The revival of atheism these days strikes me as a natural response to religious violence, bigotry, and hatred in the world. But I confess to growing impatient with the current debate between the atheists and the believers. With few exceptions, our contemporary voices are shrill and thin as compared to people who were carrying on the same argument at a deeper level and with greater integrity a few decades ago. Forgive me for sounding like an old fogey, but today’s argument sounds like the religious equivalent of what we might hear on Fox News or MSNBC. It is mostly facile name-calling.
Does it matter? Quite possibly not much. It is unlikely that anyone has ever been argued into believing anything of importance very deeply. Either one experiences God intuitively or one does not. Of course the culture either supports or suppresses experience by shaping its interpretation. Hence, people in 17th Century France were apt to have visions of the Blessed Virgin while in Tibet they would entertain visions of dancing Dakinis. Today the chances of experiencing either are greatly diminished by assumptions about reality that France inherits from left bank existentialism and that Tibet is being force-fed by China. Our world view assumptions are shaped more by artists, scientists, and parents than pop religion or anti-religion pundits. Still, the debate is part of the background noise of our lives and I find its tenor irritating.
Christian, Jewish, and Islamic beliefs are all discredited by violence and bigotry perpetrated in our names. That kind of bad religion led to the anti-religion of Communism and the neo-pagan national religion of the German “Christian [sic]” Church in the 20th Century. In that bloodiest of centuries, atheism proved to be more lethal than religion had ever dreamed of being. See Alistair MacGrath, “The Twilight Of Atheism.” We have learned the hard way that when religion is taken out of the picture, we torture and kill each other over political and ecnonomic ideology. In the absence of religion that admits it is religion, we form secular religions, state-worship with flag rituals, sainted martyrs of the state, holy places (usually battle fields) and temples of the government, and sacred texts that can be viewed in the sacred city by pilgrims. The creed is taught by secular rabbis in public schools. See Robert Bellah, “Habits Of The Heart.” All this is forgotten by the pop atheists. (I do not include in this category one contemporary atheist writer, Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose book, “Doubt: A History,” is nuanced, honest, and decent.) Bad religion is invariably rooted in a bad image of God, which inevitably leads to bad behavior in the name of that bad God. When Christopher Hitchen, et al. attack such bad religion, they are in good company. Our great 1940’s Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “If you have the wrong idea of God, better that you were an atheist.” Amen.
So what would I like to see in the debate? I’d like to see Philip Pullman’s straw men pulled from the game so we can speak face to face, not through avatars, seeing each other as we are and not as caricatures. I’d like to see us begin with a definition of terms so we can see what’s truly at stake. I’d like to see a distinction between theism and monotheism. Frankly, I’d like to see the debate between theism and monotheism move to the fore since it is vastly more interesting, albeit admittedly less fundamental.
This is where I would begin. The fundamental question is one of value. Does anything matter? Is one painting more beautiful than another? Is it better to be happy than sad? Is life better than death? Is a forest better than a slum? Or are all things truly equal? Is the field of reality flat? This is absolutely foundational to the discussion, because once one admits value into the field of reality; one is at grave risk of experiencing such things as love, reverence, and awe. Values are fraught with that peril. Hence, the great atheists of yesteryear (Sartre, Camus, Russell) faced the issue head on and insisted that nothing matters. The field is flat. There is no such thing as beauty, meaning, or even truth. They did not prove their claim. They did not even offer warrants or evidence for it, but they asserted it with the seductive smoky-bar cynicism of post-War France and it was persuasive. The world, which once was a lake in which one could dive, became a frozen pond, on which one could only skate. (Camus)
I respect the integrity and the intelligence of those atheists far more than the illogical twists of today’s true believers in unbelief (Eric Hofer, “The True Believer”). See, for example, “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins,” by Marilynne Robinson in the November 2006 issue of Harpers, www.harpers.org/archive/2006/11/0081282; or more generally www.atheistdelusion.net. The atheists of the past century began at the honest starting place and they followed their premise to the ultimate and inescapable issue of suicide. If reality is in fact devoid of truth, beauty, and goodness, if there is no meaning to life, is not suicide then the inevitable response, the only authentic response? They argued, again without logic but with a heroic and compelling rhetoric, for a self-made value of the solitary individual shaking his fist at everything. Camus, “The Rebel.”
So let us begin with asking if anything matters. Let us ask if the behavior of some people, say perhaps Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., is in some respect better than that of others, say Jeffrey Dahmer or Pol Pot. Let us ask if there is anything worthy of reverence or love? Then if there is, we may ask, “What is the basis for our holding one thing in greater reverence than another? In what value are our values grounded?” At the most basic level, we notice that there is something rather than nothing. The universe is here. It is vast and wonderful. Perhaps we are in awe of it. How could we not be? Then we ponder that if the universe has a source (which, in light of the Big Bang, it apparently does), even, especially, a mysterious source, that thought may evoke our reverence.
If something evokes our love and reverence, then we are, despite ourselves, theists – perhaps not classical theists, but we are people who bend the knee to something of value. Is that the God of monotheism? Not necessarily. But we are theists. As a matter of definition, I would say that if one holds that the value of all things is rooted in one supreme value, one highest good, then one is a monotheist. If one holds that things have independent values that are not bound together (for example that beauty is independent of truth and truth is independent of beauty -- that our source and our destiny are both awesome but are not related to each other) then one is a polytheist.
Some of today’s self-proclaimed atheists elevate various things to the status of an ultimate value. Some, who also call themselves “humanists,” regard the flourishing of our own species as the ultimate value against which everything else must be measured. Naturally, others, such as deep ecologists, find the elevation of our own species as the ultimate value of the cosmos to be arbitrary, illogical, reprehensibly self-serving, and turgid with hubris – a collective self-worship. Some take the“scientific method” to be the ultimate truth, thereby repudiating values grounded in art, literature, and the religious imagination. If you cannot scientifically prove that Beethoven’s sonatas are beautiful, perhaps even better than “The Horse With No Name” or “Achy Break-y Heart,” then in fact Beethoven’s sonatas are not of value. Ironically, these folks are actually monotheists. In an amusing turn of rhetoric, when the greatest true philosophical scientific atheist of our time, Anthony Flew, converted to theism, the pop atheists accused him of “apostasy.” They actually used that word. Flew, a lifelong devotee of the scientific method himself, adamantly denied their accusation that he had departed from the true way of scientism and insisted that his belief in God was just the place he found himself after “following the evidence,” starting with the Big Bang. See Anthony Flew, “There Is A God.” For both Dawkins and Flew, the existence of God is “a scientific question.” (Dawkins actually used those words in his debate with geneticist Francis Collins). Dawkins and Flew just come to different scientific conclusions. Francis Collins says that God’s existence is either true or false, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a “scientific question.” Though Collins is one of the world’s foremost scientists, he has not “drunk the Kool-Aid” of scientism. Different methods of inquiry are better suited for different questions. It’s a matter of the right tool for the right job.
Still, it is a huge leap from polytheism, as I have defined it, to monotheism. It is a huge leap to say that truth, beauty, and goodness are connected. “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” said young John Keats shortly before he died. What a claim! And to say that goodness is inextricably bound to truth and beauty makes the claim even greater. Now add the notion that this sea of truth/beauty/goodness was the spawning ground of all reality, and that changes all our assumptions and our experience of everything. “Surely the strange beauty of the world must rest somewhere on pure joy,” the American poet Louse Bogan wrote. Now add the notion that this “pure joy,” which is born of the truth/beauty/goodness which is our source, is in fact our destiny. Such monotheism is rather overwhelming, at least to me.
Now, the God I have described, you Barthians will be quick to point out, is not necessarily the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nor have I said a word about Jesus. In fact, my faith does not begin with nor is it rooted in the things I have been saying about value. My faith begins with and is rooted in experience, not one great “see the light” experience but an osmosis experience of God in prayer, worship, and daily life. I worship God because I cannot breathe without God and that experience has taught me far more about the Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifier God than I could know from all of philosophy and science put together.
Since I have tried your patience too long dear reader and have come to the end of my own energy, I will stop here. But I will offer this hint for your own musing. If the reality in which we live partakes of the personal – thinking, feeling, willing – and not merely mechanical processes, then where does the personal come from. What does the presence of the personal tell us about the source and destiny of the universe? What does the presence of the personal tell us about the nature of truth, beauty, and goodness? Think carefully on these things – very carefully -- because they could lead you to consider strange and wonderful things about Jesus.