Monday, December 22, 2008

Humanist Pseudo-Church

Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church -

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths...People often ask, "How do you expect to raise your children to be good people without religion?" said Dale McGowan, the seminar leader and author of "Parenting Beyond Belief." He suggested the retort might be something like, "How do you expect to raise your children to be moral people without allowing them to think for themselves?" He advocates exposing children to many religious traditions without imposing any. At the seminar, Andrea Proctor was thrilled to meet another mother who would like to start a group of parents and children meeting weekly or biweekly. "We just put a huge pool in our back yard," Tony Proctor said. "We might have to start humanist barbecue pool parties."

So, why don't they just go to church and just not believe it? What's the problem?

These made-up semi-religions never thrive. I suppose part of the story is the fact that they're intentionally contrived. Secular people see that churches have products on offer that meet important secular needs--social involvement, rites of passage and social control (aka "values")--form social organizations, concoct rites of passage, and establish programs to train their children.

But I don't think that's the whole story. The cult of Serapis was concocted but within a generation devotees, and others, were convinced that it was of high antiquity. Mormonism was completely made up but immediately dug in and Mormons are now a virtual ethnic group.

When religion is alive you don't get humanist pseudo-churches. Where religion as a social institution is alive everyone knows the myths, participates in the cult and talks the talk, regardless of what they believe. Some are enthusiasts and some are skeptics but most are indifferent and take the cult as part of the fabric of social life. What did the Greco-Roman pagans believe by the first centuries AD? Lots of different things, but even Epicureans and skeptics participated in the traditional public cults. They didn't establish metaphysically detoxified cults with secular barbecues in place of sacrifices to the gods.

Humanist pseudo-churches only arise when religion collapses--when the language and myths are no longer current, when the cult dies out and religion is privatized as a matter of conviction--a package of beliefs and moral commitments. Then secularists sort through the wreckage to salvage the bits they think are worthwhile and refurbish them.

But by then there isn't much market for these spare parts or the pseudo-churches constructed out of them because by then a variety of secular institutions that satisfy needs for social contact, rites of passage, holidays and customs, and social control are well established. Kids are socialized in pre-schools and play groups, and in all manner of organized activities in which middle class parents enroll their children. There are innumerable secular social activities, civic organizations and opportunities for volunteer work for adults and a secular liturgical year that includes Super Bowl Sunday, Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas has been thoroughly detoxified: Santa, Rudolph, snowmen and candy canes have driven out shepherds, angels and Baby Jesus. Maybe most importantly, religious belief and behavior is no longer required or expected: people no longer feel that they ought to be dressing up and going somewhere on Sunday mornings.

Who are the minority who seek out secular churches and Sunday schools? I suspect they're people in transition, people who come from religious families or live in subcultures that haven't yet become thoroughly secularized--people who feel they should be dressing up and going somewhere on Sunday mornings, and who feel defensive about their lack of religious convictions. The article notes:

A recent study found that many Americans associate atheists with negative traits, including criminal behavior and rampant materialism.

How many Americans? Which Americans? Not Americans I know. In my world the very word "atheist" sounds peculiar because atheism is the default, something hardly worth mentioning. Theism is anomalous. No one I know feels he ought to be dressing up and going somewhere, other than brunch, on Sunday mornings and no one has any interest in secular pseudo-churches. Church-going is just not done. The Americans I know associate religious believers with of negative traits, including ignorance, bigotry, prudery and political conservatism.

So, in my world, I'm on the defensive. Coming out at work I was immediately branded as a member of the "Forces of Reaction"--in precisely those terms. But certainly the New Atheists protest too much.

A room full of concertedly nonreligious people has its idiosyncrasies. At the seminar, someone sneezed, and there was a long silence -- no one said "Bless you" or even "Salud" or "Santé." For sale were T-shirts saying "98% Chimpanzee" or showing a tadpole with the words "Meet Your Ancestor." There were also children's games from Charlie's Playhouse, a Darwinian toy company, illustrating the process of evolution.

Jesus, do they also censor swearing? "Meet Your Ancestor"? Why not "2 + 2 = 4" or, better, "Pi = 3.1416..." since, as I understand it, some cranks once tried without success to get the Biblical figure, 3.0, accepted as the value of Pi? I went to an ordinary public school and watched TV. I saw innumerable films at school and educational TV shows as a child showing Life emerging from the primordial soup as lightening struck the primitive oceans and lungfish crawling out onto the land.

This is what everyone got as part of elementary education and popular culture and was never intended to Make A Statement in the way that the T-shirts and Darwin-toys are. If there were fundamentalists around I suppose they compartmentalized it--the Garden of Eden and Noah's Ark, life emerging from the primordial soup and lungfish. It simply wasn't an issue.

So, by the time humanist pseudo-churches emerge from the ruins of ordinary religion, there are few takers. This secular faux-religion is parasitical on real religion, emerges when religion is dying out and then dies with it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wither Feminism?

We are a group of professionals from various disciplines who study women's place in the economy. We are collecting signatures to a letter to President-Elect Obama concerning jobs for women at the following site. Please go there to sign and forward it to people who would like to join in the effort.

A while ago I was invited by a colleague to be on a panel discussing "Feminist BS." I did my research and, armed with the latest data on discrimination, sex segregation in the labor force, and male-female wage gaps, sallied forth to enter the fray.

The venue, as I discovered, was a small theater with black walls and various avantgarde accoutrements. The panel consisted of me and another female academic, an extremely tribal gay guy and the drama critic of the local PBS radio station who was dressed in a witchy/ethnic outfit I suspect she ordered from the Pyramid Collection. The topic, it turned out, was whether feminism as a theatrical style was out-dated. My data fell flat and I felt like a fool.

I never realized that feminism was a "theatrical style" in the first place. I thought it was all about sex segregation in the labor force, male-female wage gaps and, more generally, eliminating gender-based constraints, restrictions and expectations that limit the choices of both men and women. I thought it was about removing unnecessary restrictions and providing more real options for everyone.

Feminism as a theatrical style is certainly bs and so, I believe is feminism as the ethic of care, the exultation of the Eternally Feminism, and Goddess worship, feminism as the Battle of the Sexes and feminism as the Solidarity of the Oppressed. Feminism is about jobs, wages and opportunities.

That is what this petition is about. Please sign at Here is the text:

To President-Elect Obama:

We applaud your intention to establish a sizeable and productive program that will help to stimulate the economy, and that will provide improved infrastructure for the country. However, we are concerned that, unless specific steps are taken, your program will provide jobs almost exclusively for men. Women are 46 percent of the labor force. Their unemployment rate is rising with that of men. Moreover, many millions of women are raising children without a husband or partner, and unemployment for them will mean great deprivation, and possible homelessness, for them and their children.

We suggest three lines of action that will insure that women get a fair
share of the benefits from your program:

1. Revive and enforce the Labor Department regulations that require government contractors to institute affirmative action plans that provide a share of the jobs for women and minorities. Closely monitor the contractors for compliance.

2. In connection with the infrastructure projects, institute apprenticeships, and insure that at least one third of the positions go to women.

3. Add projects in health, child care, education, social service that will both provide jobs to women, and also provide needed services to them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Official: Mainline Protestantism is Dead

The Associated Press: Obama defends choice of pastor for invocation

The selection of Pastor Rick Warren brought objections from gay rights advocates, who strongly supported Obama during the election campaign. The advocates are angry over Warren's backing of a California ballot initiative banning gay marriage. That measure was approved by voters last month. But Obama told reporters in Chicago that America needs to "come together," even when there's disagreement on social issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about," he said.

Who is supposed to be "coming together" here? Presumably the secular urban-coastal elite and the megachurch trailer trash. This pick establishes non-denominational fundamentalism as our semi-official state church. The assumption is that for Americans who are religious at all, this is the industry standard. Mainline churches are marginal and their members are invisible--to few to count for political purposes.

Granted, there are many times more of these "evangelicals," non-denominational or otherwise, in the US than Episcopalians, who now represent fewer than 1% of the population. But it isn't size that matters. It's inclusiveness--the difference between a gathered church or sect, where participation assumes commitment, and a civic religion.

Civic religions are public institutions like libraries, schools and parks. There is no expectation that people who use the facilities will buy in. You can visit a church as a tourist or go to cathedral Evensong as a concert-goer, and that is perfectly ok. No one expects you to progress to membership.

But even soft-core evangelical megachurches like Warren's are quite a different thing. They aren't public facilities citizens use on their own terms. If you go to a service, or "concert," the expectation, even if it is not always met, is that you are a "seeker" soon to become a "fully devoted follower" who will join one of the many cell groups and, if gay, will join a group devoted to changing your sexual orientation.