[lit-ideas] Disbelief

  • From: "Steven G. Cameron" <stevecam@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 12 Dec 2004 11:36:02 -0500

A timely essay especially for the various levels of non-believers among 
us. It raises a number of important issues, not the least of which is 
"organized"  religion itself...


/Steve Cameron, NJ

        Keeping the Faith in My Doubt

Published: December 12, 2004

Garrison, N.Y.

WITH the presidential election over and the holidays upon us - a 
religiously charged political season followed fast by the most religious 
time of the year in an overwhelmingly religious nation - unbelievers may 
be feeling a bit beleaguered. To cheer themselves up, they might visit 
the virtual home for a group called the United Universists.

Founded last year by a few brave souls in Birmingham, Ala., the 
Universism movement "denies the validity of revelation, faith and dogma" 
and upholds science as our most reliable source of truth. The 
Universists are asking atheists, agnostics and other infidels to join 
them in their effort to counter the influence of religious zealots in 
our culture. Since the recent election, the Universists have posed this 
question on their home page in large type: "Who will fight for the 

Good question. Obviously neither major political party wants to 
associate itself too closely with unbelievers - and understandably so, 
given polls showing that Americans are even less likely to vote for an 
atheist for president than for a homosexual. But as an areligious person 
myself, I'm intrigued by the notion of unbelievers banding together to 
increase their political clout, perhaps by speaking out on issues like 
sexual freedom, abortion, stem-cell and cloning research, and prayer in 

There are more of us heathens out there than you might guess. According 
to the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which tracks religious diversity in 
the United States, the number of people with no religious affiliation 
has grown sharply over the past decade, to as many as 39 million. That 
is about twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and 
Episcopalians combined.

Not surprisingly, a slew of organizations - including older ones like 
the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Atheists and newer 
ones like the Universists and the so-called Brights - are competing for 
the devotion of the godless. The Universists, who claim to have enlisted 
5,000 members so far, are especially feisty and shrewd at 
self-promotion. In September they took to the streets of Birmingham to 
protest Alabama's ban on the sale of sex toys, and last week they 
organized an online chat with Sam Harris, author of the anti-religion 
polemic "The End of Faith."

And yet I have no plans to sign up with the Universists or any other 
areligious group. First of all, I'm just not a joiner, more out of 
laziness than anything else; I avoid commitments that might jeopardize 
my sports- or sitcom-watching time. An organization for freethinkers - 
one of the Universists' self-definitions - also strikes me as 
oxymoronic, like an anarchist government. Isn't the point of being a 
freethinker eschewing categories like Satanist, Scientologist or Universist?

I'm also disturbed that these areligious groups have exhibited the same 
sectarian squabbling that they deplore in religious believers. When 
Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the 
Skeptics Society, was invited to speak at an atheism convention in 
Florida last year, some organizers objected because he is agnostic - a 
mere doubter of God's existence rather than a denier. Mr. Shermer has 
likened this hair-splitting to the dispute between Baptists and 
Anabaptists over whether baptism should take place during infancy or 

At that same conference, two anti-religion educators also proposed that 
negative terms like "agnostic," "atheist," "unbeliever" and "skeptic" be 
replaced with the more upbeat "bright," which describes someone "whose 
worldview is naturalistic - free of supernatural and mystical elements." 
The term, which can serve as a noun or adjective, has been promoted by 
the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the biologist Richard Dawkins.

Members of some other groups have reacted with annoyance to the Bright 
movement, no doubt seeing it as an intrusion on their turf. Defenders of 
the old standbys "atheist," "agnostic" and "secular humanist" complain 
that "bright" is self-aggrandizing - and the implied antonym, "dim," a 
tad demeaning. Critics of the Brights include the Universists, whose Web 
site also distinguishes Universism from (and not-so-subtly asserts its 
superiority to) atheism, deism, humanism, pantheism, transcendentalism 
and Unitarian Universalism.

All this goes to show that even groups founded with the best of 
intentions - and what groups aren't? - usually become concerned above 
all with self-perpetuation, often at the expense of other groups with 
similar aims.

My main objection to all these anti-religion, pro-science groups is that 
they aren't addressing our basic problem, which is ideological 
self-righteousness of any kind. Obviously, not all faithful folk are 
intolerant bullies seeking to impose their views on others. Moreover, 
rejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview 
do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never 
forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and 
the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific 
ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.

Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you 
denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one 
embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed 
against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet 
was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance 
critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of 
his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed 
students' criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their 
errors would he banish them from class.

OF course we all feel validated when others see the world as we do. But 
we should resist the need to insist or even imply that our views - or 
anti-views - are better than all others. In fact, we should all be more 
modest in how we talk about our faith or lack thereof.

For me, that isn't difficult, because I've never really viewed my doubt 
as an asset. Quite the contrary. I often envy religious friends, because 
I see how their faith comforts them. Sometimes I think of my skepticism 
as a disorder, like being colorblind or tone-deaf. Perhaps I'm missing 
what one geneticist has called "the God gene," an innate predilection 
for faith (although I'm skeptical of that theory, too). But skepticism 
has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life, 
unencumbered by beliefs.

Instead of banding together, maybe we unbelievers should set an example 
by going in the opposite direction. We should renounce all "isms" - that 
claim to speak for our most profound personal beliefs. Or rather, since 
we seem to be headed in this direction anyway, each unbeliever could 
create his or her personal ism, perhaps with its own name. Since 
Universism is taken, I'll call mine "Horganism." You can revile it, 
admire it, or ignore it, but you can't join it.

John Horgan is the author, most recently, of "Rational Mysticism."

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