I just posted my latest article to Sequart: “Ex Machina: Girlbots vs. Geekboys and Creation Anxiety in the New Frankenstein.” Check it out.
Matt Novak’s “A Robot Has Shot Its Master: the 1930s hysteria about machines taking jobs and killing people” is an engaging Slate article from 2011 that attempts to explain the fears of robots, robotics, and mechanization in depression-era Europe and the United States. It exactly covers the topic of my book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback), which asks the question, “Why do we fear what we create?” I locate the origin of this questioning in English literature in William Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen (1795), an important predecessor to the godmother of all such literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1831). What’s particularly interesting is that Novak’s article cites Frankenstein as a common reference point for the expression of these fears, though probably by way of James Whale’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which is probably a more immediate reference point for most people than Shelley’s novel. I’d especially like to encourage you to visit Novak’s article for the 1930s art and advertisements relating to fears of the robotic that are featured in a slideshow on that page. The featured image for this page is a sample of the slideshow, which could be an ad for a 1930s version of any one of the Terminator films. The work that needs to be done now is an exploration of the differences in eighteenth/nineteenth century creation anxiety and the creation anxiety of the early twentieth century, a difference I seek to explore and historicize in a future monograph.
A few days ago I was watching That 70’s Show, and backwards masking came up in one episode. It was season 1, episode 8, “Drive-In.” One character — Fez — is a foreign exchange student (“F.E.S.,” pronounced “Fez” on the show, which is not his real name) from an undisclosed foreign country whose host parents are very conservative Christians. They warn him of Satanic messages that are hidden on rock albums by being recorded backwards and then embedded in the music or between songs. This practice, called “backwards masking” at the time, or “backmasking,” was being widely reported among Evangelical Christians prior to the age of CDs as an attempt to get listeners to unconsciously accept Satanism. It’s a frankly dumb idea on the face of it. Most people don’t get rock lyrics even when they’re hearing them performed forward. But TV evangelists like Paul Crouch would bring “neuroscientists” on their show to attest that this kind of recording could subconsciously influence listeners.
So if you spin the albums backwards (on your record player, of course — this is the 70s, but vinyl is making a comeback) you can hear the messages. Yes, I am a child of the 70s, and I did this myself. As you can imagine, it all sounds very creepy in a campfire story kind of way, so my friends and I enjoyed doing this the way people liked watching Creepshow in the 80s. There’s a great scene in this particular episode in which the teenagers are sitting around, getting high, imitating backmasked messages (“Get Satan a cherry pop”), and generally trying to creep each other out.
But yes, backwards masking is “real” in the sense that some bands did embed hidden messages on their albums. The Beatles (who else?) used backwards recordings on “Revolution 9,” so of course once it became controversial and popularized bands started doing it just to get “exposed” by people like Paul Crouch: this stuff is great advertising. It was taken seriously enough for an anti-backwards-masking bill to be passed in California, of all places, in 1983.
Besides the wonderful reminder that Laura Prepon performed Donna Pinciotti, That 70s Show got me thinking about the figure of Satan in society, particularly what this figure means to different people. The traditional Satan, of course, is an irredeemably fallen angel who has rebelled against God and is responsible for his deception and temptation of Eve and, by extension, the fall of humankind. Adam, in the traditional account, wasn’t deceived: he chose to fall with Eve. In the traditional account, Satan embodies evil and will be cast into Hell at the end of time.
But all that this narrative provides is an outline: the social significance of this figure varies greatly. I can think of at least four different Satans or Satanisms in the contemporary imagination.
Satanism as animalistic hedonism. If you’ve ever seen any contemporary representations of Satan at all, you’ve very likely seen at least one version picturing him with a goat’s head and feet. Known as Baphomet, this version of Satan (with wings added) has most recently been in the news as a monument erected in Detroit by the organization The Satanic Temple. While Baphomet has a history dating back to the Crusades in the eleventh century and wasn’t originally associated with Satan, the goat’s head became associated with the inverted pentagram and generally represents the union of physical or biological forces: the point is that it’s all about the body, not the mind or reason. The goat itself has had dubious associations since the time of the Mosaic law, the “scapegoat” being the creature who bore the sins of Israel out of the camp.
If you were to invert the pentagram pictured above, so that only a single point faced up, the pentagram would then be a symbol of man, the head at the peak of the upper point with the other four points symbolizing the arms and legs. So turned one way, with a single point facing up, the head or the human mind stands at the apex of the star, while turned another way, the mind is diminished and the animal is exalted. Satan as goat man is the antithesis of reason and culture, celebrating the release of unrestrained animal forces at the expense of reason. When the film Constantine depicted demons as having animalistic heads with empty brain pans, it was following this tradition.
Given this history, The Satanic Temple’s very noble statement of purpose sounds ridiculous: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” It’s a wonderful statement of purpose, but it isn’t Satanism, and Baphomet isn’t an appropriate symbol for an organization serving these goals. What Satanism means to The Satanic Temple, really, is a rejection of authoritarian theism, which makes it more sympathetic to Gnosticism — or even to certain branches of Christianity (except that it is “non-theist”: not “atheist,” but non-theist).
You can really get a good sense of what’s behind this movement from the geek-out moments on this video:
Which are probably best compared to this Saturday Night Live skit:
Satanism as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a syncretist religious movement arising in the early days of Christianity that combined the teachings of Platonism, Christianity, and typically some forms of Middle Eastern or Egyptian pagan religions. According to Hans Jonas in The Gnostic Religion, many gnostic religions adopted the following narrative: that there was one true God, and that lesser gods, or demigods (associated with the planets), rebelled against the one true God, creating physical matter as a prison house for the true God and ruling over it as God themselves. They were only partially successful in this attempt, trapping some of God, but not all of God. They then established moral laws by which they could keep the one true God suppressed within the physical creation.
In this narrative, then, the physical creation is a prison house, and human beings are all fragments of the one true God seeking to escape the prison house of matter to be reunited with their source. Human beings gain freedom through arcane knowledge, which allows them to move up through the spheres — the courses of the planets — to finally reunite with the one true God. A Gnostic reading of Genesis would make out the Creator to be a lesser deity, an usurper, while Satan is the hero of the story, convincing Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which leads to death, which is understood in Platonic thought as escape from the physical body. While the truth about Gnostic religions is much more complicated than this, Gnosticism in common discourse has come to be associated with anti-authoritarianism and anti-morality, Satan in this case being a symbol of Gnostic goals and an emissary of, not rebel against, the true God.
What about Romantic Satanism? Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost is perhaps the true inspiration for the vision of Satan adhered to by The Satanic Temple, but at the same time, this version of Satan is too petty and vindictive to be heroic: Percy Shelley rejected Milton’s Satan as a viable hero and chose Prometheus instead. Eve is the most admirable figure in Milton’s story, perhaps the only admirable figure in the story next to Christ and then Raphael, and Satan causes her to fall out of sheer vindictiveness toward God, even when Eve more powerfully compelled him toward goodness than anything else in the natural world, including the sun.
The figure of devils or of Satan are moving targets in William Blake. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, consistent with the goat tradition that I described above, associates devils (Satan is not named in this work) with energy, activity, the body, and creativity, but consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition, sees the body as good. It just needs to be placed in a dialectic with reason, restraint, and order, so that we have enough energy to create, but enough restraint to keep our energies from being destructive. “Angels” and “devils” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are then so-called because they reflect the view of these very human forces by the Church of England, which in Blake’s opinion had a negative view of energy and of the body and mistakenly thought that only reason, restraint, and morality were good. Blake’s Satan going forward in his other mythological works is an ambiguous figure, eventually becoming passive-aggressive, like the Satan of Paradise Regained.
So Romantic Satanism is perhaps a combination of Gnostic Satanism and the next kind of Satanism, Satanism as a mirror of society.
Satanism as a mirror of society. This kind of Satanism dominates punk rock and heavy metal. Not long ago I watched Wolfgang Büld‘s Punk in London, his 1977 documentary about London’s early punk scene. Some of the musicians interviewed were asked why they wore swastikas and Satanic symbols, and one of them said that they didn’t believe in it: they were just reflecting back the society that they were observing.
Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is probably the best statement of this kind of Satanism:
You can read the lyrics here:
Generals gathered in their masses Just like witches at black masses Evil minds that plot destruction Sorcerers of death's construction In the fields the bodies burning As the war machine keeps turning Death and hatred to mankind Poisoning their brainwashed minds Oh lord yeah! Politicians hide themselves away They only started the war Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor Yeah Time will tell on their power minds Making war just for fun Treating people just like pawns in chess Wait 'til their judgment day comes Yeah! Now in darkness world stops turning Ashes where the bodies burning No more war pigs have the power Hand of God has struck the hour Day of judgment, God is calling On their knees the war pig's crawling Begging mercy for their sins Satan laughing spreads his wings Oh lord yeah!
As you see, this song isn’t about the worship of Satan. Like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the song protests the military-industrial complex and its war profiteering, which it associates with Satan by way of hell: the bodies burning on the battlefields resemble bodies burning in hell, and modern generals resemble witches and sorcerers. Black Sabbath’s Satanism, like punk’s, is there to emphasize the implicit Satanism of western capitalism, which is immorally profiteering and murderous. However, it does so from the standpoint of an essentially Christian morality: God eventually punishes the wicked.
Satanism as nihilism. When I was a teenager, I read Anton LaVey‘s The Satanic Bible. In it, there’s an anecdote about a young man who is told by another man on the street that if he will hand over all of the money in his wallet right then, that minute, the man will tell him the secret to a lifetime of wealth. When the first man hands over his money, the second man whispers in his ear, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
It’s a funny anecdote, but the point is that there is no point. This may as well have been a joke told about the purchasers of LaVey’s literature.
The actual worship of the Biblical Satan? Of evil? Doesn’t happen. Every one of these Satanists would be scared senseless if they ever had to confront real evil.
Updated June 7th with additional links, a bibliography, and an expanded contributor list.
If you’re interested in the topic of this post, please consider submitting a proposal to the edited anthology Rock and Romanticism.
I’m thinking about developing a course about Rock and Roll and Romanticism for the Spring 2016 semester, so I asked my colleagues on the NASSR list for music recommendations that pair well with Romantic-era poetry and prose. They responded generously with numerous suggestions both for pairings between rock and roll and Romantic texts and for the course in general. I’ve posted a list below.
Why rock and roll and Romanticism? “Romanticism” as a literary movement has traditionally been defined both thematically and as a period, with periodization usually taking priority. As a periodized trans-European phenomenon, Romanticism usually starts with either Rousseau’s writings of the 1760s-1780s, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, or the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and it lasts until about 1850, at least in England. By this date Wordsworth, Mary Shelly, and most other first and second-generation Romantic poets had died.
Thematically, Romantic literature tends to focus on the individual over and above the state or other economic or political structures, on democracy over and above monarchy or the aristocracy, on nature over and above the urban, and on imagination and passion over and above reason and traditional moral structures. Many of us who think today that our deepest feelings represent somehow our essential selves have the Romantics to thank.
Because Romanticism is a trans-European and trans-chronological phenomenon, it is very difficult to define precisely. Scholars have been wrestling with the question “What is Romanticism?” for as long as Romanticism as been defined as a literary movement, but especially since A.O. Lovejoy’s early twentieth-century essay, “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms.” In it, he claims that the term “Romanticism” has come to mean so many different things that it has ceased to serve the function of a verbal sign.
For the sake of my course, and perhaps to the annoyance of some of my favorite Romanticists, I will probably theorize Romanticism using Sayre and Löwy’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001). In this book, the authors develop a taxonomy of different Romanticisms (their solution to the problem Lovejoy posed) while presenting a unified definition of Romanticism as a response to capitalism.
So theorized, Romanticism then exists as a literary mode independent of any period. I am tempted to define English Romanticism as starting with Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). If this starting point doesn’t make sense to you, try comparing the moral reasoning of its titular character to the presentation of Blake’s Jesus at the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who acted from impulse rather than rules. In this approach to Romanticism, the 1950s and certainly the 1960s are the most recent resurgence of Romanticism as a mode, one that continues into the present. If you were to reread my thematic description of literary Romanticism above, it’s not hard to read it as a simultaneous description of the major themes in a great deal of rock music. And as you’ll see from the list below, many artists from the 1960s forward drew inspiration from major figures in English Romanticism.
We need to be careful when talking about either literary modes or periods, however: it’s a mistake to think that even if we could define Romanticism as starting in 1789 and ending in 1850 that all literature and art during this period is therefore Romantic. Even periodization does not eliminate the need for attention to theme. Earlier generations of Romantic-era scholars tended to define Romanticism in opposition to Classicism, which at least allowed for two different modes of literature to co-exist within the same period (even if they tended to periodize Classicism earlier in the eighteenth century). We should do the same, at the least seeing Romanticism as a mode arising within a specific historical and social context and then continuing into the present, co-existing alongside other disursive modes arising before and after it and continuing alongside it into the present.
A provisional list is below, which as you see very broadly defines both Romanticism and rock and roll. Please email me with further suggestions at jamesrovira at gmail dot com, and I will add your suggestions to the list and credit you below. Many thanks to all who contributed.
If you’re interested in more on William Blake in popular culture, check out the online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit on this site.
|William Blake, general responses
Note: Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music provides a comprehensive list up to 1989.
Zoamorphosis is an excellent source of material on Blake and popular culture.
|William Blake, An Island in the Moon||Live performance, stage adaptation by Joe Viscomi|
|William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell||Ulver, Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell|
|William Blake, Milton a Poem, “And did those feet…”||Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Chile”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Jerusalem“
|William Blake, Poetical Sketches||The Fugs, “How Sweet I Roamed“|
|William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience||Anda al Sinaia, Songs of Innocence and Experience, “The Clod and the Pebble”
Daniel Amos, “Instruction Thru Film” (“The Chimney Sweeper,” Innocence)
Daniel Amos, “Sleep Silent Child”
David Axelrod, Song of Innocence
David Axelrod, Songs of Experience
William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and Experience (2.5 hr. orchestral performance of all of the Songs from the 1950s, highly diverse musically)
The Fugs, “Ah! Sunflower”
The Man on the Margin (Italian band), “Songs of Innocence and Experience”
Van Morrison, “Let the Slave”
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, “The Clod and the Pebble”
Terry Scott Taylor, Knowledge and Innocence
U2, Songs of Innocence and “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to the Songs of Experience“
Van Morrison, “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”
Victor Vertunni, “Little Boy Lost” (Part of his Songs of Innocence and Experience Project)
Walter Zimmerman, Songs of Innocence & Experience (1949 string quartet, not remotely rock and roll)
See Martha Redbone above for several individual songs.
|Robert Burns, general responses||Hugh Morrison, Robert Burns Rocks|
|Robert Burns, “My Heart’s in the Highlands”||Bob Dylan, “Highlands“|
|George Gordon, Lord Byron||David Bowie, “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean“|
|George Gordon, Lord Byron, “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving”||Leonard Cohen, “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving“|
|Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights||Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”
Michael Penn, “No Myth“
|Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”||Iron Maiden, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Ian McKellen reading “Rime“
|Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”||Rush, “Xanadu”
Olivia Newton-John and ELO, “Xanadu“
|John Keats, “Lamia”||Genesis, “The Lamia“|
|John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”||Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds feat. Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow“|
|Jack Kerouac, On the Road||The Waterboys, Modern Blues, especially “Long, Strange, Golden Road“|
|Edgar Allan Poe, Miscellaneous Poems||Jeff Buckley, “Ulalume”
Marianne Faithfull, “Annabel Lee”
Iggy Pop, “Tell Tale Heart”
Lou Reed, The Raven
Christopher Walken, “The Raven“
|Mary Shelley, Frankenstein||Edgar Winter, “Frankenstein” (maybe more a reference to James Whales’s film?)
Grateful Dead, “Ramble on Rose”
New York Dolls, “Frankenstein“
|Percy Shelley, “Adonais”||The Cure, “Adonais”
Mick Jagger reading “Adonais”
Vincent Price reading “Adonais” (Yes, Vincent Price is rock and roll — links appreciated if available)
|Percy Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy||Scritti Polliti, “Lions After Slumber“|
|Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”||Glass Hammer, “Ozymandias”
Walter White/Heisenberg reading “Ozymandias” (he’s officially rock and roll now too)
Vincent Price reading “Ozymandias“
|Percy Shelley, “To a Skylark”||The Cure, liner notes to Disintegration|
|William Wordsworth, general responses||Joy Division, “Heart and Soul”
Van Morrison, “Summertime in England” (with references to Coleridge, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot)
|William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”||Anton Corbjin, Control, reading of Wordsworth’s poem by Ian Curtis of Joy Division|
|William Butler Yeats, general responses||The Waterboys, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, “September 1913” and others|
|William Butler Yeats, “The Stolen Child”||The Waterboys, “The Stolen Child“|
|References to Byron, Shelley, and Keats||Natasha Bedingfield, “These Words“|
|References to John Keats, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde||The Smiths, “Cemetry Gates“|
|“Romantic in tone, mood, or spirit”||The Clash
The Dropkick Murphys
Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited. See D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back
Echo and the Bunnymen
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon
The Kinks, Arthur
The Moody Blues, On the Threshold of a Dream and A Question of Balance
Ritchie Blackmore’s Night
Pink Floyd, The Wall: Film, Full Album, Soundtrack, Live
The Pogues, “Lorelei”
Simon and Garfunkel
The Tragically Hip, “Poets”
The Waterboys, A Pagan Place, “A Church Not Made with Hands”
The Who, Tommy, Quadrophenia, Who’s Next
|The “New Romanticism” of the 1980s||Spandau Ballet|
Dettmar, Kevin. Is Rock Dead?
Dettmar, Kevin. Think Rock.
Dettmar, Kevin and Willem Richey. Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics. 1999.
Doughty, Howard. “Rock: A Nascent Protean Form.” Popular Music and Society 2.2 (1973).
Eisen, Jonathan. The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (Random House) and The Age of Rock 2: Sights and Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (Vintage Books).
Lewis, George H. Side Saddle on the Golden Calf: Social Structure and Popular Culture in America (Goodyear Pub. Co.).
Maddocks, Melvin. “The New Cult of Madness.” Time Magazine (March 13, 1972).
Marshall, Lee. “Metallica and Morality: The Rhetorical Battleground of the Napster Wars.” ESLJ 1.1 (2004).
Passmore, John. “Paradise Now: The Logic of the New Mysticism.” Encounter (November 1970). CIA funded source.
Prendergast, Mark. The Ambient Century – from Mahler to Moby, the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age (Bloomsbury, 2003)
Reynolds, Simon. “Ecstasy is a Science: Techno-Romanticism.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 199-205.
Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
Weinstein, Deena. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.
Clark, Steve, Tristanne Connolly, and Jason Whittaker. Blake 2.0: William Blake in 20th-Century Art, Music, and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Barfield, Steven, ‘ “The Time of Our Great Undoing”: Love, Madness, Catastrophe and the Secret Afterlife of Romanticism in Nick Cave’s Love Songs’, in John..H..Baker (ed.) The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays (Bristol, UK. Intellect Book, 2012) 239-260.
Welberry, Karen. “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter.” Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. 47-64.
The Doors/Jim Morrison
Paunovic, Zoran. Istorija, fikcija, mit (Geopoetika, Beograd 2006). In Serbian. Essay on Blake and Morrison.
Corcoran, Neil. Do You, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors. Chatto.
Dettmar, Kevin ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. 2 volumes. Simon and Schuster.
Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Harper Perennial.
McCutcheon, Mark A. Techno, Frankenstein, and Copyright. Popular Music 26.2 (2007): 259-280.
Hearty thanks to the following contributors, in alphabetical order:
William Christopher Brown
Joseph M. Johnson
Aaron J. Ottinger
Teresa Romero Sánchez-Herrero
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”:
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.