I agree with Susan Jacoby, atheism is a worldview like Christianity, and atheists should feel free to say so

16 Jan

In the NYT, Susan Jacoby argues that atheists need to stop cowering or hiding their atheism in periods of profound suffering (like Newtown).  Elsewhere, I would disagree with her that atheism, secular humanism, or “freethinking” (that word is misleading since no thinking is free of faith) can compete with Christianity when it comes to explaining, enduring, or coping with suffering.  But her basic point that atheism, though not a “religion” in the narrow sense, is like Christianity and other faiths is spot on, since it addresses questions that are metaphysical in nature (meaning, purpose, ethics, destiny, etc.).  I wonder if Susan Jacoby realizes what this assertion would mean for the inclusion of religion in the public square or university campuses?  If secular humanism addresses the same sorts of questions that Christianity does, then limiting the public square to only secular explanations of reality is essentially establishing religion, as the Court has acknowledged in several major establishment clause cases.  A clip:

Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.

We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.

Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.

In his speech at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, President Obama observed that “the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” He could easily have amended that to “the world’s religions and secular philosophies.” He could have said something like, “Whether you are religious or nonreligious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.”

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