Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sophisticated Theology

"God is dead," says Nietzsche. He's right. Every form of theology and religion, from Aquinas and Spinoza to Spong, Craig and Plantinga has been found false, vacuous or trivial. There's no there there. the only sophistication in "sophisticated" theology is in the obfuscation and double-talk hiding the underlying bullshit of the theologian's theory. The philosophical battle is over. That the Gnu Atheists are bringing nothing philosophically new to the table is a fair cop: there's nothing new to bring. We need not bring anything new to debunk flat-Earth theories, philogiston or the luminiferous ether; and we need not bring anything new to debunk religion. Religious apologists are in a Wile E. Coyote situation. They've already stepped off the cliff; they dare not look down lest they fall.

If you're using the terms "religion" or "God" you're either wrong, you're saying nothing at all, or you're saying what you could say more easily and straightforwardly without reference to the error, oppression, and atrocity that has for millennia been the purview of religion. Do you believe the world is 6,000 years old because the Bible tells you so? You are wrong. Do you believe that God is the ground of all being? You are flapping your lips without actually saying anything, and you're wasting everyone's time. Do you believe that God is the natural order of the universe? You are wrapping modern science in the trappings of parasite, pedophiliac priests and pompous popes. All of these activities are — or should be — beneath the dignity of a civilized, educated person.

Just as the program of modern physics is not to examine arguments and theories about the luminiferous ether in a scholarly, careful manner, the Gnu Atheist program is not to examine arguments and theories about God. That program is complete; to continue is to paint the lily. The Gnu Atheist program is simply to encourage people to actually look down: their religious beliefs rest not just on sand but on nothing at all. Of course, getting rid of a bad way of thinking, however prevalent and pernicious, is not to absolutely ensure good ways of thinking. Humanity is prone to endless varieties of error, vanity and bullshit, even if God and religion are decisively rejected. But to argue against the Gnu Atheist program on this basis is to commit the Utopian Fallacy; that eradicating smallpox will not eradicate all disease is no argument against eradicating smallpox.

There are several components to the Gnu Atheist program. In their rush to defend an utterly failed intellectual program, the religious all too often attempt to undermine scientific inquiry, intellectual integrity and basic principles of factual accuracy, institutions and social constructions the Gnu Atheists strongly advocate.

I see the Gnu Atheist program as primarily a matter of political principle. The fundamental and ineluctable social role of religion has been to externalize and objectify social and political preferences onto a God and into the privileged control of a priesthood. Usually these social and political preferences are those of the ruling class, sometimes they are those of the population at large*. Sometimes those preferences, both of the ruling class and the hoi polloi, would meet with the approval of most Gnu Atheists (who are predominantly liberal humanists); sometimes they are not. Because religion is fundamentally vacuous, it can be used to support any position, odious or laudatory. From a position of pure expediency, we might want to strongly confront those preferences we disapprove of, and praise (or at least remain silent about) those we approve of. There is a place for expediency (in the long run, as Keynes wryly observes, we are all dead), but in this case we believe expediency must yield to principle.

*In history, the people have on occasion used the form and forum of specifically religious discourse to resist the depredations of the ruling class, sometimes in a revolutionary manner. But even as a component of revolution, religion is a Johnny-come-lately, always following material forces. When revolution is already in the air, some would-be religious authority will inevitably attribute the revolutionary forces to his or her god.

The Gnu Atheist program is about the principle: it is illegitimate, we maintain, to attribute any preference to God. (To attribute no preferences at all to God is to render the concept superfluous.) There's nothing wrong per se with preferences — the negotiation of preferences is central to even the weak-tea pseudo-democracy we have in the West — but the Gnu Atheist goal is to persuade people to own their preferences directly. We want advocates of all sides of important social negotiations — feminism, racism, gay rights, etc. — to take personal ownership of what are, after all, their own preferences and desires. I am not interested that you think God hates fags: I want to know what you personally think about gay rights. But as a matter of principle, I am equally uninterested that you think God loves gay people. You are the citizen, and you have standing to negotiate for your preferences. God (if by no other virtue than His non-existence) is not a citizen; His preferences have no more standing than Hu Jintao's. Similarly, your preferences are only your own preferences; attributing those preferences to a God does not in any sense elevate them in prestige or importance.

To no small extent, I have more contempt for religious liberals than I do for religious "fundamentalists". If you have some disgusting or odious belief — that women's uteri are public property, that homosexuals are filthy perverts, that black people are inherently inferior, that the poor and working class deserve to be exploited, harassed, and oppressed — then I have some sympathy with the fundamental embarrassment you would feel, which would cause you to externalize this belief onto your God. But why externalize a good belief onto God? Do you personally not give a fig on your own account for the well-being of all humanity? Do you care about humanity only because you think God does? Do you believe your own human sympathy for the well-being of your fellow human beings is not a sufficient reason for resisting oppression, eliminating suffering, and helping others to be happy? If we could know that a God actually did exist, and know He actually did hate fags, would you follow God or would you follow your own human sympathy? If God is by definition always on humanity's side, there's not need for God; if not, whose side are you on: God's or humanity's?

Attributing humanistic preferences to God as a method of "engaging" with fundamentalists is nothing more than conceit. As Rieux succinctly notes, "A fundamental problem with "liberal" religion is that its offered rebuttal—"No God Doesn't [Hate Fags]"—concedes the issues on which the [Westboro Baptist Church] is actually vulnerable, and it reduces a matter of serious moral concern to a quibble about the thought processes of an invisible and ineffable deity. That's the sole debate that conservative believers can and do win." This sort of theological discourse not only concedes that God is not always on humanity's side, but is nothing but Argument Clinic futility. And as most scripture was written in cultures that were, by today's standards, brutal and oppressive, the religious liberals must commit more sins than the fundamentalists against common sense and intellectual integrity to find scriptural support for their modern beliefs. Finally, every religious "liberal" I've met has some sort of political and ethical principle that he or she cannot support merely by an appeal to the well-being of humanity. I would be please, of course, if someone were to renounce explicit chattel slavery, but that renunciation would not dissuade me in the least from criticizing the formation of second-class citizenship or its theological justification.

What I want, and what I think a majority of the Gnu Atheists want, is for each person in our democracy to stand up and say, "I don't give a fig what God wants, this is what I want." If you want women's uteri to be public property, stand up and say that's what you want, and God be damned. Equally, if you want a woman's uterus to be her own property, stand up and say that's what you want. To attribute any belief, good or bad, to God is to give away the basic tenet of a democracy: that a society should be — in broad terms — what its citizens want, not what God wants, and especially not what those want who can most persuasively assert private, privileged knowledge of God's wishes. There is no middle ground between democracy and tyrannical theocracy. A benevolent tyranny is still tyranny.


  1. But you see, this is deliberate. Saying it is what God wants and you are but His humble servant allows the religious to spout their bullshit and have it both ways.

    They can claim arrogant moral superiority and total control while at the same time saying they are modest and humble.

    But the reality is, every time someone demands something be done because it is "God's law", they are displaying the height of tyrannical arrogance. As you point out, they are saying that there is an all powerful being and THEY know exactly what He wants and get to use that power to get what THEY want while pretending it is for Him.

    I'm feeling particularly disgusted with the religious today after hearing about how atheist veterans were treated on memorial day at the "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" blog.

  2. I'm feeling particularly disgusted with the religious today after hearing about how atheist veterans were treated on memorial day at the "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" blog.


  3. A nice essay, Larry. I guess my main quible is most people have so internalzed their religion that it will be impossible to separate what they want out from what they believe "God" wants. I'm not even so sure it is always the case as DBB notes above. i'm sure that they really do imagine or believe that their position does reflect their deities' demands.

  4. I guess my main quible is most people have so internalzed their religion that it will be impossible to separate what they want out from what they believe "God" wants.

    How is that a quibble? The only way to "un-internalize" this identity is to talk about it a lot, which is what the Gnu Atheists are doing.

  5. Sorry - I was lazy - here's the link:

  6. Thanks much for the flattering shout-out, and this is a terrific post even when it isn't quoting me.

    I do have an anal-retentive quibble with one sentence, though:

    If you're using the terms "religion" or "God" you're either wrong, you're saying nothing at all, or you're saying what you could say more easily and straightforwardly without reference to the error, oppression, and atrocity that has for millennia been the purview of religion.

    Well, Gnu Atheists (including you and me) "us[e] the terms 'religion' [and] 'God'" all the time, and I don't think we belong in any of those three categories.

    This is not to dispute the point you're making (I strongly agree with what I understand to be said point), but it seems to me that the sentence, as written, is incorrect. Correcting the sentence, meanwhile, might well make it rhetorically weaker—but as I said, this is an anal-retentive quibble, and after all I am an attorney. Anal-retentive quibbles are our stock-in-trade.

  7. I am formerly a computer programmer and presently an English tutor: attorneys hardly have a monopoly on anal-retentive quibbling, and I have sympathy for your point and the effort of making it.

    Still, I think my meaning is clear enough in context, and I would agree that addressing your quibble in the body of the text might detract from the text's rhetorical power, so I think I will allow this response to serve as the entirety of my adjustment.


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