What’s So New about the New Atheists? – Virtual Canuck

This is a nicely crafted, deeply humanist, gentle and thought-provoking sermon, given by Terry Anderson to members of his Unitarian church on atheistic thinking and values.

I have a lot of sympathy with the Unitarians. A church that does not expect belief in any gods or higher powers; that welcomes members with almost any theistic, deistic, agnostic or atheistic persuasions; that mostly eschews hierarchies and power structures; that focuses on the value of community; that is open to exploring the mysteries of being, wherever they may be found; that is doing good things for and with others, and that is promoting tolerance and understanding of all people and all ideas is OK with me. It’s kind of a club for the soul (as in ‘soul music’, not as in ‘immaterial soul’). As Terry observes, though, it does have some oddness at its heart. It’s a bit like Christianity, without the Christ and without the mumbo jumbo, but it still retains some relics of its predominantly Christian ancestry. Terry focuses (amongst other things) on the word ‘faith’ as being a particularly problematic term in at least one of its meanings.

For all their manifest failings and evils they are used to justify or permit, religious teachings can often provide a range of useful perspectives on the universe, as long as we don’t take them any more seriously than fairy tales or poetry: which is to say, very seriously at some levels, not at all seriously in what they tell us of how to act, what to believe, or what they claim to have happened. And, while the whole ‘god’ idea is, at the very best, metaphorical, I think the metaphor has potential value. Whether or not you believe in, disbelieve in or dismiss deities as nonsense (to be clear, depending on the variant, I veer between disbelief and outright dismissal), it is extremely important to retain a notion of the sacred – a sense of wonder, humbleness, awe, majesty etc – and a strong reflective awareness of the deeply connected, meaning-filled lives of ourselves and others, and of our place in the universe. For similar reasons I am happy to use an equally fuzzy word like ‘soul’ for something lacking existential import, but meaningful as a placeholder for something that the word ‘mind’ fails to address. It can be helpful in reflection, discussion and meditation, as well as poetry. There are beautiful souls, tortured souls, and more: few other words will do.  I also think that there is great importance in rituals and shared, examined values, in things that give us common grounding to explore the mysteries and wonders of what is involved in being a human being, living with other human beings, on a fragile and beautiful planet, itself a speck in a staggeringly vast cosmos. This sermon, then, offers useful insights into a way of quasi-religious thinking that does not rely on a nonsensical belief system but that still retains much of the value of religions. I’m not tempted to join the Unitarians (like Groucho, I am suspicious of any club that would accept me as a member), but I respect their beliefs (and lack of beliefs), and respect even more their acknowledgement of their own uncertainties and their willingness to explore them.

Address of the bookmark: http://virtualcanuck.ca/2016/04/27/whats-so-new-about-the-new-atheists/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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