Sunday, March 06, 2011

Atheism for Lent in Birmingham: Introduction

In the run-up to the start of Journey's "Atheism for Lent" Course in Birmingham next Sunday (March 13th), I'm going to post sections of the Course Booklet that I wrote as preparatory material. This means that you don't have to be in Birmingham to read what we're looking at each week.

NOTE: This Course relies heavily upon Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007[1998]), as well as print publications and online media by Pete Rollins. A very good book which introduces various theories of religion (including Freud and Marx) is Daniel L. Pal’s Eight Theories of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2006).

We start with an Introduction to the Course in general and some Commitments:

Giving up God for Lent means that we will...

contribute to a supportive group environment in which we can experience together the trauma of wrestling with perceptive criticisms of religion and God; read the often demanding preparatory material before the group meets; let these critics judge us (as well as critically judging them), allowing our faith to be put into question; reflect on our experiences of the absence of the presence of God; and commit fully to this Lenten process of purging and to see the Course through to the end.

The Role of the Facilitator(s) IS NOT to refute atheist criticisms of religion and God; and NOT to reassure the group that faith can withstand these criticisms.

The Role of the Facilitator(s) IS to enable the group to get the most out of the events; to join the group in the process of questioning and self-reflection; to facilitate understanding and discussion; and to experience with the group the possibility that "the atheist other" can be an instrument of our own transformation.

Introduction: Atheism for Lent

From Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic, pp.104-106:

There was once a world-renowned philosopher who, from an early age, set himself the task of proving once and for all the nonexistence of God. Of course, such a task was immense, for the various arguments for and against the existence of God had done battle over the ages without either being able to claim victory.

He was, however, a genius without equal, and he possessed a singular vision that drove him to work each day and long into every night in order to understand the intricacies of every debate, every discussion, and every significant work on the subject.

The philosopher’s project began to earn him respect among his fellow professor when, as a young man, he published the first volume of what would turn out to be a finely honed, painstakingly researched, encyclopaedic masterpiece on the subject of God. The first volume of this work argued persuasively that the various ideas of god that had been expressed throughout antiquity were philosophically incoherent and logically flawed. As each new volume appeared, he offered, time and again, devastating critiques of the theological ideas that had been propagated through different periods of history. In his early forties, he completed the last volume, which brought him up to the present day.

However, the completion of this work did not satisfy him. He still had not found a convincing argument that would demonstrate once and for all the nonexistence of God. For all he had shown was that all the notions of God up to that time had been problematic.

So he spent another sixteen years researching arguments and interrogating them with a highly nuanced, logical analysis. But by now he was in his late fifties and had slowly begun to despair of ever completing his life project.

Then, late one evening while he was locked away in his study, bent wearily over his old oak desk, surrounded by a vast sea of books, he felt a deep stillness descend upon the room. As he sat there motionless, everything around him seemed to radiate an inexpressible light and warmth. Then, deep in his heart he heard the voice of God address him:

“Dear friend, the task you have set yourself is a futile one. I have watched all these years as you poured your being into this endless task. Yet, you fail to understand that your project can be brought to completion only with my help. Your dedication and single-mindedness have not gone unnoticed, and they have won my respect. As a result, I will tell you a sacred secret meant only for a few… Dear friend, I do not exist.”

Then, all of a sudden, everything appeared as it was before, and the philosopher was left sitting at his desk with a deep smile breaking across his face. He put his pen away and left his study, never to return. Instead, in gratitude to God for helping him complete his lifelong project, he dedicated his remaining years to serving the poor.

From Ikon, "The God Delusion," Greenbelt Arts Festival, Aug 26 2007:

My first encounter with this secret occurred a number of years ago while I was walking home, late one evening. As I weaved my way through the half-dead trees that inhabited a piece of wasteland connecting my origin to my destination, I heard an inner voice calling my name. I stood still and listened intently to what I took to be nothing less than the solemn, silent voice of God. As I stood there, rooted to the ground, God spoke to me, repeating four simple words, “I do not exist.”

“I do not exist”? What could this possibly mean?

One thing for sure was that this was not a simple atheism, for it was God who was claiming God’s nonexistence. In that wasteland, I was confronted with something different. I was confronted with the erasure of God by none other than God. I was confronted with the idea that, while God may not be something, that did not imply that God was nothing.

Up until then I had considered God to be just one more thing in the world, albeit the greatest. But after this event, I wondered whether this was an inappropriate way of approaching God. Perhaps God ought not to be thought of as an object in the world, but rather as that which transforms my interaction with all objects in the world.

What if I was being taught that every time I affirm God I simultaneously affirm something less than God? What if this God I affirm is always a delusion formed from the materials of my imagination and desires?

Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche are three of the great atheist critics of religion and ‘we stand accused by their critique of being Pharisees, of practicing a self-serving religion that is idolatrous by our own standards’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.59). These same criticisms of religion can be found within Christianity itself, issued by prophets like Amos and Isaiah – who have God say, “I hate your church; what I want is justice” – the Apostle James, Saint Paul, and Jesus himself. These biblical and philosophical figures share, then, a protest against what can be called ‘instrumental religion, the piety that reduces God to a means or instrument for achieving our own human purposes with professedly divine power and sanction’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.6).

This means that engaging with the work of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as critics of instrumental religion can form part of a Lenten practice of purging ourselves of a faith in which God and religion are used as masks for self-interested desire and aggression, as crutches to cope with the uncertainties and hardships of life, and as legitimation for the oppression and persecution of others.

Key to this process is thinking about the differences between our ‘apparent motives’ and our ‘operative motives,’ between the rationalisations or reasons we give for our beliefs and actions (to ourselves as well as to others) and the motives that are revealed when we direct attention to the functions or operations of those beliefs and actions (Suspicion and Faith, p.29). How do our religious beliefs and actions function? Do these functions reveal ‘the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst for revenge, and appetite for food and other necessaries’ (David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, p.31)? Do they reveal, in other words, a mature faith, or a faith ‘formed from the materials of [our] imagination and desires?’

Since ‘religion can hide from us as nothing else can the face of God’ (Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, p.18), we attempt through this “Atheism for Lent” Course a careful self-examination, to perhaps discover a richer faith beyond an instrumental religion of immediate self-interest.

Further, we hope to experience something of the Crucifixion story that is too often neglected. Jesus’ cry from the cross – “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – is a moment of divine abandonment, a moment when even God experiences the absence of God, feeling deserted and alone. At this Easter time, we can recall our own experiences of the absence of the presence of God, knowing that Christianity is a religion which recognises and remembers these very real experiences.

Doubt and disbelief are not only for the atheists.

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