Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Could the New Atheists find "common ground" with the Eagletons and Armstrongs?

Yes, really.

No, I still do not "believe in belief." But the case studies on non-believing preachers recently published by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola suggest a way that those who do "believe in belief" might make common ground with the New Atheists, if they would rise to the challenge. (Okay, they won't, but anyway...)

Most of the preachers examined in the paper (I think three out of the five?) could still be classified as "believing in belief", in that they defined God as the "ground of all being" or felt that "there is room for the use of the word ‘God’ in some context", or viewed "God as a kind of poetry." What really struck me was the way that these preachers rationalized the concealment of their more "refined" metaphorical theology from their flocks. That I find far more hypocritical than those preachers who were disillusioned with religion entirely, but kept on the job because they feared for their social or family life, or their financial future.

Telling lies because you will be completely fucked if you don't might be ethically wrong, but it's very human, and anyway I'm not going to condemn anyone for that until I walk in their shoes. If I had to tell lies for a living, and I feared I'd lose my house and maybe even my wife and son if I stopped, you'd better believe I'd go on dropping bullshit from the pulpit. But telling lies because you are trying to protect the tender delusions of people who trust you for answer to the questions that are most important to them? Or because you think the listeners are too dumb or simple to hear the truth? That's never okay.

What also struck me was how much this internal dialog of the preachers in Dennett's and LaScola's case study echoed a dialog that we see over and over again between the New Atheists and the "New Theologians" like Eagleton and Armstrong and their ilk. Our side criticizes literal beliefs and dogmas, the Eaglestrongs of the world respond that we just don't understand their sophisticated theology, and then they plug their ears and refuse to listen when our side points out that that's not how most of the world practices religion, not even in modern supposedly-secular democracies.

With that in mind, I suggest a new strategy: When this tired old conversation crops up again, don't respond by simply dismissing apophatic theology, or whatever clever apologetics the Eaglestrongs are spewing, as something far removed from the actual practice of religion. Instead, challenge them to help get rid of this divide. Challenge Terry Eagleton to arrange to speak to religious groups, and tell them that a literal belief in Jesus' divinity is backwards and infantile, that the true central narrative of Christianity is understanding how "the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal", and not any nonsense about original sins being forgiven or any of that crap. Challenge Armstrong to go into Catholic churches, of which she was once a part, and proclaim to the congregation that "religion isn't about believing things", and that instead of telling Africans not to use condoms, they should focus on "translat[ing] these doctrines into...ethical action."

Or to put it more simply: Whenever someone tells an atheist, "But there is a much more advanced theology than that!", our response should be, "Tell someone who cares." Like you know -- people who actually practice religion and go to church. Maybe they'd like to know about your ideas about God and religion, hmmm? And in fact, they might benefit from it quite a bit!

If the Eaglestrongs of the world really truly believed in their poetic/apophatic view of God, they need to do a helluva a lot more to get that message out to believers. And as far as it goes, we can make common cause on that. If there's one thing that Eagleton and Dawkins might agree on, it's that the idea of the virgin birth being a literal event is fucking retarded. Let's get that message out there first, mm'kay?

Edit: In fairness to Armstrong, I think she does do this to a certain extent. Her message seems to be at least as much about reform as it is about apologetics. For instance, in researching for this post, I discovered that she intended to use a $100,000 TED prize "to initiate an international Charter for Compassion – to help restore the Golden Rule as central to religious practice and daily life throughout the world." While I think the Golden Rule stands on its own just fine without the cloud of religion getting in the way, anything that gets the religious to cleave more closely to, you know, actual ethics as opposed to Stone Age dogma has got to be a good thing.

I'm sort of glad I stumbled on that, because it makes me a little less anti-Armstrong. Eagleton's still an irredeemable douche, but it seems Armstrong is already spending a lot of her time working on this "common ground". So credit where credit is due, at least.

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