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Dec 11 2011

We drift and dabble

Oh goody, another more in sorrow than in anger rumination on Atheists Are As Bad As Theists And Vice Versa for a Sunday.

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

What does he – Eric Weiner – mean “co-opted”? What does he even mean “what about the rest of us” – what about them? “Angry Atheists” haven’t “co-opted” anything, and the rest of us are just as able to speak up as the people Weiner is trying to portray as marginal.

It’s such a typical and tiresome move, this attempt to convince “the rest of us” – the normal, the mainstream, the typical, the ok – that atheists are illegitimate and somehow stealing or usurping the discourse. It’s also fairly risible to do that on the New York Times op-ed page. If we’ve usurped the discourse, how is it possible for Eric Normal Weiner to get his views published in the NY Times?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones.

Hello: that includes us, you know. We have no religious affiliation at all, so we are part of your Nones.

Nones are the undecided of the religious world. We drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah to, yes, Catholicism and Judaism.

So Nones are all kind of goddy too, so poof! actually there are no Nones at all, everybody is normal, so we can all go back to sleep.

We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

The hell we do. Maybe he does, but that doesn’t mean all of us do, and some of us certainly don’t – we not only don’t believe in “God,” we also dislike it. I know I do. “God” is a tyrant, a Big Boss, a domineering male, a hater of women, a bully, an intruder. I don’t in the least hope to believe in “God” one day; on the contrary, I hope not to, because it would be a horrible surrender and self-betrayal.

 

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Stewart

    Oh, let me re-post from Facebook; it was so liberating to write:

    I can understand righteous fundamentalists blasting everyone with what they are convinced is their god’s truth and I can understand angry atheists refusing to be quiet any longer. What I find silly is fence-sitters deafening us with their yells of “We’re lukewarm, damn it! We have no firm opinion on this question and we DEMAND to be listened to! We’re wishy-washy, we’ve been ignored long enough and we’re not going to take it anymore!”

  2. 2
    Sastra

    “The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?”
    What does he – Eric Weiner – mean “co-opted”? What does he even mean “what about the rest of us” – what about them?

    I think what Eric means is that the discussion about the existence of God has unfairly been taken over by people who actually care about whether God exists or not: they’re turning it into a debate.

    Instead, the discussion about God should resemble not a debate but a bull session or creative writing seminar or therapy group. “Is that what you believe? How wonderful, if that’s what works for you! Now here’s what I think: what if God is maybe like a giant atom and we’re all inside it and the electrons are Love and they’re all spinning around us and our job is to vibrate in harmony together? Ooooo. I can get a lot out of that. Or what about …”

    I mean, it would be a much more meaningful and serious religious discourse without all the terrible judgmental people getting all upset with us and everything as we folks in the comfortable middle drift and dabble towards God, each in our own way.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    +1 and +1.

  4. 4
    Andrew G.

    what if God is maybe like a giant atom and we’re all inside it

    AUGH

    Now you’re giving me flashbacks to Archimedes Plutonium….

  5. 5
    jimroberts

    Stewart, Please post your Facebook ID so that I can send a friend request!

  6. 6
    Stewart

    Jim, I take that as a compliment. I just did it for you.

  7. 7
    Ariel

    I’m not American; just someone curious about how you see the processes going on in your country.

    What does he – Eric Weiner – mean “co-opted”?

    He is probably saying that the hardliners from both sides dominated (or appropriated) the public discussion in the US. I have no idea whether it’s true. Is it?

    “Angry Atheists” haven’t “co-opted” anything, and the rest of us are just as able to speak up as the people Weiner is trying to portray as marginal.
    If we’ve usurped the discourse, how is it possible for Eric Normal Weiner to get his views published in the NY Times?

    The first part looks like a “no” answer to my question. However: (a) the second part is not really relevant, since it’s in general quite possible that a discussion is dominated by a given party, with dissenters opinion still getting some (comparatively insubstantial) release; (b) there is a tension between the “no” answer and the first two comments by Stewart and Sastra. I may be wrong, but I read these comments as: “Weiner is right – the hardliners have indeed dominated the discussion, but that is only as it should be!”. Ophelia, is that also your opinion, or would you rather stick to the “no” answer?

    Sastra and Stewart (sorry for blending you two together – you may be mortal enemies for all that I know :-))

    (1)I think what Eric means is that the discussion about the existence of God has unfairly been taken over by people who actually care about whether God exists or not: they’re turning it into a debate.
    (2)What I find silly is fence-sitters deafening us with their yells of “We’re lukewarm, damn it! We have no firm opinion on this question and we DEMAND to be listened to!

    From my perspective (1) doesn’t seem adequate. What I see in my own country corresponds to a substantial degree to what Weiner is saying. The anger in the public debate is largely due to political issues, and not due to “caring about whether God exists”. Is it really that different in America?

    As to (2): Weiner is indeed depicting the American “Nones” as the people with no firm religious affiliation (“dabbling in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”). However, it is not true that he didn’t voice any definite opinion. His opinion is that certain religious practices make us better people (in effect, religion is not as harmful as the “angry atheists” claim). While the opinion is obviously debatable, I can see no reason why shouldn’t it be voiced and why the desire to present it forcefully in a public debate should be viewed as “silly”. You are still free to claim that such an opinion is false, but it is a very different form of criticism than the one you are giving.

  8. 8
    Stewart

    Ariel, I plead completely guilty to not having either answered nor precisely summarised what Weiner actually wrote. I hope that that much was obvious to most who have been following recent similar pieces and their reception here. What I wrote was a sigh of general weariness and was intended more to (exaggeratedly, absolutely conceded) encapsulate some of the tone of what we’ve been hearing lately, to which Weiner’s was just the latest contributing voice. Also, as should have been clear, I was quoting myself from a Facebook thread to which I had just contributed. My previous contribution, more directly a reaction to Weiner, had been:

    Why is it only our side that has to put up with such nincompoops allegedly speaking for it? The religious aren’t plagued with articles by people claiming to believe in god who hope they will one day see the light and become atheists.

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Ariel – no, it’s not true. As you noticed, that’s what I went on to say.

    the second part is not really relevant, since it’s in general quite possible that a discussion is dominated by a given party, with dissenters opinion still getting some (comparatively insubstantial) release

    Publication on the NY Times op-ed page can’t be considered marginal in any sense, especially when the NY Times op-ed page has a history of rejecting commissioned pieces that are “too” atheist. It really is absurd for someone to pretend to be neglected on the NY Times op-ed page. It’s like members of Congress pretending to be “outsiders” in Washington. It’s like George Bush pretending to be just folks.

    I disagree about the first two comments.

  10. 10
    julian

    Well I’m glad I’ve never actually paid for a copy of the NY Times.

    Adding that to my list of things to be grateful for this holiday season.

    And no Mr. Weiner, you aren’t going to ruin my holidays. Only the Marine Corps can do that. Even declaring me as bad as fundamentalist and demanding I give up a podium I never had won’t dampen my holiday spirit.

    Hope you find the god your looking for and that he plucks you up into his warm embrace.

  11. 11
    NathanDST

    Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

    I think that’s part of why I was attracted to the “Conversations With God” deity ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversations_with_God ) back when I was in my new agey silliness stage. He had a sense of humor. But as for this idea that non-believers want to believe in God? Pfft. I want the truth, thank you very much. Whatever that is. Speaking of . . .

    Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.”

    Now that’s just ridiculous. James also said “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.” I’ll admit I haven’t done a study of William James’s concept of truth, but that doesn’t seem to quite fall in line with what Weiner is saying.

    (and thank goodness for google: I was getting James mixed up with William K. Clifford and the Ethics of Belief)

  12. 12
    James Croft

    <3 Sastra – the post about the atom was WONDERFUL. I literally fell off my chair laughing. It is frighteningly similar to some of the discussions I've had at the Harvard Divinity School. Bravo!

  13. 13
    devdasdavids

    “What does he – Eric Weiner – mean “co-opted”? What does he even mean “what about the rest of us” – what about them?

    It’s lazy writing, itself a symptom of sloppy, superficial thinking. All of which seems par for the course for these lukewarm types.

  14. 14
    Marta

    How brave and courageous of the New York Times to turn off comments so that Weiner’s weasely and sanctimoniously stupid clap-trap can’t be challenged.

  15. 15
    Ariel

    It really is absurd for someone to pretend to be neglected on the NY Times op-ed page. It’s like members of Congress pretending to be “outsiders” in Washington. It’s like George Bush pretending to be just folks.

    Ophelia, it still seems to me that your dismissal of Weiner is a bit too easy. I don’t think he is claiming “We (the moderate “nones”) are barred from publishing and censored” (which would be indeed ridiculous, given his publication). I interpret him as saying rather “We (the moderate “nones”) haven’t been able to influence sufficiently the public debate: the general tone of this debate has been established in opposition to what we are saying, with our voice being largely ineffective”. I think that’s his thought. He develops it later in the following passage:

    We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

    I wouldn’t be ready to dismiss lightly such a diagnosis solely on the basis of the fact that Weiner published his piece on the NY Times op-ed page. It’s just too easy. (In fact I saw various “moderate” pieces of that sort published by major newspapers also in my own country … pieces commented on by the people spitting venom, buried under these comments, made looking weak and ineffective, unable to change the prevailing, aggressive tone of the discussion.) What the guy is saying is basically “Hey, look, nobody listens to us!”. And you know, you can be published in a major newspaper and remain ineffective; it really happens sometimes.

    Is his diagnosis true? Do you think that the “moderate nones” have indeed been so ineffective in the US as he seems to imply? And there is also another question, the one concerning his proposed solution. Observe that his remedy is not “more press coverage for us!”; it’s rather “let’s invent new ways of being religious!”. Of course I’m pretty sure that you don’t like it :-); what I’m curious about is whether you think that such a strategy can be successful in contemporary America. (Or if you prefer a different phrasing, more to your liking: how dangerous is he in your opinion?)

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Ariel, I don’t really care what you interpret Weiner as saying, I care what he did say. It’s lazy mainstreamy rhetoric, all too typical of the mainstreamy rhetoric that works to other atheists. It’s an unsubtle reminder to conform.

  17. 17
    julian

    What the guy is saying is basically “Hey, look, nobody listens to us!”.

    Not going to grant the point but listen to what, exactly? He hasn’t proposed anything.

    Like Ms. Benson points out, it’s all empty rhetoric.

    He wants to ‘invent new ways of worship.’ That’s gibberish. Does he mean he wants to form new traditions, new rituals, a new priesthood (oh boy, I can think of a few atheists who’d be right up his ally) new congregations or what?

    Certainly Mr. Weiner can’t possibly mean he wants to approach God a new way, can he? He doesn’t care if ‘God’ exists so there’s half billion doors closed. He doesn’t want God as the supreme arbiter of what’s right or wrong so there’s another billion or so. He isn’t interested in knowing if such a being is possible so yeah, running out of doors here.

    Does he just want a ‘God’ to rally around, project hopes and expectations onto, to unify, to what?

  18. 18
    Sastra

    Ariel #7 wrote:

    “(1)I think what Eric means is that the discussion about the existence of God has unfairly been taken over by people who actually care about whether God exists or not: they’re turning it into a debate.”
    From my perspective (1) doesn’t seem adequate. What I see in my own country corresponds to a substantial degree to what Weiner is saying. The anger in the public debate is largely due to political issues, and not due to “caring about whether God exists”. Is it really that different in America?

    Perhaps I would have been clearer if I’d said that I think what Eric means is that he thinks the discussions about God focus too much on who’s right about God — does it exist, does it not exist, what does it want, what does it not want, etc. Instead, there shouldn’t be any such public debates about God at all: such debates focus on right and wrong at the expense of diversity and respect. Discourse about God should be all about sharing views and accepting the views of others — rather like discussing tastes and traditions in literature, I assume.

    When God enters politics you’ve automatically got a group which cares about what God wants and thinks “their truth” applies to everyone. Weiner apparently thinks the remedy for this is to shift the focus away from thinking about God as something that exists regardless of what people believe and just care very much about God as you see it personally. Find YOUR God and let others find theirs.

    I do not think that is possible … or even particularly desirable. It seeks to elevate and trivialize at the same time.

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