Thursday, December 21, 2006

What are we fighting for?

I was driving to work today and began pondering the hostility between secular humanists/atheists and religious believers. The conflict is, I think, especially acute in a country like the USA. Two of the nation's founding ideological voices were polar opposites. Tom Paine is as much a part of the US American constitution as Jonathan Edwards. Two centuries later, Ingersoll and Kaufmann were as key a source of "inspiration" for secularists as Sheen and Graham were for believers. Nowadays we have the likes of Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett doing the heavy lifting secular rationality, while a host of leading Christians and Jews counter their efforts. It really is a battle.

But this morning I wondered why the battle is so pitched. Most Christians need only hear so and so is "an atheist" and they will feel an instinctive clenching of the throat, a small wave of vertigo at such an odious specimen. The same goes for secularists. Both sides react impulsively to "trigger words" like atheist, Christian, free thought, faith, etc. Even without actively or articulately engaging the issues and debating opponents, both sides feel an innate hostility to what their opponents represent. Most intellectual disputes remain at a lower key; geologists may scorn flat-earthers as embarrassing, but they most likely don't detest them as threats or enemies. So what accounts for this animus in religious and anti-religious dialogue?

Certainly an underlying motive for both "camps" is the desire for truth as such. But why would such a noble aim generate such hostile polemics? There must be more than "pure love for the truth". Seen in a positive light, we could imagine both sides seem angry because their altruism is being thwarted, like a schoolboy who throws a tantrum when his Valentine rejects his candy. Seen in the most idealistic light, perhaps both sides are just throwing tantrums because the other side is rejecting true efforts to help. Perhaps secularists wish for nothing more than to see all people "unshackled" and able to develop themselves without scruple. Perhaps believers most desire to see their neighbors accept a great and liberating truth -- to be saved.

These motives sound so ideal because they are so idealized. The fact is, while Christians should consistently regard their enemies with love, many often react out of baser, more visceral motives. And the same certainly can be said for secularist, for whom there is not even a common duty to "love thy enemy". Christians do not merely "overreact" at the prospect of people going to hell for disbelief. (Strong predestinarians accept that fate for the damned as an eternal decree; so to speak libertarians, like Catholics, Orthodox and Methodists, accept the fate nonbelievers freely choose.) Secularists likewise do not react so negatively to "god-idiots" just because they're "missing out on" being a "free" secularist.

I think the fundamental issue is that both groups react so strongly because they see the opposition as threatening their central values. Both groups fear the other is trying to rip each others' hearts out, the very core of their respective lives. For Christians, the central value is to know and love God as God. For secularists, the central value is to be as human as you can be. When secularists impose human restrictions on the sovereignty and glory of God on earth, Christians feel their heart squeezed in a vise. When Christians chastise "humanity" for being sinful or imperfect or incomplete, secularists feel their hearts being crushed.

Talk of God threatens the secularist because it imposes limits on man's autonomy. Talk of a godless universe threatens the religious believer because it undermines the very ground of his being, God, the very core of his aspirations, God. Thus, the hostility between atheists and believers is so pitched because it amounts to true ontological warfare. Christians continuously remonstrate against secularists that they are not only limited -- non-autonomous -- but also are trying to dislodge the highest and deepest source of life and light. Meanwhile, believers feel as if even the mere denial of God, however politely stated, is a hammer blow against the keystone in the arch of being and goodness. Both sides fight so zealously because they feel the other side is literally destroying their ontological habitat.

God, for the theist, is so fundamental a reality, that even the thought of"doing away with it" is obscenely, hostilely bizarre. An analogy I propose is that between the reality of God for a theist and the reality of, well, reality for an atheist. Material reality is so self-evident and so massive a reality for the materialist that the mere thought of "compromising" it, or subjecting it to a "higher plane of existence" is a hostile obscenity. (%%) As to objection that material reality is really self-evident while God is plainly not so evident -- else why would He be denied in countless ages? -- the very obvious answer is that material reality has just as long, if not longer, a history of being denied, by idealists, perceptionists, et al. If the contestability of God weighs against His existence, then so to does the contestability of matter weigh against materialism. (%%) Where would physical science be if people denied the coherent existence of physical objects? The existence of the universe as a self-existent reality (even if "our" universe" is construed as one bubble in the eternal multiverse), is so basic a truth for the secularist that denying or even "qualifying" )and thus challenging) it is vulgar fantasy. I suggest that this same visceral outrage is at work in the theist when God is "qualified" or, worse, directly and hostilely rejected. God is to the theist what the universe (or, material reality) is to the atheist. The two camps are so pitted against each other because they totally invert each other's valuative axioms. God is a result of the universe at work, on atheism; on theism, the universe is a result of God at work. On theism, an all-seeing God creates a blind and contingent universe; on atheism, an all-powerful universe, which "knows" everything because it is coextensive with everything, creates a blind and contingent god. In both cases, the battle is waged over who is actually standing over an abyss: the atheist who makes a creator out of the creation or the theist who makes a creation out of the creator? To challenge either claim is to burst the bubble and those on it into an abyss of ontic annihilation.

For, if the secularist is right, the best thing we can do is align ourselves in any way we see fit with the eternal universe. We may dissolve into the quagmire of atoms once more, but at least we will not resist the flow of nature. If the theist is right (and I of course believe he is), the best thing we can do is align ourselves with the source of the created goodness we know, by heeding the counsel of God as lights and stepping stones out of the dissolution of the universe. In either case, the ultimate aim is seen to let ourselves go and "flow into" the ultimate reality, which, in both cases, is eternal. If a man denied the existence of God, he would not only be damning himself into oblivion, apart from that Great Be-ing (which should generate altruistic proselytism), but also would be eradicating a true and awesome Good from the ontological "stage". Such a denial would be a destruction not only of one's self in the "after-show party" but also of the very screenwriter and director himself! The secular animosity, by contrast, stirs up from a loathing for being "upstaged" by the screenwriter. An actor need not personally know the writer to act out, to live, a great character on stage. Likewise, the secularist says, a great human need not know the Author of Life to live well. Insisting some "god" take center stage ruins, in secular eyes, the free play of the actors. Above all, then, secularism hinges on the belief in man's autonomy; any attack against that autonomy calls forth battle cries.

It is precisely here where I disagree with the secularist. The autonomy of humans? What could the term even mean? The great paradox of materialist secularism is that while it defends man's rational autonomy from the encroachments, the upstagings, of God and His laws, it simultaneously does so by arguing man is totally bound by material reality. Further, every argument an atheist makes against "revelation" on the grounds that transcendence and dogma have a very porous "genealogy", an all too "holey" and all-zu-Menschliches background, is itself an argument against man's autonomy, since the categories of secular humanism themselves have just as swiss-cheesy an origin. If everything is genealogically so fragile contingent and so rigidly materially bound, then only Everything is autonomous -- and devastatingly autonomous over little Man. Ralph Ellison wrote of “changing the joke and slipping the yoke”; black people could creatively transform the jokes told against them, laughing the laughter to bits as it were, and thus slip off the yoke those jokes imposed. I see an inverted process at work in secularism: by slipping the yoke of that Great Joke of a Sovereign Sky-God, secularism ends up just switching the yoke without ever dispelling the Joke of Man's autonomy. If a God allegedly limits Man, steals his intrinsic autonomy, then certainly an unthinking deterministic universe is just as limiting for human autonomy. The quest to bring the pie down from the sky just ends up leaving an empty pie pan; and the pie pan must be filled. The path of secularism has always aimed to be the path of Progress. This just switches the yoke from a heavenly pie to a Utopian pie; the Joke never fades; man is never autonomous. Secularism is only a different cell of the same old prison of heteronomy.

Ultimately, I suppose the “cure” for secularism as humble realism, or, realistic humility. Can a campaign b founded on such a farce as the “autonomy of man”? Surely not. In a man's life, can a meaningful philosophy really be founded by such a chimera as one's “personal autonomy”? Surely not. If we look at the texture and the terrain of our lives, we are faced at every turn, in every fold of experience, with the humbling, even humiliating, reality of our weakness, frailty, inconsistency, contingency, dependence, emptiness, neediness, error, misanthropy, and so forth. Only by denying such huge tracts of empirical deontology can secularism say with a straight face, “Man is autonomous; Man is complete in himself to make his own ends.” The campaign against God, then, is founded on a big joke, the irreal and surreal farce of Autonomous Man. (Surely not only I see the hilarious incongruity of the little man Nietzsche -- born of a Lutheran minister, raised by a half dozen women, pining for a prostitute, enjoying the comforts of an academic chair at 24, raging mysoginistically and atheistically, then dying of syphilis in a mental asylum – of this little man claiming to forge a path to Übermenschentum! Nietzsche was so surreal a philosopher because he claimed such irreal powers for himself.

I take this talk of irrealism, of an escapist tendency from the horrors of human frailty, very literally. I see secularism as a fiction. Being a writer, I think in writer's terms. For the secularist, talk of God's immutable laws restricts human freedom to make and remake himself for a better (well, how could say for sure?) world. God, in a word, gives man existential writer's block. Likewise, for creative writers, prattling on about immutable natural laws imposes limits on her creativity. If a narrow-minded critic insisted “humans can't fly!”, and therefore the writer's protagonist superhero “just can't fly”, the writer would have to violate her story to appease the critic. The other option, which I endorse for creativity's sake, is to ignore the critic, with his narrow-mind, and get on with sending the hero aloft. From this analogy, I'm inclined to see secular humanism as metaphysical sf -- it creates a myth of human autonomy -- the superman, der Übermensch -- which the "laws of God" would otherwise keep grounded. The problem is that while a writer can let her hero live in a world where he can fly, at the end of the day the writer herself must return to our world, where people can't fly. The Autonomous Man, then, is a fictional superhero; we human beings, however, must live in a world fraught with our own humbling heteronomy. The metaphysical turn theism requires is to keep our fantastic dreams distinct from our lived reality, and find the true fantasy of being in its source, God.

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