Talking About God, Part 2: Skeptical Atheism

I opened the previous post with a quick introduction into three of the dominant ways that modern people think and talk about God: fundamentalism, atheism, and a compromised or “liberal” theology. I then went on to outline how fundamentalism is primarily a political and social ideology rather than a real theology–its genesis and raison d’etre are, I believe, almost entirely political; philosophical and spiritual ideas are brought in to buttress the political ideology, not for their own merit. The result is a predictably shallow and unconvincing theological approach that, outside of the committed True Believers, is less than irrelevant. In this post I’d like to talk about contemporary atheism: how I think it began, what I think it’s responding to, and in what ways its useful and accurate, and in which ways it may be lacking. Like in the last post, I’m not going to cite anything, even though I’m making some historical claims. That’s mostly because I’m sitting in Korea and don’t have access to a lot of the books I’d like to cite. I hope to fill in this lack of citations in a month or two when I get back to the States. For now, please excuse my unsupported claims. In any event, I’m more interested in discussing broad outlines rather than historical specifics, and I think my basic position holds water even without full citations.

Modern atheism’s rise, I think, parallels that of fundamentalism closely. I do, though, want to make clear that unlike the hostile and dismissive tone I took with fundamentalism, I think there’s plenty to defend in skeptical atheism, even though I don’t embrace this position myself. Particularly as a response to fundamentalism, atheism is valuable, and in a lot of ways probably acted as a catalyst for the resurgence in good theology in the 20th century. Folks like Paul Tillich, Richard Neihbur, and even Karl Barth probably a great deal to atheism, since in so many ways it has focused contemporary Christian theology on central–and long-neglected–issues.

Though doubt is of course nothing new, for thousands of years, belief in gods, or God, or something along those lines, was generally seen as self-evident–creation stories relied on deity/ies in order to explain the world humans found themselves in. The real revolutions in spiritual insight were largely clarifying and deepening people’s understanding of God: moving from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism, for example. Or expanding the role of God from tribal protector to governor of the world to foundation of the universe, for another. But something crucial happened in western Christianity, starting in the 13th or 14th century. With the rise of what we might call “proto-science”, intellectuals were increasingly interested in analytical or reductionist reasoning; they were finding that if you took things apart, reduced them to the their constituent pieces, you could understand the wholes much better. The approach worked so well for so many things, that theologians began to think about their work in a similar way. Contemporary “radical orthodox” theologians trace this development back to Aquinas, essentially arguing that he was the watershed between a more traditional understanding of God as utterly mysterious and beyond rational grasp and a newer theology that treated God as a thing that could be observed and measured.

Karen Armstrong talks a lot in her books about the “Axial Age”, a period of one or two hundred years when, throughout the Mediterranean, India, and China, a huge revolution in spiritual and philosophical thought occurred. Socrates, Plato, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, and the writers of the Upanishads all lived in this narrow band of time. And all of them had some strikingly similar things to say. They all described the world as a united whole, governed by an inscrutable Law, or God, or Way. Proper living meant not fighting the universe, or begging it for special favors, as most previous religions had advised, but rather in harmonizing oneself with what Plato called “the Good”, what Siddhartha refers to as “Dharma”, what Lao Tzu called “the Way” and what Isaiah called “the Lord God”.

It was during this time that the tribal henotheism of the Israelites transformed into a true monotheism: Isaiah spoke of God not only as looking out for the interests of the Israelites and Judeans, but as the God of all people, who would ultimately deliver the whole world. He spoke of a future in which not only the Hebrews, but “all flesh would see the glory of the Lord.” It was a huge shift, and in a lot of ways I think it’s accurate to say that it was with Isaiah and Jeremiah that Judaism, as we know it now, was really launched. The religion that preceded it might be better referred to as Israelitism, or Hebrewism, for it functioned as an ethnic ideology in which the Hebrews claimed that their god would lead them to military and cultural victory over surrounding people. It’s with the destruction of Israel (the northern part of the Hebrews’ territory) by the Assyrians and the exile of Judah (the southern part, centered on Jerusalem) to Babylon about 150 years later that launched a sort of existential crisis within proto-Judaism. God, it seemed, was no longer on the Hebrews’ side. The tribes of Israel were scattered to the East, most never to be heard from again. The ruling elites of Jerusalem were serving in the court of the King of Babylon, so famously described in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps….How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” And at that point, you’d expect that the Hebrews–and their religion–would be over, absorbed into the storm of ethnicities around them as a much more powerful political force swept them out of the way.

But that’s not what happened. The Hebrews living in Babylon not only kept their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, but they totally transformed the latter into what would become the most dominant religious trajectory of the entire world. That trajectory began as religious thinkers at the time began to reflect–if God had abandoned the Hebrews, allowed them to be defeated by heathens, that meant that not only had the Hebrews fallen short of their religious duties (a common, even dominant, theme of earlier prophets) but also that their God’s power was not limited to the territory of Israel and Judah–if God was helping the Babylonians and Assyrians, that meant that there truly was no God of Israel, and no God of Assyria, and no gods of Babylon. It meant that there was one God, ruler of the whole universe, who was leading not only the Israelites, but the whole of humanity. This realization, reached in Babylon, would return with the exiles upon their return to Jerusalem as the Persians defeated the Babylonians. Judaism was launched. It may have been at this time that resurrection theology grew to fruition as well, as people grappled with how God would exact final justice when it seemed that so often the good were punished and the wicked prevailed. God’s rewards and punishments were increasingly seen as eternal and universal, rather than immediate and particular. The faith that was evolving was one of universal hope, the Kingdom of God was a coming state of peace and intimate knowledge of the Source of Everything, not just a political state of affairs.

This radical reworking of “Hebrewism” into Judaism shifted the faith away from ritualistic concerns and towards ethical ones. This is why many people have referred to this as the launching of “ethical monotheism”. The prophet Amos captured the mood perfectly. He has God say: ““I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5: 21-24, emphasis mine). For all the moralizing of contemporary Christianity, at its root, Judeo-Christian belief is a cry for liberation, for justice, and for peace.

Crucially, for our discussion, the concept of God that underpinned this nascent Judaism had to differ greatly from the tribal, war-like deity of the past. This was a universal God, a just God, an almighty God. This was a God that was leading not just Israel to victory, but the whole world, the whole universe, to Reunion. This was something radically different. This understanding of God could no longer see the deity as a sort of superhuman being, a kind of spiritual superperson. This God was something a whole order of magnitude greater and different. God was not a being at all–not even the supreme one–God was being itself, the foundation of existence. Utterly transcendent.

I’ll have a lot more to say about transcendence (and imminence, yay!) in Part 4. But for now I want to shift back to the main focus of this post. The point of all this historical blathering on (I do promise it had a point) is that the idea of God arrived at around 500 BCE in Babylon among the Hebrew/Jewish diaspora there was of a transcendent God, the foundation of all being. It’s worth pointing out that even the name of God in Hebrew, which may have been/probably was something like Yahweh, can be translated as “I am that which is becoming”. Of course, it can also be translated in other ways, but it’s not hard to see how this name captures a transcendent streak in Hebraic thinking, even before the Babylonian exile. That streak came to fruition in folks like Isaiah, and the dominant way of thinking about God throughout the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world for the next 1500 years would keep God’s transcendence front and center.

But that changed–at least in western Europe–and to understand the rise of modern atheism, that change has to be understood. The exact details of the change are a bit tedious, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, as mentioned above, a major change took place. Scholasticism, best epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, slowly moved away from the mystical, transcendent view of God, and began to describe God as the “Supreme Being”. They then set out to prove that such a Supreme Being must exist, and thereby hoped to build a sort of un-scalable wall around the Catholic faith. But in so doing, they abandoned the central tenet of monotheism, without which the whole system of thought and belief falls apart. The huge watershed of the Axial Age amounted to the recognition of God as a transcendent yet immanent mystery, a non-dual reality, the intersection of all seeming contradictions, the beginning and the end of all things. Scholastic thought attempted to break this picture down and analyze its pieces.

But the very nature of something that is non-dual is that it can’t be broken down further for analysis. For example, when Buddha says that the Dharma is neither personal nor non-personal, he was expressing the fact that the true nature of the Dharma is beyond reason. Reason assumes opposites and contradictions. That’s how logic works: we describe things by using opposites and terms that contrast. When I say that a dinosaur is big or a mouse is small, I’m relying on the opposing definition of those two adjectives. But God, as the foundation, source, and sustainer of all things, cannot be defined in these terms, since these terms exist as products of God. To paraphrase a central tenet of Taoism, a god that can be described is not the true God.

Anyway, I’ll dig more into this in Part 4 of this series. For now, suffice it to say that this critical distinction between God and all other concepts was essentially abandoned by Scholastic theologians. And so the idea of God that became prominent in Western Europe in the Renaissance and thereafter–and crucially during the science-promoting Enlightenment–was a sort of ersatz theology that lacked the crucial Axial insight. In other words, the theism that atheism arose to challenge and reject was not a truly Jewish or Christian theism. It was a compromised vision of God that had already attempted to analyze God through means that are inappropriate. This led not only to problematic and even silly proofs of God, but also a caricatured understanding of him among the lay faithful that was easily ridiculed. When God is seen as an angry man in the sky who rewards or punishes people based on their creedal allegiance, atheism makes plenty of sense. Michelangelo’s seminal image of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome really captures the problem: there’s God, a balding, bearded white man in Mediterranean robes, reaching out with his hand to zap Adam to life, ET-style. Looking at that image, it’s palpably clear why Jews and Muslims alike forbid any pictural rendering of God.

So skeptical atheism arose as a response to the Scholastics’ ersatz theology–and rightly debunked it. But as we rediscover the full and true nature of what theism was and should be, the skeptical atheist response has much less to say. It’s not even clear that skeptical atheism really disagrees with a transcendent-immanent theism–this will largely depend on the individual atheists and theists involved. The broader point though, is that, at least in reference to the sort of “theism” that was popular in the West for the last half millennium, we may really be able to talk about a post-theism, post-atheism sort of theology and philosophy. Ironically, this newer theology may largely simply be a return to our roots. It’s worth pointing out that even in the Christian world, the loss of a transcendent view of God was almost exclusively a Western one–the Eastern and Oriental* Orthodox Churches didn’t embrace the Scholastics’ God-as-a-thing theological approach, and retain to this day a much richer vision of God. The same is obviously true for religious folks outside of Christianity, and it may be that fact–as well as the co-option of Christianity by political elites–more than anything that has led to many people searching for “spiritual truth” outside of traditional Western spirituality. We ejected many of our central truths more than 500 years ago. But I think we can get them back.

This understanding of the history of theism and atheism isn’t necessarily hostile to atheism–as I said before, in a lot of ways, this understanding owes a lot to atheism. And it certainly wouldn’t embrace the sort of anti-scientific nonsense that has such currency in fundamentalist circles. Nonetheless, it would certainly place huge emphasis on the insight that in trying to understand the transcendent-immanent foundations of existence, science itself will be of limited use, since in trying to understand God we are not trying to understand anything, or anyone. We are trying to arrive at a state of non-dual experience, the coincidence of contradictions, to borrow from Nicolas de Cusa. Anyway, I’ll talk more about all of this in Part 4. This post is already 2500 words long–so it’s time to wrap up. Next time, in Part 3, I’ll discuss the liberal theology that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries–both its contributions and its limitations.

*I realize that this term is sometimes offensive–but in this case, “Oriental” does not refer to people from eastern Asia, but rather to a specific group of churches in Africa, the Middle East, and India. It’s the name that’s been used for centuries, and has been retained in modern usage despite the confusion it sometimes generates.

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2 thoughts on “Talking About God, Part 2: Skeptical Atheism

  1. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 3: ‘Liberal’ Theology | Life's a Lap

  2. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God | Life's a Lap

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