An Atheist Illusion

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(Luke 18: 9-14).

The Pharisee in this parable of Jesus clearly claims the moral high ground. According to English dictionaries, “to claim the moral high ground” means “to say that you are morally better than someone else.”

There are several possible answers to the question why this Pharisee feels the need to expose his superior morality to a “God” while comparing himself to the morality of other people – of “sinners”, in particular of a tax collector. Maybe he is just an uncertain person who needs the comforting affirmation of an “imaginary friend” to feel good. Maybe he is a supreme narcissist who boosts his Ego (a collection of imaginary ideas of oneself) by convincing himself that he is favored by a “Supreme Being”. Maybe he is both – narcissistic feelings of superiority do tend to be a compensation for feelings of inferiority.

Pharisee and Tax Collector

There is yet another, more complex possibility, and it is provided by the German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Maybe the Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector in order to nurture the good yet imaginary ideas of himself because he is secretly jealous. Nietzsche claimed that the so-called weaker, dominated people in a society – the “slaves” as he calls them – have the tendency to compare themselves to the so-called stronger, dominant people – the “masters”. From this comparison the slaves develop the desire to achieve the same position and status as the masters, yet they fail. In order to cope with this failure, some of the slaves tell themselves that there is a God who is on their side, as opposed to the more common yet also more archaic religious idea that the opposite is true, namely that good health, strength, wealth, prosperity and a high social status are the signs of being favored by a “divine or sacred order of things” (see, for instance, the notion of “karma”). Convinced that an ultimate, “one true God” favors them over the masters and their “false gods”, the slaves start to resent what they initially desired until finally, they even develop a kind of paternalistic pity toward the masters. Hence the slaves praise themselves for not being like the masters who should be ashamed of their life, and they feel sorry for the masters. The victory of the slaves over the masters is complete, according to Nietzsche, when the masters start feeling ashamed and guilty about themselves. Thus the so-called “compassion” the slaves feel for “sinful” others has nothing to do with genuine care for these people, but everything with the love for an untruthful image of themselves. In other words, if achieving some kind of “prestige”, “image” or “status” is your ultimate goal in life, then you are not only unable to accept and love yourself, but you are also not able to truly love others.

Nietzsche was convinced that the resentment of the slaves forms the basis for the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was also convinced that this tradition is absolutely unique among the world-religions in that it provides these slaves with a powerful weapon to comfort and structure themselves and the rest of the world according to false hopes and fears. Therefore he despised the Judeo-Christian religion and he wanted to bring an end to the way it had – in his views – “poisoned” the mentality of the Western world.

Nietzsche especially resented – yes, he was no stranger to resentment himself, ironically – the figure of Jesus Christ. He believed that this so-called “prime representative of the God of the slaves” was the ultimate catalyst of the resentment of the slaves, turning it into perverse forms of pity, loathing, shame and guilt. However, when we read the above fragment of Luke, we get quite the opposite picture. It is clear that the Pharisee believes there is a God who favors him over the tax collector. A tax collector, mind you, usually is rather wealthy. The Pharisee, furthermore, praises himself for not being like the tax collector who should be ashamed of his life. Clearly the love of his self-image leads him to look down on other people. Because he does not really love himself (but an untruthful, narcissistic image of himself) the Pharisee is less capable of loving others. It is precisely the Pharisee’s narcissistic self-concept and his illusory ideas and expectations of a certain “God” that is criticized by Jesus, much in the same vein as Nietzsche criticizes those ideas! Well, who would have thought: Jesus as a kind of Nietzsche avant la lettre, who crushes the idols of narcissistic religious self-concepts.

The reason why Jesus wants people to be more realistic about themselves is because he wants to open the possibilities of love between people. And that’s different from Nietzsche’s ultimate concerns. Jesus wants to prevent people from offending, excluding or even sacrificing each other. Indeed, it is because of all too heroic, romantic or utopian ideas that we tend to create “hell”, not only for others, also for ourselves. In that sense Jesus is right to proclaim that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled” – it is the way of the world. The narcissist eventually destroys himself, utopias become dystopias. For instance, the student who takes pride in not working hard for school because he thinks it is “cool” reduces his chances of a really cool life. Of course this type of student is sometimes able to make hard working students feel ashamed of themselves, but in the long run “those who humble themselves” by not taking part in the competition of being the coolest “will be exalted”. Being honest about yourself, realizing that you are not that unique or special, prevents you from feeling ashamed of yourself, as it also prevents you from “pointing fingers” and loathing others. The hard working student who made himself believe by his surroundings that hard work is not cool, will often hide his real character by mocking, offending and excluding others who did come out of the closet as diligent students. In order to prevent this kind of exclusion, Jesus reminds us of who we really are: not at all that different from the people we look down on. That’s why he says, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Jesus wants to replace the love for our untruthful self-image and the adherence to our “reputation” with the love for ourselves and others. We can be like the hard working student who feels ashamed of himself, even guilty of studying hard, and indeed develop the tendency to publicly and hypocritically loath or exclude other hard working students. On the other hand, if we no longer feel ashamed of ourselves, we can start feeling ashamed of the hurt we brought to others because we were too preoccupied with our social profile. That is what happens to Peter: after denying Jesus when the latter is imprisoned, feeling ashamed of who he is because he fears being excluded or sacrificed himself, Peter eventually feels ashamed because of the hurt he brought to his friend.

That’s why a true conversion to Christianity is never easily “comforting”. It is, first of all, a conversion to “who we truly are”, and that truth is sometimes hard to swallow. So, no: belief in Christ is not equal to a comforting support of naïve, unrealistic, romantic or even utopian ideas of ourselves and the world. Nevertheless, at the same time, this conversion to ourselves in the realm of Christ’s love is also liberating since we are not destroyed for being “not perfect”. On the contrary, we are forgiven. To be able to acknowledge who we truly are in this realm of grace and mercy, enables us to refrain from “casting stones” to others who are more “like us” than we would previously acknowledge. It prevents us from approaching others for the sake of untruthful ideas of ourselves. For instance, the alcoholic who finds the realm of grace where he can acknowledge that he indeed is an alcoholic among other people with similar problems (be it at an AA-meeting or somewhere else), makes the first but very important step on a journey that might reconnect him with the people he hurt because of his addiction. The experience of this kind of grace, forgiveness and remorse, which enables people to love themselves and others anew, is totally contrary to the perversion of forgiveness: the “cleansing” of one’s sins in order to feel “perfect” again (which is the restoration of a narcissistic, untruthful Ego that eventually leads to hurting others).

Whether we call ourselves Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or atheists, we all suffer from the same temptations. That’s because, believe it or not, we are all humans and we are more alike and less “unique” than we sometimes imagine.

Hence, Christ’s criticism of the pious believer is also applicable to the zealous atheist – contrary to the latter’s illusion that the figure of Christ has nothing to say to him; contrary to the latter’s illusion that he is “totally unlike the theist”. So yes, it comes as no surprise that some atheists claim the moral high ground. The well-known Penn Jillette, for instance:

“It’s about time we grabbed the moral high ground. I can make the argument – and I have – that the only ones with true morality are us, the atheists. We are doing good because it is good and we are doing right because it is right and not for reward or punishment. We have love for each other, we have community, we have charity…”

I can make the argument that the only ones with true morality are us the atheists (Penn Jillette quote)

It is clear that this atheist feels the need to expose his superior morality to an “Audience” while comparing himself to the morality of other people – of “theists”. From this conviction of moral superiority follows an aversion towards religious people, as they are perceived as being corrupted by their faith. This is perhaps best expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens, another well-known atheist:

“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

Faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish and more stupid (Christopher Hitchens)

Paraphrased in terms of the above mentioned parable of Jesus in Luke 18: 9-14, all of this looks like:

The atheist stood by himself and proclaimed on YouTube: ‘Man [since an atheist does not address God], I’m so happy that I am not like those believers, who are more mean, more selfish and more stupid than I am…’

This type of narcissism might seem rather harmless, but it does contain the seeds of a utopian desire to save us from so-called “corrupted” elements in order to establish a more perfect world. Christopher Hitchens again:

“If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

a quite different world (Christopher Hitchens quote)

Sam Harris, yet another leading voice of the so-called “new atheism”, goes one step further in expressing his hope for the future:

“Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

ethical to kill people (Sam Harris quote)

And so, once again, we are in the territory where, with the best of intentions, utopian dreams of “a better world without belief in God” might turn into ugly dystopias. It always starts with an idea… Of course, it is unlikely that it might come to this since there are respectful, non-paternalistic dialogues going on between many atheists and believers.

However, as is the case in some “pious” religious circles, also a kind of narcissism in some atheist quarters creates the impression that one should not feel ashamed or the least embarrassed if other people are offended or hurt by one’s words. Apparently, there is a kind of self-righteousness that seems to give people “the right” and “entitlement” to be indifferent towards the feelings of others. It dates to biblical times and beyond, and we can’t get rid of it, it seems… Stephen Fry, for instance, as yet another atheist:

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that’ – as if it gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?”

offended by that (Stephen Fry quote)

Well, yeah, of course zealous atheists like Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens have the legal right to call believers generally “more mean, more selfish and more stupid” because of their faith than atheists. Well, yeah, of course some of the people who consider themselves to be pious believers have the legal right to call atheists immoral sinners who will burn in hell… I guess this type of “mimetic doubling” (René Girard) is a sign of tolerance, respect and love in a beautiful, unbroken human world?

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