The Guardian

Heretics!

The schism in the atheist "church" divulges why division is a persistent feature of organized religion.

There is an assumption, rarely examined, that religion breeds exclusion. As a graduate student I participated in many discussion sections in which my colleagues (God bless them) took it as a truism that religion amounts to a sociological phenomenon whose primary purpose is to affirm [primitive] human civilization’s burning need for group identity. I spent probably much more energy and breath than I ought have trying to convince them that true religion is a phenomenon that can’t be reduced so easily to tribalism. The Council of Nicaea, for instance, needs to be primarily understood as the maintenance of truth over false and invented doctrine (whatever one might think about the beliefs themselves.) My main contention has always been that religion is–using secular terms–an original philosophical commitment, not primarily an organ of group identity that acts reflexively at the behest of “more real” components of social identity like race, class, and gender.

But perhaps my colleagues were right. Or at least, righter than I gave them credit for. After only a year of meetings, enthusiastic “services,” and rapid expansion into America The Sunday Assembly, a humanistic agnostic “church” based in London, England has experienced its first schism. The dispute appears to be over the word “atheist” and whether and how it can come to define the group’s identity. There also seem to be issues around the setting of the services and even (Gaia preserve us!) a bit of a kerfuffle over public morality regarding whether one congregation ought to move to a “churchlike” setting rather than continue meeting in a local bar that features scantily-clad waitresses. Surprising no one, (certainly not an Anglican like myself) the United States congregation in New York city, now calling itself The Godless Revival, is the one to come out in revolt advocating radicalism instead of prudence. As an example of organized religion as a social phenomenon producing exclusionary tendencies, (here involving people otherwise predisposed to simply say “I’m okay, you’re okay”) we probably won’t get a better example than this.

Or perhaps, on closer inspection, there are some deeper conclusions to draw from this peculiar and, let’s be honest, more than a little amusing episode. I cannot pretend to have a stake in squabbles over nonbelief, but I do think it is an occasion to examine our assumptions about organized religion. If it does confirm the tacit assumption that where religion goes, exclusionary tribalism follows then maybe the terms of the disagreement itself will allow us to take some measure of the contours of how and why divisions in organized religion come about. The disagreement is over a word “atheist” and whether it can meaningfully describe the identity of the congregation. To the Londoners, it ruins the “feel good” atmosphere of a “big-tent” agnosticism. Better do away with it. But for the New York Godless, the word simply means what it says, that one does not believe that God exists, and they take it seriously as the correct moniker for their identity. Take this sentence from the CNN piece: “atheists who wanted a firmly atheist church—a Sunday Assembly where categorical disbelief is discussed and celebrated—will not be satisfied.” The Revivalists seem to want a firmer statement of disbelief than the Sunday Assemblers will bless, a more hardcore “orthodoxy” if you will, and a community that nurtures and encourages a life lived by that proposition. In short, they’ve simply thought about it, arrived at a conclusion, and feel the need to act more correctly in accordance with their nonbelief.

I confess, my sympathies (as much as I can muster) lie with the Godless Revivalists. They seem to be a bit more reflective than the Assemblers. If God does not exist (or one behaves as if God does not exist) then one should have no difficulty calling oneself an atheist. If someone doesn’t like it, then the burden should be on that person to define just what about it makes them uncomfortable. Going further, they seem to have realized that such a claim will, if not totally suspend, then radically alter the nature and ends of any moral values and duties. What’s the point of being family friendly? Why not meet in a strip club?

To make a clumsy axiom out of the above, perhaps the move to organize a “religious” atheism has confronted freethinkers with the truth that thought is never truly free of commitment. The sort of commitment to an accepted idea (“belief” if you will) that produces communal gathering, mutual edification, and encouragement in one’s course inevitably opens the door to division. As we can see from this atheists’ schism, nonbelief is a proposition that requires definition (“doctrine” if you will.) Others are bound to hold different definitions and shape their communities (“churches”) accordingly. If the whole purpose of the enterprise is to pursue one’s commitments in community, then what else can one do but establish a community that is consistent with those commitments, even if it comes at the expense of communion with other partners?

If division and disunity can so easily spring from definitions nonbelief, then perhaps we may take a closer look at The Council of Nicaea before writing it off as group dynamics fueled by the unconscious compulsions of power and patriarchy or the senseless convulsions of those led by blind faith. What if, even in some distant way, it was more like today’s atheist schism, a rigorous definition of terms, an expunging of false or incoherent doctrines, and a reestablishment of community based upon clarity of thought rather than the fuzzy feelings one gets from getting together and singing? Perhaps organized religion catalyzes the sort of intellectual honesty and consistency that demands lives and communities be ordered around accepted conclusions and beliefs. If this sometimes comes at the expense of communion with other factions who hold to different (or ill-defined) commitments, then that is only what reason demands. Maybe organized religion is not the seat of anti-intellectualism but rather the site of a consistent intellectual rigor that demands thought, action, and the formation of community around one’s conclusions. If organized religion is indeed a catalyst of division, then maybe it is only because it is also a catalyst for serious thought.

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