atheist mythos (not “the myth of atheism”)
Mark’s sharp post the other day on PZ Myers (building off a similarly sharp post by Br. Ken @ Popehat) mentioned an earlier call of mine for an atheist theology. That post only introduced the idea, so since it’s come up again and is very relevant to the current bruhaha with Myers, let me flesh this idea out.
Now before I go there, one well headed advisory warning. In the comments to Mark’s post, Consumatopia writes (comment #12):
However, I think it’s worth stepping back and thinking about the point of this argument. I agree absolutely with Ken’s criticism of Myers at popehat, but I’m pretty sure that simple human inconsistency/hypocrisy in the face of great passion is the cause of this, not the abstract epistemological problems we might address here.
I’m sure C-topia’s analysis is part of what is going on. So not discounting that, I’d like to add another one. Not an abstract epistemological one but more a structural-worldview investigation which can be operating simultaneously and complementary to C-topia’s more individual-phenomenologico-ethical read. The atheist theology thread will dive in and out of the analysis around my analysis of Myers (he being only one example to support my hypothesis, though I think a paradigmatic or at least well known one).
And off we go…
Myers in this Bloggingheads episode describes his religious upbringing as basically milquetoast Protestant. He had to go to confirmation classes (usually in the early teen years) got bored of the teachings, started asking questions about the rationality of this belief system and then left church never to return. Standard version of this whole thing. [By standard I don’t mean to demean it, just that it”s a common pattern].
This is where James Fowler’s work of the Stages of Faith development is so crucial and why I point to it so often. One of the geniuses of Fowler’s work is a basic trust that humans have a spiritual line of development or intelligence with cross-cultural structural similarities in their patterning regardless of whether they formally believe in God or not. And actually whether or not God exists does not change Fowler’s reconstruction. Even if there is no God, humans continue to develop meaning-making stories and go through sequential orders of faith development. Those patterns tell us something about human maturation–even if not about the Divine (though I obviously think it does the latter as well). Fowler’s work shows that this spiritual-faith dimension of human experience develops from primal forms of religion to magical forms to mythic forms to rational forms of religion to pluralistic forms to more holistic forms. This development can stop at any point and also can develop in a nearly infinite number of surface manifestations but generally show the same basic deep patterning.
By the time Fowler reaches rational his analysis splits into multiple streams (atheistic, theistic, agnostic, pantheistic, etc.). A rational theistic theology would be something like Liberal Protestant theology or the Roman Catholic theology of Vatican II. A rational-modern atheistic position would be more in the classic empiricist humanist tradition. Now the different rational stage positions are various forms or variations on the same basic structure. They are interpreting their lifeworld differently but interestingly show the same basic patterns (again see Fowler’s work on this).
This overview explains why the so-called New Atheists are always trying to argue that liberal/moderate religious believers are actually just in the closet irrational religious fundies. The New Atheists have to try to make all religion in mythic-magical religion (hence “irrational” or really pre-rational). If they admitted to stages of maturing belief–and hence the possibility of a modern or postmodern or even post-postmodern religion–that would sink their ideological Battleship.
The New Atheist point aside, each level can be thought to have its own version of a “faith”–a basic trust that gives coherence and meaning to that interpreted world. If that trust fundamentally breaks down then there is the potential for shifting to another level. [Which is why the actually interesting question is what do you trust/believe in? Not: do you believe or not?].
Take the classic example where the young adult begins to question the stories given to him/her as a child–questioning the basic logic and meaning of the story with questions like: “What do you mean there are two creation stories in the Bible?” This is shifting from mythic (which is being deconstructed) to rational (which is being constructed). If a religious person at this phase of their life is not given a way to re-interpret/re-imagine/re-understand their religious tradition that speaks to their questioning, then they most often leave and may never come back except in the case where they have children who the new parent wants to be brought up in the faith only to repeat the cycle. Again, following Fowler, since the child starts off at the beginning, the child will need to develop magically and mythically—typically achieved via religious institutions.
In the case where a rational stage religiosity is not offered–in Fowler’s terms he calls this stage individual-reflective faith–then there is the assumption, strong in our world, that “belief” means mythic belief means religion and reason equals science equals “truth”. Science in this view is not faith. [See the comments to Mark’s post for plenty of evidence to that view being held].
With Fowler’s lens there is rather a faith to every level, each one more mature than the previous. Though there is always the possibility of developing to a higher stage and then instead of including the previous stage’s wisdom in a more mature way, the earlier stage is repressed. [Keep an eye out for that one.]
So this is where the atheist religion begins to take shape. Atheists develop spiritually like all beings. The spiritual line involves the individual’s reconstruction of their experience-beliefs in answer to the question: “What is of Ultimate Concern” (to use Tillich’s language). Everyone has something of ultimate concern. Given Fowler’s sequence, not all ultimate concerns are born equal or equally valued. But this is also the point where the problem for an atheist theology lies as well. Every individual is born at the first stage, what Fowler called primal (unconscious) faith. So everyone has to develop–in any number of potential surface variations/ways–through the same basic (deep) structural forms. From primal to magical to mythic to rational and so on.
Mythic religion basically does a few things. 1. It attempts to unite the world into one story. In so doing it creates a sharp division between everyone who is in the mythic group (i.e. the righteous) and those who are not (the damned or at least the suspect). 2. It attacks magical forms of religion because it is so closely related to it. Each level of faith sees the previous one as in some sense evil–e.g. The Christian myth’s attacks on pagan magical-animistic religion during the Church’s mission to the so-called barbarians (i.e. magical-based tribal groups like the Goths, Slavs, Vikings, etc.). 3. In its rarest (and best) form it works as a deep mystical teaching of the truth of union with the Divine.
Now I need to bring in some Jung and then all the pieces will be in place on this chessboard of the soul. Jung argued that some myths have a stronger hold within the mythic world. He called these “the collective unconscious”. So if you are born in The East, the Eastern myths are deeply imbued into the whole society. And even if a society develops post-mythically into the rational phase it does so out of its own mythic world and therefore has echoes of that mythic world. The rational world is built on top of the mythic world.**
So a Westerner is born–whether or not this person has ever stepped into a church or synagogue in their life–and will develop into a mythic phase of development which inevitably will have strong (collective unconscious) Jewish-Christian resonances. The individual may not be aware of this influence–that’s the unconscious part–but they are there. Or so argues Jung and I think in this limited sense he is correct.
The corollary to Jung’s collective unconscious thesis is that the failure to recognize in oneself that influence is to become psychically split and therefore very likely to project out onto the world the division within oneself. Now in therapy circles this is overdone as if all problems in the outer world were just your projection of your inner split. But again in this very limited context I think Jung has a point.
And I think further something like this might be going on with Myers. He left his own Christian background at the mythic phase as he developed into his own rationality–to which he undoubtedly has given his life and has ultimate faith in (i.e. the scientific process). And now he is dipping into the mythic side of his faith. He is coming back into–though unconsciously–the mythic form of his self in an atheistic way. But he is doing so very poorly and via projection out onto the outer world of “all believers” (read: all mythic believers). He is projecting the inner mythic him that he can’t come to grips with out onto everybody else who has a religious belief. In so doing he is reducing all religious believers to mythic believers–i.e. his view won’t allow for rational or pluralistic or holistic belief patterns which is a fundamentally mythic and irrational move. This projection and finger pointing name-calling of Myers psycho-spiritually works as a giant “Don’t Look at Me” smoke and mirrors move. Like the crusading politician against sexual offenders who is seeing the prostitute on the weekends. All the attention focused outward onto everybody else deflects attention away from him. Unless of course you have any brains in which case you can see right through the charade and just feel pretty sorrowful at the whole unnecessary drama.
Because the earlier forms of development have larger numbers of people and because in order to make your ideas flourish over time, an atheistic (rational-modern) position either has to A)wait for people to develop through the mythic phase on their own and then try to move them along from there (i.e. traditional atheist criticisms of religion as irrational) and/or B)has to form its own mythic atheism in order to get a large share of the people earlier in the game. A kind of atheist evangelism. And then you have to think about how to raise the children in this world–so you need to have catechism classes. And you need to think about rituals for major life events (marriage, death, birth of child). You need to think about how to communicate a moral formation. And then you see it starts looking like a religion.
I said that mythic religion creates a story where everyone fits and which has one truth to which all should subscribe. Myers zealous proselytism fits this categorization. Another classic myth function I said was to fight off magical belief as superstition. Well lo and behold what is Richard Dawkins up to but trying to stop children from reading Harry Potter because it contains an irrational message. Hmmm….maybe we should burn those books (and witches!!!) while we’re at it Dawky, whatcha think? I seem to remember that’s been tried before to horrible consequences. But mythic forms of religion always fight magical ones–it’s a structural inevitability. And lastly (#3) Sam Harris wants to teach meditation/contemplation to atheists.
In short, you can’t get away from mythic religion. Even when you want like Harris to call it Science. If it walks like mythic religion and quacks like it, well….
Even if it is argued that the true teaching of such a persuasion is not mythic–say it is a rational pursuit in Harris’ self-description–as long as there are various humans interpreting the message, a certain portion will inevitably interpret/translate the message to the mythic level of development. If they are at that level in their own spiritual development. Once that happens atheists of this ilk would have to respond that these “atheist fundamentalists” are misinterpreting and misunderstanding the truth of our religion and their mistaken immaturity should not be taken for the whole of the faith. Exactly the argument The New Atheists mock from liberal or more developed religious persons. Maybe then they would have a little more compassion for that view as well as more compassion for the mythic believers (of whatever stripes) themselves.
In short, there are two and only two options. 1. You learn to accept the mythic dimensions of yourself (whatever your particular views on God, no God, or whatever) and learn to transmute them. You learn in other words, as Ricoeur said, to have a second naivete. You take them with an “as if” quality. First naivete or actual mythic faith takes the mythic stories as literally/concretely true as Myers, Hitchens, and Dawkins do with their atheist myth. Numerous theistic fundamentalists could be brought up as examples as well (Pat Robertson, Bill Donahue, etc. etc.). 2. Or you continue to bumble around castigating others for the speck of myth in their eye while never noticing the giant plank of unconscious myth coming forth from yours.
But what myth to teach? The prime difficulty an atheist religion will have if it tries to translate downward into a mythic form in a honest self-conscious manner is that it is hard to form new myths after the rise of the scientific-critical age. Just ask The Mormons. Since the Jewish & Christian myths have such a long history they have that piece of Universe Property pretty well in hand. Which is why attempts to generate counter-myths in Western history almost always (if not always) end up parroting the Jewish-Christian myth: e.g. communism’s ideal state as a secularized version of the myth of the Millennium. Same with liberal capitalism’s argument for the inevitable land of wealth, peace, and liberty when all adopt those mechanisms of economics and governance (“The End of History”).
Probably the best version of an atheist mythos would be to mythicize the up to date scientific story of Creation. You don’t need a god/God for that story but properly done it evokes awe, wonder, care, and humility (the best responses to good myth). It isn’t opposed to religious understandings of the same story–i.e. not a militant anti-theistic atheistic spirituality–though it doesn’t have to be subsumed by the classic religious Western myth either. It makes science, rightly done, a worshipful devotional act (read: 2nd naivete) without worshiping science. And lastly as a good myth it will need to deal with the question of evil, finitude, and death. Given that 99+% of all species ever in existence have gone extinct, this worldview is soaked in death (as well as creative rebirth), so it certainly has resources at hand for that need. Lastly it can deploy metaphors from nature about the dual tendencies of both competition and co-operation in evolution as a basis for reflection on ethical activity–in light of the reality that the human is the creature which can self-reflect on this proces. As an added bonus it also leaves a great amount of room for art/literature thereby fulfilling the old transcendental triad of The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.
Until something with that kind of sophistication comes along (maybe something like this) these fools aren’t even in the game yet.
** This is why one of the constant humanities fights is between those who argue that the modern Western world (the rational worldspace) could only have arisen due to Judeo-Christianity and those who argue that it required the breaking from that past in order to build the secular modern world. In the way of thinking I’m offering, both are half-right. The second crew is right that the modern world is separate from the mythic world and the first crew is right however that the seeds for the rational world are set within the mythic world.
Update I: Day (and 40 comments+) later.
As a person I consider wise says, “religion is simultaneously the source of the most violence in all of human history and the most deeply liberated beings who have ever walked the earth.”
New Atheism serves a valid function of attacking the former–though it must always be careful of not using the same means as those it opposes. But it totally misses the latter. So while there is relative gain to be sure, there is deep absolute loss in such a position. In the post I did a number of other various rankings, but just that basic one is enough to bring down the absolutist side of a PZ Myers. It adds gray to his otherwise black & white portrayal.