Monday, April 26, 2010

Faith, Religion, and Society, Part One

The other day, Book Forum posted a collection of God and religion links, some of which are presented below. This is part one of two on these books and articles - the 2nd part when I get home from work.
The unbelievers
What happens when a minister decides there's no God?
By Drake Bennett

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.

Read more.

You can read the paper by Dennett and LaScola here. Here is the abstract, from Evolutionary Psychology – 2010. 8(1): 122-150:
Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Daniel C. Dennett, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA. Email: (Corresponding author).

Linda LaScola, LaScola Qualitative Research, 3900 Connecticut Avenue, NW 101F, Washington, DC 20008, USA.

Abstract: There are systemic features of contemporary Christianity that create an almost invisible class of non-believing clergy, ensnared in their ministries by a web of obligations, constraints, comforts, and community. Exemplars from five Protestant denominations, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Christ, were found and confidentially interviewed at length about their lives, religious education and indoctrination, aspirations, problems and ways of coping. The in-depth, qualitative interviews formed the basis for profiles of all five, together with general observations about their predicaments and how they got into them. The authors anticipate that the discussion generated on the Web (at On Faith, the Newsweek/Washington Post website on religion) and on other websites will facilitate a larger study that will enable the insights of this pilot study to be clarified, modified, and expanded.
The Humanist has a series of reviews of two new books:

Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman

Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided By Ronald Aronson

Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein

The following are excerpts from the reviews, so follow the links to see the whole review.

Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment

by Phil Zuckerman
(New York University Press, 2008)
227 pp.; $35.00

Review by Ronald Aronson

As the tide of secular self-awareness and public discussion of nonbelief rises, Phil Zuckerman's latest book, Society without God, is not only a major contribution to the study of irreligion and religion today, it is an eye-opener for anyone who believes that religious societies have an advantage when it comes to health and happiness.

Zuckerman spent fourteen months in Denmark and Sweden between 2005 and 2006 interviewing 149 people at length about their religious and/or secular beliefs. It is, of course, widely known among secularists that a majority of people in both countries don’t believe in God, but Zuckerman’s interviews bring to life the reality of a society “in which the belief in God is muted, minimal, and marginal.” He presents excerpts from the interviews that allow us to understand how nontheists experience their lives and see themselves. He asks them about their family background, death, whether they believe in some form of afterlife, and their friends’ beliefs on such topics. We encounter people of various educational levels, professions, and ages, and they give us a mundane, ordinary collective image which, in the American context, turns out to be no less than sensational. These people live decent lives, raise their children, hold jobs, meet their obligations, face their strains and struggles—without God and without religion.

* * * * *


by Greg Epstein
Published in the November/December 2009 Humanist

"It's not easy to live a good life or be a good person—with or without a god," writes Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein in the introduction to his new book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe." Tolerant, fair-minded people of all religions or none do not dwell on the question of whether we can be good without God," Epstein continues. "The answer is yes. Period. Millions and millions of people are, every day. However, the question why we can be good without God is much more relevant and interesting. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. Those are the questions in this book—the essential questions asked and answered by Humanism."

[The following section is excerpted from Chapter 6, "Good Without God in Community: The Heart of Humanism," with permission of the author and the publishers.]

Art, Nature, and Being Alive Twice

Another important and Humanistic alternative to prayer you don't need me to tell you about—but which is important to mention—is the appreciation of nature and the arts. Just as frequent reminders of the importance of compassion and the golden rule can be helpful (see chapter 4), we secular people can't be reminded too often that art and the natural world are always there waiting for us to appreciate and take part in them. A psychologist friend of mine likes to say that every Sunday he attends the "Church of the Blue Dome." Or as the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po said to his friend and colleague Tu Fu, "Thank you for letting me read your new poems. It was like being alive twice." What, after all, is making or appreciating art if not taking what we find in the world around us—its radiant natural glory and toxic ugliness, our own love and hate, passion and ambivalence, anger and humor—and transforming it all into something that makes life more beautiful, more worthwhile? One finds this kind of sentiment again and again among great artists and Humanist lovers of art. Katha Pollitt, whom the right wing has labeled the "Atheist in Chief" at Nation magazine,has in fact written sensitively that atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration, but "perhaps art can go where atheism cannot." And musicologist Daniel Levitin gets at a similar idea in a beautiful chapter entitled "Comfort" in his book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. The chapter is subtitled with some words a Joni Mitchell fan blurted out to her in gratitude while Mitchell and Levitin were eating dinner together one night. Explaining that Mitchell had helped her get through a rough decade in the 1970s, the fan said, "Before there was Prozac, there was you."

* * * * *

Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided

By Ronald Aronson
(Counterpoint Press, 2008)
288 pp.; $25.00

Review by Chris Brockman

In the introduction to Living Without God, Ronald Aronson assumes a problem that many religious skeptics would quickly dismiss as not their problem. And yet it’s one to which I suspect many would welcome a personal solution.

“To appreciate our problem,” Aronson writes, “atheists, agnostics, and skeptics need only recall the hesitation and stammering of their most recent personal conversation with anyone who is religious. Even after reading Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens, secularists have difficulty discussing what it is we believe in, if it’s not God.” Aronson, who is Distinguished Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University, goes on to differentiate between what he calls the “principled tentativeness” of nonbelievers and the firm beliefs, morality, deep sense of belonging, and the “confidence in dealing with life’s mysteries and uncertainties,” of their religious counterparts. “Why,” he asks, “are we [nonbelievers] unable to be more persuasive? Besides disbelief, what do we have to offer? What should we tell our children and grandchildren as we see them swept up in a pervasively religious environment?”

Many disbelievers and nonbelievers would, I am sure, bristle a bit at this and say they do indeed have personal philosophies that replace and even go beyond religion, and humanism would surely be in the forefront. Yet the very terms nonbeliever, atheist, agnostic, and skeptic are negatives and don’t, in themselves, point towards any unifying set of positive principles. There was once the belief in progress that partly filled this role, Aronson avers, but that has become untenable or at least unsatisfying in the present.

* * * * *

The Reason “Everything Happens for a Reason”

by Ronald Aronson

The following is an excerpt from Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided by Ronald Aronson (Counterpoint Press, 2008)

Belonging to an impatient culture promising instant answers, often poorly equipped and overwhelmed, most people struggle to piece together their fragments of faith, knowledge, and experience as best they can. Some of the most curious spirits restlessly surf the Internet in hot pursuit of questions that their schooling has not helped them even to ask, let alone answer. They often begin by being rightly suspicious of all official stories and seeking more compelling explanations. In the infinite space of the web, with the whole culture at one’s fingertips, millions of answers cry out. It is the freest of all free markets, yet people are rarely trained to negotiate it.

With immense energy people search their way among gurus, conspiracy theories, spectacular short cuts, easy answers, the latest political scandal, parodies of ancient wisdom, pseudo-scholarship decked out in scientific trappings, real knowledge and thoughtful reflections, newfangled or eclipsed religious and political wisdom, every established and every insurgent point of view, and sheer nonsense--and they are free to consume and reassemble it as they wish.

* * * * *

More to come in part two later today.

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