ATHEISM AS TREND
A run of books popularizing atheism from such as Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens, David Mills and Richard Dawkins have hit the stands since late last year. It’s a trend given impulse by the debate around ID (Intelligent Design) in science and the role of the Religious Right in the era of Bush. Especially with the likes of the Rational Response Squad popularizing the popularizers and issuing their Blasphemy Challenge, atheism is –almost -hot.
Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins’ contribution, The God Delusion, is divisive and even to some atheists slightly embarrassing in the fundamental (if not quasi-fundamentalist) simplicity of its core position which creates an Us-against-Them, as regards the superiority of science for “Truth”. If you’re not supporting science you’re as good as an ignoramus or a mad fanatic. It’s a position that sits uneasily with the fact that in some respects Dawkins’ brand of materialism can itself be considered old fashioned and his support of it a bit fanatic, a point worth stressing as marking the first Dawkins delusion before passing on to other issues the book raises.
As even New Age guru, Deepak Chopra, stressed in TV debate with Dawkins his radical materialism is arguably already dislodged by physics. Space-time depends on shaping forces beyond space and time. Dawkins the card carrying Darwinian evolutionist still believes in solid objects randomly colliding to form more complex objects, till after billions of years there’s human DNA with billions of genetic bits. The materialist very much believes in “matter”. Individual atoms of DNA are nevertheless more than 99.9% empty space while individual electrons have no fixed position in time or space. Nature’s constants like gravity and speed of light, are, besides, too precisely inter-related for just chance to operate. If any one of six constants were off by less than a millionth of one percent, the universe itself couldn’t exist. Events at opposite ends of the universe pair with each other and a change in the spin of one electron produces immediate twin effect in another. Such communication isn’t explicable by materialism a la Dawkins. It defies notions of cause and effect and chance. Every electron exists as a wave function that’s everywhere at once. When this wave function collapses, there’s a specific isolated electron but before the wave collapses the materialist’s “matter” is non-local. Chopra is arguing against Dawkins while not for a personal God for at any rate a “conscious” universe.
CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING BEFORE PHILOSOPHY
Dawkins’ materialism may be inadequate but even so….if only because it’s currently super popular and like The Da Vinci Code a sign of the times mood thing, The God Delusion is an important book. Certainly it’s one that I should regard as a wake-up call to Christians in ways I shall indicate. However, long before I arrived at the section of Dawkins' book where he identifies with feminist consciousness raising I’d concluded that this was probably what the book was mainly about and what its main effect would be, even the reason it’s gained rapid bestseller status a la Betty Friedan. Imagining I might get to read a rather philosophical work the book turned out to be considerably taken up with how religion can still function as the trump card in the competition for personal rights. We, therefore learn how, beyond the abuse of the rights system by Christians, Muslims and others how atheists lack rights and can get misunderstood, threatened or vilified in line with the many examples of the errors and abuses of popular religion, which prompt the idea that religious educations could be “child abuse”. (The idea that for some children religious education might generate security feelings in our troubled society is ignored - apparently it’s only adults are lulled to false security by religion!). Altogether the book is an implicit invitation to throw off the shackles of one’s Sunday School religious past and come out of the belief closet atheist and proud. Or perhaps non-theist and proud…
Dawkins is not one hundred per cent atheist - he even considers himself almost "religious" in the way of scientists and philsophers like Einstein and Spinoza who have admired nature and the order of things without believing in any personal deity or soul or anything supernatural. Dawkins simply considers the existence of God extremely improbable, a hypothesis lacking, and likely never to possess, sufficient “evidence”. This evidence must rest purely on the science, logic and reason which he regards as the ultimate basis of good living and society. The question of God is asserted to be a scientific one, not something for theologians or philosophers. Doubters in God are made to feel by this book they would be doing themselves and society a good turn not to believe in anything unless the progress and insights of modern science.
In some respects Dawkins and his book are strange, as strange as Pope Benedict in being rather iron hand in the velvet glove or rottweiler-like and sweetly sympathetic at the same time though in Dawkins’ case in a very English, rather donnish way. What might appear complex and contradictory in him could nevertheless indicate a tendency to be simply blinkered about self and others, not to say The Other. This is all-apparent in the already famous (“blasphemous”) opening of Chapter Two with which Dawkins warms audiences up at readings. Later in the book Dawkins concedes students should be educated in Bible as literature for cultural reasons but Chapter Two opens with a long tirade about how the God of Moses is the most revolting character in fiction, proud, sado-masochistic, bullying, jealous, vindicative, murderous, etc.
This is of course to caricature an aspect of the ancient God picture given. It totally ignores the other side and developed by the prophets “A God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness….” (Ex 34:6), traits which presumably must have registered with some people somewhere or the relevant religion would surely never have survived! Dawkins however is against any species of supernaturalism, any notion in any religion of a creator God with powers to know or understand or command humanity, the Old Testament God being merely one symbol of this wider objection. Moreover Dawkins doesn’t like philosophers any more than theologians (he regards them as people who accept no commonsense answers to anything) so he objects to traditional philosophical notions of God being “simple”. God must be irreducibly complex. Everything evolves into greater complexity so you can’t have a deity complex at the start and - reproducing a very popular notion - there can’t be a God or else who would have created/started this Being ? He would need to be at the outset irreducibly complex –a notion which perhaps believers not sold on Aquinas and the terminology of medieval philosophy wouldn’t have great objection to.
SCIENCE BEFORE ALL ELSE
The book’s would-be explosion of the belief bubble is greatly simplified by the fact that Dawkins does not and perhaps cannot think outside the science box. Although there is passing acknowledgment of development in religion and ethics basically Dawkins does not apply or appreciate any kind of broad evolutionary principle to belief issues in the way he applies it to nature and this to the point of letting evolution become like a substitute religion-cum-mysticism. (He does however try to explain religion as a by-product of other things in our condition like most notably the capacity to fall in love). I’m grateful to the book that it forced me to look further and at Dawkins sayings on the Net where he clarifies, better than in his book, that despite Hume and a few philosophers real atheism hardly existed before Darwin because it’s evolution theory that puts atheism on solid ground and provides an adequate (sort of) religion substitute. And clearly Dawkins is the original true believer where evolution is concerned. It’s common knowledge his bete noire the creationists are against it but then so too have been atheist scientists like Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle.
Really, though, the core of Dawkins' objection to the God hypothesis, when not perhaps psychologically coloured by an aversion to the idea any higher power should be organizing or commanding anything, is simply a radical objection to “faith” in any shape, form or size and the notion there should be any ‘will” to have faith in anything In short, only the rational/critical mind can and should judge whatever is. This may sound fair enough in the context of the book where it’s anecdotally backed up by innumerable stories of the endless follies and injustices of “religion” based on faith. It’s less so when we consider how we stand (as does even Dawkins as a lover or poetry, music etc), in plenty of non logical, non rational spaces when we deal with aesthetics, emotion and much else on which order, but not pure reason, can be imposed. In fact we run a lot of our everyday lives on “faith” assuming ideas for which if we may have some evidence we have little or just hearsay. The extent to which Dawkins ignores this could be considered another of the delusions he works with.
Having said that already I’m recalling not just Pascal on the heart having its reasons apart from Reason but a meaningful recent lecture given to Truth Dig by journalist Chris Hedges. This was made in critical response to ideas of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, The End of Faith), a thinker popularizing atheism through America as Dawkins is through England. Certain points Hedges makes are relevant to the campaigns and obsessions of both writers. I’ll mention two.
First, Hedges insists that the problem of violence, fanaticism etc is never religion as such nor any other factor than the evil of the human heart. While admitting with liberals like the theologian, Tillich, that institutional religion in common with most institutions can function like a theatre of the demonic, he insists distinction be made between “professed” religion, which has dangerously tribal and social identity associations, and lived faith which is individual and if it’s worth anything must make for the ethical. “By their fruits you will know them”. (Hedges’ “Tribalism” in fact rather easily explains a lot of the lunacy, the bullying, the hate mail etc of which Dawkins gives examples Quite simply many people professing religion are just not religious enough. They have a well invested identity through religion but little else. They aren’t practicing the presence of God, studying scriptures or doing anything notably ethical or spiritual, but just serving socio/political agendas via religion. Modern America has had a line in this ever since having church affiliations lent people respectability within a frontier society. The chronic injustices of such as Pakistan seem involved in a particularly questionable kind of social identity Islam).
Second, it must be realized that religion develops/evolves and that beyond all failures the monotheistic faiths have produced the concept of individualism (that Dawkins and Harris take for granted though one can’t do that) and with it individual moral accountability, dissent and liberties. In short Hedges believes, rather like feminist philosopher, Irigaray, that from the purely practical standpint one can regard God as at least a “horizon” or basis for an all- important transcendence (which modern atheism could be considered parasitic upon in terms of what the individualism and accountability produces for society and individuals).
I shall make my own comment at this point re “evolution” in religion working towards individualism and human rights because it will link to the point I have to make about why Dawkins should be considered a wake-up call for the churches.
THE PERFECTION OR PRAGMATISM OF GOD?
Let’s for a moment assume, almost fundamentalistically, that the severest, most questionable parts of the Torah, the Law of Moses, were all given by Dawkins’ ultra-terrible God of the Bible and his servant the supposedly fascist Moses. Actually this is a more questionable assumption than fundamentalism would allow because a) certain of the lesser laws that we could consider “vicious” do show parallels in laws of the ancient world so are not especially original from on high, at most agreed to by God, b) because it’s distinctly stated that the essential covenant (Exodus 34:10) given during Moses’ forty days on the Mount was contained in the Ten Commandments. Thus everything else would have to be less essential, at best a sort of commentary on the core revelation whether or not it is claimed or believed this rest of the laws came directly from God. But anyway, assume everything marks something directly uttered by God rather than something more cultural and indirect and at best God permitted.
We can reasonably imagine there will not be a growth towards accountability, individualism and the ethical until the people have slowly worked their way through the values that existing tribalized societies already have. Take for example the case of executing willful offspring (Deut 21:18-21)that Dawkins mentions. Obviously it's something we couldn't possibly endorse today and hardly seems worthy of a good God in any era. The point here may nevertheless be that it was commonplace in ancient society for the father to have rights of life and death over wife and children. Arguably, then, if God is behind this God is rendering existing custom meaningful, an object of ethical restraint and reflection by getting it linked to specific moral issues and not just any issue (the right of a paterfamilias to lose his temper and kill with impunity!) while its realization is additionally checked by the system itself which because both parents will have to agree ( how many mothers will agree to execute their sons?) so this is going to be rather hard to carry through. In some respects this is perhaps modifying ancient custom even while it may to us today appear to be endorsing it.
Another example of horror law is the barbarous demand that the man who has raped a woman in open country must marry her and she must belong to him for life – in effect punishing the victim and denying her all chance of finding love (Deut 22:28-29) especially since if the unfortunate woman was subsequently romantic in search of love she could then be executed for adultery! What sort of a God (or society) would legislate for this? It sounds horrific and in its way it was, yet perhaps in context of the society and times where women were anyway chattels rated little better than heads of cattle it was almost a mercy. What would be the alternative? The woman has lost her bride price so she cannot properly marry. If she won’t be murdered or thrown down a well (as still sometimes happens among Palestinians to this day if a woman disgraces her family by losing virginity for no matter what reason) she is in danger of being thrown out and forced to survive alone which virtually means live as a prostitute. At least she has the economic protection and social respectability of being married to someone even if it was her attacker. In turn ardent youths will think twice if they know they will lifelong have economic responsibilities for their actions.
If one takes Hedges’ line all change is going to have to start somewhere. If the laws are believed to derive from God, then some fear of God is going to be necessary for them to be instilled if the Law is to become customary. Simply as story it will of course sound as ghastly as Dawkins proposes that God destroys the man who disregards the new covenant by collecting sticks on the Sabbath. It might seem petty and vicious of the God of Sinai to be bothered about the stick collector (Num 15:32-41) but what is the Sabbath rest favouring in larger human rights terms? Basically some rest for especially slaves and domestics who in surrounding societies enjoyed no such rights. Pagans long condemned Jews as being lazy for observing a Sabbath, forerunner of our weekend. Dawkins would have us mourn the life of the destroyed sticks collector but might he not represent the spirit of the ever busy slave driver type to tolerate whom will deprive the many of the rights to be gradually established through the Covenant?
I would also note the following and it agrees with the kind of “esoteric” reading I suggest presently may be necessary to clearer understanding of difficult texts. The draconian attention to rules, the minor as well as the major is typical of something quite specific: the army where minor infractions can count as major misdemeanours and be mercilessly punished. And this surely applies here. Not only is Israel formed on almost a war footing in an era of almost constant Lebensraum wars in which it is engaged in a rather special way but it is so in the era given to the sign of, Aries, the sign of war and the military. Ethics, whether as legislated by God or interpreted by humanity is going to be seen in very militaristic terms and this looks like an instance of it.
Whatever….I am suggesting we need to read sub-texts and codings and cultural situations and accept an “evolution” of consciousness is taking place if we are to grasp the biblical heritage and be fair to it. However we don’t just need to do this we now must do this.
A WAKE UP CALL FOR CHURCHES
The popularizing new wave atheism has caught the churches off guard and slumbering like the ten virgins of the parable. Both sides of biblical interpretation, liberal and conservative are called to account and found wanting.
Dawkins like many modern atheists has no time for the liberals who believe they can discount laws of Moses or difficult biblical stories, because this is to be illogical and involves arbitrary picking and choosing, a game everyone could play but which betrays the religion must have got it wrong in the first place. Equally of course he has no time for the conservatives for whom their God is as biblically described, in which case he sees them are worshipping a monster and themselves acting often like monsters accordingly.
While I consider Dawkins’ own position on religion itself a bit warped I still take the objections seriously because a kernel of truth is there. I feel obliged to agree that if one is going to pick and choose one’s major and minor truths, laws, texts etc, one must at least have a reliable schematic basis, some well organized theory on which to do this. Not liking a passage or finding it irrational in modern terms isn’t sufficient. The lack of adequate hermeneutic (method of interpretation) is all-apparent today but also largely unnecessary I believe that one of the great skeptical critics of the Bible, Cady Stanton, in The Woman’s Bible, hit on, but didn’t develop, the important insight that without grasping the “occult” or esoteric assumptions within the biblical text much is lost on us.
Cady assumed, as would I, some connection to values and beliefs scattered about such as the tradition of Jewish Kabbalah, the mystical tradition which looks back to understandings of the Oral Torah, teachings of the Essenes and earlier. What I would consider a very obvious point never even considered by mainstream scholars is how the almost obsessive concern of the Mosaic laws with blood of all kinds from sacrifical to menstrual, or again all kinds of iron implements and swords, is completely in accord with the fact that the era of this Law corresponds as I have mentioned to the age of Aries, the sign quite specifically identified with blood and iron and war. One may need to absorb all these kind of mystical/esoteric sub-texts or much will remain a blank. The entire story of Sinai (a mountain the people must camp around but not “touch”) and the rites and revelations associated with it take us into a world much like that of shamanism or wicca but white and divine and practiced on a large tribal instead of an individual or small coven basis. One may not like these associations but refusing to see them cuts one off from the story and its spirit.
Conservatives, despite their emphasis upon a more literal belief, are also so remote from the mystical, esoteric and developmental that they too miss keys to ancient texts. Also by their passive acceptance of revelation - “God’s Word” is just God’s Word – which refuses dynamic, critical inter-action with the tradition ( the “argument” with God engaged by Job and many Rabbis) they don’t see/imagine the possibly, pragmatic, educational dimension that any “living God” would necessarily have to manage and that is hinted at when St Paul speaks of the Law as a schoolmaster bringing us to Christ (Gal 3:24)and implied by Jesus' mention that the provisions for divorce were influenced by the hardness of heart of the people. Conservative bibliolatry is such that only the individual self reverently reading the text and not the deity believed to utter at least parts of it is considered. A hermeneutic which examines the possible needs and psychology of God in the process the Bible unfolds was attempted in Jack Miles', God: A Biography, but it was the cynical product of an atheist Christian who from the standpoint of his Hebrew scholarship got a lot of facts wrong besides. Still, despite this failure or rather false new start, the idea was valuable and again in its way betrayed the terrible weaknesses of both liberal and conservative positions in describing and using for today a whole Bible in its complexity.
In the mind of the believers Dawkins criticizes plainly the God image remains uneven or unexplained. God can get described as “the kindest person I know” (title of a popular religious book) at the same time as he is the warrior and executioner of Moses’ law simply because the same two themes of love and hate are present in the Bible. A preacher can both preach a gospel of forgiveness and call for the institution of laws more fit for the times of Sinai. If there is this co-existence within the same Bible (and in personal religious experience) of such radically contradictory elements as regards divine character and sacred laws it is because there is precisely some development occurring which is larger and more psychologically complex than even the difference sometimes allowed between an era of Law and an era of Grace. It’s no good proclaiming, just because it’s in the Bible that somehow God is loving and good while (just because it’s also in the Bible) we should accept without reservation he is author of laws like those governing rape in their unacceptable injustice and which by no amount of turning can be (or should be) made into reflections of some higher principle “real” character of God. What may reflect a policy of divine pragmatism vis-à-vis cultures or levels of human understanding of the divine in a given era must not be passed off as describing divine perfection.
THE BIBLIOLATRY PROBLEM
But idolatry of scripture has always existed. There are traces of it in the Bible itself where the Psalmist describes the Law of the Lord as “perfect”, fit to be meditated on day and night. St Paul, despite calling Torah an education towards Christ, himself falls into calling the Law “perfect and true and good”, which he doubtless had also thought, a reason the former Saul caused such havoc among Christian believers imagining he needed to impose himself with recourse to the already archaically executionary values of the Torah system. Believers must move on from such thinking and say the Law may indeed have been “perfect” to achieve what God intended in terms of ethical and spiritual learning experiences across history but in itself, no, much of it is not perfect. Even its most sublime and challenging dicta such as loving the neighbour as one oneself is like a lotus amid the mud, or at least tangle, of minor provisions often just archaic or unjust and without any apparent shape or order in the telling – heavy editing, challenging for the pure inspiration thesis seems to have been at work on the minor laws. It's typical of the limitations of conservatives that prominent Southern Baptist leader, Albert Mohler, in his review of the The God Delusion is strongly critical of the atheism without even mentioning what the objections to the OT God image or the OT laws actually are. He proceeds as though, we could argue like Enlightenment era Deists for some abstract Deity. Which we can't do or not honestly. What's difficult, archaic, unjust by our standards etc in the Bible must be faced as part of the picture one deals with.
Even if the Torah were wholly inspired/dictated by Dawkin’s horror deity much of the Torah is, as current atheist critiques realize, anyway irrelevant to us (as when it speaks of buying and selling slaves, managing lost cattle or dealing with extra wives in polygamy!). It's accordingly a terrible illusion of Christians, one fit to parallel Dawkins own delusions, to imagine what is described as a "covenant" with a “chosen” people and evidently geared to making them be and feel people of a separate vocation, represents in its minutiae the basis of laws that are universal or intended to be such after the manner of the Natural Law theory of some philosophers.
Since it involves objective fact however strange I often use the example of blood types to make the point of the Jewish Law being for a specific people. I note that the Promised Land is one of "Milk and Honey" and the prophets invite us to drink milk. Some of us have dairy product allergies especially if we're born with Blood Group A, the group which should abstain from dairy products unlike those of Group B which the Jews nearly all are. Unfortunately however the Jewish Law viewed as universal plan continues to exist as the half hidden source and sometimes almost the dirty little secret for all manner of odd Christian policies, manuals, “new” discoveries and sermons from which conservatives pick and construct all manner of ideas. Fundamentalists may learn they are to tithe certain amounts certain ways to obtain certain benefits or treat thieves or punish children to obtain a better society and all because some obscure and ancient text of the OT can be cited to imply or commend it. This must stop or society, encouraged by vocal atheists, will judge Christians hopeless obscurantist, fanatical, and illogical, a virtual danger to society. It must be added Dawkins does also and without being PC about it criticize other faiths like Islam; he merely takes Christianity as symptomatic of a wider problem with faith issues.
THE PIED PIPER’S REVOLUTION
While Dawkins makes some meaningful critical points about religion that only fools and the insensitive would ignore, he is nevertheless a bit of a pied piper and thief of souls for his science/reason agenda. Despite extreme moments he is (by and large) fair and even sentimental in a donnish English way but for people wavering between intellectual or even political allegiances that stand to affect the rights of religion, education of children etc, just this could prove seductive. It is for example unlikely that America’s half crazy Rational Response Squad which sets up The Blasphemy Challenge against the Holy Spirit and has tried to justify involving youth in it would have done so without the shrill talk about religious education as “child abuse” issuing from Dawkins style neo-atheism. Dawkins’ extremely negative caricature of Yahweh may seem donnishly amusing to a certain type of university crowd and he himself would doubtless oppose anti Semitism, but might not his treatment of biblical history encourage feelings in that line in a society where only recently British universities have placed boycott upon Jewish scholars out of respect for Israel’s enemies? Dawkins has not sought converts but he has certainly made them starting with the late Douglas Adams whose “radical atheism” is due to Dawkins who dedicates the book to him.
For many who will never “come out” as, or even just be, atheists Dawkins nevertheless offers the lure of simplifying life by throwing reason like a net over everything so as to disregard whole tracts of experience and wittily despise even the most enlightened and spiritual religion as pure illusion. Again to cite Hedges one has to beware against making Reason itself a kind of deity (as happened at the French Revolution where a prostitute representing it was enthroned at Notre Dame). However well meaning and trying to be fair in his way, Dawkins is still a real spiritual influence for our times and not a healthy one. The review of Dawkins book and his influence in real terms and what he campaigns for is well treated in a Commonweal article worth reading.
It's nevertheless symptomatic of the deficient spiritual condition of religion associated people today that we find the likes of Joan Bakewell (a familiar figure in religious media in UK) or Ruth Gledhill, religion reporter of the England’s Times paper, hastening to praise the author’s brilliance and accomplishments - in a debate The Times sends Gledhill to witness she votes for him as a clear winner against God - blind to the potentially negative influence the accomplishments may be getting put to. Dawkins is a frankly divisive campaigner and he believes he needs to be to make his points. But sometimes, likewise, it can be a Christian duty to be divisive and recognize: “He who is not for me is against me” as Jesus had it. The Christian fans of Dawkins are not taking such dicta seriously and fail responsibly to grasp trends of the times that stand to affect modern society.
The one thing about which Dawkins is least deluded, and likewise such as Sam Harris in the opening of his Letter to a Christian Nation, is the curious viciousness, the unspiritual rudeness and sometimes aggression, (yet often supposedly supported by the scriptural) that some believers are capable of. My next entry will be about this under-treated, quasi-taboo subject of precisely the rudeness of too many Christians.