When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick (Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900)
“You can’t fool me. There ain’t no sanity clause.” (Chico Marx, Night at the Opera, 1935)
Once upon a time, believing in God was unfashionable. Now to come out an Unbeliever is almost as cool as–well, you know. Especially now that we know the Protestants were right in the sixteenth century about the Pope being the anti-Christ and how religion is really just the Devil’s costume party.
The problem is, now that everyone’s sticking it to religion, pop atheism is becoming as dull as people from Wyoming.
Imagine the following scene:
“Not much, how about you?”
“Still blogging about how fucked up religion is, though, right?”
“Not so much. Can’t think of anything new to say.”
“Yeh, me too. It’s like Dawkins said it all.”
“Or Hitchens. Hitchens had a lot of good points.”
“I got no spin.”
“Not even. My religious friends have started talking to me again.”
“Really, right? And when I reminded Jackie I don’t believe in God and how fucked religion is, she said good luck with that. Didn’t quote a single verse”
I’m not sure when pop atheism became unnecessary–but my notoriously eccentric opinion is that New Atheists done it in. Gave it too much oxygen, they did. “Weak opinions need but little air.”
The story hasn’t been about God–or his death or absence–for a long time now. It’s been about them, and what they think of him, or what their fan club thinks about them.
That’s important. Because in classical unbelief, whether we’re talking about Shelley or Hume, Dostoevsky or Huxley, it was mainly about him and the consequences of getting on in our moral life without the benefit of him. But that was yesterday. Yesterday’s gone.
Now it’s a repetitious lecture given mainly by pedants with a toff accent (a beard, or academic promise, will substitute for the accent if you’re American) who think that while God may be dead, he won’t lie down.
So time for someone to say, “Gracious me, you’re right. I don’t know how I missed three centuries of carping about God and religion. That’ll teach me to doze through philosophy classes. There isn’t a God. There never has been. Not really I mean. Just stories and theological postulates and churches. All a great waste of time and real estate. We’d better shut up now and stop being so damned reasonable. [pause] So…what do we talk about now?”
Once Upon a Time in the West
Time was, atheism was quaint and curious, distaff, contrary and therefore necessary. That was when people actually believed in the things they were supposed to believe in: the trinity, the Virgin birth, creation in six days (weekends off), sin, forgiveness of sin, life everlasting, transubstantiation, infallibility (papal or biblical–you choose), the holiness of priests and the wisdom of rabbis. That’s the short list, by the way, but it’s getting shorter.
Nowadays religious people just say they believe in the paraphernalia. Because they think they need to appearto be who they always thought they were: home-schooled Baptists, “pro-life” Catholics, liberal, all-embracing protestants, culturally rejectionist evangelicals–that sort of thing. Asking a religious person of the American species if he believes in some doctrinal alphabet is a bit like asking him if he believes in dressing warm in winter.
But the polls I read tell a different story. They suggest that to self-identify only with a denomination or a univocal religious position is becoming more and more rare, even among people with very white teeth and broad smiles who say “Christian” when you ask them their sexual preference.
When the beliefs I just named ruled the hearts and minds of European peasants, as opposed to school boards in Oklahoma and Texas, they were really believed. They had to be because the most ignorant people in the world were being taught these “truths” by the glittering brights of their day, intellectual thugs who had the power to enforce their gibberish with penalties ranging from arduous fasts (not recommended if you’re undernourished already) to excommunication–a sentence of spiritual death and existential despair.
But the brightest and best of our day are not bishops and Oxford friars. That puts religion in a corner it has not been in, fully, until the twentieth century, playing defense for a “narrative” that is no longer compelling, clinging (selectively) to doctrines that seem either fanciful, impossible, injurious or wrong, and where its explanation of the world and recipe for human happiness, based on a world-denying hope for future, unmortgaged treasure, seems–doomed.
The inversion of authority and explanation from religious to secular changes everything. Religious persons, caught up in without catching onto this new reality, are seldom aware of the shift. And they are encouraged in their wistfulness by politicians and popes whose job now seems to be polishing the illusion. They live in a world where change is rapid, certain and financially profitable, even for them, but still revere “timeless truths” that are neither.
Atheists, who often complain about the second bit–the culpability of religion and politics in encouraging fantasy–need to be more attentive to the first bit–the difficulty of accepting a reality that may take another century (or longer) to be fully formed and probably will be born without an atheist midwife. After all, atheism is neither science nor authority. Rather than being an explanation of the world, it is only a stance toward implausible explanations.
Predictions about the end of religion and the dawn of a new age of scientific progress are centuries old now. They have been wrong on two counts. Religion hasn’t gone away and science has not vindicated the “reasonableness” of the species.
I don’t believe for a minute that even the prayingest, spirit-stuck pentecostal, in the privacy of her trailer, doesn’t have moments of serious doubt about her beliefs. Even Jesus-besotted Oklahomans live in a world where religious belief, every time it bumps up against scientific explanation, comes out a loser.
Believers (who come in different wattages, by the way) feel besieged by a world that leaves almost no room for traditional belief and value. Many of those beliefs are foolish and some of the values are dangerous and risible. But not all. When the congregation of the Abilene Temple Assembly of God try to be faithful to inherited religious ideas, in the same way they try to be faithful to their marriages, the results are…mixed. As a lived thing, they feel good when they are being good about religion, just as they feel good when their marriage is going well and the bills are paid–if that isn’t saying the same thing. It is not unreasonable or criminal to prefer security to anxiety.
For most of us (and not just people in Oklahoma) the “normal” state of affairs is to prefer the security of the familiar to what you don’t want to risk or lose because you don’t fully understand it, or can’t fully judge the consequences of not having it anymore. Religion is like that. It may be true that smart people find the immensity of the star-spangled cosmos more awesome than the idea of a creator and cosmic father. But smart people should also be able to apprehend the creature-feeling that has found immensities and galaxies empty of any meaning beyond their mere existence.
Yes, I know: we’re meant to take creationists and “Dims” as a “threat” to civilization and progress, and to bristle every time someone says that America is a Christian country. But, Jaysus help me, I don’t. I just think this is a position into which the course of knowledge has shoved the people who got a D- in high school biology their third time round. Atheism will never reach them. If religion has not made their life better, no religion will make it immeasurably worse.
Besides, loads of what the faithful believe and assume to be true is neither written down in Scripture nor taught by any church.
I heard from a Catholic student two weeks ago that her mother had received a “dispensation in the ‘nineties to have an abortion.” When I looked skeptical (did she mean for an annulment or permission to marry a non-Catholic?) she said, “No, really.” Remind me to review the documents of Vatican II again for this loophole.
And some years ago, a Christian student of mine regaled me with an interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (when to have a disobedient son stoned to death by the city elders) in which he concluded that the families for whom this law was intended were “not Jewish.” “That makes all the difference,” I said. God is indeed good.
Most Catholics who are militantly anti-abortion are not so militantly protective of the pope’s superhuman authority–from which the doctrine derives. They think of course, that the Church and the Bible are always in harmony because that’s what the Church wants people to think. You cannot be a good Catholic and believe otherwise, but you cannot be a bishop and believe that. Most protestants who cling to the literal meaning and inerrancy of scripture are really addicted to the ingenuity of private interpretation, the only way to get around its embarrassments and fatal flaws. God is as absent from these theological gymnastics as he is from Lucretius’ universe.
All of which is to say that unlike the atheist caricature of religious belief, the mistaken idea that by trivializing the complex you are just simplifying an equation in order to “solve”a problem, religion isn’t simple. It is unsimple both because it emanates from the complexity of human cognition and behavior going back to the formative age of the species and because the behavioral and cultural systems it has created flow outward; their direction cannot be reversed to a single source easily–maybe not at all.
It’s a favorite ploy of the new atheists especially to say that religion is the simpleton’s method for explaining the world and nature without astronomy and physics–a “default position” for dummies who don’t understand science. Maybe so.
But even if that judgment holds water, from the standpoint of the social sciences anyway it is merely a shabby and unscholarly opposite, the default position of men and women who don’t understand religion.
Maybe this is why so few serious scholars who happen to be unbelievers (most, in my experience) have time to be public about their atheism and why the sharpest criticism of the atheist popularizers comes from within the academy, where (by the way) the serious study of religion takes place.
More critically, it needs to be pointed out that the books on the subject have been written by men with credentials no more adequate for writing about God and religion than I would have writing about the phylogeny of nematodes (about which, however, I am endlessly curious.) Which is to say: the New Atheism by its amateurism and short-cutting undermines the work of description and analysis that might make unbelief a better understood phenomenon in the contemporary world rather than, as it is in the hands of the simplifiers, an underanalyzed “position” on a subject that is greatly misunderstood.
The Myth of Reason: Of Self-Evident Truth
Is the non-existence of God a self-evident truth? It’s a fair question and I would like to see it debated by Aquinas and Ayer, preferably in Latin.
One of the reasons I have trouble with the American Declaration of Independence is that it enshrines the concept of self-evident truth, a phrase propagated in the eighteenth century by men who believed in the myth of the Reasonable Man and Common Sense. It was a significant moment in the history of the West because by propagating the myth it became possible to believe in your own reasonableness–just as centuries before, believing in the myth of salvation encouraged you to believe that you were on the fast track to heaven.
But let’s not forget, for most “men” of the Enlightenment, belief in God was both commonsensical and reasonable. Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man is one of the most confident poems ever written, its central message being that the God of Reason has put us on earth to figure things out (“Say first, of God above or Man below/What can we reason but from what we know?”). And as for common sense, sometimes considered the underpinning wisdom of the American form of democracy–a structure built on the shoulders of farmers and laborers (don’t mention the slaves), not on gentility and inherited wealth (don’t mention the robber barons of industry and trade): Just look at the silly governmental structure Americans put into place in 1789, only because the revolutionary horde couldn’t wait for the British monarchy to descend into the irrelevance that was its fate. Can you imagine a reasonable organ of government anywhere in the world creating the filibuster?
I know freethinkers are an ornery bunch when it comes to packaging, but most are happy to believe in the equality, liberty and good life decreed as the gifts of an impressive creator to his remarkable creature without pausing to consider it’s a package deal. No creator, no self-evident truth, no gifts.
Would explicit atheism have helped us to bring about a better system? Would the cult of Reason have spread if, instead of doubting the Virgin birth, as Voltaire, Jefferson and Paine did openly, they would have begun by decrying the backwardness of the populace (which was pretty backward and remains stubbornly so) and sponsored blasphemy contests instead?
The proto-unbelievers of the Age of Reason could make a distinction between belief in God as a premise (or a useful metaphor for excellence), perhaps even a necessary fiction, and belief in a church that claimed proprietorship of the concept.
The great intellectual battle of the age wasn’t about whether God existed (though it was discussed) but how to wrest him from the pharisees who entombed him in church dogma. Most, in fact, tried to do the same thing (unsuccessfully) with the historical Jesus, for whom they had an intuitive respect. A bit later, the poet Matthew Arnold effused about the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and message.
Beyond the Myth of Reason: Intolerance?
One of the reasons I’m not a cheerleader for the “New Atheism” (as anybody paying attention to this blog knows) is that it exploits the myth of Reason after rejecting the myth of God. It takes the reason-myth as self-evident truth, which is a very dangerous way to handle any myth, including theistic ones.
True, these are different myths with different coefficients (reason is human, God divine). But the reification of reason is a cheat. A cheat because reasonable people find different things reasonable, and many of these things are as crazy as ever rang a belfry bell: eugenics, nuclear proliferation, cheap energy, strip mining, even the war on Terror–yes, even that, a bicameral legislature.
For every Jew killed by the Catholic Inquisition, ten people have been killed by science and reason, millions using the the best Nazi technology, thousands in Stalin’s pogroms and to bring the Cold War in with a bang at Los Alamos. Putting Science in God’s throne doesn’t make the diktats humane: it just changes tyrants. Atheism of a certain stripe descends into intolerant fanaticism. It becomes a cause, an organized frenzy for people out to document their liberation from the demons of ignorance.
Needless to say therefore that it appeals to people who need demons to feel like angels, a terribly religious emotion.
Do I exaggerate? Not when a New Atheist website screams:
“Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.”
Holy Mary: I wish I had a plowshare to beat into a sword.
Popular Atheism has become unnecessary partly because it became dull at the same moment it became popular, loud when it might have begun to talk in reasoned measure. Like the brightest flashing of a meteor before it becomes interplanetary dust, or the point at which milky sludge becomes ice cream, just before it melts.
So now what do we talk about?