Atheism and Ethics

A WORLD WITHOUT RELIGION?

 The question is whether an atheist world would be a better world.

Religionless Christianity (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)Slavoj Zizek, atheist philosopher, refers to René Girard’s analysis of Christianity in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse and concludes that Christianity, revealing the innocence of erstwhile sacrificial victims, “[undermines] the efficiency of the entire sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating: sacrifices (even of the magnitude of a holocaust) become hypocritical, inoperative, fake…” As this sacrificial mechanism is the cornerstone of religious behavior, Christianity thus indeed is “the religion of the end of religion” (atheist historian Marcel Gauchet). Zizek, still in the aforementioned essay, also briefly explains how Christianity potentially brings to an end the ever- present sacrificial temptation: “Following René Girard, Dupuy demonstrates how Christianity stages the same sacrificial process [of archaic religion], but with a crucially different cognitive spin: the story is not told by the collective which stages the sacrifice, but by the victim, from the standpoint of the victim whose full innocence is thereby asserted. (The first step towards this reversal can be discerned already in the book of Job, where the story is told from the standpoint of the innocent victim of divine wrath.)” This assessment of Christianity could also help to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for a “religionless Christianity” (or maybe we should speak of a Christianity transforming religion rather than destroying it – click here for more).

In other words, Christianity is – in a profound sense – one of the main sources of secularization. Secular societies are challenged to build a world without “sacred sacrifices”. As Zizek notes, “the sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder – what makes it sacred is that it limits/contains violence, including murder, in everyday life.” Precisely because a secular society, heir to the dismantlement of “the archaic sacred” by Christianity, no longer possesses the traditional religious means to contain violence, it has to find other ways to deal with violence, or else destroy itself. Zizek quotes Jean-Pierre Dupuy in this regard: “Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.” And Zizek continues: “Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know [the truth about the sacred], and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.”

(Quotes from Zizek in Slavoj Zizek & Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse [Essay] Christianity Against the Sacred, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, p. 63-64).

With these thoughts in mind, we can frame the question about the atheist world in another way. Can our world survive its own potential for violence without religion, without the traditional sacrificial mechanisms that try to limit violence?

 NEW ATHEIST RELIGION & AMORAL ATHEISM

four horsemen of new atheismAs it happens, we seem to regenerate the religious impulse. To this day we keep looking for scapegoats to be cast out of society in order to purify ourselves from the evils in our midst. It’s part of the way we build ‘the City of Man’. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, two well-known spokesmen of the so-called ‘New Atheism’, clearly consider religion as one of the main sources of evil in the world. Hence, in their views, we would be better off without religion. But, precisely because of their tendency to blame theistic religion for “much of the evil in the world” and their attempts to expel or even sacrifice it, they create a new sacrificial religion, albeit an atheist one. How long before believers – without whom their theistic religion would not exist – no longer have the right to voice their views in the public sphere if the new atheists had their way?

The demonization of theistic religion by the new atheists is their way of suggesting the moral superiority of atheism. Their reasoning, however, is flawed and incomplete. Take, for instance, this challenge by Christopher Hitchens:

“Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?”

Some people, thinking of the atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, try to make this a more balanced rhetorical statement by adding a question: Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of atheism?

The new atheists already have their response to those who think that the crimes of Stalin et al. had anything to do with atheism. Richard Dawkins:

“What I do think is that there is some logical connection between believing in God and doing some, sometimes, evil things, but there’s no logical connection between them [Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot] being atheists and doing evil things. It’s just incidentally true that, say, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin happened to be atheists, but that wasn’t what drove them. What drove them was a political ideology. It had nothing to do with atheism.”

Another atheist puts it this way:

“While Stalin and Mao were atheists, they did not perpetrate their atrocities because of their atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god. One cannot commit a crime in the name of ‘there is no god’. On the other hand, one can commit a crime in the name of ‘god’.”

This statement also implies that nothing good can be done in the name of atheism. Atheists can do good things like believers can do good things. The difference is that believers can do good things “in the name of god”. Atheists can do bad things like believers can do bad things. The difference is that believers can do bad things “in the name of god”. But, just like crimes cannot be done in the name of “there is no god”, good deeds cannot be done in the name of “there is no god”. Atheism is not immoral, neither is it moral. Atheism is amoral – it literally has no moral implications.

Therefore, it is not guaranteed that an atheist world would be a better world. It all depends on the ethics that will be developed in such a world. Moreover, theists and atheists alike can only believe that one ethical decision or even system is better than another. They can never prove this. Science observes and describes facts, it doesn’t morally judge them – we cannot move from what is to what ought. We’ve already seen the ethics of Stalin’s political ideology, to name but one example, and it’s highly questionable whether that was a good thing…  And if we would put some of the new atheist ideas into practice, we would regenerate a sacrificial system of potentially apocalyptic proportions. Sam Harris, for instance:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

sam harris condones murder (cartoon by blamethe1st)

Seen from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory, these ideas of new atheists mirror the ideas of some of their fundamentalist counterparts (for more on this, click here to read and watch Religulous Atheism). The tiny proportion of theistic fundamentalists that take part in acts of violence justify their violence in a similar way. They think it is ethical to kill certain people in order to cleanse the world of evil. New atheists and theistic fundamentalists become mimetic (i.e. imitative) doubles – imitating each other’s ways of scapegoating. However, as a wise man once said, “Satan cannot cast out Satan”. We cannot destroy (the possibility of) violence by using violence. We cannot destroy fear if our politics of security justify themselves by constantly referring to the things we should be afraid of. We cannot destroy evil by using evil.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on blindness to evil

In the end we’ll have to imagine a new peace, but not the (theist and atheist religious) peace of “this world”, which is based on sacrifice. It might be the peace this man speaks of:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Peace I leave with you

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!