Religion for Atheists

by Kyle Cupp on March 20, 2012

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Ned Resnikoff challenges the supposedly easy path of superficially translating religious ritual and practice into forms that an atheist might find acceptable and beneficial:

A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists). The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre.

Doing so, says Ned, “would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct ‘spirituality,’ the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity.”  Instead, if atheists have an interest in reforming and putting religious rituals to their own purpose, they would be wise to build a theological foundation and seriously engage “with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists.”

This is exactly right.

A religion is irreducible to a set of tenets and practices, meaning that you can’t treat it like a cafeteria without corrupting the whole.  This goes for traditional religions and for secularized religious rituals.  Why? Because religion is a way of being-in-the-world.  The intelligibility of a its parts emerges only within the framework of the religion’s whole logos and mythos. The liturgy of the Eucharist, for example, makes sense only when understood in the contexts of biblical interpretation, Christology, ecclesiology, Old and New Testament narrative, theology of prayer, sacramental theology, the goals Christian life, etc.

Any religious ritual that’s worth a damn needs a theological (logical and mythological) foundation, developed over time and situated within society and the larger world.  Without this, you may have some nice clothing for a “spiritual” journey, but you won’t have a new or improved sense of direction or a cause to take a first step.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luke Bennette March 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Are you arguing that the Atheist, having failed to partake in the discussion of philosophy theology and other studies, rejects religion out of some sense of self-pride? Does he refrain from partaking in the discussion because he doesn’t see it as worth his time? That it doesn’t matter what others do because he is not obligated to change their minds? It seems that any man or woman who chooses to act chooses to do so under the impression that it is best for them, that is to say because they want to, and because they want to they have to find some reason to live with themselves, to justify their act. With that in mind, are you saying that they justify their acts by telling themselves that these studies are merely irrelevant to their cause? That they don’t have to answer the questions posed by these venues of study? And so they just stand still learning nothing?

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2 Kyle Cupp March 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm

No, I’m not making any such argument.

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3 BlaiseP March 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm

As a religious man, I don’t see any particularly good reason for the atheists to recapitulate the abracadabra and hocus-pocus of religion. Let the atheist resort to the equally-ridiculous and petty sophistry of politics or philosophy if he wants a framework for his not-believing, though I can’t see why he’d need or even want one.

I would argue religion, like the Eucharist, is what the believer makes of it as he converts the symbols into substance. Religion has seeped into Western culture through a thousand cracks.

The Capital A Atheists will doubtless evolve some framework for their beliefs. They are human. Like Bede’s little bird, flying through the warm hall in the depths of winter, everyone knows our lives are but an interval between an unknown origin and an unknown destination.

Perhaps they’ll demonstrate their human-ness in acts of kindness, making sure the beneficiaries know it’s done by Atheists. Why couldn’t the Atheists demonstrate compassion to others through acts of service, attempting in their own way to alleviate the suffering of the world?

Here’s a little secret. The atheists are already doing just such things and many of them have given me money to do such things. They’re just too sensible and enlightened to trumpet it aloud.

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4 Burt Likko March 21, 2012 at 4:50 am

The root proposal is that atheists should look to religious ritual for ways to reform contemporary society, such as:

…a restaurant where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich.” And Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” thereby reminding us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”

And of course these ideas feel hollow and trite. But the interesting thing is that organically, things like this already do happen, and the ultimate author’s problem, I think, is that he hasn’t had the good fortune to stumble across such things and therefore believes they are deficient. They are not absent from our society, although they could be more readily available.

Should you find yourself in downtown Los Angeles, go to Philippe’s for lunch. It’s on the edge of Chinatown, a block and a half north of Union Station on Alameda Street. There, you are likely to stand in a mob-like line to get to the counter, and you will of necessity have to sit at a long bench with strangers to find a place to eat. You will make eye contact with them, have to negotiate which seats are taken by others in their party, and may even make small talk with these strangers. Nearly all of them are friendly and happy; like you, they are eating after experiencing hunger. Nearly every socio-economic class in the city is there, excepting only the extremes on either end; all manner of different religions, races, occupations, and attitudes are present. Consequently, there is every possibility of striking up a conversation with someone very different than yourself.

It is organic and natural because Philippe’s exists to sell its tasty, salty French-dipped sandwiches using a profit-in-volume strategy, and was not artificially created as a small-d democratic social forum. But as it turns out, you just might wind up sharing a bench with the mayor, who in turn just might be interested in your opinions, or a tourist, who just might be interested in your advice about things to see and do, or an accountant, who just might be interested trading client-safe jokes or talking about model trains.

There is probably something like a Philippe’s in your neck of the woods too. I understand there are moments of on the subways in New York, Boston, and Washington where the typical rule is to mind your own business and maintain a facade of mild anxiety and disinterest but occasionally something happens that sparks genuine and even meaningful human interaction.

As for the electronic Wailing Wall — there is this thing called the Internet. As we’ve all discovered here at LoOG, that’s frequently an enlightening and satisfying thing to do. Maybe the original author is just scared to talk to strangers. That isn’t a problem with atheism or religion.

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5 Kyle Cupp March 21, 2012 at 11:52 am

This is a helpful observation, Burt. Religion may not be for everyone, but it’s a very human thing to do because it, if done well, “sparks genuine and even meaningful human interaction.” In a word, community.

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6 Pierre Corneille March 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm

There is probably something like a Philippe’s in your neck of the woods too. I understand there are moments of on the subways in New York, Boston, and Washington where the typical rule is to mind your own business and maintain a facade of mild anxiety and disinterest but occasionally something happens that sparks genuine and even meaningful human interaction.

I remember in Denver, Fall 2008, I was at a bus stop downtown late one night (9pm or so….late for me at that time), and I and the others waiting at the usual stop maintained the “facade of mild anxiety and disinterest” that you write about. (Obviously, Denver isn’t a big city, but downtown it can get kind of quiet and alone, and a sheltered boy like I was at the time thought it was more dangerous than it probably was.)

Suddenly, someone pointed out that the RTD (the public bus service in Denver) had changed the usual bus stop to something about a block away. We all kind of laughed and joked about it and any anxiety or distrust or disinterest faded. It wasn’t some grand “convening of the social classes,” of course, but it was nice to be able to talk a little bit more freely with a lot of people who had different backgrounds from mine and who I would probably never see again.

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7 BlaiseP March 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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8 Per Smith March 21, 2012 at 1:06 pm

“The liturgy of the Eucharist, for example, makes sense only when understood in the contexts of biblical interpretation, Christology, ecclesiology, Old and New Testament narrative, theology of prayer, sacramental theology, the goals Christian life, etc.”

In other words the liturgy of the Eucharist is only understood by 0.1% of those partaking in it. In that case “understanding” is perhaps the most meaningless and insignificant way to approach ritual and indeed the study of ritual attests to this. The power of ritual is in the work it does and that work is not tied to intricate theological understandings that the participants fail to grasp. I suggest doing some reading about ritual to get a better grasp of why people like de Botton have arrived at certain types of conclusions. He might not be right, but I think you fail to understand the scholarly context that supports some of his ideas (and indeed supports nearly all academic readings of ritual).

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9 Kyle Cupp March 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm

May I suggest we’re referring to the Eucharistic liturgy in two separate ways. You write of it as a ritual that has meaning and power in the work it does in people lives, work that you see as separate from the intricate theological meaning of the ritual. I’m referring to the religious, specifically Catholic, meaning of consuming the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ–a meaning that makes sense (assuming it makes sense) only in light of the theology, etc., behind it. Now I agree that the ritual can have meaning for those who practice it whether or not they understand the underlying theology. Polls taken of Catholics testify that only a tiny percentage of them understand the full theological significance of the Eucharistic liturgy, and yet I cannot therefore justly say that these practitioners find no meaning in the ritual. The ritual may have meaning and power for them and the work that they do. I agree with you here. On the other hand, maybe they’re just going through the motions. Maybe the ritual does no meaningful work in their lives. In any case, if you re-look at my post, I raises the example of the Eucharist to show how the intelligibility of part of a religion emerges in the context of the whole. Never did I say that a religious ritual cannot take on new separate meaning. I would say, though, that when a ritual is separated from its original context, then it becomes something else. Still a ritual, of course, but not part of the original whole.

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10 Per Smith March 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm

The principle mistake is in suggesting that this is primarily an issue of “meaning” in the first place, something I consciously did not do. That fact that most people who partake in the Eucharist are unable to understand the “meaning” that Catholic theologians assign to the ritual suggests the absurdity of trying to decipher the “meaning” of that or any other ritual. Ritual efficacy isn’t related to what a rite means. Ritual efficacy comes from what a rite does. From a scientific perspective, based on empirical observation and an attempt to understand what various ritual participants are actually experiencing, what the Eucharist does for theologically initiated priests will be quite different from what it does for the untheologically initiated laity. What the church theologians claim the rite does isn’t the point, in other words. It certainly isn’t the point for de Botton who is concerned with the ways in which ritual actually effects those who are participating (this is why the findings social science matter and not the claims of theology). So back to “meaning” …

Looking for meaning is a mistake and it is the type of mistake that makes people read way too much into insider explanations of what is happening when a ritual is practiced. I would suggest reading some recent ritual theory if I’m not making myself clear. A good book on the “work of ritual,” which also deals explicitly with the whys of abandoning “meaning” when looking at ritual is Seligman et al’s Ritual and its Consequences.

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11 Kyle Cupp March 21, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I don’t think you can separate what a ritual means from what it does: the two are distinguishable, but interrelated. Maybe we mean “meaning” in two different ways? Anyhow, thanks for the recommendations.

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12 Per Smith March 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Well I’m not sure we actually mean different things, but I don’t think I’m explaining myself well enough. Another suggestion would be Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, a the end of cha. 4 where he discusses “meaning making.”

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