“Where there is the tree of knowledge, there is always Paradise”: so say the most ancient and the most modern serpents.”
“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorisms 152 and 156.
I find it fascinating that there is such a publicly hostile relationship between scientific atheism and vocal proponents of popular religion (primarily Christian religion). The commonality between both groups’ arguments is what fascinates me. At their core, both groups want to know what the Truth is about the world. Both believe that “the Truth is out there” in a Realist sense, and we have to somehow uncover it. Their disagreements seem to stem from differing interpretations of what that truth is and how we can know it: atheists found their epistemology on scientific ontology, and the religious group founds theirs on their particular religious ontology. Religious proponents generally believe that knowledge can come through some empirical experience of faith in addition to using “man-made” epistemic processes such as those developed in the sciences, while scientific atheists deny that method of knowing and only allow the various empirical and a priori scientific methods developed in the various sciences. Whether faith, or mystical revelation, is a valid way of gaining knowledge seems to be the root of the disagreement between these groups, since mystical revelation is what founds the difference in epistemology and ontology between religious and atheist groups. Because these ontological and epistemological interpretations of the world are contradictory in many ways, conflict arises.
I think there are problems and benefits with the epistemological and ontological models used by both groups in this disagreement, and I hope to discuss that in future posts. In this post, I want to explore the “hidden” values offered by religion, those values that have nothing to do with what one’s spiritual, ontological, eschatological, or other religious tenets are.
There are some beneficial social practices that arise from group religious practice that are hard to replicate outside of a religious group. The shared experience that religious practice offers to people, regardless of creed, creates a tendency — even a necessity — for those people to help each other in many ways: financially, emotionally, socially, etc. People who go to the same church, synagogue, or temple cook for each other, entertain each other, and help care for each others children, among other shared experiences. Without this shared religious experience, atheists need to replicate this social support group through other means, which can be difficult because atheists don’t have the inherent shared religious experience to draw on, although it can certainly be done.
However, it seems to me that the Materialist, non-spiritual worldview that attends an scientific atheist’s epistemology lends itself more to an individual relationship with others, rather than a cooperative relationship with others. In other words, it seems to me that an atheist is more likely to purchase social services rather than rely on their social support group to provide those services, and there is generally an increase in businesses that provide social services in countries with declining religious attendance. Child care, elder care, many types of insurance, and meal delivery are some examples of this change. I want to emphasize that both systems can be useful and successful for the people who use them: purchasing the services you need is not worse or better than having your church congregation provide those to you. However, purchasing services is generally more expensive than getting those services from a social support group, and that is a difference I find interesting.
What I’d like to see is a collaboration between religious groups and atheists to learn how to build social support groups that can help people, rather than debating about epistemological and ontological differences. I think the latter is devisive and trite. The former can actually help people who need it, while saving people money and introducing us to people in our communities, and I think that is a social benefit we can all agree on.
If shared religious experience is the foundation of a congregation’s social support group, what shared experience can atheists draw upon to create similar social support groups?