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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Contemporary atheism watch.

The current issue of Bookforum riffs on the famous 1966 Time magazine cover — "Is God Dead?" — with the eminently contemporary question: "Is God Still Dead?"

Stephen Colbert's "This Week in God" leaves Jon Stewart's audience in stitches, but, Ronald Aronson writes, "it is a bit jarring, after Colbert's polished irreverence and his audience's unforced delight, to return to the real world and be reminded that it is irreligion, and not religion, that is on the defensive today."

Aronson reviews a bunch of recent titles about atheism, including firebrand Sam Harris's The End of Faith, theologian Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism, and sociologist Alan Wolfe's The Transformation of American Religion. But after dissecting Harris and McGrath, he praises four other books that don't depend — as older arguments for atheism often did — on the assumption that technological progress would simply usher in an age of moral progress and enlightened secularity. (Oops!)

Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction sounds like the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians especially should read: a positive presentation of atheism that doesn't radiate hostility for religion. (My own approach is to try to understand the appeal of nonreligious worldviews so that religious communities might engage them more honestly, which makes me a postmodern modernist, I suppose.) Aronson describes Baggini's basic approach to atheism:

It is rather a kind of growing up, a turning away from "the innocence of supernatural world views" and an acceptance "that we have to make our way in the world." In a highly accessible style, Baggini (who writes for The Guardian and is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine) covers what have become familiar themes: the argument for an understanding of the world based on natural laws and according to evidence; the centrality in human life of moral choice about what is right and wrong; the "view that life's ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not just something that serves as a link in a never-ending series of purposes"; and the cautionary lessons about zealotry to be learned from the history of both religion and atheism.

Baggini asks whether atheism is necessarily against religion. The concluding picture he gives is of a secure and positive outlook, without hostility, combating harmful consequences of religion to be sure but no less critical of militant atheism. His final chapter is a masterpiece in trying to understand the impulse behind religion, the inevitable gulf between believers and nonbelievers, and the fact that since both will continue to share the world for a long time to come, the wisest path to coexistence is through genuine openness and the willingness to be proven wrong.

The conclusion of Aronson's long and engaging review is worth the attention of religious humanists as well as their secular humanist cousins:

Taken collectively, the writing of the new atheists offers a set of promising ideas. Harris, for all his negative energy, provides a potentially rich idea about mysticism, as cultivated in Eastern religions, as a "rational enterprise." In Buddhism, he argues, reaching beyond the self has been carefully and closely described and need not be left to faith but may be empirically studied. Baggini's rejection of dogma and militancy on all sides is not only refreshing but intellectually important; Wielenberg talks about the possible contribution of neuroscience to a future secular ethics. But by far the most important idea contained in these books is Harbour's effort to cast the discussion as a matter of worldviews.

As Alan Wolfe points out, the newly revitalized religions have made next to no changes on the doctrinal level. But they have modified their practices, appeals, and attitudes in a more accepting and nurturing direction, creating a new sense of community. This is more than a matter of marketing; it involves living one's faith and meeting people's needs. Atheists have much to learn from this. If the appeal of atheism relies on arguments or it casts itself as a messenger bearing cold hard truths, it will continue to fare poorly in today's world. For secularists, the most urgent need is for a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life. As McGrath points out, classical atheists were able to provide this, but no more. A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today. The new atheists have made a beginning, but much remains to be done.

("Faith No More?," Ronald Aronson, Bookforum Oct/Nov 2005: 16-19)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 11 October 2005 at 8:12 AM

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hafidha sofia:

October 11, 2005 02:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the review of the ... review. I will have to pick up A Very Short Introduction at One reason I admire Unamuno, an atheist, is because he didn't live his life "against" religion or theism. We need to know how to live as atheists, not how to argue with people who aren't.

Another favorite atheist author: Saramago. Hardly the bearer of "cold hard truths."


October 11, 2005 11:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

when you said, "Is God still dead?" the first thing that came to mind was, "Yes, and rotting spectacularly."

As in this article:


October 12, 2005 11:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, thanks so much. My recent trip to Baton Rouge was exhausting in a few ways, but none so much as the number of times it was assumed I would be an apologist for the traditional "God."

I mean this as a joke but not really: I think that every church that wants to thrive in the 21st century should invite a mission from mature, compassionate atheists who could dwell among them for a time and sharpen their sense of what kind of "God" they're throwing around (as opposed to considering carefully and mindfully).
I'm just seeing the "Atheist Ministry Team" nametags right now...

Dudley Jones:

October 12, 2005 12:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

It has certainly been my experience that atheists will be feel much more at home than non-atheists in UU Sunday morning worship services - maybe that is just my reaction. Atheists have Ethical Culture - where should liberal non-atheists go if not to a UU meeting? Bahai?

Atheists often feel symphathetic to Buddhism. However, check out some good translations of the Dhammapada and look at the kind of expressions used for their highest value. (I think every Buddhist school except maybe Zen would respect the Dhammapada.)

I can see how a thoughtfull intelligent person could end up being an atheist - fine, just try not to be so sarcastic and condescending when talking to those on a different path.


October 13, 2005 12:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thank you for this, Philocrites. Positive treatment of atheist perspectives in a UU forum is a rare treat.

Dudley--I wonder if you'd feel the same way about your UU congregation if you visited some other UU bodies' "Sunday morning worship services"--or if you were an atheist for a Sunday. I know there are a significant number of UU services that are very explicitly Christian, Pagan or theist--and I've experienced other services that some UUs complained were overly atheist but sure didn't seem that way from this atheist's perspective.

Obviously I don't know what kind of religious experience you're partial to, but to answer your question--it seems at least possible that (off the top of my head) the UCC, MCC, Quakers, liberal Episcopalians or even the American Unitarian Conference might have a congregation near you that could perhaps suit your fancy if your local UU bodies are all too atheistic for your tastes. Or, of course, there's the Church of the Greater Fellowship. (Or Buddhist congregations? Reform Jewish? Hindu?) Meanwhile, there's no Ethical Culture body within several hundred miles of where I live. UUism is the only game in town for me.

Finally, "just try not to be so sarcastic and condescending when talking to those on a different path"? I hope your understanding of atheism and atheists extends beyond that ugly and all-too-common stereotype. What I find so heartening about Philocrites' post is that it, unlike so much UU discussion about us, reaches far beyond that cliche.

[Rieux responds at Infidelity. --Philo]

Dudley Jones:

October 13, 2005 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dear Rieux

Sorry for using such a tone - it was certainly not fair to all the many atheists who are kind and gentle people. My own UU congregation, like the UUA, is now undergoing a change to tone and is much more supportive of a wide range of views. I think probably I am not "spiritual" enough to follow what is going on - that's OK.

Please forgive me for using this terrible cliche, but it is literally true - my best friend, the person I tell my troubles to, is an atheist.


October 14, 2005 04:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

Okay, Dudley; thank you.

Ron Robinson:

October 15, 2005 07:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

This thread reminds me of how powerful I experienced a worship service at First Unitarian in Worcester MA one Sunday while visiting a few years ago. The minister preached on her theism (not specifically Christian) in a sermon about how the church was welcoming of atheists, all during a worship service that (as is common there) included the "Lord's Prayer." Some great self-differentiation. I don't know if it is easier to carry this off in larger churches like at Worcester, but would love to try it even in micro-church. I have been meaning to do the same here in Oklahoma and intend to soon; it is often an informal part of my conversation when covering these kinds of topics with newcomers. We won't be for everyone, of course, but I like to stress the free part of free church as well as the church part, and a sermon on atheism's acceptance and virtue will help a little here just as one on Christianity would help in another place. Thanks for the reference. ron


October 16, 2005 11:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

Aronson doesn't do justice to McGrath's Twilight of Atheism, IMHO. The book may wander a bit, but I see as its central argument the notion that atheism's rise had more to do with social movements like Marxism rather than scientific movements like Darwinism, and so the collapse of Marxism has lead to a collapse in the popularity of atheism. Many scientists are atheists, but to get a mass following, atheism needed the promise of Heaven on Earth. With that goal ending in disappointment, the common person is going back to looking for Heaven in the sky.


October 17, 2005 07:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ron wrote:
I experienced a worship service at First Unitarian in Worcester MA ... a few years ago. The minister preached on her theism (not specifically Christian) in a sermon about how the church was welcoming of atheists, all during a worship service that (as is common there) included the "Lord's Prayer." Some great self-differentiation.

Indeed--and a very heartening story. Thanks.

Sadly, the Worcester congregation doesn't appear to archive sermons on their website. I would have loved to read that sermon and talk about it a little on my blog. As I said, that kind of message from non-atheist UU speakers is a rare treat. (If anyone has other suggestions for similar sermons, articles, blog posts, etc., that are publicly available--I have, er, rather more than a passing interest in this whole area--please let me know!)

[A] sermon on atheism's acceptance and virtue will help a little here just as one on Christianity would help in another place.

Amen to that.

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