Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Even the devil can quote Shakespeare (or Goethe) to his purpose — und wir werden uns vor Gott (oder vor den Teufel) nicht erniedrigen.
I had almost forgotten, pleasantly, I assure you, of R. Joseph Hoffmann, and his continuous harangues about the new atheists — or is it just atheists in general now — and how they simply do not understand how ridiculous they are. (H/t to Veronica Abbas for pointing out Hoffmann’s continued angst about the new atheism and its shortcomings.) He does not date his posts, so it would be hard, but for the comments, to know whether his article, “Atheism’s Little Idea,” was written recently, or is some long remembered, far off thing. But since the comments begin on the 26th November, we can take it as the latest from this fountainhead of virtue, intellectual sophistication, and artfully contemptuous thought. Anyone who styles himself, as Hoffmann does, so superciliously, really must produce something worthy of the presumption. However, Hoffmann so obviously lacks any insight into genuine disbelief that he seems fated to skim over the surface forever.
He states that
It seems that everything I write these days is anti-atheist. And who can blame my unbelieving brethren for assuming I am fighting for the other side.
But his arguments for the other side simply miss the point, skimming elegantly over the surface of things. Sure, there may be tacky things about contemporary atheism, the coffee mugs, T-shirts and billboards, blasphemy days, and other signs that disbelief has slipped out of its isolation in the academy, but has the sophisticated one never been to St. Anne de Beaupré recently, or stepped into one of the hundreds of tacky little shrines set up where someone was killed or cured, or joined the queue to venerate a victim soul?
It really is tiresome to be continually reminded by self-proclaimed atheists that only they are right and everyone else is wrong, the way Hoffmann does, instead of trying to understand where the downmarket aspects of some atheism comes from. Atheism cannot afford to continue to play the polite academic game, and write thousands of pages of angst-ridden contorted thought about having swallowed the sea, because, in the meantime, religion is playing its usual, perfidious game of perverting the minds of children, fighting for its right to be the guiding principle (or principles) of a culture or two, at the same time that it murders unbelievers and critics, and endeavours to tie unbelief up in knots of self-doubt.
“Lieber Gott: Bitte kommen Sie wieder. Wir sind sehr traurig, daran zu zweifeln Sie.” is simply not for us. We’re simply not very sorry to have doubted him. Hoffmann claims that
There was nothing “mistaken” about belief in God, and the fact that there is probably no god does not lessen his significance.
Ah, a paradox! Let’s delve into that significance awhile. There are people in the United States, to go no further, who stalk the land with their mistaken beliefs about the constitution of reality. They tried and failed to define the person as a fertilised ovum in the fine state of Mississippi (was it? — these idiocies pop up like mushrooms after a rain, it’s hard to keep track), but they won’t stop there. They proclaimed, in a state where assisted dying has recently been legalised, that “assisted dying is false compassion.” The Republican Party in the US seems to be composed of a bunch of crazy theocrats who want to take God into public life, and break down the separation between church and state, and Hoffmann can say that there was nothing mistaken about belief in God! The mind reels with the idiocy of the claim.
No, perhaps religious belief in God never amounted to a scientific claim. The reason for this is that religion was around for thousands of years before science became a going concern and proved to be so successful in discovering the truth about the world around us, enough truth, at least, to make the guesses of the past look like fairy tales. But this doesn’t mean that belief in God was not, and is not, a mistake, and Hoffmann, an atheist (well, perhaps) who doesn’t think it was a mistake, is simply confusing culture and religion. Religions, as Don Cupitt has pointed out, are cultures, and theocracy is a kind of cultural imperialism. Christians want their god to be at the centre of public life because they see the cultural gravity pulling it away from the centre of things, as the cultures of the west become not only multi-ethnic but also multi-religious. Judaism has been, for centuries, the odd man out in places where the culture, created on the basis of the Christian religion, was dominant. Jews were allowed to live amongst Christians on sufferance only, and very often found themselves in unpropitious circumstances, when Christian permissions (through a lapse of forgetfulness, perhaps) lapsed, and orthodox subsitutionary beliefs took their palce. The Holocaust may have cured us of that, but the increasing presence of Islam in our midst has raised the ugly questions once again. These are religio-cultural conflicts, and until we recognise that that is what they are, and that religion has to be told that, henceforth, religious fairy tales have to take a back seat, and stop trying to drive and dominate the cultures they once took a proprietory interest in, the kinds of things represented by the Holocaust are going to happen again and again.
Religions, as Don Cupitt tells us (see The Religion of Being), told us who our brothers are, and who are our enemies. The liberal project over the last three hundred years or so has been an attempt to rise beyond those religio-cultural barriers, but instead of seeing that this is a worthwhile project, and may, indeed, be the only thing that can save us from the religious conflagration to come if we don’t learn how to do it, Hoffmann pines for the days of the kind of “thick” atheism that took religions seriously, and measured its own seriousness against the supposed profundities of religion. So he mentions Sartre, for instance. The whole of the next bit is worth quoting in full:
Atheism until fairly recently has been about a disappointing search for god that ends in failure, disillusionment, despair, and finally a new affirmation of human ingenuity that is entirely compatible with both science and art.
That’s the way Sartre thought of it. — A conclusion forced upon us by the dawning recognition that we are both the source and solution to our despair. That is what Walter Lippmann thought in 1929, when he described the erosion of belief by the acids of modernity. This atheism was respectful of the fact that God is a very big idea, a sublime idea, and that abandoning such an idea could not take place as a mere reckoning at one moment in time; it had to happen as a process that included hatred, alienation and what Whitehead saw as “reconciliation” with the idea of God.
But we don’t want to be respectful of the fact that “God is a very big idea.” It’s not. It’s simply not a big idea at all. It’s a classic piece of religious hyperbole to suppose that, because God is (according to the religions) the creator and sustainer of the universe, this imagined being at the centre of religion is a correspondingly big idea. But it’s not. Nietzsche said that by killing God we had swallowed the sea. In other words, we had emptied human life of meaning. But where is the evidence that for all his angst about dispensing with God, atheism is nihilistic in the way he thought it was?
Hoffmann obviously wants us to retreat to a culturally serious atheism, to an atheism that takes its opposition to religion with grave solemnity, and acknowledges what a big, perhaps catastrophic, cultural move it is to reject the fear of the gods, and to treat them with casual, and even frivolous, contempt. But one of the things that we might discover when we really have given up our idea of god or gods, is how little is changed when the gods depart. Thousands of gods have already gone. They died when those who believed in them died. After mentioning Walter Lippmann, Ortega y Gasset, Wilfred Owen, and William Butler Yeats, Hoffmann goes on to say, with evident self-congratulation:
My current Angst, to use that hackneyed word correctly, is that most contemporary humanists don’t know what classical humanism is, and most modern atheists won’t even have read the books mentioned in the last paragraph, and what’s more will not care.
Good, I’ve read them too, some of them many years ago. I can acknowledge the kind of angst and wavering, unsure respect that atheists used to experience, something like the ambivalence expressed by Philip Larkin when he wondered what would remain “when churches fall completely out of use.”
Power of some sort will go on [he writes]
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. ["Churchgoing"]
But why, I want to ask, does there have to be such angst about it? Sure, read Ortega, read of his doubts about mass culture, and where the gravity of high culture will go, but don’t pretend, as you do, that the sublimity of Mozart was not unaccompanied by something that seems, by contrast, dissolute and irresponsible, that great men have their seamier side.
So, when Hoffman dismisses, with these words –
That’s what the atheist militia, the campaigners, the billboard mongers are: people who just say “Duh” when they are asked about the existence of God.
– those who have simply abandoned belief in God or the angst once joined at the hip with this dismissal of the supernatural – imaginary supernatural – agents who have to do with us, and our lives, is there really a need to be so contemptuous? What, we may ask with Larkin, will happen when churches fall completely out of use? What will take the cultural place of religions, and the disbelief adjoined to them? What will we hold serious on serious earth then? Good questions all. But they will not be answered by nostalgia. Something new is taking their place. Where seriousness will be found is perhaps yet to be found. But can we not suppose that
… someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
and that, while Larkin could think of no other way of fulfilling this hunger than by
… gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round,
can we not suppose, after all, that other ways of being serious will be found, and that that seriousness can at the same time laugh at itself, and at earlier ways of trying to be serious, and that such gravity need not forever lean towards those “serious houses on serious earth” we call churches or synagogues or mosques? Certainly, disbelief must find its way. But, must it continue to find its way back to this ground, which was once thought proper to grow wise in? Is this the only proper place to be serious on serious earth? I think not. I certainly hope not, because along with that old seriousness went so many horrendous consequences, people stoned to death — still! — people burned to death, people ostracised, people hated and despised, women subordinated, women put in bags, lest mens’ seriousness should turn to debauchery. Well, perhaps that’s enough. Must we forever be locked into religious dreams in order to take life seriously? Can we find meaning and purpose with seriousness and appropriate gravity only through imagining the subordination of our lives to an imagined other?