'Show me the compassionate atheist communities'
Do you know any good poo and wee stories? This is the question that confronts me as I arrive at Windsor Hill Wood, an open-door community run by the writer Tobias Jones and his wife Francesca, in Somerset. They live there with their three children - Benedetta is eight, Grace is five, and Leo is three - and there are five beds for guests. In the open-door tradition of Christian communities like Pilsdon and Little Gidding, those beds are available to anyone who turns up looking for shelter. For £10 a night, you get food and board, as long as you obey the three rules: no drink, no drugs, no physical or verbal violence. As a bonus, you get to field unusual questions from the children.
Windsor Hill Wood is a refuge for the wounded (particularly those suffering from substance addiction) and an experiment in communal living. It’s also a family home. The Jones children are full of life and mischief. Benedetta is at the age where she is amused by poo and wee, so, in an attempt to limit her dinner-time interjections, Toby has suggested setting aside a brief period after-dinner for ‘poo and wee stories’. Benedetta informs me of this as soon as I arrive, and says I have an hour or so to think up some good poo and wee stories. After dinner, she turns to me expectantly and says, ‘Here’s my story: when I was younger I peed in the bath. Now what’s your story?’ Grace, on my right, is amused by my name. ‘Jules? Like crown jewels?’ And she immediately sets to work making me a crown from some cardboard and feathers. I feel honoured.
Toby says he was inspired to set up the community by the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning and afternoon, he goes to prayers in the wig-wam chapel on the edge of the wood. The prayers are 15 minutes of silent contemplation, and are completely voluntary. Guests are expected to take part in woodland work in the mornings - feeding the chickens and pigs, chopping wood, making furniture in the workshop, tending to the vegetable patch, fixing stuff. Every meal is taken together.
I first came across Toby last year, at the Hay-On-Wye book festival. He was there to talk about the detective novels he writes, the profits from which he uses to subsidize Windsor Hill Wood. In the festival bookshop, I picked up his book Utopian Dreams, a brilliant account of his travels with his wife and the one-year-old Benedetta to visit various spiritual and religious communities - a Quaker retirement village, a new age commune, a Catholic village without money or TV, and finally the Pilsdon open-door community in Dorset. Their stay in Pilsdon inspired the Joneses to set up Windsor Hill Wood. The book is also a meditation on community and faith. Toby tells me: “We used to live under one shared sacred canopy - Christianity. Now faith has been privatized, and turned into a lot of little personal umbrellas.” ‘Cocktail umbrellas?’ I suggest. “Yeah, right!” And the price of that privatisation, Toby thinks, is that we have become alienated and lonely.
It’s not all bad, though, is it? I point out that the ‘shared canopy’ that existed before the Enlightenment involved the ruthless extermination of those who didn’t accept the dominant umbrella, whether that be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gnostics, pagans or free thinkers. And community isn't all good: I'm quite glad I don't live in a village where the vicar checks to see if I'm behaving myself. I like the freedom to choose my own beliefs, my own path.
Still, Toby offers a serious challenge to secular humanism, one which leaves me pondering as I drive back up the A303 to London. In Utopian Dreams, he wondered why faith seemed so important an inspiration to community. Someone in the book asks of the charitable and voluntary sector: “Where are the humanists and Fabians and socialists?” I ask Toby to explore that point further. He says:
Some friends sometimes say 'you could do this without the religious element', and I always reply ‘show me the atheist communities that do it. Where are the humanist communities that have an open-door policy, that genuinely look after all the people in need?’ And I’m afraid they don’t exist, or I haven’t discovered them. Even those iconic charities that are now secular in the way they run, like Save the Children or Emmaus or Amnesty International, their inspiration was religious. I’ve yet to discover the agnostic or atheist community that shows that degree of compassion. In theory, love of humanity is a sufficient motive for compassionate communities. But show it to me in practice. I’m more interested in the fruits than the roots.
If that’s the case, I ask, why would that be? Toby replies:
What does it say about religion? That it’s true. You can’t re-package religion for a secular age and say ‘the sacred is really useful, because it helps us build community and makes us compassionate, ethical people. So let’s take the Sermon on the Mount and forget about God’. That’s not going to work. The core of religion is true, not just the fringe benefits. All the other stuff is a consequence of God. I know I’m in a tiny minority, but I don’t think you can put the cart before the horse. Religion gives humanity an extra gear for cruelty and stupidity and witch-hunting and all the stupid things religions have done for millennia. But it also gives humanity an extra gear for fellowship and compassion. Religion should in theory entirely remove the focus from the self, so that the paramount thing is no longer me and what I’m going through, but something external. That works on the personal level and at the community level, because the community has something outside of itself that is sacred and paramount. We can get together to be reciprocal and compassionate to each other, but that doesn’t suffice. You need something external that gives devout purpose to a bunch of human beings.
The fruit, not the roots
This got me thinking. Certainly there are many noble charities and organisations which were inspired by religion, from the Red Cross to Alcoholics Anonymous. But there are also many worthwhile institutions that weren’t inspired by religion, such as the entire United Nations and all its works, including UNICEF and UNDP. I can also think of many humanists and atheists who have done a great deal to relieve human suffering (if we're talking about the fruits and not the roots). Albert Ellis, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was a fervent atheist, and quite an egotist, but the therapy he developed has helped millions of people out of suffering. Not to mention all the scientific advances that have relieved human suffering, from penicillin to the household toilet. Some of the scientists who helped build the modern age were religious, but many were not. Some might not even have been that kind or sociable. But their inventions have dramatically improved the conditions of our life.
The secret of the modern age compared to the religious age is that it’s not about the saintly charismatic individual - the Mother Theresa or the Jean Vanier. It’s about effective laws, effective technologies and effective institutions. That might not sound very soulful but, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out, a good pragmatic reform like the minimum wage is more important to relieving human suffering than any number of saints or Salvation Armies. And sometimes good inventions and good laws are made by not very saintly people, like the philanderer Lloyd George. As Adam Smith pointed out, sometimes not very moral behaviour (like status-seeking) has pro-social benefits (like higher economic growth).
There is a big evangelical revival in western Christianity at the moment, a revival in the belief in miracles. That revival is often fuelled by westerners traveling to the Third World, particularly Africa, and witnessing miracles there. Some of my Christian friends are very inspired by this revival and the power of faith and charisma to heal sickness. In some ways, I think this revival is a flight from modernity. Look at child mortality rates or life expectancy in countries with a low level of faith and a high level of scientific expertise, like the UK, and compare it to life expectancy in African countries, which have high levels of faith and low levels of scientific expertise. Faith may sometimes work wonders, but chemotherapy cures more people of cancer. Post-religious societies like the UK are also, on the whole, less violent than intensely religious societies like, say, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. I know it’s simplistic to lay those countries’ problems entirely at the door of religion, but religions seem to me to get in the way of solving those problems, rather than helping people arrive at pragmatic and effective solutions.
But of course, secular liberalism has its downsides. As I put it in Philosophy For Life, we have won our privacy, but at the cost of terrible loneliness. We have relied heavily on the scientific, the instrumental, the technocratic. We have relied on scientific expertise divorced from human feeling. And that has sometimes led to vast bureaucratic institutions like the welfare state or the NHS, which can sometimes feel impersonal, un-compassionate, soulless even. They are contractual rather than transcendental. We meet in them as service-users and service-providers, rather than humans.
We still hunger for loving communities, we long to be joined together in a common sense of the sacred and transcendent. In the last few months, several humanists have suggested the need for ‘humanist churches’ in recent months, from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the School of Life, to the humanist chaplains of Harvard, to the new atheist church in Islington, set up this month and run by two comedians. I’ve taught classes at the School of Life, and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It offers ideas, stimulation and community to people without faith in God. It is a platform for some of our best thinkers and writers - this week it hosted Richard Sennett. The School means something to people. It helps them think about their values. And yet Toby’s challenge is a good one to consider.
The problems with humanist communities
Firstly, do humanist communities have good moral leaders? Do they offer us worthwhile moral patterns we can embody in our own life? Many of the most prominent humanists are prominent not because of their emotional or moral qualities, but because of their scientific skill. But not everyone can be a world-class scientist like Richard Dawkins, so that sort of leader is of limited use as a pattern to imitate. And in many humanist leaders, I see an egotism which is not present in the best religious leaders like, say, Jean Vanier. I follow one of Harvard’s young humanist chaplains on Twitter. Every other tweet of his is a retweet of a compliment someone has paid him. He seems to be motivated by the desire for publicity and approval. Nothing wrong with that. Me too, and I'm older than him and should know better. But I want my spiritual leader to be better than that. I want them to be above the desperate desire for fame and publicity that affects most of us (particularly me). I think of that line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.’ Thine is the glory. Without God, I think we can easily end up glorying in our own images. Watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, I was amazed how often Cox’s own grinning face fills the cosmos. Again, nothing wrong with that, why shouldn't media personalities have big egos? I'm just saying, we hope our spiritual leaders are better than that.
Secondly, do humanist communities have the emotional depth of religious communities? How low do they go? Are they capable of facing the depths to which the human spirit can sink? Are they open not just to the educated and well-heeled, but to the broken and wounded, and to human suffering in all its ugliness and awkwardness and blood and poo and wee? Much as I love the School of Life, I think it caters essentially to the middle - the middle-class, and the middle-suffering. I don’t think it would be much help to the truly broken, to the sick, to the dying. I think Roger Scruton is right that secular humanism struggles to find appropriate emotional reactions to major life events, like death. It often becomes mawkish and sentimental, or simply bathetic. Life isn't all ha-ha hee-hee. The atheist writer Alom Shaha visited Islington's atheist church recently, which is run by two comedians, and wrote:
The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).
Yes, it does. But fellowship isn't just about learning facts, nor is it about TED-like solutions for better living. It's also about facing failure, suffering and death together.
Is it possible, then, that Toby is right, and that having something in common outside of us - God - allow us to open up and be vulnerable to each other and to share our imperfection and woundedness? Does it enable us to take off our masks and meet each other? One thing that strikes me about my Christian friends is the central importance they give to friendship and meeting. They listen to each other, honour each other. They take their relationship with God very seriously, and they also take their relationships with other humans seriously. I admire that.
Finally, does humanism place too much emphasis on the rational autonomous self? I’ve met some addicts who enjoyed reading Philosophy for Life, and who commented on the parallels between Stoicism and the various Twelve Steps programmes like AA or NA. Both, for example, emphasise knowing the wisdom of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But AA goes deeper than that. It says that we’re not in control, we can’t do it on our own. We need God and other people to help us.
Well, this is a complex area. Let me end by telling you my poo and wee story. I had broken my leg skiing in Norway, and was flown back to the UK and picked up from the airport in an ambulance. We were driving down the M4 to London, and I needed to pee. So the medic next to me gave me a urine sample bottle to pee into. But I really needed to pee, and it became rapidly clear to me that I was going to pee more than the capacity of the bottle. ‘I’m going to fill it!’ I said. ‘Is there another bottle?’ There wasn’t. As we sped down the M4, the medic and I looked around desperately for another container. Then a voice came back from the driving seat. ‘Use this’. And the driver passed back his lunch box. Sighing with relief, I peed into that. Was the ambulance driver a theist or a humanist? I don’t know, but I was grateful for his help.
I interviewed Tobias for a podcast for Aeon Magazine, which will be released shortly.
In other news:
Here's former LPC speaker Peter Kinderman on why grief and anxiety aren't illnesses, with reference to DSM V.
Next Tuesday, come and hear Jacqui Dillon, director of the Hearing Voices Network in England, talk at the LPC about her experience hearing voices, why the experience can be meaningful, and how the Network helps voice-hearers to help themselves.
On February 6th, come to the School of Life and hear me talk to philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy helped her when she faced a potentially terminal illness.
I'm launching a six-part evening course on Philosophy For Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, starting Tuesday 5th February. It's free. Details here.
The OUP has published a new Handbook on Happiness, with contributions from leading UK positive psychologists like Ilona Boniwell and Felicia Huppert, and well-being policy pioneers like Nic Marks and Geoff Mulgan. Looks great, if expensive.
Struggling to get PhD funding? Head for Asia.
Here's an article in the Daily Mail (sorry) about the Liverpool reading project and its latest neuroscience research into what complex poetry does to our brain.
Here's an article about Drake's philosophy of YOLO (you only live once).
This week's newsletter is sponsored by NIETZSCHE BARS.