Updated 29th May at 10:35 a.m. with a discussion of atheism as a methodological assumption and of miracles.

Updated May 25th at 9:40 p.m. with another video and a Type 4 atheism: “Christian atheism.” Scroll down to check them out.

My Facebook buddy Artur Sebastian Rosman recently posted to his FB group Cosmos in the Lost a link to his Patheos.com article, “In Monologue: Did You Notice that Atheists Don’t Have No Songs?” It’s a response to a hilarious Steve Martin video attempting to address that problem with an atheist hymn of his own. The following video is of Martin’s performance of this atheist hymn on the David Letterman Show on March 16th, 2011:

Needless to say, the claim just begs for counterexamples, and naturally Artur ended his post with a request for songs that might make up an atheist hymnbook. Of course there’s a list of songs. Not as many as religious songs, because people are more motivated to sing about what they believe in rather than what they don’t, but people have suggested quite a few. Here they are, so far, in all of their glory, with a few of my own added at the end:

We need to start with the Big, Obvious One, the One that’s so obvious Artur said, “Don’t even bother”: John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But it does qualify musically as a hymn of sorts, at least.

Ani DeFranco and Utah Phillips, “Pie in the Sky”:

Tim Minchin, “If You Open Your Mind Too Much, Your Brain Will Fall Out”:

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”:

Jimmy Buffet, “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus”:

Frank Turner, “Glory Hallelujah”:

XTC, “Dear God”:

Elton John, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”:

Elton John, “Tower of Babel”:

Rush, “2112”:

Monty Python, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Life of Brian:

I could add a few other titles by Elton John and Rush, no doubt. What this list does is lead me to contemplate the nature of atheism, several varieties of which find representation in the videos above. The word “atheism” itself, as used in cultural discourse today, means a number of different things:

1. Atheism as critique of state or accepted religion. This is the atheism of Socrates in the Apology, where Socrates was accused of atheism and of corrupting the youth. In this definition, atheism is primarily characterized by rejection of accepted notions about God: in the mind of cultural theism, if you don’t believe in received notions about God or the gods, you don’t believe in any form of God or the gods at all. The problem with this definition of atheism is that it doesn’t acknowledge a variety of theisms: Socrates did believe in God as a divine substance out of which the Greek pantheon of gods was made. In fact, Socrates’s statements about God, and his critiques of the Greek pantheon of gods in The Republic, helped develop Christian conceptions of God in the early years of Christianity.

2. Atheism as polemic against Christian theology. Atheism in this sense tends to associate uniquely Christian beliefs with belief in God in general. It’s not terribly rigorous for doing so, tending to demonstrate a great deal of historical ignorance, and tending to miss that Christian theology engages in the same critiques of its own beliefs as well as wrestle with the same questions; e.g., of the existence of suffering, of the existence of evil, of the existence of hell, of literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis, etc. This kind of atheism is more of a rhetorical gesture than anything conceptually rigorous or historically aware. However, this activity is also very usefully engaged in attacking the crimes committed in the name of Christianity or of Christ, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  

For example, second-third century A.D. theologian Origen asked questions similar to those asked by critics of creation science today in Book IV of First Principles (see paragraph 16: please note that the link is to the much expanded “translation” by Rufinus. Origen’s original Greek text does not contain quite a bit of what you will see on this page, but par. 16 is about the same in both the Greek and Latin texts. What appears to have happened is that commentary and notes were incorporated into the source text by later copyists). He was attempting to demonstrate the problem with reading Scripture only in its literal sense (“How can you have light without a sun?”).

I should add that this sort of atheism is also the most deeply felt, usually by those who have encountered a number of destructive, dysfunctional, and intellectually dishonest forms of Christianity, of which many abound. Sometimes it comes across as a form of disappointment, reflective of a frustrated desire to believe in a faith it wishes were true. Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals sounds this way at times.

My LinkedIn buddy Howard Doughty recently suggested Phil Och’s “The Cannons of Christianity” as an addition to this list, and it fits perfectly here:

The thing is, Pierce Pettis’s “The Lions of the Colosseum” communicates the same message, but it isn’t an atheist song.

3. Philosophic materialism. This variety of atheism emphasizes that there is no God or spirit, only finite objects in a variety of forms, so that God is a projection of human social and psychological forces. This is the atheism of Feuerbach that is behind Freud’s and Marx’s critique of religion. It’s also the narrowest and most useful definition of the term “atheism.” We should note that this atheism isn’t necessarily engaged in denying the transcendent, or that which is beyond human cognition or sense perception. It just affirms that the transcendent, however it exists, and however it influences human consciousness, is part of a universe or multiverse comprised of finite entities without the existence of a supernatural deity common to them all. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an example of this kind of atheism at work.

This variety of atheism is the most intellectually rigorous and conceptually consistent. Within it is also included atheism as a methodological assumption, which is necessary for empirical science to function. Atheism as a methodological assumption just means that you assume in your scientific work that physical events have physical causes. If you don’t assume this, you can’t do science, which means that whether you are a theist or an atheist you should accept atheism as a methodological assumption if you’re working in the empirical sciences. What happens, of course — and this is less conceptually rigorous — is that a methodological assumption is assumed to be an ontological truth, which makes the mistake of using the characteristics of matter to make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of an immaterial deity. That’s bad philosophy and not very conceptually rigorous.

What about miracles? The existence or non-existence of miracles is, again, outside rational analysis, because they are non-systemic: they are seemingly random intrusions upon the material system by an immaterial deity who acts seemingly capriciously upon physical matter. We can’t predict when a miracle will happen, nor can we find any clearly identifiably “God-residue” left upon matter other than the miracle itself. Given this explanation of miracles, David Hume’s critique of miracles in Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is nothing but a massive experiment in circular reasoning: miracles never happen because they don’t usually happen. People who believe in miracles are pretty dumb because dumb people believe in miracles, and because they’re not as technologically and scientifically advanced as we are, so believe somewhat dumb things anyhow.

But again, miracles are asystemic intrusions upon a system, so they can’t be evaluated in terms of the system. We can try to evaluate the credibility of the people who believe in any given miracle, and the physical evidence supporting it, but what will inevitably happen is that we will interpret the people and events in terms of our own assumptions. We will be inclined to believe or disbelieve in miracles prior to our evaluation of the evidence of a miracle. The most open-minded position is that of believing in the possibility of miracles while also believing most claims for them are probably false, but even this assumption stakes out a position.

I would like to stop for a minute to reflect upon the implications of what I have just said. If a Christian wants to engage in the study of the material world, s/he needs to adopt atheism as a methodological assumption. If an atheist wants to rationally consider miracles, s/he needs to adopt theism as a methodological assumption. Without making that assumption, the question is already answered. Without that assumption, the subject of miracles is not being considered. A decision was made before reasoning began.

I think that Kant’s critique of both proofs and denials of the existence of God in Critique of Pure Reason (Second Division, Transcendental Dialectic) is ultimately the best response to debates between the variety of theisms and the variety of atheisms fighting it out in the public sphere. He attempted to demonstrate that rational analysis equally supports both theist and atheist positions, so that unaided reason leads to an impasse regarding this question. There’s no point appealing to a material universe to support or deny the existence of an immaterial God: those who do so are demonstrating how they reason from their assumptions, not how they reasoned to a conclusion.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s response to the impasse set up by reason in its resolution of the question of God is simultaneously the only rational course left and the end of reason. Kierkegaard asserted that to believe in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is to embrace that which is rationally incomprehensible and so to crucify the intellect. Belief is only possible, then, via the inward, or subjective, apprehension of the Divine by the individual, which is not communicable to another, thus insupportable by argument or demonstration. However, he sets up a densely cognitive system to lead people to this conclusion, so that those who work through it can make a variety of choices along the way to lead them — or not — to this realization.

Is Kierkegaard’s subjectivism a cowardly escape from the dictates of reason? Again, when we phrase the question as that of providing materially demonstrable evidence of the existence of, or experience of, an immaterial deity, I think there’s only one answer: if this deity exists, s/he or it is only comprehensible inwardly and subjectively. The most that we can rationally ask for is an internal logical consistency: if human beings are a synthesis of the material and immaterial, as physical bodies possessing an immortal soul, and if God is immaterial spirit, then it is with the soul that the individual can perceive the divine. In a sense, Kierkegaard’s answer is a very old one, perhaps most reflective of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, given a somewhat different conception of God.

What Kierkegaard responds to, then, are Enlightenment perversions of pre-Christian conceptions of the deity that carried forward through Medieval philosophy. This Enlightenment deity is the God of the rationally demonstrable rather than the inwardly perceived: the God of the traditional proofs of God’s existence that was argued out of existence by Kant’s Critique. The proofs as reasoning from assumptions are fine, but when used that way, they are not functioning as proofs. This God is similarly the object of Blake’s critique, personified in his characters Urizen and Nobodaddy. The God of the rationally demonstrable is the God of theism by force: the God who seeks social transformation through force of law, because anything that is rationally demonstrable can be enforced upon everyone capable of reason. This is the God that tries to Christianize America by opposing gay marriage and teaching creation science in schools. It is not, however, the God of inwardness or of quiet certainty. It’s a God that is threatened by the unbelief of others, so seeks to stamp it out.

These last thoughts lead me to the final kind of atheism:

4. Christian atheism. Yes, there’s such a thing a “Christian atheism.” I think there are three kinds.

Christian atheism type 1: Slavoj Žižek trying to stir a bit of controversy with his participation in the religious turn in literary and cultural studies by affirming the more attractive components of the teachings of Christ without committing to a theology. It’s really a bit more complex than this and has the possibility of being conceptually significant. When I heard him speak at Rollins College a few years ago he seemed in earnest about engaging religion, commenting significantly and seriously on his encounters with religion and the conflicts that came along with those encounters.

Christian atheism type 2: Eastern Orthodox theology. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians assert that “God does not exist,” which sounds like an odd thing to assert. But I’d like us to think about it this way: “existence” is a closed set constituting an order of finite beings, and God is not a part of it, because God is infinite. So this theology is negative: God is “not this,” and “not that,” and “not this either,” etc., until everything that exists is eliminated. What is left is God.

Eastern Orthodox theology tends to be the most experiential and complex of all Christian theologies, perhaps best compared to the Upanishads. This form of Christian atheism has the benefit of truly highlighting the absurdity of the doctrine of the incarnation, that Christ was simultaneously fully God and fully human, so that those who believe in it confront the nature of their choice. I think Kierkegaard would approve.

Christian atheism type 3: The third kind of Christian atheism is the post-Enlightenment Christianity of the rationally demonstrable that I described above. This kind of faith actually exists in a state of bad faith: it does not really believe but cannot admit it. This form of atheism is the reverse side of Atheism Type 2 above. Type 2 atheists, on some level, really do believe but don’t want to admit it, so they rage against the faith they claim to deny. Christian atheism type 3, inversely, rages against its own real state of unbelief, attempting to eradicate external manifestations of its internal unbelief through new crusades fought in the public sphere via courts and legislative activity. So it crusades against gay marriage, against gun control, against evolution, against “liberals.” When its activities are stifled, it feels persecuted, because then it is cast back to self-reflection upon its own unbelief, which it cannot bear. This is a miserable kind of atheism indeed. It needs a good dose of Dostoevsky.

But it occurs to me that I may well have just described a taxonomy of theisms as well.

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11 thoughts on “Steve Martin and the Atheist Hymnal

  1. Humans are not only physical bodies but besides physical bodies humans have soul, substance responsible for life phenomenon, substance wherein the actions done by them are stored. Soul within the humans could be perceived by existence of the Ego ( I within every human being ), innate knowledge of the Creator ( Descartes ) and most importantly a very well defined book of innate moral law ( Thomas Aquinas & Kant ) and the latter is with only humans as the species. The only task of all prophets was to convey the eternity of the soul and to warn humans that their afterlife will depend upon whether they adopted the book of innate moral law, which has been authored & inscribed by the Creator in their souls, or not. Once the book of innate moral law is opened ( this could be done by only original, genuine & philanthropist philosophers ) the basic & fundamental principle of this book is that humans should live peacefully & justice should prevail in all human societies. Humans are living like everything other than humans because they do not know the purpose of life as religions have been corrupted and this basic message was not conveyed.
    Let this information reach every student, professor & researcher of physical sciences of every university & research institution. The issue concerning the change of education system from atheistic physical sciences to theistic physical sciences is being taken up with Governments all over the world and to start with the issue has been taken up in India. Please read it at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/adopted-paradigm-physics-incorrect-shafiq-khan?trk=prof-post and this scientific perspective is confirmed by a scientist of MIT which you could see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQVm8RokoBA.

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    1. There is no scientific objection to the “god of the philosophers” because it is just a non-falsifiable concept or principle. This god is not an entity who acts except by causing and participating in all being, so it doesn’t have that much to do with religion. Your type of view has been around since the later middle ages and always seems well intended, but it is a bit naive and utopian.

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      1. It also assumes the only motivator for moral behavior is threat of punishment, and that if people just had the right ideas then they’d behave properly.

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      2. Oh yes, I didn’t notice he slipped that in. My guess is Mr. Khan is a spammy evangelist with a background in an Abrahamic faith or two. Nobody else seems to come up with these types of problems and solutions. Maybe it’s just an age or location thing, but I’m getting really tired of the west’s metaphysical hangover. it seems like nobody wants to get up, have a tomato juice, and face the Void.

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      3. Yes — that’s just what it sounds like — a generic monotheism. Generic theologically and ethically.

        On the one hand, I don’t really want to argue with someone who’s saying, “wouldn’t it be just great if we’d stop screwing each other over?”

        On the other hand, there’s a certain earnestness about him that seems a bit silly (at the risk of incurring the wrath of Khan), as if that’s not exactly the message that’s been going out almost since the dawn of recorded myth. So, like, yes, pass a few laws, change university teaching, and we’ll get it right this time!

        Yep, you’re right: not facing the void here.

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      4. Are people obliged to face the Void? Should they be? Popular atheism avoids it as much as popular religion does. Out of all the songs you posted, Frank Turner’s is the only one that (dimly) entertains the practical problem of moral responsibility in a world without gods.

        The way I see it, all the forms of atheism you discussed are actually theological. In “Religion as Unbelief” Barth called atheism a type of negative theology that, in its purely skeptical and rationalistic forms, is childish, uncreative, and stupidly unaware of the mysterious background of affirmation that allows it to be intelligible in the first place. Wiser, deeper, maturing forms of atheism will have to address this as well as the existentialist imperative to create meaning and value through authentic and responsible action. Is there anyone who actually consciously tries to do this? On an aggregate level it is what every culture does, but individual contributors tend to be preoccupied with negations of rivals and predecessors. I think it would be hard if not impossible to differentiate a “Christianity come of age” from “Atheism come of age,” but they would both be theological.

        I have not read Pullman, but it seems bizarre to affirm a “transcendent” that is a finite part of a finite universe. It seems confused and tied up with concepts that get creakier by the year — immaterial, deity, soul, inward, subject, spirit…

        Your Type 2 atheism runs throughout the West too, in the eastern-influenced mystical side-channels of European Christianity. Do you really mean to say that anyone in this category is a theist who “[doesn’t] want to admit it, so they rage against the faith they claim to deny”??? What would motivate this denial?

        There are also western Christian philosophical approaches to theism in the continental tradition that start with Meaning — the background of affirmation that is Creation. It is observed that things are, rather than have, Meaning. Meaning is the ocean in which we swim. This mysterious situation is as suspicious as a crime scene with a blood trail and a smoking gun on the floor. The question then is not “whodunnit?” but what do we make of it, and what must we do now?

        Or, more pessimistically, we might say our situation is like a person waking up adrift at sea in a lifeboat with a child, an armed criminal, no map, and no memory in shark infested waters with limited provisions. This is the sort of meaningfulness we find tortuous and a popular basis for “unbelief” in a deity who would allow such a mess, but isn’t that clearly a childish and uncreative response. I think even skeptics of this sort would prefer to elect a strong existentialist for a leader rather than one of their own kind.

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      5. See, conversations like these are what makes blogging stuff like this worth the effort.

        I’ve revised the blog a couple of times since I first posted it. In my last revision, I added this line at the end: “But it occurs to me that I may well have just described a taxonomy of theisms as well.” So, yes, they’re all theological in a sense. They’re comments on God, or are God-aware on some level.

        And just today I was thinking that I needed to revise atheism type 2 or 3 a bit. I need a short paragraph that describes a purely rational atheism, one that doesn’t believe simply out of a lack of evidence. Rather than being an aggressive atheism, it’s more like an agnosticism: the thesis lacks evidence, so I don’t accept it. There is a sense of begging the question here, which I think extends to Hume’s discussion of miracles: what exactly is it that you’re willing to accept as evidence? The evidence you demand determines in advance the answer that you will get, so the deck is stacked either way.

        I also don’t mean to say that all Type 2 atheists are frustrated believers, even though that’s how I sounded. What I would say instead is that all frustrated believers are Type 2 atheists, but there are other Type 2 atheists.

        I should probably clarify that I’m using the word “transcendent” in a very limited sense, meaning only “beyond the human.” Something heterogeneous to human understanding or experience. Imagine superhuman beings — or something like the Force — that are not spiritual, nor immortal, but still far beyond human. This would account for a variety of religious experiences in a finite, closed system. It would seem godlike to us. But I would wonder… for how long?

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      6. So you’re developing a taxonomy of atheism? What brings this on? I’ve been thinking about this too, I suppose, from the standpoint of long term reading (or browsing) through cognitive science of religion (CSR), Barth, 20th century Jewish intellectuals and Jewish thought in general, “death of god” philosophy/theology, existentialism, and occasionally trying to take Zizek as more than an entertaining clown. There is also the ever more acute problem of American fundagelicals with their bizarre metaphysical and theocratic pretensions.

        * CSR is fascinating because it poses falsifiable theories based on tests and data. It seems to pose a “scientific” version of the hermeneutic tradition’s insights since Augustine, that the human mind must form from infancy with a god concept where all other beings and ultimately adults/parents are god figures in an enchanted world, but maturation renders this problematic with perhaps dogmatic theism and atheism as coping reactions and derailments.

        * Barth could be seen to represent and orthodox and ecumenical Christian (or at least Protestant) response to European Protestantism or critical-skeptical European modernity and its crises that the American conservative-liberal spectrum can’t assimilate because it is staked on denying and avoiding middle to late modernity or else looking into the Void until the Void looks back into it.

        * Zizek and his interlocutors may be clowns, but other reluctant and perhaps dishonest “agnostics” like Eagleton and Hedges seem to pose intelligible and moral theological responses to the “New Atheism” and the true problems of scientific reductionism, the rational-managerial liberal state, and capitalist materialism. I want to put Chomsky in this category too. He is very elusive about his views of religion, but they are nuanced and charitable. He gets lumped with Penrose, Searle, Pinker, Nagel and others as a “new mysterianist” — anti-reductionist scientists who say some things like consciousness may never be comprehensible to us. This sort of thing opens the door to theology, mysticism, and charges of mystification — it sounds weird and heterodox to materialist-empiricist orthodoxies and does in fact enable fringe (arguable pseudo-)science projects from “Parapsychology” sources and similar traditions that have long been part of the mainstream scientific establishment to the chagrin of many scientists.

        * Within the modern Jewish intelligentsia identity, experience and events seem to have made everyone a theologian, and it’s impossible to read even the professed atheist or agnostic thinkers within the usual definitions of those categories or any single category as you have laid them out.

        It would be fascinating to create an ethnographic taxonomy indicating the historical and cultural boundaries or thresholds of your (probably) mostly western types as they interacted with non-western peoples. Some examples:

        * The Pirahã of the Amazon cannot count, do not have time concepts, and no gods. The person who has studied them the most started as a missionary and became an atheist in the process. The academic response seems richly confused by this, so his findings are in doubt, and it will be interesting to see what shakes out in the future. Features of the Pirahã language supposedly falsify Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar, so he has weighed in on that but mostly to dismiss it, seemingly out of hand.

        * Some Bushmen tribes are said to be a-religious; they do not bury their dead or express sadness over them. They are thought to represent how the earliest homo sapiens lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.

        * Scholarly opinion seems to be swinging toward Neanderthals as language users who buried their dead. I think there has been a general supposition that early humans who left Africa thought of themselves as animals, and the reindeer in Europe that they fed on were gods or semi-divine, so these identities were not fixed but states people moved between.

        * Non-western people affected by colonialism probably tend/ed to resist being drawn into the orbit of modern a/theology while still coming under its influence. Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé famously rejected reservation schools because they would introduce rival Protestant and Catholic Christianities. Joseph said: “We may quarrel with men sometimes about things on this earth, but we never quarrel about God. We do not want to learn that.” I wonder if he connected fractious pluralism to disbelief. That is probably not the native way to look at it — dis/union might function as the overriding category embodying the state of the collective soul and faith of the people, but this stands in implicit critique of the divided white “church.” Joseph’s main antagonist, General Howard, was known as the “Christian General” and the two had a kind of theological disputation about violence, property, justice, and the will of God in the context of forced dispossession and migration. While the general was trying to negotiate with Joseph they looked over new territories the Nez Percé would be allowed to move to, but Joseph refused because other tribes and white settlers were already there, and his people believed it was wrong to steal. It is a scene like Satan and Christ on the mountain, with the general offering what is not his to give in order to compromise Joseph by making him complicit in violent dis/possession of what is not his to take.

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      7. I mainly got interested in this “taxonomy of atheisms” as a response to the Steve Martin video. The video amused me, and the idea of a taxonomy of atheisms actually provided me an opportunity to comment on certain manifestations of theism that need to be commented upon. I’m really thinking along the lines of “pop cultural atheism” than historic atheism: what people immediately think of these days when they think of atheism.

        What you add above is fantastic.

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