Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.



Call me a Manichaen, after you look it up, but whatever I may think about God, my faith in the devil remains unshaken.  He’s my guy. He rocks and rules.

The Manichaens thrived in all parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as China and Europe, from the third century onward.  So popular were they that the church fathers tried to make people believe they were a Christian heresy. But their real roots are in the dualistic thinking of ancient Persia, stretching back to the prophet Zoroaster.

Their appeal was huge, however, and Mani’s culturally omnivorous followers availed themselves of all sorts of religious ideas (and possibly even Christian writings) in formulating their philosophy.  In turn, the Christian gnostic sects used it freely and imitatively, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out Manichaen and “purer” gnostic forms of teaching.

Not to mention that even the most “orthodox” Christian teaching got a heavy dose of Manichean ideas. The most famous of the early church writers, Saint Augustine, was a Manichean throughgout most of his formative period.  And some cynics have noted that he only converted to Christianity in 387–after the emperor Theodosius, worried about the influence of Manichaen thought on Christianity throughout the empire, issued an edict (382) ordering the death of Manichaens.  A coincidence, to be sure.

What I like about the Manichaens is that they based their teachings on the simple observation that there is more evil than good in the world, and that two eternally opposed powers of good and evil preside over everything from the cosmos to the individual soul or will.  Giving to charity and lying about your tax liability to the IRS are perfectly natural expressions of your humanity. So is patience with children and wanting to beat the crap out of the guy who just cut into your lane, missing your car by inches.  It keeps us in a constant state of stress and imbalance, and if this weren’t so the stars would fall out of the sky.

Good and evil are simply modes of the universal struggle and the impulses that govern the individual life. Since we live in a world governed by material things, the downward trend of our desire for pleasure, sex and riches is more or less guaranteed. Let’s not call it sin.  Let’s call it human nature.  Because when writers like Augustine get hold of the idea, they’ll equate the two and we’ll just feel sorry for ourselves.  Christianity is the great confusion of a much simpler, earlier dualism.

True, their myths are far more complicated than I’m letting on,  and the light and dark imagery and personages who populate their stories (like the quasi-gnostic Mandaens of Iraq) can be a bit obscure and exhausting–a bit like Hinduism.  There is also the problem of knowing which of the sources we possess, interspersed as they are with all kinds of religious teaching ranging from apocalyptic Judaism to Buddhism, are really representative of Manichean religious thought.  But that just makes them more interesting–in my humble opinion.

Manichaeism remained highly vaporous, dangerous, and a little sexy. Orthodox Christianity pinned everything down to definitions and ended up sounding like Daffy Duck.

The big advantage over orthodox Christianity is that for Manicheans there is no real problem of evil.  Evil (as Nietzsche and Richard Strauss saw, philosophically and musically) is just a mode of reality.  Good and evil are correlative forces creating the basic tension in the universe.  In the basic myth of the Manichees (there are many), God is not all powerful, so he couldn’t subdue evil if he wanted to, and humanity itself is a byproduct of the struggle–a mythological way of saying that our personalities are symptoms of eternal, unresolved swirl and restlessness. Like Jessica Rabbit, we’re not bad; we’re just drawn that way.

The Christians meantime taught that Satan was relatively puny, a tempter, slanderer (diabolos, devil), adversary (Satan), or lesser angel of light (Lucifer) who infiltrated creation, spoiled its primordial goodness, and then had to pay the price of his mischief through the coming of a “redeemer” who could satisfy the devil’s demand for the payment of a debt God had incurred in a game. God the almighty had lost the world in a wager when Adam “fell” from grace. History becomes the staging ground for getting it back.

No, I am not making this up: almost all the church fathers taught that Satan had won the world to his side in the Garden. Even the concept of original sin is developed in the light of this belief.  God is seen as a gambler who invents the stratagem of salvation: producing a god-man who belongs to the devil by right (all humans do, according to Christian theology) but not by nature, since he is “truly God,” and hence more powerful than a speeding devil.

Jesus harrows hell where the saints have been waiting patiently

The belief that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus paid a visit to hell and “caught” Satan by surprise (“with the bait of his humanity on the hook of his divinity,”  Irenaeus and Basil liked to say) is actually preserved in early christian creeds, like the one curiously called the Apostle’s Creed written late in the fourth century by Ambrose of Milan.

Slightly embarrassed by this highly mythological way of looking at why Jesus came into the world (bait? hook?), the church finally turned to philosophy, where it tried to make roads and ended up creating the system of potholes we call Christian theology.

In this system, the devil still exists but plays no real role in the drama, leaving God vulnerable to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing trilemma.  –The one the Manichaens never had to confront, as their divine powers were fairly equally matched, at least in this cycle of creation.

The theologians’ God (as distinct from the God of the Bible, lore, and early legend) had to account for the fact that the deity, being omniscient, must have known creation would turn out wrong (evil) and being all good must not have wanted it to turn out that way and being all powerful could have prevented it, yet didn’t. No matter how you de-horn this preposterous beast it’s still mighty ugly.  Every theologian from Augustine to Plantinga and Hick have had a try at solving the problem that James L.  Mackie saw as Christianity’s fatal intellectual flaw.  I recommend reading them only if you have ten years in solitary confinement to kill, and even then get plenty of exercise.  –No wonder that this branch of Christian theology, “theodicy,” is often misspelled “theidiocy.”

My real proof that the Manichaens are right however is not that orthodox Christianity looks wrong, it’s that the pure force of evil within the Church is plain as the nose on your face.

My guess is that for two thousand years the Church has been a kind of hothouse for evil.  The process reached a pre-climax in the Crusades and later in the Inquisition.  But only in our own time has the complete success of the evil forces been clear.

Still not convinced? I offer the following exhibits:

1.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  A woman so in love with poverty that she did everything in her earthly power to propagate it on a global level.    Especially successful was her campaign against family planning and HIV-AIDS education, calling abortion, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize address,”the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”

2.  Pope John Paul II (Blessed John Paul II): The charismatic bishop of Rome and soon to be canonized supreme pontiff and successor of Peter (1978-2005) whose “Gospel of Life” and blind eye towards the moral decrepitude of thousands of priests was the Catholic church’s belated contribution to the sexual revolution.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI, right-hand man to John Paul, whose skill at delaying judicial proceedings against the criminal acts of priests and bishops revealed a level of technical proficiency seldom witnessed, even in ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

4.  Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the first bishop shown to be actively involved in a cover up of the criminal acts of priests accused of child abuse, and duly rewarded for his service to his Church by John Paul II by being appointed to a lifetime sinecure in Rome and archpriest of Saint Mary Major basilica, one of Rome’s cushiest benefices.

6.  Father Paul Shanley, who managed to combine his pastoral work with street people in the 1980’s with plenty of downtime with adolescent boys (at least nine), and after being transferred to faraway San Bernadino, California, where the living and bishops were easy, co-owned a B&B for gay tourists with another priest in Palm Springs. A self-starter, Shanley used his rectorial experience to found the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).  Hymnal appropriately includes “I get high with a little love from my friends.”

6.  Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who rightfully stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status after insolent nun, Sister Margaret McBride, assented to a surgical procedure to save the life of a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy, on doctors’ advice.  In the spirit of the Church’s robust defense of unborn life and its commitment to the spread of poverty, disease and infant mortality in the developing world (cf. the “Gospel of Life,” above), Bishop Olmsted also noted that Sister Margaret had incurred automatic excommunication for her intervention.

7.  Honorable mention.  With its aggressive media, it was almost tempting to think that only the American church had been overcome by devils.  Now we know that the spirit of evil is alive and flourishing in Canada, Belgium, and best of all, around Galway Bay, where Paddy can now be a nickname for Patrick–or something else.

Basically, wherever God thought he had won, there is plenty of proof that he lost–just like in Eden all those millennia ago.  As far as I’m concerned, the Manicheans had it right all along. What a craven poltroon, what a yellow-bellied dastard, what a sissy, a milquetoast, a Scaramouche.  He couldn’t even manage to wipe out the whole human race with the flood, and hasn’t had the cojones to follow through with his promise to do it again only this time for real.

Put your money on the devils.

Is “God” Invulnerable?

Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.

It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound  than I did three decades ago.  It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation, The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”

The modern situation was basically scientific knowledge–the growing conviction that what we see is all we get, and that if we can’t see it we just need better techniques for seeing it.  The glaring exception to this optimism, this faith in scientific know-how–a 1950’s word–was God, about whom it was widely supposed that no lens powerful enough, no jet-propulsion engine fast enough and no controlled experiment sophisticated enough was ever going to discover him.  God was safe, in a weird kind of way, because he was, to use the catchphrase of the time, “Wholly Other.”

There were two ways of dealing with the vulnerability of God to the modern situation.  One was to say that God is immune from scientific discovery because he is known only through faith. Bring on your historical criticism, your naturalistic assaults, your so-called “facts,” your rock and roll. The bigness of God just shows the puniness of your methods.  To try this course, however, entailed a repudiation of the idea that God can be known rationally and that faith and reason were compatible rather than hostile modes of determining truth–a rejection, in other words, of the whole previous history of theology, especially Catholic theology.

The other way was to exploit post-positivism, or a theological construction of “Popperism.”  This tactic relied on the philosophical premise that while God can be postulated on reasonable grounds (analogically, for example: shoes have makers so universes have creators) “he” cannot actually be falsified (we know where the shoemaker’s house is; we see him going to it at five o’clock; but we don’t know where God lives as he is thought to be invisible).  We can’t quite be certain that he doesn’t exist, on the same grounds we can’t falsify the existence of anything we haven’t seen, and some propositions (or assertions) about God are tenable, even if implausible, when alternative explanations are considered.

Part of this “propositional” strategy hearkened back to ontology, the idea that God is not directly experienced or instantiated in creation and so in some sense must be greater than it, prior to it, or transcendent, in a way that beggars ordinary description. Theology had never succeeded in reconciling the claim of biblical revelation with the “classical” attributes of god’s aseity and impassibility (i.e., a supreme being cannot change or suffer–“he” is what he is, as Yahweh sniffs in Exodus 3.14), so uncertainty was a kind of safe epistemological cloud to wrap discussion in–in addition to which it had a certain (unrelated) currency in atomic physics which leant it a kind of dubious respectability. This approach preserved the bare notion of the rationality of religious belief, leaving theology room to exploit the doctrine that Christianity is all about faith and hope, the “certainty of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1).

Faith seeking understanding?

Both positions were so intellectually flimsy (and apologetic) that theologians had to go a long way to create a vocabulary that made them independently and mutually impressive.  That goal, I write to say, was never achieved. Claims were made and games were played, but theology did not succeed in preserving the life of its divine protagonist–not even in the totally cynical and ephemeral God is dead theology of the ‘sixties.


Beginning before the publication of Karl Barth’s “neo-orthodox” tome, The Epistle to the Romans (1922), where the Swiss theologian reaffirms for protestants everywhere the primacy of faith, “serious”  theology became enamoured of the idea that God as God is invulnerable to scientific thought, as the term was understood in the mid-twentieth century.

There were plenty of medieval (and later) parallels to this way of thinking, ranging from mysticism to the “apophatic” theology of some of the scholastics, which even included the acknowledgement that the statement “God exists,” if it means existence of a temporal, durable, knowable kind, is false.

"God does not exist but nothing else matters."

In most areas of life, to say something doesn’t exist means you don’t need to be concerned about it: it can’t bite you or lend you money. In theology, however, this sublime non-existence evoked awe, mystery, dread, and reverence–the very things you don’t get in the morning with coffee and toast. It can even give your own pathetic existence meaning if you just embrace its awesomeness.  Authentically.

Modern discussions of existence as a mere temporal condition of being, especially Heidegger’s, emboldened theologians to think outside the box, with Heidegger being to the thought of the day what Aristotle was to the thirteenth century Church.  Thus Rudolph Bultmann could write this confrontational paragraph in his essay “The New Testament and Mythology” (1941):

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. He may grant him heavenly visions. He may allow him to hear his word of succor or demand. He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for “powers” is precisely what they are), and hastens towards its end. That end will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. It will be inaugurated by the “woes” of the last time. Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation…”

None of this is literally true–indeed, has already proved not to be true, Bultmann said; none of these things will happen in the way they are described. Called “demythologization,” Bultmann’s program did not call for a simple recognition that (most) modern people find the biblical landscape fantastic and absurd, but an aggressive embrace of methods that would strip mythology away and leave in its place the bare “kerygma”–the message.


While Bultmann could be cagey about the implications of this message,  especially in correspondence with critics like Barth (who refused to accept Bultmann’s defintion of myth) he essentially embraced the axiom of Rudolph Otto (overlaid with Heidegger’s phenomenology) that “God is wholly Other” than the categories we associate with existence.  It was the theological equivalent of hitting the target in front of you and hearing your opponent say, “That isn’t the target you needed to hit.”

     Theologians spent the next forty years coming to terms with the contours (and dead-ends) of Bultmann’s thought.  His contribution to biblical studies was to persuade timid seminarians, accustomed to treating the biblical text with reverence rather than historical skepticism, that in taking a knife to scripture they were not making it bleed away its life.  They were saving it from the cancer of obsolete thoughts and ideas–freeing the message of authentic existence to be itself, making faith a “choice” rather than blind obedience to discredited ideas and dogmas.  Like all closed systems, it made sense from the inside.

While there was much to admire here there was almost no one to admire it: a program for liberal biblical scholars to consider, conservatives to eschew, and almost everyone else to ignore.  Looking back on his legacy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it looks strangely like a plant bred only for the hothouse of academic theology and not suited for life in real weather.

The term “demythologization” acquired a voltage among under-read–especially Catholic and evangelical scholars–that was only rivaled by the word “atheism.” Not an elegant prose stylist (most German academic theology of the period was pure fustian) Bultmann was at least considered dangerous in the establishment he was trying to save from intellectual disgrace.


In systematic theology the task was roughly the same, though the tracks did not always run parallel and (perhaps surprisingly) the historical track was often more radical than the theological one as “demythologization” merged with the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a boutique of approaches that put the biblical text at the mercy of historical criticism.

Tillich in 1957, while still at Harvard, addressed the question of God and the modern situation directly in a Garvin Lecture called “The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.”  His key theological slogans are all present in this lecture: God is not a “being,” but the ground of all being–being itself.  All language about God is symbolic rather than realistic, including the meaning of the concept of God–which is not the same as the symbol. It is impossible to describe God or to say anything “non-symbolic” about him.

Like other existentialists Tillich was confronted not just by the problems entailed for theology by God’s non-existence but by the implications of that recognition for human existence itself.  Sartre, among others, had described the sense of emptiness brought on by the end of God’s moral reign as despair, nausea, freedom without purpose. Tillich thought that Christianity’s emphasis on faith was both an acknowledgement that the concept of a literal God was done for  (that is, something implicit in faith itself) but also an opening to being.  In a vocabulary that sometimes rivals Heidegger’s for pure self-indulgence, this is variously described as the “God above god,” “Being itself,” and “ultimate concern.” It is whatever humans regard as sacred, numinous, holy (in traditional language), but so overwhelming that it requires total surrender.  The God of theological theism is no longer the cure but the source of doubt and despair.  He

…deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with recent tyrants with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implication.  (The Courage to Be, 135)

Tillich’s theism was pure humanism in a different and slightly dishonest wrapper.  He confesses as much in his Garvin Lecture when he says that far from science creating the modern situation of universal doubt, it is “the wisdom of twentieth century art, literature, drama and poetry…which reveals man’s predicament: his having to die, his being estranged, his being threatened with the loss of meaning, his becoming an object among other objects” (Idea of God, 108).  God for Tillich is non-objectifiable, thus crumbles when he is made into what the French theologian Gabriel Vahanian called a “cultural artifact,” an idol. Tillich’s theology was at bottom a religious answer to the question Sartre said it was cowardly to answer religiously.

We are already writing the history of post-modernism, and the histories of existentialism are legion.  It’s a history of malaise and post-War exhaustion conceived as a general theory of the “human predicament,” the “modern situation.” Tillich believed that by admitting to the collapse of the literal god-concept, the God of religious authority (an admission that by no means all Christians would have joined him in making!) an epistemological substitute could arise to save us from the mess we have made of our world, our society, our disoriented and alienated selves.  But the distance between a God who could disappear into the vortex (a favourite image of the period) of despair and anxiety and be purified and strengthened by it (Tillich)  and God as “absence, the solitude of man” (Sartre) defined the distance between a reupholstered illusion and the reality that had made atheism an option forced by twentieth century realities. Both thinkers agreed on the non-existence of God.  Yet for Tillich, that was no reason to sacrifice a symbol.


The invulnerators were obviously infected with the spirit of their own formative fantasy, the resurrection, which saw the death of the human Jesus as the prelude to his immortal reign.  Christians as Christians clung to a highly material view of that belief, and the associated belief that as it was for Jesus, so it would be for them–a little less royal but every bit as everlasting.

Tillich’s attempt to recast Christianity in the vulgate of the 1950’s is stale, but not merely stale because it is dated: stale because it is pedantic and wrong–atheism dressed as a bishop, when it was perfectly possible to dress in shirt and trousers and say what you really think and mean: The God of Christian theism is a story.  He does not exist.  All theological projects to prove his existence have failed.  The historical and critical work of the last two centuries have made his existence absurd to increasing numbers of people, making religious beliefs harder to maintain and defend.  This has turned millions of people into seekers, and created a situation which humankind has not encountered before.  Its outcome is still unknown.

That is what Tillich should have confessed because it is what he thought. Yet his solution was to offer sedatives and linguistic figments to people whose imagination, courage and intellect he didn’t trust.  Methadone, as I said, for religion-recovery.

Darwin Profile on Ancient Coin!

The yaw coin dates from the 4th century BCE and was discovered in southern Gaza where the cult of YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Bible,was dominant. Its official description is this:

Langdon (1931):

“A coin from Gaza in Southern Philista, fourth century BC, the period of the Jewish subjection to the last of the Persian kings, has the only known representation of this Hebrew deity. The letters YHW are incised just above the hawk(?) which the god holds in his outstretched left hand, Fig. 23. He wears a himation, leaving the upper part of the body bare, and sits upon a winged wheel. The right arm is wrapped in his garment. At his feet is a mask. Because of the winged chariot and mask it has been suggested that Yaw had been identified with Dionysus on account of a somewhat similar drawing of the Greek deity on a vase where he rides in a chariot drawn by a satyr. The coin was certainly minted under Greek influence, and consequently others have compared Yaw on his winged chariot to Triptolemos of Syria, who is represented on a wagon drawn by two dragons. … Yaw of Gaza really represents the Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic Sun-god, El, Elohim, whom the monotheistic tendencies of the Hebrews had long since identified with Yaw…Sanchounyathon…based his history upon Yerombalos, a priest of Yeuo, undoubtedly the god Yaw, who is thus proved to have been worshipped at Gebal as early as 1000 BC.” (pp. 43-44. Langdon. 1931)

Yaw image (drawn) with Darwin looking on as he mounts his wheel or chariot.

It has interested scholars for generations that the officially monotheistic and iconoclastic Jews, whose laws strictly prohibited “graven images” of the sort used by pagan kings on their coins, would permit their national God to be represented in a blatantly Hellenistic way.

But that is only half the story. Upon close inspection it is clear that the coin is also miraculous. In the lower right a clear image of Charles Darwin in profile, accurate in detail right down to his flowing beard, appears.

Is Darwin trying to tell us something, proleptically? Is this the final refutation of all those skeptics who say that Darwin was an atheist? Or does the coin make some association between Darwin and Yahweh, perhaps suggesting that Darwin has been supplanted by the God of revelation who stole his wheel? Or is the coin an encrypted message, a token of a collaboration between God and Darwin in the evolutionary process? Is it possible that the face is a representation of Jesus and that Darwin was his direct descendant, or perhaps a reincarnation?

You must judge for yourself–but this is very exciting archaeology.

Yaw coin, Persia (?), 4th BCE


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.

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.

Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

In a word, No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movement Humanism

What makes “organized humanism” different from the humanism that evolved philosophically out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment era is that it didn’t evolve out of the Renaissance or Enlightenment era. Not really.

Anyone who has travelled through the liberal arts curriculum of a European or American university in the last century has experienced the benefits of a benign, docile, unangry form of humanism: a curriculum free from church dogma and supervision, a reverence for scientific inquiry, systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society and an emphasis on critical thinking.

Once upon a time, theology was called queen of the sciences. That was once upon a time. If you really want to know how the liberal arts (a slightly misleading name in our historically impoverished culture since “liberal arts”–the studies that “set your free”– include mathematics and sciences), fought and dethroned theology for the title, you really only have to look at the history of the American university—not counting, of course, those private and parochial ones that are paid for and managed by religious institutions of various stripes. In general, the modern university is built from the bricks humanism provided. It’s a product of intellectual evolution and learning and constructed to focus on the things that, as humans, we can know about rather than on the things that, as humans, we can’t possibly know.

Sometimes secular humanists want to claim that their brand of humanism shares a common pedigree with the humanism of the university. But that’s not true. Its origins, while respectable are not intellectually apostolic: French salon discussion, satire and tractarianism, German political movements, especially the Left Hegelians (like Marx in economics and Baur in philosophy and theology), anti-clericalism, frontier pragmatism in America, and above all a village atheism and hardheadedness that can be traced back to Tom Paine, Darrow, Ingersoll, and a dozen lesser lights. Many, though by no means all of these bargain basement illuminati never saw the inside of an ivory tower–though it’s a credit to Oxford that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to the cantankerous Midwestern skeptic, Samuel Clemens, in 1907.

As in Britain and Europe, freethought went hand in hand with politics: in England, spinning off the free-churches movement that was allied with Unitarianism and the “chapels,” it was tied to disestablishment— the end of the prerogatives and protections given the Church of England. In the United States, it was tied to First Amendment principles, civil liberties, a certain naive belief in “democratic values” (that did not take into account that the democratic values of the masses were dominantly intermixed with and confused with the Bible), and an occasional envy of the more robust socialism and communist tremors of an evolving secular Europe.

Clarence Darrow

I have never thought of myself as a secular humanist, or a big H life-stance British Humanist Association sort of Humanist. The minute you start qualifying humanism you are no longer talking about humanism but the conditions under which you can think of yourself as a humanist. Humanism is humanism. Movement humanism can be a variety of things–like ice cream or Christian denominations.

The danger in my view is that movement humanism is not innocuous. George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.

I have no trouble with anyone calling himself a humanist of this or that colour. But for the word to retain its “denotative” sense, it’s important to distinguish between “movement-humanism” and humanism.

Movement or “organized” humanism, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of certain currents that came together in a strand in the mid twentieth century, especially driven by the frenzy of intellectual change after two world wars. The movement was never fully coherent and for that reason appealed to political liberals, people who sincerely believed that religion (equated with superstition, supernaturalism and dogmatism) was responsible for the world’s ills and others who had been injured by religion and needed catharsis and (perhaps) non-violent revenge. Some of these people were intellectuals. Some were nurses and folksingers and ex-seminarians. All were a little angry.

In terms of its constituency and mood, secular humanism was entirely compatible with atheism; in fact, many recognized that the phrase was simply a circumlocution for atheism or agnosticism, in the same way some Evangelicals equate their doctrinal stance with being “Christian.” The percentage of secular humanists in America or Humanists in Britain or India harboring any “religious” sentiments must be painfully, infinitesimally small.

Other additives of American-style movement humanism included a belief that ethics were man-made and not dictated by a supreme being or mediated by dogma. Secular humanism became wedded to this fairly obvious proposition just when the best theology in Europe and America was teaching much the same thing. The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word, but could not be acknowledged by movement humanism with its constricted view of human reality and facile equation of religion and supernaturalism. Indeed, the greatest error of the movement was the simple association of religion with superstition, and the the working assumption that, like superstition and magic, religion could simply be debunked as a system of ritualized hoaxes.


The commitment to “godless” and anti-religious ethics made good sense for an atheist program of action as a kind of self-help course for unbelievers, but could never achieve the intellectual benchmark of an ethics based on the totality of human experience and reflection.

That’s not to say that one needs to believe in God to be moral. It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus, it is no more relevant to say that an action is moral because it is human than it is to say that an action is moral because it is something Jesus would have endorsed.

I drink no more than a sponge...

In the realm of ethics, especially, movement humanism became habituated to oversimplification. To make religion more depraved than it seemed to most sensible people, the movement humanists stressed that religion was the sum total of its worst parts. Christianity, a religion of Bible-believing nitwits who meddled in politics, aspired to mind-control and hated Darwin. Islam, a religion of twisted fanatics who loved violence and hated progress and the proponents, mainly western, of progress. There was no equivalent narrative for Jews or Buddhists—not really—or the irrational components of secular movements: democratic socialism, communism, and (within limits) civil libertarianism could be forgiven their excesses precisely because they had their theodicy right if sometimes they got their tactics or outcomes wrong.

While often claiming the protective cloak of science and reason as their aegis for intellectual rectitude, movement humanism was really all about creating straw-men, stereotypes and bogeymen and unfortunately came to believe in its own anti-religion discourse.

To have capitulated, at any point, to the most humane, uplifting or learned elements in religion would have been seen as surrender to the forces of ignorance and superstition. For that reason, by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic church, will do.

God is Not Great

Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

Unfortunately, the tactics are all wrong because they demonstrate the movement’s almost complete lack of understanding of the “total passion for the total height” that validates religion for most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—a huge slice of the earth’s population. To read Sam Harris’s extended fallacy, The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ screed, The God Delusion, or any of the clones that have appeared since 2006 is to enter a world of misapprehension and illogic that can only be compared to a child trying to fit the contents of an overstuffed toy chest into a shoebox on the premise that both are boxes that can hold toys. But the logic did not originate with the new atheists; it originated with movement humanism.

What organized humanism lacked from the beginning of its career, as a circumlocution for robust unbelief in God, is a sense of the dignity of wo/man combined with an indulgence and appreciation of human frailty, including the limits of reason. In renaissance humanism, the thought belongs to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How Noble in
Reason? How infinite in faculty? In form and moving
how express and admirable? In Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a god? The beauty of the
world, the Paragon of Animals.

At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation). He gives this speech to God as an imaginary dialogue after the creation of Adam:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Innocent VIII

Innocent VIII was no fool. This was not the Genesis story. It was a re-writing of the whole creation myth. It makes Adam’s choice of the earth over his own “divine” potential all the more tragic, a squandered opportunity. But it also makes the choice free, unfettered, fully human and the consequences–which lead after all to smart people like Pico writing smart books–all the more impressive. Divine is as human does well: that was the message

An authentic humanism to be inclusive of all people has to be inclusive of all possible human outcomes, including the possibility of failure. The story of the first human being, in the religious context, is the story of a bad choice. I suspect that that is why the story of Adam has staying power and instructional weight.

Maybe the failure of movement humanism really goes back to how we read Adam’s saga. It has always struck me that the word simpleton can be used to describe both the atheist rant against the creation account in Genesis and the fundamentalist’s preposterous attempts to defend it. Beyond the Scylla and Charybdis of that divide are millions of people who think the story is really elsewhere, that it really doesn’t begin with sticking the sun and the moon in the primordial darkness but with Adam, and more particularly with the curse of reason that Pico describes in his Oration.

Curse? Yes, I think so. The “gift” of reason (no, I do not really believe that we are endowed with reason by a divine being) is both the gift to be curious and the ability to make choices, to act. The tension we experience, like Adam, is that natural curiosity sometimes outdistances a third element—reflection.

The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error. Religion had such a faculty once: it was called faith and it got you saved from sin.

To be blunt, movement humanism with its straw men and reductive techniques, its stereotyping and bogeymen, is not just stuck in the past but stuck in a religious past of its own making. It is a past that an authentic and fully inclusive humanism would want to reject. It is a past that many religious thinkers have already rejected.

See also:

Being and Atheism

God: Plato’s good, Israel’s Lord, the Christian’s redemption, Porphyry’s (and St John’s and Augustine’s) Perfect Love, Anselm’s supreme being, Aquinas’ Cause, Paley’s watch, Newton’s great mechanical, the unseen Intelligence and Designer. Etc.

I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe a singular unseen x stands behind any of these formulations. I don’t deny their importance as intellectual events in human understanding. They are simply ideas. They are expressions of how thinkers have thought about their world. I think that their interest or importance cannot depend on their rightness, because they are, as far as I can tell, mistaken views.

I do not need an unseen lover to experience love, or a super-dad to experience security, anxiety, a need for approval, a sense of falling short.

Satan, sin and death

I do not need to boil things down to a “singularity that explains complexity” in order to comprehend the workings of my world or my feelings about it. Thales was wrong. Aristotle was wrong. The Hebrew writer of Genesis was wrong. The Rig Veda was wrong.

Human things, finite things, physical things, historical things cannot be adequately understood through lumping them together as the work of an unseen power. When I say there is no God, what I reject is the shallow and sometimes cynical attempt to simplify cause, meaning, and experience: to reduce it to an unseen indissoluble essence.

It’s true of course that not all causes are apparent to the naked eye, but it is not correct to say that these causes can serve as analogies for the existence of a supernatural cause: the wind that blows the branches off trees in a hurricane in Kingston can be clocked. DNA can be mapped. The velocity of a hydrogen atom can be tracked. Science, as a form of inquiry, suggests that as we learn more about the universe it will be on the same terms as the way in which science has progressed in the past—on the basis of falsifiability.

The only revelations therefore are revelations achieved through hard work and discovery using the methods appropriate to investigating the world around us, the universe beyond us. Religion and theology are not suitable to that investigation. They are not grounded in science, they do not conform to science. They are grounded in myth, namely the myths of the human past.

There is nothing wrong with myth. But it is not science, and whether we are speaking of the Bible or of the Koran, or any book thought to come to us through revelation, the accidental insights of myth do not constitute a science.

True, we tell our students that god is not falsifiable because the basic criteria for falsifiability are missing. But what we really should be telling them is that the criteria for God are missing, the need to resort to an invisible explanation of the visible world is missing. It is a fool’s dilemma to fall back on axioms of ancient logic, which in any event don’t work here.

It may be the case that the vague God of the Philosophers cannot be negated because his defining properties have receded to an Archimedean dot; but it is not true that the God of the Bible cannot be disproved. History disproves him in the same way it disproves Marduk, Isis, the Monster Humbaba, and Vishnu.

If god is a being who is only worth knowing as a postulate to explain why the universe arises to look the way it looks, then he is not a god that we need to concern ourselves with–because he wears none of the clothes history dressed him in and has none of the attributes of the god of classical theism. “God the postulate” cannot be a god of the Bible or any other scripture: he cannot love, ask to be loved, be offended, forgive us our trespasses, save from sin, or create the situation whereby people would need to be saved from it in the first place,

That ancient God, the God of the Bible, is a god from whom I ask to be saved intellectually and possibly also morally.

The Dilemma and the Definition:

“Either God caused the universe or something else did.” Apologists in freshly pressed white shirts love to begin “discussions” and debates that way. It is a variation on the Jesus was “mad, bad or God” bear-trap they sometimes set for unimaginably stupid sophomores.

They go on to say that while they know what caused things to come out the way they did, the atheist cannot know because the atheist has no more proof than they do. (My cause has no personality; theirs lives in a book.) I have tried saying “Look around you: that’s my argument.” (I haven’t had much success with that one.) So, it is easiest to say confidently, “Something else did.”

And like the mad, bad, god MCQ, this is a false dilemma, since in most formulations theologians merge God with this something else: X=X by any other name. They begin by eliminating the god of Genesis and all later attempts to domesticate the tribal and biblical gods and the gods of early Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) theology.

What you are left with is a god from whom all defining characteristics (perhaps Aristotle would have called them accidents, substrates?) have been removed. A decerebrated God whose will, moods, and mobility have been stripped away by the surgeons who were trying to save him.

I have no trouble imagining a god who is not great, or kind, or merciful or compassionate or steady of purpose, or immutable. And I won’t go into the absurdities of arguing a “philosophical god” who is changeless and a biblical god who changes his mind rather often (it is like the Eddie Izzard “Cake or Death” shtick, except it’s God holding a shamrock and saying “Redeem or damn, damn or redeem?”).

But I think most Christians—especially those in freshly pressed white shirts-would not be satisfied with a god who has been emptied of attributes, the All-Nothingness, the Eternal Absolute (I’ll take my math with tea, please, not incense) and I consider it dishonest to go on calling this being or axiom or hypothetical something god, just as I would have trouble calling a horse a horse if you forbid me to use ears, tail, hooves, mammal, four legs and oats as part of my definition.

In any meaningful definition that is not pure nonsense—and here the scholastics had a great deal to tell us—we need a genus, we need what they called differentiae. But what is the genus of God? God? Supreme being? All-Knowers, Creators, Flood-senders?

No good; there are no other members of this class, and as we found out from Anselm, supreme being is to god as boy is to young male. It doesn’t define it; it restates it. So I ask again, What are god’s differentiae?

The defining attributes of the God Christians are interested in knowing, loving and serving are all historical, time-bound: anger, wrath, mercy, compassion, punishment, salvation, forgiveness, knowledge, pure awesomeness. And did we mention, good at making universes? They will not worship a God who is, did or does none of these things. Why should they? They will not die for a postulate or march for the right to life in honor of a God who does not create individual souls.

In this case there is no baby to toss out with the baptismal water, no dead body that points to atheists as murderers. Theologians in ages gone by used to talk about god using certain modes: the via positiva—god the all-knowing, for example—or the via negativa—God as impassible (devoid of passion and emotion)—or the via eminentia, God as higher than our highest concept of god–whatever that means, but surely a shut down strategy for rational debate.

But as every first-year divinity student knows, the study of theology is the study of the problems theology created for itself: a god who cannot feel passion and is changeless cannot easily be the same God who so loved the world that he took pity on the world and sent his son to save it. The jealous and angry God of the Old Testament cannot be the same God who went from a solo act to playing in a threesome.

My argument is this: the God of Christian theism, Islamic theology, and Jewish scripture does not exist, and the God who is left over when that theology is scrubbed–as postulate, variable or merely “unknown”– is so useless as (in John Wisdom’s great phrase) to amount to the same thing—useless to move, love, inspire, create.

I have no reason to imagine such a being, neither as a piece of intelligent cosmic protoplasm filling the interstices of what we call space, a flying spaghetti monster, or a vastness beyond the vastness. There is no way to disconfirm any unobservable absurdity, and hence there is no reason to believe in it.

Notice I say no reason to believe it. Theologians have given us no reason to believe, and to be blunt, their affirmation of science and willingness to sacrifice the god of history for the god of guesses should alert everyone to the nature of their profession. There is more reality in any exhibition of Hollywood special effects than there is in theology.

To the theologians who have rejected the God of the books. To the theologians who have created the false dilemma of asking us to choose between X and X–a God who is not the God of revelation, but is a God in some irrelevant sense–who requires neither prayer nor sacrifice nor petition nor good behavior. To the theologians who in conscience must know that they are dabblers in unreality and illusion. To the theologians who have created a god less real than the God of the Bible, who for a couple of millennia had, at least, time and faith on his side. To the theologians who have lost faith like Bo Peep lost her sheep, but talk on and on.

God Reads…

And knoweth the hearts and minds of all his creatures.

God at His Computer

Well, no–not what this is about. This is about the new genre in religion (not religious) non-fiction which I have decided to name, for lack of an original thought, “God Reads”–books that are affecting to make a new case for God, or to restate old ones.

Actually the genre goes back a few years: Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2005) was a little premature when it was published, barely a year before the atheist best-seller The God Delusion (yes, that Dawkins) appeared (September, 2006) and seemed to suggest an atheist sunrise instead. It was dutifully followed by McGrath’s less poignant The Dawkins Delusion (2007) which (nonetheless) is a far better read than its nasty title suggests.

Besides, the former Master of Wycliffe College, Oxford and the sometime Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had slugged it out before, several times in fact–McGrath having the distinction of having trained as a scientist (which shows) and Dawkins having the good fortune, or sense, never to have trained as a theologian (which also shows.)

And so the back and forth was born, God’s defenders giving in equal measure what his detractors were at pains to inflict on his holy name. What was also born was a minor canon of celebrity atheists, variously called “New,” “Fundamentalist,” “Brights,” “Militant”–or merely Annoying depending what side of the line you were standing on and whose book you had read most recently.

I recall visiting the home of a kindly retired atheist couple in Tallahassee in 2007 where I had gone to debate the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne on the “God Question.” On their coffee table was displayed the whole array of new atheist titles, of which they professed to have read “only a little of Dawkins.” Still, as a Victorian mother might have the Authorized Version of the Bible handy in the parlour, a new generation had arisen who had embraced new authority and were prepared to use it (or at least allude to it in the absence of actually having read it) –In other words, just like the Bible.

In reviews and popular media, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett were dubbed, and basked in the glow, the “Four Horsemen” of a new age of scientific thinking–knights on a mission to debunk the claims and pretensions of religion. A few wannabes such as Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis) made their literary votives to the cause as well; in some cases, their books were actually slightly better than the canonical ones. But essentially the ranks were closed, like the book of the gospels at only four.

The voice of the atheist is still heard in the land. But my guess is, the shine is off the apple and we were out of Eden anyway. Ideas that were considered titillating and slightly dangerous (who says atheism isn’t slightly sexy?) became less interesting when read. I doubt there will be a rejuvenation, a rebirth, of the surprising interest (in some cases bordering on rock star fervor), that greeted the Dawkins Revolution.

The shine was off the apple.

The current spate of God Reads is a bit more interesting, to take only two recent examples. Karen Armstrong’s the Case for God, already reviewed in these pages, is not only lacking in sophisticated theistic argument but also lacks a sophisticated thesis. This hat is so old it’s made of rabbit fur and just as fuzzy. She perpetuates the idea that religion is intrinsically good and that bad people make bad religion.
If only they would grow up, buy a shovel, and dig down to the goldmine of wisdom and niceness that lay at the heart of every faith. Armstrong seems to have bluffed her way through the history of religion for a long time, but in this book she shows a woeful lack of information about history, psychology, and anthropology and pushes a unified-theory-of-religious-thesis that was last fashionable in 1969, primarily in sanghas and disorderly convents.

Robert Wright’s seductively titled The Evolution of God (2009), a far better read than Armstrong and basically naturalistic in its view of religions, nonetheless develops a premise that is hard to swallow, or, to be fair, one that I have trouble understanding. As the New Yorker review enthused, “[Wright theorizes] that religious world views are becoming more open, compassionate, and synthesized. Occasionally, his prescriptions can seem obvious—for instance, that members of the different Abrahamic faiths should think of their religions as ‘having been involved, all along, in the same undertaking.’ But his core argument, that religion is getting ‘better’ with each passing aeon, is enthralling.”

Enthralling, sure. But if that is true, then the tendency of religion to become better must have something to do with either (a) people taking religious doctrine less seriously or (b) the secularization of society that makes religion less appealing and more vulnerable to common sense. That being so, how can anyone say that religion, as opposed to the species, is getting “better.”

Maybe no one is–exactly–and this is a quibble. As John Loftus observes, Wright’s God is illusory from an ontological standpoint: it is our attitudes about God that evolve and change, and a healthy critique of the past–including the sacred books and interpretations that form the story of the human past–are important relics of that development or amelioration. The process affects religion because it affects society in every other area. God evolves, not only man. My own guess is that Wright is being slightly mischievous. These “Abrahamic Faiths” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially the most aggressive of them. Better therefore to convince the slowest to evolve that a compassionate state of acceptance is its future? I am highly skeptical.

Where are we with God Reads? Is anybody likely to have the last word in this contest of words?


Just now, I think, the momentum is with the Defense, the defenders of the God-hypothesis. Not in terms of argument but in terms of energy. Apologists are paying attention to names that may have been missed first time around, prior to the Dawkins Revolution. Names like Scott Atran (In Gods we Trust), Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds, a superb slightly older work that deserves reading now), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Todd Tremkin (Minds and God), Barbara King (Evolving God). The pro-religion forces are reading works of cognitive science and evolutionary biology and psychology as fast as they can, and it seems to me with more at stake. You always read faster before an exam.

The God Question could not escape this lens indefinitely, and the best modern reads often begin with something like Wright’s evolutionary view rather than with the stale philosophical and theodical questions that were raised by the new atheists. Given the fact that interest in outbreaks of intellectual zeal last about as long at great awakenings in American religious history, the Dawkins phase is already looking a little quaint.

And it’s a good thing that the religious and anti-religious are reading some of the same stuff, even if they have different ends in view. When a team at the University of Montreal conducted experiments on an order of Carmelite nuns in 2005-6 (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience), we were flabbergasted to learn that while they were subjectively in a state of union with God, “this state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.” Can you even point to Reno on a map? I thought not.

Carmelite Ecstasy

The study (“Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”: Mario Bauregard and Vincent Paquette) confidently concluded that “the results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.”

In other people, thoughts about more mundane kinds of union, puppy dogs and chocolate will illuminate the same regions. But the analogy that the physical basis of “mystical” experience explodes the reality of mystical experience (and take this from someone who likes chocolate) is a point that apologists for religion are right to challenge: It is argumentum ad superciliarum–a bit of logic based on a naturalistic smirk.

To the extent that the evolutionary and cognitive studies resemble this logic they have a long way to go. I offer the frankly disappointing view and research of Richard Hamer in The God Gene and the (antithetical) hodgepodge of material served up by Rause, Newberg and d’Aquili (all three medical doctors) in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief as evidence of where science can lead the opposite armies.

But the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God–no matter how much we want to make it that. And even if it were, we still won’t have settled the dispute between people like Hitchens, who think God is a very bad, indeed a poisonous idea, and people like McGrath who see it as the most sublime thought of which we mortals are capable.

Maybe Feuerbach was right: it all depends on what you eat.