March 13th, 2006

Doubt/Thomas the Apostle

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?

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Chi-Rho Seal

Personal/Theological Notebook: Pope Fun!

I just got a letter from my old friend Mike Dougherty. Mike and his wife Michelle were two of my first friends here at Marquette, but because they were done by the end of my second year here, my social circle suffered enormously from their loss. Now the Doctors Dougherty (he of Philosophy, she of English) teach at Ohio Dominican University. Last fall, I knew, they were over in Rome, being the resident faculty and guides for ODU's Rome Semester program, which had to be a real treat for the students since Mike knows his way around the good stuff after doing some of his own education over there as part of his Great Books undergrad at Thomas More College. He just linked me to the following two photographs, which were too fun to go unremarked. The Doctors Dougherty are the young couple in blue and red in front:

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