Atheist Denominationalism

Most atheists have never read H. Richard Niebuhr. That’s too bad. Because now that unbelievers are fighting with each other about how much of God not to believe in, they have a lot to learn from the battles fought among God’s people for primacy of position.

Niebuhr was primarily an ethicist and while influenced by philosophers and theologians as far apart as Barth, Troeltsch and Tillich, he was solidly grounded in the reality of social change. He knew that since the Protestant Reformation Christianity had become restless and incoherent. When monolithic belief in God’s holy church and her sacraments was demolished by the phenomenon of “fissiparation” (churches quarreling over picayune differences about inconspicuous doctrines and forming into ever more minor sects), the stage was set for a religion that could hardly claim to be what Christ had in mind when he expressed the wish that ‘all may be one’. Not of course that Jesus was speaking, if he was speaking, of the church when he said that.

Countries around the world experienced the Protestant Reformation in different ways: Europe at a theological level, and then in skirmishes that grew into full fledged wars. No longer able to contain the confusion by executing the odd heretic or sending the forces over the hill to rout the Huguenots, Europe settled finally into a state of religious détente that grew eventually to boredom and finally to a comparative loss of interest in religion and an acceptance of secular values. One of the reasons the “priest abuse scandal” has been so shocking to Europeans is that this generation of Irish, Italians, Germans and French have a hard enough time remembering the autocratic church of their grandparents’ day, when papal and episcopal fiat were good enough for relatively docile laity. It is the idea that society—the secular—stands against and above the church in all legal and judicial respects that makes the crisis almost unfathomable in modern terms.

A Protestant Scene

America experienced the Reformation as an export, a receiver nation. Whatever you might have learned about America being solidly “Christian” at its foundation is not only not true, but not true because the seventeenth century was the era when Christianity itself was being redefined. The puritans of New England did not share the religious interests of the commercial men of Massachusetts Bay, a “factorie,” and the relatively softer Baptists followed on their heels within a generation. Harvard had fallen from Calvinist grace by 1702 when Yale was founded to preserve its true religion (the mottoes are revealing: Harvard, Veritas, Yale Lux et Veritas). By then, Jews were aboard, or off ship, in Rhode Island and the first waves of Catholics were about to arrive in Lord Baltimore’s Maryland. Go a bit further south and boatloads of low church Anglicans had disembarked in Virginia decades before, and Presbyterians would squeeze into the gaps in the Carolinas, named for Charles II. Georgia (the name first suggested to a delighted George II in 1724) would be transformed by Wesley’s followers into a colony for Methodism. Go a little deeper and change colonial masters: waves of Catholics driven from New France by the pursuing forces of the British General Wolfe, would arrive in the bayous of the Mississippi Gulf region and learn to call it home.

A 'Cajun' (Acadian) Scene, 1898

The grab bag of religious immigrants that came together at the end of the eighteenth century was not an especially remarkable mix. It was a powder keg of competing denominations with explosive potential. In their wisdom, as Americans like to say of the founding fathers, the authors of the Constitution were savvy enough to make sure that religion and government should stay apart: that’s what the first amendment was devised to do. But they were equally savvy about the instincts of these displaced and largely yokel Europeans. Whether it was debt, famine, crime, adventurism, a loveless marriage, a lost fortune or religious persecution that had brought them to the New World, it was entirely likely that their faith came with them. So, what the founders gave with their right hand to government they took away again with their left by delivering to these competing sects the “free exercise” of their faith. Congress would never pass a law constraining the free exercise of religion. And in saying that they passed a law concerning the free exercise of religion. America became the most religious nation on earth and the most fertile field for growing new religions.

Mormon Trek

Niebuhr of course knew all of this, the son of a distinguished immigrant German theological family himself. He knew that the ragbag culture of American religion would always be a supermarket of choices–and not only that. There was something in the nature of Protestantism that was friendly to competition (as Weber had argued at the beginning of the twentieth century), from strong belief to weak belief, from Born Againism to Ask me Later. If ever Feuerbach needed confirmation of his idea that religion makes God in man’s image, the proof could be found in the American Experience.


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Modern Atheism is a continuation of the pattern of denominationalism and derives specifically from it. It is the fatal last step in the journey from strong to weak belief. Just as secularism emanates from the religious acceptance of tolerance and pluralism, necessities imposed by competing sects living in close cultural proximity over a long period of time, atheism is that point on the belief scale where God becomes not optional but impossible.

By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that atheism is religion. That is a limp, tiresome, historically uninformed debate. But atheists would be very foolish not to understand themselves connected through history and process to the developments that help us to understand the phenomenon of denominationalism. If a hard core atheist cannot believe in creation ex nihilo, it would be pretty silly for him to believe that any social or intellectual position can be equivalently wrought.

It also seems clear to me that atheists, in accepting that they have their origins not in Zeus’s bonnet but in a social process, should also accept that atheism will also experience its own denominationalism, its own sectarian divisions This process has been under way for a long time. We are seeing its latest eruption in the “debate’ between old and new atheists, as in the twentieth century in differences between religious humanists and secular humanists. Even the terminology used to express the differences (as Niebuhr pointed out) becomes crucially significant: Labeling is one of the properties of the protestant spirit. Just as it isn’t enough to say Baptist without specifying Southern, American, Freewill, Particular or Seventh Day, the day may come when one atheist will demand of the atheist sitting next to him at a bar “Old,” “New,” “Bright,” “Strict,” “Friendly” or “Prickly?”

What denominationalism teaches is that human beings despise norms. I suspect there will never be a more impressive “norm” than the rules and doctrines and liturgies of the Catholic church of the sixteenth century. If you want to know what God looked like at the peak of his game, it was then. But “then” is when the Reformation happened.

I suspect that atheism had something like that heyday in the 1940’s when it became, normatively speaking, a sexy bad boy philosophy associated with the likes of Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell, and slightly later with (certain) existentialists, especially Camus. It had a prior history of course, and a later one. But I tend to think the potential for variegation in atheism goes back far into history. Maybe it goes back to Hobbes, maybe to Lucretius or Epicurus. But wherever it goes it is always in juxtaposition with religious values, and often enough (especially with the French) with particular religious doctrines. Read the forward to Marx’s doctoral thesis to see what I mean.

Atheism follows the religious pattern of denominationalism not only because it behaves religiously but because its central question is a religious question—or more precisely a question about religion. It should surprise no one that what we are seeing now are permissive, soft, hard, pluralistic, total rejectionist, possibilist, impossibilist, and accommodationist responses to the question of God’s existence and the “meaning” of religious experience. Why would we expect anything else?

What we can hope is that the process doesn’t take atheists too far down the denominational road as they jockey for position as the True Unreligion: Once-born and twice-born atheist is a distinction we can live without.