Neo-Atheists being cute and typically human again
I got annoyed by some Neo-Atheists being cute and typically human again, obsessing about refining their in-group rationality processes while blinkering themselves against anything outside their group and before about a couple of hundred years ago, so I invaded their safe space, which was a bit rude.
It’s funny how pretty much the only people who assume biblical literality so strictly are the US Christian Evangelical Right and Neo-Atheists. The bible contains records of humans disagreeing about the most profound aspects of being human persons in communities over long timescales — of course it’s not all consistent, it would be really weird and inhuman if it was. Some of the most important stories are about when prophets changed their minds about what their inspirations meant, e.g. Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac. The ‘Word of God’ is not the many particular words in the book (or books) but the silent inspiration behind some of them. And this is not just a modern revisionist interpretation, but to reference it the citations list would be vast.
Do you strictly, religiously avoid all metaphorical symbolism in art, poetry and music too? Why?
Religious people pre-Luther have never attempted to take the whole bible literally — how could we?! (Even Luther was not that deranged, to be fair.) Genesis has not one but two origin stories in it, both apparently starting ‘in the beginning’ — they obviously can’t both be literally factually true, and the traditional homiletic commentaries never attempted to treat them as literally describing events in a particular time and place. For another example:
“It is he who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed him. In Abel he was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, and dishonoured in the prophets.” (Melito of Sardis, 180 CE)
Obviously, Melito here, and the tradition he inhabited and the community who chose to select and transmit his ideas, are not implying “he” literally as just a single man born in a particular time and place. Shock-horror you have to read this in the same kind of way as you should read a Mary Oliver poem — you might have to even engage consciously with your feelings!
‘Myth’ is not simply equal to ‘unfactual’ — it’s a form of communication with an implicit symbolic meaning, which may be good or bad, or mixed, that is independent of whether the events in the story ever actually happened in any particular time and place or not. You’re meant to empathise with the characters and their relationships, reflect on the feelings evoked by the story and interpret the messages about complex moral dilemmas and hence the golden means of cultivating virtues through the use of stories. Idolising the stories is not their proper purpose.
(Think I’m being over-optimistically revisionist? Ok, search ‘composition of the place’ and ‘meditation’ throughout the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, 1548.)
Assuming that all -or even most!- of human communications over the long-history of humanity and globally were meant to be taken literally, either for or against, is a ridiculously, absurdly, superficial and anachronistic thing to do. Literal factual descriptive prose (like this) is a relatively recent exception to the general pattern of how humans communicate, especially about culturally important, socially complex and very long-term kinds of things, and even now, with a cultural operating system which values a certain kind of bounded rationality beyond all natural and reasonable proportions, we’re not really consistent at it even when we’re trying our hardest to be. Emotionally evocative stories and social rituals are probably much more normal through human history globally.
Restricting your communication strategies to only literal rational prose is also not functionally efficient or adaptive — yes I can explain the ideas of emergent transcendence, inherent human dignity and ontologically inescapable human social responsibilities and therefore universal human rights in entirely naturalistic language, but it takes a 500pp book (Levinas, Totality and Infinity: an essay on exteriority) in order to deconstruct all the conceptual obstacles to the ultimately simple intuitive realisation, and it’s (so far) in hardly accessible phenomenological terminology, or, I can use the efficient symbolic approximation “created in the Image of God”, and we’re done in 6 words, or four words in the Islamic version (وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آدَمَ).
Also, metaphorical language is more liberal — it trusts and allows the recipient to empathise and interpret it functionally compatibly and transform it in their own way in new forms for new contexts long after the cultural donor is dead. Another way non-literal symbolic language is more functional and adaptive.
I came here because I googled “epistemic hygiene” — I thought of the term independently then googled to see if anyone else had ever said it before, and saw it’s already ‘a thing’. Nice! I think bees’ social hygienic behaviours against varoa mites are a more apt and easier metaphor for it than how cholera virulence varies with frequency of human hygienic behaviours that also modify the constructed niche which cholera co-evolves with us in, but yes in general the antagonistic co-evolution of social parasite virulence and social host resistance strategies is a good analogy for why epistemic hygiene matters.
It’s ironic -and very human!- that you spend so much effort and time refining your rationality yet are so blinkered about the long history and diversity of humanity. Only about 15% of people globally identify as atheist or non-religious (Pew research), so by designing metanarratives that ignore ~85% of humanity, how is that really a rational account of humanity or ethically humanist either?! The Renaissance ‘Humanists’ were almost all devout Catholics (but I contend humanism is a strand traceable throughout all human cultures, and of course its always been contested). The difference was looking for (and refining) the meaning of traditional doctrines primarily by reflecting on human experience, not only (in an alienated way) relying on institutional authorities. Authorities are socially created (through cognitive-linguistic framing, by evoking moral values and embedding them into a narrative structure) originally for good purposes, but tend to go astray and then function partly or totally for bad purposes, so we have to be cautious and develop immunity to abuses of authority but not be excessively prejudiced against authorities when or to the extent they’re functioning as they should.
Petrarch, Erasmus, then Ignatius Loyola, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Levinas, Emmanuel Mounier, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Solle, and John Zizoulas, are some of the broadly ‘humanist’ theologians I love. With Zizoulas, I don’t know whether you’d just get hung up over the words or realise that you were mistaken in your projections all along — in Zizoulas’ trinitarianism, based on John of Damascus’ theology in 745CE, there’s no necessity to assume ontological substantialism or supernaturalism.
(Digression which is complicated with a long back-story, so skip it if you find it inaccessible: the early Christian controversies over developing the doctrine of the Trinity only seem bizarrely intense until you realise that trinitarianism is an intensely practical social theory, communicated in extremely abstract and condensed metaphorical language, but with intensely political implications and consequences— so then it’s not at all surprising that people so passionately lived and fought and willingly died over correctly developing it. Sub-digression: it cuts out a lot of layers of potential confusion if you go back to the Greek and Hebrew terminology the theory was originally developed in, e.g. hypostasis and prosopon are less easily misunderstood than ‘person’, and perichoresis is absolutely essential to understanding the whole thing.)
I also remember a homily I heard 16 years ago, when I was 17, by one of the brothers at Taizé, on one of the passages alluding to a spring of ‘living water’ about how the spring and the water do not exist independently of each other, i.e. emergent transcendence without substance supernaturalism (Kauffman). Or, maybe ‘supernatural’ in its original contextual usage means something very different from what it has later come to mean. For a start, you could screw with your assumptions by looking at the archaeology of ‘ad fontes’ burials (burying dead people preferentially close to the relics of saints) and thinking about the implicit assumptions they must have had to do that.
Also — you talk about “religion” as if US Protestant Christianity in the last 150yrs ish is all there is, or as if that’s representative — actually it’s a freak exception to the general patterns of human religious behaviours over the long history of humanity globally. Most of the time we’ve been Shamanists and Animists, until the Axial Age triggered by the agrarian revolution which led to urbanisation and hitherto unknown levels of epidemic diseases and deaths.
If you want to root out all human functionally ‘religious’ behaviours, you’re going to have to create a time machine and go back at least 250,000 years to intervene and change the course of human evolution. Good luck with that!
Also ironic is that the harder people try collectively to root out structurally recognised ‘religious’ behaviours, the more they end up behaving in functionally equivalent ‘religious’ ways, and usually in their worse forms, i.e. ontological reification of abstract terms (and then not thinking through what those mean more than superficially or traditionally), collective assumption and consolidation of a priori authorities, collective behaviours which increase the modularity of the group through groupthink, groupshift and deindividuation, and then hostility to out-groups. We literally can’t stop being — humans!
Like sex and politics, I think it’s much better to engage in human religiousity consciously, explicitly and responsibly than to try to suppress it and inevitably -because it’s inescapably part of being human- we end up expressing these innate social behaviours anyway but in less conscious, less explicit and less responsible ways. I prefer to engage in sex, politics and religion consciously.
By all means avoid supernaturalism if you think it’s rubbish — I certainly did for a long time, now I’m not quite so certain, but supernaturalism is a structural feature of religious cultural traditions in the last few hundred years originating in W Europe — you can’t define the whole of human religiosity for at least the last 250,000 yrs globally just by that parochial blip in time! Also, it depends what you mean by ‘supernaturalism’… I’m not so sure anymore that the meaning hasn’t changed (often meanings of words and other symbols flip into their opposites over time) and perhaps it didn’t used to mean something so apparently absurd as it has come to mean in most contexts now.
Don’t waste your life time arguing with me — read some poetry, any poetry you like (some I like) and some you may find challenging in a good way, go for long walks alone in the wilderness, hug people extravagantly often, and wholeheartedly welcome and befriend strangers — that philoxenia is the absolute core of the Abrahamic tradition, literally how Abraham’s first spiritual experience happened (Genesis 18:1); explore feeling human and not just thinking superficially about the literal and anachronistic meaning of words. Names are just names. When it comes to trying to express and communicate the deepest and most general insights about being human, unless you want to go in for completely impractical and inaccessible ways of trying to communicate only literally or ‘rationally’, which is impossible to do perfectly, you’re going to have to use efficient approximations or symbolism, and account for theoretically and engage responsibly with social emotions as an integral part of how humans actually do ‘rationality’.
There is literally no good reason to be prejudiced for or against the efficient approximations or symbols of previous generations; so appreciate the meaning of their myths and rituals rationally, i.e. evaluating pragmatically according to their good and bad practical effects. Empathise with the characters, read around the social historical context of the original version, reflect on the feelings they evoke in you, and then interpret and transform the meaning into new forms carefully and responsibly. That’s (almost) all anyone doing good ‘theology’ has ever done too.
‘Believing in God’ is entirely optional — I don’t believe God minds whether people use particular concepts or words, and I think s/he probably would object far more strongly to associating the name above all other names with idolatrous projections of ethno-nationalism for divisive, exclusionary and violent purposes than to people simply not feeling inspired by that form of words. Words are just one of many possible means to an end.
Updating Micah’s inspired prescription for 8th Century BCE humans a bit:
‘I hate your rituals, I despise your solemn assemblies;
The stench of your [blood] sacrifices disgusts me.
I have told you [many times before], O mortal, what is good;
And what sacrifice does the Lord require of you?
Only to do justice, love mercifully, and walk humbly beside your God/
OR read and reflect on poetry regularly,
because that can potentially have about the same effect.’
My parish priest and I recently were talking about a certain friend, a refugee journalist/ philosopher, who, despite 16 years imprisonment, torture, and the murder and abduction of his loved ones, is one of the most magnanimous, humble and irrepressibly joyful people I’ve ever met, who once mentioned a specific experience in prison since when he’s felt free despite everything, and we agreed there are certainly atheist saints and our friend is probably one.
Grace and the willing acceptance and collaboration with grace can indeed come in the form of the traditional sacraments, but can also come in infinitely, unpredictably creative and deeply personal, and not totally expressible, ways.
I find myself quite amusingly often defending Islam — as a Catholic, often to refugee friends who grew up in Muslim cultures but whose experiences of ‘Islam’ in practice were basically traditionalistic authoritarian* and then reactionary, exploitative and violent. I merely want to say that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way — we always have to make personal choices about interpretations; even when traditionalists believe in traditional interpretations without really thinking about them, still that is effectively a personal choice, even if it’s not a conscious choice. And secondly, that even if you or we could escape from all recognisable traditional forms of human religiosity, still people would behave about the same but with other symbols. As in fact they did and do with atheist political ideologies — the problem was not so much that they omitted the concept of God, but that they reduced the concept of what it means to be human to an unrealistically constrained sense, with reflexive effects in practice. There’s no escaping from being human, it’s better to engage in becoming more fully human, more freely and more responsibly.
*Traditionalist authoritarian does not mean that traditions or authorities are automatically or uniformly bad, but that idolising traditions and authorities as if they were ends in themselves and not just potentially good means to good ends, if they are used wisely and without inordinate attachment, is a problem.