Pharyngula

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When the Buddhas of Bamyan were dynamited, it wasn’t an atheist who lit the fuse. These modern atheists that have stirred up so much resentment among the apologists for religion are not destroyers who seek to demolish the past or who want to advance a destructive ideology — they aren’t philistines who reject literature and art and music, and they aren’t monsters who will exterminate people to achieve their ends. We aren’t out to eradicate the world of ideas or obliterate the vestiges of our religious history in art and architecture, although we have been accused of such nefarious plans; such claims are easy to dismiss as the ravings of the delusional.

Stanley Fish doesn’t go quite so far in damning these “new atheists,” perhaps to avoid the easily ridiculed paranoid martyr-complex of the mob. Instead of being the ‘new communists’ who are planning to march the orthodox to Siberia, we’re merely unlettered, unschooled near-illiterates with no appreciation of the depths of religious thought. We don’t understand the nuances, he cries; we dismiss all of the texts and traditions as “naive, simpleminded and ignorant.” We just don’t understand, period.

Suppose, says Hitchens, you were a religious believer; you would then be persuaded that a benign and all-powerful creator supervises everything, and that “if you obey the rules and commandments that he has lovingly prescribed, you will qualify for an eternity of bliss and repose.”

I know of no religious framework that offers such a complacent picture of the life of faith, a life that is always presented as a minefield of the difficulties, obstacles and temptations that must be negotiated by a limited creature in his or her efforts to become aligned (and allied) with the Infinite. St Paul’s lament can stand in for many: “The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, I do?. Who shall deliver me?” (Romans, 7: 19,24). The anguish of this question and the incredibly nuanced and elegant writings of those who have tried to answer it are what the three atheists miss; and it is by missing so much that they are able to produce such a jolly debunking of a way of thinking they do not begin to understand.

Stanley Fish is a blind man.

First of all, that “complacent” faith he claims does not exist is everywhere: turn on your television, Stanley. Watch a football game and see the Christian players credit God with their touchdowns. Watch our politicians piously declare that they are praying for our troops. Watch the televangelists milk their audience with blatant hucksterism; haven’t you ever heard of the “prosperity gospel?” Give the good reverend a portion of your social security check, and the wealth will come back to you tenfold. The bulk of religious thought is “naive, simpleminded and ignorant.” Turn off your television and walk down to the local converted grocery store that is being used by one of those fast-growing, evangelical/charismatic/pentecostalist churches and ask anyone in attendance, and they will tell you (as long as you don’t mention him by name) that Hitchens’ characterization is correct. By faith will you be rewarded with paradise.

It’s that second accusation, that we “do not begin to understand,” that is the more subtle and more dishonest claim here. Rather, it’s clear that Fish does not understand.

His article is littered with literary allusions: there’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with it’s hero fleeing towards a dream of salvation; he uses Milton’s Paradise Lost to rationalize the existence of evil with the concept of “free will”; he references the book of Job and Jesus’ pain on the cross as evidence that the religious have been grappling with the problems of suffering. And of course they have. We all have.

What Fish ignores is that these are entirely human sufferings, human strivings, human efforts to find meaning. He, like so many other apologists for religion, glosses over the origin of these fears and aspirations in our existence, and tries to justify it all in the terms of his imaginary deity. Why does the church expect us to praise a god? Because it’s all we can do “in the face of his omnipotence and omnipresence.” Why did god condemn all of his creation and all of their descendants to sin and suffering for the trivial offense of eating a forbidden fruit? Because if it wasn’t a trivial infraction, it wouldn’t have been a test of obedience to the deity. How can a beneficent god allow the Holocaust to happen, and how can people retain their faith when confronted with overwhelming evil? Because it is all our fault, our own polluting sin and corruption. In every case, Fish elides over the human consequences and the human struggle and instead digs up an etiolated theological excuse, some thin anodyne from the facile world of the priests to build a case for the entirely imaginary workings of an invisible and impotent cosmic mind; an excuse for that loving all-powerful agent to do nothing at all, to keep his postulated power indiscernible.

What we atheists are saying is that we need to turn away from those powerless rationalizations, no matter how poetic they might be, and recognize that their power and their appeal flows from their humanity, not their religiosity. Forget god, that empty hulk, that great vacuum that humanity has stocked with its fears and dreams, and look at what we have created and felt instead. When someone weeps over a dead child or creates a great poem, it should matter not at all what some priest imagines his pantheon is doing. Take your eyes off your hallucination of heaven—what’s real are that woman’s tears, that child’s triumph, that grain of sand, that bird on wing. The meaning is derived from the reality of what we see and feel, not some convoluted vapor and self-serving puffery about an abstract concept like “god”.

Fish confuses the rejection of the supernatural pretext with the rejection of the depth of real feeling. He is mistaken. In my case, I read his superficial theological gloss with loathing because I see him substituting the wishful thinking of millennia of shamans and priests for the reality of the human condition—his conciliatory apologies are support for generations of lies. He confuses the efforts of the writers of those texts to grapple with suffering and doubt with the legitimacy of the religious answer; I can respect the beauty of religious literature and the struggle put into it while at the same time realizing that falling back on the will of an imaginary being is an admission of failure. I don’t consider the believers to be simple-minded—I think life can be hard, and that the great minds of history have endeavored to articulate some sense of meaning to pain and beauty, because that’s what human minds do. But I also think that passing the buck and inventing an ineffable universal will as an ultimate cause is a seductive trap, one that Fish has readily fallen into, where we try to project our mental state onto the universe as a whole. St Paul’s anguish was real, but the supernatural entity to which he directed it was not. When an atheist rejects the entity, it does not mean the anguish is denied.

There is some great work in that Bible Fish quotes, some wonderfully lyric writing, and it reflects a few thousand years of people straining to make sense of their world. What diminishes it is not the atheists who reject the answer it gives — that there is an all-powerful magic man behind the universe — but those who accept it, who seek meaning in rote recitations of its words without concern for how the minds of human beings could find some solace in the struggle to explain. Instead of a representation of thought, it’s treated as a recipe book for salvation. Perhaps Fish should turn some of his pious tut-tutting against the blind believers who want nothing but an answer, rather than against those few who can still appreciate the question.

That baggage of superstitious, religious thinking is what Dawkins calls the delusion, and what Hitchens says “poisons everything”—not the book itself, not the literary qualities of the writing, not the pain expressed in the book of Job or the love shared in the book of Solomon. None of those writers want the Bible burned or denied to readers. What we want is for people to think of it as a great hodge-podge of human expression which doesn’t so much vindicate a nonsensical image of a divine being as it does the complex, earthy, sometimes soaring and sometimes hateful picture of us. But no, we instead get the inanities of chatter about the personal desires of that ludicrous god, the same kind of febrile blitherings that Fish offers as a justification for accusing atheists of not understanding the depths of the deity.

Let me give you an example of the godless view of your holy books. There’s one book I turn to when I’m feeling the pain of grief; I first found it when my grandmother died many years ago, and I’ve read it several times since, usually when I’ve lost someone I cared about. It isn’t really a religious text, although it has gods in it, and a few religious concepts, but fortunately it’s free of the mystical baggage with which our culture loads the Bible — it’s easier to shake off the superstitious connotations when the god isn’t named Jesus and isn’t some being that your aunt believes is real, and there’s no literary critic somewhere ready to accuse you of lacking an understanding of nuance because you don’t believe in an old prophet’s conjuring tricks.

The book is the epic poem, Gilgamesh. I very much like the Herbert Mason verse narrative(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), which isn’t so much a literal translation (the original is a collection of 2500 year old Babylonian tablets) as an attempt to catch the spirit of the story. If you aren’t familiar with it, put that Bible down and go read it—it’s basically a lament to mortality. It’s about a king, Gilgamesh, whose beloved friend Enkidu dies, and leaves him wracked with grief.

Enkidu, whom I love so much,
Who went through everything with me.
He died — like any ordinary man.
I have cried both day and night.
I did not want to put him in a grave.
He will rise, I know, one day.
But then I saw that he was dead.
His face collapsed within
After several days,
Like cobwebs I have touched
With my finger.

There is the touchstone, the common element that atheists and theists share, and that lies at the heart of those works that Fish praises and thinks the godless philistines neglect. We bond in the human experience; it is only the superficial and bigoted critic who thinks some of us miss the point because we do not believe in the divinity of Anu and Marduk … or Jesus or Mohammed.

The rest of the story is a quest, as Gilgamesh tries to find a way to bring his friend back from the dead, or win immortality for himself. There are deities and monsters involved, some interesting mythical figures, trips to the underworld, etc.—all quite thrilling stuff, as long as you are willing to recognize that it’s all poetry and allegory and storytelling. What I, as an atheist, find most satisfying, though, is the reality. It’s a story of loss, and most importantly, the quest fails—his friend is not returned to him, he realizes that he’s going to die someday, too, and there is no glib empty promise that if only you do the right rituals everyone will get together again in a paradisal afterlife. We live, we die, people grieve; that’s the hard truth.

In time he recognized this loss
As the end of his journey
And returned to Uruk.

Perhaps, he feared,
His people would not share
The sorrow that he knew.

He entered the city and asked a blind man
If he had ever heard the name Enkidu,
And the old man shrugged and shook his head,
Then turned away,
As if to say it is impossible
To keep the names of friends
Whom we have lost.

Gilgamesh said nothing more
To force his sorrow on another.

He looked at the walls,
Awed at the heights
His people had achieved
And for a moment — just a moment —
All that lay behind him
Passed from view.

There’s more to the godless view than just the “jolly debunking” and the assumed lack of understanding that Fish imparts to us. We do not escape sorrow, we do not lack for joys, and we try as hard (I think even harder) as the believers to find meaning in our lives. We simply do not accept the short cut of magical thinking that allows the lazy-minded to follow the path of religious escapism.

We stand awed at the heights our people have achieved. No gods, no religion. Us.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    June 12, 2007

    Er… just… two things.

    - I don’t search for meaning. I don’t have the slightest reason to assume there is one. More importantly, I don’t understand why I should feel relieved or anything if it turned out there was one. Isn’t it more interesting to just so exist?
    - I think you should have mentioned that the afterlife in the Babylonian religion was no heaven. The shadows live in the eternal darkness of the underworld, eat mud, and apparently suffer from eternal depression (coupled with infinite boredom, I presume). That is worse than the atheistic outlook.

    Now for one of my dreaded point-by-point comments on the comments:

    And if I make the mistake of mentioning any of these things in front of a certain deeply superstitious and religious Moslem I know, she’d be going on about the website she’d just found, in which a whackjob numerologist is excitedly declaring that the number of known planetary nebular was foretold in the Qur’an.

    BLASPHEMY! The Qur’an is written “in clear Arabic”. You don’t need no heathen numerology to figure out what it means.

    (Funny how extremely easy it always is to accuse religious literalists of blasphemy by their own criteria.)

    PZ great stuff. You hit one of the points I always try to make when a god-botherer asks what I believe in, I always say Us. We are the source of many of our problems, but we are also the only help we are going to get in sovling them.

    “To alcohol — the origin and the solution of all problems of life!”
    – Homer Simpson

    No googling. :-)

    Ehem. You forgot to forbid Wikipedia. 8-)

    Not that I know of; he was just a prophet, not a messiah or a god, and his message was replaced by Mohammed’s.

    Well, he will sit in Judgment, so sorta kinda he will come back. (Written without Wikipedia, and before reading comment 95. Do I get a shimmy, whatever that is? :-} )

    The original version, written by smarter or more honest shamans and priests

    Sounds… interesting. Where can I read more about that?

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    June 12, 2007

    Al Hijaab

    “The Headscarf”.

    Hadis

    I thought that word had a th, as in English “thick” or “thin”?

  3. #3 Cubik's Rube
    July 13, 2008

    I’m unlurking just for a moment to say that this is wonderful. I vaguely recall studying Gilgamesh in the barest detail some years ago at school, and not appreciating a word of it at the time, but I’ll have to give it another look, now that I enjoy the benefits of a more rounded education and not being 14 years old any longer.

  4. #4 Rystefn
    July 13, 2008

    Thank you for pointing back to this. We all need to be reminded from time to time.

  5. #5 mikeg
    July 14, 2008

    thinking… thinking…thinking…… abullshitist, abullshitism, abullshit

  6. #6 paulemaule
    July 14, 2008

    [/lurk]
    I want your conclusion on my gravestone.
    “We stand awed at the heights our people have achieved. No gods, no religion. Us.”

  7. #7 Russell Blackford
    March 4, 2009

    PZ, I had occasion to come back to this and have another look at it. It’s just as good as I remembered. I hope you’ll rework it some time, just to fill in the context for people coming after the immediate debate, and republish it. This is a truly fine piece, and I’m awed at the heights you achieved. Well done, dude.

  8. #8 Stagyar zil Doggo
    March 4, 2009

    What Russell Blackford said.