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On Modern Atheism and Fundamentalism: A Discussion (Part One)
I consider this essay the third installment of a discussion that began with "On the Question of the Existence of God: A Meditation." That paper was in response to a question posed by fellow hubber Grace Marguerite Williams, who challenged us to justify either the existence or non-existence of God.
I did not approach the question that way. I argued that we are in no position to speak on either the existence or non-existence of God---any more than an ant is in position to speak to either human existence or non-existence. Basically I argue that the perspective scope, in both cases, is too limited to make such a determination.
Anyway, the second essay is called "If Ants Could Do Yoga: A Follow-Up Discussion."
So far there are four big takeaways I'd like to keep in mind, if you have been following this series.
- If God exists, human beings cannot perceive Him, Her, It, or They, as the case may be because our perspective scope is too limited to do so; we cannot perceive "God" distinct from the surrounding environment----anymore than an ant can perceive us because of that creature's limited perspective scope.
- Since we cannot perceive "God"----if "S/He" does exist, "S/He" might as well not exist. If "S/He" does not exist, "S/He" might as well exist---since we are unable to tell the difference.
- Not even the "beatific vision" (to oversimplify: the basic payoff after a long period of dedicated practice in transcendental meditation) can provide confirmation because, as I have mentioned before. "the mental equipment of man and the consciousness that filters through it are too fragile and too dim...... to have the capacity to apprehend, or commune with, the Almighty Creator of this staggering universe" (Krishna, 39).
- To put it crudely for summary purposes: One never knows what manner of consciousness the seeking "transcendental" human mind might bump into on the way to "God." In other words, "[c]onsidering the fact that consciousness exhibits itself on earth in an innumerable variety of forms, from the infinitesimal sentience of a cell to the flood of awareness in man, are we certain that no higher state of consciousness is possible on our globe or does not exist in any other part of the universe? If we are not sure of it, how can we then presume that man has attained the highest summit of knowledge and touched the border from where the exclusive conscious domain of God begins?" (ibid).
Now we are going to take this discussion to a new phase, with the review of a bit of intellectual history.
Basically our cutoff point is the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century---which Wikipedia tells us "included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state" (Age of Enlightenment).
And for our purposes, it is important to remind ourselves that the "emphasis" was "on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy" (ibid).
We are concerned with views of God both pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment.
For this essay I am primarily relying on the work of independent religion scholar, Karen Armstrong---her 2009 book called The Case for God.
The first thing to say is: The atheist/theist "culture war" of today would have been quite incomprehensible to pre-Enlightenment or "pre-modern cultures." They lived in a state of what we would probably most recognize as "agnosticism."
Another startling conclusion of Armstrong's research is: that religion of the "pre-modern" era was not driven by the necessary belief in the existence of God. I know this second point is counterintuitive and unimaginable from our perspective in 2016---but it is, nevertheless true.
Let me start with an opening quote:
"In most premodern cultures," wrote Karen Armstrong, "there were to recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality" (Armstrong, xi).
"Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that purpose people turned to mythos or 'myth'" (ibid).
I'd like to do two more big quotes before I intervene with some remarks.
"In popular parlance, a 'myth' is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos. Myth has been called a form of primitive psychology . When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths, descending into the underworld, or fighting monsters, these were not understood as primarily factual stories. They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are different to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons. When Freud and Jung began to chart their scientific search for the soul, they instinctively turned to these ancient myths. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time" (ibid).
The next big quote goes like this:
"The myth of the hero, for example, which takes the same form in nearly all cultural traditions, taught people how to unlock their own heroic potential. Later the stories of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad were made to conform to this paradigm so that their followers could imitate them in the same way. Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity. It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to. But if we failed to apply it to our situation, a myth would remain abstract and incredible. Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did" (Armstrong, xii).
Now imagine this: A big land mass moving in from left to right called mythos and there is a big land mass moving in from right to left called logos. Imagine the two land masses coming together and joining at a zipper seam---they fit together like puzzle pieces.
Now it is on that seam where pre-modern or pre-Enlightenment society lived. I am going to call this "seam" the agnostic consensus.
You see, if I have understood Karen Armstrong's work correctly, pre-Enlightenment society enjoyed an agnostic consensus---that is to say nobody was anything like definite on the existence of God.
Moreover, I am going to claim---based on how I read Armstrong---that almost all Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and those of other faiths were also, what we, today, would call agnostic as it pertains to the existence of God.
I know how counterintuitive that sounds but there are other reasons to do religion----by which I mean practice compassion, generosity, love, forgiveness, and selflessness, etc.----than the fear of punishment or hope of reward.
What does that mean?
Well, if you think about it, one of the functions of "God" is as punisher and reward-giver. You can remove that dynamic from Christianity, for example, and be something of an agnostic Christian---not necessarily a contradiction in terms.
For instance, Thomas Jefferson---yes, that Thomas Jefferson---was neither an atheist nor a so-called Deist. He always considered himself a Christian---albeit one that did not subscribe to the divinity of Jesus. Like Muslims, Jefferson considered Jesus to be an exalted but very human prophet.
Still, he considered himself a follower of "Christ," that is, the teachings of Jesus. Jefferson famously wrote his own version of the Bible from which he edited out all references to supernatural phenomena ("The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth"---from Wikipedia).
Okay, we have the picture of the two land masses of mythos and logos jamming together like fitted puzzle pieces, which form a seam which I---the person writing this---am calling the pre-Enlightenment agnostic consensus, based on how I understand Karen Armstrong's work; and this is something I will go into more detail about in part two.
Now imagine an earthquake breaking apart the land masses of mythos and logos. Imagine the agnostic consensus being broken.
To avoid falling to their deaths into the breach, everybody has to hop on one side or the other.
Some people hop on the mythos side and become religionists. Some people hop on the logos side and become secularists.
Karen Armstrong describes the "earthquake" like this:
"During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that historians call the early modern period, Western people began to develop an entirely new kind of civilization, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment. Logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining truth. This would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adapt the criteria of science, the myths of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical" (Armstrong, xv.).
The passage continues:
"In particular, the meaning of the word 'belief' changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as 'believers,' as though accepting orthodox dogma 'on faith' were their most important activity" (ibid).
At the end of the day, then, "[t]his rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism" (ibid).
Mind you, we are not saying that the secularist and religionist camps---which formed as a result of the "earthquake" which broke the "agnostic consensus"---were the atheist and fundamentalist camps, respectively. We are not saying that.
When I say that some people became secularists after the "earthquake," I do not mean to say that they were necessarily devoid of religion. I mean to say that for them, "logos" was definitively put into the driver's seat.
When I say that some people became religionists after the "earthquake," I do not mean to say that they were necessarily devoid of "logos," if you will. I mean to say that for them, the religionists, "mythos" was definitively put into the driver's seat.
Does that make sense? If you are interested in such topics, you really need to read Karen Armstrong's book; and incidentally, I would recommend all of her writings for that matter.
Stay with me.
First we have the mythos-logos split.
As a result of the "earthquake," we have the secularist and religionist camps.
Then there are two additional fissures from which derive the "atheists" out of the secularist camp; and the "fundamentalists" out of the religionist camp.
For the former, then, the atheists, if you could not see it through a microscope, it did not exist. For the latter, a literalist understanding of scripture structured how you looked through the microscope, if that makes sense.
- We have an understanding of the word "agnostic" today. I have used it in a broader sense to describe what I consider to be a phase of Western intellectual history: the agnostic consensus, which included adherents to specific religious traditions, whatever they might have been.
- We have an understanding of the word "atheist" today. But the word was not always used this way.
Karen Armstrong writes:
"Historically, atheism has rarely been a blanket denial of the sacred per se but has nearly always rejected a particular conception of the divine" (Armstrong, xv-xvi).
"At an early stage of their history, Christians and Muslims were both called 'atheists' by their pagan contemporaries, not because they denied the reality of God but because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous. Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image" (ibid, xvi).
Well, if you're quite thoroughly bewildered and confused, then, I think we'll move on to part two.
Thank you for reading!
Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
Krishna, G. (1972). The Secret of Yoga. (Religious Perspectives) (R.V. Anshen, Ed.). New York, N.Y. Kundalini Research Foundation.