Religiophobia

Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.

Why?

Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

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Did Religion Give Us Doubt?

Erasmus

Professor Jerry Coyne asks this question while pretending to ignore me, and I assume he means it can be answered, and that the answer is a loud and obvious No: that religion, as the source of the world’s ugliness and ills, cannot possibly have given us doubt. Religion gives us faith–the opposite of reason–as everybody knows.

The previous post on martyrdom may raise Mr Coyne’s question indirectly.  

A number of people, mainly the cheering squad for Team Gnu, suggested that I was wrong and that atheists have too been murdered as atheists. That may or may not be true; the evidence (which is more on the order of information) looks highly problematical to me and the source cited–the New Encyclopaedia of Unbelief, is far from a disinterested or trusted resource for finding out.   When the Team finally settles whether they don’t need martyrs or do but want to call them something else I’m sure they will be in touch.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter since martyrdom and murder are not the same thing.  To analogize: martyrdom is to murder as baptism is to bath.  The key difference is that martyrdom can only happen when a church (medieval Rome and Calvin’s Geneva or the whole of Byzantion or the Islamic Middle East will do) or a state, where edicts of the church have the force of law (no good modern Western examples),  can be judicially enforced.  

Martyrdom is not murder; in context, pathetic though the context may be, it is the execution of justice.  Thomas More is a martyr becausehe was sentenced to death by Parliament, not because he was murdered in his sleep for holding treasonous opinions.  (He wasn’t.) If Gnus really care about the meaning of words and not just using them for stones, they might begin with this distinction.

Holbach

But the cases that were cited, ranging from the posthumously burned John Wycliffe and the “heretics” William Tyndale, Miguel Servetus, and the completely incomprehensible Giordano Bruno–none of them atheists and all of them judicially executed when the term martyrdom could be applied by one side or another in a struggle against an oppressive Church, or specific repressive doctrines–does tell us something about “doubt.” It tells us that they were put to death for doubting, for skepticism ab0ut the doctrines of their religion.  So yes, clearly: religion gives us doubt.  It’s certainly given us scores of doubters.

And they aren’t the first.  The first time Christianity comes into contact with the term “atheist” is when the Christians themselves were derided as atheists.  Justin  Martyr and Tertullian both write “apologies” in the second and early third century defending themselves against the term. “Hence,  we (Christians)  are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as the gods are concerned.” (Justin, First Apol., ca. 167).

Tertullian: The First Angry Christian, or Just Another Atheist?

Plainly, the accusation comes from their doubts about the existence of the Roman pantheon.  So when Richard Dawkins confidently proclaims that we are all “atheists” with respect to the majority of gods who have ever existed, it begins here–with Jews and Christians.  It begins with doubts about the tales and myths propagated by their Roman hosts. –And just for the record, neither Tertullian nor Justin fits the description of local yokels that Celsus and Porphyry tried to pin on the Christians.

We can quibble (and should) over what the term atheist might have meant that long ago.  A fairly substantial body of scholars feels that atheism in the sense of rejecting the existence of God doesn’t achieve its modern proportions prior to the encyclopaedist Holbach’s rejection of the idea of gods  in the eighteenth century.  But that conclusion, along with strata like like “positive,” “negative,” weak and strong (old and gnu?) atheisms are just intellectual squares in a bigger picture.

If you put the picture together from its fractious bits, it looks like doubt has a significant amount to do with its coherence.  To get from a lawyer-apologist like Tertullian to an atheist-materialist like Holbach is a long trip, and it is peppered (just like I said) by the death-scenes of dozens of martyrs (yup, that word again) who coaxed doubt and skepticism along–people who were called godless by others but would never have used the term about themselves.

Does it seem improbable to the New Atheists that a full-frontal atheist like Holbach, so explicit in his denunciation of religion that his view even frightened Voltaire, wouldn’t have known the long history of heresies about the trinity, the nature of God, creation, biblical inspiration, and particular revelation? Or will this continue to be a blind-spot in the essentially ahistorical view that they’re professing–one that, frankly cheapens the history of ideas and thus their own, big,  negative idea about God?  It would be pretty rare, I think, to discover a view that is free of historical development, predecessors, and mediators.

Do they really intend to continue spinning historical fantasies that are not only wrong but embarrassing.

Strawman: The other guys martyr

One of Professor Dawkins’s favorite talking points about faith-heads is that religion is their “default position.”   Weak in science, they can explain everything including the origins of the cosmos and life on the planet through the legerdemain of beliefs that take the place of hard science.

I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis.

But surely a big part of the ignorance afflicting faithheads is that they do not study history: They make it up, or they rely on a few convenient truths that they find useful in protecting their faith.  One such view is that history is negotiable and about things that happened a long time ago, so there is no real right or wrong–just viewpoints.  They see the time of Jesus and the modern world as overlapping periods punctuated but not punctured by science and critical history.  
I personally find this tendency the most distressing, head-banging feature of the fundamentalist mindset.

And what does New Atheism do with the fantasies of faith-heads?  They create an alternate fantasy in which the history of religion becomes a caricature of intellectual and ethical developments: a static church with undifferentiated teaching about a God who is entombed in a book that has never been interpreted, challenged, attacked–or doubted.  It’s pure drivel.  Why do they do this?  because it’s convenient; because it has become their default position.

It would be a huge tragedy if the wishful thinking of some atheists became a template for understanding where doubt comes from.  It doesn’t come like Meals on Wheels  from Sextus Empiricus and covens of atheists who managed to survive the onslaught of “religion” and the “Dark Ages” in caves above Heidelberg. It comes like everything else from the cultures that we have shaped.  

In none of these cultures has anything like the 4% (or whatever minuscule number) of hardcore atheists been influential in moving doubt and irreligion forward against the thundering tide of dominant religious orthodoxies. That role, as I’ve already said, has been taken by men and women of terrific stamina, courage and imagination.  And doubt.

Doubt has everything to do with religion,  Professor Coyne.

The Secular Core of Humanism, by Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz, PhD, is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  He is also the founder and for almost thirty years editor in chief of Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer.  The author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, both learned and popular, Paul Kurtz resigned from the organizations he created in 2009 in order to devote himself fully to the ethical dimensions of secular and humanistic thought when the board of the Center decided on a militant atheist agenda unrelated to the historic strengths of the organization.  Dauntless, Kurtz founded the Institute for Science and Human Values and a new journal, The Human Prospect, which is now in circulation.

Kurtz’s Statement of Neohumanist Principles has now been endorsed by over a hundred of the world’s leading humanists, philosophers, scientists, and public intellectuals.

In this excerpt, Kurtz explains the difference between secular humanism and atheism, insisting that a key task of the nonreligious humanist must always be the free and critical examination of religion.

 

Secular humanism and atheism are not identical. One can be an atheist and not a secular humanist or humanist. Indeed, some thinkers or activists who call themselves atheists explicitly reject humanist ethical values (for example, Stalin, Lenin, Nietzsche, and others). Nor is secular humanism the same thing as humanism by itself; it is surely sharply different from religious humanism.

I should also make it clear that secular humanism is not antireligious; it is simply nonreligious. There is a difference. Secular humanists are nontheists; they may be atheists, agnostics, or skeptics about the God question and/or immortality of the soul. To say that we are nonreligious means, that is, that we are not religious; ours is a scientific, ethical, and philosophical life stance. I have used the term eupraxsophy to denote our beliefs and values as a whole. This means that, as secular humanists, we offer good practical wisdom based on ethics, science, and philosophy.

The term secular should make it clear that secular humanists are not religious. In contrast, the term religious humanism is unfortunate. It has been used by some humanists to denote a kind of moral and æsthetic commitment to a set of ideals and practices; but this is most confusing. Often it serves to sneak in some quasi-spiritual and/or transcendental aspect of experience and practice, aping religion.

Secular humanism is nonreligious. But this does not mean that it does not criticize the claims of religion; indeed, we have a moral obligation to speak the plain truth. There is a difference, however, between being antireligious—attacking religion or dismissing it cavalierly—and being willing to analyze religious claims and calling them to account for their lack of reliable empirical foundations. Biblical and Qur’anic criticism are essential to intellectual honesty and clarity; and so, secular humanists are able and willing to submit the claims of religion-particularly where these are relevant in the open public square-to critical scrutiny. To shy away from this would be dishonest.

Accordingly, secular humanists are nonreligious critics of religious claims, particularly where these intrude in public policies and beliefs. Surely theistic religions today attack secular humanists and naturalists without compunction. In contrast, secular humanists have a responsibility to truth, to respond and to present the outlook of secularists and the ethics of humanism in clear and distinct language.

Secular humanism is thus committed to science and reason as the method of evaluating all truth claims, whether arising in popular belief, scientific theories, or in moral, political, or religious claims. Similarly, secular humanists are sympathetic to skeptical inquiry-that is, the application of rational methods and empirical/experimental testing to all claims to truth. For that reason, too, secular humanists cannot understand why religious humanists so fear to step on the toes of their religious brethren. Similarly, secular humanists are critical of those contemporary skeptics who express trepidation about treading in religious waters. Surely, skeptical epistemology means that there is open season on any and all claims to truth; all are subject to empirical and rational scrutiny. Critical thinking should not be confined to paranormal claims alone, which might be considered safe to criticize. In principle, critical thinking should likewise be applied to religion, politics, economics, and morality.

What is central to humanism, in my view, is the ethical component; namely, humanists believe that:

  • Ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, independent of theological claims, amenable to rational scrutiny, testing value judgments by their consequences.
  • Ethical values and judgments are relative to human interests, needs, desires, ends, and values; they are open to objective criticism and evaluation.
  • Fulfillment, realization, and maximization of human freedom and happiness are what humanists seek, both for the individual and the community.
  • Thus there are ethical responsibilities that humanists hold toward others within the community, on the interpersonal level, the level of the democratic society, and the planetary community as well.

Clearly, secular humanism is not equivalent to atheism—it is far more than mere unbelief, since it stands for affirmation and not merely negation. Similarly, secular humanism finds itself at odds with religious humanism, since its outlook is clearly nonreligious. It goes beyond any negative skeptical inquiry insofar as it seeks to provide a positive and affirmative alternative to customary moral and religious practices.

 

 

Dimming the Brights? The Debris of the Dawkins Revolution

There used to be two kinds of atheists: those who lost their faith and those who never found it. The kind who never found it–people like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman–had fathers who actually never encouraged their kids to think there was anything to find.

Those who had it and lost it–people like Steve Allen, Julia Sweeney, Seth MacFarlane and George Carlin–seem to have been equipped by their church for a life of infidelity and enough material to last a lifetime.

There are atheists who came from the fields of course: the World Wide Church of God seems to be doing its share to produce them, and the nuttiest of the nutty brood will probably spin off dozens more by natural selection. Fundamentalism has been helpful in producing outrageous opinion and claims that have sent rational minds screaming from the congregation, and they deserve some credit for this.

The lesson in this highly informal typology is that “strong” religion seems to produce more unbelievers than mainline “soft” religion, for the same reason that oysters produce pearls. It’s the “grate factor.” –I hope I haven’t offended too many Episcopalians by saying that they are not doing a good job in this respect: the fact is, they are out in front on a number of social issues that wouldn’t be substantially improved by their becoming atheists. “God” is a small (very small in some cases) price to pay for social progessivism.

There is however a new wave of atheism, neither alienated Jew, Catholic, fundamentalist nor profoundly secular from birth. It worries me just a little–though it–the wave–is young, pretty smart, highly sociable and will probably vote for Democrats. That is reason enough in my book to go easy on it. After all, there are enough yahoos out there in Wonderland to worry about without offending our friends. For that reason, it doesn’t worry me very much.

New wave atheism follows in the wake of the Dawkins Revolution and book tours that featured the so called New Atheists–but especially Dawkins himself. I don’t think for a moment that other new atheists aren’t charismatic, but of the lot, Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who is the Hume and Dr Johnson of our time rolled up into one, take the prize for saying the kinds of things, in the right accent, that sound authoritative because they’re said in the tropes of Oxford, whence cometh our hope.

The bad reviews of The God Delusion and God is Not Great stressed that theologians had been having the conversation about classical arguments for the existence of God for a hundred years and had, basically, laid them to one side. They stressed that liberal and radical theology had long since moved beyond the ossified categories of Christian thinking: that no smart person took the Bible literally anymore. Aquinas? Who needs him? Ontology? Eleventh century stuff. Hadn’t theologians, the critics raged, especially in America and England, been using the term “post-Christian” for a generation? Perhaps, but almost no one had paid attention because no one reads theology except divinity school students and other theologians.

No one in any position to cause sales to jump was reading the “professional” books where radical theology had given up on God. And even if ordinary readers had read it, there was the honest sense that if you are at the point of saying that your theology is post-Christian, that Jesus is not the son of God, that miracles are hooey, and that the Bible contains ideas that have been retardant in our culture–you really ought to pack your bags and go away.

There was something elementally refreshing about seasoned scholars and journalists taking on the absurdity of some of the classical argumentation as though they had just discovered it, which for the most part they had. The criticism–which I made on this site as well–that journalists and scientists may not–odd to say–be especially well-qualified to talk about religion seemed petulant and jealous, which of course it was. Who wouldn’t rather have written The God Delusion than Defeasible Assumptions in Plantinga’s Epistemological Reliabilism Argument. I know I would.

So this is not really about getting to be an atheist by shortcutting: not all of us can have a radical Jewish father who wants to keep us away from Torah, or a run-in with Sister Mary Margaret (when there were Sister Mary Margarets) over the plausibility of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. (I was expelled for rolling my eyes).

It is about a rapid relocation of attitudes: people who have made a fairly quick progression from some belief (or not much of anything) to atheism without having at least some of the same background as the New Atheists themselves. It is about the danger of any kind of hero worship and fan-clubbism substituting for a critical assessment of sources. It is, frankly, about idolatry.

The conversation reminds me most of feminism, or rather the divide between first generation feminism and where we are now. The survivors of the sixties and seventies who broke down walls, challenged a sexist system, broke through ceilings and populated professional schools and academic departments with members of their own sex are now confronted with women who either don’t know the story or only know it as yawnable history. The world they have come to inhabit is not the world their grandmothers (yes, grandmothers) fought for. Judging from the number of African American Republicans maybe the same is true of that community: memory is short.

But the dues-paying comparison doesn’t work perfectly.  There are doubtless atheists out there who feel they earned their right to disbelief.  But a strong tranche of movement-atheists would argue that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just so you get there. There are no dues to pay. Atheism is not built on the abuse, bones and ashes of courageous predecessors, as was the case with the women’s movement or civil rights. If you get there from reading market paperbacks or children’s stories by Philip Pullman (who is a friend, by the way) or a couple of titles by Dawkins, so be it. It will do.

What matters to movement-atheists are the numbers, getting that meager 5% or 6% of professed unbelievers up to 10 or 15 percent– where it can claim some political advantage, and not be relegated to the irrelevance that has always been the lot of American atheism. As a movement, the American idolatry of the British atheist “style” has helped–so much so that bus campaigns and bumper stickers are now studiously modeled after the campaigns of the British Humanist Asociation, which itself promotes and benefits from the work of Dawkins and his comrades.

I feel terrible quibbling about this because soon enough it sounds like a quibble about being a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. Do you go to Mass Sundays? Great. Wednesdays and Fridays too? Even better. Hate abortion to the point you’ll march and picket? Best. It ought to be a cardinal tenent of the tenentless philosophy called atheism that no such gradients should arise within the movement. As in Islam, you really only have to believe one thing–or rather, disbelieve it.  In that sense, atheism is or ought to be a settled or definitive position, without qualification–like being pregnant, not like being a Presbyterian.  Atheists often write to tell me that I confuse their exquisitely simple position about God with more comprehensive philosophies like humanism, where gradients are possible.  Yet exquisitely simple atheism has long been the sine qua non of movement humanism, especially in England.

But my quibble is not with cynical efforts to jack up the numbers or the promotion of heroes as magnets to the cause. That’s the way movements work.  It’s the way religious denominations work as well, and they haven’t had a hero for a very long time.

My concern is over the fact that many of the idolaters are now not reading the sources of their distress, not really aware of any but the most contemporary reference points in their estimate of a fundamental religious question.  It is a destination without a journey behind it.

The Bible is considered toxic, in toto; religion, a long history of superstition, distress, and violence–even some of the art, music and literature of the western tradition, expendable expressions of priestcraft and supernaturalism.  In the most extreme cases, the present is regarded as having a juridical role to play toward the past, when people believed silly things.  History becomes a series of mistakes with respect to scientific outcomes and has nothing to teach us but the error of our ways.  What has been tainted by religion is not worth our time, not worth investigating because our vantage point makes it ridiculous. When this attitude takes hold, it is not just God who is disbelieved in: it is culture.

At this point, the debris of the Dawklins revolution becomes problematical on two counts. On the one hand, it permits the new wave atheist to reduce everything to a single proposition: God does not exist; and then to evaluate the entire history of western civilization according to an opinion that has been reinforced by similar opinions but never really tested against the sources. The opinion that God does not exist is an important one. It deserves scrutiny. But it does not deserve doctrinal security as though infallibly propounded by a secular pope.

We cannot cast off the literary and artistic history of our civilization, from Plato to Nato and Bible to Blues without knowing at least a little something about the creators.

In 2002, a number of students enrolled in my course in Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut walked out of the classroom, in a staged protest, as we began to examine the book of Genesis. It was a book that had been excluded for a dozen years from the syllabus because it raised the temperature during the long Lebanese Civil War. I had made it plain that the story was a story; that some people thought it was historical, but that scholarship had shown it was a typical Near Eastern creation myth with a half dozen well preserved cousins from earlier in the millennium. But my careful historical framing was of no consequence. The students who protested were not Muslims; they were Lebanese Christians who regarded the Old Testament (which of course is in their Bible too) as “Israeli” propaganda.

The point is, of course, that an educated and informed atheism is a very desirable perspective. But an atheism that depends on the authority of others is no better than the political opinion that excuses Arab Christians from knowing something about the ancient history of the part of the planet they occupy.  Unfortunately for the new wave,  atheism has a long history–one that goes back far before 2005.

Lucretius

Matthew Arnold used the term Philistine to describe a set of values prominent among people who despised or undervalued art, beauty, and intellectual content. Despite his problematical approach to the Bible, which was neither credulous nor entirely respectful, he retained it as a key text in his educational canon.

The worst trait of the Philistine as Arnold painted him was his materialism, the preference for quick and easy fixes, a mass produced painting instead of a developed aesthetic sense.

Quick fix atheism is that kind of atheism. I think it needs to be worried about ever so little.

A Secular Ethics?

Radical secularism calls for radically secular moral alternatives to religious ethics.  No one has been more vigorous in his defense of this project than Paul Kurtz.

I have claimed frequently on this site that if skepticism at a minimum, and unbelief at the extreme, is a kind of prerequisite to such a project, it’s not because either position is self-affirming.  It is because whether God does or does not exist, the secularist believes that human values are made by humans and do not originate on mountaintops.  Even if one believed in a God who demanded obedience to such laws, it would be the duty of the secularist to defy him.

Religious doctrine calls itself into question because it has lingered into an age where religious explanations of the world and human choice are no longer persuasive.  In the long run, it is the failure of the Church, the mosque, and the synagogue to explain and to persuade that leads to skepticism and atheism, the loss of faith, and the erosion of ethical absolutism.  It is the death of belief in a god whose laws rule both the universe and human choice,  as Sartre said, that invites human beings to construct a system of values that deals with a world shot through with doubt about the old explanations and mythologies.

Hammurabi receives his law code from the god, Shamash

Some people continue to maintain that there is a law of God, that this law is sovereign over conscience and that all other law is subordinate to it.  It is probably true that these people have a very imperfect understanding of science, history and the development of ideas.  In general, a secular humanist would consider this view malignant in the sense that it is not harmless: that it has both moral and political consequences, and that when it is enforced or advocated in educational or democratic contexts it is toxic and has to be defeated.

For that reason, secularism, and secular ethics can never be quiet about religion.  It must place the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of people who believe unsupportable truth claims based on the authority of faith.  These people may belong to any religious group, and they exist in every corner of the cornerless world.  What they have in common is the fantasy that rules and laws crafted in the first millennium before the common era have not merely historical interest but eternal force.  That is the position that secularism opposes.  There is a “secular moral imperative” to resist this kind of thinking in the same way that there is a duty to call attention to error in other factual domains–especially the sciences.

There are others who believe that God exists, that not much can be known about the subject, and that there is no special connection between the life we lead, or the moral choices we make, and this belief.  This position might seem to make the existence of God superfluous, irrelevant or a matter of diffidence–the sum of the difference between two equal improbabilities.

Secularism, it seems to me, has no reason to quarrel with people who believe in what Kurtz has called the “common moral decencies,” and lead a life committed to the discovery of virtues and moral excellence without the dictates of revelation and divine law. For the same reason we use metaphors of love, hope and compassion to describe states that are essentially emotional, there is no additional privilege to be gained by insisting on the rejection of all conceptions of God.  Yet the more personal and “described” this being is, the greater the risk of identifying it with the gods of mythology–the gods whose rules are seldom relevant to the planet we occupy.  For that reason, a secularist may insist that any idea of god is an idea too far.  It’s at the point of this insistence that secularism and unbelief converge.

As in all ethical matters, the primary nostrum for secularists is “to do good and to do no harm” (Hippocrates).  Like other ideological systems based entirely on human wit and imagination, religious beliefs are accountable  to the ancient formula. A secular ethic  will always require that this interrogation take place–that religion enjoys no privileged status based on assertions of authority that are widely regarded as untrue.

The Secular City

Someone once defined a puritan as a person who lives with the gnawing suspicion that his next door neighbor is having more fun than he is. When you get right down to it, what the religious conservative hates about American democracy is his own suspicion that his neighbor isn’t as Christian as he is.

It is a lie propagated by wishful-thinking conservatives that America is a Christian country. But it would also be a lie to say that this country was founded by atheists. It wasn’t.

It’s also untrue to say that America was founded by humanists. In the eighteenth century, the term had already come to describe attitudes associated with classical idealism, reborn during the Renaissance–especially the Italian branch of the movement. Nothing frustrates the modern humanist more than to be told that both Erasmus, a pretty devout Catholic, and Calvin, a pretty devout Protestant were not just humanists but typify their respective branches of the humanist Zeitgeist of the sixteenth century.

America’s founders weren’t humanists, though they were fair examples of humanistic learning–especially Franklin and the polymathic, almost disgustingly smart Jefferson. If anything, both were too skeptical of religion to have been good humanists in the renaissance sense of the word.

But for the most part the founders of the Republic were secular. When they trusted in God it was simply a homonym for trusting in themselves–a real “All others pay cash” approach to the slogan that finally adorns our currency.

They knew what they were doing when they rejected Hobbes and reinvented Locke’s theory of government.

Secularism and self-reliance (the word Emerson assigned an almost mystical value to) granted them the ability to move in less than a century from the narrow religiousness of the Bay Colony puritans and the cavaliers of Virginia Anglicanism to a new position that would be neatly summarized in the idea of “toleration.” If there was ever a miracle in American history, it was that.

The British Parliament had passed a completely useless Act of Toleration in 1689 when the Plymouth Colony was only sixty five years old (Boston was founded in 1630, ten years after Plymouth. Harvard in 1636, a century and a half before the United States and, remarkably, over a century before most Oxford colleges).

The Act did not extend its tenderness to Roman Catholics or non-Trinitarians (thus not Jews or Unitarians) and excluded them from university education and political office. It is why,vestigially, to this day, a special act of Parliament would be required for an heir to the throne to be anything but a Protestant. Perhaps even to marry one.

Only in the nineteenth century did England get round to upgrading the 1689 law; it was beat at the hustings by the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 that mandated religious freedom for anyone living in the colony, though it was a bit tough, in British fashion, on anyone denying the divinity of Jesus. The penalty for that was death. Hardly a model for the First Amendment.

The turning point for American law was the belief that individual liberty entailed freedom of conscience. That meant that colonial protections of particular religious practices–Baptists in Rhode Island, Anglicans in North Carolina, Catholics in Maryland–gave way to a more spacious principle based not on the status quo of religious numbers but to the belief that conscience is more sacred than deity.

John Adams

That principle gets enshrined in the Virginia Statute of 1786, “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote it; James Madison oiled its way through the Virginia Legislature.

In the long preamble, Jefferson jabs for the idea that argument and debate are the only tests of religion opinion, and that religious tests insult the divine gift of reason:

“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible tests.”

Let kings, tyrants, and all Gods but Reason beware.

It was a short step to the concise language of the First Amendment to the Constitution. To paraphrase: Congress is not in the religion business. It is not in the anti-religion business. Public institutions funded by government may not be in the religious business. And politicians who curry public favor by suggesting otherwise walk a very fine line, fraught with the danger of betraying the republican and secular values that resulted in American democracy.

I assume that the absurdist “reading” of the Constitution at the opening of 112th Congress of the United States included a reading of the Bill of Rights. But of course, like their reading of the Bible, the Conservative Christian reading of the text made little sense to its readers. For example: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It took until the Illiterate Century, our own, for a Supreme Court to say that this meant a private citizen is entitled to carry a concealed weapon.

And this is why secularism, far more than disbelief in God, is considered threatening by religious conservatives. Mere atheism has no political implications. None. Secularism on the other hand requires the religious conservative to defend the proposition that belief in God is an entitlement in a nation where that opinion is, basically, outlawed by writ even they want to consider sacred.

Secularism is more than a recipe for religious toleration, however. And both religious persons and non-religious persons need to realise that. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and the obsessively odd John Adams would not have been atheists. It is a waste of intellectual time to think that they were or would have been.

But they would vomit at the obsequious language of both Democrats and Republicans–especially at the necessity of having to proclaim religious faith in order to qualify as a serious contender for political office.

The secular factor in American democracy is not only on trial at home; it is precisely why American democracy is a hugely unlikely option abroad–especially in the Middle East. More’s the pity that we have fought wars to export it, without recognizing its non-exportable features as a philosophy that does not trust in God at all. I do not know what is sweeping through the Middle East at the moment. But I know it is not the Spirit of ’76.

American secularism does not enshrine any opinion or movement. In fact, it exposes the reality than any opinion or movement that cannot be argued and reasoned deserves to be treated, like the divine right of kings, as a new superstition.

It’s important to realize that while the American experiment in secularity came from a time when gentlemen and ladies were questioning core religious doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, it also came from circles that had a quiet belief in the divinity of reason.

To the extent we share something like a demythologized vision of that faith in ourselves, we are secularists.

To the extent we don’t–or ascribe it to the power of an unseen God to help us out of our misery–we are mere partisans, peasants to our passions and private agendas.

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.

.

Of Atheist Tribes

First of all, I refrain from mentioning any names or organizations that can properly be called atheistically thick-headed. They know who they are. I’ve named them before, without salvific effect. They are proud of who they are. They like their atheism short, sweet, rude, and raw. If they get on people’s nerves, that’s okay because religion gets on their nerves.

Who can disagree? The standard cable network service, before they cut you off entirely when you haven’t paid the bill, leaves you with what for your viewing pleasure? At the mercy of 24-7 infomercial stations and Mother Angelica, in a loop with her Ninety Nasal Nuns, saying the rosary. You have a choice between a guy who wants to sell you a pulverizer for fruits and veg for $19.98 with six special blades not available in stores order now!, and Jimmy Swaggart (still here after all these years) offering his four-volume study series on the Cross of Christ usually $40 a volume but purchase today for only $60 for all four order now! Tell me the truth, if you can’t pay to see movies on HBO, are you really going to make yourself feel better by buying a pulverizer from an aging fitness freak or a set of books from a self-ordained, perpetually repentant Louisiana preacherman?

No, clearly, the Time Warners and Road Runners of this great nation keep these things on to punish us. They know that nothing will get you to fork over that extra $75 bucks or run your new low-limit credit card right up to the brink like having to listen to that 100th Hail Mary or hear the guy selling the snake oil for osteoarthritis mispronouncing the word osteoarthritis.

I don’t blame the atheist tribe for hating this stuff. I hate it. Everyone I know hates it. My European friends when they visit cannot believe that America is not a suburb of the Philippines, so pure is our devotion to crap products and crappy religion.

But therein lies the problem. Too many atheists assume two false things. First, that their sense of outrage is unique, a more refined version of contempt than a “religious” believer is likely to have when they look at the obnoxious underbelly of American religion. Second, they assume that the best way to deal with the problem is to harpoon all religion, because religion is a ROBOT: Really One Big Offensive Thing.

Stereotyping is a part of being human, of course. A Canadian friend of mine (who meant well) once said, over a third pint at a Cowley pub, “I really hate Americans, but you’re ok.” We were sitting among British friends, and they nodded in agreement. I was pleased, kind of, with the verdict on my amiability, but I was obliged to say, “Well, you might be surprised to know that I’m not really fond of Americans either–but there are one or two others besides me you might like.” An Australian law student sitting across the table, on his fourth said, “You’re all fuckin’ septics as far as I can tell.” (For any readers not familiar with this patois, it’s short for septic tank.) Short, sweet, rude, and raw.

I think the atheist dickhead phenomenon is about at this level of discussion right now. It’s no longer about God, it’s about “others.” It’s about the purity of your unbelief, measured not against any philosophical standard or line of argument but about finding religious believers septic and converting polite unbelievers to the more radical view that religion runs from noxious to poisonous, not from good to bad. It’s also about your solidarity with others who share your radical unbelief and how you measure the attitudes and intentions of other members of the tribe.

Religion (the custom of the group provides) is the first resort of dimwits and moral weaklings, helped along its mossy path by bad science, superstition, and useless doctrines, practices, and social customs.

I suggested a few months ago that this level of full-frontal atheism needs to be assessed by an empirical standard–by how many things you don’tbelieve about God. Jewish atheists and ex-Muslims would come out relatively badly, as not believing anything about only one God; ex-Catholics slightly better as not believing anything ever taught about the Trinity; and Hindus would be way out in front with their rejection of 330 million gods and avatars.

What some people, even me, occasionally, are calling “atheist fundamentalists” really ought to be called atheist tribalists. And just like people from small countries find it irresistible to think that all citizens of big countries are obnoxious, atheists being a small clutch of people sharing a common intellectual position, more or less, find the sheer size of the world’s religious population an argument against it. It springs from a natural sense (by the way, one I don’t entirely reject) that this many people can’t be right. –The flipside of a standard argument that would be persuasive if the world’s faiths used one number for all beliefs: that so many right-headed people can’t be wrong.

But it ignores the fact that many of the groups and subgroups that constitute this highly artificial category called religion don’t agree with each other, and are just as miserable as atheists when they see religions behaving badly.

Anyone who has ever lived in a “foreign” country and tried to seem a “little less foreign” will know what I mean about the semiotics of embarrassment: Nothing embarrasses a British-educated Pakistani more than his cousin who wasn’t. Nothing embarrassed the third generation of acculturated Americans more than their first-generation Slovak grandparents. Nothing embarrasses a clever, well-spoken, moderately-religious woman more than the excesses of her own faith. Atheists have the luxury of using hasty generalization as a mode of analysis rather than calling it out as a fallacy. Smart religious people are forced to be discriminate in their approach to religion. Perhaps that’s why atheists can afford to be irresponsible and so rude to believers: they don’t have to pick up after themselves.

Having God is really like having a lot of money and a grating accent. When American soldiers first arrived in great numbers in England in 1942, the famous quip about them was that they were “Over-paid, oversexed and over here.” They could “afford” things, had better teeth, but talked too loud and laughed too easily. The idea that there were millions and millions more just like them across the wide sea was not cheering to sober people in villages like Upper Heyford and Mildenhall, who had never seen an example of the species before.

In fact, most of the atheist tribalists are reacting to religion at the same, village level, as something that is “foreign,” unacceptable, and so big that it has to be bad. The beliefs they know about (and reject) are not derived from studying anything about the history and doctrine of particular religions, but from a whole range of indirect encounters: with their tv set, with news stories about creation science and prayer in school, with tales of disorderly Mormon elders and their six wives and thirty children, violent Muslims declaring jihad against members of their own faith as well as on the “West,” with reports of (yet another) pedophile priest being arrested or another bishop covering up priestly crimes, or with another know-nothing politician who thinks America was founded as a Christian nation. Who can disagree that these encounters are typical of what more and more people are beginning to see as what “being religious” means–as the whole of religion? Is there a difference between Big and Big and Ugly

But prevalence is not totality. Religion doesn’t only consist of externalization, and there are plenty of believing critics out there who would consider every one of these externals unacceptable, or ignorant, or attributable to causes that aren’t necessarily religious at all. It strikes me as curious that their criticism might need to be discounted because it comes from the wrong quarter. If radical unbelief becomes the license for informed critique, does simple belief disqualify someone as a critic?

To be an atheist tribalist means that you answered Yes to that question: But to be honest, if the laundry list above is what the atheist sees as the entirety of religious experience or religious ideology, he is really no better off than my friend in the pub who, out of pious ignorance I came to realize, sees America as a great cesspool where annoying, nasal, uncynical nabobs swim around in the muck of mental gloom. Of course, anyone who knows a little history, a little geography, a little anything about anything, knows that this is a caricature designed to make Europeans feel less bad about the eighteenth century cesspools from which American immigrants escaped and evolved, and that we have no monopoly on loud, nasal, or annoying. Atheists in rejecting religion–most anyhow–have a similar evolution to recount.

The philosophy that the tribe is better than the nation persisted in human civilization for a long time, and then reemerged as paternalism and petty nationalism in the colonial period. Colonies, in turn, began to feel better than their masters. It’s especially troubling to see atheists, who claim the intellectual upper hand in debates about God and his people, behaving in a way that simply mimics the self-protective instincts of threatened minorities through insult, provocation, and belligerence. It’s all part of the dance, the same old story.

Religionless Morality? On the Folly of Global Ethics

“And God spake unto Moses saying: This will you say unto the children of Israel: Be Good! And Moses went down from Sinai, and the children of Israel said: What hath the Lord said unto you? What is his plan and purpose? And Moses lifted up the tablet of the law, whereon was writ: Be Good! And they laughed and said unto Moses. What is this ‘good’? We need more.” (Exodus, The New Last Chapter)

I’ve touched this topic before, but it may be time for a summertime lite version of my comments. Especially as Scipio has just read a monstrously bad piece on the subject.

In a previous post, I argued the familiar theme that not only is religion not necessary for morality but that dogmatic religions are antithetical to the development of an ethical program. They interfere with two things that make a genuine morality–a program that results in the cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of injury–possible: conscience and choice. Before ethicists became classifiers, taxonomists, and quantifiers, in fact, these two ingredients were linked to the idea of practice. Following Mill and his wretched spawn, the do-gooding ethics of utilitarians, consequentialists, pragmatists, situationalists and others tended to obscure the fact that ethics has more to do with the examined life than with mathematics.

Mill

A moral life in the modern world has to be lived without religion. It does not need to be anti-religion. It has to be lived without religion because the idea of a law-giving god has become preposterous to most people, even to people who cannot acknowledge that the world we inhabit is post-Christian (and by extension, post- every other religion). By that I simply mean that the world we live in would be incomprehensible if we adopted the cosmology of the ancient world, the world of the Bible and its literary cousins. And to the extent we don’t or cannot, it’s foolish for us to imagine that it has intellectual or moral authority over us and over the decisions we face.

It has been a long time since Bultmann, the titanic biblical scholar of his generation, reminded his profession that the biblical world is based on a myth that has ceased to have a purchase not only on the mind but on the imagination of the modern world. And while it is possible to wish otherwise and therefore to think otherwise, “wishful ethics,” in my view, does not have much of a future.

So there is no reason to consider the God of the Bible as a source of virtue or standard of right conduct in the twenty-first century, and in fact, a little study of biblical history would show that he was not so regarded by the shapers of Jewish tradition either: it’s only when Christianity (and elements of Judaism) become saturated with Greek ideas that biblical precepts and customary law acquire the force of “ethics” and get themselves philosophized into religion.

As part-time philosophers, it was part of a theologian’s job description to make room for “ethics,” but whether we are glancing back at Augustine, or (later) Aquinas or Abelard, we are looking at men who were making the recipes up as they went along: One stick Plato, melted, three parts commandments, a dash of Epicurus, and a cup of Aristotle; cover and let simmer for one thousand years; remove from heat and sprinkle with beatitudes.

Abelard teaching: The first Naturalist?

“Jesus,” as a former archbishop of Canterbury once said to me, “was a very nice man, but he wasn’t an ethicist.” We can be grateful for that. Neither was Moses, and neither was Job. So to continue to think of the suzrerainal Yahweh as anything more than a heavenly king enforcing tribal customs on a wayward people (the tougher the better, lest Israel go astray), or Jesus as much more than the condensed version of what many Jews wanted to hear in the graeco-Judaism of first century Palestine, would really be to miss the point. It is important to let the Bible be a book of its own time. That’s not how it loses but how it acquires relevance.

You can’t get to ethics, however, simply by (a) tossing religious ethics out the window and (b) keeping the good bits–using slogans like “being good without God,” perhaps the most irksome, historically challenged and simplistic phrase ever coined in the name of secular morality.

You certainly cannot get there if you assume that there are universal and trans-historical norms that were as true in ancient civilization as today. For example, there was no prohibition against lying in Hebrew law (“bearing false witness” is a juridical sanction). If there had been, the Abraham who tries to pass his wife off as his sister and the God who commands Abraham to use his son as a sacrificial goat would not have speaking parts in Genesis. But just as significant, a thousand things we regard as repugnant–blood-hunters, infanticide, the execution of disobedient sons and the selling of family members into slavery–were widely practiced in ancient society. A little history and anthropology teaches us that religion, law, and morality were not three strands but a knot, the ends of which are sometimes difficult to untangle.

Being good was not the goal for Aristotle, was it? Habituating yourself to virtue through the practice of reason was. You can habituate yourself to other things of course, but you will always fall short of the “defining virtue,” which can only be the exercise of the one essential thing that makes you human. Some of us share with garden slugs a love for lettuce. But we can’t stop there. Some of us are good with wood. So are termites and beavers. I think my point is clear: the right use of reason, which is always painfully hard work and always requires judgment about things like the relationship between action and reflection (the classical mode assigns this to the “soul”) is the only source of ethics. And to be ethical is never therefore to be good. It is to be the sort of person who does the right sort of thing.

A little meditation will convince us that this excludes the possibility of God–not as a philosophical postulate but as a practical matter. God the father wants what is best for his children; but the biblical god at least leaves them in no doubt about what that is and what the consequences are for not acquiring it. He is the worst father ever: the kind who would let his own son die for crimes he caused to happen himself.

Thy will be done.

This concept, which most people would identify as the heart of religious ethics, is personally and morally insidious. It is fine for the eternally stupid Adam, whom God endows with the reasoning powers of a three year old, and fine for other heroes who beat their chests and whack their heads trying to figure out God’s justice. Of course, the moral thing to do would be to run away from home, away from the abusive father who makes unreasonable demands for unreasoning obedience to his arbitrary dictates.

Curse God and die.

Ethical responsibility requires at least that–to be, as H. R. Niebuhr strikingly phrased it a “responsible self.”

But there comes a time when the ethical framework invites the incorporation of lessons learned through religion as the story of our moral background, our infancy.

If letting go of God is part of that story, in the same way that coming to adulthood requires us to understand the pains and tremors of infancy, we should be prepared to answer to other tribunals, identify other sources of value, specify the norms we regard as relevant for leading a good life.

Is moral life always culturally specific? If we cannot identify trans-historical and universal norms from the past, why do we suppose we will be able to construct a global ethic for the future–or is the desire to do so simply another case of the totalizing conceit that we thought we abandoned when we left religion behind us?

These are the sorts of questions we need to be asking about an ethical program for the future, and I suggest that religion has a lot to teach us about where to look for answers.

Secular Humanists Anonymous: Addiction Recovery

SECULAR HUMANISTS ANONYMOUS
An Addiction Recovery Program

Statistical Definition of the Problem

Like all addictions, secular humanism in its most general form is the overwhelming feeling that you cannot get through the day without a “fix.”

Studies have shown that as many as 65% of adult males who read the New York Times and up to 85% of those who read Rolling Stone call themselves “secular humanists” or refuse to identify themselves as members of any religious group.

97% of evangelicals surveyed called New York Times and Rolling Stone readers “really messed up.”

By contrast, 87% of women who read Prevention and 90% of men who read NASCAR Magazineidentify themselves as “very” or “damned” religious. When internet information sources are included, subscribers to Salon.com, Slate, BBC, Daily Kos and Raw Story fall squarely in the humanist camp, while subscribers to Drudge, Fox News, Wall Street Journal and WorldNet Daily show a robust religious attitude toward world political and economic events.

Similar discrepancies were observed for viewers of Seinfeld re-runs (secular humanist) and Everybody Loves Raymond (religious, pro-life). A surprising result is that 75% of respondents who self-identified as humanists did not like PBS’s Woodwright’s Workshop while a roughly equivalent number (80%) of religious persons “thought they would like it” but had never heard of PBS.

Food habits are also important indicators: secular humanists and atheists* are likelier by a 10 to 1 margin to like curries, by a 7 to 1 margin to prefer whole grain bread to Holsum Country White, and by an 8 to 1 margin to ask a bartender for a real martini instead of “that blue stuff in a crooked stem glass.”

A random survey (Glitch, 2002) of 500 mall-walkers in Sarasota determined that only 1 in 7 persons who identified themselves as secular humanists considered sangria an alcoholic beverage while 6 out of seven considered it “a crappy fruit punch with floaties drunk by Texans.”

By contrast, only 3 out of 7 males who self-identified as born again Christians could correctly spell the word “samosa” or identify its ingredients. More than 60% of humanist-trending respondents claimed to like cucumbers, while 75% of religion-trending respondents stated that “cucumbers are what celery eats.” A significant minority of Jewish secularists surveyed called cucumbers “pickle fetuses.”

Recovery

The growth, popularity and availability of humanist resources without government intervention amounts to a legalization of anti-religion in the United States.

The time is long overdue for an organization designed to help individuals addicted to humanism, secularism, and atheism. We believe that Secular Humanists Anonymous is that organization.

Founded in 2004 at the highpoint of the New Atheist resurgence, and now a 501c(3) not-for-profit educational entity, SHA began modestly enough in the recreation hall of New Life Temple Kingdom Church in Sandusky, Ohio, when Zelma Bickerston, got the idea of a secular humanist self-help and recovery program from her daughter Marlene, a self-identifying obese secular humanist with nowhere to turn.

We have now spread to three locations, two of them outside Sandusky in the “Research Triangle”: (Sandusky, Little Sandusky and Lower Sandusky Falls). The Research Triangle after seventy five years as a leader in paper machete innovation “is looking forward to new ways to improve the aesthetics of holiday centerpieces, birthday memorabilia and above all floats” (CofC Flier, 2001).

Our meetings are designed to minimize the pressure and stress one often feels by self-identifying as a secular humanist (atheist) or in similar drug and alcohol recovery situations.

Procedure for Induction

Normally, chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, the lights dimmed, and Jim Croce recordings are played in the background as a bonding mechanism. Random studies have found that “You Are So Beautiful” is preferred by a two-to-one margin of recoverers.

Members are asked to state their name, confess their addiction, and the duration and the severity of their affliction. A typical profession might go something like this:

“Hello, everybody. My name is Sam Siraznikov. I am a native of Sandusky, Ohio and my family lives on Oak near the old Witke house. I am a secular humanist. I have been a secular humanist for about five years. That’s when I started subscribing to Free Inquiry and National Geographic. Actually my wife let me keep my NG subscription but she says if I don’t quit reading atheist pornography I can just get out of the house.”

(Preceding used with permission of Sam Silverstein whose name has been changed here to protect his identity).

The members of the group then voice their appreciation of Sam’s courage in “coming out.” Different methods are used in the Lower Sandusky group, where they whoop, but here in the capital we say in unison, “Atta-boy Sam. Keep up the good work.” The inductee will then respond “You Betcha,” or “You got it,” or words to that effect.

Following the profession, the inductee is given a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and becomes our guest at the three-meat buffet supper. No vegetarian option.

Five Steps to Recovery

Many addiction programs have twenty or twelve point plans to guide the addict to total recovery. These programs tend to be confusing and cannot be memorized without a lot of trouble. For that reason, SHA has adopted the following five point program which we refer to as our “creed”:**

1. I really do believe in God, heaven, and hell even though I had my doubts to start with.

2. People who don’t believe in God cannot be my neighbors, but I can feel sorry for them.

3. Going to church [synagogue] is a privilege, not a right.

4. Atheism and humanism are like any other disease, but we can cure this one.

5. It is not true that “many, many great people have been atheists and humanists” because if they were they weren’t so great, were they?.

If you are suffering from the signs of addiction and want a sure-fire recovery program that is fun, easy and nutritious give to SHA and join us in Sandusky!


*What a secular humanist really is.
**A statement of things you believe.