Saturday, October 02, 2010

Atheist sectarianism

Anyone looking for evidence that atheism is just another religion need look no farther than the sectarian squabbles currently going on within the church hierarchy.

I have an interesting personal connection with this little drama. Many years ago, during my last existential midlife crisis I attended the grand opening of CFI West. I was thrilled that the center of gravity of secular humanism was shifting towards the other side of the Rockies, and that this new outpost of rationalism would be virtually in my back yard. I was really looking forward to becoming more active in the humanist/atheist/skeptic/whatever-you-want-to-call-it community (Parker and Stone really hit the nail on the head with the punch-line of this South Park episode. Warning: this link contains spoilers.) I was also eagerly anticipating the chance to meet some of the luminaries who were going to be there, notably Paul Kurtz, who seemed to me at the time to be the patron saint of all things secular.

To say that the event turned out to be a disappointment would be quite the understatement. For starters. the building they had chosen had a pretty depressing vibe. It was an old 1960's era brick monolith on a part of Sunset Boulevard on which the sun had long since set. The place (and I refer here both to the building and its surroundings) were badly in need of renovation. But what bothered me most was not the physical plant, but the air of superiority and snobbishness that emanated from the proceedings. There were only about twenty people there, and it was clear that they all knew each other. I was the only outsider, and I was treated like one. They didn't quite say, "Go away boy, you bother me," but they might as well have.

I was shocked. What was the point of even having this event if not to draw new people into the fold? I was puzzled and disappointed, but not deterred. I decided I would try again with a concrete proposal for how I could add value to the organization by helping out with their web presence, which at the time was in about as good a shape as the building and the neighborhood. One of the arms of the secular humanist establishment is a publication called Free Inquiry, but the domain name was available, so I registered it, and sent an email to Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, asking if he'd be interested in having me set up a web site for him. I never received a reply.

(An interesting side note: In 2006 I submitted an article to Free Inquiry entitled, "Why humanism fails to win hearts and minds." It was my first attempt to render onto paper the ideas that I am now fleshing out more fully here in this blog. It was rejected, which didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was that the reason they gave for the rejection made it clear that they had not even bothered to read the article.) has been lying fallow for many years now. But last July I got an email from the web developer at Free Inquiry asking to buy the domain name. Apparently someone is dragging them kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. (To this day they only accept submissions printed on paper in triplicate.) I responded that I wasn't interested in money, but that I would happily point a DNS entry to their server. I would also be willing to donate the domain if certain conditions were met, without being specific about what those conditions were. The web developer responded that this was above his pay grade and that he would have to consult with the church elders.

Two weeks later I got an email from Barry Karr. the director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, saying they were still interested in the domain, but that they couldn't place a value on it as a tax deduction. I replied that I didn't care about the tax deduction, that I was interested in helping the organization and not in personal gain, and that he should call me so we could discuss the situation.

Another two weeks went by with no response. When he finally did respond he said that he'd been dealing with family medical issues, and would like to re-open the dialog. I said sure, call me any time.

Again, no response. Finally, I received this on September 24, almost three months after their initial inquiry, I got this:


I think I have to take this back to square one because there has been a bit of a change in the position of the Free Inquiry Ex. Director (well, not a change, but I guess I misinterpreted his desires a bit). He does not want to give up as the main web address for the Council for Secular Humanism. We had a large meting with our web people, discussing various things, and I thought we all came out of it with the plan that our MAIN FOCUS and url to the world, being Seems I was mistaken.

We do want the domain name and we would use it, but it might be used as a sub-directory to the main page for the magazine, or as a forwarder to the I am sorry for the confusion, the fault is mine. We could pay you an amount, probably not more than a few hundred dollars for the domain name, but, as I think I mentioned before, we could not assign a value amount on it as far as tax purposes go.

Your thoughts.

Barry Karr

I responded -- for the third time -- that I was still willing to give them the domain, that it wasn't about the money, and that they could call me any time to discuss the matter. I haven't heard from them since.

I am hard-pressed to imagine a more inept bit of outreach. But now that I have read the NYT article it all makes a bit more sense. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


Mike said...

Re your opening sentence, I've always liked the following (original source forgotten):

"Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby."

Ron said...

My hobby is not collecting stamps.

Anonymous said...

If a bit of internecine warfare between the incoming and outgoing powers of an organization makes for a religion, that would make quite a number of corporations religions.

I quite disagree with you that atheism (i.e., not being a theist) is a religion, but you may simply have a rather more loose definition of "religion" than I do. I'll wait for the post explaining in detail why atheism is a religion and comment there.

Ron said...

> If a bit of internecine warfare between the incoming and outgoing powers of an organization makes for a religion, that would make quite a number of corporations religions.

Actually, I think a fair number of corporations *are* religions. Avon. Apple.

> I quite disagree with you that atheism (i.e., not being a theist) is a religion

If you parse what I wrote carefully you will see that I didn't actually say that atheism was a religion, I was just alluding to the fact that many people claim that it is. (Personally I think it's not worth quibbling over terminology.) Notwithstanding, it's important to distinguish between atheism the belief (or lack of belief) and the loosely affiliated cluster of quasi-political quasi-academic organizations organized around that (lack of) belief (American Atheists, the Council for Secular Humanism, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, etc.) Those organizations have a lot of the characteristics of religious organizations, including ostracism of anyone who doesn't toe the party line.

Anonymous said...

Ron writes:

> Actually, I think a fair number of corporations *are* religions. Avon. Apple.

Ah! Got me there!

Avon, certainly. Or "cult," anyway. Apple, too, pending nore precise definitions of terms. (Which we really should talk about; I'm curious myself as to what we mean by this.)

As for the rest of your reply, I think it is worth "quibbling" over the definitions of the terms, merely so we can understand better what we are talking about. That, in and of itself, will lead to better understanding of what's going on here.

But in terms of intra-organizational fights, I don't think it makes much difference whether it's organizations of the religious/cultish/"bad guys" or the "good guys" (regardless of you define that) that do it: those squabbles are a characteristic of how human organizations in general work, and any human organization will do that.