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Atheist Manifesto

IMG_1121When we think of atheist anti-religious polemicists, we tend to think of the Big Four (or, as they have been labeled, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse): Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Their work is really not my cup of tea, but for those who do like that sort of thing, then you should check out Michel Onfray’s book Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was published in French in 2005 and in English in 2007. It’s fairly short, and is a lively read.

Onfray gets less attention than he should because he’s a French intellectual and most of his works are only accessible in French. When I say he isn’t getting enough attention, I don’t mean I agree with everything he says, or even that I like his work very much; I think it is important, however, that he offers a perspective on atheism and religion that is grounded in something besides scientism. Onfray was trained in philosophy, and it is this background that informs his attack on the three major monotheisms. The biggest strength of Atheist Manifesto, in my opinion, is Onfray’s awareness that atheism has a history — this is conspicuously lacking in the works of the Big Four. Onfray argues vehemently that the history of atheism has been neglected, which is certainly true in comparison with the history of religion; however, Onfray seems not to know about English-language scholarship on atheism, which deals with at least some atheist historical figures in detail. La Mettrie, for example, has received considerable attention from English-language scholars interested in Enlightenment materialism.

Atheist Manifesto is different from the better-known works of the Big Four in another respect as well. Onfray, a post-modernist, sets out to deconstruct religion and its truth-claims, not from a scientific perspective but by showing how much human intervention and mediation was involved in constructing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Not all of his interpretations are defensible: for instance, he argues that St. Paul’s negative attitude toward sexuality and women was caused by impotence, but he cites no sources (here or elsewhere in the book) and relies on psychological conjecture. Onfray’s historical analyses must be read with caution, and I would urge his readers to look elsewhere for reliable histories; however, his approach and arguments offer useful starting points for a more philosophical understanding of atheism.

The book is ultimately disappointing, because Onfray states several times that what’s needed now is a post-Christian, post-religious, atheist ethic, but fails to say what that might be. I agree with his argument against what he calls “religious secularism,” i.e. following religious morality and behaviour in everything except for believing in God. Religious secularism includes, for example, secular or even atheist congregations and clergy. For the most part, however, the section on a post-Christian secular order is an anti-Muslim rant, followed by almost no substantial arguments concerning the secular order that Onfray thinks we need. At the end of the book, the reader is no wiser than before about what Onfray’s ideal post-Christian secular order might look like.

Despite these reservations, Atheist Manifesto would be useful and interesting to atheists looking to broaden their reading horizons beyond the books of the Big Four. French intellectuals have published, and continue to publish, serious philosophical works on post-modern atheism; Onfray provides an accessible introduction to this field.

An Atheist at a Christian Funeral

My blogging break has been longer than I expected, due to various factors. I’m preparing this weekend to present a paper on the Baron d’Holbach, a famous eighteenth-century atheist, at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Once I’m back from the conference I plan to write some posts about books I have read recently, including Ara Norenzayan’s recently published Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict and Ken Macleod’s SF novel The Night Sessions. In the meantime, here is a post of a more personal nature.

Last week, I attended the funeral for my husband’s grandmother. A few minutes before the chapel service began, my husband’s aunt asked him and his brother if they would like to give a reading. They were uncomfortable with this, so I said I would do it if no one else wanted to. I hadn’t really thought about what I might be reading, which turned out to be a passage from the first Letter of John (1 John 3:1-2).

You might expect that I would have a problem with reading a biblical passage at a funeral. I don’t believe that the Bible is the word of the Lord, and I don’t participate in any other elements of religious services (except for the shaking of hands, which I treat as an act of general goodwill). I know that for some atheists, being asked to read a biblical passage would present an ethical dilemma. Was it okay for me, an atheist, to read a biblical passage at a funeral? Was it a betrayal of my atheism to do so? Or disrespectful to the believers at the service?

Let’s take the disrespect issue first. I didn’t ask any of the family members what they thought — there really wasn’t time — but I felt that it would have been hurtful and insulting to renege on my offer to read. I needed to read the chosen words as if they had meaning, despite my own feelings about them, because they did in fact have meaning for several people at the service. I kept my mouth steadfastly shut about my atheism and did my best to read as if I were a believer. Did my atheism somehow demean the reading? Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the worthiness of the minister; in other words, the power of the sacrament depends on the grace of Jesus Christ, not on the human agent who administers it. My Augustinian interpretation of the relationship between scripture and the person reading it is that, for a believer, the word of the Lord remains the word of the Lord no matter who is speaking it. A mere human can’t diminish it, so my atheism did not have an impact on the reading.

As for the question of whether I betrayed my atheism by reading scripture at a service, I guess I just don’t see this as a real issue. I chose freely to do the reading, to honour the need of a grieving relative for whom the words were comforting. What mattered more than my non-belief was the ability to speak with composure in front of a chapel full of mourners. Also, since religious texts are just texts, not magical spells or poison (pace Christopher Hitchens), I didn’t suffer any harm from the reading.

In fact, I enjoyed it; I hadn’t given a scriptural reading since junior high school, when I was still a Catholic kid, and I liked having a text to think about while I listened to the service. I also liked being able to do something for my relatives. I don’t know my husband’s extended family very well, so this moment became an opportunity to forge a bond with them. Far from being a sacrifice or burden, reading scripture for them felt like a gift.

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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

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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.