I spoke in an earlier post about Asma’s random shots in the dark. By that I was referring to his complete failure to understand what the New Atheism is all about. He seems to think that if we could find a therapeutic religion, that didn’t have the dire consequences of the big monotheisms, that that would be wonderful, and, since these poor people struggling on the edge of survival in the developing world cannot do better than the consolation of imaginary things, we should simply accept that this is a good solution to the miseries that these people endure day in and day out.
Asma mentions Marx, where Marx tells us that religion is the opiate of the people, but he doesn’t go on, as Hitchens does, to remind us of the context of Marx’s famous and often misunderstood saying. An opiate is needed because life is miserable, and we need something to dull the pain. But the opiate is really only a way of concealing the chains that bind us, says Marx, decorating the chain with flowers in order to delude ourselves that life is okay, after all. But, Marx says, the real task is to break the chains that bind us, so that we can pick the living flower. Asma says, “Leave the people in chains, but at least leave them their imaginary garden.” The atheist says, “Let’s break the chains, and help them grow real flowers.”
I remember once, years ago, when the piece of purple prose known as Desiderata was “discovered,” it was said, “in Old St. Paul’s Church.” That too, of course, was a lie. Remember the opening words, almost designed as a “put down” of New Atheists?
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.
I was visiting my father in Bermuda at the time, and he handed this to me to read, and asked me what I thought. He was obviously quite impressed by the sentiments expressed. My first reaction — and I know I disappointed him in this as in other things — was that it was anodyne. It didn’t really say anything, and it simply suggested a kind of quietism. It wouldn’t change anything. Father said he understood my point, but I’m not sure that he ever did.
Well, a lot of liberal religion is like that too. It’s a kind of polite pretence that we’re dealing with important things, while hiding behind a façade of lies. Only we won’t call them lies. We can call them metaphors, or myths, maybe even true myths. And while we won’t really “believe” what the myths tell us, we’ll somehow live our lives through them. It’s not altogether clear how this is to be done, but the idea is to live as though the myths are true – as though Jesus really rose from the dead, for example, even though we know that this kind of thing simply doesn’t happen. Paul Tillich called such pretend myths, “broken myths,” and the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann spoke of die Entmythologiserung, or, as it was called in English, demythologisation.
Of course, many people misunderstood what was being done and how it worked. In fact, in many cases it allowed clergy to go on saying the same thing that they had always said, but now to say it with a clear conscience, because, while they had continued to say things such as the Easter greeting, “Christ is Risen!” (to be answered with, “He is Risen Indeed!”), many of them had stopped believing in the physical resurrection as an historical event. But now, with demythologisation, they could say it with a good heart again, without the sense that they were misleading people — except, of course, that they still were!
Because, you see, there’s no way to tell a lie without actually lying! And the whole idea of demythologisation was simply too subtle for most people to grasp. It might have been a myth, but it was in some sense a “true myth”, and that’s really making a distinction whose subtlety defeated practically everyone who tried to use it. Because the myth, though in some sense “just” a myth, was also, in fact, powerful. It had a life-transforming ability. Bultmann was an existentialist theologian, and he believed that the kerygma — that is, the fundamental proclamation of the gospel — was in fact instinct with life-transforming power. The kergyma, according to Bultmann, was an entirely unique set of teachings which, when proclaimed, changed lives, and, in fact, in some sense achieved the new life that was represented in the Christian myth by the resurrection of Christ.
But, as I say, it was almost impossible to believe all this and not see the myths as, in fact, more than myths. That is perhaps why Mary Warnock, in her recent book, Dishonest to God, misunderstands the whole idea of demythologisation. She finds it confusing to speak in these terms.
[Paul Tillich] argued that myth could show truth, but that one should constantly look critically at the biblical myths, abandoning those whose meanign seems to have deserted them, interpreting and reinterpreting those which still had living force. Rather confusingly, this process was known as ‘demythologising the Bible’. 
And then she goes on to say that through this process Tillich and Bultmann and those who thought along these lines had “made the fundamentalist standpoint patently untenable, as it is for the most part today.” (133)
I think that is confusing, especially because, possibly for most people, a literal reading of the Bible is not untenable at all, and to a large extent demythologisation of the Bible enabled those for whom it was untenable to hold onto faith a little longer. And it also made it possible for clergy and other “experts” to hide from themselves and from other people what they were really up to. This is evident from phenomena such as the Alpha Course, which completely bypasses contemporary biblical scholarship and liberal theology in order to present a slimmed down version of evangelical Christianity, designed to answer all your questions about life.
In fact, I think, demythologisation was itself a myth, and not a true one. I am, I promise, coming to Philip Kitcher’s idea of religion as orientation, but it seems to me that it is almost impossible to think of religion in these terms and not, in some sense, actually to deceive oneself. For in the end, as PZ Myers says in his trenchant response to Asma (to which, incidentally, he has received a response), the question really is a very simple one: Is it true? And if it’s not true, or only pretend truth, then we have problems, because lies are destructive. I don’t think there is any way of separating religion into the good and the bad, the gentle and the cruel, because falsehood about really important things is cruel and destructive by definition, and they don’t cease being cruel just because you tell them in order to make people feel better. They may, for awhile, provide comfort. They may do it even for a lifetime. But you really have to ask yourself whether it would have been better to have lived the truth. And thinking that it’s okay to tell others lies, is making a claim to live their lives for them, and I don’t think anyone has a right to do that.