[X-posted at NewApps] These reflections are inspired by my reading of Howard Wettstein’s book “The significance of religious experience” (OUP), Gutting’s piece in the Stone on agnosticism, and a recent BBC report on an atheist church in London.
I am deeply intrigued by atheist religious practice. An atheist church in North London has opened last month. It proves to be very popular; as a matter of fact, vastly outstripping the neighboring Anglican evangelical church in congregation size. The ca. 300 members of this church congregate to sing secular songs, celebrate life and the natural world, have readings from secular texts, like Alice in Wonderland, and have secular sermons, on topics like “life is all too brief and nothing comes after it.” The atheist church fits in a broader tendency of atheists to incorporate aspects of religious practice, including Alain de Botton’s temples for atheists. Is there any point for an atheist who is attracted to religious practice to attend atheist ceremonies, structured in ways similar to traditional religions?
When discussing the matter with a friend, who is a member of the Episcopal church, she thought it was pointless (and verging on the ridiculous) for atheists or agnostics to attend such a church. Couldn’t an atheist who likes ritual and religious practice just make use of the structures that already exist, bracketing or privately denying the doxastic elements? In fact, as Gutting observed, many religious people (I suspect many religious academics, for instance) are agnostic at best about the doxastic aspects of their faith.
Wettstein, who emphasizes the importance of religious practice, has taken this attitude to Judaism. According to him, we can enjoy the benefits of religious practices like ritual blessings, for human flourishing without taking its metaphysical baggage on board. As a limiting case, he argues that one can be a metaphysical naturalist, and yet be in awe of God. However, Wettstein acknowledges that metaphysics is not wholly unimportant to religious practice. In chapter 2 (aptly named man thinks, God laughs), he chronicles his own spiritual journey from Judaism to atheism to religiosity without metaphysics. He writes: “The relation between religious life and supernaturalist metaphysics, already mentioned in the Introduction, is for me a very delicate business, one that constantly lurks behind the scenes in this book and in my life…[w]hen I reflect on religious commitment, I neither want to claim that such metaphysical views are irrelevant nor that they are crucial. A much lighter touch is needed, one that is extremely difficult to achieve.”
I agree with this. I think metaphysics, while seldom crucial to why people adopt, maintain or abandon religion, is nevertheless important. We aim for some consistency of our actions with our beliefs, and lack of such consistency seems to require an explanation for the discrepancy. For instance, if I am passionate about animal welfare, member about animal welfare groups, and yet eat meat of animals I know suffered, there seems to be some inconsistency of my behavior to my beliefs, and I need to offer at least some reason why they don’t align. Similarly, someone with a completely naturalist ontology might feel uncomfortable reciting the Nicene creed and singing religious hymns on a regular basis, even if she enjoys doing so.
So if one wants to achieve this alignment of practice with beliefs, there are other options. For instance, the atheist who likes religious practice could try to align her beliefs with her practices by changing her beliefs, aligning them with, say Judaism, Calvinism or any other belief set corresponding to the practices she is attracted to. If one takes that route one could look for arguments, such as those offered by Plantinga and Craig, which not only want to establish some thin form of theism, but a much richer package deal of specific religious beliefs (e.g., not just warranted theism, but warranted Christian beliefs). Given that philosophy of religion often is a form of apologetics anyway, this is a useful route for the atheist or agnostic who likes the aspects of religion but does not (yet) accept its doxastic elements. Tim Keller, who writes about his Presbyterian congregation in New York city, tells about this strategy in detail in his The reason for God. Many of his congregation members are sophisticated college-educated, professional, young New Yorkers. Yet, Keller has chosen to adopt a fairly conservative ideology for his church, which include a commitment biblical inerrancy. By careful argumentation in his sermons and visits to congregation members, he seems to get them on board with this. It is quite possible that a number of his congregation would, in London, be attracted to the atheist church.
Another way to align one’s practices with beliefs is what the atheist churches do, which is to tailor typical practical elements of religious life (like sermons, hymns, readings from scripture) to secular purposes. This seems to be appealing to some, although we don’t know whether such communities can survive in the longer term. So it does seem that being part of an atheist church has a point for the atheist who is attracted to some elements of the religious life – it brings one’s beliefs in line with one’s practices, and allows one to embrace at least some elements of the religious life.