Holy Atheism: The Puzzle of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism”

The origin of this little essay is a conversation I had a few nights ago when I was asked, quite unexpectedly, what books I might recommend to students seeking a deeper understanding of the world. Without much thinking, I pointed to Heidegger. Reflecting afterward, I realized that for most people Heidegger is merely “difficult” and that for many analytical philosophers (Ayer comes to mind) his writing is “rubbish.” In the right hands however, Heidegger can change minds and change lives.

Martin Heidegger is never an easy read, but he becomes more difficult with every new claim to offer a proprietary interpretation of his thought. In 1947 Heidegger published his Brief ueber den Humanismus (“Letter on Humanism”) in which he sorts through some of the tangles left behind in his 1927 opus, Being and Time and a treatise usually translated as What is Metaphysics? To come at this essay without some notion of Heidegger’s technical vocabulary, especially his complex views on metaphysics, is quickly to sink into linguistic mud. It’s equally difficult to sort through the later work without approaching it problematically. By that I mean that for all its emulsion, Heidegger was working through a very specific set of problems and a level of despair that has occasionally occupied philosophers to such an extent that paradox, aphorism and obscurity have seemed the only way to express the intractability of the problems themselves. Nietzsche comes immediately to mind, but there are tempting if imperfect analogies between Heidegger’s views and those of the negative theologians Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Sienna and Meister Eckhart.

The style he preferred in responding to his admirers—like Sartre–as well as his critics, such as Hannah Arendt—was never unconditionally generous, leaving the impression that Heidegger saw his particular mode of expression as appropriate to the subjects he tackled and most interpretation as being either reductionist, or erroneous.

He was not unaware of the power of double-speak as a tool in both political and philosophical discourse. In a 1966 Der Spiegel interview concerning his alleged Nazi sympathies (which finally cost him his teaching career and diminished his reputation in Germany), Heidegger said that in 1935 he had counted on the power of words to convey different meanings to two constituencies (his cleverest students and determined Nazi informants) when he praised the “inner truth and greatness of our movement.”

Hannah Arendt

His sense of how words shape reality and can thus misshape perception and meaning is a constant prickle for anyone who wants to “interpret” Heidegger. It makes equally difficult the task of determining his influence on other thinkers, especially the French philosophers in whose eyes he found grace after 1967.

What makes the “Letter on Humanism” worth discussing is that he pulls no punches about his agenda: to locate in history the source of modernity’s ills. In the politically charged climate of postwar Europe, the easy answers focused on economic, religious, technological and social evils. The cure, it was often proposed, was to restore meaning to the term “humanism” as a category that rises above the particular expressions of modern culture.

In an important article, Gail Soffer notes that “What is peculiar to Heidegger and really questionable in his critique is his diagnosis of the cause of modernity’s ills: not capitalism and its greed; not Protestant religious beliefs; not even runaway technology or the Gestalt of the worker; but rather the humanism of the Western philosophical tradition. For Heidegger, “humanism lies at the root of the reification, technologization, and secularization characteristic of the modern world” (“Heidegger, Humanism and the Destruction of History,” Review of Metaphysics (49) 1996).

Heidegger was not, of course, unaware of the history of the term humanism in early Renaissance thought or even earlier glimmerings in Christian thinkers such as Abelard and Pico della Mirandola. But he was not especially interested in this history of discussion, or at least such discussion could only be useful in deconstruction (Destruktion).

In a strictly connative sense, humanism is that philosophy which either assigns a defined universal essence to man as “a rational animal,” characterized primarily by voluntary action, or it is the denial of essence—a position leading ultimately to Sartre’s conclusion that existentialism is a pure form of humanism. Man is what he is through choice and action. The political appeal of the latter position is that a non-essentialist view of humanism leaves open the possibility for human beings to create worthy social institutions, human rights, Bildung in the humanities and “true” sciences (as opposed to mere technological expertise), and also to reject unworthy ones—such as Nazism.

In none of his writings, however, does Heidegger suggest that “man has no essence.” His message in the “Letter” is that this essence has been misconstrued: that to say “Man is a rational animal” is to predetermine what the nature of man is at a metaphysical level, and that to do so shuts off discussion of the relationship between Being and being human.

To be a knowing subject in relation to known objects is, for Heidegger, to determine the essence of man “downward.” Out of a range of possible definitions, we have chosen the ones that equate science and reason with the sufficient definition—the essence—of humanity. In historical context, we have taken the historical determinants of humanism, which Heidegger sees as a set of familiar phenomena, as being the same as the underlying essence of these phenomena. Heidegger rejects the idea that humanism as we understand the term can provide an understanding of what it means to be thrown into a world of possibilities and others. It does not provide an “analytic” that can help us to understand authenticity, mortality, responsibility. Humanism can provide no escape from the “vulgarity of calculation” or a sense of the temporality of existence.

This leads to the question of God and the matter of Heidegger’s atheism. To an extent, we are playing with language in a way Heidegger would, approvingly, have found amusing. The a-theism he subscribes to is a rejection of God–literally being without the God of history and tradition–and a quest for a non-metaphysical God. It is this aspect of Heidegger’s thought and the subject of die Kehre or “turning” (biographical or procedural?) in his thinking about Dasein that frustrates interrogation—in spite of a small embarrassment of new sources published since his death.


In the world of poetry and technology, God remains the subliminal (literally, beneath the limit) problem. Theologians since Ebeling and Bultmann have exploited this aspect of Heidegger’s almost mystical argot on the topic, and Stuart Elden has analyzed the subject in a useful article (“To Say Nothing of God”, Heythrop Journal, 45/3, 2004, 344-48.). It has been frustrating to students of Heidegger that this “refusal of a theological voice” (Laurence Paul Hemming, 2002) tweaks the nose of theology rather than encourages theological speculation. But, as with humanism, any unconcealed definition of God would be trivialization, and it has been the role of historical theology to offer familiar formulas and definitions in place of concealment.

Thus Heidegger has theology precisely where he wants it: trying to figure him out. His challenge to humanism: that we cannot employ it to address questions of meaning, value and authenticity. His challenge to theology, that the discovery of God cannot be something as simple as forming objective images from subjective data, mainly historical. The possibility of a God without being must be considered. Aquinas considered it. But the axiom “There is no God” cannot be derived from the possibility.

Re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr: For a Friend in Maine

Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

Reinhold Niebuhr

A friend of mine in Maine writes to say, “It is almost Thanksgiving. Why don’t you write something nice about somebody?”

I have to admit, I was taken aback. I have been so busy fighting New Atheists and Old Faitheists that I have forgotten the spirit of the season.

But my friend’s request is not as simple as it sounds. During the season we will be treated to stories about heroes waging war in far-off places, sometimes against conscience, for peace and security in the homeland, heroic mothers battling to keep their health insurance, assorted others who represent our seasonal tip of the hat to the poor and the victims of wealth and opportunism.

Christians did not invent Yom Kippur; their salvation-theology would not support the idea. But the holiday season, if you just dig beneath the glam, the pre-season sales, and the consumer market report for Black Friday, somewhere down there is a manger.

Repenting of the injuries the privileged have inflicted on the unprivileged (though no collection agency will be offering amnesty to its debtors) is our yearly token of contrition for our natural greed. “It wasn’t the failure of Mary and Joseph to book ahead that caused Jesus to be born in a cattle stall,” a terribly persuasive nun once explained; “it was the greed of the innkeepers.” A nice and doubtless correct exegesis of a non-existent verse.

I’m reasonably sure the word “hero” would never be used in ordinary discussion to describe the man I am writing about. He came from respectable Midwest Protestant origins and went on to Yale and then to a lifetime of teaching at Union Theological seminary.

As a young preacher, he was a community organizer in Detroit before the term “community organizer” became a disqualification for leadership on the lips of Rudy Giuliani. At great personal risk, the Klan having its financial center of gravity in Detroit, not the South, in 1924, Reinhold Niebuhr condemned it as the greatest human evil religion had ever perpetrated.

Then with equanimity he condemned Henry Ford’s repressive labor practices. He was a pacifist, a socialist, a communist sympathizer (going so far as to support the United Front agenda of the Communist Party USA), and prior to the outbreak of World War II a strong supporter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. Through the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps Nazism’s most famous Protestant victim, Niebuhr’s thought was influential in Germany, one of the first American thinkers to make headway in the closed shop of German academic theology.

Niebuhr is best remembered for the evolution of his thought about “just war,” moving from his earlier pacifist position to a robust anti-communism in his later work—and eventually to a qualified endorsement of nuclear weapons-research. But his support of war as a “last resort” instrument of peace did not arise from the same mindset that the US military establishment used to justify both cold and hot wars across the globe.

As a Christian, and he would say as a realist, he believed in the existence of evil. It was everywhere. Its grip was as plain to him as the presence of God was sometimes obscure for its shadow.

Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity….Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.

Niebuhr’s roots in classical Protestantism–a stream that moved from Augustine to Calvin—were not grounded in speculation but in history. His Christian “realism”—the name given to his way of envisioning the relationship between theology and the state–came from a dual conviction: first, that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had denounced all resort to violence and coercion; second, that this perfectionist ethic (which Jesus, he thought, also enjoined on his followers) is not practical in an “immoral society” where Jews can be killed by the millions and where the state assumes godlike (tyrannical) power in its own right. Alongside the pacifist ideal, he wrote, there must be a pragmatic or realistic ethic of responsibility. Humanity being humanity, that reality sometimes requires a choice of lesser or necessary evils on behalf of the community.

The Expulsion

Manifest injustice can therefore be opposed by force, and it is sometimes moral to do so. For Niebuhr, the war against National Socialism and the smoldering leftover in the form of soviet-style communism demanded opposition. By the same reasoning, Viet Nam was an immoral war, and we can guess what he would have said about Iraq and Afghanistan had he lived to see it.

For Niebuhr, perfection is never a possibility and imperfection is always a certainty: He worried about what he termed a “heretical form” of pacifism, held by his liberal Protestant contemporaries, who have “reinterpreted the Christian Gospel in terms of the Renaissance faith in man. Modern pacifism is merely a final fruit of this Renaissance spirit, which has pervaded the whole of modern Protestantism. We have interpreted world history as a gradual ascent to the Kingdom of God which waits for the final triumph only upon the willingness of Christians ‘to take Christ seriously.’”

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher and John McCain in an interview commented that Niebuhr was right in stressing the “cost of a good war” (Paul Elly, “A Man for All Reasons.” The Atlantic, November 2007).

Niebuhr, of course, never talked about a good war. In his Gifford lectures (1940, The Nature and Destiny of Man), he reasserts that evil resides in power and the structures it inhabits. He lost neither his faith in the ability of humanity to control such structures, nor his belief that human beings would always seek to create and exploit such structures.


What is remarkable about his language is that so little of it is interpretation; so little of Niebuhr requires an elaborate “hermeneutic” to make his project accessible. At a time when the previously regnant models of theology were suffused with the German “paradoxical” style of Barth and Brunner, Niebuhr was able to introduce realism, commonsense, and clarity into the discussion.

His legacy? Hard to say. To read him is to be influenced by his “larger thought,” though many can now object to the christocentric nature of his ideas. An interesting twist that–for that tag to be a disqualification for taking someone’s thought seriously. It’s a bit like bringing up the obvious point that Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

So too, his emphasis on “sin”—more precisely, the imperfection of “man” and the social structures he creates–strikes many people as unprogressive, somehow opposed to the American dream of social and economic perfectibility. Niebuhr anticipated the reaction to the incongruity of his thought in an age of science and secularism: “The final wisdom of life,” he said in his Gifford lectures, “requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”

The Church’s Right to Choose

Bishop Tobin

The edict of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, denying Patrick Kennedy the right to receive communion in his Church is the latest evidence of the Catholic Church’s irrelevance in contemporary ethical discussion. It is sacramental blackmail, demanding that a Catholic legislator suspend judgment and conscience in order to promote the interests of his Church above the interests of the women and men, Catholic and not, who elected him to office. Worse, it ratifies the dark suspicions of fifty years ago when non-Catholics wondered out loud whether the dogma of the church rather than the principles of secular democracy would govern the decision-making of a Catholic president. Oddly enough, it is the Church itself rather than any Catholic politician that has renewed and perhaps answered the question.

In 1960 everyone able to vote in my Catholic family voted for JFK because Catholics (like most Jews and African Americans) were Democrats. Catholics believed in the Trinity, going to confession, the rosary, and the special license of nuns to inflict pain on adolescent knuckles.

On Sundays they were treated to hideous renditions of Mozart and Palestrina by undertrained choirs with shaky voices and priests whose anguished faces at a sung Latin mass left no doubt about the existence of Purgatory.

There was a “thing” called Catholic Culture, preserved in parish schools, loosely enforced by diocesan bishops, reinforced by the anti-communist television sermons of Bishop Sheen in Life is Worth Living. Being an American Catholic was easy because your Church and your country had a common enemy, even if no one could quite decide what to do about it. Communism was “evil” to religious America because it was atheism, the finer points of dialectical materialism being lost on the good citizens of St. Paul and Kansas City.

In 1960 John Kennedy wasn’t kidding when he said that, if elected, Rome wouldn’t tell him what to do–the so-called “Protestant Scare.” For most American Catholics, the Vatican was far away (especially for Irish Americans) and the pope had the same status as meatless Fridays: he came with the territory as the price of baptism. But in general the authority of the pope was pretty obscure and the non-existence of satellite television and the internet made his authority more theoretical than real.

There was a picture of John XXIII in my eighth grade classroom, positioned close to the crucifix, close enough to encourage the belief that perhaps he had lived at the same time as Jesus.

Nobody talked about abortion, homosexuality (of the clergy or in relation to marriage rights) or (much, anyway) about divorce, though all of these things were part of a darker culture that we knew about—usually in the form of an “unmarried” aunt who came to Christmas dinner but didn’t go to mass regularly.

Politics was easy because protestants didn’t talk much about these things either. When modern conservatives talk about a “broad moral consensus” missing in American society they are talking mainly about a religious convergence of social-sexual attitudes that existed before 1968, or thereabouts.

That’s when Paul VI spoiled our theory of the non-existence of the pope by publishing Humanae Vitae forbidding Catholics to take advantage of new techniques of contraception—the pill. It was a tough year to be an undergraduate dating a liberal Episcopalian.

From that day on, Catholicism was less and less about frequent communion, the trinity, and the virgin, more and more about hating abortion and strongly disapproving of gays—despite the irony of an emerging pedophile culture in seminaries and rectories.

Sad, that when this consensus broke down, Catholics by and large were forced into an ethical corner– forced to choose between church and conscience, between a kind of laissez faire allegiance to the principles of Catholic teaching and a strangely robust “moral” voice coming from a church in liturgical disarray and sacramental crisis.

All of a sudden, your best religious friends were not the ones who shared your tradition (tradition?) but the ones who agreed with you that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is a sinful, correctable practice, and that sex between loving but unmarried individuals of different sexes is morally wrong.

All of a sudden, the weak voice of faraway Rome and meatless Fridays seemed preferable to the New Church, a church that had decided to take its stand not at the altar but in the bedroom.

But the real problem in all of this is one our culture doesn’t yet have its head around. It is the way in which the Catholic Church has forced some of its most loyal sons and daughters, especially those in political life, to leave home.

No one knows whether, given the same set of moral variables in 1960, John Kennedy would have been the first Catholic president or could have achieved the delicate balance between convincing Catholics his religion mattered and non-Catholics that it didn’t.

But the balance is gone, thanks in part to changing social realities and changed laws and attitudes, and in part to a cultural backlash that hasn’t stopped lashing.

Unlikely as it seems, confronted with a progressive Catholic candidate in 2012, as we had in 2004, the claim of the Church’s non-interference and disinterest in American politics will no longer be convincing. We see that in the brokering of “acceptable” bishop-approved health care legislation in the U.S. Congress. We saw it in the sad final days of Ted Kennedy, in his letter of “qualified” contrition to Benedict XVI. Now we see it in the virtual excommunication–literally, being cut off from the sacrament–of Patrick Kennedy.

It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Catholic lawmakers now are expected to apologize to their church for the free exercise of conscience and the right to frame their ideas within the liberal tradition of American politics.

The issue in 1960, when the phrase had everything to do with belief and almost nothing to do with personal ethics, was whether a candidate was “Too Catholic.” For Catholic voters in the future, unless dramatic change occurs in a Church not known for upheaval, the question will be “Catholic enough?”

The Winners Are…

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I’ve been chewing my nails over (sorry, Jesus) more than the Public Option it’s the results of Center for Inquiry’s “Blasphemy Day” Competition.

You hadn’t heard? BD was an event designed to bring out the puckishness in organized atheism.

And high time. A lot of people think that atheists aren’t funny. Except Bill Maher. He’s very funny. But a lot of people think you have to be a Jew to be funny–a Groucho or a Seinfeld.

A lot of people think Muslims aren’t very funny but my Iraqi girlfriend, Yasmine, tells me that “infidels just don’t get it” and that I won’t either if I keep watching re-runs of Curb Your Enthusiasm and You Bet Your Life.

The idea behind having a contest was to prove to religious people that their religion is ridiculous. Of course, a lot of religious people know that already, but there’s nothing they like better than a little God-bashing to remind them.

It takes an atheist to bring religion down to comic size. An atheist like P Z Myers who teaches at the University of Minnesota. Myers is famous for snatching a Catholic communion host and driving a spike (no, I don’t know how long) into it, along with a page from the Koran, and a page of Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion.

Believe or not, he was not struck dead, but he was charged by the Library with defacing university property.

According to Myers, the point of BD was to “mock and insult religion without fear of murder, violence, and reprisal.” He says he wants every day to be Blasphemy Day. Personally, unless they include a gift-giving component I’ll stick with Christmas, but let’s wait and see how it plays out.

Meantime we have the winners. Sit down.

Ken Peters of California was first prize winner, a T-shirt and coffee cup.

His contribution, a pithy four word aphorism–“Faith is no reason.” I guess that’s Blasphemy Lite–sounds a little like Thomas Aquinas to me.

The others in no special order of offensiveness,

“There’s no religion like no religion,” submitted by Daniel Boles of Thailand, inspired by John Lennon and Ethel Merman. (Hold on to that Peace Corps job, Dan.)

“I wouldn’t even follow your god on Twitter,” submitted by Michael Hein of South Carolina, inspired by Yo’-Mama jokes.

“The reason religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous,” Michael Nugent of Ireland, inspired by a total disregard of how that slogan would look on a coffee mug.

“I survived the God virus,” submitted by Perry Bulwer of British Columbia, Canada, in a desperate attempt to prove that Canadians can be outrageous.

There were also a couple of limericks. Here’s one I didn’t understand:

“Minds harbor incongruous memes:
Religion and fairytale dreams.
Relentlessly nutty,
They turn brains to putty,
Inculcating scurrilous schemes.”

Rumour has it that some top-notch submissions arrived too late for consideration:

“Take this God and shove it” submitted by recently-deposed bishop, John McNakerney of Angel Falls, MN; “Who needs the devil when my wife still prowls the earth,” by Sol Wasserstein of Glencove, NJ, and “He only rested one day, you, you sit in that chair like it’s a throne for six,” by Ethel Wasserstein of Glencove, NJ. “Gods don’t kill people, people do because there is no God” was cited as the most confused but strangely accurate late submission.

Don’t worry if you missed the suspense and the playoffs. CFI has a new treat in store as part of its “Campaign for Free Expression.”

A cartoon contest. “We’re looking for sophisticated hard-hitting ideas and images that pose serious questions about belief and disbelief–cartoons that prod readers to think as they laugh (or maybe cry).”

The “Case” of Karen Armstrong

This is a story that will not go to sleep.

As soon as I had written about the sad and strange case of Major Hasan, now fading because it seems evident we are dealing with a culturally disconnected man, disturbed by private demons, I closed Karen Armstrong’s book A Case for God vowing never to waste another dime on her cooked to publisher’s order histories.

I do not know if this is her twelfth or thirtieth book, and it does not matter. They are the work of someone who finds it impossible to think things like religion through and as a result finds it very easy to write about religion.

It is easy to pan her prose. The conservative religion journal First Things marveled recently at her “selective compassion” but was more direct about her ignorance of history and theology:

Among people who know nothing about religion and don’t care much about factual information (an unfortunately large demographic), Karen Armstrong has become something of a sensation. But for those who think that claims about religion, ethics, or history should have some grounding in reality, Armstrong is considered an embarrassment.

And the superb Hugh Fitzgerald in The New English Review said

For Karen Armstrong history does not exist. It is putty in the hands of the person who writes about history. You use it to make a point, to do good as you see it. And whatever you need to twist or omit is justified by the purity of your intentions—and Karen Armstrong always has the purest of intentions.

This positioning is aforethought, naturally. “Religion,” bigly conceived, she seems to have learned as a nun with specific Jungian inclinations, is what God gave us in the form of religiousness with the idea of him in it.

That makes any specific denomination or faith a little too cramped to accommodate the Great Idea, the fundamentally noble truth, that all religions imperfectly embody. Welcome to the World Parliament of Religions, circa 1883. It’s all about goodness, compassion, but never about religion in a specific cultural location with specific and much smaller ideas called dogmas.

She dredges up nineteenth century ideas of the centrality of God (read: golden rule) to human experience, superimposes these features on her reading of the world religions, and then finds it remarkably easy to identify the compassion gene in each of the world’s great faiths. She is quoted approvingly by all dialogists who think that those of us who see religion as being at the heart of some of the world’s intractable problems are just plain wrong.

She is annoying and convincing, appealing to every soul that twinkles in the light of naïve ignorance.

A featured essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy magazine gives us vintage Armstrong in an essay called “Think Again: God.” In it she creates a series of propositions and then “refutes” them not with argumentation but attitude and cliché.

It is a doubly disappointing performance because the propositions aren’t bad, though loosely strung beads of different colours, and deserve more thought and attention than Armstrong gives them.

The answers seem almost contrived to be dismissive rather than profound, written in the “Of course this isn’t true” mode of a neo-scholastic–and (more tragically) seem to have the work of the New Atheists in view.

The entire essay, without meaning to be sly, is in the style of a Dominican lecturing her class on missing the most obvious questions in their catechism.

A few trying examples will suffice:

God is Dead. No, she says, not even if Richard Dawkins and Nietzsche say he is.

Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives.

I don’t disagree with the bit about meaning. Who could? It is seductive, and who doesn’t like a little meaning with their tea?

But the undefended suggestion that God (or belief in God) supplies ample meaning for the citizens of the modern world causes me to tremble. –Because even if this is so for religious folk, what would that “meaning” consist of if not a self-referring ego-worship as Feuerbach (whom she’s apparently never read) announced a century and a half ago? Doesn’t meaning have a little to do with reflection, wisdom, education, creating human values, including constructs like God and systems of religion?

God and politics don’t mix. Don’t believe it she says: “Theologically illiterate politicians have given God a bad name.”

It is a familiar and troubling (and increasingly popular) idea that the problem that looks like religion in the world of politics and society is not religion, but bad theology. She then quotes the electioneering slogans of presidents like John Kennedy and Barack Obama–men made nervous by faith but politically clever enough never to appear to reject it–as proof that religious faith “binds people together.”

Exactly. That binding is what got us the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, the Holocaust, 9-11 and gets hundreds of spiritually hungry and far-from-theologically-illiterate Muslims killed every year through no fault of their own by their fellow citizens in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Brushing these things aside as brief distractions, she strides to her next and related point.

God breeds violence and intolerance. If your pulse has raced with approval at the vintage 1971 American NRA (National Rifle Association) bumper sticker used by advocates of assault weapons to hold on to their weapons, “Guns don’t kill, people do,” you will have some sympathy for her answer, which is essentially the same: “No, humans do.” But one wonders about all those worthies, patriarchs, prophets and, yes, even nuns who heard the voice of God and did, or almost did, hideous things at his beck and call, beginning with Abraham. I suppose none of that had anything to do with religion.

Savvy religion scholars have been commenting for a decade (I know I have) on how the central myth of Christianity requires us to believe that God required the violent death of his own son in order to restrain himself from another act of more general violence against the whole of sinful humanity—a repetition of the first global homicide perpetrated against Noah’s generation. Do any of the religions she can name lack a concept of judgment, sin and retribution?

Perhaps Armstrong believes we should not take such stories seriously. But then we have to ask, what is to be done with the rubbished tales of Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition? And do we then end up with a mute and indistinct God who is not violent because he has never spoken, never acted, and may not exist. Clearly Armstrong doesn’t wish to go there. That’s where the atheists are having coffee. So she goes here instead:

As a species, we survived by killing and eating other animals; we also murder our own kind. So pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures, though these aggressive passages have always been balanced and held in check by other texts that promote a compassionate ethic based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Without challenging whatever she may mean by “balance,” Armstrong, more fundamentally, misses the etiology of religious violence, which is the same as the etiology of religion.

The remainder of Armstrong’s propositions range over whether God is bad for science (not necessarily) or bad for women (yes, at least in those areas where she feels women must have the option of choice, as in the abortion debate).

In general, as we have come to expect, religion is a pretty good thing because Ms. Armstrong does not wish to write about unpleasant things and her readers are bored by facts.

But her responses are careless and uncongealed. She appeals to a “principle of compassion” as the underlying and ancient principle binding religions together. But as Joe Carter writes in First Things, “Where exactly is this ‘ancient principle’ to be found? Isn’t it the case that this principle is a modern invention, often used to provide a less embarrassing interpretation for religious claims that have been held for millennia?” Yes, of course.

This book and the many interviews, pitches and essays by Armstrong that follow from it are final documentation of what many of us have said for a long time: the inexhaustible Ms Armstrong, friend to all religion and true servant of what she thinks of as God, needs to write less and read more. And think about what she reads.

As Hugh Fitzgerald says in his brisk analysis of Armstrong’s twists and manipulation of history (dealing only with her first paragraph in his review), she smuggles in details as she sees fit, making Columbus a Jew (why not, no evidence to the contrary), and religion a psychic need, the real-world effects of which—especially brutality—can be justified as simply misunderstanding its essence.

She can roll history about, she can pull it apart, she can twist and turn it with the same delight exhibited by a two-year-old when a-too-solid block of Playdoh is finally softened up for use by grown-up hands. But the two-year-old is an innocent at play, and even if he leaves a momentary mess, he has done no real harm. Karen Armstrong is not innocent, and manages to do a great deal of harm, careless or premeditated harm, to history. Too many people read that she has written a few books, and assume, on the basis of nothing, that she must know what she is talking about.

I am not sure I ever thought that, but Fitzgerald’s warning is important. This is schlock: a mixture of sloppy history, poor reasoning, wishful thinking and amateur psychology.

Not a “case” for God but a case for not–ever–taking anything written by Ms Armstrong seriously.

Atheist Schisms: Alice and Mr Dawkins


Even though Richard Dawkins taught at Oxford for the best years of his life, he never met Alice.

Alice, you’ll recall, was happiest having tea in Christ Church meadow, getting drowsy over her books, and falling down rabbit holes where she encountered all kinds of strange creatures no one had ever seen.

The probability of having never seen Alice, whose memoirs describe smiling cats, talking caterpillars, rabbits in waistcoats and the Red Queen’s caucus race–in great detail–beggars the odds and raises serious questions about whether Mr Dawkins ever taught at Oxford at all, or if he did why he never left his room.

A natural skeptic and proud atheist would want to test the testimony, as it were. Yet there is not one recorded instance of the good professor plodding through the meadow and so much as kicking up a tuft of grass or picking up a lifeless dogeared playing card to check the sources.

This raises a question in my mind. Are the atheist fundamentalists really that skeptical, that thorough? They claim not to have seen a lot of things–miracles, resurrections, God, and the like–but given the fact that they have not even taken the time over a pretty thin volume like Alice’s biography, why should we trust them with a hefty book, full of massive improbabilities, like the Bible?


They invoke something called science, or naturalism as a proof of their knowing a thing or two about not knowing a thing or two. But I ask you: the sea monster Leviathan had to be fairly impressive, or his story would not have lasted a thousand years. Wouldn’t a real atheist want to slip on a pair of flippers and a mask and head for the Mediterranean just to be sure? leviathan

According to usually impeccable American media sources like the National Geographic Channel, Noah’s ark has been spotted on a number of rocks. Even the exoskeletons of marine animals long thought extinct have been found encrusted in its petrified planks. I suppose a scientist who can’t be bothered to find a rabbit hole won’t make the journey to Sinope to check it out. But as long as those boards go unexamined, I respectfully reserve my right to believe the flood happened just the way Genesis says it did–all sloshy forty days and every drenched zebra of it. A pure skepticism requires nothing less. We’ve got the word, we’ve got the wood: what do you fellows have?

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention the New Testament, but it seems to me a little homework would turn up “thank you notes” from at least a dozen of the five thousand men, women and children who were fed bread and fishes on that hot Thursday afternoon. These would not have been sent because thank you notes never are. They are the most massively preserved species of domestic literature after unopened tax bills. Find the family bibles of their descendants, you’ve got your evidence.

After noshing all that stodge they must have been thirsty; has anybody bothered to look for the canteens? This is simple archaeology, but over the heads of our so-called atheist fundamentalists.

What I hate most of all is when atheist fundamentalists get all pious about their atheism. Take the recent bus and subway ad-campaign that tells us “1,000,000 New Yorkers are Good without God.” You’re going to trust this statistic when it comes from guys who won’t leave their lecture rooms to see if it’s raining? 1,000,000 New Yorkers are also good without a extra slice of cheese cake, while ony 75,000 look really good in spandex: so what? 3,000,000 New Yorkers don’t believe in voting. Most are atheists. Don’t believe me? Go ask. That’s what a scientist does.


Besides, numbers games are tricky. Wait till the Baptists roll out a bus that screams “22,000,000 Jesus-believers who attend fish fries can’t be wrong.”

But back to the hot topic, the atheist schism. Hardcore and softcore atheists, big tent versus wigwam unbelievers?

I agree with some of my friends that there can’t be a schism in atheism because atheism is a big muddle, a jumble of ideas. Think of your mind as the accumulated junk of fifty years just waiting to go up for sale on card tables next weekend. Then it rains. Atheism is like that. Some say it’s a stream of thought. Some say it’s a rolling river. Like love.

At any rate, muddles and puddles can’t have schisms–that’s clear enough. So how do we know that atheism can make you as good as a believer? I have thought about this a good deal since the last bus rolled by and think I have an answer that any scientist worth his powder would agree on.

It’s based on my personal method of assessment that I call the Mercurial Goodness Index.

Goodness needs to be defined as the result of how much about God you don’t believe in. If you don’t even believe in the possibility of God (there’s a very fancy name for this in philosophy but I forget it), then you are totally good. A secular saint.

If there is a particular god you don’t believe in, then your goodness has to be calculated according to the number of things you don’t believe about him.

For example, 10 points for not believing he created the world, 10 points for not believing he created the human race, 20 points for not believing he wrote the most boring sections of the Bible, 5 points for not believing that, even if he created the human race, he did not create Republicans. Maximum 80. Only fair-weather and backsliding Christians, Jews and some Muslims can play this game. Secular- leaning Muslims who do not believe in God are required to surrender their weapons as a token of their skepticism.

Skeptical Hindus will be scored according to the number of gods they don’t believe in up to a maximum goodness score of 330,000,000 (way more than the number of good New Yorkers). They receive ten extra points if they also confess that Hindusim is a very silly religion.

Buddhists can play, but must be very quiet about it and not reveal the secret of their goodness.

I think even the most committed atheist will agree, this is the best way forward.

Booboisie Catholicism


I don’t know about you but I am still waiting for Vatican II to kick in–you know the change-for-the-better that was supposed to be the fruit of the ecumenical council (1962-1965) called by Pope John XXIII to make everything old new again.

2005 was the fortieth anniversary of its adjournment, which means that most so-called Roman Catholics born after, say, 1968 have never heard a Latin Mass, know their catechism from stories told by their mothers, went to Catholic schools populated by divorced Catholic women, and grew up thinking that the noxious hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” is the pinnacle of liturgical expression. I haven’t even mentioned a recent survey, where it was revealed that most Catholic children between the age of nine and fifteen think the most solemn part of the mass is holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer and/or the handshaking hugathonics known as the Kiss of Peace.

our father

Rumor has it that Benedict XVI’s recent endorsement of a more liberal use of the “old” Latin mass (called without value-inflation the “extraordinary rite,” Summorum Pontificum, 2007) will awaken the deadened aesthetic sensibilities of a whole new generation of mass-goers. Now that any priests equipped to do it (not many) are permitted to celebrate in the Tridentine style, seminaries are laying on special courses (now say after me: “een no-me-nay pah-treees…”) for rosy-cheeked enthusiasts who hope to see the old mass revived in parishes around their priest-starved dioceses.


Not bloody likely. Vatican II was a colossal failure–at every level–and the time spent studying its documents, probing its theology, anticipating its bounty have all proved a waste of adult brainpower and seminary lecture time.

Its ecumenism was hollow, as proved by the recent decision to create a special Institute for unhappy Anglicans opposed to women and gay priests, gay marriage and sundry other “theological” gripes. Ecumenical dialogue with other denominations is in ever worse disarray, except perhaps with Pentecostals and fundamentalist Christians, Catholicism’s natural enemies at a theological level but their bedfellows on abortion, contraception, HIV-AIDS and sexual ethics (so-called). Its outreach to Jews and Muslims has been political, fumbling, self-serving and inauthentic.

Its attempts to reinvent Catholic theology have been stammeringly painful, testing the resolve of every paid theologian to develop new ways to say the same old thing in ways so obscure they may as well have stuck to Latin. True, Limbo has been questioned, but heaven and hell are still for sale, as are indulgences, the intervention of saints, the infallibility of the pope, and the doctrine of the real presence. Mind you, I do not mean to impugn any of these doctrines; but am I the only one who reads modern Catholic systematic theology with a cartoon balloon over my head filled with an enormous qmark

In terms of church attendance-the once-proud symbol of Catholic allegiance–it has been in decline since 1970–and why not, we have to ask, considering the endless loop of sermons about how loving God is all about hating abortion.

H. L. Mencken died in 1956, a decade before Vatican II had had a chance to work its special destructive magic. Years before that, in 1923 (think Scott Fitzgerald, Bentleys, raccoon coats) Mencken wrote an article in The Smart Set called “Holy Writ” that might have alerted the Church to the perils of the literal in reforming ancient tropes and gestures.

The occasion of the essay was a new translation of the Bible into French, designed to get rid of the contrived antiquity of the language then used for all Bible translations. Whoever did it, Mencken said with characteristic understatement, “is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France.”

Contrariwise, he says, “the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous, and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life….The Bible they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men could not fix their minds on the ideas in it.”

For Mencken, this inaccessibility was a good thing: it raised the text above both the theological idea-men and the critics of tradition, so that even “the assaults of Paine, Darwin and Huxley” have not been effective against it. “They still remember the twenty third psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, and they are still moved beyond compare by the sermon on the mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger.”

No friend of elitism, the chattering classes, politicians nor the nincompoops who worked at factory jobs, Mencken saw the language of the 1611 (King James) Bible as the high-browiest thing about a protestant culture that without it would be as crass as its native sons. He teasingly alludes to the state of an atheist, who by comparison with a Bibled Methodist is infinitely more crass.

When he turns to the cradle Catholicism of his native Baltimore, Mencken finds something different to praise. The good of Catholicism is not in the Bible but in its keeping the Bible away from people, and keeping people away from the technical theological disputes that occupy only a small segment of the learned clergy.

What keeps the Catholic in the pew Mencken thought was not theology or lectures on doctrine but spectacle. The Catholic church exceeds the Protestant as he saw it “because it has always kept clearly before it that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.” “A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive to a man with any genuine religious sense…as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God.”

Mencken enjoyed toying with the contrast between the major streams of American religion. Protestantism failed not only because he had a personal dislike for “American bible searchers,” largely Baptists and Methodists, whom he often called vermin, but because their religion purported to be logical.

The Protestants, he claimed “transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise” by putting their sermons front and center and eschewing liturgy. On the contrary, “Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was little employed in the early church and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today.”

But Mencken knew the end was near, even in 1923. He observed the lengthening of the sermon by Catholic bishops and priests (blather), the loss of the aesthetic, mumbled prayers, ignored rubrics, the twenty-five minute mass–as though Latin was a cage to be gotten out of.

He associated this tendency with the Irish, who wanted more gab and less godliness. He warns of the “folly” the American church is falling into by trivializing what a later generation of theorists would call “mystique”: “A bishop in his robes playing his part in a solemn ceremonial is a dignified sight, even though he may sweat freely. The same bishop bawling against Darwin half an hour later is simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon keeper in South Bend, Indiana.” Darwin’s place, no doubt, has been taken by the Abortion Provider, but the bawling hasn’t changed.

Mencken had some advice for the Church back then, especially with respect to liturgical decline: “Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will propose to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”

What he didn’t foresee is that the work would be done by the bald headed sons of the saloon-keepers.