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.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.