Five Good Things about Atheism

It seems I cannot win.


When I chart the vague, occasional and ambiguous virtues of religion (mainly historical) I am accused of being intellectually soft. When I tell atheists they run the risk of turning their social solidarity into tent revivals or support groups I risk expulsion from the ranks of the Unbaptized and Wannabe Unbaptized.

It is a terrible position to be in, I can tell you, and I have no one to blame but myself.

To make amends and win back my disillusioned readers I am devoting this blog to the good things about atheism.

As far as I can tell, there are five:

1. Atheism is probably right: there is almost certainly no God. At least not the kind of pluriform god described by the world’s religions. If there were, we would know it in the way we know other things, like potholes and rainbows, and we would know it not because of syllogisms that begin “All things that exist were created,” or through the contradictory revelations of competing sects.

We would know it because we are hardwired to know.

The weakest argument of all, of course, is existence since existence raises the question of God; it does not answer it. The difference between a god who is hidden (invisible), or does not wish to be known (elusive), or cannot be demonstrated rationally is the same thing as a God who may as well not exist. Not to assign homework but have a look at John Wisdom’s famous parable recited in Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and Falsification,” (1968).

2. Atheism is courageous. Not valorous perhaps, not deserving of medals. But it takes a certain amount of courage not to believe what a vast majority of other people believe to be true. You learned that much as a kid, when a teacher said to you, after some minor tragedy in the playground, “Just because your best friend decides to jump over a fence onto a busy road doesn’t mean you need to do it too.”

The pressure to believe in God is enormous in twenty-first century society, and all but irresistible in certain sectors of America–the fundamental international base line for irrationality. Having to be religious or needing not to seem irreligious is the greatest tragedy of American public life and a sure recipe for the nation’s future mediocrity. It dominates political campaigns and the way kids learn history in Texas.

Texas edits textbooks

Theological differences aside, what Muslims and Christians and other godfearers have in common is an illusion that they are willing to defend aggressively–in certain cases murderously.

Even when it does not reach that level of viciousness, it can make the life of the uncommitted, unfaithed and unchurched miserable. Atheists deserve credit for having to put up with this stupidity. That is bravery, defined as forbearance.

Many atheists realize that the fervour displayed by religious extremists has deep psychological roots–that history has witnessed its bloodiest moments when causes were already lost. The legalization of Christianity (312?) came within three years of the final assault against Christians by the last “pagan” emperor. The greater number of the wars of religion (1562-1592) occurred after the Council of Trent (adj. 1563) had made Catholic doctrine unassailable–written in stone–for Catholics and completely unacceptable for Protestants. The Holocaust happened largely because Rassenhasse flowed naturally from two done deals: worldwide economic collapse and Germany’s humiliation in the Great War of 1914-1918. The Klan became most violent when its utility as an instrument of southern “justice” was finished.

Most of the available signs suggest that religion will not succumb to creeping irrelevance in the next six months. Religions become violent and aggressive as they struggle for breath. The substitution of emotion and blind, often illiterate, faith in support of threadbare dogmatic assertions is part of this struggle. So is an unwillingness to accept any alternative consensus to replace the old religious one.

Atheism symbolizes not just unbelief in God but the nature of that alternative consensus. That is why atheism is especially opprobrious to belief in an a era when most questions are settled by science and investigation.

Yet even without the security of dogma, religions usually provide for the emotional needs of their adherents in ways that science does not. They have had centuries, for example, to convince people that the miseries endured in this life are simply a preparation for a better one to come. A purposeless world acquires meaning as a “testing ground” for initiation into future glory. There is no art of consolation for the atheist, just the world as it is. Granny may have lost the power of speech after her third stroke, but she knows there is a wolf behind the door: religion knows this instinctively.

Being an atheist may be a bit lonely, but better “Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” (And Socrates was courageous, too.)

3. Atheists are more imaginative than most people. Religious people obviously have imagination too, but so much of their imaginative world is provided for them in myth, art, ritual and architectural space. Atheists know that the world we live in is dominated by religion: spires, minarets, ceremonial prayers, political rhetoric and posturing, ethical discussion. I am not convinced (alas) that atheists are “brighter” than anyone else, but they have to imagine ungiven alternatives and worlds of thought that have not been handed to them by tradition and custom.

Imagination however is that two-way street between vision and delusion. The given myths and symbols of a culture are imposed, not arrived at or deduced, and if not imposed then “imparted” by traditions. Jung was wrong.

Collective Unconscious?

Skeptics and unbelievers from Shelley and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) to Richard Feynman, John Ellis, Ljon Tichy and Einstein in the sciences, Sir Michael Tippet, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch in music, Bukoswki, Camus, Somerset Maugham, Joyce Carol Oates, Vonnegut in literature, have been imaginers, iconoclasts, rule-breakers, mental adventurers.

Far too often, unfortunately, atheists are the worst advocates for imagination.

They rather nervously limit their interest to the scientific imagination. They don’t see a connection between Monod and Camus. They consider their unbelief a “scientific” and “rational” position, not an imaginative one. When confronted with photographs of the Taj Mahal or recordings of Bach’s B-minor Mass, they point to shots from the Hubble telescope or (my personal favorite) soundtracks of earth auroral kilometric radiation.

Instead of owning the arts, they play the part of intellectual bullies who think poetry is for mental sissies.

Joyce Carol Oates

I have come to the conclusion that this is because they equate the imagination with the imaginary and the imaginary with the supernatural. The imagination produced religion, of course, hence the gods, but that does not mean that it is governed by religion, because if it were we never would have got round to science. The poet Charles Bukowski summed it up nicely in a 1988 interview: “For those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

4. Atheism is an ethical position. That does not make being an atheist a “moral” stance, but it does raise a question about whether it is possible to be good with God. Only an individual free from the commandments of religion and the threat of heaven and hell deserves credit (or blame) for his decisions, actions, and omissions. Atheists are required to assume that responsibility fully. Religious people are not.

This is why anyone who teaches his children that the story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament is a “moral fable” is just as bad as the fundamentalist who teaches it as history. What would you say about a brutish dog-owner who told his naturally stupid dog to piss anywhere but in the flower garden, then hied him to a shelter the minute he did what he couldn’t help doing to begin with? That is the story of Adam, without the benefit of two millennia of theology to disguise its simplest elements.

Bad Dog

Modern Christian theology has attempted to emphasize the love, mercy and compassion of this God: he is a God of second chances–redemption–after all.

But mainly the Christian message is little more than an attempt to rehabilitate God under the guise of teaching that it’s the humans who needed rehabilitating. They had to be given one more chance at the flowers in order to to show that God, after his initial temper tantrum, is really full of kindness and patience. That’s basically what the “New” Testament tries to do, after all, though in a highly problematical way.

At a basic level, an atheist is likely to detect that there is no ethical content to the stories of religion. The prototypes are Adam, the disobedient, Job, the sufferer, Noah, the obedient, and Abraham, the faithful.

But these figures are not ethical paragons. They are examples of the types of behavior religion requires. Religion evokes “good” in the “good dog” sense of the word–as a characteristic of obedience, not as an outcome of choice. That is not the kind of good any rational being would aspire to–and one of the reasons certain interpreters, like Augustine, thought that what was squandered in Eden was reason. But ethics is about reflection, discrimination, freedom, and decision. Religion, strictly and fairly speaking, does not provide for that; only unbelief does. If Augustine had understood things properly, he would have spit in God’s eye and said that Adam’s only rational choice was to do what he did, affirm who and what he was, and get on with his life without Yahweh. Instead, he creeps out of the garden, takes his punishment like a beaten spaniel, and lives in the hope that his master will throw him the occasional bone.

The expulsion from Eden

To the extent that modern liberal theologies try to say that religions have endorsed a policy of choice and reflection all along, the rebuttal is history.

5. Atheists are socially tolerant. By this, I mean that they do not have a history of violence against beliefs and practices they may privately abhor. They do not burn down churches, black or white. No matter how ardent their unbelief, they do not bomb mosques or blow themselves up at Sunday Mass to reduce the number of Catholics in the world. They are not responsible for the Arab-Israeli border wars. They have not created tens of thousands of displaced people in resettlement camps in Lebanon or torn whole African nations apart. In general, they do not mistake adventurism for preemptive wars.

They may support separation of church and state in sometimes strident ways, but not violent ways: you will not see gangs of secularists tearing down nativity scenes at Christmas or storming historic court houses to get icons of the ten commandments removed from public view. –Even if they think these public displays of devotion are inappropriate and teach people bad habits.

All of these things are pretty obvious, even to believers whose gurus talk incessantly about the secular humanist and atheist “threat” without ever being able (successfully) to put a face on it. But they need to be recorded because religious people often assume that tolerance can only be practised within a religious or inter-religious context, Catholic to Baptist, Christian to Jew and Muslim. But atheism stands outside this circle.

Atheism, as atheism, stands as the rejection of all religious beliefs: it is befuddling to believers how such a position deserves tolerating at all. If there has to be an enemy–something a majority can identify as uniformly despicable–atheism has to be it. That is why hoi polloi in the darkest days of the communist threat, especially those who had no idea what the social and economic program of the Soviet Union was, considered the worst sin of the “Reds” in Russia, China, and Europe their disbelief in God.

As with goodness, tolerance needs to be exhibited non-coercively. Not because Jesus said “Love your enemies,” or because Muhammad preached sparing unbelievers, provided they capitulated to Islam. Not even because John Paul II apologized to Galileo in absentia. What supports the suggestion that atheists are tolerant (and need to continue to be seen as being tolerant) is that the virtue of tolerance emerges naturally from the rational premises of unbelief. What atheism says is that intellectual assent is won by argument and evidence, not by force of arms or the power of priests and mullahs.

While atheists will never experience mass conversions to their cause “like a mighty wind” after a speech by a pentecostal preacher, the individual changes of mind from belief to skepticism will depend as much on the tone as on the substance of their message. By the same token, what atheist would trust the unbelieving equivalent of a spiritual awakening? It doesn’t happen that way. It happens one by one. Slowly. Just ask an atheist about how he “became” an unbeliever, and I wager that you will hear a life story, or something about how things just didn’t add up–a process, not a sudden emotional shudder but often a painful change of heart and (especially) mind.

Is Religion Good?

The Library at Alexandria: Hours, M-Th 9 am - 4 pm

You can vote on the question today at the Center for Inquiry website. That’s right, the people who offered you Blasphemy day and the Cartoon Cavalcade and the Campaign for Free Expression now want you to “take” a quiz! It’s simple: don’t do any research. Go with your gut:

On balance, is religion beneficial for humanity?

* Yes, definitely.
* Yes, probably.
* Probably not.
* Definitely not.
* Don’t know/can’t answer

I avoid such surveys because like this one they are usually loaded dice, like the ones we will be treated to by CNN or MSNBC this week asking whether we think Christine O’Donnell is a good witch or a bad witch.

Christine O'Donnell

They create the illusion that Big Media care about what you think, when they don’t, or that you have something interesting to contribute to a controversial topic, when you haven’t.

As I read this little MCQ I recollected (or perhaps in Lockean terms “I associated it from”) my eleventh grade classroom, when a nun asked, sniffing the air, “Who farted?” There is something very funny about hearing a heavily habited woman say “fart.” So funny that six of us wanted to take credit. And there is something even funnier about six people wanting recognition for one small event, five eager boys and one dishonest girl flapping their hands just to be told to find a toilet.

It doesn’t matter a fart however whether you think religion is beneficial to humanity or not. It is like asking if Houyhnhnms are beneficial to Yahoos.

“Religion” (to use a term that has become categorical for superstition and stupidity in the CFI lexicon) and humanity are joined like horse and carriage. Beneficial, therefore, to the extent that you want to be driven forward in history

Can't have one without the other....

Most people would want to begin by saying that religions gave us, directly or indirectly, primitive science.

But that isn’t the only criterion for benefit: Whether we are talking about Sumer, Mohenjo Daro or the ancient Babylonians or Aztecs, early astronomy, calendars, mathematical notation, literacy in the form of liturgy and prayers, and myths–religion is there.

Mohenjo Daro, Sindh (Pakistan) 2600BCE

Religion gave us the primitive (“priestly”) elites that shaped and modified scrawls and pictures into more familiar writing systems. In the west, through the Scholae monasticae at Padua, Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, religious life was responsible for the first universities and the very development of what we now call scholarship: systematic study of individual subjects. Learning. From writing we developed a copyist tradition; that is how learning in all fields was mediated. It is true that monks prayed a lot. But it is also true that they copied everything. That is why we have it.

The forerunners of what would become the sciences, the arts, philosophy, serious astronomy, letters and music are grounded in ideas of mystery and dignity that came from religion and were mediated by its institutions–not by hermit atheists in the hills above Rome just waiting for their chance to be heard. We all moan (and should) at Galileo’s fate, but almost never recall his conviction that his “instrument” would be useful for biblical interpretation.

And it isn’t just the early and medieval west where religion was hitched to learning. In pre-Islamic India, Vedic culture raised the idea of reading and teaching to the highest rank among the Brahmins. Islamic culture took leaps ahead when it encountered their mathematics, art, political organization and architecture, beginning in the eighth century CE.

In the Islamic world, the original idea of the madrasah was similar: al Azhar (10th century), al-Qayrawan and Timbuktu produced seats of learning, where the idea of religious duty propelled the learning of secular subjects like botany, biology and medicine, not to mention technical subjects like engineering and hydraulics. The Qayrawan mosque held the most complete collection of treatises on botany in the ancient world–in four different languages.

In a positive way, religion fueled the renaissance with amazing works of psychology and devotion–Pico’s Oration, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hobbes’sLeviathan, More’s Utopia. Bacon wrote his Novum Organum, on scientific method, in 1620. Erasmus had published the first critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516. Both were made possible because the century prior to Erasmus, printing had become available throughout most of Europe. Newspapers, broadsides and Bibles were everywhere, on street-corners and in parish churches by 1611; but most people who wanted to know how to read learned to read the Bible. That is what German peasants and American slaves have in common.

Page from Gutenberg Bible, 1455

In a negative way, the creation of the printing press fueled the most important theological debates of the Reformation. At the long side of those debates, and also because of a pressing religious dilemma, a small edifice to learning was founded on the eastern shores of New England in 1636:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust. And as we were thinking and consulting how to effect this great work, it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. Harvard (a godly gentleman and a lover of learning, there living among us) to give the one-half of his estate (it being in all about £ 1,700) toward the erecting of a college, and all his library. After him, another gave £ 300; others after them cast in more; and the public hand of the state added the rest. The college was, by common consent, appointed to be at Cambridge (a place very pleasant and accommodate) and is called (according to the name of the first founder) Harvard College.

To be honest, I am flummoxed that any organization that thinks it has anything serious or interesting to say about religion or secularism can be so persistently ignorant, so unashamedly dumb about details. Is there a model of historical development that has been kept from us? One in which religion plays no “beneficial” role? Has the Spirit of Light been imprisoned by the forces of faith ere these many centuries?

Alas, that last question is not entirely facetious. A lot of atheists follow a strange line of historical progress:

Ancient stuff, whatever
Plato and Aristotle (secular humanists)
The Dark Ages (Library of Alexandria destroyed by drunken monks)
The Crusades (jury out: kept Muslims in their place)
The Inquisition (bloody horrible intolerant religion at work)
The Renaissance (not bad, but too much religious art)
The Reformation (the what?)
The Enlightenment (prisoners of conscience set free; America founded)
Darwin (messianic age begins)
Everything later,
Except 9/11 (more bloody horrible religion at work)

And, no, the library at Alexandria was not destroyed by drunken monks. You have three choices: (a) Julius Caesar in 48BC, who underestimated what the burning of the Egyptian fleet would mean to buildings close to the harbour of Alexandria; (b) the Christian bishop Theophilus, in the process of Christianizing a pagan temple to Serapis (the popular story told by Gibbon and ever after by everybody else); or (c) the Muslim caliph Omar in 640CE. Omar allegedly was provoked to to this when he said, “These [books at Alexandria] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, whereby they are superfluous.” It comes as no surprise that the source of this information is the thoroughly despicable Christian bishop, Gregory bar Hebraeus, who spent most of his idle time making up nasty stories about Muslims.

It is not often you get a choice of religions to blame for the destruction of all the world’s learning, which, by the way, Alexandria certainly wasn’t.

My strong recommendation is that this be the topic of CFI’s next pop quiz:

Who do you think burned the Library at Alexandria? The only rule is, don’t consult any sources. Go with your gut.

Pater Noster: The Very Ordinary of the Mass

In the spirit of liturgical upgrade, I offer the Dad Prayer (“Hey Dad”) to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the adjournment of Vatican II (December 8, 1965).

Hey Dad!

You’re there and I’m here.
It seems to turn out this way,
I guess,
You being so far away,
and me so, well,

I love you dad.
I think you’re the greatest
Dad ever.
Wish you’d come home.
Because I’ve only heard the stories,
And I wish you were

For one thing,
we can’t afford groceries,
Not even bread.
We owe everybody money.
The phone rings all the time,
Those 800-PayMe numbers
But we’ll be ok
for a day or two.

Mom jokes that
she could do tricks
And I could hustle, brick mainly,
But Mom says No,
your father wouldn’t approve
If he were

What can anyone say about the Council that Tom Lehrer didn’t say then? Its effects now extend from liturgical catastrophe, membership drift, doctrinal torpor, the end of ecumenism, to, metaphorically speaking “Belgium.” If it’s Tuesday, it must be pedophilia.

Occasionally the Vatican tries to get real again about the question of renewal, as it (hilariously but inadvertently) did in 2008 when it decided to “modernize” the Seven Deadly Sins. A few years earlier, the no doubt ill-advised John Paul II, proving the Church did not sit still, had added a few mysteries to the Rosary–perhaps the most numbing devotion ever created in the name of religion–and pasted a superfluous “fifteenth station” to the stations of the cross thereby corrupting the drama of the whole exercise. (I don’t like devotions mind you, but I like my metaphors unmixed and tragic endings unmachinated).

Old Mass

The “New Deadlies” were flat and pedestrian, fixed in the greasy nebula between things no one can disagree are “evil” (like poverty) and things that many people think are beneficial–like genetic research: To jog your memory:

1. genetic modification

2. carrying out experiments on humans

3. polluting the environment

4. causing social injustice

5. causing poverty

6. becoming obscenely wealthy

7. taking drugs

So far, no Dante has arisen to do them justice.

These were then followed by a forgettable (bet you already have) list of “Driver’s Commandments” of which the top five were:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

Never mind the lack of parallelism, the change of what grammarians call “voice,” and the fact that the “commandments” sound as though they were pulled from a fortune cookie. The real question is what level of authority this putrid prose is claiming–since it looks, for all the world, like the nakkie-doodles of Dominican nuns at coffee rather than an amendment to the Sinai code. Presumably, Moses could not fire his writer, but the pope could have sacked this one.

One of the reasons I quit the Church was because its custodians had lost all sense of beauty and what used to be called the lex orandi–the parallelism between what was prayed (as in the Latin mass, which language was Latin because it conveyed, it was thought, the timelessness of its object) and what was believed (lex credendi). The expression could be summarized just as easily by saying, If you believe what you say, say it as well as you can.

My theological crisis was real enough as an intellectual event, but was driven by yawpish liturgy, priests in a hurry to get to lunch, infantalized nuns who grew into postmenopausal monsters, catechism quizzes over meaningless propositions, and doctrinal lassitude enforced by officiants who were (as we now know) seeking other outlets for their spiritual energy. Of course they preyed on the young. What did an altar boy know? His spiritual dissolution and religious disappointment was years away–an appetizing certainty for a randy man in a cassock who’d already concluded his life is a masquerade.

The life of a bad priest is a life lived in the hypocrisy of unacknowledged gracelessness disguised under starched surplices. But this not-being-what-you-seem, we learned as kids, is how the devil behaved. Real evil comes as an angel of light. The specifics of the problem, even its extent,were not surprising: the symbolism was profound and somehow natural.

We are now being told by the crisis managers that measures are afoot to repay, pay and atone for the “moral transgressions,” though the matter of the suicides in Belgium is harder to put right (and transgression is such a paltry word for rape, isn’t it?).

But the Church seems determined to squander the whole treasury and the remaining good will before it says goodbye. It does this in the deflective way religions have of pointing to the church as a river of truth, a pure and certain stream that a few sick souls have polluted over the years. Implicitly they raise the question of why the whole river isn’t streaming sewage, and expect the answer, Because the source is basically good, and it is a magic river–it has the means to purify itself.

The image goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when the heretics were the offenders and it was their pissing in the stream the bishops worried about. They invented “orthodoxy” (theological truth) as their standard of purity, and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church as the means of purification. This theological conceit–the essential purity of Holy Mother Church–makes it possible for bishops to talk about child abuse and advocates for women priests and contraception in the same document, as though the issues were simply different streams of pollution. It makes the Church itself the victim of impurity, not its source and thereby locates the problem outside the institution–an ogre that afflicts men (and women) as men, not because they are priests.

And maybe that is how it has to be: The Church will end a victim of bad ideas and bad expression, the mansion emptied of all goods and chattel, including plumbing, before the estate can be settled against an age that considers its moral witness hypocritical, its ethical positions medieval, and its liturgical compensations ludicrous and ugly.

An institution that has preached itself as the solution to the Fall should be the first to know about its contaminating effects–that’s what original sin was supposed to be all about. Instead, it seems to want to perpetuate its errors in re-worded doctrines, parsed definitions, and liturgy that instead of soaring skits shakily along the ground like a wounded bird.

When the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley reviewed the aesthetic effects of the Second Vatican Council in 1970, he decreed that a proof of God’s goodness is that he would be in his casket the next time he set foot inside the Latin-starved Catholic Church of Sharon, Connecticut. To bide the time he spied out (what were then) traditional Latin parishes in hard to find places. He dithered with the title of a never-quite-published book, Why I am a Catholic after deciding Why I am Still a Catholic was a bit too aggressive. There were a few attempts at resistance early on–Garry Wills Bare Ruined Choirs (1974) and Thomas Day’s (superb, under-read) Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1992), which targeted “church-wide narcissism [as] a serious threat to individuals as well as to the institution.” It was Garry Wills, in 2003 who finally wrote Why I am a Catholic, which after reading raises the question all over again.

Some people have said that the great tragedy of Church renewal, especially liturgical renewal at the time of Vatican II–was that it was done by committees, translated by accountants, implemented by guitar-stroking seminarians at Maryknoll and Weston, and passed off as authentic to a generation of illiterati before anyone knew the harm was done. There was no Cranmer, as there had been for the Anglicans. No Luther, as there had been for the Germans. There was a Babel of languages, not only one to do justice to. These were the seventies, man. Lift up your hearts. And up yours, too.

A Church that used to talk about its musical treasures, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina to Mozart, now had to admit that they had been packed in trunks and sent to the crypt until further notice.

There were no poets or great prosodists. In fact, the underlying and horrific assumption of the most radical reformers was that the age of poetry had passed and that the future of the Church was in paraphrase and simplification. Vatican II would produce no Boethius, no Aquinas (not a bad poet), nor any Dante to bring the two together in an poetic liaison. “Catholic” poetry after V-II got us the Berrigans with trenchant feel like this

So I pray, under
the sign of the world’s murder, the ruined son;
why are you silent?
feverish as lions
hear us in the world,
caged, devoid of hope

At the risk of diagnosing what went wrong, it is that when Vatican II happened the issue was really no longer “renewal” anyway. It was belief. What was not fully grasped, at least not very vocally, was the “reality of distance”: that the translation of tenth- century ideas into sixteenth-century language at the Council of Trent was a piece of sponge cake compared to translating tenth-century beliefs into a twentieth century dominated by sex, drugs and rock and roll. The new project was seen to be re-wording faith for an age of skepticism, relativism, and doubt, but doubt is hard to paraphrase and the lexicon had not yet been developed. It still hasn’t. The era of soft truth had arrived.

It was the notion, held by some of the younger theologians and consultants, that if you squeezed the core ideas out of their old clothes, tarted them up a bit, made the people talk out loud instead of “following” the mass in their prayer books, and teach them a few tuneful protestant hymns, the pews would be bursting with new and returning mass-goers. It didn’t happen.

JFK funeral mass 1963

When John Kennedy died in 1963, his Latin Requiem Mass televised nationally to a curious country, pews were full all across America. When Robert Kennedy died in 1968, his funeral mass was conducted almost entirely in English, and the pews across America were emptying out. No one was singing. (Just like today). Perhaps it’s a tribute to the natural stoicism of Catholics–the folks that gave us purgatory because earthly pain isn’t enough–that they have tolerated the New Order of Mass while refusing to conform to its demand that they actively participate in it.

The revisers and reformers were silly enough to think that by playing with words and gestures, by letting Catholics hold hands at the Our Father, by scrapping Latin (“Let the angels have it,” I remember a youngish priest saying to me one day when I lamented its passing out loud), and getting a pop-rainbow of sexes and colours around a squared altar table–belief would follow.

Where's Father Waldo?

All would be renewed. (Hands up all you Catholics who remember the “Renew” banners rustling in the April breeze when Catholics went briefly charismatic in the 1980’s? “The vibrant singing,” the brochure said, “radical surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all parts of life, a strong adherence to the Gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the pursuit of strong friendships centered on Christ.”

I was startled recently to hear a younger (and still-observant) friend of mine, when I mentioned the “old church,” begin to describe how great she had felt at the Renew meetings of her teenage years: For her, that is the “old church.” Post-Vatican II experimentation is now Catholic nostalgia. Totally, I said, so as not to appear out of touch with developments of only twenty-five years ago.

The post-ecumenical saga of post-Vatican II Catholicism is a sad story of other denominations, less encumbered by tradition and canon law, rushing across the apses to embrace each other, smooth over theological differences, change polity, admit women and gays to their ordained ranks, while Catholicism remains stuck using the already dated references from 1963 to “our separated brethren” and excoriating changes in doctrine and ministry as things Jesus wouldn’t have wanted.

The mainline liberal protestant churches that had presented the best opportunity for dialogue in 1969 were blending with the one philosophy that Catholicism could not bargain with: secularism and humanism. Rebuffed as a crooked dealer, when the Church turned to find other dance partners, there were (of all people) the evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the charismatics: theologically unformed, liturgically and often personally offensive, but morally as fixed in place as the rock of ages. This was Catholicism at its weakest and most pleading and it is no accident that the moral-political alliance on questions like abortion, genetic research and divorce was forged between these theologically hostile groups after it became clear that the liberal among the separated brethren wanted nothing to do with Rome.

[Part One of III]

“Greatest Theologian Since Aquinas”: Pope on Hawking

September 7th proclaimed Feast Day; new book added to Bible

At a private conclave with key members of the Curia, Pope Benedict XVI praised the recent announcement by Professor Stephen Hawking that “God was not needed for the creation of the universe.” The conclusions are outlined in Hawking’s recently published book, The Grand Design


Speaking in Italian, the pontiff announced that the full theological implications of Hawking’s judgement were still being reviewed, “But our first impression is that Professor Hawking continues in the tradition of his famous Cambridge predecessors, the Nominalists.”

Head of the Vatican Observatory, Father José Gabriel Funes, also praised Hawking’s discovery. “The early theologians spoke in a manner appropriate for their time,” He said,”but Professor Hawking has actually given a name to what—in traditional language—we have been calling God: Gravity. This now helps us solve the problems of universals and particulars that stretched from Plato to Roscellinus. What Professor Hawking has revealed (if that is not too strong a word) is that universals do exist and that we call these the laws of physics.”

There was no immediate response from senior protestant theologians on Hawking’s statement. The Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelical preacher Billy Graham, claimed never to have heard of Hawking or Roscellinus. “I’ll have our staffers look into it,” Graham is reported to have said.

Universals, only guessed at before

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, reached for comment in his London office, said “Of course the Jews have known this for along time, the name-thing I mean, but we weren’t supposed to tell.”

“We have puzzled for centuries over why there is something rather than nothing,” Father Funes continued. “Now thanks to Professor Hawking, we know. Why am I not surprised that we’ve been standing on it all this time? That’s how God operates. Whether you say God is good or Gravity is good amounts to the same thing. Keeps things from flying off in all directions. And I include morality in that”

In London, Lord Sacks agreed, “Funny: I just preached a sermon called “G-d doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time.”

Asked whether the discovery would have any impact on Catholic faith or teaching the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Faith, Bishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer said “I can’t imagine why it should. We may have to tweak a few translations, but key beliefs like “He came down from heaven,” or the Ascension will remain virtually untouched. We are also appointing a commission to investigate the relevance of Professor Hawking’s finding for doctrines such as the virgin birth and the salvation of mankind. These are small matters compared to the fact that we now know what God is,” he said.

Islamic reaction was cautious. Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i, Iran’s grand ayatollah, speaking through an interpreter, speculated that الجاذبية (gravity) might be an additional name of God, raising the traditional number of 99 to an even 100. “In this case. his revelation in falling buildings on September 11, 2001 was especially significant.” Khameni’s views were immediately rejected by Muslims around the world as “unrepresentative of what Muslims really think.”

In Rome, the pope ended the conclave with an announcement that Professor Hawking would receive the Vatican’s highest honor, “Doctor of the Church” a distinction normally reserved for saints, and that his book, The Grand Design, would be incorporated as the first book of a revised Bible, just ahead of Genesis.

In a final tribute, the Conclave agreed unanimously that September 7th, the official date of the book’s release, would be instituted as “The Feast of Holy Gravity” to commemorate the discovery of God’s name. “It places it nicely within proximity to a number of feasts where Gravity is commemorated, notably the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15,” Father Funes said.

Arrest This Man

And his little Dove, too. With predictable ghoulish clarity, the American media is goading the Reverend Terry Jones to follow through with his Koran bonfire on September 11th, while politicians (both kinds) and religious leaders of all stripes are urging him not to do it.

Of course, there is no story if he doesn’t do it–and media hate that. And if it’s called off he will be called a coward for capitulating to the “supporters” of a religion he has t-shirted as “of the Devil.” Jones has stated that if Jesus was alive he would light the first match. And he has said, as all cultic leaders do, that a gunfight with the police wouldn’t faze him and his followers: “We’re prepared to die for what we believe in.” Echoes of another Jones, another catastrophe.

Mr Jones is all the usual cultic suspects rolled into one. He is a gay-basher, a hate-monger, and a crusader for the old time religious value of intolerance.

He founded the Dove World Outreach Center as a front for his hate-inducing sermons and grandstanding.

He is a Christian Triumphalist with a clear millennial vision, which he saw previewed on Septmber 11, 2001: the first fiery signs that the Antichrist was entering the world. He considers the pastors and priests organizing “prayer” and loaves of bread protests around him “lily livered Christians” for failing to stand up to the the threat of Islam. –Although it is not clear why, if Islam betokens the end-time, Mr Jones would want to oppose it: in his theology anyway, it’s the last act in a very big plan wrought by God himself.

And what do Gainesville officials do? Besides praying and dissuading, they have denied Mr Jones a burn permit. Perhaps the next recourse might have been for him to order a hundred porta-potties to the parking lot of the Church?

But no, Jones says the burning will go ahead as planned. There’s something, as every Klansman knows, about a fire.

Meanwhile, we are all missing the point and the President of the United States is missing an opportunity. The same president who personally intervened in a squabble between a fumbling Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop when the former locked himself out of his house is staying away from this one.

Despite the fact that the country is in wars with Muslims all over ther world, both hot and cold, and that the burning of Korans is likely to be seen as the most vicious symbolic attack on the Islamic faith since Urban II called the First Crusade.

There will be riots, there will be murders and bombings, there will be dead Americans and others. All because one undereducated self-ordained cowpoke took refuge in the First Amendment’s free expression clause.

Loaves of bread, prayer marches and picket signs–“good religion” vigorously expressed–are not going to have an effect on this donkey of a man so deeply out of touch with modern religion that he may as well be Osama bin Laden’s cavemate.

Mr President: You are a lawyer. You know the Constitution. You know the difference between hate speech and incitement. You know the line is thin, but that once it is crossed the damage cannot be undone.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. During my time in Pakistan, in 2009, the mere rumour that some Christians had “desecrated” pages of the Koran led to disaster.

Four women, a man and a child died as Muslim militants set fire to Christian houses in the town of Gojra. Two men died later of gunshot wounds. Houses were burned and streets strewn with debris as people fired at each other from rooftops. There were bloody riots throughout the country. Then it was “revealed” that the rumours which led to the unrest were false and probably started by some children.

But Mr Jones is real. He will use real matches and real (if doubtless inexpensive) copies of the Koran. This very dangerous man has publically announced his intention to flout the law and to cause riots, even gunfights. He has already cried fire–real fire–in the crowded theater of global religious tension.

Mr President: Arrest this man. Do not turn this discussion over to political theorists, Constitutional talking-heads and interfaith tweeps.

If the dignity of Henry Louis Gates was important to you and the chance to be seen defusing a “racial situation,” this is infinitely greater and a thousand times potentially more harmful.

Arrest him without delay. Deploy the National Guard. Surround the Church. Be seen to be doing something courageous in this instance.

Your top general, not known for emotionalism, has already announced the consequences on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. But it will spread–you should pardon the expresion–like wildfire. You will have let it happen.

You will be criticized, but your critics won’t prevail in this argument: you are trying to prevent loss of life. You are not trying to save Korans.

If you do not arrest this man, Christians in Pakistan, Lebanon, and corners of the Islamic world will be in jeopardy. Some will be killed; churches will be torched.

If you do not do this, American-Muslim relations, already lying in the dust will suffer an unimaginable blow. And Muslim Americans will consider you weak and treacherous.

Please, Mr President: show us this man in handcuffs and a U.S. marshall doing his sworn duty before Saturday.

Thank you.

Should Atheism be Studied?

“Atheism is rather in the lip, than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it, within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened, by the consent of others….” (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626)

That is not a trick question. Atheism to have any intellectual standing in the world must be studied, like any other subject.

The stumbling block for doing this, most atheists will allege, are those pesky Christians whose pet cause is getting religion (or approved religion-substitutes, like “moments of quiet reflection” or post-school-day Bible study), back into the schools.

But that’s half the picture. The biggest obstacle to atheism being taught is that atheists have not claimed their subject matter, defined it adequately, or put it forward as anything other than being “not religion.”

It is difficult to teach “not”-subjects. Not-physics could be English, rollerblading or chiropractic services. It could be anything, as long as it’s not Physics. Defining a thing by its not-ness is not very helpful.

That is why the tired taunt against the unbeliever has been and still is, “So, what do you believe in then?” Stammer, cough.

Part of the issue is that atheists are too much foxhound and too little fox. They know when religious folk are trying to sneak religion into a conversation or a curriculum, under the guise of creation science or moral and spiritual development. But their lawsuits, protests, and cries of foul play and Unconstitutionality (whatever that hackneyed phrase may yet mean in this wretched age) seem as hollow as St. Peter’s dome. I mean the basilica.

But at least the Righteous majority, in America anyway, know exactly what they would like to see: stories about prophets and patriarchs, miracles and manna in the desert, Jesus speaking parables to the multitudes, and just a tiny, condescending nod to the millions of people who aren’t Christian yet but who have some interesting if basically wrong ideas–and (perhaps too much to hope) a nice nonsectarian prayer that ends, “In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.”

There is content there, even if the Constitution forbids its propagation as “learning.” And there is history. The religious rightists can also point to an imaginary golden age when Protestant America had no notions or plans to change its essentially doctrinal view of abortion, homosexuality, gender roles and the virtue of private wealth. So what if Johnny couldn’t read? At least he could pray and knew how to wash behind his unpierced heterosexual ears.

Nothing is more clear to the straight-thinking religious majority than that the obstruction of religion by people who don’t read the Bible leads to confusion, and confusion leads to–well, Barack Obama and terrorism.

It is true, of course, that the infinite jest of the religious right is enough to keep any self-respecting unbeliever busy with taunts, jabs, and protests.

In my view, that’s about all atheists have managed to do in the last hundred years.

That is because atheists have grown intellectually fat and lazy, enamored of the quaintness and minority rectitude of their opinion, careless about their targets and goals, gibberishical about their “values” and ideas, many of which are indistinguishable from anybody else’s liberal ideas. Except, perhaps the God part–the not-part.

In fact, the whole faith-versus-unbelief debate is askew.

The righteous and the right-minded have chosen to draw their battle-line on the map of myth. Yet both sides know that the trigger-question is not whether Genesis is “true” but whether the possibility of a being like God is true. The believer, if he is a profound Christian, says simply yes, because the story is true, it being validated by the power and authority whose story it is. This is not the time to drag out a logic primer or a copy of The God Delusion. Quantum physics? Forget about it.

It is time to be foxier than that. If the answer is yes, because the story says so, then the job of education (something atheists claim to care about) is to examine stories about gods. Not just the one in Genesis–all the stories.

And the job of education, and the goal of knowledge, is to find a real method–historical, scientific, critical, the same kind we use in other subjects–for sorting out true stories and false stories. In other words, Genesis can only be “true” to the extent it is certifiably different from, say, this:

Upon that desire arose in the beginning. This was the first discharge of thought. Sages discovered this link of the existent to the nonexistent, having searched in the heart with wisdom.

Their line [of vision] was extended across; what was below, what was above? There were impregnators, there were powers: inherent power below, impulses above.

Who knows truly? Who here will declare whence it arose, whence this creation? The gods are subsequent to the creation of this. Who, then, knows whence it has come into being? (R’g Veda, ca. 2100BCE)

And since difference, on its own, is no hallmark of truth (think of a Rembrandt oil and a copy of a Rembrandt oil), there must be other methods for finding out what the real story is, and which story, if either, has a foundation in reality–reality as non-delusional people understand the term.

The story of God in Genesis is no more a proof of the existence of God than the existence of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter saga is proof of the existence of a master-wizard headmaster.

That is what people who study religion learn to do in classes in anthropology, history, linguistics, archaeology. They look at stories, and rocks, and language trees and other stuff; they sort things out. They know that the Rig Veda is older than the oldest bits of the Hebrew Bible.

They know that written Hebrew wasn’t around in second millennium BCE, though its ancestor-languages, like Canaanite dialects, and ancestor gods to YHWH (the one who set himself apart from his brother gods by making the cosmos in six days) were.

Early God: Yahweh on his chariot

So if we ignore the method-issue by continuing to debate questions of no real importance as though there were no real answers, or none the Constitution will permit us to pursue, we are enduring the ignorance not just of the kids in the classroom but of the teachers, the parents, and school-boards like Dover.

We are enshrining mystery when there is no mystery. We are saying “Who could possibly know something like that?” when there are plenty of people who know precisely what’s what.

We are endorsing the opinion that a lot of learning is a dangerous thing. Americans, among the tribes of the earth, excel in that view, and atheists should be doing what they can to combat it.

Atheists should not be patting themselves on the back for discovering that creation science isn’t real science. That’s a bit like discovering the two men inside the horse-costume. They should be ashamed for not insisting that there are better ways of approaching questions they consider critical.

Creation Science


If it is part of atheist wisdom that God does not exist, then this wisdom has to be included–reflected–in the school curriculum in specific ways, not subordinated to a subset of mainly trivial issues–and by the way, in a way that also trivializes imagination and its offspring, mythology and art.

If atheists are going to help to fight this battle, they need to acquire what Mathew Arnold described as “culture” themselves. I travel in tiny circles, but many of the atheists I encounter got no chat when it comes to many of the things that count for culture–art, music, history–alas, even ideas other than new techniques for life-prolongation. They are simply boring. They are one string harps.

If the pious know what they want–school prayer for instance–what should an atheist want that can be taught?

For one thing, atheists should insist on courses in moral development. In the UK, where the idea of church-state separation isn’t quite as sharp-edged as in the Great Republic, classes in “spiritual and physical development” are usual, though the phrase really just means “moral” and physical education–important add-ons to intellectual formation through the standard lens of liberal learning.

Atheists should insist on ethics- or values-education. They should be fighting battles for good textbooks on the subject, texts that do more than offer an unsuspecting sixth- grader the most uninspiring precis of lives lived and thoughts thought– “Plato was an Athenian philosopher of the fifth century bce who is famous for his idea of the ‘forms’. He was also the teacher of fourth-century thinker, Aristotle who was famous for something else….”

Atheists (I stress) need to be interested in the history and development of culture, not just the assumed predominance of science. Culture and science are not the same thing, but they share a story.

But we live in an era and, in the United States especially, a society that encourages disjunction and dumbness. We have one standard of knowledge for the schools, another for our universities. And unlike Plato, we do not expect the higher pattern to be reflected in the lower.

How odd. We don’t learn to play violin or piano by teaching one set of scales and fingering techniques to seven year olds and a different set to students at seventeen. We insist on parallelism–the analogy–between one experience and the other because we know that real progress is only possible because the course (“Curriculum” in Latin) is also a path from the relatively simple to the relatively complex.

Only in American education can the schools get by with the enormous disconnect between the way in which knowledge is encountered and distributed in the schools and the way it is disseminated in even a mediocre university. And unfortunately, it is because of America’s generally low esteem for the humanities that this ignorance of method can thrive.

And where are the atheists? Fighting yesterday’s wars. Ranged against the Lord God of Hosts on the fields of Canaan. Doing everything possible to make their contribution unacceptable and suspect.

Atheists need to get behind an effort to get Wrong out of the schools–not just God and the Bible. If they claim knowledge is on their side, they need to be more actively involved in the way the knowledge business is run.

Unbelief as unbelief has no more business being taught than Unphysics.

But the body of accumulated wisdom–in ethics, the arts, the sciences and literature–is enormous, and much of it is by skeptics, humanists (in the post-renaissance sense) and atheists. Another lot is by “questioners” like Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus, without whose inquiring intellects the Enlightenment could not have happened.

But where are the bibliographies, the suggestions, the lists, the lobbyists who are willing to challenge the Christocentric and still dominant view that culture’s greatest achievements were carved out in stone and marble and glass?

The distinctive thing about atheism is that it is intellectual architecture, the life of the mind in crisis and question. Not some self-satisfied conclusion growing warts over time. Cathedrals are no proof that their builders were right, and atheists have never built cathedrals.

Its themes can be traced as well, and they are there from the time of the Rig Veda, through the time of “Job,” through the time of William Langland, Bacon (“a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism,”) and the first stirrings against church doctrine, superstition and clerical abuse in the Reformation. Please: spare me the totally ignorant point that Luther and Spinoza were not “atheists.”

The atheist role is to insist that knowledge is not a grand and beautiful tapestry but the story of doubt and the role of doubt in the wider story of human achievement. Can we not teach that? Should we not teach that?

The question isn’t whether atheism “can” be studied, but when atheists are going to come down from the rooftops and begin making telescopes for the rest of us. That is hard work. That is the real challenge.