Monday, October 19, 2009

The Twa Cultures (Redux)

So I wake up with this idea in my head (which is usually where I keep them, or find them), and I mean to write it down but it's morning and there's no time, and now that there's a little time, I can't find it again.

Oh, wait: here it is. And actually it ties in with something I started and never posted, so now the business of connecting the two is going to be another wrinkle in the telling of this tale, but the basic idea is this, and it's not really such a new one: we're all looking for something to belong to, which is one reason atheists are making such a strong bid for a presence of their own; and that may even have to do with the departure of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Time has attenuated our attention to Ms. O'Hair, and certainly her disappearance and death did not lead directly to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all hitching their popularity wagons to atheism's rising (?) star, nor did it create sua sponte the website Pharyngula, but there's probably a connection there somewhere. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do human societies. But there's also the interesting issue that, as religion retreats from the public square, some other form of community rushes to take its place. And, almost predictably, that new form casts itself as the anti-religion, as the opposition to something it says shouldn't exist, but which it needs in order to have an existence of its own. After all, if Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher didn't have Christianity to mock, what would they have to write books or make movies about?

So even the active promotion of atheism is not promotion of an ideology, so much as it is promotion of a new community: the community of those who actively reject Christianity. Atheism as it has been put forward by the "New Atheists" is little more than a very deliberate rejection of Christianity (at its broadest the "religions of the Book," though it's unseemly to condemn Judaism (!), and I've yet to hear from prominent atheists in predominately Muslim or Buddhist or Taoist cultures, or of any prolonged attacks on world religions by prominent Western atheists). There are non-believers, of course. Such people simply go about their lives, unconcerned with the effects or non-effects of religion, even when it supposedly prompts terrorists to fly planes into buildings (an action more motivated by politics than religious fervor, but that's another argument). But then there are atheists: people determined not only to not believe very loudly and forcefully, but to make of those who do believe targets for their ire, their mockery, their denigration, even their hatred (Sam Harris put into print his conviction that "Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith," (the emphasis is in the original), and this led him to conclude the only proper response to Islam was its destruction by nuclear force.), or if they are "old atheists," at least to loudly proclaim why believers are so wrong to believe. It's an interesting problem of the "other," of the one who is not you, but to whom you can only relate by seeing them in the mirror of yourself. And it connects to other thoughts I may yet publish here because such atheism is a very public practice, that is, one used to define oneself in the polis, but not necessarily one used to define oneself in private.

I had a good friend and neighbor who was very publicly, but quietly, an atheist. He admired Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which always surprised me because she came off as an obnoxious and hate-filled woman to me, someone whose opinions about my religion meant nothing to me, but whose attitude toward anyone who disagreed with her always bordered on outright disgust. My friend was so calm and tolerant and respectful of others that I could never quite see why he would admire a person so publicly disrespectful of almost everyone. But my friend was also the most Christian person I've ever known. By that, I mean he was kind, generous, charitable, lived simply, gave freely of his time, labor, materials, to any and everyone. He was not judgmental, except in regards to religion, which like any atheist he rejected and condemned (an agnostic is aloof, an atheist is more argumentative). But he helped people who need help, no matter who they were. "God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike," Jesus reminded his disciples, but while few of his disciples seem ever to have learned that lesson, my friend applied it to the spiders living in his windows as well as to the people he knew who could use his talents, tools, and labor.

Had he been "perfect," I suppose he'd have been an agnostic. "Perfect," of course, according to my definition. He was happy with who he was, and even when we discussed religion (especially after I decided to sell my house and move away to go to seminary), it was always done respectfully on both sides. I didn't want to evangelize him, and he didn't want to antagonize me. But I still think his atheism was something he used to define himself publicly; to define himself against an ideology he didn't share and didn't accept. My Christianity, I am repeatedly told, is something I should keep private; but it is also a public declaration, if only because part of its practice is to gather with like minded persons for an hour or so once a week, in a public place.

This idea comes back into my head because of a report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR this morning. Seems there is a "schism" among atheists on precisely how to be atheists. If that isn't the sine qua non of a "community," I don't know what is. One of the "old atheists" even says, in the report, that "we know what [the "new atheists"] are against, but what are they for?" And the answer, per Hagerty, is that they believe in reason and science. Which is an interesting choice of words, but an accurate one. Atheism, at least as publicly and loudly practiced, is just as much of a belief system as the religions they decry. Consider this passage from Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, by R.W. Southern (Penguin, 1970):

It is amazing simple to knock over cherished theories when they no longer satisfy the needs of the time. The thoughts on which royal government had acted for several centuries were blown away like airy nonsense. Almost no one bothered to defend them. The old sacred kingship had no place in the new world of business.
Southern is writing about the collapse of absolute respect for the king as an agent of God on earth. The passage he quotes, dating from the 13th century, begins:

Perhaps there are babblers who with windy eloquence contend that the king is not to be numbered with the laity since he is anointed with priestly oil. But there is a plain reason which mocks this folly....
Not exactly Thomas Jefferson, but far more critical of kings than we might assume, if we know only the popular history of the "Dark Ages." As Southern points out in setting up that quote and his conclusion:

If often happens at critical moments in history that ideas which have long held the field almost unchallenged are suddenly discovered, not to be wrong, but to be useless; then almost everyone can see they are absurd.
Now some clever atheist might snap that up and apply it to religion. But it immediately made me think of Thomas Kuhn, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a work in the philosophy of science which still makes "true believers" in science uncomfortable, as they struggle to point out that Kuhn does not mean what he plainly says, because science, after all, as religion once claimed to, deals with "absolute truth," or at least a truth as absolute as we can know it. And therefore science stands apart from both human culture and human limitations, and gives us that window on immutable reality that once only the medieval church in Europe promised to open.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Little wonder the "old atheists" in that report refer to the "new atheists" as "fundamentalist atheists." It is one thing to thinks science as a method of reasoning, another to think if it has having independent value, and another thing again to set up shrines in its name, and worship at them. But this doesn't answer why atheists feel the need to identify as atheists, other than the very human need to belong to a community, to something larger than themselves (a need we all feel. There was another story on the same program about college students suffering from "mental illness" (I use the term advisedly), who seemed rather interested in establishing their bona fides are members of a community which should be appreciated by the larger community of which they were, and were not, a part.). I'd like to think this answered that question, that Christianity presented a valid threat to the prevailing culture:

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

But such an answer/problem would presume a greater commitment to radical monotheism (although that theme joins the religions of the Book together), since presumably the problem now is that Christianity is the culture, and so doesn't threaten it at all. Still, it's not hard to read Niebuhr's words about the "cultic, sacred character" or social institutions, and not apply it to the fervid defense of science and "reason" employed by Dawkins and Hitchens, et al. And that's the real issue: there are profound cultural issues here. But neither the "new atheists" nor the "old atheists" seem equipped to deal with them, so intent are they in establishing either ideological purity, or simply in attacking religion as they (poorly) understand it. And it's that position I don't understand: the position that only exists because it has something to be opposed to. It puts the atheists in the position the dog chasing the car: what do they get if they achieve their goal? In the world imagined by John Lennon's song, would they have to invent religion in order to continue to have a raison d'etre? And what's rational about that?

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