A Spotlight into the Chasm

Tom Flynn

In my previous essays on this subject (“Humanism’s Chasm,” FI, February/March 2019, and “Meanwhile, Back at the Chasm,” FI, August/September 2019), I probed the differences between older humanists, most of whom had cast off a traditional religious upbringing at measurable personal cost, and their younger counterparts for whom nonreligious identity often comes more easily. We saw that younger humanists were less likely to root their identities in the escape from religious belief—so much so that many have difficulty understanding why their elders find “religion stuff” so compelling. This, I speculated, might underlie the unwelcome fact that while the number of Americans giving their religious identification as “None” has mushroomed, the number joining national humanist or atheist organizations or subscribing to magazines such as Free Inquiry has remained largely static. This in turn suggests the existence of a fast-growing (pardon the expression) “silent majority” whose members are nonreligious but not forging bonds with national secular humanist, atheist, or freethought organizations.

My first two installments sparked fascinating dialogues in Free Inquiry’s letter column and in the real world. In this issue, Bruce E. Cathey offers a further rejoinder. In “The Chasm of Humanism: A Heuristic Response,” he posits a cohort of youthful doubters from fairly traditional religious backgrounds who fail to develop into humanists because they have difficulty accessing the information that might help them jettison their childhood faiths. Cathey may well have identified another missing cohort. But what about that silent majority discussed in my chasm essays?

Enter a new book that arrived on my desk for review. Talk about timing! In The Varieties of Nonreligious Experience: Atheism in American Culture (New York University Press, 2019), Jerome P. Baggett offers a sociological examination of what seems to be precisely the silent majority about which I’ve been writing—who they are, what they do (and don’t) believe, and how they build their values. It’s a most welcome spotlight into the chasm.

Baggett’s title pays tribute, of course, to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1902). But the book whose method it most echoes is Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert N. Bellah, et. al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). In powerful in-depth interviews, Bellah and his collaborators (among many findings) unknowingly predicted the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon of our time. If you’ve heard of Sheilaism, a narcissistic quasi-“spiritual” perspective centered on oneself and one’s unconsidered intuitions, it comes from Habits of the Heart; the eponymous Sheila was one of Bellah’s interviewees.

The Similarities. One reason I felt confident that Baggett’s target population might be my silent majority was that roughly 90 percent of his subjects disbelieved in God and religion but did not involve themselves with “movement” organizations. That’s just what I’d been baffled about: that seeming aversion to joining; Baggett offers credible reasons for it. “Most of the people in this sample,” Baggett writes, “are typically more occupied with their families, jobs, hobbies, and other everyday pursuits than they are with matters pertaining to their being nonbelievers.” He continues: “Only a small minority of American atheists actually participate in” movement organizations, subscribe to movement publications, and the like. “This is because, for the majority, their lack of religious faith is not truly at the core of who they are.” Choosing a metaphor from cosmology, Baggett acknowledges the “constellations of atheist communities, advocacy groups, well-publicized conferences, and so forth” but notes that his subjects stand largely outside of them. He calls them the “atheist ‘dark matter,’ people living nonreligious lives on their own, as they see fit and since they are not part of such constellations, largely imperceptible to observers’ detection.”

What has Baggett learned about his “dark matter”? For starters, its members share an “experience of living within a particular, faith-‘awash’ social order in which religion has been generally conceived in a particularly objectified, proposition-based manner.” Let’s unpack that summary, which compresses much insight into a hail of jargon. Baggett’s subjects are in one sense like other contemporary atheists, products of a society in which faith is expected, normal, ubiquitous—that is to say, a society “awash” in faith. Their atheism relies on a very particular conception of religion (an “objectified” worldview). Rooted in the Protestant Reformation, it centers on certain propositions about God, immortality, the cosmos, and so forth. Virtue is imagined to inhere in accepting these propositions as true as much as it involves, say, keeping the Commandments or aiding the poor. A religion that demands assent to alleged propositions of fact renders itself vulnerable to rationalist critique. It is against that particular sort of religion that atheists have tended to rebel since the Enlightenment.

In other words, Baggett’s subjects are in this respect quite similar to the secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers we know from our local groups and conventions, our fellow Free Inquiry readers, and so on.

They seem familiar, too, in that one aspect of their atheism is epistemological humility—an agnosticism that they see as “something unambiguously positive,” Baggett writes, “as a sign that they possess, along with integrity, a level of open-mindedness they generally consider hard to come by within American society.” Ironically, then, their epistemological humility opens them to hubris, surely a phenomenon common enough in our community!

Baggett’s targets are familiar in yet another way; like many of us, they see science and religion as fundamentally in conflict. Baggett, a religion professor at Santa Clara University (a Jesuit institution), vituperatively rejects the so-called “military metaphor” of science vs. religion. He dismisses its seminal texts, John William Draper’s A History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), as “almost uniformly disregarded by scholars today.” (Apparently the scholarly publisher Transaction saw matters differently in 2012 when it tapped me for an introduction for its new edition of White’s two-volume work. But I digress.)

The Differences. So far we’ve been cataloguing how closely Baggett’s silent majority—for whom atheism/secular humanism/freethought does not form the core of personal identity—resembles us, the more avid participants in organized unbelief for whom that orientation does tend to be central. Now we’ll turn to the differences between these two groups. They are substantial.

“Americans who identify as atheists tend toward a specifically ‘scientific atheism,’ the foundations of which are shored up by their broad-based acceptance of the science-versus-religion conflict myth,” Baggett begins. So far so good—but watch what surfaces next:

Sensing that there is something missing here, that the extreme version of this position, often dubbed “scientism,” fails to account for important facets of human experience, they draw upon culturally available notions of personal meaning and even spirituality to fill in the gaps inherent in this empiricism-based approach to disbelief. Ironically, this move toward holding unverifiable convictions concerning meaningfulness, purpose, transcendence, and the like brings these atheists closer to faith-based positions and to religious adherents than they almost ever seem to realize.

In other words, Baggett believes his subjects embraced the same coldly rational, scientific view of the universe that most of us do—but where most of us find this empirical, “scientistic” view satisfactory to “account for important facets of human experience,” Baggett’s subjects tend to blink. Finding strict empiricism unbearably arid, they tumble into “conceptualizations of spirituality—attempts to grasp and live in accordance with such nonmaterial realities as love, beauty, awe, interdependence, and so forth.” (Deal with Baggett’s oxymoronic reference to “nonmaterial realities” [emphasis added] as you will.) Yet in his interviews, Baggett found such dime-store spirituality “extremely salient for … one-third” of those he studied. Here, then, lies a significant divergence between at least a sizeable minority of Baggett’s study population and the atheists and secular humanists most of us know firsthand.

Yet an even greater divergence—a chasm of a different sort, perhaps—now awaits our discovery.

Asked to reflect on the finitude of life, a plurality of Baggett’s subjects said that “awareness of the limited ‘running time’ of their days actually intensifies their experience of living, especially in terms of enhancing feelings of responsibility and gratitude.” Um, gratitude? That seems a disingenuous stance for atheists, which Baggett’s subjects largely are. Gratitude, after all, is transitive; it requires an object. To be grateful is to be grateful to something … or someone … to which or to whom the grateful person implicitly ascribes intent, or at the very least agency. For gratitude to be warranted, it must be possible that the entity conferring some benefit upon the grateful person might have taken a less beneficial course—that consciously or unconsciously, it could have “chosen” otherwise. Feeling gratitude toward the cosmos for sustaining one’s existence—not an atypical stance for the self-declared “spiritual but not religious”—seems incompatible with a thoughtful atheism that recognizes there is no one (or nothing) “out there” to be thanked.

A Shocking Variance. The third axis of difference is a whopper. Almost unanimously, Baggett’s subjects display a shocking moral incuriosity. Baggett explains in his own words:

[Most atheists studied] are unreserved in insisting that they are unquestionably able to discern how best to live. They do not need … “to go to church or get an advanced degree in philosophy.” They … do not need “an ancient book” or a “lot of unnecessary doctrines and other thou-shalt-not bullshit” or “the threat of eternal damnation” to be good and respectable people. Partly because they alone bear the ultimate responsibility for their lives, partly due to their sense of morality’s sheer basicness (“Just don’t be a dick,” “Be nice,” and so on) … they do not consider it necessary to outsource their moral discernment. No clergy or gurus or bodhisattvas need apply. They are perfectly able to take care of this on their own.

Can the majestic sweep of human moral inquiry really be reduced to the “sheer basicness” of “Don’t be a dick”? According to Baggett, most of his subjects think so. Such a naive and simplistic view is a latter-day Sheilaism, a willful ignorance unable to imagine that social changes might render old ethical verities obsolete or that philosophical labor might be required to develop optimal moral responses to new life situations. Nothing could be further from most secular humanists’ habitual determination to hone new ethics in response to changing times. I captured that determination in admittedly inflammatory language in my 1993 polemic, The Trouble with Christmas:

When we confront the world of purpose and possibility, we cannot know for certain what is right. But we can know that almost without exception, our instinctive assumptions, our received social forms, our musty rituals and ancient traditions are wrong. They developed in response to and were superbly attuned to a world of mystery and limited expectations that no longer exists. Consequently, whatever may be the appropriate social and cultural response to the conditions of modern life, it is far more likely to be an innovation yet unthought of than to be any hand-me-down of our past.*

Baggett found his subjects’ moral indifference sufficiently disturbing that he reproduced a dialogue with the interview subject who coined that deathless moral precept, “Don’t be a dick.” Though brief, it’s the longest such quoted exchange in the book; clearly Baggett thought it important. He reported that the subject “talked about obeying the law, respecting others, doing his part within the local community, and basically making sure that ‘everything’s not all about me, you know?’ Yes, I said, but:”

[Baggett:] How do you know that all this is what you should be doing?

[Subject:] … I think our morals come from the society we live in. So I really just try to live out what I learned from my parents, my schooling, from the whole culture—from everything. It’s all informed me.

[Baggett:] Right. But here’s what I think is a tough question … if society changes all the time, why are the morals it conveys at any one point in time trustworthy?

[Subject:] I don’t really know the answer to that.

The bulk of Baggett’s subjects apparently present themselves as naïfs who settle for consensus morality, animated (to the degree they are animated) by “a desire to take traditional values for granted rather than create new values.”**

Baggett is right to be dismayed. “[O]ne could look askance at atheists for reifying the modern moral order or, at the very least, for not demonstrating the kind of critical perspective toward it that one might expect of people who … ‘question authority’ of all sorts.” If only these smug unbelievers, so self-satisfiedly agnostic about the supernatural, could bring a similarly agnostic openness to moral conundrums. Almost wistfully, Baggett asks: Are his atheist subjects

unknowing enough to truly say yes to something new and not, as unquestioning “believers” in the “truth” of cultural mores, to something that smacks more of an unacknowledged fidelity to un-interrogated meanings and norms? … A more valuable contribution might be for atheists to question God and the myriad lesser gods; to question the “unseen order” and the “modern moral order”; and to question the religious dogmas articulated from American pulpits and those enjoined by the Sittlichkeit [consensus morality] of American culture.

“Movement” secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers (including, I hope, most who read this magazine) do that reasonably well and always have. (There’s a reason veteran humanist educator Kristin Wintermute recently included “Ethical Development” among ten commitments for living humanist values. Another was “Humility,” a quality arguably lacking in folks who think they already know everything they need to know about morality.***) After all, we’re the community whose restless moral inquiry helped “mainstream” the idea that abortion was licit and helped redefine the roles of women in the sixties … who set the terms of a moral dialogue in the seventies and eighties that forged modern ethical guidelines for end-of-life medical treatment and, however imperfectly, established partial recognition of the concept of death with dignity. In our own time, our community has been a leader in renegotiating the terms of our society’s encounter with its fast-growing nonreligious minority.

Indeed, it seems those of us who are actively involved carry forward that work on behalf of a truly, deeply silent majority whose members don’t even recognize that the work is going on.

Maybe Some Chasms Shouldn’t Be Bridged. My earlier chasm essays assumed that our movement’s failure to recruit among the Nones was a problem—that we needed new ways to engage with those millions of new Nones who weren’t coming forward to engage with us. Now I am not so sure. If Baggett is right that the “dark matter” atheists “largely imperceptible to observers’ [that is, to our] detection” are in part spiritually muddy-minded and almost unanimously morally incurious—if they genuinely think that “not being a dick” is platform enough on which to construct anyone’s ethical life—then maybe, just maybe, our movement is better off if this population keeps on keeping its distance.

Of course, this analysis depends on two unknowns: whether I am right in identifying my “silent majority” with Baggett’s study population and whether Baggett’s intriguing findings will be replicated by other researchers. If so, then we activists for whom humanism or atheism forms a core of our identities may need to think of those Nones who stand aloof less as a missed recruitment opportunity and more as a brute fact. That these people will never be fully with us may represent simply a phenomenon we must accept, one for which a reasonable explanation is in hand.



* Tom Flynn, The Trouble with Christmas (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993), 236.

**Nolen Gertz, Nihilism (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2019), 181.

***Kristin Wintermute, “Living Humanist Values: The Ten Commitments.” The Humanist, September/October 2019, pp. 16–18.

Photo: Trevor Littlewood (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).