Steve Martin and the Atheist Hymnal

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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Brian Eno on Creativity

Interesting, brief talk by Brian Eno on creativity. Anything he has to say about this topic is worth listening to. At one point Eno compares a “cowboy” (explorer) to a “father” (stay there and tend the land), expressing preference for the cowboy. It’s an interesting comparison that Kierkegaard makes in Either/Or II with slightly different terms: I think he compares a conqueror to a farmer, but Kierkegaard prefers the farmer. Behind this comparison is his controlling trope of the seducer vs. the husband, the man who takes a woman and then moves on vs. the man who loves and marries her.

I think the best creative works combine the two impulses: cowboys and conquerors are always just fathers and farmers still looking for their homes. We see this kind of figure in films like Braveheart and Gladiator: the hero fights to avenge or to recover his lost home.

I think the real question, also, is about what is being created. Being a constant cowboy in music is a good thing. But suppose you really are building a nation, a community, or a home? Being a constant cowboy makes you very destructive in those cases. And what might happen if a musician were more the father/farmer type than the cowboy type? Instead of constantly seeking new sounds, musics, etc., these musicians would be developing their genre — expanding what it can do. So does this mean the cowboy in music never makes it past a superficial exploration of his or her new sound? Or maybe, in the end, developing your sound always means transforming it into something new?

 

Update on Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Great news: I happened to visit WorldCat for another reason today and, while there, checked the status of my book Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. According to Worldcat, as of January 17th, 2015 my book has been purchased by 732 libraries/locations around the world. It’s currently available at (mostly university) libraries in the following countries or territories:

Afghanistan
Armenia
Australia
Belgium
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Botswana
Brazil
Canada
China
Columbia
Costa Rica
Cyprus
Denmark
Egypt
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Guyana
Honduras
Hong Kong
India
Iraq
Ireland
Italy
Jamaica
Japan
Jordan
Kuwait
Kyrgystan
Lebanon
Lithuania
Malaysia
Mexico
Mongolia
Montenegro
Morocco
Namibia
Netherlands
New Zealand
Nigeria
Norway
Philippines
Poland
Romania
Russian Federation
Serbia
Singapore
Slovenia
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Thailand
Turkey
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States
Virgin Islands

That’s 60 countries on six continents. Someone needs to set up a library in Antarctica. If there is one down there, hey guys — would you buy a copy of my book? Ha.

Needless to say, I’m very pleased. If you’re not familiar with academic publishing in the humanities, over 700 libraries isn’t an academic bestseller, but it isn’t bad at all either. The predictable minimum sales for an academic book is around 200-300 copies, and very low-end publishers like Mellen set royalty payouts at around 500 copies over the first five years to almost ensure that no author will ever get royalties for their book — because most academic books don’t sell that many copies. By the way, after five years full ownership reverts to Mellen, so the author will never see royalties after that — don’t publish with Mellen unless you’re willing to give up ownership of your work forever. I highly recommend working with Bloomsbury/Continuum.

I’m very grateful to the faculty (both library and humanities) who supported the purchase of my book. I think I know who made the recommendations in Singapore and Croatia: thank you both, especially since it seems to be in most or all of the major libraries in Croatia. I was fortunate that Continuum/Bloomsbury published it, because they’re one of the better publishers. An academic publisher who actually backs their own product is a rare thing these days, and publishing with Continuum was a great experience. Excellent editorial process despite a few glitches, which were my own.

I’m especially grateful to Michael Phillips, Sherry Truffin, and Sheridan Lorraine for being my book’s first readers and for their valuable insight and editorial assistance.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to have had the book reviewed four times, so I’m very grateful to the reviewers for their work reviewing my book and for helping to spread the word, and I need to extend that gratitude to the journals that published these reviews. You can read excerpts of these reviews and find links to them on my book page.

I’ve added an errata page. Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety is currently available in paperback, hardcover, and eBook edition on both amazon.com and the publisher’s website.