I have been fascinated to hear and read of what I’ll call “post-atheist atheists” (the kind of atheists for whom Richard Dawkins was the last straw, as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or some humbug I’ve forgotten or never heard of presumably was for some Christians) regaining an appreciation of the human meaning of religion. The New Stateman has a grand little collection of short essays by several post-atheist atheists, titled differently on the “printed” page, but from the URL, I’d gauge the working title was God Is Dead. Long Live Our Souls.
Alain de Botton:
Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes …
Therapy is hidden, unbranded, depressing in its outward appearance. The priests had far better clothes, and infinitely better architecture …
When Thomas Paine was dying in Greenwich Village in June 1809, two Presbyterian ministers popped by to suggest that he would be damned if he didn’t affirm his faith in Jesus Christ. “Let me have none of your popish stuff,” he said firmly “Good morning.” …
What he was doing here was to act as a very early adopter of a perception that would influence later atheist understandings of the world enormously. He was suggesting, in one charged and revealing insult, that the original Protestant critique of Catholicism should be extended to the whole of historic Christianity. All of it should be reformed away; all of it, absolutely all of it, deserved the contempt that zealous Puritans had once felt for indulgences and prayer beads and “priestcraft”.
This post-Christian puritanism, largely oblivious now of its history, is highly visible in the New Atheism of the 1990s and 2000s, and especially in Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Strange indifference (except at the margins) to all religions except Christianity? Check. Sense of being locked in righteous combat with the powers of darkness? Check. Puritanism, it turns out, can float free of faith and still preserve a vehement world-view, a core of characteristic judgements …
That gunk the New Atheists scrub at so assiduously is the inevitable matter of human culture, of imagination. People secrete it, necessarily, faster than it can be removed. Metaphors solidify into stories wherever the reformers’ backs are turned. We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.
I really loved that last paragraph. It’s very easy to turn religion into ideology, but the very fact that humans “secrete” this “gunk” should give us a clue about human nature, and unless we think that something so major can have evolved maladaptively, something about reality, too, perhaps.
Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level.
As a result, “God” becomes incredible. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking in the west is often remarkably undeveloped, even primitive, and would make Maimonides and Aquinas turn in their graves. They both insisted that God was not another being and that you could not even say that He (ridiculous pronoun!) existed, because our experience of existence is too limited. God, said Aquinas, is Being itself (esse se ipsum) …
I don’t know about Maimonides and Aquinas, Jewish and Western, respectively, but I know that the idea that God doesn’t even “exist” in the sense that we “exist” is very present in Eastern Christianity.
The Trinity was not a “mystery” because it was irrational mumbo-jumbo. It was an “initiation” (musterion), which introduced Greek-speaking early Christians to a new way of thinking about the divine, a meditative exercise in which the mind swung in a disciplined way from what you thought you knew about God to the ineffable reality. If performed correctly it led to ekstasis. As Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) explained to his Christian initiates: “My eyes are filled and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me.” Trinity was, therefore, an activity rather than a metaphysical truth in which one credulously “believed”. It is probably because most western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd …
As Father Stephen Freeman put it, “In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.”
“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
The word “Orthodoxy” formerly conjured up for me thoughts of tightly-reasoned and elaborated dogmas. I have been astonished at the extent to which dogma in Orthodoxy actually is a foundation to which we pay relatively little attention in our daily walk – our religious way of life. We don’t despise it, but the Orthodox life does not consist of trying to gin up ever more fervent belief in the right dogmas.
The word to grasp here is myth: a myth is a story that encodes but does not necessarily explain a universal human experience.
The wrong question to ask of a myth is whether it is true or false. The right question is whether it is living or dead, whether it still speaks to our condition. That is why, among all the true believers in church this Easter, there will be thousands of others who are there because they need, yet again, to express the hope that good need not always be defeated by evil.
It has become a commonplace in atheist discourse that the atheist merely disbelieves in one more God than the Christians disbelieve. But that “merely” conceals as much as it reveals.
“The Christian God,” for better or worse, is not an unequivocally single God. Is the “Angry God” of Jonathan Edwards anything like the affable buddy/therapist of Joel Osteen? In which Christians gods do the post-atheist atheists disbelieve?
I am convinced that the God known by Orthodox Christianity, and the manner by which we know him, would be much less uncongenial for these post-atheist atheists than is, for the most extreme example, the God of Fred Phelps. Maybe they wouldn’t disbelieve Him at all if they met Him.