Saturday, September 6, 2008

The God for atheists

In the latest attempt to disclose Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams' personal attitude towards homosexuality a series of letters dated from 2000 and 2001 have revealed Dr. Williams having paralleled that "[a]n active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness."

Continually acting as ombudsman between progressive and traditional Anglicanism he is susceptible to hostility from either direction. But while two opposing sides of the Anglican church battle it out among each other over who has rightful understanding and belief of their holy script, an argument is impending which supposes that belief should not be maintained for the conventionally religious at all. Or rather, put with a hint of grandiloquence, it is only atheists who can truly believe.

For a complete history of an atheists relationship with God, or, God for atheists would be far too monumental to print here. As an important component of it certainly one should consider the rationalist philosopher Spinoza's use of the word God as synonymous with nature, rather than keeping with the orthodox view as directly in the image of man. Such a subversive view subsequently led to Spinoza's cherum, or excommunication by the Jewish community. To liken someone to Spinoza was to liken them to an atheist.

The Jewish-atheist psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, influenced greatly by the works of Spinoza, himself tried to change the conventional manner in which Judeo-Christianity was perceived, most notably in what was to be his last major work entitled Moses and Monotheism. The fact that it appeared in 1939, at a time of great ferment for Judaism was given careful consideration by Freud. The premise of the text revises the history of Moses including the formerly neglected detail that Moses was not a Hebrew but an Egyptian priest of Akhenaten (Effective spirit of Aten). He goes on by saying that the Jews killed him in despair of his monotheism, later remorsing and formulating a religion acknowledging him. Freud declared that guilt has since remained core in the Jewish faith (guilt, also, is a key feature of psychoanalysis, a deeply religious tinted practice).

Materialist re-readings of the bible have been a commonplace in the texts of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris recently. Works focusing on the place Christian ethics has in radical politics has been a feature of authors such as Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, Giorgio Agamben and Alan Badiou. Ken Schei, a self-confessed "atheist for Jesus" and founder of the group "Atheists for Jesus" argues for a denial of any deity, but to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus exemplified by his sermon on the Mount. Against the kernel of Paulist interpretation, Schei is influenced by the Ebionites who were followers of the original apostles, and unlike Paul had met Jesus in person. Here it is stressed that Jesus was a teacher of moral and ethical guidelines without contradicting the great knowledge we have, and will increasingly improve in the future, of science.

The current most prominent philosopher reinterpreting Christian ethics against today's New Age and Gnostic religious vista is Slavoj Zizek. As the title of his 2001 study poses, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? he details why it is imperative that atheists consider the legacy of Christianity for themselves. Zizek's human subject in today's religious landscape battles with a conflict in what he knows and what he believes. He elucidates this religious problem with a comparison found in the oncoming global warming scare; we know of the earth's warming, but we cannot really believe it. He asks that the materialist reading of the incarnation be considered the same way, that man is forever condemned between knowledge and belief. To use the more familiar experiment shown by Richard Dawkins, a spectrum of ideas ranging from 1 - Strong Theist (I know God exists), 2 - short of 100%, 3 - higher than 50%, 4 - exactly 50%, 5 - lower than 50%, 6 - short of 0%, 7 - Strong Atheist (I know God does not exist). Since knowledge is trapped in a parallax (another Zizek book title) then belief is vital.

One common element to the above efforts is to retrieve religion from less generous hands, namely the fundamentally religious or the politically far right. Freud's motive was to, rather than join the resistance and speak out for Judaism, suggest the true legacy of the Jews. Yielding an indirect jab at the Nazi's, for whom the message is you think you know your enemy, you don't. For Ken Schei we should acknowledge Paul had never met with Jesus and his so-called vision of Jesus' teachings on the road to Damascus to arrest Jesus' followers, was wrong. A rather more difficult position to summerise is Zizek's, who insists for the materialist and atheistic core of Christianity whilst also exposing a creationist's initial problematic trying to pass off what has hitherto been a faith system as science - for someone of faith Zizek argues - the language of the enemy.

As a response, these atheists may respond to Archbishop Williams that Christian love is not a reflection of God, but God is a reflection of Christian love, or that our ethical imperatives are borne in the world, and not from a divine intervention in our souls.

1 comment:

PHAEDRA said...

Dear Carl Packman,

I was very interested to read your piece entitled "The God for atheists", and in response invite you to read my blog which, under the form it has taken, (Memoirs, for want of a better word - the blog is called "Chiliana #1"),addresses similar concerns to those arising in your own piece under review.