Thursday, March 8, 2012

YOU’RE AN ATHEIST? THAT’S GOOD!


'Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but
the last fading smile of a Cheshire cat.' - Sir Julian Huxley.

I notice that more and more people are calling themselves atheists these days---unashamedly. Not that there should be any shame about the matter. Not at all. Yes, atheism is fine with me. You see, in most cases, these people have simply rejected silly, outmoded ideas or concepts of God which weren’t God in any event. After all, the word is never the thing, as Krishnamurti kept telling us. The good thing about giving up belief in God is that there is then a real chance you may find the real God---which is the very livingness, oneness and self-givingness of life itself.

A Columbia University student once went to see Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick (pictured left), who was then the minister of Riverside Church in New York City. Fosdick was perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of his day---and the leading Modernist in Protestant Christianity. The student was very agitated. Before he had time to sit down he announced to Fosdick that he didn’t believe in God. ‘So, you’re an atheist,’ said Fosdick. ‘Please describe for me the God you don’t believe in.’ The student did a good job of picturing a fairly traditional Judeo-Christian God as a venerable but vindictive bookkeeper who was forever taking notes of everyone’s good and bad deeds. When the student had finished Fosdick said to him, ‘Well, if that is the God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in that God either. So, we are both atheists. Nevertheless, we still have the universe on our hands. What do you make of it---its formation, its meaning?’

Fosdick will always be one of my ‘gurus,’ although I hate that word. Fosdick once wrote this:

The way parents lie to their children in matters of religion is to me a constant and shocking astonishment. Here is a mother who tells me that in answer to her four-year-old’s question as to where God is she has said, ‘In heaven’; and in reply to the further inquiry as to where heaven is she has said, ‘In the sky.’ This mother has now waked up to the fact that these heedless answers were downright falsehoods. She did not believe what she said. And she did not, apparently, comprehend that teaching the child an idea of God set in such an incredible framework of imagination was the surest way to have that child say some day that she did not believe in God.

Dr Fosdick went on to say, ‘The New Testament says that God is love; that where love is, God is also, dwelling in those who are lovers of their fellows; that God is spirit, surrounding and interpenetrating us so that God lives in us and we in God.’ Now that is a more sensible---and entirely Biblical---concept of God.

I recall that Dr Fosdick also wrote, 'Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a person can cherish. ... Some of the people who do not believe in God at all are more merciful, truth-loving, and just than are some who do.' Once, at the Sydney Town Hall, before the start of an important debate between Dr William Lane Craig and Dr Peter Slezak on the topic of the existence of God I read out those immortal words of Fosdick, having been asked by the debate organisers, St Barnabas Anglican Church, Broadway, to say a few words. (I had been involved in the selection of the atheist---Peter Slezak---to debate Craig.) The video tape of the debate produced by the church did not contain the words of Fosdick. They were edited out by the then assistant minister of the church. I was disgusted---and I still get angry about it when I recall what happened. I was soon to learn that debating---and even interacting with---so-called (and self-servingly called) 'Bible-believing Christians' can be a very unpleasant---and totally unChrist-like---experience. I will have more to say about that below.

Now, back to the topic. Recently I communicated by email with a lawyer whose daughter has Down syndrome. The lawyer mentioned he was an atheist, and it was clear he had some fairly strong things to say about religion. I suspect---although I can’t be sure---that ‘part’ of this man’s atheism is an emotional reaction to having a child with Down syndrome. I also suspect---although again I can’t be sure---that this man’s parents, or the church or Sunday school he may have attended as a child, or perhaps a 'church school' (which are very good at churning out atheists---not their intention, of course), told him ‘downright falsehoods’---Fosdick’s words---about the nature of God.

detest religious fundamentalists because they do terrible things to religion. They destroy it by imposing upon it a rigid ideology, that is, an artificial construct which was never part of the original teachings of the religion or its founder. They turn many people into atheists.

As for the ‘new atheists’---people such as Richard Dawkins (pictured right), Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens---I have some problems with them as well, at least when it comes to some of their more extreme and polemic and, yes, ill-informed, attacks on conventional religion and the existence of God. I don't know whether these people turn many others into atheists. I suspect they largely 'preach' to the already 'converted' non-believers. I wouldn't want to give them much more credit than that---certainly they don't deserve any.

Now, it’s not that I am against atheists or atheism. Not at all. By traditional definitions of God, I am an atheist, and I am proud of what I achieved when I was president of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. I am proud that I debated---in no ordinary or amateurish way---several prominent Sydney Anglican clerics (including a couple of bishops), exposing what I saw---and still see---as the weaknesses in their Christian apologetics, not to mention the corrupt version of Christianity which they present. I also found a couple of these clerics hopelessly duplicitous and disingenuous. They thought it was quite OK to lie for the sake of Jesus (cf 1 Cor 9:19-23). For example, I would meet with my opponent before the debate, and we would 'agree'---at least I thought we had reached an agreement---on how to debate the particular topic (eg the existence of God or the physical resurrection of Jesus) and on definitions (eg 'God'). However, during the debate I would often find my 'Christian' opponent turning their back on what we had agreed upon previously. They were certainly 'as shrewd as snakes' but in no way 'as gentle as doves' (cf Mt 10:16).

The truth is I dislike Sydney Anglicanism immensely. I see it as a horrible perversion of Christianity. The ultra-evangelical Sydney diocese---'Anglo-Baptists' some call them---is something of a laughing-stock in the worldwide Anglican communion---and rightly so. Sadly, the Sydney Anglican diocese is the only one in Australia which is growing. That is, or should be, a real concern to all who value religious, political and intellectual freedom, freethought, liberal religion and the separation of church and state. Now, for many years I was active as a Freemason---a movement known for its religious naturalism and religious indifferentism---and once in the particular lodge to which I belonged I was discussing---over dinner---the subject of Sydney Anglicanism with another lodge member who was a devout high-church Anglican layman from a rural diocese. I said to the other Mason, 'You know, we're not suposed to be discussing religion in the lodge,' to which he replied, 'We're not. We're discussing Sydney Anglicanism.' I like that.

I mentioned above that, technically speaking, I am an atheist. Yes, that's true enough, but at times I have also referred to myself as being a panentheist, which I see as the noblest and most mature concept of God described in the New Testament. The essence of panentheism is this---God is in all things, and all things are in God, but not all things are God. Also, whilst all that is can be said in a fundamental sense to be God, that is not all that there is of God. God is still much bigger than the sum total of all that has its being in God, for God is Be-ing (or, if you like, Be-ness) itself. Now, you may not know this, but the Bible does not present just one concept or idea of God. In many ways, there is an evolving concept of God. We have the vengeful, tribal God of the ancient Hebrews---the God that does not really exist except in certain people's troubled minds---then there are images of an almost pantheistic God in, for example, the Psalms, then there's the near absence or 'eclipse' of God in books such as Ecclesiastes, and in the New Testament we get various more mature concepts of God---as Love, the Spirit of Life, and so on. Be all that as it may let it be known and widely celebrated that atheism (which refers to the absence---and not necessarily the denial---of theistic belief) is not, in itself, a bad thing and---at the risk ,of sounding patronising (which is not my intention)---it can even be a very good thing. Yes, positive atheism is, or at least can be, an inspiring, sensible and courageous philosophy and life stance. However, the ‘new atheists’ are dangerous people. They are fundamentalists, and they are militant.

First, the ‘new atheists’ are fundamentalists because:
• they are utterly convinced of the ‘fundamentals’ of their position and their arguments---which is the very essence of the wicked and scary ideology known as fundamentalism!
• their assertions all too often are a facile attack on a form or religious belief that we all hate and which, in any event, is a perversion and corruption of true religious belief

• they are all too often childishly unaware and ignorant of the true nature of world affairs, the latter ordinarily being much more complex than that espoused in their simple-minded two-dimensional worldview

• they demonise whole peoples, especially Muslims and evangelical Christians

• they are rigid, inflexible, dogmatic and----yes---narrow-minded in their thinking, for just as the Christian fundamentalist divides the world into the 'saved' (or 'churched') and the 'unsaved' (or 'unchurched'), so the fundamentalist atheist divides people up into the 'rational' and the 'irrational,' the 'enlightened' and the 'unenlightened' (the latter being those who believe in God as well as such things as fairies, elves and angels---they are always included as well, for the sake of ridicule), thus embracing a belief-system that is as puerile, intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists (whether Christian, JewishIslamic or otherwise)

• their approach is to ridicule, belittle and---as already mentioned---demonise

• they see only one truth – their version of 'rationalistic truth' – with all other values, worldviews and belief-systems being dismissed as mere 'fantasy' and 'superstition'

• just like Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists they impose upon sacred scripture an artificial construct, and a rigid ideology, that shows a complete ignorance of the Bible, the Qur’an and other sacred texts, and they cannot distinguish between religious myth and factual narrative

• like Christian fundamentalists, in particular, they are out to convert others to their point of view and posess an evangelical and obsessive zeal to proselytise

• they are simplistic, often naïve, and anti-intellectual, rejecting intellectual investigations into the true nature of religion, the various world religions, and the various reasons (social, cultural and otherwise) why people hold and maintain religious beliefs and views.

 


Secondly, the New Atheists are militant because:
• they are driven by a hatred and hostility toward any kind of religion ... without distinction

• they rightly attack a repugnant version of religion but use it to condemn all religion

• they blame God, or all religious people, for the sins of irrational religion and religious zealots

• they blame a ‘straw God’ for all the ills and evils in the world – for example, Dawkins self-servingly 'defines' the ‘God’ in which he disbelieves as follows: ‘He not only created the universe; he is a personal God dwelling in it, or perhaps outside it (whatever that might mean), possessing the unpleasantly human qualities to which I have alluded’ [emphasis added] – now, only a fool would believe in such a god!

• they generalise ad nauseam about religion, but they are, in fact, evangelists for their own peculiar form of secular religion, with a few of them even advocating the use of extreme violence (including murder) against certain religious extremists who they regard as being the enemies of civilization – these so-called enemies of civilization ‘should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it’ (Christopher Hitchens).


The ‘new atheists’ are, as already mentioned, dangerous people. At times, they are totally irrational in their attacks upon religion and religious people. They tend to overstate their case. They often misunderstand the nature of religious faith. They are woefully ignorant of religion and theology, and they are fanatics---something which is always a worry. Some of them have even advocated the use of violence, even extreme violence, against other human beings.

The really sad thing about these so-called ‘new atheists’ is that there is absolutely nothing ‘new’ about either them or their 'teachings' at all. For the most part, their books just rehash dry, tired old British rationalism of the 19th century---which itself was based on outmoded thinking and thought forms even way back then. My good friend, John Zerilli, who is a philosopher, lawyer and writer---and, I am very proud to say, a former law student of mine (and one of the very best I had the pleasure to teach)---has written in his insightful book The Economic Imperative, ‘[Richard] Dawkins is epistemologically trapped somewhere between Pisa and Paris, somewhere between 1600 and 1650 AD.’

Exactly. This man Dawkins knows next to nothing about religion, theology and related topics. If ever there was a solid argument against having a state Church one need only look at Great Britain. The Church of England, in Britain, is almost dead---which may well turn out to be a damn good thing. Some 70 or more years ago, one Dr Henry Wilson, then the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, declared that Christianity in England was crumbling, and was then only a minority religion. Wilson wrote that Christianity was ‘hanging by a thread in this country.’ That was 70 or more years ago. Well, since then someone ‘jerked the thread,’ so to speak, such that the Church of England is today little more than rubble in the not-so-great Great Britain. What has that got to do with Dawkins, Hitchens and the like, you may well ask? Well, everything. Only a church which promulgated utter nonsense---with the blessing of the State---could have produced a theological waste land and an intellectual vacuum which provided such a fertile breeding ground for the spawning of a militant and highly toxic form of atheism.


So, who or what is God? Well, Fosdick pointed to the New Testament descriptions of God as both Love (cf 1 Jn 4:8) and Spirit (cf Jn 4:24), the latter referring to the very livingness of life itself, that is, the ground of being. I endorse those ideas. I also love the New Testament description of a God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Now, that is a very ‘big’ God indeed, but this is also true---in each one of us God lives and moves and has its being. That's why Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within us (cf Lk 17:21). Great stuff. However, no matter how we conceive of God, the reality of God will always be so much bigger. Ultimately, God is Mystery---and not just a mystery.

Look around you, and what do you see? Living things living out their livingness. And it seems self-evident to me that the life which lives out its livingness in and as you is the very same life which lives out its livingness in and as me. I take that to be self-evident and axiomatic. Others may not do so, but that is their choice. For me, all life is interconnected and interdependent, although I reject strict monism and the so-called Gaia hypothesis. And another thing we see all around us---life constantly gives of itself, to itself, in order to perpetuate itself. Is that self-givingness of life nothing other than love in action?

There you have it. Life, Truth and Love---God, if you wish. Of course, there is so much sin, sickness, suffering and evil in the world---so much that it seems like there is no God at all. However, those who have a sensible understanding of God know that God is a verb---not a noun. God is something we do. The presence of so much sin, sickness, suffering and evil in the world is a constant everyday reminder to all of us, not that there is no God, but rather just how much 'God-ing' remains to be done---by you, me, and the rest of us. Yes, in the words of Fosdick quoted near the start of this post, 'we still have the universe on our hands' so let's all get on with the monumental task of being God to each other---and to our broken world.

Are you an atheist? If so, I am not trying to turn you into something else, let alone an orthodox heist---heaven forbid! We must reject all this nonsense that you have to believe in a conventional God in order to be a ‘moral’ and ‘decent’ (whatever that might mean) human being. That’s crap, but it’s the sort of crap regularly promulgated by the Christian churches which has helped produce the current lot of ‘new atheists’ and their many followers. It’s all rather sad---indeed, quite pathetic. However, until the mainstream Christian churches discover the real God of the Bible---the one I have referred to above---we will see more and more people identifying as atheists. That may not be a bad thing. At least in time we may see the death of mainstream Christianity (along with the other two major monotheistic religions), which would not, in my submission, be a bad thing, for out of the combined ashes there might arise, Phoenix-like, a new understanding of the All-in-all and of what it means to have one’s being in God. We can only hope---and pray.




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