At Last–An Interesting Atheist

The power of the Christian narrative here.

One of the interesting things I’ve found from reading your blog is that you are in fact an atheist. What relevance do you see this theory having for atheists?

Well, first I want to hedge on this atheist question in some way, and say I’m not a traditional theist; but if I’m an atheist, I’m at least a Christian one.

In any case though, I think that a lot of work by secular philosophers recently has been reclaiming the Christian tradition, and theological concepts, that provides some prima facie evidence for its relevance—people like Slavoj Zizek or Alain Badiou or Georgio Agamben. My work’s been very influenced by them as a way to reclaim the Christian heritage in a more convincing way than simply rejecting it because it has religiousness all over it.

At one point theologian Thomas Altizer posted on your blog that we haven’t really thought through a proper atheism yet.

Right. I think that you can see this with the New Atheists. Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ and Dennett’s books are a kind of simplistic critique of religion that’s basically not going to change anyone’s mind. I think there has to be more to say about religion other than the fact that it makes no sense as an empirical claim. That’s just too obvious to be interesting. I think that we as a society deserve a better form of atheism.

And to that we can only say, amen.

His point about empiricism is apt. Unbelievably we have these new atheists out there basically positing that because we haven’t found the foot-print of God (as if we were looking for Big-Foot) or picked him up on radar, there is no God and that is the extent of their argument. As they sit down and congratulate each other, what can one do but laugh in embarrassment at the sheer idiocy of such notions. Congratulations, you’ve disproved a god no one was asserting! Good job!

Well, at least this guy gets it.

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12 Responses to At Last–An Interesting Atheist

  1. Burk Braun says:

    This is very entertaining, but could you explain where the atheism comes in here? Apparently god is left in place, as is Christianity. What differentiates this from a-a-theism, or to be more succinct, theism?

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I’m not familiar enough with the writer’s work to comment on what it means for him personally, and he is certainly cryptic enough to leave one wondering. It is clearly not a traditional atheism. It is also clearly not a traditional theism. That is what makes it interesting.

    The greater point is how drawn he is, like the other atheists he mentions, to the Christian narrative because of its power to stand over and against the totalizing and destructive narratives of capitalism, individualism (think Tea Party, Ayn Rand, and Libertarianism) and the Liberal State’s use of power and violence.

    Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect that like Singer (as it applies to the environment and animals), he recognizes the inherent nihilism of modern materialism/atheism and its failure to be able to generate a narrative that can counter such powerful ones as capitalism and “The American Way.” Materialism can counter nothing because it holds that ultimately all narratives are equal (subjective), with none higher or lower because such objective categories don’t even exist. Consequently, if the narrative of capitalism proves stronger and prevails (because it “works” and is utilitarian), then it is “right” by default, just as you once argued that if the South had won the Civil War, it would have been “right” along with its peculiar institution. People like the writer see that such a nihilistic view could never change anything and in fact can become almost deceptively a supporter of whatever the status quo happens to be. Because what is, “is,” and there is no “ought” in such a framework.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Thanks for your reply. If someone fails to explain/clarify the core of his ideas, I would argue that makes him unrigorous and second rate, not “interesting”. Indeed there may not be anything there at all. But that supposes that this interview and related materials did want to clarify, rather than just put out empty statements/PR. It is a very big divide between us that the people you find “interesting” are typically mystifiers and obscurantists. That may be the only way to rescue a mythos out of your chosen materials, but obviously, it doesn't amount to much philosophically.

    This connects with your second point, which is that materialism cancels all narratives, even denying the category itself. That is clearly too extreme, since you then cite various other narratives that jump into the breech of religion. It is an interesting question- how florid a narrative do we need to carry on? But in any case, the project of pushing false narratives is doomed, whether they are cleverly swaddled in postmodernist “problematicization”, or simply asserted keyrygmatically. If they are taken ironically or artistically, however, they can survive, and that is what Don Cupitt and friends are doing- I highly recommend him, as one who truly fulfills the claim that your writer does not.

    So, is the capitalist narrative correct? If it were, that would be the one to choose, as are the other true narratives of science, psychology, etc. Anyone with any claims to “philosophy” would necessarily work from true narratives if they are available.

    But it is far from the whole story, and I share with you a recognition that it is in fact woefully insufficient, either to support human flourishing, or to even describe economic activity of humans in a complete way. It certainly has had its chance to rewrite history in its image, after the triumphal Reagan decades. But the fact is that careful thought and scholarship are bringing up (or bringing back) better ideas (and importantly, more realistic ideas) to supplement capitalism in our economic and broader cultural ideology. It's not coming soon enough, but I think it is definitely on the way, from various directions.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    We do find different people interesting. What I notice is you tend toward secular fundamentalists who can pronounce on anything, even things they know nothing about, or those on the fringe. Well, to each his own I guess.

    “This connects with your second point, which is that materialism cancels all narratives, even denying the category itself. That is clearly too extreme, since you then cite various other narratives that jump into the breech of religion.”

    I have no idea what this means or how it ties to my point, original or otherwise. Materialism can only hold that any given narrative is subjectively equal, neither lower or higher, better nor worse.

    I too agree that false narratives like scientism/materialism are doomed for the very reasons outlined in that they are nihilistic and can only support the status quo or whomever “wins.”

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    “I have no idea what this means or how it ties to my point, original or otherwise. Materialism can only hold that any given narrative is subjectively equal, neither lower or higher, better nor worse.”

    Ah, but there you are in error, since narratives are not properties of reality, but of us. We can make global warming into a narrative, or animals on the Serengeti, or Harry Potter. Nothing is automatically a narrative, nor is anything completely resistant to becoming narrative.

    All the materialism/naturalism asks is that we not mistake narratives of fiction for those of truth.. it should be a simple distinction, really. Surely we also judge narratives subjectively, on how well they move us, since that is their purpose in part. But each value has its place.

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  6. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Well, we are real and our minds are real so in that sense the narratives we weave are grounded, at least, in that fact. Perhaps you believe your mind is not real nor tied to reality, but I will leave that to you. You may mean to say a narrative can be true or false, which is true, but the narrative of materialism cannot tell us such—and it simply exempts itself (as it pronounces all other narratives as subjectively equal-except mine!) but that just makes it question begging. It is your narrative that is fiction, but I give reasons for why it is instead of just begging the question. We could do that all day—it is completely unhelpful. And you miss the point. It’s not that we make global warming or any other single thing into a narrative; it is rather, that all these things only make sense within a narrative.

    You fail to address the point, which is that when one has a narrative that all narratives are subjective and neither moral nor immoral, neither good nor bad, better nor worse, it becomes self-defeating and simply baptizes the status quo.

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  7. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    I understand that you seek the one narrative to rule them all- sort of a LOTR or Wagnerian ring, etc. The problem is that we don't know what “all” is made of or how it works, or what the point is, so at that level we are simply making things up, like genesis and other origin stories, overarching ideologies, etc.

    Whether there is an extrinsic point (aside from the purposes we humans create with such facility) at all is entirely unknown, and the likely answer is the one that comes from us via the evidence of what we see around us rationally through such lenses as evolution and cosmology, which is that there is no readily apparent point. When we put our rational, philosophical, scientific hats on, we see a decided lack of intrinsic narrative/theme/point.

    Those are the hats of ideological materialism, as you would have it, but which I contend are simply the hats of realism- taking reality as it presents itself without the various narcissistic, mythological, and other projected narratives that we are so used to, and which drench Christianity, whether of the atheist or non-atheist type(!) That lack of projection is not, as you relate, psychologically satisfying, but it does provide us with a ground truth of what external reality says, even if it is not very much. A non-narrative, perhaps.

    Nevertheless, we can make all sorts of point & narative for ourselves as needed or desired. Traditionally, that has involved generating religions with numinous psychological symbologies and mysteries, and with whatever facile fake scientific explanations they can get away with into the bargain. But it could be Harry Potter as well, or having children, or watching one's garden grow.

    There are certainly narratives that are bad or good, insofar as they further what I consider my goals, or humanity's goals in general, all of which are subjectively judged from front to back. So, burning people at the stake.. that is bad, as is killing them in gulags, etc., as are the narratives that generate such activities. Materialism doesn't have much to say about all that, not being a narrative (or non-narrative) founded on subjective valuations, but it never meant to- for that we have to consult our subjective desires, which are so often expressed in the medium of narrative, whether completely fictional (e.g. religion) or sort of fictional (like the kumbaya approach to the African savannah, or rain forests, etc.). Likewise with morality- not a topic for materialism, but very much a topic for subjectively-founded narratives, which are infused with morality.

    The fact that the materialist narrative (or non-narrative) is not fiction is attested to by its universally compelling logic. That you are now a believer in evolution is testament this this.. the bare facts that are, properly understood, inescapable, whatever meaning you cast upon them.

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  8. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “I understand that you seek the one narrative to rule them all- sort of a LOTR or Wagnerian ring, etc…”

    No, but that is exactly what you are doing when you right something like this:

    “Those are the hats of ideological materialism, as you would have it, but which I contend are simply the hats of realism- taking reality as it presents itself…”

    So everyone else has a narrative but you just believe the “Facts” as it were. How convenient. That’s a nice narrative if you can get it! This is exactly the sort illusory view that leads to fundamentalism.

    “Materialism doesn't have much to say about all that, not being a narrative (or non-narrative) founded on subjective valuations, but it never meant to- for that we have to consult our subjective desires…”

    Well, it is a narrative but one that masquerades as just the “facts” or “science” when it is neither. But here you reveal the point of the post and the writer’s (plus Singer’s) point, which is that materialism cannot tell us what is “good” or “bad” only what is, therefore it does not care whether capitalism “wins” or some other economic narrative. Here you are agreeing with my very point. By the way, other than the fringe secular fundamentalist world, there is not a reputable philosopher or scientist anywhere who believes materialism (philosophical naturalism) is not a metaphysical narrative. You belong to tiny minority of crackpots if you really believe materialism is just the “facts” of what “presents” itself.

    “The fact that the materialist narrative (or non-narrative) is not fiction is attested to by its universally compelling logic.”

    That is laughable. It is in no way universal. It is a fringe and radical view. You are confusing categories. You are mistaking methodological naturalism with ontological naturalism.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I forgot to point out that I have, as an adult anyway, always believed in evolution and did so without the help whatsoever of any materialist. So I have no idea why you might think otherwise.

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  10. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Apparently I was being a little too subtle. The “just the facts” corpus is the product of methodological naturalism, as you suggest, but also leads to ontological naturalism as a default position, before we pour our subjective valuations and imaginative projections onto it. The distance to the sun is not a matter of narrative, and nor is evolution, basically.

    This is not a narrative. To get to narrative, we add all the things you are so keen on .. what is important to us, what is meaningful, beautiful, artistic, etc. That leads to all the art and art clothed as fact (theology) that we enjoy so much. This was alluded to in your cited piece by Mr. Tyson. What his alternate model was was a bit unclear, to be charitable. Other than a lot of name-calling and trash talk, I just don't see what your recent posts & cites have accomplished.

    The fact is that theology is factually false. Whether one then wants to save it by calling it art, or replace it with a narrative based on something true, is up the religionists. Mysterianism by itself, supplemented by postmodernist hocus pocus and sophistical rhetoric, isn't going to get the job done.

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  11. Burk Braun says:

    This blog actually has an interesting reflection on the dilemma.. though obviously he engages in exactly the same puffery and misdirection himself, in his dispatches piece. What will come of it all?!?

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  12. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    No, you were not being subtle at all—I got it. The recent posts were to simply show that materialism/philosophical naturalism is a fraud. They are false narratives. Even though they dress themselves up as “just the facts” and “science” and so forth, they are narratives and poor ones at that.

    The interesting part is that this is so obvious to many secular people, scientists, and even some atheists. You belong to a small extreme (fundamentalism) and should be given the same credence as creationists. You do not have a mainstream or broad range type of support for your views and that should give you pause.

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