I should be elated that a pro-atheism piece was published last week in a major newspaper. The author was Cindy Hoedel, the paper was The Kansas City Star—as I recall, that’s the paper where Ernest Hemingway got his start—and her piece was called “Let 2014 be the year we start accepting atheists.” Well, that’s great. But I’m going to kvetch a bit about it, maybe because I’m cranky today and also, after lunch, must make my way downtown through the frigid weather to get my fangs cleaned at the dentist. It’ll be frostbite for sure.
I guess I’m the opposite of those atheists who criticize New Atheists for being too strident: my beef is usually that people are too accommodating to faith, and not strident enough. To each his own, but as a secular Jew and a scientist I have no choice but to kvetch. And I’ll kvetch about both the ideas and the prose.
First, the good things about Hoedel’s piece:
1. It’s pro-atheist. She declares herself an unrepentant nonbeliever in a major paper and ends by saying “it’s time that atheists are accorded the same respect as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.” (I just thought of another beef, though. We should get more respect than the religious because we’ve rejected superstition and embraced rationality. Why should someone be afforded any respect simply because they’re religious?)
2. She properly calls out Oprah Winfrey who, interviewing atheist Diana Nyad after her swim from Cuba to Florida, told the swimmer that because she (Nyad) was “spiritual”, she didn’t count as an atheist. Hoedel shows clearly why that’s offensive:
Winfrey challenged Nyad’s self-proclaimed atheism after Nyad described having feelings of wonder and awe, saying: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is. … It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”
It’s hard to imagine Winfrey remarking to a guest who proclaimed herself gay, “Well, I don’t call you gay then.” That would be rude. But to tell an atheist she isn’t an atheist is OK somehow.
I suppose those points, particularly the first, outweigh the things I don’t like about the article. But I’ll mention them anyway.
1. It’s written poorly. Here’s the beginning, which is discursive and self-indulgent:
I don’t make resolutions, but January always inspires me. There’s something about the bright cold sunshine and the bare trees that reveals things that are hidden in spring, summer and fall.
Also, after the holiday hullabaloo subsides but before the ground yields to a spade, there is an enforced downtime, as a friend describes it, that fosters reflection on societal currents and how I fit in.
As I was hiking recently at Chase State Fishing Lake outside Cottonwood Falls, Kan., marveling at the grandeur of the rugged hills and thousands of geese sunning themselves on an ice-sheeted lake, I thought that in the same way that 2013 saw a tidal shift in attitudes toward gays in America, 2014 portends a wave of acceptance for one of the few remaining groups people feel justified in disrespecting: atheists.
Once at a cocktail party I told someone who asked about my faith that I was a Judeo-Presbyterian-Mennonite-atheist. I love the Jewish emphasis on learning and philanthropy, the live-and-let-live message of the Presbyterian services I occasionally attended as a child and the pacifism and service of Mennonites, but ultimately I think all religions are human inventions. Nothing wrong with that: Humans have created wonderful things. Look at Michaelangelo’s “David” and our Constitution.
I think religion expresses a human striving to live a virtuous, meaningful life. But you can lead a virtuous, meaningful life without religion.
First, “Michelangelo” is misspelled. Where are the editors?
Well, I repeat Steven Weinberg’s quote: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” And yes, it is wrong for religions to be human inventions, because they pretend that they’re not. Further, the “human” part of religion is often expressed as a retrograde morality that is used to enforce prejudice, divisiveness, and social control. If you think religion is a human invention, then everyone who disagrees is simply wrong. Further, religion expresses a lot more than “human striving to live a virtuous, meaningful life”, for “virtuous and meaningful lives” are construed in many faiths as lives that repress women and gays, as the desire to control the sex lives and reproduction of others, and as the need to not only brainwash children, but terrify them with thoughts of hell. There’s no mention of any of that in Hoedel’s piece.
3. Hoedel likes atheist churches!
A new church for the Godless called Sunday Assembly has been attracting crowds in 14 U.S. cities, including Dallas, Chicago and Nashville, but not Kansas City. They offer fellowship, social interaction and networking without the religious component. Scientific talks and pop songs replace Scripture and hymns. Their motto is “Live better, help often, wonder more.” What’s wrong with that?
Again we have the trope “what’s wrong with that?” Well, nothing, really, except that I find the idea of such churches repulsive. But of course if it helps others remain firm in their disbelief, more power to them. I just can’t see adopting the trappings of those institutions that we reject, and I don’t see that there’s really a human need for “atheist churches.” The godless Scandinavians get along just fine without them. You won’t find a Swede going to a big building on Sunday to sing Abba songs with his mates. (The thought of “Dancing Queen” as a hymn ties my kishkes in knots.)
4. Hoedel doesn’t like to make waves:
I appreciate [Jeffrey Tayler's] logic — if it is OK to say you believe in God, it should be OK for me to say I don’t. But some of his suggestions sound confrontational; for example, opting out when invited to join hands and say grace before a meal. I think that’s just silly. I will keep on saying grace with friends and family who enjoy that, and we’ll skip it when they eat at my place.
What? They’re praying! And if you’re an atheist, they should be okay with you just politely refraining to join in, which is, by the way, not confrontational. Why on earth would we pretend to pray when we don’t believe it? Now I’m not going to jump all over an atheist who pretends to pray to avoid offending her host, but I do decry those who say that it’s impolite to not join in. I used to bow my head at grace, and do all that other stuff, but I won’t do it any more. Of course, this is a judgment call, for in other ways I do avoid offending the faithful. I will, for example, take off my shoes at a mosque or Hindu temple, which is the only way to visit one without causing a ruckus. To each their own. But it’s not “confrontational” to refuse to join in prayer.
Not so. Just as gay marriage is not a threat to straight marriage, atheism is not a threat to religion.