How should the atheist respond to the religious fundamentalist? The atheist’s inclination is to flood the theist with arguments proving the manifest irrationality of that worldview. I’ve attempted to do this many times over the years, entering into long debates and dialogues especially with committed Christians. Moreover, I believe that all forms of exoteric (literalistic, inerrantist) theism are in fact irrational. The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theist’s fallacies and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly a matter of choice and artistry. I’ll show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christian’s sermon.
The True Believer Speaks!
Joel C. Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian and author of several novels about how modern terrorism is prophesied in the Bible. In one of his recent blog posts, he offers his readers insight into why there’s so much gun violence in the US:
‘How is it possible,’ he asks, “that violent crime in the United States has surged by more than 460 percent since 1960?
‘The answer is as painful as it is simple: the further we turn away from God in our nation--the further we drive Him out of our society, out of our schools and courts, and out of our media, and out of our homes; or the more we give mere lip service to religion; the more men are ”holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)--the worse things are getting….
‘The Lord God Almighty is a gentleman. He won’t force us to accept His great love and many blessings. If a nation tells Him to leave, He will leave. But what are we reaping as a result of a society that increasingly ignores God and hates or dismisses Jesus Christ? We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder. We are witnessing a gruesome crime wave unprecedented in American history….
‘What is the future of America? Is America in a “Jonah” moment, or a “Nahum” moment? Will we hear the word of the Lord that we have strayed far from the teachings of the Bible and allowed our land to become polluted with abortions and pornography and violence and wickedness of all kinds? Will we admit how far we are from God’s plan and purpose for our lives? Will we confess that our hearts are far from Jesus Christ and plead with the Lord for His mercy and grace and forgiveness? Will we fast and pray and earnestly seek God’s face, and implore Christ to give us a Third Great Awakening? Or will we ignore the word of the Lord and continue in our sins and watch our nation continue to decline, or even implode?
‘There is a point of no return--a point at which God removes His hand of grace and mercy and turns to the judgment of America. If we don’t repent for our sins, we are going to face that judgment…perhaps sooner than we think….
‘Where are you today? Have you received Christ as your Savior and Lord? Are you absolutely certain that if you were to die today that you would spend eternity in heaven with the Lord? Are you leaning on Christ’s everlasting arms for complete forgiveness for your sins, for hope, for peace, for comfort, for wisdom and direction in this life, and in the life to come? If not, let this be the day of salvation for you.’
Fundamentalism’s Flagrant Irrationality
I trust that any atheist or even Christian with an insider’s grasp of the metaphorical nature of myths, who reads Rosenberg’s explanation will be able to think of a thousand reasons why it’s grossly, obviously, embarrassingly wrong. From a rational point of view, the faults of literalistic theism are endless; whenever a true-believing theist speaks about her religion, she commits a dozen fallacies, gets numerous facts wrong, and betrays her ignorance of one whopping irony after another. You could fill a library with texts demonstrating just a single religious fundamentalist’s errors, illogic, and characteristic vices.
I’ll just rattle off some examples before I turn to a more interesting question. Rosenberg feels--I won’t say “thinks”--that the cause of Americans’ troubles is secularism and that if only Americans were more authentically Christian, they wouldn’t now suffer so much. For example, they’d have less gun violence. Indeed, he says, the rise of gun violence is a sign that God is losing patience with the US and will eventually destroy that nation. How do you live as an authentic Christian? By following (parts of) the Bible and by paying heed to (some of) your inner voices, which are actually God’s voices.
Rosenberg thus oscillates between Jewish and Christian theologies, equivocating to suit the facts that authentic Christianity is untenable and compromised by its history, and that Americans can afford to adopt only what’s effectively secularized Judaism even while they blather on about Jesus. The New Testament sets out an antireligion of radical otherworldliness. To be sure, there probably was no historical Jesus or if there was, his exploits are irrelevant to the NT’s thorough mythologization of his life. In any case, the character Jesus was obviously opposed to natural life, because he had his eyes set on the spirit world, having likely hallucinated the holy shape of that world during his years in the desert as an ascetic. The forces of nature were thought to be those of what Paul calls “powers and principalities,” the fallen angels who have taken over the cosmos while--as every mystic and Platonist appreciates--the true, transcendent god can’t directly be found anywhere in nature. Thus, Jesus taught an ethical system so extreme as to be practically unworkable; that is, any society on Earth that would apply Jesus’ principles would collapse. This is because Jesus’ ethics were intended as means by which we could renounce the whole world and so save our immortal souls.
For example, in an authentically Christian “society,” there would be no biological families, since those depend on fallen instincts that distract us from the transcendent God. Also, there would be no capitalism since that form of business is premised on egoism. Oh, and politics, which reduces to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, would likewise fall by the wayside. Thus, such a society would boast the anarchy of the 1960s hippie movement. Everyone would live as if the present life were insignificant; they’d give away all their possessions, ignore their sexual instinct, be willing to sacrifice their personal welfare at every turn, and think about God more than anything else. That is, they’d live exactly as the character Jesus lived: they’d sacrifice their earthly life because they’d trust that another one is in store for them in the afterlife, that once their corporeal body gives way due to all of their anarchic, altruistic, and ascetic practices, they’d be reborn in the spirit world and live with God for eternity. Jesus was a Gnostic hippie, a radical anarchist, pacifist, and socialist who was opposed to everything that's natural. That’s Jesus’ message and that’s the New Testament; that’s authentic Christianity.
Of course, this mystical asceticism is quite counterproductive if you’re interested in establishing a religious institution in the here and now. The Church that pretended to represent Jesus naturally degenerated into a corrupt secular oligarchy. This is true of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant fiefdoms led by an assortment of megalomaniacs (televangelists, street preachers, cult gurus, and so forth). The Church literally merged with the secular Roman Empire and then with many more such empires, including the present American one. The upshot is that when Rosenberg speaks of authentic Christianity, he really means secularized Judaism. The Old Testament has much more balanced and realistic ethics than does the New, because the Jews were preoccupied with furthering the political lot of their particular tribe. God for them was their God, a God who favoured the Jews, who would commit genocide to make room for Jewish prosperity, who would punish the Egyptians for abusing God’s chosen people and promise the Jews earthly happiness if only they’d follow their covenant with the Lord and obey his practical, this-worldly laws. And indeed, Jews have followed that ancient regime, with its dietary and other social rules, and are still with us today. But the point is that Rosenberg is a closeted Jew, substituting Americans for Jews and the Old Testament for the New one, while throwing around the name “Jesus” every once in a while to make his readers think his savage tribalism has something to do with Jesus’ Gnostic asceticism. Indeed, Rosenberg happens literally to be a Jew for Jesus, but there are many evangelical Christians who likewise blend American nationalism with childish, literalistic theism, thus practicing a religion that has much more in common with Judaism than with Jesus’ mysticism.
Rosenberg feels that God cares especially about Christians and thus about Americans. This requires that Rosenberg substitute an idol for the transcendent deity of monotheism, that he project an image onto the divine to flatter his ego. Rosenberg is the biased one with nationalistic pride, not the Creator of the universe. How can God choose favourites if choice requires a mind which in turn requires a brain? How could an omnipotent being limit itself to a brain that would exist in space and time? Even if Jesus represented God, the Christian gives a nod to the mystic by speaking of God the Father as transcending human categories (even while contradicting herself by calling that deity male). Why would God care more about Americans than about North Koreans? Because Americans worship God? Why would God need to be worshipped? Why would he want us to pray to him? Why would he care to save us from hell? God can have no desires, no character, and no personhood while also being the precondition of such particularities. Rosenberg feels that God can literally lose his patience, that God’s gracious only for so long before he turns to judgment and punishes the wicked. This is simply, obviously idolatry. God can’t literally be a person with such a thing as patience or an interest in morality or justice, without rendering theology absurd. If God has desires, he automatically has limitations, meaning that he has some desires but not others; thus, he becomes a contingent, particular thing rather than the source and precondition of all things. God becomes a created being rather than the ground of all beings. This is the point of mystical, esoteric theism which escapes the Evangelical Christian. When we try to understand something, we apply categories to it and so what we comprehend is always limited, meaning that it can fit into our conceptual boxes. Thus, we cannot understand that which is supposed to be unlimited, infinite, and eternal, which is God.
So Rosenberg must be very proud of his insight into God’s nature and purpose. Perhaps he should be canonized. Sure, he attributes this understanding to God’s revelation, but many people have read the Bible and disagree with Rosenberg’s interpretation of it, just as many have claimed to speak directly with God through the inner promptings of their conscience, but have come away with an altogether different message than Rosenberg’s. Nevertheless, Rosenberg can write with a straight face that he effectively represents God, that his advice on how to fix American culture correctly interprets and applies God's revealed wisdom, as though the creator of the universe would also write books and would need a human interpreter.
Rosenberg feels that if we don’t want God around, God will leave us since he’s a “gentleman.” God won’t force his love on those who don’t want it, like a Catholic priest; instead, God loves us from a distance like a dirty old man spying on children. God makes himself present only to those who invite him in, because the presence of God is identical with the fiction you imagine as soon as you begin to seal your mind within a self-reinforcing delusion, with that initial bizarre act of faith in an absurdity. The creator of black holes and dark matter, of quantum mechanics and a multiverse of universes also wants a loving relationship with some clever mammals who happened to evolve by natural selection? No, that tall tale isn’t fit even for children. And Americans don’t turn God away with their secularism; instead, they embrace a Jewish-Christian hybrid form of idolatry and equate God with the anthropomorphic fiction they create in their image. Instead of worshipping a supernatural source of every particular thing in the universe, American exoteric theists and all religious fundamentalists worship a mental projection of themselves. They prefer worldly freedom to sin and then they betray their prophets, debase mystical wisdom, and redefine God to suit their sinful lifestyles. Thus, they invent theological justifications of war, sex, family, business, and all manner of vices. Rosenberg merely uses his idol to condemn those sins to which he’s personally opposed, while some other fundamentalist will condemn the secular habits that Rosenberg cherishes.
Rosenberg implies that he’s “absolutely certain” that when he dies he’ll spend eternity with God. But perfect certainty is cheap. Plenty of insane people in mental institutions are absolutely certain that they’re Napoleon Bonaparte or an alien from another galaxy. If you bid farewell to the rules of evidence, to the standards of rational thought, you can cheaply build up invincible confidence in any outlandish proclamation. That’s unimpressive; on the contrary, the spectacle of an adult so belittling himself is grotesque. Rosenberg should reflect on the fact that critical thinking has been instrumental to billions of heroic acts, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our prehistory when our ancestors had to decipher environmental clues in their hunt for food, in their farming, and in their evasion of predators. How many billions of times have human children been saved by their parents’ rational thinking, by their commitment to think responsibly, to base their beliefs on the evidence and not to get caught up in foolish games? What’s the comparable track record of blind faith in some patent absurdity peddled by simpletons and charlatans?
Of course, it goes without saying that the more religious society is hardly the more peaceful one. Organized religion is an expression of the tribal instinct to preserve one dominance hierarchy at the expense of another. No more proof of this is needed than the fact that the American religious right has replaced gentle Jesus’s message of extreme self-sacrifice with a xenophobic, warmongering cult of infinite consumption. Instead of denying themselves for the sake of helping others, rightwing Americans demonize all foreigners and worship an extension of themselves in the form of their tribal God who blesses social Darwinian capitalism and American military hegemony. They select an already-mutilated religion to rationalize their woeful predilections. And so rightwing Americans--who make up the bulk of evangelical Christians and who live in southern states that are by far the most violent--love guns, because they celebrate wild western individualism. That is, because the American religion is more Jewish than Christian, the most religious Americans are also the most nationalistic, and because guns were so instrumental in forging the American identity, through its War of Independence, its Civil War, and its experience of anarchy as a colonial society lacking a long monarchical history, the most religious Americans are also the most steadfast supporters of guns. Hence the egregious gun violence in the US. The problem is hardly American godlessness; rather, it’s that the most passionate American theists derive their absolute certainty from the childishness of their theology, and pretend to be interested in God at the very moment they reveal that they’re blatant narcissists. There’s far too much exoteric theism in the US for that to be a relatively peaceful country.
The Irrelevance of that Irrationality
I could go on and on and on, and I’m not just saying so. But notice that a rational take-down of some pitiful theistic assertions makes no difference. It solves nothing. Reason has no pride of place in religious fundamentalism. Moreover, most logical and empirical refutations of theism are hackneyed and so uninspiring. All of the crucial New Atheistic arguments were made by the old atheists a few centuries ago. Thus, I think the above sort of refutation is a distraction (as fun as it can be to formulate). Instead, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from religious fundamentalism. When I read Rosenberg’s nauseating sermon or when I see a self-righteous Christian or Muslim on TV or harassing bystanders on the street, I’m struck most of all by a feeling of alienation. Here, you see, we have a real sense of strangeness: between the minds of a philosophical naturalist/cosmicist and of, say, an Evangelical Christian, there’s an abyss that can’t be bridged. Rosenberg might as well literally be an alien from another world, or at least an alien pod that’s invaded a human body, and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual, which is to say that New Atheists, for example, must seem just as bizarre to born-again Christians or to militant Muslims.
This leads to the postmodern sense of vertigo, of inescapable relativism, as we come to view our way of thinking more objectively and to wonder whether we could likely be in the right when we atheists are also the bizarre, foolish aliens according to some opposing perspective. Every culture is preposterously arbitrary from an outsider’s viewpoint. However natural and thus caused our beliefs may be, we are also cursed with limited freedom to create our worldview, to assign meaning and to prefer some mental associations to others; we sculpt our memories, surrender to cognitive biases, and otherwise personalize our mindspace to feel at home in the cosmic wilderness. The result is that whereas our biological body is mostly forced on us, our mind is more artificial just to the extent that our philosophy is a matter of taste and subject, properly speaking, to aesthetic evaluation. Even the ultrarationality of a Sherlock Holmes, a Spock, or a Sheldon Cooper is a lifestyle, a work of art in which the rationalist lives.
Again, then, when I read Rosenberg, I don’t feel proud that I think I can eviscerate his toy religion. In the last section, I meant to present such a refutation only to set it aside, to show that someone who can think in that way also appreciates the futility of those criticisms. Instead, what interests me is the opportunity for self-knowledge afforded by the experience of such palpable strangeness. The religious fundamentalist is weirdly foolish to the secular humanist, and the feeling is mutual, and we’re all weirdly foolish next to the undead flow of natural processes. The universe continues to evolve and to complexify regardless of our awareness of what the universe is doing or of our ability to call processes by some names. There’s enough strangeness to go around, so we should be more impressed by displays of genuine humility.
The next time we come across some theistic prattle, maybe we should be less quick to attack and more prone to reflect on the existential significance of such a meeting. Read the deranged diatribe and astound yourself by reflecting on the fact that if a mighty human body can choose to be so wrongheaded, there is no hope for anyone’s perfect right-headedness. Our worldviews are largely works of art and we are all silly little artists, with our pretentious berets and oversized palettes, vainly preferring to live among our self-portraits. This is not to say, with the lazy postmodernist, that all worldviews are equally meritorious, but only that we need to appeal to aesthetic and ethical standards when we judge between them. As I argue elsewhere, Christianity is currently the most hideous major religion, so it badly fails a worldview’s existential test. Secular humanism is superior but still not to my taste, and I’m trying to create a more aesthetically appealing worldview, which is to say an emotionally moving and rationally powerful one, sharing the results in these rants within the undead god.