Atheism and Christian Culture

I just posted a comment on UD which I thought might be worth expanding on and sharing. The context was this OP from News (Denyse). In it she wrote:

Does any reader know of an atheist who plays Christmas carols every year in front of his family and lab staff, and who reads T. S. Eliot aloud to his wife and daughter on his deathbed? I certainly don’t. I’d be willing to bet Professor Coyne that John Franklin Enders, who has been called “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” believed in God and didn’t view religion as a cause of sickness.

I was very surprised by this. She seems to be assuming that all atheists are cut off from their religious heritage. We are not all Richard Dawkins (although he has always valued the contribution of religion and Christianity to our culture and knows the Bible better than many Christians). I like to go church from time to time and appreciate the role it places in our community. My wife, also an atheist, is a long-standing member of the choir. I absolutely accept the importance of Christianity in moulding who I am and the society I live in and I don’t think of this as a bad (or good) thing. We all live in some context. So why wouldn’t carols, TS Eliot and even the Bible be an important part of my life – just like Shakespeare and the Greek myths?

Atheism is not a religion. I suspect some theists don’t quite understand the implications of this. Atheists have no rituals,no festivals,no classic literature,no community identity,no common beliefs beyond a lack of belief in the supernatural.  If you are an atheist then typically your atheism is not an important part of your life. The new atheists seem to be trying to change that. I don’t see why. It seems artificial. There are plenty of other elements to our culture which are more deeply engrained and satisfying than not believing in something. (In fact I signed up as a Bright briefly but I found there was nothing in it for me).

It would be interesting to know how many other atheists here share this attitude.

107 thoughts on “Atheism and Christian Culture

  1. I think the long years of religious conflict that have occurred since Henry VIII and through till the “glorious revolution” have had an impact on how we Brits think about the legitimacy of dogma. I think I can describe myself as a cultural Anglican. I was baptised, I got married in church (though I had an agreement with my wife that I would “go with the flow” to avoid upsetting her family. Years later it turns out her dad was always agnostic, but diffident about asserting it) . Just today, I spent an hour or so with my wife and friends wandering around a Catholic church famous for its 12th century black madonna (disappointingy a replica because the original was “desecrated” a few years ago). It also has a “miraculous well” in the grounds and an experiment to check its restorative properties is currently under review. Further reports on recovery from terminal scepticism will follow.

    Cultural catholicism is alive and well in France!

  2. Mark Frank:
    With respect to Vincent’s reply.

    The carol business is a more important than Vincent realises. It relies on a theist image of an atheist is which is certainly not true of many atheists I know. The image is of someone who despises religion and theists; will have nothing to do with religion and maybe actively campaigns against it. Some atheists fall into this category. I have no idea how large a proportion but many atheists quietly get on with their lives, appreciate many aspects of religion and respect theists. Such people would not have even bothered declaring their atheism 50 years ago as it made life much simpler to just tick the box for whatever tradition they were brought up in and if you are an atheist it is not a big deal what you say about your religious beliefs. Nowadays it is not necessary to do this in Europe – there is no issue about being an atheist. I think it is still a bit harder in the USA.

    Yes, thank god that you make this point. Maybe Torley will accept it when it comes from you.

    Atheism has never meant refusing to have anything to do with religion.

    I’m about as anti-theist as they come. I think every church property (shrine, school, hospital) on the planet should be nationalized. I think, as Dawkins says,

    …the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

    And yet, I respect theists – as persons – I interact with my family, my neighbors, my community ( who are by a huge majority faithful members of some christian denomination) with general tolerance and appreciation of our mutual humanity.
    Of course I don’t reject all the parts of our culture which are affiliated with christianity or christian in origin. I couldn’t! How could anyone, and why would they try to? Why woud a christian assume that I’m obliged to give up the whole culture I was born in?

    Vjtorey gave his foolish assumptions an airing, and I called him out for it. I see that xe is still spectaculary missing the point with his most recent reply, but I don’t have the patience to go through everything wrong with that dump.

    Nor the better manners, probably. 😉

    P.S. Torley, if you’re reading this, I repeat this is not a UK thing (nor an Anglican thing). I’ve lived a long life all around the USA and every one of the openly-atheist folks I’ve met sing carols. Some of us even put nativities on our front lawns in the christmas season!

    Honestly, it will not kill you to admit your writing began with a dumb assumption on your part. It’s such a little thing to admit. Then we can move onto what are – no doubt – larger and more important issues about faith-healing.

  3. Apologies for being an absentee moderator here. I’ll try to do a cleanup, because I’ve seen a few posts that do cross my line.

    I’m just a bit overwhelmed with work right now, and I’ve also found myself unexpectedly admin at TalkRational, although that may not last for long.

  4. New Atheism is, as far as I can tell, a fully functional religion complete with priests, a god, dogma and all the icky parts of religion.

    I sometimes think it’s like a purgatory for ex-fundies from other religions. A new religion where you can hate your old religion for all the terrible things it did to you but with all the absolutes a black and white thinker needs to be safe from the outside world.

    I very much like dawkins’ books. And Dennett has his rightful place in niche philosophy (not sure if he considers himself a new atheist). Sam harris started out uninteresting to me and went kind of on a spiral with his total cluelessness regarding the mechanics of prejudice.

    Other than those 3, I guess hitchens might count as a new atheist thinker. Then there is a sort of slobbering horde with pitchforks gasoline and zippos which sponsor bizarre hatefest “cons” (short for conferences) where they get together to discuss how bad religious people are and how superior new atheists are.

    That mental image is drawn from an extremely small pool of information and exclusively from what i’ve read on the internet. The newatheists.org website and newatheism.org website I thought were parodies at first and I thought pz myers was an abberation. But the part that kind of blows my mind is that I didn’t even notice the hate speech and superiority meme until several years after dover. I was right there with them, hating religion for what gwb, ralph reed, the neocons, the religious right and muslim fundamentalism were doing to the world, thinking perhaps that if I hated hard enough, the world would do what I wanted.

  5. Yeah. I think about that cartoon occasionally. At each stage it’s about feeling superior. The stage i’m at now is one where I feel better about myself for sure. Basically in every “group” or as the new atheist often call themselves, “movement”, the focus is on defining the out-group and hammering on the inferiorities of that outgroup specifically as those inferiorities relate to the in-group’s superiorities.

    It gets convoluted pretty quickly. But the methodology is the same, “our god gives us more power and righteousness than their god and therefore their god is inferior, our god is superior, therefore they are inferior, we are superior. The new atheists god is their specific conceptualization of “Science” with a capital s but it fills the exact same function as the god they seek to replace. PZ Myers even made that explicit in a speech he gave and blogged about.

    My own take is that beliefs themselves are quite different from the behaviors we may try to justify with those beliefs. Any belief is sufficient to devalue another human and when the world goes wonky, the more certain a belief, the more comfort it provides as it converts experience into black and white units of right and wrong. A firmly held belief informs the owner who to hate in uncertain times. If we can figure out whose fault a problem is, fixing the problem and ostracizing that person or group share a high degree of overlap. Market. evangelism blames regulation so that any problem can be blamed on regulation and solved by deregulation. Televangelism blames hurricanes as well as any other disaster on gays and loose women and makes clear the solution is to not allow gays and loose women. New Atheism blames social unrest across the world on religion and proposes that without religion, currently intractable problems would at least be solvable using the Science dispensed by elite white dudes at universities.

    The white folks hate the black folks, the black folks hate the white folks, all of my folks hate all of your folks and everybody hates the jews as tom lehrer Pointed out.

    eta: hit submit by accident.

    In terms of superiority, I am not sure how I feel about it. I have decided that it is not important what someone believes but it is important what someone does. Or maybe something more like, it doesn’t matter what people believe other than that it is wrong to judge the quality of a person by their ideas but rather by whether they are kind. Confrontation/adversarially is how our legal and academic systems are set up to test information, sort of a trial by fire concept. It can be difficult to find other ways to go about the process. However, at some point, when things get really bad, people who may otherwise be decent enough bring out the hate rhetoric and it is hard to see at first because it looks a lot like the argument of ideas but this time, the labels refer to the people who hold the views rather than the views.

    The whole treat everyone with respect business is hard to do because the idea of blame creates a category of what people “deserve”. If someone deserves killing or exclusion, it doesn’t matter whether they present any danger or not. In fact, nothing else matters. If we can say someone “deserves” it, we are free to ignore any human issues involving responsibility for actions taken to dispense justice.

    Religion is not a useful word in defining the problem that new atheists are waging war against because its too big a word encompassing too many people as well as ideas. Atheism ditto for fundamentalist in other religions. There is a distinct movement called new atheism with perhaps loosely defined edges but then all groups are like that. That group is definitely a group that fundamentalists are in directly in conflict with and vice-versa.

    And, if you see the world as something which we can control and other people as part of that world, then anyone who wants something other than what we want is an obstacle to progress rather than a person.

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