Posts on atheism periodically appear as the most e-mailed at PT Blogs, especially Nigel Barber's "Why Atheism Will Replace Religion," which relies on high rates of "nonbelievers" in many/most European democracies (around half) as an indicator that religion is disappearing. I don't believe Barber is right here in the United States. Another popular post, by David Niose, points out that people (especially Americans) fear prejudice against atheists and strive to avoid the label. I am on record as a naysayer against religion, and about how spirituality is just another form of American bullshit, even as I agree that finding purpose in life is the antidote to addiction. But don't call me spiritual!
Well, I just attended a seminar at The New School which was one long diatribe against atheists, from an angry tirade against angry atheists (the non-existence of which is a topic for another popular PT blog), to the claim that there are no atheists by a distinguished Columbia sociologist (Courtney Bender described the small, but growing, percentage of nonbelievers in the United States as actually comprising theists who only reject specific religious boundaries), to the claim by former PT editor Matthew Hutson that there can be no such thing as an atheist (since people are wired to have spiritual beliefs). Hutson said that throughout Western nations, and not just the United States, fewer than 10 percent of people are atheists, directly contradicting Barber's claims.*
But the strangest presentation was by the celebrity member of the panel, Sally Quinn. Quinn writes a religion blog for the Washington Post, to whose former star editor, Ben Bradlee, she is married. She is also a fame monger, the "reigning queen of Washington dinner party culture." Quinn has invited an awful lot of negative attention to herself as being extremely out of touch, for example by claiming the "End of Power" due to the disappearance of Washington soirees of the kind she is famous for hosting. "The bipartisanship cargo cult in Washington is a rather sad tribe of people that laments the decline of bipartisanship, fails to grasp the larger historic forces that made bipartisanship appear and then disappear, and concludes that the problem is the lack of dinner parties."
Quinn began her talk by pointing out all the amulets she was wearing (to ward off evil spirits?). Like Hutson, Quinn was a religious Christian child who then descended into atheism, from which she and Hutson have both now recovered. But Quinn claimed that she was brought up by spiritualists, that she herself is psychic, and that she had successfully hexed many people -- but ceased when a famous person (Quinn only knows famous people) pointed out that bad karma she was having (wonder what that was?) was due to her hexes being deflected back on her. Quinn slandered various (famous) atheists by claiming that all were superstitious -- that Christopher Hitchens picked up lucky pennies, and that Richard Dawkins refused to step on cracks so as not to break his mother's back! Indeed, throughout the evening, speakers like Hutson indicated that people's superstitions proved that they were spiritual cum religious. Quinn further described how she spends much of her time in a garden labyrinth in one of her homes (in case you don't know, labyrinths are highly spiritual).
Quinn became an atheist when as a girl she saw pictures of concentration camp survivors, and she thought "how could there be a God who let people suffer like this?" Many people, of course, have had such thoughts, but -- typically -- Quinn had them because her father liberated a German concentration camp -- and took photos. Perhaps the strangest story Quinn told was of interviewing the wife of celebrity (who else) minister Rick Warren, who began crying when Quinn asked her about the misery around the globe, and who revealed that sometimes she thinks God is playing a cosmic joke on all of us. I thought, "that's what religion's best representatives have to offer?"
The conference, "I'm Not Religious, I'm Spiritual," was organized by New York Salon -- a group purporting to present an open forum for ideas (a claim that this workshop certainly dispelled) -- in conjunction with The New School, as part of the International Satellite Festival addressing "What Does It Mean to Be Human?" It was well-attended, including an officer of The New School, who offered a salute to the conference. The audience listened to the member of the panel who was co-director of New York Salon angrily vilify atheists in one long diatribe that in many ways set the tone of the evening. I thought, "If he spoke about a religious group that way, the New School representative would either interrupt him or leave."
I found the whole evening both absurd and stunning, particularly since it was presented under the official imprimatur of such an historically and notoriously free-thinking institution as The New School. The only redemption was the one questioner at the end of my row who addressed Ms. Quinn: "I see by the number of talismans (i.e., ornaments to protect against evil) you wear that you don't trust any one of them to succeed at protecting you," and "Can you tell us the most famous person you hit with a spell?" Thankfully, many in the audience laughed at this subtle putdown. Typically, fakir Quinn responded that she would tell the man privately who her most famous hit victim was.
But she's no damned atheist! She believes in something -- even if it's hedges, cheap trinkets, and voodoo. Do you notice all of these things are completely self-referential? What was most absent in The New School discussion was the association of spirituality and religion with meaning in life and having an impact on the world.
P.S. (October 10): What's the opposite of prescient? The New School-New York Salon presentation was held a few days prior to the release by Pew of its survey of America's devoutness, conducted every five years. And religion continues its precipitous decline, with people leaving traditional (in the U.S. case, Protestant) sects at a remarkable rate:
When they leave, instead of switching churches, they join the growing ranks who do not identify with any religion. Nearly one in five Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
This is a significant jump from only five years ago, when adults who claimed “no religion” made up about 15 percent of the population. It is a seismic shift from 40 years ago, when about 7 percent of American adults said they had no religious affiliation.
It is hard to believe that this development would not dominate the discussion if the same workshop were held today. It shocks me, for one.
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.
P.S.S. (October 22, 2012): Eat this, atheists. PT Blogger Chris Mooney, who believes in science (he wrote The Republican War on Science), says "New research suggests that we may indeed be built for belief."
* While Hutson claimed European atheism rates are in the "single digits," Barber, channeling (Zuckerman, 2007), writes: "Belief in God declines in more developed countries and is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%)" while Ian (who does not live in a sophisticated, urban area -- e.g., London) claims there are "definitely more than 10% atheists in the UK, I find it hard to find a Christian," and "I've only ever been questioned about my atheism on one occasion and never has anybody found atheism offensive around me."