Lots of things

Austin Dacey considers ‘the latest critics of the new atheists: the old humanists’.

Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Indeed not, especially since we wouldn’t know where to begin (which is part of Austin’s point). It’s not, after all, as if humanists and/or atheists are like theism turned inside out – carrying all the same baggage but with minus-signs replacing plus-signs; it’s not as if we come complete with our own atheist music and atheist prayers and atheist temples and atheist holidays and atheist hats. It’s also not as if the ‘more’ that there is to life is necessarily a peculiarly atheist kind of more. It’s just more. Most of it is every bit as available to theists as it is to us. (I say ‘most’ because there probably are various senses of freedom, liberation, autonomy, that are specific to atheism, in the same way that there are various senses of protection, companionship, cosmic love, that are specific to theism.) We can all revel in poetry, music, nature, landscapes, relationships, conversation, learning, dance, play; feelings of wonder, awe, joy; chocolate, ice cream, weirdly fascinating stupid tv shows about real people being neurotic, chocolate. Other kinds of more are harder to replace, as I said in answer to a ‘Comment is Free’ question, but that’s just how it is. You can’t change something and at the same time replace it so completely that nothing is missing, because then you haven’t changed it.

I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions.

Exactly – partly because the closer the fit, the more religion-shaped the single religion-replacing object is, the more like religion it will be, and that rather defeats the purpose. But also partly because religion contains multitudes, and much of what it contains is great stuff that we can all enjoy. There are good songs! And I don’t want any dang humanist replacements for them, neither. On the other hand I decidedly do want non-religious versions of nearly all of it.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

Like that.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.


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