Chapter four of Notes of an Underground Humanist

(Notes from between 2006 and 2013)

        Dear God

 

It’s said you’re full of love for us

And wish us all the best.

Okay, supposing that is true,

I have just one request.

 

To help us humans have good lives,

Please break religion’s spell;

In other words, please kill yourself

—And send yourself to hell.

 

As the reader knows, atheism has had some illustrious defenders in recent years, people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. In fact, one might say that atheism is on the offensive.

           

As a staunch atheist, though, I’m not sure whether to applaud the new movement or to view it with disdain. I incline towards the latter position, for several reasons. First of all, I have encountered very few new ideas among these aggressive atheists. Most of their books and articles are uninteresting, at least to anyone who has historical perspective. It is infinitely more rewarding to read Nietzsche than to read a media-whore like Christopher Hitchens. More generally, the “new atheists” don’t seem to realize that the world faces much greater problems than the widespread belief in God. Notwithstanding the little poem I put at the head of this chapter, the horrors caused by religious belief are of little significance compared to the horrors caused by corporate and state power. Capitalism has become so destructive that species survival is threatened, and the wars and violence waged on behalf of private and public power destroy thousands of lives every day. In a few fundamentalist states, yes, there is great value in anti-religious activism; but in most of the world, public intellectuals would be well-advised to follow the examples of Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Norman Finkelstein, and other such leftists if they want to have beneficent influence on society.

           

Instead you get superfluous books like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, an unreadable embarrassment. Arguing against religious dogmas is easy, too easy. To expose the silliness of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is no more difficult than to expose the silliness of ancient polytheism, medieval Norse religion, and Scientology. It is all stunningly irrational and childish. There are, however, other modern religions that are perhaps even more stupid and certainly more dangerous, religions like the Free Market theology that has in the past forty years destroyed millions of lives around the world and is threatening to destroy the species. Indeed, religions such as Christianity can be used in the service of extirpating these truly pernicious ideologies and power-structures, these modern murderous misadventures of the mind and of politics, as Christianity was used in Latin America’s liberation theology movement from the 1960s to the 1980s. Whether religion is a positive or a negative force depends not only on its doctrines but on its social and political context. Doubtless it is best not to delude oneself, but if doing so gives one the strength and inspiration to fight oppression or simply to persevere, then I say: there are worse things than self-delusion.

           

In the end, though, I am definitely on the side of atheism, i.e. reason, and I deplore the quietism that religion has tended to foster among oppressed populations (with a few notable exceptions). “Console yourself in the thought of the Beyond,” people are counseled, “and resign yourself to a sinful, hateful world.” It is ironic that religion has so often had the effect of making the world an even more sinful and hateful place than it already is. In any case, there are other ways to “spiritually” bond with people than through religion, and there are other ways to steep oneself in cosmic wonder. It will not be a sad day when the three great Western religions vanish from the earth.

           

In the knowledge of this, I used to dabble in the diverting art of Christian mockery. I’ve put some of those thoughts below and added a few of more substance.

 

*

 

“God is dead.”— Anyone who disagrees with Nietzsche has one foot in the Middle Ages. (Religion is residual.)

*

 

Nietzsche said it best.— “When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a Jew, crucified 2000 years ago, who said he was God’s son? The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed—whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions—is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross—how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed?”

 

*

 

A very strange idea.— I’d like to know who first conceived this notion.— Science and religion are compatible: one is concerned with reason, the other with faith. They have two separate mental “spheres” that are unrelated, and hence their claims can be believed at the same time without the believer’s being embroiled in contradictions. It is consistent to believe both that the world was created six thousand years ago and that it was created fourteen billion years ago—that a man named Jesus Christ was once resurrected and that resurrection is impossible—that a woman named Mary gave birth to a child without having had sex first and that sex is necessary for a woman to give birth to a child—that there is a place where we reside after death called “heaven” and that such an idea is senseless. Reason rejects ideas that faith salvages merely by virtue of naming them “objects of faith.” If they’re “objects of faith”…then it is inconceivable for anything to be wrong with them! By applying the magical phrase “object of faith” to any idea, one can raise it to such a level of intellectual respectability that even to argue against it is futile. –Even some scientists and philosophers subscribe to the belief!

 

*

 

Remarks overheard in the subway.— Two men sat down next to me, clearly of the blue-collar class—probably from a slummy part of the city—one of them holding a copy of a newspaper on which was printed a giant, unflattering photograph of Joseph Ratzinger. The man looked at it. “That the new pope?” “Yup.” “He ain’t gonna last long.” “They keep picking these dudes that ain’t gonna last long.” Then they talked about basketball. —I realized that, sometimes, the less education one has, the more sensible one is.

 

*

 

On Christian irrationality.— Once in a while I read a blog post or a letter-to-the-editor by Richard Dawkins. He takes it upon himself to use rational argumentation to try to convince Christians that they’re wrong. I would suggest to him that he give it up. Let history deal with Christians; philosophers and scientists will get nowhere with them. How can you argue with people the premise of whose belief-system (insofar as they really believe it) is that evidence counts for nothing and blind devotion is the highest virtue? The “blindness” part is absolutely essential to Christianity—not because one has to be blind in order to believe in it, but because faith is supposed to be an act of “infinite trust,” based not on logic but on a leap of love. The more one argues for Christianity (in the mode of science or rationalism), the less one understands it. This is why people who fall back on the stock answer (to rational queries) “God works in mysterious ways” are right to answer so. The spirit of their religion demands that they not take part in philosophical cerebration, lest they disrespect their god, who expects infinite love. At the core of Christ’s teaching is the implicit precept, “Have faith in me for the sole reason that it is for your own good”—though this may be expressed in loftier-sounding ways (for example, by saying that since God loves you, you should love him back). In other words, being a Christian means, by definition, suspending rational/scientific thought, such as the search for evidence—which indeed helps explain why not a single verse in the Gospels praises intelligence. (Intelligence is dangerous to Christianity! This belief-system is intended only for people who need comfort, i.e. for the “meek.”) The difficulty of fulfilling the Christian project to suspend reasoned thought has made inevitable the many rationalistic and “scientific” defenses of it that have been proposed over the centuries. (One of the few philosophers who really understood it was Kierkegaard. Hence his never arguing for it except from an anti-scientific perspective.)

*

 

Morbid Catholicism.— In the Piazza of San Marco in Florence is a church in which lies the dried-out corpse of Saint Antonino from the fifteenth century, his hands folded on his chest in a well-lit glass tomb. The sight is macabre. Above and behind him and all over the church are models of Jesus’s crucifixion, this man being tortured to death on a wooden cross with blood pouring from his hands and his pierced ribs. The church is cavernous and dark, with heavenly art and stained glass windows lulling the beholder into a state of awe intensified by the enforced silence, the whispering, the candles, the pews for praying on your knees with your head lowered and your hands clasped, and the “mass-iveness” of it all. And there are the rituals, the imbibing of wine (Christ’s blood) and the wafer (Christ’s flesh), and numerous such otherworldly, morbid rituals. And you realize that Catholicism is a religion of death. It is immersion in the past, preservation of the past and the dead, worship of the sphere of after-death, rejection of the worldly and the living. The five-hundred-year-old withered corpse of St. Antonino is an emblem of Catholicism. A religion so death-focused could not have triumphed in a dynamic civilization such as that before the late Roman Empire; and after a reemergence of dynamism in the 1400s, an epochal reformation was necessary. Dynamism, individuality, life had to be reintroduced into religion, which had become rigid and cadaverous. And yet even Protestantism is in general a sort of compromise between life and death, this-worldly affirmation and negation. Some forms of Catholicism can even be more this-worldly than some kinds of Protestantism—for example, liberation theology versus, perhaps, primitive Methodism. The forms that religion takes depend on the social context, but Catholicism has a definite tendency to oppress and weigh down the human spirit with death and its conceptual offshoots. The scent of decay, of a decaying antiquity, lingers about it.

           

It is ironic, then, that Catholicism would have inspired so much more great art than Protestantism. Or perhaps not so ironic. An obsession with the transcendent, after all, has often characterized the artistic temperament, as has a peculiar morbidity. On the other side, the Church has always used art as a means to intoxicate and entrance the human spirit, to raise its vision from ordinary life to eternal life-in-death. And to direct it from the present to the past, which is also supposed to be the posthumous future.

           

One might defend Catholicism by arguing that it “affirms” one side of man, the “transcendent” side, the wonder-full side, the side that looks toward the universe and craves divinity and immortality, as well as the communal side, which goes together with the Catholic emphasis on tradition, ritual, memory, the past. In some sense, this may be true. Nonetheless, Catholicism remains, or tends to remain (depending on the social context), a religion of anti-individuality, non-presence—the non-present, the mythical past and post-deathly future—death-in-life and life-in-death, which as such is opposed to a society immersed in a dynamic and forward-looking present.

 

*

 

Religion and wonder.— I don’t understand the popular belief that religion encourages a state of wonder in the believer. If I thought there were a God I would lose my wonder, or most of it. I’d think, “Oh well, an intelligent being designed all this, so it isn’t that amazing after all.” God himself would remain something of a mystery, but not a very exciting one. His status as an intelligent being would mean that he is just me, on a grander scale. My awe of him would be little more than glorified respect. Moreover, knowing that someone else understood the universe—that he had created the universe—would sap my wonder of grandeur. It would no longer implicitly glorify me, because I would know that I was absolutely inferior to someone. (Part of the excitement of feeling wonder is that it half-consciously places the wonderer on a pedestal in his own mind, as someone capable of a rarefied intellectual emotion. If he knows that his object of wonder has been intentionally designed, there is not an implicit contrast between him and an inferior brute force called “chance,” and so he cannot implicitly respect himself by virtue of this contrast.) My place in the cosmos would be demoted to that of a little being who was too insignificant to understand his Master: my awe would amount to the plea, “Tell me, please, Excellency, how you did all this! I’m exceedingly curious and very impressed.” In general, everything would be less miraculous than it really is: it would be explainable in terms of intelligence and design and other such mundane concepts.

 

*

 

Religion as a hypothesis.— Atheists may, after all, be wrong. God may be laughing at me even as I write this. “Ha!” he chuckles. “Guess where you’re going in sixty years!” But I laugh right back at him, “Even if you exist, we don’t need you! At this stage of history you’re an afterthought. We’re doing a fine job of understanding the world without having to invoke a Divine Paradox. Science has proven its power; religion has no arguments in its favor, being indeed by its nature opposed to the search for evidence. We might as well ignore it.”

 

*

 

Religion as a Platonic “Noble Lie.”— People sometimes say that religion is necessary to ground morality. Without it, anarchy would reign. People would have no reason to behave morally; everyone would be selfish, and life would be nasty, brutish, and short. –Now, in the strict sense of “morality”—as consisting of duties or imperatives (“It’s absolutely wrong to lie, wrong to kill,” not merely “bad”)—they’re right that morality cannot have a granite foundation without God or some such concept. Imperatives are half-meaningless if they don’t have some sort of categorical or metaphysical necessity. (The only two alternatives to God as a solid foundation of morality are Kant’s categorical imperative and the idea that morality consists of “objective truths” about the world, but they fail for reasons I won’t go into.) Without such necessity, it makes perfect rational sense for moral imperatives to be debated endlessly and qualified and modified so much that in the end morality deteriorates into a morass of conflicting intuitions and over-subtle arguments of the kind that fill thousands of volumes of philosophical literature. So we do need God, or something similarly compelling, in order for there to be obvious, absolutely binding, true moral imperatives. But we don’t need him for social order. Only someone with no knowledge of anthropology could think otherwise. There are such things as communal sanctions on actions, communal rewards and punishments. Do you really think most people are so desperate for God’s approval that they live morally only for his sake? Do you think that if, by some miracle, Americans suddenly acquired the capacity for reason and realized they shouldn’t believe in God, they would all start dancing around the streets vandalizing and murdering and—sin of all sins!—having sex? I think not. Most people care infinitely less about abstract metaphysical concepts than social approval. They’ll always basically pay heed to social norms, if only because they don’t want to spend their lives in literal or metaphorical solitary confinement.

 

*

 

The “God gene”; or, religion as biologically innate.— Idiocy. Hundreds of millions of people around the world profess not to have a religion. The ones who do are mostly hypocrites who pay lip-service to God for the sake of social acceptance or money and power. (Politicians come to mind.) It may be that there is a kind of “spiritual” consciousness or hope ingrained in us—something like the need for “existential meaning”—but this can be manifested in a variety of ways, many of them irreligious. In fact, I think that what this spiritual desire amounts to is the need for community. Life seems meaningless when one has insufficient recognition from others; it seems meaningful when one is sated with love and respect. The human need for community (belongingness) often goes unfulfilled in “civilized” society, which is why substitute transcendent communities were born in religions like Christianity and Islam.

 

*

 

The greatest country in history.— Americans fetishize all seven of the deadly sins. Greed: look at Wall Street and the rest of corporate America and politics. Sloth: television is no longer just the masses’ opiate; it is, in a sense, reality. Gluttony: Americans are fatter than any people in history. Vanity: women have become nothing but creatures of their bodies, and the cult of appearance is corrupting men too. (The obsession with “working out.”) Lust: pop culture revolves around sex. Envy: movies, magazines, individualistic ideologies all encourage interpersonal comparisons and dissatisfaction. Pride: Americans as such are at least as arrogant as Romans were in their day. –No wonder Christians have their persecution-complex! They can see that their religion has become irrelevant.

 

*

 

A misadventure.— At lunch in the campus center I saw a flyer advertising an event tonight having something to do with dating and sex. I thought ‘Sure, why not’ and went to it. Maybe I’d meet somebody. Turns out it was a meeting for members of some weird underground cult that does nothing but preach about how inferior we all are to some guy named “Jesus Christ.” I felt like Indiana Jones in that scene in The Temple of Doom when he observes the ritual of the Thugee cult—the zombies intoning meaningless sounds as a human is sacrificed into the fire pit. “No one’s seen anything like this for a hundred years!” That’s what I was thinking.

           

It began innocently enough. I walked into the large room, which was absurdly empty (evidently the cult isn’t very popular), and stood there wondering what I’d got myself into. I didn’t yet know it was a Christian Conference, but I could tell I was about to be underwhelmed. Some girl involved with the show came up to me and started a conversation. Quite pleasant. We were both friendly; I was starting to think that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all—when, in answer to my question about what all the musical instruments on the stage were for, she said “We’re going to start out with some worship music.” A single thought flashed through my mind: ‘Uh-oh.’ “Worship music?” I asked. “Well, no....” she said, “just some music.” Hm. A few minutes later another guy came over and introduced himself—very friendly again—and then two other guys—very friendly. I was getting suspicious. After I’d heard a few references to Christianity, my suspicions were confirmed. “So....this is sort of a religious thing?” I asked. “Yes!”, with an amused smile. Then it took off. I was told all about this little group that goes around spreading the Word, and I was told to go to Bible study tomorrow at noon, and there’s a fancy dinner tomorrow night, etc. Then the pastor came over and we talked. Finally the production began—with half an hour of songs and prayers about how unworthy we are of God’s love. It was a sing-along; we stood up and clapped along and sang to the lyrics on the video screen in front of us. (It was a Powerpoint presentation.) Guitar, synthesizer, bongo drums, accompanists with microphones. Ugh. Those songs lasted forever! Each was at least eight minutes long. And there were only about two verses to each song, so we sang each verse about ten times. Audience members were closing their eyes, raising their hands to the heavens and keeping them suspended in air for minutes at a time, bowing their heads and saying “In Jesus name! In Jesus name!” as the rest of us kept the melody going. Twenty-five minutes into it I got to thinking that it wouldn’t be so hard after all to come to believe in this stuff if it was regularly pounded into you like this. Still, I could see that they meant well, and that they were good people. ‘These are the good Christians,’ I thought, ‘the ones it’s easy to forget about.’ --That was a rather naïve opinion, as I came to realize.

           

It all stayed innocent and somewhat charming for a while longer. There was a mimed drama that portrayed Jesus (dressed in white with a red paper-heart stuck on his chest and paper hearts taped to his palms that you could see when he raised his arms in that expansive “I love all of you” way) saving four tormented souls (dressed in black with masks on their faces;—I didn’t catch the symbolism)—by slapping hearts onto their chests, which caused them to jump up and down with glee and whisk their masks off and dance around the stage. ‘At least their intentions are good,’ I thought again.

           

Then it was time for the entrée. Our guest speaker was going to talk about sex and love in our sinful society—“Is true love still possible?” etc. (I’ll spare you the suspense: yes.) Skilled speechifier that he was, he started off with jokes to lighten the mood. Here’s a sample: There were two brooms in a closet. They were getting married. So there was a bride broom and a groom broom. (That drew laughs.) They went to a party shortly before their wedding; the groom broom made some remark that I’ve forgotten (it had something to do with asking his betrothed if he could “whisk her away”), to which the bride broom responded with “Are you kidding?! We haven’t even swept together yet!” Har-har. That provoked the universally accepted reaction to bad-pun jokes: a collective good-natured “Awwwhh!” (like: “Oh man that was bad, ha ha, but it was funny too, ha ha”), a few chuckles, and a lot of turning-of-heads-to-neighbors-and-shaking-of-heads while smiling;—“Aww, that mischievous ol’ guest speaker with his bad-pun jokes!”

           

Okay; now it was time to get down to business. The speech began poignantly: he described his near-suicide in college, after his fiancée had broken up with him. For a week he’d planned it out, down to the last detail; but one night in a park, while he was trying to make the final decision for or against death, God spoke to him. That was his rebirth, etc. Now he was a marriage counselor and a preacher (or pastor or reverend or one of those things). The rest of his speech was about the greatness of love—and abstinence until marriage—and the sinfulness of flesh-pleasures—and the inadequacy of evolution (“We’re all descended from muck, just by chance?! That doesn’t account for love! Science can’t account for love!”)—and the sinfulness of society. It turns out that the cause of all the world’s ills is sex before marriage. The speaker himself had had sex with his fiancée before she’d dumped him; this was the reason for his suicidal pain. Satan had possessed him, and the result was despair. (Lust, you may know, is the work of Satan. Love is the work of God.) We have to love Jesus. If we love Jesus with our heart and soul, etc. etc. Besides, if we abstain from sex until marriage we’ll enjoy it a lot more when it finally happens. (He emphasized this pragmatic concern quite a bit.) “Is love temporal or eternal?” Well, according to him, lust is temporal, but love is eternal. And the precondition for love is that women save their “precious jewel” for marriage. The speaker threw out all sorts of statistics that drew oohs and ahhs from the audience—like, for the last five years, 100 Japanese young people have killed themselves every day (often during big internet “suicide parties”), and 80% of people who have sex before marriage end up divorcing, and one out of five women is sexually abused in childhood, and one out of five pastors is addicted to pornography.

           

An hour of this. This palaver. By the end I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie Inherit the Wind, which I’d seen the previous night. All these people sitting here absorbing this stuff and nodding and shaking their heads—this stuff that was becoming more ignorant and bigoted by the minute—these people had been so kind and pleasant just two hours ago, but now they were haters of evolution, of science, of gays, of the irreligious. They would have denied that, but obviously missionary zeal was not foreign to them. And what else is missionary zeal but intolerance of dissent? That’s clearly the motivation behind it most of the time—the desire to impose oneself on the other. In the 1920s these people would have lived in Heavenly Hillsboro and happily thrown the free-thinking heretic into jail. All because of their infinite love, their eternal love. It was all right there below the surface. This absolute faith in their own rightness.... And yet they were so agreeable as conversationalists, and I could see they were fundamentally kind! This is the paradox that has always disturbed me. The intermixture of good and bad, a mixture so perfect that there’s really no distinguishing between the good and the bad. The bad exists in the good and vice versa.

           

Equally frightening: I can sense the rudiments of hateful missionary zeal within myself. As I walked home tonight, feeling so corrupted—almost physiologically corrupted—that I could think of little else but the Mozart I’d be listening to in a moment, I could tell that I had the potential for atheistic fanaticism. I knew that the only reason I’d never succumb to fanaticism is that I’m aware of my fanaticism. My self-consciousness is what prevents me from sliding into the pit of disguised jihadism.

           

--Incidentally, the obvious insight again occurred to me that historically the role of “confessors” has been to function as therapists in an age that didn’t recognize psychology. Conversely, therapists are just confessors for the modern age. Talking about problems (like guilt; hence “Have you sinned recently, my child?”)* in itself somehow relieves their burden.

*One reason Christianity is so psychologically powerful is that it first burdens people with guilt and then gives them the means to overcome it. It separates them from the community (with God, etc.) only to draw them more closely into it. (Guilt is just a form of isolation, of self-fixation.) That is, it creates a community by promising that only through this community can one reach the ideal, eternal community—by at least partially transcending one’s original guilt (“sin”), which is essentially one’s original individuality or isolation. For sin is just the stain of original separateness. The stain of personality, of concrete, bodily existence. Salvation means overcoming the particularities of concrete existence.

 

*

 

The true “anti-Christs.”— It’s ironic that Christians, who pride themselves on being the most righteous people in the world, think that the existence of God is a necessary postulate for there to be morality. For what they’re saying is: “I live morally only for the sake of God, i.e., because I want to go to heaven.” Atheists, on the other hand, don’t think that God is necessary for morality. So, what they’re saying is: “I live morally not for the sake of going to heaven but because it’s the right thing to do.” –And Christians think they’re more “righteous” than atheists!

 

*

 

Christianity updated.— One of the many ironies about contemporary Christians is that they tend to be supportive of capitalism. This isn’t surprising: from the time of Emperor Constantine, the Church has been allied with established power-structures, which have found it useful as a way to keep the masses obedient. So Christianity accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, then to feudalism, then to royal absolutism in early modern Europe, and then to modern capitalism. Nothing surprising in this; ideologies adapt themselves to material realities. It is, however, strictly absurd for a Christian to ally himself with business or “the market” and loathe the ideas of socialism and communism. On the one hand you have a society that valorizes greed, ruthlessness, profit-making at the expense of human welfare, exploitation of billions, and the accumulation of wealth, none of which is particularly consistent with Jesus’s love of the poor, of the cast-off, and his admonition that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. On the other hand you have socialism, the idea of economic democracy, a society in which working people control their own economic activity. Or communism, a society organized by the slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Socialism and, especially, communism are little else but the politicization of compassion, of love and the idea of human dignity, which is to say they are the politicization of Jesus’s version of Christianity. Whether they’ll ever be realized on a large scale is an open question; it can scarcely be doubted, however, that they are both the ideals toward which we must strive and the proper modern incarnations of original Christianity. Of its spirit, its poor-loving, moral-revolutionary spirit. Indeed, early Christian communities were often organized in a decidedly “communistic” way, as attested by the Bible itself, specifically Acts 4:32-35:

 

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

....Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

 

Again, the predictable historical irony: true socialists and communists are more Christian than most Christians.

*

 

A moment of charity to Christianity.— Karl Marx once said, “After all, we can forgive Christianity much because it taught us to love children.” Almost unbelievably, the factual part of that statement is right. Christianity did have such an effect on the Western world. Throughout antiquity, children had been thought to have little or no value. In Rome, fathers had absolute authority over their children: they were legally permitted to kill them for any reason, even on a whim. Infanticides were rife all over the Mediterranean. Children were regularly sold into slavery. I can’t think of any references in classical literature to the value of children. That’s far from true, though, of Buddhist and of Christian literature. From the Gospels on, Christians held children up as an earthly ideal. This attitude has been revealed in Christians’ charitable endeavors throughout the centuries.

           

More generally, Christianity’s great contribution to Western civilization was the preaching of love. The ideal of love was foreign to Plato, to Aristotle, to the Stoics, the Cynics, the Epicureans; at most, these schools praised virtue. The old classicist W. W. Tarn said it well in his book Hellenistic Civilisation (1927):

 

....And of all the Hellenistic creeds, none was based on love of humanity; none had any message for the poor and the wretched, the publican and the sinner. Stoicism came nearest; it did transvaluate some earthly values, and Zeno, at least, gave offense by not repelling the poor and the squalid who came to him; but it had no place for love, and it scarcely met the misery of the world to tell the slave in the mines that if he would only think aright he would be happy. Those who labored and were heavy laden were to welcome a different hope from any which Hellenism could offer.

 

This is the Christianity that should be honored, the Christianity of St. Francis, of Jesus, and in our own times of liberation theology (which, arguably, was a return to the original essence). Thomas Jefferson thought that the only part of the religion worth keeping was the Sermon on the Mount.

 

*

 

I attended my first Episcopalian service last night. It was Maundy Thursday, so we did the whole foot-washing thing and then the Eucharist, etc. Endless singing and antiphonal rituals, responses, prayers. A certain pungent beauty in the foot-washing, beautiful symbolism. But how foreign it all is to the spirit of the times! A relic of antiquity, as Nietzsche said. The Greek chorus, for instance. Submersing ourselves in ritual, in self-forgetfulness and community. Love, the incredible and constantly repeated emphasis on love. Admirable. But it seems that in order so to escape ourselves in love we have to fall back on the expedient of inventing a God who loves us and enjoins us to love each other, and pray to him, direct our love first to him and thereby to each other. It is through the mediating idea of a God that people are best able to achieve love of mankind. Nor is this surprising. Mankind is just an abstraction, the most abstract of abstractions, and as such is not easy to love passionately. God is a kind of abstraction too, but, paradoxically, a concrete and self-conscious one. He is something like Hegel’s “concrete universal.” A sublimation of the idea of mankind, or rather of all its noble aspects (love, power, goodness, omniscient self-consciousness) as personified in a self, which is the sort of thing that can most readily be loved (as opposed to “mankind,” which is not a self). God is the bridge between the concrete self and the abstraction of humanity: he is a concrete abstraction, or an abstract concreteness. And the idea of him provides people with a half-conscious sense of being-respected or being-recognized/confirmed for loving everyone. It inspires them to make the effort to “love thy neighbor,” since if they do, they know they’ll in turn be loved by the Absolute Self, and thus be objectively confirmed as (objectively) valuable. Certainly this motivation isn’t conscious, but it’s there all the same.

           

As I’ve said before, God is a particularly suitable “objective correlative” of the abstract other in consciousness. By securing his recognition you’re securing the recognition of the abstract other in your consciousness, and so, effectively, of your self. Putting to rest (potentially) your self-doubt.

 

*

 

Civilization and the Jews.— Monotheism is the predominant form of religion today. Aside from Zoroastrianism, which basically died out long ago, Judaism is the oldest form of monotheism. Christianity was conceived by Jews, and Islam was inspired by the prophets of the Old Testament. So the hegemonic modern moralities and belief-systems were created or inspired by Jews. With respect to intellectual life, three Jews did more than anyone else to carve modernity: Marx, Freud, and Einstein. We’re still living in their shadows. –Someone should write a book called The Creative Genius of Jewry.

 

*

 

Anti-Comte.— Polytheism is, in some ways, more civilized than monotheism. Egypt, Rome, Greece, and the other polytheistic civilizations never fought wars for the sake of religion, as Christians, Muslims, and Jews have. Instead they fought for the more sensible motive of acquiring territory and wealth. They lacked the moralistic fanaticism of the Judaic tradition, probably because, first, it is hard to associate a single morality with a heterogeneous community of gods and, second, these gods, perpetually misbehaving, are not great role-models, as are Allah and YHWH and Jesus Christ. They are reflections of humanity and its weaknesses, and so to fight for the sake of spreading their creeds would be senseless. Polytheism is therefore, in some ways, more humanistic, life-affirming, and—ironically—peaceful than monotheism.

 

*

 

India, birthplace of philosophy.— I have great respect for the Hindu tradition in religion. It is far more profound than the Judaic tradition. Reading the Vedas, especially the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita and other such works is intrinsically ennobling; one feels as if one is communicating with the ineffable. All the grandness and mystery of man’s origins are printed right there on the page. The Ganges flows under one’s eyes, the Himalayas are created anew. A magnificent naïveté somehow stretches the sentences into infinity, to a comparable vastness with the universe (read the books yourself and you’ll see I’m not exaggerating)—a perception attributable to the poetic refrains, the pithiness of the thoughts, the lack of self-consciousness, the reader’s self-conscious remoteness from antiquity, the vagueness of the concepts discussed, the strangeness (to us) of the divine myths, the liberal use of paradox, etc.

           

Their lack of self-consciousness helps make the older books of the Old Testament the literary peer of the Vedas and other Hindu texts, but philosophically—spiritually—they are comparatively barren. The Indian tradition confronts the quandaries posed by life from a universal perspective, proceeding mainly on the basis of wonder, addressing honestly the question of how to live well in a world of suffering—offering its insights to anyone who chooses to accept them. The Judaic tradition, on the other hand, (which includes, of course, Christianity and Islam) is premised on parochialism. A group of people get together and declare that their way is best and that whoever rejects it or is not “one of us” is outcast, destined to live in hell for eternity. Holy crusades become justifiable as necessary for the salvation of souls, though the theological rationalizations are merely masks for hatred and the will to dominate. Christian morality is indeed excellent (most of it, anyway), especially as preached by Jesus himself. But as formulated and justified by the early disciples and the Church Fathers (Peter, John, Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, etc.), it lends itself to fanaticism, since it implies such segregations as “Christians vs. heretics.”

           

Even the actual doctrines of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and so forth are more rational than those of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A determined reader can even detect anticipations of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, existentialism, and the phenomenologists’ insights into the nature of the self. The ideas are of the kinds that people keep rediscovering throughout history, due to their universal validity.

*

 

When East first met West.— It is well-known that Christianity was not a particularly unique thing in Hellenistic times, that it was just one of the many mystery religions that proliferated in the time of Jesus. Less well-known is what Jerry Bentley notes in Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (1993), that the Judaic tradition was profoundly influenced by Zoroastrianism. “Zoroastrian doctrine promised personal salvation and eternal life to individuals who observed the commandments to think good thoughts, speak good words, and perform good acts.” “Zoroastrianism was more a national or ethnic faith than a missionary religion. Even without benefit of active proselytization, though, Zoroastrian beliefs and values exercised a remarkably wide influence. Post-exilic Jews adopted and adapted many elements of Zoroastrian belief—including notions that a savior would arrive and aid mortal humans in their struggle against evil; that individual souls would survive death, experience resurrection, and face judgment and assignment to heaven or hell; and that the end of time would bring a monumental struggle between the supreme creator god and the forces of evil, culminating in the establishment of the kingdom of god on earth and the entry of the righteous into paradise. Many of these elements appear clearly in the Book of Daniel, composed about the middle of the second century B.C.E., and they all influenced the thought of the Jewish Pharisees. Indeed, in its original usage, the term Pharisee very likely meant ‘Persian’—that is, a Jew of the sect most open to Persian influence. It goes without saying that early Christians also reflected the influence of these same Zoroastrian beliefs. Some scholars hold that Zoroastrian appeal extended even into India, where the notion of personal salvation would have influenced the early development of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.” Fascinating! Zoroastrianism lives on through Judaism, Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam! The “Judeo-Christian tradition” is really, in some respects, the “Zoroastrian-Judeo-Christian tradition.” More broadly, the “West” derives largely from the “East”—although lately the East has been remade by its contact with the West.

 

*

 

The philosophy of consolation.— The idea of karma is rather offensive. Or at least morally and logically problematic. It amounts to the claim that everyone gets his just deserts. The real is the rational, and the rational is the real. Or, this is the best of all possible worlds. “One truth is clear,” as Alexander Pope writes in his Essay on Man; “whatever is, is right.” But we all know that this Leibnizian and Hegelian doctrine is not only ethically dubious but downright dangerous: it can be used to justify any sort of injustice. Stalinism? Hitlerism? Pol Pot? The real is rational! Progress works in mysterious ways! Everything is determined, everything is necessary! Inevitable, like logic itself! Quietism, conservatism, is the logical conclusion of this attitude of amor fati. It is a quintessentially religious attitude: faith in the eternal, in the beyond, in historical logic or evolution, as if it is God, with the result that you accept the world as it is. Great faith = great equanimity, great love for the natural unfolding of fate. If you vigorously throw yourself into action it’s because you don’t have faith that everything is as it should be: the world could be different, the world as it is is flawed, which means that people don’t get their just deserts, we’re not all wholly responsible for our destinies, the idea of karma is at best only partly true, much of reality is irrational, and God is not perfectly good or worthy of blind faith. His work has to be corrected.

           

In other words, there are such things as chance and free will. This fact is what logically justifies social activism. (Is it any wonder that power-structures throughout the world and history have propagated the same deterministic, necessitarian, consoling dogmas about the justice of fate, everyone’s essential place in the hierarchical social order—“duties,” as in the Bhagavad-Gita—and eternal rewards, compensations for present hardship? Look at any metaphysically minded regime from ancient India to the Soviet Union. Secular regimes like America’s have different versions of the same “philosophy of consolation.”)

           

On the other hand, there is something compelling about the idea of karma. To an extent each person does create his own reality. But only to an extent.

 

*

 

The intrinsic immorality of religion.-- In the light of history, it seems downright immoral to believe in God. In order to honor the memory of the billions who have lived and died horribly, the least we can do is to give up the idea of a just and merciful God. --The Holocaust happened and people still believe in God! It’s appalling.

 

*

 

The danger of religious faith is that it’s supposed to be—or it can be seen as—above morality. Witness the story of Abraham. Faith justifies anything: “I have faith that it’s all for the best. I have faith in God and eternity.” The road to hell…

           

Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.” “Faith is the paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal.” According to his Fear and Trembling, the ethical has to do with the common good; faith has to do with the individual’s salvation, which is so little related to ethics that it can prescribe absolutely unethical courses of action. But if this is faith, then Osama bin Laden is an exemplar of faith, like Abraham. He is the logical conclusion of Abraham’s philosophy of faith. (Or, if not bin Laden, since there are differences between his situation and Abraham’s, then someone who murders his family and all his friends for the sake of God and his own eternal salvation.) --Contrary to Fear and Trembling, I think that true faith, the good kind, does not involve a suspension of the ethical. On the contrary, it is little else but a transcendentally motivated consummation of the ethical. Abraham’s faith is not Jesus’s (as Fear and Trembling seems to imply); it is a degrading, submissive, slavish faith. A philosophy not of love but of submission.

 

*

 

Nietzsche was right. Again.— Anyone who is strong enough to accept suffering should not accept Buddhism, or any other religion.

 

*

 

Wright contra Nietzsche.— I try not to let myself be contemptuous of the religious despite everything that conspires against my resolve because I know, with Gandhi, that I too am flawed, that we’re all humans, that we’re united in a brotherhood of weakness and imperfection, and that I have little right to be self-righteous. Religion is less a sign of a particular individual’s “weakness” than of humanity’s weakness. Our species is in a cosmically precarious position, suspended between the animal and the rational, confronted by a vast impersonal absurd world in which we live for a few decades and then are banished from forever, full of loneliness and pain and doubt. Is it so deplorable to seek comfort? Atheists do too, in different ways than the religious; everyone needs illusions of some sort or other. Whatever “strength” someone manifests is grounded in weakness and illusion, whether the illusion of one’s own importance or of posthumous fame or immortality or the nobility of one’s deepest motives or one’s comprehensive grasp of objective truth—and human life itself consists in illusions, of the substantival self above all. Insofar as something is contrary to reason or has destructive consequences it should be criticized....but religious faith is certainly not alone in being thus worthy of criticism, nor are the religious alone in being sometimes immune to rational considerations. The fundamental condition of life is community and primordial sameness, and the fundamental value is sympathy.

 

*

 

A whisper from the divine.— People sometimes wonder why God is silent. They devote themselves to him, they supplicate tearfully for the sake of a beloved one, but he doesn’t answer. In their agony, in their loneliness, they may come to doubt his existence. But I say, “Take heart, faithless one. Listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony. God will be speaking to you. And he will heal you.”

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright