Greta Christina is a sex-positive writer and atheist. I get sent her writings through the list-serve Alternet, which is a progressive news portal.
Greta represents, in my view, the casual atheism of well read, urbane liberals. Smart and usually thoughtful, they rightly rail with passion about injustice, and are particularly attentive when it comes to the crimes of the church. They see the abuse that happens in religious communities and they want it to stop. Religion, for them, is deception, arrogance and power.
I will admit that, predictably, I find her understanding of religion and belief remarkably shallow. She offers a monistic view of the system of explanation called SCIENCE, and literal, mechanical understanding of Truth. For this reason, she is positively baffled by what she considers religious behavior. Granted, I feel the same bafflement when watching most music videos.
Her question: does it matter one chooses to believe beliefs that are untrue?
Of course, such a question has the color of being asked “why are you people such idiots?” The foundation of such a question indicates her definition and description of religion, and assumptions of what constitutes belief, true belief and reality are one dimensional. For her, religion is, by necessity, a set of unverifiable beliefs rather than, for example, a set of traditions that bind a community. Even though there are other definitions of religion, she chooses a broad, necessarily disparaging one that conflates all religion with the bugaboo of “unproven ideas.” Her understanding of religious teaching implies that it is descriptively static, and practically incorrect. But is it true that the psychological, social or political insights of all religions are false? How would one realistically, or even scientifically, evaluate this claim?
She asserts that not believing in a scientific reality is deeply unethical. Religion amounts to a sort of arrogant self-delusion that is corrosive, inaccurate and implicitly damages the greatest of scientific virtues, curiosity. I can see why she believes this, especially if it is not possible to use religious language as well as be a scientist; or if the entire set of religious beliefs makes it impossible to believe in facts that she believes are true.
But her examples are few. She asserts it’s wrong to think that one’s personal reality trumps real reality. If that is the entirety of religious apologetics, she wins.
But why does she frame it like so?
Is saying “Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father” is a scientific statement about geography? Or is it poetic? Is it a description of the church’s commentary about political relationships in its imagination? Or is it scientifically about Jesus being in the sky next to God? She insinuates that it is the latter, and can ONLY be the latter as that is what she thinks most thinking Christians believe. She wants to admit, “You don’t really believe this. Admit it! Admit it! It’s impossible! It’s not true!” But she has no idea what is going on. She resists entering the religious framework on its own merits, instead the church is implicitly immoral. There is no admission that an average person or church goer may think of such a statement in complex ways.
What if a priest says in a church context, “Jesus desires that the beloved community gathers all believers, including our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters in to a fellowship that helps others”? How would Greta find such a statement? My sense is that the prior moral content of having an egalitarian community is undermined, for her, by the referent to Jesus, which must refer to an imaginary person. Like other atheists (and perhaps some religious people), she insists on narrowly defining the use of the word “Jesus.” It bewilders here that the Johannine community, for example, would have understood that the word may have meant love.
She has every right to interpret religious language as she wishes, but it shows a misunderstanding about the nature of religious language, and a lack of historical perspective. “Fuzzy language” itself is criminal.
Is it alright, generally, to have beliefs that are most likely untrue? She would say no. Then can a poor child dream about being president? Can individuals fantasize about winning the lottery? Can we have hope in futures, of any kind, that are infinitesimally small? Can we believe in stories that give us moral fortitude, or inspire us to do better things, even if they are works of fiction? Not every Olympic swimmer can win. But each one must believe they will, or they will lose. Religious language, in a similar way, reorients a reality so that it has implicit meaning, and that individuals may have a discernable role in it.
Perhaps “reality” must be first intellectually understood a series of provable facts that must be corroborated before taking action. But I don’t think this is, or should be, the way people act. It seems a remarkably tiresome and draining way to live. It seems much more viable to act with the best knowledge we have at the time, and that may include the short-cuts that religious thinking develops. But we’d have to consider various examples to determine what was useful, and what was not.
She also implies that “Religious” truths or facts, further, are only properly religious if they are not parts of other sets of knowledge. Moral teachings, liturgical acts, and traditional systems are only religious if they are not parts of law, theater, or culture. Why must “religious” thought or behavior be distinguished from the culture as neatly as she presupposes?
Greta ends the article with a lovely litany of praise to curiosity. As it happens, the Episcopal prayer in baptism asks for an “inquiring and discerning heart.” Loving curiosity is not the sole purview of atheist. Throughout history, the religious imagination has included a world where there was justice, openness, and liberality one where the lion lies down the lamb, one of universal peace, but one that remains often profoundly unreal. It exists nowhere. There has never been a time of peace, nor of justice. Must my imagination be thus confined? Must my curiosity only be her sort of curiosity?
Curiosity is a wonderful gift, but it doesn’t say much about the uses of the creations of science such as nuclear weapons, the engineering of our environment, the manipulation of our DNA. I love curiosity, but it’s not scientists who say to the world, “you have plenty” or have the power to say “No” to the institutions that run things. Traditionally, this was one of the moral impulses of religion: to learn to say “enough.” The humanist scholar JZ Smith called this the great God “Stop!” It’s not the only definition, but “religion” is far more than her simple framework.
What Greta seems to desire, in my view, is that people imagine the world only as she does. And this is why I find her kind of atheism disturbing. It’s not merely skepticism, materialism, naturalism, or empiricism. It is a moral urge to truncate the human imagination. For her, it is immoral to conceive of a world with God. She divorces God from the attenuating characteristics that have always been a part of His definition: justice, hope, charity. But no theologian – and few Christians – make these distinctions. I think I’d take her a little more seriously if I had a sense she was describing what, in fact, happens in religious communities.
Is it possible that there is some moral worth to want to see the world in a particular way, as one that has meaning and purpose? Only her way. Alas, it is the imagination of a tyrant, little different than the fundamentalists who insist that God works only in their way.
There are good reasons to object to sorts of religious thought; to challenge the political machinations of religious institutions. And to expose hypocrisy and abuse. There are excellent reasons to interrogate the roots of religious worldviews. She is not particularly precise, or even scientific, in her explanation of what religious behavior is. Like most atheists, there is little analysis of what actually happens in such communities of tradition. It amounts to little more than “why are stupid people so stupid.”
I do not, personally, live my life thinking much about heavenly rewards. My deceased father, who was an atheist, never inculcated me with a desire for heaven or a fear of hell. But every now and again I imagine him, trimming his favorite wisteria, dressed in white, to the soundtrack of a Tito Puente cha-cha. I do crazy things like buy flowers in his memory; I light a candle whenever I enter an Anglo-Catholic church. These are remarkable wastes of time, money and effort, much like the enjoyment of music or the playing of soccer. I will, however, continue to do them, without doing all the analysis that Greta demands of me. It may be simply for my own comfort; to add a little more beauty for the world; to remind myself of the relationships that have mattered to me. All three, or none. But I do them. And I am grateful to the church and its traditions for offering me to continue thinking about my father and saying he still lives, if only within my own dreams. I am sorry this offends her so.
There are many kinds of atheism and atheists. Greta is at her strongest when she is constructive about what an atheist culture might look like. She is, however, clumsy, pedestrian and bigoted when it comes to religious practice, divorcing belief from the social and political contexts in which they arise. When atheists recognize that religious traditions and impulses are often reactions against injustice rather than impositions of authority, they will continue to lunge in the wrong direction, giving comfort instead to the institutions that really control our culture. Perhaps instead of merely attacking God, they might want to examine the religion and faith that undergirds that truly represents our culture, that of mammon.
She need not share in the religious imagination. But a tyrant who demands the control over the dreams of the powerless may also be a tyrant who desires the control over our minds altogether.
One thought on “A Couple Thoughts on Belief”
This is a wonderful piece Gawain. Wow. Thank you.