Sins of Omission

Catholic theologian and former priest Paul Collins, as every one who has previewed this book has recognized, has a tough job. After saying flat-footedly that “those of us born after World War II will be among the most despised and cursed generations in the whole history of humankind,” it behooves him to say both why this is so and what we can do about it. (Judgment Day, University of New South Wales Press, 291pp, $34.95)

Ecotheology has been around for more than a generation and its themes have become stereotyped. They depend on a particular reading of the creation myth of Genesis that understands mankind as being placed in a stewardly or custodial rather than a dominant position towards nature. It was given to us in perfect condition: we messed it up.

Using myths in this way is perfectly permissible as far as I am concerned, as long as we understand that the Genesis story doesn’t actually teach us anything you can take to the bank or use in constructing environmental policy. According to Genesis 1.26-32, God is quite emphatic to Adam about fertility, productivity, and “dominion” over the earth. –A whole school of theology has taken its name from verse 28, which sees this dominion or authority extending beyond the natural world to politics and society. Whether out or not, most conservative Christians, especially the Tea Party variety, espouse some form of dominionism. Their numbers will grow in the wake of the American congressional elections of 2010.

According to a different account of creation in Genesis 2.15ff., Adam was created as a live-in caretaker of the Garden God had planted for his own pleasure and relaxation. He likes to stroll there in the cool of the morning (Gen. 3.8) and can be heard humming. Adam’s benefits (in kind) include free use of the property except for the tree of life (2.9) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–two trees whose magical fruit mythically explain God’s moral powers and longevity to the Hebrew writers who tell the story. And just to mention it, the story is not entirely consistent. Adam’s job description is that of an unskilled labourer, in or out of the garden. His punishment for being a bad caretaker (what if some other god or a mere mortal got hold of the fruit?) is just to transfer him to Arkansas with a shovel and a scolding. His status remains unchanged. The real estate changes.

Scholars see the second creation story as an etiology, a story told to explain not just the origins of agriculture and “sedentary” (non-nomadic) existence, but of the tribulations of crop failure and lack of irrigation. Things were much better back in Babylon, even Egypt-land according to Genesis 12.10ff; not so good in Canaan.

Paul Collins is deeply sensitive to his own better lights in seeing the biblical story, and the traditions it spawns, as a kind of “creation theology.” After all, didn’t God say that what he had created was good, and aren’t we the ones who have made it bad? What Collins especially dislikes is “development”, a trend he sees extending from ancient China in the east and Sumer in Mesopotamia (close to the mise en scene for Genesis 2) when the human race became “irrigation crazy.” And for Collins, irrigation is just the most primitive form of technological and industrial development.

It’s no good saying that at any stage along the way we have ever given a thought to the environment: not in the Middle Ages when the vastness of the earth was being intuited; not in the Age of Discovery, when greed for gold and possessions ruled the heart and inspired armies; not in the Renaissance when our planetary smallness became obvious, nor in the industrial era, nor in the nuclear age, and not nearly enough today. The term biocide did not exist before the twentieth century, but religion (not only Christianity) has been one of the great facilitators of killing the planet in the Name of its creator.

Is material development moral? Should leases be given to BP and other “oil giants” for deep water drilling, after the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in which–it becomes increasingly clear–human greed and shortcutting and not merely human error played a significant role. How do you go about convincing a fickle electorate that the sin-deaf political party that gave us Dick Cheney (who gave us the vamped up Halliburton behemoth that gave us the cement that led to the rig that Jack built exploding in Jack’s face) should not be returned to power, just when we are becoming aware of the price the earth has had to pay for bleeding so much oil for so long, for so much money?

Collins’s thesis is that everyone should be indignant, but Christians (he thinks) especially so, because they have a mechanism for dealing with what’s going on. It is called sin. And sin is what God looks at, according to traditional theology, when he judges the world–and what we have done with the world.

Because we are both selfish and fickle, but don’t regard selfishness as particularly sinful, it is easy to think of sin as an equivalence-game–to focus on other people’s trespasses compared to our own meager wrongdoing and lapses. Who me? No, that’s you, not me. Better yet, it’s him, not us.

The planet is a very big thing. BP is a very big thing. But private sinners are something you can get your head around–or at least your nose into their business. It is why we love reality TV, Desperate Housewives, Jersey Shore, the Kardashians. They have the courage to be so much more sinful than we have the time or money to be, brave enough to make their private sins public so that we can enjoy them with tortilla chips and beer. Thievery, murder, backbiting, bare-faced lying, serial adultery–the “individual sins” that Protestants are grateful Jesus paid the price for (it saves us so much work), and Catholics can reference on mental index cards during their infrequent confessions–enumerated, of course–are hugely entertaining. Add to these hatefulness and attitude. It is difficult to judge what we have come to love, or the things that have seduced us, as Augustine once sighed reflecting on a boyhood theft at the age of sixteen: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself” (Conf. 2,5)

But the thrill of other people’s sins, and the voyeuristic mind-set that ensures its success as entertainment, is really not what sin is about. Collins is deeply sensitive to the way in which the Church has trivialized and individualized sin. Christian teaching is that the world itself is under judgment. We are under judgment for how we treat it–world both in the metaphysical sense (“world, flesh, devil”–delight) and in the physical way–its beauty and bounty. Sin is not just who you’ve slept with, you bad boy, or lied about not sleeping with, you clever dog, but lying to yourself for your own irresponsibility for the social, political and corporate sins you conveniently overlook. All sin in encapsulated in crimes against the idea of “world.”

It is difficult for the modern believer to vindicate God’s destruction of the “world” by flood “in the time of Noah,” except for this: it never really happened, and the story is told —de pilo pendet–to show that creation hangs on God’s favor, a grace that mankind has abused recklessly through that most biblical of words, “wrongdoing.” No one would argue with the story if, for God, we substituted the word “Planet” and saw the catastrophe as the consequence of inaction, greed, and stupidity. Only the most obtuse literalist can take exception to the need for stern correction of a race that has fallen miserably short, like the mythical Adam, of the role creation requires of it.

Once upon a time, there was a healthy sense of this: In Paul’s declaration that “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do, I do.” And in Cranmer’s eloquent rendering of the sentiment in the Book of Common Prayer, turning it into a general confession of responsibility:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,: we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and have done those things which we ought to have done.”


Or in the Catholic church’s ancient catechism,
“…quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissióne — “in thought word, deed, and omission.” Or in Martin Luther King’s aphorism, that “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The numerical approach to sin favored by conservative Christians and dominionists will always be at odds with the social construct, the idea of a world under judgement for social failures and private indifference, especially when verses such as Genesis 1.28 can be used as an entitlement to wear and tear–drill, pollute, waste and wreck, or Adam’s punishment can be interpreted as an argument for better tractors and antiperspirants. “Development” is no more a neutral word than the word “weapon,” which forces to our consciousness the correlation between a greedy man and a murderer.

It is a tribute to the stupidity of Adam’s children that we can wring our hands over whether we are passing a trillion (three trillion, six trillion?) dollar debt to our grandchildren, but not worry too much about clear lakes, blue skies and green pastures. As Collins recognizes, generations of Christians (including a great many in the “dark ages”) used these very symbols as a cipher of God’s grace, beauty and bounty. Many of the Psalms could not have been written without a sense of the transcendental power of God in nature.

“… Sing praises to our God on the lyre, Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who provides rain for the earth, Who makes the grasses grow on the mountains, who gives the beast its food, and food to the young ravens which cry…. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat.”

No one needs to believe in this sentiment descriptively, or in this God prescriptively. But it seems to me, the image of a God who provides for and cares about the world is at least as important as the image of a God who cares about stealing, adultery, how you feel about your neighbor’s wife. Or oxen. As the Church’s attention to sin has now shrunk to focus almost entirely on the uterus, the social, political, and environmental sins against the world receive proportionally less attention. Conservative Christians who believe in the “uterine sins” but cannot turn their attention to the skies, the air, the melting glacial fields, the rapid spread of ignorance and poverty by irresponsible parenting really need to have their baptismal certificates revoked. The only problem is, the Church condones and encourages their ignorance. It tells them to be good Christians by not having sex, or being very careful when they do. When this does not work–in Uganda or Bangladesh or Wasilla, Alaska, it is–reproachably–attributed to the will of God. And yet no one keeps track of how many deaths the culture of life evinces through poverty, disease, starvation, ignorance. The Catholic Church and missionary protestantism do not answer the door when the collection agent presents the bill for the culture of life.

The biblical writers made a close association between sin and destruction. A tormented first-century writer, Paul of Tarsus, sees the whole world order “passing away” as the eschatological reality of his time. It’s corrupt like an apple is rotten: to the core. There is nothing permanent about it.

The literature of judgement–called apocalyptic–can be amazingly detailed about how uncreation will work at the time of judgement; the images range from stars losing their place in the sky to mountains crumbling and seas overflowing the boundaries that were set for them in the beginning, a dizzying succession of events that resembles a super-fast rewind of creation saga. Instead of births, there will be miscarriages–because there will be nothing left to take care of. We will have become unnecessary. The world will end, but badly.

The apocalyptic vision, all of it frantic and fanciful of course, continues to fascinate the most literal believers because of this grotesque detail. They see themselves being scooped up to heaven with the angels because they were, after all, better than the desperate housewives and avoided the fleshpots of Reno. But for the creators of the genre, and the Christian copycats who followed them, it was all about sin and judgement. The world had got very bad. People had lost focus. The Law was being forgotten. The prophets had stopped prophesying, their work done. The unjust triumphed over the oppressed and the weak. Politics then as now, was rough, raw, corrupt, and open to the highest bidder. Eden’s apple lay rotten on the ground as a token of what cost our ancestor his job: abject failure to tend the garden. “Let thy Kingdom come” is a perfectly rational prayer under the circumstances.

It did not come. Jesus did not come. Salvation of the sort expected anyway–the incursion of a divine power from above–did not come. As Loisy once said the Church came instead. But what Christianity in the widest sense did possess is an ongoing sense of judgment and accountability.

It has not solved the problem of the cheap-grace Christian who is still obsessed with the uterine sins and calls herself “pro-life.” The church is now, and has been for a long time, in the reflexive mode of taking counter-cultural positions that it deems unpopular and therefore correct. It has pronounced secular culture evil and knows that other voices are competing for listeners. But in focusing on the “uterine sins,” it has lost track of the larger idea of sin and salvation and traded the chance to be a truly prophetic voice for the far easier task of singing the song it has always sung.

But secularists should take no comfort in the Church’s failure and shortsightedness. A consciousness of judgement, something equating to the ancient religious vision, might be necessary in assessing what anthropologist Thomas Berry calls “our inability to deal with the devastation of our planet.” Ironically, this failure of cognizance and will comes at a time when we know more than we have ever known about our wasteful and wanton habits, the effects of millennia of predation on the earth’s goodness and bounty.

It may be difficult to fathom, knowing what we know about the dangers of overpopulation, starvation, disease and poverty, why conservative religion’s remedy for this failure is to preach against birth control and family planning. But but is also difficult to know what the secular-moral alternative is. In a review of Collins’s book by John Birmingham, published in The Australian for October 9th, 2010, the following paraphrase struck me as significant:

Secular humanism and rationalism, which led us to the edge of destruction, offer little in comparison because, having driven God from our moral discourse, that discourse has become difficult in secular democracy, which has ‘neither the ethical apparatus nor the rhetoric necessary for it’.”

Is it the case that there are no good naturalistic arguments against raping the planet for fun and profit? Or, if it is too easy to say “Don’t be silly” to that question, is it the case that the dual role of applied science in the contemporary period has been contradictory and conflictual, especially for those of us who are not scientists but reap its benefits every day: to guarantee our pleasure, our longevity, our convenience and comfort by extending the outreach of technology, while pausing occasionally to warn us that the reach cannot be extended indefinitely. The warnings are not usually framed as moral caveats. They seldom involve the idea of “judgment”; they are framed as arguments about non-renewable energy resources and diminishing capacity. They are arguments for greater ingenuity and more development.

Drill, Baby, drill!

I do not see a consistent ethic of responsibility on the secular side. And like Collins, I find the vocabulary so far developed to be vacuous and uncompelling. It lacks what philosophers might once have called a “telic focus”: we need to know why oiled pelicans off the coast of Louisiana are an evil. We need to know why it is ever so much worse to pass on black rain and unbreathable air to our descendants than a trillion dollar deficit. We need to to know that in some way we are judged, not just that we need to be careful when we buy our next car.

sins of the flesh

Science as a facilitator of human pleasure, the life span, the ethics of convenience, can issue perfectly sane warnings about this urgent state of affairs–much as the ancient apocalyptic writers once made promises of judgment to overreaching kings and idolaters. But now, as then, consequences postponed do not constitute effects. Long range predictions are not threats. They are merely mystifying to most people in a distractable age. The delay between an eternal God’s anger and his punishment for wickedness extends back three millennia and promises to reach into futures we cannot imagine, because it will never take place in history and time. Our situation with respect to judgement for sins against Nature is more dire because there is no God to save us and no God to judge us. Scholars have found that the favourite prayer added to the numerous litanies developed during the Black Death in Europe was a a modified version of the ancient prayer, “Agnus Dei“: “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord.” But we have to help ourselves.

The consequences that science envisions are real enough. And without the moral equivalent of God, we need to develop ways and words to make the consequences and the judgement of our own irresponsibility plain and real: a people guilty of lethargy, hardheartedness and inaction–the sins of omission, a world under the judgment of universal conscience, a betrayal of the knowledge we might possess, and do possess, shoved to the margins of our collective vision.

Nietzsche: Of Love, Trees, and Religion

Reading Nietzsche is not always the easiest thing to do. He is the okra of philosophers, and his moments of lyricism are offset by yawpish moments like this one from “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”:

Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again: and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak of me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say – but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so that man could only wonder. But he also wondered about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past: however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him.” (translated by Peter Preuss)

No points for the Mise-en-scène, but Nietzsche is just about to make an important point: namely, that unlike the animals, we are self-conscious creatures who are attached to the past: “However fast we run, the chain runs with us.” The chain is memory. Just when we think we’ve shaken it, “the spectre comes back to disturb the calm of a later moment.”

Nietzsche’s “No” to history comes from the schoolhouse, where the young are subjected to the givens of a catalog, offered up as facts, but are really nothing more than the concrete of national prejudices, the residue of wounded pride, battles won, ground gained. His contempt for history taught and learned this way is exquisite: he laments how facts, “rolled into ugly clumps,” are then thrust out as food for the youthful soul. Who can blame the thirteen year-old for resisting it by showing “a blasé indifference [to history]” from boyhood on. (ADHfL, 41, 42).

I was pondering this way of doing history in connection with a project I am working on, a history of Christian ideas about marriage. The subject is timely since the opponents of civil same-sex unions almost always have a relatively high view of the “institution of matrimony” that was not at all typical of the Church of the first eleven centuries. It is odd to me–or perhaps not odd at all–that in the century when marriage is at its most optional and vulnerable as a sacred compact, its sanctity–or at least its traditionally “high” social status–is being invoked by the very people who have been excluded from its grace.

Nietzsche did not think that the history of a subject was a good means of settling disputes about a subject. Many of the people I know, when they tell me they “like history too,” especially my hair-cutter, will then go on to say they collect World War II paraphernalia, or quarters, or pottery from the Old Queen’s reign. What they really like are relics that tie them to events from the past–for whatever reason. But all the relics in the world, and all the histories of warfare from Marathon to Waterloo do not explain or solve war, or (assuming a distinction) marriage. That is why Nietzsche worries about the packaged certainties offered to schoolchildren as a history of their nation, or religion, or family pedigree. That kind of history is almost always designed to shape minds and bend wills, rather than strengthen them. It is one of the reasons, and perhaps in some sections of America the only reason, that school boards still take an interest in how history is taught. They mean our history.

Peter Preuss, the learned translator of the works of Nietzsche’s Untimely Observations (from his early period) boils it all down to what three post-Kantian philosophers were trying to say in different ways: As the self-conscious animal, life is not something that happens to man. It is something he creates: “Life is a task.” Hegel turns this task into something sublime;Kierkegaard turns it inward; Heidegger sees it as preparation, a quest for authentic Being. Nietzsche, more radically than any of the others, sees human life within history. The bit above, about the animals, is his way of saying that human beings are historical in a way that animals are not: “Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, human or divine,” and unlike the animals “he produces his own nature,” at least in part.

“History is the activity of producing that nature within the limitations of [his] situation. History is the record of this self production. It is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into a present which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity, man would fall short of humanity. History is necessary.” (Preuss, Intod. 1, 2)

One can quibble with Nietzsche’s emphasis on the existential role of history. Is all history biography? Can general principles ever be educed from individual records, from the products of self-discovery or self realization? Is there any role at all for Nietzsche’s ogre, the “disinterested scholar.”

The clue is the between-state that we find ourselves in, as being not the children of a higher being, not endowed with rights of any sort (at least none that matter), purely–like our animal brethren–natural and materially wrought, but with a power to remember, symbolize and shape the past. This means of course that history can never be thoroughly demythologized because its earliest form is the compact between memory and story. The story itself is not what the “modern,” self-confident scientific history of Nietzsche’s day was offering. The source-based work of scholars like von Ranke, which periodized and typified history and offered “solutions” to conundrums like the history of the renaissance papacy, was of no interest at all to Nietzsche, who hoped that the scientific methods of his day would be seen as a kind of superstition.

In his later work, especially Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche would return to the theme of history in a more pessimistic way. But even in the early work he is concerned with its power: “Unrestrained” history–a pure historicism that pulls no punches, leaves no myth unploughed and nothing to be guessed at, is “always annihilating.” It is a drive unto itself, a drive for explanation. It is inherently destructive, “for if no constructive drive is active behind the historical drive, if one does not destroy and clear away so that a future already alive in our hope may build its house on cleared ground, if justice alone rules, then the creative instinct is enfeebled and discouraged.”

History can express this destructive drive in any direction, toward any object susceptible of historical study: marriage, art, the history of nations, morals, literature, warfare.

But of the subjects over which history can wield its authority, none is more vulnerable to destruction, Nietzsche thought, than religion. Perhaps that is because religion belongs to the genealogy of history (as it does to science and philosophy). Whatever Nietzsche would later think about the process of destruction, his early work finds a kind of piety and regret close to the surface:

“A religion, which is to be transformed into historical knowledge, a religion which is to be thoroughly known in a scientific way, will in the end also be annihilated. The reason [for this] is that the historical audit always brings to light much that is false, crude, inhuman, absurd, violent, [such] that the attitude of pious illusion in which alone all that wants to live can live is necessarily dispelled. Only with love, however, only surrounded by the shadow of the illusion of love can man create. That is, only with an unconditional faith in something that is perfect and righteous.” (38-9)

Hence the dilemma. History is necessary. But for creativity to operate, so must love.

It comes down in the long run to what you are willing to ignore, pass over, or forgive for the sake of creativity which is rooted in the illusion of love. It isn’t that history (or science) can’t chop religion down to size: it can, because it has the power and the tools to do so. It’s a question of whether–in chopping away at the trees to clear the field–you have a house to build or simply enjoy the sound of an axe as it bites the wood.

Letting Go of Jesus: Reprise


“But I tell you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again.” (Luke 6.27f)

Let’s pretend the year is 1757 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.” Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as grandmother taught you; or perhaps a priest, a vicar, a Methodist minister. Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture. You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction–passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation. –A reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.

You know many verses by heart: Honor your father and your mother. Blessed are the poor. Spare the rod, spoil the child. The love of money is the root of all evil. Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents. You think the Bible is a wise and useful book. If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t arisen to prove them false.

The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: it will do. As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.

If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to an 11 o clock sermon in the New Testament. If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence, and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.

But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the 17th, called Christian Evidences.

The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible, and especially for Christians the New Testament, more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in Physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the divine mechanic.

Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all powerful being who both established the laws of nature and could violate them at will, as “Nature’s God,” it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life. No one much bothered to read the damning indictment of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a god whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules. –You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.

Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, the idea of Christian “evidences”, and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding good old Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was) those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the red sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament. As a Christian, you would have seen all these stories as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way) getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.

True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short and brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the 18th century. But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—

“The sacred Book foretold it all:
How death by death should come to fall.”

In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read–and perhaps not even it, cover to cover. And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson—the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion before Hume, the divine attestation is based on the miracles.

Divinity schools in England and America which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1850’s) required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences. The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained.

By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.

Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that [because] “all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”

But all was not well, even in 1885. Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury. Things were about to change.

Within the treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense: You have never seen a brick suspended in the air. Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water. Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers. Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “And what is more probable than that all men shall die.”

In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.” It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead. It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because it has never been witnessed by any of us. We only have reports. And even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence. How old are these reports? What is the reliability of the reporter? Under what circumstances were they written? Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate? Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the ten commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula were asking to be posted on classroom walls: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish….”

–So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension? That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity, or fantasy—or outright fiction.

The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned. At Smith College, beginning in the 1920’s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:

“We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion; (3) and the belief in immortality.” Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.”

At Williams, John Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.” At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that the Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”

Perhaps I should add that when I got to Harvard Divinity School in the 1970’s I was told by the reigning professor of theology who out of deference will remain anonymous, that my way of speaking about God was too literal—almost as though I “believed the metaphor was a real thing.”

This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.

Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of the Bible belt, or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.

Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset

When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in twentieth century America the “social gospel.” He wasn’t new—actually he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology. He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, and forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social order based on concern for the least among us.

In Germany and England and finally in America where ideas, especially religious ideas, came home to roost more slowly, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on. Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany. Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose; what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers; how it might have undergone change as those needs changed—for example—the belief he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.

The social reality that the community was an impoverished, illiterate, persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” But if this is so, then the gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all. They were the biography of what the community believed about him.

The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so. Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions: Matthew Arnold for example thought the gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him; but then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led them to preserve his teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form. They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty. Arnold’s influence was minimal.

The deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.
When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 was prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the 18th and 19th century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the gospels. Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework. No final conclusions were possible.

We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence. But not enough for a New York Times obituary.

Beyond tracing this line we get lost in contradiction. If he taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood. But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us. He might have preached the end of the world. If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers. (Paul certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of Christ.)

Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews. But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church, and the Jesus of popular piety—equally–never existed.

Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed: The agnostic former Jesuit Alfred Loisy (d. 1940) after his excommunication wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church, in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930) who had published a book called The Essence of Christianity.

In the book Harnack argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence. Loisy responded, “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal protestant reflection.”

In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation. In New York City around 1917 a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in literature.

Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, and winked at income disparity. So, for Rauschenbusch, the gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice. In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered. Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered. Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered. Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the 19th century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Having given up on the historical Jesus, Jesus could now be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.

Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, they failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, fixated on the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.

For many of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus–the less we know for sure–the longer and many the books that can be written. In what will surely be the greatest historical irony of the late 20th and early 21st century, for example, members of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82% of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title Messiah, that he did not share a final meal with his disciples (there goes the Mass), and that he did not invent the Lord’s prayer.

They come to these conclusions however in more than a hundred books by Seminar members, of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus. The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventor wants him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun. As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 book The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief. In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”

But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions. We don’t know much about Jesus. What we do know however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text, based on sound critical principles, became possible, is that there are things we can exclude.

Jesus was not Aristotle. Despite what George Bush thinks, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics. If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood.

We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself. The gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.

He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat. The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive. But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.

He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries.

But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics. After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.

Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.

What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel–retains its authority.

It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x. But when I took math, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain. The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.

We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science: when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story. The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history. They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of his obligation to be a man of his time and culture–however that might have been–entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, and rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.

No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way. We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.

The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run. And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist. I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.

It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation. It’s (at least) an act of honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.

To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems and moral dilemmas, much less rule on them with godly authority, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.

The history of Jesus-scholarship is a progression of narratives about what might have been the case, but probably wasn’t.

If men and women in the New Testament business wish to pursue the construction of counter-legends as though they were doing history, there is no one to stop them. If they announce to an unsuspecting and credulous public that they have found “new historical materials,” better “gospels,” the “real story,” or the bone-boxes of Jesus and his wife and family, they simply prove the axiom: Jesus may not save, but he sells.

It has been a long time since theology’s dirty little secret was first whispered: “The quest for the historical Jesus leads to the door of the church.” But that is still where it leads. We leave him there, as Schweitzer lamented, “as one unknown.”

Of Atheist Tribes

First of all, I refrain from mentioning any names or organizations that can properly be called atheistically thick-headed. They know who they are. I’ve named them before, without salvific effect. They are proud of who they are. They like their atheism short, sweet, rude, and raw. If they get on people’s nerves, that’s okay because religion gets on their nerves.

Who can disagree? The standard cable network service, before they cut you off entirely when you haven’t paid the bill, leaves you with what for your viewing pleasure? At the mercy of 24-7 infomercial stations and Mother Angelica, in a loop with her Ninety Nasal Nuns, saying the rosary. You have a choice between a guy who wants to sell you a pulverizer for fruits and veg for $19.98 with six special blades not available in stores order now!, and Jimmy Swaggart (still here after all these years) offering his four-volume study series on the Cross of Christ usually $40 a volume but purchase today for only $60 for all four order now! Tell me the truth, if you can’t pay to see movies on HBO, are you really going to make yourself feel better by buying a pulverizer from an aging fitness freak or a set of books from a self-ordained, perpetually repentant Louisiana preacherman?

No, clearly, the Time Warners and Road Runners of this great nation keep these things on to punish us. They know that nothing will get you to fork over that extra $75 bucks or run your new low-limit credit card right up to the brink like having to listen to that 100th Hail Mary or hear the guy selling the snake oil for osteoarthritis mispronouncing the word osteoarthritis.

I don’t blame the atheist tribe for hating this stuff. I hate it. Everyone I know hates it. My European friends when they visit cannot believe that America is not a suburb of the Philippines, so pure is our devotion to crap products and crappy religion.

But therein lies the problem. Too many atheists assume two false things. First, that their sense of outrage is unique, a more refined version of contempt than a “religious” believer is likely to have when they look at the obnoxious underbelly of American religion. Second, they assume that the best way to deal with the problem is to harpoon all religion, because religion is a ROBOT: Really One Big Offensive Thing.

Stereotyping is a part of being human, of course. A Canadian friend of mine (who meant well) once said, over a third pint at a Cowley pub, “I really hate Americans, but you’re ok.” We were sitting among British friends, and they nodded in agreement. I was pleased, kind of, with the verdict on my amiability, but I was obliged to say, “Well, you might be surprised to know that I’m not really fond of Americans either–but there are one or two others besides me you might like.” An Australian law student sitting across the table, on his fourth said, “You’re all fuckin’ septics as far as I can tell.” (For any readers not familiar with this patois, it’s short for septic tank.) Short, sweet, rude, and raw.

I think the atheist dickhead phenomenon is about at this level of discussion right now. It’s no longer about God, it’s about “others.” It’s about the purity of your unbelief, measured not against any philosophical standard or line of argument but about finding religious believers septic and converting polite unbelievers to the more radical view that religion runs from noxious to poisonous, not from good to bad. It’s also about your solidarity with others who share your radical unbelief and how you measure the attitudes and intentions of other members of the tribe.

Religion (the custom of the group provides) is the first resort of dimwits and moral weaklings, helped along its mossy path by bad science, superstition, and useless doctrines, practices, and social customs.

I suggested a few months ago that this level of full-frontal atheism needs to be assessed by an empirical standard–by how many things you don’tbelieve about God. Jewish atheists and ex-Muslims would come out relatively badly, as not believing anything about only one God; ex-Catholics slightly better as not believing anything ever taught about the Trinity; and Hindus would be way out in front with their rejection of 330 million gods and avatars.

What some people, even me, occasionally, are calling “atheist fundamentalists” really ought to be called atheist tribalists. And just like people from small countries find it irresistible to think that all citizens of big countries are obnoxious, atheists being a small clutch of people sharing a common intellectual position, more or less, find the sheer size of the world’s religious population an argument against it. It springs from a natural sense (by the way, one I don’t entirely reject) that this many people can’t be right. –The flipside of a standard argument that would be persuasive if the world’s faiths used one number for all beliefs: that so many right-headed people can’t be wrong.

But it ignores the fact that many of the groups and subgroups that constitute this highly artificial category called religion don’t agree with each other, and are just as miserable as atheists when they see religions behaving badly.

Anyone who has ever lived in a “foreign” country and tried to seem a “little less foreign” will know what I mean about the semiotics of embarrassment: Nothing embarrasses a British-educated Pakistani more than his cousin who wasn’t. Nothing embarrassed the third generation of acculturated Americans more than their first-generation Slovak grandparents. Nothing embarrasses a clever, well-spoken, moderately-religious woman more than the excesses of her own faith. Atheists have the luxury of using hasty generalization as a mode of analysis rather than calling it out as a fallacy. Smart religious people are forced to be discriminate in their approach to religion. Perhaps that’s why atheists can afford to be irresponsible and so rude to believers: they don’t have to pick up after themselves.

Having God is really like having a lot of money and a grating accent. When American soldiers first arrived in great numbers in England in 1942, the famous quip about them was that they were “Over-paid, oversexed and over here.” They could “afford” things, had better teeth, but talked too loud and laughed too easily. The idea that there were millions and millions more just like them across the wide sea was not cheering to sober people in villages like Upper Heyford and Mildenhall, who had never seen an example of the species before.

In fact, most of the atheist tribalists are reacting to religion at the same, village level, as something that is “foreign,” unacceptable, and so big that it has to be bad. The beliefs they know about (and reject) are not derived from studying anything about the history and doctrine of particular religions, but from a whole range of indirect encounters: with their tv set, with news stories about creation science and prayer in school, with tales of disorderly Mormon elders and their six wives and thirty children, violent Muslims declaring jihad against members of their own faith as well as on the “West,” with reports of (yet another) pedophile priest being arrested or another bishop covering up priestly crimes, or with another know-nothing politician who thinks America was founded as a Christian nation. Who can disagree that these encounters are typical of what more and more people are beginning to see as what “being religious” means–as the whole of religion? Is there a difference between Big and Big and Ugly

But prevalence is not totality. Religion doesn’t only consist of externalization, and there are plenty of believing critics out there who would consider every one of these externals unacceptable, or ignorant, or attributable to causes that aren’t necessarily religious at all. It strikes me as curious that their criticism might need to be discounted because it comes from the wrong quarter. If radical unbelief becomes the license for informed critique, does simple belief disqualify someone as a critic?

To be an atheist tribalist means that you answered Yes to that question: But to be honest, if the laundry list above is what the atheist sees as the entirety of religious experience or religious ideology, he is really no better off than my friend in the pub who, out of pious ignorance I came to realize, sees America as a great cesspool where annoying, nasal, uncynical nabobs swim around in the muck of mental gloom. Of course, anyone who knows a little history, a little geography, a little anything about anything, knows that this is a caricature designed to make Europeans feel less bad about the eighteenth century cesspools from which American immigrants escaped and evolved, and that we have no monopoly on loud, nasal, or annoying. Atheists in rejecting religion–most anyhow–have a similar evolution to recount.

The philosophy that the tribe is better than the nation persisted in human civilization for a long time, and then reemerged as paternalism and petty nationalism in the colonial period. Colonies, in turn, began to feel better than their masters. It’s especially troubling to see atheists, who claim the intellectual upper hand in debates about God and his people, behaving in a way that simply mimics the self-protective instincts of threatened minorities through insult, provocation, and belligerence. It’s all part of the dance, the same old story.

Let’s Talk About It: Of Intellectual Restlessness

I am completely clueless why there is any discussion at all about whether believers and unbelievers should be talking to each other. Talking isn’t negotiation. It’s what, as Aristotle teaches, human beings do if they’re smart. Believers and unbelievers don’t form two groups with nothing to talk about. They represent options that relatively bright women and men have considered important for a very long time. They have everything to talk about.

It was bad enough when the term “atheism” could be used as a kind of patriotic lingo to get evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics to huddle together against the terrorist threat of yesterday, Nuclear Communism. Before that they regarded each other as cultural enemies, mingled in the marketplace unawares, socialized with suspicion, sought permission for “mixed marriages,” like hostile religious species forced to live on a planet where God saved some, but not others. Of course Presbyterians felt that way about Episcopalians, too, and Catholics thought it about everyone but Catholics.

But by 1960 John Kennedy had half-convinced an electorate still dominantly protestant, still fretting about what Paul Blanshard called “Catholic Power,” that they hated Communism more than they hated each other. Realpolitik required Protestants and Catholics to join hands. When they did, they promptly put scripture aside and worked ecumenically to create an agenda that included the antiabortion movement, abstinence-only education, opposition to stem cell and reproductive research, and assorted other sexual mysteries about which religion is officially ignorant. If she had had her wits about her in 2008, Sarah Palin (a Protestant) could have named Phyliss Schlafly (a Catholic) as her spiritual grandmother and favorite author.

Ms. Schlafly

What created the unlikely entente cordiale between backward-looking Catholics and navel-gazing Protestants was the Protestant discovery that “Every sperm in sacred,” not just the Irish, Italian, and Polish variety. This required some magnanimity on the part of the protestant faithful, whose favorite barbs and jokes (interchangeably used at the expense of those same Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants) pivoted on papa’s inability to keep his trousers zipped. It is a point of mere historical interest that the inventor of the condom, who defended its use as protection against syphilis in the sixteenth century, was a priest named Gabriele Fallopio, one of the most distinguished anatomists of his day in Padua where he taught. (He also gave his name to the “fallopian tubes.”)

I admit, getting Catholics and Protestants to talk to each other, share ideas, form alliances, separate out the things that divide from the things that unite them, ought to be a comparatively easy task. But it isn’t. As a matter of fact current trends suggest that it might be easier to get liberal Christians and humanists to sit down to a turkey dinner together than to get Tea-Party Christians to talk to liberals.

In a fit of boredom I picked up a copy of John Neuhaus’s Catholic Matters (2007) at the local library a few days ago. I do not say that sarcastically. I may not agree with Neuhaus’s conservative thought-trend, but he was, before his death in January 2009, a sly and articulate observer of what he called in another book the “Catholic movement today.” As a traditionalist in essential matters, like the supremacy of Catholic teaching (the magisterium, so-called) he welcomed the election of Joseph Ratzinzger as successor to John Paul II: Benedict XVI would be not just a custodian, he claimed from his vantage point in Rome in 2005, but the guardian of the Faith. That has turned out to be true.

But Neuhaus’s best moments in this hastily written book are on the subject that had occupied his attention since the 1987 publication of The Naked Public Square: secularization and its effect on the Churches, especially the mainline, liberal protestant churches. He identifies these with the “establishment” denominations of nineteenth-century America: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism’s worst if not only headache), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC, aka in some northerly parts as Congregationalists) and the Disciples of Christ, and Lutherans, excepting the Missouri Synod variety (Neuhaus’s mother church before his conversion). I will omit mentioning the Unitarians for reasons that will be clear and acceptable to all Unitarians.


The argument by now familiar, perhaps trite, is borne out by innumerable big and little surveys: the old mainline churches, in death-throes of membership decline and doctrinal indifference, are essentially secular clubs with aging parishioners, inadequately supplemented by members who expect to be talked to but not preached at about God’s love for all, regardless of race, class, age, sexual orientation or wardrobe choices. They assume the name “Christian,” but are really dedicated to progressive social and political causes–gay-rights, pro-choice and women’s issues, environmental ethics–and use religion more as a source of legitimation than as a system of belief. Their more traditional detractors usually (and somewhat tiresomely) say that they have traded the love of Christ for the love of self. Their conservative cousins summarize in a single self-explanatory phrase what the liberal churches don’t stand for, a phrase that has now been interpolated into conservative political discourse as well: Family Values. A core doctrinal difference between old and new mainline is the revised concept of sin: old style protestants believed in it. New style think it’s negotiable. A nineteenth century Methodist preacher offered God’s grace and forgiveness prior to judgment. But in the liberal churches, God is expected to dispense only grace and to accept people for what and who they are. It is a Christianity impregnated with the psychotheology of Carl Rogers: love is unconditional, so a perfect God really has no right to expect anything from us.

These are the churches that H. Richard Niebuhr worried about when he prophesied from the Battell Chapel at Yale in 1935 (published as The Kingdom of God in America, 1937) that religious tolerance and pluralism was implicit in the teaching of Jesus, but that the “social gospel” (a key idea of the formation of American secularism before there was a humanist secular movement) in its raw form preached, “A God without wrath [who brings] men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr would have derived no satisfaction from knowing that his prophecy was right on the mark in sociological effect.

Neuhaus knew his Niebuhr, and he believed until his dying day that the fortress of Catholicism was the only protection against creeping secularity. Others have thought it too: G. K. Chesterton thought it. Graham Greene thought it. Simone Weil (Alsatian, Jewish, agnostic) and Thomas Merton (New Zealand-American, Quaker Anglican, spiritually confused) thought it, and then stopped thinking it.

Simone Weil

But Crossing the Tiber, or “Poping” as intellectual conversion is known in Britain, is not for everyone. And there are at least as many who take the ferry in the other direction and become ex- or “lapsed” Catholics as who join the True Church.

What I think we miss and need to get is that whichever direction you travel, there are thousands who have taken the ride. Conversion is a fancy word for changing your mind. The twentieth century biblical scholar Arthur Darby Nock, in a famous study of religious conversion, defined it as “a radical emotional experience or a quick turning to a new way of life and a complete reorientation in attitude, thought, and practice.” It comes, simply enough, from a sense that something is wrong with the way things are in our life and that we need to do something about it. Nock thought that the early Roman empire was rife with the conditions for such an experience, and he attributes the growth of the Christian movement in the first century to those conditions. The job he did not do was to trace the same restlessness, the same sense of “present wrongness” in the reforms of the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century and the averse reaction to the Church and religion (“supernaturalism”) in the Enlightenment and, at least in Europe, later. The conditions for conversion will always be located in the individual’s refusal to assent to the status quo –which may be emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually unendurable.

Atheists, it seems to me, stand in precisely the same relation to conditions prescribed by religion as religious persons do in relation to the loss (or perceived loss) of metaphysics. For that reason–while I don’t deny the existence of “cradle atheists” anymore than I deny the existence of cradle Catholics, the kind of atheist I think would want to talk to intellectually restless religious persons is one who has undergone a conversion.

“Conversion” to atheism (a term atheists deplore because of its religious associations) is a form of intellectual restlessness. Except for a very few people who say they realized they were atheists on the same day they lost their pacifier down the toilet, shattering forever their belief in an all-good providence, people become atheists because they can no longer accept what Elizabeth Barrett Browning poetically described as her “childhood faith…and lost saints.” Many of these feel they were lied to; some feel they are victims of a cultural conspiracy; others think that religion itself should be held accountable for the evils its has perpetrated on the species. All of these reasons have to be taken seriously because they point to the chasm between what is taught or acquired by tradition and the world as we come to know it. The question is, What are we prepared to accept as true? An atheist claims to answer this question on the basis of reason alone, or more precisely rational argument and inquiry. But there may be other factors involved, including (heaven help us!) emotional and maturational ones.

Religious conversion is also real, paradigmatically real, and ought to be regarded as a form of intellectual restlessness. Of course most people who travel toward religion don’t begin the journey as atheists. Some begin with nothing. Most are not ashamed to assign a role to emotion in the process, though they might want to insist that head and heart work together in a kind of harmony. A slim minority begin as intellectuals who have a sober and sometimes critical view of religion, church and tradition. These are the ones who interest me the most for purposes of a Great Conversation–the ones who know what role doubt, skepticism, and even cynicism play in the intellectual life.

The British writer Malcolm Muggerdige, later in his life a figure of ridicule for his view of Britain’s “sexual revolution,” moved from a fashionable, youthful Cambridge atheism to Catholicism around the same time the Church was moving in the direction of tone-deaf folk-masses and accommodation to the swinging sixties. It was a cruel juxtaposition for someone whose most-quoted aphorism is “Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.” His more stalwart New England contemporary and friend, William F. Buckley remained a Catholic, but just barely, because he believed his Church’s dogmatic stand on social and political issues was just about right, while he deplored its loss of “aesthetic rectitude.”

Muggeridge, urbane, caustic, clever, Catholic

Buckley’s son, Christopher, crossed over to an “unbelieving” posture of the most discreet and unassuming literary kind–where he joined a distinguished retinue of former Catholics-turned-Infidel including Theodore Dreiser, George Carlin, Steve Allen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy). Travelling the other direction on the Rome ferry were social activist Dorothy Day, writer Ford Maddox Ford, actor Alec Guinness, Robert Lowell, Gustav Mahler, and Siegfried Sassoon–a positive wave of spiritual malcontents that wanted more than cheaper goods and early retirement. Neuhaus comments in his last book that whilst a Lutheran who becomes a Presbyterian will almost never begin a sentence with “I used to be Lutheran, ” a lapsed, ex- or former Catholic will almost always say with some pride, “I used to be a Catholic.” It’s as though making the journey counts for something, or it may be only that irreverence is the flip side of reverence.

The point is, people who believe radically different things need to talk to each other because what people think and why they change their minds is inherently interesting in a way that mere “positions” are not. Settled positions, like Emerson’s foolish consistency, are the hobgoblin of little minds. Judges talk about “settled law” as a way of forfending discussion of hypothetical cases. They are really talking about dogmas promulgated by courts. The Church has used the term dogma in the same way, to refer to beliefs that have been settled by papal dictate. I do not know what “settled belief” is, but any settled belief becomes, if not fundamentalism, a kind of scholasticism. People should always be slightly uncomfortable about what they believe, whether they are atheists or (a dreadful non-word) “theists.”

Atheism can never be anything but a belief. In William Jamesian terms, it can be a strong belief, but it can never be certainty. Most atheists know this; many react to it with disdain and change the topic from God to Gravity–the law, not the theory–as a case of what is damned obvious. Even the idea (James’s) that many of our beliefs are based on “faith in someone else’s faith” isn’t a proof that all such beliefs are irrational.

James: Boston's greatest gift to Harvard

In the same way, “Religion,” never mind the religion, can never be anything but a belief or concatenation of beliefs. The claim that religion is a belief or “truth” of a higher order is completely specious and is rarely used by anyone with a reputable education. (Which truths, of whose religion, qualify for this status?) Whether religious belief is ever warranted by evidence or logic is uncertain to me, but the greater warrants for religion are customary morality, emotion, and authority, and the systematization of any faith as theology does not increase the likelihood of its propositions or truth value. I consider the reasons for holding such beliefs comparatively weak, but they are reasons that need to be assessed. And not every belief reaches the level of absurdity displayed by W.K. Clifford’s ship-master in his famous parable in The Ethics of Belief.

For intelligent believers and unbelievers to discuss what James called a “momentous option” is sensible, however. There is an eloquence of belief and an eloquence of unbelief. To treat contrary ways of expressing a commitment as private pastures divided between sheep and goats (laying aside which is which in this analogy) is intellectually indefensible. It is a page torn from modern geopolitical theory where irreconcilable differences have to do with national interests, not with intelligent discourse.

Of course, there is a difference between the fundamentalist Christian who says “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and the agnostic who says, “Show me,” or the atheist who says “No he doesn’t because there is no God.” But there is a vast middle ground (or pasture) where sheep and goats may safely graze. Conversation between those who hold to the existence of God not as a settled belief but as a living option, and those who hold a contrary view keeps both sides unsettled. That is a good outcome for both sides.

There are exceptions to this encounter between belief of an intellectual and restless kind, and unbelief of the unsettled kind. Let’s call them the four forms of modern scholasticism. Given the starting premises of these groups, I regard dialogue between the modern “scholastics” as improbable and potentially unproductive as dialogue between Dominicans and Jews in the Middle Ages.

Religious Secularism. For those who are happy with the social gospel of welcoming congregations and the agendas of the depleted liberal churches, what would be the point of conversation? Whether these churches are “right” or “wrong” in practice, the question they will have to answer is why they need the gospel at all. Liberal theology, liberation theology, feminist theology and even (yes) post-Christian theology are now historical theology. They belong, like guitar masses, to the seventies along with prayers to “Jesus, Our Brother” and “Our Mother-Father God, who art in every slum and every earthly visage.”

Dogmatic Catholicism. Catholics who are Catholics because they have never questioned the authority or reasonableness of the Church’s teaching, especially its pronouncements concerning sexual and social ethics. In a recent survey, 45% of Catholics surveyed did not know that their Church taught the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the traditional center of Catholic devotion and piety and a key factor in the Protestant Reformation. 95% knew the Church’s position on abortion. The implication of this result is that contemporary Catholics are badly educated about their own faith (it’s called in theological circles the “crisis of catechetics,” or training) but are willing to accept what they are told is true. At this level, religion means being a team player, knowing the rules, knowing the consequences of breaking them, knowing the score. But there is a caveat here: most of the Catholics who went on to become satirists, authors, comedians, novelists and social critics as well as most of those who traveled intellectually towards Rome knew their Church far better than the ones whose journey to atheism was one from not knowing very much to not believing very much.

George Carlin

Biblicism. Fundamentalism is defined as a belief in text without context. To religious fundamentalists who have a personal relationship with Jesus underwritten by divine revelation: there is probably nothing between the two sides worth exploring. Unbelief is a refusal of God’s gift of love and grace, though it is not necessarily considered the most heinous refusal. That belongs to those who have “heard” the message and not responded–the nominally Christian. The Islamic equivalent is described in a saying of Muhammad from the Sahih Bukhari, and is generally considered good practical advice for Muslims: “God hates for you…to ask too many questions in religious matters” (Vol. 3, Book 41, Number 591).

Dogmatic Unbelief: Those Atheists who regard their position as unassailable, the religious option as ridiculous, and the ridicule of religion and religious institutions as a social duty or a form of overdue payback may well be right about what they do not believe (phrased negatively) but quite unclear about what they do believe. What makes them “scholastic” is that like the medieval scholars, whose knowledge could be reduced to a set of stereotyped proofs or demonstrations, they have lost interest in the questions that made their rejection of God interesting, provocative and viable. In a phrase, they no longer think the question of God is intrinsically interesting and would have no reason to second-guess their position or entertain anyone else’s.

Thomas Merton

Let me conclude with an example of the kind of intellectual restlessness that could result in interesting conversation between believers and unbelievers: Thomas Merton, mentioned above.

While I detest conspiracy theories about the death of Merton, there is good reason to think he had left orthodox Catholicism behind at the end of his life in 1968. He had fallen in love with a nursing student two years earlier, and as part of his “recovery”
turned to Buddhism, which had intrigued him since his student days at Oxford and Columbia. He had met with the Dalai Lama, and was reading the works of D.T. Suzuki, with whom he had developed a literary friendship.

I do not believe the church arranged for his murder. I do not know whether he committed suicide. But I do know that he was intellectually unsettled and that vows of silence, perpetual contemplation (he was a Trappist monk, then an enclosed order), and finally Zen and poetry weren’t enough to resettle him. It seems, at the end, that he looked more to poetry as a cure for his despair than to anything else. As a student he had been sexually adventurous, a vagabond between America and England, and finally (in his own words), even when surrounded by devout Anglicans and Catholics from two sides of his family, “someone who did not believe anything.”

Merton died before journey’s end. Who knows how he would have ended up? A priest? An apostate? A husband? An agnostic? He was only 53 when he died. The “affair” with the girl he calls “M” lasted until a year before he died, and in his “Midsummer Diary for M” he writes,

Is she thinking of me? Loving me? Is her heart calling to mine in the dark? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say that I know. I can’t honestly say I know anything except that it is late, that I can’t sleep, that there are fireflies all over the place, and that there is not the remotest possibility of making any poetic statement on this. You don’t write poems about nothing.

And yet somehow this nothing seems to be everything. I look at the south sky, and for some ungodly reason, for which there is no reason, everything is complete. I think of going back to bed in peace without knowing why, a peace that cannot be justified by anything, by any reason, any proof, any argument, by any supposition. There are no suppositions left. Only fireflies.

–As complete a statement of affirmative disbelief and as far from Roman Catholic Christianity as one could imagine.

But the vision is scarcely unique:

….Between the cold
and barren peaks of two eternities
we strive in vain to look beyond the heights,
we cry aloud: the only answer
is the echo of our wailing cry….
Hope sees a star, and listening love can hear
the rustle of a wing.
These myths were born of hopes, and fears and tears
and smiles, and they were touched and colored
by all there is of joy and grief between
the rosy dawn of birth and death’s sad night;
they clothed even the stars with passion
and gave to the gods the faults and frailties
of the sons of men. In them the winds
and waves were music, and all the lakes and streams,
springs, mountains, woods, and perfumed dells
were haunted by a thousand fairy forms. (Robert G. Ingersoll)

Ingersoll: Oratorical agnosticism?

Just to repeat: Atheists and their believing others have no moral obligation to negotiate their beliefs, not even to respect each other’s opinions. Why should they? The conversation I am advocating is not for everyone–not for the modern scholastics, of all stripes, who are stuck within the boundaries of private certitude.

This is an elitist position, I realize, but why should smart and interesting people waste their time talking to people who can only repeat slogans? Isn’t that what politics is for?

But at a particular level–where many born-again atheists and many true believers will never venture–the conversation goes on anyway, where the sons of men contemplate love and fireflies and find their peace. There is something worth talking about at that level.

Darkness, Doubt, and Dante

Augustine: Having seen the light...

What do Augustine, Thomas de Quincey, Leo Tolstoy, and John Henry Newman (now Blessed) have in common? That’s right: confessions. Relatively speaking, Tolstoy might have chosen to blog about his plight rather than write through it in longhand, de Quincey would have done well on, and Newman called his confession an apologia because he had been put in a defensive mode. But they all wrote about their spiritual troubles and how they solved them. To quote de Quincey in a somber moment:

“Christianity is that religion which most of all settles what is perilous in scepticism; and yet, also, it is that which most of all unsettles whatever may invite man’s intellectual activity. It is the sole religion which can give any deep anchorage for man’s hopes; and yet, also, in mysterious self-antagonism, it is the sole religion which opens a pathless ocean to man’s useful and blameless speculations.”

Historically, accounts of journeys from periods of doubt and anxiety (and addiction) to periods of what Newman called, at the time of his trade to the Catholic church, religious “certitude,” occupy considerably more space on library shelves than the journey in the other direction.

Religion has had the upper-hand in promoting itself as closure (isn’t that what “certainty” is?). Unbelief is saddled with images of confusion (isn’t that what doubt is?) and discontent–aimless searching.

“As the sentence [of the scripture I was reading] ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away….Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX.29; I.1)

Naturally this irrational but culturally potent association between doubt and darkness drives unbelievers crazy. The question is, Why does it arise at all?

Holman Hunt, The Light of the World

Because of an ancient theft of images. Religion has had the advantage of being imagined as a light on a hill, the “radiance” (as in John 14.6) that overpowers the darkness. That is the way Augustine imagined the Church of his day when everything else was, in fact, pretty dark–Rome declining, unable to sustain its institutions, hounded by unwelcome tourists from the north.

Christianity was a kind of theological alternative to demoralization and decline, though as a populist movement it could do very little in the western empire to forestall the inevitable “fall,” which later generations of historians would falsely ascribe to pagan immorality and corruption. To accept Christ, the light of the world, meant different things to different people. But for the Church’s early intellectuals it meant moving out of the darkness towards knowledge, towards wisdom, towards God, love and grace. To move in the other direction was not an appealing option, not even very rational.

The Church has had its way: darkness, hatred, sin, death, and final destruction of the spirit lay like the turbid waters of the Acheron at the end of the atheist’s quest. Who would knowingly move from truth toward a lie, from splendor towards dullness, from Palestrina and Bach toward Janacek? Since long before Dante consigned atheists to the inferno, setting your face against God has been seen as a lonely journey, driven by pride and a corrupt will that puts self in place of the Good. But the Church also traded on its philosophical bounty, especially Platonism, which saw rejection of the Good, now equated to the Christian God, as a rejection of reason.

Jesus enthroned in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)

“Atheism” did not actually lose control over or forfeit the imagery of light and truth. It has never really owned it. The theft was evolutionary rather than revolutionary: No (orthodox) philosophers died as a result of the heist, no secret coven of atheists was rooted out by posses of churchmen with a license to kill unbelievers. That point will appear jejune until you recall that such posses were empowered by Rome and local bishops to deal with heretics, well into the sixteenth century. Such unbelief as there was had to exist within the Church because that is where poets and professors earned their meager living.

When atheism has been considered at all by Catholic Christianity, it has been linked with heresy and apostasy as a special category of error–yet (oddly) not as serious as the other kinds because while atheism (by Anselm and the medieval theologians, for instance) is seen as a form of mulish stupidity (Ps.14.1), it is not a threat to the unity of the Church, like heresy, or as willful rebellion against God and his Church, like apostasy. That is to say, atheism doesn’t rise to the same degree of malignancy in the theological calculus, because then as now atheists were a lonely crew of poets and intellectuals and could not organize themselves into parties or schools.

Augustine refutes a heretic: note the toppled Church

Even Dante does not consign atheists to the darker levels of hell–merely to the deficient form of heaven, Limbo. Here you can find all the right people anyway: Horace, Julius Caesar, Ovid, Socrates, Cato, Vergil, Avicenna, and Averroes–whose common flaw is that they were unbaptized.

What did atheism do to deserve this patronizing neglect?

In the power vacuum created by the decline of the western Church and in the battles waged against heretics by the more powerful theologians in the eastern empire (Byzantium, where the creeds would be written), the ecclesial victors stole the imagery of philosophy and decorated their God like a Christmas tree with attributes that had been, basically, speculative in Greek thought. It was all about light, truth, and wisdom–their own, primarily, metaphysically projected outward onto their new triune God.

The Christian church deserves some credit for this. Hardly a philosophical image is left unexploited: goodness, infinity and eternality, immutability, omniscience (a kind of cheat, but that’s complicated), beauty, love, symmetry and perfection. Their grab-bag of ornaments included smatterings, ripped out of context, from Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry and assorted other philosophers. While condemning “paganism” (and with it, in many cases–for example the second century writer Justin Martyr–their own classical educations), they found the biblicism of their own tradition intellectually weak and aesthetically defective. It would take another century or two to find cradle-Catholic theologians who could pass up the temptations of pagan philosophy because, by that time, the usable bits had been brought in under the roof of the church. There was hardly any light left outside.

At the other end of this transformation, let me be pretty blunt, the Bible was transformed from an uneven collection of stories, poems and prophecies into an icon–if not a relic–while “tradition”–a word that looks innocent enough but refers to the creation of doctrine (teaching) of biblical interpreters–won the day. The artifact of this process, by the way, is the popular “protestant” belief that Catholics don’t read (or know) the Bible. They didn’t need to: the Church knew it for them.

It took until the sixteenth century for a few adventurous spirits to take the book out of its jeweled casket to see if the Church was anything like the book said it should be. But by then the damage (if that’s what it was) had been done. Not only was the Church a lot more complicated, richer, and better dressed than the one in the New Testament, but its God didn’t look very much like the biblical God either. Frankly, however, the Reformers were not all that consistent: the God of the Bible had already been retired in creeds they defended from the fourth century–“God from God, light from light, true god from true god, one in substance with the Father”–when the bishops were speaking of a man named Jesus.

Cardinal in full dress regalia....

With so much light going to the orthodox, there wasn’t much left over for atheists. The creed I just quoted was barely thirty years old when Augustine was born, and even though he quotes massively from sacred scripture, the way he does it leaves no verse unturned, no verb unextrapolated and no simple noun standing in its rightful place. The church had begun to speak allegory, and that would remain its official idiom until nineteenth century protestant theologians added paradox to the tool kit.

Granted, it’s a bit late for atheists to worry about getting back the light that was stolen from philosophy: eleatics, Socratics, skeptics, stoics, epicureans and sophists, all with highly rationalistic if not (exactly) atheistic tendencies. The final nail in the crucifixion of this-worldly knowledge was the teaching that the wisdom of this world (that would include science) is darkness and folly, and that the “true light” is essentially a way beyond, a path to heaven charted by the church.

The word that would come to describe this light is faith (πίστις). And the key thing about faith is that the Church was thought to possess it and (along with grace) dispense it. It was the faith, not faith in a verbal sense as a kind of assent. Much later, the reformers would try to restore an older, and what they thought was a more biblical understanding of St Paul’s favorite word. But it was a quibble. Whoever or whatever possessed it, it was thought be superior to reason; whether you accessed it through a change of heart or through the sacraments, you did not access it in your head. You surrendered to it because you had no other choice.

This is a kind of final-strawism. Thomas Aquinas, as we all know, argued that God could be known through natural reason, to a point, and his five ways or arguments for God’s existence all seem superficially reasonable. But in the long run, the finer things about God–that he is all good, for example–can only be known by faith, because the world we live in is full of ugliness and sorrow and pain and seems to contradict the goodness of God, except as a sadist might define it. The light of truth comes shrouded in darkness. It is the duty of the church, he thought, to reveal it. “Ubi fides est, ratio fallitur.” Where reason fails, faith prevails.

The artistic culture of the west has been a prolonged illustration of religion’s monopoly on light, certainty, closure and truth. Think Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Paradise, Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, Gretchen’s salvation in Faust. And beyond that, think of every Cinderella story, rags-to-riches-epic, chick-flick. These don’t have to be religious as long as the protagonists end up in love and at the castle.

Now think of Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the absurd and existentially restless genres of the twentieth century. On the one hand, the drama and music of the period tolled in the death of God and certainty, illustrated by atonality and abandonment of form and the unities of classical aesthetics. On the other hand, we already see this art as periodically limited to the discovery of psychology and the aftermath of nuclear confusion. In fifty years it will be unreadable except by literary professionals interested in last-century movements. If it means anything in the twenty first century, it underscores David Hart’s comment, “The world is dying of metaphysical boredom.” Atheism is hard pressed to be a solution to that situation, at any level.

Even if by some freak chance atheists in 2012 would grow to 20% of the American population they are still hamstrung by a tradition of seeing skepticism and doubt as a menu for spiritual starvation and human incompleteness. They do not seem to be helped by the attempt of a few aggressive atheists to monopolize the term “Brights” to reclaim their right to the image, or by public displays of blasphemy which seem to attack dogmas that an increasingly illiterate laity don’t know are sacred anyway. (45% of Catholics in a recent poll did not know their Church taught the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine how they’d explain the virgin birth).

When atheists attack religion, it seems to many bystanders that they are attacking the solution to a problem, proposing doubt as a cure for certainty, or despair as a remedy for hope. When they do so in obnoxious ways, they just seem to be grousing about the fact Dante doesn’t give them the choicest rooms in his hell. It hardly seems fair that the unequivocal denial of God shouldn’t be the thing that God hates the most.

Is there a way to revive a debate that was really over before the fifth century of the modern era? To give atheists a chance to negotiate God out of his right to adjectives the Church won fair and square in a game of chance? I can’t answer that. Most atheists I know aren’t even interested in trying.

Three Fewer Things to Say About Atheism

Mao and Stalin were atheists. This proves that atheists are not socially tolerant. I can probably think of a hundred names to add to the list to build a case. But it would be the wrong case because, surely, it was communism that supplied the evangelical intolerance of the social and economic movements we associate with Stalinism and Maoism. Atheism is simply a component of a larger picture. (As I mentioned to the reader who lodged the objection, this is a good example of the fallacy of division.)

Beyond this, we can’t deny that the ideologues of the communist movement understood atheism as a formative mind-set: Marx (and Engels) began as left-Hegelians, along with a half dozen theologians ranging from Strauss to the early myth-theorist Bruno Bauer. Their atheism flowed from a material view of the world and a rejection of the superstition that could be used to keep the workers of the world in their place, on the analogy of the laity in relation to church hierarchy at the time of the Reformation. The extent to which Reformation theology shaped all of the post-Hegelian social theorists, and especially Engels, has been clear to scholars for a century.

But the question of atheism as a catalyst for tolerance (my view) raises a whole range of subordinate questions about whether an intellectual rejection of God requires, and to what degree, practical rejection of religions, religious practice, and religious persons. And this is proof enough that unbelief is not mere rejectionism: it has social consequences. How do you behave when you have decided religion is plain wrong? Does it parallel the patterns we are used to in the history of religion, when one sect bloodies the other sects because only one can have the whole truth? Communism and other social movements have behaved religiously when they have had the power to punish and suppress.

The issue is, what sort of consequences do we recognize as flowing, more or less directly from atheism? I stick to my point that we can only know the answer to that from the newspapers, and atheists (as far as I know) as atheists have no record of destroying religious shrines, or waging unholy war, or doing physical violence to believers in public places. Tolerance with a small “t”, if you will, but that’s about all we can get in this old world.

Veiled threat?

The eminently sensible Ophelia Benson (Butterflies and Wheels) says that she has never found it difficult to be an atheist; thus, courage should not (necessarily) be commended as an atheist virtue.

Permit me to disagree, but in a limited way. I am perhaps as close to being an atheist as any believer can be, so close that it pains me to self-identify as a “believer.” I certainly do not believe in any gods so far discovered, poesized, prayed to or reduced to scripture. If I liked the world “possibilism” I would use it. If I liked the word “agnostic,” you’d find it here.

But the real word for my position is cowardly. Not in a playing-Pascal’s-odds kind of way, but a pure and refined cowardice. I like to think of myself as a philosophical work in progress, trying to find the right descriptors for God–ones that will appeal to my robust atheist friends, always failing miserably in a rhetorical swamp. I know my project is a waste of time because my godless comrades have already reached the right conclusion. I have always liked to refer to myself as Sartre’s grandmother: “Only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist” (Les Mots, 1964). I resist settled positions because once you have arrived at one you have to unpack your suitcase and sit down. Some are born godless, some achieve godlessness, but unlike those communists we were just discussing, no “real” atheist has godlessness thrust upon them.

I call having and holding that position against the odds courageous.

Courageous not heroic.

Ophelia also calls me out for saying that atheism and the arts don’t always mix, though they should because atheism demands imagination. Just as not all atheists are humanists (and vice versa), atheists will differ about the role of the arts, and they will usually do so by asking a “utility” question: what are the arts good for? Does painting get you to the moon? Does poetry or theater improve life-expectancy? The answer to both questions is that a basketball scholarship will get you into Purdue, but not into Phi Beta Kappa.

In a 1973 article for Humanism Today, Paul Kurtz posed the question as whether the arts convey knowledge. He answered by saying yes and no–depending on the kind of art and on understanding that, say, a dramatist might convey very important information that can also be conveyed in “unaesthetic” and (implicitly) more precise ways. The arts and the imagination are important, Kurtz argued, because they provide an additum to human life, but are not at the core of the reasoning process:

Thus humanism needs to untap the poetic metaphors of the creative human imagination and to use these to dramatize humanist ideals in eloquent form. Art is not a subjective substitute of intuition for knowledge claims justified by reason and experiment; it is not a replacement for objective methods of inquiry. It simply adds an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths and humanist values in aesthetic form. And as such it can help to inspire intensity of conviction and devotion to commitment. It is thus able to make humanism both intellectually true and aesthetically satisfying. As such, art has a powerful role to play in life. It is thus intrinsic to the fullest expression of humanist eupraxophy

Paul Kurtz

I don’t think the idea that the arts “simply add an eloquent dimension to experience by rendering humanist truths …and values in aesthetic forms” adequately comprehends the centrality of experience to both religious and non-religious people. The question of God–though not often understood in this way, thanks to the quibbles of theology and philosophy over centuries–is fundamentally a question about the imagination. And if this is so, then aesthetic questions–characterization, quality, representation (description) and effect–have to be taken into account in our answer.

Imagination is not peripheral or “modal” to the atheist experience anymore than it is to the religious experience. This has to be true because (as atheological writers like Feuerbach reminded us a long time back) that’s where gods are born. The statues and images and choral preludes come later. Classical atheism understood this–Democritus and Lucretius especially, and Xenophanes:

But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.

Most of us use informal aesthetics all the time without knowing it: every believer’s suggestion that the New Testament God is “nicer” than the Old Testament God, or that Allah condones terrorism, is an aesthetic judgement. Every unbeliever’s conclusion that God does not exist springs from some assessment of a literary God, rarely from Hobbes and Hume, except as philosophical dressing.

Not imagining God is not the simple denial of the other man’s beliefs but a different and contrary evaluation of the world he sees. Once this aesthetic judgment is reduced to premises–mere information–all is lost.

The night sky over Australia is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. It makes me grateful for my eyes, but grateful to nothing. What makes one man want to pray to an unseen infinitely great being located up or out there–this contemplation of immensity–makes another rejoice in his nearly infinite smallness. It is true, this is not knowledge, but there is no knowledge without the experience and its effects.

Atheism is all about imagination; it needs to be more about aesthetics.