UPDATE ON ATHEISM
The late February edition of The New Yorker has a “Critic at Large” piece by Adam Gopnik that reviews recent books by militant Atheists and suggests that there may be more common ground between (at least some versions of) religious belief and non-believers than what Atheist authors such as Mitchell Stephens want to acknowledge. Quoting Peter Watson, author of “The Age of Atheists: How we have sought to live since the death of God”, the article states that “…we are divided not so much between believers and non-as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” The article states that “most [Self-Makers] believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith- they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite.” By the same token, Gopnik observes that few “Supernaturalists” “believe in an omnipotent man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity.”
My own view is that militant atheism is twin to militant fundamentalism, whether the latter is of the Christian, Muslim, or other variety. These evangelistic adversaries act as if they believed more strongly in demons than in anything else, and go after each other with the fierce concentration of exorcists. This would make more sense if we really thought about God the way the “Two Thousand Year Old Man” did in a Mel Brooks’ film, who told how “a guy in our village named Phil” was worshipped by everyone because “he could break you in two with his bare hands.” When Phil gets incinerated by a lightning bolt from the sky, the villagers conclude that “there’s something bigger than Phil” and so religion is born.
I suppose that fear, a desire to placate unseen dangers lurking in the dark, had a role in the development of primal religion, but I don’t think “Super-Phil” theology is anything like the whole story. There is anthropological/archeological evidence brought forward recently that explains the origin of cities, not in the usual terms of economics alone, but as an outgrowth of the craving ancient nomadic people felt for a place to celebrate sacred festivals. So great was their sense of gratitude at the miracle of their survival that they just had to dance! Temples and cities emerged where the tribes habitually gathered. In this account, religious belief was a byproduct of festivity and community, not the other way around.
Even more ancient is the impulse reflected in the wall and cliff paintings found in the caves at Lascaux and elsewhere. These drawings of animals were, it is supposed, scrawled there by awe-struck hunters anxious to illustrate their stories and express their amazement at the existence of such large animals as Wooly Mammoths, and , even more, that such puny creatures as themselves could successfully kill and eat them. If they were not utterly amazed, they should have been! I have hunted deer every year since 1989, dressed in high-tech insulated fabric, armed with a repeating rifle, and even wearing electric socks, and have not killed a deer in all that time. These ancestors of ours survived and multiplied with nothing but rocks and sharp sticks as weapons! Don’t tell me they were not amazed.
From that primal amazement came the icons, and the dances, and the sacred stories, and the periodic festivals, and the shamans, and eventually the temples and the priests. If there was fear in it, it was fear of proving unworthy of the joy, of presuming upon the abundant generosity by which the animals renewed their numbers every year, of regarding their own prowess and success as something other than a gift.
OK, the “Self-Makers” are right to say that Wooly Mammoths did not present themselves at the mouths of cave dwellings and conveniently drop dead. Of course they had to be hunted down and killed with great ingenuity and skill, not to mention bravery. This is where the paths of skeptical Supernaturalists and committed Self-Makers converge. Adam Gopnik says that the unreligious humanists have “a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world,” which believers once controlled and now covet. That may or may not be so, but the “Supernaturalists” have all the cool dances and chants and the coolest old buildings.
Gopnik concludes his article with some speculations of his own, supposing that the conflict between atheism and its counterpart will simply disappear as the world grows more economically prosperous and pain-free. That might be true for people like me, who might well have avoided entanglement with religion altogether were it not for early experiences on rivers and in the woods. But when my eight year old grandson (shown above), who is a master at video-game technology, reminds me of “the time when we listened to the crickets,” he sounds like a hunter to me, and like one who will always “search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite.” In my tradition, God has an affinity for such people, and will continue to haunt their imaginations, lure them to liturgies, and provoke them to pray.