Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, July 29, 2013

"God is awful, y'all"

Continuing the conversation:

I posted that comment on types of atheists. I don't know why OpenID didn't work properly with my AIM account. Just call me enonzey if it continues to misbehave.

 ….. @ Rmj 'And many people who are not religious today (and who may have been in the past just as a matter of social comfort) are not really antithetical to the notion of God's existence: they just aren't concerned with it. We don't have a convenient term for such people . . .'

I've seen secularist used for such people. They are indifferent to the sacred.

 'Atheists, of course, still want to argue the question of God's existence. If they don't, how can they be atheists?'

Simply by being non-theists but calling themselves atheists.

How far do we go in accepting the labels people apply to themselves? There are certainly atheists who are indifferent to arguments about the existence of gods. If I understand your argument correctly, you contend that they have made a category error and should call themselves non-theists. But they don't.

You've made an historical argument that atheists must be anti-theists, but that doesn't necessarily apply today. Things evolve away from their historical roots. See this for a taxonomy of movement atheists:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2012/12/4-kinds-of-movement-atheist-secularist-atheists-identity-atheists-evangelical-atheists-and-constructive-atheists/

Are Mormons Christians? Are Christian Scientists Christians? From a traditionalist Christian viewpoint, they can't be; they've diverged too much from conventional Christianity. But they certainly resist being labeled non-Christian or neo-Christian.

 And then there is the whole matter of ignosticism.

 Let’s start at the bottom (so to speak) and work our way up:

Are Mormons Christians? Are Christian Scientists Christians? From a traditionalist Christian viewpoint, they can't be; they've diverged too much from conventional Christianity. But they certainly resist being labeled non-Christian or neo-Christian.

There is a definition of “Christian,” and its actually pretty minimal:  adherence to the doctrine of the Trinity; belief in Jesus of Nazareth as God and Son of God (it’s a mystery) and as savior and lord (sometimes there is an emphasis on “personal savior and Lord”, but I don’t know that that’s an essential requirement), and acceptance at least of Baptism and the eucharist (a/k/a “Communion”) as sacraments. Oh, and the sacraments (esp. baptism) are conducted in the name of the Trinity (“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Inclusive language such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” won’t do.)

Now, are Mormons and Christian Scientists Christians? Well, if they conform to these minimal requirements (Protestants generally only recognized 2 sacraments; I don’t know how many Orthodox traditions recognize), then they are. If they don’t, then by definition they aren’t.

Do Mormons consider themselves Christians? I think so. Would I deny them that ability? Nah. Not worth arguing over, IMHO.* Some Christians, of course, think otherwise. But then, some of those Christians don’t think Roman Catholics are Christians. And I don’t mean just Bible-thumpin’ fundamentalists handling snakes in darkest Appalachia. I mean Lutherans, of the MO Synod and WI Synod variety, who think they are the “true Church” because….well, because. They don’t get to set the definitions, either; although they insist they do. I’m sure Mormons and Christian Scientists resist being labeled as “Neo-Christians” or even non-Christian. Scientologists also resist being labeled members of a cult.

Argument abound.

Who gets to decide the issue? Society at large, for the most part. What those who are not theists and have no interest in arguments about the existence of God call themselves is of slight interest to me. To the extent I classify them at all, I have to do it from a schema that makes sense to me, and I will try to conform that schema (unless I’m a conspiracy theorist or some other kind of ideological nutter) to generally accepted boundaries. The definition of Christianity is an extremely loose one, and really only applies to organizations. It has little real value to me as an individual. It doesn’t tell me how to live my life, how to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, how to pray or how to treat others. Those are the issues that consume the time of Jesus on earth, according to the gospels. But even how I discern and decipher those teachings, is conducted in the context of a larger society.

And for the most part, society at large doesn’t care if the WI Synod of the Lutheran Church doesn’t think any other church is Christian (they are quite extreme about it, I can assure you). Society at large is not likely to call the Roman Catholic church the “Whore of Babylon” for the same reasons some Protestants still do (family feuds last for generations), and is not likely to be too concerned with the distinctions between Mormons and other Christians. But do Mormons get to define themselves as Christians? Not without the concurrence of a majority of those who are not Mormon but consider themselves Christian. Which is no slight on Mormons: that’s just how definitions work.

Take “awful” for example. Its root is in Old English, and it originally meant “inspiring awe” or “worthy of reverence.” And it meant that for far longer than the meaning it has now, which is a disparaging one. I like the old meaning. I’d like to resurrect it. But if I say, with Aelfric in the 10th century, that “God is awful,” I can insist until I’m blue in the face that I mean God is worthy of reverence and inspires awe; but who is going to listen to me? I cannot change the meaning of the word unless I can get a majority of the English-speaking world to agree with me on the meaning of the word.

So “atheism,” for better or worse, is associated today with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens; and it is associated with “anti-theism,” because Dawkins and Hitchens are/were virulently anti-theist. Is that fair to people who are non-theists, but are not anti-theists? As I say, we have other words for them. “Secularist” might be a good choice. “Agnostic” another; ignosticism perhaps another. But in the latter case, we’d have to first accept that the argument for the existence of God is foundational, and pace Ayers, I don’t think it is even meaningful.

And yes, words do “evolve” away from their roots; as in the case of “awful.” But atheism continues to be associated, not with non-theism or even “secularism” (a loosely defined term for purposes of this discussion, so I set it off for the moment), but with anti-theism. Those who proclaim themselves “atheists” most publicly, clearly mean they are anti-theists (or at least anti-Christians and anti-Muslims. Funny how neither Dawkins nor Hitchens, or Harris for that matter, ever level critiques at Judaism, although all three religions profess worship of the same God). And just as there are other terms I can use to capture the original concept of “awful” (“awesome” springs to mind, despite its slacker connotations), there are other terms to better capture shades of non-belief, or even non-interest in the entire subject.

Can a non-theist simply call themselves atheist, and be done with it? Not, I contend, without a great deal of attendant confusion. The former incorporates the class of the latter, but the latter is still widely regarded (and publicly proclaimed) to be a subset of the former, mostly against a smaller subset of theists (Christians and Muslims).

And this doesn’t yet touch on the problem of the base-line: at one point in European society (at least) it was necessary to identify as an atheist simply to not identify as a theist. And that raises the most interesting question: when theist is no longer the default position, will there really be any atheists who aren’t simply anti-theists?



*Which is to say, I'm not going to be upset that they call themselves Christians, although I might not think they are if they don't conform to the minimalist definition of the institutional term.  If they care to argue the point with me, I'll argue it; otherwise, I don't care.  Same is basically true for non-theists:  they can call themselves as they please, but when atheists criticize my beliefs (generally or individually), I'll classify them as atheists, or secularists, or even non-theists, as seems appropriate to me.  But I'll do this for the sake of argument, not for the sake of control.  People who want to insist Mormons (for example) CANNOT be Xians, are all about control.

Those same people would probably think I'm not a Xian, either.  Waddareyagonnado?  

The institutional definition of Xianity, by the way, is one agreed upon by the major Christian denominations, largely to identify what they all have in common.  It's a kind of minimum baseline, meant to be as inclusive as possible, without having Xianity be "whatever-the-heck-somebody-says-it-is."

5 Comments:

Blogger alberich said...

Not without the concurrence of a majority of those who are not Mormon but consider themselves Christian. Which is no slight on Mormons: that’s just how definitions work.

Interestingly, this past Shabbos, I was reading an article on the Anglican influence on Solomon Schechter's rhetoric and in particular in his choice of the term "Catholic Israel". Schechter's idea (which, although opposed by many Orthodox Jews, is deeply rooted in Rabbinical Judaism) is that Judaism and Jewish practice are in fact what practicing Jews define them to be. So it is, presumably, with both Christianity and atheism.

Of course, to the extent that Schechter based his idea of "Catholic Israel" on an Anglican template and adapted it to Judaism, "Catholic Christianity" would limit the definition of Christianity far more than your three-or-so point definition of Christianity: Anglicans are Christians, Roman Catholics are Christians, Eastern Orthodox are Christians and possibly Lutherans and the historical African and Asiatic churches. But "Catholic Christianity" particularly excludes Reformed Christianity (and tries to delegitimize Low Church Anglicanism).

OTOH, one could define Christianity even more loosely than you do by not requiring belief in the Trinity (I know some neo-Arians who would complain about a definition of Christianity that potentially excludes them).

But one thing that strikes me here is the extent that these problems are, to adapt a term used in other contexts, "white people's problems". When we Jews were persecuted, we didn't spend much time arguing if someone really was Jewish: if they claimed they were Jewish (and weren't some sort of double agent trying to make trouble for us), we would accept them as Jewish. Why would anybody claim to be Jewish, when being Jewish meant so much tsuris, if they were not? But now that anti-Semitism (thankfully) is not nearly the issue it once was, and we Jews even have a Jewish state for a homeland, people actually may want to claim to be Jewish and having the power to decide who is Jewish and who is not becomes most important.

I imagine it was somewhat similar in the history of Christianity: so long as Christians were a persecuted minority, there may have been doctrinal disputes and even schisms in the faith, but if you claimed you were a Christian, wouldn't you be accepted as such? But once Christianity flipped from being a persecuted minority to being a state church, then having the ability to decide who is a Christian and what is Christianity became a matter with great political consequences.

I would imagine then it is the same with atheism. That atheists would care who gets to be labeled as an atheist and that people would actually claim that label even if they were not atheists as "Catholic Atheism" would define their "faith", would indicate a certain amount of power for atheists in our society, wouldn't it?

Which I guess brings us to your very last parenthetical point: it's "all about control", isn't it? When God gave Adam the ability to name things, it has long been understood that God was giving Adam control, hasn't it?

11:40 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Schechter's idea (which, although opposed by many Orthodox Jews, is deeply rooted in Rabbinical Judaism) is that Judaism and Jewish practice are in fact what practicing Jews define them to be. So it is, presumably, with both Christianity and atheism.

Seems reasonable, over all. Temple Judaism gave way to rabbinic judaism, and so Judaism became what Jewish practice was. We don't even have to get to the issue of Jewish=race, which is largely the reason Dawkins, et al., never criticize Jewish practices/beliefs (anti-semitism, donchaknow?). But that's just a poorly-educated Gentile's observation....;-)

I think the fight (if there is one) does come down to the issue of control. I think "atheist" should be understood as the prefix "a-" indicating negation, just as it does in "agnostic" (without the "a" the word means something other than generic theistical beliefs). But while it's a point I'll quibble over politely, it's not a hill I want to die on.

I just find the distinctions useful when trying to discuss the various schools of thought that swirl about. Much like insisting that the entire argument about the existence of God is not a theological one (a point I made in an earlier draft of this post, then deleted). It doesn't affect the argument to, IMHO, properly classify it as one of philosophy; and it helps clarify what should be understood as the proper inquiry of theology.

A term I think is a subset, in part, of the larger term "philosophy," but also stands apart from what is usually understood as the subject of philosophy, at least in the Western tradition.

11:55 AM  
OpenID 51e556d8-f14b-11e2-9992-000bcdcb2996 said...

Enonzey here.

@Rmj
'Can a non-theist simply call themselves atheist, and be done with it? Not, I contend, without a great deal of attendant confusion.'

Then we'll just have to live with a great deal of attendant confusion. I know any number of non-theists who call themselves atheists and who don't care about the distinctions you're trying to make.

I really like your point about 'awful'. There are a whole series of words in English that have blurred together as a nondescript superlative.

Terrific should mean causing terror.

Fantastic should mean imaginative or fanciful.

Wonderful should mean inspiring delight.

In common usage these days, they all mean about the same thing.

11:18 PM  
OpenID 51e556d8-f14b-11e2-9992-000bcdcb2996 said...

Enonzey here.

I just wanted to add that I have had some personal experience with the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church and their reactionary ways, having placed one son in a nearby church school in preference to the public schools.

Did you know the Missouri Synod published geocentric tracts as late as the outbreak of the American civil war?

11:29 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Did you know the Missouri Synod published geocentric tracts as late as the outbreak of the American civil war?

Had a friend in seminary who pastored a church. The MO Synod pastor came to a few of the local pastor gatherings (ecumenical stuff), and told the other pastors not to let his bishop know he was there.

They aren't allowed to consort with non-MO Synod people, for fear of corruption.

Then we'll just have to live with a great deal of attendant confusion. I know any number of non-theists who call themselves atheists and who don't care about the distinctions you're trying to make.

One can only do what one can to reduce the confusion. Control is certainly something that is not in my hands.

7:16 AM  

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