God of the Christian period

It is very likely that before Ancient Greece, some small unheard of tribe (one forgotten by history) decided to club together and stop the quibbles of other tribesmen over the decision-making, formed an orderly crowd, and gathered a small cohort of trusted men, gaged which of the men the rest of the tribesman trusted the most, and it was he from then who decided which of the tribesmen would hunt on one day, then gather the next – quibble-free (or at least if there were enough quibbles then the tribe could be brought together again and decide that the one who they trusted before no longer has their trust, and a re-election should take place.) It is likely that this, in some primitive form had occured, but yet democracy is attributed (rightly) to the Greeks.

The same occurs with monotheism; we today acknowledge the judeo-christian legacy of monotheism, though it has been speculated upon by some that Orpheus’ beliefs, set out in his verse (others even wonder whether it was he who invented the art of writing, by setting out his religious interventions on slate), point to Dionysious not being one of many deities, but rather a multidimensional monotheistic God, who had different functions, each named and personified, while Zeus is reduced to a kind of mere rulemaker (see for example W.K. Guthrie’s great book Orpheus and Greek Religion or my review of that book here, and also for a comprehensive book on the history of God, see Karen Armstrong’s aptly titled The History of God).

In the same light, therefore, we must attribute certain aspects of society as it is lived today, to eras and epochs that might not be said to have rightly created a way of life, but has it as a kind of historical referent. Forms of democracy may have gone unknown, and we can infer that this is the case, but where we cannot infer, or where the synonym is so strong that we cannot think of any other era to which we attribute modes of societal governance, law or ideas, then we must accept that the legacies of modes of societal governance, law or ideas be attributed (perhaps erroneously) to places in time decided by the historians.

Humanists will say that the moralism that came to its fore in the Christian era, with notable referents like the Golden Rule, have always been around and have to do with our natural indiscriminate attitudes towards others, and have emerged quite naturally, however through a basic read of the Christian era, we can see some of these moral codes have quite concretely been outlined in their fullest here. Further, the conditions with which these moral codes came about rely a great deal on the time they were written, which of course explains why some of them are wrong – and this is a further commentary on how we view these ideas today, they’re not divine endowment, they are products of a particular time, something which gay Christians, female vicars and liberals may insist on, saying that prejudice may be a product of a less enlightened time on these issues, and actually go against the true principles of Christian love (agape).

Never has a more robust explanation of our limits in knowledge been spelt out than in the Christian concept of a God, that mysterious realm. A God who pronounces love, but lets his Son die on the Cross – not even the Christians themselves could work out what God was, vengeful or caring, imminent or transcendent, one who can interfere or one who, as G.K. Chesterton famously said regarding the problem of evil, “seemed for an instant to be an atheist”. God, the term, works in the way Frege noted that concepts did not. For Frege a concept could not exist without there being attributed to it a material referent of which to properly conceive, but God resists this logic, for what God stands for is the immaterial thing that somehow glues a community together. In a strange twist, for God’s work to take place, a material referent need not exist at all, or more radically, God doesn’t have to exist at all for his work to be done – we as a community ensure God’s work takes place. The Christian concept of community can no better be explained than by Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. In the name of Christ, the son of God and his physical embodiment, a community gathered, and our proximity to one another, is bound by the immaterial thing that we call God. It is this that we owe to the Christian era, and it is this which is meant by God, and where it isn’t, it is wrong. There is no bearded man in the sky, there is the thing that exists, and affects us, and makes us act, that fundamentally doesn’t exist at all, and it is this which is the true Christianity, an atheistic Christianty.

For those who dispute the word God in this instance should remember the lesson first expounded at the start of this article, that though we might infer that this moral prescription has existed elsewhere, nowhere has it been so concretely expounded than around the Christian period, for which we, atheist or theist, should unequivocally acknowledge.

A person may act for the better or to the detriment of a community, but this does not preclude an emotional proximity to the community or other people. It is readily accepted that criminals who seem to show no mercy would’ve had to have gone through a severe amount of emotional abstraction or mental trauma, and this is because emotional response is a standard outcome from the proximity between people. An atheism which tips its hat to Christianity at this point notes that a no better understanding, and acknolwegdment of our limit in knowledge, of what is at play here, is realised at it’s most accurate with Matthew 18:20.

A model for Christian atheism

Sigmund Freud, that ever-controversial figure, is more known for his views on the unconscious and the Oedipus complex than for his theological work, but indeed, as time spent in his house, now museum, in North West London will reveal, a lot of his efforts and interests were devoted to religious symbols, figurines, artworks and texts. From as early as childhood Freud viewed religion as merely a fantasy based entirely upon a childish wish fulfilment, this view most explicitly stated in his work of 1927 entitled The Future of an Illusion where he made clear that though many childhood wishes were unlikely, they were not impossible.

Freud held this particularly negative view of religion up until 1935 when an evident sea-change became apparent in his manner. In private correspondence Freud started to acknowledge the intellectual qualities of God on thought and enquiry, after all the speculation of an absent property had immense benefits for abstract contemplation. Freud’s understanding of the concept of God changed from illusion to promoting sapience. Rather than bogging one down with idle introspection, the concept permitted investigation.

What Freud’s more mature work suggested was that there are substantial benefits to accepting the limits of our knowledge, and having something akin to faith in a truth not necessarily interpreted by the senses. For Freud, Moses represented such an intellectual leap (PDF file), that he refused to accept a life of sun idolatry for something more intellectually cultivating, meant that religion was more than simple childishness, and that even as an atheist – as Freud persistently was throughout his life – Freud realised that there was something important to be maintained from the Judeo-Christian legacy.

Funny, then, that the new atheists – who include well-known figures such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens – all include in their anti-religious polemics appeals to the, slapdash, early Freud view that religion is illusory, a view that, as Ana-Maria Rizzuto reminds us in her excellent book Why Did Freud Reject God: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, was born out of a rebellious reaction to his Father’s beliefs. Less is said by these bestselling authors about what is valuable about the Judeo-Christian legacy, and there is one simple reason for that, they are in denial of it. At best the so-called humanistic values to which they espouse are offshoots of elements otherwise unparalleled in Christian ethics (to be sure, if there is no God, the guidelines attributed to religion are in some ways expressions of a humanist imperative, but more than that the Golden Rule, as only one example, is a most impressive humanist guide) and at worst they represent the most foul turns of immorality imaginable, from the anti-Christian Adolf Eichmann’s part played in the Final Solution, to Sam Harris’ more recent enthusiasm for torture and the morality of collateral damage. This is not to conflate atheism with immorality, by no means, but by pretending to hold the moral high ground on the basis of non-religion alone, is a grave flaw unlike any other, an illusion.

John Gray, in his take on the phenomena of the new atheists, rightly identified that ‘zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam’. The character trait he most deplores in Dawkins et al is their insistence of a new socio-cultural shift that will emerge on the advent of decreased religious influence/tolerance. For Gray, any agenda for dramatic change on a massive scale is doomed to failure before it starts, he imagines that societal thirst and energy for grand narratives has all but dried up, and any remaining hopefuls of radical transformation are setting themselves up to fail. He holds new atheism in this esteem, subtly mocking scientific ‘consciousness raising’ – the analogy of the day – as overoptimistic bunkum.

Though for me it is not because of this hope of societal shift that I find the new atheist project to be largely detrimental, but rather because of the denial of such a transaction’s Christian heritage. Instead of avowedly viewing their conscious-raised utopia as being not too dissimilar from the Christian efforts for transformation by salvation of the existing social order, it instead chooses to caricature religion as indefinitely and unalterably evil, while upholding the folly that atheism is fully grounded on reason, humanism and a pursuit of good, morally superior as a consequence. Such is the nature of the new atheism delusion.

Death, Alexander McQueen, Judas and Martin Luther King

Was Judas a friend or foe of Jesus Chris?

Such is an ongoing theological debate: that those who attended – in Christ’s presence – the gospel passover, must do what Christ says, is it not therefore telling that Christ tells Judas that he is the one who must betray him. What is revealing in Judas’ subservient answer “Master, is it I? He said unto him, Thou hast said” (Matthew 26:25)?

What exactly are the co-ordinates of doing betrayal to someone who has asked, and that you follow their every command? A peculiar anomaly.

Slavoj Zizek has used this as an example of the vanishing mediator in his book The Puppet and the Dwarf precisely because Judas – rather than being any sort of anti-Christ, worse than the other disciples – is the invisible debtor to Christianity’s history, success. For Christianity to follow on as usual, Christ needed to have a follower do betrayal of him.

Zizek explains that Freud did this with Judaism, but also a weird Freudian slip informed us of the vanishing mediator at work in the case of Martin Luther King. At an event set to commemorate King, the people of Lauderville, Florida, invited actor James Earl Jones to do a speech in 2002, even going as far as presenting Jones with a plaque as a way of thanks. Unfortunately however they presented him with a plaque which stated the name James Earl Ray – the man who shot and killed Martin Luther King – and thanked him for keeping the dream alive.

Zizek in his inimitable way calls this a Freudian slip, but surely it is just a fuck-up. Not so, a Freudian slip implies there is an element of truth, kept under wraps so to speak, about a statement. Zizek goes on to explain that Martin Luther King, weeks before he was shot, engaged in workers rallies and championed the proletarian cause with both white and black workers. If this had been any more established King would’ve been written in history as a activist of workers rights, and not part of the civil rights movement – a position that is fully congruent with American ideology – proven today by the presidency of Barack Obama.

So in this sense, James Earl Ray having killed King at the right time has meant that the dream has been kept alive – and not obscured in the ether of workers’ movements in America.

Love, in the case of Judas, is betrayal. With James Earl Ray, he is the man with whom to thank for Martin Luther King’s dream being woven in to the fabric of the American soul.

Unfortunately, with our proximity to the situation – with our fixedness in time – we are unable to prescribe what a vanishing mediator will be to a certain situation. As with all notions of cause and effect, who can tell what the effect will be when we are situationally only a part of the cause, and who can tell what the cause is of ourselves – ourselves being, itself, a cause. Maybe this is why Alexander McQueen has died? Perhaps the death of his Mother provided the grounds with whichn to pursue another new fashion epoch? Or better still, can this model show that fashion has “glimpse[d its ...] own mortality” – to misquote the wisdom of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Linlithgow and Falkirk East in the 2005 General Election.

Maybe not.

The shortfall of New Atheism, or Conversation with Tina Beattie

April of last year, one month before I started this blog, I had published some work I did on atheism and Christianity. I had been doing a lot of research on violence in those two particular strands, and qualifying the political and religious aspects of both, seeing me draw much inspiration from writers such as Alister McGrath, John Milbank, Tina Beattie and other writers from a religious nexus, who in turn pointed out the shortfalls of the so-called new atheist project, writers such as PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

As an atheist, it always seemed problematic to me that other atheists had to operate in such an aggressive manner to the religious, but not because I hold rather meek, freedom of diversity opinions, but rather because those of faith were just as free to scorn behaviours, ideas that damage their community as anyone. Further, new atheism seemed only to attack a cherry-picked religious history, tarring scripture literalists as operating correctly, in order for them to show religion to be inherently bad (from my own reading of the gospels, I felt that to be a literalist would mean to hold many incongruous opinions anyhow).

I came to respect a contingent of atheist writers who either utilised Christian ideas or saw themselves the trite chapters of the new atheist movement, writers such as John Gray, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Julian Baggini.

In my research, I was lucky enough to hold a decent sized email conversation with Tina Beattie, who is the Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University and author of among other books The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. For future reference I shall print this conversation here.

5th April 2009

Hello,

My name is Carl Packman, I enjoyed reading your book The New Atheists very much, and despite being an atheist myself, found myself agreeing with most of your objections towards them, especially Christopher Hitchens, who I really cannot stick. I don’t know if you’ve read a recent article by Julian Baggini whose criticisms are much the same as your own, only he writes from an atheistic perspective.

My question is simply this, you cite a book called violence in your book, and if I remember rightly the book is about aspects of religious violence, a study in the history. But could you remind me, if possible, of the author’s name of this book, there are many books on violence and almost as many relating in some way to religious violence but I specifically wanted to read this one.

My work interest at the moment is on what aspects of the Christian legacy are worth politicising, following from considerable studies being done on whether government policies should implement religious obligations. The Golden Rule is an obviously good one, but I’m more interested in aspects of Christian attitudes to violence that might be worth embracing. Would you happen to have any spontaneous comments on this?

Kind regards,

Carl Packman

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Dear Carl,

Thank you for this. I just read and enjoyed your New Statesman piece, ‘An Evangelical Atheist’, and was amused to see that you attracted the kind of defensive comments which seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Dawkins, however considered and reasoned. In fact, having attracted the ire of both the Catholic Right and the Dawkins fan club, I sometimes have trouble telling them apart as far as the quality of their arguments goes.

I’m not sure which book on violence you’re referring to in The New Atheists, but I wonder if it might be Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (1978). He was an influential Christian pacifist thinker. Stanley Hauerwas is also worth reading on this topic – although his style can be rather bombastic. He has published numerous books, but Against the Nations might be the best to look at. Other books I refer to are:

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (2001), and
John Gray, Black Mass

I continue to reflect a great deal on what contribution Christianity might make to secular politics with regard to violence, its causes and prevention. Rene Girard is interesting on religion, sacrificial violence and the social order. Slavov Zizek has some interesting reflections from a Lacanian perspective and may share some of your questions about the Christian legacy and its political significance, but he’s infuriatingly convoluted to read. I thought John Gray’s Black Mass was very interesting, and written from an agnostic if not an atheist perspective as far as I know.

At the risk of over-simplification, I think there are two possibilities which Christianity offers towards a better containment of violence, at least as far as war is concerned. First, the Christian just war tradition – although now thoroughly secularised – has shaped western attitudes towards the justification and conduct of war in profound ways, and still offers important rules and restraints for holding political and military leaders accountable for what they do and why. Second, there is a radical tradition of pacifism in Christianity, rooted in an ethos of self-sacrificing love, which would not translate into politics and policies but which could perhaps become increasingly significant as a form of resistance to war by radicalised Christian minorities and those who share their pacifist vision.

With regard to the Golden Rule, my current research involves grappling with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic problematisation of the call to love my neighbour as myself, because it risks unleashing violence rather than benevolence since love of self is rooted in the Freudian oedipal conflict. Lacan (an atheist) argues that post-Enlightenment liberalism has failed to take seriously enough the capacity of fear and desire rooted in the unconscious to destabilise progressive projects based on rationality and duty. I may want to ask if Christianity can help modern liberalism to lose some of its inherent optimism about the rationality and progressive potential of the human condition, without thereby plunging us into a Calvinist vision of total depravity. Here, Thomas Aquinas may be a neglected resource for secular thinkers, because his theology is rooted in the fundamental goodness of creation and of the human within it, and the necessity of self-love as the condition of love of other. This is all research I’m doing at the moment so it’s tentative and exploratory, but it is part of an attempt to open up more creative conversations between secular thinkers and theologians on questions of politics, society and the environment which challenge us all. (It’s for a book to be published by OUP called Nature, God and Gender after Postmodernity – more academic than The New Atheists, and will be rather heavy on footnotes)! Does any of this resonate with you, or does it seem too theologically biased to be of much use?

All best wishes, and many thanks for taking the time to contact me.
Tina

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Dear Tina,

Your reply was fantastically helpful, I’m so glad to hear that the current direction of your work includes a Christian perspective of political groundwork. I can’t wait to read it. I, too, am very interested in how Christianity can help modern progressive politics. And in fact I’m well versed in the work of Slavoj Zizek, who is of inestimable help with where I’m going. My paper on Zizek’s theology, here, is a sort of preamble to the direction I’m heading.

As I mention in this paper, but only really in passing, if there is to be anything like a Christian progressive politics – which given how religion is being utilised at the moment by the right is kind of necessary – it has to embrace some of the more radically charged positions of Christ’s words, initially I’m thinking of ‘think not that I am come to send peace on earth…’, something that on first reading looks terrifying and brash, and a line that is very often quoted by The New Atheists, notably Sam Harris. But, after reading GK Chesterton’s interpretation of this line in his Orthodoxy I realised that it’s a lot more careful than I originally thought. That it’s more about identifying the present enemy to a working, progressive society, for Jesus, a society that is more people-based than of the autocracy of the Roman Empire.

For me, I find it kind of ironic that those belligerent atheists – I’m picking mainly on Harris and Hitchens here – use the ‘sword’ as a way of criticising some of Christianity’s attitudes, when indeed they utilise a perverted version of it in their politics, regarding the Iraq war, which I know you picked up upon in your book. It’s their belief that war will bring peace, and this is the context with which I place Jesus’ words in, identifying the enemy in order to formalise political freedom. I certainly want to avoid appearing like a crazed warmonger, I was against the war in Iraq because I didn’t believe it was a war to secure peace, nor did I think, even by chance that this would be achieved. But I guess my lefty politics has to include some appeals to at least an understanding, an appropriation of violence, in the very sense that Jesus appropriated violent knowledge and peace.

But this is just one aspect of my interest in Christianity. Humanistic ethics for example – of the present Toynbeeian (?) kind – I see as being a kind of disavowal of their Christian root, and I intend to explore this further. This is where Zizek is a great help, his Christian atheism is a rallying cry against New Age postmodernism, relativist ethics, and hands-off liberalism.

With the Lacanian problem, as far as I know, the neighbour is seen as a way of rendering formal the other as a problem, or too close. I was able to hear a lecture given by Zizek called Why only an atheist can believe which explains Lacan’s position, but he didn’t go into it too much. I think it ties in with the disdain he pours on multiculturalism, that it structures politically the existence of ‘the other’. With what started out as a means of including ‘the other’ into the fabric of mainstream society – whether a foreign person or a homosexual say – and loving them as thyself, it has worked in the opposite way, making explicit the true arrangement of cultural hegemony and so on. A kind of reversal of the Romans’ reply to Paul, do good that evil may result. He then told a joke about ex-Yugoslavia and moved right off the subject, which he is notorious for.

As for that article, I was really amazed at the reaction that it received from some; a lot of people appeared to take that rather personally, as a personal vendetta against their philosophy, when in fact the article was actually a criticism of Dawkins’ logistics. Though I think it renders the whole thing absurd, I don’t doubt that the rumours are true that Dawkins’ plight has encouraged certain people to become creationists. But, as you know, he is directing his anger in the wrong direction. Politically and philosophically unpalatable groups appear on either side of feelings towards religion. This really comes out in Dawkins’ work, especially where he tries to re-write the history of certain historical characters. Dawkins stands up and says Hitler, Stalin, Eichmann might have been atheists but of course their politics was a kind of religion replacement, they being the deities. But Einstein, Hawkings and Darwin’s God was merely an appeal to a kind of pantheism. These are obviously motivated inconsistencies. His being selective, and trying to show that atheism will right all wrongs, is not only unprofessional, but deeply sad. It’s an exercise that, even as an atheist myself, I’ve pulled myself out of. So I don’t think it’s in any way contradictory for me to be an atheist and be a critic of Dawkins, which some commentators of my article seemed to think it was. Given the same logic, you, Tina, as a believer should really embrace George Bush, and how mad is that!!

I will look over those books; luckily my local library has some copies available of the Ellul title. Essex libraries continue to astound me.

Thank you very much for your reply,

All the best, Carl.

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Dear Carl,
This is a timely conversation indeed. After a frenetic term in which I’ve neglected my research, today is the first day of the Easter break when I have an opportunity to feel my way back into what was motivating me in my study of these theorists. The problem is, when I drift away I begin to doubt my admiration for the clothing worn by emperors Zizek and Lacan – am I simply being drawn in by the dedicated followers of academic fashion, so that I fail to notice there’s nothing there? (A question which could of course have a theological twist)! Anyway, to read your essay on Zizek was engaging and stimulating, and reminded me why I think these are questions worth pursuing.

On the question of violence, I am much persuaded by Girard’s theory that the only way to interrupt the violence of the social order is to refuse to retaliate so that one exposes and defies its deadly mimetic power – but that refusal is only fully realized at the moment of death, so it’s when Christ dies that his example of non-violent forgiveness becomes possible as a different way of forming mimetic relationships. But by its symbolic potency, the act of non-violent resistance will be perceived as an act of violence against society. This is the violence of God to which you refer, put differently – the event which cuts through history and radically interrupts everything that has gone before. (I’d put the virgin birth in the same category, in order to show that the event can be a quiet and gradually realized beginning as well as a sudden and violent ending – both are acts of non-resistance, with a Kierkegaardian inscrutability of faith at their heart. In this context, I’d want to add that not every conversion is dramatic, and in my experience coming to faith is much more like your description of struggling towards atheism than Francis Collins’ epiphany in the form of a frozen waterfall.)
Although I’m just about willing to defend just war theory as a better option than ‘shock and awe’, there’s another, less pragmatic side of me that thinks it’s not a Christian option. (Do you know the work of Dorothy Day, an American communist turned Catholic who remained pacifist and anarchist until she died? She exemplifies an alternative Christianity for me, although very much along the lines of the Chesterton quote in your footnotes). Just war theory will always justify the violence of the political status quo. Interestingly, since the 1960s it has barely featured in papal writings – the Catholic Church has become pragmatically pacifist, but what a revolution there might be if it excommunicated all those involved in the war industry and the military! That would be perceived as an act of violence indeed – even Dawkins might be left speechless. (I’m not advocating that – I don’t think communion should be used to police the church, but unfortunately it is. The doors should be flung wide open to all comers, letting them be their own judges. How subversive would that be? I suspect fewer of us would go to communion than do now, and that in itself would invite analysis re law and transgression.)
I found your explanation of the difference between subjective and objective violence very helpful – and of course, it’s interesting to reflect on ways in which the implicit, objective violence of global freemarket economics has now been partially unmasked, although not in a way that threatens its foundations. Had I not been teaching last week I might well have joined the London protests, but from a distance they epitomised all that’s dishonest about our ostensible freedoms and the ways in which individualism corrodes the possibility for effective, coordinated political action. In this case, the transgression most definitely served to uphold the law, and there can be few more potent comments on the reality of our politics and freedoms than that image of the police herding protestors in and not letting them out again.
Your anecdotal examples re understanding Zizek are also helpful. I have to keep reminding myself to hold Lacan as well as Zizek up to the scrutiny of everyday experience – where often they do make more sense than in the rather abstract esotericism of their academic interpreters. The example of the Iranian car for women resonated with another interesting example I read of recently: a fatwa was issued by an Iranian cleric permitting raped Bosnian women to have abortions, and also more recently permitting women who cannot economically afford more children to have early abortions. On the one hand, one might ask what right a male clerical regime has to make such laws anyway, but one might also argue that the absence of any need for dissimulation translates into a transparent process which may serve women better in such instances than the masquerade of apparent sexual equalities against the masked background of profound inequality in the western democracies.
By the way, the World Parliament of Religions is a fiction, since there is absolutely nothing democratic or parliamentarian about it, given that it is comprised of self-selecting representatives who make cosy agreements on behalf of the world’s religious believers, while the latter continue to damn one another to hell much of the time and sometimes for good economic and political reasons which have little to do with dogma and doctrine. Beware the depoliticized hugs of inter-religious dialogue when the real issues about violence, economics and women are banished lest they expose the discord! The Golden Rule in such situations begs a Lacanian critique.
Do you know the work of Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo? I’ve been reading a dialogue between them, After the Death of God, which might interest you. I also wonder if you’re familiar with the Radical Orthodoxy movement, spearheaded by John Milbank and including thinkers such as Conor Cunningham and Marcus Pound? I find most of them too triumphalist in their Christianity and violent in their rhetoric, but they seem to have attracted interest from some Marxist thinkers.
Lastly, although I think the secular is a necessary space for creative conversations and shared political endeavours between philosophers and theologians, atheists and theists, I don’t believe in progressive politics although I do believe in the politics of transformation. Progress is one of the post-Enlightenment myths which needs to be set aside, so that we can recognize in every era what is/was good, life-giving and contributes to human flourishing, and what was/is manipulative, life-denying and sustained by human misery. As a modern western educated woman I have good reason to thank God for the times I live in, but not if I am mindful of the reality of these times for women in other contexts and situations who have little to be thankful for about modernity and its discontents. It seems to me that Marxists and Christians find much common ground in the call to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free, but where I’d part company from a traditional and perhaps no longer viable interpretation of Marx (and Hegel) is that I don’t believe that generations build on the freedoms and advances of those who came before. Every generation will create its own forms of oppression and tyranny and have its own unique opportunities for liberaiton and justice, and therefore Christians/Marxists must always be asking who in my time is at the bottom of the human heap, knowing that, once they get to the top, they will do their best to keep somebody else at the bottom. (We went to live in Zimbabwe six months after Mugabe came to power, and we were euphoric with his apparent wisdom of leadership and policies of reconciliation)!
Anyway, now I must get on with some more mundane admin tasks.
All best wishes, and thank you again for the conversation.

Tina.

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Tom Harris, the sacked Christian teacher, violence and bullying

There is a most apt illustration of what violence means to Slavoj Zizek in recent news, regarding the supply teacher who was sacked after telling as child that she’d pray for them to resume health. First, a reminder of Zizek’s thesis on violence:

Early in 2008, philosopher Slavoj Žižek published a book entitled Violence: Six Sideways Reflections in which he aims to describe the differences between the violence we might see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

Bearing in mind the campaign used by Dawkins et al to assert that to call a child religious is akin to labelling a child Marxist or existentialist, thus linked to abuse, Bullying UK CEO John Carnell said of the matter:

Bullying is completely the wrong word to use here, it certainly isn’t that. We get thousands of emails a year from children who are being viciously attacked at school, cyber bullied and who are also being harassed in the community. That’s bullying.

It’s clear. The benchmark Carnell is using here to perceive violence has been obfuscated by the perceptibly obvious violence, he has forgotten the level of violence at a symbolic level – the violence of words. In this instance however, the supply teacher was trying to do good, but his appeal to prayer was not sensitive the child – namely that the power of prayer is illusory.

Tom Harris MP yesterday scorned left wing bloggers for not sticking up for the poor man: “Why must we allow the right wing to claim that white, middle class Christians are the only minority group in the country that the Left don’t give a damn about?” (it was a wrong accusation he later found out) True in one sense, that people should not be vilified for what they believe, and though there should never be any pretence that prayer can safeguard health, the teacher’s intentions were not vicious (and during the investigation of course intention should be considered). But this mattered less to me, than a comment Tom Harris had made in reply in the comments thread to someone who had said:

“Would it be bullying for an atheist nurse to explain to a Christian child that there is no God, and there are no miracles?”

It would certainly be very crass and insensitive. Perhaps you would think it okay to tell a young child that there’s no Santa Claus?

Theoretically, for matters of certainty, nobody should say for certain what is and is not up there and sensitivity should be bestowed upon children who are currently information processing for themselves as best they can, but what seems to be the case with Harris is that illusion is ok. If he’d had left it with where he stood on the prayer issue, we could simply say he was a Christian promoting values he feels are Christian, but why does he then say it is insensitive to say there is no Santa. Unless he believes in Santa himself (which I’m sure he doesn’t) then this can only be because he thinks illusion is necessary – and it is not controversial, is this not why the myth of Santa persists, so as to promote sapience to children through illusion. Though, further, he illustrates Santa during a debate on the God question, therefore it is hard not to interpret this as Harris saying illusion of whatever stripe (Christian, Christmas etc) serves a positive purpose. What worries me initially is where this ends? At what point do we stop appealing to illusion with kids, when can it harm them? Perhaps Harris can inform us of the wider philosophical elements of his claim, and his likening of Christmas illusion to Christian illusion. I’ll wait for that, but in the meantime here’s a picture of a snowman:

Why I am not an agnostic

Redirected from an article I had written last year:

“If God did exist”, asks the advert for the Alpha course that I see on a regular basis in London tube stations and across buses “what would you ask?” After spending a couple of minutes deciding what I’d ask God (namely, why am I an atheist?) I wonder why Alpha has chosen to present the question with the indecisive subordinating conjunction if. The atheist bus advert, too, adds its own measure of uncertainty: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (I’ve added my own italics for emphasis).

Despite my knowledge of Alpha’s obvious Christian motives and the evident conviction of the likes of Richard Dawkins, who supported and partly funded the atheist bus campaign, both questions, for me, really hit the mark. That is to say uncertainty on the question of God is the only logical conclusion to make.

But why then am I an atheist and not an agnostic? Surely, it could be asked, agnosticism would be the obvious philosophical view to subscribe to? Not the case.

My reasons for being an atheist, unlike many others, do not promptly derive from appeals to science for there seems to be an inherent dead end to any scientific endeavour on matters of God. This has particular appositeness at the moment when debates on how atheists and the religious should treat Darwin reignite, 150 years after the publication of his book On the Origin of Species.

The cosmological argument for example, like the problem of evil, has compelling adherents from both sides. The principle that everything is caused has some people asking who or what caused the first cause, on one side it is God who caused the first cause whereas on the other side the existence of God puts into jeopardy the original principle evoking the question “who caused God?” God, some might say, is not bound to the same physical laws that inhabit the world of phenomena for he is a transcendental being. And of course, though the other side cannot argue this case to be false, they might not accept it to be true.

Similar are the arguments from beauty which could potentially have some asking how such a beautiful universe couldn’t have a designer and, also, some agreeing with the original premise while disagreeing with the sentiment wondering why we have such an obsession with positing an intelligence. The anthropic principle has support from people with arguments that the universe is so fine-tuned to meet the needs of human existence that there must be a God, and arguments that demand to show how lucky we are that humans were able to exist without such an omnipresence.

I view the natural sciences in much the same way; the theory of evolution for example should not be limited to atheists solely, as Richard Dawkins would have it. Dawkins’ atheism is in fact entirely drawn from his belief in science, something that encompassed one of his many debates with fellow atheist and palaeontologist the late Stephen Jay Gould. For Gould the natural sciences might present challenges to certain theistic beliefs, but they cannot rule out the existence of God. The discipline of science covers empirical facts like what the universe is made of and how it works but cannot deal with some of the magisterium (a word that Gould designates for “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” in his book Rock of Ages) that religion deals with. A common error is that scientific pursuit lends itself easily to a worldview, a mistake that Dawkins and the Creationists both have in common.

So my atheism is more Gould than Dawkins in the sense that the natural and physical sciences do not logically assert any one worldview or even answer the question of whether or not God exists. I also feel that religion is a decent contender in the multitude of ethical systems that exist in society, and have nothing against the approach Archbishop Rowan Williams took with his students that he talks about in a recent book by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson entitled Conversations on Religion, regarding the principle of biblical selection, saying “St. Paul didn’t think he was writing the New Testament. He was just writing letters, you know “Dear so and so…”.” The lesson being that Paul was not faultless and didn’t set out specifically to write the most influential text the world has ever seen and will ever see again. He, for this reason, might have been short of the mark in certain specific areas or a product of his time in his personal attitudes, but there are obvious moral precepts there that should be embraced, and even the most hardheaded atheist should remember the religious root in those morals.

All of us, whether religious or not, have perfectly reasonable beliefs that we cannot prove to be true (indeed atheism is the belief in a non-belief in God) in the sense that if someone was to say that the computer with which you are typing on does not exist, though it is not entirely possible to prove that their claim is false, we probably shouldn’t believe it to be true and follow it with the question of how they ever came to reach that conclusion in the first place. The same, I think, goes for belief in God, though I cannot prove true or false the premise, I question the logical and empirical grounds the claim is based upon, and that is why I am an atheist and not an agnostic.

Cornel West: The Modern day Griot (Part 1)

2009 marked the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and January the 18th marked the date in which he was executed 14 years ago. Taha was a Sudanese liberal reform figure and believer in a version of progressive Islam. His vision of Islam – one in which maintained the equality of women and was dedicated to socialist republicanism – along with his protests regarding the imposition of sharia law stirred Sudan’s dictator Jaafer al-Nimeiri in the 1970’s and 80’s to the point that he, after efforts to curb his influence and ban his lectures, called for Taha’s blood.

Indeed this was to be the case, when on the 8th of January 1985 Taha, and four other comrades were put on trial for apostasy under section 96 of the Sudanese penal code. The decision was confirmed on January the 17th to execute Taha for his crimes, whereas Taha’s comrades were given the chance to appeal (provided they retracted their “apostasy”, which they promptly did). Taha was eventually put to death on January the 18th by hanging, before his body was taken to a desert location by Helicopter to be buried, reportedly in the west of Omdurman, Sudan’s largest city.

Taha’s message, expressed in his book “The Second Message of Islam”, was that the Koran had been revealed in two locations, firstly in Mecca where Muhammad and his followers were minorities, and in Medina where the city was brimming with Jews and Pagans. During his verses in Mecca, Muhammad promulgated a “peaceful persuasion,” whereas in Medina the verses are filled with rules and intimidations. The Medinan verses, the first message(s) of Islam, were directed to a whole community of early believers and not Muhammad alone, according to Taha. These messages were a sort of ‘historical postponement’ as George Packer puts it in his New Yorker article on Taha. It was the Meccan verses, the second message of Islam that would represent, for Taha in his revisionism, the perfect religion, an acceptance of equality and freedom that, in seventh-century Arabia, Muslims were ready for. This provided his grounds for a progressive Islam that the likes of Nimeiri refused to even speculate on.

In January, a two-day conference celebrating the 100th birth year of Taha at Baker University, in Kansas, USA, brought together a miscellany of important ideas that reflected the life and legacy of Taha. One of the speakers on the 18th was Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University. He, during his keynote address, called upon the audience to adopt the traits of ‘humility and love’ that encapsulated the mind of Taha. West considered some of today’s existing problems with the same character as Taha. On the question of Israeli-Palestine conflict West observed that “the spirit of Taha leads me to say: Why the relative silence on Gaza” in reference to what West considered to be the US’s refusal to speak out about the Israeli slaughter of the strip, from both Democrat and Republican camps.

The stylistic similarities in West and Taha’s work are quite clear; both have a radical streak to them, challenging the dominant forces in their society and the orthodoxy of their own religions. West’s Christianity is fused with a healthy dose of radical socialism, as was Taha’s Islam. But more than that, both actively sought to show that the existing powers have got their religions wrong. West’s America, as was with Taha’s Sudan, both use religious sentiment – or as West himself referred to it regarding America in his 2004 book Democracy Matters an “imperial Christianity, market spirituality … let’s-make-a-deal with God” mentality – to justify their wars on what they perceive to be an unholy society. In Republican America (or “the age of Ronald Reagon”, as West proclaimed that Obama’s presidency initiated the end to), the efforts to limit time on abortion, cap stem-cell research, and wage wars on foreign countries by ‘God’s own decree’ were all so-called expressions of Christian ideals. But for West, this is a peculiar use of Christianity, which, for him, should explore the problems that sexism, racism and hegemony can bring about in order to remove them. West’s first book Prophecy Deliverance in 1982 advocates the benefits of an African-American Christianity that draws its ethical dimensions from socialism and Marxism.

(Part 2 tomorrow)

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