Hans Kueng

Recently, Scipio has been very hard on atheism. In a previous post he tried to distinguish between “Wholecloth Atheism” which is a position about religion in the broadest sense (and really the position of the new atheists) and “sentence atheism,” which is simply a position about the possibility of God. He still thinks this distinction is fundamental.

But the profession of wholecloth atheism makes the atheist’s job much tougher: there is more to deny, and hence more to define. I received this in response to a blog posted a few days ago, from a certain Mary Helena Basson, whose thinking on the subject deserves broader exposure than the “Comments” portion of this site permits.

She writes,

” I often think that this atheism verse religion ‘war’ is in large measure a result of a misunderstanding as to the nature of religion. Religion is not theology. Theology is only the superstructure, a replaceable superstructure, to a bedrock foundation that is part of our human existence. Sadly, once theology becomes synonymous, in people’s minds, with religion, it is religion that gets short-changed. Atheists can do battle with theology until kingdom come – but ‘god’ will simply move on…Knocking theology is playground stuff. In the the adult world we have to live with religion. But what is religion if it is not to be equated with theology?

I found this definition many years ago:
Hans Küng: Christianity and the World Religions, vxi:
“Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person …sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially”.

Alongside the tortured history of repression and dogmatism that theology has spawned, religion, in the above sense, has contributed much in the way of compassion for the human predicament. Unfortunately, life does have it’s dark side and it is here that atheism seems unable to put anything on the table. It’s all very well admiring the wonders of the world, looking with awe at the starry skies but when it comes to demonstrating compassion for the sick, the infirm, the handicapped, it has no ready made calling card, no on-tap reservoir of moral conduct. I’m not thinking of simply following rules but more of an inbuilt sense of proper conduct. Granted that such an inherent sense of right and wrong is part of our human nature – and thus we should all be so inclined to do good – it’s just that religions spell it out, spell some version of it out, thereby giving religious people an edge, so to speak, in the compassion department.

The argument that people can be doing good because of the prospect of a heavenly reward is possible – but bottom line is that for the one receiving the compassion, it is the compassion that matters not the possibility of an ulterior motive on the part of the one being compassionate. Quite frankly, to think that religious people are only compassionate because they are obeying some commandment is to knock not just religious people but all people. Working with the sick and dying, working with Aids sufferers, this work requires something that cannot be achieved by people who are only obeying the rule book. It is not religion that engenders such compassion, such empathy – religion can only enable it, give a voice to it and, naturally enough, to give such action a godlike accolade. And atheism? Too often it’s ‘men of the mind’ fail to look downwards, down to the depths of the human experience where the true measure of our humanity is displayed.

What atheists need is more of the attitude of “a deeply religious non-believer” (Dawkins) Such an attitude would do much for atheism! Keep the moral high ground – give no slack to theology – but don’t let go a basic part of our humanity by denying religion it’s right to function. Dawkins, in [The God Delusion], although he differentiates between Einsteinian religion and supernatural religion, good and bad religion?, he, sadly, in his desire to knock supernatural theology, missed the opportunity to give atheists a view of religion that would allow them to retain a measure of respect and acceptance of religion. But then, to be charitable, perhaps its the religious (in the above broad definition) that need to stand up and clearly state what it is they are trying to defend against the atheist hoards….

I agree. But then, who decides? I like Küng’s definition–even at times Küng’s theology–but his definition of religion is a theologian’s definition, designed, I think, to be as spongy as possible to facilitate an ecumenical and pluralistic agenda–spongy in the sense that it is contrived to absorb all competing definitions. It’s a definition almost every liberal theologian can get behind, and one which will leave every conservative Christian scholar and professor of Islamic “philosophy” scratching his (or her) head.

That is the problem with definition. The most specific ones are narrow, helpful and controvertible; the most spacious are embracing, inclusive and virtually useless. Christianity was easy to define when all Christians, more in theory than in fact, embraced the Nicene Creed and (in the west) the spiritual sovereignty of popes. –Less easy to define after the eruption of the protestant challenge that left pieces of doctrine scattered everywhere while new ones were being created. When definitions fail, for reasons ranging from loss of confidence to changes in belief and practice, we resort (a la John Hick) to typologies, because typologies are merely descriptive, not definitive.

John Hick: The Typologist

There is the added problem of who, and by virtue of what kind of training, is qualified to define religion. Richard Dawkins, because he is “scientifically minded,” but with no formal background in the study of religion (a training I am sure he would regard as a handicap, anyway)? Hans Küng, a theologian, with longstanding interest in the phenomenology of religion, but equally a faith-perspective that blindsides him to the undeniable wisdom of atheism?

If you don’t like these options, there is a whole supermarket of choices out there, ranging from the merely interesting to the downright nasty /1/: Religion is “a cultural system” (Geertz), belief in an “unseen order” (William James); “what [the individual] does with his own solitariness” (Whitehead); “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence” (Bellah, and also Geertz).

If you’re addicted to Hegel, religion is (somewhat mystically) “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind.” If you are Fielding’s Parson Thwackum (and many still are), then when you say religion “[you] mean the Christian religion;
and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion;
and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.”

Hogarth's Thwackum

Among skeptical intellectuals, after Marx (“Religion is the cry of the oppressed creature”) there is Mencken’s notion that the sole purpose of religion is to “give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny,…[and] to induce those powers to be friendly to him,” and Freud’s verdict that religions “are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.”

Omitting argumentation completely, we have the flatfooted view of Thomas Edison that “Religion is bunk,” and of Mark Twain, who quipped that “Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.”

From the early twentieth century onward, perhaps climaxing in Bertrand Russell’s paraphrase of Santayana (“Religions are the great fairy tales of conscience”) –which looks like a paraphrase of Mark Twain–there is a consistent effort to key religion to the slightly earlier “anthropological” conviction that religion is nothing more than belief in gods, spirits, and ways of protecting yourself from things that go bump in the night: “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”

Russell as Puck

That is just the lunch menu. A full list of definitions would include the attempts of ethicists, cognitive neuroscientists and pagan priestesses to come to terms with the “nature” of religion. About all anyone can agree on is that religion is not about the ordinary, but it is–in a way still cognizant of James’s piercing and frustratingly maldeveloped assessment–related to the experiential: to the world as we interpret it.

The sheer volume of the menu should cause serious and reflective atheists to question whether short-cutting and categorical freebasing (theology is to religion what wet is to water) is the best way to approach the subject.

Ms. Basson is right when she implies that Richard Dawkins missed a golden opportunity to highlight the complexity of religion and to distinguish between the theological axioms that are really the target of modern atheist critique and the less cooperative subject matter called religion. They are not the same. For wholecloth atheism ever to be a garment someone can wear, it needs to be fashioned carefully, not just fashionable.

Thanks, Mary.

/1/ Props to Dr. Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary for his work in keeping track of definitions.

Cheap Grace… Plus Postscript


Having been accused of “faitheism” by more than one reader of this blog, let me offer the following:

I have been a fairly vigourous opponent of the new atheism, manifesto-atheism, organized secular humanism (if that is not an oxymoron) and the quaintness of the term “freethought.” (Send it to the attic, it doesn’t apply to anything on the contemporary scene).

But you need to know why I am critical, and to understand that, you need to understand a bit of history–especially the history of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a victim of German-style National Socialism.

To my twenty-something readers who have just come out as atheist, or gay, or something, at Oberlin, or somewhere. Good for you: if you mean it. But please mean it. Because if this is just to irritate your parents, it’s hardly worth the trouble. It’s true that gays and blacks and resolute women have been a persecuted and marginalized class in American society.

But two things are not true: (a) That atheism is the last buttress against the know-nothings of American democracy (“A Mighty Fortress is No God”?) and (b) that there has been a consistent “persecution” of atheists in American history. Not getting elected to office because you do not believe in God is not, I am sad to report, persecution.


The fact is, atheists have seldom taken a moral stance about anything. Their core position–that religion is immoral and that they are therefore opposed to its influence and its effects–is not a moral position but a dog satisfied to have caught its own tail.

Perhaps that’s why years ago at Harvard I spent my spare time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No atheist, clearly, but an ardent believer in the improvability of the human race, a race that for all intents and purposes God had deserted. Naturally critical, he floated between theological positions and even spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in 1930.

After studying with the best we had to offer– Reinhold Niebuhr–he concluded, “There is no theology in America.” He meant, of course, that there was no rigorous inquiry into the sources of belief nor any critical examination of Christian theology in general, the sort of thing the German faculties had developed as Wissenschaft –serious scholarship. In fairness to the softness of the American cultural landscape, however, we also had no Hitler.

For Bonhoeffer, “serious” theology had consequences, and these led him through an almost unimaginable circuit of events to being arrested, condemned and executed for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy.

Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. By decree of the SS and with Hitler’s explicit instructions, the execution was particularly brutal. He was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged with piano wire. An odd fate for an academic, a poet, a pastor and someone who saw the Church’s mission as entirely compatible with humanist ends.

I am beginning to dislike atheism. I dislike it because it is historically illiterate, and because it sees its crusade against the “powers of darkness” as a crusade against a record that all the blasphemy and all the parody in the world cannot change. I mean those moments of sanctity, light and grace where for reasons beyond the normal course of political events men like Bonhoeffer stood down the real powers of darkness.

For reasons different from the philosophical messiness of religion, atheism is a mess.

In making religion its sworn enemy atheism–organized atheism and secularism especially–ignores the religionless elements that transfused both the Nazi and Soviet movements. When will atheism have the will and the confidence to admit that a world without God is no better than a world with God? If the twentieth century proved anything, it is that.

Bonhoeffer used the phrase “cheap grace” in his most eloquent meditation, The Cost of Discipleship, to describe the Christianity of his day–an idea he derived from Kierkegaard. In contrast to the energy and vision that had inspired the early Christians as a religious minority, European Christianity had become fat, lazy, and politically malleable. It required neither risk nor affirmation: to be German and Christian was equivalent to what it once was to be Roman and pagan. (The Jews got the short end of the equation in both cases).

His premise was simple: any intellectual position comes at some expense. At one extreme, it is worth lying for, conspiring for, and if all else fails, dying for. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….”

Hitler’s enemies were not atheists. They were his co-religionists, Catholic priests and confessing protestants like Martin Niemoeller. They were his religious Others–the Jews, and had Europe then had a substantial Muslim population (I am sorry to disappoint my pro-Teutonic Muslim friends with this information) they would have joined the inmates at Buchenwald and Auschwitz as outsiders as well. The early anti-secular noises made by the Nazi party to pacify the churchly despisers of Adolph Hoffmann, whose picture appears in my family album, were decisively exposed as political by Hitler’s closest mentor, Martin Borman, in 1941:

When we [National Socialists] speak of belief in God, we do not mean, like the naive Christians and their spiritual exploiters, a man-like being sitting around somewhere in the universe. The force governed by natural law by which all these countless planets move in the universe, we call omnipotence or God. The assertion that this universal force can trouble itself about the destiny of each individual being, every smallest earthly bacillus, can be influenced by so-called prayers or other surprising things, depends upon a requisite dose of naivety or else upon shameless professional self-interest

Borman followed this with a 1942 memo to Gauleiters, that the Christian Churches “must absolutely and finally be broken,” as their views were fundamentally opposed to the total world view of democratic socialism.

Bonhoeffer’s reaction was not against proposals that (among others) would have banned the teaching of theology in the universities or removed the Old Testament from the Bible, or eliminated subsidies for churches and religious schools, or forbidden school prayer. The total menu of punitive actions against religion was much larger than this–and similar proposals have been the staple of democratic socialism in both Europe and America for more than a century.

Bonhoeffer’s nausea was evoked by the quasi-religious and spiritual trends of the Nazi inner circle: Germanic pagan imagery mixed with ancient Roman symbolism and emotion in propaganda for the German public, the naive acceptance of social Darwinism, a strong belief in the providential role of science, as Science, and a commitment to the idea of German intellectual supremacy. He saw forming behind the scenes a new myth, fashioned to replace the old one by summoning the tribalism of an ancient imperial past, and a Church so naive that it believed it could accommodate the “new ideas.”

Bonhoeffer died as a Christian, as someone opposed to the symbols and reality of the state-produced Man. If you want to see the most effective and still chilling visualization of this, watch the first fifteen minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will–Hitler descending like Woden or Jesus (either is correct) as the expectant people (sitting in darkness, awaiting the light) clamour for the landing of his aircraft.

So the question arises, why in a world so allegedly hostile to their ideas have atheists never been held to account? Why are there no illustrious atheist martyrs, no equivalents to Socrates and Jesus–and Bonhoeffer? Given the insistence of the atheist and secular humanist movement that their position is heroic simply because it is (as yet) unusual in the world–perhaps especially in salvation-starved America–
what approaching army advances? What hideous penalties do they threaten? Do any involve being strung up at dawn by piano wire? And who will be the first to lay his life on the line for the glory of Unbelief.

In fact, modern atheism is the moral equivalent of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Just as the comfortable Christian could count on the fact that the price of his sins had been paid for in advance by a God who operates as an endless source of moral credit, atheists know that the cost of their rage is slight. They count on the fact that the free speech they savor has been underwritten in constitutions and codes dating back two centuries–just as the Protestants of Bonhoeffer’s Germany counted on the fact that their greed had been atoned for in advance. They follow a narrow orthodoxy that punishes nuanced, critical and accommodationist views–just as the Churches of Bonhoeffer’s day embraced a gospel that perfectly reflected their social values and political lassitude.

Kishinew Pogrom

In other words, the cost of being an atheist is simply to proclaim being an atheist, with a wink to the atheist at your side. What, no applause? No police force, no secret agents are going to round you up for that. For that to happen, there would have to be something more to atheism than the purely negative impact of not believing in God or believing that religion is evil.

It would have to develop real ideas, agendas, and principles–preferably different from the ones that emanated from the first great organized wave of atheist ideology, Soviet communism.

And since atheists often adopt a Missouri posture in such matters: Show me your martyrs. Show me the principles for which they died. Show me the agenda that naturally flows from unbelief, and the positive consequences of taking that position. Show me the future of the world you believe in when the world no longer believes in God.

Otherwise, atheism is simply the additive inverse of cheap grace.


It’s hard to imagine that I managed to get through this whole piece without using the word “complacency” even once. One reader awoke me to the fact when he asked whether Jesus and Socrates had died for their religious opinions or were victims of political circumstance. The flippant response is that most people who die for religious reasons were victims of circumstance, including the heretics. Atheism as we use the term today is really an intellectual fashion of the seventeenth century when the Church in the west no longer had the power to roast people for their apostasy: Around 1650 an anonymous manuscript appeared (probably in France) entitled Theophrastus redivivus which appears to be the oldest extant atheistic document. But, of course, there was classical precedent for denial of the gods, as well as satire of their behavior and trivialization of their role.

The atheist “heresy” is in creating an apostolic succession of unbelievers (Socrates and Galileo are, somewhat ludicrously, often numbered among them) that never existed, but put forth on the premise that very bright people must (at least privately) have been unbelievers. The religious heresy is the complacent belief that unbelievers are beyond the help of the church and thus, as Anselm regarded atheism, a form of insanity or “foolishness” (Psalm 14.1).

But 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.

For the sort of serious approach to the subject that American atheists (chiefly) might want to know about and would surely benefit from reading, Cambridge University’s “Investigating Atheism Project” will repay the effort of a little historical homework a thousand times over.

Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

In a word, No.

There is nothing inherently “humanistic” about atheism, and some forms of militant atheism–the outwardly obnoxious, deliberately offensive kind now primarily associated with the Center for Inquiry and the minions of the new atheism–are unhumanistic.

I have been at work pari passu (meaning “when I feel like it,”) on a “Little Lexicon of Humanist Values.” It will never be the OED. It will never be Webster’s–maybe not even the Yellow Pages.

Instead it is a half-serious, occasionally flippant attempt to reflect on values that humanists might agree are important to the pursuit of a humanist worldview or life-stance. The definitions sometimes approach the famous discussion between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in chapter six of Through the Looking Glass, when Alice says to the Eggy creature (who has used the term “glory” in an unusual way),

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”….’

“Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

“`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected….

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

In any event, as my thinking on the subject unfolded–and as it continues to unfold–it occurred to me that terms like “beneficence,” and “godliness,” and “happiness,” “honesty” and even “virtue” all have assured places in a lexicon that a humanist might consult. So too, oppositionally, do words like “despair”, because a humanist needs to know what to feel desperate about, and “sadness” and “tragedy” and “heroism” (which I have defined in a completely negative sense, one to make classicists shudder).

But you will not find a definition of atheism in the lexicon, because it is not a value and carries no subordinate values with it. It is not a virtue, because virtue (when I get around to defining it) has to be grounded in human good and happiness.

Atheism does not make you good, in a practical sense, and by its very nature it does not make you wise. It may be a position against a certain kind of wisdom, traditionally associated with metaphysics, ontology and theology in favor of a strictly scientific, falsifiable understanding of human reality as squeezed through the grate of naturalism. That is to say, atheism may be a specific category of skepticism applied to a specific object (God). But in rejecting a very big idea like God, it must also reject a very big metaphysical idea like wisdom.

Moreover, if it is true that non-falsifiable statements are meaningless (Ayer v Popper–remember your “demarcation principles,” boys and girls) or senseless, then the most atheism will get you is to the point of being able to smile and say “You’re talking nonsense when you talk about God.” (I have fantasized such a conversation between Bertie Russell and Anselm of Canterbury to this effect in these pages….). The kind of atheism that limits itself, pretty dully, to the nature of propositions we can mark off as “statement atheism.” It has the same ontological status as a crossword puzzle.

Of course, most people when they say, a little proudly, that they are atheists are claiming a good deal more. They are claiming that “none of it is true,” meaning religion. “Whole-cloth atheism” assumes more than that God does not exist. It assumes that religion (nevermind theology) is untrue and positively and actually harmful.

Philosophers have argued this point since Hume, poets since Shelley, social theorists since Comte and later Freud, polemicists since Paine. Sometimes it leads to a hierarchy of Bad to Worst Religions, with the achievement laurel often going to Buddhism, Unitarianism, paganism, or Eco-feminism for being interesting if also terribly timid and incomplete approximations of unbelief–and Islam, at least in the twenty-first century, getting the prize for the most backward, hateful and generally obnoxious system of belief ever devised.

If you deny not just God but all of his works, titles, all of the doctrines, all of the “ways to the center” that comparative religionists talk about in their introductory courses, and all of the arguments devised to support belief systems and caste systems and priestly hierarchies from India to Rome, you have a lot of work to do. Most atheists, even when they come from the academy (especially when they come from academy) do it very badly. (Refuting Thomas Aquinas alone could easily take you from graduate school to retirement without a breath along the way.) Wholecloth atheists would be better limiting themselves to statement-atheism unless they are willing to study theology. (For that matter, maybe all evangelical theologians who believe in a six-day creation should be sentenced to study physics at the University of Arkansas–assuming they would not be able to test into MIT.)

Wholecloth atheists are very good at short-cutting the philosophy and history of religion–like metaphysics, an embarrassing chapter in the history of philosophy?–and relying instead on the opinions of other atheists, especially ones with name value. –Just like, in the days when God still reigned, theologians (yes, even Aquinas) relied on the authority of other theologians. And when that failed, the authority of reason. And when that failed, the authority of scripture or a pentecostal inner light.

So “atheism” is not a natural ally of humanism. One thing humanism does not tolerate is intellectual short-cutting and appeals to authority, whether it comes from theology or anti-theology. Both Galileo and Luther were humanists because they appealed to the light of reason and rejected established authority. No atheist who appeals to the intelligence quotients of the people he reads is behaving like a humanist. He is behaving like a monk.

Appeals to the authority of atheist worthies also teaches the atheist faithful bad habits, as I observe when I see Richard Dawkins quoted with the same assurance of knock-down-argument rectitude, the same immunity from contradiction, as a Christian invokes when he cites the Bible. I mean “glory.”

Whether you are a mere statement atheist or a wholecloth atheist, you should not assume that atheism carries anything with it into the bargain of unbelief. How could it? I have just come from a silly pair of articles in the magazine Free Inquiry where two people (whose names I here withhold) are debating about whether atheism incorporates or “teaches” certain ethics and values. One of the contributors assures us that kindness and consideration and a bunch of other commendable attitudes (perhaps gleaned from another lexicon?) come with the territory when you’re an atheist.

Nonsense. Atheism does not confer virtue; it cannot assume virtue. In fact the biggest challenge for the atheist remains, per omnia saecula saeculorum, the defense of virtue in the absence of a ground of absolute value. These values have not been liberated for meaning anything you want them to mean just because you kill their father.

Or maybe atheists are just as good as Humpty Dumpty when they claim that the ground of value begins with the denial of God. Maybe beneficence can mean “Doing the good I want to do when I feel like it” (has a ring of truth about it, certainly) and “kindness” “a weird sort of energy that reasonable people will learn to subdue.”

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’, says Humpty.
`Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, `what that means?’
`Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased.
`I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

Uncourtly Crusaders: The Atheist War on Religion

Friar Edwin Kagin, Offering Debaptism

First you need some charismatic prophets, same as the Jews, Christians, and Muslims had. No one who quite fits the bill? Then get four angry magpies, train them to write books, wait to see what happens.

What happens first is the New Atheism. What happens next is a small army of craven unbelievers sworn to unseat the Powers of Fear and Superstition. Religion.

These are hard times for God, no doubt about it. His staunchest defenders are either inordinately stupid, like the Creationist klatch, or so liberally engaged and politically distracted by The Church that he is treated like a demented grandparent who can’t be trusted to run the business without misplacing the payroll.

Once upon a time there were hundreds of clever theologians to plead his case and keep the Unbelievers at bay or off guard. But today’s theology is navel gazing, not cosmic or philosophical: it’s all about priests, altar boys, canon vs. civil law, and of course whether women should be ordained. (Just a thought: why would they want to? Isn’t it a bit like signing on to the crew of the Titanic after the iceberg has been struck?)

Since Holy Religion seems unable to argue in its own defense, let me have a go.

ABC News reports that “At the annual American Atheists Convention, one of atheism’s premier provocateurs, Edwin Kagin, faced the crowd and raised high a hairdryer labeled “Reason and Truth.” The gesture was intended to offer newly minted Unbelievers a chance to renounce their baptismal vows, the dryer being a symbol of the purifying wind that cleanses the polluting water. Some attendees participating in the De-baptizing ceremony claimed that since they were subjected to the sacrament without their consent, baptism itself might be accounted a form of child abuse.

Well why not: everything these days is a form of abuse, isn’t it? Asking your teenage daughter to limit the sludge from her room to the hallway. Asking students (ever so politely) to find out for themselves (and not by email) whether they “missed anything in class today.” Telling the indifferent stewardess on the US Airways flight that you cannot endure a journey all the way to Los Angeles when the passenger next to you, at a weight of 275 pounds, is taking up more space than he paid for. Totus est probum. If you were baptized, dear reader, your civil rights were violated. Simple as that.

But this calculation is not why Edwin Kagin, “dressed in brown monk’s robe” (Franciscan unbaptism specifically?) is a silly old fart and why his message will only resonate with people as silly as he is. He is foolish because he is making atheism a sideshow, something not to be taken seriously by thoughtful women and men.

Fade to ABC: “Kagin, author of “Baubles of Blasphemy,” has a history of behaving in ways that elicit a rise from God-fearing people. He’s known to have asked female atheists to dress in burqas and perform a song, ‘Back in their Burquas Again,’ he’s referred to Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker and he’s called the Holy Eucharist ‘Swallow the Leader.'”

Vanity published in 2005 and topping the Amazon charts today at number 2,457,000, give or take a million, Kagin’s literary work is a splendid harmony of woefully bad writing, false wit and wrongness suitable only for the sort of people who laugh at baptism. It comes from the same creative impulse as the mutterances of pirates out to make a lady blush or a proper officer wince.

My complaint? Bad religion needs better satire. Unbelief needs better spokesmen. The cultic aspects of the New Atheism become more evident every day. Because only in cults does everyone laugh at the same jokes, applaud at the same cues, gasp at the same surprising revelation. Last time I looked, cultic unanimity was the opposite of freethought.

Some of us remember a point in the history of radical feminism where some very shrill advocates of extreme positions (e.g., all heterosexual sex is violent (or rape), Dworkin/McKinnon) accused men of inventing the shrillness. Men may well be jerks–maybe 75% in the last poll quoted by my daughter–but shrillness there was. Women are both reaping the benefits of the Women’s Movement and recovering from the extremism of the feminist sideshows attached to it.

The New Atheism by the same token has become both shrill, angry and ignorant of its target. It is uncourtly, a crusade without a call. As someone not known for his warm embrace of religious dogma, I am constantly embarrassed by the Kagins and PZ Myers and Hitchens’s–embarrassed not only by their militaristic attempts to squeeze all religious expression under the big top but especially at their shortsightedness in choosing objectives and strategies. In any case, atheism has had Shrill, Loud and Dumb before: Who remembers Madalyn Murray O’Hair (rip)? It didn’t work then.


The atheist crusaders may have the best of reasons for organizing their atheism as a campaign to belittle, insult and demean religion (they seem to be under the mistaken impression that atheism, as opposed to heresy, has suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Church for its failure to blossom), but they are driving reasonable men and women–wishers, seekers, explorers, and the merely confused–away in droves.

Worst of all, they have been willing to give atheism a bad name, as an extreme rather than a reasonable position based on a thoughtful discussion about God and religion. They have rejected dialogue: Kagin sees atheism and belief as the kindling for “a new American Civil War.” They have forgone educating themselves about religion and the history of ethics–probably because, when you get right down to it, men like Kagin are really rejectionists, victims of priests or some iteration of Calvinism themselves, rather than real thinkers. They’re really not into information. They’re into developing a following.

Whatever the outcome of this risible crusade, let’s hear it for Baptism. I am proud of mine, though I had nothing to say about it at all. If I screamed like a banshee when the water hit me (as a certain Cambridge Boxterman, a Kagin acolyte claims to have done in her Debaptism testimony) it is not because I was instinctively responding to the sacrament but because I am always grumpy when wakened out of a sound sleep, or when my nappy is dirty. Same effect. The Catholicism into which I was involuntarily cast was benign and helpful. And even though it was, alas!, not that way for everyone I shudder, given my deep South surroundings, to consider what the secular alternative might have been.

There is a final reason to be suspicious of this fool’s crusade against the devil Religion: It will backfire. Kagin culties and their allies will scare the bejeebers out of kindly and smart Catholics, Jews and Episcopalians, and send wavering Muslims right back to Friday Prayer.

And why not? Why should I feel at home among people who claim to be “over it” and regard those who aren’t as defective? In a weird kind of apposition, I have been told by converts to Catholicism that they liked everything about their decision until they attended their first pro-life rally and were handed a rosary.

Imagine being an “inquiring” atheist at friar Kagin’s church. Do they send Welcome Teams to your house with pies? Or given the nugatory nature of the cult, just empty pie plates? Do they play Ognib on Friday nights? Unfry fish? Enlightened as they are, they should at least offer unsubscribers a towel instead of the Conair–to reduce their carbon footprint.

Why trust a silly old fart dressed up like a monk, waving a hairdryer aloft more than the God who does not answer my prayers? Especially when he can’t do un-Circumcisions.


The Little Humanist Lexicon

Dr Johnson

Death: The point at which decision-making and its consequences cease, along with the opportunity to acquire virtue, act in conformity with reason or to invite blame for failing to do so. As a self-conscious and anticipated reality, death has a special purchase on human imagination because it gives rise to the concept of “mortality,” whose root mors defines humanity in a teleological way: being toward death.

Masquerade: (1) The celebration of the Eucharist by a faithless priest. (2) Neol., A performance of piety contrary to conscience and common sense, especially prevalent in political life.

Complacency: (1) The opposite of tranquility (qv), complacency is passivity in the face of choice rather than philosophical resignation to consequences over which we have no control. (2) A false sense of the security of the status quo, based on ignorance or willful misunderstanding of causes, situations and solutions. In this sense, especially applicable to fictional characters like Jay Gatsby and British royals in the twenty-first century.

Tranquility: (1) Philosophical satisfaction involving a balanced sense of the both the possibilities and limitations of existence.
(2) The opposite of wealth.

Indifference: (1) One of the primary attributes of a discriminating mind, consisting in the belief that some things, ideas, people and movements are not worth caring about. For the true humanist, indifference is related to objects and not categories: for example, relative indifference to possessions does not entail a positive assessment of poverty. Indifference to particular ethical systems does not require complete cynicism towards morality. (2) Not many things are worth doing at all, let alone worth doing well.

Reverence: (1) An attitude of respect that entails personal, social and environmental (natural) objects and is rooted in the evolutionary and developmental history of the human race. Reverence does not necessarily entail respect for the supra-personal or supernatural except as “images” of natural things, misconstrued as objects of devotion (qv). (2) A fundamental summary of humanist ethics (Schweitzer: Reverence for Life) based on the belief that “good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic theological principle enunciated by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium vitae (the Gospel of Life).

Mystery: (1) The unexplained or unknown, not the misunderstood or hypothetical. (2) A natural sense of humility (qv) in the face of an intellectual horizon that can only be crossed, and then only imperfectly, by imagination. (3) A feeling that can range from elation to fear based on the quantum of discovery (fascinans: Otto), vastness (tremendum: Otto) or difficulty with which an event confronts us. (4) “Nostalgia for Paradise” (Eliade); “Choose Something Like a Star” (Frost).

Faith: In its non-theological sense, unsupported or provisional confidence in the reliability of unexamined propositions, states of affairs, or reports. In the epistemological sense, faith is a form of trust and as such not a step in a “reasoning process” grounded in the experimental world. It is different from “belief” in historical terms (e.g., Aquinas) as often being cited as a source of knowledge or wisdom and thus an alternative, or even superior, to such process.

Ethical Idealism: In the popular sense, the belief that we can construct noble and universally recognizable standards (norms) of behaviour based simply on rational principles. Modern discussion actually derives from ancient speculation, e.g., Cicero: “How are such virtues as generosity or love of country, or the desire to do good to your fellow man or gratuitude possible? All of them spring from the fact that we are by nature impelled to love one another.”

Altruism: An idea invented by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century but anticipated in the ethical teaching of some religions, especially Christianity. Based on the belief that it is possible to intend to “do good” without promise of reward or fear of punishment, the concept properly belongs to evolutionary biology and behaviouralism rather than to theology. As an ethical ideal there is nothing in humanism that makes altruism an inappropriate symbol for personal conduct.

Revelation: (1) Metaphorically, the light of human reason: a capacity to know what is true. (2) Theol., The archaic doctrine that a divine being speaks through agents (prophets, seers, holy men, etc.) in order to communicate his will, laws, or intentions (“divine” or “particular” revelation); in this form, often associated with sacred books and practices.

Falsifiability: (1) A quality of statements of fact valued by reasonable women and men; (2) As a rule of thumb, a way of testing whether an event, entity or state of being existing in nature is generally true by limiting the domain of reference to what can be finitely observed to refute it. As an instance, the statement “God exists” is unfalsifiable (not false) because it cannot be refuted through finite observation or experimentation. (Cf. Verification)

Inspiration: That point in solving an equation, writing a sonnet, concluding an experiment, contemplating a difficult passage in philosophy, or listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral when the real purpose of being human becomes momentarily obvious.

Curiosity: (1) A healthy mental disposition towards discovery, satisfaction and understanding when accompanied by temperance (qv) but the source of uncertain consequences when pursued as mere experimentation. (2) Often used synonymously with “care” (worry) as a killer of cats.

Wit: (1) Knowing < wissen, archaically “having your wit(s) about you,” but more generally, exercising your intellectual powers. It can be found in wordplay, japes, quips, and off-the-cuff remarks. Never in a memorized joke, which is its opposite. (2) An intuitive perception that most apparently serious events, such as illness, stardom, pregnancy, or election to high office, are temporal and dull.

Ingenuity: (1) To create ethical or pragmatic solutions to situations that have arisen for an individual without a precedent in experience or learning. (2) Clever Clogs.

E.g., Theseus

Empathy: The ability to derive from the joy or suffering of another a lesson for the self that results in a passionate response.

Hope: A fantasy permitted the humanist when combined with realism (qv), but never to be allowed when defined as “faith” or “chance.” (2) An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733.

Hedonism: (1) Physical, intellectual and spiritual contentment pursued as harmonious ends in their own right; (2) A joyous utilitarianism: “An introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else.” (Michael Onfray)

Piety: (1) A completely secular term meaning loyalty or devout attention to responsibility, thus devotion to family, or to a vocation, or to the state. (2) As appropriated in philosophy and religion, doing what the gods desire (e.g., Euthyphro 12d, where it is defined as “a kind of justice.”)

Honesty: (1) Purity (qv) of intention as expressed in thought and action; the desire to do what love requires. (2) “Honesty has such scent; fresh-mown grass and rose perfume, fused with a warm Summer’s breeze.” (Fresh Cement, Dan Brown)

Indecision: (1) As a temporary state, the only defensible position for an intelligent woman or man confronted with the facticity of existence. It is not the same as “Choice” (qv) which is an action rather than a state of mind. It is not the same as “free will,” which applies to conditions rather to virtue itself. (2) As a chronic state of mind, a crippling inability to tell truth from fiction and to equate reality with physical options.


Exuberance: (1) An intense response to beauty in nature, and its reflection in art, music, literature, and, especially, conversation; (2) Wordsworth, Prelude (Book XI, ll. 258-278).

Pleasure: (1) Affirmation of the sublimely physical but not of the merely temporal, experimental, or casual. (2) A mental state; (3) Illusory happiness based on physical intensity.
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