are you taking over, or are you taking orders?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Language and Community

In the past few years, as the atheist movement has really begun to gain traction and grow, it has become generally accepted in the community that trying to organize a bunch of nonbelievers is akin to herding cats. Since what could arguably be called the beginning of the movement in 2004, there hasn't really been a huge emphasis on activism; especially in America, where atheists are among the most loathed people in the country, most organizations have been focusing more on building safe communities rather than getting out and making change. The rationale is entirely logical, but as I've written before, I feel strongly that there needs to be a shift in the movement towards activism.

But how does that happen? I return to the herding cats metaphor. Over the past several years, all kinds of different organizations for nonbelievers have either formed or come to prominence: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition of America, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Student Alliance, to name but a few. Each organization is ostensibly working towards the same goal of making the country more welcoming for nonbelievers, but all have different methods, or are more focused on certain things: the FFRF is a legal body that works to maintain separation of church and state, the Secular Coalition lobbies in Washington, etc. With each group comes their own egos and beliefs, and thus, conflicts.

Back in October, the Boston Globe published a story about the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, an organization at that university which is "dedicated to building, educating, and nurturing a diverse community of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at Harvard and beyond." And, as you might have guessed from the name, their community takes on many aspects of what could be called, well, a church service. The head of the organization, Greg Epstein, has the title of chaplain. James Croft, who occasionally writes at In Our Words, says that just because they "leave behind their religious beliefs doesn’t mean they stop having those needs. But secular society has not yet come up with a way to give them moments of significance with the same level of beauty and care that goes into religious ceremonies. That is a big gap.’’

There was a lot of blowback on this issue from nonbelievers of all sorts, especially PZ Myers of Pharyngula, whose response you can read here. Rather than re-hash all of the arguments for and against, I want to take issue with the nature of the HHC's language, which, above all, seems to be the main complaint from detractors of the organization. I should point out here that I am not a linguist; I'm not about to infuriate you by nitpicking every root and ending of a word and completely ignore the context. (I've just had a very infuriating run-in with a linguist in a Facebook debate. They're on my shitlist at the moment). I'm much more interested in why the HHC is so desperate to align themselves with religious images.

Take, for instance, Croft's quote from the paragraph before: secular society, he says, does not offer the same kinds of significance and beauty that religious ceremonies supposedly provide. Not being a regular churchgoer myself, and relying on my experiences as a troublemaking seven year old who hated Sunday school because I had books about the Big Bang and space travel which were SO MUCH COOLER than the Jesus fellow... I just don't understand what he means. To me, church has always looked like this:

Not too much exciting about your typical Christian service, I would wager. So, what is Croft talking about? The only thing that seems to make any sense in this context is the spiritual part of religion: the great sense of belonging, everyone believing in one thing, maybe being inspired by the tone or content of the man in fancy robes standing at the front of everyone. In essence, the irrational, hive-mind aspect of religion. The part that's at the core of our resistance against religion. 

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the HHC doesn't really do that sort of thing. They have potlucks and philosophical debates and guest speakers who talk about things like discrimination against atheists in the military. The Globe article mentioned meditation, but that's hardly supernatural in character: even fanboy darling Sam Harris does that kind of thing, and attempts to explain it using neuroscience. In essence, all very rational activities that are not based on any kind of dogma. Yet, both Croft and Epstein claim that the HHC fulfills that supposedly missing aspect of secular society, something that the latter claims in that Globe piece that groups like the Secular Student Alliance cannot. Yet, they deal in the rational, while that missing piece they talk about seems to be entirely irrational.

I'm not hating on the HHC here. I'm not interested in burning bridges or yelling at anyone unless they really deserve it. I think they're a good organization doing interesting and important work, and boy is that Chris Stedman a charming little hipster. (Seriously, though. He is.) But I do find their language problematic for its religious connotations, especially in a movement that is so supposedly based on rationality as ours is. That "supposedly," by the way, is a topic for a whole other righteous rage piece. But another time.

I hope this is taken as a constructive criticism, and if I have indeed mischaracterized James' statement, I'd love for him to correct me; print journalism these days doesn't necessarily always quote in context. I'm not PZ Myers, though I do love him: I'm just a perpetually furious progressive philosophy major searchin' for some truths. Or something like that.

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