2023-06-30

Varieties of Atheism # 7 — The Drama of Atheism

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to University of Chicago Press for granting me a review copy.

I was not ready for essays compiled by David Newheiser in Varieties of Atheism when I undertook to read them. My initial response to some of the quasi-theological views seeking alignment with certain atheistic thought was impatience. I could see no relevance to the direction I had set for my life. By the time I read the final chapter, however, I began to rethink some of what I had read earlier from a new perspective. Maybe I had been overlooking the likelihood that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

What does it mean to claim, as Furey does (by inverting Lubac) in the closing chapter of Varieties : “atheism that creates real drama represents a ‘living force’ ca­pable of ‘replacing what it destroys.'”?

The contributors to the volume represent “theologians, intellectual historians, cultural critics, and literary scholars” who have “collectively refused narrow definitions of belief, tired arguments about normative versus descriptive claims, and simplistic metaphysical arguments.” They “read and thought about Nietzsche and Dante and Einstein, Hume and Dostoevsky and Eagleton . . . [They were] uninterested in denying or defending a literalist supernaturalism, united in [their] interest in atheism’s diversity, and intrigued by the possibility that new studies of atheism might unravel the single thread linking religion to belief.” (p. 200)

Contributors to Varieties of Atheism:

Constance M. Furey…. Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University …. cofounder of the Center for Religion and the Human…. Poetic Relations: Faith and Intimacy in the English Reformation (2016) and Devotion: Three Inquiries in Religion, Literature, and Political Imagination (2021)

Vittorio Montemaggi
…. Reader in Religion, Literature and the Arts in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London and Director of the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge…. adjunct professor at the London Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame and affiliate of Notre Dame’s Center for Italian Studies….


David Newheiser
…. Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University and an affiliate of the university’s Gender and Women’s History Research Centre…. codirector of an interdisciplinary collaboration on the ritual dimensions of contemporary art. His current book project considers the link between premodern miracles and democratic imagination.


George Pattison
…. retired scholar and Anglican priest…. Honorary Professional Research Fellow in the School of Critical Studies, at the University of Glasgow…. three part “philosophy of Christian life,” comprising A Phenomenology of the Devout Life (2018), A Rhetorics of the Word (2019), and A Metaphysics of Love (2021), …. coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought (2019).

Mary-Jane Rubenstein
…. Professor of Religion and Science in Society at Wesleyan University…. Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race (2022), Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (2018), Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (2014), and Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (2009)…. coeditor ….  Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (2017) and coauthor …. of Image: Three Inquiries in Technology and Imagination (2021).


Devin Singh
…. Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College and faculty associate in Dartmouth’s Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality…. Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (2018) and Economy and Modern Christian Thought (2022), coeditor of Reimagining Leadership on the Commons (2021), and author of articles in Journal of Religious Ethics, Harvard Theological Review, Scottish Journal of Theology, Implicit Religion, Political Theology, Religions, and Telos.


Henning Tegtmeyer
…. Associate Professor of Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion at KU Leuven…. Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Durham University…. Formbezug und Weltbezug. Die Deutungsoffenheit der Kunst (2006; 2008); Sinnkritisches Philosophieren (de Gruyter, 2013), coedited …. and Gott, Geist, Vernunft. Prinzipien und Probleme der Natürlichen Theologie (2013).

Susannah Ticciati …. Professor of Christian Theology at King’s College London. She is author of Reading Augustine: On Signs, Christ, Truth and the Interpretation of Scripture (2022), A New Apophaticism: Augustine and the Redemption of Signs (2013), and Job and the Disruption of Identity: Reading beyond Barth (2005).

Denys Turner, formerly Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor at Yale University and Norris-Hulse Professor at Cambridge University, is now …. retired …. The Darkness of God, Julian of Norwich, Theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a Portrait, being among them, and forthcoming with Cambridge, Dante the Theologian….

Andre C. Willis …. Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University…. He is the author of Towards a Humean True Religion (2015) and is currently working on a manuscript about African American religion and politics that is tentatively titled Afro-theisms and Post-democracy. He has published …. Hume Studies, Journal of Scottish Philosophy, Political Theology, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Radical America.

One example of the departure from simplistic “God! Alive or Dead? True or False?” style of argument is Devin Singh’s chapter, “Atheism and Politics: Abandonment, Absence, and the Empty Throne”. Singh’s analysis of the meaning of the ascension of Christ, or the departure of Jesus from those who remain on earth, at times reminded me of one particular interpretation of the earliest of the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark, that reads it as a message for Christians who are living in a time of abandonment, in the absence of their Saviour. But Singh’s interpretation of the core of Christian theology goes one step further than that by insisting that the absence of Christ lies at the very “heart of Christian thought”. Attempts to create the sense of Christ’s presence are illusions: talk of ineffable glory, for example, masks the reality of absence, as does talk of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Such concepts are coping mechanisms for the reality that Jesus is not with us. What follows from such a theological viewpoint is the idea that Christ’s representatives on earth have a responsibility to rule or influence rulers on His behalf pending His return. But why the delay — a delay that allows for all kinds of evil while waiting for the “good and just” God to intervene? Enter “protest atheism”.

“Protest atheism” takes the Christian claims about a good and just God on their own terms and turns them against the church. But Singh speaks of an “ascension atheism” by way of contrast:

. . . protest atheism reveals the true kernel for Christian theology after ascension. It is a theology that must assert and embrace the absent and missing Christ, and as such accepts its theological operation as an empty, broken fragment of a lost dream. In this sense it does not remain as protest, for it recognizes that the protest emerges from an expectation of arrival, a desire for manifestation. Protest atheism, on the one hand, believes too faithfully in the hiddenness of the righteous king, and shakes its fist at the absent God who refuses to appear, particularly among the poor and excluded.

Ascension atheism, on the other hand, moves past this righteous, justified, and understandable protest to a form of contrite acceptance. Facing the trauma of abandonment, it acknowledges the absurdity of the denial and cover up that is the very history of Christian theology and ecclesial tradition. . . . .

. . . ascension atheism suggests that there is no sovereign at all. (p. 146)

Furey summarizes Singh’s conclusion as denying the difference between atheism and theism,

focusing instead on the political implications of [Jesus’] tarrying: rather than hailing Christ as king of kings, Christians must realize that “all kings are dead and gone and that we have kept their myths alive too long.”

A section heading in Singh’s chapter is “The Impossibilities of Political Theology”. His conclusion relates to anarchist and communal philosophies:

According to the political terms explored in this chapter, what might emerge from the recognition of the ascension and loss of the king who was promised? As suggested at the outset and underscored by the empty throne, the suppressed transcript of ascension may be the exposure of absence lurking behind all claims to kingship and to sovereignty more broadly. More radical than critiques that point out the various supports marshaled by sovereign power to exalt itself and protect its position, ascension atheism suggests that there is no sovereign at all. It exposes the tendency to seek, await, and act as if the sovereign is present and real, thus providing space to interrogate why such moves appear necessary in human community at all. It may also help explain the tendency to correlate sovereignty with loss and expenditure, where sovereign assertions of supremacy, inasmuch as they emerge in contexts influenced by Christian thought, display the need to reenact this founding loss that marks visions of community in Christian tradition and in its secular wake [endnote points to Bataille, Agamben, Blanchot, Nancy (bis)]. It raises the watchful warning that when such models of sovereignty claim to represent the people, their own absence and invisibility may be required. It may also expose the problems inherent in Christian political critiques of sovereign power that assert an even more sovereign and exalted Christ in its place. Rather than relativizing earthly power under the supreme lordship of the King of Kings, accepting the abandoned and empty throne means proceeding with the proclamation that all kings are dead and gone and that we have kept their myths alive too long. (146f)

Furey shines a light on similar kinds of finds that are only exposed by digging well beneath the surface in other chapters, too. I feel I have often missed the main points with my relatively superficial coverages (link is to the archive of all posts on Varieties of Atheism). The volume opens up thoughts and questions from literary, philosophical, political and theological perspectives that enquire into what might serve as foundations for a richer life, a Dostoevskyian “religion of life”, or for what Newheiser says in another work is “an ethical practice of openness to the unexpected”, a practice that eschews “rigid adherence that is impervious to other possibilities” (156, 132 of Hope in a Secular Age). The thinking and ideas are at a level I have not been exposed to before. It’s a new world of reflection I had not hitherto even suspected existed.


Newheiser, David. Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Newheiser, David, ed. The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/V/bo182880666.html.



2023-06-26

Varieties of Atheism # 6 – Atheism and the Good of Humanity

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to University of Chicago Press for granting me a review copy. — David Hume (left) and Richard Rorty

The second chapter in Varieties of Atheism was, for me, a thought-provoker. It touches on the fundamentals of “How do we know?” and why we cannot justifiably sink into a self-centred “Why should I care about anyone else if there is no God?” approach to life. The author, Andre C. Willis, in the chapter titled “Atheism and Society”, examines these questions through a discussion of two philosophers, the Enlightenment era’s David Hume and the Postmodernist Richard Rorty.

Willis opens with a challenge that made me question if I was going to enjoy the rest of his chapter:

Public disputes between those who hold the idea that God exists and those who reject this idea are often fanned on one side by hostility for the Abrahamic traditions and fueled on the other side by animus for skepticism. This is why these polemical and often performative debates between so-called theists and so-called atheists often strike me as disingenuous; they masquerade as serious intellectual argument as a way to conceal low-grade animus.

I may have once had some level of hostility towards “Abrahamic traditions” but did I not have some justification for that hostility, and did those feelings negate my reasoning about them, or the question of God’s existence? Might not a certain level of animus sometimes be a product of concern for a greater good?

A little later Willis throws out another challenge, drawing on the words of Denys Turner in “How to be an Atheist”:

The hubris of a confident theism that knows “all too well what [it] is affirming when [it] says ‘God exists’” is the “mirror image” of a bold atheism that “know (s) all too well what it [is] denying when [it] says ‘God does not exist.’”

Turner goes on to explain:

For both the affirmer and the denier are complicit in a sort of cosy and mutually reassuring idolatrous domesticity: in short, they keep each other in a job.

Are the grounds for each position the same? If not, can the atheist in that exchange really be a “mirror image” of the theist? Maybe Turner has in mind an atheist I am not so familiar with. I’d rather explore new and old ideas than hang around to argue such a point ….

…. like exploring once more the thoughts of Hume and Rorty, and understanding where I fit between the philosophical systems each of those names represents.

One thing I have discovered through my own reflections on life and beliefs since leaving religion behind is that I have independently made myself part of a larger “community” of nonbelievers who share similar ideas and fundamental values. So often I find myself inwardly smiling in recognition at hearing others espousing outlooks about life and humanity that it took me years to learn for myself. There is something in common binding us and I do “wonder” a little, but unlike Willis I draw back from suggesting that this “wonder” over “something” should have a religious or theistic dimension.

Certainly it is true that reason alone is not enough to explain “life” or persuade anyone to disbelieve in God:

The conventional pillars of the Western philosophical enterprise — rational certainty, formal argumen­tation, and ethical persuasion — which, to them [Hume and Rorty], had proved insufficient tools to combat idolatry. They recognized that literature (especially Rorty’s notion of philosophy as poetics), captivating narratives (especially Rorty’s idea of redescription as a literary practice), multivocality (Hume’s numer­ous dialogues), and close attention to literary form (especially Hume’s es­says, philosophical treatises, political arguments, historical writings, and letters) were just as important as, if not more important than, the formal philosophical grammars of metaphysics and epistemology, particularly when it came to contending with belief in deities and embracing tenets of a religious tradition.

Another echo from my early days exploring a world without god: I used to say, when pushed, that I believe in poetry. Not quite sure why but I think what I was trying to say was that we resort to metaphors to convey certain experiences. That’s not spiritual but, I think, something wired into our cranial circuits. Such a “reductionist” explanation doesn’t rob it of meaning, though.

Hume worked through the logic of the arguments to conclude that there can be no reason to believe in God. Rorty concluded that all our knowledge and understanding is bound up in our language, the words and concepts we use, and we cannot go beyond those words and we may doubt that we can justify our set of words over another person’s set of words.

Like Rorty’s liberal ironist, who has continuing doubts about her final vocabulary, Hume’s moderate skeptic is “diffident of his philosophical doubts, as well as of his philosophical convictions” . . . The similarities here are glaring.

The rationale might be different but the end result is the same – humility.

I have avoided repeating (or even explaining) here Willis’s explanations of the grounds of Hume’s and Rorty’s reasoning in the hope that interested readers will grasp some partial but sufficient sense of what each is about. Both believe in some kind of action that takes us beyond mere words or logic.

There are at least three resonances between Hume’s “easy philosophy” and the approach of Rorty’s liberal ironist that are worth noting. First, Hume says that it “bor­rows all helps from poetry.” Recall . . . Rorty’s . . . . philosophy as a form of poetry. Second, similar to the affective strengths of the Rortyan ironist, Hume’s “easy philosophy” appeals to our feelings and sentiments, not reason alone. And third, Hume’s easy philosophy understands hu­mans as “born for action” in ways that the ironist is driven to the action of redescription.

As a lay outsider I find it surprising and encouraging to see some common ground between Enlightenment and Postmodernist thinking. Or rather than “thinking” should that be “feeling”? We are animals, after all, and we have feelings before we are able to “think” in any formal logical sense.

Rorty’s “urging” for a human solidarity that cannot be justified via any “philosophical presuppositions” aims, ultimately, to function as a way to link suffering human agents. To recognize our “similarities with respect to pain and humiliation” . . . is, for Rorty, to create togetherness across vari­ous divisions and to generate connections where it feels unnatural to do so. To my ear, this way of thinking about generating connections carries a religious residue, has a teleological dimension, and relies on, in some ways, something like a quasi-theological — or at least not-fully-comprehensible – power.

I hesitate once again. Maybe it’s a matter of definition. But does not the word “theological” (even if modified with “quasi”) throw in an unnecessary factor? Why not simply call it poetical? Does not our depth of experience and wonder prompt us to call upon metaphors? Is that not enough? Is that not enough to justify a communication with a theologian?

We are all the same, however different. We all have a natural investment in the good of “us”.


Newheiser, David, ed. The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022.
https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/V/bo182880666.html.

Turner, Denys. “How to Be an Atheist.” New Blackfriars 83, no. 977/978 (2002): 317–35.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/43249944


 


2023-06-18

Varieties of Atheism # 5 – Pantheism and Einstein

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Mary-Jane Rubenstein (photo from ICE Dartmouth)

I cover here another chapter in Varieties of Atheism: Mary-Jane Rubenstein‘s “Atheism and Science” discusses the relevance of Einstein’s “cosmic religious sense” to atheism.

On Albert Einstein’s “Cosmic Religious Sense”

Mary-Jane Rubenstein begins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries where we find the relationship between science and religion taking shape. Our first view is that of the confusion between pantheism and atheism. Baruch Spinoza, could be described as both a “God-intoxicated man” and an atheist! If Spinoza could declare all Nature to be God, more rigid “believers” would react with despair that such an impersonal deity was no deity at all. Even philosophers are not all convinced: Arthur Schopenhauer dismissed pantheism as nothing but “a euphemism for atheism”; closer to home, Nancy Frankenberry writes

by assimilating God to Nature … [pantheists] raise the suspicion that one of the two of them is semantically superfluous. (quoted p. 21)

What does pantheism have to do with Einstein? Einstein (along with Niels Bohr) replaced Newton’s clockwork universe with an ever-shifting one, depending on where one lives and how one observes it. What sort of god does that make the world of nature? And what are the implications for religious debates?

It all began in April 1929….

Cardinal O’Connell (bilbiolore photo)

. . .  one week before a lavish gala at the Metropolitan Opera House in honor of Einstein’s fiftieth birthday, which would draw 3,500 people in support of the Jewish National Fund and the Zionist Organization of America. As American Jews prepared to celebrate their most famous kinsman, Boston cardinal William Henry O’Connell delivered an address to the New England Province of Catholic Clubs of America, urging their members to pay no attention to the Jewish pseudoprophet. Having previously denounced Hollywood and radio technology for proliferating a monstrous cadre of “masculine women” and “effeminate men,” the cardinal charged Einstein’s theory of relativity with endorsing the categorical indistinction of the topsy-turvy era. The theory, he insisted, was nothing more than “befogged speculation producing universal doubt about God and his creation, cloaking the ghastly apparition of atheism.” (Quoted from “Einstein Believes in ‘Spinoza’s God,”’ New York Times, April 25,1929 — Rubenstein, p. 21)

Relativity — what a word. As Rubenstein remarks,

. . . one can surmise from the ensuing controversies that the mere name of relativity connoted for O’Connell moral laxity . . . . In short, relativity’s denial of any absolute reference point for space and time seemed to O’Connell a denial of the Absolute altogether, and for that reason, it was both morally and empirically wrong. (p. 22)

Einstein appealed to Spinoza’s God, not explicitly in public, but in a telegram sent to an inquiring rabbi who made the telegram famously public:

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of all things, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

Einstein or his supporters tried to repair some damage in subsequent publications and statements by stressing “the essentially mysterious” nature of the universe, declaring that he “confronts it with awe and reverence”. But that was not going to appease anyone devoted to a personal god. Eventually Einstein delivered a lecture on the question of science and religion. Rubenstein summarizes key points:

Science, he ventured, is concerned with “what is” whereas religion tells us “what should be”-, science uncovers “facts,” whereas religion prescribes “human thoughts and actions.” As such, neither is sufficient on its own; in Einstein’s now iconic words, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.

Whence, then, comes the perceived opposition between these mutually beneficial regimes? The largest impediment to the harmony between science and religion, Einstein ventures, is in the concept of a personal God. Channeling Spinoza, Einstein argues that science cannot affirm the existence of an anthropomorphic power who from time to time violates the order of nature in response to human petition. In addition to being scientifically inadmissible, he explains, such a God is ethically useless, relieving human beings of responsibility for their own actions. . . . For ethical and scientific reasons alike, then, Einstein insists that “teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God”. Once people are free from this divine overlord, Einstein promises they will also be free from egoistic concerns (like having the largest gross domestic product or the biggest sport utility vehicle), eventually attaining that comportment his earlier essay called the cosmic religious sense: a humble feeling of reverence for the mysterious yet rational whole. And in this way, the religious person becomes affectively identical to the scientist. (pp. 24f – Rubenstein’s italics)

We can imagine the outrage among many mainstream clerics. Einstein’s view was denounced as opening up a world without any moral order, with no personal god to hold people to account. In fact, though, Einstein had made the opposite case: that if God were personal, then God would be responsible for human evil.

For Einstein, the words God and Nature were interchangeable. The world is “so rationally structured that we can think of it as divine.”

Channeling Spinoza, Einstein argues that science cannot affirm the existence of an anthropomorphic power who from time to time violates the order of nature in response to human petition. In addition to being scientifically inadmissible, he explains, such a God is ethically useless, relieving human beings of responsibility for their own actions. (p. 24)

Concerning “faith”, Einstein believed in the “rationality or intelligibility of the world”, and that’s where he ran into problems with Bohr’s quantum physics and unpredictable particles. Rubenstein quotes Einstein:

The basis of all scientific work is the conviction that the world is an ordered and comprehensive entity which is a religious sentiment. (p. 27)

I suppose it is a religious sentiment. But why can’t we say that religious sentiments are really poetically felt and expressed secular sentiments? (But that thought brings us to the next chapter and the next post.)

Mystery and comprehensibility went hand in hand for Einstein. But how could one make sense of an indeterminate universe of quantum mechanics? Rubenstein refers to the historian of science Gunther Stent’s article that interprets the Einstein-Bohr debate as less a debate about physical theory than about God.

What they were actually arguing about, Stent suggests, was whether or not there was a superrational power stabilizing the quantum-dicey universe, with Einstein holding onto “the traditional monotheistic viewpoint of modern science” and Bohr breaking through to a genuine, postmodern “atheism.” (p. 32)

When Rubenstein speaks of Einstein’s appeal to God (Does God play dice?) I take God to be another term for Nature. Bohr, she writes, was baffled by Einstein’s “presumption that God was a single, immutable order of things beyond the multitude of worldly phenomena.” She speaks of the “absolutism of determinism and the anthropocentrism of ‘reason'” underlying Einstein’s view of the “ordered universe”. (I had not thought of the “rational view” of the universe as being a projected anthropomorphism before.)

If God is equated with Nature, Rubenstein is suggesting that according to the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics we arrive at “a pluralistic, perspectival pantheism that would constitute even more of a threat than atheism to the anthropic father-friend of classical theism” (p. 21)

Such a “pantheology” would amount to atheism for some, but for others it would not, Rubenstein concludes.

(There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.)

The above post, I hope, gives a reliable small taste of a thought provoking chapter.

—-
Addendum:

From one of Rubenstein’s examples I am reminded of the disputes in Australia over landmarks that are sacred sites for some and sources of monetary wealth for others. That kind of conflict and its ultimate sources will in part be addressed in my next post when I look at the chapter by Andre C. Willis exploring how the Postmodernist Rorty was prefigured in certain ways by the Enlightenment philosopher Hume and what that means for a more compassionate and healthy society beyond any religious-atheist divide.

 


2023-06-17

Varieties of Atheism # 4 – Deeper than Reason

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to University of Chicago Press for access to a review copy.

Varieties of Atheism has rekindled my interest in atheism as an identity and as a question for wider social consideration. One can take one’s identity for granted and risk becoming stale, ossified, a life that is lived the same day after day without any further inward understanding or self-awareness. So it’s good to read the points David Newheiser raises and to follow the leads to other readings that he offers.

In one place in Varieties Newheiser writes:

. . . atheism concerns motivations that run deeper than reason.

I consult the endnote. It reads:

Stephen LeDrew argues that the New Atheism is likewise motivated by political commitments rather than science alone. Stephen LeDrew, The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 2. Susannah Ticciati develops a similar argument in her contribution to this collection.

Since I’m more interested in politics than theology I’ll put the theologian on hold for a moment and have a look at what LeDrew has to say (2016) —

. . . New Atheism is a secular fundamentalism, a modern utopian ideology that is also an active movement for social transformation. Like all fundamentalisms, it is not only a position on metaphysical questions but an essentially political phenomenon. It is only manifestly a critique of religion, while its latent project is the universalization of the ideology of scientism and the establishment of its cultural authority. Its critique is therefore not just about religion but more precisely about cultures, belief systems, and forms of knowledge—most importantly the social sciences and humanities, redundant in the New Atheism’s Darwinistic master narrative—that are perceived as challenges to this authority.

While ostensibly a critique of the dangers of irrational superstitions, then, the New Atheism is ultimately about power—more specifically, socially legitimate authority. It is a response to challenges to the authority of science and, by extension, those who practice science and regulate its institutions. By a further extension, it is a defense of the position of the white middle-class Western male, and of modernity itself, which is perceived to be under threat by a swirling concoction of religious ignorance, epistemic relativism, identity politics, and cultural pluralism. The New Atheism is a reaction to twenty-first-century challenges to the established modern social hierarchy and structure of cultural authority, seeking to eliminate perceived challenges to scientific authority not only from “premodern” religion but also “postmodern” social science. This is an attempt at placing an ideological manifestation of the natural sciences in a position of uncontested authority in the production of legitimate knowledge and in the cultural sphere of meaning and normativity.

I knew there was a reason I felt a certain discomfort with some of the writings of Dawkins, Harris, and even Hitchens.

Stephen LeDrew (photo from Publishers Weekly)

I’m a history buff so I could not turn away from LeDrew’s first chapter, The Evolution of Atheism.

As noted in an earlier post, LeDrew points out that “explicit, “avowed” atheism emerged in the Enlightenment” — and from that perspective it is a modern “movement”:

. . . “atheism” is inextricably bound up with a tradition of Enlightenment principles, including emancipation through reason, liberal democracy, the primacy of the individual, scientific rationality, and the notion of progress, which is closely related to the theory—or as Asad describes it, the “political doctrine”—of secularization . . . (p. 13)

I did not know so much has been written about atheism. LeDrew introduces his discussion by pointing to two key sources for his information:

So LeDrew draws a distinction between “scientific atheism” and “humanistic atheism”.

Scientific atheism views religion primarily as the antithesis of science and an obstacle to social and scientific progress. . . [It] understands religion as an obstacle to science-driven social progress and seeks to eradicate this relic of the premodern world through science education and “enlightenment”.

Humanistic atheism [considers] religion to be primarily a social phenomenon rather than an attempt at explaining nature . . . [It] rejects the structure of a world that gives rise to religion, which from this perspective is not a challenge to modernity but rather provides ideological support for modernity by rationalizing its inequities. It imagines alternative social formations that would cause religion to vanish. (p. 14, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Comte’s theory of society was…a precursor to the Darwinistic vision of progress at the heart of scientific atheism, [and] Spencer’s later fusion…of sociology and evolutionary biology into … sociobiology. (LeDrew, 19)

New Atheism as scientific atheism

We might say that such an analysis provides us with 20-20 vision and through it LeDrew focuses on the New Atheism thus:

The New Atheism is not “new” but just the most recent incarnation of a particular kind of nonbelief from a particular intellectual tradition. It excludes other kinds of religious criticism . . . The New Atheism is much more than a critical inquiry into religious faith. It is an extension and manifestation of the modern project of scientific mastery of the world and the rationalization of society, and its critique is only ostensibly about religion. More implicitly, it is a critique of other perceived challenges to this political project, wherever they may come from—even from other kinds of atheism. (14f)

LeDrew explores an interesting discussion on the thesis that atheism emerged not from a direct antagonism to religion but ironically from within theological enquiries that sought to enlist science in support of some of its views. That discussion is beyond the scope of this post but one can find more about the idea in Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, Kors, Atheism in France, and Turner, Without God, Without Creed.

“Scientific atheism”, LeDrew explains, was born from the union of Enlightenment scepticism and the social and scientific theories of evolution. We have heard of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism. Here we find the beginnings of what many of us would view as the villain of modern times:

It is important to note that this idea of progressive social evolution, with its vision of a “natural unfolding of social complexity,” is predicated upon a misreading of Darwin, who viewed evolution as a process with no fixed direction and invoked the metaphor of a “radiating bush” to describe adaptation and differentiation. (LeDrew, p.24)

For Darwin “on God” see comment below.

It is crucial to note that for these early Darwinists, the theory of evolution was not simply a scientific fact that needed to be defended against irrational forces that would seek to discredit it. The theory of evolution was, from the beginning, tied to a certain political orientation. Darwin was born into a wealthy family of capitalists and scientists. This socialization proved determinative of his character and political views, which in turn were instructive in the development of his scientific theory. Informed by Darwin’s liberal-capitalist worldview, natural selection doubled as a metaphor for the right of individuals to pursue their self-interest in a free and competitive society. Soon after its publication, Huxley declared Origin of Species to be a gun in the armory of liberalism, the most effective new weapon for attacking superstitious beliefs and thus promoting rational materialism.

Evolution was clearly not politically neutral in the minds of its defenders. Rather, the idea was tied to liberalism and rationalism and used to promote modern goals and values, and thus transcended science to become a cornerstone of the political ideology of the Victorian liberal intelligentsia. Indeed, many scholars agree that Darwin’s theory not only validated his political views but itself was a product of Victorian culture, with Darwin early in his scientific career committing himself to a theory of nature that reflected the Malthusian socioeconomic inclinations of British high society

In this view, the theory of natural selection was a contingent result of social history rather than an inevitable conclusion. As atheism became tied to the theory of evolution, it moved from simple negation of religious beliefs to an affirmation of liberalism, scientific rationality, and the legitimacy of the institutions and methodology of modern science—and thus from religious criticism to a complete ideological system. (22f)

Thankfully LeDrew reassures atheists who are offended by that historical background:

. . . scientific atheism is not a necessary consequence of a Darwinian worldview but rather an ideology that uses “evolution” and “natural selection” as metaphors in the advancement of what is in fact a deeply political position. (25)

Humanistic atheism

We come now to the history of “humanistic atheism”.

This brand of atheism emerged from the realization that merely rationally criticizing religious beliefs did not solve the nonrational problems that led to those beliefs, “which include alienation, suffering, infantile neurosis and insecurity, and fear of death.” We leave behind Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and Aldous Huxley and meet Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

These thinkers did not give much attention to the arguments against the existence of God. Rather, they tended to simply assume his nonexistence. They were interested in the social and psychological causes that led to belief in God and in sustaining a religion that maintained inequities and ignorance. We introduced Feuerbach in our previous post. I am embarrassed to have to admit I have never studied anything about Ludwig Feuerbach but LeDrew helps me understand and atone a little for my ignorance:

Given his role as a principal architect of one of the most important streams of atheist thought of the past two centuries, it is striking that Feuerbach is rarely mentioned today in popular or scholarly religious criticism. Feuerbach’s seminal contribution to the development of atheism was his theory of God as a projection of the human onto the divine figure, which is a projection of alienation: “Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself.” That is, everything that is great about God is alienated from humanity. (27)

If you are more familiar with Karl Marx and the above sounds familiar, here is the reason:

This approach was adopted by Marx, who reconfigured Feuerbach’s theory by defining more precisely the nature of the human experience that resulted in the projection of God—that is, alienation. (27)

Freud, we know, also accounted for religion as an “illusion”. The comfort believers find in religion is understood as arising from our inner “fearful and wondering child . . . desperate for some measure of control over terrifying forces of nature . . . “. Quoting Freud, religion, then, is …

the system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.

Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche. We have all heard of “the death of God”.

. . . the notion of the death of God refers to the end of “belief in any sort of absolute centre or unshakable foundation.”71 It is a necessary step in the evolution of man, where man is a step between animal and Ubermensch, when humanity itself, rather than a distant God, becomes the meaning of Earth.72 Here we see a link between Nietzsche and Feuerbach’s theory of God as projected alienated humanity. That is, man cannot become Ubermensch—master of himself and creator of his own truth and morality—until God, the universalizing and alienating foundation of truth and morality, is “dead.”

Ah — how I recall my French classes from student days and reading Albert Camus and struggling to take in the full meaning of Existentialism.

. . . faith robs people of their own capacity for understanding . . .

Indeed, and in more ways than the one identified here (relying on the church to explain and provide meaning). A momentous turning point in my life came when it suddenly dawned on me that it was my “faith” that was my driver — it was not the object of my faith that was empowering me, giving me confidence, etc, but “faith” itself! I finally discovered I could cut out the middle (imaginary) man.

He describes religion as an illusion constructed as an escape from reality . . . 

. . . In this sense Nietzsche can be placed in line with Marx and Freud in their diagnosis of religion as both an expression of suffering and compensation for it. This idea is expressed most forcefully in his disdain for Christian morality, which for Nietzsche is nothing other than a slave morality . . . (31)

I do not think Marx is obsolete and LeDrew reminds me of one of the reasons why:

For Nietzsche, then, as for Marx, religion turns our attention away from what is really important, which is human social relations, and toward the appeasement of a supernatural deity who has the power to end our suffering if only we are prepared to submit to his will—which, of course, is really the will of powerful clerics.

The biggest difference between these thinkers is perhaps in their attitude toward the oppressed. Marx is clearly empathetic, while Nietzsche derides the weak masses beguiled by the Christian slave morality, and Freud is equally contemptuous of the majority who are mired in an infantile fantasy and “will never be able to rise above this view of life. (32)

Incidentally, it was pointed out to me recently that Bruno Bauer (whose works I have been translating) was the first to declare that religion was the “opiate of the people”, and Marx borrowed the expression from him.

–o0o–

Susannah Ticciati

A theologian’s perspective

The other scholar Newheiser cited in his remark about atheism involving a “motivation that runs deeper than reason” is the theologian Susannah Ticciati who contributes a chapter in Varieties of Atheism.

Ticciati also takes me on a journey of discovery when in her introductory paragraphs on the debate with New Atheists she points out in passing….

  • The thin narrative of progress underpinning some of the new atheist writings is exposed by Terry Eagleton (from a Marxist perspective) for its failure to recognize the radical nature of sin, and its political impotence in the face of the horrors of capitalism.
  • David Bentley Hart offers a counterhistory in which the evils allegedly brought about by “religion” are placed in the context of an account of the Christian tradition as that which has (uniquely) fostered an ethic of love and compassion.
  • Less sweepingly polemical, but sharing the dismissive tone of Eagleton and Hart, is Denys Turner’s apophatically rooted critique that such atheists deny a God that no self-reflective Christian would affirm, and that their denials are outstripped by the much more thoroughgoing denials of the apophatic tradition.
  • Voicing a perspective from beyond the male-dominated battleground of the debate, Tina Beattie exposes from a feminist perspective the ideological situatedness of the new atheism’s scientism. Her nonpolemical approach arguably enables her to offer all the more deeply devast[at]ing a critique.
  • David Fergusson, most measured of all, deliberately seeking a respectful engagement, points (among other things) to the complexity of the theological tradition as something that already houses the challenges thrown at it as if for the first time by the new atheists. Several of the theological contributors, finally, highlight the complementary rather than competitive relationship between science and theology. (85f)

The links in the above will take you to the particular work Ticciati had in mind in each case. Of course, I cannot simply sit and watch such interesting looking titles go without stopping the bus each time so I can get out and check them for myself.

Ticciati finds all of the above more or less lacking in one respect in their criticisms of the “new atheists”….. that is, their failure to hear and respond to

what is arguably the deepest concern being voiced by the new atheists—an ethical concern. (86)

Ticciati’s response is that of a theologian for her theologian peers. I confess I struggled to fully grasp her highly abstract discussion, though I imagine theologians would embrace the terms and arguments she uses as mere basics in their conceptual universe. It’s not my world and I attempt to outline her argument only with trepidation.

Babette’s Feast Guardian photo

What is the practical impact of religion? Are beliefs harmful? Or is it only certain practices that we must worry about? After surveying the respective views of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on these views, Ticciati refers to two quite different atheist perspectives:

(As I have said, Varieties of Atheism contains a wealth of introductions to new ideas or old ideas discussed in new ways!)

Ticciati responds to new atheist criticisms by bridging the gap between belief and practice and here she turns to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For the word of the cross is folly (μωρια) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block (σκανδαλον) to Jews and folly (μωρια) to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Through an application of that text to the ethical questions raised by religion’s critics argues that a propositional belief (God exists; Christ crucified is the saviour of the world”; “Jesus is the Christ”) can only have meaning under certain conditions in which the believer lives in the transforming context of a “mutual upbuilding” community of fellow-believers. That’s surely a gross oversimplification of Ticciati’s argument but I hope it is enough to present an invitation for anyone interested to follow it up for elaboration. At the risk of quoting a passage out of the context in which it was meant to be read, some flavour of the discussion might be gleaned from her following words:

The “me” that utters “Christ is my savior” will always also be the perishing self that is dealt a death blow by this very claim. It must be made foolish in order to become wise. As I have shown, the more austere claim “God exists,” at least in its Christian rendition, has meaning only insofar as it is caught up in this dynamic. And for this reason, the critiques of the new atheists—however easy it might be to dismiss them on purely propositional grounds—must be heard as another invitation “to become a fool that [one] may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18).

. . . . .

Drawing on scriptural resources, I have developed an account of the relationship between the truth and transformative significance of two central theological claims: (1) “Christ crucified is the savior of the world,” and (2) “God exists.” In summary, I have argued that these two claims display their true meaning under the conditions of an economy of mutual upbuilding, in which stumbling over Christ as stumbling stone leads again and again to the rediscovery of Christ as cornerstone.

Personally, I prefer to read the atheist literature cited, or even selections from other theological responses that are simpler, keeping in mind Ticciati’s caveats about what she perceives to be their shortcomings. Everything is colourful. Nothing black and white.


LeDrew, Stephen. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Newheiser, David, ed. The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022.


 


2023-06-12

Varieties of Atheism # 3

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Having posted here often enough about my explorations into religion it is about time I investigated what atheism is all about. So many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for allowing me access to a review copy of Varieties of Atheism : Connecting Religion and its Critics compiled and edited by David Newheiser.

David Newheiser [DN] hails from a somewhat similar religious background as I do so it is interesting to compare notes. He offers his collection of essays from various authors as potentially opening “new possibilities for conversation between those who are religious and those who are not”. Maybe. You’ll have to make up your own mind about that likelihood and I return to the question at the end of this post. But for DN atheism is not simply a matter of “belief” (or “absence of belief”):

on the contrary, athe­ism incorporates ethical disciplines, cultural practices, and affective states. (p. 2)

DN begins his discussion with reference to the four famous horsemen of the New Atheist movement of not so very long ago: Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).  Recall those bus ads? “Just be good for goodness sake”?

What DN points out is that such New Atheists not only had a narrow-minded view of religion but that even

their conception of atheism is similarly impover­ished. (p. 3)

So DN sweeps us up for a quick birds-eye view of past atheist authors — Bertrand Russell (“Why I Am Not a Christian”), Anthony Flew (God and Philosophy), Richard Swinburne (The Existence of God), Alvin Plantinga (Warranted Christian Belief) — before bringing us down to land in the pre-modern era of Europe. The Greek term (a-theist) came to be applied (in the sixteenth century) by Roman Catholic and Protestant apologists as they hurled the word at their opponents whom they deemed immoral.

One did not identify oneself as an atheist. One accused one’s enemies of being atheist. Until, the time of the Enlightenment:

Philosophers such as Denis Diderot and Paul-Henri d’Holbach were among the first to call themselves atheists, and a century later the practice was suddenly widespread. . . . It is only in the modern period that atheism and religion came to be equated with propositional belief . . . (p. 6)

Interestingly, atheism as an identity is linked with historical shifts in what we understand by the terms “science” and “religion”:

Medieval Christians understood scientia as an intellectual habit and religio as a moral habit. On this under­standing there could be no contradiction between religio and scientia, for they are not the same sort of thing. In the modern period, however, both science and religion came to be seen as bodies of objective knowledge that make propositional statements which are sometimes at odds. . .  Through the objectifying tendency of the time, religion and science were made to signify the opposite of what they once meant, and in the process a new attitude became possible — the rejection of religion on scientific grounds. These shifts in intellectual culture contributed to the development of atheism as an identity, but they are not enough to explain it. (p. 7)

So what might explain it? DN draws upon Alec Ryrie’s study in Unbelievers: an Emotional History of Doubt and his account of the “seventeenth-century crisis of faith” . . . .

accord­ing to Ryrie the argument was motivated by morality and emotion rather than rationality alone.

Emotional angst came to a boil over the hypocrisy of the church for some; for others it was over the “erosion of doctrinal certainties”. Christians attacked Christians, but the arguments over time saw believers having it out with atheists, and it was about morality as much as propositional beliefs about the existence of a god.

So DN comes down to the nineteenth century and this imposing gentleman:

Ludwig Feuerbach, DN summarizes, claimed God to be a human idea that was used to buttress political control. His primary focus in his criticism of religion was moral.

Feuerbach is therefore an important source for later atheism, and yet his critique of religion arose from a moral sensibility that was informed by Christianity. Feuerbach was raised as a Lutheran, and he cited Luther hundreds of times — even referring to himself at one point as “Luther II.” Like Luther, Feuerbach’s outrage at the complacency of many Christians was motivated by his concern for the values they espouse.

Because Feuerbach’s atheism is driven by a passionate moral sensitivity, it cannot be reduced to the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. (pp. 7f – my bolding)

Yet ironically Feuerbach “explicitly disavowed the label of atheism”, insisting that his objection was only to certain forms of religion. Others with the same core motivations — though not chary about identifying as atheists — listed by DN:

For more on the moral motivations of atheists such as Feuerbach, see Dominic Erdozain, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx , chap. 6. — note in DN’s Varieties
  • Friedrich Nietzsche,
  • Karl Marx,
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
  • Frederick Douglass,
  • Percy Shelley,
  • Hypatia Bonner,
  • Mikhail Bakunin,
  • and the Mar­quis de Sade.

Atheism for these figures was about more than belief, or disbelief in a god. It was about political control, alienation, ethics, human wellbeing.

Stephen LeDrew argues that the New Atheism is likewise motivated by politi­cal commitments rather than science alone. – DN’s note

DN observes that the difference between modern atheism and the atheism of ancient eras is that today atheism has become “an identity people claim from themselves” instead of an accusation to be spat at enemies. But the one constant is that

atheism concerns motivations that run deeper than reason.

At the outset of this post I referred to DN’s hope that his book would open “new possibilities for conversation between those who are religious and those who are not”. We can begin to see the reasoning behind that hope.

I have sought to show that atheism is . . .  a polyphonic assemblage that de­velops in conversation with religious traditions. Despite its association with the cool light of reason, atheism is motivated by curiosity, defiance, delight, anxiety, anger, skepticism, and sympathy. (p. 8)

What is religion? Is it possible to arrive at a genuinely objective definition? DN refers to scholarly views that understand the modern concept of religion to have been “invented” in the seventeenth-century “alongside the novel conception of the state as secular.”

I have delayed my writing too long of late. I’d like to offer as an excuse, at least in part, that David Newheiser’s Varieties of Atheism has sent me down other rewarding book trails — see the evidence in images and links above — from where I’ve had to pull myself back to the review at hand. That would only be partly true, however. I look forward to discussing some selections from Varieties in coming posts.

 


2023-05-21

Varieties of Atheism #2

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another interview with David Newheiser (personal webpage). This one goes into more depth on the philosophical history and “varieties” of atheism. See the New Books Network –  The Varieties of Atheism: connecting religion and its critics.

I loved the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, even some parts of Sam Harris, when they first came out — but in the interview I found myself in agreement that those works represent a kind of two-dimensional atheism. It’s as if they say that all it means to be an atheist is to reject the idea of god and to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change. (And usually the type of religion they attacked was the fundamentalist variety — which is not wholly satisfactory.)

When does atheism become “an identity”? In what social and political contexts? Atheism surely involves an emotional engagement and outlook to life and how the world could be. Atheism changes things on an ethical and political level.

David Newheiser is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith.

The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics (U Chicago Press, 2022) reveals the diverse nonreligious experiences obscured by the combative intellectualism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. In fact, contributors contend that narrowly defining atheism as the belief that there is no god misunderstands religious and nonreligious persons altogether. The essays show that, just as religion exceeds doctrine, atheism also encompasses every dimension of human life: from imagination and feeling to community and ethics. Contributors offer new, expansive perspectives on atheism’s diverse history and possible futures. By recovering lines of affinity and tension between particular atheists and particular religious traditions, this book paves the way for fruitful conversation between religious and non-religious people in our secular age.

New Books Network –  The Varieties of Atheism: connecting religion and its critics.


2023-05-20

Varieties of Atheism

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Atheism in 21st Century Australia is very different to that of 19th Century Russia, yet they are grouped under the same umbrella. The varieties of atheism in different times and cultures are the subject of a new anthology of essays that aims to reveal the diverse non-religious experiences obscured by the combative intellectualism of New Atheist figures like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Gone are the days when I could listen to an author interview on the car radio and then head to the local bookshop, confident that I would find copies of their book waiting for me on the shelf. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. So, while I cannot discuss this particular book based on my own reading experience, I can share a link to the conversation that aroused my interest.

The primary author or editor of the book explained their personal interest in religious traditions, which originated from their upbringing in the fundamentalist Christian tradition. Their journey took a significant turn at the age of nineteen when they were expelled from their community due to accusations of “heresy.” The interest in religion is not motivated by some sort of knee-jerk reaction to a bad time, but by a desire to understand an important part of human life and how it affects the way we treat each other — and ourselves.

That experience of expulsion from one’s community resonated with my own. I was also made to think about the idea that atheism is somehow related to a particular type of religious belief system. Anyway, I hope to catch up with the book and till then you may like to listen to the interviews I heard:

Conversations wth David Newheiser and George Pattison

The discussion about Dostoevsky is also intriguing.

%d bloggers like this: