Should we have secular churches?

post by Desrtopa · 2011-01-19T22:02:58.267Z · score: 10 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 87 comments

In the comments of a recent thread, another poster pointed out that religious individuals tend to report higher levels of happiness than nonreligious individuals. I suggested that the social network of churches, rather than the direct effects of theistic belief, might be responsible for this difference, and after doing a bit of searching around to see if the available studies support such an explanation, found a study that indicates that this is indeed the case.

Religious churches may be far from optimal in the services they provide to communities, but they have a great positive impact on the lives of many individuals. And not just as friendly social gatherings and occasional providers of community service; I've known priests who were superb community organizers and motivational speakers, who played an important role for their congregations to which I know of no existing secular analogue.

It seems probable that a secular organization could effectively play the same role in a community, but would anyone be likely to take it seriously? Since people who're already religious may be inclined to reject the value of a secular authority filling the role of a church, and atheistic individuals may not be inclined to attend, either due to reversing the stupidity of religion, or due to asocial and anticooperative values, it's uncertain whether a secular organization that adequately filled the role of a church would get off the ground in the first place in the present social climate.

So, what are your feelings on the prospect of secular church analogues? Do you think that they're appropriate or practical? Do you expect them ever to become common in real life?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2011-01-20T11:52:49.374Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

A friend of mine who moved from the very religious community she was born in to a very non-religious community overseas says the BDSM community provides the same sort of social support network that church did when she lived in the US.

There's something delicious about that.

comment by taw · 2011-01-23T15:03:47.659Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I've never been too closely involved in the community but from my limited observation BSDM groups also have failures modes just as bad as religious communities.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2011-01-23T15:14:34.049Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are these the failure modes common to most social groups, or something special?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-23T15:12:43.306Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Certainly they seem to have failure modes (not personally involved in the community but have friends who are) but I''m curious what failure modes you think are just as bad as religion. I've never for example heard anyone from such a community advocate an anti-epistemology as a fundamental community norm.

comment by Pavitra · 2011-03-08T04:57:12.087Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

BDSM tends to attract a higher-than-usual proportion of openly misogynistic and otherwise abusive men.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-20T19:44:08.336Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

the BDSM community provides the same sort of social support network that church did

I'm going to quote that to my religious friends if a suitably related topic comes up. :P

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-01-20T21:55:50.364Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

There's something delicious about that.

Yes, but it's not the stuff the dominatrices make you eat.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T02:11:49.306Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I have a twofold response here.

  1. Atheists who are interested in gathering the social benefits of church attendance without checking their brains at the door might want to look at the Unitarian Universalist church, which has no dogma. I mean it. They have no dogma. In theory this means there's absolutely no inherent contradiction in the idea of an atheist Unitarian. You're a Unitarian if you sign the book saying you're a Unitarian: what you believe is entirely up to you. In practice, the degree to which an atheist would feel comfortable depends a lot on the local UU congregation. Some are essentially liberal Protestant churches with some handwaving of the thornier bits. Some actively welcome atheist members.

  2. I think the social aspect is critically important to an understanding of why people continue to seek out religion after the Enlightenment, but I don't think it tells the whole story. I think there's good evidence that spiritual experience--and here I am not talking about sitting on a pew on Sundays and mouthing hymns, but rather about the real deal, a mystic state of religious transport and ecstacy--boils down to chemicals in the brain. I believe this because there are drugs like ayahuasca that trigger these experiences very reliably. It looks to me that every human culture has its own way of reaching this brain-state: it very often centers on music and dance, but meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga-like practices, or an endorphin rush triggered by fasting and self-harm are all common as well.

Some brains reach this state more easily than others. Some brains absolutely crave it. Some are all but immune to it. This is why some people become shamans, or religious nuts, and some don't. Authentic ecstactic experience is (or was, until people like Alexander Shulgin came around) comparatively rare, but even when people had one such experience in a lifetime it was enough to change the course of civilizations.

I also strongly suspect that the state of "creative flow" reported by artists--the state where the artist feels that s/he is merely "taking dictation" from a higher power--is chemically similar to the state of religious ecstacy. There's too much crossover between the message that artists and mystics "bring back"--a general sense of oneness, higher purpose, the interconnectedness of all things, etc--for this not to be true. I also, based on my own experience, suspect that the state of flow experienced by programmers is not too far off. That state when you're holding all the connections in your mind, and you see the way forward, and you're like a god--yeah. That one. Except about a thousand times more significant.

Where I think the proselytizing atheists tend to go wrong is that they discount the power of that brain-state. I mean, part of it is that it's by definition charged with meaning. So naturally it's going to feel like the Most Important Thing Ever. You're flooded with a sense of immense meaning as part of the experience itself.

And I also think that the experience is desirable. Everyone should get to have it at least once. It clarified a lot of things for me in my early twenties. Religious practice gives people--oh, the lightest shade of what a true ecstactic moment has to offer, but for the kinds of brains that crave that state, religious practice is really important to their ongoing sense of well-being.

I think in a way the proselytizing atheists are being chemically...discriminatory? That's not exactly right, but they're failing to recognize that some brains crave an experience their own brains do not. They're trying to other-optimize without fully understanding all the benefits that religious practice provides to the people who are so emotionally attached to it.

comment by Jack · 2011-01-20T04:39:52.804Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I was partly raised Unitarian Universalist and I can assure you there is a dogma. It just isn't metaphysical.

Nice people though.

comment by Nisan · 2011-01-21T04:34:55.736Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm curious: What is the content of the dogma?

comment by Jack · 2011-01-21T18:08:51.942Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's basically standard left-leaning anti-subordination politics- think Alas, a Blog and that wing of the blogosphere. Very politically correct.

They have the best Sunday school sex ed course though.

comment by Barry_Cotter · 2011-01-21T09:28:47.546Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I have no personal acquaintance with Unitarianism, but these links may be interesting to you, and give at least one intelligent person's take on Unitarianism. The intelligence is liberally mixed with insanity, but these posts made my worldview more coherent.

Short History of Ultracalvinism

Some Objections to Ultracalvinism

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-20T02:35:07.603Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

One of my best friends is an atheist Unitarian Universalist, but the church he attended seemed to be more of a vaguely supernaturalist "unknowable mysteries" sort. Not explicitly theist, but also not the sort of place to properly celebrate the merely real.

For more information on the brain state stuff, you might want to check out Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquilli, and Vince Rause. It had a pretty big effect on my understanding of religion back when I read it.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T02:44:45.783Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For more information on the brain state stuff, you might want to check out Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquilli, and Vince Rause. It had a pretty big effect on my understanding of religion back when I read it.

Wow, that would be great. I've been fumbling towards this understanding entirely on my own, and I'm relieved to hear that other people have gotten there first. Thanks for the rec!

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-01-21T01:46:47.255Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The word you're looking for might be neurodiversity.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T02:02:43.463Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that's much better, thanks.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-20T04:23:35.251Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I understand what you're saying, but it's not going to stop me from being generally and vocally anti-religion.

I'm someone whose brain is not wired for spiritual experience; I've never had one nor even wanted to have one. Because of this, for a long time, I didn't really understand the point of view of religious people. I took a course on the psychology of religious belief, in which we read (among other things) William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. It's a seminal work in the field, and while the field has made quite a lot of progress since then (as Desrtopa points out below), it's still very informative. This helped me realize that others' brains were doing things that mine wasn't.

Nevertheless, religious claims are explanations for such experiences, and they're bad explanations. The popularity of those claims is harmful to rational pursuits. Decrying religion is about the claims and not the experiences, despite how many people seem unwilling to separate the two. For me, the falsity and harmfulness of the claims trumps the genuineness and significance of the experiences, if the latter is dependent on the former (but it doesn't seem in principle like it should be).

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T05:08:26.002Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For me, the falsity and harmfulness of the claims trumps the genuineness and significance of the experiences, if the latter is dependent on the former (but it doesn't seem in principle like it should be).

I agree with the first part of your statement, and as for the second -- yes, exactly. I don't think the experiences are dependent on the claims. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the claims [regarding the existence of a god or gods] originated as a rationalization of the experiences [the particular chemical state that produces, in human brains, a sense of ecstatic spiritual awareness].

And to me it makes the atheist message stronger if we can still have our tight-knit social communities and our occasional ecstactic brain-state, even while we agree that there's almost certainly no such thing as God.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-20T03:25:52.116Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

But even PZ Myers, who is about a proselytizing New Atheist as you can get, has explicitly said that he doesn't mind people engaging in religious behavior because it feels good (he has used the term "hobby"). The objection the proselytizing atheists have is that a) people don't acknowledge that that sort of thing is purely chemical in nature b) religion in its current forms has massive negative side effects c) lots of deeply religious people make things worse for the atheists.

I go to religious services semi-regularly. This is mainly for social reasons, but that occasional vaguely ecstatic feeling is certainly a positive. Nothing in that constuction requires me to believe that that feeling is coming from anything other than material aspects of my own brain.

I'm also curious about your use of the word discriminate. While that word might have some purely denotative forms, it seems like you are using some connotations or other conclusions that discrimination is in general wrong. Can you expand on your definitions of discriminate/discrimination and point to the logical chain that it is always (ETA: in this case) wrong?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T03:38:48.160Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The objection the proselytizing atheists have is that a) people don't acknowledge that that sort of thing is purely chemical in nature b) religion in its current forms has massive negative side effects c) lots of deeply religious people make things worse for the atheists.

I voted you up, because I agree with all this. Religionists in their current form do have massive side effects. They certainly don't acknowledge the chemical basis of their experiences. Atheists are still in the minority, and suffer the effects of being a minority group. YES. AGREED. I'm not really discussing the issue on that level.

I go to religious services semi-regularly. This is mainly for social reasons, but that occasional vaguely ecstatic feeling is certainly a positive. Nothing in that constuction requires me to believe that that feeling is coming from anything other than material aspects of my own brain.'re agreeing with me? I'm not sure if you're meaning to add anything, or depart in any way, from what I said above -- if you did, please clarify, because I missed it.

I'm willing to break off into a discussion of the word "discriminate," but not willing to defend it strongly, as I think my initial post already specified all the hesitancy I had around it. Can you suggest a better word?

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-20T03:46:24.253Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW're agreeing with me? I'm not sure if you're meaning to add anything, or depart in any way, from what I said above -- if you did, please clarify, because I missed it

Essentially agreeing with you. I thought it might be helpful to give a slightly different example, from someone who didn't just have that sort of experience once, but still continues to have it.

I'm willing to break off into a discussion of the word "discriminate," but not willing to defend it strongly, as I think my initial post already specified all the hesitancy I had around it. Can you suggest a better word?

I'm not sure. I guess, part of the issue is that this is the parts where I'm more inclined to disagree with you. The fact that people (such as myself) have a strange cognitive bug that makes us feel like we're talking to an outside entity when we aren't isn't something that should be protected. If it turned out that some people had a brain form that forced them to engage in some cognitive errors, I'd feel sorry for them, but getting the rest of the population to understand that those are cognitive errors would still be a good thing. If PZ or Dawkins had an opportunity to press a button and remove all religion in the world, they would probably do it, and if I had to tell them what to do, I'd probably advocate for pressing the button, even though that means I'm no longer going to be able to get my semi-regular hit of religion.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T04:28:36.627Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that people (such as myself) have a strange cognitive bug that makes us feel like we're talking to an outside entity when we aren't isn't something that should be protected.

Mm, okay, I think I see your point. No, it shouldn't be protected at the expense of true understanding.

But my point is that I think the feeling of spiritual unity (which is an intensely desirable feeling) can be preserved, even while a frame of realistic cognitive understanding is added. I mean, it sounds like that's what you're already doing--exploiting the "hit" of religion while recognizing that it comes entirely from "material aspects of [your] own brain." Right?

comment by Nisan · 2011-01-21T04:49:10.964Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Some [UU churches] actively welcome atheist members.

I visited the uucpa once. Fifty people or so gathered in a room to sing songs for an hour; someone lit a flame, and rang a bell; and a congressperson gave a sermon on the health care reform bill. Afterwards, we went out for brunch. There is a humanist reading group as well.

I can see how an atheist would be comfortable there. It didn't personally excite me, though.

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-21T19:12:14.095Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

AREA 51, Roswell, Sunday (UNN) — A tortilla has been found bearing an image in the shape of the face of Richard Dawkins.

Atheists from around the world have united in claiming this as an important sign. "It's a sign of pareidolia, which is what it's called when you see faces in random things — clouds, the moon, Mars, tortillas. Truly, this is a miraculously improbable confluence of random chance."

Over 35,000 atheists and sceptics have flocked to the town, bringing photographs of sick loved ones so that the image of Professor Dawkins may have no scientifically detectable effect upon them. Atheist irreligious nonservices have been packed out with people coming together to fail to worship a lack of God. Sales are at an all-time high of "WWDD" bracelets ("What Would Dawkins Do?"), which atheists look at when confronted by superstition and irrationality. (The usual answer is "Lalla Ward.")

Agnostic apparitions are most often associated with sceptical tradition, wherein there is a special emphasis on tangible examples and replicable proof. Today, scientists are usually quick to dismiss such images, one physicist wisely attributing them to "prosaic imagination." However, they remain intensely popular among the practical faithless, as evidence of the cosmic rule that "stuff just happens."

Plans to sell the tortilla on eBay have unfortunately been delayed after it was eaten by a particularly religious poodle. After its emergence, the face on the tortilla now resembles Andrew Schlafly.

(original by me here)

comment by Nornagest · 2011-01-20T00:32:14.553Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

There are possible secular analogues to the church format, but there aren't many close secular analogues that don't derive from some kind of totalizing ideology. Church is very explicitly set up to propagate received wisdom (and to reinforce it with ritual, etc.), and the secondary social structures that accrete around churches (daycare-like services, church outings, community services, etc.) would most likely have a harder time existing if they couldn't fall back on the shared experience of receiving wisdom from on high. More cynically, there's also less incentive to maintain those secondary organizations if you're not trying to keep your flock socially isolated in order to benefit from cult attractor effects.

There's certainly a social void that not going to church leaves in some individuals. With the above in mind, though, the most adaptive way to fill it might not be to copy the church format but to expand the secondary services around existing secular organizations. The key here is leveraging the existing common ground to build affective links in a structured way: my current dojo, for example, has taken to throwing parties after intensive training sessions and on the dates of events significant to the organization. It's at least been effective at improving regular attendance, which strikes me as a good proxy for emotional attachment.

If you wanted to make something up from whole cloth, patterning it roughly after the Boy Scouts or something similar might not be a bad way to do it. Alternately, a modernized revival of the 19th-century "gentleman's club" format (i.e. not a strip joint but a venue for making and maintaining socially useful connections) might have potential.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T04:47:41.584Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I've experienced something like the "gentleman's club," more than once, and I can attest that it is a good institution. You have to have a critical mass of people you not only like but admire, people who are involved in things that you want to be involved in -- not just friends but connections. You have to see each other more regularly than once a week. You have to have a place that is frequently open to hang out on the spur of the moment. And booze (or intoxicants of your choice) is more important than you might imagine.

If you can get all this, then very good things happen in your life, very quickly. It's sort of setting up the conditions that make serendipity possible.

comment by Nisan · 2011-01-21T04:56:40.693Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This sounds very intriguing. Can you give more details of your experiences?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T05:36:41.361Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

My first experience was at an eating club in college. (Think: a coed frat, except you eat your meals there, and the environment is a bit less rowdy.) This was literally like a gentlemen's club and had actually been modeled on them in the 19th century. My club was even more 19th century than most, being self-consciously old-fashioned. We had what I consider the basic requirements: cameraderie with admirable people, a space of our own, frequent meetings, and alcohol. And the remarkable thing: it worked exactly as it was intended. It was a good influence on the members: shy people came out of their shells and rowdy people became more responsible. A lot of people got jobs through club connections. A lot of people got dates through the club. A lot of us learned enormous amounts about each other's areas of expertise. And there was a sense of loyalty and even honor connected to belonging to the club.

Now I'm in a regular LW/OB meetup group in New York, which in a very different way serves the same function. It's as self-consciously futurist as my eating club was self-consciously historical. And instead of college students it's mainly young professionals. But it has the same basics: cameraderie with admirable people, regular meetings (if you live close by), some plans for a permanent space of our own, and sometimes alcohol. And it has some of the same positive effects. Useful professional connections; sometimes romantic connections; learning a lot from other people's areas of expertise; a focus on self-improvement; and a sense of loyalty to each other. We are becoming more awesome together.

The other group that might half-qualify as this sort of a community is Chabad, which I've attended occasionally. I've seen it have the same density of impressive people, the same almost loving loyalty, and even professional connections (like recommending a lawyer). Obviously that's a religious group and so not what we're looking for here; but if a religious group reminds me vaguely of the community-building strengths of the secular groups I've actually belonged to, I'd say that's a sign that the secular groups are doing something right.

comment by Nisan · 2011-01-23T17:12:14.599Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Now I have a vague desire for the Less Wrong meetup group in the Bay Area to be like this.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-21T06:34:03.774Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I get a lot of the same experience via the community theatre group I work with, though perhaps with less alcohol.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T20:42:35.711Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, maybe I overemphasized the alcohol. The point is that these kinds of communities have to have unstructured socializing, they can't just be purely goal-based. A club that hosts lectures, for instance, is all very well, but unless it has parties afterwards I don't think it'll have the same serendipitious spill-over effects into your whole life.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-21T20:44:45.210Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I agree. Though I also find that actually doing something together does help.

comment by Costanza · 2011-01-20T19:11:03.068Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Sir Martin Rees, a British astronomer, told Richard Dawkins that he attended church “as an unbelieving Anglican…out of loyalty to the tribe.”

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-21T19:20:32.962Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

CRACKER BARREL, City of Dis, Friday (NTN) — The Church of Satan is reaching out to schools and playgroups to attract more young people into the faith and cull the nation’s goat population, amid fears that a generation of children have become disconnected from religion.

The Church will also establish breakfast, homework, sports and sacrificial orgy clubs in schools to ensure as many young people as possible have “life-enhancing encounters with the Satanic faith and the person of our Unholy Master Beelzebub,” says the internal planning document Goating for Growth.

“We need to reconsider how we engage with and express Satan’s wrath to this generation of children and young people, whoever and wherever they may be. Children are vicious little arseholes by nature, so it shouldn’t be too hard. The challenge is how to creatively offer young persons encounters with the Satanic faith and its beliefs. Except those little shits playing music on their mobiles on the bus, they can star in tonight’s sacrifice.”

The policies, which include providing religious materials to schools to help them abide by the curriculum requirement to provide a daily act of worship, have been criticised by secular campaigners.

“I’m not sure they’re much better than the Christians,” said Richard Dawkins, “particularly considering how many of them are also bishops in the Church of England. Let’s face it, if the Church of England was relying on Christians it’d be sharing a room with the Flat Earth Society. The Satanists’ approach to religion is entirely too namby-pamby and hands-off. They’ve also stopped inviting me to the midnight orgies ever since I was kind enough to point out to them in detail the logical errors in their faith while they were naked, screaming, drenched in goat’s blood and orgasmically invoking fell spirits with random coupling and loud enthusiasm. This demonstrates their deficiencies with regards to intellectual rigor.”

comment by whpearson · 2011-01-19T22:51:54.321Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A Hackspace is currently filling that position in my life.

comment by curiousepic · 2011-01-21T18:51:14.259Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'd get up every Sunday morning to watch a TED Talk.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-19T22:45:05.417Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I would avoid calling any such thing a "church." I do think some sort of organized secular community meeting place would be beneficial, though. Personally, as someone who didn't attend church as a child, I had that sort of community at the karate dojo I attended. Beyond increasing happiness by socializing, having such an organized community can be helpful in reinforcing moral values and behavior. Given past discussion on this site about rationality as a martial art and so forth, it seems like that sort of organization might work better than the church archetype.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-01-20T22:02:16.556Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I would avoid calling any such thing a "church."

Call it whatever you want in ordinary conversation. Just make sure to call it a church on all the government forms so that you can get the tax status that churches receive, and so your confessors can commit to a vow of secrecy stronger than what psychiatrists and other medical professionals can offer.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-20T22:10:21.865Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good point, upvoted.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-19T22:53:31.422Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Practicing martial arts and fencing were both positive social influences on me, but I don't feel that martial arts instructors are an adequate substitute for the sort of community influence a good priest has.

In fact, one of the events that got me thinking about the value of secular priests in the first place was a priest who brought some of his congregation to the New York Fencers Club, of which I was a member, which shared facilities with the Peter Westbrook Foundation, so that they could watch a demonstration, and he gave a speech to them about the transformative power that that sort of athletic and competitive environment could have on their lives. It was an impressively inspirational speech, and he didn't bring up God or religion at any point, and it left me thinking that he would be a great help to the community regardless of any sort of religious authority, even though he only occupied his position because of the framework created in the community by religion.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-01-20T00:57:03.161Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that depends on the instructor. My sensei had (and still has) a lot of influence on the local community. Martial arts taught me how to strive for excellence: by accepting constructive criticism from those who have greater knowledge, using friendly competition as motivation to improve, etc. I think the ability to take criticism and the desire to improve oneself are extremely important for pursuing rationality as well, and they're not often taught well in a traditional "Western" setting. In a dojo, where one can experience immediate physical applications of the principles, such values are more likely to sink into a person's mind.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-01-19T22:07:20.989Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There's the Ethical Culture Society, which serves many similar functions. I've attended one a couple of times while visiting friends who were near one, and it was nice, but while there are several of them, you can't expect to find one in any given town the way you can find churches of popular sects.

comment by hwc · 2011-03-08T03:09:25.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I may soon be moving to a city with one of these. I'll check it out.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-03-08T03:13:52.300Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are few enough of them that you have a non-negligible chance of meeting my friends - where are you moving?

comment by hwc · 2011-03-08T12:43:33.585Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've been accepted at UNC-Chapel Hill for graduate school in computer science. It's my top choice, so that's where I'll be soon, assuming my visit goes well.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-03-08T14:44:21.945Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, that's not near my friends, but it's not that far from me. I may eventually start throwing North Carolina meetups, keep an eye out :)

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-01-21T19:10:26.983Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Unitarian Universalism comes close in practice. I have an atheist friend who's a UU minister. Because he likes people.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-03-07T15:47:15.015Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe that's why my agnostic/atheist parents felt comfortable bringing us to a Unitarian church when we were kids. I never understood that.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T17:35:41.524Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm actually in a strong rationalist community which you might say offers the social benefits of a church. I certainly feel "part of something."

What I valued (still do?) about religion wasn't actually the community, so much, or states of religious transport, which I never experienced. It was history, tradition, membership not just in a "group" of my choice but a nation of my birth, the purely intellectual pleasure of reading in a different language and becoming knowledgeable and learning things by heart, and a sense of reverence or propriety, a feeling that I was safely doing the right thing. I miss all that, sometimes acutely.

And the thing is, a lot of atheists (and people in general) actively dislike precisely the things that I like. I've met a lot of people who dislike ethnic affiliation. I've met a lot of people who are temperamentally irreverent, and have mostly negative associations with "obedience" and "propriety." And practically everyone I know -- atheist or not -- hated Hebrew school/Sunday school, detests memorizing, and doesn't have even an aesthetic or literary feeling for the Bible. I probably can't get atheists to share those things with me. It's an unsolved problem.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-20T18:18:56.204Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, I still get a kick from time to time out of being able to recite long passages of Hebrew and engage in pilpul with my Jewish geek friends (both frum and otherwise), despite in no meaningful sense remaining a practicing Jew.

I also get a kick out of being fluent in Spanish and I've been known to enjoy hairsplitting discussions about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and reciting long passages of scripts of plays I performed in. I also get a huge thrill out of being able to recite the first sentence of the Oddysey in Greek. None of this has anything to do with religion or atheism, admittedly.

All of which is to say I suspect you can probably find atheists (both strong-sense and weak-sense) who share your appreciation for history, tradition, shared birthright, the intellectual pleasure of memorization, and learning foreign languages.

The comfortable feeling of safely believing the proper things, on the other hand... yeah, that one will be more of a hard sell, at least to talk about. (You will find many people in sufficiently large soi-disant atheist communities who enjoy this feeling, of course, like any other group of humans, but they probably won't admit to it and may well get upset at the suggestion.)

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-20T18:59:17.684Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that there's an actual problem with the "safety" of passively believing what one's told and I don't actually want that part back.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-01-20T19:27:53.529Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To my mind, actively endorsing and championing beliefs that are popular in one's community has many of the same issues as passively believing them. If everybody agrees about everything important, something is screwy.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-20T17:57:11.990Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And the thing is, a lot of atheists (and people in general) actively dislike precisely the things that I like.

I can definitely register the affirmative on this. Personally, I made a conscious decision to stop identifying as Jewish, back when I was attending Brandeis University, because I found the group dynamic (perhaps they would have called it solidarity, but I perceived it as bias) downright oppressive.

The feeling generalizes to most sorts of traditions. For instance, I have a hard time understanding why one would want to affiliate with a particular style or branch of martial arts given the option of a syncretic approach like Jeet Kune Do.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T04:46:11.553Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There is something appealing about identifying as part of a ethnic group. Tribalism is natural after all, we're built for it.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-03-11T19:42:48.941Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The 12 Virtues of Rationality is a great thing to learn by heart and recite daily I think.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-01-21T04:58:10.007Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My impression is that lots of religiously moderate individuals also didn't like their Hebrew school/Sunday school etc. so that's not unique to atheists. At to literary feeling for the Bible, I don't know how someone who is educated wouldn't have a fair bit of that other than simple emotional reaction because of the damage that religion has done to society. I'd have to wonder if those people have read Samuel or the first few chapters of Kings or Ruth for example. Maybe tell them to read it as they would read Greek mythology and evaluate the literary merit as if it were from a no longer extant religion?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-21T05:20:09.521Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think I wasn't clear enough. My point wasn't to bash other atheists.

Basically where I was going with this was to add my own experience, and to say that what people get out of religious observance can be more complicated than just social capital. I don't think secular social organizations have to be at all "church-like" to provide community benefits. And correspondingly I think that the non-theological things people like about religion are not exactly summed up by "community."

Also, I personally am in a weird position because lots of people (understandably) don't share my tastes. I get why some people are enthusiastically anti-tribal; it isn't me, at the moment, but I can see it and respect it. I also understand (though can't actually imagine being this way myself) that most people dislike memorization and rituals performed just so. And it is weird but true in my experience that most folks (religious or not) can't actually "get" any kind of sense that the Bible is literature of some value. It's an aesthetic response and when it doesn't go through, it doesn't go through.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-21T05:52:17.442Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I turned to the bible after becoming acquainted with several other strains of mythology, and with the intention of treating it in the same manner, but I found myself intensely disappointed by its literary qualities. There were plenty of other writing flaws, but I felt like the core of it was that monotheism simply doesn't make for as good story dynamics.

comment by moshez · 2011-03-07T22:58:48.317Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Please remember that what you read is a hatchet job of translation. The original is poetry, and it was poorly translated. I find myself quoting from the bible much less in English, for that reason. (I think a lot of biblical quotations are often appropriate: e.g., when I'm frustrated with something obviously petty, I use the Jonah quotation of "Better I die than live", because it's got the exact self-awareness that I need)

When I read Bible verses in English, I often suffer almost physical pain at the awkwardness. At "Song of Solomon", this increases to actual physical symptoms, after which I closed it and never tried SoS in English again...

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-07T23:21:18.490Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suggest that there never was any "original," even in Hebrew. Rather, there were many contradictory oral, and later, written fragments, later amalgamated and integrated into a canon that no doubt continued to change even after it claimed to be unchangeable.

As I understand it, the King James Bible is a rotten translation (it's admittedly a translation of a translation). However, at least according to The Story of English, it was composed "so that it would not only read better but sound better." I suggest that, within the context of English-speaking culture, it was a success -- and it has itself become canonical.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-03-08T04:54:39.134Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I might have found it more aesthetically pleasing in the original Hebrew, but I had more complaints about the content than the prose.

comment by magfrump · 2011-01-20T06:59:06.863Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think that Dungeons and Dragons fills this space in my life.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-01-21T00:06:47.878Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Including finding a spouse and baby-sitting co-op?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-01-22T20:28:15.058Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You jest, but for female players this is actually a viable strategy. I didn't meet my husband through D&D, but before I was married I met several boyfriends that way; and my D&D friends do, in fact, babysit our kids from time to time.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-01-23T14:31:01.746Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting, I stand partially corrected.

comment by magfrump · 2011-01-23T01:17:59.706Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Spouse, yes, after a fashion. Baby-sitting co-op... maybe in 5 or 10 years. I trust my players.

comment by DSimon · 2011-01-22T19:38:28.419Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But, that's because of a specific feature of that game: it involves small groups of players. A larger role-playing game like a LARP can have involve more people, and serve as a source of meet-n-greets and internal favors.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-20T01:43:38.108Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Why ask "should we"? You can have whatever you like - just so long as you don't expect me to participate.

The most annoying part of church wasn't the silly belief in a "God" - that made no real difference. It was the fact that it was an arbitrary social hierarchy with absolutely no practical purpose via which any concept of 'merit' could be realised. Such entities do not benefit me.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-20T01:52:33.927Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you elaborate? My experience with churches is not extensive, but those I'm familiar with, looking at them as individual entities rather than large institutions like the Catholic Church, mostly had fairly flat social hierarchies.

comment by JenniferRM · 2011-01-21T04:03:43.954Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Based on the Paul Graham essay, I think wedrifid's talking about the prestige assignment and character formation processes that are typically found within social contexts (like the laity of the church) where there is no coherent or "objective" measure of virtue.

The theory claims that in such circumstances you get something more like high school or new york socialite circles (where the optimization pressure is supposed to center around attention to incredibly subtle human social nuances and gaming gossip networks and such) and less like the scientific or business communities (where the optimization pressures are suppose to focus on processes somewhat "external" to human factors and substantial development of "practical" skills and knowledge are necessary to thrive).

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-20T01:57:38.321Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds like you refer to a more formal concept than I.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2011-01-22T01:45:31.123Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

has anyone considered adding a toastmasters element to OB/LW meetups? anyone could be the preacher for the week and get in valuable practice at presenting an idea. even if it's just something that we all "know" seeing different ways of presenting it is fun and rewarding.

comment by lukeprog · 2011-01-20T21:30:05.077Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I interviewed Zachary Moore, who has been (at different times) the head leader of two major secular churches, here.

comment by Sniffnoy · 2011-01-21T00:22:47.200Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Incorrect link?

comment by lukeprog · 2011-01-21T00:53:12.878Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Damn you, copy/paste!

Okay, fixed. Thanks.

comment by timtyler · 2011-01-19T23:25:04.446Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've known priests who were superb community organizers and motivational speakers, who played an important role for their congregations to which I know of no existing secular analogue.

Causes? They often have community organizers and motivational speakers.

comment by Desrtopa · 2011-01-20T00:27:02.665Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but those organizers and speakers generally don't have the sort of personal relationships with the communities they work with that priests do with their congregations. I think that a lot of people would benefit even more from the sort of personalized guidance priests provide if it were given by people who're given solid, evidence based training in giving such advice.

Personally, I like having sessions with psychiatrists for exactly this reason, but neither my funds nor my various neuroses are great enough to allow for doing it as often as I'd like.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-20T17:13:15.495Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

After being raised Methodist, I stopped attending church during college and have attended Quaker services for a month since then. Not what I need at this stage in my life, but I can see myself going back. UU is another good option.

It seems to me that the shared activity of "listen to a lecture and sing some songs" is one that doesn't have the same appeal when you strip it of its religious overtones. (Especially the Quaker version, which omits the lecture and the songs.) I suspect a philosophy meetup or book club would serve the same purpose for most atheists, and if the rationality dojos ever get off the ground they strike me as another strong substitute.

comment by mutterc · 2011-01-20T17:09:08.108Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There are a couple of atheist meetup groups in my area; I've been thinking of going but have yet to get off my butt. Such a thing might well help fill the same hole. My wife and I are crazed loners with no local family so the socialization would be a big help.

We live in Raleigh, NC, where one cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a Baptist church, so we could get a nice non-conformist thrill as well.

comment by JenniferRM · 2011-01-21T05:15:24.031Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You might try organizing a LW meetup?

Having organized several of them for Southern California, my impression is that people willing to come to LW meetups occur within the population at rates between 1-in-200k to 1-in-5M people, depending on cultural factors and travel costs.

Looking at wikipedia and a map, the Raleigh-Durham-Cary "census statistical area" is a research hub and contains ~1.7M people with Nelson as a plausible center and a radius of ~25 miles. If you were willing to drive to Greensboro you'd have another 1.5M people to sift for interesting ones. Between the two locations you've got >3M which (if you're lucky) might contain three people in each willing to drive 15 miles and maybe two willing to travel to "the other city" every other month.

If you want to take a crack at being the "social nucleation site" of a LW meetup group I would suggest finding pre-existing groups around atheist, skeptic, biohacker, lisp/ML/python/AI interests. This would take some googling and then a call or three to group organizers to ask of you can try inviting some friends to their group. Then simply announce on the front page that there will be a North Carolina meetup at the location the pre-existing group will use, starting about 60 minutes before and extending through and participating with their meeting. Use other meetup posts on LW as templates. It will probably be promoted when a mod noticed :-)

It might help to shake a few trees. Google this site for "NC" (I just did and found two people here) and send PMs. Friend them on FB and/or linkedin and see if anyone local turns up who you could invite. Get creative! Maybe get an account on

I can imagine you pulling between 1 and 5 interesting people the first time. And whether or not you pull anyone, you might find a neat crowd at one of the places you piggyback with! If you're interested in the idea and have any specific questions about reward/work ratios or whatever send a PM and I'd be happy to share the tips and work/reward expectations I've worked out trying to set up meetups every so often :-)

comment by mutterc · 2011-01-21T13:38:12.897Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW


comment by nhamann · 2011-01-20T03:51:35.557Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Offtopic, but in all seriousness if some kind of rave church existed I would attend regularly. Although I'm not certain that it'd be all that different from just going to an actual rave.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-01-20T01:38:47.999Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It could be fun and/or useful but I doubt it would take off. Churches depend on lots of volunteer effort, which is hard to coordinate without as strong a motivator as saving one's soul. The reasons cited in the OP apply as well. The LW meetups seem to be providing community to a certain extent, but I can't really say because I've never been to one (none in my area).

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2011-01-20T22:28:04.486Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I dunno. I mean, don't some martial arts dojos at least somewhat depend on a lot helpfulness/volunteering of its members?

For example, when I was taking Aikido, a standard thing we'd do when we finished was that all of us would clean up the mat, for example. Also several of us did various other things around the dojo. And I don't think any of us thought of it in terms of "saving our souls".

So I'd say that particular obstacle isn't as much of a problem, we'd just need to set up the right sort of social standards/expectations for it. There may potentially be other barriers, however.

comment by Nornagest · 2011-01-20T22:43:49.793Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Most of that is done to foster a sense of community or to instill humility and discipline, not for its value as labor. The vast majority of the productive labor that goes into running most dojos is performed by instructors and senior students.

This applies to churches too, of course; shared labor is very good at building a sense of community, and church organizers know that. It also has applications to the donating time/donating money dichotomy that pops up periodically in the threads here on charitable donation.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2011-01-20T22:49:43.552Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Most of that is done to foster a sense of community or to instill humility and discipline, not for its value as labor. The vast majority of the productive labor that goes into running most dojos is performed by instructors and senior students.

Fair enough, although overall I got the impression that it was a combination of both. But, even so, even if it's mostly just a "instill humility and discipline" thing, it still was possible to set up standards where we'd do that sort of thing. So to the extent that these sorts of things really do depend on volunteer labor, it should be possible to arrange.

Heck, given that the goal is to have that sort of sense of community, one could explicitly state that as a reason to get people to join in on the work.