Ouroboros: (A)Theism Will Eat Itself
Theism and atheism (as conventionally understood) are two sides of the same coin: namely, an emphasis on beliefs. Conventional theism — the faith of the typical American Christian, for example — entails mandatory affirmation of a set of dogmas (derived from scripture) regarding the origins of the universe, of life, the nature of good and evil, miracles and divine intervention, the afterlife, and usually something about the final fate of the universe and the inhabitants therein. Conventional atheism, on the other hand, is the lack of such beliefs.
Atheism does not prescribe any particular set of beliefs. Instead, it proscribes a belief in a God or gods and the doctrines and scriptures derived from such belief. Outside of that, atheists are free to believe whatever they wish. It’s important to note that atheism says nothing about supernatural forces or beings, otherwise. While atheism is often coupled with an insistence on skeptical, rational inquiry, they are not one and the same. There are atheists who embrace New Age spirituality and a form of “sympathetic magic” (e.g. — tarot, astrology, and other sorts of magical thinking). And there are rational skeptics who embrace a sort of pantheism/panentheism or deism and consider themselves religious (though they are quick to distance themselves from dogmatic faith or belief).
In fact, outside the circles of the naively religious, fundamentalists, and religious conservatives, God beliefs are more important to atheism than they are to theism. One simply cannot believe in God and call one’s self an atheist — they are mutually exclusive. But the same is not true of theism. There is a long tradition of religious thought and practice that doesn’t concern itself with God beliefs. And theologians have argued that this form of theism may actually be more fundamental than those that insist on particular doctrines.
While it would be contradictory to find an atheist who believes in God, there is a growing movement of theists for whom the two propositions, “I believe in God,” and “I don’t believe in God,” are equally nonsensical. This is because God is neither a referent nor an object of reason. Instead, God is the name we give to an encounter; an intuition; a projection.
Theology, in this light, is not the study of God. It’s not burdened with the task of producing a coherent definition of some being or entity that can be named God, since no such definition is possible. Instead, it is the study of the religious impulse, or what’s going on when we talk about religious experiences, and the history of such God-talk. Dogmas are the product of contemplation following the religious experience — they are contingent, and therefore secondary. Theology, once it goes beyond mere belief and pushes through to the primary experience or intuition that leads us to point at something and call it “God,” is liberated.
Ouroboros is the archetype of the serpent eating its own tail, and represents a broad range of concepts stemming from circularity, self-reference, birth-death-renewal, or an essential unity that arises from the interplay of opposing forces — a dialectic. I see atheism as the head of the serpent, eating the tail of theism. Atheism sees itself as consuming and replacing a mortal enemy. Theism sees itself as under attack by a demonic secularism seeking to destroy religion. By destroying belief, atheism seems to hold there is no place left for religion; and yet, without belief, there is no place left for atheism. Atheism is eating itself. And yet, when we track carefully the history of myth and theology, we find that a New Theism emerges when it is stripped of the need for God-beliefs.
This is classic Hegelian dialectic: Thesis and antithesis arise from and entail each other. And although the one is implied in the other, they are locked in contradiction and conflict. By consuming the other, one destroys itself. But there emerges from their mutual opposition — like the Phoenix — a synthesis. Not merely something new, but an apprehension of the whole that entails and requires them both.
Atheism is Not about Theology
Atheism was not a response to theism. At the time, there was nothing we would recognize as theism to which a response was required. Atheism was, instead, a rather natural outgrowth of the explosion of empiricism and rational thought that epitomized the Enlightenment.
As a term, atheism predates theism. In the Greek and Latin forms, it was used to identify those who rejected, dishonored, or disrespected one’s preferred god or gods. It did not refer to the rejection of deities altogether. Hence, the Hellenic world considered Christians atheists because they refused to participate in rituals dedicated to the local gods.
The flowering of Enlightenment thought led inexorably to the expectation that God would be described and explained through rational inquiry and empirical observation. Prior to this, the role of apologetics was to defend this or that doctrinal point against its competitors. God was a foregone conclusion that needed no defense. Specific doctrines were compulsory (and with the Protestant Reformation, sects were sprouting up with a dizzying array of such doctrines, many of them in direct contradiction with each other), but theistic belief was not. It didn’t need to be. What we would call theism today was, during the Enlightenment, nothing more than the an attempt to systematically apply the tools of rational logic and empirical inquiry toward a greater understanding of God. It simply did not occur to these theists that such God might not exist — anymore than it would occur to us that time and space might not exist.
Atheism, as a philosophical stance, emerged during the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And yet, it was used exclusively in the pejorative sense to describe an impious or godless person. There were no philosophers at the time posing serious challenges to the existence of God. The conflict between religions or creeds was not between God, on the one hand, and the nonexistence of God on the other — it was about which conception of God one believed in and the arguments for or against it. Additionally, there was a long Platonist/Aristotelian tradition holding that language was insufficient to describe God as something that did or did not exist. Pseud0-Dionysus, writing in the 5th or 6th Century and hugely influential in the 9th Century, held that God could not be said to exist or not to exist. God was beyond existing or not existing:
[God] is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are, nor is he known in any of the things that are; he is all things in everything and nothing in anything. (Quoted from Pseudo-Dionysus: The Complete Works, in Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.)
Such ineffability reflects the mysticism of Buddha or Taoism in which opposites and contradictions are the subject of meditation and a pathway to enlightenment. It is an exercise designed for the transcendence of the individual rather than a doctrine to be believed.
It’s vitally important to keep in mind that the theistic position was, in accordance with the scientific understanding and philosophy of the times, the eminently rational and evidential one. There simply was no contradiction, yet, between science (broadly) and religion (also broadly). Just as in Copernicus’ day the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system was a better fit for the evidence and a better predictor of planetary movements, there simply were not the tools to explain the ubiquitous nature of religious belief, nor the manifest orderliness of nature, without reference to God. Tellingly, the evolution of theology had come to the point where Deism was the default philosophical position, and that theism emerged as a response — not to atheism — but to the notion that one could apprehend God through pure reason and the observation of nature, rather than through adherence to scripture and doctrinal authority. Theists sought to preserve the belief in miracles and authority of scripture; Deists were skeptical of religious authority and superstition, and grounded God in the evidence. But Deists were not atheists, though accusations of atheism and apostasy were hurled by both sides. The conflict between Deists and theists was over the question of sufficient evidence, not over the existence or non-existence of God.
Avowed philosophical atheism emerged later. It slowly became clear that the advance of reason and empiricism left a diminishing space for God. In Kant and Hume, both pure reason and empirical observation had been defeated as a means for demonstrating the existence of God — dealing an apparent death blow to Deism. A strictly materialist argument for atheism was exemplified in 1770 by Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach, in his System of Nature. Around the same time, Higher Criticism of the Bible led Friedrich Schleiermacher to argue against the notion that the scriptures were a divinely inspired final authority, or that they recounted miracles as historical events. He was a religious naturalist, who insisted that dogma and doctrine must yield to advances in scientific understanding, and yet who was convinced that genuine religion — the intuition or direct experience of the infinite, without regard to beliefs — would be liberated once it was excised from this adherence to embarrassingly childish superstitious dogmas.
Schleiermacher gave the first systematic expression of what came to be known as Liberal Theology, which gained significant popularity throughout the 19th Century. In a very real sense, this naturalistic religion was the first organized response from theology to the arguments posed by atheism, and it conceded the essential points: the material world is all that there is, and that both the God of the Bible and the God of Philosophers are childish concepts, bankrupt of meaning, and inessential to the religious experience.
Theism, as it’s understood by today’s atheists, emerged as a response, not to atheism, but rather to theological liberalism. It’s mostly a 20th Century phenomenon (with some roots in the late 19th Century). In the days following d’Holbach and Schleiermacher, it was commonly held that biblical inerrancy was an untenable theological position. Theologians sought to reconcile science and materialist philosophy with religion, and to large degree they succeeded. It was their very success with gave rise to what became known as Fundamentalism, codified in 1910 with the familiar talking points that every New Atheist knows well:
- The inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this.
- The virgin birth of Christ.
- The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.
- The bodily resurrection of Christ.
- The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.
It is these “five fundamentals” that have since become what the typical atheist claims are the defining attributes of Christian belief. And yet, if that were true, then there would have been little need at the turn of the 20th Century to codify, promote, and defend them. It’s not that these new fundamentalists were concerned with parishioners heeding the call of atheism, fleeing the pews, and tossing out their bibles; they were reacting to the radical transformation of theology within their own ranks. The very nature of Christian religion had undergone a significant evolution away from these beliefs. So much so that they felt it necessary to take action to thwart it.
Atheists of today seem so attached to the Fundamentalist Christian talking points that it might not be a surprise one day to hear one of the New Atheists proclaim that the he would prefer a vengeful God of a literalist Bible rather than an ineffably mysterious God of metaphor that cannot be discussed in plain language.
Atheism Eats Itself
Atheism, to reiterate, does not prescribe a particular set of beliefs. It does not set forth a particular program for understanding the world, or our place within it. Instead, it merely proscribes any sort of belief in God or gods. If it succeeds, and there comes a time when no one seriously believes in God or gods, then atheism has no reason to exist.
If theism were to evolve into a form that does not concern itself with God beliefs, atheism would have nothing to do.
No doubt some atheists might respond, “But this makes no sense. Theism is all about believing in God. No God beliefs; no theism.” However, as has already been indicated, this isn’t necessarily the case. Theism and theology can be about God (as a concept, a projection, a human encounter), without believing in the existence (or non-existence) of God. It’s telling whenever you find fundamentalists and atheists in agreement on theological matters. We find such a case in the ideas of Paul Tillich. I’ve found no clearer example of such sympathetic stance between Fundamentalism and atheism than this post by Austin Cline, the Agnosticism/Atheism Guide on About.com: Paul Tillich and “Modern” Theology.
In it, Cline repeats a quote of R. R. Reno (editor of the ecumenical journal of religion, First Things):
By my reading, Paul Tillich helps the barbarians maintain their illusions. His primary role in the twentieth century was to unburden the consciences of clergy who no longer believed but wanted to maintain their roles and reputations as men and women of spiritual seriousness. I have difficulty thinking of a more destructive writer. Give me the ardent atheism of Richard Dawkins any day over the pseudo-mystery and easy spiritualism of Paul Tillich.
Cline agrees, writing:
Liberal and some moderate Christians may like to cite Paul Tillich as an example of “sophisticated” theology in contrast to the criticisms of atheists, but there are at least as many Christians who would and do reject Tillich as anything but sophisticated. They regard him as a fundamentally negative influence on Christianity because of how he undermined traditional sources of authority. According to them, he’s only treated as “serious” by those who seriously want to abandon all that Christianity has been without also giving up the name and the positive feelings which that name produces in believers.
In effect, then, Paul Tillich produces theology for those who seem to have no more patience or respect for traditional Christianity than atheists do, but who aren’t quite ready to give it all up.
It never seems to occur to Cline that Tillich was part of a long tradition of Christian theological evolution, not the least of which was the Protestant Reformation rooted entirely as it was in a rejection of Rome’s traditional authority. The history of Christian theology is literally built on the rejection of one traditional authority or another. Should we be surprised that the onset of Liberal Theology carries on this hallowed tradition? Cline seems more wrapped up in his desire to defend a particular stance of atheism than he does in considering whether or not Tillich represents a legitimate way of being Christian without falling for the ridiculous superstitions upon which he prefers to heap well deserved derision. And to cement the point, Cline presumes that Tillich speaks for those who have abandoned traditional Christianity, “but who aren’t quite ready to give it all up.” The assumption here is that if one rejects what Cline (and the likes of Rusty Reno) allege to be “traditional” Christianity, then one should reject Christianity altogether. One might expect to hear Cline join Cardinal Bellarmine in condemning Galileo for daring to suggest that one can remain a Christian even if the Earth really does move around the Sun.
Cline’s loins are filled with zealous fire, arguing that biblical inerrancy and superstitious faith should be the defining characteristic of Christian theology. No doubt that Cline would prefer, much as I’ve heard from many other atheists, that the decline of superstitious God beliefs would take religion down with it. But atheism does not replace theism — it only replaces the God beliefs. It, in and of itself, has no other narrative to offer. (There are some non-theistic narratives out there for consideration. One could, I suppose, adopt the narrative of the skeptics, or the secular humanists. Each of these represents something that most atheists could get behind.) But God forbid(!) that one adopt a narrative that acknowledges the bankruptcy of God beliefs, while grasping something essential in the God talk. This is, it seems, tantamount to atheistic heresy.
Few things seem to confuse more atheists than God talk in the absence of God beliefs. It seems to hold power much like Hermione Granger using the Confundus Charm on Cormac McLaggen in the Harry Potter novels. It’s as if atheism recognizes the seeds of its own demise are sown in its success. If religion can keep talking about God without believing in God, there’s really nothing more that atheism has to contribute to the conversation.
Religion shouldn’t get to have it both ways. There’s a sense that it shouldn’t be so easy.
But, why the hell not?