Atheism: stargazing in sunlight
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion | bookreviews ]
I'm not religious - I'm just scared. - caption under a drawing of a couple and their dog looking up in awe, New Yorker 1/29/07
The pop-atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have recently written best-selling books. It's hard to write a bestseller. You've got to find a hot topic and do the right thing. Then you make money and other writers jealous.
However, you shouldn't deny what you don't define. Faith is not religion. Religion is not faith. Today's pop-atheists do not take the differences into account: belief in God, theism, is not the same as organized religion. Faith in God(s) is much deeper and older than organized religion, which is an artifact of socialization, a mixed bag of cults and corporations with fuzzy edges (for example, what exactly is an Episcopalian?). Atheism is, strictly speaking, only a meaningless concept, as meaningless as theism, as Luis Buñuel said, "I am an atheist still, thank God."
We are all half blind, groping around for a complete view of our place in the scheme of things. Faith lets us see the other half. Faith is personal delusion, sweet, comforting delusion. Science and faith exclude each other, except for faith in science. Religion and faith exclude each other too, except for faith in religion. Faith is an individual matter. Religion is popular delusion and the madness of crowds. Religion corrupts faith and turns it into a social tool used to feed a group called the clergy. Clergymen, pastors, ministers, priests, counselors, and psychotherapists are shamans who pretend to have magical powers. Clericalism is a curse upon society, the burden society bears in return for protection from ghosts. The Church is a Mafia, and churches are Ponzi schemes, pyramid scams, pay-as-you-go salvation, crimes of persuasion like full-life insurance policies that take your money and pay it all back except for their exorbitant profit. All religions are superfluous, unnecessary, a waste of time and money, and we love them.
"It is these theology guys, after all - priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, pandits, lamas, the whole damn lot - who not only construe a cosmology and a teleology out of their own fancies, but who then go on to tell us, often in the most minatory tone, how we have to behave, what we must and must not do, and who, among men, we are obliged to obey. Distilling it down, then, the real question becomes, 'JUST WHO THE HELL DO THESE BOZOS THINK THEY ARE?"' writes Norman Levitt in his review of Dawkins' The God Delusion in eSkeptic.
All the faults of the age come from Christianity and journalism. - Frank Harris (1856-1931)
Christianity, of course, but why journalism? - Arthur Balfour (1848-1938)
Irreligious folks are the only ones to trust. The religious ones always have a secret agenda ready to spring on you whenever they get the chance, a revealed solution to the problems that come with being alive. They wait until they have your trust or attention, and then they hit you with their version of truth - a business you have to get into, double your money, a sure-fire investment in the future, a win-win situation, a cult you can't resist.
Recently a group of scientific intellectual types have gone on the warpath to spread their faith in scientism (not scientology, which is a whole other ball game). Scientism is an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation such as in philosophy, the social sciences and the humanities, where it does not belong. Its purveyors are is just as pernicious as the maniac Moslems, long-haired preachers, and slippery Jesuits. These scientists who meddle where they do not belong are no better than magicians, alchemists, astrologers, and other charlatans who pretend to keep the secrets of forbidden knowledge. They also ignore the better part of man's legacy, the art, architecture, music and literature that elevate and justify us. One Debussy is worth a thousand Dawkinses or Dennetts.
I believe the souls of five hundred Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton. - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
When scientists look at religion or art they look at the wrong things. They see only the apparent, trivial attributes of religion or art. They see ranks of men kneeling, or hear a sequence of tones of differing frequencies. They miss the heart of the matter.
The ranks of the atheists must be dwindling, for they are stepping up the quantity and volume of their campaign and propaganda consisting of a spate of apologies and arguments reiterating the tenets of their faith and lost causes - scientific, humane solutions to our problems. It is hard to look at the face of the Doomsday Clock to contemplate nuclear annihilation and climate change without cursing technology.
Only a handful of such scientific atheists remain, men like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, scientists who hold to the religion of scientism, artifacts of Enlightenment, and who shout only about the bare fact of our brief existence, even though science leads to destruction and madness. Today, because of scientists we all live by ducking and covering, hiding in ditches and mountain retreats, hoping that the atomic blasts and the poisons will not reach us, dreading having to kill our loved ones so they will not suffer so much. Or we stand, our breasts bared to the fire and the gamma rays, ready to breathe in the poisonous gases, living on faith, faith in luck and Divine Purpose.
The physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose. - J Robert Oppenheimer
Politicized religion is without doubt part of mankind's curse. However, religion is not faith. Religion is a group of people doing something together that hurts other people, for absurd reasons. Faith, on the other hand, is the hope or conviction that Jesus loves me, or God has a plan, or Allah is great, or escape from sorrow will come, or that Nature absorbs evil illusions.
Religion is a ditch to hide in with other people. People used to be afraid of God, so they huddled together in fear; now they are afraid of germs and atomic radiation, so they watch television to help them ignore pandemics and the countdown to Armageddon.
Faith, however, is belief in God in spite of the clergy or the scientists. It is knowing that something made the maker, that some first cause set it all in motion, perhaps for some purpose even though we cannot know what the purpose might be. Faith is what keeps us going. We may believe in our part in the improvement of mankind, in the future, or in the strength of our football team, or in our chances of making money, or in falling in love, or in personal vindication, approval, and success, or in the principles of scientific endeavor to show us the way and the truth. Without faith we could not get out of bed. Faith is what moves us and gives us peace. It is music, the beauties of nature, love, and pride.
Dawkins in The God Delusion argues that although religion provides a needed crutch for consolation, it also has dangerous side effects - self-righteousness, false courage, and hatred towards others - and it makes liberal and generous people respect cultures and folkways that are more dangerous than snakes. "Of course," as Arthur Balfour said.
Known as "Darwin's Rottweiler," Dawkins has put forth a gene-centric view of evolutionary biology. His reductionist notion of the cultural meme owes a lot, perhaps unconsciously, to behavioral psychology, descriptive linguistics and Kenneth Pike's "tagmemics," making his work a sort of CSI: Biology. He remains "baffled by the details of the Christian religion." (p99)
Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea would explain the mind in physical terms, making us what he laughingly calls "zombies," asserting that we must balance our tolerance of religious freedom with the need for public safety when faced with dangerous fanaticism. "Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means."
Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation decries Bibliolatry, the literal reading of scripture and the resulting dogma. The way to avoid antagonism between religious groups is to lessen the power of religious groups by not allowing them to preach nonsense. "We need critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way more than the respect we accord religious faith." Note well that Harris writes of religious faith.
Only incidentally does organized religion have to do with spirituality, mysticism, and deliverance from anguish. Religion is to spirituality as medicine is to health. Doctors and the medical profession have a vested interest in illness, yet doctors take an oath, the Hippocratic Oath, to promise to do no harm. Priests, mullahs, and ministers should have to take a similar oath. Organized religions seem alternately to thwart and confuse people and then to offer them false solutions and consolation, causing at least as much misery as they assuage. They are primitive, adaptive, protective mechanisms, like the packs formed by wolves, like prides by lions, like gaggles by geese. Organized religions are merely congregations, clubs, cults, cliques, coteries, clusters, crowds, crews, clans, and gangs - all natural ways of socializing and preserving the identity of its followers. If a religion had the truth in a basket, like Judaism, it would not need you to follow it.
The old-boy-atheists who blame religions for social failings would do themselves a favor to read the Gifford Lectures in natural theology (one of which, ironically, Dawkins gave at Glasgow in 1988, entitled "Worlds in Microcosm)." Arthur Balfour gave a Gifford in 1922 on theism and humanism (to CS Lewis's delight), and Jaroslav Pelikan in 1992 talked about "Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism." Simone Weil's "Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks (Beacon 1958) is a primary work on how natural religion is perpetuated.
What I would do is to ask you to go back to the origins of faith before organized religions came along. My point is that religions do not have the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Religions merely offer spirituality; they do not necessarily provide it. Churches are spiritual restaurants where the quality of the menu varies from fast food to Cordon Bleu. We usually go away hungry from a church service to forage in the forests of our own minds.
It's easy to agree with those who find religion to be an infectious blight on humanity, a universal, obsessional neurosis. Of course the world's a mess, and insane religionists threaten to make it worse. However, declaring the superiority of atheism to religion is the wrong response. The terms are all muddled up. Irreligionist is a better, more accurate term than atheist. To be an irreligionist is commendable, but not to be an atheist, an astronomer or a biologist lost in the stars or the genes.
My theism is my own. Religion is theism according to someone else's recipe. A group of people, a congregation, a religion, does not have a reflective mind. The "mind" of a mob (mobile vulgus) is made up of half-brains that can only obey orders, not generate them. Charles Mackay, in Popular Delusion and the Madness of Crowds (1841) observed, "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."
Only an individual can imagine receiving God's grace. No other person can share what we know, nor can a congregation share our conviction. It is ours alone, just as our lives and deaths are our own.
Furthermore, it is wrong to assert that reason is lacking among religionists, that they are irrational. Thomas Aquinas and Mohammed, for example, make perfect sense, given their premises. Reason is not to morality as design is to construction. Right and wrong are relative, and intellectual integrity is what every madman has. Everyone has his reasons for what he does.
The moral sense is unnatural, not found in the real world of necessity, suffering, and death. Nature goes on its way, including us without listening to us, according to an order that science reveals to us. Free will is an illusion. Furthermore, God does not disturb the natural order. Prayer will not stop a tsunami, nor cure a cold.
The supreme value of spirituality is personal relief, that is, deliverance from the misery of living and the agony of death. Spiritual deliverance happens to one person at a time, not to groups of people. No group or individual can wave a magic wand and produce it. Ritual cannibalism, eating the Body and drinking the Blood, cannot alone make it happen. It is the realization of the knowledge that Love is waiting for me to return, a translation of consciousness not unlike that produced by great music and certain drugs. It does not depend on us. Neither you nor I can make it happen. It is the Good News, the Gospel, the fact that Jesus loves you, and suffering is a gift from God, his grace. We live by the grace of God, and we cannot rejoice and suffer without it.
We reap not what we sow but what comes up.
The existentialists hold that the major philosophical problem is human existence, and that thinking by itself will not solve it. True. People are nauseated and anguished by life's problems, and the only moral course seems to be to participate in solving them. That is all well and good, as far as it goes, and it goes toward humanism, the belief that mankind is the measure of all things, and so we must work for the greater good of mankind, whatever that means, and try to be happy doing it.
Walter Lippmann claimed that when men can no longer be theists, they must, if they are civilized, become humanists. If they can't believe in God, they must believe in mankind. The converse is also true. When we can no longer be humanists, in order to avoid despair we must believe in God. When cold, unfeeling Nature, which is red in tooth and claw, and natural, atavistic mankind, with its ignorant armies clashing by night, become too much to bear, we must look beyond reason into theism and mysticism in order to find solace there. We have to fool ourselves. It's like quitting smoking; we must hypnotize ourselves, using our brains for a change. Each of us must convince himself that Love and Goodness persist before and beyond this horror, and if God so wishes each of us will believe it.
According to scripture, John 16:12, the Son of Man told his disciples just before his death, "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear to hear them now." Would He have told them that silly people were going to create radioactive weapons that can kill us all? I can just see old Jesus laughing up His sleeve. He must have known those poor suckers were going to get it in the neck too. That's the point.
Atheists, defiantly, are stuck in time, in the mud of the physical world, in the cycle of living and dying without the grace of salvation, redemption, or deliverance, soteria - relief from the grinding knowledge of their own deaths.
Literary intellectuals, "men of letters", liberal artists, those who read well and deeply, pay little attention to atheists, to "men of public culture", to the scientists who proclaim their atheism and specialize in looking closer and closer at less and less and farther and farther at more and more, because they are Yahoos, unlettered, specialized barbarians. The literary-intellectual critics pay even less attention to the popular-science crowd pleasers, the journalists who make their living off the scientists. Popular culture is filled with second-hand science, brightened and stiffened with misunderstandings, lies, and exaggerations, prepared by drudges who think scientific research, particularly medical research, exists to sell television and magazines. Laugh? I like to cried when I read that Walt Disney had his dead body preserved with cryogens, like a pharaoh, like a Popsicle mummy.
I recall Readers' Digest seriously reporting that soon we would all have 200 IQs and be seven foot tall, according to Russian scientists (pace Lysenko), but, it seems, the truth is that one cannot inherit the results of Botox® (botulinum toxin type A) injections. What a pity!
The bright guys, the pop-atheists, no less venal than the journalists, intentionally neglect to consider the human condition as seriously as they consider such makeshifts as string theory. Man's spiritual solace is a subject beneath the dignity of those test-tube Savonarolas who would tell people what not to believe just because it is absurd. If they don't think being alive and aware is absurd, they are nerds and nebbishes who chew their fingernails and read Popular Science magazine. Scientific atheists are sophomoric little boys who think they have discovered something new. If they would only read history and literature, they might find that what they think to be new and important is really old hat. They think they are skeptics, but they do not know what skepticism is. Believers like the Sophists, Montaigne, Pascal, Descartes, and Kant were skeptics. They held that the possibility of knowing everything is limited by the weakness of the mind and the inaccessibility of data. They were not by definition doubters.
Of course life is absurd, and so is faith, belief, and hope that before, outside, and beyond the horror of this life and death God "exists." As Jesus said, "Before Abraham, I am."
The logical laws of form do not allow a dimension beyond opposition. Negative and positive, for example, have no place to be opposed in. That "place" is what allows negative to oppose positive, and vice versa. There is being and there is nothingness, and beyond nothingness there must be something to contain both nothingness and being.
Of course, no knowledge of the existence of God can be got by means of arguing the physical possibilities of the moral sense, or that human consciousness is too limitless and fine to have been created in evolution, or that science displays the divine order of Nature for us, or that belief in God cannot be disproved. People are born with the capacity for faith, and science cannot prohibit it. And that's the truth.
What if medicine and wealth progress to the point that we can live for two hundred years? So what? We still have to die, even if we have 200 IQs and are seven foot tall.
When they are about to scatter your ashes, when you have gone through all that science has to offer, there will be no place left but the bosom of Abraham.
The World's a bubble, and the Life of Man
Less than a span:
In his conception wretched, from the womb,
So to the tomb;
Curst from his cradle, and brought up to years
With cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust,
But limns on water, or but writes in dust…
- Francis Bacon
Bacon also wrote, "God never wrought miracle to refute atheism, because his ordinary works refute it.
It's fun to find and to write about instances of the "inhumanity" of religions. Here now is my jazz riff, my bit on the iniquity of organized religion: Until modern times societies had official religions that were recognized or accommodated by the state no matter who governed the state. Often the governments were in effect indistinguishable from the religions. In Québec, where I live by choice, until recently Churchmen controlled the private lives of French Canadians. Priests decided who would succeed in business, get professional training, become civic officials, and who would marry whom, and so on. When the British took Canada 250 years ago, they agreed to let the natives govern themselves as a matter of colonial policy. Consequently, French-Canadian private life was a medieval village until the Atomic Age. This is not to say that the people were unhappy. I suspect that people in medieval villages had more fun than most of us zombies have at the Wal-Mart buying a new TV set.