The Blindness of Christian Privilege February 19, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: anti-christ, Nietzsche, privilege
“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.[d] If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” [Matthew 15:13-14]
So, I’ve been reading Nietzsche again.
See, I went and got myself a Kindle. And I was getting free copies of all these books I already have (and will be donating many books at some point in the future to make shelf space for…something). And I downloaded a copy of The Antichrist which I have not read in many years. It is a fascinating book that makes many points that would be familiar to many gnu atheists. I have thought more than once of sending a passage to Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, or even PZ Myers because they all have reminds me of things Nietzsche has said in this little book.
So, then the other day, on the way home from work, I read section 32 of said book. Before quoting and commenting, I want to point out that Nietzche does not identify as an atheist*, although his views seem pretty consistent with how the term is used today. I think it is fair to consider him an atheist for the purposes of simple categorization (as if Nietzsche could be easily categorized!) but recognize that he didn’t self-identify with the term.
As an introduction to today’s thought, allow me to make an observation. Many atheist writers, especially ones I read, talk about how Christianity, or theism generally—perhaps merely the concept of faith itself!—is philosophically and even methodologically opposed to basic critical thinking, skepticism, and secularism. There is a real worldview difference between the very religious and the essentially secular culture which surrounds it. Some call it a culture war, and this label is as good as any I suppose, but it is at bottom (one is tempted to say de Bottom) it is a difference of perspectives, whether those at odds see the underlying methodological distinctions or not.
I think part of Nietzsche’s point in section 32 of The Antichrist to point out that the faith of the Christian is incapable of seeing this perspective for what it is—a privileged perspective. But before he can make any such observations, he has a few necessary bushes to beat around. He starts the section with the following:
I can only repeat that I set myself against all efforts to intrude the fanatic into the figure of the Saviour: the very word impérieux, used by Renan, is alone enough to annul the type. What the “glad tidings” tell us is simply that there are no more contradictions; the kingdom of heaven belongs to children; the faith that is voiced here is no more an embattled faith—it is at hand, it has been from the beginning, it is a sort of recrudescent childishness of the spirit. [links obviously not in the original]
Nothing surprising yet. Nietzsche several times observes the child-like attribute of Christian faith, not that this observation should be surprising at all given that this idea is native to the New Testament. For example, in the book of Luke, chapter 18:15-17 (NIV):
“15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” [emphasis mine]
But Nietzsche seems to see a significance to this childishness which I think many gnu atheists either miss, or is no longer largely true. Nietzsche continues:
The physiologists, at all events, are familiar with such a delayed and incomplete puberty in the living organism, the result of degeneration. A faith of this sort is not furious, it does not de nounce, it does not defend itself: it does not come with “the sword”—it does not realize how it will one day set man against man. It does not manifest itself either by miracles, or by rewards and promises, or by “scriptures”: it is itself, first and last, its own miracle, its own reward, its own promise, its own “kingdom of God.” This faith does not formulate itself—it simply lives, and so guards itself against formulae.
Now, in light of the history of Christianity, the evangelical nature of Christians throughout their history (and no sign of it slowing!), and the various formulas by which sects argue (with atheists and with each other), one might think that Nietzsche is being either naive or ignorant here. But Nietzsche is quite aware of the history and character of Christianity, and seems to be saying such to raise your eyebrows here, in order to set you up.
So, given that he is certainly aware of the objections rising in your mind, let us follow his bread-crumb trail to see where it is leading:
To be sure, the accident of environment, of educational background gives prominence to concepts of a certain sort: in primitive Christianity one finds only concepts of a Judaeo-Semitic character (—that of eating and drinking at the last supper belongs to this category—an idea which, like everything else Jewish, has been badly mauled by the church). But let us be careful not to see in all this anything more than symbolical language, semantics an opportunity to speak in parables. It is only on the theory that no work is to be taken literally that this anti-realist is able to speak at all. Set down among Hindus he would have made use of the concepts of Sankhya, and among Chinese he would have employed those of Lao-tse—and in neither case would it have made any difference to him.—With a little freedom in the use of words, one might actually call Jesus a “free spirit”—he cares nothing for what is established: the word killeth, whatever is established killeth. The idea of “life” as an experience, as he alone conceives it, stands opposed to his mind to every sort of word, formula, law, belief and dogma. He speaks only of inner things: “life” or “truth” or “light” is his word for the innermost—in his sight everything else, the whole of reality, all nature, even language, has significance only as sign, as allegory.—
In writing this, Nietzsche is pulling you in, especially if you are prone to seeing an ecumenical nature to religion. He seems to want to sketch the humanity of Jesus in order to create a larger picture, a larger historical and ideological contrast, of Christianity. Nietzsche here seems to be addressing the character of the ‘Saviour’ as a foil for the church which he sees as degraded and stagnant (“Oh how repulsive is this falsified light, this stake air!”). He is seeing the humanity hidden under ecclesiastical religion, a humanity too-well hidden by the finery of its tattered garb.
Here, Nietzsche the philologist comes through clearly. He is seeing the Gospels as a picture into a life lived by a man who stands prior to the dogmas of the church as they would become. It is here that the liberal believer, the ecumenicalist, and in general the respectable atheist can step up and try to claim Nietzsche as their own, as a representative of those for whom standing up and proclaiming that religion is a part of our humanity (even if it is not true), and we gnu atheists who despise and degrade it (as if it needed our help for that) ought to be ashamed of ourselves. But it’s not quite that simple.
Here it is of paramount importance to be led into no error by the temptations lying in Christian, or rather ecclesiastical prejudices: such a symbolism par excellence stands outside all religion, all notions of worship, all history, all natural science, all worldly experience, all knowledge, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art—his “wisdom” is precisely a pure ignorance of all such things.
And it is here we see the first strong glimpse of what Nietzsche is enlightening us to. From a purely formal point of view, Nietzsche’s cloaked criticism of Wagner here (the phrase “pure ignorance” is from Wagner’s Parsifal, which was largely responsible for Nietzsche’s turning into the greatest critic of his former friend) is perhaps an analogy of his criticism that lies beneath it. That is, this cloaked criticism is itself a clue that Nietzsche is not here cuddling up with the Gospels, but is rather creating a caricature, again a foil, of both the Gospel and its subject in contrast to the Christianity which we find ourselves faced with in modernity.
He has never heard of culture; he doesn’t have to make war on it—he doesn’t even deny it…. The same thing may be said of the state, of the whole bourgeoise social order, of labour, of war—he has no ground for denying “the world,” for he knows nothing of the ecclesiastical concept of “the world”…. Denial is precisely the thing that is impossible to him.—In the same way he lacks argumentative capacity, and has no belief that an article of faith, a “truth,” may be established by proofs (—his proofs are inner “lights,” subjective sensations of happiness and self-approval, simple “proofs of power”—). Such a doctrine cannot contradict: it doesn’t know that other doctrines exist, or can exist, and is wholly incapable of imagining anything opposed to it…. If anything of the sort is ever encountered, it laments the “blindness” with sincere sympathy—for it alone has “light”—but it does not offer objections….
This observation lies in stark contrast to one of the sharpest criticisms of religion by many new/gnu atheists today; that religion and faith are anti-life, anti-science, and ultimately anti-reality. And while it is true that religion is all of these things, what I think Nietzsche is pointing out here is that this is a perspective that can only be seen from the outside, from one who looks at faith from the outside, and not from the inside of Christian faith.
(Remember, one does not need to have faith to look at it as if from the inside. This is the essence of accomodationism)
The Christian worldview, insofar as it is child-like, is not against the world or its various useful methodologies, technologies, or philosophies; it is unaware of them. A young child does not misbehave because it is against the rules of behavior and social interaction, the child cannot conceive of them yet. The child is just being child-like, yet to become aware of the society in which it is swimming, just like the proverbial fish. In much the same way, one whose entire world is lived within the simplicity of faith, worship, and promised salvation cannot see the conflict inherent with those who do not live with them in that world.
They see the world outside as rejecting this simplicity, and cannot comprehend why those outside would reject it. They see us secularists as the source of the conflict, and whine about persecution and oppression of simply living their lives according to the values (not their values, because that would require awareness of another possible value). They cannot see that their own worldview (if they are even aware that theirs s a worldview!) is in conflict with reality—they have no concept of “reality” as those who are methodologically aligned with science are!
In the end, it is just another privilege. In this case it is a religious privilege which blinds them to their own ignorance—they are ignorant that they are ignorant. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out many times, they are in chains and glad of it. They do not see their imprisonment for what it is, and they act in ways that look like whining children to the rest of us. They demand special privilege, undue respect, and don’t understand why we don’t give it to them.
It’s for the same reason you don’t allow a small child to do whatever it wants. That child has not yet learned to be an adult, and so we protect it and sometimes find it adorable, but we don’t allow it free reign lest it destroy itself and the things we value.
*Consider the following:
“God”, “immortality of the soul”, “redemption”, “beyond” — Without exception, concepts to which I have never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child. Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them? I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: It is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers — at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!
Tags: humanism, Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, values
[EDIT: I want to add a quick note to this article because of some confusion that became obvious to me in conversation. I am not creating a dichotomy between atheists and humanists; I am commenting on the differences between people who prefer one title over the other. In my experience, which term a person primarily identifies with tells you something about how they view the issue of how to deal with religion. Do we take an oppositional stance or do we focus on our positive values which may overlap with religious values?]
Today, on facebook, I ran into this:
The ‘humanist’ label is a fine alternative to one of the hundreds of religious affiliations. It is certainly finer than ‘agnostic’ or ‘athiest’, as they define thenselves against something rather than for something….
Now, many people in the greater community of reason, of which I and the other atheists are a part, prefer the term humanist to atheist. Others prefer freethinker, rationalist, or….Bright (I dislike that last one very much, as do many others I know). I prefer atheist for a number of reasons. Now, this does not mean that I’m not a freethinker, a rationalist, or that I’m not bright (Oh, please stab me with a spoon!), but it means I prefer the term over others such as humanist.
But the technical fact is I am a humanist in many ways. The humanist ideals and values are things I generally agree with. The Humanist Manifesto, for example, demonstrates ideas that are largely similar to my own ideas, and where I might quibble or disagree it does not lead to a drastic difference of opinion. For the most part, I find the manifesto to be pretty bland and uncontroversial; its liberal and progressive Christianity without the Jesus, Reform Judaism without YHWH, unitarians without…well, it’s sort of like them, actually. My disuse of the term humanist is caused by the same basic reason that I don’t attend unitarian services; I simply have no need for it and I often feel like its just a little too much like theistic religion. As Nietzche put it, it is really a matter of taste–to much stale air!
Therefore, I don’t think that the quote at the top of this post is sufficiently convincing to change my attitude towards the primacy of atheism over humanism in my self-reference. The reason has everything to do with the quote above; I define myself as being against theism primarily. It is a value of mine to be against this idea of supernaturalism, not as a mere rebellion, but as a matter of recognition that it has more reach than humanists give it credit for. It has worked its tendrils into just about every concept, value, and sector of our culture in ways that make our attempts to be “for something” a difficult task if we value truly escaping the clutches of theistic thinking.
While I am not opposed to, and often support, the creation of new values and ways of life other than that created by our largely religion-infused western culture, the fact is that the predominance of that culture necessitates a defensive position in many cases. That is, the ubiquity of religious ideas, even where there is no actual supernatural belief present, is so suffocating that new values become unwitting atavisms. Humanist values, often thought of as being new or at least different, are usually mere secularized religious ideas, mostly due to the fact that religion usurped them millennia ago. But religion did not merely adopt these values in those ancient days, it changed them by infusing them with the anti-life message of sin, depravity, and shame. The stain is old and hard to remove even by those humanists who seek to become reborn out of religion–an image surely evocative of something.
Even among atheists, the acculturation of a religious ideas has infected the minds of people to such a degree that even when they reject the theology, they often still hold onto much of the structure of the morality and behavior. Atheists may not believe that we were created by god to live such a way, yet they still often hold onto archaic sexual norms, conventions of respect for people’s personal beliefs, and cultural definitions of relationships (such as marriage as being between two people of opposite gender). I have heard atheists who still suffer from discomfort with their own sexuality, try to shame me into not criticizing religion openly, or who actually argue against gay marriage or polyamory. Only the stain of religious thinking can be responsible for this (at least I’ve heard no good arguments which are not based upon religious ideas, ultimately). Thus, when people leave religion and create new ways to think, like secular humanists do, often their actual lives are not in any way truly new or revolutionary in any way. They just drop the problematic metaphysics and declare that the rest of their values are their own. I am somewhat cynical of this claim; I think their new values are often still pretty traditional and even conservative. But at least its an improvement over pure theistic religion, in any case.
I don’t think enough people in our culture are prepared for new values yet. I think too many people are incapable of conceiving of new values, and simply replace their old ones with new personas, while still the same deep down. Many pagans, wiccans, and other alternative new age religions are guilty of this. They hate or at least dislike their old religion, and so they replace the mythology with another, while keeping the scars of their religious foundations intact and very influential; they often don’t actually grow, they just change clothes. And many people still value the words, and what they see as the personality, of Jesus Christ. They don’t believe he is god, but they see his message as good. This is the essential problem; Jesus’ words were often insane, non-pragmatic, and dangerous. He is not the highest of moral teachers, he is a character of his time who idealizes for us bronze-age morality which we should have out-grown by now. The whole and central moral message of Christianity is perverse and vile, and it is holding us as people, as a society, and as an influential culture, back from truly growing and transcending ourselves. And while humanism is not trying to accomplish this atavism–or at least the slowing down–of our growth, it often achieves it anyway.
To truly create new values, we must do philosophy with a hammer (as Nietzsche suggests in his Twilight of the Idols). We must utterly destroy the values which we have before us. And if we find, after everything has been
smashed, that we create new values that look a little like those smashed idols, then so be it. But we, the atheist community, are still trying to teach new people how to wield their own hammers. And until all is questioned and all corners of our culture analyzed with the skeptical tools of science and logic and we are able to think more clearly about our history as a world of freethinkers, humanism will be a premature step for many people.
Don’t get me wrong. I want the humanists to keep up their program. I want those who have trashed their own cultural houses to keep building, but I want them to remember that there are many other people still smashing, as well as many more protecting their idols from those of us who want to hand them hammers. So, humanists, while you are attempting to build values for yourselves and for others to adopt when they are ready, remember that you still may have missed an idol or two, probably in the attic, basement, or perhaps you didn’t notice that you were clutching it. Also, remember that we new atheists are with you (in spirit), but someone needs to keep handing out hammers. And the title for such a person must still be “atheist.”
The pseudo-depth of religion October 17, 2009Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: illusion, meaning, Nietzsche, purpose, religion, truth
add a comment
We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture. There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle. I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.
We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things. The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need. And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function. The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.
I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end. It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.
It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love. And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world. These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence. And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.
That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning. The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood. And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world. For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.
In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.
But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way. A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway! A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:
Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial
And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another. Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself. The difference—it is indifferent! But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.
But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom. Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.
It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies. Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth. It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.
We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal. And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation. Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.
And so what of true depth and subtlety? What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?
We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness. And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives. We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.
So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary. They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave. But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found. But this is only an assertion. It is a promise that cannot be kept. It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face. It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.
The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct. They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different. Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way. Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold. And it is cold.
Warmth can only be found with one-another. And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning. It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.
When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim. The universe is deeper than we can comprehend. Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep. Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable. Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality. And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.
Perspectives on Nietzsche, Part I May 6, 2009Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: Nietzsche, philosophy, quote
add a comment
Man, rising to Titanic stature, gains culture by his own efforts and forces the gods to enter into an alliance with him because in his very own wisdom he holds their existence and their limitations in his hands.
Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy
I love reading Nietzsche. I think he is one of the most influential and yet misunderstood thinkers in recent philosophical history. This is just a bit of his earlier work that I find interesting. In the near future, I wold like to share some of my favorite quotes of Nietzsche and talk about them.
Today, however, I am trying to finish the rough draft of my manuscript for my book I’m writing, so I just wanted to give you a morsel to chew on. So, until later, I’ll leave you with another small chunk.
“What thinking person still needs the hypothesis of a God?”
(Human, all to Human, #28)