Amusingly enough, this story begins with a Christmas gift.
The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, to be precise.
Unfortunately, the usually-stellar Porter airlines somehow managed to lose my checked bag, which – while it contained nothing essential to my survival – happened to be carrying said book. And my skis, too, but that’s another matter entirely. Long before I boarded that flight, I recall reading the first few pages of this little book. The author said something about the influence of his Christian (Catholic?) upbringing on his spiritual life, even after becoming an Atheist. As he argues, that’s more or less inevitable; we cannot, after all, simply erase the past. Being that as it may, I began to sense a thread that I find…if not troubling, then concerning in some parts of modern Atheism. It is often phrased thusly:
Often accompanied by examples of Atheist charities, or perhaps Atheist ‘heroes’* and soldiers who risk death in order to save lives or defend ideals. Which is all very well and good, but I can’t shake the feeling that the definition of “good” (and, consequently, “evil”) in use are derived from the very religions that Atheism tends to criticize. More accurately, the very religion: Christianity. In and of itself, this is hardly a bad thing; in a historical context, Atheism evolves from Humanism, which in turn has its roots in Protestantism. This is a case in which we surely cannot erase the past, nor should we want to. It is imperative to be aware of our origins. My concern lies in what this proposition “good without god” says about the nature and future of Atheism. When I said Atheists “criticize” religion earlier, my choice of words was deliberate. If we are willing to accept some or most of the moral and ethical dictates of our “parent” religions, I think we run the risk of becoming – if we are not already – just that: a criticism; a critique.
“The New Atheism” is a term quite widely used to refer to the harsh, abrasive appraisals of religion offered by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I mention this because Atheism itself is not particularly new. If you accept that religion must be taught (and we can argue about that until we are blue in the face at some other time), then our earliest hominid ancestors were Atheists, at least until they started asking questions to which no satisfactory answers could be found. Avowed, purposeful Atheists, those who rejected religion are also to be found in history: Theodorus the Greek, for example. So, our belief system may be old, but the concept of a “New Atheism” I find powerful. I think it is a mantle worth donning, but we must be ready to accept not only the powers that come with it, but the responsibilities. Specifically, I mean that as we gain the power to articulate new philosophies, new values, we have a responsibility to re-examine old values – and discard them. Not, I should think, all “old values”, but those which we find now to be more burdensome than bountiful.
It is probably clear that I have been reading Nietzsche of late. This is both true and relevant.
Obvious: there is no “Church of Atheism”, or if there is something by that name that does exist, it is not what it claims to be. I should explain that if I think Atheists should be hammering out their vision of morality or spirituality, it is not meant to be absolute. No Atheist speaks for all atheists. Why, then, should “we” do this, as though there is such an entity as “we” to begin with? For me, the answer is simple: ideas do not need to be enforced to be adopted. They do not need to be enforced to be useful. Atheists should articulate their ideas to each other (and to non-Atheists) not because it will create a better Atheism (although it will do that), but because it will create better Atheists.
So, Nietzsche. I implicitly promised that I would elaborate on that thought, and here I shall. In something known as the “parable of the madman”, Nietzsche observed a truth in Western** society that only a madman could discover or articulate: God is dead, and we have killed him. This is, as a lawyer or TV cop might say, a very serious charge. Perhaps we’ll have time to stage the trial in part 2 or 3 (or however many of these I write), but for now I’d like to examine the aftermath, rather than the evidence. Re-reading the passage, I remember the confusion with which I originally confronted this insight. I wondered if Nietzsche was celebrating the death of God…or lamenting it. Now, I think I understand: it is neither. We are being presented with no more and no less than the truth, and the madman’s questions are for us to answer. What shall we do, what must we do, knowing that God is dead, and that we are his murderers?
Atheists are often described – positively – as “ambassadors”, or “non-confrontational” when they take a live-and-let-live approach with faith (this is a major point given in praise of the book which sparked the rant you are now reading, in fact) or religion. Perhaps the “firebrands”, the “confrontational” Atheists, have not been a great help in illustrating precisely why such a “tolerant” position might be detrimental to both theists and non-theists. I think that’s because a lot of the firebrand critiques tend to be along the lines of “how stupid would you have to be to ignore [insert mountain of scientific evidence here] and persist in your belief in a supernatural God?”, trying to attack the certainty of the faithful by asserting that one cannot concurrently accept both rationality and religion. Leaving aside for the moment that “it is the mark of an enlightened mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it” (Aristotle?), that’s an approach doomed to failure. There will always be room for one of two things to happen. A) the believer in question can “move the goalposts”, so to speak, redefining God in an ever-shrinking, but unfalsifiable way, or B) the believer simply asserts that the two parties in the argument are operating from different fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, and therefore may not engage in discourse that will change either party’s mind. While perhaps any movement that prides itself on being “confrontational” probably isn’t interested in the well-being of anyone, I would respectfully submit that a better argumentative tack would not be to illustrate the nonexistence of God, but the unbelief in God demonstrated even by those who cling to their Bibles the tightest.
Assuming you accept the death of God, both believers and non-believers alike need to be in search of a post-God understanding of the world; a post-spirituality, if you will. To the Atheist firebrands among us, I would like to say that your present strategy is alienating to potential allies in what promises to be a difficult search. Our eventual destinations may be different, and our present dialog is neither necessary, nor productive. But maybe someday those believers are going to wake up to the stench of God’s rotting corpse wafting through their windows, and they are going to need help from people like us – people who have already considered the dilemmas that they will be facing.
And now we come to the crux of the matter: what does a post-spirituality look like? This takes some deep digging. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the origins of Jewish, and by extension Christian morality to the priests who created it. Priests who resented the power of what Nietzsche referred to as the “knightly-aristocratic” caste in society: the warriors and leaders, the physically-powerful individuals who reveled in carnal pleasures: food, violence, sex. Being weaker, less able to enjoy these sensations, the priests devised a world in direct opposition to the one they lived in; a world where weakness was strength, creating the fiction that those who “chose” to abstain from pleasures such as food, sex, and violence would be rewarded for their temperance. They borrowed from Plato’s concept of the “world of forms”, and created Heaven. Of course, being not of this tortured world, Heaven could not be populated by flesh-and-blood beings, for such would be self-defeating! The soul (or spirit), then, became necessary. Something dwelling within a person that was constant, unrelated to their physical stature, or strength, or will. Something that could be found in every human, something that could be loved equally by God in all of them.
The ascetic values of Christianity, it’s high opinion of restraint and temperance can therefore be found to stem from an intrinsic hatred for the world, says Nietzsche. When Christianity says “do not”, or “choose not to”, it is merely taking a state of weakness (“cannot”) and making it appear to be something other than what it is: strength – in this case, of the will. Of course, as Atheists and materialists, the idea of measuring strength of will or strength of character by what it is unable to accomplish, by the list of those things that it has no power to effect (or affect, both are appropriate) in the world, is patently absurd. Spirituality cannot be maintained, because the spirit – an intangible thing of value residing within ourselves, yet outside of reality – is no more than a fiction, a fever dream.
I must admit, now, that I have been disingenuous. My title has become inappropriate, since as you can see I have come to the conclusion that Atheists should not have a spiritual life, certainly not if they are serious about their rejection of God and/or religion (Christianity in this example, but the hatred of the world which leads to asceticism is by no means unique to it). Of course, as humans I think we are not particularly pleased with stopping there. We like to analyze and categorize and name and catalogue. We are not happy without value judgements, I do not think. What we are left with, then, is a desire to find tangible, defensible values in the real world that we can live with. And that is where I will leave you (until part 2)
*”heroes” in the modern sense of the word, e.g. people who run into burning buildings to rescue pets or children. I’m not talking about Beowulf or Odysseus.
** I know everyone hates the term “Western”, but look you at least have a rudimentary idea of what I mean here, okay?