A New Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar

January 8, 4042 (the future)

A so-called new atheist and a fundamentalist walk into a bar discussing a passage from the fundamentalist’s new Bible on “Richard Dawkins, the one and only true Messiah, who lived about 2000 years ago (at the dawn of the 20th century)”.

Richard Dawkins, the Enlightened One sent by God, had been severely persecuted during his lifetime by “the unenlightened peoples of the world”, but eventually his Spirit lived on. The story of his life had been written down by some of his later followers. None of them, however, had known Dawkins personally. They were all dependent on what eye witnesses had told them. No accounts by Dawkins himself or his immediate followers, the first Dawkinsians, were known.

Richard Dawkins Cult

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “It says here that he navigated many dangerous waters in his lifetime. So he was a skipper. This Book comes from God, so I know this claim to be true!”

New Atheist: “Archaeological research reveals that the very first manuscripts of your so-called Holy Book originated in the middle of the desert, among a group of so-called second generation followers of Richard Dawkins. Today researchers generally assume that the movement around Dawkins and the supposed Dawkins himself barely saw any waters at all. So that claim about “navigating many dangerous waters” and Dawkins being a skipper is just bollocks! Moreover, many elements of the stories around Dawkins are present in stories about famous figures of the time as well, like that Moses guy. Some of those celebrities are even completely fictional characters, like Bart Simpson. The story about Richard Dawkins seems assembled from other stories. So if Richard Dawkins ever existed at all remains to be seen!”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “God’s Holy Book contains the true knowledge and science, He can’t be lying. It would be against God’s very own nature to deceive us! You’re an arrogant sinner not to accept the divine truth!”

New Atheist: “Go on then, you idiotic arrogant Dawkinstard, trust those ridiculous revelations! I’ll go with real scientific evidence, though!”

Richard Dawkins The Atheist Evangelist.jpg

In comes a Dawkinsian Biblical scholar.

Dawkinsian Biblical Scholar: “Hey you guys, 2000 years ago that expression in that context meant that Dawkins encountered many complicated situations during his lifetime. So it is a metaphorical way to express something about a historical experience. Your whole discussion about whether or not Dawkins was a skipper is off-topic. That’s what the science of historical critical research tells us. The writers used the idiom of their time and the stories people already knew.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re not a true believer, you sinful corrupted traitor! You’re heir to the Catholidical Church of Dawkins, which is the Church of the Devil!”

New Atheist: “You’re a rationalizing apologist, stupid enough to waste your time on fairy tale nonsense. No one read the Bible that way at the time!”

In comes an atheist Biblical scholar.

Atheist Biblical scholar: “I must say my colleague, the Dawkinsian Biblical scholar, is right. He presents the scholarly consensus.”

Fundamentalist Dawkinsian: “You’re a sinner too, you arrogant know-it-all!”

New Atheist: “Well you’re kind of an arrogant prick to claim the truth, you corrupted pseudo-scientist! Of course you defend the scholarly consensus, your career depends on it!”

Ban AtheismAfter which the fundamentalist Dawkinsian and the new atheistBan Religion continued their mimetic battle. It gave meaning to their lives as it provided them with a sense of superiority over their “stupid, stubborn and evil enemies”. However, as mimetic doubles they eventually became each other’s idiots, hurling similar insults back and forth. It seems every human being becomes that idiot from time to time. They accused each other of being the source of many evils in the world, and therefore saw themselves justified to promote politics that would eliminate the other’s world view.

The Dawkinsian and atheist Biblical scholar, on the other hand, went for a beer together. Or so the story goes…

Mimetic Doubles Fundamentalism and New Atheism

 

 

On the (Biblical?) Road

[For more, check out a previous post – click: Religulous Atheism]

The books of the bible have left an indelible mark on humanity’s cultural idiom, moreover because they are themselves already important, somewhat reinterpreted, summaries of different ancient strands. Throughout the ages, storytellers, novelists, directors, painters, sculptors, architects and musicians have consciously and unconsciously transmitted basic biblical sayings, motives, symbols and archetypes (René Girard is among those who reveals this, time and again, in his work on western literature). This continued tradition makes clear that “man does not live by bread alone…”

Up to this day, we create images and tales to gain insight and different perspectives on our lives. Stories aren’t just a way of entertaining ourselves to escape reality. On the contrary, they allow us to get in touch with and reflect upon questions which are part of our everyday existence as human beings. Beyond scientific questions and concerns, we are confronted with layers of meaning in our everyday experience which broaden our assessment of reality. To reduce the experience of sexual intercourse, for instance, to what can be said of it on a purely scientific level, is to mistakenly consider a partial description of the experience as the experience itself. That’s why we naturally develop a language to express and cultivate other aspects of the same experience, aspects which transcend the purely scientifically describable domain.

Biblical stories have always been part of the language of the soul, and they still are. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen – to name but two – very often use biblical motives to express their life experiences. For example, just recently, Springsteen recaptured the story of the prophet Jonah and the big fish – in his song Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale). [Click here for Springsteen’s interpretation of Christ’s Passion].

Although literalist interpretations of biblical stories are on the rise since the fundamentalist movement started in the 19th century, and since some atheists took over this approach only to come to opposing conclusions, a majority of Christians still engages in a creative dialogue with the stories as stories (meaning that they are viewed as attempts to also symbolically and metaphorically convey real and profound human experiences).

It’s a shame that some people dismiss the anthropological and cultural potential of the bible because they “don’t believe in a burning bush that can talk”. As if that is expected! It’s like thinking we should believe Prince made love to a car in the song Little Red Corvette. Maybe it’s wise to remember how people approached the biblical stories during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The important Christian thinker Geert Groote, for example, writes the following around 1383 A.D.:

“No child believes that the trees or the animals in the fables could speak. After all, the literal meaning of the poems or of the epic writings precisely is their figurative sense, and not the sense the bare words seem to hold at first glance. Who would actually believe that, as the book of Judges tells it, the trees would choose a king and that the fig tree, the vine, the olive tree and the bush would have responded to that choice in that way or another? Christ uses all kinds of images in his teaching. Matthew the evangelist even says that Christ never spoke without images. And even though it is Christ who uses these images, I do not think that those things actually (literally) took place.”

Nevertheless, some people today think they can approach the biblical stories as attempts to answer questions of the natural sciences like we know them today – apparently not realizing modern science didn’t exist in a, well, pre-modernist era. Reading a book of natural sciences to know what the bible is all about (or vice versa) is like reading a cookbook to assemble a piece of furniture.

Biblical stories should be approached from the point of view of storytelling and what this entails on a cultural level in general. Throughout history biblical stories have always been open to different interpretations, generating different (layers of) meaning. They were considered highly symbolical stories, used to highlight the depths and transcending nature of any authentic human experience.

CLICK HERE TO GET A BASIC UNDERSTANDING

OF THE PRINCIPLES OF ANCIENT AND MODERN (HISTORICAL-CRITICAL) BIBLE INTERPRETATION

Sometimes people ask: “How do you know what is to be considered symbolical?” Regarding ancient or literary texts in general, that’s a wrong question. For even historical events were only told when they were considered as transmitting a significance beyond a certain place and time (a “trans-historical” meaning). Once you get to know the basics of the biblical “idiom”, it’s not very hard to engage in a creative and personal dialogue with biblical texts, “knowing” how to read and interpret them (without expecting one, “final” interpretation).

Maybe we get a better picture of what I’m writing here if we compare this kind of dialogue with the way we keep on developing and interpreting particular images, stories and myths up to the present. That’s why I assembled some pop and rock songs using the modern mythology of the road and the car. Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) really instigated this mythology with his famous novel On the Road. Although inspired by autobiographical events, the story remains an allegory for every person’s “life journey”. In Kerouac’s own words: “Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.” (Leland, John (2007). Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think) – New York: Viking. pp. 17).

So, take a look and a listen at the (excerpts of) songs I assembled in seven sections, and ask yourself if it’s really that hard to “understand” that they’re also about an inward journey (moving from alienation of self and other towards following the – divine? – dynamic of a love which saves and which allows, obeying its call, to rediscover oneself and other). Modern cultural archetypes (“highway” and “car”) stand side by side with religious and Christian ones (“highway… to hell”, indeed).

Maybe you’ll also understand what the general idea of these seven sections is all about? “Loss and redemption” would be a fine interpretative starting point. Never mind the Catholic imagination of Bruce Springsteen, among others… Enjoy artists like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Joshua Kadison, Toto, Metallica, The Killers, Green Day, Hanoi Rocks, Prince, John Lennon and Tracy Chapman – and many more!

CLICK TO READ THE SONG LYRICS (PDF)

CLICK TO LISTEN TO THE SONGS:

Religulous Atheism

“You’d think if you were one of Christ’s biographers, [the virgin birth] would be sort of an important thing not to leave out. Oh, God, he was also born of a virgin. They don’t notice the virgin birth. You know, I think that is something if you were any sort of reporter you’d put into the story. What editor looks at the facts and goes, ‘Yeah, but take out the thing about the virgin birth. That’s not interesting.’”

This is one of Bill Maher’s quotes in the docu/mockumentary Religulous. I already mentioned this film in a previous post (Religulous in Barcelona), but I wanted to examine it a bit further. So I made a video compilation that tries to reveal some of its prejudices on religion and religious people.

Click the following to watch the movie A closer look at Religulous:

(for a transcript of the video, including dialogues – click here;

voor een Nederlandstalige transcriptie van de video zonder de dialogen, klik hier)

CLICK TO WATCH:

One of the main prejudices is the idea that the way biblical stories are written, is comparable to the way we write history in modern times. Hence Bill Maher’s above mentioned remark on the birth of Jesus. He clearly expects the two stories about the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) to contain historical ‘facts’ in the modern sense, or at least he believes that’s what they claim. In that sense he imitates his religious counterparts – who are fundamentalists –, and he reads the Bible like they do. He just comes to different conclusions.

Moreover, in trying to differ himself from his adversaries, Bill Maher seems to resemble them more and more. The ‘final solution’ he proposes to solve the problem of violent religious groups says it all: “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live.” He makes religion (and religious people?) overall an enemy to mankind, and considers it as the source of all evil. He believes that getting rid of that source (sacrificing religion) will ‘save’ us and will lead us to a better, ‘paradisiac’ future (remember John Lennon and his song Imagine, with the line ‘and no religion too’?). Well, ‘getting rid of it’ is exactly what some of his religious counterparts believe must happen to ‘secularism’ and ‘infidels’. History shows that the battle for the so-called ‘ultimate Truth’, for ‘Paradise’ and ‘Peace’, be it claimed by religionists or secularists, always ends in bloodshed… An atheist like Stalin, who violently oppressed Christianity in the Soviet Union, really is a ‘mimetic double’ (as René Girard would call it) to some of his dictatorial religious predecessors. Indeed his actions are a mimesis (i.e. imitation) of the so-called evil enemy he’s trying to destroy, and by doing so he regenerates this evil. He maintains violence, because he tries to destroy the possibility of violence by violent means…

The question is whether there’s a way out of the dilemma created by the opposition between ‘radical secularism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’. I think there is. I think we need to educate ourselves in becoming ‘spiritually literate’. E.g. concerning the question how to read the Bible, more specifically the stories about the birth of Jesus, I’d like Bill Maher and his religious counterparts to consider the following observations.

The two stories about the birth of Jesus don’t ‘match’. Matthew’s story is very different from the one by Luke. For example, the story in the Gospel of Matthew begins in Bethlehem and ends in Nazareth, while the story in the Gospel of Luke begins in Nazareth and ends in Bethlehem. If the compilers of the New Testament would have considered these stories conveying historical facts as we understand them, then they probably would have chosen one of the two and not both of them. Disparate reports on the birth of the Jesus you’re trying to ‘sell’ to the outside world just don’t add to the credibility of your story… Unless, of course, those disparate reports are not historical in the modern sense of the word. I do believe the stories on the birth of Jesus try to express something about the historical experience of people with Jesus, but the stories themselves are not ‘historical’. They are comparable to ‘poetic’ expressions. For example, Jesus was experienced as a liberator by many people, in one way or another. He freed people from oppression, social exclusion, anxieties, … As said, I believe this personal experience of the ones who knew Jesus is real, is historical. However, to express this experience, people turned to well-known mythological images and stories, ‘formulas’ one could say. Hence Matthew and Luke portray Jesus in typical stories which their audience understands as conveying the personal, experiential and historical truth that Jesus is a savior and liberator, comparable – in some ways at least – to the prophet Moses, or to king David.

Sometimes the poetic and mythological images used to express a certain experience will contradict each other, but this doesn’t mean that they exclude each other. They may simply refer to other experiences, or to different aspects of the same experience. A contemporary example may clarify this. Many songs in the English speaking world make use of ‘the car’ or ‘the road’, and everything associated with them, as metaphors to express different (aspects of) life experiences. In the song It’s my life Bon Jovi sings “It’s my life, my heart is like the open highway…” to express he feels free, or that he desires to be free. His heart is, of course, not literally a highway. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, expresses the longing for freedom slightly differently, in his song Objects in the rear view mirror, may appear closer than they are: “And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…” It’s no use asking who is ‘correct’, Bon Jovi or Meat Loaf. It’s no use asking: “Well, now, is the heart a highway, or is life a highway?” We understand these somewhat conflicting images and the common experience they refer to, because we are part of the culture which uses them… Both the experience of Bon Jovi and Meat Loaf is true and historical, albeit personal. And the image of the road or the highway is omnipresent. James Hetfield, of heavy metal band Metallica, sings “And the road becomes my bride…” in the song Wherever I may roam… Once again, not to be taken literally, but we normally understand what he’s referring to.

It’s a bit more difficult to understand the images used two thousand years ago, so we might need to study to get there. Considering the ‘false’, but often vehement conflict between ‘secularists’ and ‘religionists’ I described above, it might be a necessary study though. Karen Armstrong traces the origins of this conflict back to the period of the Enlightenment. According to her, a confusion arose around that time in the western world concerning mythology. Mythology was considered a primitive form of science by many intellectuals of the modernist era. Hence an opposition arose between those who held on to a ‘mythological truth presented as historical fact’ and those who embraced modern science as carrying the keys to the ultimate truths about life. Research, however, points out that the modernist assumption about mythology (and science for that matter) is false. Mythology and ‘poetic images’ never functioned in the way modern science functions, even to this day…

The distinction between mythology and modern science is actually quite simple: mythology tries to express and to ‘mold’ human experiences and offer different perspectives on them, while science tries to explain human experiences. The example I give in the film to make this distinction clear, is about the mythological story of Cain and Abel. This fictitious story reveals an existential truth about our existence: sometimes we are all too heavily consumed by envy. Furthermore, it tries to answer the question what to do with these envious tendencies – where we should direct them, if it belongs to our ultimate goal to be guided by envy… These are questions which science cannot answer. Science can maybe explain how we become jealous, and that jealousy is a natural tendency in man, but it cannot answer the question whether jealousy is a good or a bad thing. This last question is an existential one, more specifically a moral one.

So, in short, there should be no conflict between modern science and mythology because they try to answer different questions. Once you realize that religion belongs to this mythological, poetic, indeed ‘spiritual’ realm which deals with existential questions, it becomes a genuine, reasonable and sensible force that undermines the certainties of every ‘ideology’ – be it religious fundamentalism or the radical atheism which opposes it, indeed ‘doubles’ it. Understood as poetic and spiritual images, religious texts open up dialogue and different perspectives on a Reality which, ultimately, is ‘not in our control’. A Reality, in other words, which ‘transcends’ us – as we didn’t create the world we inhabit.

There’s a lot more to discover on the distinction between scientific and existential questions. For example in the works of philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), who makes a distinction between ‘problems’ that can be solved technically, ‘scientifically’, and the mysteries we are confronted with which are ultimately unsolvable (they allow for different ‘attitudes’).

To read a paper by Karen Armstrong on

FUNDAMENTALISM AS A TYPICALLY MODERN MOVEMENT, CLICK HERE (PDF)

Enjoy exploring!