Monday, April 30, 2007

Onward atheist soldiers?

The photographs of the last rites held for the first president of Russia are telling. The funeral was held in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a Moscow landmark Stalin tore down and Yeltsin ordered restored. Clearly, religion performs a host of functions that the world of unbelief cannot address, among them symbolism, tradition, social solidarity, solace, and collective memory.

Outsiders (and many theologians as well) hold that the core of religion lies in dogmas and belief systems. This is wrong, for the essence of religion is collective enactment. As Dean Inge once said, it is more about walking than talking.

Once the domain of state-sponsored atheism, Russia is now seeing the resurgence of its opposite. Can religion act as a brake on Putin’s growing arrogation of power? Not very much. But we know that Marxism would have offered no hindrance at all.

Yeltsin’s funeral is significant for another reason. His abolition of the Soviet Union inadvertently gave the signal for a revival of militant atheism in the West. How so? Memories are short, and sixteen years after the Russian president took his historic step, people have begun to forget about the crimes committed by the atheists Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot
All the recent authors of best-selling atheist books skirt this issue. In his The End of Faith Sam Harris treats it—very cursorily—only in an Appendix prepared for the paperback edition of his book. Here he confuses the matter by prefacing Hitler to the quartet of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Il. The latter four are Marxists; Hitler was not. According to Harris all of them are to be tarred with the same brush as organized religion because they are "not rational." Anyone who has tried to struggle through the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital knows that the approach is a rational one. An indefatigable researcher at the British Museum, the author cites numerous facts culled from reliable sources, using them as support for his general propositions. One need not agree with Marx to find that his approach is rational and not mystical. Moreover, having been brought up a Christian, Marx arrived at his atheism by rational means. Harris is engaging in special pleading here.

Like the other writers Harris makes a consequentialist argument. Consequentialism is the view that all actions are right or wrong in virtue of the value of their consequences. We know that religion is bad because so much violence and suffering have been done in its name. It would follow, then, that abolition of religion would automatically produce a reduction of violence and suffering. Yet that conclusion has been falsified by the state-sponsored atheism of Eurasia. To suppress this damning falsification is intellectually dishonest.

Daniel C. Dennett displays at least some inkling of this problem when he notes that vigorous state promotion of atheism backfired in the Soviet Union. "The rebound of religion in post-USSR Russia suggests that religion has roles to play and resources unheard of by this simple vision." But that is that. Dennett does not deal with the consequentialist aspect of Communist atheism. If we are to dismiss religion because it has been implicated in violence and repression, why should we not dismiss atheism because it too has been so implicated? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Soviet model of state-sponsored atheism had at least one thing going for it. With its group indoctrination and museums of atheism, it promoted social solidarity. People could unite under this banner. Yet our new advocates of atheism stress that they are against coercion. Adopting atheism is a purely private matter. This cognitive isolationism may be fine for intellectuals, but for many people it is a recipe for anomie. This is another consequence that remains unexplored.

Harris began his book on September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This timing must account for the special attention he reserves for Islam. Even with regard to contemporary events, his scholarship does not run very deep. He holds that suicide bombing and the ideas that sustain it are uniquely Islamic. This ignores the role of one of the principal Palestinian extremists, the Christian George Habash. He also forgets a point he had touched upon in the second footnote of his book, the activities of the Tamil Tigers (who were, though he does not say so, the inventors of the invidious technique of blowing oneself up in order to kill others).

Like the other authors, by "religion" Harris usually means the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (To be sure, he does seem to have some acquaintance with, and sympathy for Buddhism, but this feature only crops up in awkward excursion the towards the end of his book.)

All the writers suffer from the Three-Ring Syndrome. I am referring to the parable of the three rings (standing for the three Abrahamic religions) that figures in Gotthold Lessing’s 1779 play, "Nathan the Wise." The three rings are equally imbued with wisdom. But there are no others. Students of comparative religion have identified some 5000 religions in the world. Most of them are characterized by polytheism. Enlightened followers of polytheistic recognize the kinship of all such faiths. It was for this reason that the ancient Romans found that their Mercury was equivalent to the Hermes of the Greeks, their Venus to Aphrodite. Similarly, many ancient Egyptians came to recognize that Thoth and Isis were their own equivalents. Such procedures (known technically as interpretatio) tend to discourage the idea that truth is to found exclusively in one religion.

In short, monotheistic intolerance should not be projected on the rest of the world’s faiths. To be sure, many of the others have their own shortcomings. The Hindu concept of caste strikes me as deplorable. The point, though, is that these shortcomings are not the same as those of the Abrahamic triad, which Dawkins, Harris and Co. tend to regard as all that religion has to offer. Theirs is a pars-pro-toto approach. It is sad to see two-hundred years of Comparative Religion simply dumped into the trashcan.

But then none of these authors is particularly distinguished for scholarship. They do not seem to realize that many of the arguments they advance had already been forcefully put by Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899). While he was scathing about Christianity, Ingersoll admirably claimed only to be an agnostic—a far wiser self-description in my view than atheist. By the way, all of Ingersoll’s writings are easily accessible on the Internet.

Just now the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens has entered the fray with his God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. A late-comer at the party, Hitchens is nonetheless attracting favorable attention. One isn’t supposed to mention that Hitchens is a former Trotskyist. Leon Trotsky didn’t get to participate in Stalin’s crimes, but only because the ogre wouldn’t let him. While Trotsky was still in his element as a Bolshevik commissar he did his bit in persecuting priests and destroying churches. I have not read Hitchens’ latest effort, but like the others I imagine that he minimizes the noxious contributions of Soviet Atheism. If so, he is not acting in good faith.

As a rule, the new paladins of unbelief are deaf to culture, not just to Bach and Chartres, but even to secular masterpieces of music, art, and literature. To be sure, Dawkins seeks to address this in his Rainbow book, but his attempt to summon emotion before the poetry of Wordsworth and others seems rather pallid. The others don’t even try.

Here is one conclusion I find telling. Wouldn’t most of us flee before the prospect of being ruled by that bombastic alcoholic Christopher Hitchens or by the smug, humorless Sam Harris, preferring instead that gentle Christian Jimmy Carter, with all his undeniable faults? Not to worry, though. In all likelihood Hitchens and Harris will not get anywhere near the centers of power.

So the question remains. Why this old stuff now? As a society we have "been there. done that."



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eastern Christianity's "iconography" and Latin's "sacramental universe" spiritualize the mundane, not make the spiritual mundane. Latin and Protestant Christianity have done their best to eliminate the mystical, mystagogical, and spiritual, including the reduction of the Eucharist to a "sacred meal." Alas, the significance of classical Christianity is lost; meaning of texts, rather than life's meaning, has triumphed. Thus, faith has brought its own destruction, and those who apotheosize the word (logos) have focused on its least important aspect: literal hermeneutics, without the spiritual senses. In that singular shift, Christianity destroyed itself, lost its center, and is now a hollow shadow of its past. The Reason and Faith that Aquinas joined has been divorced and torn asunder. Now, it is simply the "experience." Pragmatic Christianity has several "senses," but even practical Christianity means something less useful, less significant, because the text has replaced the person, the word replaced the spirit, and Faith excludes Reason, and belief is more vibrant than works.

Other religions may survive, but not Christianity. It's been eviscerated and stigmatized into the Irrational by Irrationalists. It has lost its spiritual core. its Mystery, replaced by a pragmatism to soothe the modern angst as an opiate. It does not, indeed cannot, succeed on that level. It's just another "agenda" amidst others, and it too will pass. It has lost its purpose, its heart, and its significance, and has become moribund to the Spirit, but alive to the Hermeneutic of the polemic. Therein, it lost its salt, its leaven, its yeast. It has no "life" in it.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

The following is the money quote from a piece on Hitchen's book by Max Blumenthal (

"God Is Not Great represents little more than the disingenous posturings of a certified fraudmeister who has openly cavorted with the most reactionary elements of the Christian right. If Hitchens had any principles at all - if he truly feared the cultural and political consequences of the encroachment of religion into public life - he would have used his still-considerable influence to support organizations and causes that shore up the wall between church and state and which defend the rights of non-believers. Instead, Hitchens has done exactly the opposite.

"In the fall of 2005, Hitchens gladly accepted the invitation of the Family Research Council to speak before its Witherspoon Fellows. Hitchens subsequently regaled an audience of young Christian right cadres with excerpts from his book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. For attending Hitchens' lecture and participating in several similar events, the FRC's Witherspoon Fellows received academic credit for study at Pat Robertson's Regent University, a school that has placed 150 of its graduates in Bush administration posts.

"Presumably Hitchens was aware of the mission of the James Dobson-founded Family Research Council. How could such an intellectual giant be unaware of the FRC's charge to "promote[] the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society?" How could Hitchens have missed the FRC's many "Justice Sunday" rallies staged at mega-churches and telecast across America to advance the confirmation of George W. Bush's most theocracy-minded judicial picks? (To my knowledge, these rallies occured well after happy hour) And how could Hitchens have been ignorant to the FRC's vitriolic crusade to ban abortion and undermine gay rights?

"Regarding FRC President Tony Perkins' ties to white supremacists, I would like to paraphrase Scripture and say, forgive Hitchens for he knows not what the hell he is doing. My well-publicized report detailing how Perkins once purchased the phone bank list of former Klan leader David Duke for the price of $82,500 and how he headlined a 2001 fundraiser for the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens had only been out for a few months. Maybe Hitchens was too busy dancing with Wolfowitz to read it.

"But there is no excuse for Hitchens' hypocrisy. With the release of God Is Not Great, Hitchens owes his readers an explanation."

I can add my own bit. Why did Hitchens decide to break with his Christianist allies? Rumor has it that they had taken to referring to his wife as the "Hitch bitch."

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hitch, of course, is a Marxist apostate, who abandoned the faith of dialectical materialism and dialectical historicism and Homo economist for another round of Scotch. Das Kapital may provide the details of the Ideology heralded in the Manifesto, the German Ideology, and other writings where metaphysics reigned supreme: The Telos of Nature, the Telos of History, the Telos of Society, the Telos of Economy, and the Final End of all is the Ashbin in the Dustbin of History. The Will to Believe is like the Will to Power, and the combination is lethal, whether in Stalin's, Mao's, Bush's, FRC's, or anyone's hands.

9:40 AM  

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