Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: Wither Atheism?

I find myself yesterday pausing in The New York Times wondering not so much about a theological issue, as my work tends to go, but about the opposite: an anti-theology, if you will. The Irishman in me loves the idea of a good row, a knock-down, drag-out intellectual duel of wits, with everyone amiably going out for a drink afterward. If you have grown up around Irish-Americans, you know that they can be fabulous insulting with one another, but would be shocked at anything that they considered intentionally hurtful being said. (It was a critical moment, for example, for me as a teacher to realize that a good number of my students--much less my friends--just didn't get the Irish "abuse-as-affection" form of language, and took words in a far different way than how they had been intended.) So when I mix in my life as a theologian into this mix, the idea of such a match of wits with contemporary atheism seems very appealing for engaging the best of intellect and expression.

The fact is, though, it doesn't usually work this way. The Big Ideas are usually held too closely to people's hearts for genial conversation, much less naked debate. Atheism is no exception to this. Although as a rhetorical strategy, particularly coming out of 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment contexts, atheism frequently wants to present itself as the clear and obvious result of basic reasoning, my own experience is that most atheists are formed out of the emotional tumult of the teen years, as are a great number of theist believers. It is a minority of atheists who have given atheism any thought beyond the dismantling of childhood versions of faith in God in the same way that it is a minority of believers who have attained any kind of theological, philosophical or historical formation beyond that of childhood.

aristotle2002 wrote some time ago of his disappointment with the current state of atheism at Oxford (I think this might have been the entry). frey_at_last's entry the other day pointed to a book on Amazon of essays touted as a learned book that would let you understand those awkward facts and arguments "your church doesn't want you to read," but then contained such howlers as arguing that the Christian fixation on "the Son of God" in fact (shock!) derived from ancient pagan Sun-worship practices (and fashionably used da Vinci's The Last Supper to "prove" the point). The fact that this argument rests on a homonym/homophone "Son" "Sun" coincidence and thereby presumes that ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans all spoke English, well, that didn't seem to be caught. It really is enough to make you despair. Atheism of any real quality depends upon an honest and detailed examination of Christianity or of whatever form of theism is being denied. I could have serious conversations with my mentor Marvin Powell along these lines because his lack of belief in God was something that he grounded in a capable reading of the evidence, as I also grounded my faith in the training in historical investigation he gave me. That allowed us to discuss facts and to extrapolate from them to conclusions. Factual discussion became the neutral ground on which we could meet, sitting in a booth at the Twin Taverns and talking for hours. In contrast to that, however, if the new atheism is merely an inherited thumbing of the nose at believers, a sort of high-brow name-calling, atheism is not in a healthy spot.

Thus I found myself a bit taken aback to read the following op-ed essay in The New York Times the other day which called for a resurgence of European atheism as a significant cultural achievement, as the way to make a stand against the violence of religious fundamentalisms. The simplistic dualism of atheism versus fundamentalism--that those are the only two positions on the scale of belief--is the first thing Zizek tries to establish. No middle ground exists: there is no "authentic" religious heritage other than that of fundamentalism, and all fundamentalisms are wellsprings of "murderous violence." That seems a bit sloppy and slipshod, whether we are talking about the recent threats against Denmark by Muslims, or whether we are talking about Christian fundamentalists in America. Would it not be equally sloppy to make a counter-argument that the two regimes in Europe in the last century which took the strongest stances against religious belief--Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany--thus prove conclusively that atheism leads to atrocities against humanity by destroying the traditional basis for any belief in the sacredness of human life and thus the notion of human rights? One might argue for such connections, but as an argument, that is a little bit hasty. And yet this is the quality of atheism required for printing in the Times? Not encouraging.

Does atheism, as such or in itself, actually create or contribute anything? Atheism, he argues, creates a safe public space for believers. But an examination of history will reveal that the idea of a religiously-neutral public sphere originated in post-Reformation Christian context. To be sure, this came out of the context of the "Wars of Religion," where the conflict between Catholics and Protestants had occurred both on the state and theological levels. The undergirding presumption throughout all of human history had been that there had to be a unity of cult and state in order for society to remain stable. America is the first major experiment in trying otherwise, and we forget how radical an innovation this was. But it wasn't brought on by Secularists trying to tame the religious in their midst. As with the rise of modern science, later Secularists have found an advantage in casting these successes as their own innovations, whereas it is not a terribly difficult piece of research to discover these distinctly Modern phenomena as having arisen in explicitly religious contexts. Christianity got past such conflict on its own. Likewise, religious ethics, it is here argued, flow from a desire to earn God's favour, whereas atheists do things simply because they are right. Ignoring the obvious philosophical problems in declaring actions to be either right or wrong in atheistic perspective, it should also have been a simple matter to discover that the Christian tradition, at least, from the very root of Jesus' teaching, dismisses such notions of ethics. Doing the right thing is to be done because it is right, and it is the metaphysics undergirding ethics that allows us to understand what it right and wrong and how it is that some things can be right or wrong.

So I'm disappointed in what seems to me to either be sloppy atheism, or worse, deliberate misrepresentation. I am not alleging that in this case: I don't have any evidence to support that conclusion, but the evidence is abundant to think this a poor representation of the kind of case that could be made in the public sphere against religious belief, and particularly against Christian belief. I was about to end these thoughts with a wish that if we are going to have atheists representing atheism in the media, could we at least have serious, factually-grounded atheism to deal with? But then I remembered the kind of Christianity that is usually given attention in the media and I realized that perhaps the medium in general is not an easy one for the best voices of any persuasion to be heard.

The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor
Defenders of the Faith
March 12, 2006

FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.

These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of "The Parallax View."

Nathaniel's entry, for completeness' sake:

Thursday, November 14th, 2002
I went this evening to the Sheldonian Theatre to see what Fr. Wansbrough predicted would be the theological event of the decade.

I understate that he overstated.

The panel was Sir John Mortimer, author of the script for Brideshead Revisited and the Rumpole of the Bailey phenomenon; Jurgen Multmann, from Tubingen; Alister McGrath, Prof. of Theology here; the Right Rev. David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham; and Sir John Polkinghorne of Another Place.

Mortimer spoke first and eloquently on his atheism, positing the problem of evil as sufficient reason to repudiate the existence of God, and taking the view that the Christian ethics was the most beautiful and correct way to live one's life--insisting that one did not need to be a Christian to recognize this.

Moltmann spoke on his conversion experience, centered upon his being a prisoner in a Scottish POW camp. I missed most of it, plotting my question for Mortimer.

Alister McGrath spoke on the merit of evangelical Christianity. Not something that I'm particularly interested in at present, but interesting.

The Rt. Rev. Jenkins seems to be the Bishop Spong of England. He was interested in Agnosticism and personal encounters with Jesus in the poor.

Sir John Polkinghorne gave an absolutely fantastic presentation on cosmology and Christianity; the interest of Christianity being not to explain creation's how, but rather its why.

Question and answer started. Mortimer was immediately the rock star. The questioners were mostly undergraduates, and mostly asked the questions that one expects non-philosophers to ask. Several treated Mortimer as though he had created the problem of evil and that it was a sure guard against theism.

I was called upon. My carefully worded question: You seemed to summarise your point at the end in saying that we should adopt a christian-like ethic because it is the correct and beautiful way to live. In the light of such ethical writers as Alasdair MacIntyre, your choice seems to be an arbitrary choice. Why should we describe Christian ethics as correct and beautiful? Especially considering that they may involve conditions that could mean less personal fulfillment and more self-sacrifice, what is the compelling reason to believe that a Christian ethic is correct and beautiful without the resources of Christ?

He began by mocking me. "I'm glad you can read." He then said that he thought Christianity had exhibited the most loving of all of the religious ethics, and he therefore liked its ethic very much.

That was it. The whole answer.

The question boiled down to "How is your arbitrary position tenable?" The answer was "I don't care. I like it."

And the audience ate it up. They loved it. Nevermind that rational discourse in ethics was disregarded as worthless.

There are days that I am tempted to despair of being a philosopher. If I can come to Oxford University and receive such an anti-intellectual reply from a famous personage on a panel in the Sheldonian Theatre, I am inclined to take up sheep farming in the Cotswolds.

current mood: frustrated
current music: Finch - Letters to You
Tags: atheism, books, cultural, education, ethical, europe, historical, interreligious, islam, media, new york times, niu, philosophical, secularism/modernity, teachers, theological notebook, writing

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