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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