Posts

Science Fiction and the Para-Religious

Written by Race MoChridhe in response to a podcast by Tara Smith and Benn Banasik, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

The bad news about this episode is that I lost a significant bet by only a few seconds when it took until just after the 10:00 mark for Robert Heinlein to be mentioned. The good news, of course, is the very interesting conversation that unfolds from that point. I am not recapping that conversation here; if you haven’t listened to it yet, go listen!

Instead, I want to follow up on a thread the conversation didn’t follow, based on a comment Mr Radford makes just after Ms Smith invokes Strangers in a Strange Land. He observes that:

writing something like [Heinlein’s work] in the 1960s … was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that…

The reception history of Heinlein could be a Ph.D. thesis in itself (if it hasn’t already been). What made me smile about this characterization was that, even as Heinlein was bringing the opprobrium of American conservatism down on himself for the promotion of loose sexual mores and socially instrumental pseudo-churches, he was also calling down the vitriol of American liberalism for populating the future with valorized jackboots (à la Starship Troopers or, even more strongly, Space Cadet) that, in confirmation of Ms Smith’s thesis, reflected his real-world enthusiasm for nuclear weapons testing, the Vietnam War, and Reagan’s SDI initiative (an argument over which permanently clouded his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke). The omnivalent gadflyism of Heinlein has been remarked upon frequently, but its importance to his success has been perhaps most deeply recognized by Brian Doherty, who wrote that “[t]hat iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America.”

What does that have to do with religion? A great deal, if one recalls that Pope Leo XIII characterized “Americanism” as a heresy in his Testem benevolentiae nostrae (1899), understanding by it “the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world”. What that pope might have thought of Heinlein’s novels may be left to the amusements of the imagination. More to the present point was Leo XIII’s concern regarding the suggestions from some American Catholics that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions”.

Even if one takes some umbrage with the other elements identified as “Americanism” by the Holy Father, this last point—the belief that the future is to be qualitatively different from the past such that, in Henry Ford’s famous saying, “history is bunk” and all human life is open to reinterpretation and reimagination from the ground up—is characteristic of the whole wave of revolutionary republics that trace their inspiration to Lexington and Concord. (Americans tend to be somewhat amnesiac about how much of the rich symbology and rhetoric of the Church’s other great 20th century nemesis—Marxism—sprouted on American soil.) It is also foundational to many (if not most) strains of science fiction writing, which not only use “the future” as a tabula rasa on which fundamental reimaginings of the human condition can be inscribed, but justify those inscriptions on the basis of some form of technological or scientific determinism, where the latent possibilities opened by new feats of engineering or new understandings of the physical world compel reconfigurations of society and the psyche by their own internal logic. What these stories designate as “science” thus functions analogously to “fate” in classical literature or “divine Providence” in medieval writing (or, for that matter, “historical dialectic” in socialist realist novels).

Heinlein coined the term “speculative fiction”, which has now come to be used as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, and related genres that presuppose orders of reality in which the conditions of life in the world are fundamentally different from those experienced historically and in the present. Notably, however, this is very different from the sense in which Heinlein originally used the phrase, as a means of distinguishing what we now call “hard science fiction”—science fiction that pays scrupulous attention to the scientific plausibility of its envisioned futures, which Heinlein more or less pioneered and was extremely proud of—as against the more fanciful storytelling common to both the pulp “space opera” adventures of the early 20th century and the great 19th century originators of the genre, for whom the “science” in science fiction was more or less interchangeable with “magic” in fantasy works. Heinlein’s careful “speculation”, as distinct from this wild and uninhibited imagining, brought his work out of the realm not only of the cheap entertainment with which pulp novels had been associated but also out of the domain of allegory and parable in which writers from H.G. Wells to Charlotte Perkins Gilman had pioneered science fiction in the first place. Heinlein’s work became not only thought-provoking but plausible. It is no coincidence that, to my knowledge, his was the first fictional religion to cross over into real-world practice through the Church of All Worlds, as Ms Smith notes.

I will be curious to see the survey results from Ms Smith’s interviews of Nebula attendees, and specifically what they might suggest about authors’ religious affiliations and beliefs. I don’t pretend to any encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction authors, but the only “big name” writer I can think of who is deeply involved in a “formal” religion is Orson Scott Card. (A much less famous example, but notable to me as the subject of some of my own recent research, is Annalinde Matichei, who incorporates the new religious movement with which she is identified—Filianism—directly into the world of her novellas.) I am sure there must be others, but it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities—a phenomenon made all the more notable by the powerful presence of formal religious identity and belief among foundational figures of modern fantasy writing, such as J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Could this be, I wonder, because many forms of science fiction fundamentally depend upon quasi-religious attitudes toward science itself?

Although he came to publicly embrace the term later in his life, Isaac Asimov always retained a certain discomfort with labelling himself an “atheist” because, he said, it was a statement about what he didn’t believe rather than what he did. He often went by “humanist” instead. Is it possible that the general intellectual commitments from which the bulk of science fiction springs—to an iconoclastic questioning of society, a vision of history as qualitatively transformative, and an understanding of scientific knowledge and technical invention as carrying teleological consequence (either in their own right or in their interaction with the known qualities of the human psyche)—are manifestations of a kind of humanism, scientism, or both (depending on one’s emphases and perspective) that is commonly incompatible with majority religious beliefs or else functions cognitively as a substitute for them?

That is, perhaps, where my digression rejoins the main conversation, as Mr Benasik goes on to discuss parallelism in the way avid video game players conceive their experience and the way that religious adherents understand their spiritual engagement. To what extent those parallels could be the result of para-religious aspects of modernity underlying gaming culture and game development (as I have suggested they may underlie science fiction as a genre), versus the extent to which they reflect similarities in the cognitive processing of experience as Mr Benasik explores in the interview, I will leave, with the anticipation of a sci-fi fan awaiting an author’s next release, to his future research.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

The motto of the Council for Secular Humanism is “Beyond atheism.  Beyond agnosticism.  Secular Humanism.”  Yet, the Council for Secular Humanism is just one place beyond nonbelief that atheists and agnostics can go to explore what it means to be a nonbeliever.  Indeed, as Mr. Flynn notes in his RSP interview, despite the increase in the number of people not identifying with a religion, the ranks of the Council for Secular Humanism have not grown.  The newly nonreligious are not going to Secular Humanism for community or intellectual stimulation after exiting from religious belief.  What, then, do the nonreligious find unappealing about Secular Humanism?

Mr. Flynn describes Secular Humanism as a “comprehensive life stance.”  At its core, however, it is simply the exhortation to be good as judged by reason instead of God or gods.  Perhaps the fact that I can use the word “simply” in this context is evidence that the Council for Secular Humanism has been incredibly effective, historically, at changing the conversation around morality, even if it is no longer attracting the nonreligious as members.

One reason that the Council for Secular Humanism has not been effective at gaining new members is that Secular Humanism speaks of process rather than conclusion.  People may be more likely to join a group that has a reached a specific conclusion regarding ethics with which they agree than one which endorses a broad process for reaching ethical decisions.  For example, both atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and atheist liberal P.Z. Meyers probably could agree that reason, science, and free inquiry should be the motivating force behind ethics, but I would be hard pressed to lump their ethical systems together.  Instead, atheists concerned with ethical life seem to join other groups organized around more specific stances, such as the nascent Atheism+ group.  The Council for Secular Humanism produces some excellent material in their magazine Free Inquiry, and they have a significant place in the history of ethical approaches within nonbelief, but it is not obvious what they add to the discussion of morality today.

If nonbelievers aren’t going to the Council for Secular Humanism, where are the nonreligious going?  What nonbelief communities are they joining?  Where do they express and explore their nonbelief?  Well, they have plenty of choices.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to aggressively nonreligious organizations.  In his interview with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Flynn identified one organization that has seen its ranks grow over the past several years: American Atheists.  This organization, with Dave Silverman as President, is the “bad cop” in the nonbeliever ecosystem.  Mr. Silverman aggressively took on Bill O’Reilly and became an Internet meme.  They place controversial billboards across the country.  They are loud and proud and get a lot of media attention.  They have a great name, and a significant media presence, so it is no wonder that they have been growing as the nonbeliever population grows.

It could be that the nonreligious are “going” to science, by which I mean that the nonreligious may be organizing around dedication to a scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  A thriving international network of blogs and podcasts focusing on science and skepticism exists, covering topics from medicine to Bigfoot.  This may reflect a trend in the broader culture.  The idea of science has quite a bit of pop culture cachet – indeed, “science” was just named “2013 Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster!  Groups dedicated to promoting scientific skepticism, such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, have also experienced some growth.  The JREF’s annual convention has grown year over year in the past decade.  Skepticon, a free convention for skeptics, has also experienced significant growth in its five-year history.  It makes sense that atheists would be drawn to scientific skepticism: my own research suggests that atheists are far more likely to report intellectual reasons for nonbelief than any other emotional, social, intuitive, or experiential reasons for nonbelief.  If this self-report is accurate, then it makes sense that the process that drives people to nonbelief would serve as a source of commonality between nonbelievers.  However, if there’s one thing we know in psychology, it’s that self-report is not always accurate.  It can be hard for individuals to recognize the unconscious factors that lead to their beliefs and actions.  But even if we doubt the veracity of nonbelievers’ self-report, and assume that nonbelief is largely or exclusively due to intuitive, social, emotional, or experiential factors, rather than intellectual factors, the very fact that they perceive themselves (or wish to be perceived) as being influenced by the intellect makes “science” a natural rallying point for nonbelievers.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to the bar.  Much of Mr. Flynn’s analysis focused on large national organizations, but as the stigma of nonbelief begins to subside (though not disappear), more and more nonbelievers may gather together in small local communities.  One manifestation of this is that the nonbeliever could head down to the local bar once a month and enjoy fellowship over a pint of beer.  Or, a nonbeliever could join the atheist church movement, where avowed atheists gather together to sing songs, hear messages of hope and guidance, and build communities much in the same way churches do.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to college.  The Secular Student Alliance, an organization of nonbelief groups on college and high school campuses, has experienced growth, as have other organizations such as Center for Inquiry on Campus.  This makes sense, given that younger cohorts are more likely to be nonreligious than older cohorts (PDF) – 26% of Millennials are nonreligious, compared to only 13% of the Baby Boomer generation.  College is one area, along with the military chaplaincy corps, where Humanism is trying to provide a sense of community and informal counseling that is so appealing to many people about religion.  While on campus, the nonreligious at a handful of colleges may be able to make use of a professional Humanist chaplain just as a Catholic student might be able to make use of a Catholic chaplain for guidance and community.

It could be that the nonreligious are going forward.  I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas (er, “holiday”) season.  This was my eighth Christmas as an atheist, after two decades of observance of the holiday as a Christian.  The Christmas season, for me, is about friends, family, reflection, presents, charity, respite from classes – and Handel’s The Messiah (time for another listen – just to make sure I’m linking to a good recording, of course.  I’ll be back in 2 hours, 30 minutes).  I’m not the only atheist who sees beauty and pleasure in religious music: there is a group of atheists who perform Renaissance-era Christian hymns on the streets of New York City on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

Last – but certainly not least – it could be that the nonreligious are not going anywhere.  Disaffiliation with religion does not imply affiliation with nonbelief.  Many of the religious “nones,” the term used to describe those who do not identify with a religion, have deeply held spiritual, mystical, or New Age beliefs that are antithetical to the values of Secular Humanism and most of the explicitly nonreligious institutions I mentioned above.  It may be no surprise, then, that the steep rise in religious non-affiliation has not resulted in a similarly steep rise in the number of people identifying as explicitly atheist or agnostic.  Others are happy to remain apathetic toward religion – the “apatheists.”

Understanding the diversity of the nonbelief community is where my nascent research focuses.  I am not alone.  The Council for Secular Humanism’s Free Inquiry magazine published an article by Dr. Luke Galen detailing significant differences among nonbelievers.  Dr. Christopher Silver has conducted research exploring the existence of six types of nonbelievers.  As more research is conducted in this area, a clearer picture should start to emerge about who the nonbelievers are and how to meet their different, individual needs.  This information should be useful in helping therapists, policy makers, and nonbelief leaders such as Mr. Flynn understand the people they aim to help serve.

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.

Podcasts

Science Fiction and the Para-Religious

Written by Race MoChridhe in response to a podcast by Tara Smith and Benn Banasik, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

The bad news about this episode is that I lost a significant bet by only a few seconds when it took until just after the 10:00 mark for Robert Heinlein to be mentioned. The good news, of course, is the very interesting conversation that unfolds from that point. I am not recapping that conversation here; if you haven’t listened to it yet, go listen!

Instead, I want to follow up on a thread the conversation didn’t follow, based on a comment Mr Radford makes just after Ms Smith invokes Strangers in a Strange Land. He observes that:

writing something like [Heinlein’s work] in the 1960s … was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that…

The reception history of Heinlein could be a Ph.D. thesis in itself (if it hasn’t already been). What made me smile about this characterization was that, even as Heinlein was bringing the opprobrium of American conservatism down on himself for the promotion of loose sexual mores and socially instrumental pseudo-churches, he was also calling down the vitriol of American liberalism for populating the future with valorized jackboots (à la Starship Troopers or, even more strongly, Space Cadet) that, in confirmation of Ms Smith’s thesis, reflected his real-world enthusiasm for nuclear weapons testing, the Vietnam War, and Reagan’s SDI initiative (an argument over which permanently clouded his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke). The omnivalent gadflyism of Heinlein has been remarked upon frequently, but its importance to his success has been perhaps most deeply recognized by Brian Doherty, who wrote that “[t]hat iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America.”

What does that have to do with religion? A great deal, if one recalls that Pope Leo XIII characterized “Americanism” as a heresy in his Testem benevolentiae nostrae (1899), understanding by it “the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world”. What that pope might have thought of Heinlein’s novels may be left to the amusements of the imagination. More to the present point was Leo XIII’s concern regarding the suggestions from some American Catholics that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions”.

Even if one takes some umbrage with the other elements identified as “Americanism” by the Holy Father, this last point—the belief that the future is to be qualitatively different from the past such that, in Henry Ford’s famous saying, “history is bunk” and all human life is open to reinterpretation and reimagination from the ground up—is characteristic of the whole wave of revolutionary republics that trace their inspiration to Lexington and Concord. (Americans tend to be somewhat amnesiac about how much of the rich symbology and rhetoric of the Church’s other great 20th century nemesis—Marxism—sprouted on American soil.) It is also foundational to many (if not most) strains of science fiction writing, which not only use “the future” as a tabula rasa on which fundamental reimaginings of the human condition can be inscribed, but justify those inscriptions on the basis of some form of technological or scientific determinism, where the latent possibilities opened by new feats of engineering or new understandings of the physical world compel reconfigurations of society and the psyche by their own internal logic. What these stories designate as “science” thus functions analogously to “fate” in classical literature or “divine Providence” in medieval writing (or, for that matter, “historical dialectic” in socialist realist novels).

Heinlein coined the term “speculative fiction”, which has now come to be used as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, and related genres that presuppose orders of reality in which the conditions of life in the world are fundamentally different from those experienced historically and in the present. Notably, however, this is very different from the sense in which Heinlein originally used the phrase, as a means of distinguishing what we now call “hard science fiction”—science fiction that pays scrupulous attention to the scientific plausibility of its envisioned futures, which Heinlein more or less pioneered and was extremely proud of—as against the more fanciful storytelling common to both the pulp “space opera” adventures of the early 20th century and the great 19th century originators of the genre, for whom the “science” in science fiction was more or less interchangeable with “magic” in fantasy works. Heinlein’s careful “speculation”, as distinct from this wild and uninhibited imagining, brought his work out of the realm not only of the cheap entertainment with which pulp novels had been associated but also out of the domain of allegory and parable in which writers from H.G. Wells to Charlotte Perkins Gilman had pioneered science fiction in the first place. Heinlein’s work became not only thought-provoking but plausible. It is no coincidence that, to my knowledge, his was the first fictional religion to cross over into real-world practice through the Church of All Worlds, as Ms Smith notes.

I will be curious to see the survey results from Ms Smith’s interviews of Nebula attendees, and specifically what they might suggest about authors’ religious affiliations and beliefs. I don’t pretend to any encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction authors, but the only “big name” writer I can think of who is deeply involved in a “formal” religion is Orson Scott Card. (A much less famous example, but notable to me as the subject of some of my own recent research, is Annalinde Matichei, who incorporates the new religious movement with which she is identified—Filianism—directly into the world of her novellas.) I am sure there must be others, but it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities—a phenomenon made all the more notable by the powerful presence of formal religious identity and belief among foundational figures of modern fantasy writing, such as J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Could this be, I wonder, because many forms of science fiction fundamentally depend upon quasi-religious attitudes toward science itself?

Although he came to publicly embrace the term later in his life, Isaac Asimov always retained a certain discomfort with labelling himself an “atheist” because, he said, it was a statement about what he didn’t believe rather than what he did. He often went by “humanist” instead. Is it possible that the general intellectual commitments from which the bulk of science fiction springs—to an iconoclastic questioning of society, a vision of history as qualitatively transformative, and an understanding of scientific knowledge and technical invention as carrying teleological consequence (either in their own right or in their interaction with the known qualities of the human psyche)—are manifestations of a kind of humanism, scientism, or both (depending on one’s emphases and perspective) that is commonly incompatible with majority religious beliefs or else functions cognitively as a substitute for them?

That is, perhaps, where my digression rejoins the main conversation, as Mr Benasik goes on to discuss parallelism in the way avid video game players conceive their experience and the way that religious adherents understand their spiritual engagement. To what extent those parallels could be the result of para-religious aspects of modernity underlying gaming culture and game development (as I have suggested they may underlie science fiction as a genre), versus the extent to which they reflect similarities in the cognitive processing of experience as Mr Benasik explores in the interview, I will leave, with the anticipation of a sci-fi fan awaiting an author’s next release, to his future research.

To Atheism – And Beyond! Where Nonbelievers Go

The motto of the Council for Secular Humanism is “Beyond atheism.  Beyond agnosticism.  Secular Humanism.”  Yet, the Council for Secular Humanism is just one place beyond nonbelief that atheists and agnostics can go to explore what it means to be a nonbeliever.  Indeed, as Mr. Flynn notes in his RSP interview, despite the increase in the number of people not identifying with a religion, the ranks of the Council for Secular Humanism have not grown.  The newly nonreligious are not going to Secular Humanism for community or intellectual stimulation after exiting from religious belief.  What, then, do the nonreligious find unappealing about Secular Humanism?

Mr. Flynn describes Secular Humanism as a “comprehensive life stance.”  At its core, however, it is simply the exhortation to be good as judged by reason instead of God or gods.  Perhaps the fact that I can use the word “simply” in this context is evidence that the Council for Secular Humanism has been incredibly effective, historically, at changing the conversation around morality, even if it is no longer attracting the nonreligious as members.

One reason that the Council for Secular Humanism has not been effective at gaining new members is that Secular Humanism speaks of process rather than conclusion.  People may be more likely to join a group that has a reached a specific conclusion regarding ethics with which they agree than one which endorses a broad process for reaching ethical decisions.  For example, both atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and atheist liberal P.Z. Meyers probably could agree that reason, science, and free inquiry should be the motivating force behind ethics, but I would be hard pressed to lump their ethical systems together.  Instead, atheists concerned with ethical life seem to join other groups organized around more specific stances, such as the nascent Atheism+ group.  The Council for Secular Humanism produces some excellent material in their magazine Free Inquiry, and they have a significant place in the history of ethical approaches within nonbelief, but it is not obvious what they add to the discussion of morality today.

If nonbelievers aren’t going to the Council for Secular Humanism, where are the nonreligious going?  What nonbelief communities are they joining?  Where do they express and explore their nonbelief?  Well, they have plenty of choices.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to aggressively nonreligious organizations.  In his interview with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Flynn identified one organization that has seen its ranks grow over the past several years: American Atheists.  This organization, with Dave Silverman as President, is the “bad cop” in the nonbeliever ecosystem.  Mr. Silverman aggressively took on Bill O’Reilly and became an Internet meme.  They place controversial billboards across the country.  They are loud and proud and get a lot of media attention.  They have a great name, and a significant media presence, so it is no wonder that they have been growing as the nonbeliever population grows.

It could be that the nonreligious are “going” to science, by which I mean that the nonreligious may be organizing around dedication to a scientific outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  A thriving international network of blogs and podcasts focusing on science and skepticism exists, covering topics from medicine to Bigfoot.  This may reflect a trend in the broader culture.  The idea of science has quite a bit of pop culture cachet – indeed, “science” was just named “2013 Word of the Year” by Merriam-Webster!  Groups dedicated to promoting scientific skepticism, such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, have also experienced some growth.  The JREF’s annual convention has grown year over year in the past decade.  Skepticon, a free convention for skeptics, has also experienced significant growth in its five-year history.  It makes sense that atheists would be drawn to scientific skepticism: my own research suggests that atheists are far more likely to report intellectual reasons for nonbelief than any other emotional, social, intuitive, or experiential reasons for nonbelief.  If this self-report is accurate, then it makes sense that the process that drives people to nonbelief would serve as a source of commonality between nonbelievers.  However, if there’s one thing we know in psychology, it’s that self-report is not always accurate.  It can be hard for individuals to recognize the unconscious factors that lead to their beliefs and actions.  But even if we doubt the veracity of nonbelievers’ self-report, and assume that nonbelief is largely or exclusively due to intuitive, social, emotional, or experiential factors, rather than intellectual factors, the very fact that they perceive themselves (or wish to be perceived) as being influenced by the intellect makes “science” a natural rallying point for nonbelievers.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to the bar.  Much of Mr. Flynn’s analysis focused on large national organizations, but as the stigma of nonbelief begins to subside (though not disappear), more and more nonbelievers may gather together in small local communities.  One manifestation of this is that the nonbeliever could head down to the local bar once a month and enjoy fellowship over a pint of beer.  Or, a nonbeliever could join the atheist church movement, where avowed atheists gather together to sing songs, hear messages of hope and guidance, and build communities much in the same way churches do.

It could be that the nonreligious are going to college.  The Secular Student Alliance, an organization of nonbelief groups on college and high school campuses, has experienced growth, as have other organizations such as Center for Inquiry on Campus.  This makes sense, given that younger cohorts are more likely to be nonreligious than older cohorts (PDF) – 26% of Millennials are nonreligious, compared to only 13% of the Baby Boomer generation.  College is one area, along with the military chaplaincy corps, where Humanism is trying to provide a sense of community and informal counseling that is so appealing to many people about religion.  While on campus, the nonreligious at a handful of colleges may be able to make use of a professional Humanist chaplain just as a Catholic student might be able to make use of a Catholic chaplain for guidance and community.

It could be that the nonreligious are going forward.  I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Christmas (er, “holiday”) season.  This was my eighth Christmas as an atheist, after two decades of observance of the holiday as a Christian.  The Christmas season, for me, is about friends, family, reflection, presents, charity, respite from classes – and Handel’s The Messiah (time for another listen – just to make sure I’m linking to a good recording, of course.  I’ll be back in 2 hours, 30 minutes).  I’m not the only atheist who sees beauty and pleasure in religious music: there is a group of atheists who perform Renaissance-era Christian hymns on the streets of New York City on a regular basis over the past 50 years.

Last – but certainly not least – it could be that the nonreligious are not going anywhere.  Disaffiliation with religion does not imply affiliation with nonbelief.  Many of the religious “nones,” the term used to describe those who do not identify with a religion, have deeply held spiritual, mystical, or New Age beliefs that are antithetical to the values of Secular Humanism and most of the explicitly nonreligious institutions I mentioned above.  It may be no surprise, then, that the steep rise in religious non-affiliation has not resulted in a similarly steep rise in the number of people identifying as explicitly atheist or agnostic.  Others are happy to remain apathetic toward religion – the “apatheists.”

Understanding the diversity of the nonbelief community is where my nascent research focuses.  I am not alone.  The Council for Secular Humanism’s Free Inquiry magazine published an article by Dr. Luke Galen detailing significant differences among nonbelievers.  Dr. Christopher Silver has conducted research exploring the existence of six types of nonbelievers.  As more research is conducted in this area, a clearer picture should start to emerge about who the nonbelievers are and how to meet their different, individual needs.  This information should be useful in helping therapists, policy makers, and nonbelief leaders such as Mr. Flynn understand the people they aim to help serve.

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.