L. A. Times report on the Secular Humanism conference

Today’s L. A. Times reports on the big humanism meetings, and the opening doesn’t augur well for objective journalism:

As the largest organization of American atheists, agnostics and other religious skeptics gathered in Los Angeles this weekend, there was a predictable amount of scorn heaped on Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Religion was dismissed as “nonsense” and “superstition”; those who believe were described variously as “ignorant” and “stupid.”

Things get better, though, and the article cites these as “good days, generally speaking, for the nonreligious.”  All the big guns get a mention, and they cite my favorite moment of everything I watched:

When Mooney, a leading voice for accommodation, said there was nothing to stop a nonreligious person from being spiritual, Myers’ reaction was nearly physical. “Whenever we start talking about spirituality,” he said, “I just want to puke.”

Agreed!  How can Mooney, The Great Communicator, think that if atheist accommodationists and atheist non-accommodationists both emphasize their common spirituality, everything will magically improve and the faithful will suddenly come to Darwinism? Once again I must pull out my favorite Orwell quote: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

27 Comments

  1. Posted October 10, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Your visceral distaste for spirituality, I dare say, is simply a matter of its being associated with supernaturalism and woo. Imagine if the library of Alexandria had survived and we were inhabitants of a 2 millennia-old science-based culture in which worldview naturalism was the norm. Then, all the concerns and emotions in the domain of what’s called spirituality would be expressed in terms of the natural, not supernatural. In this imagined culture, spiritual experience would be understood as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but that wouldn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound. Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions. Those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos. This is what Dawkins calls Einsteinian religion.

    Of course for atheists, humanists and skeptics to come to this understanding doesn’t mean that “everything will magically improve and the faithful will suddenly come to Darwinism.” Nothing is going to suddenly convert supernaturalists into naturalists. But at least the resources of a mature naturalistic spirituality will become available to those (not everyone, for sure) who have the capacity and desire for transcendent experiences. http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm

    • Penman
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Fine. But remember that “transcendent” experiences tell me NOTHING about the real world, beyond that state of mind.

      That’s very hard for homo sapiens to reconcile, because we LOVE the pathetic fallacy, and if I personally am feeling “transcendent,” it must be because there’s something out there…but there ain’t.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Since I share the distaste, I will offer the observation that I have no objection at all to the idea, it’s the word I can’t stand. Elevated feelings in the landscape of the southwest or on the beach or flying over Denali or whatever are terrific. I have them whenever I spot a hummingbird, which around here these days is quite often. I love Wordsworthian poetry on the subject. I just don’t call it “spiritual” and I’ll be damned if I can see why it has to be called that.

      Which is not to say that I know what it should be called. Transcendentish? Is that elegant enough?

      • Roger3
        Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        I read a comment recently, it was either on this blog, commonsenseatheism or philosophical disquisitions to the effect of: Why should the religious have a monopoly on spiritual-type language? If we can take that monopoly away from them, we’ve done the world a good deal of good, IMO.

      • Dave
        Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        How about something based on “to marvel”? Which, to me, is the feeling you describe. Also, I’ve never really had a problem with (the Buddhist idea of?) “a feeling of oneness” with the world – no spirits need be involved but everyone can understand the feelings of wonderment & belonging.

        • Marella
          Posted October 10, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          I always feel at one with the world. I know I am part of nature and the universe. I really don’t understand how others don’t. Like when people talk about ‘the environment’, why don’t they call it ‘our environment’ because it is our evironment, it doesn’t belong to the rest of nature without us. We have to live in it too. Weird.

          That transcendent joy that comes over a person occasionally is wonderful but I never imagined it had anything to do with god.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but then it can as well be “fuzzyish”.

        In the end of the spectra where the usual naturalistic sense of awe is replaced and/or merged with sense of belonging and imagined grasp of context, maybe “contextualish” may suffice?

        (But there are problems with contextualism, which is the reverse relativism, and contextualization, which is linguistic goobledygook.)

      • Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        It does grate considerably to use the word “spiritual” when there’s no evidence of any “spirit”, in the usual sense of the word. The term just causes confusion.

      • Posted October 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        Awe.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        Joy.

    • Andy
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      When most people use the word “spirituality,” most of the time, they’re just being lazy, using a “suitcase term” that allows them to mean something amorphous while everyone else nods as if they know precisely what is being meant. By “spirituality” people mean, among other things, things like “transcendence,” “the luminous,” “ecstasy,” and “beauty.” Ok, great. Let’s talk about each one of those things. The suitcase word only exists because those things are often difficult to talk about. It’s a shorthand, but not a helpful one. There’s a good argument, then, that eschewing the word allows us to get down to brass tacks and actually discuss all of the things that dropping the S-bomb allows someone to gloss over.

      Also it makes me want to puke when I hear it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      It’s not experiences, but the idea that they are spiritually caused: stemming from spirits; an immaterial reality. The definitions makes “naturalistic spirituality” an oxymoron.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      I’m with the others.

      Every second person you ask to define ‘spirituality’ will give something different.

      They will even be contradictory. For example, one might emphasize the ‘spirit’ in spirituality, and define it in terms of souls. Someone else might take a definition of ‘spirit’ in the figurative sense implied in terms such as ‘team spirit’ and come to an entirely different – and contradictory – conclusion.

      Any word that cannot be pinned down to a consistently common usage doesn’t mean anything of itself.

      ‘Spirituality’ is a meaningless term.

      Pure duckspeak.

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      “spiritual experience would be understood as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but that wouldn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound.”

      It might not lessen it’s appeal, but it makes it less profound. The feeling that someone in the sky is watching you is only profound if someone up there actually is watching you.

      “Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions. Those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos. ”

      What this describes sounds more intellectual than emotional. A feeling only reflects empirical reality if it is based upon empirical reality, which is discovered through intellectual work.

      Look, I’ll grant that both emotion and intellect are valid–but what, then, is spirit/spirituality/spiritism? It seems based upon nothing real, so how are non-theists supposed to connect with it?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Then, all the concerns and emotions in the domain of what’s called spirituality would be expressed in terms of the natural, not supernatural. In this imagined culture, spiritual experience would be understood as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but that wouldn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound.

      You’ve just described the world I live in now.

  2. Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I think that ideas such as “secular spirituality,” “enlightened patheism,” or Stuart Kauffman’s “reinventing the sacred” could never act as a bridge or peaceful handshake. They’re only a possible result of a post hoc consequence once a concession is made by supernatural adherents that religion is the institutionalization of cultural fiction.

  3. Screechy Monkey
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    From now on, when Mooney says something about spirituality, the proper response is to furrow our brows and exclaim “but how does that HELP?”

    • Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      LOL!

    • Andy
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Oh, that’s perfect! Let’s all conspire to do the same thing when Mooney starts swinging from Francis Collins’ d*ck, talking about how “He [Collins] is pretty awesome” because he “rocks out with Joe Perry…” Yeah, he’s really “rocking out” in his shirt and tie…

      Listen, if saying what we really think about the guy “isn’t helping,” then neither is kissing his ass. That’s all I’m saying.

  4. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps we should start building ‘God Free Tourists Phrase Book’?

    Higher Power – means – Deeper Bullshit

    Accommodation – means – Appeasement

    Spirituality – means – Inexplicable feelings arising from my unconscious emotions that make me feel superior to you

    “I shall pray for you” – means – “I feel superior to you, sub human”

    Godless – means – Moral degenerate

    Evilutionist – means – Conspiracy supporter

    Unbeliever – means – Sub human moral degenerate

    Any more?

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Check out “Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce.

      • Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Noooooooooooo, check out The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom.

        • Tezcatlipoca
          Posted October 11, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          Hmm, I have that book…

          One of the co-authors seems a bit familiar.

          Jeremy something or other… ;)

  5. Tim Harris
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I quite agree about puking. ‘Spirituality’ is a word designed to give the already-perverted a delicious touch of the warm fuzzies, and its use sentimentalises experience, prevents people from genuinely recognising what it is that they are feeling, and leads to the vicious manipulation and manufacture of feelings and beliefs and to self-deception. Not a good word.

  6. Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I share others’ objections to the word spirituality. When PZ spoke at a recent university, a (basically atheist) questioner asked about spirituality, and PZ replied, “By that, do you mean belief in spirits?” Of course she did not, but that’s the problem with the word.

    Etymology aside, though, I get what Mooney means. And the response is: So what?

    As I said before, it reminds me of Tim Minchin’s Peace Anthem for the Middle East, which goes:

    You don’t eat pigs, we don’t eat pigs
    It seems it’s been that way forever
    So if you don’t eat pigs, and we don’t eat pigs
    Why not not eat pigs together?

    Yes, there is a superficial similarity between theists and nontheists in that we both (being humans and all) experience occasional feelings of transcendence, or whatever label you want to put on it. And?

    I also heard that “everybody poops”, but that has not yet led to world peace.

  7. JDStackpole
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I would think PZ would be terribly disappointed if his brand new tentacles were turned back into arms. He would probably immediately revert back to a non-faith position (and be his old lovable self again).

  8. JDStackpole
    Posted October 11, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    OOps, I posted my comment on the wrong thread.


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