Total Drek

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Friday, July 31, 2009

The tyranny of certainty.

Recently I was paging through Charles Stross' book Accelerando* and ran across a line that really struck me. It was, with a small paraphrase that I don't think Stross would object to, as follows:

"To never harbor self-doubt is poison for the soul, and these people want to inflict their certainties upon us." (Page 76)

This would always have seemed to me to be a good turn of phrase and sound commentary, but it really hit me because I had previously been thinking about issues related to this. It all got started by a post by Brad Wright who recently commented on an article describing a secular summer camp called camp quest.** As a side note: how was that for a link-heavy sentence? I mean, damn! In any case, Brad makes the following observation about the camp:

The article frames these camps in terms of such kids needing social support, but what interests me is that it's another example of atheism being practiced in the same way that people practice religions.

Now, to an extent I agree with Brad but, to an extent, I think he's missing something. Where we agree is in acknowledging that as atheists start to become more and more public, we're also starting to try to forge communities. And to the extent that any community that includes a sense of identity and collective effervescence is like a religion, then atheism is indeed being practiced as a religion. This is, however, religion in a very Durkheimian sense. Given that atheists seem to be growing more common, I don't think this trend is likely to end any time soon. At the same time, however, I think there is a sense in which these camps involve a practice that is very unlike what most of us think of as religion. Read the following passage from the article Brad cites and see if you start to notice what I mean:

They are not pushy or preachy, but scepticism flavours nearly everything they do. Lunch comes with a five-minute talk about a famous freethinker. Campers are told that invisible unicorns inhabit the forest, and offered a prize if they can prove that the unicorns do not exist. The older kids learn something about the difficulty of proving a negative. The younger ones grow giggly at the prospect of stepping in invisible unicorn poop. There’s a prize for the tidiest cabin, too, because “cleanliness is next to godlessness”, jokes Amanda Metskas, the director.

Campers are not told that there is no God; only that they should weigh the evidence. They learn about the scientific method. An amateur biologist invites them to gather creepy-crawlies from a nearby pond. They are told how sensitive each species is to pollution, and asked to work out from this how polluted the pond is. They find several critters that can survive only in clean water, and conclude that the pond is in good shape. The kids are encouraged to explore ethical questions, too. The more argumentative ones sit in a clearing and debate the nature of justice.

The kind of people who send their kids to Bible camp are appalled. Answers in Genesis, a Christian fundamentalist group, berates Camp Quest for drumming a “hopeless” world view into young minds. But a humanist camp is less about indoctrination than reassurance that it is all right not to be religious; that it is possible to be moral without believing in the supernatural. Nearly all the kids at Camp Quest say they find it comforting to be surrounded by others who share their lack of belief. Many attend schools where Christianity is taken for granted. Many keep quiet about their atheism. Those who don’t are sometimes taunted or told they will burn in hell. [emphasis added]

See what I'm hinting at yet? The thing is, these camps don't appear to be designing their curriculum to drive home only one rigid set of things that are right and wrong. Instead, they're trying to instill a respect for critical thought and introspection. The message isn't a thunderous, "There is no god!" but, instead, a more contemplative "Is there a god?" Compare this emphasis on questioning, exploring and thinking to your average sunday school or, even better, Jesus Camp and I don't think you'll get them in the least confused. For that matter, read a chick tract or two and you'll see what I mean. I, of course, am aware that if you get that many atheists and free thinkers together in one place, the odd theist may feel out of place. Yet, all the same, atheists and free thinkers come in many stripes and I suspect there are substantial ideological differences at Camp Quest. The only doctrine, it seems, is that you shouldn't accept something as true without using your brain, and it's hard to label that kind of thing as dogmatic.

And this article, in turn, reminds me of the reflections of an agnostic father that I recently had the pleasure to read. See this father discovered that his wife, a Catholic, was teaching their sons that Jesus was god. The father was somewhat concerned about this and looked for something to do about it:

I called a friend of mine, who works for a humanist charity and is a parent, too, feeling sure he would have some sage advice. His response surprised me. Not only did he not know of any good humanist children's books, he said, he didn't like the idea of such a thing.

Rather than attempt to counterindoctrinate kids with explicitly anti-religious messages, he argued, far better simply to expose them to the widest range of reading as possible -- weren't Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss essentially humanistic? -- and expose them to the manifold religions and philosophies in the world in order to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the universe and help them view religion in a comparative context.

The antidote I was seeking, he suggested, was to be found in books of evolution and science fiction, not didactic manifestos.


All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don't like. Tough. The companion volume to Parenting Beyond Belief bears the title Raising Freethinkers. Sounds appealing -- I'd like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill skepticism in them lead them to become skeptical of my humanism? So be it.

His conclusions more or less match my own about what I should do when I have children. It would not be any wiser for me to indoctrinate them to disbelieve in god that it would be for me to indoctrinate them to believe. Instead, I see it as my role to try to help them learn how to think deeply and well about the world and to make decisions that are good for themselves and those around them. Do I hope my children turn out to be atheists? Of course I do! Because I believe that the atheistic perspective is correct and healthier than the theistic one. That said, will I love and respect my children if they aren't atheists? Of course! I ask only that they believe what they do because they have thought long and hard and made an informed decision, not that they believe what I do.

And that, folks, is how the practice of atheism is different from the practice of religion. Like most everybody else, I want my children to grow up to be healthy, successful, and good- and to achieve that objective I am willing to try very hard not to inflict my certainties upon them.

* Download your own copy here.

** As a side note: there is a similar camp known as Camp Inquiry in New York for anyone who is interested. It's run by the Center for Inquiry who also publish the excellent Skeptical Inquirer.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I teach our children black and white thinking? I was thinking of using The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as my source text. What do you think?

-Drek's S.W.

Friday, July 31, 2009 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

I think you may have some difficulty achieving that objective with your selected text.

I also think I'm amused that you asked me to stop referring to you as my "Sainted ..." because if put too much pressure on you and, yet, here you are using the abbreviation and everything. I think you missed the constant affirmation!

Friday, July 31, 2009 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regardless of the validity of your statement (which I will neither confirm of disconfirm), isn't it strange for an atheist to be regularly using an adjective like "sainted?" Maybe try something more concrete like "earthy?"

-Drek's E.W.

Friday, July 31, 2009 1:09:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey, I just thought it sounded weird if I referred to you as my "P.H.A.T. Wife"...

Friday, July 31, 2009 2:48:00 PM  
Blogger Rybear said...

Hey, I've been reading through some past posts and thought I might comment. I hope you do not mind. Just so you know, I am a Theist.

I found the last two paragraphs particularly interesting in which you conclude "that is how the practice of atheism is different from the practice of religion". However, with only a few word changes I would agree 100% with your same conclusion.

Example with emphasis on changes:
His conclusions more or less match my own about what I should do when I have children. It would not be any wiser for me to indoctrinate them to believe in god that it would be for me to indoctrinate them to disbelieve. Instead, I see it as my role to try to help them learn how to think deeply and well about the world and to make decisions that are good for themselves and those around them. Do I hope my children turn out to be theists? Of course I do! Because I believe that the theistic perspective is correct and healthier than the atheistic one. That said, will I love and respect my children if they aren't theists? Of course! I ask only that they believe what they do because they have thought long and hard and made an informed decision, not that they believe what I do.

Seems quite similar doesn't it? Actually I agree almost identically with your thoughts on the idea of "atheism as religion", but I find that the term "Scientism" rather than atheism seems more correct to me.

Now I hope you don't find this to be a challenge or some sort of cloaked debate for your soul (I hope you aren't offended if I'm not interested in the state of your soul).

But I was wondering if the the fact that a theist agrees with everything you wrote change your own personal opinion on the state of atheism or scientism as religion?

Thank you for the interesting blog post.

Sunday, August 02, 2009 12:12:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...


First off, thanks for commenting. It's fair for me to concede that whenever someone tries to debate the virtues and vices of one or another belief system- particularly belief systems as heterogeneous as those implied by the terms "theist" and "atheist"- there are bound to be some excessive generalizations. This post, as is common of most of my posts, is guilty of such. It is, of course, too simple to say something like "theists love conformity" or "atheists love individuality" because there are theists and atheists alike who favor each. I have met some remarkably intolerant atheists as well as some remarkably tolerant theists. So, in short, I regret it if I have lumped everyone together in the interests of making a more pronounced comparison for rhetorical purposes.

That said, in perfect honesty your personal story is interesting to me, but doesn't necessarily change my opinions of theism and atheism as practiced- at least as depicted in the articles I quoted and my experiences with religion in general. I think that, as you argue, there are many theists who value open-mindedness as much as any atheist. That said, I don't see that the typical practice of theism is usually oriented in that manner. My wife and I discussed this for a while, actually, and aside from the Unitarian Universalists could not come up with an organized religious group that approaches the question of theology or spirituality with as little dogma as these humanist camps seem to attempt. Doubtless the reality on the ground may be different, but nevertheless there is an overt commitment to the value of learning how to find one's own answers rather than having them supplied by others. Perhaps I should have kept my rhetoric more focused on the practice of organized religion rather than presenting it as a contrast between atheism and theism but, hey, nobody is perfect, least of all me.


Sunday, August 02, 2009 7:12:00 PM  
Blogger Rybear said...

Well said. I believe I gravitated toward your hypothetical about how you would raise your child because my first is on the way and that same thought has been rolling around in my mind quite a lot.

Lamentably, I would have to agree with you that open-mindedness is not always valued among Christians (I will speak from my background instead of speaking for all theists). I have always told those under my teaching: "Do you know what happens when we ask questions? We find answers". But many don't ask because they are afraid they won't find an answer or perhaps they believe they have the answer and don't like it.

So you come out with 2 kinds of people. 1)People of very little depth of faith who really have no idea what they believe and live out their lives with a vague fancy that God is up there some where. 2) Or those who deal with their fear by placing dogma ever higher so that God fits nicely in their understanding. There is comfort in that certainty and their conformity but with a price to their freedoms. Bah...I was trying to find a Hunter S Thompson quote that I like which goes something like, "Our freedoms haven't been taken away as much as they have been freely given".

Your blogs about the "Left Behind" books are a good example. You will not find a topic more ardently believed among fundamentalist/evangelicals than the rapture. They will defend it vehemently with little to no actual thought having gone into it. But a cursory look at the passages relevant to this idea, not to mention it's history, are more than enough to see that it is never taught in the Bible.

I met Tim LeHaye once... we got into an argument. He didn't say it exactly, but in so many words he said he was afraid of Christians going to public Universities because of atheistic indoctrination. He preferred making Christians go to private universities for Christian indoctrination.

Monday, August 03, 2009 1:43:00 PM  

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