Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Atheist Chaplain?

I'm not sure exactly who thought an atheist chaplain at Stanford would be a good idea, but it seems destined for failure.  Atheism is just too closely correlated with hedonism and not giving a rip about other people if one can't get anything out of it for something like this to work.

""A lot of people go back to religious organizations when they start having children," whether or not they believe in God, because religion offers community, Figdor said. "What I really want to do is create a vibrant, humanist community here in Silicon Valley, where people can find babysitters for their kids and young people can meet each other."

The problem is, you can't create a vibrant atheist community around babysitting groups.  Vibrant communities form when people have a common purpose and atheism itself is a really crappy motivator.  Any "religion" that teaches it's adherents that life is ultimately meaningless and there is no lasting purpose to existence is going to have trouble motivating people to do anything that requires sacrifice.  The article's explanation of why students themselves like having an atheist chaplain says it all.
"Armand Rundquist... president of AHA! - the campus group of atheists, humanists and agnostics - said many atheists aren't interested in having a chaplain.

Then they discovered additional benefits to Figdor's talents.

"He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco," said Rundquist, adding that "it's been really great" to have Figdor as part of what he called a new movement at Stanford."

Discounted entertainment!  Now that may be a reason to meet when you're a college student at one of our hedonistic universities, but it's destined for irrelevancy when one tries to apply it to the broader culture.  Learning that life is has no ultimate purpose or meaning is thin gruel after experiencing one of life's many setbacks.  Religion (especially historical Christianity), offers community that is there for you from cradle to grave.  It requires great sacrifice, but offers benefits for members and society at large that no atheist group can dream of matching.  Have you ever heard of a soup kitchen run by a voluntary community of dedicated atheists?  Do you have a family member with a disability or mental illness?  Good luck getting help from your local atheist community.

Speaking from my own personal experience, my wife's best friend from high school went out to their gradeschool playground and blew her brains out last summer.  It was a tragedy that hit my wife hard and left her unable to function for months.  It was clear within a couple weeks that homeschooling which had been tenuous before was no longer a possibility.  With just two weeks to go before school started, I had to find a place for my kids to attend.  The public schools in my state are just awful and sending them there was tantamount to handing them over to atheists who didn't give a rat's patootie about their spiritual life and would at best be educating them to mediocrity.  On the other hand the last couple years have seen my family experience some financial setbacks that made sending them to our parish school impossible until some people at our church stepped forward and quietly paid half the cost for my kids to attend.  I don't know these benefactors well.  I've never had them over for a meal and have only spoken to them before or after mass, but they cared enough about my family to fork over thousands dollars so that my kids could get a top notch education this year (and for as long as they are able and we need it).  Our parish school depends on many donors like this, since tuition only covers half the cost of operation for our 3 year old parish school that is operating on a shoestring budget.  The principal and teachers have all taken massive cuts in pay compared to what they could make elsewhere in order to create a rigorous academic and thoroughly Catholic educational environment.  It is this sort of sacrifice that is common among Christian communities, but is almost unheard of in atheist ones.  When life throws people curveballs, atheist communities just aren't there for each other.  For all the problems in our Christian communities, we are there for each other.  Is it any wonder that of all the religious groups in America, atheists have the lowest retention rate: just 30% of children raised by atheist parents remain atheist.  By leveraging control of our elite cultural institutions atheists have been successful in converting many Americans to their religion of meaninglessness, but they have failed where it matters most for long term viability: their own children.  Add that to the fact that committed atheists have very few children, and maintaining a stranglehold on our educational establishments and elite cultural institutions is the only way atheists have of reproducing ideologically.

As an aside, non-denominational Christians don't do much better in retaining their children: they are a full 24% below Catholics (hardly a healthy group to compare oneself with).  That rather surprised me, to be honest.  I can explain some of the Protestant non-retension to simple church hopping, but that has always struck me as more of a one-way street toward less denominationalism.  Are we seeing the children of non-denominational Protestants stick with a denomination or are they abandoning the faith altogether?  Does Pew survey adequately address these questions for Protestants?  These sorts of questions are always muddier and more difficult to answer for Protestants than for atheists, Hindus, Catholics and Mormons due to the clarity of their beliefs and religious identities.


Kevin said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your wife's best friend and the trauma her family and yours must be going through. My prayers are with you all. I'm glad to hear your church came to your aid!

Ah, Nanette Asimov is the author. Whaddyaknow?

Asimov wrote: """In the suburbs north of Manhattan, Figdor's parents sent him to Sunday school- not for religion, but to gain a moral center, he said. Today, Figdor says that belief in a supreme being isn't a prerequisite to being a moral person."""

It's fascinating to me that atheists take Christian morals and subtract the ones about God, and call the result the "moral center" and only the subtractend "religion". Alas, I fear they are winning this war of terminology in popular culture.

Atheism itself says very little and its cohesiveness seems to most often be based on counterpoint, negation, and even derision, so I wonder what Figdor makes of abortion, marriage, and other issues. Apparently, he already counsels people about all matters of life.

Asimov wrote: """"The question is, how do you define a religion?" Schwab asked. "This country gives advantages to groups that define themselves as a religion."

A priest's salary is subsidized by the government because the Catholic Church pays no taxes, he said, but the humanists who now pay Figdor's salary get no such benefit.

Religion is not necessary for tax exemption, is it? Is this gripe a strawman?

Perhaps one day they'll codify the morals of humanism and devoutly adhere to them, and then they'll have a religion. What a pickle that will be.

I'm not sure what to make of the retention stats. The protestants may hop, as you mention. And the top of the chart not only seems to correspond to groups that stress cohesion but also those with a lot of cultural traditions, which blurs the line between faith and practice. e.g. I know "practicing" Jews who are atheists. In fact, maybe my sample is distorted, but it almost seems like American Jews tend toward that secular state.

Douglas said...

"It's fascinating to me that atheists take Christian morals and subtract the ones about God, and call the result the "moral center" and only the subtractend "religion"."

Excellent points in general. I too wonder about the retention stats, especially when mainline churches boast higher retention rates than non-denominational churches. That doesn't jive with my impression of mainline Protestants, but perhaps it is because they are already so elderly that the remaining young tend to stay? I really don't know how to interpret the results for Protestants.

Regarding Jews, I think your locale colors your views. I've never spent even a day in NY or DC, but I've met several observant Jews from there through work. I get the feeling that there are much more vibrant Jewish communities on the East Coast. Also, Judaism seems more of an ethnic identity than Hinduism or Islam, though the family/cultural pressures to remain Hindu or Muslim may be as great.

I do think you have a point about cultural traditions, and can definitely see the bad points about it. It used to be all I saw about it, but talking to the confirmation coordinator at my parish has also led me to see one of the brighter points about those traditions. My parish is full of faithful Catholics who endeavor to communicate and live their faith. It isn't insignificant that parents in the community consider it their duty to send their kids to learn about Catholicism for a year for cultural reasons. There is a significant percentage of those kids who actually start to take their faith seriously despite their parents' lack of faith. In that sense, I guess it can cut both ways. Cultural Catholics dilute and distort Catholicism both in the Church and the wider culture, but they also make their kids look into the faith for a year at a time when kids are often asking important questions about what life is all about. It seems rather goofy and weird to me, coming from a committed non-denominational background, to see people who don't believe something make their kids look into it for a year or two in high school.