On The Uses and Disadvantages of Atheism for Life

(For those keeping score at home, I'm reading the Gay Science and a variety of other aphorisms.)

I've been saying for a while now that the "new atheism" could learn a lot from the old atheism. When I read Bertrand Russell on religion and Christianity, and I understand the cultural reality at the root of his complaint, I learn to be a better Christian in external and culturally relevant ways. When I read Nietzsche, well, I'm still working on understanding the cultural reality at the root of his complaint, but it is clear that there are cultural effects that he finds deleterious and that he attributes them to the religion itself. And yet, as with Russell, there are things we can learn about how our public piety and its principles do not align with the internal logic of Christianity. Now, I don't plan to get into a Ditchkins rant here, I'll leave that to Terry Eagleton, but what bothers me about so many of the new atheists is that the substance of their attacks on Christianity is based in what seem so often to be the trivial phenomena at the edges of the thing itself. Hitchens starts one of his books by grounding his atheism in the ignorance of a Sunday School teacher. To a great extent, what I mean is that I value the intellectual qualities to be found in the writings of the old guard, moreso as I encounter what passes for the new guard. But might not the banality of the now owe itself to a corresponding banality of Christian popular piety? Isn't it always the surfaces?

The writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dealing with a Protestant Christianity that had taken the Reformation and its humanist foundations and turned them into Protestant Orthodoxy and Pietism. There was something to be respected in the thinkers that was not seen in their epigones, something that set Luther apart from the Lutherans. In popular religion there was, on the one hand, a doctrinally exclusive protectivism extended from the articles of faith back over the canon of scripture, and on the other a lay experiential theology that, like Catholic mysticism, was frequently left to fend for itself because of the disapproval of the doctrinally orthodox. The gripping hand held a moralism that became the defining characteristic of "Christian," upheld and rationalized by both sides because it was in their common cultural conditioning. Perhaps not an entirely fair characterization, but a common one for those stymied in the application of rationality to religion. But what do we have now? We still have culturally conditioned morality dictating both popular piety and doctrinal orthodoxy. The magisterial reformation went magisterial, which is to say clerical. The radicals, the popular reformations, stayed popular, which is so often to say anti-clerical, but by no means in the direction of radical equality. No, a perverse clericalism settled in, of flock-tending in the wilderness. And the spirituality of the laity remains banal to its roots, of a type not essentially different from popular religion before Luther even where its material trappings have been updated. Thirsty and drinking from wherever plentiful springs bubble up, because the mainstream has capped its springs and rationed them out. Why should they buy Lutheran water when the Evangelicals are giving theirs away for free? (Switch the names to suit yourself.)

The atheistic complaint sees this situation and asks, why get your water from a church in the first place? What are they giving you, but moralism and rules? Why take a gospel that seems custom built to do nothing more than saddle you with law? Of what good is this God, if he comes with a form of life that seems destined to kill you? Now, Nietzsche was as opposed to the dogmatism of science as he was to the dogmatism of religion, something we've lost in so many modern atheists who prefer a divinized secular science. Why take a shallow humanism over a shallow religion? This is the mistake made when we take the epistemological substitution of reason for ecclesial authority, and make it a change in piety. No, if we're not going to believe what the church tells us is true, why would we take another oligarchy? (Because the laity are thirsty still, and have been trained to depend upward upon an institution -- that is, to be laity.)

We never really learned what the value was for Christianity in discarding an epistemological reliance upon its own authority. The church would not take critique of its institutional self from the religious, and it certainly wouldn't take it from those outside the fold. For all the halfway-houses and compromises to accommodate reason and religion, the institutional church remains profoundly itself -- which was the point every time, to preserve a territory in which the church could be itself. But of all people, the Christian should know the truth of "God is dead and we have killed him." The Gospel narratives are full of the same sort of essential condemnation for the Judean religious institutions. And We have killed Him, which was perhaps the point, since God came back. But we keep showing the shadow of the God in a box, as though he really were the kind you have to wind up on Sundays. We have made it a contemptible thing through ritualized familiarity, through the piety that accrues upon traditions, through our reverence for our own view of things and a corresponding lack of reverence for the God. The pity is, when we refocus on reverence for God, we do it all over again. Our holiness never comes from us, because the holiness we can generate is pitiful and deserves the charge of the atheists.

Banal criticism or not, we have a place for the critic who stands outside and tells us what fools and unbelievers we truly appear to be. Just as we have a place for the heretic who believes according to another choice, and for the reformer who believes along with us, but sees what fools and unbelievers we truly are from inside. Because we have made the history of religion monumental, and antiquarian, and critical, but not for life. And there are those throughout our history who have seen Christianity in its monumental sense for its models of greatness that spur us to be great in new ways. Who have seen Christianity in its antiquarian sense for its insights into who and what we are, where and how we came to be, so that we might be who we are in the future. Who have seen Christianity in its critical sense for the possibilities it offers us to know our first selves, and to become better second selves. But they are not the defenders of orthodoxy, or of morality, or of the institution. The shadow is for them of a living God.

Still, to play the title track in a different key, there is an atheistic criticism that serves to lower, to bring religion down to its own level, to destroy what it can't understand, to make today the imprint of yesterday. Just as there is a theistic criticism which does the same from inside. And yet there is a criticism we need, from inside or outside, that dissuades us from our idolatry and pushes us forward to serve the living God. That at the very least, when it reminds us of our foolishness and patent unbelief, intends us to live tomorrow better than yesterday in new ways. Because it is always the surfaces, and we always need to be pushed away from them and toward a more credible and living faith.