Is “God” Invulnerable?

Is “God” Invulnerable?

by rjosephhoffmann

Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.

It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound  than I did three decades ago.  It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”

The modern situation was basically scientific knowledge–the growing conviction that what we see is all we get, and that if we can’t see it we just need better techniques for seeing it.  The glaring exception to this optimism, this faith in scientific know-how–a 1950′s word–was God, about whom it was widely supposed that no lens powerful enough, no jet-propulsion engine fast enough and no controlled experiment sophisticated enough was ever going to discover him.  God was safe, in a weird kind of way, because he was, to use the catchphrase of the time, “Wholly Other.”

There were two ways of dealing with the vulnerability of God to the modern situation.  One was to say that God is immune from scientific discovery because he is known only through faith. Bring on your historical criticism, your naturalistic assaults, your so-called “facts,” your rock and roll. The bigness of God just shows the puniness of your methods.  To try this course, however, entailed a repudiation of the idea that God can be known rationally and that faith and reason were compatible rather than hostile modes of determining truth–a rejection, in other words, of the whole previous history of theology, especially Catholic theology.

The other way was to exploit post-positivism, or a theological construction of “Popperism.”  This tactic relied on the philosophical premise that while God can be postulated on reasonable grounds (analogically, for example: shoes have makers so universes have creators) “he” cannot actually be falsified (we know where the shoemaker’s house is; we see him going to it at five o’clock; but we don’t know where God lives as he is thought to be invisible).  We can’t quite be certain that he doesn’t exist, on the same grounds we can’t falsify the existence of anything we haven’t seen, and some propositions (or assertions) about God are tenable, even if implausible, when alternative explanations are considered.

Part of this “propositional” strategy hearkened back to ontology, the idea that God is not directly experienced or instantiated in creation and so in some sense must be greater than it, prior to it, or transcendent, in a way that beggars ordinary description. Theology had never succeeded in reconciling the claim of biblical revelation with the “classical” attributes of god’s aseity and impassibility (i.e., a supreme being cannot change or suffer–”he” is what he is, as Yahweh sniffs in Exodus 3.14), so uncertainty was a kind of safe epistemological cloud to wrap discussion in–in addition to which it had a certain (unrelated) currency in atomic physics which leant it a kind of dubious respectability. This approach preserved the bare notion of the rationality of religious belief, leaving theology room to exploit the doctrine that Christianity is all about faith and hope, the “certainty of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1).

Faith seeking understanding?

Both positions were so intellectually flimsy (and apologetic) that theologians had to go a long way to create a vocabulary that made them independently and mutually impressive.  That goal, I write to say, was never achieved. Claims were made and games were played, but theology did not succeed in preserving the life of its divine protagonist–not even in the totally cynical and ephemeral God is dead theology of the ‘sixties.

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Beginning before the publication of Karl Barth’s “neo-orthodox” tome, The Epistle to the Romans (1922), where the Swiss theologian reaffirms for protestants everywhere the primacy of faith, “serious”  theology became enamoured of the idea that God as God is invulnerable to scientific thought, as the term was understood in the mid-twentieth century.

There were plenty of medieval (and later) parallels to this way of thinking, ranging from mysticism to the “apophatic” theology of some of the scholastics, which even included the acknowledgement that the statement “God exists,” if it means existence of a temporal, durable, knowable kind, is false.

“God does not exist but nothing else matters.”

In most areas of life, to say something doesn’t exist means you don’t need to be concerned about it: it can’t bite you or lend you money. In theology, however, this sublime non-existence evoked awe, mystery, dread, and reverence–the very things you don’t get in the morning with coffee and toast. It can even give your own pathetic existence meaning if you just embrace its awesomeness.  Authentically.

Modern discussions of existence as a mere temporal condition of being, especially Heidegger’s, emboldened theologians to think outside the box, with Heidegger being to the thought of the day what Aristotle was to the thirteenth century Church.  Thus Rudolph Bultmann could write this confrontational paragraph in his essay “The New Testament and Mythology” (1941):

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. He may grant him heavenly visions. He may allow him to hear his word of succor or demand. He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for “powers” is precisely what they are), and hastens towards its end. That end will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. It will be inaugurated by the “woes” of the last time. Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation…”

None of this is literally true–indeed, has already proved not to be true, Bultmann said; none of these things will happen in the way they are described. Called “demythologization,” Bultmann’s program did not call for a simple recognition that (most) modern people find the biblical landscape fantastic and absurd, but an aggressive embrace of methods that would strip mythology away and leave in its place the bare “kerygma”–the message.

Bultmann

While Bultmann could be cagey about the implications of this message,  especially in correspondence with critics like Barth (who refused to accept Bultmann’s defintion of myth) he essentially embraced the axiom of Rudolph Otto (overlaid with Heidegger’s phenomenology) that “God is wholly Other” than the categories we associate with existence.  It was the theological equivalent of hitting the target in front of you and hearing your opponent say, “That isn’t the target you needed to hit.”

     Theologians spent the next forty years coming to terms with the contours (and dead-ends) of Bultmann’s thought.  His contribution to biblical studies was to persuade timid seminarians, accustomed to treating the biblical text with reverence rather than historical skepticism, that in taking a knife to scripture they were not making it bleed away its life.  They were saving it from the cancer of obsolete thoughts and ideas–freeing the message of authentic existence to be itself, making faith a “choice” rather than blind obedience to discredited ideas and dogmas.  Like all closed systems, it made sense from the inside.

While there was much to admire here there was almost no one to admire it: a program for liberal biblical scholars to consider, conservatives to eschew, and almost everyone else to ignore.  Looking back on his legacy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it looks strangely like a plant bred only for the hothouse of academic theology and not suited for life in real weather.

The term “demythologization” acquired a voltage among under-read–especially Catholic and evangelical scholars–that was only rivaled by the word “atheism.” Not an elegant prose stylist (most German academic theology of the period was pure fustian) Bultmann was at least considered dangerous in the establishment he was trying to save from intellectual disgrace.

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In systematic theology the task was roughly the same, though the tracks did not always run parallel and (perhaps surprisingly) the historical track was often more radical than the theological one as “demythologization” merged with the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a boutique of approaches that put the biblical text at the mercy of historical criticism.

Tillich in 1957, while still at Harvard, addressed the question of God and the modern situation directly in a Garvin Lecture called “The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.”  His key theological slogans are all present in this lecture: God is not a “being,” but the ground of all being–being itself.  All language about God is symbolic rather than realistic, including the meaning of the concept of God–which is not the same as the symbol. It is impossible to describe God or to say anything “non-symbolic” about him.

Like other existentialists Tillich was confronted not just by the problems entailed for theology by God’s non-existence but by the implications of that recognition for human existence itself.  Sartre, among others, had described the sense of emptiness brought on by the end of God’s moral reign as despair, nausea, freedom without purpose. Tillich thought that Christianity’s emphasis on faith was both an acknowledgement that the concept of a literal God was done for  (that is, something implicit in faith itself) but also an opening to being.  In a vocabulary that sometimes rivals Heidegger’s for pure self-indulgence, this is variously described as the “God above god,” “Being itself,” and “ultimate concern.” It is whatever humans regard as sacred, numinous, holy (in traditional language), but so overwhelming that it requires total surrender.  The God of theological theism is no longer the cure but the source of doubt and despair.  He

…deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with recent tyrants with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implication.  (The Courage to Be, 135)

Tillich’s theism was pure humanism in a different and slightly dishonest wrapper.  He confesses as much in his Garvin Lecture when he says that far from science creating the modern situation of universal doubt, it is “the wisdom of twentieth century art, literature, drama and poetry…which reveals man’s predicament: his having to die, his being estranged, his being threatened with the loss of meaning, his becoming an object among other objects” (Idea of God, 108).  God for Tillich is non-objectifiable, thus crumbles when he is made into what the French theologian Gabriel Vahanian called a “cultural artifact,” an idol. Tillich’s theology was at bottom a religious answer to the question Sartre said it was cowardly to answer religiously.

We are already writing the history of post-modernism, and the histories of existentialism are legion.  It’s a history of malaise and post-War exhaustion conceived as a general theory of the “human predicament,” the “modern situation.” Tillich believed that by admitting to the collapse of the literal god-concept, the God of religious authority (an admission that by no means all Christians would have joined him in making!) an epistemological substitute could arise to save us from the mess we have made of our world, our society, our disoriented and alienated selves.  But the distance between a God who could disappear into the vortex (a favourite image of the period) of despair and anxiety and be purified and strengthened by it (Tillich)  and God as “absence, the solitude of man” (Sartre) defined the distance between a reupholstered illusion and the reality that had made atheism an option forced by twentieth century realities. Both thinkers agreed on the non-existence of God.  Yet for Tillich, that was no reason to sacrifice a symbol.

Tillich

The invulnerators were obviously infected with the spirit of their own formative fantasy, the resurrection, which saw the death of the human Jesus as the prelude to his immortal reign.  Christians as Christians clung to a highly material view of that belief, and the associated belief that as it was for Jesus, so it would be for them–a little less royal but every bit as everlasting.

Tillich’s attempt to recast Christianity in the vulgate of the 1950′s is stale, but not merely stale because it is dated: stale because it is pedantic and wrong–atheism dressed as a bishop, when it was perfectly possible to dress in shirt and trousers and say what you really think and mean: The God of Christian theism is a story.  He does not exist.  All theological projects to prove his existence have failed.  The historical and critical work of the last two centuries have made his existence absurd to increasing numbers of people, making religious beliefs harder to maintain and defend.  This has turned millions of people into seekers, and created a situation which humankind has not encountered before.  Its outcome is still unknown.

That is what Tillich should have confessed because it is what he thought. Yet his solution was to offer sedatives and linguistic figments to people whose imagination, courage and intellect he didn’t trust.  Methadone, as I said, for religion-recovery.

 

 

 
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Five Good Things About Atheism

Five Good Things about Atheism (Recycled from The New Oxonian)

by rjosephhoffmann

It seems I cannot win.

Meself

When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.

It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.

To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.

As far as I can tell, there are five:

1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and rainbows, and we would know it not because of syllogisms that begin “All things that exist were created,” or through the contradictory revelations of competing sects.

We would know it because we are hardwired to know.

The weakest argument of all, of course, is existence since existence raises the question of God; it does not answer it. The difference between a god who is hidden (invisible), or does not wish to be known (elusive), or cannot be demonstrated rationally is the same thing as a God who may as well not exist. Not to assign homework but have a look at John Wisdom’s famousparable recited in Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and Falsification,” (1968).

2. Atheism is courageous. Not valorous perhaps, not deserving of medals. But it takes a certain amount of courage not to believe what a vast majority of other people believe to be true. You learned that much as a kid, when a teacher said to you, after some minor tragedy in the playground, “Just because your best friend decides to jump over a fence onto a busy road doesn’t mean you need to do it too.”

The pressure to believe in God is enormous in twenty-first century society, and all but irresistible in certain sectors of America–the fundamental international base line for irrationality. Having to be religious or needing not to seem irreligious is the greatest tragedy of American public life and a sure recipe for the nation’s future mediocrity. It dominates political campaigns and the way kids learn history in Texas.

Texas edits textbooks

Theological differences aside, what Muslims and Christians and other godfearers have in common is an illusion that they are willing to defend aggressively–in certain cases murderously.

Even when it does not reach that level of viciousness, it can make the life of the uncommitted, unfaithed and unchurched miserable. Atheists deserve credit for having to put up with this stupidity. That is bravery, defined as forbearance.

Many atheists realize that the fervour displayed by religious extremists has deep psychological roots–that history has witnessed its bloodiest moments when causes were already lost. The legalization of Christianity (312?) came within three years of the final assault against Christians by the last “pagan” emperor. The greater number of the wars of religion (1562-1592) occurred after the Council of Trent (adj. 1563) had made Catholic doctrine unassailable–written in stone–for Catholics and completely unacceptable for Protestants. The Holocaust happened largely because Rassenhasse flowed naturally from two done deals: worldwide economic collapse and Germany’s humiliation in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Klan became most violent when its utility as an instrument of southern “justice” was finished.

Most of the available signs suggest that religion will not succumb to creeping irrelevance in the next six months. Religions become violent and aggressive as they struggle for breath. The substitution of emotion and blind, often illiterate, faith in support of threadbare dogmatic assertions is part of this struggle. So is an unwillingness to accept any alternative consensus to replace the old religious one.

Atheism symbolizes not just unbelief in God but the nature of that alternative consensus. That is why atheism is especially opprobrious to belief in an a era when most questions are settled by science and investigation.

Yet even without the security of dogma, religions usually provide for the emotional needs of their adherents in ways that science does not. They have had centuries, for example, to convince people that the miseries endured in this life are simply a preparation for a better one to come. A purposeless world acquires meaning as a “testing ground” for initiation into future glory. There is no art of consolation for the atheist, just the world as it is. Granny may have lost the power of speech after her third stroke, but she knows there is a wolf behind the door: religion knows this instinctively.

Being an atheist may be a bit lonely, but better “Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” (And Socrates was courageous, too.)

3. Atheists are more imaginative than most people. Religious people obviously have imagination too, but so much of their imaginative world is provided for them in myth, art, ritual and architectural space. Atheists know that the world we live in is dominated by religion: spires, minarets, ceremonial prayers, political rhetoric and posturing, ethical discussion. I am not convinced (alas) that atheists are “brighter” than anyone else, but they have to imagine ungiven alternatives and worlds of thought that have not been handed to them by tradition and custom.

Imagination however is that two-way street between vision and delusion. The given myths and symbols of a culture are imposed, not arrived at or deduced, and if not imposed then “imparted” by traditions. Jung was wrong.

Collective Unconscious?

Skeptics and unbelievers from Shelley and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) to Richard Feynman, John Ellis, Ljon Tichy and Einstein in the sciences, Sir Michael Tippet, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch in music, Bukoswki, Camus, Somerset Maugham, Joyce Carol Oates, Vonnegut in literature, have been imaginers, iconoclasts, rule-breakers, mental adventurers.

Far too often, unfortunately, atheists are the worst advocates for imagination.

They rather nervously limit their interest to the scientific imagination. They don’t see a connection between Monod and Camus. They consider their unbelief a “scientific” and “rational” position, not an imaginative one. When confronted with photographs of the Taj Mahal or recordings of Bach’s B-minor Mass, they point to shots from the Hubble telescope or (my personal favorite) soundtracks of earth auroral kilometric radiation.

Instead of owning the arts, they play the part of intellectual bullies who think poetry is for mental sissies.

Joyce Carol Oates

I have come to the conclusion that this is because they equate the imagination with the imaginary and the imaginary with the supernatural. The imagination produced religion, of course, hence the gods, but that does not mean that it is governed by religion, because if it were we never would have got round to science. The poet Charles Bukowski summed it up nicely in a 1988 interview: “For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

4. Atheism is an ethical position. That does not make being an atheist a “moral” stance, but it does raise a question about whether it is possible to be good with God. Only an individual free from the commandments of religion and the threat of heaven and hell deserves credit (or blame) for his decisions, actions, and omissions. Atheists are required to assume that responsibility fully. Religious people are not.

This is why anyone who teaches his children that the story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament is a “moral fable” is just as bad as the fundamentalist who teaches it as history. What would you say about a brutish dog-owner who told his naturally stupid dog to piss anywhere but in the flower garden, then hied him to a shelter the minute he did what he couldn’t help doing to begin with? That is the story of Adam, without the benefit of two millennia of theology to disguise its simplest elements.

Bad Dog

Modern Christian theology has attempted to emphasize the love, mercy and compassion of this God: he is a God of second chances–redemption–after all.

But mainly the Christian message is little more than an attempt to rehabilitate God under the guise of teaching that it’s the humans who needed rehabilitating. They had to be given one more chance at the flowers in order to to show that God, after his initial temper tantrum, is really full of kindness and patience. That’s basically what the “New” Testament tries to do, after all, though in a highly problematical way.

At a basic level, an atheist is likely to detect that there is no ethical content to the stories of religion. The prototypes are Adam, the disobedient, Job, the sufferer, Noah, the obedient, and Abraham, the faithful.

But these figures are not ethical paragons. They are examples of the types of behavior religion requires. Religion evokes “good” in the “good dog” sense of the word–as a characteristic of obedience, not as an outcome of choice. That is not the kind of good any rational being would aspire to–and one of the reasons certain interpreters, like Augustine, thought that what was squandered in Eden was reason. But ethics is about reflection, discrimination, freedom, and decision. Religion, strictly and fairly speaking, does not provide for that; only unbelief does. If Augustine had understood things properly, he would have spit in God’s eye and said that Adam’s only rational choice was to do what he did, affirm who and what he was, and get on with his life without Yahweh. Instead, he creeps out of the garden, takes his punishment like a beaten spaniel, and lives in the hope that his master will throw him the occasional bone.

The expulsion from Eden

To the extent that modern liberal theologies try to say that religions have endorsed a policy of choice and reflection all along, the rebuttal is history.

5. Atheists are socially tolerant. By this, I mean that they do not have a history of violence against beliefs and practices they may privately abhor. They do not burn down churches, black or white. No matter how ardent their unbelief, they do not bomb mosques or blow themselves up at Sunday Mass to reduce the number of Catholics in the world. They are not responsible for the Arab-Israeli border wars. They have not created tens of thousands of displaced people in resettlement camps in Lebanon or torn whole African nations apart. In general, they do not mistake adventurism for preemptive wars.

They may support separation of church and state in sometimes strident ways, but not violent ways: you will not see gangs of secularists tearing down nativity scenes at Christmas or storming historic court houses to get icons of the ten commandments removed from public view. –Even if they think these public displays of devotion are inappropriate and teach people bad habits.

All of these things are pretty obvious, even to believers whose gurus talk incessantly about the secular humanist and atheist “threat” without ever being able (successfully) to put a face on it. But they need to be recorded because religious people often assume that tolerance can only be practised within a religious or inter-religious context, Catholic to Baptist, Christian to Jew and Muslim. But atheism stands outside this circle.

Atheism, as atheism, stands as the rejection of all religious beliefs: it is befuddling to believers how such a position deserves tolerating at all. If there has to be an enemy–something a majority can identify as uniformly despicable–atheism has to be it. That is whyhoi polloi in the darkest days of the communist threat, especially those who had no idea what the social and economic program of the Soviet Union was, considered the worst sin of the “Reds” in Russia, China, and Europe their disbelief in God.

As with goodness, tolerance needs to be exhibited non-coercively. Not because Jesus said “Love your enemies,” or because Muhammad preached sparing unbelievers, provided they capitulated to Islam. Not even because John Paul II apologized to Galileo in absentia. What supports the suggestion that atheists are tolerant (and need to continue to be seen as being tolerant) is that the virtue of tolerance emerges naturally from the rational premises of unbelief. What atheism says is that intellectual assent is won by argument and evidence, not by force of arms or the power of priests and mullahs.

While atheists will never experience mass conversions to their cause “like a mighty wind” after a speech by a pentecostal preacher, the individual changes of mind from belief to skepticism will depend as much on the tone as on the substance of their message. By the same token, what atheist would trust the unbelieving equivalent of a spiritual awakening? It doesn’t happen that way. It happens one by one. Slowly. Just ask an atheist about how he “became” an unbeliever, and I wager that you will hear a life story, or something about how things just didn’t add up–a process, not a sudden emotional shudder but often a painful change of heart and (especially) mind.

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

Lament of a Soft-Shell Anti-American Atheist

by rjosephhoffmann

I’ve been puzzling for a few months now why the discourse between hardshell and softshell atheists has taken such a nasty turn. Can’t crabs just learn to live together–scuttling from side to side without disturbing each other’s tranquility?

True, when I first detected the trend among the leading atheist commandos (variously Gnus, News, EZs and Full-frontals) I said they were behaving like jerks, which of course got me called worse names by their fans.  All of a sudden I felt as unwelcome among the Baptism-revokers as Garp did when he stumbled into a meeting of the Ellen Jamesians.

Think of me as the little engine that couldn’t, the Doubting Thomas who tanked. I guess if I had been among the apostles on the day after the resurrection and had been invited to place my fingers in Jesus’ wounds, I would just have said, “Naw, I’ll take your word for it.”

I am a soft-shell atheist, someone who periodically lapses into doubt about the premises and sincerity of his unbelief. I am an unbeliever with a soft spot for religion–that’s the truth of it. In darker moments, I sometimes entertain the suspicion that there may be some kind of god. Then I look at my online bank balance, or a Republican presidential debate, and realize how foolish I’ve been.

But I’m also one who feels that atheism has a job to do: protecting believers from themselves and the rest of humanity from absurd and extreme ideas.  Atheism has to be outwardly directed at religion, its historical opposite, and isn’t at its best when it begins to obsess about degrees, vintages, and levels of unbelief. Even though these exist.

At first the debate within was between so-called “accommodationists” and “confrontationists.” I think the terms are imbecilic, but apparently the former are those who think conversation between believers and non believers can be civil.  The latter follow a somewhat different model of discourse, as between an annoyed pet owner shouting at a dog who’s just peed on the chair leg again.

Some accommodationists think that atheists should engage in interfaith dialogue with believers of various brightnesses, as long as both parties to the discussion are unarmed and everyone agrees that Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” is the best ice cream ever made and that Kristin Chenoweth’s version of “Taylor the Latte Boy” is awesome.  I’m not that extreme, of course–just a backslider who needs a little stained glass and Bach in his life now and again.

But confrontationists are tough.  They are the real deal. You can keep your ice cream and your god–and don’t even think about using the courtier’s reply when they call you out as a dick because they have that page in their Atheist Pride Handbook bookmarked, you conceited, theistic, knee-bending pillock.

All kinds of silly images come to mind when I read what the angriest of the atheist brood say, but the dominant one lately is a continually pissed off and ineffectual Yosemite Sam waving his pistols in the air and shouting “It’s time to stop pussyfootin’ around. You Bible-totin’ swamp cabbages and your lily-livered compadres better run for cover. Our day has come and it isn’t the rapture, varmint.”

Hard-shell Atheist in Uniform

The level of pure nastiness has now reached such comic proportions that the real danger faced by the hardshell atheists is the risk of appearing clownish and absurd without being especially funny.

That is a sad state to be in when you are supposed to be advocating for science and reason. So we have to ask why the “confrontationists” are in such a bad mood.  All we know is that ice cream won’t fix it.

I have a theory about this.  As often happens in the history of movements beginning with a-  they seem to be have learned how to behave from the movement they’re rebelling against. Hardshell atheists are behaving like craven theists.

One of the things that irritated ancient nations about the Jews was the CPT, the Chosen People Thing. Judaism at its peak was a tiny and exclusivist sect among the religions of the Middle East. Its purity codes and laws were famous for being as prickly and picky as their God was about who got to call him Father. Having conversations or social relations with non-Jews was not only not recommended, it was not tolerated. (It’s one of the charges against Jesus: a publican is a non Jew). Accommodation was not an option. The Egyptians hated it, then the Persians (a little less), the Babylonians and finally the Romans.  Later the medieval Europeans codified the hatred, and of course, the Germans decided to take matters into their own hands. The Final Solution is what happened when talking, compression, and eviction notices didn’t work.

The Christians got a version of the CPT by default when they canonized the Old Testament and proclaimed themselves the New Israel.  The Muslims had no choice but to follow suit: their religion is the end of prophecy and their way is the only straight way to God.

One of the things, I suspect, that most irritates atheists about the book religions is this sometimes implicit (and sometimes grating) ideology that you are either inside or outside the faith, and if you’re outside, forget you. But salvation was never about saving everybody.  In most denominations, God doesn’t want that.  He wants the ones who shine the brightest.

Odd, isn’t it, that the evangelical atheists have adopted a fairly toxic version of the same narrative toward members of their own tribe. Yet who can deny that their total commitment to the Non-existence of God is another outbreak of CPT.  They are behaving religiously, aping the worst features of the religious attitudes and behaviors they profess to condemn.

They–the hardshells–will call me wrong, of course, as well as seriously confused and (heh) accommodating.  They will say that I’m just being an idiot (again) for equating supernaturalism and superstition (= religion) with logic and science. Don’t I get why this analogy is so bad? It is so bad because this time the chosen have been self-selected by their ingenuity and intellectual excellence, not by some imaginary celestial power.

To which I have to say, in my defense, Don’t you get that the God who doesn’t exist now—the one you don’t believe in—didn’t exist then either?  The god of religious exclusivism is the god fabricated by people who already believed in the superiority of their ways, their laws, their customs, and their intrinsic value.  It’s the feeling right and thinking that because you are, you are also special and need not discuss your ideas with people who dramatically oppose you that leads to the mistrust, the suspicion, the animosity.  Atheists who wonder why they are mistrusted can begin with the anguish the Jews felt when the Romans began a centuries-long tradition of vituperation against the CPT.

But lackaday dee misery me.  This post will be greeted with the same disdain I have come to expect from atheists.  They will find a straw man in here somewhere and put a hat on him.  This will be called a screed or a diatribe.  I will be asked where my evidence is for saying these things. (Hint: everywhere)  I will be told that I don’t want dialogue, or that I’mcoddling religionists, that this post is a troll in some endless private conversation among certified members about the evils of (all) religion or that I am arrogant (though arrogant prick is my favorite obloquy) or that I am an undercover agent for the Church of God. Actually, the last has not yet been suggested so feel free to use it.  And don’t let the fact that there are literally dozens of fairly intelligent people chiming in on this message to the atheist hordes; write it off to my envy at not being Richard Dawkins.  Damn.

Now for the best part. It may surprise you to learn that, for everything said here, I am not really a fan of dialogue with faith communities. As far as I am concerned ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are simply activities of groups that interact at a social level, without really getting into the nitty gritty of how they are different, or why they might be wrong. There are two kinds: the merely boring and the pissing contest, but both are ultimately ineffectual.

Atheism–just an opinion, mind you–has no clear place in such a discussion; to mean anything at all, it must be premised on some form of the proposal (a) that God does not exist (b) that this belief has social and moral consequences, especially in terms of human decision-making and (c) that the world we create through these decisions is accountable only to us—that we are the source and the end of our actions.  I personally agree with one of the most outspoken hard-shell atheist writers when she sees atheism as something that happens person to person and individual to individual.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to people who are religious.  But do you really need a committee (or a community) to do it in?

But I am in favor of atheists, hard- and soft-shell, being concerned about language, self-image, the quality of their critique of religion, and their capacity to describe their life-stance in a positive form.  I am interested in narrative control and a literary style that corresponds in form to methods and aims that have often (think Sartre) been elegant. That makes me an elitist, not a cowboy, I know. But the funny thing about Yosemite Sam is that he’ll always shoot first and ask questions later. And people begin to wonder about people like that.

Me the People

Don’t call me The American People.  Not unless you mean it.  And not unless I hear a compliment when I hear you say it instead of a subtle reference to “typical voters who share my narrow,  profit-mongering,  and religiously backward view of America.”

 Mitch McConnell. the turtlefaced Senate minority leader with a heart of mould, says The American People will not be fooled “this time around” by tax and spend Democrats. Eric Cantor says The American People want a balanced budget–just like they expect to have every month when they make decisions about eating out at restaurants or paying the mortgage (Odd equivalence that: eating at Denny’s once a month and health care for the poor).

     Michele Bachmann, the intelligent Christian’s Sarah Palin surrogate,  says the American people deserve to keep what they earn and that the Income Tax Amendment (that’s XVI if you’re counting) is unconstitutional. In fact, in an extraordinary moment last week, she said that The American People had decisively spoken in her favor at the Iowa caucus where she received 28% of 17,000 votes, a number comparable to a high school election for student council president. Sarah Palin, when she was interesting, said she was in touch with The American People and knew what they wanted–in language only a little reminiscent of what an employee of Shady Lady Ranch in Nye, Nevada,  might say.

The Democrats aren’t blameless, of course.  They use this fustian  all the time. Just like having to wear flag pins in their lapel and sing “God Bless America” on cue, they have to counter references to the American People with references to the American People. But I have to say that when they do, there seems to be at least a glimmer of  good intent to it–an evocation of “real people” who do their own laundry and have to check their bank balance before getting the car fixed, rather than people, like the Tea Party crowd, who actually enjoy wearing jackets and ties and going to church.  Alas, many people who do their own laundry and wear wife beaters on Sunday while they enjoy a football game on their 72 inch HDTV (fully paid up in 18 months)  actually think the well-pressed set on the links are the best ones to look out for their welfare.  The American People is a many-splintered thing,

$12.95, a small price to be an American

    

I think it boils down to this: when the Democrats use the phrase, they are actually referring to other people. When the Repblicans use it, they mean themselves and the like-minded individuals they play golf with. The American People need to wake up and smell the difference.

And why do they use it–or rather, why do the Republicans use the phrase to the point of making me want to burn a flag using campaign posters of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell as kindling?

Because they can’t say “God.”  Oh sure, certified evangelical nutters like Rick Perry can get away with talking about Christian America and what God has done for the country and how The American People are basically decent and good (implication: because they are Christian and know who to thank for that).

But a politician who spoke about God all the time would probably lose people’s attention after a while, even in this preternaturally religious country.  “I ask my colleagues to pass this Deregulation of Oil Companies bill without delay because it’s what God demands and what Jesus would do” sounds a little tetched after all.  Better to say, “What the American People want and the American People deserve.”  Say it often enough and the association will become natural: two wills happily joined in political wedlock, incarnate in We the People.  It all sounds pretty good until you look at the priesthood that presides over this “secular” sanctuary.  We the People are no more recognizable from their invocations than God is in the prayers of pedophile priests.

     

Can we do anything about this, or will we just have to put up with the cynical use of our collective name (and will) being taken in vain? After all, we put them there, and we permit the sacrilege to go on.

Maybe the fatal flaw in the argument for the wisdom of The American People is the tsunami called the 2010 Mid-term election.  Unlike God in the official theology, We the People are sometimes impatient, dumb, and prone to make mistakes that injure us.  It was fine when We the People were Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton speaking for acquiescent farmers and merchants.  Not so good when We are Perry, Romney, Boehner, and Bachmann framing ideas for suits, corporate thieves, the merely uninformed and NASCAR reactionaries.

But unlike the real God (or unreal god) who gets invoked all the time, I think the (real) American People, hapless and reckless beasts that we are,  deserve better.  Stop treating us like ancient deities who just need a little incense on the fire, a sheaf of burning wheat, a few prayers, and an occasional virgin-sacrifice to keep us happy. Stop thinking you know what We want–or worse, being so priestly in the discharge of your duties that you think that what you want and what we want is the same thing.  Clearly it isn’t, and just as clearly the polls say that The American People would like to round you up and  drive you out of town.  But because it’s expensive for us to keep the buildings open and pay the heating bill, we have to vote for more of you in 2012, just to keep the People’s House occupied. Taxes my axes.

I suggest a national The American People Won’t be Appeased, Bought, Cajoled or Lied To campaign before this election cycle renders the phrase meaningless.

I‘ll be happy to serve as president of this coalition.  I think the American People deserve that.   You can thank me later for my service.

How Atheism Lost the War of Ideas

(c) 2011, extract from from The Fall and Winter of Secular Humanism

In 1921 Luigi Pirandello wrote an absurdist drama that became his landmark contribution to twentieth century literature, Six characters in search of an author.  In the play according to the playwright’s instructions, the six ownerless characters enter from the rear interrupting the rehearsal of another Pirandello play. A “tenuous light” surrounds them—the “faint breath of their fantastic reality.” With embarrassment, the Father explains to the angry Manager that they are in search of an author. When the Manager replies that he has no time for madmen, the Father rejoins that he must know that life is full of absurdities that do not need to appear plausible since they are true. To reverse this process is the madness of acting: that is, “to create credible situations, in order that they may appear true.”

Every religion, every political system, exists to soften the inherent absurdity and ultimate cruelty of life, and to create a reality that appears true to believers: one–society or government–is not more “plausible” or true than the other–religion or philosophy.  Both, over time, have been in the business of producing the artifice of civilization and culture that we regard as the primary location of human beings. As Freud recognized, we create culture at the expense of freedom.  We maintain it at the cost of self-actualization.  The stage-set we call civilization, the set we built for ourselves through collective and largely unconscious struggle, is no more real than the stage sets Pirandello’s characters create for their own temporary existence.

True, we have developed the wherewithal to change the set, learned to expand the horizons of civilization beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, and developed systems of decryption that answer questions about how the set works, how we ourselves are constructed, how we have evolved. That is what science is.  The frantic search for an author: that is what religion is, and like the characters in Pirandello’s drama, without that knowledge the attempt to construct our life is limited to piecing scenes together: “Thus, sir, you see when faith is lacking, it becomes impossible to create certain states of happiness, for we lack the necessary humility. Vaingloriously, we try to substitute ourselves for this faith, creating thus for the rest of the world a reality which we believe after their fashion, while, actually, it doesn’t exist.”

***

The death of any movement begins with fissiparation.  Almost instinctively, early Christianity even before it was a force to reckon with, knew that the essential threat to its existence would come from those who differed over the finer details of the faith–not from Jews or pagans who rejected it wholesale.  Christianity succeeded organically well into the Renaissance by insisting on a core message and core ritual practices and belief.  The creeds–self-referring statements of faith–of the ancient churches may have cost it a few friends, but created a bureaucratic structure that has lasted centuries longer than equally unwavering philosophies such as communism and national socialism.  That is not accidental, because while the basic needs of people in relation to society are as simple as a loaf of bread or a supply of water, the needs of people in relation to religion are as fugitive as ideas of God and eternal happiness, and failure to fulfill them more difficult to see as a negation of religion’s promises.  The government that cannot provide bread will not survive for long.  The religion that cannot provide God will simply change the nature of the search or find new places to look.

When the Christian church in the west did break apart in the sixteenth century, it did so for two reasons: first, Rome had lost the power to control dissident opinion as effectively as it had in previous centuries.  There were various reasons for this, but the main one was distraction.  Since the late Middle Ages, popes had been forced to defend their claim of political superiority and territorial rights against a half dozen ambitious princes who had come to see Rome as a political rival to their own national agendas.  Though the quarrels (known officially as the Investiture Controversy) always were coded in theological language, the secular aspirations of the opposing powers was plain. Compromising on some theological issues was always seen as preferable to alienating powerful allies on which the papacy depended for its own prestige.  The only question was whether the state exceeded the Church in power or whether the spiritual authority of the church was superior to the powers of prince and magistrate.  There was no talk of “abolition” of one by the other because the power of each was derived from a common hierarchy that required God, as celestial sovereign, at the top

Second, however, Rome itself was in spiritual and moral crisis.  What is often said erroneously about the moral decay of Rome at the time of the Christian insurgence of the fourth century can fairly be said about Christianity in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of the protestant movement. While centers of culture, intellectual vigour and reform certainly existed, the Church of the commoners was characterrized by superstition, enforced credulity, and doctrinal rigidity.  Luther’s purview in Wittenberg as a  university professor established him as one of the enlightened, but his agonized concern for the latter made him a reformer.  It was this unique combination of intellectualism, concern for the moral condition of the church he served, and the distractedness of the church that made the reformation possible.

"Give us a king!"

The patterns established by the rupture continued: no longer subject to governing authority, a message control center, protestantism devolved into a hundred competing theologies and practices.  The charismatic, quietist, and Evangelical streams of practice already stood at the outflow of the Reformation and continued through the twentieth century.  They were not the end of the process. The Church of God in Christ, Unification theology, Jonestown, fundamentalism and Dominionism all lay ahead.  Each one of them (like their 16th century prototypes) claimed to possess the correct recipe for church-state relations.  Increasingly the conservative protestant movement became convinced that that recipe was expressed in the symbolism of Israel’s rejection of God in favour of monarchy (or sovereignty, or big government), and called for a return to the humility, obedience, and faithfulness they thought characterized the people of Israel before they became rebellious, arrogant, and sinful. By 1954 the question of God, at least in the United States, had become inseparable once again from the question of the powers of government.

[Next: The secular movement in Europe and America]