WHY WE ARE A CHURCH

WHY WE ARE A CHURCH

(c) 2012 by The Church of Freethought

 

INTRODUCTION

 

A long gestation period preceded the establishment of The North Texas Church of Freethought (NTCOF) in December of 1993.  During this time, a great deal of thought was devoted to what an appropriate name for such an organization should be.  Since then, a great deal of additional consideration has been given to the matter by its Co-Founders/Co-Directors as well as others involved in this unique project.  In addition, there has been an opportunity to assess the practical effects of the organizational and terminological forms adopted by NTCOF.  The following is an account of this thinking which addresses some of the common criticisms of it, a justification of NTCOF’s approach as an effective tool for the furtherance of Atheism and Rationalism, and our vision of a future when faith and superstition are supplanted by Freethought.

 

WORDS ARE TOOLS

 

Terminological precision is at once an important element, a distinguishing mark, and a recurrent stumbling-block of serious discussion and honest understanding.  This is why, in scientific disciplines, various terms in common usage are often quite narrowly defined.  “Energy” in the context of chemistry and physics, for example, has a very specific meaning as compared to popular usage.  Thus, words can mean many different things depending on the context and on what the speaker intends them to mean.

 

Nor are dictionaries authoritative because they do not fix the meaning of words so much as reflect usage.  They are field guides and not rule books, and did not even exist before the 17th Century.  This accounts for why there are so many different dictionaries and why they must frequently be updated.  Therefore, while dictionary definitions are helpful and can certainly be useful in supporting an argument that it is best to use a word in a particular way, they do not “prove” anything about what a word “really” means.[1]

 

For example, "The Palace of Wax” could legitimately mean many things.  It could be a wax museum, a candle shop, a car washing and waxing company, a business specializing in floor wax manufacture, sales, or applications, or even a motion picture, title of a book, a rock formation, or many other things.  It might even be something altogether different with the owner’s name or the name of the locality happening to be “Wax.”  But one could hardly discover all or even most of these possibilities from consulting a dictionary for the meanings of “palace” and “wax.”

 

Like all other human activities, the flexible and sometimes ambiguous use of language can be carried too far.  One can imagine, for example, the harm that could result from trademarking a deadly poison with the name “Soda Pop.”  Likewise, someone who sues a manufacturer and marketer of a contraceptive jelly because it failed to prevent pregnancy when consumed as a condiment is deservedly the butt of jokes.

 

Yet it remains a fact that words are tools.  They are not themselves pieces of objective reality, but labels for human concepts.  As the perceptions that underlie human understanding enlarge, ramify, and come to be seen in new ways, the concepts which they support are accordingly altered as well, and the words used to refer to them must be flexible enough to be useful in effective communication.  Or new words must be coined.

 

But the generation of new words is a quirky process and, unless they catch on quickly due to their having some sort of mass appeal, neologisms are often relegated to the level of jargon.  But when adjustments and changes in usage of familiar words take place, this can itself play a role in enabling new perceptions to develop and in fostering new ways of looking at old perceptions.  Words, in short, are tools of human progress.  The sense in which NTCOF employs the word “church” is intended to contribute towards such progress.  Like the mission of NTCOF itself, it is intended as a step towards freeing the human mind from the oppressive confines of superstitious dogma.

 

THE “CHURCH” WORD

 

To begin with, it should be remembered that NTCOF is certainly not the first to abandon the advocacy of theism while nevertheless claiming to be a church.  Nor are we the first to take a position on religious questions which denies the relevance of god(s).  The Unitarian-Universalists, for example, do not require (though they are tolerant of) theistic beliefs.  Members of Ethical Culture groups also deny the centrality of superstitious notions to moral questions and moral principles.  Similarly, Buddhists, while some accept such supernatural notions as the immortality of a “soul” and reincarnation, are Atheists.

 

But even the dictionary is fairly instructive in this particular case.  Webster’s Deluxe Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, Ó 1979, Simon & Schuster, gives the following as its first definition for the word “church:”

 

  1. An edifice consecrated for public worship, especially one for Christian worship.

 

Clearly, the key phrase here is “public worship,” and not the word “Christian.”  The reference to Christianity chiefly reflects only the fact that the United States (and other Western nations) is “Christian” in the sense that the majority of religious believers consider themselves “Christian.”  It is a separate and altogether thornier question of just exactly what “Christian” means.  For the fact is that there are many different denominations and sects that call themselves “Christian,” each of which hold their own peculiar and distinct, as well as mutually exclusive doctrines and dogmas as being the one and only absolute truth.  In addition, most of them regard the adherents of other religions which also claim to be “Christian” as deluded or damned.  It is not difficult to find Catholicism or Mormonism, for example, described as “non-Christian cults” in Protestant publications.

 

The key word, “worship,” in the definition given by Webster’s, is also contained in its seventh entry for the word “church:”

 

7. Any group of worshipers.

 

And in the tenth definition:

 

10. Public worship; religious service.

 

WHAT DO WE “WORSHIP?”

 

Again, with suitable cautions about the nature of dictionaries, Webster’s offers the following definitions for the word “worship:”

 

  1. To adore or pay divine honors to as a deity; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration; as to worship God.
  2. To respect; to honor; to treat with civil deference. [Rare.]
  3. To have intense love and admiration for, as a lover; to idolize.

 

Clearly, although Webster’s gives due recognition of the association of the word with that of the notion of supernatural power(s), the important element of “worship” is not the object of worship.  Rather it is the “supreme respect and veneration,” the “honoring” and the “love and admiration” accorded the object of worship that distinguishes the term.  Indeed, the word “worship” shares the same Anglo-Saxon root with the word “worthy.”

 

So the question for an Atheist, someone who cannot conscientiously accept the notion of god(s) as anything other than fictional, is whether or not there is anything in human experience which is deserving of worship?  Certainly, the act of worshipping a creature of the imagination is a foolish thing.  And worship that assumes the form of prostrating oneself, debasing oneself, and groveling before an imaginary “higher power” is not only foolish but inhuman in the most profound sense of the word.

 

But there is something that truly deserves the deepest love, the sincerest admiration, the most abiding respect, and the most fitting honor that any honest and thoughtful person of good will is capable of, and that is simply the rule of reason.  For it is reason, applied to the facts of reality as best they can be understood, deliberately, conscientiously, habitually, and unflinchingly, - religiously one might say – that defines and encompasses the human condition and that has been the engine of human progress since the dawn of history.

 

DEFINING CHURCHES FUNCTIONALLY

 

“Worship,” despite its being implicit in the word “church,” is a word that nevertheless seems to be somewhat in decline.  People are more apt to ask their neighbors “Where do you go to church?” rather than “Where do you worship?” or even “How do you worship?” or “What do you worship?”

 

The reason for this is that churches, though they have traditionally been considered “houses of worship,” have come to serve a variety of functions that have nothing to do with the doctrines and dogmas of a particular sect.  Moreover, these are functions which are important to people and which are not effectively addressed by other social forms.  This is why many people “shop” for churches.  Others who may not have attended church for many years or who may never have attended a church regularly, may suddenly become churchgoers for a variety of reasons.  And, although it is still considered “religiously correct” by the dominant culture in the United States today to “believe in God,” the reasons why many people go to church (or not) and the reason why they go to a particular church often have very little to do with theological considerations.

 

In America today, a large number of people go to church because churches are seen as providing, for individuals, families, and communities:

 

  • a refuge of mutual support and solace amidst the stresses and strains of workaday life,
  • regular occasions for the development and maintenance of personal and professional relationships of trust and mutual interest,
  • cultivation and reinforcement of a sense of purpose and self-esteem,
  • opportunities to reflect on and improve the practical application of the highest moral/ethical values, and, perhaps most importantly,
  • an outlet for grappling with those subjective aspects of the human condition that offer the greatest challenges for growth and happiness.

 

Churches are also perceived as being effective in:

 

  • uniting people in a common sense of community and caring,
  • fostering the cooperation of people with divergent views and interests through an emphasis on shared values,
  • encouraging people to resolve their differences peaceably and to learn and grow from the process of doing so,
  • assisting parents in the moral education of their children, and
  • helping to impart – especially for children – a sense of identity and belonging to a larger community.

 

Finally, churches are often important elements in many communities because it is supposed that they can:

 

  • Provide leadership in initiating and coordinating charitable work
  • Foster practical efforts to address community-wide issues
  • Work together with other churches and organizations to find and implement solutions and resolutions to divisive community problems, and
  • Encourage and help to put into practical effect a spirit of charity and benevolence towards those who need and would benefit from assistance of one sort or another.

 

This does not exhaust the role that churches today in the United States are expected to serve.

 

WHY (MOST) RELIGIONS AND CHURCHES ARE DYSFUNCTIONAL

 

Many Atheists will strenuously disagree with this assessment.  They will assert that churches suppress and frustrate people in their search for personal growth and satisfaction, that they create divisions and foster bigotry in communities, and that they serve to maintain and justify the worst sorts of human behavior, practices, and institutions.  Many Atheists will also point to times and places where one or another church sects have been and are extremely destructive of the larger-scale social fabric.  They will say that such church organizations have been responsible for the most appalling and barbarous cruelties including slavery, torture, murder, and genocide.  Churches, they say, are the instruments of systematic persecution, the fomenters of wars, and the most vigorous supporters of every kind of tyranny and abuse.  Wherever there is hatred, many Atheists will argue, a church is usually at the root of it.  And these Atheists will say that churches continue to be guilty of all these crimes, directly or indirectly, to this very day.

 

And these critics of churches are absolutely right.

 

But it does not follow that because a thing is ill-suited to its purposes, wrongheaded, corrupt, and even ultimately destructive, that the purposes it was meant to serve are entirely unworthy.  Indeed, it is a testament to the importance of the human needs that churches and religion are intended to address that such pernicious institutions not only continue to exist but that they enjoy such widespread favor.  Their persistence cannot – and should not – be entirely explained away with the assertion that believers are simply ignorant, stupid, or worse.  But, just as clearly, belief in god(s) and the supernatural is factually and rationally insupportable.

 

The solution to the difficulty is to realize that faith-based religions and their churches, contrary to the assertions of many Atheists, are not, strictly speaking, an affliction.  Rather, they are a dysfunctional attempt to alleviate the malady of the human condition.  But, in this respect, they have often appeared to be a “cure that’s worse than the disease,” which has led many, understandably, to suppose that religions and churches could be entirely dispensed with at some considerable benefit.

 

The situation with respect to supernatural religions intended to address the subjective difficulties of the human condition is not unlike it once was with respect to primitive notions once intended to address the objective problems of human survival.  The rituals and sacrifices of the ancients, for example, that were meant to bring success in hunting, agriculture, and other human exploits were certainly ineffective.  And, inasmuch as these practices, as well as the temples and priesthoods connected with them, all consumed human effort, time, and other resources, discouraged practical innovations of real value, and nourished bigotry and hatred, they were also, to varying degrees, quite destructive.  This is why many Atheists argue that it would have been much better if none of these things had ever come into being.

 

In fact, it is more important to consider why human beings all over the planet insisted on creating these things.  They did so because then, as now, people insisted on doing something to address the acknowledged problems that religious practices and institutions were intended to address.  In addition religious beliefs and rituals allow people to have a sense, however fanciful, of participating in the support of an important objective, whether it is a successful hunt, a bountiful harvest, the maintenance of a peaceful and law-abiding society, or a more personal goal such as completing an important task or seeing a loved one through an illness.  Even when these practices are ineffectual in any objective sense, they still foster an expectation of achieving the desired aim, whether conscious or subconscious.  And it is this sense of optimism, regardless of how dire the actual facts of a situation may be, which is an important ingredient in all human endeavors, often referred to in our modern era as “the power of positive thinking.”  In addition, to the extent that a religious institution can effectively appeal to society generally, it can exert these effects in a systematic and orderly way.

 

One has only to think of the development of modern medical science to realize that these considerations apply also to other (arguably all) aspects of the human enterprise.  Until the advent of such innovations as antibiotics, anesthesia, and sterile technique, for example, a great many useless and even dangerous methods of diagnosing and treating human illness were relied on.  Acupuncture, bleeding and purging, homeopathy, iridology and phrenology, cupping, magnets, poisonous compounds of every description, as well as incantations, prayers, and even violent physical methods (particularly for the mentally ill) were the tools of choice of well-meaning and otherwise intelligent people.  Again, though ineffective, harmful, and tending to hinder the development of superior ideas and methods, these practices represented something that satisfied the overwhelming desire of human beings to gain control over their lives.  They encouraged hope.  Nor is there any question but that the desire to overcome a difficulty and the belief that a problem can be overcome, regardless of the objective hopelessness of the situation, have contributed greatly to the spectacular advances of our species.

 

Thus, while faith-based churches and supernaturalistic religions are dysfunctional, their practical aims – those that are commonly accepted as appropriate and agreeable aims – are not unimportant.  Indeed, in modern-day America, the distinguishing feature of religion is that it seeks to serve these aims.  The enormous and increasing diversity of opinion in this country on religious questions, and the First Amendment’s guarantee of a level playing field where such opinion is concerned, has made theology largely irrelevant.  What remains as the defining characteristic of religion and churches is their role in serving as resources for personal, family, social, and community sustenance and growth.

 

WHY RELIGIONS AND CHURCHES ARE NECESSARY

 

Clearly, the needs that religion and churches are intended to address, the functions that they are uniquely designed to serve, and the importance and effects of their activities, operate on the subjective side of the human condition.  For where objective considerations govern, it is objective methods and objective understanding – science – that holds sway.  Science offers the best counsel in providing for the physical needs required for human survival.  Science gives us the means to accomplish feats that would otherwise be considered “miraculous.”  And science provides the best objective explanation(s) for human behavior in all its diversity, whether compassionate or cruel, honorable or contemptible.

 

But what science cannot do is to supply interpretive subjective explanations for the private, inner, non-objective side of the human experience.  Nor can it credibly support the ramifications of this kind of understanding on a social and cultural level.  Science cannot even mediate between differing opinions concerning these aspects of the human condition when those opinions are expressed in subjective terms.  This is not due to any deficiency of scientific progress, either.  Rather, it is the inevitable result of the nature of science, which is and must be completely oblivious to and utterly closed-off from all subjective considerations.

 

Most importantly, science cannot even serve as the engine of its own progress at a subjective level.  Even those who pursue scientific and technological innovations, after all, must have an emotional commitment to the idea that their goals can be reached and that they will reach them, regardless of how many of their colleagues regard their concerns as less important than their own.  Even the most militant of Atheists, those who insist that the world would be better if religion and anything remotely resembling religion never existed and/or were utterly eradicated, cannot sustain themselves without a vision.  Moreover, any such vision must necessarily be a subjective conception of how, given the present facts of reality, a better world could be achieved and what it would be like.

 

RATIONAL RELIGION: THE CHURCH OF FREETHOUGHT

 

The suspicion – even the confidence – that the legitimate objects and aims of religion, from which science is foreclosed, can be addressed without the capitulating to arbitrary controlling authorities, whether prophets, scriptures, or doctrines and dogmas justified by other means, is not the invention of NTCOF.  To the extent that even the most superstitious of religions have had their “liberal” interpreters, it would seem to be as natural and as deep-seated as the religious impulse itself.

 

It is no accident, for example, that even the Bible recognizes – and condemns – Atheism at places like Psalms 14:1 and 53:1.  Likewise, the “doubting Thomas” is a part of modern folklore.  Yet few think to consider the fact that these skeptics were supposedly eyewitnesses of divine power and/or an alleged god’s own personal associate and disciple.  If such people can be skeptical, how much more reasonable it is for anyone today to maintain and defend unbelief where supernatural claims are concerned.

 

Likewise, even the ancients recognized that there is no rational connection between the notion of moral values and deities.  In Plato’s Euthyphro, for example, the Greek philosopher Socrates, who lived 400 years before the time of the Gospels, asked “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”  Unlike many modern apologists for faith-based religions, Socrates and many people since have recognized the fact that absolute power does not necessitate or even justify an absolute standard of morality.

 

Yet neither the impotence of science in addressing the subjective human condition nor the futility and irrationality of supernaturalism and faith preclude the construction of rational religion(s).  This is not to say either that religion can be made scientific nor that there can be a religion of science.  But there is no rational barrier to interpreting the internal, private, subjective aspects of human experience in ways that do not conflict with our shared understanding of the external, public, and demonstrably objective world of reality.

 

This is the sense in which Atheism can be incorporated into religion and in which there can be a Church of Freethought.  This is the central contention of NTCOF.

 

A FREETHOUGHT CHURCH IN PRACTICE

 

At one time a thoroughly Atheistic/Rationalistic religion that still appealed to both the human mind and heart was just an idea.  At one time the idea of a Church of Freethought rested solely on abstract arguments like those above.  But we of the NTCOF are demonstrating that our vision is workable.

 

Unlike other Atheist, Humanist, and Freethought organizations, our focus is not primarily on the problem of state/church separation.  Nor do we, in fact, hold to any orthodoxy where questions of political and social policy are concerned beyond those relating to state/church separation and freedom of conscience.  Rather, beginning in 1994, we have been proving that it is possible to form a real community – in every sense of the word - of Freethinkers who share a common view of the essential nature of the human condition.  That is, while we champion science and its fruits, we also believe that facts and reason have significance for us on a subjective level.  We believe that our lives can have meaning and that personal growth and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves and others is worth both the effort of understanding and of seeking after.  Most importantly, we believe that the essence of morality is in knowing the right and doing the right for its own sake, even though this cannot be reduced to a list of commandments that will hold for everyone in all circumstances.  And we are demonstrating that all of this can be made the basis of an intellectually sound, imaginatively rich, and emotionally satisfying and comforting world view and way of life.

 

Consistent with our mission of advocating for rational religion, the NTCOF maintains an organizational structure similar to other churches.  We hold regular programs at which our views are presented, explained, justified, and otherwise advanced.  We hold these gatherings on a Sunday because that is usually the most convenient time.  Nor do we fret about the fact that Sunday worship services have their historical roots in Christianity.  Many other things in ordinary everyday life have their roots in superstition as well.

 

Our regular services incorporate methods of presentation that effectively demonstrate and illustrate our views and values, often through the element of entertainment.  They are free and open to the public, just like the services of most other churches.  Anywhere from 50 to 100 people of all ages, races, and sexes, individuals as well as families, have been typically drawn to each of our programs since the NTCOF’s founding.  We advertise our regular services in the local newspapers among the “Places of Worship,” in which we make it clear that we are “A Fellowship of Unbelievers.”  We also provide –again, without charge – childcare and Sunday School for youngsters during our services.  Since our inception, we have steadily added additional activities, among which are a regular social luncheon event, a singles group, a movie night, and numerous special events.  We have also become involved in selected charitable activities such as the Linus Project which provides blankets to hospitalized children.  We hope to do more in all of these areas in the future.  Despite all this, we nevertheless assess no dues.  Rather, the NTCOF relies solely on the freely given donations of our members, those who attend our services, and others who wish to support our church.

 

Nothing could be clearer, therefore, than that the NTCOF is in every respect like any other church in America today.  The only difference is that we openly and unashamedly endorse Atheism and a view of the world and of the nature of human beings which does not rely on faith, superstition, prophets, scriptures, revelation, and the like.  Although we readily agree that “religion” and “church” are words that are often connected with these things, we see no reason to capitulate to unreason by calling ourselves something even more unsuitable.  The words “Atheist” and “Atheism” also carry unfortunate connotations, it should be noted, some of which appear in dictionaries.

 

It is instructive to reason by analogy in this regard.  If there were a group of students at a college that chose to rent a house together, study together, host social events together, and otherwise identify with each other and hold themselves out to be a sort of family, would they not be, in fact, a fraternity?  And would they not be a fraternity even if one of their members was a woman, or if they chose to call themselves by something other than Greek letters, or if they dispensed with hazing rituals?  In like fashion, the NTCOF would be a church even if we did not call ourselves a church.  Accordingly, rather than becoming preoccupied with an irrational phobia over a word, a word with a usage already flexible enough to include Freethinkers, just as it includes Unitarian-Universalists, Ethical Culturists, Buddhists, and others, we have chosen to call ourselves a church.  Likewise, it is our position that the simple rationalist creed that we advocate, which is completely consistent with science even though it is not itself scientific, is best considered to be a religion.

 

THE STRATEGIC ADVANTAGES OF RATIONAL RELIGION

 

Based on these considerations, both theoretical and practical, we at the NTCOF think that this posture may very well be fundamental to the future of Freethought.  This is because our approach shifts the focus away from an unproductive contest between religion and irreligion, or religion and science, which is a false and ultimately irresolvable conflict.  Rather, our stance makes it clear that we oppose superstition.  At the same time, we do not reject “spiritual” concerns, properly understood.  That is, we do not denigrate as foolish or summarily dismiss as nonexistent those aspects of human experience which are wholly or largely subjective, or the need to come to grips with that part of the human condition.  Since these concerns cannot be addressed by objective, scientific means (except in objective, scientific ways that are subjectively unsatisfying), it is foolish to try to resolve the difficulty in any other way.  We simply do not think it is either sensible or wise to cede this enormous – and enormously important – part of what is important to people to the dealers in faith and superstition.

 

In the United States, the protections of the First Amendment afford as much support for the cause of religious rationalism – Freethought – as for superstitious religions.  This is because, according to this provision of the U.S. Constitution, in concert with the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, the power of the state is not to be exerted to advance or hinder any point of view where matters of religion are concerned.  Nor is government to take any actions that aid or encumber the right of anyone to hold and practice their religious beliefs.

 

If Atheism is not religion, then it can be argued that unbelievers need not be protected from proselytization by adherents of faith-based religions.  In fact, this very argument has received the endorsement even of U.S. Presidents of both major political parties.  It is most forcefully made, curiously enough, by the same individuals who claim that Atheism is a religion and that the absence of the teaching of theism in public schools therefore constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of religion!  Both arguments – though they are mutually contradictory – have had some effectiveness, unfortunately.  In fact, the claim that Atheism or Humanism is a religion is taken as threatening by many unbelievers.  These Freethinkers mistakenly assume that it is important that their views not be construed as religion because they fear that it would prevent effective science education, including the teaching of the evolution, in the public schools.

 

Yet the truth is that science is still science and religion is still religion, no matter what those who benefit from their confusion may insist.  More than a few superstitious religions, including Roman Catholicism, do not recognize a conflict between their teachings and scientific knowledge.  For religion deals in souls, whether conceived of as metaphysical entities or imaginative abstractions.  Science, in contrast, deals in physics: in matter and energy.  If anyone thinks – as some do – that scientific methods and understanding are more consistent with unbelief than with Christianity or other faith-based religions, that does not change the separate and distinct natures of science and religion.  If the scientific fact of evolution by natural selection just happens to be more consistent with Atheism than with fundamentalist Christianity, that is hardly the fault of Atheists, who do not maintain any scientific truth as an article of faith in any case.  Therefore, whether Humanism or Atheism or Freethought are considered to be religions or not has no bearing on the teaching of science in the public schools or the legitimate relationship of scientific understanding to any other aspect of public policy.

 

Likewise, the mere absence of religious education from the public schools or of religious symbols and practices from the public square (which, unfortunately, is not now the case) does not constitute a governmental endorsement of unbelief.  For it is the view of Freethinkers that gods are make-believe and are completely irrelevant to such important matters as that of human survival and of the moral principles by which people should choose to live their lives.  Yet nowhere does the power of the state positively advance these views.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

 

Inasmuch as the religious neutrality on the part of the government that is demanded by the First Amendment has both positive and negative implications, the contention that Freethought is a valid religious position works to advance rationalism and state/church separation in both cases.  For it places both varieties of interpreting the subjective nature of the human condition- rational and superstitious – on an equal footing in the free market of ideas.  Nor should an unbeliever be in doubt as to which view will eventually prevail under such circumstances when neither is afforded the favor of governmental endorsement and assistance.

 

But make no mistake.  It is unfair for superstition and faith to be afforded the advantage of exclusive access to tax exemptions and other forms of public funding.  But it is also unfair for irrationalism to be afforded exclusive use and authority over such important functional concepts as religion and churches.  We take exception to both.

 

THE TACTICAL ADVANTAGES OF RATIONAL RELIGION

 

There are numerous tactical advantages for the cause of Freethought in NTCOF’s contentions as well, some of which have become apparent only in practice.  For, in sharpening the distinction between facts and reason on the one hand and superstition and faith on the other, apologists for the latter lose the advantage of being able to claim that they alone speak to the human heart and soul.  Freethought as another way of making sense of the subjective aspect of the human condition offers a true alternative to faith-based religions.

 

In addition, the fact that words matter, that words are important tools of thought, is a fact that can work to the advantage of Freethought.  Thus, while there will be some who feel that a Church of Freethought contributes to confusion rather than to clarity, it also tends to put the burden on apologists for faith-based religions to distinguish themselves from the Freethought alternative.  To the extent that believers in superstition can be coaxed to realize that they do not enjoy a monopoly either on religious opinion or on the organizational structures of churches, they may be brought to acknowledge their own true role as advocates of the irrational and of arbitrary authoritarianism.

 

Few things are more effective in overcoming one’s enemies than to adopt and adapt the very words that they use to advance their cause.  Christians certainly made use of this strategy in their cynical appropriation of the winter solstice and spring equinox holidays.  In the latter case, they even continue to make use of the name of the pagan god herself – Easter – while brazenly insisting that the day celebrates the exploits of their own deity.  It is a well-known fact that Christianity systematically substituted its own saints for the native deities everywhere that it was introduced, and tailored its own rituals accordingly to incorporate those of the converted culture.  These methods, which have historically served to advance superstition, can also be used to counter irrationalism and further the cause of Freethought.

 

THE FUTURE OF FREETHOUGHT

 

What sort of future should unbelievers look forward to?  Have most Atheists, Humanists, or Freethinkers even given the question much thought?

 

Should we look forward to a future where god(s) are entirely forgotten?  Should we look forward to a future where all forms of social interaction are those of either the marketplace, the relationships that people form for one specific purpose or another, and/or those necessitated by whatever form that government may assume?  Should we look forward to a future where there is no understanding of anything that is not a scientific understanding?  Is such a future desirable, or even possible even if it is desirable?

 

We at the NTCOF look forward to a future in which the products of the human imagination may be no less in evidence than they are today, or are perhaps even more celebrated than they have been in the past, but where they are recognized as such.  We look for a future in which god(s) have no more cognitive significance – and no less – than leprechauns, fairies, werewolves, and other fictional entities have today.  In that world, Jesus and Jehovah and Allah will be no more revered or reviled than James Bond, Jean Luc Picard, Luke Skywalker, Mighty Mouse, Paul Bunyan, or Caspar the Friendly Ghost.  In that same future, the idea – or reality – of a biblical theme park or a Las Vegas casino with a New Testament motif will not be thought of any differently than present-day Disney, Harry Potter, or Looney-Tunes amusement parks and Caesar’s Palace establishments.

 

Most importantly, we at NTCOF look forward to a future in which churches, if they are no less common than they are today, will be churches like our own.  They will be communities of people who come together for the purpose of discussing and sharing what is most important to them in their lives, but without their needing to surrender their reason.  That is to say, churches will serve the same functional purposes that they are intended to serve today but without asking or even suggesting that any kind of faith belief has any kind of relevance to the human condition.  Churches that only pretend to serve the needs and aspirations of human beings or which do so in dysfunctional and damaging ways will be a thing of the past.

 

We do not contend that every Atheist, Humanist, or Freethinker will look forward to or should look forward to this sort of future.  But we do insist that our vision of the future of Freethought is not inconsistent with facts, reason, or the best notions of what is good for human individuals and human society.  And if others dream of future which is even more thoroughgoing in its rationalism, it is our humble contention that it will be an unlikely one unless there is first such a future as we anticipate.

  

A GLOSSARY OF “RELIGIOUS” TERMS FOR FREETHINKERS

 

The following dictionary definitions are from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

Church

1.   A building for public, especially Christian worship.

2.   Often Church . a. The company of all Christians regarded as a mystic spiritual body. b. A specified Christian denomination: the Presbyterian Church. c. A congregation.

3.   Public divine worship in a church; a religious service: goes to church at Christmas and Easter.

4.   The clerical profession; clergy.

5.   Ecclesiastical power as distinguished from the secular: the separation of church and state.

6.   Christian Science. “The structure of Truth and Love” (Mary Baker Eddy).

 

1.  In the U.S., there is no question but that most churches are Christian churches, and therefore usage reflects that fact.  But “especially” does not mean “only” or “solely.”  Non-Christian Churches have existed for some time and include the Unitarian-Universalist Church which has no official statement of faith and does not require anyone to subscribe to any religious belief.  As a consequence, many UU’s are Atheists.

2.  For substantially the same reasons, it is appropriate to consider NTCOF members collectively as a church.  Even more than is the case with faith-based churches, NTCOF members are the church because they freely contribute their time, energy, and financial support without anyone having been previously indoctrinated in the moral necessity of doing so under threat of hellfire and damnation.  In addition, since Atheism means no more and no less than a simple lack of belief in god(s), it is also true that NTCOF represents a specific denomination.  This is because NTCOF asserts the primacy of facts and reason in all human understanding of the objective world.  New Age Atheists, Atheists who believe in “Chariots of the Gods” space alien scenarios, and others who deny the existence of god(s) but embrace other irrational and superstitious beliefs would not agree with the message of NTCOF.

3. We hold regular religious services at which the good news of thinking for yourself is preached.

4. Since NTCOF rejects the notion of god(s) being necessary for anything, it operates under the leadership of Freethought clerics who are ordained by their willingness to do the work of ministering to the needs of their fellow Freethinkers.  This is not inconsistent with the practices of other religious organizations which have varying expectations of their clergy. [We’re not celibate!]  Muslims, for example, also do very well without an organized system of clergy.

5. Yes, we agree that the control that we exercise over the content of NTCOF teachings, services, publications, and the like are and should remain quite separate from that of the secular authorities.  Likewise, we ask and expect that governmental authorities do not involve themselves in our affairs, whether by discriminating against us on account of our theological opinions or otherwise.

 

Freethought

Opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.

 

This is an apt description and makes clear that we are not just Atheists.

 

God

1.   God. a. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions. b. The force, effect, or a manifestation or aspect of this being. c. Christian Science. “Infinite Mind; Spirit; Soul; Principle; Life; Truth; Love” (Mary Baker Eddy).

2.   A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people, especially a male deity thought to control some part of nature or reality.

3.   An image of a supernatural being; an idol.

4.   One that is worshiped, idealized, or followed: money was their god.

5.   A very handsome man.

6.   A powerful ruler or despot.[2]

 

Clearly, the only way that this term can be salvaged by reason is by understanding “God” as having the same cognitive significance as Rumplestiltskin, Paul Bunyan, or Caspar the Friendly Ghost.  That is, a Freethinker can say, as Clarence Darrow did in expressing his Atheism, that “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose!’  But a Freethinker can also say that “I believe in God in the same way that I believe in Mother Goose!”  Already, in fact, many intelligent people conceive of “God” in poetic/allegorical/symbolic terms.  Others equate divinity with love or the forces of nature, etc.  It seems likely that this is an indication that “God” is already somewhere along the way to joining all the other gods that are commonly considered to be the stuff of myth and legend.

 

Holy

 

1.   Belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sacred.

2.   Regarded with or worthy of worship or veneration; revered: a holy book.

3.   Living according to a strict or highly moral religious or spiritual system; saintly: a holy person.

4.   Specified or set apart for a religious purpose: a holy place.

5.   Solemnly undertaken; sacrosanct: a holy pledge.

6.   Regarded or deserving special respect or reverence: The pursuit of peace is our holiest quest.

7.   Informal. Used as an intensive: raised holy hell over the mischief their children did.

 

Here is yet another word that is in transitional usage.  Although certainly derived from and still associated with supernatural ideas, the kernel of meaning is distinctly that of important and significant value not necessarily restricted to the divine.  Even the seventh definition given, which is arguably the most prevalent usage outside of ecclesiastical circumstances, is plainly one that is not connected so much with religious faith as it is with supreme prominence or significance.  Indeed, the word “holy” may be as objectionable to some for its superstitious connotations as for its growing scatological associations as in the expression “holy sh**.” 

 

Pastor

1.   A Christian minister or priest having spiritual charge over a congregation or other group.

2.   A layperson having spiritual charge over a person or group.

3.         A shepherd.

 

1. In the case of NTCOF, those who accept the challenge of trying to address the spiritual needs of their fellow Freethinkers can be properly said to be ministering or otherwise carrying out a pastoral function.  Since this is a major part of NTCOF’s activities, one of its four Founder/Directors has gravitated, out of aptitude and inclination, to focusing on the pastoral functions of the church.  NTCOF does not, nor should any Freethinker, for any religious organization, consider the title of pastor to be a title of superiority or authority.

2. To the extent that anyone could have “charge” over another, a Freethinker would interpret this to means a self-imposed responsibility and not an authority.  So, for example, any individual may assume the responsibility of trying to do something for another, even if it is something as “trivial” as listening to them.

3. Freethinkers reject the notion of themselves as being sheep.  But some may consider those who blindly and unquestioningly follow the dogmas and doctrines of faith-based religions to be demonstrating ovine behavior. 

 

Religion

  1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

 

1. This could only be true for a Freethinker in a very abstract way as follows.  Freethinkers do “believe in god(s),” but only in the same way that they “believe” in fairies, leprechauns, and Mighty Mouse.  That is, they believe that all facts and evidence indicate that god(s) are imaginary.  Yet it is worth noting that, besides god(s), the human imagination is also the source of every sort of human understanding, because of its ability to postulate an order in the phenomena of nature.  This being the case, the human imagination is certainly worthy of a large measure of admiration and respect.  There is no question but that NTCOF is “grounded” in this thinking.

2. Being a Freethinker is enough for us.  If someone wants to be a Freethought monk or hermit or whatever, well, that’s their business, whether or not they’re a member of NTCOF.

3. Freethinkers look to a long line of individuals who rejected authority and dogma for their beliefs, values, and practices.  From the very first individuals to whom it occurred to shape a stone tool to the skeptical, incisive, and innovative thinkers of our day, Freethinkers take their lead in their determination to understand themselves and their world as best they can for themselves.

4. Freethinkers may be more or less zealous and/or conscientiously devoted to their views.  But there is no question but that some are very zealous and very conscientiously devoted to them. 

 

Religious

  1. Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.
  2. Of, concerned with, or teaching religion.
  3. Extremely scrupulous or conscientious.

 

1. See Religion #1 (above).

2. Freethinkers are quite “concerned with” religion.  Indeed, Freethought is “opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.” (see Freethought above)  Freethinkers are religious in that we care deeply “about questions of religion,” though “religious” is also used, even by many unbelievers, as a synonym for “superstitious.”

3. See Religion #4 (above). 

 

Soul

1.   The animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.

2.   The spiritual nature of human beings, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.

3.   The disembodied spirit of a dead human being; a shade.

4.   Soul. Christian Science. God.

5.   A human being: “the homes of some nine hundred souls” (Garrison Keillor).

6.   The central or integral part; the vital core: “It saddens me that this network . . . may lose its soul, which is after all the quest for news” (Marvin Kalb).

7.   A person considered as the perfect embodiment of an intangible quality; a personification: I am the very soul of discretion.

8.   A person's emotional or moral nature: “An actor is . . . often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not” (Alec Guinness).

9.   A sense of ethnic pride among Black people and especially African-Americans, expressed in areas such as language, social customs, religion, and music.

10. A strong, deeply felt emotion conveyed by a speaker, a performer, or an artist.

11.       Soul music.[3]

 

Freethinkers deny the existence of metaphysical entities for lack of evidence and inconsistency with the principles of reason.  To the extent that anything about human beings is immaterial or incorporeal, it is no more and no less than the subjective human consciousness.  That is, although scientific methods could perhaps, in principle, fully account for every sort of human perception that people can describe, and perhaps even some that they cannot describe, no material explanation for a report of an experience is the same as the experience itself as it is subjectively perceived.  This is fully consistent with 5) – 8) (and perhaps 10)) inasmuch as it is commonly understood that the important part of human beings is not the particular atoms and molecules of which they are composed, but the particular organization and activities of those materials.  Nor is there any reason to suppose that human consciousness or personality can exist independently of that organization and activities.  Clearly, although the most widespread usages of 1)-4) are those of superstition and supernaturalism, the word “soul” is already being demystified and is a sign of progress. 

 

Spirit

1.   a. The vital principle or animating force within living beings. b. Incorporeal consciousness.

2.   The soul, considered as departing from the body of a person at death.

3.   Spirit. The Holy Spirit.

4.   Spirit. Christian Science. God.

5.   A supernatural being, as:. a. An angel or a demon. b. A being inhabiting or embodying a particular place, object, or natural phenomenon. c. A fairy or sprite.

6.   a. The part of a human being associated with the mind, will, and feelings: Though unable to join us today, they are with us in spirit. b. The essential nature of a person or group.

7.   A person as characterized by a stated quality: He is a proud spirit.

8.   a. An inclination or a tendency of a specified kind: Her actions show a generous spirit. b. A causative, activating, or essential principle: The couple's engagement was announced in a joyous spirit.

9.   spirits. A mood or an emotional state: The guests were in high spirits. His sour spirits put a damper on the gathering.

10. A particular mood or an emotional state characterized by vigor and animation: sang with spirit.

11. Strong loyalty or dedication: team spirit.

12. The predominant mood of an occasion or a period: “The spirit of 1776 is not dead” (Thomas Jefferson).

13. The actual though unstated sense or significance of something: the spirit of the law.

14. Often spirits  (used with a sing. verb). An alcohol solution of an essential or volatile substance.

15.       spirits. An alcoholic beverage, especially distilled liquor.[4]

 

Virtually all the same considerations that apply to the word “soul” apply likewise to that of “spirit.”  Note that the more practical notion of a “soul” as reflecting the private, subjective, and personal experience of the human condition fits very well with 6) because it is widely recognized that such concepts as “mind,” “will,” and “feelings” cannot be objectively measured or otherwise detected.  The philosophers call this general difficulty “The Problem of Other Minds.”  The many and varied usage of the word “spirit” as found in the dictionary again support, as they do in the case of the word “soul,” the notion that this is a term which is being progressively demystified.  It would certainly be a step backward, as well as needlessly helpful to superstitious doctrines, to limit its usage to that of 1a), and 2)-5). 

 

Spiritual

1.   Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material.

2.   Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.

3.   Of, from, or relating to God; deific.

4.   Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred.

5.         Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.[5]

 

This word clearly relates to the terms “soul” and “spirit,” which, as shown above, are already on the path towards being reinterpreted in a naturalistic/experiential way.  Therefore, like the words “soul” or “spirit” there is no logical reason for a Freethinker to be unduly deterred from their use.  (Though there are Freethinkers who are so deterred.) For one who has the understanding of these terms as indicated above, the word “spiritual” is applicable to that state of subjective consciousness which is self-consciously self-aware of perceptions commonly described as delight, elation, appreciation, satisfaction, contentment, self-respect, anticipation, hope, longing, confidence, love, and others that people often feel uncomfortable with labeling as mere feelings or emotions, though they are that. 

 

Worship

1.   a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object. b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.

2.   Ardent devotion; adoration.

3.   Often Worship . Chiefly British. Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship.[6]

 

1. We consider the power of the human mind to make sense of facts and reason to be sacred.  We express this belief in various ways which demonstrate its operation.

2. We are ardently devoted to our belief that thinking is superior to believing, and that appropriate beliefs about ourselves and the world are derivative of thinking and not the other way around.

3. We don’t bestow such titles.  Those we make use of reflect practical reality.  See Pastor.

 

 

There are additional “religious” words, such as heaven, hell, angel, devil, grace, salvation, sin, and others, which are key concepts in superstitious religious schemes.  But unlike the word God (see above), these words are well secularized.  So, although Freethinkers will have no use for such terms in the task of constructing a rational religion, their secular use can only serve to continue to undermine their value to apologists for superstition.

 



[1] The first dictionaries didn’t appear until the 18th Century and Noah Webster’s dictionary first appeared in 1828.  Yet some people today, even people who fancy themselves to be honest and reasonable, seem to regard the dictionary with the same reverence and invest it with the same sort of unquestionable authority that superstitionists and supernaturalists assume where their Holy Bible or other sacred scripture is concerned.

[2]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

[3]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

[4]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

[5]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

[6]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

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