Apparently, from all accounts, Eastern Germany is one of the most godless places on earth. In one survey not one person younger than 28 evinced belief in a god, and the percentage of those who self-described as atheist was 59%! This is discussed by Peter Thompson in the Guardian at Comment is Free, based on a study by Tom Smith at the University of Chicago (the link takes you to the study in pdf, but the tables referred to in the study are not included). Peter Thompson ends his article with the thought that, rather than the question being whether or not Europe should be considered a Christian entity, the question should instead be
whether it is folk atheism that represents the future of Europe.
What is interesting is that atheism itself seems to be one of the major impediments to the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whereas other Soviet Bloc states have largely reverted to their pre-Soviet religious identities, including Russia, in which the Russian Orthodox Church has shown, not only signs of revival, but also of renewed identification with the state, in Eastern Germany atheism put down deep roots. Indeed, atheism and German Democratic Republic nationalism were closely identified, and the Jugendweihe, or youth consecration ceremony, marked the transition from youth to the assumption of more adult responsibilities.
The intersting thing about the Jugendweihe, which was actually founded in 1852 by a Protestant Pastor in Nordhausen as an alternative celebration to the religious rite of Confirmation (Konfirmation) for non-religious families, is that, though it largely fell into disuse after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has been revived to fill a felt need. Many people who had no religious affiliation had begun to ask what they could offer their children to mark the transition from childhood to young adulthood, a celebration of their passing on to a new stage of life. However, though the Jugendweihe ceremony has been revived, it is no longer permitted to be celebrated in schools, nor do the kids get a holiday as is given to their religious age-mates when they are confirmed.
The reason I mention this is that, whether or not one is religious, it is perhaps still beneficial that important transitions in life be able to be celebrated. This is probably the area in which nonbelievers fail to make use of important discoveries of the ways in which world-views can be instilled in people, and perpetuated over time. One of the criticisms that the religious make of nonbelievers is that nonbelievers do not provide ways in which people can belong to something that is greater than themselves. Religions provide this opportunity, and have become expert at doing it. It is not unreasonable to say that religious loyalties are given to the wrong things, but it is unreasonable, I think, to suggest that the human dimension of what religions can accomplish in the way of providing the basis for communal celebrations, are simply part of the detritus of religion without which we would all be better off. This is a mistake.
Atheism+ is, at its most basic, an attempt wrap things together more formally, to create a movement that prioritises issues of equality and does so from an explicitly non-religious perspective.
Ron Lindsay suggests that this suggestion for the formation of a new movement in atheism will probably have less impact that it should, simply by the context in which the proposal was made, since Jen McCreight spoke, in her original post, of the famous elevatorgate “kerfuffle”, as well as remarking on some unfortunate remarks made by Paula Kirby about “feminazis”, as well as expressing other concerns. This is an unreasonable accusation to make, since, after all, it was those things, and many more, that led her to believe that something new is necessary, and that the new atheism movement seems to have lost its way in a lot of egregiously and overtly misogynistic posts, comments, and conference organisations.
The point I think — and this is why I raised the Jugendweihe — is that the new atheism seems to be in danger of becoming an organisation for men, a boys club, in short. Jen puts the point, uncompromisingly, like this:
I was exactly what a Boy’s Club wanted. I was a young, not-hideous woman who passionately supported their cause. I made them look diverse without them having to address their minority-repelling privilege. They liked that I joked about sex and boobs not because it was empowering for me, but because they saw it as a pass to oggle and objectify. But the Boy’s Club rescinds its invitation once they realize you’re a rabble-rousing feminist. I was welcome at TAM when I was talking about a boob joke, but now I’m persona non grata for caring about sexual harassment. I used to receive numerous comments about how hot and attractive I was, but when I politely asked for people to keep the discussion professional, the comments morphed into how I was an ugly cunt. I was once considered an up-and-coming student leader, but now I’m accused of destroying the movement.
It is not clear, both from reactions to her proposal, as well as discussions which I have followed over at Butterflies and Wheels, that the problem is appreciated. Indeed, there is some sign that some (mainly male) leaders of the movement wish the problem would just go away.
Others have suggested that McCreight should simply have used the term ‘humanism’ for the kind of socially and politically active atheism that she desiderates. But she responds that humanists are not all sceptics, nor are they necessarily progressive, for some humanists are in the habit of interpreting feminism, for example, as a roundabout way of speaking about women hating men. Another reason that she opposes humanism is because humanists copy religious institutions by providing chaplains.
That’s totally cool [she says of the latter development] if that’s what you want, but I personally don’t feel like it applies to me.
This brings me back, obviously, to my beginning, and to the kinds of social celebrations and public recognitions that can provide nonbelievers with a sense of belonging, as well as a community or communities with which to identify and carry out political and cultural activities.
Not having belonged to a humanist association, I can make no knowledgeable comment about the nature of humanism or the tendencies of humanists. Of course, there is no obvious reason that a chaplaincy scheme for nonbelievers should be avoided. After all, nonbelievers also face crises in personal life, and may need the kind of casual counselling which such a chaplaincy could provide (and that religious chaplains would only be too happy to continue doing). This is no doubt especially so for students in the upper classes (or forms) of secondary schools, as well as students in universities. Nor is there any reason why humanists should not provide a similar service to people who are in hospital. Some humanist groups provide officiants at weddings and funerals, so there is no practical reason not to widen and even in some cases to professionalise such functions, although that, of course, would require organisational structures and paid officials. I see no reason, however, to condemn such programmes, though chaplaincy can perhaps be carried too far in seeing humanist chaplaincies as but another form of “religious” chaplaincy. Since philosophical counselling is now quite well established, there is no reason why humanists could not adopt this as its preferred mode of counselling. This would at least make clear the differences of focus, and the difference of purpose of humanist chaplaincy, differences which were deliberately fudged by Greg Epstein at Harvard. Still, the growth of atheist associations on campuses will bring about a need for some kind of care of those who do not identify with religious belief.
It is interesting, and not unimportant, that the most godless place on earth should feel the need for celebrations to mark important life transitions, and organisations which provide for the fulfilment of this need. Is there any reason why nonbelievers should not gather together, not only in “atheists in the pub” occasional organisations, but in organisations which provide for the needs of families? And, while I am not making any practical proposals here, it seems very likely that only this kind of organisation can ensure that nonbelievers are represented effectively in public discussion, and in bringing about the kinds of society of which there seems to be a dearth. The “folk atheism” of which Peter Thompson speaks is perhaps the kind of atheism towards which we should be moving.