Saturday, October 24, 2009

Persiflage (or maybe not): the Great Oomph

One takes it as axiomatic that all the strong versions of theism--monotheism, polytheism and so forth--are inoperative. They have been kaputt since Darwin’s time, if not before. However, that collapse does not spell any automatic adhesion to atheism as the default setting .

Our universe may have been set in motion by a kind of indeterminate force, call it the Great Oomph. With sovereign dexterity, this entity stipulated the physical laws of our universe: the speed of light, gravitation, the periodic table, and so forth. As brane rheory posits, though, there may be sister universes, each set in motion by its own Great Oomph. In their own domains, these initiatory forces may have prescribed different physical laws, ones we can scarcely imagine.

Yet having set the rules and given the primal heave, our Great Oomph retired--for good. Sayonara. It is not coming back. If it still lingers at all, this demiurge is indifferent to all that happens after, which must play itself out on its own terms.

The New Atheists, it seems to me, create a soft target by assuming as their opponent a personal deity who studies and controls the minutest details of our environment and our behavior. ("Not a sparrow that falls," etc.) Yet personality and providence are in no wise necessary--at least not in the stripped-down version of theism I am envisaging here. I have put God on a starvation diet. In fact, the critter was always a kind of wispy thing. Perhaps it has wasted away, to die its lonely Nietzschean death--sa belle mort, as it were. But once it was a Contender. Once upon a time.

(I owe this somewhat bizarre set of thoughts to the religious minimalism of the novelist Thomas Hardy, who was much wiser than I.)



Blogger Burk said...

Bizarre indeed. Even the Deists back in our founding days adhered not only to a clockwork universe, but also to a moral law of some sort, which is not defensible. But deism, however attenuated, is hardly ascendent today. America remains in the grip of personal gods, which you may poo poo, but which only the new atheists are taking on with gusto and verve, calling on people to think and defend their thoughts.

Bare deism is not a problem to new or old atheists. The data is not in for ultimate origins, and the atheist position is simply that proposing such a deity is unnecessary and improbable in the extreme. But who knows? Not us. Nor does anyone care about such a god. Saying that a deist god does not exist is like saying the the Higgs boson does not exist.. no one would give a fig, one way or the other. Only when it becomes personal does anyone care at all- when it becomes an issue of cultural power at the hands of religious charlatans, for instance.

Psychologically, religion may be natural, even hard-wired. But that just means education has extra work to do to cultivate thinking people capable of regulating not just simpler pleasures of the flesh and small temptations like going into hopeless debt, but such large, hypnotic, and culturally- even governmentally- "sanctified" temptations as superstition and religion.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

These are good points, Burk. Entendu. Of course it is true that the vast majority of the billions (and couting) of believers subscribe to a personal god(s) who busies himself (yes, a him) in every little detail of their lives.

Yet Popperian principles, to which I subscribe, indicate that one should not content oneself with refuting the most vulnerable version of the doctrine one opposes. On the contrary, one needs to formulate, if possible, an even more robust version of the opposing idea. This the New Atheists have not done. They have shirked the task. Instead. they have chosen to attack the soft underbelly (a very distended underbelly to be sure) of religion. Moreover, by religion they intend only the Abrahamic religions.

If their horizons were broader, they would address Buddhism in all its rich variations, not to speak of Gnosticism, which developed a concept not dissimilar from the one I am proposing almost two thousand years ago. This neglect suggests a kind of intellectual laziness on the part of the NAs that is not reassuring. In the long run, learned ignorance is not likely to prevail.

At best, their arguments yield either agnosticism or minimalist theism--not the atheism on which they dogmatically insist.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

Your argument is sort of like saying that the FBI should go after the most complex and obscure financial or racketeering crimes first, before attacking bank robbers. That would be the "sporting" approach. There are endless permutations of superstition and religion. All are false. See here for a humorous treatment. New atheists have no problem attacking whatever permutations arise, including Islam, psychic-ism, theosophy, scientology, buddhism. Personally, if we had only buddhism to worry about, the world would be a much, much better place, but I have learned a lot about it, and it is likewise false, and occasionally morally bad, if one wants to be comprehensive.

No, the point of atheism is to make the culture a better place, and that goal is best advanced by exposing those strands of religion that are most indefensible and most culturally damaging, which usually happen to go together, in the underbelly you allude to. The terrorism of Islam is one of the most fervent targets. But how many Muslims exist in our culture? Very few. So to make the point that all religions are false and all gods absent, new atheists will focus on the religions that are common as well as damaging in their own societies, including fundamentalisms of all sorts. Debating mild archbishops and milky theologians is quite enjoyable, but hardly productive, since their rarified versions of their own religions tend to be unconvincing to their own flocks, let alone their adversaries.

I don't know what Popperianism has to do with this. God is dead- the issue is not whether this is a scientific fact, is falsifiable, etc. We can leave that to the philosophers, though it is not a difficult case to make. The new atheists are in a cultural conversation to raise the level of thought and consciousness more generally, which seems to be a different matter.

In the setting of Islamic societies, which have so successfully demonized atheists, advocating full-bore atheism is clearly not politically viable/advisable. But here in the west, there seems to be enough of an opening to make such an approach workable, even attractive, and increasingly so with time.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wayne --

You write, "Yet Popperian principles, to which I subscribe, indicate that one should not content oneself with refuting the most vulnerable version of the doctrine one opposes," which I think is fundamentally correct. So five interdependent thoughts:


Perhaps it is "too fundamental" to expect a deity to possess the following attributes:

(1) omnipotence
(2) omniscience
(3) omnibenevolvence
(4) omnipresence

but no deity I know of meets a single one of the above tests.


Let's assume an "inferior deity" -- not the perfect kind of deity one would expect, as in the ontological argument -- such as an imperfect impersonal and indifferent "Force" is "god," that god would not be worth my praise, adoration, worship, much less my supplications, contrition. Hell, such a inferior deity needs to "butch it up a bit."


Let's assume that the Big Bang began by a "divine spark," but if so, the flame went out, perhaps due to blowback for it inferiority to its Big Bang. See, II above.


Let's assume the burden of proof is on those Armstrong appellants pejoratively labeled "New Atheists" because they deny the existence of god, and let's further suppose that the burden of proof is to disprove a negative, which, of course, is impossible.

But if it is impossible to disprove, then the deity must be self-evident. Since no empirical or rational reasons exist for such a deity, much less any we would describe as "self-evident," we have only the imaginations of feeble men and women (rabbis, priests, and delusionists) "apotheosizing" animism into some homunculus.


Homunculus. Yes, we created god in our image, not vice versa. But we are finite, imperfect, and our wishful-thinking homunculus may confer adaptation on the savanna, but I would hold out hopes for it doing so with climate change. Conception of unicorns does not instantiate them, but a "round square" should seem impossible, just as a benevolent deity is.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

My suggestion is simply this. God once existed, but he got sick and died. Maybe (in true Gnostic fashion) he couldn't stand the mess he had made.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Will atheism make the world a better place? Countless millions who suffered under Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot don't think so. By my reading, Dawkins, Harris, and HItchens all duck this question.

Well, one could say about those Communist regimes, it was atheism plus something else. By the same token the problem with Christianity and Islam is . . . Christianity and something else; Islam and something else.

This really won't do.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Yes- that is a fair point. It goes to the heart of philosophy and its purpose. Will truth make the world a better place, or will comforting illusions and pleasant/unpleasant ideologies? Call me old-fashioned, but truth wins out for me every time.

Is art incompatible with atheism? A few types of art, but in general, I don't think you can make that case. Is good public policy incompatible with atheism? Again, no. Indeed, quite the opposite in the upper reaches of Western Europe. Are morals incompatible with atheism? Not at all, though atheism does not sponsor a low-rent personal drama of sin, redemption, and salvation.

Perhaps existentialism is not for everyone, but at least believers could be gracious enough to keep these needs private. I think that is all the new atheists are really asking, combined with stopping indoctrination of the young.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Is atheism truth? I don't think so. Compared to agnosticism, which is far preferable, it is dogmatic. Dogmas are not good for us.

Of course atheism is not incompatible with art, but where are the atheist cathedrals, epic poems, and great choral works like Bach's cantatas and B-minor mass? I've seen a good deal of the product, and to me atheism is sterile and boring. It only becomes interesting when it is used as an excuse to kill people, as with Stalin and Mao. That is not the right kind of "interesting."

4:16 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

I would offer the theory of evolution as an exemplary edifice of atheist/agnostic creativity, with artistic content along with much else.

All modern art of the last century falls under atheism as well, from Kandinsky to deKooning, even Rothko. Not all great, but a few gems in there, one could say.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I'm sorry. BB. but now you are treading on my home field of art history. The three great founders of abstraction, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Kupka, were (at the time of their breakthrough) followers of Theosophy, a religion created by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875, synthesizing Egyptian, Hindu, and Buddhist elements. Mondrian kept up his membership until he died.

Other modernist artists, such as Malevich, Goncharova, and even Andy Warhol, derived sustenance from the Orthodox Church and its tradition of icons. Rothko, like Chagall, was Jewish. Perhaps Rothko's greatest work is his ecumenical chapel in Houston. Many have felt a religious impulse in his work.

My impression is that most modern artists are simply indifferent to religion, rather than actively opposed to it. I can't think of any who have produced specifically atheist iconography. In fact there is no such thing--a very significant point.

During the 1930s some artists were Communists, and therefore ipso facto atheists, but the Communism came first, the atheism being secondary. The architect Le Corbusier was first a Calvinist and then an atheist. Arguably, though, his two most powerful works are Roman Catholic, the Ronchamp Church and the monastery of La Tourette.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Wayne-

Points taken- I bow to your superior knowledge. I agree that there is no such thing as atheist iconography- that would be a contradiction in terms. I even agree that agnosticism is the formal home of atheists, whether they are militant or apathetic, since lack of knowledge is the condition we all labor under. But pointing out that same lack of knowledge on the part of religionists should be fair game as well.

The point of new atheism is not to sponsor a new iconography, but to clarify that all iconographies are .. art, not matters of science or reality. Expressions from within. The point is freedom to make art of anything one feels moved by, true, untrue, or whatever. Really, it is not about art, but about reality, and keeping our public policy and science reality-based. I assume that art can take care of itself. But perhaps not. Does proper art require society-wide systems of mass delusion?

6:08 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

In a word: yes.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BB writes,

"no such thing as atheist iconography, that would be a contradiction in terms."

I beg to differ. Numerous religious houses and artifacts have been created by "non-religious" individual, and many of them are iconographic. For example, the Ruffatti organ in Saint Mary's Cathedral, the "baldachinno," -- suspended aluminum strips in mobile -- or even the cathedral's foundation, on the "wings of four birds" with the "four elements" of water, earth, fire, and air in a cruciform glass window, pictures of which can be seen:

mostly by non-religious individuals.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

These art objects seem to be non-religious and not specifically atheistic. Something more like it would be fresco of Joseph raping the BVM, a film of Lot screwing the visitors, or cartoons lampooning Muhammad. The latter, of course, we have seen, but there doesn't seem to be much of a continuing market.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, now, my dear brothers and sisters:

The "Shroom" that is the Ruffatti organ has been likened to peaceful mescaline rather than a nuclear holocaust . . .

None of the eight shrines includes the "Circumcision of Jesus," but two of them might be religiously relevant. The Shrine for Changing Water into Wine has a tabernacle, that houses the foreskin of Jesus, since his body and blood are the same thing . . .

. . . and the shrine to the Crucifixion seems to show Jesus with a "hard on" under his swath, esp. with Roman centurions worshiping on their knees, one with a "lance" to make sure the guy is from the House of David. Only "cut" men work for salvation.

True, the main altar was meant to be a sarcophagus, which the artist misunderstood as the same thing as a "sepulchur." So no sacrilege is committed, since the "cathedra" (chair) looks like a marble toilet -- such as Joel Osteen's private $24 million. But I bet Osteen's does not come with a bidet attachment. Fortunately, the "Easter" movement, in which the bidet spouts "yellow water" for Mexicans resembled "water sports" from the Folsom Barracks, so the bidet has been detached.

And then the "Breast of Saint Mary" resides every day around midday, all four stories of her teat, suspended on 20 stories of marble, as she pumps her breast to nurse the family of faith. The fact that the Saint's breast appears on the Washing-Machine Agitator, allowed the cathedral to be nicknamed "Saint Mary Maytag," until the Maytag people complained.

However you "cut" it, the iconography is very modern and very rich.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

This so-called art may be deemed blasphemous and tasteless, but it is NOT atheistic. By its very nature, blasphemy pays tribute to the object it purports to satirize. It is parasitic.

What has atheist CULTURE contributed? The very concept is an oxymoron.

4:57 AM  

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