The God Viruses

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Cleopas the Atheist

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women — where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

Ophelia Benson has claimed that it’s now fashionable to kick the new atheism around: it’s so first-half decade of the new millennium.

She is probably right. Nothing is more fun than to trample on icons when they’re already on the ground, whether it’s Lenin or Saddam Hussein, or the dude you were rooting against on Survivor Nicaragua. There is something immensely satisfying about knocking the hubris out of heroes who only yesterday were treading on red carpets, as the Greeks discovered when Aeschylus sent Agamemnon for a bath. If you ever wondered about the phrase “kicking Johnnie when he’s down”–it’s all relative to how far up Johnnie was when he fell.

Time marching on

And I have done my share of kicking–even before the final Act of Pride when four mediocre thinkers, none of them especially knowledgeable about religion, dubbed themselves “new” (as in atheism) and imagined themselves riding like Durer’s Four Horsemen against the horizon of the new age of unbelief. In fact, modus-operandically, they were much more like the Four Evangelists, telling much the same story: God does not exist; Religion is awful; People who think otherwise have IQ’s somewhere lower down on the evolutionary scale they don’t believe in.

Messiahs over Perrier

There was absolutely nothing new about new atheism except a naive confidence on the part of certain organizations (here nameless) that their messiahs had come. Unable in their own right to be anything but small, they found a role as booking agencies for the rock stars of the atheist wave.

The funny thing about messiahs, religious and political, is that they both come and go. That’s why Christians have always held to the second coming–the really important one, when all the things that were disappointing about the first one, especially the non-recognition of the savior and his untimely death before his work was done, will be put right. In the case of the new atheists, messiahship even came with choice: a couple of professors, a plain-spoken but slightly mystical graduate student (then), a sharp-penned intellectual. It was an embarrassment of bitches.

But it could not last. And now the question is, what was it all about, this shining anti-Christmas star that adorned the secular heavens for five years, give or take a year.

I have never been able to resist analogies to religious experience because, whether atheists like it or not, religion and irreligiosity have a lot in common. In fact, as atheism has everything to do with religion, only religious analogies are apt. Here is one:

In a piercing note of disappointment recorded in the Third Gospel (Luke before you peek), a group of wayfarers returning from celebrating Passover in Jerusalem encounter Jesus incognito on the road. It is, suggestively, three days after the crucifixion. Jesus asks them, in so many words, “Why the gloomy faces?” And a certain Cleopas proceeds to recount the events of the last few days, including reports of the empty tomb. Cleopas also registers his own disappointment:

“We had been hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel.”

The story has been overwritten by a heavy hand with no appreciation for the irony of Cleopas’s belief that they had it wrong: that Jesus was not the messiah after all. The story does not end there, though it should have.

Before atheist pecksniffians point to the improbability of this little scene: I do not believe this encounter ever happened. But I do believe the scene is instructive far beyond its grounding in folklore and legend. Stories are funny that way. Less than a century after this piece was composed, the Jews of Palestine had found a new messiah and went down to defeat, once again, by choosing the wrong man for the job of deliverance. If they had only had two-year election cycles they could have chosen many more and been spectacularly wrong each time.

Bar Kochva

The early Christians developed their faith without books, on the basis of stories that eventually got written down and much later canonized.

The fame of the new atheist messiahs followed a far more rapid course: They began with texts, four of which became virtually canonical within four years.

Their following developed as “book events,” helped along by media, and driven by sales. It’s the difference between a reputation culminating in a book and books culminating in reputations. And yes, for purposes of my little analogy, it does not matter that the reputation of the former is sparkling with stories of the miraculous and the improbable, anymore than it matters that the books of the latter are derivative and repetitious.

The atheist authors, without pressing the analogy to its pretty obvious margins, enjoyed immense stature. Extravagant claims were made, not least in titles like The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell.

Of course there was nothing to prevent religious apologists from writing back, and they did–in droves–books that with one or two exceptions were even worse than the books that evinced them. The intellectual battle was really fought in the reviews and even in the blogosphere, much of which was acidly critical of language, argument and methods–including my own review of Daniel Dennett’s book. But nothing stood quite as tall, for a while, as the icons their followers erected to them in the naked public square. Nothing seemed to pierce the aura of the atheist olympians. Except time.

The key similarity between Christian messianism and atheist messianism is the idea that “at last” things are going to change. That liberation is at hand, achievable in the work of others. It just takes knowing who to trust–who the real deal is. I would be the first to say that the resumes of the canonical new atheists were impressive–a bit like being born of Jesse’s lineage, David’s son. It is interesting that we require our messiahs to be credentialed–either by signs and wonders, priestly and preferably royal lineage, or failing that an Oxford degree.

But at its heart, messianim is all about people wanting a change–people who feel they’ve waited long enough. People, to put it bluntly, who are feeling a bit desperate, outnumbered, isolated.

Atheists in the last century have relished being a minority, in the same way Christians basked in their minority status in the Empire. Small is good when big is bad. David and Goliath, the short guy taunting the big bully–archetypal, isn’t it, but fraught with danger.

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time Christianity (the world’s largest religion) had that kind of radical reputation, an immoderate sect, a philosophy, to quote the emperor Julian, that turned the world upside down, and from an earlier period even the stigma, according to Tertullian, of being organized atheists. But it did.

We live in a twenty first century global village, not first century Roman Palestine, so what counts as radical and revolutionary will obviously be different from the faith of the ragtag confederates who “believed the gospel.” What they believed in their time we will never quite be able to comprehend. That includes people who think they believe it now as well as people who don’t believe it because, sensibly, they think its shelf-life has expired. Those who think they know, don’t. Those who feel they are brighter than those who think they know fail to understand the unavoidable intellectual boundaries of the ancient world. This is no one’s fault exactly. The surety of the fundamentalist Christian and of the atheist are equally based on a marked indifference to the weird nexus between history and imagination, myth and reality. I can honestly say that I have no real sense of what made someone a Christian in the year 50CE other than what I know about frustration and a gnawing feeling that my time has come. And I think that no first-century Christian would make it even as far as the writings of Augustine (which they would not have been able to read) before he would find Christianity unrecognizable. Time wounds all heals.

The early Christians were “atheists” because they rejected the imperially-approved gods, making them the religious minimalists of their time. –Richard Dawkins’s over-quoted quip that some of us go one step further performs the inadvertent service of pointing out just how radical the church was in its day.

Yet I have to admit that I’ve always found it remarkable that the Christians not only survived the execution of their leader but turned the symbol of his humiliation into a symbol of their success. Ever wonder why the icon of choice isn’t some crude rendering of an empty tomb? Yes I know: crosses are easier to make. But even before they were made as amulets to hang around Christian necks, Paul comments on the fact that the death of Jesus, not his life, brings about that apparently most desirable of states, salvation. And this is because in the theology he strives stutteringly to adapt to his non-Jewish listeners, instruction, even a literal physical resurrection of believers counts for nothing. Death? Sacrifice? Immortality as a bonus? Now you’re talking. But what is key is that you can’t do it by yourself: the Christian is in an utter situation of dependence on the deliverer from sin and death.

Paul of course had the salvation myth of the mystery religions in view, a kind of thinking that has not made much sense or borne scrutiny for over a millennium. His huge disservice to humanity is that he taught people to distrust themselves–that the empty tomb was a real promise, a symbol, of eternal life, not an image of a life that has to be lived here and now, built block by block and choice by choice. His whole message pivots on the Old Testament idea that salvation comes through a heavenly other, not through human effort. Even an amateur like George Bernard Shaw knew that Paul’s “monstrous imposition upon Jesus” had profoundly negative effects on the course of civilization. It still does. They don’t know it, but when unbelievers begin to disbelieve, it’s Paul they disbelieve in.

But as a post-Christian radical theologian I have my own interpretation of what the gospel means. As a humanist, I believe it means no God will save you–us. The life of all messiahs ends in the same message: Do it yourself. It does not matter whether the message is oral or written, offered in philosophical jargon, rendered in code. It’s all the same. People who put their faith in deliverance by others will ultimately have to find their own way out of every mess.

Religion has not been the solution to the troubles of humankind–we all know that–and it has created conditions of war and poverty that don’t resemble, to any recognizable degree, the angelic salutation of Christmas night. It should come as no surprise therefore that Christmas night was no part of the original story, and despite the annual maniacala of the holiday season, Christianity has almost nothing to do with Christmas.

It has much more to do with Cleopas’s disappointment, or, in Mark’s gospel, the shuddering awareness of the women that the tomb is empty; Jesus was not there. They were alone. Maybe he had never been there. They had certainly always been alone.

What does all of this have to to do with new atheist messiahs? Curious isn’t it that so many atheists had waited in the dark for so long for light to shine in their darkness. Every secular organization was ready to hitch its wagon to their rising star. Every evangelical pharisee was ready to pounce on their message of liberation from the darkness of superstition and credulity. The defenders of the old religion, especially in what had come to be called the “post-9-11 world,” almost guaranteed their prominence. The unchurched created a virtual church around them. At its most extreme, and fair to say mainly among the organizations who exploited their work, religion became the very devil and “science and reason” sacraments of deliverance.

The stunts and gimmicks like Blasphemy Day, for anyone with a little historical savvy, resembled nothing so much as the pageant wagons that rumbled into medieval European villages with their stock of stereotyped nasties: Herod, Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, the Devil himself. Whatever the new atheists were, the atheistism they spawned was part polemic, part simple buffoonery, mainly humbug. It was strangely suited for an illiterate age in which the movers and shakers themselves, like false messiahs throughout time, thought they were original and promised goods they couldn’t deliver.

Popularity is the death of every radical movement, or rather the death of its radical nature. New atheism didn’t die because fundamentalists were “right” or because evangelicals crucified it, or even because philosophical critics (maybe that’s my niche vis-à-vis this movement) warned that it wouldn’t last for long.

It set itself up for a free fall proportionate to its quick rise because its messiahs accepted the title–relished the title. Not a bit like the Jesus who, in one account of his interrogation anyway, demured by saying, “Call me what you want to.”

What is required of any believer and every atheist is the frank acknowledgement that the tomb is empty. The harvest is passed. The summer is ended. The messiah has never come and will not come. And we are not saved. But that is the challenge, not the end of the story.

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Giving Up on Spirituality

Ah, remorse. If I believed in its sanctifying effects, I would be a saint.

My Picture Here

Not for anything downright wicked, exactly, but for an article I wrote a few years ago called “The Soul of Spirituality.” In it I argued that the term is spacious enough–or fluffy enough–to accommodate all kinds of people who just can’t make up their minds about religion. Talk about wrong.

Now I think that my defense of the word was a little like asking for a bigger ballroom for bad dancers.

It isn’t that I don’t “believe” in spirituality. It’s that people who are advocating spirituality as a meeting place for religious and non-religious people are digging semantic holes while seriously confused people are filling them up with goo.

That was the late, great Tony (Antony) Flew’s point before he was seduced into a kind of vague, sentimental, tentative religiosity by some intelligent design advocates.

Flew believed in complexity, order, Newton, and Hume in that order. When he was confronted with the ID arguments of physicist Gerald Schroeder (misrepresented of course) he succumbed to his eighteenth century instinct and became (he said, somewhat confusedly) a deist. Something as grand as this world may as well have had intelligence behind it because it takes a very great deal of intelligence to comprehend it. The emerging headline was: Flew is a Christian.

Antony Flew

But I knew him pretty well, and at his sharpest, and he never was a believer, after adolescence (his father was a Methodist minister). His withering attack on “spirituality,” which he delivered at a conference at Oxford in 1994–the remains published under the title “What is Spirituality?” (Modern Spiritualities: An Inquiry, 1997) will always be an adequate summary, for me, of what he did believe. The strange case of his conversion will always be a reason for me why informed unbelief is preferable to the belief of the people who went after him for a trophy.

I highly recommend this book, even though I was one of the editors, and I strongly recommend Flew’s along with one other essay in the same collection by the renowned Gandhi scholar, Margaret Chatterjee: “The Smorgasbord Syndrome,” in which she asserts that westerners are especially prone to make a Swedish salad bar of Hindu, Buddhist, Kabbalah, Sufi and assorted esoteric traditions–as though spirituality is something you pick up at the supermarket, not something that comes to you through a specific religious tradition. I can’t imagine what she would make of adding the current frontrunners to the shelf: Mayan, gnostic, shamanistic-magical, and Microcosmic Orbit. (Whee: here I come again).

"Gathering the Light" Taoist yoga Chi energy cultivation technique.

My gripe about the seekers–well, one anyway–is that as they don’t know what they’re looking for, any dream will do. The modern idea of spirituality is that it’s disconnected from religious tradition–neither grounded in it nor corrective of it but an alternative to it. If that weren’t the idea, it wouldn’t be half so attractive to the shoppers. Rule number one: it has to be easy. Rule two: it has to be available. Rule three: it has to be blendable. The mix and match approach means you can remain a Presbyterian while having a Zen master on the weekend, or believing into existence the syzygy between Yeshua and Buddha, perhaps even thinking that a completely useless text like the Gospel of Judas can teach you secret wisdom that was erased by the villainous, earth-bound writers of the synoptic gospels.

Religions have always been syncretistic of course; but this hefty word simply means that, like language and political systems, as they encounter their others–other practices, other doctrines–they both accommodate and assimilate features orginally foreign to themselves. Even religions that have an obsessional worry about such evolutionary developments and overlays, like Judaism, have not been spared its effects. And religions that did not scruple to accommodate the stories and practices of its neighborer-faiths–Christianity and Buddhism come to mind–represent a pattern that is common from antiquity to the Reformation period and beyond. Sociologists sometimes call the process in its constructive mode “adaptation” and in its corrective or adversarial mode “fissipiration.” Spirituality and mysticism can be a case of either, but both are dependent on often well-defined religious traditions, both textual and liturgical. At a minimal level of popular spirituality, for example, the Catholic rosary is a borrowing from the Japa Mala(s) beads of Mahayana Buddhism, which also influenced the prayer life of Islam through the use of the Tesbih or Tasbih beads, and all of which derive from the Japa traditions of ancient Hinduism. In all cases you get about 100 repetitions (but often many fewer beads) of prayers special to the individual traditions. The official version is that the rosary came to St Dominic in a vision in the year 1216. The truth is, it probably didn’t.

18th century rosary

The “spiritualities” of an Eckhart, a Luria, a Rengetsu or a Jallaluddin Rumi were evoked by particular historical situations. They were attempts to reform or restructure what the spiritual writers regarded as morbid or threatening to the religious life of their own traditions. They derived their meaning and sometimes their success as regenerating movements from contingency, not from independence of tradition. Usually this meant moving beyond the textual level. In fact, the real opposite of the word spiritual is not religious at all, but literal from the Latin word for letter (litera).

The church, synagogue and mosque have always worried about mystical movements and spiritual revivals because the mystic is a borderline heretic when it comes to ideas like canon, authority, scholarly interpretation, exclusivity, and the finality of what was written in the sacred text. The fates of the Spiritual Franciscans (Fraticelli, declared heretical in 1285 by Pope Boniface VIII) and groups like the Ismailis, the Hurufiya, the Alawis, the Bektashi and even the Sufis, often regarded as heretics by the Islamic mainstream, tell the same story: suspicion and mistrust of groups pretending to deeper insight and a more direct channel to salvation than the unredeemed of the main body of believers or the hierarchy of authority.

A massacre of Anabaptist antinomians

We have to confront the possibility that someone who says “I’m spiritual, not religious,” is really just saying, “I’m not religious.” Or that they don’t know what “being spiritual” means. But that is obviously very different from what the term has meant throughout history, where it has implied either “I am very much more religious than you book-reading louts,” or “I am gifted with special wisdom and knowledge of the truth that you don’t possess.”

Putting history to one side, however, we can choose to side with Flew: “Spirituality doesn’t mean anything in particular because we don’t believe in spirits anymore.” Or we can go with Chatterjee’s view that the perpetual sloppiness of the western pick and choose culture robs the term of any meaning at all. Either way, we are left with a word that is gradually losing its power to describe a commitment of any significance or any particular valence with regard to belief. At no time has spirituality meant “I just don’t know what I believe.” But it has often meant believing too much.

Perhaps it’s owing to the malleability of the word that the self-anointed shamans of Los Angeles and Amsterdam and Munich, where spirituality-training centers thrive, can draw hundreds of lost, confused, religiously dysfunctional souls [sic] into their courses, retreats and workshops. Like “new religions” (with which they share a number of unfortunate characteristics), modern spiritualities are appealing to spiritual libertarians who aren’t too choosy but do like variety in their life. Example: you are standing behind a seventeen year-old at your favorite fast-food emporium, waiting to dispense a cup of yummy diet Minutemaid lemonade, when into her cup, in measured squirts, she releases Coke, Fanta, Mr Pibb, Hawaiian Punch and lemonade. That kind of variety.

There are hundreds of examples of how this spiritual smorgasbord works, but my favorite find is Sunflower Health, which promises registrants spiritual light, happiness, and the means to become “one with all creation.” They link their teaching to “lightworkers, ascension, harmonic convergence, and the end of the Mayan calendar.” The Midas Muffler of spiritual garages, Sunflower offers Chakra Clearing (“the energetic fabric of ourselves and our universe”) and the opening of the “third (Visionary) eye to psychic visions.” For a few bucks more (Tuesday special: free psychic alignment included), Kundalini and microcosmic orbit chi cultivation practices are yours.

If you like your spirituality with a Christian flavour, Mystic Web offers instruction in the “true” meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels, Pati’s spiritual path, and the Gospel of Judas. Says one satisfied customer in praise of the “Gnostic Web-Master” –

I may not understand every single line of the document, but the Gospel of Judas speaks to me as a whole. I read it, re-read it, understand bits and pieces, understand things here and there and see parallels between this lost Gospel and the teachings of modern Gnosis. More important than the understanding, however, is the strength it gives me, how good it makes me feel to see that mankind has searched for the truth, for liberation, for thousands of years, and that the findings have been the same as those Master Belzebuub teaches us today; the only difference is that he teaches in a way that everyone can understand, making the path to liberation attainable for all of humanity.

I just want to say this about the vast majority of modern mystics, spirituality-seekers, and spirituality vendors: This is crazy stuff, taught for the most part by desperately unknowledgeable fakers who make old fashioned theosophy look like biochemistry by comparison. You are wasting your money, your time, and the language. I apologize for throwing you out of alignment, but somebody had to tell you.

But you have performed a service: You have convinced me that the term “spirituality” is unusable. And that the next time the woman next to me at the bar volunteers that she is “not religious but, you know, spiritual” it is time to pay my tab and walk away before another word is spoken. Hoping Master Belzebuub doesn’t follow me.

Killing Audrey

Audrey must die.

My post on the self-confident SSS (Students for a Secular Season: fictional, I think) representative accosting a little black girl as she tried to drop some change in a Salvation Army kettle was a nuclear disaster.

A few ardent unbelievers have come to regard her as a folk hero and asked for her contact information.

A larger number of critics thought I had lost my natural theological sponginess and had taken secularism over the line into churlishness. (I am not Mark Twain so I will not follow with “and have joined the Salvation Army.”)

A few others thought it was “obvious satire,” but disagreed with its inobvious point–that atheists need to be more Christian in their giving habits. Note to some of my readers: This is called Irony.

I know that religion can get ugly. Not as ugly as politics, its natural twin for the better part of human history, but pretty awful. No one needs to remind me that the church has ignorantly done its bit to exacerbate poverty and disease, so forgive me if I remind you that the church did not create poverty and disease. It is darkly ironic (that word again) in a world where the state professes to care about people that the promoters of religious violence in Pakistan and Lebanon, the Taliban and Hezbollah, also run the most efficient social relief operations in those countries and do so because they believe their religion commends it. Now if they could just sign on to the Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards Men appendix.

But just as a pedantic point, Christianity has a long and fairly impressive record of cor ad cor loquitur–heart speaking to heart. The early Christians remembered Jesus having said radical things about giving: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12.33). True, he had a long prophetic tradition to draw on–for example, Isaiah 58: 6,7-10: “I have chosen…to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke… To share food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood …And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

The early church turned these traditions into what even Roman emperors like Julian (the last “pagan” ruler of a socially unglued empire) recognized as the distinguishing, if cloying, characteristic of the Christian faith: its conscience. “The religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1.27); or “If anyone has possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3.17-18). Saints ranging from Francis of Assisi to Martin of Porres and Vincent de Paul to Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Seton and Louise de Marillac deserve, in their contexts, to be viewed as social justice activists, and many cared just as deeply about education as a way of climbing out of the conditions that made poverty and ignorance flourish. True, their church bureaucracy was not always so concerned and while they rang bells–the ancient symbol of being outcast and downtrodden or diseased–bishops prospered. But for many people until the rise of the secular state, charity did not begin at home because there was none: it began at the rectory door. Education, such as it was, at the parish school long before the state thought about getting into the game.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

Even critics of the early Christians found their charity remarkable, if also cloying. The second century writer Lucian tells the story of a particularly dodgy philosopher named Peregrinus who apparently decided that becoming a Christian teacher would be the quickest route to advancement among the yokel adherents of the new religion. He quickly “masters their books and writes a few of his own.” Peregrinus has no real interest in the doctrine of Christianity, but he does know that once you’re in, you’re in and that even the poorest converts will spend what little they have to help a teacher in distress. When Peregrinius finds himself on the wrong side of the law and is imprisoned for professing his faith openly, if insincerely, Lucian takes the occasion to tell us the following, half of it ridicule, half informative:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus [Peregrinus] was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favorite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,—but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the jailers to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrinus (as he was still called in those days) became for them ‘the modern Socrates.’ In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrinus, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”

Finally rejected even by the Christians, Peregrinus becomes a cynic (i.e., wandering) philosopher and ends his days around 165CE by igniting himself atop a funeral pyre in full public view. Had he stuck with the Church, he would have had the distinction of being the first Christmas light display.

It’s plain from Lucian’s story that shyster evangelists have always been the other side of the Christian mission; but that notwithstanding, so has this strange habit of actually caring about other people. Organized caring, mercy, and compassion have never (alas!) been much prized among the non-believing intelligentsia, and perhaps that is why they are in such short supply among atheists.

Bright doesn’t do compassion well. Think of Audrey. Now we’re getting somewhere.

At the risk of being outrageous, I think I know why people like me are so stingey. It’s because our concern for the downtrodden isn’t actually mandated by anything we believe about ourselves. In fact, thinking of ourselves as an intellectual minority is only possible because, truth to tell, smart, rich, good-looking, healthy and successful is the finite set we’d prefer to dim, poor, sick and useless. There is nothing in our life-stance textbook that explains for us why we should care about the second set, and the cleverer and more self-reliant and progressive we are, the more tempting it is to become slightly (how shall I say) Darwinian or at least Marie Stopes-ish about this. Let’s not mention Margaret Sanger; she did so much good in other ways.

Belief in a God who cares about you no matter how craggy your skin, crappy your life or your credit score is both the bane and benefit of religion when it comes to “philanthropy”–literally, love of human-kind. What your faith insists on is a human family where imperfection and disadvantages can be accepted within a context where human perfection, religiously speaking, isn’t possible. I know: it isn’t fair, and for an atheist totally irrational. But as a prod to loving your fellow human creatures great and small, irrespective of their girth and goodness, there is nothing quite like God to get you moving. If he can do it–and think of how rich he must be, and how much smarter!–then who am I to resist putting a few pennies in the old man’s hat at Christmas? It seems to me that you can reject this logic entirely and still enter into the spirit of the season without compromising your secularity.

But don’t take my word for it. My secret love, the Naked Theologian (a discreet UUA minister herself) recently commented that the whole “Good without God” campaign was based on the false notion that liberals and seculars were just as inclined to charitable giving as religious folk.

“Several studies have shown that American liberals—namely, those most likely to have little or no God, are least likely to give to charity. Hurts, doesn’t it? Where’s the proof, you say? Robert Brooks, who recently wrote a book, Who Really Cares, about charitable donors discovered the following (as reported by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof): ‘When I started doing research on charity,’ Mr. Brooks wrote, ‘I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.’

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’s data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood. But what about the relationship between having a God and being generous? Based on a Google poll (again, as reported by columnist Kristof), religion is the essential reason conservatives give more. And although secular liberals tend to keep their wallets closed, it turns out that religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives.

Reading this made me re-think Audrey. If I had finished her story, rather than send her into her back yard where she fell down a well and drowned, it would have gone like this:

Audrey joined her SSS colleagues at Target. It was December 16th, and the group had a thousand bumper stickers to distribute to shoppers. Each one had a picture of a quarter, with the motto slightly altered to read, “In Good we trust.”

An old woman adjusted her shopping bags, took one graciously, inspected it, then handed it back to Audrey saying, “I think there’s a misspelling here.”

Audrey said, “That’s no misspelling. We don’t believe in God. We believe in good, get it?”

“Oh yes dear,” the old woman said unfluttered, “So do I. But that’s not what our money says, is it?”

Audrey turned around in exasperation. She was surprised to see the little girl and her auntie–the ones she had encountered at Walmart–standing at the card table, which had been draped with a banner that read “No God, No Problem: Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”

“I like these,” the Auntie said to Audrey, as though their previous interchange had never happened.

“They’re free,” Audrey said flatly. “But you’re welcome to make a donation to the SSS to help our efforts.”

The Auntie’s face took on an expression of concern. “Now do those efforts go to supply kitchens and shelters or buy medicine for sick folks?”

“No,” Audrey said, turning a suppressed sigh into a yawn. “We need fuel for the van.” “Uh-huh.” Auntie said looking first at the little girl, then back to Audrey as though they were the same age. “And where’s the good in that?”

Audrey

I have received an extraordinary number of replies to this which apparently missed the fact that it was satire directed against billboard campaigns and anti-Christmas warriors like Audrey. So in the spirit of good will let me endorse Jim’s response: “If we are going to criticize and detract religious charities, we had better be ready to vigorously create and support alternatives. Only when atheists and agnostics start opening their own soup kitchens and shelters will this kind of protest ever be anything other than cruel.”

Exactly! As to satire, I am only slightly encouraged that Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) was similarly taken for serious. [jh]

I am naive about the cost of billboards but luckily I have secular friends I can call or tweet to on the subject.

I want to buy one. Just for a few weeks (maybe there’s a discount for signs after January 2nd.)

Mine is going to say “Hey moron! Do you feel any richer now that you blew all your money on God?”

My first idea was to paste a huge picture of Peter Pan, preferably Disney’s (face recognition) next to a picture of Jesus in the manger. It was going to say “Grow Up!” But my friend Scipio said the point was oblique.

Grow Up!

I don’t know what that means, exactly, but Scipio is pretty smart. And getting the rights to anything Disney would be expensive.

My inspiration for this was seeing a woman and a little girl coming out of Walmart on the weekend, toting their Christmas goodies. My stomach churns when I see sights like this. The little girl reached into her pocket for some change to throw into a Salvation Army pot. She smiled at the worker. The worker smiled back.

Fortunately, a member of the local Students for a Secular Season named Audrey intervened. I used to teach Audrey. She is very committed to every cause she takes on. When I knew her, she was a member of the Campus Crusade for Christ and used to hand Bibles out on the quad. Then she saw the light and was transformed. I think of her as one of my success stories.

“Not so fast little girl,” she said with a firmness that would impress anybody. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“That’s none of your business Miss,” said a lowering black woman next to the little girl. “My niece wants to spread a little joy. We’ve always believed in helping others out. Especially in these times.”

The little girl stood with her fist clenched, not able to release the offering into the pot. The Salvation Army worker stood helplessly by and looked in my direction. I have to say, I felt a little awkward.

Audrey stood her ground. I knew she would. “This is between me and your niece,” she said. “She looks like she can speak for herself. Little girl, Did your aunt tell you to give money to this stranger?”

“No ma’am,” the girl said. “I had it to give.”

“Are you giving it to this woman just because she is ringing a bell. That’s called coercion, you know. Would you give me money if I rang a bell at you?”

“No ma’am,” she said.

“”Why not?” Audrey was clearly taken aback. “Is it because I’m an atheist.”

“A what?” the little girl said.

“An atheist. I don’t believe in God. I don’t think you should give money to strangers just because people ask you. Just because it’s Christmas. That’s not reasonable because God doesn’t exist and there wasn’t any Jesus.”

“No ma’am. I wouldn’t give it to you because you aren’t wearing an awesome hat.” She turned to the distraught Salvation Army worker. “Ma’am, that is an awesome hat.”

By this time a crowd had gathered and the student SSS van had come to collect Audrey and take her down the road to Target, where the Knights of Columbus hung out. It sported a banner that read “You KNOW it’s a Myth.” In silhouette it showed the three wise men following the star of Bethlehem, and just beneath, “This season celebrate reason.” Audrey straightened her hair, tugged her coat tight around her and prepared to climb on board. The six passengers had broken into a chorus of “O Come All Ye Salesmen.” The crowd had begun feeding the Salvation Army Kettle doses of dollar– even five dollar–bills. Superstition is never-ending, I thought to myself.

“If you got an awesome hat I’d give you money too. You’re pretty. I love your hair. What did you ask for for Christmas? I’m asking for hairclips and some new notebooks and pens. Auntie couldn’t get them for me. She hasn’t worked since August.”

Audrey tried to smile, but I could tell, it wasn’t her best moment. She always had an answer. I haven’t seen her since to tell her what I was going to tell her: You have made a difference back there. That little girl needed to meet you.

Just to make my point, I opened my wallet, counted all my bills in front of the Salvation Army woman, and returned it to my back pocket. I walked away feeling good, thinking about better billboards.

I know a thing or two about changing minds.

Defining Fundamentalism

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They were just the messengers, albeit the ones you had to sleep with to get the keys to the kingdom.

They became convinced that they were the fulfillment of texts they’d read one too many times. In the same way, the music of rote repetition seems to inspire Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and the late and invidious Baitullah Mehsud as well. Fundamentalists read texts written 1000 years ago as though they were hot off the press–like this from the world’s most famous MIA:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)….The Arabian Peninsula has never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food.” (1998 fatwah)

It’s so easy to forget the Crusades, isn’t it? Especially since the last one ended in 1291 with the interlopers in full retreat, barely managing to keep the booty in their saddlebags as they galloped away.

But to review, two things pop out at us immediately when you think of fundamentalism: you have to have a book that you take deadly seriously, and you have to forget that the book has a history.

The second point is massively important, because it permits the fundamentalist to ignore science, cultural change, and prevents the possibility of seeing the book as being, in any sense, out of date, irrelevant, or out of touch with current political or ethical contexts. If people had prophets then, who’s to say they can’t have prophets now?, say the David Koreshs and Dale Barlows of this world. We say so, say the Omar Bakri Mohammeds and Abu Izzadeens right back. After all, we’re reading different books. We can’t all be right. Fundamentalism is always particular to the truth claims of a group: one man’s fundamentals are another man’s pornography. Both responses to books written a long time ago are manifestations of historical illiteracy.

Revd Hagee

Another thing, an important feature: fundamentalists have to be right. Not in the sense you and I might be right if we scored a Daily Double on Jeopardy. Right in the sense that there has to be a slope-shouldered, humiliated wrong sitting next to it. Right in the sense that there can’t be a middle way between good and evil.

Fundamentalists have no trouble doing this because the world of late antiquity where their ideas were forged in an atmosphere of petty monarchic rivalries and mythic theomachies–mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, by the way–was an easily divisible cosmos. Us and Them, equated easily to good and evil, in political and hence in religious terms. That’s what Mani taught, what Zoroaster taught before him.

Zoroaster

It’s also what Muhammad and his followers preached, what the Qumran War Scroll is all about (1QM, 4Q491-496) and (no good trying to wriggle out of it: read Mark 13.13) what Jesus taught, in his eschatological rhapsodies at least.

The notion that in the end, “all of Darkness is to be destroyed and Light will live in peace for all eternity” is very appealing. But there’s a good chance the person next to you belongs to the other side. At least that’s what you’ve been taught. To be a fundamentalist is to have the religious equivalent of a teenager’s fear of vampires.

That’s what makes the next two characteristics of fundamentalism so important: extermination (in two forms) and conversion. The People’s Temple, the Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Mormons and the Branch Davidian “cults” created or were ready to create manufactured mini-holocausts to vindicate their beliefs.

When the sheriffs’ cars rolled up on the edge of their compounds, the sacred boundary between purity and corruption, they were ready to go home. Everything about the outside world was smutty, dirty, and unchaste–huge horrible spaces swarming with unbelievers who mocked them and raced home in a satanic frenzy to watch smutty, dirty and unchaste television shows.

They had a point of course. The culture is filled with crap and we do tend to regard people who wear gingham dresses (and worry so much about chastity that they will only have sex and babies with a purified leader) as a bit off the beam. It’s a tired observation, I know, but fundamentalism is self-marginalizing:the blessings of secular culture and the contempt of its protagonists for nonconformity serve as proof to every child eight and up that daddy and mommy are “right” because difference is the ultimate distinction.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, self-extermination, a form of martyrdom, is a way in which Christian crazies can vindicate their readings of sacred writ.

Homicidal martyrdom is the trademark of Islamic fundamentalists, a much messier way to do business. You begin with the same premise as the one quoted above from bin Laden, the exemplary coward who has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of his fans, as when he sings the praises of young men who behead unbelievers:

The youths also reciting the All-Mighty words of Quran: Smite the necks…(Muhammad; 47:19). Those youths will not ask you for explanations, they will tell you, singing, there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck smiting….They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)

Pleasure to know, moreover, that the martyr-fundamentalist does not experience the excruciating pain of his bleeding or burning infidel victims; they have the word of no less an authority than Saheeh Al-Jame’-as-Sagheer, who lived “in the seventh generation” after the Prophet and attributes the saying to Muhammad. “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like [sic] how you feel when you are pinched.”

The idea that the martyr dies painlessly while others are screeching around him is meant to be reassuring to the half-hearted volunteer, whose rational soul tells him that he has never witnessed a death free from agony and that comrades who have been wounded in engagements with the unbelievers suffer immensely. Still, they have the word of as-Sagheer ringing in their ears: “With the first gush of [your] blood, [you] will be shown thy seat in paradise, decorated with jewels.”

Finally, fundamentalism is all about conversion, heavily infatuated with growth. It isn’t enough that the fanatic kingdom-comers of the world erect temples. They want to put people in them. That requires a recruitment program.

The statistics speak for themselves. In our stunningly up-to-the-minute culture where we can instantly communicate mathematical solutions and the latest groundbreaking article in medical research from The Lancet around the world with the flick of a key, people who think death can be like a loving pinch or noogie are clocked (in terms of percentage increase since 1989) as follows:

Islam in North America, +25%
Islam in Africa: +2.15%
Islam in Asia: +12.57%
Islam in Europe: +142.35%
Islam in Australia: +257.01%

This is not all “conversion,” of course; but conversion is a geographical and cultural mandate in Islam, and conversion from more lenient to more literal forms of Islam is also on the rise. According to an October 2009 estimate, Taliban numbers of fighters alone–those who are attracted mainly by martyrdom rather than philanthropy and virtue, went from 7,000 in Northern Afghanistan to 25,000. (Reuters, Saturday Oct. 10, 2009).

By comparison, it is becoming more difficult to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is, potentially because the ground under his feet is more prone to cultural shift. But if we think of biblical literalism, an intolerance of  “soft” forms of Christianity (often equated to a kind of mainstream liberal heresy), the importance of conversion (in this case, evangelism), and prophetic fulfillment as the non-negotiables of fundamentalism, the following statistic is, you should pardon the expression, revealing:

Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown by 37% since 2001; the Churches of Christ by 48%; the Assemblies of God by 68%. (United) Methodists and Northern Baptist by 0%, Jews, -10% and Catholics, through a healthy infusion of Hispanic and Latino votaries, a mere 11%. The undeniable appeal of taking God’s word seriously is unslaked by contemporary life.

Which causes me to muse: Did you ever stop to think that no matter how many times you read Peter Pan as a child you could never quite persuade yourself that you could jump out of a third story window and fly, just by thinking wonderful thoughts? Maybe you tried launching yourself from the top bunk–just once, but never the window.

I hope I make my point.

James Luther Adams: On the Theological Significance of Unbelief

Jared Sparks

James Luther Adams was required to retire from Harvard Divinity School in 1968 at the ripe young age of 67. He had been at Harvard since 1957, but it seemed much longer since, by the mid-sixties, he was the most famous theologian in America and the unanointed successor of the social justice prophet Reinhold Niebuhr, who died in 1971.

Harvard had a way of making theologians who had spent years labouring in the vineyards of Chicago or (in the case of Paul Tillich) Union Theological Seminary “famous,” or at least obvious and quotable. Unlike the fully academic Tillich, Niebuhr and Adams used the pulpit as often as the classroom as their pied a terre for prophetic discourse on social ethics and reflection on the role (and limits) of the church in society.

I was thinking about Adams yesterday after re-reading Chris Hedges’s much undervalued book I Don’t Belief in Atheists. Chris, like me, was at HDS at the end of the Adams era and probably would not mind calling himself an Adams disciple. In fact, if you were in Cambridge in those days, you almost had to be: Adams was everywhere. He continued to teach at Andover Newton but maintained an office on Francis Avenue, strolled the corridors, talked with students, preached often, and lectured frequently. So frequently that many of us who never received credit for an Adams course still counted him our teacher, and perhaps the most profound influence in the development of our ethical theory. He had the most welcoming face in the world, the sort of man who without saying a word invited you to stop and chat–chats that became half-hour conversations. His colleagues almost always referred to him as “our dear Jim” or “our beloved friend.” I heard no other faculty member referred to with the same natural deference.

Divinity Hall: Site of Emerson's Divinity School Address

In 1976, Harvard was transitioning from being an incubator for Unitarian and liberal religious thought to a school where socially progressive ideas were born, selected, cultivated, and exported. What Union Theological Seminary had been in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Harvard was by 1975. The Divinity School (always underfunded and predestined to produce a class of alumni who could never compete with the high-earning graduates of Harvard Law or Harvard Business), existed as the conscience of the world’s richest university and America’s most influential educational factory.

Like many of the progressive theologians of his day Adams was deeply immersed in German scholarship and thus in German politics and Kultur. During his time at Chicago, where he taught at Meadville Lombard, the Unitarian seminary of the Federated Theological Faculty, he tried to persuade students that the same forces that resulted in the rise of Hitler were nascent in all societies, even within American democracy. For him, the biblical account of evil was “true” in the sense that it was natural: it summarized the craving for what injures the human spirit and causes our separation from the sources of human good.

Similar ideas were being promoted by Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and the “Barmen Theologians” who resisted Nazi influence over the German churches. In 1935, during a period of leave from teaching Adams was interrogated by the Gestapo and narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States persuaded that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils.

His world-view, a phrase he would have detested, could be traced to Kierkegaard’s dissatisfaction with the comfortable protestantism of his own day. The role of the church was to proclaim freedom to captives, light in the darkness of political corruption, salvation (which almost always meant economic or social amelioration) to the afflicted. When it stopped doing this–when it lost sight of its prophetic mission–the church became an arm of the state, complicit in the sins of the state, as officially it was in Germany and long before during the Dark Ages. The church could only fulfill its role in a completely secular context where its freedom to stand apart from the institutions of government was guaranteed; where it existed on a strictly voluntary basis, expressing the same freedom of choice that mythically the apostles had in choosing to follow Jesus–the freedom to be a living witness that the state does not exhaust the perquisites of human liberty and personhood. The Declaration of Independence, he never tired of reminding his classes, has no legal force: it invokes rights that every religious woman and man knew to be self-evident. It does not define them. “The pursuit of Happiness,” in particular, was not just a rejection of Locke’s use of the word “property” in his 1693 Essay Concerning Human Understanding but a call for the good life–the pursuit of morality and conscience, informed by religion.

Peale's Jefferson, 1791

But I was also thinking of James Luther Adams in conjunction with what he thought about the role of atheism in American society. A certain accommodation to unbelief is at the foundation of the Unitarian tradition in the eighteenth century; it’s part of the mortise and tenon of Harvard. It deeply influenced Jefferson and Franklin, neither Harvard proper, though Franklin received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford before the Revolution, and Jefferson fell under the Unitarian spell of Harvard’s president, Jared Sparks and to a lesser degree the religious ideas of John Adams, a devout Unitarian. And later it was formative in the thought of Emerson and Thoreau, neither of whom professed a decisive unbelief but held up their disbelief in church doctrine as an essential element of religious freedom. For James Luther Adams, as for his predecessors, the freedom to believe entailed the freedom to disbelieve as a logical complement. Neither option was worth much if it was compelled. Christianity would lose its soul to the state, as it had to the Nazi regime. Atheism would lose its intellectual integrity, as it had to the socialists.

But atheism served an additional purpose, Adams thought: it could be prophetic. It could expose the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of religion in a society that expects religion only to mouth words of comfort: “An authentic prophet is one who prophesies in fashion that does not comfort people, but actually calls them to make some new sacrifices. That’s an authentic prophet, whether one speaks in the name of God or not. A great deal of authentic prophetism in the modern world is to be found in nonreligious terms and in nonchurch configurations, often even hostile to the church. The churches themselves have broadly failed in the prophetic function. Therefore a good deal of so-called atheism is itself, from my point of view, theologically significant. It is the working of God in history, and judgment upon the pious. An authentic prophet can and should be a radical critic of spurious piety, of sham spirituality.”

It’s true, of course, that atheists who find their own position comfortable and self-authenticating will hardly find it thrilling that their core position is useful chiefly as a means of keeping religion faithful to its mission. But that is because atheists of a certain sort do not mean by religion what Adams meant. A “religion” whose dimensions extend only from Christian fundamentalism to Islamic terrorism–the unevolved parody of religion that new atheists have made their quarry–Adams with a typical Harvard reliance on common sense, leaves for history to sort out. But the elements of religion that transcend the emotional, the pedantic, and the irrational–what he took to be especially the ethical elements of the Christian gospel, had to be protected from social respectability, from living the comfortable life of country club Presbyterians. Atheism is there to wake the Church up, to call its cherished assumptions, including its claim to possess the unvarnished and final truth, into question. And in the process of challenging the Church to say what it believes, atheism is called upon to define and explain what truths it holds to be “self-evident.”

The Empty Cup Theory of Everything

Scipio came to coffee yesterday at Gimme and said he was amused by the debate going on between atheist confrontationists and another group he called accommodationists.

“What debate?,” I said distractedly, noticing that the coffee barista had given me three eyedroppersful of espresso in my cup, because she hates me.

He named names. I had never heard of most of them, so I asked Scipio to cut to the chase and tell me what the Big Deal was.

“Most of the confrontationists want atheism to be the Big Bad Wolf. Think of religion as the three little pigs.”

“That’s a terrible analogy,” I said. The whole point of the story is that the dumb little pigs get eaten but the smart pig survives and the wolf gets killed.”

“That’s not the way it ends,” Scipio said slurping away at his cup, filled halfway to the top with a lovely espresso emulsion. “All the pigs survive.”

“No, ” I said, “That’s Disney. They get eaten. One survives. And the wolf dies a hideous death.”

Scipio frowned. Nothing distresses him more than being bested in a controversy about folk tales, unless it’s being accused of a bad analogy.

“But I see your point,” I said, trying to soothe his feelings. “Maybe at the end of a confrontation there’s a pot of boling water just waiting for you. Never underestimate your opponent. Accommodation reduces the chances of humiliation. But honestly, Scipio, before I worried too much about tactics, I’d want to know how solid the ground was under my confrontational feet–or how solid my house was, if we stick with fables.”

He seemed cheered by the comment. “Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice between telling an atheist he is right or telling him he is wrong, what would you say?”

“It would depend,” I said. “If the atheist said that men are smarter than women, I would say, ‘You’re wrong. You cannot prove a thing like that because the word smart only possesses connotations, not an absolute meaning like ‘the freezing point of oxidane’.”

“Why would you get into a conversation about water with an atheist,” Scipio said, clearly annoyed.

“Why would I get into a conversation about the three little pigs?” I asked.

“If the question was the question of God–which is the only issue you would want to discuss with an atheist, would you tell him he is right or wrong.”

I stared at the darkish brown, scarcely damp bottom of my empty cup. “Scipio,” I said. “Would you agree with me that this cup is empty?”

“Yes,” he said cautiously. “I think we might agree on that.”

“Not so fast. What persuades you?”

He hated this game. We have played it for years, sometimes several times a day. “Our agreement or something else?”

“The evidence is the emptiness of the cup. Our agreement is simply a result of our examination of the evidence, an assessment.”

“But there is no evidence,” I said playfully. “There is only an empty cup. You’re sounding like a theologian: you believe “in all that is visible and invisible?”

“You’re going to lecture on cups now,” he said unhappily, “potens and form and substantia and all of that…please can we get through an afternoon without Aristotle.”

“There is no such thing as an afternoon without Aristotle. There are only geese who think there are. You have to agree that the only way of concluding the cup is empty is to evaluate the nature of the cup–a cup–which is meant to hold things, even though mine held almost nothing and yours held a lot and came with biscotti.”

“Can we talk about the barista instead,” he said, “I think she likes me.”

“No,” I said. “At most she’s an instrumental cause related to fullness and emptiness, and if you ask me, more the latter. But we can talk about the universe,”

“Sweet,” Scipio said. “From coffee cups to the cosmos. Another one of your horrid analogies.”

“Is it full or empty?”

“Please don’t go where I think you’re going or I’ll start quoting Stephen Hawking to you.”

“Until he has his theory of everything figured out, quote away; what do you think he would say to the question?”

“I think he would probably say it depends on gravity, but that the existence of the strong force, electromagnetism, weak force, and gravity point to the fact that it is not empty.”

“God, Scipio,” I squeaked. “You are so…careful. ‘that it is not empty’ is not an answer, it’s a whimper, a pule. I’m not trying to get a Creator out of this conversation, just some fun. -So is it full or not.”

“It’s not full in the eighteenth century sense of full because if it was–I know you–you’d start talking about creation and chains of being. Besides, full is a word like smart, isn’t it? Is it full if it has stuff in it or full if it can’t hold an iota more?”

“Is it full in any sense,” I said, seeing Scipio had also drained his cup.

“I don’t think we can know that, because the universe is not a coffee cup.”

“You mean we can’t look down into its bottom or that we can’t see the limit of its top?”

“Ok, for the sake of an argument that is really becoming tiresome, I’ll grant you that it is full if full means that it is not empty and if it has limits and if we can know something about its limit by observing events. It doesn’t matter that we can see edges, tops, and bottoms because we can know about events and forces. And there aren’t any real edges, anyway.”

“But I disagree. I think it isn’t full. I think it’s as empty as this coffee cup and the microscopic particles that are still invisibly occupying space down below are to full what the planetary masses are to the totality of the universe. Isn’t that what you’d want in subatomic theory anyway? I agree with Richard Feynmann: no one understands quantum mechanics. Not even Stephen Hawking.”

“Listen mate,” Scipio said testily. “I asked a simple question. Would you confront an atheist or accommodate an atheist on the question of God’s existence?”

“I answered your question,” I said, summoning the barista. She pretended to be busy polishing the bar glasses, but smiled at Scipio.