PZ is unamused. I criticized his criticism of prayer vigils in the Gulf, and he responds:
It’s strange how the people who most advocate sympathy and rapprochement with religion are blind to what religious people really think. Here’s another case where Josh Rosenau complains that I misunderstand what the faithful were trying to do with their prayers for the Gulf…and then goes on to do exactly as I said the apologists should stop doing. He ignores the religious part of these prayer events. He says, as if it is refuting anything I say, that prayer reduces stress, has positive physiological effects, brings communities together, etc., etc., etc. It’s utterly clueless, and in a bizarre, twisted way, thoroughly disrespectful of religious thought, which I kind of admire, but doesn’t fit well with his message.
You know why people go off in groups and pray to God to stop the oil spill? Because they really hope that God will miraculously stop the oil spill.
How does he know that? No evidence is offered that people attend these prayer events because they think their prayers can stop the gusher. He might be right, he might be wrong, but he’s not offering evidence to back up the claim. Which leaves us both speculating without evidence. But he doesn’t, and can’t dispute that there are positive benefits to people who take part in these prayer events, even if prayer does nothing for the gusher. So why criticize people for finding what solace they can?
But the interesting thing here is PZ’s claim, which he expands upon, that religion is about theistic belief, not about social connections. And I think that’s just dead wrong. I think both are important, but also that a lot of people go to church primarily for social reasons, and come to associate various views on theism and the Bible with the positive associations they find at church. They don’t pick a theology and then find a church that matches.
To dispute that claim, PZ switches from talking about religious Americans in general to discussing “the local fundie church.”
Josh babbles on about how people go to church for the daycare or the socializing or the activities, and that their “gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer”. Condescending much, Josh? Do you ever talk to religious people? Because no, many of them are quite sincere in their faith and actually do believe their God does something. If I walked down to the local fundie church and suggested to members of the congregation that they were really there just for the coffee and cake, they’d give me that pitying look and tell me I really don’t understand church.
I suppose, but the folks at the local fundie church would also say that about Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose churches are lifeless and dead, and preach a false gospel to boot. Fundamentalism is barely a century old, and judging the diversity of human religious experience by what the local fundamentalist church thinks strikes me as backwards. I tend to think fundamentalism is wrong about just about everything. I know it’s wrong about science, I think its approach to the Bible verges on illiteracy, its understanding of American politics is backwards, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find (if such truths could be evaluated empirically) that their understanding of religion is wrong.
Ask folks at the local synagogue, or the local Unitarian church, or even the Methodists around the way, why they are religious, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a lot more discussion of the community they find than of the particulars of theology. Sociologists and anthropologists who tangle with defining religion often incorporate the communal aspect into their work. To pretend that it degrades religion to say that it has a significant social and communal role in people’s lives strikes me as misguided.
If nothing else, the relative importance of the social component can be demonstrated by looking at how people who attend church regularly perform on basic tests of religious literacy. Fewer than half of Americans know that Genesis is the first book in the Bible, only a third can identify Jesus as the presenter of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. Yet many go to church regularly and see religion as important to their lives, despite having little conception of the content of their religious texts. That’s data, and pretending that religion is all about theology runs counter to those data.
Which is why I made the point that a successful atheist movement can’t just be about debunking theology. Many Americans don’t even know about the claims being debunked, and those claims are not central to their religious identity. Replacing the religious community with a vigorous and inviting nontheistic community, however, could change society’s religious bent. I know atheists want to do that, but I think they do it poorly. I live in one of the least theist parts of the country, but the atheist/secularist groups locally are far less effective at organizing themselves than local religious groups. It’s not a lack of desire by atheists, but something is still lacking.
So PZ asks:
And do you imagine that atheists don’t believe that community is important? We know it is. We’d like to build communities that don’t rely on superstition and lies to function, though. We’re also honest enough to state that we think believers are wrong without trying to pretend that they don’t really believe.
The objection I was raising is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the latter, which has a consequence of being uninviting to anyone who might want to dip their toe in and see what the atheist community is about. How inviting is it to see the most vocal atheists reacting to people who have been ravaged by Katrina and now the BPocalypse not by organizing aid, but pissing on them for finding what little solace they can in communal prayer?
Now I’d join PZ’s outrage if I saw people suggesting that anyone turn to prayer instead of taking productive steps to clean the Gulf and protect their beaches and livelihoods. That’d be evil and wrong. But the people PZ was criticizing did exactly the opposite, as PZ himself has noted. So where’s the beef?