Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Atheism and human needs

James F. Elliott worries that atheism ignores some human needs. It's a legitimate worry, but I think Greta Christina offers a terrific response:
There were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really -- the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.

PrayerAnd the things I didn't like... well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don't want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn't make sense to me -- not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way.
To a certain extent, atheism cannot address some real human needs: the need to embrace (and not resolve) mystery, the need for sanctimony, the need to privilege one's personal moral opinions as God's will, the need to believe in life after death. But there are many human needs which are perfectly compatible with atheism: community, emotional exhilaration, happiness and joy.

And there are some human needs that atheism seems especially well-positioned to address: Pervasive religious guilt and shame, especially about ordinary human emotions, especially sex and sensual pleasure, but also negative emotions such as anger, unhappiness and despair: no longer are the "negative" emotions terrible sins against God, but the ordinary storms of human psychology that can be ridden out and safely put aside once the feelings have subsided.

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