Louise Antony on Atheism

In the NYT’s The Stone.

I was heartened to learn recently that atheists are no longer the most reviled group in the United States: according to the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, we’ve been overtaken by the Tea Party. But even as I was high-fiving my fellow apostates (“We’re number two! We’re number two!”), I was wondering anew: why do so many people dislike atheists?

47 thoughts on “Louise Antony on Atheism

  1. I suspect that the ‘New Atheists’ have a lot to do with it. It’s one thing to engage in a conversation and argue for a position. It’s part of the same thing to say ‘you’re wrong, and here’s why’. But it’s quite another to then stomp around in the throes of a hissy fit and dismiss your interlocutors as morons, bigots, repugnant, etc.

    For someone who believes, the subject matter will be controversial enough as it is. As far as I can tell, the ‘new atheists’ aren’t really interested in engaging with them on a rational or even an ideological level; they seem to be more concerned with selling their books thanks to their sensationalism and the level of vitriol they try to provoke in return. The result is a shouting match instead of a discussion, with both sides retreating ever deeper into their networks of trenches. It just doesn’t seem constructive, or beneficial for anyone.

    So yeah. I think that’s a big part of why atheism gets a bad rap. The other parts doubtless have to do with culture and other factors.

  2. Because atheism has manifested, particularly in recent times, as an attack on people who aren’t atheists. Really, why does this seem to be a big mystery for some atheists, even ones in the Cult of Gnu who spend inordinate amounts of time bashing theism and religion generally and Christians specifically?

    ‘The God of Christianity is a horrible, twisted, disgusting, revolting monster, and the people who worship him are backwards, malicious idiots who are engaging in child abuse by raising their children with their beliefs. I make sure to scream this to anyone who will listen, and cheer on those who say the same. Now, why do people who believe in God have such a low opinion of atheists? It is a mystery. They must just be hateful people.’

  3. It’s not just the New Atheists, Michel X. They’re largely responsible for recent attitudes, but the fact is that there’s a difference between mere agnosticism or non-belief, and “atheism”. The Cult of Gnu just amplified a tone and attitude that has always been there for a particular type of non-believer – one that even many agnostics find pretty off-putting. Hence the talk about ‘Atheism 3.0’ and Possiblitarians and others in a few quarters, with other irreligious who aren’t quite so nuts trying to carve out a term to differentiate themselves from atheists. The “New Atheist” contribution has mostly been to pick up some of the slower, angrier people to what was otherwise a largely ivory tower view, and to further cement the definition of an atheist as something negative.

  4. I grew up in the US, and the view of atheists as lacking in morality goes way back, much further than the “new atheists”. It’s certainly true that combative atheists like Dawkins are probably not helping the cause. But the US has long been an unfriendly place for atheists (outside of certain circles, that is).

  5. I had the same thought as Jender–that the “new atheists” are pretty *new* and that hatred of atheists has been around a long time.

    Also I would guess that the “new atheists” are probably known only to a very, very, very small segment of the American population–the well-educated who read a certain handful of publications. I became an atheist as a young teenager 15 years ago and my (working-class, non-college educated) family flipped out with all of the usual anti-atheist stereotypes. They had absolutely never heard of any of the new atheists (or any other intellectual grouping of atheists) at the time. In fact, they had probably never (knowingly) met an atheist at the time. So no it is simply not possible that the combativeness of a handful of new atheists today could explain why atheists have been looked upon so badly for decades.

    Similarly, if all that was behind the anti-atheist views of most Americans was the combativeness and sometimes hateful seeming rhetoric of like 5 new atheist dudes, then wouldn’t we expect that Christians would be the most hated group in America? Surely there are more fundamentalist Christians out there spreading hate (against gays, Islam, etc.) *and* trying to impose their religious beliefs in law on the rest of the country than atheists. Why wouldn’t Christians equally be the most despised minority in the country?

    I assume because (a) most people are perfectly capable of distinguishing Pat Robertson’s rhetoric from the actual views of the average mainline protestant or liberal Catholic and so do not hold 5 jerk-type Christians to represent ALL Christians and (b) because the anti-atheist sentiment really has little to do with 5 jerk-type new atheists and in fact completely preceded that movement. I’d argue that most anti-atheist sentiment is not of the form “these 5 guys are assholes, therefore all atheists are assholes” (which would in itself be bad a reprehensible form of prejudice), but rather of the form “Who the heck are those 5 guys? Anyway, atheists are dangerous people with no moral compass who can’t be trusted.” I’ve seen otherwise decent people insist that they could never, ever vote for an atheist for president even if s/he agreed with that candidate on every single political issue (and even though they would vote for a candidate of every other faith given that kind of agreement). Their explanation is that they simply cannot trust someone who does not believe in God with such great power. I believe Newt Gingrich (or do I have the wrong republican candidate?) said something extreme similarly just a few days ago–we shouldn’t trust people who don’t pray.

    Here is a study I’ve used in ethics courses during the section on religion and ethics to show how deeply many Americans seem to think the connection between morality and religion is: http://www.soc.umn.edu/~hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.pdf Here’s a quote from my powerpoint describing the study: “the authors (pg. 227-8) found atheists being associated with: criminality, immorality, drug use and prostitution, elitism, rampant materialism and lack of concern for the common good.” This is just baseless prejudice–the same kind of baseless prejudice that underlies the attitude toward any other despised minority. And it seems to all come back to the very thing Antony is talking about–that many people just don’t believe an atheist can be a good person.

  6. I think atheists, old and new, suffer from a messaging problem (as we say in the political world). They believe religion is destructive, both to the individual believer, those around him/her, and to society as a whole. They want others to be spared from this destructiveness, and so they share their beliefs.

    The problem is, this is exactly what religions do, and most people don’t enjoy being on the receiving end of it. That’s problem #1.

    Problem #2 is that atheists tend to package their beliefs in a “everything else is irrational” frame. Which means they’re telling everyone who doesn’t already agree with them that they are irrational. That causes anyone hearing their message to be on the defensive from the get-go.

    If atheists want to appeal more broadly, they should tone down the proselytization and turn up the altruism. Meet people where they are at. Recognize that most peoples’ intentions for believing in a religion are to better themselves and the world around them. Talk about the ways in which atheism is and/or can be a force for good. And for the love of science, don’t insult people who don’t agree with you.

    After all, this is complex stuff. A group of primates on one little planet only recently (in the geological sense) gained the ability to think this abstractly. Cut them some slack for trying to impose some order on everything they see around them. Show them you appreciate that they are making the effort.

  7. Has anyone succeed in finding the actual poll numbers? All I’ve been able to successfully do is find articles about the poll that give incomplete information about the relative ordering.

  8. I have some doubts about the Tea Party being the most reviled group, particularly since the latest Public Policy Polling figures show the Tea Party polling more favorably than Occupy Wall Street (which recently caused much hand-wringing over at Daily Kos).

    Anyhow, though, could the influence of Locke’s political philosophy on American civic life and institutions be a contributing factor? “[T]hose are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.” — A Letter Concerning Toleration [Popple’s translation]

  9. Oh, and Wes Morgan’s comment about a “messaging problem” got me thinking. I think many atheists also share the perception that there is a messaging problem, and I think there’s certainly some evidence to that effect.

    (That said, I’ve noticed that the first and sometimes last thought of the proponents of a less than fully popular idea is that there’s a “messaging problem”; the earnest contemplation of the possibility of a “message problem” is comparatively rare. I count myself here too. Just human nature, I guess.)

  10. It’s a very old story, isn’t it: philosophers think all religions equally false; magistrates think all religions equally useful. And I think Gibbon was quoting or paraphrasing Seneca.

    What I wonder about is the intense animosity to religion amongst “New” atheists. I do a little journalistic gig and the comments on my pro-religion pieces both on the site where I post and on other sites that pick up my stuff is over the top. For example this response to a light piece citing Pascal’s Wager at PZ Myers blog: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/08/faith_is_a_choice_made_without.php In responding to comments (I’m expected to give a few responses) I’d get shouted down simply for using the phrase “New Atheists”—the line being “Oh, you religionists are fine with us as long as we stay in the closet, are nice, and keep quiet [deleted].”

    Some of the responses I’ve got are off the wall. Most of these commentors DON’T (contrary to #5) distinguish between conservative evangelicals and “the actual views of the average mainline protestant or liberal Catholic.” And when occasionally they do, they make the case that liberal Christians are dissembling, or that we’re “enablers” who are surreptitiously giving aid and comfort to fundamentalists, or (one guy) that we’re blameworthy for not somehow controlling our fundamentalist co-religionists.

    I wonder where all this animosity comes from and, for that matter, how much of it is real. Some amount of it seems to be a cool, contrarian stance by young male blowhards—like libertarianism (political, not metaphysical). But there is certainly a residue of real animus and I don’t really get it. While there are probably a few commentors who were hurt by strong religion as children or who now live in the rural South or working class communities where church-going is de rigeur, and the churches around are fundamentalist, this is not where most people come from.

    South or working class communities where church-going is de rigeur, and the churches around are fundamentalist, this is not where most people come from.

    I wonder where all this animosity comes from and, for that matter, how much of it is real. Some amount of it seems to be a cool, contrarian stance by young male blowhards—like libertarianism (political, not metaphysical). But there is certainly a residue of real animus and I don’t really get it. While there are probably a few commenters who got beat up by strong religion as children or who now live in the rural South or working class communities where church-going is de rigeur, and the churches around are fundamentalist, this is not where most people come from.

  11. Harriet– I’ve made a small edit to your comment, removing a bit of hate speech. I know you were mentioning it, not using it, but it wasn’t actually a direct quote, and it seemed inessential, so I erred on the side of caution.

  12. There have been a few remarks on this thread about how atheists do various things to sabotage their own cause from a publicity angle. Be that as it may, general loathing of atheists in the US (and, once upon a time, in Canada and most other Christian countries) surely does not require for explanation that atheists be annoying or rude or imposing or anything other than different. After all, the history of prejudice against atheism in the west long predates the point in time when it became safe for one to admit publicly one’s atheism, and so by extension the point when it became safe to also be rude about it. To explain why atheists are the *most* loathed might require adverting to the special PR sins of atheists (though I really doubt it), but the bulk of the loathing stems from good, old-fashioned prejudice, I suspect, and the fact that, until recently, no one had taken anti-atheist prejudice very seriously and therefore done much to stop it.

    Just for example, when my mother was a teenager (in the early ’60s), she admitted to her parents that she was a non-believer. That precipitated much wailing and gnashing of teeth, notwithstanding that my mom was neither a proto-Dawkins nor evangelical about her atheism, and notwithstanding that her parents had never met or spoken to an atheist. There was no PR problem in that case.

    That’s not, of course, to deny that any particular atheist is a blowhard or a jerk.

  13. Now I’m getting ‘satiably curious: is there a break-down by region, age of respondents, educational attainment, income, etc. for hostility to atheists?

    When I was in my teens and expressed not belief but merely an interest in religion my mother ridiculed me unmercifully: her words still echo in my head “Who ever heard of a child being interested in such things?” Then followed the lecture about how, while religion was understandable in uneducated people and the elderly who were facing death, it was simply unheard of for a child to be interested in “such things.” On my mother’s view, it wasn’t belief as such that was bad—in fact it was good to the extent that it “kept people in line”—but interest that was objectionable, because it was “morbid.”

    But she never called herself an atheist—or anything else for that matter. Even then, before the New Atheists, there was something about the atheist label that suggested doctrinaire crusading crankery. “Atheism” was a positive stance with axes to grind—and, maybe what bothered people most, was that it wasn’t even clear exactly what the axes were, or why they were being ground. It does seem odd to call oneself, or someone else, an “atheist”–like calling someone a “tooth-brusher” or a “reader.” Intuitively, atheism is the default, something not worth remarking on. And that’s why calling oneself an “atheist” seems odd, and in your face. (And, please note, I’m a Christian)

    Is it really disbelief as such to which most people are hostile or the atheist label and the positive stance that seems to go along with it? I mean I wonder whether to some extent people don’t object to “atheism” for much the same reason that my mother objected to my interest in religion: it wasn’t belief or disbelief as such, but interest and the various agendas that might arise form it that unnerved people.

  14. My experience in growing up, Jewish, middle-class in the 1950’s, has some similarities.

    My mother was officially a conservative Jew and my father a reform Jew. They never discussed religion or God and they sent me to Hebrew school, where I had lots of disciplinary problems because I found all the religious talk to be “stupid”. Finally, I refused to be bar-mitzvahed and that was that.

    However, many many years later my father casually remarked that after the Holocaust, he stopped believing in the Jewish God and that he is an agnostic. He never talked about that when I was a child, and it would have been “in bad taste” to talk about it in my home.

    My parents considered anything “metaphysical” to be in bad taste to talk about, as they did anything that they considered to be an affirmation of beliefs that were outside the community consensus. They would have been equally shocked if I had become a Communist or a member of the extreme right or a outspoken atheist or an Orthodox Jew. That is, beliefs were a private matter (like one’s sex life) and at least outwardly, “reasonable” people, according to the family mindset, did not express anything that violates a very narrow consensus of “normal” opinion.

    That is, it did not matter much if I were inwardly an atheist or a communist or even gay
    (they never expressed homophobic prejudices), but it was clear that if I were to lead a “reasonable” life as they did (they saw themselves as epitomes of “reasonable” people), I should be a social Jew (who definitely should not let either religious beliefs or lack of them harm my possibilities of “doing well” in life), with middle-of-the-road political opinions, married with children.

    “Reasonable” people “did well” in life. No one who was not “reasonable” could “really”
    “do well”, although they could by chance or by non-virtuous conduct, get rich.
    “Doing well” had a lot to do with making money in the “right” way.

    There were very complex rules about what one could talk about (without facing a barrage of irony and sarcasm from both my parents), but definitely, expressing either religious belief or atheism was not licit.

    My sister passed through “mystical” period: the word “mystical” was used to describe my sister by my parents and always had a pejorative sense. I don’t recall what my sister did or said to earn the condemnation for “mysticism”. I was never “mystical”, but was often “sophomoric”, as I still am.

  15. It does seem odd to call oneself, or someone else, an “atheist”–like calling someone a “tooth-brusher” or a “reader.” Intuitively, atheism is the default, something not worth remarking on. And that’s why calling oneself an “atheist” seems odd, and in your face.

    I suppose there’s a sense in which that’s true, but given that the vast majority of people in the US are believers, and find non-belief threatening and dangerous, I think that this is the wrong way to think of things. The actual default position in the US, the one the large majority of people operate with as their going assumption in day-to-day life, is quite obviously that one is a Christian, and if not a Christian, than some other sort of believer. Given this, the idea that stating that one doesn’t believe is getting in the face of others is to suggest that minority views ought not be mentioned at all.

  16. Harriet and Matt, I would have thought that at most, some form of soft agnosticism, rather than atheism, could be thought of as a “default”. Though the proponents of natural theology might say that some general form of theism (deism, perhaps) is, intuitively, the default position. Of course, to describe Christianity or at least theism as the “default position” in the US is to use a different sense of “default”, if what we’re getting at by that is essentially just that it is the most commonly held position.

  17. Yes- I don’t mean the “logical” or “intellectual” default position, but the social one. That seems to me to be the relevant one for this question, especially since, for most people in the US, they never get to the point of considering the logical or intellectual issue. They were brought up in a religion their whole lives, and have always lived in a deeply religious society.

  18. Matt:

    How people believe their beliefs is the question.

    If one looks at the photos of North Koreans crying for the death of their Dear Leader, are they faking it? What does it mean to fake it or to be authentic in North Korea today?

    Similarly, I have no idea in what sense “normal” people believe what they believe.

    There is in any situation of conformity of beliefs lots of people who believe what others believe not because they believe the beliefs, but because they believe that everyone else believes them. And they are capable of stoning you to defend the beliefs that they believe in because they believe that everyone else believes them.

  19. Boy, brings back childhood. Where I come from the standard religious brands were Lutheran, Dutch Reform, Jewish, Black Baptist and, overwhelmingly, Catholic. Religion was just a feature of ethnicity. It never even occurred to me until late adolescence that it was possible to join a religion (or to leave one). There was no proselytizing because, as I think most of us saw it, religion was just something you were born into (and didn’t even necessarily involve belief).

    I never remember being condemned for no having any religion—it was part of not having an ethnicity: odd, but that was just the way it was. You weren’t German so you weren’t Lutheran; you weren’t Dutch so you weren’t Dutch Reform; you weren’t black so you weren’t Baptist. Etc.

    And isn’t this the way religious affiliation plays out in most of the world? To what extent, and where, is the US a “deeply religious society”? In my experience growing up, before getting to secular academia, religion was just an affiliation, something people took for granted, a marker of affiliation, but little more.

    world? To what extent, and where, is the US a “deeply religious society”? In my experience growing up, before getting to secular secular academia, religion was just an affiliation, something people took for granted, a marker of affiliation, but little

  20. I think that part of the suspicion about aestheists comes from religion’s ideas about God. Accepting or not accepting God is not at all like, e.g., wearing a skirt or wearing trousers for a woman. For believers, the divine word and the divine presence have a kind of obviousness or at least availability that makes atheists look like they are deciding against the deity and turning their backs on, according to most western forms of religion, infinite goodness.

    Christianity also saw itself as taking over paganism, which was thought to be pretty nasty, with orgies and blood baths.

    In addition, a lot of people think the threat of hell is a major deterrent. Atheists, lacking a belief in hell, can’t be trusted.

  21. In my experience, in the U.S. and Chile, most religious people don’t necessarily have deep religious beliefs, although they may affirm that they have them, when attacked.

    Religous beliefs mark an identity, as Harriet points out, and atheism, in some situations, may well be “dangerous”, because it does not fit into the “normal” menu of identities. Atheism isn’t essentially or instrinsically subversive: I just think that they haven’t gotten around to marketing it profitably yet: when they do, perhaps thanks to the New Atheists, they will begin to film sitcoms about atheism.

    Anything can be marketed and anything can become just another packaged identity.


  22. annejjacobson: Surely many believers don’t find the “divine word” (you mean like the Bible?) or “presence” in the least obvious. I don’t or know many other believers who do. There’s that problem of “divine hiddenness”…

    That aside, I wonder how much of this agonizing is cultural. According to one thing I read, Scandinavians regard religious belief as an “historical curiousity.” But most regard churches as pleasant, innocuous public institutions they’re willing to support through taxes—like their constitutional monarchies: nice for holidays and rites of passage. I’d assume that to them calling oneself an “atheist” would be like calling oneself a “tooth-brusher.” But as far as I know they transitioned from Lutheranism to secularism without any Marxist purge or French-style laicité program, and as far as I know there was never any intense hostility to atheists or panic about creeping secularism.

    I have a strong sense that this New Atheism is an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon—like Evangelicalism, to which it’s a reaction. Why is it such an issue? Seems to start from 19th century revivalism in the South and on the Frontier, their puritanism and political clout. They gave us Prohibition (and with it the Mafia). And the movement becomes Fundamentalism, an American phenomenon. Then there is the Old New Atheist response from, e.g. Mencken reporting on the Scopes Monkey Trial: religious believers are “rubes” and “yahoos,” stupid, bigoted ignoramuses beating up on educated, reasonable people.

  23. Harriet,

    I think that you’re on to something about Anglo-Saxon puritanism and the New Atheism.

    None of the big name New Atheist authors or even bloggers are ex-Jews or ex-Catholics, even though there are lots and lots of atheists who come from Jewish or Catholic backgrounds.

  24. SW and Harriet, I never thought about it before but the Anglo-Saxon connection makes sense. One thing that occurs to me is that much of New Atheism is pervaded by a particular anti-Catholicism whose pedigree seems especially Anglo-Saxon.

  25. Yup. Look at this for pure puritanical grinchery: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/22/us/santa-monica-nativity-scenes-replaced-by-atheists.html You think of Cromwell stabling horses in cathedrals or the lot in the Netherlands (alluded to by Spinoza) who fed horses communion wafers. These were Protestant campaigns against “idolatry”–not an atheist promo. In colonial America, in puritan colonies, Christmas was a working day. In fact, the Puritans established Thanksgiving as a godly alternative to Christmas–speak of the War Against Christmas.

  26. Harriet, i did say that the presence of God is obvious or available. I should have qualifed it with something like ‘many believers’. It may be that they mistake a cultural availability – tons of children are brought up believing in God – for something like an ontological availability. But whatever the source is of the idea that believing in God is the natural default, I’d bet something of the antagonism towards atheists is due to their being seen as making some perverse mistakes.

  27. ok. No big deal. I don’t do epistemology but think I get the idea: atheism is seen is odd, peculiar, an intentional, perverse rejection of the commonly accepted. I suppose this is the way it is in some places, but I wonder how many places these days? I’m a “religionist” but I don’t want to see either atheism or religious belief trashed as perversely mistaken. Going back to the original article though I certainly hope that the Tea Party will continue to be, legitimately, trashed as being perverse, mistaken, pernicious and stupid.

    Happy holidays all!

  28. Harriet, if people can reasonably disagree over the existence and nature of God and the implications thereof without being trashed, why can’t they reasonably disagree over (I’m quoting from Wikipedia on the Tea Party here) “reduced government spending, opposition to taxation in varying degrees, reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit, and adherence to an originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution” without being trashed?

    (And a happy Christmas to you, and happy holidays to everyone else!)

  29. Nemo, just my opinion. Because while metaphysics is innocuous, and inconsequential, politics makes a difference in people’s lives. And because I believe that “reduced government spending, opposition to taxation…etc.” the tea party and conservative political agenda is inimical to a decent world and human flourishing. Again, just my take, the most important thing for quality of life is to promote the establishment of social democratic welfare states. That is what matters, what is essential for a better world. Religion (much as I like and believe in it) is trivial and of little importance for human wellbeing.

  30. Harriet, regarding the last bit, as a Christian what’s your view on why Jesus should have thought it important to create a Church and to charge his followers to go make disciples of all nations etc.?

  31. From talking to my European friends, the idea I get is that their churches tend to be less political than ours are (at least in Scandinavia and such). I know part of my own personal frustration with America religion is just that – its interference in politics. Most of the opposition to things like abortion and gay marriage comes from religion. This tends to make atheists see it as a rather dangerous bedfellow.

    Philosophically, it’s a little hard to understand religious morality from an atheist perspective. The idea that morality comes from a powerful being up in the sky sounds to the non-religious a lot like dictatorship. It’s related to the previous comment – there’s a fear that “because God said so” will become a reason for action apart from any rational thought about morality. Not saying that all religious people are like that, but religion does often seem to be given a wider berth in things that would otherwise not be acceptable than a non-religious worldview would be.

  32. Nemo, I don’t believe that Jesus thought it was important to create a Church, or for that matter that he had any notion of creating one, or that he charged his followers to make disciples of all nations. Come clean and be honest: do you believe this, seriously, given Biblical scholarship? The gospels, which include this stuff, weren’t written until over a generation after Jesus’ death.

    JeseC, I think it’s quite possible to be a Christian and reject any special “religious morality.” I’m just a simple Utilitarian, though most people I know find this even more objectionable than religious morality. Religion is essentially metaphysics—claims about the existence of a supernatural being and post-mortem survival. And I don’t see how you can extract any “ought” from the metaphysical “is” any more than any other “is.”

  33. Harriet, I wasn’t asserting a belief, but I think I was making an implicit assumption about yours (sorry). That may reflect my ignorance about the christology and ecclesiology of Anglicanism (that’s you, no? Or I’m having a mental lapse – I thought I saw you were Anglican in something you wrote)..

    Biblical history is definitely not my area, although I infer simply from the fact that there appears not be a shortage of biblical scholars who profess belief in that very thing, that the scholarship is not necessarily a bar to the belief. Good point you make about the date as of which the Gospels were set down in their present form. Though it occurs to me to wonder — given that within 20 years after Jesus’ death his followers had not only spread to various cities but had already organized themselves into worship communities with some kind of ecclesial structure and were writing to each other (apparently without contradiction, or fear of contradiction, by people living who could have had direct familiarity with Jesus or his original disciples) as though this were the sort of thing Jesus had contemplated — why they almost immediately *acted* as though he had taught some such thing. But as I said, not my area.

  34. Nemo:

    This is a fairly respectable (whatever that means) project for determining what Jesus
    really said.


    One fairly standard account is that one faction of disciples wanted to frame Jesus and his teachings within the Jewish tradition and that another faction (led by Paul) wanted to spread the good news to the gentiles.

    Given that Jesus wrote nothing, the possibilities for distorting what he actually said are great. Take the example of Marx, who wrote and wrote, and yet 20 years after his death, the international Marxist movement was incredibly divided into sects each claiming to the true Marxists.

    Happy holidays to you and all.

  35. SW, I know some of the work of the Jesus Seminar. (I’m still tickled that Paul Verhoeven – the director of RoboCop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers – is one of that scholarly cohort). Your observation about theories of early Christian factionalism is well taken, although while Paul’s letters reflect that he and Peter, for example, sometimes had disagreement, there’s no hint that any of the numerous people who both knew Jesus and were still alive in the 50’s ever questioned whether Paul and Peter et al. were inventing the whole ecclesial and evangelization mission. That strikes me as significant, since there was obviously a range of opinion on the finer points, and also somewhat different from the Marx analogy. –But whether Harriet’s proposition that Jesus didn’t mean for his followers to organize and aggrandize any kind of durable ecclesial community is true or not isn’t so much what interests me here. It’s that I had heretofore assumed that its proponents (such as Hitchens, who asserted it in God Is Not Great, or certain Jesus Seminarians) didn’t include Christians among their number.

  36. Nemo:

    Excuse me if on a quick reading of your previous comments, I assumed more ignorance of early Christianity on your part than is the case.

    As you probably know, Nietzsche, who is certainly not a Christian, also says that Jesus did not intend to found a church.

    My reading on early Christianity in Wikipedia this morning informs me that literacy was very rare in 1st century BC Palestine: people are not even sure if Jesus was literate, so that gives those who write the sacred texts, for example, Paul, a lot of power to dictate the party line. The few witnesses to Jesus’s life (I also read in Wikipedia that it is probable that Jesus’s following was smaller than that of John of the Baptist during his life-time) may often have been illiterate, of humble origin (thus, more trained in submissiveness) and as unlikely to argue theology with Peter, Paul and Q as
    I might be to argue logic with Wittgenstein.

    Given the above, the followers of Jesus may well have sat back and let one or two forceful personalities (who also had superior literacy skills), such as Paul, change the direction of the Jesus movement.

    You reject the analogy with Marxism (I’m not sure why), but exactly, 20 years after the death of Marx, Lenin, as brilliant as Paul and with as forceful a personality, founded the Bolchevik Party, which although claiming to be truly Marxist, often has little to do with what one reads in Das Kapital.

  37. whether Harriet’s proposition that Jesus didn’t mean for his followers to organize and aggrandize any kind of durable ecclesial community is true or not isn’t so much what interests me here. It’s that I had heretofore assumed that its proponents…didn’t include Christians among their number.

    You’re posing the question of how reliable one has to take the Biblical narrative to be, in particular representations of the historical Jesus, to count as a Christian. I don’t see questions about the accuracy of Biblical accounts as central. What matters is buying the metaphysics–the claims in the Creed about the existence and nature of God and post-mortem survival.

    I am not a “non-realist” in theology: I believe that there exists an x s.t. x is incorporeal and the subject of psychological states, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent or close to to it. This I think most of the Jesus Seminarians reject and what makes them count as atheists rather than Christians–not their results about the historicity of Biblical narratives.

    The metaphysics is what matters–not the Bible or, I believe, the character of the historical Jesus, as distinct from his supernatural status.

  38. Harriet:

    What leads you to believe that Jesus has a supernatural status?

    (The above question is not the first move in a debate about the status of Jesus, but a simple question asked out of innocent curiosity.)

  39. The real question is “what does it mean.” Does it mean he knew more than his contemporaries, or even that he was a “Great Moral Teacher”? I don’t think so.

    To be honest, I’m a theist and as it happens Christianity is my culture-religion. There are interesting metaphysical claims about Trinity, Incarnation, Real Presence and such that pose intriguing puzzles. I’m interested in working out these puzzles. I say, ok, maybe this is the way it is. Let me see if it’s a real possibility, if it’s coherent and, if so, what moves we should make to avoid logical problems.

    I know this sounds a little thin, but I am committed. Though I don’t think anything of practical importance hangs on whether I’m right or not: this is metaphysics.

  40. Harriet,

    The stuff about “culture-religion”, is that something like T. S. Eliot (Little Gidding)?

    There are other places
    Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
    Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
    But this is the nearest, in place and in time,
    Now and in England.

    If you came this way,
    Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
    At any time or at any season,
    It would always be the same: you would have to put off
    Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel
    where prayer has been valid……

    That’s the second time in a week that I’ve had to look for this poem in my bookshelf.

  41. Yes I do like Eliot. But always with a little twinge because he’s one of those intellectuals who get religion and go contrarian conservative–socially, and usually politically as well.

    I was taken by his collection of essays, _Christianity and Culture_. I ache for this world where Christianity is embedded as culture-religion, but with Eliot and other religious contrarians, the vision is a deeply conservative Communitarianism. Usually with sniffing contempt for liberalism as the knee-jerk dogma of an unreflective chattering class, and always smugly anti-feminist. The paradigm case was C. S. Lewis–ridiculing the wife of his protagonist in one of his books because she’s a grad student working on a thesis on “John Donne’s Vindication of the Body.” She redeems herself when she gives up on it to become a Christian Wife. A more recent case that comes to mind is Frederika Matthews-Green.

    I’m a romantic, but not a contrarian. I fantasize the world of 4th century Constantinople Gregory of Nyssa describes, where tradesmen argued theology in the streets, where there are all these services, processions, legends of the saints, holy days, pious customs–all this ambient religiosity. OK, it’s a peculiar taste, but without it the world seems poorer, duller. It’s an impossible dream as it is, but the hard thing is: is it possible to have this rich religiosity without social conservatism? I don’t see any a priori reason why not but empirically, invariably, culture-religion seems inextricably linked to social conservatism and, in particular, anti-feminism.

    Sorry if I’m going on too much, getting too self-indulgent.

  42. Harriet:

    No, I don’t find your self-indulgent, quite the contrary.

    Actually, I’d say that you make things hard for yourself.

    When most people buy into a world view, they accept the whole package: if one is on the left politically, one becomes an atheist or agnostic, a vegetarian, and eschews strict childraising practices.

    In reality, there is no contradiction between believing in democratic socialism and making your children follow strict (but rational) rules, but in general, as I said, people buy their worldviews readymade from what is on the shelf.

    Similarly, there is no contradiction between believing in democratic socialism and accepting Jesus as your Savior. For strictly contingent reasons, during the French Revolution, the Church was a vehicle for reaction and since then, the left, following the tradition begun in the French Revolution, has tended to be anti-religious, in spite of the fact that many times religion has been a vehicle for progressive causes: the U.S. civil rights movement, liberation theology in Latin America, the Catholic Church’s stances against capital punishment and neoliberalism.

    In fact, there is a rightwing atheism too, for example, that of Ayn Rand and some of Nietzsche’s followers. I suspect that Milton Friedman was not a religious man.

    Maybe one of your many problems with the New Atheists is that the New Atheists have a package identity: according to them, if one is an atheist, then one is also liberal and scientific, while in reality, not all atheist are liberals (some are Marxists) and not all of them are especially scientific in their outlook (for example, Nietzsche or Sartre).

    Anyway, most of us buy the package or pretend that we do. There are lots of ideas in the leftwing circles that I belong to (insofar as I belong to a circle) that I find ridiculous, but I keep my mouth shut about them.

    You speak out about what you believe. That is admirable, but it can also be hazardous to your health.

  43. Thanks, but I’d say it was actually “sheer insensibility”–difficulty in controlling my mouth.

    But really this what we’re all about here, isn’t it–distinguishing entailment from contingent association. And what we teach. It’s tough working politically from this stance, with activists who buy agendas wholesale. And I’ve been Occupying lately, carrying my sign and keeping my mouth shut.

    In my cynical moments I wonder whether it’s worth it. The most disconcerting course evaluation comment I ever got was, “What’s the use of being logical when no one else is?” It’s one of those game-theoretical problems: the student is right, but it would be better for everyone if everyone was “logical”–and that seems to be the assumption on which we’re all operating, really.

    Anyway, happy holidays all and best for the new year!

  44. Harriet, thank you for your lucid exposition of where you’re coming from, which basically answers the questions I had.

    S. Wallerstein, I think the reasons for which I was doubtful about the Marxism analogy on this point are basically these, I think. Although Lenin claimed to be a true Marxist, he was almost immediately challenged by Trotsky and others (granted, those two were not part of Marx’s inner circle or even among his acquaintances). Yet do the disagreements of first-century Christianity include fundamental disputes about the term or basic concept of ekklesia, whether Jesus spoke of a relationship between belief in him and human welfare, or whether Jesus commissioned apostles? And did even Lenin and Trotsky disagree over similarly basic things (such as the overt acts of Marx, or whether Marx had in fact spoken of the oppression of the proletariat by capitalism)?

    Your speculation about the possibility that first-century Christians with firsthand or close secondhand grounds for accusing Peter, Paul et al. of inventing a church and an apostolic mission simply chose to sit back in silence seems at least plausible from the standpoint of human psychology. But it does not strike me as in any way necessary in order to account adequately for what we know about the development and spread of first-century Christianity – which again, in my case is admittedly not very much.

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