Thursday, April 15, 2010

Atheism: A Cult to Nothing

Atheism is all the rage these days. Actually, it has been the rage for some time now. Today, however, it has come back into prominence with two of the world's leading atheists, Richard Dawson and Christopher Hitchens calling for the pope to be arrested.

Dawson and Hitchens were reacting, with proper outrage, to the most recent revelations of pedophilia in the Catholic priesthood. The problem has dogged the Church for decades now, and the Church has, shall we say, been less than effective in dealing with it.

Is this the end of Catholicism as we know it? Is it the ultimate proof that believing in God fosters immoral and criminal behavior?

I recall a conversation I had with a Catholic friend many years ago. He had been disturbed to discover the sordid behavior of many members of the priesthood in the past-- such predations do not date to yesterday-- so he asked a cousin of his, a cardinal in the Church, how he could justify his belief when so much sin has been committed in God's name.

The Cardinal was nonplussed. He responded: if the Church had not been created by God it would never have survived this long.

That sounds glib. It is not. It means, as I understand it, that Catholicism is about forgiving sin. The proof of its effectiveness does not lie in its ability to prevent people from committing the worst sins, but in its ability to forgive them. Considering the quantity and the extent of sin committed in the name of Christianity, it might be understandable to imagine that only God could forgive it.

As for the horrors committed in the name of Christianity and other religions, Hitchens is surely correct to note that that they have occurred.

Unfortunately, the world's great atheists do not bother to mention that quite a few monstrous crimes have been committed in the name of atheism. Doubtless Hitchens does not approve of them and he will refuse to attribute them to atheism, but, the fact remains, that the great Communist dictatorships that fouled the twentieth century were established in the name of atheism.

If you want to make religion responsible for every crime committed in its name, be fair enough to note that atheism has more than a little blood on its hands. If anything, communist dictatorships murdered more people in a shorter period of time than any religion has ever done. If communism was competing against religion, it emerged victorious in terms of body count.

But that is not atheism's only problem. I was reading Stanley Fish's blog yesterday and I was struck by his discussion of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Link here.

Habermas had told the story of a dying friend, a man who had never professed any particular religious faith, asking that his funeral be held in a Church.

This led Habermas and Fish to some interesting philosophical reflections, which you may mull over in the post.

For now I want to emphasize a different point, namely, that religion is very good at ceremony and ritual. By contrast, atheism has no rituals or ceremonies. No group of human beings has ever gotten together on a Saturday or Sunday morning in the name of nothing.

Etymologically, the word "religion" refers to tying or binding. Religion binds people together in a community. Since everyone likes to emphasize the question of belief, of whether or not you believe in God, I think that we should also pay close attention to the fact that religion brings people together in congregations.

People who reject monotheist religions often gather together to honor various pagan deities and superhuman potentates. Of course, this evidence of a continuing attachment to polytheism has nothing to do with atheism... by definition.

As we know, religion is not the only force that binds people in communities. States and nations and villages do the same. They have their own ceremonies and rituals, from celebrations of July 4th to Sunday afternoon football games.

These do not celebrate nothing; they are not properly considered professions of atheism. They commemorate events that define secular community.

But human beings cannot live by politics and NASCAR races. Nor can they live solely on piety and prayer.

As human beings we deal with two worlds, the world of fact and the world of fiction. We deal with palpable realities and with metaphysical entities like ideas.

Some people choose to believe that fictions are literally true.Some of those who do so are pious believers. Other, more sophisticated theologians, believe that certain narratives convey higher truths. We cannot dismiss all of theology for the opinion of a few.

And we should note that you do not have to believe in God to believe that fictions express higher than literal truths.

Be that as it may, we should also note that people who have absolutely no truck with God or the Bible believe fervently in metaphysical entities like ideas and ideals. As I have said, this amounts to a thinly disguised idolatry.

Here I would recall Alexander Meiklejohn's famous assertion: namely that no one has ever seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled an idea.

Ideas are metaphysical entities, whether you worship them at an altar or not. Once you accept that they exist, though not in anything like a physical sense, you should next ask yourself whether they exist when no one is thinking them. If gravity is an idea that is expressed in the behavior of physical objects, did gravity exist before anyone defined the concept. And if it did, if it was an idea, well then, who or what was thinking it?

As for the assertion that it is somehow irrational to consider ideas or divinities, this is a caricature of theology. If you take Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most eminent theologian, his work is nothing but rational. In fact, it is steeped through and through in Aristotle, who was, after all, not a purveyor of irrationality. And if you consider concepts like the marketplace of ideas or the free trade in ideas or even Richard Dawkins' notion of the transmissability of memes, then you must say that theories containing metaphysical entities do not preclude the work of reason.


Robert Pearson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Pearson said...

There is a philosophical case for atheism, but boiled down, it requires that something came out of nothing. Or, that before the Singularity, "there be monsters." Or that perfect symmetry was destroyed by "uncertainty." Or something. I know quite well I'm not doing these arguments justice, but I'm having fun putting them in these terms.

Does fun exist? If not, why will people use part of their food money to think they are getting it?

You are a writer whose posts are prone to provoke thought on multiple levels. I have a disagreement with your seeming equation of the pairs physical/metaphysical and fact/fiction. Ideas have effects in the world that what we usually call "fictions" do not. I would argue that you can't get out of bed, or even lift a finger, without an idea. God is an Idea, the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. The God that Hitch and Rich seem to be railing against all the time is a children's God, harsh punishing father, Joyce's Nobodaddy or the stern Jewish Jehovah circa 1000 BC who ordered entire cities slain. The Muslims unfortunately just adopted Him, long after the Jews had moved on to much bigger and better things.

These guys really need to loosen up and embrace the God of Frank Tipler, Gagdad Bob or Bob Dobbs. Hell, I embrace all three. Google 'em for fun and prophet.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comments, Robert.I have to admit that I was dancing around the parallel between metaphysical and fictional.

Today's philosophers would say that fiction creates possible worlds, worlds that have their rules and consistencies, but that are not the same as the real world.

Would one call them metaphysical worlds... probably not. That is probably too much of a stretch.

I was simply trying to say that we cannot judge religious texts against physical reality, and that the people who denounce religion for the use of narratives that represent higher truths are often great believers in the power of fiction to represent higher than physical truths.