Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

Posted: May 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

I have heard and read nominally Christian critiques of atheism that reach conclusions that state or imply that individual atheists have no moral basis for their ethical frameworks. The implication seems to be that atheists are essentially amoral.

Such arguments are ridiculous and do nothing but expose those who make them as fools. On an individual basis in our society, atheists are certainly no less moral and ethical than the anyone else and may be more compassionate and giving. That’s absolutely true of most of the atheists I know personally and I anticipate that it’s true as a group. Outright atheism remains a system of belief (or “non-belief” as the case may be) embraced by a relatively small percentage of our population. As such, it mostly remains an individual expression of belief. And when it comes to moral and ethical beliefs and behavior, I would generally expect smaller groups immersed (and dispersed) within our society to be more or less in line with the larger culture.

That is, after all, how culture functions. It shapes the things we believe “instinctively” are right and wrong. While any of us may focus on and examine a piece of that larger culture and may even react against it or otherwise alter it for ourselves, most of it remains assumed and unexamined. Culture can, of course, be changed, but it’s not something that’s easy to do. Culture has tremendous societal inertia.

A lot of Christians miss that point. The way Christians as a group care for everyone, not just people like themselves, even remaining in plagued cities when they had the means to leave, were actions of note in their ancient context specifically because they ran counter to the dominant culture. As acts of compassion and themes of self-sacrifice became more the cultural norm, they became less exceptional across the board among all groups.

In my mind, though, it remains an open question whether or not atheism is capable of creating or sustaining a society that enculturates the very values many modern atheists would also embrace. It is clear that while atheism itself is nothing new (though the modern strands of atheism flowing from positivism and other philosophical approaches have some new elements), no society has ever been built on atheistic principles.

There have been attempts of course. The ancient Epicureans promoted a system that while not explicitly denying the existence of the gods, placed them far away from humanity, uninterested and uninvolved in our existence. The Communist revolution in Russia (and extending to the Warsaw Pact countries) was explicitly atheistic and through totalitarian oppression attempt to stamp out and subvert a thousand years of Christian culture. They destroyed churches and monasteries, outlawed much Christian teaching and activity, imprisoned, tortured, and killed many for their Christian beliefs, established competing militant atheistic societies, and a host of similar activities that continued for decades. Their efforts ultimately failed, but the brutal totalitarianism with which they attempted to replace the existing Christian culture is not a societal model most people, including most atheists, would embrace.

I do think about these things. I have read Neitzsche and I find him quite compelling. Our interactions do tend to reduce to the will to power and the strong man. We see that overtly in failed states. We imagine it in our dystopian literature. We saw it acted out in the USSR and in other totalitarian states. And I’ve seen nothing in atheism that subverts the strong man the way Christ does. Many of the things we all tend to value as Western ideals were inextricably shaped and formed through the influence of Christianity. Some of the Western societies have become broadly and implicitly atheistic in recent decades. It will be interesting to see if they are able to maintain across future generations the cultural inheritance they have received, in large part, from Christianity.

While I find Neitzsche compelling, I do not want to embrace reality as he describes it. I do not wish to live in a world dominated by the will to power and the strong man. Such cultures inevitably become oppressive and totalitarian. I’ve explored many alternatives and explicitly ignored Christianity for as long as I could, but eventually I looked at its story.

Christ faced a great and often brutal empire in Rome. Neitzsche would have had no problem finding the strong man in ancient Rome. It was a power feared by all, including its own citizens. Challenges to that power and failure in duty to it were met quickly and harshly. The Pax Romana was often real, but it was peace flowing from beneath an iron heel. Christ faced the empire and its violence on entirely different terms and eventually subverted the empire.

Of course, that’s not to say that an explicitly atheistic culture could not produce or at least maintain something similar to our modern Western societies — at least in terms of values and ethical frameworks. I just haven’t seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that’s the case. I have not seen an atheistic subversion of Neitzsche. So even if you subtracted my personal experience from the equation, I would still hesitate to embrace atheism.

 


Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

I want to begin this post in the series with a disclaimer. I have had a deep love for the history of ancient and classical Greece, its gods, its plays, and its literature for most of my life. By the time I finished fourth grade, I remember having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Antigone. I was hooked. (That was also a somewhat more … interesting … year than some of the others growing up, so I may have buried myself in books a bit more than usual that year. And the reading wasn’t all on one topic. I know I read King Lear for the first time that year — and performed a scene from it in a talent show. Oh, and I have a memory of reading a ton of the Hardy Boys books that year as well.)

With that said I have to confess that that love never translated into a love for Greek Philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Over the course of my life I’ve read some of their work and have some general understanding of their frameworks. But in all honesty, I can’t think of any time I wouldn’t have preferred spending time with Lao-tzu or the Bhagavad Gita over any of them. I can usually tell the Stoics from the Epicureans from the Neoplatonists, but I hardly know much beyond the basics about any of them.

I say all that in order to say that when I speak about them, which I have to do in order to do justice to any series on the topic of Original Sin, I’m doing so from a state of qualified ignorance. I will undoubtedly make mistakes at some points. Hopefully they will be fairly minor. I believe I grasp the important points as they relate to my topic fairly well. But if you know more on this subject than I do and you notice a mistake, please let me know. It was probably made from ignorance not malice.

In this post I’ll begin to explore the history behind the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. And such a discussion has to begin with St. Augustine, and thus it also has to begin the Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective that shaped his perception of reality and from which he drew pretty heavily in his works. And one of the central ideas from which he constructed his view of original sin was the Stoic philosophy (also adopted by the Neoplatonists, I believe) of seminal reasons. That’s basically the idea that indeterminate matter has in itself the principles of all future manifestation and development. St. Augustine used that concept in a number of places, especially when it came to creation. But for the purposes of our series, this idea held that all future generations were present in the seed of Adam and, when he sinned, all future generations sinned with him.

That idea by itself is not exactly the same thing as inherited guilt, but in its effect it’s largely indistinguishable. When you combine it with the fact that St. Augustine appears to have held to some form of traducianism, which asserted that the soul as well as the body is derived in its generation from the parents and you can see how the idea that we all share the guilt for Adam’s act developed.

As far as I can tell, these philosophies — not anything specifically Christian — provided the structure and form to the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. I’m certainly not one to say that truths cannot be found in other religions and philosophies. I absolutely believe that they can be — and as Christian, when they are, I attribute their revelation to Christ. However, a lot of people seem to strongly believe that these ideas are rooted in the Holy Scriptures or were developed entirely from the tradition of the Apostles. And they weren’t.

I will look at the other driving forces to St. Augustine’s approach and the way he connected these ideas to the Holy Scriptures. But I wanted to tackle the philosophy behind the idea first. Hopefully I’ve done so in an understandable fashion.


On the Incarnation of the Word 2 – Erroneous Views of Creation Rejected

Posted: August 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 2 – Erroneous Views of Creation Rejected

In the next section, Athanasius briefly considers and rejects erroneous views of Creation. Two examples follow that always catch my eye.

For some say that all things have come into being of themselves, and in a chance fashion; as, for example, the Epicureans, who tell us in their self-contempt, that universal providence does not exist, speaking right in the face of obvious fact and experience. For if, as they say, everything has had its beginning of itself, and independently of purpose, it would follow that everything had come into mere being, so as to be alike and not distinct.

But others, including Plato, who is in such repute among the Greeks, argue that God has made the world out of matter previously existing and without beginning. For God could have made nothing had not the material existed already; just as the wood must exist ready at hand for the carpenter, to enable him to work at all.

While neither view precisely translates to the present, similar ideas are easy to find. The view of the Epicureans about creation is not dissimilar to that of the modern sort of atheist. They share the view that things came into being and still come into being by chance. And the idea of the eternal, uncreated nature of the fundamental stuff of reality or of spirit certainly permeates parts of the conglomeration often labeled New Age. A variation of that idea exists within Hinduism.

Athanasius is taking the time to briefly reject these erroneous views because until you understand God as the only one uncreated can you begin to grasp some shadow of the sort of God about which we are talking and what it means for the Logos to become human.