of mixing up atheism with any other kind of ‘ism’. There may be those who complain that atheism needs positive values and should mean more than just ‘disbelief’, but that would mean excluding atheists who disagree over those values. There is plenty of room for separate atheist and skeptic gatherings, even with the probable big overlap in attendees.

  18. #18 Dan L.
    May 3, 2012

    Religious community is all about adherence to dogma, Hinduism included.

    Except that there is no “Hindu” religious community. “Hindu” is a catch-all invented by British imperialists — Indian religion is much too diverse to be captured under one “faith umbrella.”

    This might help: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ramendra_nath/hindu.html

  19. #19 TFJ
    May 3, 2012

    @18:

    The point I was making is that the New Agey perception of practitioners of religions grouped under the umbrella term of Hindu as sophisticated and ‘spiritually advanced’ is usually false. Hindu fundamentalists do exist, but on reflection it is not useful to compare them to Islamic or Xtian fundies as there is no one prescribed set of beliefs common to all Hindus. They are more open to the gods of other religions. Their fundamentalists tend to be driven by grievances over holy sites and perceptions of cultural slights toward Hindus.

  20. #20 Wow
    May 4, 2012

    “Their fundamentalists tend to be driven by grievances over holy sites and perceptions of cultural slights toward Hindus.”

    Apu: Please stop feeding my God peanuts.

    Although they do get their religious sites blasted by Howitzer which is a little more serious.

  21. #21 Dan L.
    May 7, 2012

    @TFJ:

    Fair enough. I understand it’s not always easy to work in all the nuance when said nuance is tangential to your argument. Your clarification makes perfect sense to me.

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