The Phoenix on Epstein

Boston’s weekly alternative paper, The Phoenix, has an article entitled Greg Epstein, Atheist Superstar. There is a lot to chew on in this article, but I’d like to particularly highlight this criticism by Tom Flynn

“Greg lays a strong emphasis on denominational life, but a lot of folks on the other side of the tracks are strong individualists,” Flynn explains. “They moved out of traditional religious backgrounds to move away from supernatural belief, but also as a way of emancipating themselves from a web of tight community control — and they’re not eager to step back into a local community.”

and this discussion at P.Z. Myers blog, Pharyngula

I do find it puzzling that some atheists react so negatively against the concept of community. I would think that pretty much everyone wants to have friends and a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. But to each his/her own.

The first rule of our Humanist community is that it’s voluntary. No one has belong if they don’t want to. It’s not like a religion, where you are obligated to show up on holy days, etc.

For myself, one thing I enjoy about being part of a community is that you can get to know a person slowly, and perhaps become friends over time. When I was a kid, I could become friends “at first sight” but now I find that it generally takes repeated encounters with another individual to get over the initial reserve that’s expected in New England. Being part of a community allows one the slow exposure to other people. In school, that happens all the time, but in the working world less so.

Another aspect of the article I would take issue with is that I think it overemphasizes ritual compared to what we actual do in the Harvard community, which is pretty much no rituals. Some of us meditate together as part of the Humanist Contemplative Group, but meditation is a sort of mental exercise, not a ritual with magical powers. The only rituals we’re on board with is the life cycle rituals like weddings and funerals. These need not be elaborate, but it’s nice to have some sort of ceremony to memorialize important life stages. None of these things need have a supernatural aspect about them.

I also wouldn’t say our ultimate aim is to cozily co-exist with religion. Rather, we aim to provide an alternative so that people who participate in religion to fulfill their emotional needs will find an avenue that also fulfills these needs without requiring intellectual compromises. But our rivalry with religious moderates is friendly, more like a Red Sox-Orioles game than a game against the Yankees, and we can collaborate with them on charity and service projects.


12 Responses to “The Phoenix on Epstein”

  1. 1 Rekha Vemireddy
    November 28, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    I’m not sure the atheists who are against organized Humanism are allergic to all community. They seem to think that religious communities in particular are somehow controlling. Presumably it is related to anti-clericalism in general. The notion of a spiritual leader spooks people. After all, how would one become convinced that another person had that type of facility?

  2. 2 schogol
    November 29, 2009 at 1:30 am

    What I find Humanists allergic to is religion, and I truly don’t understand why. Dr. Loyal D. Rue, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Luther College and noted religious naturalist, has written an excellent book entitled RELIGION IS NOT ABOUT GOD which makes the case, persuasively in my opinion, that religion doesn’t need theism to be efficacious. Is it that Humanists are so insistent that religion can only mean something negative that they are unwilling to entertain a broader vision?

    I’ve heard fellow Humanists say, “Why bother with religion at all?” or “Religion is too freighted a word to redeem.” or “I’m not a religious person.” To the first I would say we bother with religion because religion isn’t going away no matter how many times its enemies have tried to eradicate it. We bother with it because it just may be the case that human beings are innately religious as part of being social animals. To the second I say that what Humanism meant during the Renaissance is quite different from what it means to us today. Words carry the baggage of their history but language evolves as we evolve. Yesterday’s freight is tomorrow’s building block. And last, you or I may not consider ourselves religious, but if we gather to celebrate life cycle events we are participating in what is, by anthropological standards, a religious event.

    Perhaps it is time to let religion evolve as well?

    • 3 David Kimball
      November 29, 2009 at 5:17 pm

      And to this reply I would ask, What does this author mean by “religion”. The religion that Humanists may be “allergic” to is a religion of the supernatural. But the author then talks about a religion not needing theism to be efficacious. Is this religion non-hierarchical? naturalist (as opposed to supernaturalist)? Not into rituals that have supernatural meanings? etc. I don’t know of many Humanists who would be against that kind of religion. However, they may ask why call it a religion if most people are going to associate the term “religion” with the supernatural. Before saying whether a Humanist will or will not find religion an allergant, “religion” needs to be defined.

      • November 30, 2009 at 12:05 am

        David, I don’t know if it’s the case that religion needs to be defined so much as people need to be educated as to the existence of nontheistic religions such as Unitarian Universalism, Humanistic Judaism, Ethical Culture, some forms of Confucianism, some forms of Buddhism, etc.

  3. November 29, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Rick, thanks for the link. To be clear, my piece isn’t about what the Humanist community at Harvard does or doesn’t do; it’s about Epstein’s vision of and ambition for Humanism.

    That said, I didn’t write that Epstein’s “ultimate aim” is cozily coexisting with traditional faiths–just that such cozy coexistence is part of his vision for the future. Based on “Good Without God” and my conversation with Greg, I believer that’s correct; witness, for example, Greg’s statement (quoted in the article) directed at potentially distrustful progressive religious believers: “We’re not here to erase you, we’re here to embrace you.”

    I’d also take issue with the notion that I overemphasize the importance of ritual (in Greg’s thought, not in Humanism at Harvard). For one thing, that term appears twice in the piece–once courtesy of me, and once courtesy of PZ Myers. What’s more, as Schogol suggests, communal gatherings that mark (and interpret) key events in the life cycle are by nature ritualistic, whether or not they’re moored to belief in some transcendent higher power.

    Thanks again, and feel free to drop me an email if you’d like to discuss further. I’m at areilly@phx.com.

  4. 6 David Kimball
    November 29, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I’m curious why the Myers (The Great Desecrator) quote feels that Epstein’s Humanism as needing “rituals”, “sacrements”, and “priests or chaplains”. Doesn’t Myers see it as providing community rather than these? I don’t see Epstein’s Humanism as focusing or even including these three elements, but rather focusing on providing community. It seems that Myers does not recognize the distinction between the community of other religions and their supernatural tools of rituals, sacrements, and priestly hierarchy.

    To me, the various religions are complex and not simplex. They are more than a belief system as they are also a value system. It is easy (perhaps too easy) to knock the belief system of any religion. But perhaps we should recognize that many religous people also share the same values that we Humanists share. I think we can be “cozy” with similar value systems without being “cozy” to their belief system.

    One of the chief values of a Humanist or a Global Citizen is that “there is no them”. We are all one and we are all together. I think it is destructive to create a duality of religious people (them) and us (fellow Humanists). And the best way to do it is through our shared values rather than our different beliefs.

  5. 7 Rekha Vemireddy
    November 30, 2009 at 2:10 am

    To clarify further, the vision that Greg lays out in his book does include rituals, and he is a strong believer in professional leadership, e.g., chaplains, like himself. The book is about his ambitions for future Humanist communities, as well as existing and past ones. While Harvard Humanism may be low on rituals, I believe Humanistic Judaism, within which Greg is a rabbi, has a fairly developed set of “naturalized” rituals.

  6. 8 David Kimball
    November 30, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    I would like to see a discussion on the difference between a ritual and a tradition. I’m afraid I’m having a problem seeing a ritual outside of a naturalist environment. Most rituals I know are performed to create some kind of metaphor where the meaning too often gets codified and the desired meaning is supposedly automatic due to certain actions. Which to me is supernatural or at least supranatural. It seems to me that rituals are looking ahead to the future whereas traditions are facing the past. How do others view the distinction?

  7. 9 sikivu
    December 1, 2009 at 2:01 am

    As an atheist I don’t see a problem with trying to articulate and perhaps institutionalize non-hierarchical secular rituals that have communal, cohering resonance for people with common interests. Those that are linked to social justice, healing, cultural solidarity and other forms of humanistic endeavor are not incompatible with a rigorous critique of wishful supernaturalism. Again, this emphasis on dichotomy is the most off-putting aspect of the so-called new atheism.

    • December 6, 2009 at 10:46 pm

      This is well-put. I entirely agree. The desire to ritualize experience, to “make special”, as anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake writes, seems very deep. It seems to me Humanist communities could make good use of rituals to provide a richer quality of experience at their gatherings and events. And, on dichotomy, I think you and Dewey have it right.

  8. 11 Jim Farmelant
    December 1, 2009 at 9:09 am

    I think that Adam Reilly got to the nub of the controversy when, in his Phoenix article, he alluded to the divide among humanists between “religious humanists” and “secular humanists.” That division has long been apparent within organized humanism and can be seen as underlying such things as the clashes back in the 1960s between the American Humanist Association and Madalyn Murray O’Hair for instance or Paul Kurtz’s breaking with the AHA to start his own organization. This divide is reflective of the fact that organized humanism in the US is rooted in two different traditions. Religious humanism has its roots within Unitarianism or Ethical Culture. Many people from that background have been eager to hang on to the trappings of traditional religion, even while rejecting the supernaturalism of the traditional faiths. The American Humanist Association was itself founded by people who mostly came from Unitarian or Ethical Culture backgrounds and for years the AHA defined itself as a religious organization (which was also presumably useful from an IRS standpoint). On the other hand, lots of humanists in the US do not come from Unitarian or Ethical Culture backgrounds but instead see themselves as rooted in European and American freethought traditions. These people tend to be more overtly antireligious and they are often impatient even with non-supernaturalist forms of religion. Thus, Madalyn O’Hair’s hostility towards the AHA and Ethical Culture. Paul Kurt’z Council for Secular Humanism has tended to be more attractive to these sorts of people though Kurtz himself seems interested in developing humanist rituals.

    • December 6, 2009 at 10:49 pm

      This is interesting – I wasn’t aware of the two traditions here in the USA. But I have to say I am a European free-thinker, born and bred, and I am very much in favor of what I think you are describing as “religious Humanism”. I don’t see it as “hanging on to the trappings of religion”, but rather as an attempt to reclaim civil society and community-building practices for naturalistic worldview. This is a fascinating discussion.

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