Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Do Atheists Exist?"

An excellent article by Nicholas Frankovich on the "religion" of atheism, the fundamental religious consciousness of man, and the Western philosophical tradition related to God's nature and existence.


[...] The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” founded in East London last January by standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, now boasts affiliates in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Canberra, Melbourne, New York, and Portland, Ore. On September 21, it announced a “global missionary tour”: This past fall, interested individuals in 22 cities across the Anglosphere held Sunday Assembly meet-ups. [...]

Half ironically, the founders allow that the Assembly is a church, dedicated to benevolent acts and the search for transcendence. Though they draw the line at “religion,” insisting that it and atheism are mutually exclusive, the openness with which they borrow ecclesial atmospherics and nomenclature suggests that they see their atheist outfit as not entirely secular either. You might call it a third way, an alternative to religion and secularity both, much as the Church of England was historically a “via media” between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Speaking the language of the many who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” the Assembly draws on an increasingly widespread understanding of religion as something like what “the letter” of the law was for Saint Paul — “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all. [...]

And so the Sunday Assembly, its rejection of the label “religion” notwithstanding, joins a distinguished parade of institutions demonstrating that religious practice persists as an anthropological fact even where belief in God is muted or absent.

We live in a post-secular age, having run up against the limitations of procedural liberalism, which, while regulating the market on which God and the Devil compete for souls, remains scrupulously disinterested in the outcome. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an atheist, created a stir twelve years ago when he began to argue that the secular state has an interest in the distinctive contributions that Judaism and Christianity make to the political order. The Italian philosopher Marcello Pera, also an atheist, goes further, proposing a Christian civil religion to replenish the Judeo-Christian matrix from which the West derives the moral values on which liberal democracy depends. [...]

The third part of the Assembly’s motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” reflects a value attractive to souls seeking relief from the cool, or chill, as they experience it, of the secular climate in which they live. “Our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age. “The sense that there is something more presses in.”

Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. [...]

[T]he atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.

A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.

They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.

“I Am That I Am” is the conventional translation of the enigmatic Hebrew expression by which God in the burning bush identifies himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). In the Greek of the Septuagint, “I am” is egō eimi. Jesus scandalizes his critics when, shifting to the present tense in a context in which you would expect the past tense, he answers them, “Before Abraham ever was, I am” — egō eimi (John 8:58). In first-century Jerusalem, that statement is either blasphemous or a theophany. [...]

The discernment of God as what Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century would term “ipsum esse subsistens” — the “Ground of Being,” in the parlance of Christian mysticism and theology — developed organically over the course of more than a millennium, with no clear moment of birth, although it was mature certainly by the High Middle Ages. Where the approach to God had been anthropological, it was now also philosophical — ontological, to be more precise. [...]

Many people who would never think to participate in the rancor of public antitheism are nonetheless susceptible to the zeitgeist in which atheism flourishes. It’s what they know. Doesn’t it speak well enough for them too? They start from the proposition that God is a person and rule it out as implausible. The argument that God can only be personal because he can’t be less than we are may be cogent in itself, but it needs a lot of unpacking. It has as its premise the God of the philosophers. To begin to make theism intelligible to a modern atheist, you have to bracket the God of the patriarchs and start from the premise.

Atheism is religion for people in a hurry. They’re quick to assume they understand someone who, engrossed in the question of why there isn’t nothing, says a few words to indicate what he sees the question pointing to. They mistake his verbal gesture for an answer that’s intended to close the question or do it justice. To see what he’s trying to get at, they would have to enter into the wonder that the question elicits in him and dwell there for a moment. The closest thing the question has to an answer is the wonder itself. [...]

For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them. [...]

To ask what [the atheist] means by “nothing” will provoke some eyeball-rolling at first, but the longer you think about it, the more you realize just how stubbornly inscrutable a concept “nothing” is, like “time,” which gave Saint Augustine so much trouble: “I know what time is until you ask me for a definition of it.” [...]

By “nothing,” it turns out, Krauss [an atheist physicist who sought to disprove the ontological argument in his book A Universe from Nothing] meant only the vacuum state, which in quantum theory is a field characterized by the occurrence of fleeting electromagnetic waves. In a withering review, David Albert, a theoretical physicist and philosophy professor at Columbia, dismissed A Universe from Nothing as a fraud and excoriated Krauss for failing to deliver the goods advertised in its title: “Vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!” [...]

Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.

“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.


Source: Nicholas Frankovich, "Do Atheists Exist?," National Review Online, December 28, 2013, accessed December 29, 2013,

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