Monthly Archives: September 2013

Atheist Churches! Oh My God, No!

By Lara Apps

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Today’s post might offend a few people, but I don’t care. I’m pissed off. And very, very disappointed in my fellow free thinkers. I like to think of myself as pretty accepting, but I have a massive problem with the “atheist church” trend. As in, I want to slap the founders and anyone who joins one of these travesties. In case you haven’t heard, atheist and secular churches are a thing now. You can go to an assembly, receive services such as weddings and funerals, and do all the church stuff without having to believe in God or read any sacred texts. Unless you’re a member of the London-based Sunday Assembly, in which case you can be part of the church even if you do believe in God. The Calgary Secular Church even has 10 Commandments.

What the fuck is going on? Is atheism, as some commenters have suggested, turning into a religion? It sure as hell looks like it, although cult might be a better label.

The justification given for these atheist churches is that people want to feel that they are part of a supportive community of like-minded people, and to have some structure in their non-believing lives. Fine. I get that. So join a running group, or a scrapbooking club. Start a book club. Whatever floats your boat. Learn to be friends with people who don’t think exactly the same way you do — your life will be richer for it. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy into some homogenizing “structured godlessness” scheme. Don’t believe the hype! There is no way that a large, organized group of people can maintain an all-beliefs-are-OK stance in reality for very long. Sooner or later, you get things like, say, 10 commandments and conflicts over who really belongs in your church. Sunday Assembly’s co-founder, Sanderson Jones, has already mused that this atheist church doesn’t really have to be all that atheist (see the Salon article linked below). What this means is that “hard core” atheists don’t belong. The exclusion is already happening, and this church is barely off the ground.

Jones has also said that he doesn’t think established religions will have a problem with atheists adopting their methods and forms (why would they? this is a path back to “real” church), and that the only people who will have a problem with atheist church are “aggressive atheists.” Well, I’m not an aggressive atheist, and this enterprise sounds limiting, exclusionary, and exploitative. Not to mention boring as hell. Kind of like real church, only worse because at least real churches don’t pretend to be fostering free thought.

Warning: religion and spirituality linked to depression

Penseroso_&_L'Allegro_William_Blake7

By Lara Apps

A new study* published this month in Psychological Medicine reports that people who are religious or spiritual are more likely to become depressed than secular people are. This was a large cohort study conducted over a year in several countries, with the goal of developing risk measures for depression. What’s remarkable about it is that most previous studies have suggested that being religious leads to better mental health. Earlier this year, for example, the media reported on a University of Saskatchewan study that concluded “Attending religious services at least monthly has a protective effect against major depression.” Here is a brief description of the background, method and results from the new study’s abstract:

Background. Several studies have reported weak associations between religious or spiritual belief and psychological health. However, most have been cross-sectional surveys in the USA, limiting inference about generalizability. An international longitudinal study of incidence of major depression gave us the opportunity to investigate this relationship further.

Method. Data were collected in a prospective cohort study of adult general practice attendees across seven countries. Participants were followed at 6 and 12 months. Spiritual and religious beliefs were assessed using a standardized questionnaire, and DSM-IV diagnosis of major depression was made using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI). Logistic regression was used to estimate incidence rates and odds ratios (ORs), after multiple imputation of missing data.

Results. The analyses included 8318 attendees. Of participants reporting a spiritual understanding of life at baseline, 10.5% had an episode of depression in the following year compared to 10.3% of religious participants and 7.0% of the secular group (p<0.001). However, the findings varied significantly across countries, with the difference being significant only in the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than the secular group [OR 2.73, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.59–4.68]. The strength of belief also had an effect, with participants with strong belief having twice the risk of participants with weak belief. There was no evidence of religion acting as a buffer to prevent depression after a serious life event.

So what’s going on? Has this study shown that religion and spirituality cause depression? No, and the authors, to their credit, don’t claim this. The most significant finding is that greater spirituality was correlated with greater risk of depression; the authors speculate that one reason for the correlation between religiosity, spirituality, and depression may be that this was a European-based study, and since Europe is more secular than North America, religious and spiritual people have less support and may therefore experience depression. Most previous studies were conducted in North America, in a very different religious context from Europe, so this is a key observation. It’s important to point out that the number of depressed religious and spiritual people was not high — it was about 10% of the study population. Also, about 7% of the non-religious participants experienced depression during the course of the study.

A rash reading of the study, or of the various reports about it, might suggest a causal link. The study authors do not argue that religion and spirituality cause depression, only that it was associated with a higher risk of depression in the participants; therefore, medical professionals should consider religiosity and spirituality as potential risk factors when assessing patients for risk of depression. Despite what some other bloggers have suggested, the study authors do not conclude that anyone needs to reject religion or spirituality in order to avoid depression.

This does, however, present an important challenge to facile assertions regarding the benefits of religion and spirituality. As the authors put it, “These results do not support the notion that religious and spiritual life views enhance psychological well-being.” Considering that this directly contradicts the findings of the University of Saskatchewan study, as well as many other studies, it would be irresponsible to draw any quick conclusions about the mental health risks and benefits of religion and spirituality. Despite headlines like “Religious believers more depressed than atheists,” which distort the study, there is no reason to assume that being non-religious confers immunity against mental illness, any more than we should assume that being religious or spiritual does.

What we absolutely need to do is question the agendas driving these studies and the ways in which they are interpreted by the media and general public. Attempts to prove that religion is good (or bad) for you are part of a long cultural war that stretches back to the anti-clericalism of the 18th century. I’m not saying religion shouldn’t be challenged, or that the authors of these studies see themselves as part of a cultural war. But the very fact that a study like this is being reported by news outlets and blogs shows that there is more at stake than straightforward medical research.

* “Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study.” Authors: B. Leurent, I. Nazareth, J. BelloÅLn-Saamen˜o, M.-I. Geerlings, H. Maaroos, S. Saldivia, I. Sˇvab, F. Torres-GonzaÅLlez, M. Xavier and M. King. In Psychological Medicine (2013), 43, 2109–2120.

Atheist Apparel for Charity

I came across this new two-man company/initiative via the Friendly Atheist blog. Absence of Clothing sells atheism-themed t-shirts, stickers, and water bottles (I assume there will be more products eventually) and donates 50% of the profits to charities or non-profit organizations “that benefit the world in some way.”

From the comments on their Facebook page, it looks like their biggest seller so far is the “Thank God I Am An Atheist” t-shirt. Slightly too in-your-face for me, but I like the “We’re given one life and making the most of it” sticker. And I love the 50% donation to charity. Kind of sticks it to those who say atheists have no moral compass. Actions speak louder than prayer, indeed.

 

 

Vampire Weekend Made Me Cry

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By Lara Apps

Not too many rock or pop songs really tug at my heartstrings (Baroque music is another story; I need a box of Kleenex handy to listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater). The last song I can think of that truly got to me, and still does, is U2’s With or Without You — I think it’s the keening. But Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, features two tracks that dragged some totally unexpected emotions out of me.

The first song, Unbelievers, has an upbeat sound with a quick tempo and catchy melody. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and you find this (from Rock.rapgenius):

[Verse 1]
Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be

Want a little warmth
But who’s going to save a little warmth for me

[Pre-Chorus]
We know the fire awaits unbelievers all of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

[Verse 2]
If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

[Pre-Chorus]
We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

[Chorus]
I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you
And you love the sea
But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me

[Verse 3]
See the sun go down, it’s going on down when the night is deep
Want a little light but who’s going to save a little light for me?

If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

[Pre-Chorus]
We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

[Chorus]
I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?

I know I love you and you love the sea
But what Holy water contains a little drop little drop for me

[Chorus]
I’m not excited but should I be
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you and you love the sea
Wonder if the water contains a little drop little drop for me

The band has said that this is not an atheist anthem; in a more extended comment on the song, lead singer Ezra Koenig says that it is about polarization, the splitting of the world into two, e.g. religion and anti-religion. It’s also, clearly, about trying to fit into such a world. The references to holy water, grace, fire, etc. suggest strongly that the song’s narrator is a Catholic atheist (that is, an atheist who used to be Catholic); however, I think the lyrics could be interpreted more broadly as referring to anyone who is an unbeliever toward any dominant ideology or religion, all of which tend to condemn naysayers. In any case, the lines that I responded to the most when I first heard the song are the pre-chorus and chorus, specifically the line “Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” I remember the hostility of believers coming as a shock when I was younger, and it still saddens me that a large proportion of the people on this planet think I deserve to burn in hell just for opting out of religion. It doesn’t matter how much good I try to do in my life: I’m a lost soul to them.

You would think that this wouldn’t matter to an atheist, since belief in an afterlife tends to get jettisoned along with belief in god/gods. It’s true that threatening an unbeliever with hell is unlikely to be effective in changing their behaviour. Still, though, there’s a moment when you have to come to terms with severing yourself from most of what humanity believes about the world, life, and death. I don’t mean to suggest that atheists are heroic or unique in this; we’re not. But while atheism is liberating, it’s also, at times, a difficult way to relate to the world. Unbelievers captures this beautifully.

The other song is called Ya Hey. Musically, it reminds me very much of U2’s Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum period for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Here are the lyrics, courtesy of Rock.rapgenius:

[Verse 1] Oh, sweet thing Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything
[Pre-Chorus]
In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face

There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine

And I can’t help but feel
That I’ve made some mistake
But I let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

[Chorus]
Through the fire and through the flames
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
You won’t even say your name
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”

But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

[Verse 2]
Oh, the motherland don’t love you
The fatherland don’t love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don’t love you
The zealous hearts don’t love you
And that’s not gonna change

[Pre-Chorus]
All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career

And I think in your heart
That you’ve seen the mistake
But you let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

[Chorus]

[Middle 8]
Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound

Of you spinning “Israelites”
Into “19th Nervous Breakdown”

[Chorus]

[Refrain]
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo Annotate

This is a song addressed directly to God, expressing the frustration, anger and,
perhaps, grief of the doubter. Like Unbelievers, Ya Hey captures the way
doubting God feels — it’s not a purely intellectual experience if you used to
believe. Robert Leedham expresses this perfectly in his moving post about this

“Rather than dropping oblique reference points every third line, it sees Koenig adopt a magnificently blasphemous posture from start to finish. He is talking to Jehovah/The Almighty/The Big Cheese as the representative of a world of non-believers and hardened cynics. He is demanding to know, ‘When confronted with such global indifference and outright aggression, why you would not announce your existence with absolute certainty?’

Anyone who’s lost faith in religion will have posed this question before. When all was well in my life, bar a series of facial eruptions to rival Mount Vesuvius, it didn’t bother me that I’d never witnessed a shining white light and a voice booming with thespian wisdom. That would arrive in my hour of need, at a moment that required more than biblical vagaries like “I am that I am.

The truly upsetting brilliance of ‘Ya Hey’ is that it recognises this moment will never come. It’s not in God’s nature to announce himself like that. Despite having created Zion, Babylon and the rest of world, he will watch it fall apart without staging an intervention. He will leave you strung out on a hospital bed, incandescent with fear and anger, regardless of what you might consequently think of him.”

So what made me cry? I have to say, the moment I choked up while listening to Ya Hey came as a complete surprise. I was focused on working out the lyrics when this hit me: “Oh, the motherland don’t love you The fatherland don’t love you So why love anything?” The lines are being sung to God, i.e. why should God love anything if no one and nothing loves him; but that line “So why love anything?” struck me as something a doubter might very well say to him or herself. I know I did once or twice in the past. It’s not a happy state of mind.

Not all atheists go through a difficult process of separating from religion; some are lucky enough to be born into unbelieving families, and some weren’t strongly committed to a religion in the first place. My own experience wasn’t traumatic — I would say it was positive, but there were definitely some tough moments (there still are; losing my father, knowing that I would not be seeing him again, felt a lot like being bound to the tracks of a train). If Vampire Weekend had been around when I was in my teens and early twenties, I’d have gratefully adopted these two songs as anthems.

Am I complaining? Do I regret renouncing religion? Absolutely not. What I’m trying to get at in this post is that emotional work is involved in a decision so momentous as changing, or leaving, one’s religion. I’m not entirely convinced that such decisions are truly choices; I think we are compelled to follow the paths that seem true to us. In this sense, then, atheists have a great deal in common with believers.

Not-quite-random thoughts on religion in the news

By Lara Apps

The National Post reported today on a new accommodation measure at the University of Regina: special sinks designed to make it easier for the school’s 800 or so Muslim students (out of a population of 13000 students) to wash themselves before prayers. The issue with regular bathrooms is that Muslims need to wash their feet as well as their hands before prayer, which is a bit of a problem for everyone.

The National Post is deeply opposed to Quebec’s proposed charter of values and its ban on public employees wearing religious items such as large crosses and headscarves. The University of Regina’s action has therefore been presented as an example to Quebec of how things should be done. I suspect that the National Post would have taken a different position regarding the special sinks if they were not so publicly against the charter. The comments thread filled up almost immediately with anti-special sinks remarks along predictable lines, e.g. why should taxpayers have to cover the cost of such sinks and why can’t Muslims just go to their mosque to pray instead of requiring accommodations on campus?

What these commenters probably don’t realize (and perhaps it’s best if they don’t, really) is that Canadian universities actively recruit international students, many of whom will be Muslims. If we are going to recruit international students, who provide an essential source of funds for cash-strapped universities because they pay much higher fees than Canadian students, then we need to put some effort into ensuring that they are reasonably comfortable here. Even if the Muslim students are Canadian (I assume many of them are), building a few sinks seems like a humane, reasonable measure.

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/09/17/kelly-mcparland-university-of-regina-offers-quebec-a-lesson-in-cultural-tolerance/

Yesterday’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by Aaron Alexis generated, among some of the weirder comments (not limited to the National Post), a suggestion that Alexis, as well as other mass shooters, was motivated by religion, because Alexis was a Buddhist. A few blogs have also suggested that Buddhists can be just as violent as members of any other religion, with reference to the current sectarian violence in Burma). First of all, mass shootings are not typically motivated by religious beliefs. We’re not talking about acts of terrorism, which, although obviously similar in that people get killed, are not the same thing as mass shootings (I don’t mean to suggest that acts of terrorism are motivated solely or necessary by religion). Second, Alexis evidently had mental health problems, including anger issues, blackouts, a persecution complex, and possible PTSD. But hey, it must have been the time he spent at his Buddhist temple that made him kill 12 people.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/25/burmese-buddhists-riot-muslim

And to wrap things up… I’ve been following a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page, in which one of the commenters has asserted that religion is a choice and therefore members of religions can choose not to follow those faiths; they can also, therefore, simply choose not to wear the items of clothing that will be banned under the proposed Quebec charter of values. The commenter is an atheist with, apparently, no sense at all of how essential religion can be to an individual’s sense of identity. Is religion a choice? Yes, in the sense that one can adopt or leave a religion as one chooses (barring factors such as social and family pressure or legal sanctions in states with official religions). But it’s not exactly the same kind of choice as deciding which television program to watch on a Friday evening. If you believe that, say, wearing a veil is a necessary aspect of your religious faith, then you probably believe it is right to wear it and wrong not to. In other words, asking you to choose between wearing and not wearing it imposes a serious moral dilemma on you. As for the suggestion that people can switch religions at the drop of a hat (headscarf?), to one that’s less demanding — this just betrays a complete failure to grasp that people’s beliefs have genuine meaning for them. I doubt the atheist commenter would accept that he could easily become a Muslim if he had to in order to keep his job. Perhaps he could just pretend to be one — but surely he’d resent that necessity a little bit?

What’s worrying me, as the public sphere continues to heat up over “Canadian” and “Quebec” values, religious accommodation, and religious freedom, is that we are risking violence, which will then, no doubt, be blamed on religion when it’s really a blinkered unwillingness to accept difference driving this particular conflict.