I really don’t see what PZ Myers is so upset about now.
He titles his latest post “Atheist church? NO THANK YOU.” and decries the existence of humanist chaplains. He admits life ceremonies are worthy, but a structured weekly meeting is “a cheat and a waste.”
What set him off this time was a Boston Globe article that hints at Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein’s latest Humanist Community Project, where he aims to duplicate the success of his chaplaincy across the world.
From my reading of the article, I see no mention of Epstein saying atheists need church, ritual, or rigid structure. Further, I don’t see him demanding that we all go and absolve ourselves of critical thinking.
In fact, the brief description provided gives quite the opposite view. At a recent meeting they had Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers give a presentation (not a sermon).
If this had been a church, Torpy might have raised his voice in righteous indignation, pounding the pulpit. Instead, he asked for questions. Hands shot up.
This is how we’ve run our weekly BC Humanists meetings for years. Every Sunday we either have a speaker or watch a short video (15-40 minutes) and then we discuss and debate the merits of it.
There’s no preaching, no forced ritual, and lots of dissent.
I see far more advantages to this community-building than hypothetical issues. Through the numbers of a community, we can begin to build infrastructure that can allow us to make a real change for the better in the world.
The Harvard Humanists engage in many outreach activities, invite impressive speakers (Stephen Fry, Seth MacFarlane, etc.), and are out there proving humanists are good without god.
I can also understand PZ Myers’ distaste for humanist chaplains. No two humanists really have the same philosophy, so giving authority to any one of us seems counterproductive. But there’s a couple of ways around this objection, and a few arguments for it.
First, we can copy the Unitarian Universalist model and have our congregations communities directly elect our representatives. This gives some legitimacy to the position, allowing her or him to claim to speak for at least a segment of the humanist community. The disadvantage here is the same as with most smaller organizations where elections are generally acclamations of whoever is willing to do the work. Sometimes you also end up with less qualified or incompetent people being elected, but there are still ways around this (e.g. elect a board who hires/appoints a qualified representative).
Second, those best suited for humanist chaplaincies (or whatever we’re going to call our community leaders – note that they already exist as organizers for local groups, as CFI Directors or Atheist group presidents) will generally recognize the diversity of views within our ranks. If they want to be somewhat successful they will use that diversity as an advantage rather than trying to censor dissenting views.
Finally, having some kind of leader (again, call it Director, Organizer, or President if you hate the word chaplain – that’s just a convenient way to get university recognition) provides continuity and strength to a group. Even loosely organized Skeptics in the Pub and SkeptiCamp events need one or a few people to step up and find venues, topics, and create a bit of advertising (Facebook, MeetUp events, etc.). Without these leaders, PZ Myers wouldn’t have venues to speak at (just his blog), and we wouldn’t have campaigns to end prayer in school, or erect atheist billboards.
What’s a bit of final irony is that PZ Myers is quoted in the article almost contradicting his own subsequent blog post.
There are doubts among atheists, too.
“I’m kind of ‘meh’ on the whole idea – I’d rather see us break away from the old reliance on empty ritual and move on to more useful ways to spend our time,’’ said P. Z. Myers, a prominent atheist writer and biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
On the other hand, he added, “Some people seem to want [groups like Epstein’s], and I’m not going to stand in their way.’’
While he’s not technically impeding Epstein’s work, shitting all over the idea on his blog doesn’t help. If he really didn’t care, he’d just let it go. But perhaps the Globe mischaracterized his opposition, it wouldn’t be the first time the media quoted selectively.
Perhaps I’m missing something, but Myers’ entire objection seems to be semantics. He despises the idea that atheists could go to church to hear a chaplain give a sermon, but has no trouble giving a lecture to the same atheists at a conference. While semantics can be important, in this place they simply get in the way. No one is calling it atheist church (except PZ) and there is nothing compulsory.
In the end I think Epstein’s project has a lot of promise. I’m looking forward to see it move forward and I hope I can use some of his ideas to strengthen the Humanist community in Vancouver, BC, and Canada.