“I have a religion — but you will call it blasphemy,” he wrote in a letter in 1865. “It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor … Perhaps your religion will sustain you, will feed you — I place no dependence in mine. Our religions are alike, though, in one respect — neither can make a man happy when he is out of luck.”
By definition, skeptics are pretty skeptical. They question what they see as unfounded claims or dubious motivations, whatever the source. Now, they are questioning some of their own leaders.
With the success of organizations such as The Clergy Project — an online community seeking to provide a safe place for clergy members who reject supernatural beliefs — numerous former ministers are joining the ranks of the publicly nontheistic.
Some have risen to the leadership of prominent atheist organizations. Last week, Teresa MacBain was dismissed from her high-profile position at Harvard University’s Humanist Community after it was revealed she inflated her resume. The former United Methodist pastor claimed a degree from Duke Divinity School she did not have.
“Our society needs so much and thriving secular communities could make significant contributions, ” wrote Donald Wright, author and organizer of the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers, on Freethought Blogs. But, he added, “My unsolicited advice is to be skeptical of this new wave of leadership.”
Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.
But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. Along the way, I got to thinking how the powers that be are the ones causing us to be so cynical. Maybe that is part of their plan — to actually cause and create more cynicism in order to prevent the kind of personal commitments that would threaten them with change.
And this is where faith comes in.
In another sign of the emergence of nonbelievers in American society, the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization of more than 300 college-based clubs for atheists, humanists, agnostics and other “freethinkers,” is helping to establish clubs for high school students to hang out with other teens who share their skepticism about the supernatural.
“I am hoping that atheist students having their clubs and religious students having their clubs will promote dialogue,” said JT Eberhard, director of SSA’s high school program. “I also hope it will let the atheist students know that you can be an atheist and its okay. You are still a good person. We want to say: Here is a place where you can feel that.”
There were about a dozen such clubs at the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic school year, a figure that rose to 39 in 17 states by summer break. The clubs are student-led, with SSA providing information and guidance only upon a student’s request.
Some clubs are in states with high levels of “nones” -- people who claim no religious affiliation -- such as New York, Washington and California. But some are in the buckle of the Bible Belt: North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas all have at least one high school with a club for atheists.
And more are forming. Students at 73 different high schools have requested “starter kits” since January of this year, according to SSA.
Typcially, cults don’t garner media attention unless they do something really big, like when Heaven’s Gate rose to the public eye in 1997 after 39 members committed mass suicide. And while cults may welcome newcomers openly or warily, it seems they prefer to remain elusive and secretive.
In the feature-length drama Sound of My Voice, Peter Aitken, a 20-something school teacher, is angry at the cultish fanaticism that led to his mother’s death (per her cult’s teaching, she refused to take medicine when she was gravely ill) and turns a cynical eye toward belief patterns he believes distort reality.
Shaped by an experience that left him void of parental companionship, he searches for meaning alone, not knowing what to believe.
Baby steppin': Economy grew 2.5 percent in the third quarter. Democrats first offer: $3 trillion for debt. Immigration is a faith issue. Harsh rhetoric to derail the GOP? The canon of St. Paul's Cathedral in London resigns over plans to evict Occupy London protesters. Elizabeth Warren and the #OccupyWallStreet election test.
First, here's the transcript portion of the last five minutes of President Obama's speech where he really got his preach on:
Well color me happy (as the saying goes): Wal-Mart just released a big claim to be greening up its act. But what does their claim really mean and how do we define what corporate green looks like anyway? Especially since lately, corporate green seems to grow everywhere, at times fertilized by a healthy dose of corporate greed.