Reflections on a Basilica Part 2: In Defense of a Humanist Cathedral

Posted on October 27, 2011


I promise that I’ll be done bragging about my trip to Belgium after this. First, however, I need to share one more thought I had on Sint Pieters Basilica in Ghent. Last time around, I explained why non-theists should not want to deprive the religious of the emotional impact of such spaces. Now, however, I’m going to consider what the cathedral and others like it mean within humanist communities.

I mentioned before that by renouncing my religion, I made the decision to abandon its more positive aspects-namely the sense of belonging, reverence and moral education that a faith community brings. The last off those is not such a big deal; The humanist community is already doing a pretty good job of crafting their own set of unique ethical convictions based on the existing body of work from secular moral philosophers. What is missing, however, are the first two. There is nowhere within humanism that I can go to feel the incredible sense of reverence that a believer feels in Sint Pieters, and nowhere that I can go that has the same sense of community support as would undoubtedly be found within its congregation. There is absolutely room within the metaphysical space of humanism for such reverence and community, so what gives? In this post, I am going to argue for the eventual establishment of humanist chapels and chaplains.

In making this argument, I find myself up against PZ Meyers. I’m a bit tired of being up against PZ Meyers because, despite his unwarranted hostility towards the faithful, he is an intelligent and eloquent man who clearly has good intentions. Unfortunately, he appears to be deeply uncomfortable with anything that even superficially resembles religious practice. Here are his thoughts on the matter:

“My objection is simple. No priests. I don’t care what label you call them, creating a hierarchy of privilege is not acceptable to me. As I’ve also said, though, the Epstein approach will definitely appeal to people who are looking for a church substitute — you just won’t find me among them. I don’t want another church, I want them all gone.

I’m living in a small town with 15 petty little sects, each with their building, from humble to historically impressive, and I can encourage nothing that might add yet another sinkhole to the mess we’ve already got. In my perfect atheist future, each of them would shut down, one after the other, and be replaced by secular institutions that actually contributed to the community economically and socially. Replacing them with little Epsteins leading their flock through ceremonies and doing such productive work as lighting candles and playing group therapist and singing godless hymns…<shudder>…no, I wouldn’t be going. I’d be saying nothing has changed but the names.

I will be disappointed that humanity just can’t seem to break free of bad ideas.”

Meyers has made a bit of a logical jump here. He associates all aspects religion with the harm it has caused in the world, and therefore assumes that any preservation of any religious practices, even after jettisoning the metaphysical assertions contained therein, must contain those same harms. There is no good reason to think this. Every single tradition that could be called spiritual has both celebrants and special spaces. Rather than being a result of supernaturalism-atheistic sects of Buddhism still have temples-it appears to be something that has had significant cross-cultural appeal for the whole of written history. Meyers is arrogant to suggest that a changed metaphysics will somehow enlighten nonbelievers beyond the desire for such things.

In another post, Meyers points out that humanist organizations already exist, and function just fine without the need for priests, ceremonies or structures. That is true, but these informal groups have their limits. I can go hang out with the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society on one of their pub nights, and while there I can enjoy a pint of beer, have an interesting lecture, make a few friends and perhaps even be involved in some kind of charity. I cannot, however, expect such a structure to offer me any consolation in the event of a personal loss, or a sudden onset of the existential angst to which all humanists (and perhaps all people) are occasionally prone. I may make friends in such a setting who can offer such support, but that falls short of what religious structures offer. A Catholic can have a personal crisis anywhere in the world, and take comfort in the fact that they need only go to the nearest church to find a sympathetic ear which shares their deepest convictions. While I don’t have any interest in the elaborate organization and financing of the Catholic church, I still think that this kind of global solidarity located in a set of defined physical spaces can be useful and desirable. There is no reason to give a hypothetical humanist priest the authority that Meyers fears so much, but there is a reason to cultivate a small number of people with the specialist skills to tend to the spiritual fulfillment of those who wish to take spiritual fulfillment in a godless universe. Psychologists are useful, but for the faithful they fulfill a very different roll to the priests. Guidance and comfort are very different tasks from diagnosis and treatment.

Meyers and those who agree with him on this matter have nothing to be afraid of. The nice thing about humanism is that without moral dogma, there is no basis for any kind of expectation that nonbelievers of any label attend any of the institutions I am describing. Those who object to humanist chapels are perfectly free to simply stay home or limit themselves to humanist pub socials, and I will think no less of them for it. But for my part, I want humanist celebrations of things like the amazing vast universe we live in, or our fantastic and improbable evolution within it. I want the comfort of rituals, however simple they may be, that affirm these things. I want a place to bond with people who share my worldview, where we can celebrate major life milestones, ponder ethical dilemmas and do charitable work together. I believe that there are other nonbelievers out there who want these things, and I see no reason, beyond Meyers’ absurd associative fallacy, why we can’t have them.

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