A note on being constructive

Having just posted a basically intellectual reply to two comments on “Carrying the Society as long as you can”, I want to also affirm the wisdom of what philosopher Philip Kitcher says in this interview, which you should listen to if you have any interest in the things I’ve been writing about lately. One of his main points is that simply reiterating the critical arguments against religion, as the recent spate of books by Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens do, isn’t enough. Because for many, religion is about satisfying our needs for meaning, community and spiritual growth, and whether it accurately represents the world is almost beside the point. So people won’t find it attractive to give up religion until there are alternatives that are equally meaningful and challenging, and we need to focus on that constructive project first and foremost. I hope to write more about this soon.

7 Responses to “A note on being constructive”

  1. 1 Pam Sep 4th, 2007

    Zach -

    This is the part that makes a lot of sense to me.

    This weekend I visited some Friends who are more christian than I on a retreat of sorts.

    First, in MfW, the only ministry was in very god-y language, and initially I felt a strong wave of eye-roll-y-ness, that I had to move past. Once done, though, I ended up in tears, as it was something that I needed badly to hear, even in language that I wouldn’t use.

    Secondly, I met the imaginary friends of a 2 year old friend of mine.

    I think of God frequently as an imaginary friend, hopefully with a level of complexity suited to grown-ups.

    I don’t mean, at all, to belittle the intellectual capacity of those who believe in God. But I also believe that most folks whose intellect I deeply respect (most Friends) aren’t caught up in the fundamentalist nonsense that says you have to believe untrue things to go to heaven. God is simply a way to name the unnamable, so that we can move on to experiencing it and loving each other. I think for some folks this works REALLY well, and I find I need less and less to take that away from them.

    As usual, my input doesn’t have a moral or a clean wrap up, just what I’m musin on right now…

  2. 2 Zach Sep 4th, 2007

    Right - and I don’t think I would be nearly as bothered by it if it were only liberal Friends we were talking about.

    It gets harder for me when you add in (1) Orthodox Friends, who often don’t fit your picture above, and *especially* (2) the 3.5 billion other monotheists, most of whom don’t fit the picture either. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m reminded of the joke about how it’s a shame that 99 percent of lawyers give the other 1 percent a bad name.

  3. 3 Pam Sep 4th, 2007

    Also puts me in mind of the folks I’ve met online who rebut me with some version of, “but if you’re an atheist, what keeps you from hurting(/killing/raping/stealing from) other people?

    I find it laughable, really, as if anything atheists have been observed (by others than myself) to be less likely to do many of those things,


    For some people the two are really intertwined.

    I sincerely hope that the vast majority of Christians would not rush out to do wanton violence if someone could definitiely disprove the existence of God to them, but there is something precious there, that for many is associated with “God” that we have to give another name, and perhaps even another body, to, if we are to expect, or even DESIRE that people give up their version of it.

  4. 4 Nils Sep 11th, 2007


    I find this idea, of creating a positive alternative to ‘magical-thinking’ religion, very appealing, even though I (of course) don’t know what the alternative would look like, and also don’t currently feel a desire or in a position to create one. But I’ve on multiple occasions recently thought about “secular” alternatives to religious practice – what if there were some organization that could provide the same sort of community, the sense of shared identity, the opportunities for collective fellowship, caring, and action, and - notably - the shared reverence for a common source of amazement and wonder, except that this source would be (e.g.) the universe, the cosmos, the beauty of life or of human culture, or whatever, instead of a traditional deity? I even once, while attending gospel music concert in which some of my friends were performing, mused about science-based alternatives to gospel music lyrics – what if, instead of singing about Jesus, there were songs with similar power and fervor that mentioned, I dunno, the beauty of the periodic table of elements? Mitosis? The scale of intergalactic space? Or the exquisiteness of scientific inquiry / the scientific method itself?

    I guess that’s straying a little from topic… but you get the idea. In terms of a non-religious community-focused organization, I would guess that’s been some of the appeal of clubs like Rotary, Elks, Lions, Kiwanis, etc., or I suppose any sort of organization with regular meetings and identifiable membership (or attendership). But there’s definitely something possible between these sorts of groups and traditional relgious communities, I think, that could involve a sort of evidence-based spirituality or whatever we want to call it.

    Did that make any sense? Hope so.

    Be well,

  5. 5 Michael Sep 13th, 2007

    Friend Zach,

    I am very grateful to you for sharing your post-Quaker, nontheist quest in this blog–as well as in your comments on other blogs.

    Though my journey is a different one, there are parallels which make your testimony very helpful to me in puzzling out my own (frequently shifting) place on the christocentric-to-nontheist continuum.

    I’ve just begun a series of posts on my blog, The Empty Path, in an effort to articulate my own approach to faith and practice, and to explore how folks might talk about both across the boundaries of our different spiritual “languages.”

    In the first post, “Am I a nontheist…? (Part I), I mention and link to four of your post-Quaker posts, simply because your articulation of some of the issues has helped me (I think) to better frame the telling of my own story.

    I hope you will let me know if I misunderstand or misrepresent anything of what you are intending to communicate to your readers.

    Thanks again for your witness.


  6. 6 Judy Sep 14th, 2007

    In response to Nils,

    I think we may have met through NYM; I’m in Milwaukee.

    Anyway, you might want to look at the World Pantheist Movement website, and the linked website on scientific pantheism. I find the “theology” appealing, and think you would too, although I have a lot of trouble with the structure of the organization which is registered as a church in Colorado. This “church” exists mostly on the Internet, though there are scattered groups of individuals who actually meet, none of which are in the Midwest.

    I have trouble with the term “evidence-based spirituality” and have decided that what I mean by spirituality is practices that restore a sense of connection to the universe and its unfolding process (which includes human civilization.) So maybe Buddhists who are cooperating with scientific study of their meditation practices are providing the world with evidence-based spirituality.

    My meeting community is very central to me. I want to stay connected to the history and traditions of Quakerism in terms of the processes we try to follow. The testimonies and social activism are fine, but not central. The World Pantheist Movement echoes a lot of the testimonies, and even manages a bit of activism in the environmentalism department. It doesn’t provide a very satisfying sense of community, at least out here in the heartland. And I have the sense that trying to instill Quaker process in the WPM would work about as well as trying to impose democracy in the Middle East. But perhaps some scientific pantheists could be recruited to Quakerism. And a few more Buddhists would also be helpful.


  7. 7 Jim Sep 25th, 2007

    I, like many humans, feel a need to connect. In my case, that connection must include growing ever more inclusive of the world around me. I label this journey mysticism, just as I label Quakerism a mystical religion.

    Ultimately such a quest causes great loneliness, even as it generates great spiritual rewards because the experience is “ineffable” (meaning that it cannot or should not, for overwhelming reasons, be expressed in spoken words). At those deepest times I can see the need in others to share the experience with the only “being” possible. A being whom is essentially spiritual and not rational. So I like your concept of God as a sophisticated “Imaginary Friend” and find that a nice framework for appreciating the theists among us.

    Despite the large varieties of spiritual journeys within, Quakerism provides me with a community of fellow travelers. Each of us share the choice to look inward instead of following a path laid out for us by a “weighty” spiritual leader. Like Judy I want to stay connected to, and feel at home with my Meeting Community. Like Judy, maybe I am filtering, but Quakerism looks like a centuries old tradition of looking inward and confirming outward, however different some of those journeys are from mine.

    I do expect non-theism will over time become a consensus truth in Quakerism and believe that Quakerism is the vessel for that journey. However, at the same time I feel no need to either impose or rush that particular journey to truth.

    For patience is a practiced art and I look forward to every chance I get to practice.

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  • So his initial message was always the same: give up your dependence on doctrines, rituals, preachers and everything else that is external to you, and find the light within you because that will teach you all you need to know. And you already know what the light is, because it's that that makes you uncomfortable about the things you do wrong. So take note of those uncomfortable feelings, and let 'the light in your conscience' show you what they're all about it. If you allow it to, the light will show you the whole truth of your life, and if you then accept that truth, it will set you free – free from guilt and shame, but also free from the powerful desires that made you act wrongly in the first place.

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