This is the sixth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"
You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post
And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.
Our forth presenter at Beyond Belief3, Güven Güzeldere, came to discuss what he saw was two distinct and related problems regarding human flourishing. Specifically, ((Name)) was concerned with atheistic flourishing – flourishing in the context of beliefs that there is no disembodied cognition, and no disembodied after-life.
Güzeldere reports that the issue that caused his students the most anxiety was the issue of "disembodied vs. embodied cognition" – the idea that it is not possible to have thought without a functioning brain. It was the idea that when the brain ceases to function, all thought ends.
Eighty percent of his students, he reported, shared a belief that some sort of disembodied cognition (and disembodied after-life) was possible, and were quite disturbed about the possibility that this might not be true.
In dealing with this fact, Güzeldere suggested that there were two distinct but related projects. One project, currently being executed by people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, targeted the epistemological foundations for this belief in disembodied cognition.
The second project concerned social institutions that, for the most part, were built around and founded upon beliefs in the possibility of disembodied cognition. This is a criticism of atheists and atheism that we have heard before – that it offers no sense of community with all of the benefits that communities bring with them.
One of the claims that Güzeldere said was often made, but which he argued against, was the claim that attacks on religion do a poor job of addressing the second concern – the sense of an atheist community (or, what would make more sense, a collection of atheist communities). While these authors argue that the community that the theists have constructed is built on a fiction, the authors do nothing to build an alternative community based on science.
Güven Güzeldere says that this criticism is unfair. He says that the elements of a community are grounded in and dependent on the underlying epistemological claims. An atheist community will be built on a collection of shared assumptions, where spelling out those shared assumptions is a part of the process of building a community.
For the most part, Güzeldere suggests that he is interested in the project of building a community of those who hold that there is no such thing as disembodied cognition. However, he does not offer any suggestions. In fact, his approach to the issue seems to be that of the impartial observer, standing outside of the community looking down upon it and studying how it works. He does not speak about it on the level of participation.
From the participation perspective, I would argue that we are in the process of forming one such a community – an online community. What we see online, with respect to blogs such as this and those who participate through comments and other actions (e.g., PZ Myers informal project of manipulating online polls) is a group of people who get together on a regular basis (more than once a week on Sunday morning, as it turns out), who share common values, who help each other when others are in need (e.g., Possum Mama).
One of the things that struck me while I attended the Beyond Belief conference, and listened to people talk when they were away of the microphone, is the substantial number of shared experiences. The participants had, to a large degree, read the same books, talked to the same people, attended the same conferences. They spoke a common language where they could use certain words with fluent ease that many people outside of their community would not understand.
This community had certain shared values. For example, with the conference taking place in early October, the one politician’s name that was most frequently used (within the presentations and outside of them) was that of Governor Palin. She was the token representative of that which was the opposite of the things that this community most valued.
These are two communities that already exist and that are in the process of being built. The idea that atheists do not have a community is simply mistaken.
I do hold that our communities are fragile. I attribute much of that to social factors. Specifically, I attribute it to the fact that so many Americans (in particular) carry the emotional baggage of learning as children that those who do not believe in God are inferior to those who do.
On this issue, I would like to direct your attention to the article Does Religion Make You Nice? Does atheism make you mean?. This article argues how atheists, where they are able to form communities, are generous and peaceful individuals. Whereas atheism, where it exists in a culture that denigrates and alienates atheists, tend to be less generous.
In short, one of the barriers to atheist flourishing, at least in America, is the problem of dealing with a culture in which they are taught, and learn at an emotional level beyond the reach of reason, their own inferiority to and alienation from what Sarah Palin called "real America".
Even though, as adults, the reasoning part of their brain denies the claim that atheists are bad, the emotional part of their brain programmed in childhood triggers a wave of social anxiety any time the atheist identifies himself as somebody who does not belief in God. There is still the learned emotional twinge that, "This means that I am bad. This means that I am unacceptable to others." This, un turn, causes atheists to shun communities that actually embrace that which the person is emotionally uncomfortable with.
On the positive side, there is a wide variety of atheists. There is a small number who are comfortable with their atheism – who reject the idea that atheists are bad not only on the intellectual level, but also on the emotional level. These people do not confront the psychological barriers of joining or forming an atheist community. They end up forming the cores of those communities, around which those with some measure of anxiety orbit at a distance proportionate to their felt anxiety over atheism.