Archive for The Godless

Thinking out Loud about Published Atheists

A brief (ha!) look at 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison (Prometheus Books, 2008).

[Again, like my last 3 part post, I’m not after a soft target to score an easy point, but finding myself gobsmacked yet again by an atheist tome, I feel the need to give some thought to this source in order to move my thinking forward in some way. At this point in my life, as I go through material like this, a fundamental problem that I face is that I’m pulled in two directions – my first reaction is invariably to tag what is, in one way or another, wrong with the work in question; but my subsequent reflections consist of asking how does this fit into the bigger religious picture? The latter approach is the far more interesting one and, I think, the only really viable one for the academic study of religion – I just don’t know precisely what it looks like yet. But that the atheists neither bring an A-game nor play fair cannot be ignored; so, they still need to be called out on the shuck and jive they often pull.]

For all the atheists’ talk of their reverence for empiricism and critical thinking (whatever that is), and the sanctity of evidence and peer review, it’s surprising how often they flout their own basic dogmas. (K, not really surprising.) Of course, make an argument for the existence of god or creationism and you’ll face the litany of, what is your evidence and where do you get it from? what does science have to say? and your logic will be carefully scrutinized …. and found wanting. As it should: WTF are you up to arguing such positions? (Sorry, not really a good objective RLST response.) But, there’s no denying that many writing/blogging atheists lack both the wherewithal to interrogate adequately evidence of religiosity as the find it, or simply invent it to suit their purposes; and they simply have little or no interest in what current scholarship on religiosity has to say. Hence, their arguments almost never entail anything more than the evaluation of the truth-claims expressed or implied within believers’ religiosity wherever they encounter it. And so it is on this basis that we who study religion for a living must make our way from how atheists get religion wrong to how their reactionary position fits into the complex of phenomena that we call “religion” (used for convenience’ sake, speaking to the laity at least). Alas, with respect to the matter at hand, I can’t get myself much past the intellectual travesty that is this book, and its like, for the present.

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, is as good a title for a monograph about religiosity as any, I assert charitably. But of course, my hermeneutically suspicious tendencies demand that I ask what the range of meanings such a title might include. (Thoroughly parsing this title seems a little over the top. Still, note that ’50 reasons’ is a common trope in middlebrow publishing.) Is it too much to ask that ‘belief’ and ‘god’ get some extended consideration or definition? (They don’t here. And while this point invites reference to a distinction that might be made between belief and faith, I can’t consider it here – that’ll have to wait for some other time and place.) More nuanced, how exactly were those 50 reasons derived? Who was asked? How were they asked? What specifically were they asked? The answers given are pretty sketchy stuff in this book, where they’re even addressed (so I’ll have lots more about that later). All’s to say, we’re in no way dealing with a formal monograph about belief among the religious, but a conception which serves only as a foil for an atheist author seeking a means to argue that any reason to believe is specious. All I’ve got to say at this point is… And?

At the outset, indulge me in the tedious presentation of the list of those 50 reasons. From the ToC:

***BTW, full disclosure, I haven’t read all 50 reasons. I just can’t face them. I read the first few, put the book down, and now have taken to reading them randomly now and again.***

1. My god is obvious. 2. Almost everybody on Earth is religious. 3. Faith is a good thing. 4. Archaeological discoveries prove that my god exists. 5. Only my god can make me feel significant. 6. Atheism is just another religion. 7. Evolution is bad. 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident. 9. My god created the universe. 10. Believing in my god makes me happy. 11. Better safe than sorry. 12. A sacred book proves my god is real. 13. Divine justice proves my god is real. 14. My god answers prayers. 15. I would rather worship my god than the devil. 16. My god heals sick people. 17. Anything is better than being an atheist. 18. My god made the human body. 19. My god sacrificed his only son for me. 20. Atheists are jerks who think they know everything. 21. I don’t lose anything by believing in my god. 22. I didn’t come from a monkey. 23. I don’t want to go to hell. 24. I feel my god when I pray. 25. I need my god to protect me. 26. I want eternal life. 27. Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong. 28. My god makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. 29. My religion makes more sense than all the others. 30. My god changes lives. 31. Intelligent design proves my god is real. 32. Millions of people can’t be wrong about my religion. 33. Miracles prove my god is real. 34. Religion is beautiful. 35. Some very smart people believe in my god. 36. Ancient prophecies prove my god exists. 37. No one has ever disproved the existence of my god. 38. People have gone to heaven and returned. 39. Religion brings people together. 40. My god inspires people. 41. Science can’t explain everything. 42. Society would fall apart without religion. 43. My religion is so old, it must be true. 44. Someone I trust told me that my god is real. 45. Atheism is a negative and empty philosophy. 46. Believing in a god doesn’t hurt anyone. 47. The earth is perfectly tuned to support life. 48. Believing is natural so my god must be real. 49. The end is near. 50. I am afraid of not believing.

I don’t know about you, but I reckon there’s one to way in excess of 50 dissertations to be written on this list (and none of them would pass an oral exam in any university department if they were to argue for the inadequacy of any or all of these reasons). All that’s to say, close scrutiny of these reasons threatens to be endless. But perhaps a few general comments on the 50 will suffice to show that we are not looking at an inquiry undertaken in good faith (so to speak). Rather, the question is so obviously a challenge to Harrison’s informants that no thoughtful person should take these 50 reasons at face value.

It seems to me that we can identify (at least) three kinds of reasons here (again though, not that even these tell us about belief as such or anything else). Not surprisingly, many of the reasons are theological. Other reasons I’ll call existential. And also significant are the many reasons that we can recognize as defensive (or hostile even, towards atheism). What these kinds of responses all have in common is that they are all reactionary (meant in a neutral sense) with respect to the question: a question deemed theological gets theological answers (for ex. appeals to scripture, its theological standing, and its theological contents); a question that cuts to the heart of people’s personhood or identity is answered with reflections of – what to call it? – being-in-the-world; finally, the question is seen for what it is – an attack on belief – and as a result, it’s turned on the questioner, and the answer consists of a reflection on the wages of unbelief.

The question itself (with or without any knowledge about the conditions under which it was asked) skews to elicit religious responses, not measurably objective ones about belief: the question then serves as an invitation to a religious activity, ie. forms of religious testimony in the evaluation of which we cannot be certain that we are getting expressions of earnest belief rather than defensives of belief informants imagine to be expected of them. Social-scientifically speaking the question is, like the kids say, an epic FAIL.

Now, I just can’t leave it at that. Rather, I’m itching to peer a little deeper into the colour and the shape of the author’s project. To this end, let’s have a gander at the Introduction to the book (Harrison, 2008: 13-15).

I have asked many believers in many countries over several years a basic question: Why do you believe in your god or gods? This book is a response to the fifty most common answers I heard to that question. Many people gave me virtually identical reasons for belief, despite being adherents of contradictory religions. I learned that the gods may be very different and the faithful may sometimes hate and kill one another, but believers are remarkably synchronized on why they believe.

      With a boatload of questions beginning with the first clause I’m not being
      merely pedantic here, am I?

  • Look, I’m no expert on quantitative and qualitative analyses, but I gotta ask: how many believers? demographic breakdown according to age, gender, income, level of education, degree of religious observance, etc. etc.? how many countries? which Countries? over how many years?  was that your actual survey question? any others? what were the rest of the terms of your (what appears to be strictly) qualitative data gathering?
  • The results of your ‘research’ are a “response.” Not an analysis? Of course, I already know that your response is a challenge to belief. At what point were your informants aware of that and more importantly were they aware that you intended to publish your response to the data they provided? I’ve got limited experience with REBs, but I’m pretty sure clear informed consent is taken a tad more seriously than the Prime Directive – you don’t get to bend it in order to move the plot forward. (See Harrison’s about page on his website where he declares that he oft times employs Star trek to teach his children life lessons.)Not only would most self-respecting social scientists laugh you out of the room for your means of gathering data, I’m pretty sure you’d find yourself subject to a pretty serious tongue-lashing for your shaky ethics.
  • Explanation for the “virtually identical responses?” What does “contradictory” mean? What’s wrong with ‘different’? Nevertheless, what does that tell you? What assumptions are you making about differences between your informants? And oh yeah, back to basics, what’s the breakdown of religious affiliation among your informants?
  • Ok, so you use “different” in the next sentence. But HTF does hate and murder end up a feature of different? Ain’t saying such conflict doesn’t exist, I just wonder what in the name of Krishna and Christ and Kobo Daishi has this to do with the question at hand and the answers you got to it? Did you interview a bunch of murdering psychos, or are you merely suggesting that you assume that your informants carry with them a latent capacity for religious violence?

I also discovered that if you ask believers on the streets of Jerusalem, Cairo, Paris, Nairobi, New Delhi, Athens, Suva, New York City, and Port Moresby why they believe in their gods, the answers you hear are significantly different from the noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers. Most of the Christians I have encountered around the world, for example, don’t give much thought to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas or C. S. Lewis. They will tell anyone who asks, however, that they believe Jesus is a real god because the Bible says so or because they feel his presence when they pray. Out in the real world I found that believers have little interest in convoluted arguments for gods that involve imagining perfection, irreducible complexity, or the laws of thermodynamics. Unlike professsional creationists and apologists, most of the believers I talk with do not feel the need to cite long lists of questionable evidence to attempt to prove that their god is real. They “know” their gods are real because they have “faith” that they are. They believe because they think that they must in order to be a good person. They believe because the world is “perfect” or at least “beautiful.” They believe in a god because it is the only way they have ever known.

  • Ok, ok, I can’t help myself here. Were the authorities in Israel, Egypt, France, Kenya, India, Greece, Fiji, and PNG aware when they gave you your visas that you’d be conducting research whilst visiting their countries? Cuz, I tellya, the tourist and research visas I got for India were VERY clear about what I could and couldn’t do in the country under them. Alright, on to more serious things.
  • “noise coming from theologians and religious philosophers.” Alrighty, as long as we’re clear on the regard (or lack thereof) in which you hold formal explanation and explication of the faiths. Irregardless, doesn’t the fact that believers do not appeal to such rational enterprises tell you something? The importance of this question is reinforced by the fact that, as you say, believers don’t even appeal to the arguments of creationism, those thoroughly modern forms of religious justification, and the fact that believers don’t even “cite long list of questionable evidence.” Basically you’re saying that believers tend not to appeal to standard or prevalent forms of argument for belief. Seems to me then that your enterprise consists of cornering them into making arguments (or simply making up arguments for them).

This book is not an attempt to prove the nonexistence of gods. Nor is it an attack on anyone’s entire religion. This is a respectful reply to the friendly people around the world who shared with me their reasons for believing in a god or gods, nothing more. Too many books that attempt to challenge belief in gods are interpreted by believers as combative and arrogant. I have made a sincere effort to prevent believers from feeling that way about this book. There is no name calling or condescending tone here. I do not think that I am smarter than believers, nor do I agree with anyone who feels that believers’ minds are hopelessly closed. My fifty replies to common justifications for belief can be read as friendly chats designed to do nothing more than stimulate critical thinking. I am not interested in winning debates or insulting anyone. I only want to encourage readers to think more deeply about why they believe in a god.

  • Well, insofar as the book doesn’t attempt to disprove god, it simply assumes god’s non-existence, doesn’t?
  • Not an attack on any entire religion? First page of the book in the main: “if a significant portion of our species insists on discriminating, hating, killing, and slowing scientific progress in the name of the gods, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to at least try and confirm whether or not these gods are even real in the first place?” (17). Ok, I suppose this isn’t an attack on any entire religion, but sure reads like an attack on religion entire. Oh, and so disproving the existence of the gods is at least an implied purpose of the book?
  • By all means, stimulate critical thinking (whatever that is, though it’s apparently code for arguments against any expressed or implied ‘reason’ – as in your response in 7. Evolution is bad.), particularly in the face of religious truth-claims (again, see 7. for ex.).But, you’ve already asserted that truth-claims are not at the heart of believers’ reasons to believe, eg. the world is beautiful. At least, I don’t take that as truth-claim, at least not of the same order as the reason that actually appears in the book as 8. Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.No. reasons such as “34. Religion is beautiful” are not truth-claims, they are aesthetic valuations reflecting on believers’ experience of religiosity. Your response – a litany of religious wrong-doing, summarized in the statement, “religion is not pretty when it motivates terrorism, antiscience activists, and prejudice among people who might otherwise be cooperating to build a better future for everyone” (245) – is, first, hardly a friendly chat and certainly an attack not merely on religion itself but several particular religions. But second, and more importantly ATM, you endeavour to turn this straw-manish ‘reason’ (no believer is cited as saying religion is beautiful) into a truth-claim with the presentation of all the evidence that religion is ugly as you response.Lest it be imagined that I’m merely recasting your argument to suit my own purposes, let’s consider the material out of which you construct ‘religion is beautiful’. Smiling, crying, emotional, excited Jamaicans worshipping in a makeshift church in a shopping mall in the Cayman Islands. Pilgrims within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You standing in the centre of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus encountering kind, friendly and hospitable Muslims. Those good people are obliged to give an account of the bad and the ugly in the religions to which they belong? AYFSM! That’s neither friendly nor respectful (just an aesthetic observation on my part). But make no mistake, this is no invitation to critical thinking, this is an effort to score debate points, and it’s insulting. This isn’t mere debate, argument or persuasion, this is evangelism.

Readers will notice that I do not limit the scope of this book to the religions that are currently popular in the West. In my view all gods are equal, regardless of how many people believe in them at this moment in history. My skepticism for Ra and Apollo, for example, is no more or less than my skepticism for Jesus and Allah. Throughout this book I usually will write of gods in the plural rather than singular. This may feel awkward to readers who are used to only hearing and talking about one god. The fact is, however, there are many thousands of other gods that people have confidently claimed to be real throughout history. Failure to acknowledge this important truth would be historically ignorant and culturally prejudiced. Fairness and logic demand that we respect the indigenous tribal believer who sees many gods in the forest and the ancient Greek who saw several gods atop a mountain as much as we do the contemporary monotheist who sees one god in the sky.

  • Alright, I’ll let all this slide, since I’ve commented so much already. ‘Sides, smart people will see how some of my other remarks (and more I haven’t made, I assume) apply here.

Many people think that religious belief should be above challenge or somehow out of bounds. I disagree. There is a lot of good to be found in the world’s religions. I would never deny that. However, the dark side of religion cannot be overlooked. When claims for the existence of gods negatively impact world peace, the education of children, the development of new medical cures, safety and justice for women, and the progress of science, they must be challenged.

      “Many people.” Who? How Many? What are you data for that?

  • Anyway, there you have it. So much of what’s unseemly in contemporary atheism in a nutshell. Not to mention almost a complete contradiction (again) of what you’ve previously claimed the tenor of the book is.Who am I to tell you not to challenge religious belief? My only question is, why would you bother? Well ok, I understand why (alas, the legitimacy and politics of the claim that religion poisons everything must wait for another time). But, clearly your investigations of religion don’t teach you anything, and you’ve got nothing to teach others. (Plenty you feel the need to preach, however.)I’ve been fascinated by – no, gleeful about – the atheists’ responses to Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists. I’ve no doubt that de Botton knew full well that no dyed-in-the-wool atheist was going respond in any other way than to argue that any value or utility offered by religion can easily be recreated within an atheist community. I’m assured of this by the very first sentence of de Botton’s book which surely was intended to set off every atheist with a blog or facebook account:”The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”But of course, you’re completely invested in that question, or rather your answer to it. And as long as that’s the case with you and the other atheists, I can’t really regard you as interlocutors, I have to regard you as anthropological subjects. The basic problem I face is, I just can’t seem to find my way over to an analysis appropriate to that disposition; the grander intellectual, moral, and existential problem I face is that I just can’t stop taking you to task for the shit that you continue spout without consequence, thus contradicting the very stance I need to take.

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Thinking out Loud about Virtual Atheists, part 2

How to move on from here? I’m resisting the temptation to look any more closely at that post previously discussed, for there’s really little fruit in trying to unravel one lousy post from a relatively obscure blog. Besides, my object, as I said in the beginning, is to formulate a thesis about ‘virtual atheism’ which surely must appeal to more and better sources. To that end – while unfortunately giving a degree of legitimacy to AbT – here is a brief post by Craig Martin at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog which perhaps suggests something about the atheists’ – virtual and otherwise – sense of religion.

Some scholars of religion talk as if cultural stuff—icons, myths, rituals, practices, ideologies, discourses, etc.—allows practitioners to “express” themselves, their religious beliefs, or simply their “religion.” Other scholars talk as if the use of this cultural stuff has the effect of “constituting” (perhaps by “performing”) themselves, their religious beliefs, or their identity.

The implicit ontological differences here are considerable. For the former group, “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression.” For the latter group, “selves,” “beliefs,” or “identities” are products.

Roland Barthes once said “tell me how you classify and I’ll tell you who you are.” What does one’s preference for either “express” or “constitute” say about who one is, or about one’s assumptions and theoretical commitments?

[Someone help me here. What theorists does Martin have in mind? It occurs as I make the last edits here that I’m not really addressing Martin’s last question and I oughta, somewhere, sometime.]

The ontological differences may be considerable but I don’t see why we, scholars of religion, have to choose here, and surely the integration of these two images is possible, and necessary. However, that is mostly a discussion for another time.  The epistemological differences here are also considerable, and equally require some sort of integration. But, let me toss this out: contemporary atheists (following their antecedents) almost invariably assume that “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression” and almost never construct their image of religion with the converse in mind. It’s easy enough to understand how and why they got there and what this says about the atheist understanding of religion.

But before I explain that, read this other short post by Martin written a week after the one above:

one thing that interests me is the fact that scholars in other fields working on “religion” rarely avail themselves of cutting edge research from our field of study.

This is not reciprocal: scholars of religion writing on gender read critical gender studies; scholars of religion writing on culture read anthropology; scholars of religion writing on society read sociological theory.

Yet, scholars in other fields may write on religion without ever having availed themselves of our work. Hence we get Daniel Dennett recreating a 100-year-old wheel, when arguing that religion is animism.

Is this because “religion” in the popular imagination is something so naturalized or self-evident that serious theory on it need not be read? Or is it because our discipline has fallen down on the job?

I’ll return to the question of the discipline’s impotence later (not that I have a lot to add to what many have already said). For the present it is Martin’s previous question that is the important one. And the answer (to what we all may understand as a rhetorical question) is unquestionably, yes. Religion is considered “so naturalized” and “self-evident,” not just in the popular imagination but in scholarship of all sorts, and that’s not so much the problem as the encapsulation of numerous concrete problems.

Those problems begin with the self-evident premise (as above) that religion precedes religiosity. Hence, anything and everything that’s imagined to be entailed by the concept of religion (grant for the moment that this is understood primarily in American Christian – evangelical – terms) is taken as given and serves as the foundation upon which to interrogate the religiosity of any given religious actor or group of actors.

I had an early experience with this when I had to read Michael Persinger’s published papers on his God Helmet experiments since a student was going to lead a senior seminar on them. Among the several jaw-dropping aspects of Persinger’s work is the fact that the concept of “religious experience” is tossed around with little explication or interrogation of what exactly this might be. Just before writing this I had a similar experience with the concept of prayer: in the post Praying for Pain Relief, Tom Rees begins with the question, “Prayer seems to work as a form of pain relief – but is this a physiological response, or is it purely psychological?” (no evidence of the former was found). Again, prayer, in essence, was a given (even liturgical directions were given to some participants). ***What was the source of the pain for participants? “By administering a carefully calibrated shock, electrodes like this can deliver a 5-minutes long burst of sharp pain, but without causing any damage.”

And contemporary atheists carry on endlessly in the same vein (eg. recall Martin’s statement about “Daniel Dennett recreating a 100-year-old wheel, when arguing that religion is animism”). Arguably, religion as naturalized and self-evident for atheist writers begins with belief, as religion’s essence, and the contents thereof (evidenced by believers or imagined), and the presumed ultimate sources of it (ie. revelation, scripture, religious texts, whatever you want to label it). (We in RLST have seen this movie before, though as Martin implies, we’ve come a long way – probably just not far enough). Hence, to be religious is, in the first instance, to believe, and then to assent to some larger set of truth claims which are possibly somewhat eccentric but usually pulled straight from a revered written source (notice I didn’t say derived or somesuch). Allow me to skip lightly over why belief, what believers believe, and the assumed foundations of believers’ belief require serious interrogation – one would think in the name of intellectual honesty at the least – as I try to move on to the locus where I think this must remain in the scholar’s pocket, namely, among the virtual atheists and within their (anti-)religiosity: dare I use one of those terms popular in pomo and other circles, contexts that the atheists dismiss with a wave and a snort, and state that at the least all these conceptions are … contested?

[Forgive the quoting of whole posts. And forgive the length, couldn’t find an earlier halting point. One more part and we’re done.]

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Thinking out Loud about Virtual Atheists, part 1

[This got real long so it’s going up in like FIVE parts.]

As I stare at half a paragraph in which I am endeavouring to formulate a thesis and/or to persuade the RLST guild at large that we must take contemporary atheists seriously, including and especially every jamoke with a blog on networks like Freethought Blogs and Planet Atheism, I hit a handful of blogs posts (by evangelical atheists and religion scholars) some of which I want to try to pull together here and perhaps in the effort I can wrap up my thesis/clarion call.

Let me begin with this post from the Anything but Theist (AbT) blog. I was going to post all or large parts of it, but it’s long so and so head-spinning that giving my point will undoubtedly be lost if I give it too much space. I guess this post irks me more than many because you don’t often find so much empty editorial, unsubstantiated assertion, cavalier use of the concept of ‘religion’, and misrepresentation of serious intellectual work in and on religion (all wrapped in self-satisfied snark) in one place. ***I didn’t go seek out this soft target. I found it it, and consider it here, because AbT is a blog belonging to the Planet Atheism network which is the host of numerous atheist blogs, including many written by well-known blogging atheists.

Where to start? Begin at the beginning, I guess, with the author’s characterization of ‘religion’ as simple. It’s (invariably) sociologically (and theologically?) simple in order to appeal to the simples masses. All with the implication that if it’s simple, it’s simply dismissed.

From this follows what I can only describe as the oddest series of remarks about intellect, scholarship, theology and the study of religion I’ve ever encountered. It’s hard to say what the author’s point is or even what the author is trying to say exactly.

It seems though that the point is that religion has specialized in the management of information. From humble origins assorted evil geniuses turned those folksy traditions created for the folk into complex theological edifices inscrutable to all but those within “fancy-pants circles.” Today, partisans declare that critics lack adequate training in this, that or the other tradition in order to “refute” it (ie. they don’t have enough information). But this so-called knowledge is really nothing more than intellectual onanistic issue in favour of mass delusions and not worth the parchment it’s printed on. The intellectually honest in the past had to kowtow to the information managers, or deluded themselves within their faith, as they discovered independently information of the really real. Fortunately for the folk, today information is free thanks to the internet so the learned can no longer guard it from scrutiny. Expertise is readily acquired so the information leading to atheism ready at hand. And yet, our author ends by informing us that “atheism doesn’t take brains, it takes guts.”

Read the thing yourself – if you dare – to determine how polemical I’m being here. Leaving aside how garbled the argument here appears, I don’t think I’ve found a more egregious example of atheist philistinism and anti-intellectualism, not to mention ignorance. It might not seem worthwhile (or fair) to hold this up as an example, but I’d argue that the difference between this and atheist writing in the main is one of degree and not of kind.

[Feel free to let me know if and when you wanna see part 2.]

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Thicken Your Descriptions, My Atheist Friends.

Some time ago I think I finally put my finger on the broadest conception I can to explain why I find New Atheists so exasperating and at the same time so fascinating – they are, invariably, almost completely devoid of anything approaching an anthropological sensibility. And without it they really are completely without resources to explain religious events when, where and how they find them; and perhaps more importantly, they lack any sophisticated means to locate themselves in proximity to the religious world(s) they rail against.

As a result, their understanding of religion remains the stunted Enlightenment rehash that it is. And their reactionary attentions to events, particularly those involving Evangelicals (a neighbourhood in the City of God the Anglo-American atheists live in), devolve into banal moralizing about propriety, and disputation of biblical theology and injunction, and ultimately a recap of their foundational anti-metaphysics.*

Often all of this is over-laid on very brief/sparse accounts without much effort to seek out further explication or evidence to develop a fuller picture (never mind skepticism about sources). Of course, to be fair, since I’m referring primarily here to blog posts, necessary haste often doesn’t allow for deeper research, and extended analysis isn’t really what consumers of the genre are after (I’m not at least). But at the same time, consciously or unconsciously, most of the time the authors’ (or curators’) reflections on the latest outrage by the religious (as forgettable as most of the news) are the message – Xtns are crazy, the Bible is full of morally repugnant shit, god doesn’t exist –  and the event just the foil to brighten it.

But then sometimes (or often) one or more blogs present a story that begs for something more in its treatment, yet what’s offered by the bloggers and their peanut galleries takes me through seven levels of OFFS.  The evidence is plentiful and suggests a complexity such that anyone academically inclined ought to take a step back in order to try to answer the question, WTF is going on here?

Case in point. Yesterday, well known atheist Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist posted this video: 


Mehta’s commentary focusses on propriety (with a little snark of the usual atheist sort):

This is seriously despicable.

John McGlone‘s grandmother passed away on February 20th. Her funeral was held a few days later. Like you might expect, it took place at a church. A pastor delivered a eulogy. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It’s what the family wanted.

At the end of the eulogy, the pastor recited the typical “God loves you” bit. He said that nothing — not hardship, not distress, not peril, nothing — could ever separate us from the love of Jesus. (I know, I know, he’s wrong, but that’s not the point here.)

McGlone didn’t agree with the pastor because he believes sin separates us from Christ…

So instead of taking it up with the pastor privately, he began yelling out his theology from the back of the church hall.

During his own grandmother’s funeral.

He began preaching Christianity… to a room full of Christians… at the most inappropriate possible time… while wearing a long-sleeved shirt reading “TRUST JESUS” on the back. (As if none of them do.)

Start the video at the 1:38 mark below to hear the end of the pastor’s eulogy…

At around 4:00, family members urge McGlone to leave. “Think of the family,” they tell him. They call the police on him. Even the priest joins in. They all tell him to leave the church… but that only infuriates him further. He’s not in a real church, after all. He’s in a Catholic church.

No one can talk any sense into him because he’s brainwashed by his faith.

At 5:45, McGlone says, “Keep your hands off me, uncle!” It’s the first time I’ve ever heard that phrase and been on the uncle’s side.

At 5:57, someone starts to play the organ in an effort to Keyboard Cat him out of there. Or at least drown out his testimony. It does the trick.

McGlone leaves the building… but keeps preaching to anyone who will listen.

From the caption to his video, it sounds like McGlone was surprised to be invited to the funeral in the first place — as if he’s done something like this before and he couldn’t believe he was given another opportunity.

Talk about a regretful decision…

Commentors there, and on Youtube, fill out the standard atheist criticisms:

  • If you strip away the empathy one feels for the mourning family, and just look at the bare plot of this video, you basically see a group of people who believe in a mythological being who will protect them and help them being appalled that someone else believes in another version of their mythological being who will protect him and help him.
  • Mental Illness + Religion = DANGER DANGER DANGER.
    This guy is one bible verse away from a mass killing spree.
  • [In a long comment by Richard Wade also of Friendly Atheist] Looks like a paranoid disorder with delusions …. painful obsession with his “family” …. Religion gives him a language with which he expresses his disorder …. One of the saddest parts of this is at the very end where he writes that he has sent this video to the viewer privately, and asks them not to download and reload it to the internet, or to forward it to anyone whom they are not certain are “born of the holy spirit.”  That goes against his insistence that the word of god must be brought to all sinners.
  • This video just sickened me …. Also, while I abhor violence and wouldn’t want to have to deal with that situation at all, I still had to harbor the fantasy that as an atheist I wouldn’t feel any need to be particularly non violent because I was in a church and could just punch him in the face.
  • Add deadly weapons to the debate and you have the bloody, gory, history of Europe.
  • Had a similar experience when my grandmother died. The ceremony was largely absent of religion – it was held at the funeral home, not a church – but one family acquitance decided she had to loudly exclaim PRAISE JESUS after everything everyone said.
  • it’s clear in the U.S. that Christians would like nothing more than to silence the atheists, or anyone who disagrees with Christian beliefs for that matter.

And on it goes.

The Youtube commentary carries on in the same vein with the added bonus of McGlone’s responses.

One vid, one reposting with comment, a link to the main actor’s bio and religious group, two threads full of dozens of comments – rich stuff and if I were more ambitious I could spin it into a lengthy (lengthier) reflection. Sadly, not one actor directly or indirectly involved here has the wherewithal to pause and ask (and attempt to answer) WTF is going on here?

Let me (merely) raise some of the issues that I think come immediately to mind.

First, while I can accept it as perfectly understandable that many actors here take offense to McGlone’s disruption of what was undoubtedly an emotionally fraught occasion, I can’t help but be fascinated by the interjection and think immediately of Geertz’s “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example,” and have to ask what’s all at play for this to happen? Family dynamics, socio-religious change, and American Xtn history (and what else?) were working at one or more levels. Sure, McGlone may be “batshit crazy,” but that seems beside the point (and never mind that isn’t in anyway established – the leap here by commentors is convenient if not lazy … and equally telling).

Obviously family issues are of major consequence here. If any of McGlone’s account of his family (linked above) is to be believed something almost Southern Gothic dwells within that clan. And that may be at the heart McGlone’s interruption of a ritual marking the familial rupture and meant to lead to social reintegration (to follow the Functionalists). McGlone’s presence and actions must have been a painful reminder of the irrepairable fissures in that family, and a threat to it. There’s something terribly bougie about Mehta’s and others’ tut tutting of the dramaz and arm-chair psychologizing … and terribly delusional in the face of all sorts of social change or strife facing the American family. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.

Next, the funeral itself is notable. Middle of the road Mainline Proddie stuff. At the risk of pedantry here, I think it’s pretty much unforgivable for Mehta (and some commentors it seems) to believe it’s Catholic when in fact it’s United Methodist (hence it’s important that the clergyman is not, in fact, a priest in the Catholic sense). As far as I can tell, this particular congregation is MOR Wesleyan and not of the more Evangelical sort. While the funerary banality of “nothing — not hardship, not distress, not peril, nothing — could ever separate us from the love of Jesus,” as Mehta reports it, is not unique to the Mainline, it’s worth pointing out that it is the comfortable pews of the Mainline that’ve seen the greatest loss of bums in them in the decades since the late 70s while Evangelical denominations have grown. No doubt, the treacle served as comfort to Middle America has a lot to do with this.** Rituals, and especially funerals, in such an environment are so without weight that it’s no surprise that they are now so often left to funeral homes … and no surprise that sometimes they can’t contain all the viscerality operative in the moment.

Finally – and I don’t think it’s too much to pursue this line of thought – we might locate this little drama in the larger historical and contemporary drama of American Protestant Xty itself. This is an intra- and inter-denominational story. The old joke goes, Methodists are Baptists who can read. Something of the source of this may be at work here. Back in the day the Methodist authorities decided that they couldn’t let any old open-air preacher wander America in their name so they systematized ordination to ensure theological consistency and orthodoxy. Long-short, a swath of Methodists marched down the long road to thorough domestication in the form of the UMC, part liturgical, part evangelical. McGlone seems to be almost a revivalist of the old open-air tradition. This strain is more prominent in some of the quasi- and non-denominational Evangelical churches that have sprung up in the last 30 or 40 years. In McGlone’s case, we also see a theological revival of a darker vision of the sinfulness of humankind. This is the stuff of a new Great Awakening very much in the spirit of Great Awakenings past. Pathological McGlone may be, but he’s working off of a template as old as America.***

A little off topic (for McGlone himself doesn’t seem to represent this explicitly) but I get the sense that an age-old contest is emerging among Evangelicals – the authority of experience vs. the authority of Scripture. If that really does come to the fore, that may reorient broad swaths of charismatic forms of Xty (for better or worse, who knows?). McGlone, I’d suggest, represents a kind of hybrid here, in the tradition of, say, Stephen Bradley of whom William James and Wayne Proudfoot and Ann Taves have much to say. A liberal American Xtn mysticism just might serve to pick apart the puritanism of Evangelicalism (or drive Millenials deeper into their apparent narcissism). That’s to say, a positive prophethood might come from it (or a dark cultish David Koresh one, or a New Agey self-affirming one).

Anyway, let’s wrap this up. I’m not sure who atheists are preachin’ to when they draw attention to the religious behaving badly (and I mean in the most venial ways, not kid diddling and curin’/damnin’ teh geyz and whatnot) and I’m not sure what they are trying to prove. It seems a tad hypocritical and unproductive to make their case on the basis of such things. A fundie sock in the jaw of conventional Xty is poor form while constant indignation about some of the religious, with which to tar all of the religious, isn’t? And an indictment of religion based upon inappropriate public behaviour is like adding committing an indignity to a human body to Luka Magnotta’s charge sheet for good measure.

And there’s something really hinky about tackling people like McGlone in theological terms, at least among a cohort who claim to be dedicated to the truth. They seem to accept readily, in some Proddie fashion, that there’s some ultimate standard within Xty against which McGlone can be held. Otherwise, it’s not a mode of analysis but is rather the co-authorship of the conflict written into the libretto of the little opera McGlone has composed. It’s explanatory power is severely limited if not completely compromised.****

But of course, this kind of engagement in theological debate is always disingenuous. It’s merely a shot to the ribs to set up the knock out punch which is the debate about the existence of god. Hard to say how everyone would respond if this event had turned into a Mexican standoff with the introduction of an embittered atheist relative who at this moment decided he or she had had enough of the anodyne religiosity of the majority of the family as well as the ravings of the fundie black sheep. Everything you need to know about atheists is summed up in their universal contempt for the first line of Alain de Botton’s odd little book, Religion for Atheists: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”

I’m not saying there’s anything fundamentally true about my reading of events, but I have at least tried to read the events closely. The atheists cannot say the same. And that should suggest to you that this worship of naturalistic methods of theirs is not all it appears to be – it is no less an ideological posture as it is an attempt to discern the truth of things. Social scientists are often no less guilty in this regard but they at least embrace means of self-reflection on this fact. Until ‘evangelical atheists (to employ an expression I take from Cris Campbell) can see themselves as anthropological subjects, and interrogate their movement and its expressions and its actions sociologically, then purify those as far as they are able of their blatantly exclusive political motivations, I don’t see how scholars of religion like me can engage them as anything but objects of scrutiny.

*There’s something extraordinarily organic about this loose pattern (as opposed to self-conscious), a product, it seems, of the nature of the internet beast that is the blog post and its comment thread.

**An aside, I find it peculiar how exercised some atheists get when they have to face such nominally Xtn stuff at funerals for their less than religious loved ones (more about this another time) for it seems like beating a dead horse, not to mention the injection of an odd emotionalism into ritualism …. And more later on the atheists’ folly of celebrating the decline of the Mainline in the US.

***Say what you want about today’s Religious Right. There’s no intrinsic connection between Neo-Liberal politics and American Xty. I all but guarantee that that Babylonian whoring is going to come to an abrupt end, and the GOP knows it. And there’s nothing to say that Evangelicalism, say among grown up Millenials, won’t turn on secular politics and culture in a critical and progressive way.

****This, I believe, is a dig against anthropology I’ve made before: viewing religious events on the ground, or in otherwise definable historical contexts, through normative lenses is to impose on them the very terms in which those events are intended to be understood.


Beats me where this interest and smidge of sympathy for the American religious came from. In the first instance, I blame Gary Wills, Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  In the end, I blame these guys:


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Chelsea, Chelsea is our name*

Our friend idoubtit demonstrates again that she’s pretty much humourless.

Football-loving ‘psychic’ llama predicts Chelsea Champions League glory

idoubtit’s response: This is just… stupid.

Have I ever mentioned how deadly serious I take Groundhog Day?

*At least I learned something through this.  IDNKT the Saskatchewan Roughriders fight song was borrowed from Chelsea.

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Same as it ever was, same as it ever was

Catching up on reading some worthwhile long blog posts this morn (I’m prone to regard provisionally the best stuff as tl;dr), I was reminded that I’d saved one from Greta Christina from about a month ago that I meant to comment on in some form (not in the worthwhile category,  way tl given its lack of substance, yet I’ve read it more than once).

Christina asks:

In the next generation or so, will it be easier to become an atheist?

I don’t mean socially or politically easier. I’m not wondering whether there will eventually be less anti-atheist bigotry, discrimination, stigma, whether state and church will be better separated, etc. (That’s not what I’m thinking about today, anyway.) I’m wondering if it will become emotionally easier, and philosophically.

My response, in short, I fucking hope not!  But specifically of Christina and her ilk, I have to ask, how difficult is it now?  All you have to do is develop the capacity to see such questions in your navel at parties.

Christina reminisces about a little drinking years ago talking then with her friend Tim about existentialism:

Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”

Whoa! It’s like overhearing one of those conversations between undergrads that leave you crestfallen and wondering why you didn’t go into another line of work.

Greta, letcha in on a secret: when existentialism seems normal to you, you’re not living with it, you’re fleeing from it.

Curiously, while Christina et al. grew up with existentialism, so she says, atheism, she then says, was “a new idea that we had to struggle with.”  And upon coming to it,

We had to find a radically new way of looking at the world and our place in it, with radically new answers to the big questions of life and death. Without belief in God or a soul or an afterlife, we had to seriously re-think questions about morality and mortality, meaning and connection.

“Radically.” Interesting choice of modifier. Can’t say for sure, but I take it that that radical new way was not through taken-for-granted existentialism and again I’d venture to say that it was in the opposite direction.

That radical means flight to illusion and egoism seems confirmed in the next paragraph:

And if we came to our atheism more or less on our own — if we came to the atheist community after we let go of God, not before — we had to re-invent the wheel. I certainly went through that. When I let go of my spiritual beliefs, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of atheist and humanist and skeptical and secular philosophies of life and death. Death especially was a struggle for me — as it is for many believers letting go of their beliefs — and I pretty much had to piece together my own ways of coping with a life in which death is really and truly final. And I’m not the only one. Other atheists who have left religion report similar emotional and philosophical struggles: about death, about meaning, about personal responsibility, about really big questions that frame our lives.

What do you mean you had to re-invent the wheel? Your acquaintance with the history of Western thought is apparently not even passing. Where Christina landed was some kind of DIY bargain basement Epicureanism, if the rest of her blog (on secular transcendence and Morris dancing, an alltime fav of mine) and the blogs of other atheists like Jerry Coyne are to be judged.

All of this is handled more fully and ably than I have by Benjamin Cain in numerous posts (those “worthwhile long blog posts” and if you go over there, be sure to find your way to his comic porn).  Cain’s post, Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God? gets right down to the philosophical bad faith of the atheism of the likes of our Greta (I end with just a taste).

Christina’s hope for “a world where atheism is normal” is expressed thus:

I’m wondering if this struggle will be easier for the people who come into atheism after us. Or even if it will be a struggle at all. I’m wondering if they’ll look at atheism the way my friend Tim and I look at existentialism. “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Nevermind what shape a world full of people thinking this might have (though I shudder to think).  The real problem with such a vision is nicely summed up by Cain:

The problem, then, isn’t with atheism so much as with the modern naturalistic humanist’s ideal of hyperrationality. A wannabe hyperrationalist, who despises faith, superstition, and all manner of irrationalism will still have emotional and religious impulses but will disown or rationalize them. This lack of self-awareness produces the scientistic, positivistic aspect of the subculture of New Atheism. (See Hyperrationality.) Meanwhile, those who fulfill the ideal of being passionless are the autistic, paranoid, introverted, skeptical, or philosophically-inclined atheists, the point being not that the latter are omniscient but that they constantly step outside their parochial viewpoint, second-guessing themselves at every turn so that they can’t relax and enjoy themselves, like the over-analytical “mouse” in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or like the character Woody Allen plays in his films.

To hope that scientific atheism (as opposed to existential atheism, a distinction borrowed from Cain) become commonplace, more than just in keeping with Christina’s narcissism, is nihilistic.  It entails the expectation that values and meaning will be created anew for and by all the future godless (undoubtedly, Christina imagines them so recreated in her own image), but how could putting all meaning, values, all big questions up for grabs across culture not lead to widespread dispair followed by God knows what horrors? Christina need not care for she’s not likely to live to that time to rue what she and those like her have wrought.

But given that my default response to the problem of existence is the aesthete’s, I conclude by endulging Christina’s self-obsession and allowing you to see into her navel too.

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The Atheist Imagination Really is a Dull Space.

If I understand this exhibit correctly, it’s comprised mainly of death-related objects of the Victorian Era.  And ok, part of the exhibit is bits of metaphysical performance.

This hurts the heart of Sharon Hill (idoubtit) at Doubtful News.  She remarks:

Why use a medium to the exhibit? It makes me really sad that they do. It suggests such an interpretation has merit.

The exhibit itself seems interesting enough, why add the “metaphysical”? The human reality is way more interesting.

Now, I’m no curator, and I have little evidence about what the actual curator is thinking here, but I’d venture a guess.  I’d suggest that commenter spookyparadigm gets the basic point:

Given the Victorian element, it seems like it could be appropriate … if explicitly noted as representative of the Spiritualist craze of the period. The group they are going to have even boasts of being part of the ASPR.

I wouldn’t do it, I don’t think, but I could see it being done in at least a somewhat appropriate manner.

That’s surely what’s at work. (I’m not quite sure what spooky means by the last sentence, but I am left to wonder what an inappropriate manner would be – idoubtit seems to believe that any spiritualist performace is just that though.)

Lemme just try to spruce this idea up a little bit. Indeed, spiritualism was the stuff of popular culture through much of the 19th century, and even got the attention of lots of serious people.  No less than William James was keen on the ASPR (see Blum, D., 2006, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death cited in that link). So it’s difficult to think of Victorian conceptions of death and mourning without considering belief in ghosts, mediumship, etc. And ‘scientific’ research into such things.

Of course some of that seems a little quaint now, though as Doubtful News never tires of pointing out, pop culture is still filled with plenty of ghostbusting. But I think her tireless work on the Amazing Randi beat wears her out here.

She concludes that the presence of mediums and metaphysicians within the exhibit legitimates their spiritualism. Maybe, but I don’t see how that’s necessarily the case.  I think it’s a rather clever element for the curator to add – not merely some inert artefacts of Victorian woo, but actual modern day woo peddlers (assuming that’s what they actually are). Isn’t this just a performance like Colonial Williamsburg or something?  No matter that the actors and even some of the audience may be true believers.  Undoubtedly plenty of vistors are not.  And there’s no doubt that plenty of participants in Victorian séances and what not didn’t believe either, but it was all popular stuff in salons in America and Europe in the 19th century – good entertainment at least. Falling completely on the side of doubt, so as to get teh sadz at these demonstrations in the midst of very serious and ‘scientific’ presentation of history, is to maintain a pretty staid conception of museology.

More than that, I’d say that people like idoubtit are the butt of an implicit joke. For it was the Victorian Era (or more to the point, the era of European Colonialism) that mostly gave the modern conception of the museum.  And such events as The Great Exhibition, and the Chicago World’s Fair with its performances by real live Indians and everything. And collections comprised of sacred objects, many from death cultures, of very hinky provenance (many later returned with deep public apologies). Yes, the objects in the exhibit in question are interesting enough indeed, as is the human reality from which they are now removed. But surely, idoubtit wouldn’t be comfortable with death artefacts pilfered from colonized cultures the world over, nakedly displayed for the public to gaze upon as mere curiosities.  She’d surely prefer to see some respectful context and control exercised by interested parties for whom these are matters of human reality.

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