The Paltry Cause

I will always write about religion because that is what I was trained to do.  My field is the study of religion.  It is an interesting and important field.  It deserves to be treated seriously because religion has been influential in shaping ideas and society since before there were alphabets and wedges to tell us its story.  Like science– like everything, as Nietzsche and common sense tell us–it is antinomous:  that means  it has opposition built into it– good and bad, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong.  The Persians may have been the first to see this, but I am not sure.  The Chinese saw it too, the Greeks certainly did, and the Manicheans of Augustine’s day–and Augustine himself.  The primal choice is a choice about the way in which something beautiful—a fruit, let’s say, symbolically—can be used for good or bad. When religion has talked about good and evil, it has sometimes failed to see itself in its own dichotomy, as though ‘religion’ was the cure and not the essence of the tension.  But in my opinion religion is the revelation of the tension between salvation and destruction.  It cannot escape from itself.  It cannot pretend to be all good since there is evil in it. It is not all good. And it is not all evil.  That has to be determined, like apples and atoms, by the way people use it.

But I have decided to stop writing about atheism. Because I believe that atheism is to religion what counting on your fingers is to mathematics. It works, to a point.  But it ends where the serious questions and complexities begin.

I suppose that some people will find this an odd statement.  Atheists sometimes like to see mathematics and science as particular ‘strengths’ in their war against religion.  But they are wrong. The scientific –ballistic-evolutionary argument against religion is not a reasoned assessment at all but an assault based on assumptions that have not changed much since the nineteenth century. It presupposes that science, adequately explicated, contains a knock down disproof of religious faith. I am not going to pronounce on the silliness of that assumption except to say that no one as yet can define what ‘adequately explicated’ can possibly mean, and until we can science offers at best scattered and tentative evidence against elements of religious faith that can just as easily be arrived at through common sense—or systematic theology.

The use of science by atheists has not really touched “religion” at all.  It has been a paltry, casuistic attack on particular cherry picked ideas taken largely from the Judaeo Christian corpus of beliefs–out of which atheism sprang.  And it sprang from this corpus because Christianity created the environment for doubt when it created the opportunity for faith. The narrowness of the atheist critique and its carping on ideas and doctrines that the modern world and shopping malls have rendered obsolete illustrates the poverty of its message.

Atheists in America especially want to think of themselves as plain-spoken, hard-headed, pragmatic, scientifically-inclined, reason-abiding savants who just want to let people know that they are right and religious folk are wrong.

But this shortcutting is almost always an example of ignorance or maybe evidence that they lack a passport and have not traveled much. Why be curious about what other people believe if all belief is rancid, simplistic, retardant nonsense?  Most of world history and the study of culture becomes optional, if not useless, when we make scientific sophistication the criterion for “real” knowledge of the world. Along with their claim to intellectual correctness, atheists, ironically, want people  (though what audience is not clear) to know that they are a persecuted minority engaged in a civil rights struggle against the superstitions and outrages of religion.

Coming out atheist only a few years ago was beginning to look a lot like a Billy Graham Crusade, where repentant whoremongers and alcoholics “accepted” Jesus in a public display of their born-again life in the spirit. When the “new” atheism (now being remaindered in second hand bookshops everywhere) has run its course, it will be remembered primarily for what it is: intellectually vacuous, analytically sloppy and humanistically absent.

But we do need to continue to think and write about religion—critically.  For almost thirty years, beinning as a graduate student, I was involved with the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, CSER, which has emerged as one of the greatest of many casualties of the collapse of the Center for Inquiry in 2008.

What CSER had just about right was the belief that an independent voice–neither academic nor ecclesiastical–was needed to deal with topics ranging from Quranic origins to religious violence to biblical misinterpretation in a—can I say this with a straight face—fair and blanced way.  The more strident, anti-religion and God-bashing stance of new atheists nailed the coffin shut on the enterprise, rendering any future work from any equivalent organization impossible and unreliable.  If religious parochialism was what CSER tried hard to avoid and challenge on the one hand, atheist parochialism was the pit that it didn’t see coming.

We need to care about religion because much of religion is plainly wrong and humanly injurious: arranged marriages, oppressive and Neolithic views of women, absurd philosophies of personhood, political systems, whether in America or Nigeria, unduly influenced by tribal loyalty, regimes that oppose scientific research because they contradict “revealed” religion.

Yet I can point—have pointed on this site– to a thousand areas where religious philosophies unprompted by secular motives or the condition of unbelief have changed life and culture, ranging from the university movements of the twelfth century to the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements of the nineteenth and twentieth.  It is no good saying that belief in god—a God of a certain disposition—is  not responsible for ‘incentivizing’ such activity.  The greater glory of God, to quote the old Jesuit motto, drove everything from the slaughter of South American indigenes to the founding of Georgetown, ideas of war and ideas of everlasting peace , “where the lion lay down with the lamb.” Like the modern nation-state, religion is capable of helping and hurting; and it is only the unhistorical presumption that it is designed only to help that causes confusion and misunderstanding among its critics.  A well-taught course in anthropology or the sociology of belief would put the critics straight, but as I am reminded again and again, that is asking too much when we can simply jump up and down and shout for religion to go away.

I seem to be coming back again and again to the same theme: what has atheism ever got us?  Professor Grayling’s laughable new “university” which is little more than a correspondence school with big names on the letterhead?  Hospitals? Charities?  You may want to say that atheism has been prevented from doing great works by religion.  But think about that for just a moment. I know there is a current trend of thought that asks us to think that the Church has been preoccupied with suppressing atheism, but it is nothing more than revisionist fantasy.  The real story of Christianity and to a certain extent Islam is the triumph of its heretics over the status quo, their battle for a better, more worthy, more human image of God.  I include among those critics many atheists—Sartre for example—who considered the image so discredited by war and suffering that simple honesty required sending it to the attic with other antiquities.

Most of all however, I have come to consider atheism unimportant.  At the beginning of any relationship, lovers love each other, the poet said; but in the end only love being in love. Many people were infatuated with the new atheism when it was new, but it’s ceased to be exciting to many thousands, or perhaps only hundreds, of people because it is repetitious and unproductive, like the phrase “I love you” said one too many times. There must be many people who take pride in being  unbelievers, but the simple truth is, their unbelief makes no difference if it is only based on a lust to be different from religious troglodytes who believe that every word of sacred scripture is literally true.  In a world of sameness such as the United States has become, a nation dominated by a religious discussion so barren of intellectual substance that I sometimes want to sell my passport, I can easily understand the temptation to atheism.  It has the appeal of shock value in a country where independent thinking is not especially valued.  –The same sort of shock value you would get if, in any city strip, you could insert a porn shop between MacDonald’s and Burger King, across the street from Arby’s and Wendy’s.

For me, atheism will always belong to the larger philosophical context of religious belief.  That is where it belongs, and not on a T-shirt. It is a position that has to be considered within that broader context.  It should be discussed, debated, and taken seriously.  But that seriousness is justified only when religious ideas and beliefs can be assessed in a systematic and historical way—not simply lampooned and pilloried as though they have not played the role they have played, good and bad, in our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization.

30 thoughts on “The Paltry Cause

  1. ” I believe that atheism is to religion what counting on your fingers is to mathematics.” A seminal saying if I ever did see one.

    As a humanist I have decided to stop discussing religion, just as you are curtailing writing about atheism. But I may have been too hasty – can I be allowed to peek into your good works now and then?🙂

    Atheism is like sand in the engine oil, you can’t be a mechanic or engineer if you have to keep referencing it.

    Humanism is like that – I like to think of the major religious figures as the great philosophers who have instructed our species on our emerging trading, agricultural and urban cultures. Eagles learning to be ants.

    To contemplate and understand the social media of past eras; hyperbole being as compris and de rigeur as Facebook is today. A poet’s conceit writ large.

    I’ll take your cue, look out the kitchen window, go look for the baby in the yard.

  2. … [atheism has] ceased to be exciting to many thousands, or perhaps only hundreds of people because it is repetitious and unproductive …

    That I will tend to agree with. Seems to me that for many atheists atheism has become an end in itself – probably a central problem of all isms: maybe akin to your reference to “only love being in love”; a case of “purpose only to have a purpose” – rather than a means to one or simply a stage of human evolution. I believe you made some time ago, quite sensibly, some reference to “what ultimately matters” and, similarly, in an article on the philosopher of religion Keith Parson’s assertion that “the case for theism is a fraud” one comment stood out:

    The question is whether or not god-talk is a useful — or even tolerable — way of framing what Tillich called our “ultimate concerns.” Tillich’s end-run definition was really a Trojan Horse. Once “God” has been defined as our ultimate concerns, the game is over.

    Unfortunately far too many in the religious communities are so badly fixated on if not addicted to the supposedly literal truth and idolatry of their particular and contradictory dogmas that they are unable to see the “exquisite logic and profound psychology” – in the words of the American moralist Philip Wylie – that undergirds at least some of that dogma, more so in Christianity than Islam. And similarly, it seems that far too many in the atheist communities have thrown out that baby of logic and psychology in their haste to be rid, quite reasonably I think, of the bathwater and monster of literalism. A situation which is not particularly conducive to building the necessary bridges without which it will be impossible to define much less attain the goals implicit in those “ultimate concerns”.

    I think that Dr. John Hartung in his essay Prospects for Existence: Morality and Genetic Engineering put the conundrum rather well and quite succinctly:

    Ways and means are not the issue. The question remains, ways and means to what?

    But, unfortunately and quite problematically, far too many exist – quite literally, hopelessly – outside of those two communities for whom the answer to that question is to pull out a Trivial Pursuit game of one sort or another. Although it would be decidedly disconcerting, to say the least, if it turned out that that was the only game in this or any other town.

  3. I must admit I agree with you on four points about atheism: the ignorance of many atheists, the general misguided zest of atheists, the meandering nature of atheism-though maybe meandering is not, necessarily, a dreadful trait of atheism, and the necessity of disputing religion from different premises outside the scientific realm.

    However, I do think you possess a narrow perspective when discussing the utilization of science in disproving god and religion. True, science cannot prove god doesn’t exist, but it does make him superfluous, inefficient, toilsome, and cruel–which destroys most theistic concepts of god. Additionally, science is not the only worldview doing the attacking–if promoting scientific facts can be considered attacking. Science is being attacked by religion, as well. This may explicate many scientists disdain for religion.

    In the end, where the rubber meets the road, if you will, is science provides the preponderance of atheists the most efficacious ammunition in confronting religion and god. Atheists must employ it. The current state of atheism—while disheartening to some—is understandable and necessary.

    BTW, the fact that secular and scientific ideas arose under the repressive influence of religion is entirely remarkable.

    • “True, science cannot prove god doesn’t exist, but it does make him superfluous, inefficient, toilsome, and cruel–which destroys most theistic concepts of god.”

      Untrue; science has done none of those things, and I am bemused by the breadth and depth of ignorance of human history which is the necessary prerequisite for someone to actually believe this to be true. Those points had been made and understood long before the emergence of ‘science’, and only someone wholly oblivious to both human history and the concept of evidence based reasoning could make this claim.

      However, it certainly suggests that Professor Hoffmann’s decision to stop wasting his time on the irredeemably ignorant is a sound one…

      • So, are you saying that science doesn’t make a theistic god superfluous, inefficient, toilsome, and cruel?

        As to whether these points had been made before the “emergence of science” is not germane to the point I was making. Perhaps, you should try reading my comment, again?

        I am reminded of Eliot,”Imbecility that is not even meek, ceases to be pitiable, and becomes simply odious.”

      • What in the world is a ‘theistic god”–is it like a demonic devil? I also wonder why you lot always resort to name calling: I don’t think there is anything actually imbecilic in this piece, whatever its flaws. Please note that the eliot you are quoting is George, not TS and that the quote comes from The Portable Atheist, no doubt a handbook you keep handy for aspersions?

      • A theistic god is a god who created the universe, is mindful about his creation, and who,continually, intervenes—either by request or divine knowledge–to ensure the natural processes progress according to His nonpareil blueprint.

        Why I resort to name calling? Stevie not only misconstrued what I said he then called me “irredeemably ignorant!”

        Yes, I know her.

        BTW, Stevie’s comment was not even germane to my comment. That was my point. He was calling me ignorant for saying something I never said. That is imbecilic.

        Yes, I own and I have read the Portable Atheist. I do keep it handy, but not for aspersions. That quote, which I quoted from memory, just happened to be an apt description of Stevie’s comment.

  4. Pingback: Quote of the Day | eChurch Blog

  5. I think the main problem is too little dialogue between the two:(and I don’t see that improving any time soon) each seems more concerned with shouting the other side down. Both Atheism and Theism don’t seem to realiz that there is a dialogue going on and they, as well, are moving, living and breathing within this dialogue.

  6. I empathise with this essay so much. I like the expression. “Atheism will always belong to the larger philosophical context of religious belief” with histories. I’ve always believed that independent personal philosophical belief should be personal, not branded and labelled and dressed up into a cause.

    • I was more than a little surprised – if not actually a little shocked – to see you say that as it seems more than a little incongruous or inconsistent with your earlier support for “the critical spirit of rational inquiry”. Seems to me that a “philosophical belief” is not like tastes – for which, they say, there is no accounting – in art or music or food; seems that an essential element of philosophy is to determine – somewhat of a cause in itself – what is really true rather than what might appeal to our vanities or other entirely subjective criteria.

      Although there are causes and then there are causes, some of which can turn into a case of the proverbial tail wagging the dog – which certainly seems to be the case for some atheists and which provides some justification for, at times, characterizing atheism, metaphorically anyway, as a religion: “A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.” However, some principles are obviously more credible than others, even if the definition of “credibility” is necessarily somewhat subjective, and one might argue that, in the former class, even Dr. Hoffman’s support for and promotion of “our long, tortured, uphill climb toward civilization” – for the greater glory of Humanity if not God – qualifies as both “philosophical belief” and “cause”.

  7. Careful, Hunt — Hoffman has a habit of removing comments that don’t reflect well on his awesomeness. That might be why he has a grand total of eight, as compared with dozens over at, say, Why Evolution is True.

  8. Pingback: US: Non-New Atheist takes ball, goes home | Religious Atrocities

  9. Hoffmann,

    Me thinks thou art a Heretic amongst heretics. “Heretics are the only (bitter)remedy against the entropy of human thought.”

  10. Religion…like science– like everything, as Nietzsche and common sense tell us–it is antinomous: that means it has opposition built into it– good and bad, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong.

    That is an important insight. It is true for the simple reason that it is us who have the opposition (good and bad, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong) built into ourselves and so everything we touch manifests antonymy.

    The Christian name for this is ‘original sin’, you call it Manichaeism. It is original in the sense that it is embedded in our nature and it is sin in the sense that it can result in moral wrong.

    It is fashionable today to deny this and claim we are naturally good, if only we would throw off the chains of our defective institutions. Such people usually have a primitive grasp of history. To see why this should be so it is helpful to review our pre-history. Imagine a time more than 100,000 years ago. We had no language and the evidence suggests only a primitive intelligence. Under those conditions we were no more moral than my dogs are moral. Life was a merciless Darwinian struggle where the spoils went to the strong. We had no moral concepts. This Darwinian behaviour was deeply embedded in our nature by millions of years of evolution.

    Then something remarkable happened. There was an extinction event about 70,000 or so years ago that left only a small number of survivors. Coincidentally(or maybe not) these survivors acquired language and language multiplied intelligence. With the arrival of language, something else happened, we were able to conceive of right and wrong, good and bad. Morality was born. This new found morality immediately found itself in conflict with the deeply embedded Darwinian impulses that had so reliably guided our behaviour for millions of years. It is a conflict that has plagued our entire known history. Today we are still plagued by this conflict in our natures. You call it antonymy or Manichaeism while Christians call it original sin. These are different understandings and different names for the same phenomenon, our Darwinian nature in conflict with our acquired moral nature.

    Some would say that religion is the mechanism we evolved to reign in our Darwinian nature and reinforce or extend our moral nature.

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