Sunday, December 10, 2006

Atheism Lite

Author Theodore DalrympleCourtesy: New English ReviewI’m a little baffled by Theodore Dalrymple’s piece, "Let’s Be Rational,"--- but mainly because there wasn't much to get baffled about.

It is apparent that Mr. Dalrymple is a much nicer atheist than Richard Dawkins, but on the other hand Mr. Dawkins is much more what you’d expect an atheist to be: presumptuous, arrogant, overweening, self-infatuated, foolish and vain.[1]

Mr. Dal is none of these things. On the contrary, he is a gentleman with a real sense for ethics and good manners, and can put in a kind word for religion, even acknowledging its good side ("Religion [is] useful…from the point of view of improving human behavior and keeping it lawful.") Rather like Gibbon, to whom he alludes in his piece, Mr. Dal finds no inner impulse to believe in it, even from the standpoint of the moral and civilizational ruin that he has been chronicling so well these last few years. [2]

Mr. Dal says that when he confessed in an American conservative gathering that he "was not religious," several persons came up and thanked him. He found this to be remarkable, and even wondered if Dawkins was right to say that American atheists are afraid to avow their lack of belief. At first he was not inclined to agree, but then he began to think there might be something to it.

Part of the problem here is that the term, "religion," is too large and too abstract to be useful. Chesterton remarked that the United States was "a nation with the soul of a church," to which the writer who calls himself "Spengler" (of Asia Times Online) amended to read (correctly, I think) "America is a nation with the soul of an heretical church." Until we get down to the specifics of Protestantism there is not much point in discussing "religion in America." In the Bush administration, fuelled in part by Protestant evangelicalism, it would indeed be a case of bad manners to say that one was an atheist. But this is not a religious problem so much as a political one, and therefore, it does not seem to me a case of atheists "being afraid to speak up."

I think it is true, as Mr. Dal writes, that religion is, or was until fairly recently, a "live social force" in the USA. Having grown up in Alabama during the civil rights era, I can attest to the truth of this. Martin Luther King was in the earliest days of his movement an inspired preacher, and his vision of the struggle of blacks for greater civic freedom and participation was enunciated in a powerful vision in his famous 1958 speech, of "new meaning injected into the veins of history." This vision of history as a Living Being is in my view one of the most powerful statements of Christianity in the modern era.

It is not that Christianity is in history so much as it is that history itself is Christian – that history is the drama of Christian meaning working out through the ages or stages of time. It is not accidental that Western history is therefore the paradigmatic history – at least until fairly recent times - for indeed, "history is a Western form of thought." [3]

This ennobling vision of the history as a Living Being, to which human beings make their contributions and in which they participate, was a product of the peculiar genius of Dr. King in the context of the devotional Christianity of the black race and of the South of that era. In other words, this was a unique and unrepeatable historical moment. But the reins soon slipped from Martin Luther King’s hands when the black civil rights movement was absorbed by the State. For good reasons and bad, a bureaucratic statistical "affirmative action" replaced the living vision. One could see the bread of communion being turned into stones of social strife and division.

Perhaps this movement of Christianity from the depths was not lost on those whose main goal is political power, however. A generation later, and partly as a result of the social divisiveness resulting from state-mandated programs for equality, the Christian conservative-evangelical base made its presence known in American politics. Unlike the black civil rights movement, which despite obligatory references to the "Promised Land" and other Old Testament images, was primarily a New Testament phenomenon – the Christian evangelical zeal seemed hardly to have penetrated to the New Testament.

Thus when Mr. Dal writes that he finds the nature of the deity as depicted in the O.T. to be rather "unpleasant,"—a point with which he agrees with Dawkins-- I can only agree. The Deity of the Old Testament – at least in parts of the book of Deuteronomy – is not just "unpleasant." It is ethno-tribalistic, vengeful and bloodthirsty to an extreme degree - according to Simone Weil, a "tissue of horrors."

Thus, if we are discussing the Old Testament in contradistinction to the New, I would submit that we are not discussing "religion" so much as the specific differences between the religious vision of the Old Testament and the New Testament – in other words, the specific differences between rabbinical Judaism and the Christian gospel - in other words, the whole raison d'etre for Christianity in the first place. Somehow, in the imprecision of the subject, I begin to lose the terms of the argument.

Although I think Mr. Dal’s use of the term "religion" lacks necessary specificity and historical grounding, and that it is too generalized to be useful, I do think his points of argument with Dawkins are valid. Dawkins, for one thing, is too enamoured of high tech solutions to human problems. Secondly, Dawkins is a practitioner of the "nothing – but" school of historiography –"European history is nothing but the story of genocide and oppression," "religion is nothing but the history of intolerance and bigotry," etc. But the point that needs to be made is that the story of English empiricism, positivism, and materialist philosophy is in many ways a philosophy of "nothing-buttism." "There is nothing in the intellect that has not been first in the senses." "Only what is observable and quantifiable counts as valid knowledge." Dawkins is merely applying to areas of history and religion what has long been considered the rational standard in philosophy, and particularly economic philosophy.

I wish that Mr. Dal, in his "Let’s Be Rational," had discussed the long history of honorable dissent to reductionistic philosophy in his own country. Beginning with William Blake and continuing through Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats in the 19th century – all were dissenters against the ‘single vision and Newton’s sleep.’ This movement in poetry is superficially understood as ‘Romanticism,’ but that seems hardly adequate as a description of the challenge they presented to the model of rationality that had been developing since the seventeenth century.

The Romantic movement saw how rationality was becoming unmoored from life and value, and in poetry as well as philosophical thinking they demonstrated that a new way of thinking was possible. The impulse they began continued in the 20th century. One can read, for example, the poignant memoirs of poet Kathleen Raine (herself a Blake scholar) about her experiences as a student at Oxford in the positivism-soaked atmosphere of the 1930’s. Or Owen Barfield, whose book, Saving the Appearances (1965) provides an illuminating history of science from the viewpoint of the participating consciousness – that is to say, a thinking not yet severed from the ground of life and history. Barfield’s work was little noted in the country of his birth, although in America in the 1970’s he was frequently invited to lecture, and indeed had many American admirers.

So what happened to the English prophetic tradition? What has happened to England? I hate to say it – my impression of modern England – gleaned in part from the writings of Theodore Dalrymple himself, and those of his brave compatriot, John Copeland, whose "Diary of a Superannuated Soul" has formed a chronicle of England in decline for the past decade or so – is that England has become a sort of "Death Star." The voices of its visionary poets are heard no more, and even the rationalism of empirical reductivism has declined into something yet more awful – for which I cannot even find the name.

But whatever it is, it is embodied in Richard Dawkins, who struts on the world stage bellowing messages of futility and doom. [4] This music of nihilistic determinism is echoed by the boy ruler of Britain, Tony Blair, in his characterization of the economic forces of globalization—"These forces of change driving the future don’t stop at national boundaries. Don’t respect tradition. They wait for no one and no nation. They are universal."

In other words, all the glorious things that the English nation fought for over its entire history – the rule of law, the sense of limits, boundaries, the value of tradition, particularity, the distinctness of national and personal identity, respect for quality, – all of these things are now consigned to the relentless march of "the future" where they can be expected to count for nothing.

This determinism is the opposite of Christian freedom – and however much "Christian freedom" maybe be violated or betrayed in letter or spirit, it is nevertheless the growing point and abiding faith of Western history. From this freedom has come ‘rationality,’ – which seems now at the point of turning upon its host to destroy it. The contrast of history as the relentless march of the future and history as the Living Being could not be greater, but somehow the two items of significance here – religion and rationality – have both been obscured in Mr. Dal’s essay. Religion is too broad and rationality is too narrow. While he admits, somewhat offhandedly, that religion is "a truth that is supposed to set you free, not a convenient myth," he doesn’t really believe it. The problem is not that he would not like to believe it, it is just that he doesn't believe that believing it would make any difference.

Religion is not belief, but rather the intellect’s decision to ally itself with life – and with all the risks of vulnerability and openness that this entails. At this deep level of decision or reason there can be no conflict with religion, for it is a way of personal being and responsiveness that is open to life, supple yet rooted, principled yet open to new facts, perceptions, and understandings. Such a way is an act that involves the will, and that has to be chosen - it can never be acquired passively in the relentless march of the future.

By contrast, Mr. Dalrymple's view of 'Rationality' is striking in its passivity and narrowness. The message coming out of England these days - from Blair to Dawkins, from John Copeland and now even Theodore Dalrymple -- is one of blind determinism akin to an unappeasable 'force of nature.' It is a sadly telling sign of just how far England has fallen out of both Christianity and reason.


[1] A friend and reader of this site, Tom, went to hear Richard Dawkins when he spoke at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and found him " incredibly full of himself."
[2] Life at the Bottom and Our Culture- What's Left of It. Mr. Dalrymple is a sharp observer and his writing has been compared to that of George Orwell.
[3] John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness (1968).
[4] Oft-quoted statement fromDawkins' book, River Out of Eden: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

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