On this Sunday’s Weekend Edition on NPR there was a piece titled Removing Religion from the Holidays a Tall Order. Much of the story focuses upon Greg Epstein, a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, and his attempt to forge a new more humane secular cultural sensibility which does not reject all that that is religious because it is religious. On the other side there are others who say that the trends Epstein is promoting “sounds like religion and smells like religion.” As I noted in earlier, these sorts of issues are not so cut & dried, and common sense is often a better guide to the “right decision” than inferences from axiomatic doctrine. Shouldn’t we be as concerned about if it smells good as the provenance of the smell?
I’m assuming that on this day many of your are celebrating Christmas right now. This was written earlier and scheduled to post now, so I am eating, drinking and socializing. Many of you will likely read this a day or two later. As a culture we exhibit a synchronicity in our behaviors and rituals, we are not creatures who engage in social Brownian motion. This is not a matter of right or wrong, it is a matter of what we are.
I will state a priori that my own viewpoint is that Greg Epstein has a correct read on the issues and priorities which loom for any human in their life, and that his opinions reflect the needs of most atheists. When I say most, I am acknowledging that there is variation in innate propensity and individual context. For example, if you are a atheist who was sexually abused by a Christian minister as a child your attitudes toward imagery or terminology which is derived from that religion may be highly negative, just as if you are a atheist who has very fond memories of the hymns and communal good-feeling of the church of your youth allusions and reminders of the Christian religion may arouse positive emotions and a gentle nostalgia.1 I assume that most individuals are more neutral in their attitudes. I am someone who was raised in a Muslim milieu within my family but permeated in a Christian culture among my peers, as well as lacking any theistic commitments from a very young age. These various factors go into shaping my own priorities and reactions. Though I may find hymns of interest and not unpleasant to the ear, obviously they don’t elicit the nostalgia of my youth since they weren’t part of my upbringing. On the other hand, Christmas trees, Santa Claus and winter lights were all deeply imprinted into my childhood psyche; and the sensory pageantry is something which I look forward to every year.
A few years ago a book came out with the arresting title Religion Is Not About God. I would modify it a bit and state that religion is not just about God. I do tend to be of the opinion that a mass religion does need supernatural agents as a necessary precondition.2 But we all know that the personal relationship between an individual believer and God leaves out much that is essential. Just as gods may be a necessary precondition for religion, by their nature mass religions must also acknowledge that we are social creatures, that we appreciate grandeur and artistry. Those religions that we term “higher” also appeal to the more intellectual set by giving rise to sprawling theologies and metaphysics, capping the psychological and social dimensions with philosophy. Religion is a many headed hydra, if those who style themselves irreligious rejected all that had accreted under the heading of religion then they would reject much indeed.
In many pre-modern societies not only did religion absorb within itself preexistent beliefs and folkways, but religion suffused daily life. American evangelicals who speak of glorifying God in their smallest acts attest to this sensibility, as do traditionalist Jews and Muslims in their adherence to religious law, and monastic and mystical communities of all faiths. The parameters have shifted a bit in our consumer culture, where religious adherence is more notional and somewhat marginalized by the welter of gadgets and epicurean delights which bubble in the background of our lives, but this need to sanctify our acts, large and small, remains (many social progressives aspire to remain conscious of their political values in every act, so the characteristic is not limited to religion). Birth, marriage and death remain significant events even if they lack sacramental import. An atheist of materialist bent may admit intellectually that the rotting corpse of their recently deceased parent is now simply a lifeless collection of molecules, but likely they would object if you offered to purchase the meat and sell it to a pig farmer as feed. We are feeling beings who have a sense of the world and how to relate to it which precedes ratiocination from our premises. There is what you believe, what you assess in regards to the world in a positivist sense, and there is how you feel about your relation to the world and your fellow human.
I was reading some commentaries upon The Analects today, and so the importance of proper social relations, consideration, manners and respect for our pre-rational nature is something that I am very conscious of. Even the most irreligious of the Confucian Sages, Xun Zi, warned against rejecting irrational customs and rituals out of hand with no consideration for the consequences. From the naive perspective of the Enlightenment it seems natural that one could reconstruct humanity from the ground up based on “rational” principles, but the experiments in that task over the past few centuries have been proved unsuccessful. The Confucians promoted a moderate middle way on most questions as the route to maximum human satisfaction. Hellenistic ethical philosophies also generally settled upon this (even superficially hedonistic Epicureans actually advised some restraint in copious consumption to heighten the highs of pleasure). All religious traditions and ideologies, if they are to persist, have had to compromise with human nature and accommodate our impulses, whether they be base or elevated.
But some religions and ideologies have encouraged and idealized asceticism and extremism in the name of the faith, taking their beliefs to their logical and inhumane conclusions. In Jainism the monks of the Digambar sect wear no clothes in pursuit of religious enlightenment. In the ancient world St. Simeon Stylites lived atop a pillar for 37 years. No doubt these sorts of behaviors are driven by sincere belief in particular propositions, but holding so true to their principles results in a rejection of conventional human sociality. Those of a less mystical bent are wont to engage in extreme intellectual analysis of their beliefs. Literalist Calvinists and Muslims have both debated whether all that is not mentioned in their scripture is permitted, or whether only that which is mentioned positively in their scripture is permitted. The reality is that when Calvinist and Muslims of this stripe gain power they quickly must compromise and evolve because total rationality in the name of God is easier spoken of then implemented. As a child I was regularly told that Muslims exist only to submit to God, that prayer and worship is the only essential calling of humanity, and yet I observed that most Muslims did much more in their day to day lives than eat and eliminate in pursuit of maintaining bodily function so that they could engage in prayer. In fact, many avowed Muslims prayed irregularly if at all! The point is not that religious people are hypocrites, the point is that humans are complex, with a host of valences bundled up in one individual package. What someone says, intends or believes may not be a good guide to what someone does, enjoys and prioritizes through their action. Our nature is more than what we say our nature is, and sometimes it is in general contradiction of what we say it is.
But what does this have to do with atheists and asceticism? Some atheists engage in a game of pointing out the “irrationality” of all aspects of human existence. Holding True Axioms they proceed to offer up a vision of a reconstructed humanity, godless and pursuing True Utility. This is a minor tendency in its full incarnation, and quite often it is simply a phase, but combined with a general suspicion of religion it results in a broader swath of atheist Americans rejecting a host of religious practices as outside the pale of True Rationality. Consider the concern of Amanda Shapiro, president of the Harvard Secular Society, about the possibility of having a holiday party without seeming to celebrate the birth of Christ. The concern here is for coincidence (the attitudes of the majority of one’s fellow citizens about celebrations at this time of the year) and symbolism. The reality is that I assume that Amanda Shapiro does not believe in God, nor does she think that Christ was the Son of God. I also suspect that she is well aware of the fact that substantively the unequivocally Christian nature of Christmas (despite it being “Christ’s Mass”) is highly disputable.
Ultimately, the concern about a holiday party from the perspective of an unbeliever is a concern about literally nothing in a fundamental material sense, an unbeliever does not believe in God or Christ. I had a Orthodox Jewish friend who would always be away from the school during celebrations like Halloween or Christmas (e.g., Christmas parties before vacation, etc.). Why? My friend believed in a religion, a set of beliefs, which would not allow him to honor such holidays in any way, shape or form. He believed in a God who abhorred any respect given to false idols, adhered to a set of religious laws which demarcated most aspects of his life, and accepted an identity which contradicted Christianity and offered up a counter-narrative which fought fire with fire. While the atheist does not share theological premises with Christianity in the least, my Jewish friend accepted common premises with his Christian classmates but disagreed vehemently on critical details. These disagreements rendered his absence understandable. He could not be seen to be honoring a false God; there were critical differences of the material realities at the heart of the dispute.
As has been noted many a time: the only thing that atheism implies is that one does not believe in God. In reality many people, atheists and non-atheists, make generalizations based on broad trends and implicitly presume that a host of tendencies necessarily derive from atheism when such conclusions are unwarranted. Many atheists are surprised that a disproportionate number of white separatists & supremacists are fellow unbelievers. Why? I assume this is because in the main American atheists are on the political Left and make a proud point in eschewing racism and bigotry. But even though most atheists are on the political Left, that does not mean all atheists are. We have seen Christopher Hitchens drift from Left to Right (at least on foreign policy) without recanting his vigorous and militant atheism. In the recent profile of ex-atheist Antony Flew the authors notes as if it is surprising that Flew has always been involved in right-wing politics. Specifically, Flew has been an active proponent of libertarian conservatism for many years, and was a enthusiastic Thatcherite. Anyone who knows American libertarianism will know that atheists are overrepresented in the movement. Harry Browne, two time candidate for the Libertarian Party for president was an atheist, as was Ayn Rand. Atheists tend to be liberal. But libertarians are disproportionately atheist.
Of course, one has to remember that many people admit the reality that even atheism and religion are not disjoint sets. That is, there is an intersection between the two, as atheist streams within major religious traditions exist, in particular in the Dharmic religions. As atheism does not even necessarily imply disavowal of religions affiliation, I think one could contend then that it most certainly does not entail a subtraction from one’s life every act or belief which could be adduced to have religious provenance. Atheism is the subtraction of one belief from the standard cognitive toolkit of our species. It does not imply that one should subtract thousands of years of custom, tradition and wisdom and reconstruct de novo from the ground up through rational processes. If human happiness and contentment are the prior values that we hold dear then it might be said that we should simply subtract incrementally and only cautiously from the customs that we inherit from our ancestors and which are in common currency among our peers. This does not mean that we should abdicate our critical facilities, rather, it admits that criticism & negation is not a way of life which leads to any satisfaction, it is simply one of the tools which we use in the course of our lives.
Going back to the most fulfilling manner in which to live our lives, I think that it is reasonable to assert that the way of St. Simeon Stylites and the naked Jain monks is not one which would ever appeal to most humans. We are fundamentally social creatures who take joy from our Epicurean indulgences. Fine things enjoyed in the company of those who we wish to live our lives with are perhaps the apotheosis of human existence for those of us who assume that the corporeal is all there is and not gifted with transcendent idealism and zeal to change the world and humanity.3 This does not mean that crass consumerism is superior to modest consumption, or that a social gathering of 100 is superior to 10. Moderation is also a value which we must keep in mind. Good things are not always monotonic. In terms of the relationship of the two values I note above, I would ask if most humans would prefer a life of sensory arousal (through food, games, activities, etc.) which was spent in total isolation, or of modest hunger in the company of friends and family?
My own hunch is that isolation is more terrifying than want. So the acts we do, and the choices we make, must take into account their social ramifications. For the purposes of laws and thought experiments we can view ourselves as individual actors, with the rest of humanity being objects with social and psychological characteristics, but in day to day life other human beings are independent agents of equal value, and together in collections of groups we can create a satisfaction that is greater than the sum of its parts. The aggregate joy of 10 is more than 10 times the individual joy of each alone. The very concern that many atheists express of condoning religion symbolically through celebrating Christmas shows the importance of social ramifications. And yet the concern seems to me a curious inversion of theism, insofar as belief and ritual in a religious context weigh heavily for those who reject the premises which would lend them transcendent weight! I can understand a Christian who is somewhat offended by non-Christians celebrating the holiday which commemorates the birth of their Savior, after all, anything associated with Jesus Christ is important and imbued with both symbolic and substantive character. It seems to me that by consciously avoiding “what the Christians do” many atheists give a nod to the same symbolism and substance. It is as if those who reject magic nevertheless avoid uttering “words of power” mistakenly, lest the magicians think that they too accept their supernatural view of the world.
A few years I wished an evangelical Christian friend of mine a Merry Christmas, and that elicited some curiosity as he knew my own lack of belief in Christ and rejection of his religion. I made the argument to him that I accept that Christ is the reason for his joy in the season, but I added that it need not be my reason, though I too am human and therefore can appreciate the importance and necessity of a holiday in the vein of Christmas. I do not believe in Christ or any of his rivals and so the word “Christmas” is a label, and I do not mean to glorify the Christian God by using the phrase “Merry Christmas.” If Christians take my turn of phrase to assume that I accept their beliefs it does me no injury. If they inquire they will know the truth of the matter, and if they do not the moment will pass from their memory in good time. In practical terms we live in a nation of Christians, and so their celebrations will loom large. I do not believe in the spiritual necessity of Christmas or Easter, but I hold that the various accoutrements of each holiday make them needful to our soul (don’t take my reference to a soul literally!).
Some atheists agree that there are needful things which religion has traditionally provided and they are attempting to provide alternatives. Greg Epstein is one of those. Unitarian-Universalism has also provided an avenue for many atheists to become involved in a religion which does not ask of them to believe in what they can not believe in. I believe this is fine, but, I also think we should keep in mind that reinventing the wheel is not always necessary. Creating a totally de-Christianized Christmas which we call “Solstice” may satisfy many, but the new is not always superior to the old. Cultural traditions are not always amenable to scientific engineering. Bowdlerizing Christmas Carols which seem too religious may remove the very ineffable elements of uplift that we seek to have access too. Religion is interlinked with many aspects of our traditional culture, whichever culture that may be, so excising every single plank of supernatural import may result in the structure’s collapse, leaving us all the poorer. The story of Jesus may arouse admiration, without necessitating that one assent to its literal truth. Emotions and our inner world are not necessarily tightly moored to our positive model of the material universe. Religion and religious sentiments may inspire even those who do not assent to its truth value.
All this is not to say that we should meekly bow the head when someone enjoins that we prepare ourselves for prayer. A frank honesty about one’s views are also part of the fulfilled life. There are real issues that atheists have in the choices they make the acts and ideas which they wish to condone. All I am saying is that we should be careful to not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Living in a society where most people hold to religious premises means that compromise and accommodation are a necessity if manners and amity are things which you value. In fact, compromise and accommodation are always the nature of things for any human being, for after all, we are not as the gods, free to do as we wish. Those who wish to relieve themselves of the foolishness of their fellow man may do so, but I doubt many will take up the hermetic calling and live with only their Truth as their company. Better to laugh with a fool than cry alone.
Addendum: As with any essay I covered a lot of ground and imperfectly expressed myself. Though the basic thrust of my sentiment is plain, be practical to enjoy life, the details of my argument assume many implicit priors and leave them unstated. Obviously I do not therefore believe that atheists should accede to the wishes of the Religious Right because they are numerous and we should increase their comfort and joy. There are serious issues at work within American society, and the interplay of God and politics. Those are great and well ventilated issues. The dynamics are macrosocial and change is affected by collective action. Here I am talking about interpersonal relations, and the pursuit of the contented life in one’s private affairs. I am making a plea for the importance of personal self-cultivation, and interpersonal subjectivity and reality that we are social creatures who nevertheless have individual desires which may be at variance. There are many complexities I elided, and many arguments I expressed clumsily. But let us remember the Golden Rule, for the rest of what I say is commentary.
1 – E.O. Wilson, an avowed atheist, has been strongly stamped by his Southern Baptist upbringing, to the point where revival meetings can still have an affect upon him.
2 – Some readers will object that Buddhism is a mass religion which is not theistic. But as a matter of reality in all societies where Buddhism is a mass religion, and not a preference of a small set of self-selected practitioners, it is operationally theistic. Even if philosophically there is not a Creator God, this makes little difference to most believers on the level of mental conceptualization.
3 – Even many religions imply that sociality is part of the ultimate release. For example, the Christian idea that in heaven one “may be with god.” The Mormon idea that one may live eternally with one’s family.