May 25, 2009

Challenges for the Atheist Movement

Movement / MovimientoImage by victor_nuno via Flickr

I was recently browsing the atheism directory of Reddit and voting up good pro-atheist submissions as I frequently do to combat routine down-voting by Christians, when I ran across an interesting op-ed in the New York Times. It was a mild critique of the atheist movement written by Charles M. Blow. It was one of those articles that did not make much of an impression on first read but got me thinking enough that I returned to it later and have now decided to share some thoughts about one part of it.

After challenging the conventional wisdom that the maintenance of religious belief requires early indoctrination, Mr. Blow notes that the most common reason given by people who come to faith later in life are "because their spiritual needs were not being met." He also reports that people are most likely to choose their religion because "they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship." He bases these statements on the recent Pew survey.

The part of Mr. Blow's brief op-ed that caught my attention, however, was the following:
While science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious, the cold, hard facts are just so cold and hard. Yes, the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Yes, there is a plethora of Biblical contradictions. Yes, there is mounting evidence from neuroscientists that suggests that God may be a product of the mind. Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?
Essentially, Mr. Blow is suggesting that "science, logic and reason" are simply not enough for most people. They do not speak to the daily concerns of the average person. I do not necessarily disagree with this. In fact, I have seen countless atheist bloggers making precisely this point over the past couple years.

However, I am not sure about Mr. Blow's suggestion for the atheist movement:
As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.
I agree with this up to a point. Science, logic, and reason alone certainly do not speak to much of what makes us human. Moreover, I think that most atheists recognize that we have not done a particularly good job of creating fostering a secular sense of community. As Mr. Blow suggests, we do need to do a better job in many of these areas.

Where I am not willing to go along with Mr. Blow is the implication that we need to go outside the natural realm (i.e., into fantasy and delusion) to meet these needs. Nature itself is an astounding source of beauty, awe, and even transcendence. It speaks directly to our emotional side and is an ideal alternative to shared superstitions. Science too often provides this experience to those who understand it.

The challenge facing the reality-based community is not one of learning lessons from religion, as Mr. Blow believes. The challenge is one of building effective secular communities, educating people about the unacceptably high costs of religious belief, and fostering a mutually beneficial relationship with nature.

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