Sunday, May 23, 2010

Somewhat unoriginal but still important: new atheism and fundamentalism (again), Chris Hedges on "sin"

Did you have a negative experience with religion growing up?

I did.

I came from a somewhat conservative evangelical Christian background, went agnostic, then atheistic, then "derisively irreligious".

During that period from leaving Christianity to being very dismissive of religion, I went online to find people to argue with, and that experience and the people I met supplied many stereotypes with which to reinforce my prejudice that religion was toxic to the mind.

Since then I have written about something that many folks with whom I correspond have also noted, the rise of what some have called fundamentalist or fanatical atheism. I can understand why this label would upset many in atheist community. This "new wave" of atheism was crystallized by a few books which came to define the phenomena under an official label, the New Atheism.  (See below for a list of posts from this blog on the subject.)

No, I don't think all atheists belong to this group, are monolithic in their views, or support everything that folks like Dennet or Harris etc write.  Nor is everything that such authors write derogatory or condescending toward religion. Yet the image has stuck.

Chris Hedges has a new book (thanks for the heads up FP) in which he seems to dig deeper into what many have been saying in response to the latest popular books on atheism: the problem isn't being theistic/religious or atheistic/non-religious. It's about how we deal with limitations and uncertainty, as embodied by concepts like sin.

Here is how Hedge's describe the situation in When Atheism Becomes Religion: Americas New Fundamentalists:

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists, who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.

We discard the wisdom of sin at our peril. Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed -- though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought. Studies in cognitive behavior illustrate the accuracy and wisdom of this Biblical concept. Human beings are frequently irrational. They are governed by unconscious forces, many of them self-destructive. This understanding of innate human corruptibility and human limitations, whether explained by the theologian Augustine or the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been humankind's most potent check on utopian visions. It has forced human beings to accept their own myopia and irrationality, to acknowledge that no act, even one defined as moral or virtuous, is free from the taint of self-interest and corruption. We are bound by our animal natures.

The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction. We all encounter this aspect of existence, in love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil and the reality of death. These powerful, non rational, super-real forces in human life are the domain of religion. All cultures have struggled to give words to these mysteries and moments of transcendence. God -- and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes -- is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe. Religion is our finite, flawed and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence -- the struggle to acknowledge the infinite -- need not be attributed to an external being called God. As Karen Armstrong and others have pointed out, the belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. But the religious impulse addresses something just as concrete as the pursuit of scientific or historical knowledge: it addresses the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence.

Human beings come ingrained with this impulse. Buddhists speak of nirvana in words that are nearly identical to those employed by many monotheists to describe God. This impulse asks: What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?

My hope is that the book lives up to the quote and not descend into a polemic against the "New Atheists". If so, perhaps it will inspire fruitful discussion on all sides rather than more reflexive defensiveness. We will see.



Sampling of Posts about Atheism, Agnosticism, Secularism, Fundamentalism, Religion-Based Conflict, etc. Goes from oldest to most recent and may not reflect current views 100%, but it gives a coherent picture of my thinking on the topic over a 5 year period:

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  1. You say the issue is "whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction".

    I can see that spirituality might always be beyond "deduction" but why would God or spirituality always be beyond reason? I would go as far as to say that the spiritual side of life is obvious and encompassed by both observation and reason. See The Nature of the Soul. The bizarre feature of modern intellectual life is that this is ignored.

  2. That is from the excerpt. I don't agree with everything Hedges says, but it is a decent attempt at dialogue for a subject that has been dominated by demagoguery.

    Thanks for the link.

    I do think that the transcendent does go beyond all discursive processes at some point, but I don't think God is merely transcendent. My exploration of Buddhism, contemplative Christianity and other faiths suggests to me that God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent. That is my take on what some refer to as panentheism (not the same as pantheism).

    How about you?

  3. Suppose a Panentheist God existed. If that God were a single entity then its parts would intercommunicate. If they communicated with each other then the parts that are in the "universe" would be communicating with those that are beyond the universe. But if this were the case the "universe" could contain information about the beyond and in so doing extend the boundaries of the universe to incorporate the beyond. So I suppose I would be a pantheist rather than a panentheist (but with the caveat that I will never have any idea how big the multiverse really is..).

    If there is a God and I am part of it then the best I can do to find out about it is to know my bit and to use instruments and reports to model the rest as far as this is possible. When I apply this method I discover that nineteenth century physics has got nothing to say about my experience itself. Twenty first century scientific theory does lend itself to modelling my experience but I cannot, as yet, propose any unequivocal experiments that would test these models (although I agree with Alex Green's proposals as a start).

    Metaphysics is an interesting hobby. I like the idea that one day I might stumble across an answer to the big questions of physics and metaphysics. The biggest for me is the problem of "becoming". Why does time pass? What is change? I meditate and can observe a slice of time as whole words and changes in depth (falling into space) so dimensional time is obvious but what is this "change" that allows my observation to be time and space? Green's five dimensions do not really 'cut it' for me, they still imply a mind that is moving through time.

  4. Good questions. Metaphysics is indeed fascinating. As to God, the root idea I use is referred to as "Ground of Being" (borrowing a phrase). Hence God is not simply another "thing" along side other "things", even the biggest or the best or the most. God is the source, the substance and the sustainer of existence. Pantheism limits God to being the substance, which to me is incomplete.

    As for limits of models of knowledge, that is an important lesson. Every model and theory is always deficient, a caricature of reality. It is an intentional distortion to make certain phenomena more intelligible, but a distortion nonetheless. The answer to every big question contains the seeds of new big questions.

    Green is right that qualia propose a paradox to conventional thinking about consciousness. I suspect that is partially because of a limited imagination on the part of researchers who tend to favor a strict reductionist view in which all consciousness must be reduced to brain function.

    As someone who values both upward and downward causality I personally like the idea of consciousness as an aspect of awareness, the latter defined as a universal phenomenon and the former as a localized expression in the brain. But that's just me.

    In any event seeking and discovering is a worthy endeavor, but it is also important to experience the world as it is, whether we can explain and name everything or not. :)


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