Josh Rosenau makes an excellent and important point regarding prayer meetings and the Gulf oil spill: that the point is not so much that God will stop the oil gushing into the Gulf, but that religious groups are a key community organization point for getting people together to work on the problem. He puts this into a larger context toward the end of the post, saying things I’ve said myself numerous times:
Most people attend church for a lot of reasons, and many of those reasons are self-reinforcing. Someone who goes to church with no particular views on theism (pro, con, or agnostic) could well keep attending church because they enjoy the community, want to take part in the volunteer activities organized by the church, want to take advantage of the church’s daycare and other social services, etc. They may adopt some sort of theism in order to fit in. Over time, they associate theism broadly and the church’s brand of theism in particular with the good works, generous friends, and deep community ties that they’ve found in the church.
If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway. There need to be communities of non-theists who are as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be. Churches play a huge role in the community lives of smaller towns, and of many neighborhoods within big cities. People might join for reasons with nothing to do with theology, and unless there’s a nontheist structure that can parallel that role, nontheism will have a hard time replacing or even making headway against, theism.
If the best that national nontheist groups can muster in response to the Gulf Gusher is “don’t pray about it,” I fear for the message that sends. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are all happily sending aid and volunteers to help the Gulf cleanup, to support out-of-work fishing families, etc. That outreach doesn’t speak for or against theism philosophically, but it’s a great way to bring people into the fold of religion, or at least to keep them there. Local nontheists are certainly doing their part, and I’d be surprised if their members weren’t participating in community prayer gatherings. They know that the gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer. If only nationally prominent atheists could get on that same page.
As I said, I’ve said similar things in the past, and it goes nowhere. In keeping with the mirror-universe character of modern discussion of atheism and politics, if you read down in the comments a bit, you’ll find someone deriding the whole concept of good works. Sweet.
The fundamental problem, of course, is that insulting people on the Internet and providing smug proofs of your philosophical superiority is easy and fun, while building real-world communities that can actually make a difference is hard work. There are some people making an effort, which is great to see, but not nearly enough. If we’re ever going to see religion displaced from its too-central role in American public life, we need a lot more community organizing, and a lot less childish name-calling.
Let me also provide what signal boost I can to the donation link that Josh provided for the Audubon Society, which is collecting money to help contain the oil damage. If you’ve got disposable cash, consider sending them some.