Walk into a church on a Sunday and you might find that a few of the people in the pews are atheists — there because they like the old hymns or the comforting murmur of the liturgy or because their spouses insist. Or because, at some level, they’re still pretending they believe. They are spectators, in other words, not participants.
But what about the person leading the service? How likely is it that a member of the clergy might be an atheist as well — delivering the sermon and choosing the Bible passages, and afterward paying house calls to offer spiritual counsel to those in trouble and doubt, all without believing in God?
Daniel Dennett decided to find out. A leading philosopher of consciousness, a Tufts University professor, and a famously outspoken atheist, Dennett has for years been curious about the phenomenon of nonbelieving clergy. And now, working with a researcher and clinical social worker named Linda LaScola, he has embarked on a project to find and publicize their stories.
He doesn’t yet have data on how common the phenomenon is, but last month Dennett and LaScola published their first anecdotal results, a paper that appeared both in a scholarly journal, Evolutionary Psychology, and on The Washington Post’s website. The paper is an annotated set of excerpts from interviews with five ministers whom Dennett and LaScola found through personal contacts in the clergy, seminaries, and progressive Christian and atheist organizations. Unlike most of the clergy members the researchers contacted, these five agreed to tell their stories publicly, albeit under pseudonyms and with personal details changed.
What emerges is a portrait of men (the one woman interviewed backed out at the last minute) grappling earnestly and incisively with the sort of theological quandaries familiar to anyone who has studied and doubted Christian doctrine. Just as strong, though, is the sense of secrecy and evasion that pervades their lives: having to hide their lack of belief from parishioners, friends, even family members. Some spoke of feeling trapped: questioning their fitness for the pulpit but unable to leave because of a mix of personal, cultural, and even financial reasons.
“She doesn’t need to hear this right now,” one says of his wife. “It’s not going to serve any of us. I feel like when the time’s right, I can talk to her about it. She won’t like it, but I will share it with her. And after I share it with her, I will start sharing it with other people.”
Dennett says his ultimate goal is a far larger study to give a true sense of how prevalent nonbelief is among the clergy. In the meanwhile, Dennett and LaScola are collecting stories one by one.Continued…
An atheist group in the Irish Republic has defied a new blasphemy law by publishing a series of anti-religious quotations on its website.
Atheist Ireland says it will fight any action taken against it in court.
The quotations include the words of writers such as Mark Twain and Salman Rushdie, but also Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad and Pope Benedict XVI.
The new law makes blasphemy a crime punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros (£22,000; $35,000).
The government says it is needed because the republic’s 1937 constitution only gives Christians legal protection of their beliefs.
The new law was passed in July 2009 but came into force on 1 January.
Atheist Ireland responded by publishing 25 quotes it considers anti-religious on its website.
The group said its aim is to have the law repealed and to attain a secular Irish constitution.
Chairman Michael Nugent said it would challenge the blasphemy law through the courts if it were charged, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported.
“This new law is both silly and dangerous,” he said. “It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas.”
Atheist Ireland says it will hold a series of public meetings around the country to launch its campaign.
A youth program associated with the Los Angeles Police Department will no longer be affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, due to the BSA’s policy of excluding gays, atheists, and agnostics.
The Explorer’s Program, which the Boy Scouts created in 1949, has served since 1962 as a means of giving youth interested in law enforcement practical experience by allowing them to assist the LAPD with crowd monitoring, clerical work, and other tasks. But now the program is set to be re-vamped, dropping both its old name and its last ties to the BSA, which has provided insurance to participants through its Learning for Life program, reported an article posted Dec. 22 at Daybreeze.com.
But the Boy Scouts’ policy of excluding gays, atheists, and agnostics clashes with the city’s non-discrimination policies, and the Police Commission has determined that the LAPD will no longer associate with Learning for Life. The new program will commence on Jan. 1, 2010, and will rely in part on donations.
“It’s bittersweet in the sense that the Boy Scouts or Learning for Life have been part of this for a long time–in name only–but the LAPD is committed to a better program and we can do that without having discrimination,” Police Commissioner Alan Skobin said.
Openly gay Police Commissioner Robert Salzman said that the new program, which he has helped devise, would be “as good or–I’m confident–better than the program it replaces.”
Continued Salzman, “The Boy Scouts are clear that they discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity and religion, and the result of that is I could not be active on the Boy Scouts.”
The Boy Scouts have defended their exclusion policy, taking the battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the group’s right, as a private organization, to determine who may belong. But the group has continued to generate controversy, since it is in some cases entwined with city programs.
The Boy Scouts’ chief executive, Bob Mazzuca, told the Associated Press recently that, “We do have folks who say we probably should rethink this.” The Boy Scouts of America will celebrate its centennial in February, 2010; said Mazzuca, “We can agree to disagree on a particular issue and still come together for the common good.”
For all the organization’s emphasis on leadership and ethical integrity, however, Mazzuca indicated that the Scouts were in no hurry to update their policies. “This issue is going on in every nook and cranny of our country,” Mazzuca said. “We’re just not at the point where we’re going to be leading on this.”
Said Lambda Legal’s Kevin Cathcart, referring to the 2000 Supreme Court decision, “The world has changed immensely in these past nine years and the Scouts appear not to have changed at all.”
Said David Niose, who serves as the president of The American Humanist Association, “The Boy Scouts are synonymous with American values and patriotism–like motherhood and apple pie. By excluding atheists and secular Americans, they are essentially saying we cannot be good citizens.”
It’s not just social attitudes that are changing; how people connect, stay in contact, and influence one another’s views also are in flux, as young people grow up with cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet. Said Mazzuca, “We’ve been slow to realize the changing landscape of how people form their opinions.” The AP article said that BSA is now delving into social media such as Twitter and Facebook to plug into youth culture.
“One of the magic parts of this adventure is that none of the bedrock things that made us who we are have to change for us to be more relevant and dynamic,” Mazzuca said.
World religions are threatened by forces both from within themselves and from the wider world, said Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, today.
Mr Blair, speaking at Georgetown University in the US for the Common Word conference of Muslim and Christian scholars, said the key to harmony in the 21st century was for these two faiths to “get on”.
Christians and Muslims represent about half the world’s total population between them.
Tony Blair said that many of the challenges facing the world today were similar to those that confronted Jesus and Mohammed, the founders of Christianity and Islam.
“Each was made to feel an outsider. Each stood out against the conventional teaching of the time. Each believed in the universal appeal of God to humanity. Each was a change-maker.”
But too often, he said, faith was abused to do wrong.
Faith was also under attack on both sides.
“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.”
Arguing that there was “no hope” from atheists who scorn God, he said the best way to confront the secularist agenda was for all faiths to unite against it.
He said: “Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”
For the full text, visit: http://www.timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/
The evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, who stepped down from his post at Oxford University last year, has subsidised the five-day camp in Somerset.
Camp-goers will be given lessons in rational scepticism, as well as sessions in moral philosophy and evolutionary biology.
There will be more familiar camp activities such as trekking, tug-of-war, canoeing and swimming but children will also be taught to disprove phenomena such as crop circles and telepathy.
The retreat is for children aged eight to 17 and will rival traditional faith-based breaks run by the Scouts and church groups. It will teach that religious belief and doctrines can prevent ethical and moral behaviour.
The camp is part of a campaign, backed by Dawkins and Professor AC Grayling, the philosopher and writer, designed to challenge Christian societies, collective worship and religious education.
Prof Dawkins said it was designed to “encourage children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally”. All 24 places at the camp, which runs from July 27-31, have been taken.
Crispian Jago, an IT consultant, is hoping the experience will enrich his two children.
“I’m very keen on not indoctrinating them with religion or creeds,” he said. “I would rather equip them with the tools to learn how to think, not what to think.”
The emphasis on critical thinking is epitomised by a test called the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. Children will be told by camp leaders that the area around their tents is inhabited by two unicorns.
The activities of these creatures, of which there will be no physical evidence, will be regularly discussed by organisers, yet the children will be asked to prove that the unicorns do not exist.
Anyone who manages to prove this will win a £10 note – which features an image of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory – signed by Dawkins, a former professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University.
“The unicorns are not necessarily a metaphor for God, they are to show kids that you can’t prove a negative,” said Samantha Stein, who is leading next month’s camp at the Mill on the Brue outdoor activity centre close to Bruton, Somerset.
“We are not trying to bash religion, but it encourages people to believe in a lot of things for which there is no evidence.”
A spokesman for the Church of England questioned Dawkins’ decision to stage a summer camp for atheists.
“We would defend the right for anyone to set up an event like this, as long as the young people are happy to attend,” he said.
“But in his imitation of the type of youth events that religious groups have been running for years, Dawkins makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against.”
Valerie Celeste Coffey is a woman on a mission. For six years, her small group of local atheists has gathered to exchange bemused stories about the things Christians do in worship and swap tips for raising confident skeptics.
But on a recent Wednesday evening here at the Java Room cafe, Ms. Coffey said the time had come to take the meetings in hand.
“I don’t think this group has a vision,” said Coffey, a freelance editor who lives in nearby Boxborough, Mass. “We need to figure out what our values are.”
Ten days later, something unprecedented happened: The group met over Sunday brunch for a structured discussion with preplanned topics.
The ranks of nonbelievers are on the rise, research suggests, and as they seek out each other online and in small groups, they are increasingly looking to do more than just vent.
Some are adopting rituals themselves, from de-baptisms to wedding ceremonies, as a way to cement ties among members. Others are organizing science-related outings or enrolling in community-service programs. Nationwide, atheists’ groups are now treading, sometimes gingerly, into unfamiliar territory.
“This is the transition moment right now,” says Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.” “Some groups are really diving in [to foster a robust sense of community], and some of them are holding their noses and standing on the diving board. They’re not quite sure what to do.”
Some 15 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, up from 8.2 percent in 1990, according to Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey, released in March. Also, the American Humanist Association claims 20,000 financial supporters. That marks a doubling from five years ago, says spokeswoman Karen Frantz.
Moreover, signs point to non-believers seeking fellowship as never before. During the first five months of 2009, 95 new atheist groups have formed through meetup.com, bringing the US total to 372. That’s up from 59 in 2005, says Blair Scott, director of national affiliates for American Atheists, a networking and advocacy organization. Known parenting groups for nonbelievers have proliferated from just one in 2005 to 33 in 2009, adds Mr. McGowan, the author.
The intersection of the two trends is evident across the United States. For example, the North Alabama Freethought Association, which has grown from 50 members in 2006 to 350 today, drew 30 people to a camping event in May and runs regular outings to visit caves or other science-related sites.
“It used to be that these atheist groups … met almost in hiding,” says American Atheists spokesman David Silverman. “Now they’re doing a lot more stands at town parties, a lot more trash pickups, a lot more blood donations — a lot more stuff that gets their group out and noticed.”
Some say such initiatives are necessary to improve an image problem. Rebecca Grieve founded South Lake Atheists and Freethinkers in Groveland, Fla., last year because she felt the nearby atheist group in Orlando “wasn’t doing enough in the community.” Through an Adopt-A-Lake project, the new group monitors a section of Lake Minneola and promotes its efforts on a big sign at Clermont Waterfront Park.
“A lot of atheist groups are really negative,” says Ms. Grieve, who now lives in Derry, N.H., and describes herself as a secular humanist. “They’re not standing for anything. They’re not making a difference…. I want to be accepted just like everybody else. We need to be showing people through example that we’re decent people.”
For some, however, the status quo suits just fine. Of the monthly Atheists of Greater Lowell (Mass.) gatherings, where no one convenes or adjourns the group, Paul Ratner of Lowell says: “I like this group as it is now.”
Rob Butler of Westford. Mass., agrees: “I love coming here because I can just say whatever’s on my mind, and people won’t be offended by it.”
In some ways, the lack of structure or ritual has been a defining characteristic of atheist groups. McGowan notes that many atheists bristle at ritual because it feels too religious or superstitious. American Atheists’ Mr. Silverman insists, “there are no rituals with us.”
But America’s 27 Ethical Societies, which attract many nontheist attendees to their humanist “platforms,” or services, see growing interest in rituals, ranging from children’s education to weddings, according to membership chairman Thomas Hoeppner. Through ritual, “you build up not just common intellectual values, but the emotional and personal connection with people,” says Mr. Hoeppner, a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. “That’s what it’s all about.”
“So when one of my dear friends in his 80s lost his wife, he’d be over at our house every Sunday afternoon for dinner,” he says. “That’s a ritual for us.”
In Florida, atheists are pioneering a new ritual: de-baptism. Since last year, American Atheists’ Florida state director Greg McDowell has been donning a mock clerical robe and officiating at services where family and friends come to watch the baptized renounce their baptisms.
The events spoof baptisms by using blow-dryers in the place of baptismal waters. They culminate in certificates for the “de-baptized” and letters to churches requesting that the names of those de-baptized be removed from baptismal rolls.
Elsewhere, ties that bind the faithless continue to grow stronger, even without ritual per se. After one member of the North Alabama Freethought Association was robbed earlier this year, fellow members collected a few hundred dollars to see him through to payday. And when another was injured in a motorcycle accident, atheists brought meals every day for him and his caretakers.
“It makes me sit back and smile to know that this community has built itself up in a way that they’re looking out for each other, watching each other’s backs, and supporting each other,” says Mr. Scott, who founded the Alabama group six years ago. “It almost makes me feel fatherly — like you raised your child right.”
In his installation service as the new leader of Catholics in England and Wales, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols called for a greater respect of religious belief.
He said that attempts to marginalise faith must not be allowed to succeed if the country is to overcome its problems of social cohesion.
Secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, who try to rubbish religion are encouraging intolerance, the archbishop told a congregation of 2,000 at Westminster Cathedral.
“Faith is never a solitary activity nor can it be simply private,” he said.
“Some today propose that faith and reason are crudely opposed, with the fervour of faith replacing good reason. This reduction of both faith and reason inhibits not only our search for truth but also the possibility of real dialogue.”
Prof Dawkins has described Christian theology as vacuous and argued that faith and superstition are incompatible with the rigours of “logic, observation and evidence, through reason”.
In a Channel 4 programme, the Enemies of Reason, he said: “Today reason has a battle on its hands. Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth.
“We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack.”
Archbishop Nichols countered that those who portray faith “as a narrowing of the human mind or spirit” are wrong.
He urged that there should be “respectful dialogue” and that this needs to go “beyond the superficial and slogans”.
“Let us be a society in which we genuinely listen to each other, in which sincere disagreement is not made out to be insult or harassment, in which reasoned principles are not construed as prejudice and in which we are prepared to attribute to each other the best and not the worst of motives.”
The archbishop played a leading role in fighting the introduction of gay rights laws in 2006, which now make it illegal to discriminate against gay couples when placing children for adoption.
His intervention was one of a series of battles fought by church leaders over religious freedoms in Britain and against what they perceive as the advancing tide of secularism.
Archbishop Nichols claimed that the country would benefit from maintaining faith at the centre of public life, adding that it would help build a more cohesive society.
“As a society, if we are to build on this gift of faith, we must respect its outward expression not only in honouring individual conscience but also in respecting the institutional integrity of the communities of faith in what they bring to public service and to the common good.
“Only in this way will individuals, families and faith communities become wholehearted contributors to building the society we rightly seek.”
He said “a community of faith reaches beyond ethnicity, cultural difference and social division”.
Politicians, royals and church leaders attended the service, which saw Archbishop Vincent Nichols succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor as the 11th Archbishop of Westminster.
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches had become “closer and warmer”.
“The fact the archbishops have been able to meet is a welcome development, and a sign that we all recognise common challenges and the need to play and act together.”
Earlier, the new Archbishop risked controversy on his first day in office when he said a report exposing decades of systematic child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns in Ireland would “overshadow” the good they had done.
He said it took “courage” for Catholic church members who abused children to face up to their actions.
Michele Elliott, chief executive of the charity Kidscape, said: “It is ludicrous. It should be a straightforward mea culpa.
“It is a moral stance, and he should say that it is all about the children and the rest of them be damned. There are no excuses for religious orders.”