Better Vicar than Wicca?

I see via Andrew Sullivan that secularist Andrew Stuttaford argues that atheists should bring their children up in a relatively innocuous church lest they wind up choosing a more radical faith on their own:

Belief in a deity (or deities), and the desire to worship it or them, is an almost universal aspect of human nature. This not something that can be wished or indoctrinated away, and it’s pointless and maybe even destructive to try. It’s far better, surely, to channel that impulse by giving children some sort of gentle religious grounding, preferably in a well-established, undemanding, culturally useful (understanding all that art and so on) and mildly (small c) conservative denomination that doesn’t dwell too much on the supernatural and keeps both ritual and philosophical speculation in their proper place. Better the vicar than Wicca, say I.

This strikes me as akin to giving your children powdered cocaine lest then try crack on their own.  After all, it’s natural to want to experiment with mind-altering chemicals!

It’s true that there seems to be a human instinct towards supernaturalism and seeking a Higher Meaning in life.  But most of Western Europe is quite secular these days, so presumably religiosity is not an immutable part of the human condition.

If one wishes to steep one’s children in art, why not take them to a museum or enroll them in classes?  If positive ritual is desired, why not Scouting or team sports?  And what is the “proper place” for philosophical speculation, anyway?

UPDATEJulian Sanchez weighs in with a lengthy response to Stuttaford.  He argues, persuasively, that the “desire to worship” is really a combination of a need for community and a means of coping with the challenges of a complex existence.   Many have found tools other than religion to satisfy those needs.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. andrewkfromaz says:

    I’d argue that Western Europe’s trend towards secularism hasn’t served it particularly well, as evidenced by myriad societal problems, including population decline.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I’m sure the baby boom in the Islamic world is serving it tremendously well, if we’re to use that argument.

    As for scouting, one of its core beliefs (in the boy scouts, at least) is a belief in God (in whatever form or denomination). It is definitely not supportive of an Atheist view of the world (I have two boys in the scouts).

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think they’re paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything”.

  4. Bithead says:

    That quote, Dave, was on the tip of my fingers, as well… you beat me to it. That said, it seems to me that the conclusions Stuttaford draws are based on the problem identified in that now axiomatic quote.

    I will further that by suggesting that there are a great deal of negative consequences to the culture that until recently have been at least discounted if not ignored… and Stuttaford seems to be looking at that aspect.

    It’s true that there seems to be a human instinct towards supernaturalism and seeking a Higher Meaning in life. But most of Western Europe is quite secular these days, so presumably religiosity is not an immutable part of the human condition.

    I think you overstate the case, James. A leaning against orginized religion does not of itself indicate that religiosity is not an immutable part of the human condition, particularly in light of your point about the human instinct towards supernaturalism and seeking a Higher Meaning in life. (That such instinct exists would certaily seem confirmed by some, as you put it choosing a more radical faith on their own.)

    That instinct for religiosity has simply taken on a different form.

  5. legion says:

    Better the vicar than Wicca, say I.

    Ah yes. Spoken like a true pompous blowhard. Surely people who don’t believe in the existence of God (or perhaps of his God) simply can’t take their belief as seriously as he does. Why not simply teach your children to lie, or believe in things that actively contradict your own most basic principles, just to ‘get by’ a little better in society?

    If this sounds a little like the tactics of bigoted parents trying to get their homosexual-leaning children to ‘act straight’ in order to get by in society, IT SHOULD. Jeez, Andrew – try to have a little self-awareness.

    On a related note, I wonder what Andrew thinks about the recent trend of proselytism in the military’s chaplain corps in Afghanistan?

  6. Joe R. says:

    Does Stuttaford even know anything about wicca? It doesn’t seem so. It’s my understanding that they mostly just meet together and say prayers and peform rituals to supernatural things that don’t really exist, which is precisely how this atheist would describe Christianity (or anything else).

  7. floyd says:

    Legion;
    “I know what you’re thinking about,but it isn’t so, nohow. Contrariwise,if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic!”
    So… does the entelechy of atheism, having eschewed all things spiritual, necessarily embrace statism as it’s source, or is it that, having embraced statism as the only legitimate source of entelechy, one must serve one’s master by denial of all things spiritual?
    Either way… Why so bitter?

  8. Rick Almeida says:

    Um, floyd? There’s no necessary link between atheism and statism. But I do thank you for making me recall my Aristotle.

  9. Tlaloc says:

    I really wish everyone would chill out and let kids just be kids. From the sexualization of young kids to the stupid books trying to indoctrinate kids as republicans or democrats to sunday school lessons… I find it really nauseating and borderline abusive to try and force a subjective world view on kids before they have the cognitive ability to evaluate it.

  10. Tlaloc says:

    Does Stuttaford even know anything about wicca? It doesn’t seem so. It’s my understanding that they mostly just meet together and say prayers and peform rituals to supernatural things that don’t really exist, which is precisely how this atheist would describe Christianity (or anything else).

    Having been married for several years to a practicing witch I can say that there was nothing particularly weird involved. Hell, if you take transubstantiation seriously that’s a lot more twisted than anything you find in conventional pagan religious worship.

  11. legion says:

    I’m with Rick – who says statism is the only source of self-actualisation? Are you trying to connect atheism with authoritarianism? I mean, the Communists tried to stamp out religion as a competitor to state authority, but that was because they had explicitly set the state up as superior to all individual needs, and atheism has nothing to do with that concept on its own.

  12. floyd says:

    “”Who says statism is the only source of self-actualisation?””
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    I tend to think that self actualization derived from statism could only be a mental illness!

  13. sam says:

    If I’m not mistaken the late great, great Sophie Tucker addressed this very issue in her song,
    Makin’ Wicca Wacky Down in Waikiki. Which got her into doodoo with the mayor of Honolulu who accused her of preaching voodoo. Sophie responded by threatening to put the hoodoo on the mayor’s looloo if he didn’t back off. The mayor left town the next day for an extended vacation.

  14. Michael says:

    This strikes me as akin to giving your children powdered cocaine lest then try crack on their own.

    Only if you consider moderate religious beliefs to be akin to powdered cocaine.

    I’m an atheist, my kids attend the same church I attended as a teenager. We talk about God, we read their children’s bible stories. I avoid stories about death and destruction, mostly because of the age and intellect of my kids. It’s not hurting them any.

  15. William d'Inger says:

    Too much tunnel vision. When one steps back for the broader view, religion is only one form of belief system. It’s really no different than communism, environmentalism or any other -ism. They are all dogmatic, intolerant of disbelievers and illogical. When one asks: “vicar or wicca”, it is the moral equivalent of asking: “paper or plastic”. Other than true believing zealots, WHO CARES?

    My take on the subject is that the more sophisticated the person the less the need for the crutch of religion. If you believe, that’s fine with me. Just don’t bother ME with your nonsense.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    When one steps back for the broader view, religion is only one form of belief system. It’s really no different than communism, environmentalism or any other -ism. They are all dogmatic, intolerant of disbelievers and illogical.

    Hmm, does capitalism get thrown into that list of -isms too…

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    I’m an atheist

    there is no such thing as a atheist.

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    My take on the subject is that the more sophisticated the person the less the need for the crutch of religion.

    lol!!!!!

  19. DL says:

    “It’s true that there seems to be a human instinct towards supernaturalism and seeking a Higher Meaning in life.”

    Clarence Thomas might refer the tendency to recognize the goodness of our Creator as natural law -that which has been infused in us at creation.

    The other gift has been free will which allows us to choose our salvation for eternity or debunk God and suffer with our own idolatry for that same endless time.

    To debunk God is to acknowledge His existence. If He exists and you still choose to debunk Him, you lose!

  20. Michael says:

    there is no such thing as a atheist.

    I don’t believe, therefore I am.

    Ignoring the things you don’t like doesn’t actually make them go away.

  21. floyd says:

    Michael;
    “Ignoring the things you don’t like doesn’t actually make them go away.”
    A great message to atheist’s everywhere!
    Thanks![lol]

  22. floyd says:

    William d’Inger;
    Are you saying sophistry is a better crutch than religion?
    Wouldn’t your argument be better served to say that the great texts of the world’s religions, being false, only represent sophistry at it’s best. Therefore, sophistication is what gave you this burr in your side in the first place.
    You see, you can be profane without being very complicated, and you can be very complicated without being profane, therefore a sense of superiority must seek a different source![lol]

  23. Grewgills says:

    I’m an atheist, my kids attend the same church I attended as a teenager.

    Why?

    Too much tunnel vision. When one steps back for the broader view, religion is only one form of belief system. It’s really no different than communism, environmentalism or any other -ism. They are all dogmatic, intolerant of disbelievers and illogical.

    Really, any -ism?
    anthropomorphism , collegialism , conceptualism, empiricism, epiphenomenalism, humanitarianism, pragmatism, rationalism, agnosticism, atheism, etc.

    there is no such thing as a atheist.

    Some equally true statements.
    There is no such thing as a Christian.
    There is no such thing as a Jew.
    There is no such thing as a Muslim.
    There is no such thing as a Republican.
    There is no such thing as a Democrat.
    Plug in any -ism to the list.

    To debunk God is to acknowledge His existence.

    If I debunk unicorns or fairies, does that acknowledge their existence.
    Does that also work for effective real world communism?

  24. William d'Inger says:

    Hmm, does capitalism get thrown into that list of -isms too…

    Absolutely.

    Are you saying sophistry is a better crutch than religion?

    No, Floyd. I mean sophisticated in the broad sense of enhanced logic capacity, not in the narrow sense of practicing sophistry. Christianity, for example, is assuming an ever lessor role in Western society as the Western nations become ever more advanced.

  25. FranklinTest says:

    Ahhh, this thread has attracted an ad from “Arsenic & Old Lace: Your One-Stop Occult Shop”. I’ve been looking all over for one!

    Anyway, with regards to why Michael the atheist has his kids attending a church, I would guess it is for one of the following reasons:

    a) community
    b) culture, including art & music
    c) lessons in life

    Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, there’s a lot of history to learn from and about. In other words, some of Jesus’ parables are applicable to today’s life; I occasionally tell some to my 4-year-old, and allow him to think about the interesting things that other people believe in.

    Besides, one needs to keep your enemies close.

  26. floyd says:

    William d’Inger;
    Even though I am Christian, I can still read well enough to know that. I used the root word to make the point that sophistication for the purpose of bigotry is sophistry.

  27. Michael says:

    A great message to atheist’s everywhere!

    Floyd, atheists don’t ignore God, we just don’t see any evidence of his existence.

    Anyway, with regards to why Michael the atheist has his kids attending a church, I would guess it is for one of the following reasons:

    Add “Family” to the list too. I don’t have a problem with churches, nor people who believe in something I don’t.

  28. Tlaloc says:

    Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, there’s a lot of history to learn from and about. In other words, some of Jesus’ parables are applicable to today’s life; I occasionally tell some to my 4-year-old, and allow him to think about the interesting things that other people believe in.

    Parables are fine. In fact parables are great. If people were willing to use the bible merely as a source of parables and as a historical document (i.e a window into some of the ideas of the times) then I doubt anyone would have a problem with it being used in our secular schools.

    The problem as always, is that there are enough screaming fundies who demand it be taught as literal truth, even the parts that contradict the other parts and the parts that contradict empirical fact.

    They ruin it for everyone.

  29. Michael says:

    Parables are fine. In fact parables are great. If people were willing to use the bible merely as a source of parables and as a historical document (i.e a window into some of the ideas of the times) then I doubt anyone would have a problem with it being used in our secular schools.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote just such a Bible.

  30. floyd says:

    “”Floyd, atheists don’t ignore God, we just don’t see any evidence of his existence.””

    And you get all bent when arguing with those who don’t ignore evolution, they just don’t see the natural evidence of it’s existence.

    Spiritual blindness does not constitute a lack of evidence, it’s just spiritual blindness,willful or otherwise.
    I understand both,skepticism is healthy,but a closed mind is unscientific.
    Very soon the issue will be settled for both of us, if you are right neither will ever know.
    The Gospel Truth is,however…..we will both know.

  31. sam says:

    I understand both,skepticism is healthy,but a closed mind is unscientific.
    Very soon the issue will be settled for both of us, if you are right neither will ever know.
    The Gospel Truth is,however…..we will both know.

    Boy and is he gonna get it, right Floyd? Betcha looking forward to his damnation. Right?

  32. floyd says:

    Sam;
    It is not God’s will that any should perish, but that all should come to a knowledge of the truth. Please consult your dictionary for the word gospel, then you will clearly see that I wish him no harm. To be more succinct, the answer to your question is… Wrong.

  33. sam says:

    It is not God’s will that any should perish

    Not God’s will, but all too many “Christians” of my acquaintance would have it otherwise. But you know, the guy had it right: The last Christian died on Calvary.

  34. Michael says:

    And you get all bent when arguing with those who don’t ignore evolution, they just don’t see the natural evidence of it’s existence.

    We’re not talking about science, we’re talking about religion.

    Spiritual blindness does not constitute a lack of evidence, it’s just spiritual blindness,willful or otherwise.
    I understand both,skepticism is healthy,but a closed mind is unscientific.

    The problem with “spiritual” evidence is that it can’t be shared with someone who doesn’t already possess it.

    Very soon the issue will be settled for both of us, if you are right neither will ever know.
    The Gospel Truth is,however…..we will both know.

    Unless we’re both wrong, in which case we may both be in the same boat.

    Boy and is he gonna get it, right Floyd? Betcha looking forward to his damnation. Right?

    That’s not fair, sam, Floyd has been perfectly civil with me.

  35. G.A.Phillips says:

    I say it again M and Grew, you guys are to smart not to believe in God, witch means one thing, you have been indoctrinated big time.

  36. G.A.Phillips says:

    Boy and is he gonna get it, right Floyd? Betcha looking forward to his damnation. Right?

    Real Christians don’t what this to happen to you, real Christians are still sinners,and there is always hope while you still breathe.

    and Floyd I believe is the real deal.

  37. floyd says:

    “”We’re not talking about science, we’re talking about religion.””
    “””””””””””””””””””
    True, but the intent was to show a parallel.
    many people want to be willfully blind to scientific fact, just as spiritual blindness is often willful.
    ”””””””””””

    “”The problem with “spiritual” evidence is that it can’t be shared with someone who doesn’t already possess it.””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””
    Whether one chooses to access it or not, every man is given a measure of faith[even the size of a mustard seed is adequate].
    ””””””””””””

    “”Unless we’re both wrong, in which case we may both be in the same boat.””
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    My point was not whether the theology is right. It is whether there is a God , If not, I am assuming no awareness after death of the body, thus we would not know.
    In the Case of a living God, we will both know whether we are both saved or not.

  38. sam says:

    That’s not fair, sam, Floyd has been perfectly civil with me.

    You’re right, and I apologize to Floyd for my intemperance.

  39. Michael says:

    I say it again M and Grew, you guys are to smart not to believe in God, witch means one thing, you have been indoctrinated big time.

    I grew up in Methodist and Souther Baptists churches. If there was any indoctrination, it was on the side of Christianity, not atheism.

    True, but the intent was to show a parallel.
    many people want to be willfully blind to scientific fact, just as spiritual blindness is often willful

    But I can prove that evolution happens, empirically. Moreover, I can tell you how to prove that evolution happens, and guarantee a result. You can’t do the same with regards to religion or spirituality.

  40. floyd says:

    You can’t do the same with regards to religion or spirituality.””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Certainly I can prove religion exists.
    There are still more churches, mosques and synagogues than there are dinosaurs. That would be adequate proof of religion, even if I could not produce one believer![lol]
    You seem to think that I am a religious person,this is simply not the case. Christianity is no more a religion than true science is, yet it is apparent that some on each side would make it so. Only a fool would deny something so obvious as gravity, life, or the existence of God.

    Now just for fun…..let’s look over the edge…

    I am reminded of the movie “Matrix”, The character Thomas A. Anderson was content with his unshakable reality, until he took a step which shattered it forever.[life is but dream…shaboom]

    Abandon your paradigm occasionally. Explore the possibilities. Your reality will still be there when you return![if you still want it.]

    Perhaps, reality is but a sensory illusion…
    [You can’t prove it isn’t!]
    Perhaps you and I only communicate in a dream. Is it mine or yours?
    Maybe it’s mine and you don’t exist, or perhaps it’s yours and

  41. Michael says:

    Certainly I can prove religion exists.

    Well yes, I thought you understood what I meant. You can’t prove the supernatural to exist.

    Only a fool would deny something so obvious as gravity, life, or the existence of God.

    I can test for the existence of gravity. I can test for the existence of life. I can’t test for the existence of God.