Skepticism

Reason on the rise?

Where is everyone today? At church?

Whenever I see conversations about recent books like The God Delusion or god is not Great, I always notice that someone has to point out that these books are preaching to the choir.

I’d like to make two points in response:

1) Preaching to the choir is not a bad thing. I used to nod when I heard people make comments about preaching to the choir, but I never actually gave it much thought. That it was a waste of time was an assumption I’d adopted somewhere along the way and had never bothered to evaluate. Then I heard the playwrite Tony Kushner speaking about the subject and I completely changed my mind. One simple response is, “Sometimes the choir needs to be preached to.” The choir might need inspiration, the choir might need to be bold and sing more loudly, the choir might need to know it’s OK to be in the choir, the choir members might need to know they are not alone. You get the point.

That said:

2) I don’t believe these authors are just preaching to the choir. I’ve seen mention of their books in many places over the last few years, and lately these appearances are cropping up in some very unusual places.

This week I’ve been reading The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson. The book is about the way memoir has been coming into its own as a literary genre, with discussions of the various forms of memoir that have been popular in recent decades. All in all, an interesting book only to those who are already interested in reading or writing memoir. What shocked me completely was the conclusion of the book.

“Enlightened thinking by way of personal experience is taking many breathless forms these days,” Larson writes, “and not just in memoir. I have been moved by Sam Haris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2005), a polemical book Harris wrote following a long apprenticeship during which he personally explored Eastern and Western religious traditions.”

Larson goes on to discuss the content of The End of Faith, and paraphrases a few of Haris’s main points, then he makes a few of his own:

Memoir writers believe like Harris and other rational thinkers that there are new means by which we can understand why we have–why we’ve always had–such a prediliction to believe our self-deceptions. The science of mind (neuroscience) and the study of consciousness (psychology) can ground us in this pursuit. Our culture may be moving in a truth-telling mode like memoir, which questions traditions of myth-based literature, in the same way that our society may be moving toward science, which counters traditions of myth-based belief… To waken from superstition–be it religious or literary, cultural or personal–is the goal of human inquiry as well as the memoir’s reason for being.

By ending his own book with this topic, Larson gives it special emphasis in the discussion. I found it both encouraging and hopeful. Reading about neuroscience and cognitive science was a key turning point in my own journey from faith to reason. I’m proud to be a part of this growing choir.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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8 Comments

  1. The amusing thing, to me, about "preaching to the choir" in the context of atheism is that the religious literally do it every Sunday without batting an eye. IOKIYAT, I suppose.

    I do wonder about the origin of the phrase, though, and whether it might be a uniquely American thing. Certainly, in a Catholic/Episcopal tradition, there's nothing weird about it. They choir are lay, so far as I know, so why wouldn't they need to be preached to? (Do synagogues have choirs? Or anything analogous? I suspect the rabbinical consensus in preaching to them would be similar, if they did.)

    On the other hand, American evangelical traditions would hold that "spreading the gospel" is the most important goal for a Christian, moreso than personal spiritual development. In fact, the modern traditions (like the Baptist church in which I was raised) seem to ignore personal spiritual development entirely and focus on conversion as the only goal worth pursuing. In that sense, it's perfectly obvious that preaching to the choir is a bad thing, because they're already drinking the Kool-Aid; it's the damned heathens who've yet to quaff some.

  2. I like these books because my atheism is developing. Making the move from somewhat skeptical catholic, to lapsed, to agnostic, to atheist took time and thought. Even now my atheism is developing, and reading these books helps me develop my opinions and arguments.

    i think it's incorrect to say these books are preaching to the choir – if they were we wouldn't be seeing an upsurge in professed atheism. Whether the books are encouraging it (i suspect they are) or reflecting it, they are certainly helping spread the idea and encourage the respect for atheism as a legitimate position.

  3. I strongly considered going to church today. (Unitarian Universalist church that is, but the topic seemed a little too woo-woo today… oh well) Last topic at church I really liked was on Hitchens and Dawkins, oh but I had chosen it and was the one delivering it… :-) As far as I know the congregation was only 50%-60% "choir". It is a good thing to have a place to go to hear thoughts and ideas that echo one's own, but it's important to sometimes go out amongst the opposition.

    Speaking of which:

    I hear that the new show on ABC 'Eli Stone' perpetuated the autism-vaccine connection on their first episode.

    Ugh,someone cancel it please.

    NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/02/opinion/02sat4….

    I saw MacBeth on Saturday, (directed by Teller) and I bumped into none other than Rebecca! I was fairly certain it was her but she had on atheist jewelry which pushed my certainty level to the point of saying hello. Hi again! Thanks for starting this blog, so nice to finally meet you.

    All in all I had a great weekend!

  4. As a proud member of the skeptical choir, I quite enjoy a good sermon now and then from someone who knows what they're talking about, though I try not to limit my experiences to self-reinforcement alone.

    And even if the great majority of Dawkins' or Hitchens' readers are already in agreement with them, it's not like these books are going unnoticed by anyone outside of this niche community. They are reinforcing the ideas that, as you say, being part of the choir is okay, and is not something anyone's alone in. But they're also making quite a noise in the world at large. They must also be reaching people outside of the choir to some extent, letting them know too that it's okay to come and sit on a pew for a while, and find out more about what the choir are having so much fun singing about. Maybe I'm stretching the metaphor a bit far by now.

  5. Preaching to the choir is one thing. Being in the choir and listening to no-one but the preacher is another. I concur with those who say it's not so smart to only read that with which you already agree.

  6. I agree. I *like* reading books on atheism because it exercises my brain and continues to refine my stance. I spent so long being religious and not thinking about it that I'm still enthusiastic about being atheistic and thinking about it a lot.

  7. Yes, this is all good food for thought. I agree with Amanda; I find that I am forced to think more and more about the ramifications of my atheism. "Refining your stance" also includes becoming more articulate about what you believe and why, which can only be a good thing. And writerdd, I know you and I sort of had this conversation privately at one point, and the point at which I was thinking I disagreed with "preaching to the choir" being a good thing was in the case of deliberate agitation, which I was thinking is doing two things– preaching to the choir, and infuriating those who don't agree. But, the more I hear you articulate the topic and the more I think about it, the more I think it (meaning preaching to the choir) has a lot of value for all kinds of reasons. Everything from sending up a flag to identify yourself as a safe person for others to "come out" to, to forcing thought on the part of others who are possibly sympathetic but not quite as nuanced in their feelings about it yet.

  8. Good points.

    I'm not as well educated as Dennet, or as eloquent as Dawkins, and I can't even fathom Hitchens' political views, so it's refreshing to see someone with whom I disagree with so strongly express idea I do agree with so sussingly, slushingly well.

    Sometimes people ask me why I reject this or that religious belief – and then they learn to stop knocking on my door. Thanks to these guys I know more about the philosophical underpinnings of atheism and scientific skepticism. I know more about why religious people are religious, since I never was one. I know more about a subject that theist were talking about all too much. For a long time, “atheist” was something almost no one would admit to being and “atheists” were almost a kind of morality play boogeyman. Even if theists who accuse these writers of “preaching to the choir” are right, they can at least read atheists talking about atheism, rather than theists characterizing atheists.

    The Four Horsemen are pretty darn accessible and they discuss ideas with each other and people they meet [obligatory plug for TAM] so it's less like preaching and more like a conversation, if anything.

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