Should Atheism be Studied?

“Atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others….” (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626)

That is not a trick question. Atheism to have any intellectual standing in the world must be studied, like any other subject.

The stumbling block for doing this, most atheists will allege, are those pesky Christians whose pet cause is getting religion (or approved religion-substitutes, like “moments of quiet reflection” or post-school-day Bible study), back into the schools.

But that’s half the picture. The biggest obstacle to atheism being taught is that atheists have not claimed their subject matter, defined it adequately, or put it forward as anything other than being “not religion.”

It is difficult to teach “not”-subjects. Not-physics could be English, rollerblading or chiropractic services. It could be anything, as long as it’s not Physics. Defining a thing by its not-ness is not very helpful.

That is why the tired taunt against the unbeliever has been and still is, “So, what do you believe in then?” Stammer, cough.

Part of the issue is that atheists are too much foxhound and too little fox. They know when religious folk are trying to sneak religion into a conversation or a curriculum, under the guise of creation science or moral and spiritual development. But their lawsuits, protests, and cries of foul play and Unconstitutionality (whatever that hackneyed phrase may yet mean in this wretched age) seem as hollow as St. Peter’s dome. I mean the basilica.

But at least the Righteous majority, in America anyway, know exactly what they would like to see: stories about prophets and patriarchs, miracles and manna in the desert, Jesus speaking parables to the multitudes, and just a tiny, condescending nod to the millions of people who aren’t Christian yet but who have some interesting if basically wrong ideas–and (perhaps too much to hope) a nice nonsectarian prayer that ends, “In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.”

There is content there, even if the Constitution forbids its propagation as “learning.” And there is history. The religious rightists can also point to an imaginary golden age when Protestant America had no notions or plans to change its essentially doctrinal view of abortion, homosexuality, gender roles and the virtue of private wealth. So what if Johnny couldn’t read? At least he could pray and knew how to wash behind his unpierced heterosexual ears.

Nothing is more clear to the straight-thinking religious majority than that the obstruction of religion by people who don’t read the Bible leads to confusion, and confusion leads to–well, Barack Obama and terrorism.

It is true, of course, that the infinite jest of the religious right is enough to keep any self-respecting unbeliever busy with taunts, jabs, and protests.

In my view, that’s about all atheists have managed to do in the last hundred years.

That is because atheists have grown intellectually fat and lazy, enamored of the quaintness and minority rectitude of their opinion, careless about their targets and goals, gibberishical about their “values” and ideas, many of which are indistinguishable from anybody else’s liberal ideas. Except, perhaps the God part–the not-part.

In fact, the whole faith-versus-unbelief debate is askew.

The righteous and the right-minded have chosen to draw their battle-line on the map of myth. Yet both sides know that the trigger-question is not whether Genesis is “true” but whether the possibility of a being like God is true. The believer, if he is a profound Christian, says simply yes, because the story is true, it being validated by the power and authority whose story it is. This is not the time to drag out a logic primer or a copy of The God Delusion. Quantum physics? Forget about it.

It is time to be foxier than that. If the answer is yes, because the story says so, then the job of education (something atheists claim to care about) is to examine stories about gods. Not just the one in Genesis–all the stories.

And the job of education, and the goal of knowledge, is to find a real method–historical, scientific, critical, the same kind we use in other subjects–for sorting out true stories and false stories. In other words, Genesis can only be “true” to the extent it is certifiably different from, say, this:

Upon that desire arose in the beginning. This was the first discharge of thought. Sages discovered this link of the existent to the nonexistent, having searched in the heart with wisdom.

Their line [of vision] was extended across; what was below, what was above? There were impregnators, there were powers: inherent power below, impulses above.

Who knows truly? Who here will declare whence it arose, whence this creation? The gods are subsequent to the creation of this. Who, then, knows whence it has come into being? (R’g Veda, ca. 2100BCE)

And since difference, on its own, is no hallmark of truth (think of a Rembrandt oil and a copy of a Rembrandt oil), there must be other methods for finding out what the real story is, and which story, if either, has a foundation in reality–reality as non-delusional people understand the term.

The story of God in Genesis is no more a proof of the existence of God than the existence of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter saga is proof of the existence of a master-wizard headmaster.

That is what people who study religion learn to do in classes in anthropology, history, linguistics, archaeology. They look at stories, and rocks, and language trees and other stuff; they sort things out. They know that the Rig Veda is older than the oldest bits of the Hebrew Bible.

They know that written Hebrew wasn’t around in second millennium BCE, though its ancestor-languages, like Canaanite dialects, and ancestor gods to YHWH (the one who set himself apart from his brother gods by making the cosmos in six days) were.

Early God: Yahweh on his chariot

So if we ignore the method-issue by continuing to debate questions of no real importance as though there were no real answers, or none the Constitution will permit us to pursue, we are enduring the ignorance not just of the kids in the classroom but of the teachers, the parents, and school-boards like Dover.

We are enshrining mystery when there is no mystery. We are saying “Who could possibly know something like that?” when there are plenty of people who know precisely what’s what.

We are endorsing the opinion that a lot of learning is a dangerous thing. Americans, among the tribes of the earth, excel in that view, and atheists should be doing what they can to combat it.

Atheists should not be patting themselves on the back for discovering that creation science isn’t real science. That’s a bit like discovering the two men inside the horse-costume. They should be ashamed for not insisting that there are better ways of approaching questions they consider critical.

Creation Science

 

If it is part of atheist wisdom that God does not exist, then this wisdom has to be included–reflected–in the school curriculum in specific ways, not subordinated to a subset of mainly trivial issues–and by the way, in a way that also trivializes imagination and its offspring, mythology and art.

If atheists are going to help to fight this battle, they need to acquire what Mathew Arnold described as “culture” themselves. I travel in tiny circles, but many of the atheists I encounter got no chat when it comes to many of the things that count for culture–art, music, history–alas, even ideas other than new techniques for life-prolongation. They are simply boring. They are one string harps.

If the pious know what they want–school prayer for instance–what should an atheist want that can be taught?

For one thing, atheists should insist on courses in moral development. In the UK, where the idea of church-state separation isn’t quite as sharp-edged as in the Great Republic, classes in “spiritual and physical development” are usual, though the phrase really just means “moral” and physical education–important add-ons to intellectual formation through the standard lens of liberal learning.

Atheists should insist on ethics- or values-education. They should be fighting battles for good textbooks on the subject, texts that do more than offer an unsuspecting sixth- grader the most uninspiring precis of lives lived and thoughts thought– “Plato was an Athenian philosopher of the fifth century bce who is famous for his idea of the ‘forms’. He was also the teacher of fourth-century thinker, Aristotle who was famous for something else….”

Atheists (I stress) need to be interested in the history and development of culture, not just the assumed predominance of science. Culture and science are not the same thing, but they share a story.

But we live in an era and, in the United States especially, a society that encourages disjunction and dumbness. We have one standard of knowledge for the schools, another for our universities. And unlike Plato, we do not expect the higher pattern to be reflected in the lower.

How odd. We don’t learn to play violin or piano by teaching one set of scales and fingering techniques to seven year olds and a different set to students at seventeen. We insist on parallelism–the analogy–between one experience and the other because we know that real progress is only possible because the course (“Curriculum” in Latin) is also a path from the relatively simple to the relatively complex.

Only in American education can the schools get by with the enormous disconnect between the way in which knowledge is encountered and distributed in the schools and the way it is disseminated in even a mediocre university. And unfortunately, it is because of America’s generally low esteem for the humanities that this ignorance of method can thrive.

And where are the atheists? Fighting yesterday’s wars. Ranged against the Lord God of Hosts on the fields of Canaan. Doing everything possible to make their contribution unacceptable and suspect.

Atheists need to get behind an effort to get Wrong out of the schools–not just God and the Bible. If they claim knowledge is on their side, they need to be more actively involved in the way the knowledge business is run.

Unbelief as unbelief has no more business being taught than Unphysics.

But the body of accumulated wisdom–in ethics, the arts, the sciences and literature–is enormous, and much of it is by skeptics, humanists (in the post-renaissance sense) and atheists. Another lot is by “questioners” like Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus, without whose inquiring intellects the Enlightenment could not have happened.

But where are the bibliographies, the suggestions, the lists, the lobbyists who are willing to challenge the Christocentric and still dominant view that culture’s greatest achievements were carved out in stone and marble and glass?

The distinctive thing about atheism is that it is intellectual architecture, the life of the mind in crisis and question. Not some self-satisfied conclusion growing warts over time. Cathedrals are no proof that their builders were right, and atheists have never built cathedrals.

Its themes can be traced as well, and they are there from the time of the Rig Veda, through the time of “Job,” through the time of William Langland, Bacon (“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism,”) and the first stirrings against church doctrine, superstition and clerical abuse in the Reformation. Please: spare me the totally ignorant point that Luther and Spinoza were not “atheists.”

The atheist role is to insist that knowledge is not a grand and beautiful tapestry but the story of doubt and the role of doubt in the wider story of human achievement. Can we not teach that? Should we not teach that?

The question isn’t whether atheism “can” be studied, but when atheists are going to come down from the rooftops and begin making telescopes for the rest of us. That is hard work. That is the real challenge.