Community in a Secular World
In a discussion on individualism the person being interviewed discussed why there aren’t atheist churches per se. He said:
It could be that the types of people who are more oriented towards more traditional religious structures are just more reliable people in a lot of ways. They just plug in more and they do what they’re told to do, they follow their moral duties, and they’re like, “This is what I’m supposed to do, everyone’s supposed to show up and bring food,” and all that. Whereas the people who are a little bit more fringe are less reliable. I don’t know. But there does seem to be something that it’s hard to… We haven’t really figured out, it seems, how to replace these ideas that are supernatural, these associations that have supernatural components, with purely secular versions of them, if that makes sense.
I find that a poor response, in fact, I think he’s missing the whole point. Atheists per se don’t have atheist churches or atheist communities because there is no unifying force within atheism. Atheism is not a belief, it is a lack of a belief.
Imagine trying to get together a community of people who don’t believe in Santa Claus. The lack of a belief is not a cohesion creating factor. Beliefs, whether right or wrong, can bring cohesion but the absence of them doesn’t. In fact, they can be very negative beliefs as well. Certainly anti-Semitism under Hitler brought about a unified community, but that wasn’t a good thing.
I’ve been to meetings of libertarian atheists and what allowed them to form a group wasn’t their lack of a belief in a deity but their mutual respect for individual liberty. They coalesced around their shared identity as libertarians not around the absence of a religious identity.
Second, this idea of cohesion among the religious is grossly overstated. Their sense of community is a very limited one. The evangelical DOES NOT feel a sense of identity with the Catholic, the Muslim, the Jew or the Mormon. They aren’t even that sure about other evangelicals.The Baptists will look down on the Pentecostals and both will look down on the Evangelical Lutherans. The free will Baptists aren’t fond of the Calvinist Baptists. The typical Baptist isn’t that found of the 7th Day Baptist, the fundamentalist Baptist isn’t that found of anyone.
There are plenty of jokes that go around targeting this lack of cohesion. There was one that two Jews means three opinions. Hanan Schlesinger put it this way: “We have all heard — and used — the expression ‘“’two Jews, three opinions.‘”’ And although we employ it jokingly, even mockingly, most of us believe that it contains a kernel of truth.”
There is the joke about two guys meeting and finding they have the same faith and they keep cutting it down to more and more specifics and are thrilled they both agree until the last, rather insignificant issue comes up and they disagree calling one another heretics. It goes like this:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Are you religious?”
He said: “Yes.”
I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.
The mere fact that Christianity only had one voice when it relied upon torture, genocide and suppression is a clear indication that the cohesion this speaker thinks exists is largely an illusion. The only reason the torture, genocide and suppression went away wasn’t because there was cohesive sense of identity regarding religion, but because Enlightenment cultural values came to dominate the wider society. They preached tolerance and, horrors, individualism—that each thinking mind should be free to think for itself. It preached rights resided in individuals and not in faiths. You didn’t have a right to espouse a view on religion because you belonged to the right sect, but because you were an individual with your own mind.
Tolerance is a cultural value and contrary to what many seem to think individualism isn’t devoid of cultural values—in fact widespread acceptance of specific values are the foundation of individualism. You must first respect the rights of individuals before you can be an individualist. If you want a prosperous society you have to have respect for property rights. If you want economic progress then respect for markets is required. Individualism thrives within a set of cultural norms and not all cultural values are equal.
There are communities of believers who are centered around white supremacism and hatred of individual rights. They speak of the rights of a race, not the rights of individuals. They damn Jews, blacks, gays, not because of any individual deed but because they belong to a class of people. These Nazis are collectivists, not individualists. And these beliefs are antithetical to a liberal, individualist socity.
That a society is individualism doesn’t rest on the assumption that cultural values are of no importance—nor does it assume that all values are equal. It still relies on a cultural view, a set of values widely accepted and they help create a cohesive society. In 2009 Jon Meacham pondered in Newsweek the question of the decline of religion and what it meant for American culture.
If we apply an Augustinian test of nationhood to ourselves, we find that liberty, not religion, is what holds us together. In “The City of God,” Augustine — converted sinner and bishop of Hippo — said that a nation should be defined as “a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love.” What we value most highly — what we collectively love most — is thus the central test of the social contract.
Judging from the broad shape of American life in the first decade of the 21st century, we value individual freedom and free (or largely free) enterprise, and tend to lean toward libertarianism on issues of personal morality. The foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like. But that is the power of the republican system engineered by James Madison at the end of the 18th century: that America would survive in direct relation to its ability to check extremism and preserve maximum personal liberty. Religious believers should welcome this; freedom for one sect means freedom for all sects.
Sadly, since Mr. Meacham wrote this our country has taken a dramatic turn away from the values of this nation. That we failed to live up to those values didn’t mean they weren’t important—they often served to convict this nation for its transgressions against those values. Many have left behind American individualism and embraced a collectivist hate agenda by a president who spites in the face of Lady Liberty and tramples the Constitution under foot. If we are to save this country we need to return to the values Mr. Meacham discussed. That means rejecting authoritarians whether from the Right as in Trump, or the extemist Left as in Sanders.
Values do matter, even in individualist oriented societies. In fact, I would argue that individualism exists because of those values. Specific cultural values form the foundation on which both economic prosperity, diversity, tolerance and individualism rest.