Monday, March 24, 2008

Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinkin’ and Prayin’

(The wedding imagery here reminds us that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and if you imagine the third-person pronouns with initial capitals [“Wear your hair just for Him … You won’t get Him thinkin’ and a-prayin’ …] you have quite a kinky little hymn on your hands.)

My text today, dearly beloved, is from H. Allen Orr’s review of Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin, on marketing strategies for atheists:
Too often, the New Atheism forgets to make its humanism humane.
Wow. Where did Orr (or Kitcher) get the idea that religion is humane? One objection I have to Dawkins and the other “New Atheists” (as I’ve said before, I’m always suspicious of talk about “New” anything) is that they are basically secular avatars of the old-fashioned hellfire and brimstone preachers. Orr quotes Kitcher from Living with Darwin:
Often, the voices of reason I hear in contemporary discussions of religion are hectoring, almost exultant that comfort is being stripped away and faith undermined; frequently, they are without charity. And they are always without hope.
Orr agrees with Kitcher in criticizing the New Atheists for the lack of hope in their message, for their apparent glee in, as they imagine, stripping away other people’s illusions; but such has always been the method of revivalist religion, and these boys are revivalists. Theoretically there is hope of salvation for those who heed the Christian message, but the congregation members who reportedly fainted on hearing Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” don’t seem to have been reassured. The gospels’ Jesus taught (Matthew 7:13-14) that only a few would find the narrow path to salvation, so the overwhelming majority of humanity would be damned, and there is no hope for those who die unsaved. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is striking in its callousness toward the damned. I think it was the historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith who wrote somewhere that the Good News of Christ was, and is, Bad News for most people.
Christianity, the religion I know the most about, has never been concerned with the tender feelings of believers in competing sects. Whether the competition was Jews, pagans, or (ever since the beginnings of the cult, as the New Testament shows) other Christians, the rhetoric has been vitriolic and unforgiving. Hatefulness is endemic to Christianity, though not specific to it, and the New Atheists tend to come across as reincarnations of the ancient Christian heresiarchs, seeking out and denouncing those who wickedly stray from their version of truth, only with the sectarian elements (and learning) stripped away. I see little to choose between Jonathan Edwards and a sodden, bleary-eyed Christopher Hitchens.
Kitcher is evidently trying to play the Good Atheist Cop to Dawkins’s, Harris’s, Dennett’s, and Hitchens’s Bad Atheist Cop. I doubt it will work, since despite his Christian upbringing Kitcher doesn’t seem to understand or really empathize with religious believers any more than the Bad Cops do, nor does he really offer any hope. Maybe he thinks that someday, someone will come up with some from somewhere. Maybe they’ll cook it up in a lab, a newer genetically-modified EnlightenmentTM hope that will enable people to get over the death of a loved one or the diagnosis of a painful terminal disease without the troublesome, addictive side effects of the old pre-scientific religious hope.

I’m not saying that I understand religious folk either. I’d think it would be easier for atheists like Kitcher, who were raised in religious families and only later broke away. I had no religious upbringing, and realized fairly early in life that I felt no need to believe in gods. I suspect that some of my attitude is temperamental (meaning that I have no idea where it comes from). Somewhere I read about a movie, Pete’n’Tillie, based on a Peter DeVries novel, in which a married couple (played by Carol Burnett and Walter Matthau) suffer through their child’s death of leukemia. One of the parents says something to the effect that it’s less painful to believe that there is no god, that no one is watching Up There, than to believe that Someone is watching but does nothing. That's exactly what I think, but I know that many other people, perhaps most, would rather believe that Someone is up there, weeping great salt tears over our pain and feeling it with us. (And no, I'm not talking about this guy.)

Yet religion is not synonymous with hope. Many atheists have died without fear, and many theists have died in terror of what might await them. Nor does every religion even offer the hope of an afterlife. Judaism, for one, has never been much concerned with the idea; reincarnation, while it promises some kind of survival, doesn’t offer the happy dream of reunion with one’s loved ones in an eternal Sunday afternoon. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (6.4312), and again I agree:
Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?