Sunday, August 30, 2015

Religion and Irreligion: Friends or Foes?

Atheists, agnostics, and other people who profess no religious faith have often been criticized, ostracized, ridiculed, discriminated against, and belittled.
Especially in recent years, such people have begun to fight back. Some of that fight has been rather hostile towards religion.
The writings/talks of the “new atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—are strong attacks on religion and belief in God. (I have read at least one book by each of these.)
But a milder form of irreligion is developing. One key spokesman for this movement is Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, a not widely-known but highly-rated school in California.
This month I sped-read Zuckerman’s Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion (2012) and read more carefully his Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (2014).

The latter will be discussed at the September meeting of Vital Conversations here in the Northland (of Kansas City) with Helen Springer as a guest resource person.
Helen is the Executive Director of Oasis, a secular “church” in Kansas City. Their website, which you can access with this link, says, “Here, you’ll find a retreat—an oasis of sorts—for Agnostics, Humanists, Skeptics, Atheists, Freethinkers, Deists, questioning Theists and the like.”
Those are the kind of people Zuckerman writes for or on behalf of.
Although he seems a bit caustic at times (but those of the majority always have to be careful in criticizing the statements of those in a discriminated-against minority), Zuckerman writes mostly in an irenic manner that suggests irreligion and religion can be friends rather than foes.
The secularists he writes about are mostly, like he himself, highly moral people who would rank rather high on Maslow’s scale of self-actualization. On the other hand, the religious people he refers to are mostly narrow-minded conservatives/fundamentalists or hypocrites.
There is little, if any, recognition of the irreligious people who are self-centered, ill-willed, insensitive individuals and detrimental to society.
It is not hard to see that there are good, moral secularists such as those he mentions and such as he himself doubtlessly is. But it is also not hard to see that there are some (many?) secularists who are not so good or moral.
It is also not hard to see that there are some (many?) religious people who are like the unattractive individuals or groups he mentions. But there are also many religious people who do considerable good in society.
To his credit, though, early in the book Zuckerman writes,
Admittedly, secular men and women don’t outshine their religious peers in every way. For example, when it comes to generosity, volunteering, and charitable giving, secular men and women fall short, with religious people being more likely to donate both their time and their money (p. 22).
What he says about Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of Good Without God (2005), is something I can appreciate.
In reading the pages following Epstein’s introduction, though, I thought that humanism is probably right in much that it affirms and wrong in much that it denies.
Surely a clearer both/and viewpoint is not only possible but also definitely desirable.
Religious humanists can, and do, work on all the problems of people in this world that secular humanists do. Thus, healthy religion and healthy irreligion can, and should, cooperate as friends; they don’t have to be foes.
Moreover, the limited worldview of secularists should not be touted as superior to the broader worldview of those with mature religious faith.


  1. Your discussion of “secularists” reminds me of the following quote which I can identify with. It explains why many secularists are church members.

    ”I think religion is so much more than belief in God. It is about community, it’s about being moved by certain historical narratives, it’s about self identity within the group, it’s a place to bring your existential dilemmas. Although I reject a belief in God I accept the many impulses that bring people to a religious community.”
    -- Quote from “Here and Now” radio program on 4/22/10 by Rebeccs Goldstein, author of the book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

    1. Thanks, Clif, for being the first to respond/comment yesterday morning.

      The impulses that Goldstein refers to are what motivate some people to attend Oasis, and other similar groups, I assume -- as well as keep some people attending church even though they do not, or no longer, believe in God.

      I had not heard of Goldstein or her book, and I have just put a library copy on hold in order to take a look at it.

    2. Here’s a link to my review of Goldstein’s book. It’s a novel.

  2. This blog raise several questions for me (and I'm sure there are more I don't see). One is the task of finding the humanist common ground between various religions and their denominations and between secular humanists. This is the practical task and not an easy one since we're so deeply divided but also because of the challenges faced by us all from the fundamentalists within and without religion. Dawkins et al. also fault the liberal religions people, some of whom I'm pretty sure you'd identify as "those with mature religious faith," for the extremist-fundamentalism by providing cover for them. It's a charge those of us who reject extremist-fundamentalism have got to address, or so it seems to me.

    Another issue, one that is frequently implied in your blogs, is the issue of adult development. This blog, more than most, clearly suggests some kind of developmental theory -- "narrow-minded conservatives/fundamentalists or hypocrites" vs. "those with mature religious faith"; healthy versus unhealthy religion/secularism.

    I, for one, am with you in these distinctions, but it raises additional questions on practical and theoretical levels that are difficult to treat. The one most obvious here: What precisely is a "mature religious faith"?

    1. Thanks, Anton, for your thoughtful comments and for raising good questions.

      On the negative side, I think it is quite ridiculous for Dawkins et al. to fault liberal (or moderate) religious people of providing cover for extremists and fundamentalists. That is certainly not their intention, and they (liberals and moderates) are often quite vocal in their criticism of fundamentalism. (As you know, some of us are "fed up with fundamentalism.")

      I think it is not so hard for religious humanists to cooperate with secular humanists, but it may be harder for some of the latter, especially those who see belief in God as being intellectually (or even morally) suspect, to cooperate with religious humanists.

      I am not sure I can define or describe "mature religious faith," but I think it is easy to see that there is a distinct difference between people that evidence that sort of faith and those, for example, whom Keith Herron refers to below as "sub-Christian." (And the same distinction could be made, no doubt, for other religious traditions.)

      Just as adolescents are not fully mature physically, emotionally, mentally, or socially, neither are children mature religiously--and yet, many people make little effort, I'm afraid, to grow/mature beyond their religious views of childhood.

      BTW, many thanks for posting the link to this article on your Facebook timeline yesterday.

  3. Excellent Blog-as always!
    I was particularly enthused about your topic this time because we are discussing this very subject in a discussion group that I am in with many Non-Believers.
    I have seemed to gain the respect of the Non-Believers with my simple explanation of the two types of people: Believers&Non-Believers and that everyone believes in something. I go on to further explain that there are as many Good&Moral people in the Non-Believing camp as in the Believing camp.
    This position has allowed me to have open discussions with many Non-believers and some have even come over to my side of Believing.
    Our Bible tells us that we are to be about LOVE and follow Jesus` example and that is what I try my best to do.
    Thanks again for your references in your article that I will be able to use in my Humble quest to convince the Non-Believers that their is a Loving God who we All need.
    Blessings to All,
    John(Tim) Carr

    1. Thanks for your comments, John Tim. As you recognize, those of us who are believers need to be as loving and as non-judgmental as possible toward those who are non-believers.

  4. I am encouraged by the likes of Brian McClaren, Rachel Held Evans, Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, Diana Bass Butler, Barbara Brown Evans, Richard Rohr, Adam Hamilton, and others who have helped me decide that I can still be a professing Follower of the Way without leaving my brains at the church door. Maybe we should take off our shoes, but not abandon our brains.

    1. PS: I am encouraged to know that there are professing Followers of the Way such as Leroy Seat, and a host of others, with whom I can share my faith without being or feeling ostracized as "not really one of us." I want to take as my motto:
      He drew a circle that shut me out,
      Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout.
      But love and I had the wit to win,
      We drew a circle that took him in. (Edwin Markham)
      Afraid I don't do very well with that last line.

    2. Thanks, Charles, for your comments. Those are all good people (in your first comments posted) whom I also have read and profited from through the years. And I also like the Markham poem, which I have quoted in sermons and talks several times.

  5. A few years ago I think I may have been responsible for our church establishing a policy that worship readers would use the NRSV unless requested otherwise. This ties into today's blog, because I was assigned to read from Psalm 14, which begins with "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" I had never liked that verse, and went through a pile of Bibles looking for a more acceptable translation. Alone among all I read was on alternative, but it was from the Jewish Publication Society, and I went with it. "The fool says in his heart, 'God does not care.'" It might have been literally reading from Jewish scripture that caused the uproar, but I gathered the real problem was that the pastor's sermon got thrown off-kilter when the famous verse morphed into something different. Well, I thought it was something better!

    Why is it so important to contrast "There is no God" with "God does not care?" To me, the first smugly lets believers off the hook, while the second is a warning to everyone, especially believers. To me, the difference between an atheist and a believer has more to do with the definition of God being considered, than with the faith of the person in question.

    I believe in the experience of God. I also believe that metaphysics is just "just-so-stories" we tell to 'explain' those experiences of God. We all of us, atheists and believers alike, are on a great pilgrimage. Some are taking baby steps, and cling to ideas quite old. Others are finding radical new ways to reinterpret our pilgrimage. We are like knights errant, each walking alone, even as we share the knowledge that others also trod their own paths. Whether we find ourselves in dark forests or empty deserts, we are each on the pilgrimage before us.

    In all ages God has called prophets out into the wilderness. In the modern world the challenges are so great that many of those prophets have disappeared into that wilderness, seemingly never to return. Some of these call themselves atheists. I listen to them, for somewhere in their prophecies are echoes of the fire of God that burns within them. No, the ones I reject are the false prophets, and I care not whether they call themselves atheists or believers. The false prophets do not do justice, love mercy, or walk humbly (before God or otherwise). Even then, I listen, just in case something of value comes from them.

    (See Part 2)

    1. Craig, thanks for the story involving Psalm 14:1. It got me curious about translation and meaning. [see also Psalm 53:1 and Psalm 10:4 for “There is no God” (“God does not care”)]

      The Hebrew ‘nabal’ has been rendered (selected from many) ‘vile one’, ‘base one’, ‘villain’, in addition to ‘fool’ and ‘benighted’ [JPS]; but my favorite is ‘scoundrel(s)’ [Job 30:8 for “sons of ‘nabal’”]. I also like the possibility of ‘smug one’ suggested in your comments. :-) My point here is that other Hebrew words rendered ‘fool’ suggest inexperience or crassness. ‘Nabal’ suggests intent. Here’s my attempt at translation:

      In the heart a smug person [scoundrel] says
      “There’s no God.” [“God is naught”]
      They make corrupt, they make abhorrent a deed!
      There’s no doing good! [“Doing-good is naught”]

      I think you are ‘spot on’ to suggest that the prophetic emphasis falls on ‘doing-good’ more than our ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’. The people of Nineveh change their ways, they don’t become believers in the existence of Yahweh. Let’s hope that more and more people learn to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (attentively)!

    2. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Craig.

      There is a lot of difference between saying "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God'” and saying all who do not believe in God are fools.

      And reading on (in the NRSV), it is quite evident that "doing good" rather than believing in God is the focus of this Psalm. Many Christians, sadly, have been "practical atheists," that is, atheists by what they do and especially by what they don't do rather than by what they believe or don't believe.

      Psalm 14: 1 --
      "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.'
      They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
      there is no one who does good.

      "The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
      to see if there are any who are wise,
      who seek after God.

      "They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
      there is no one who does good,
      no, not one."

    3. Leroy, the NRSV (for gender avoidance reasons I suppose [his heart]) renders the singular ‘fool’ as a plural ‘fools’. When the plural ‘they’ immediately follows it inclines (in my judgment) the reader/hearer to connect the ‘they’ to the ‘fools’. Contrariwise, I am inclined to think this psalm in wisdom/prophetic mode is suggesting that the observed practice of the religious is the basis/evidence for the assertion of the ‘smug one’ that “God is naught”.

      This squares with your point (and Craig’s point) that “it is quite evident that ‘doing good’ rather than believing in God is the focus of this Psalm.” I, too, certainly do not want to be caught “saying all who do not believe in God are [smug].” :-)

      Also, I don’t think “[m]any Christians, sadly, have been ‘practical atheists,’ . . . by what they do and especially by what they don't do . . .” I think they and I have been unfaithful Christians. Whether I am also a ‘practical atheist’ is in addition to whether I have or have not been ‘doing-good’. Of course, there might be an interactive effect occurring. :-)

    4. Dick, I appreciate you the taking the time to share your expertise with the Hebrew language.

      With reference to your last comment, I think there surely is an "interactive effect" between being an unfaithful Christian and not doing good as well as being a practical atheist.

  6. Part 2

    For want of a better term, I call my theology "religious humanism." Perhaps someday I will find a better way to meditate upon the experience of God. I do not expect others to organize their theological thinking the same way, mine is the result of a long pilgrimage, and others have followed many different paths. As a Christian I hold strongly to faith, hope, and love, to redemption and release, to the truth as best I can see it. I read and discuss the Bible because it is an overwhelming book which has profoundly earned my respect. Yet I see Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and so many others as fellow sojourners on the way. Religions are similar in some ways to languages. The difference between English and Arabic is not that different than the difference between Christianity and Islam. Most relevant to me is that I am a native speaker of English, and only know a smattering of words in Arabic, such as alchemy, algebra, and algorithm. And I know a little about Arabian horses and Arabic numerals. However, these are not particularly religious, they are merely parts of the foundation of the modern western world. Along with the many ancient Greek classics we only know from Arabic translations, which is why Aristotle was able to arrive with such drama in Europe. For that matter, Adam Smith apparently did not so much write "On the Wealth of Nations" as translate it from the work of an Iranian Muslim scholar, who made his recommendations in the context of a culture rather different from modern western culture. Check out David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Years" for that one:

    Well, writing this made me think of an old folk song, "Let there be peace on earth." So let me close with a link to that:

    1. As I imply in the article, I certainly think that Christians who are also humanists can work with those who are adherents of other religions and also humanists as well as with secular humanists.

      I am not sure that I can agree, though, that religions are a lot like languages. Certainly there are some similarities, but they may not be as significant as the differences between the two categories.

  7. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard, who now faithfully reads and sends comments from his new home in Chicago, writes,

    "It seems that personality traits and worldviews are to some extent, and perhaps to a considerable extent, determined by genetics. Yet they are not particularly related. I know both religious and nonreligious people who are wonderful (you and June are among them) and I know some religious and nonreligious people who have issues.

    "Why some people are religious and others nonreligious is a complicated question. I do not know why I have my particular worldview, but I have had it since my early teens. I suspect a strong genetic factor since there is a tradition of freethought in my family, although my parents were religious, but also quite liberal. Political views also seem to have a genetic component.

    "So personality, worldviews, and political views are strongly influenced by genetics, but not totally. People can, and do, change their views, but it often requires some sort of psychological trauma since these views are usually very deeply held.

    "Finally, I want to point out that humanism is not confined to the nonreligious; there are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist humanists and we should all work together for our shared goals."

    1. Eric, you wrote your comments before you saw what Craig posted. He and I both agree fully, I think, with your final paragraph.

      I have a problem, though, with your linking worldviews, whether religious or non-religious, to genetics. Certainly the home people are brought up in make a huge contribution to a person's worldview, sometimes lasting for life. But that is primarily because of nurture, I think, not because of genetics.

      Also, partly in keeping with what Anton wrote above (and my response to him), I think that changes in views while sometimes, of course, occur because of some trauma, but in many more cases they come through education (in the broad sense) and through maturation.

  8. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky comments,

    "Baptists can join hands with humanists in concern for the preservation of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Paul Simmons edited papers from a Baptist/Humanist dialogue at the University of Richmond entitled Freedom of Conscience. We had a pretty good dialogue, and the book is worthy of attention of Baptists concerned about a central tenet of American culture."

    1. I am happy that some Baptists can join hands with humanists, and I was happy to learn about "Freedom of Conscience" edited by my old friend Paul Simmons following the "Cooperative Baptist/Secular Humanist Dialogue" held in October 1995 on the campus of the University of Richmond.

      Unfortunately, that was not (is not) the position of Southern Baptist leaders back in the 1990s (or currently), and that is, if I am not mistaken, one reason (along with many others) that Dr. Simmons as well as you, Dr. Hinson, were unable to remain on the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

  9. Thinking Friend Keith Herron, who is now pastor of a UCC church in St. Louis, shares these comments:

    "Seems to me a good bit of the disrespect shown to those who are not oriented by faith in God is generated by those who practice a sub-Christian faith. Their understanding of faith never quite rises to the challenge of biblical faith (which they either reject or don’t know well enough to identify it); rather it is merely a system of thought that’s poorly informed by God in Christ and is merely a religious whitewash over their hateful, self-centered lives. Churches are often populated by sub-Christian believers."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Keith.

      I think it is certainly true that many people in society, include those you refer to as sub-Christians, easily fall into a us/them mentality, and even though their understanding of and their practice of Christianity is shallow they have enough connection to cultural Christianity to see the atheists/agnostics as "them" and reject and perhaps even revile them accordingly.

  10. Preach it, Leroy! Indeed, healthy religion and healthy irreligion should cooperate as friends; why be foes? We have a lot of common ground when it comes to social concerns.

    And indeed again: "The limited worldview of secularists should not be touted as superior to the broader worldview of those with mature religious faith." Unfortunately (or anti-providentially?), the loudest secularists got it from us first: or at least, from those representing religious faith with the biggest mouths.

    Enjoyed Oasis yesterday with friends, and talked a while at the after-meeting potluck with the speaker, who started Oasis in Houston. His chief reasons for turning from Christianity (and pastoring) were intellectual, he said, not just because of treatment by Christians. His intellectual reasons were threefold: 1. He couldn't make the Bible coherent any longer. 2. Prayer doesn’t work. 3. Evolutionary psychology: Studying it taught him that Christians pretend to have answer they don’t have.

    Perhaps we Christians need to rethink the standard answers we've been giving to these concerns.

    1. Fred, thanks so much for your comments. You more than anybody I know are actively trying to maintain ongoing contact and dialogue with the kind of people Zukerman writes about.

      I also appreciate your pertinent report on this past Sunday's Oasis meeting.

      While reading Zuckerman's book, I soon came to the conclusion that the problem for many, if not most, of the people he wrote about, and maybe for Zuckerman himself, was the absence of an adequate theology. There are, I think, sound theological understandings that could likely deal with the three "intellectual reasons" the speaker turned from Christianity.

  11. This is the "atheism" that I have found with Europeans. They "don't believe in religion". The amazing part is that when they encounter "real religion" over here, they tend to be very impressed, and want to take it back with them - whether catholic or evangelical.

  12. Just now read through all these comments. My conclusion is that you are an intelligent group gifted with the ability to express your varied opinions that add so much color to this blog. Leroy is fortunate to have you as friends who think deeply and well.

  13. Pastor Ruth Harder posted the following comments on Facebook with reference to this article:

    "Thanks, Leroy. Lately I've read some articles about clergy who are some form of atheist or agnostic. Gretta Vosper from Canada, for example, has been in the news a lot lately. I had never heard of this 'Clergy Project.'

    "Anyhow, I thought you might be interested. ."

  14. It's nice to see these 'moderate' believers who espouse more enlightened values; but 'Mature' Christians lose the debate on theology; because fundamentalists can always demonstrate that they have cherry-picked a higher proportion of Biblical commandments than any moderate. Moreover, 'narrow-minded' fundamentalists are closer to the example set by Biblical figures.

    As long as 'Mature' believers carry as baggage an iron-age narrative of atrocities, they are the ones limiting themselves, far more than any secularist who has cast off the Bible.

  15. The "limited worldview of scientists" is an incorrect phrasing. Scientists would be the first to remind us that their profession deals in a limited realm, strictly observable aspects of the physical universe (also energies and forces like gravity, of course). Science is limited to natural phenomena, and therefore, it cannot and does not address matters of religion or philosophy. Religion and philosophy exist in the realm of "belief," and science inhabits an entirely different realm, "observable natural reality." The limitation of science to natural phenomena is not a "limited" worldview, and not a worldview at all, if that means some kind of belief system. Its very limitation to natural phenomena makes it a reliable window into physical existence in the universe.