Karen Armstrong: Why Atheism is in Vouge?

From the Washington Post's On Faith:

And many atheists could be in revolt from a lazy, facile theology that has far too simplistic a notion of the divine. In recent years, we have seen people committing atrocities or starting wars in the belief that "God" told them to do it. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders went into battle with the cry "God wills it!" when they slaughtered Muslims and Jews. Obviously "God"
willed no such thing; the Crusaders were simply projecting their fear and loathing of these rival faiths onto a deity they had created in their own image.

And we do not have to be Crusaders to fall into this trap. How often we hear preachers, broadcasters and lecturers claiming that "God" wills this and forbids that -- and it is uncanny how often these opinions of the deity coincide with those of the speaker. All too often people forget that God is transcendent and see him as a being like themselves, writ large, and with likes and dislikes similar to their own. Instead of using the concept of God to go beyond themselves, they use it to give a seal of absolute approval to their own prejudices. They have created an idol.

Monotheists have always warned against idolatry. It may be that the atheism that is taking hold is a rejection of a widespread idolatry which has forgotten that any conception of the divine is bound to be inadequate. In a restaurant, when we have had a strong-tasting first course, the waiter often brings a sorbet so that we can cleanse our palette and taste the next course. Today many feel the need to rinse their minds of inadequate ideas of God, and may have to enter into what the mystics used to call the dark night of the soul or the cloud of unknowing, so that we can all move forward.
This blog has, as a sort of tangential side story, documented my drift towards atheism. Ms. Armstrong identifies a number of the factors that have contributed to that move. That I found her article on the same day that I blogged about Pat Buchanan only makes her points more valid.

On Faith is a panel discussion. Here's a smattering of useful things that some of the other panelists had to say about this week's question:

Atheism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. Why do you think that is? Can there be a productive conversation between believers and atheists, and if so over what kinds of issues?

John Shelby Spong, Former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark
Atheism, technically, does not mean a denial of the existence of God. It means literally a denial of the theistic definition of God. That is to say, theism is not what God is; it is what human beings have decided that God is. Human definitions of God can die without God dying. Theism means that we perceive of God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to this world (usually conceived of as above the sky), who periodically invades this world in miraculous ways.”

This is the God who split the Red Sea to rescue the chosen people and who invaded the world in the person of Jesus to rescue the fallen creation. This is also the deity displaced by Galileo, made impotent by Isaac Newton, ridiculed by Freud and relativized by Einstein.

The theological question that needs to be explored in both church and state is this: Can God be understood in some way other than through these infantile and tribal images? Can Jesus be seen in some way other than as the divinely appointed sacrificial victim who paid the price owed to God for our sinfulness? Because I believe that both God and Jesus are so much more than these distorting images suggest, I am confident that a dialogue with those who call themselves “atheists” would not only be good for the church but it would also allow deep and profound truth to emerge.

Among the issues for discussion between atheists and believers would be: What leads human beings to seek to define God in the first place? Is it the human experience of transcendence? Otherness? Divinity? How then do we conceptualize that experience? If the worship of our God leads us to justify our killing religious prejudices that have throughout history created such things as the Inquisition, the Crusades, religious wars and even the current ecclesiastical attack on homosexual persons, can this God really be anything other than a creature of our own making? Will we remain deluded enough to call this creature God? Since that is what the theistic God has so regularly given us, would not the world be better off without such a deity?

The choice between the theism of the church and the atheism of those who reject the God of the church is to me a sterile and lifeless choice. Such a meeting between believers and atheists might lead us to examine what Paul Tillich called “the God beyond the gods of men and women.” If believers cannot have that conversation because it compromises their God definition, then that is a tip-off that the God they serve is in fact an idol and atheism is always a proper response to idolatry.
And Richard Dawkins
Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists? Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor's mighty hammer. But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened relevation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium. Militant athorists are their own worst enemy. Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past. In any case, they are doomed to failure. People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture. What are you going to put in his place?

Atheism means non-belief in the particular cult that happens to pervade the society under discussion. In America that means the cult of Yahweh, the God of the Jews commandeered by the Christians, Muslims and Mormons. Today, everyone takes it for granted that we are all atheists with respect to Thor and Wotan, Zeus and Poseidon, Mithras and Ammon Ra. If asked why you don't believe in Thor's hammer, you would probably say something like "Why is the onus on me to justify my nonbelief in Thor, given that there is not the smallest positive reason for belief?" You might go further and add that thunder, which was at one time attributed to Thor's hammer, now has a better explanation in terms of electric charges in the clouds. While technically agnostic about all those ancient gods, and about fairies and leprechauns too (you can't disprove them either), in practice we don't believe in any of them, and we feel no onus to explain why.

Today, while almost literally everybody is an athorist, nonbelief in the God of Abraham is the most reviled opinion in America. Professor Anthony M Stevens-Arroyo, one of the On Faith regular panellists, begins his answer to the current question as follows: "I never met an atheist I could like. Surely, somewhere on this planet, there is a friendly atheist, but I haven’t bumped into one yet. The atheists who have crossed my path are obnoxious . . ."

As an experiment, try substituting the word 'Jew' or 'woman' for 'atheist', and imagine whether a university professor who said those three sentences would keep his job. Yet in present day America, a professor (of "Latino Studies") can publish such odious remarks about atheists and get away with it.
I know that I cherry picked panelists. I did so because they echo my position. If you want an even handed survey of the answers, go to On Faith's website to read all of the panelists answers.

I do not intend to use this blog to 'evangelize' for Atheism. I will, however, agree with the editor of On Faith that decided to ask a question about the new visibility that Atheism has achieved.

I would say that it's not so much that Atheists are gaining numbers, but that Atheists are no longer staying in the closet. There are a few reasons for this. Authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have gained prominence not only because they've articulated what many already believe, but because the religious community has created an environment which is favorable to their ideas.

For your average non-religious American, the decision to self-identify as 'Atheist' is much easier now than it was 10 years ago. Back then, it was fine just to be 'not very religious.' But now look at the world. It seems all religion promotes is hate. Radical Islamicists hate the west. Radical Christianists hate gays. And sex. And liberals. And civil liberties. People like Fred Phelps, people who use their religion to attack people, have become the most visible face of religion.

The Face of religion is no longer people working in soup kitchens, nor people marching for civil rights, nor people collecting food, money or clothes nor providing any sort of assistance to people in need. The face of religion is hate and exclusiveness.

Why wouldn't somebody choose Atheism?

Historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer gods than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

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