Insults Are Easy, Community Is Hard

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Anna
    June 28, 2010

    Thanks for linking to this, and writing it! I think it’s a very important thought.

    It doesn’t translate 1-to-1 to the Dutch (European?) situation, as our societies are more or less completely secularized, but we should arrive at the same point from the other side: we’re in trouble because we’ve lost a big part of community-sense, and would do very well to work on some churchlike community building.

    How that is to be accomplished without any common feeling as strong as religion, though, I wouldn’t know. I’d think most of the not-so-much-theist people Mr. Rosenau mentions are embedded in a matrix of theist churchgoers. Without that, how do you keep people together?

  2. #2 Wilson
    June 28, 2010

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I feel it bears mentioning again. The singing group that I direct feels much like a church group, but without the religion: we meet once or twice a week for regular meetings (rehearsals), plus have special events (performances) and also have parties periodically.

    We have the benefit of the feeling that we’re building something together (the harmonies, the choreography(!), the show as a whole) and in our group, at least, we’re lucky enough to be spared most (not all) of the politics a group our size usually has to deal with.

    We are a charity, and we’re starting to branch out from just singing for people – usually people who don’t get out much, like at seniors homes – as our ‘nice thing to do’ (though that’s still our main focus).

    I think music is a lot of what many people go to church for (in addition to the benefits you list). Perhaps more community singing groups could reach out beyond their purely musical goals and start taking the place of some of the other church functions, too.

    Meta-comment (feel free to edit out): Chad, your last paragraph could use a couple of edits. There’s an extra word ‘one’, and ‘Audubon’ is misspelt. (‘Audobon’ is a highway in Germany. :) )

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 28, 2010

    Typos fixed now; thanks for pointing them out.

    The singing group thing sounds like a possible nucleus for the sort of thing I think we need to see. It’s genuinely a Hard Problem, especially as a lot of the things religious groups do– day care, youth programs, food banks, etc.– are very resource-intensive. They’re doable as a loss leader for a church, but difficult to fund out of individual contributions (particularly anything involving kids, where the insurance rates are astronomical). Something like the singing group, built around a common interest, could be more practical.

  4. #4 cisko
    June 28, 2010

    Thanks for making a great point. I agree with Anna that it’s an important point.

    I’d be very curious to tease out the implications of tax-free status on the “business” model for churches doing things like day care and soup kitchens. I don’t know much about it, but my impression is that at least the real estate isn’t taxed. That certainly seems like a structural obstacle against a non-faith-based approach.

  5. #5 Russell
    June 28, 2010

    An interesting aspect of churches is that they aggregate under one roof what would otherwise be separate group activities: choir, day care, after-school sports, charity drives, support groups for addiction, alcohol, and divorce, etc. Even though the (putatively) shared belief that unites its members has little to do with these activities, the fact that a church’s members unite for that shared belief provides an entrée to all the rest. There likely is quite a bit of synergism among these, e.g., members who participate for the choir then are more likely to participate in the charity drive.

  6. #6 Anna
    June 28, 2010

    Wilson, that’s wonderful, I was thinking about my choir as well while reading this post :) (We are a secular church choir – that is, we sing in a church bi-weekly, but the majority is non-religious and just wants the music and, I guess, the choir atmosphere). It could indeed be a starting point. But, ugh. We’re not so very free of politics.

    Say, how did those old “gentlemen’s clubs” I keep reading about in old British novels work? There was, apparently, something to them.

  7. #7 Neil B
    June 28, 2010

    Technically, Unitarian Universalism is listed as a “religion” but upholds a set of values, not doctrines about religious questions. I recommend to anyone who is doubtful or adventurous about religious questions, to try our path. We have a strong sense of community and what many here would consider “the advantages of belonging to a church without the disadvantages.” This is definitely a real-world community that can make a difference, and more. Please go to http://www.uua.org/homepage/index.shtml and get an idea.

  8. #8 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    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.

    Excuse me, but who derided the whole concept of good works in the comments of Rosenau’s post? Currently, there are 16 comments, not one of which has done this. Has a comment been deleted?

    Also, when atheists have organized and formed explicitly secular or atheistic alternatives, and organized, and created communities, what has been the reaction?

    How many atheist campus groups have been started lately?

    Are there really so few programs of outreach and organization?

    More to the point: are New Atheists doing less or more than their “Old Atheist” counterparts to form stable communities?

    And a point I raised in the comments on Josh’s post: are public calls for prayer by politicians and Chopras actually a manifestation of community organizing or are they something else? I’ll say Phariseeism for the former, at least. Chopra needs no addressing.

    But no, “PZ said a rude thing” is far more important than all of the above. At least, that’s what I’ve been repeatedly taught.

  9. #9 harrync
    June 28, 2010

    @7 As a lapsed UU, I would second your recommendation that a UU “church” is a good way for a nontheist looking for community to find it. [why lapsed? - I just decided I didn't need community that much.] But note that there are atheist UU churches, and theistic UU churchs; I’ve belonged to both, made no difference to me, but I knew some people who would have been unhappy in the “wrong” kind. But I question this post’s thesis that there is a demand or need for nontheistic community. By my rough calculation, maybe one per cent of nontheists are UU’s [or members of another nontheistic community], as opposed to about half of theists belonging. I suspect part of the reason is that nontheists don’t need a community to support them in maintaining rational beliefs, but it is tough to maintain the irrationality of religion without a strong support group.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    June 28, 2010

    I suspect part of the reason is that nontheists don’t need a community to support them in maintaining rational beliefs, but it is tough to maintain the irrationality of religion without a strong support group.

    Could be.
    Of course, you could also explain the data by positing that nontheists are more likely to be sociopaths (or that sociopaths gravitate toward atheism– either direction of causality works).

  11. #11 Azadeth
    June 28, 2010

    The point of prayer groups is not to do something for yourself, but to beg your god to solve the problem for you. If anything of use comes from prayer groups, then it’s a secondary – and unintentional – effect. I don’t see this possible side effect as being worthy of support. Ends do not justify means.

  12. #12 harrync
    June 28, 2010

    @10 I don’t understand how failure to belong to philosophical support group [i.e., a church] makes one a sociopath. Please explain.

  13. #13 Zach Voch
    June 28, 2010

    Hm…

    @10, why sociopathy was the first explanation to come to mind is a question about which I wonder. I wonder if sociopaths are more atheistic than the general population, but to put this out, or any pathology, as a majority explanation is a little incautious. It’s a variant of the “no moral compass” argument… and it’s been used against atheists historically in rather cruel ways. Even Locke wasn’t fond of tolerating atheists as we could not be trusted to adhere to oaths.

    Might sociopaths be disproportionately atheists? Sure. Are atheists significantly sociopathic? uhh…

    And I want to repeat something from my earlier post, what comments were you referring to about denying the concept of good works? There weren’t (and still aren’t) any on Rosenau’s post. Were you referring to another post or was a comment deleted?

  14. #14 XiXiDu
    June 29, 2010

    Something on topic, I think:

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/3h/why_our_kind_cant_cooperate

    “Can you imagine training prospective rationalists to wear a uniform and march in lockstep, and practice sessions where they agree with each other and applaud everything a speaker on a podium says? It sounds like unspeakable horror, doesn’t it, like the whole thing has admitted outright to being an evil cult? But why is it not okay to practice that, while it is okay to practice disagreeing with everyone else in the crowd? Our culture puts all the emphasis on heroic disagreement and heroic defiance, and none on heroic agreement or heroic group consensus. We signal our superior intelligence and our membership in the nonconformist community by inventing clever objections to others’ arguments. Perhaps that is why the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/Silicon-Valley/programmer/early-adopter crowd stays marginalized, losing battles with less nonconformist factions in larger society. We’re losing because our exclusively individualist traditions sabotage our ability to cooperate. The other major component that sabotages group efforts in the atheist/libertarian/technophile/etcetera community, is being ashamed of strong feelings. Being careful to ostentatiously, publicly look down on those so naive as to show they care strongly about anything.”

  15. #15 Neil B
    June 29, 2010

    Azadeth, conventional religionists usually do pray for a God to intervene and help them or others (or hurt others!). UUs do not. We affirm sympathy and concern, and/or hopes for the future, and stir ourselves to do something about it.

  16. #16 Eric Lund
    June 29, 2010

    @10 I don’t understand how failure to belong to philosophical support group [i.e., a church] makes one a sociopath. Please explain.

    Second this motion. If anything, my experience has been the opposite. I don’t mind people believing in whatever religion they choose as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on me or convert me. But the ones that flaunt their religion (they almost always call themselves Christian, even though Jesus specifically warned people not to do this) raise my suspicions. To take some names from the headlines of the past few years: Ted Haggard, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Sanford, and I haven’t even gotten into the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. The non-religious are not immune, but adhering to a religion does not imply that one is a non-sociopath.

  17. #17 Chad Orzel
    June 29, 2010

    The non-religious are not immune, but adhering to a religion does not imply that one is a non-sociopath.

    It’s just an example to demonstrate that, to the extent that there really is a tendency of non-religious people to avoid joining organized groups, there are possible explanations that don’t flatter the non-believers. The “We don’t need social groups, because we’re just that AWESOME” explanation strikes me as just about as likely as the “You’re all sociopaths” explanation.

    A more neutral explanation would be that atheists have historically been a small enough fraction of the population that local organizations filling the social role of churches have not been feasible. That seems like the most plausible explanation of the lack of atheistic social groups.

  18. #18 Gene Callahan
    August 12, 2010

    “If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway.”

    Silly. Atheism IS a religion.

  19. #19 Gene Callahan
    August 12, 2010

    “I suspect part of the reason is that nontheists don’t need a community to support them in maintaining rational beliefs, but it is tough to maintain the irrationality of religion without a strong support group.”

    Or perhaps the character that leads someone to atheism (over-weening pride) makes it hard for them to get along with people as well?