Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Protecting The Innocent

Prompted by the response I got to my last rather provocative post I thought I would press on and think a little more about the atheist poster campaign. A quick look revealed few details about the thinking behind the campaign other than someone suggesting that it was a light hearted campaign avoiding the unforgivable sin of a preachy didactism. Therein is the rub: how does one promulgate atheism when some of its conclusions suggest that no one should tell anyone else what to believe? The implementation of militant atheism has a consistency problem.

Dividing the population roughly into the three categories of: 1. True believers, 2. True atheists and 3. The rest who have a spectrum of views, then with which of these constituencies does the atheist campaign cut the mustard? Without some feedback it’s a difficult question to answer, but let me hazard that campaigns by either atheists or believers to garner support do best with their neighborhood constituencies; that is, with those who are closest to them in sentiment and thought. From this ‘local’ constituency ‘converts’ to the cause are reeled in and the broad mass of stay at home agnostics are at least encouraged to make sympathetic noises.

Publicity campaigns put out by embattled subcultures maybe less a rallying call to a target constituency than to the subculture itself. By giving that subculture a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of control, a sense of having the situation in hand, and a sense of destiny fulfillment, a vigorous foray into the world beyond can be a morale booster for a marginalized community and a way of avoiding brooding thoughts. The campaign may also serve as a gesture to disconcert diametrically opposed subcultures with a message of strength, confidence and vitality. Although I am not sure how the atheist campaign went down in its natural constituency, it is in this latter sense, if no other, that the atheist poster campaign has failed. This poster campaign is perceived by many Christians as extremely weak, weak to the point of being a laughing stock. Much of that is down to very deep differences between the world view logic of atheism and Christianity.

As I suggested in my last post strong conviction, vehemence, and above all community vibrancy and purpose are very high up on many Christian’s perception of what constitutes evidence of veracity: that is, for many Christians the existence of a faith community that knows what it believes further encourages faith and thus faith is self reinforcing. (I am critical of using faith to justify faith but that is by the by). What is important to note here is that it reveals why the atheist campaign, with its use of the word ‘probably’, looks so weak to many Christians. In the eyes of many Christians no group with a vibrant community ethos could advertise itself so weakly. If the idea of the campaign is to convey that one shouldn’t be preachy why even bother to preach that? How can such an incoherent message be put out by a vibrant purpose driven community? Ergo, the message Christians are getting is that the community dimension of atheism is bankrupt.

The other thing perceived by vehement Christians is that atheism has nothing to celebrate, no object of celebratory focus. OK so there is no God. Fine. But we need something else to celebrate and to be the focus of our community. What will that something be? Atheist attempts to find a focus for celebration have sometimes gone horribly awry. They have created quasi-religious objects that have been used to oppress such as the Maoist and Stalinist personality cults or fantasies about a social utopia to be ushered in by the triumph of a highly idealised notion of the working class. It is perhaps no surprise that Theravada Buddhism has become popular amongst westerners who reject the notion of God but still hanker to reconnect with something spiritual. But unless one is to become a Buddhist monk this is far too individualistic for the community ethos.

The evangelical Christian cannot think about his/her joys and worries apart from his/her object of celebration and the community in which that celebration takes place. (S)He may not be able to articulate it but instinctively the simplist Christian will see the pathological logic in a slogan that first suggests the object of his/her community celebration doesn't exist, and then tells him/her to stop worrying and enjoy life! What will seem even more perverse is that the whole slogan is conditioned by a mere probably. Not only does that appear inconsistent with the rancor and militancy of some forms of atheism, but to the Christain who finds it difficult to think in terms other than a 100% conviction the message is farcical :"So these atheists are telling us to give up a celebrating community that brings joy and addresses worries merely because they think God probably doesn't exist? Why don't they come and join us? We know there is God, We know He brings joy. We know He shoulders our burden of worry". Isaiah 53:4: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows". The PR people at atheism central have really got their work cut out if they want to compete with this. They're going need all the "probably" they can get.

Finding a rationale for community celebration and its concomitants of purpose and vibrancy is, it seems, the biggest problem for atheism. It’s no good just telling everyone there is probably no God, because when everybody believes there is probably no God what next? This is atheism's major ‘theological question’ a question that parallels the theist’s problem of pain in that both tend to generate subtle and convoluted answers. Nietzsche’s death of God theology lead him to posit his concept of infinite recurrence which enabled him, in spite of the death of God, to escape nihilism by the skin of his teeth and say ‘yes’ to life and could once again celebrate it. But for the man in the street this is unlikely to cut much ice and so atheism continues to teeter on the brink of nihilism’s abyss. A candidly frank atheism has to admit that in the final analysis there is tragedy at the heart of the human condition. Courageously acknowledging this tragedy and having the strength and imagination to face up to it and make the best of it is about as spiritual and hopeful as it gets in atheism. Either that or one adopts a self mocking jocularity that tries not to take the whole thing seriously – such as we see in the atheist poster campaign. As Morpheus said to Neo in the Matrix, atheism only claims to offer the truth. But is it even doing that? Atheism’s difficulties and obscurities over purpose, meaning, epistemology, ontology and above all community ethos provide little grip on the anti-foundationalist slippery slope down into individualism and postmodernism. Little wonder that the poster campaign was so muted.

Atheists like my fellow blogger Larry Moran often liken theism to a belief in Father Christmas. Although I have never admitted it to the good Professor there is in fact a compelling point here. Father Christmas, commercialism apart, is for children a very life affirming character. For many children he contributes to the warm glow and magic of Christmas and therefore provides a focus of celebration and a reason to say ‘yes’ to life. With this parallel in mind it could be plausibly maintained that belief in a kind of a Divine Cosmic Patriarch is one way the human mind copes with and bypasses the social and conceptual difficulties introduced by atheism, difficulties to do with how the mind gets its purchase on reality and conundrums about community purpose. Religion, the opium of the masses, is a way of protecting the innocent from thoughts of a cold dispassionate world out there, knowledge of which threatens to blow the mind. But this theory actually cuts both ways and is also a danger to atheism: it really does suggest that should the God shaped hole be filled, if only with a myth, it can contribute beneficially to a community’s peace of mind. Even when there is no peace between communities driven by different mythological stop gaps, a sense of purpose, hope, social cohesion and destiny is present in opposing communities; that’s why religious wars can be so polarized, fanatical and vicious.

As for myself I was never brought up believing in Santa: my parents always made it clear to me there was no such figure and that it was only a fun game. My mother is a believer and my father would liked to have been a believer but he could never raise the faith. Hence on count one I never faced the disappointment of discovering Santa to be a comfortable lie that readily served as an analogous model that could be ported to religion. On count two I never had to face the social pressures of a community with a self supporting belief. So for me the choice of atheism or theism was always a choice, always a matter of investigation, exploration, seeking, pilgrimage and a quest to find the primary explanatory object that sources the cosmos.

I have come across Christians who were once true atheists and who have become as convinced of their Christianity as they once were of their atheism. These are the sort of people who don’t do things by halves and champion their latest cause with almost sanguinary zeal. It is surely significant that the ex-atheists I have met interpret positive affirmation and strong conviction as a sign of integrity and may criticize anything less as lacking in authenticity. Conversely I suspect you will find true believers who have swapped to true atheism who are as all-out for their atheism as they were for their Christianity (Jonathan Edwards?). Some Christian zealots admire the sheer conviction of the true atheists, perhaps sensing a deep kinship. As one true believer said in a comment probably directed at myself: “Our atheist friends … show more conviction than most believers, what has happened?”

It is one of my many pet theories that at the opposite ends of the belief spectrum many atheists and believers have telling commonalities in their mindsets: the ontology of some versions of atheism looks suspiciously like an inverted version of Gnosticism; the Gnostic believes salvation comes when sublime particles of spirit are freed from the corruptions of profane matter. For the atheist it’s the other way round: secular salvation comes when reactionary and residual superstitions about the supernatural haunting the interstices of matter are exorcised with profane reason. Both parties see the cosmos through an implicit dualism that divides the cosmos into configurations of insentient gritty matter pervaded by a mystical ‘supernatural’ spiritual world. Whilst the atheist by definition declares the epistemological intractability of the latter to be tantamount to nonexistence, he may yet retain the dualist’s notion of a gritty insentient matter.

Dualism’s sharp distinction between the two categories of materialism and spiritualism cries out for the latter’s immaterial existence to be challenged. But although the single category of a one-substance ontology is elegant it too provides no guarantee against epistemological intractability. Conventional science currently creates its explanatory structures from two classes of object: 1. Mathematical laws of relative algorithmic simplicity (This covers chaos as well as the non-chaotic) or 2. Configurations of high disorder that admit statistical description. Both of these objects are mathematically tractable from a human point of view*. However, in the infinite region between the high order of elementary algorithms and the monotonous complexity of maximum disorder there are undoubtedly mathematical objects of unspeakable complexity and size that are well beyond the capability of the human mind to handle. It’s no surprise then that we are not using them as explanatory structures. If such exotic objects should be the deeper explanation for the cosmos their mathematical intractability would also imply an epistemological intractability. However, some people might advise us that as there are probably no such objects, we should stop worrying about it and have a happy Christmas. Disbelief, as well as belief, is also a way of protecting the innocent.

* Footnote.
At one level high disorder actually betrays the existence of epistemic intractability: hence the use of probability.

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