Have you ever encountered someone whose invincible ignorance on any given subject exists in precisely direct proportion to the self-satisfaction and certitude with which he presses his arguments? Someone so obtuse that, when you (with a little too much subtlety) point out the superficiality of those arguments, he doesn’t even realize he’s been insulted?
This scenario seems unavoidable whenever one falls into the company of a militant atheist. The phrase itself seems paradoxical; yet, the maddening irony is that the opposition to religion has become fiercely and fanatically dogmatic. Today’s atheists are determined to save the world from religion, even as they make fun of yesterday’s theists for being determined to save it from sin.
As Cicero writes in his De legibus, “there is no race either so highly civilized or so savage as not to know that it must believe in a god, even if it does not know in what sort of god it ought to believe”. Until relatively recently in the long history of our species, atheism has been a distinctly minority position. Atheists won’t admit that, of course, even as they claim to be a “minority” in the current political sense: i.e., worthy of the protections and privileges that accrue to all the other official “victim” groups.
In certain epochs, to be sure, atheism was officially proscribed and driven underground. In the popular imagination, Socrates is exhibit A for the claim that atheists have indeed been “persecuted”. But when Socrates was accused of “atheism”, the legal indictment only meant that the divine vocation he pursued was different from the official Athenian state cult of the Olympian gods. With the possible exception of Jesus’, Socrates’ was surely the most profoundly religious life ever lived in the history of the West. (Which is why, in the early Christian period, he was invoked more often than anyone else as a forerunner of the Christian Messiah.)
Exhibit B for the case that atheism has always–like poverty and homosexuality–been “with us” is Epicurus, whom the New Atheists have belatedly exalted into antiquity’s greatest sage (even though in the history of philosophy, Epicureanism has never been more than a footnote.) But neither Epicurus nor his followers (including Lucretius) denied the existence of the gods; they merely denied that, in their imperturbable and transcendent beatitude, the gods would ever deign to care about the affairs of men.
It is notable, finally, that in the Christian Middle Ages, it wasn’t atheism that aroused the Church to vigilance, so much as heretical Christianity. Religious heretics (notwithstanding the penalties they risked) were abundant; atheists were few. And in the officially atheistic societies of the previous century, Christianity (as Solzhenitsyn observed) only became more entrenched and enthusiastic.
Atheists in the past grudgingly acknowledged that religion has been a universal human preoccupation, indeed, a force for civilization (the inspiration for great art, music, poetry, civility, and political justice); and like homosexuals in the past, their plea was mainly to be left alone. But today’s atheists are determined to demonstrate to an unenlightened world that religion is atavistic, infantile, credulous, pernicious, and false. And they proselytize their atheistic Truth with a crusader’s zeal and a schoolboy’s ignorance.
It seems ironic, again, that the fiercest critics of religion, like Dawkins and Hitchens, should deride it as “childish”, when they themselves have attained only the most rudimentary understanding of the thing. Remarkably, they have never bothered to study what they so abominate. They tell us on every page, in fact, that they consider the study of religion to be beneath their dignity as “scientists”.
It’s a strangely incurious, unscientific attitude. Uninitiated as I am in the dismal science of economics, I regard the government’s printing of money as no less miraculous than Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. But being an economic novice, I leave it to more qualified intellects to wonder at it. I admit that I have not devoted myself to enucleating the mysteries of sub-atomic physics, and that (unsurprisingly) I am ignorant in that field. Ergo, I hesitate to scoff at the seemingly preposterous idea that a particle can be in two places at once. Mutatis mutandis, I would expect that Dawkins and Hitchens might pause before making fun of, say, the Transubstantiation (i.e., the idea that God can be in two places at once). But humility never manages to erase the sneer from their faces, whenever they write about this or any other putatively nonsensical religious proposition.
The scientific study of religion is no small undertaking. As the anthropologists attest—I’m sure Dawk and Hitch recognize modern anthropology as a science–, religion is the most ancient activity in the evolution of homo sapiens: older than agriculture, older than literature, older than architecture, cities, government, or philosophy. The aeons of its chronological development, along with the geographical ubiquity of religious culture, mean that the phenomenology of religion is dauntingly plenitudinous. The primary sources alone that the historian of religious symbols and ideas must master (viz., virtually the entire poetic, literary, artistic, and philosophical legacy of mankind from antiquity to the modern) are vast. Few other studies are quite so intellectually demanding, which is why theology, until recently, always stood at the summit of the university curriculum, to be scaled only after a rigorous preparation in all of the other “lower” disciplines.
The greatest of the modern authorities on Western religion (Durkheim, Levy-Bruhl, Jung, Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Francis Cornford, Gilbert Murray, Franz Cumont, Rudolph Otto, T.H. Gaster, Robert Graves, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, Hugo Rahner, to leave out all of the scholars of Christian theology specifically) are, even on the basis of a life’s work, hesitant to declare what religion “is about”. And none of them is so obtusely daring as to reduce it to the puerile simplifications that are the stock-in-trade of the militant atheists.
In the past few months I have been set upon by no less than half a dozen atheists (who swarm like wasps on every university campus) determined to put me straight on religion. Each of these independent thinkers has propagated the same–to borrow a neologism from one of their prophets–meme: that religion is a risible fantasy about a personal God, creator of the universe, who is also the Freudian projection of a loving father figure, who shields us from and deceptively resigns us to the harsh realities of evil and injustice in the world; and that this is the “false premise” upon which all religion is based. Since I have heard this catena again and again, almost word for word, I assume it has become a sort of New Atheist Creed: Credo in no-um deum,…personalum fatherum….evilum don’t-worryum…falsum premissum…
I ask my assailants where the term “premise” comes from: Aristotelian logic, does it not? And of what discipline is logic a branch? Philosophy, is it not? And are philosophy and religion the same thing, or different? Different, they concede. But then, isn’t “false premise” an inapposite term to apply to religion? No, religion is based on a false premise (!), they insist (and then they repeat their aetiological mantra that religion is “all about” a personal God, creator, father, and our childish dependence upon him in the presence of worldly misfortune and injustice).
The experience of conversing with such irreligious dogmatists reminds one of nothing so much as trying to reason with a two-year-old. Much of religion is not “about” God at all. Primitive religion conceived of no deity beside the constellated omnipotency of the group soul of the tribe. The rites of Orpheus, Dionysus, Hercules, Mithras, Demeter and Persephone, Cybele and Attis, Ishtar and Tammuz, Isis and Osiris–the great mystery religions of late antiquity (of which Christianity was the last)—were scarcely cults of divine “personalities”, inasmuch as all of these “gods” and “goddesses” were merely culturally inflected, and thus syncretistically identified, regional “names” and forms significant of a universal dynamic of natural and spiritual death and rebirth (in which, by the way, motherhood is rather more important than fatherhood). Underlying all religion, from prehistoric to modern, is that pre-rational sense of impotent awe, fear, and wonder in the presence of what Rudolph Otto called “the numinous”, “the holy”, or “the mysterium tremendum”, an object of worship (although “worship” remains a wholly inadequate term) that is transcendently larger than any particular god or intellectual concept of Godhead.
The God of the ancient pagans, like that of Christians, is in any case infinitely more than a “creator”, “person”, or “father”. For the Greeks, he is pure, ineffable Being, utterly transcendent of the world of space, time, matter, sensation, limit, relation, category, qualification, description, in short, of all human experience, understanding, or affirmation. For Christians, he is similarly (in St. Thomas’ formulation) Ipsum Esse, Being Itself, and as such, totaliter aliter, totally Other.
His divine “personhood” and “fatherhood” have accordingly been acknowledged from the very beginning as merely provisional and inadequate analogies and projections from our own imperfect, finite human experience, and never intended to be understood in such a reductively literal or crudely anthropomorphic manner; and the adherents of religion have always been at pains to interpret God’s ineffable personhood and fatherhood in a thousand more meaningful ways.
Religious believers have thus known for millennia that God is neither a “person” nor a “father” in the infantile sense of those words as employed by today’s atheists. And we have been forced to wonder how it is that these adult, sophisticated debunkers of religion have yet to discover what we “childish” naifs, still being rocked in our cradles with the soothing fairy tales of God’s fatherhood in our ears, have always understood.