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.


Anonymous said...

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

Leaving aside the few who probably see that as inherently dishonest (there are probably some who feel so), might it be that such an apparently rational action might cause many people to wonder about the "solid" foundations of other respected social institutions?

It has been my personal experience that most people (I include myself) find some number of illusions about reality comforting, if not actually necessary. An illusion too closely examined ceases to function as one.

Anonymous Coward 20090103/1834

H. E. said...

Dunno. I suspect that members of traditional mainline churches are more likely to take the whole thing with a grain of salt than these earnest humanists.

I suppose I was suggesting in a longwinded way that these earnest humanist pseudo-churches are a response to the earnest evangelical churches where participation requires that you buy in doctrinally. And that earnest evangelical churches are a symptom of the death of what I think of as real religion--folk religion where the public cult is the central, participation is simply part of membership in the community, most participants have some notion that maybe there's something to it but don't worry about it or care very much.

Anonymous said...

Wow. An impressive entry. I feel that humanity's pride plays an important role in all of this. Ideally people should be able to get together on Sunday for a picnic or event with out worrying about religious views. As Americans what if every Sunday we met at a local state office and gorged ourselves with hot dogs and cheap beer? Most enthusiasts are just as proud of their "heritage" as they are their religious beliefs.

The thorned debate of atheist vs religious fanatic is a current concern of mine. I feel that most atheists these day are just as faith based in their eccentric claims of nothing. A rational mind would be that of an agnostic, where we all questioned the possibilities of both sides of debate and then there really would be no debate at all. Perhaps the atheistic fanatics feel they have to compete with the brimstone and fire eulogy of the fanatical saint based preachers. Extreme verse extreme, a sort of fight fire with fire. I see an err in all of this and I think it relates to all aspects of life. If some one says god bless you, just smile and say thanks, or same to you. If you don't make a big deal about not being religious, the religious won't respond in the extreme as well. Same thing goes for discrimination. The controversy of the "N" word; if an individual chooses to express their dislike for another individual just because of the color of their skin, and that colored individual didn't care, then the word would have no effect. Once this word loses effect, it loses meaning, and thus the usage of the word would cease. Kind of like ignoring a bully.

I agree that pseudo-churches usually fail. I feel this is due to the lack of conviction behind the movement. People are afraid to miss church and risk eternal damnation. Once you lose the fear you lose the control. Once people can come and go as they please, the Church stops making income from it's justified tithing. Now the church or organization loses it's form of income and no longer can fund it's weekly events and thus the movement crumbles. So I think that the survival of religion relies on the ingraining of ideas justified by our forefathers and blindly followed because it always has. That's why preachers teach that questioning ones' faith is a sin, but how strong is a faith if it can't withhold under scrutiny. I really could ramble on and on about the definition of sin, humanity's need for hope, so on and so forth, but I will stop my comment now and end with a full hearted thanks for your blog.

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