Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Problem With Atheists

The problem with modern atheism is that it has no positive content. It’s the phallus of Old Greek comedy applied to religious precepts. Christopher Hitchens, author of “God Is Not Great,” and Richard Dawkins are very good at swinging that thing, usually at literalist faiths. Dawkins argues that theology is vacuous; he means non-materialistic. Hitchens is likeable; even those who heartily disagree with his point of view appreciate his fidelity to the Western Enlightenment period, which was also, at least in its later stages, profoundly anti-religious, if not atheistic. But the wit and charm of Hitchens’ atheism changes nothing. There is and can be no “there” there in atheism, and one grows suspicious of Dawkin’s apologetic note when he softly criticizes the ravages of Lenin and Stalin -- who were simply atheistic banditos with guns.

There is something wrong with the analytical acuity of critics who are overly severe with Mother Teresa but go soft and squishy on Stalin and Hitler, both of whom were practical atheists. Perhaps the real lesson to be learned from Torquemada and Stalin is that both were willing to use the organized power of their day to suppress their innocent enemies; unoffending Jews in the case of Torquemada, theists in the case of Stalin.

In the 15th century, the organized power was the church, in the 20th the Leviathan atheistic state. Jihadist Islam, directed today by its own Torquemada, binLadin and his followers, is pre-Medieval, but how many of us can recall within our own memories a bishop of the Catholic Church applying a thumb screw to a heretic? It is idle to pretend that churches have not disavowed and condemned such primitive methods of leading people to the faith. Some things change; some things have changed. But its critics are loathe to apply their evolutionary doctrine to theology. It seems anti-historical – certainly it is not enlightening -- to pretend that the practices of the Christian church, if not its foundational doctrines, have evolved.

There is no question that the best argument against totalitarian faith today is Osama binLadin. If binLadin did not exist – to vary a phrase from Dostoyevsky – Hitchens and Dawkins would have been forced to invent him. As it is, they both have set up straw dummies to despoil faiths that have contributed a good deal to make humankind more humane.

The kind of historical debate occassioned by Hitchens and Dawkins should continue until the churches have been purified, through renunciation, of their past sins and cruelties. But atheistic critics do not by their just criticism add a jot to their own atheism, which remains empty of content and therefore below criticism.

The beef against Hitchens is not that he is wrong when he condemns the excesses of Christian faith. Those excesses are there in the historical record; they are undeniable. The church must repent of them. But the notion that atheism, unobstructed by blind faith, will in the future lead to a humanistic utopia is a child’s dream, haunted by the specters of Stalin and the petite Stalins that followed him, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Fidel Castro has not been friendly to churches; utopia still eludes Cuba. It is a child’s fancy to conflate the Roman Church of Torquemada’s day with any present Christian church in the Western world.

And in the wide world, the opposite is more likely true. In places where jihadists and radical atheists dominate and have seized political power, the Christian church is a church of sorrow, suffering and persecution, as it was in the Soviet Union during the time of Lenin and Stalin.

In 15th century Spain, Hitchens would have had little difficulty making important distinctions between Jews forced to convert to the Christian faith – who were never-the-less persecuted -- and their persecutors. It is fairly easy to see that Juce Franco was not Torquemada. The differences between the two were written in fire on the flesh of the tortured Jews. But avenging atheism forces atheists to throw Christians and non-Muslims suppressed by jihadists and the jihadists themselves into the same rhetorical pot. Not only is this intellectually dishonest; it is a ridiculous posture for a post-Enlightenment scholar to assume.
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