Sunday, September 08, 2013

Lowder's Is "Freethinker" Synonymous with Nontheist?

A redated post.

5 comments:

Edward T. Babinski said...

Freethinker/Nontheist? Why not ask whether a person has more questions than answers, or vice versa, when it comes to metaphysics?

Also see this neat recent article:

"Scandinavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists"

New York Times By PETER STEINFELS
Published: February 27, 2009

Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.

Well documented though they may be, these two sets of facts run up against the assumption of many Americans that a society where religion is minimal would be, in Mr. Zuckerman’s words, “rampant with immorality, full of evil and teeming with depravity.”

Which is why he insists at some length that what he and his wife and children experienced was quite the opposite: “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”

Mr. Zuckerman, a sociologist who teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., has reported his findings on religion in Denmark and Sweden in “Society Without God” (New York University Press, 2008). Much that he found will surprise many people, as it did him.

The many nonbelievers he interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.”

Were they reticent because they considered religion, as Scandinavians generally do, a private, personal matter? Is there, perhaps, as one Lutheran bishop in Denmark has argued, a deep religiosity to be discovered if only one scratches this taciturn surface?

“I spent a year scratching,” Mr. Zuckerman writes. “I scratched and I scratched and I scratched.”

And he concluded that “religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it.

Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”

Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.

Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”

One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.

Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.

A long list of thinkers, both believers and nonbelievers, have posited something like an innate religious instinct. Confronted by the mystery of death or the puzzle of life’s ultimate meaning, humans are said to be hard-wired to turn to religion or something like it. Based on his experience in Scandinavia, Mr. Zuckerman disagrees.

“It is possible for a society to exist in which most people don’t really fear death all that much,” he concluded, “and simultaneously don’t give a great deal of thought to the meaning of life.”

Are these Scandinavians out to prove that Socrates was wrong and the unexamined life is definitely worth living? Mr. Zuckerman emphasizes that his interviewees were in no way despairing nihilists but “for the most part, a happy, satisfied lot” who “generally live productive, creative, contented lives.”

AndrĂ© Comte-Sponville, the French philosopher whose “Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” (Viking, 2007) was discussed here two weeks ago, maintains that individuals can live well without religion but that society, or even humanity as a whole, needs a set of bonds that might be considered “sacred,” at least in the sense of something “that would justify, if necessary, the sacrifice of our lives.”

A fidelity to inherited values, a “nonreligiousness” that is “more than just an empty shell or an elegant form of amnesia,” is Mr. Comte-Sponvilles’s atheist answer to his own question, “What remains of the Christian West when it ceases to be Christian?”

He might find reassurance in Scandinavia and in Mr. Zuckerman’s description of the “cultural religion” that he discovered there. The interviewees affirmed a Christianity that seems to have everything to do with “holidays, songs, stories and food” but little to do with God or Creed, everything to do with rituals marking important passages in life but little to do with the religious meaning of those rituals.

Others may be puzzled or even repelled by the apparent dissonance, but Mr. Zuckerman, comparing it to the experience of many Jews in the United States and Israel, strives to make sense of it, and he suggests that it deserves much more study all around the world.

This cultural religion may partly explain aspects of Denmark and Sweden that he admires.

At one point, he queries Jens, a 68-year-old nonbeliever, about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture. Jens replies: “We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”

Anonymous said...

It just shows that even atheists and agnostics can benefit greatly from Christian teaching. Thanks for highlighting that, Ed.

The importance of Christianity in secular society and culture is particularly highlighted there, especially since the 2005 Eurobarometer poll returned results that 32% of the norwegians believed in God, 47% in some kind of spirit or life force, 4% were unsure, and 17% no no kind of spirit or life force.

As to the rest, all Zuckerman has is carefully selected anecdotes and spin. Still, he's done quite a service here.

unkle e said...

I have often found Lowder thoughtful, open-minded and honest, and this article was no exception. I would certainly be one christian who is willing to "admit there are honest, intelligent atheists who are familiar with the facts and yet are convinced there is no God" and that he may be one.

But I wonder whether in this paper he has considered the gap between the ideal and reality. He seems to infer that many or most atheists are indeed freethinkers. But my experience suggests that, whatever their theoretical commitment, in practice it doesn't look like they are. Maybe I just meet the more militant ones, but they often sound quite emotional and somewhat less than open-minded - just as, no doubt I do. I think it's human nature.

J.L. Hinman said...

Christians invented "free thinking." I did my dissertation on British thought of the seventeenth century.

Ron said...

Wow, that's a very chilling article. It makes me wonder if this economic crisis is really a terrible thing after all. I mean the silver lining may be that it gets people to existentially grapple with the meaning of life, God and the claims of Christ. Something is dreadfully wrong when people live their whole lives in material comfort and bliss just chugging along without considering the deeper things. Better to be poor and have some spiritual depth than rich and a ghost.