New Atheism, Accommodationism, and Humanism in a World Gone Mad

As most of you know, we left this area a year ago, and moved to a quiet little village on the North shore of Mexico’s largest lake, just 40 minutes south of Guadalajara. We live simply, even in comparison with our fellow expats, as, unlike most of them, we have no vehicle and no TV. We walk everywhere we go, and our entertainment consists mostly of movies, and, during the season, live baseball streamed on the internet. We occasionally watch streamed news broadcasts from the states, and I keep-up with events by monitoring a steadily decreasing number of web sites.

I’m monitoring fewer sites for a couple of reasons: One, I am becoming less and less interested in what’s going on up here, and two, as more and more sites are acquired by fewer and larger organizations, the truth of what’s happening in the country is becoming increasingly more obscured. Remove yourself from day-to-day immersion in the culture of the United States for a year, and the big picture becomes much clearer, even to the casual observer.

A writer named Joe Bageant, who lived in Ajijic and recently died, described Americans as living in a media-created “hologram.” Most Americans are living in a world that they create for themselves, choosing what they would like to believe, or what they would like to be true, from the available information, and either completely ignoring or discounting whatever they do not choose to believe is true. The hologram is media created because somewhere along the line, they seemingly became disinterested in empirical truth. Some outlets, mostly the conventional print and “mainstream” broadcast media, dedicated themselves to “balance.” Rather than make truth or value judgments about the stories they were running, they chose to give the same credence to both sides of any controversial issue, often equating actual empirical evidence with unqualified opinion, and giving both equal time and weight.

A portion of the media chose to develop a particular constituency, and preach only the dogma their particular constituency already agreed with, totally ignoring truth, or even balance. Left or right, conservative or liberal, both sides bend, twist, fabricate, and obfuscate the truth, so the faithful, of whatever persuasion, have plenty of material from which to choose their own unique versions of reality. Of course, everyone thinks that their version, whatever that may be, is true and they have piles of data that prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the validity of their position. Guess what? So do the other guys! The entire political and social spectrum has been placed in the same “no rational discussion zone” that once was occupied solely by the creation/evolution and religion/atheism debates.

We have seldom been more divided as a nation as we are today. What the media has done, and done purposely, is deprive us of any rational basis to discuss any of the issues facing us. We can’t have a meaningful dialog on climate change, for instance, because half the country has been convinced that global warming is nothing but a hoax being perpetrated by socialists who want only to bring about the complete decimation of the world’s economy. We can’t have a meaningful discussion about the economy because again, half the country thinks austerity and low taxes is the way to go, while the other half is convinced that the government needs to raise taxes, especially on those who can most afford it, and stimulate the economy. Corporate profits have never been higher, the stock market is doing great, Wall Street has made a full recovery, but the other 98% of Americans’ seem to be barely holding on, and yet there is no public outrage – at least not yet, and no meaningful discussion, as the media is focusing upon meaningless tripe.

One thing Wisconsin did is expose who, or at least what is behind the divisiveness in America, and what their purposes are. The Koch brothers are an easy and available target right now, but even though they are major funding sources for much of the right-wing and Libertarian establishment (the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute were both founded by the Koch’s), they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The good news is that some Americans are starting to “get it.” Several books have hit the streets in the last few months written by some of our better remaining journalists, screaming at the top of their lungs, in an attempt to wake the rest of us up to the corporate takeover of the Congress, the Presidency, and almost the entire media structure. “Griftopia…” By Matt Taibbi; “Democracy Incorporated” by Sheldon S. Wolin; “Death of the Liberal Class” by Chris Hedges; “The Mendacity of Hope:…” by Roger Hodge; and especially Winner-Take-All Politics” by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, all tell, in different ways, of an America whose direction can no longer be influenced by the voters who are being misled by the media into believing they are still in charge. We have a government by and for the moneyed interests, and as Wolin pointed-out so well in “Democracy Incorporated,” we are living under a system most accurately described as “Inverted Totalitarianism.” Without firing a shot, or changing a single word in the Constitution, the American system has been completely hijacked by our largest corporations operating blindly in pursuit of profits to the exclusion of all other concerns.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying this is a conspiracy in the normal sense; it’s the result of a number of large corporations, each with armies of lobbyists, working towards a common goal. Perhaps there’s a degree of collusion among them, but I’m not alleging that there is. So, what are these common goals, what can we learn from the events of the last two years? Obviously, they want us as divided as possible, that’s why so many of them fund “Astroturf” groups like the Tea Parties, and others. Obviously, they want as little government regulation as possible and as little oversight of their activities as they can get away with, and that’s why they fund operations like the Heritage Group and the CATO institute, which advocate for small government and lack of control.

Now, they have opened-up a new front. The Republican Party has suddenly discovered the religious right, a group it has exploited, but given very little satisfaction over the last twenty years. Social legislation has started to pop-up in State Legislatures and the Congress all-of-a-sudden, issues that have lain dormant for years are suddenly center-stage. Seems it’s not enough to kill the educational unions, we have to replace the public school systems as well, and with sectarian schools, who would love to get their hands on all that federal and state money. Bills legitimizing the teaching of creationism along with evolution have started to appear, as if by magic, in several states at once. Tighter abortion controls, some of them aiming to ban abortion and even contraception outright, have recently appeared in several states.

Most of these measures are clearly unconstitutional, but the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is, isn’t it? What do you think are the chances the current court will strike any of this down? The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates, and destroyed, perhaps forever, the ability of ordinary citizens to have any influence over what the government does, or how it operates.

The idea that the Republican Party is suddenly concerned about the social goals of a group of constituents they really don’t need to appease any longer is ludicrous. What we should consider, is how the oligarchy would benefit if some of this social legislation became law. First, and most importantly, they would further divide us as a people. To left versus right, Republican versus Democrat, would be added Religious versus Non-religious.

In addition, the more religious or committed to dogma a group is, the better they accept an authoritarian form of government. Every despot since Constantine has recognized and exploited that simple fact. Could it be, as some are beginning to suspect, that the bottom line of all this attempted social engineering is to provide an uneducated, highly religious, docile, cheap supply of labor for the next few generations?  It’s obvious that the ruling class in this country have been quite successful in convincing a significant portion of the population that it is in their best interests to oppose unions, oppose fair taxation on the rich, oppose single-payer health care, and support the dismantling of the American educational system. Can it be that now the ruling class has decided that it is time for another religious great awakening? Are they trying to create a theocratic idiocracy?

I think they are, and I’d like to discuss what we, as atheists and Humanists can do about it, once we clean up our own act, because before we can do anything about anything, we have to stop squabbling among ourselves, decide who we really are, what we really want, and how, exactly to go about it. The currently overwhelming opposition we’re facing, both from the religionists and the corporatists is directed, coherent, purposed, and focused. We must be the same, and we are nowhere near being there.

Indeed, we are far better off than we would have been prior to the publication of “End of Faith,” in that we are much better aware of our numbers, and are far more organized, but we are also deeply divided as to how we should deal with the religious, and like the Tea Party, we are squabbling over the wrong enemy. The various Tea Party groups disagree over how to attack the government, when the government isn’t the problem, just as we are squabbling over how to deal with the religious when the religious aren’t the problem! The real problem is the Corporatocracy that’s responsible for creating the divisions between most Americans in the first place.

Unfortunately, we can’t blame them for the divisions between atheists, we did that to ourselves, and we can fix it ourselves by re-focusing on the true problem, not the artificial one we have created. Before I discuss that, perhaps I should take a few minutes and explain what I’m talking about, for those of you who aren’t aware of the deep schism in the current atheist community.

I made a conscious decision, as a fairly young person, that there was no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural and certainly none for the existence of the Christian god in particular. For me, this wasn’t a “feeling,” or “belief,” but a cognitive decision based upon a careful appraisal of available information gleaned from both religious and non-religious sources. I agreed with Clarence Darrow, who said: “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”

I grew up in the 50’s, when we were all taught to respect each others religious beliefs, no matter how silly they seemed, because, we were told, “faith” was something that was beyond questioning, something that could not be challenged nor denigrated under any circumstances, and, like politics, was outside the realm of things that were eligible for debate.

I didn’t think much about religion for many years, although I participated in various religious rituals when called upon to do so, which was as seldom as I possibly could. I left Connecticut in 1992, moving here to Wilmington, into a different world as far as religious culture was concerned. I made as few waves as possible, as I was trying to start a business, establish some roots, and build relationships outside of the normal means that most people use to do that in this culture.

I wrote a couple of letters-to-the-editor, which led to some correspondence with some creationists, bringing the fact home to me that these people truly believed the earth was less then ten-thousand years old. I saw that they not only took this nonsense in Genesis seriously, they were actually acting upon it!

Battles were erupting in school boards all over the country as Christians were trying to force creationism, and its offspring “Intelligent” design to be taught alongside real science. Of course, all such efforts were squelched by the courts, or by the threat of legal action, but the outgrowth of their efforts were fruitful in that even today, in spite of the law, if evolution is taught at all, it’s covered in a perfunctory manner, not properly, as the foundation of Biology.

I became involved in these battles, but the real game-changer for me was the publication of “End of Faith” by Sam Harris in late 2004. In questioning and debating creationism, I had been challenging a religious belief, something I had considered a strong taboo for years, and Harris not only encouraged challenging religious belief, he considered such challenges absolutely essential for the survival of civilization.

The first part of Sam’s major premise in EOF, simply stated, was that the social acceptance of belief in nonsense without evidence, or in the face of insurmountable contrary evidence, was the greatest challenge faced by mankind. His second major point was that the so-called “moderates” in any religious group were every bit as dangerous, if not more so than the extremists, because being more numerous, they perpetuated the social acceptance of religious belief. Without the moderates to provide this base of social acceptance, the extremists wouldn’t have a religion to hide behind, whether Moslem or Christian.

Books by Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Victor Stenger quickly followed, all published by major publishing houses, as Sam’s had been. In the past, works with an atheist theme had always been published by minor specialty houses, and received only minor notice, but these books sold in the millions of copies, establishing a market for non-theist works, and for the first time, catching the attention of popular theist writers.

These weren’t purely philosophical works apologetically professing a mildly atheistic position, these were strident calls for challenge and change with titles like the aforementioned “End of Faith,” along with “The God Delusion,” “Breaking the Spell,” God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything,” and “God, the Failed Hypothesis.” These books were read by millions, and led many to question religious belief, and, more importantly, for the first time in this country, to question respect for it! The ranks of non-theist organizations like “The Freedom From Religion Foundation,” American Atheists,” and others swelled with those who wanted to do something about the problems pointed out by these “New Atheists,” as they were called.

Being an “Atheist,” even a “New Atheist,” does not require, nor does it imply an absolute certitude concerning the non-existence of the supernatural. We leave certitude to the religious, and are content with definitions such as that expressed by Richard Dawkins: “Very low probability, but short of zero…. I cannot know for certain but I think that God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there;” or that by Isaac Asimov: “…No, I’m not sure, but I’m sure enough that I don’t waste any more time thinking about it!”

The New Atheists write mainly from a scientific prospective, feeling that the “God hypothesis” is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the real world and can therefore be tested by scientific means. Previous writers, such as the noted Evolutionary Biologist, Stephen J. Gould, considered science and religion as belonging to separate “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA), and science should be restricted to the empirical realm, including theories developed to describe observations, while religion would deal with questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.

New Atheism contends that religion does not consider itself a mere philosophy, as Gould would have us believe, but it deals with truth statements about reality that are, indeed, scientifically testable. Religious claims, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of the soul and an afterlife, and the power of prayer are all truth claims in the real world. Even morals, which involve human behavior, are an observable phenomenon that can be studied; in fact there is a substantial body of research on the evolutionary origins of ethics and morals. Nowhere, the New Atheists argue is it necessary to introduce God or the supernatural to understand reality. Many New Atheists contend that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” when evidence should be present and is not.

Although these positions were not “new,” this was the first time these views had been mainstreamed by being published in best-selling books from major publishers, and they drew a lot of heat from both the religious and the atheist community. The criticism from the religious side amounted to “how dare they?” They could tolerate a little non-belief as long as it was in the closet, out of sight, didn’t openly take issue with the foundations of religious belief, and still extended the same deference and respect to belief in the supernatural it had come to expect.

From the atheist side, the New Atheists were criticized for being dogmatic, intolerant, and the secular version of the fundamentalists on the religious right. The New Atheist position that there was no “common ground” to be found between science and religion was an impediment to organizations like the National Center for Science Education who worked with moderate mainstream Christian groups to achieve common ends, such as keeping the teaching of creationism out of public school systems. Authors such as Chris Mooney (“Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”) and Barbara Forrest (Creationism’s Trojan Horse, the Wedge of Intelligent Design”) among many others, criticized New Atheists, especially popular bloggers such as Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyers for alienating moderate Christians, and making it more difficult to work with them.

The term “Accommodationist” came to be used, to refer to those who objected to the position taken by the New Atheists, who saw no advantage in working with the moderate Christians, and feel that atheists should direct their efforts towards the elimination of religion itself, as they see that as the best solution to the problem. The following is a quote from Jerry Coyne:

 “Accommodationists like Forrest and the National Center for Science Education have been using the “let’s-make-nice-to-the-faithful” strategy for several decades.  What is the result? … American acceptance of evolution has stayed exactly where it is for 25 years.  The strategy is not changing minds.”

The polls show that in the last seven years since the publication of EOF, the percentage of non-believers has increased from around 5% to nearly 20%, with the largest growth occurring within the under-thirty group. Churches of every denomination are losing membership, and it’s the younger generation that’s fleeing in ever greater numbers. Some polls claim that the percentage of non-believers under thirty may approach 35%, depending upon how the questions are asked.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect the New Atheists have had upon these numbers, were most of these people already non-believers and felt free to “come out of the closet,” or is there some persuasion going on. Personally, having spent a good deal of time on various forums and boards I think it’s a combination of both. Had Harris, Dawkins, and the rest not written, I don’t think we would have established the large atheist population that we have, and we certainly wouldn’t have put ourselves in the position where we could, if united, become a real force in overcoming the problems we face in this country right now.

In 2008, Chris Hedges wrote a book called “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.” Chris excoriated both groups of atheists, especially the New Atheists, calling them secular versions of the religious right. However, like the New Atheists he is disgusted with the Christian right, going so far as to call it the most frightening mass movement in American history. Even more disturbing for Hedges, however, is the notion which many atheists and liberal churchgoers share, which is that, as a species, humanity can progress morally. “There is nothing in human nature or human history to support that idea”, Hedges maintains, nor, he says, “that the flaws of human nature will ever be overcome.”

If Hedges is right, if we can’t progress morally as a species, or overcome the flaws of human nature, we are helpless before the corporate oligarchy that hopes to rule us through fear, intimidation, ignorance, and superstition. I am convinced, however, that Hedges is wrong, and there is yet a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves. I believe it lies with the replacement of superstition with the principles of Humanism, and I’d like to move on to that discussion.

First of all, don’t look for any magic cure-alls in what I’m about to say, there aren’t any! If the political situation in this country is going to be rectified, it’s going to have to happen in some manner outside of the normal electoral process, which has become virtually meaningless due to the reasons I mentioned above. If you’re looking for a fiery, rabble-rousing, polemic, “storm the bastions of power” speech, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this isn’t it.  Admittedly, up to now I’ve used some pretty strong and specific language to describe the situation as I see it, but I’m not about to advocate what I think may be necessary to put the country back on a realistic track. Instead, I’m going to suggest a solution of an entirely different sort, one that’s entirely Humanistic, if there is such a thing.

Earlier I made the statement that I believed the corporate oligarchy was beginning to use religion as a tool, not consciously, perhaps, but at the very least it’s a fallout of the heavy investment big business has made in the election of extreme right wing candidates all over the country at all levels. While this might look encouraging to the American Taliban in the short-run, this campaign of demagoguery in State Houses all over the land is also precipitating a negative reaction among those who call themselves political independents, and especially those whose ties to religion are tenuous at best. In “Breaking the Spell,” Dan Dennett advanced the idea that many people, perhaps most people who embrace some form of religion don’t actually “believe” in the tenets of their religion, they actually believe in the idea of “belief” itself. The more they see the logical conclusions of their professed belief systems actually being implemented as the law of the land, the more they tend to become disillusioned, and begin to search for alternatives. We see this reflected in polling data, especially among those under thirty – the next generation.

I spent the time discussing different sorts of atheism to illustrate a point: New atheist, old atheist, accommodationist, whatever – none of them has anything to offer those who are currently religious, or believe in belief, and looking for other alternatives. That’s the bad news, the good news is that Humanists do, and there has never been a better time, in my opinion, for us to press our major advantages. Everyone who knows me, has ever heard me speak, or seen my writing, realizes that I would like nothing more then to see religion disappear forever from the face of the earth. While my sympathies are with the new atheists in this area, I also realize, as do most of us, that unless we can offer something to replace the heart of what religion provides to humanity, we are not going to be successful in attracting the bulk of those who would otherwise join us. Speaking of the millions of atheists, agnostics, and nonreligious, Greg Epstein in Chapter six of “Good Without God” says:

“The vast majority of these people,you may be among them – couldn’t care a fig for the organized movement of Humanism, because they’ve never heard of it or because, as it currently exists, it is not relevant to their lives. Why not? Because up to now, the single biggest weakness of modern, organized atheism and Humanism has not been the religious right or radical Islam or the secularization theory or communism. It has been the movement’s own tendency to focus on religious beliefs, when the key to understanding religion lies not in belief at all but in practice – in what people do not just what they think…In short: we’ve successfully responded to the head of religion, but not to the heart of religion.”

Greg continues to say we have learned to speak and to debate, but we have done a poor job learning to sing and to build.

We need to acknowledge that as nonreligious people, we may not need God or miracles, but we are human and we do need the experiential things – the heart- that religion provides: some form of ritual, culture, and community.”

Ritual

Prayer is an important aspect of religion, involving, as the saying goes, “a request for a suspension of natural law from an admittedly unworthy supplicant.” The point is, instead of making a joke out of it, we should perhaps, as a start, acknowledge that from the very beginning of our lives we learned to cry out to “powers greater than ourselves” for things we needed and couldn’t even articulate, at the time, like food and comfort. For most of us, that child inside never leaves us, and many of us have developed some method of coping with the stresses of life that perhaps don’t involve prayers to the supernatural, but are somewhat alike in that they satisfy that basic human need for support and security.

Meditation, alone or with a group is one such method of dealing with stress, with or without some chant or mantra. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is another easily-learned method of stress relief, a little involved to go into here, but I’m sure Mike Werner would be happy to go over it with anyone interested.

Appreciation of nature and the arts is another prayer alternative many have found will take one where mere atheism cannot. Who among us has not experienced that feeling of overwhelming awe and connectedness that believers try to claim for themselves as a “religious” experience? To me, such feelings are all the more profound because of the cognitive realization that both I and the universe exist due to natural processes, and that I share a common bond with every single living thing in the cosmos. We are, as Carl Sagan said, all made of star-stuff.

The Humanist Life Cycle ceremonies are an important part of both our ritual and our culture, and the outside world knows nothing about them. Baby Naming ceremonies offer a secular alternative to baptism, christening, or bris. Coming-of-Age, Marriage, and of course Funerals, all have Humanist ritual counterparts marking the important stages of a human life. Just because we have no belief in the supernatural doesn’t mean we must give up celebrating the important moments in our lives and the lives of our children. Anything that brings us closer together as families and as human beings is important in building traditions, values, and history.

Culture

Quoting Greg Epstein again:

Humanism and atheism often lose out to religion not because of anything remotely related to theological belief, or even because people need to think of themselves as better than others, but because we often cannot help but think of ourselves as part of a valued particular group, which is often associated with religion.”

What is our culture? Bertrand Russell, in “Why I am Not a Christian” said quite emphatically that he WAS a Christian in a demographical or cultural sense. Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion” referred to himself as a “cultural Christian.” As I have emphatically denied in the past, and still do, we do NOT live in a Christian nation, but even I will admit that we certainly live in a predominately Christian culture, for good or ill. I don’t have a clue how “Christian” this particular UU Church is, but I know many of you are members here, and it certainly is part of our culture.

Humanism itself contributes some aspects to our culture, loosely defined by the Humanist Manifesto. To describe a culture based upon science and reason instead of superstition and ignorance would require far more time and space then is available here, and anyway, the establishment of such a culture would have to be accomplished by means of a gradual transition rather then an initial imposition.

Community

You are building a fine Humanist community here, much different and a good deal more diverse then frankly I imagined it could be when I walked into my first meeting in a coffee shop that doesn’t exist any longer. You have the monthly meeting, discussion meetings, a woman’s meeting, a good level of community involvement, and are well on your way to joining with other organizations throughout the state. You have an active membership, and have even helped spawn a group in Myrtle Beach. Many of the things I and others who have had the honor of serving on the board over the years have tried to accomplish, has had the aim of growing the group to the point where it could become a real force in the community. It is more necessary now then it has ever been that these efforts continue, and grow even more intense. Some chuckled, when I first suggested to our small group that someday we should have a booth in the Azalea Festival and Riverfest. Well, shortly after we became a Chapter of the AHA, Clem came up with a grant, purchased a tent, and there we are! Now, Han is suggesting we mount a media campaign to raise awareness of Humanism in Wilmington, not to create a firestorm among the fundamentalists, which it will, but to enlarge our community, which is our most important single task!

The U.S. is in for a hell of a ride in the next few years, and this particular area, and those like it, are going to have the worse time of all. This group has the potential to become a real leader in the community, in spite of how fundamentalist it may look to you at present. There are thousands of people in the area who are hungry for what you have to offer – a different perspective, based upon science and reason; a culture that’s actually not too dissimilar to what they’re used to; and a community that, with a few more members, could be just as vibrant yet diverse as any in Wilmington. You just have the one problem:

You’re a very well-kept secret! The media needs to know, and be constantly reminded that the problems we face as a nation cannot be prayed away, and are not being caused by gays, liberals, Mexicans, the godless, or the government, but are due to our own divisiveness. We put them there, we can take them away, and once we eliminate the fear and ignorance, on all sides, we can unite and become One Nation, Indivisible again. It won’t happen overnight, it will be a slow process, but for it to succeed, the message the group projects must be one of similarities, not differences; positives, not negatives; and strengths, not weaknesses.

I’m suggesting that you fully implement the plan that Han presented to the board at the beginning of the year, including a professional and persistent pursuit of the media outlets in the area, emphasizing the positive aspects of Humanism, and relating them to the dominant culture that exists in the area. If the last few years prove anything, it is that no appeal to reason will influence the hard-core fundamentalist base of the religious right, but that there are millions who hunger for the culture and community you have here, minus the dogma and repression of organized religion, and they will respond if the message is presented positively and professionally.

In the years ahead, global warming is going to cause tremendous change to this area and others along the coast, not to mention the havoc that the current political system is going to create. Community, and a feeling of togetherness is going to become even more important then it seems now. Alone, there is very little any of us can do, but together, there is nothing that is beyond us. I would like to leave you with a few closing words from Robert Green Ingersoll:

“Let us be true to ourselves – true to the facts we know, and let us, above all things, preserve the veracity of our souls.

If there be gods we cannot help them, but we can assist our fellow-men. We cannot love the inconceivable, but we can love wife and child and friend.

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. We can tell the truth, and we can enjoy the blessed freedom that the brave have won. We can destroy the monsters of superstition, the hissing snakes of ignorance and fear. We can drive from our minds the frightful things that tear and wound with beak and fang. We can civilize our fellow-men. We can fill our lives with generous deeds, with loving words, with art and song, and all the ecstasies of love. We can flood our years with sunshine – with the divine climate of kindness, and we can drain to the last drop the golden cup of joy.”

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