Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (2)

This is the 3rd blog in a series, the first blog is entitled Atheism: Luminous or Delusion?    The blog preceding this one is Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology?  (1).  David Bentley Hart in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES offers a rebuttal to some of the common attacks on religion offered by “the new Atheists.”   Below are a few quotes from Hart regarding the philosophical assumptions which atheists make.  The atheists want others to believe that atheism is based in scientific fact, but Hart says their unproven assumptions are neither based in experience nor in logical deductions and so must be debunked as somehow representing a scientifically proven reality.

“There is, after all, nothing inherently reasonable in the conviction that all of reality is simply an accidental confluence of physical causes, without any transcendent source or end.  Materialism is not a fact of experience or a deduction of logic; it is a metaphysical prejudice, nothing more, and one that is arguably more irrational than almost any other. … The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all. ”    (p 103)

The Big Bang

Hart places the greater question of the existence of anything as at the heart of the debate between atheistic materialists and those who believe in God as the creator of all things.  What he contends that materialism cannot do is explain why anything exists.  That is a legitimate question which humans are capable of posing, but materialists cannot answer the question because they are limited in their answers to empirical reality – they must search for answers “from causes already internal to the world.”  Hart’s point is that this in itself is a belief not based in logic or experience but in a “metaphysical prejudice” – they say it is so, cannot prove it, but then act as if it is the unquestionable truth of the universe.

Hart’s insistence is that without some basis for beliefs in a transcendent truth, everything really is reduced to opinion, even if an educated one.  Every opinion can simply be refuted by anyone who disagrees with the opinion.  Thus a civic morality will not emerge from a completely atheistic society – they may imitate the moral precepts of the religious societies they reject, but they will not be able to sustain a morality because they cannot lay claim to any ethical truth above personal opinion, democratic rule by the majority, or the tyranny of those in power.

“A culture could remain quite contentedly Christian in all its convictions and still achieve space travel.  The mass manufacture of nerve toxins and nuclear weaponry, court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies, the miscegenation of human and porcine  genetic materials, experimentation on prison populations, clinical studies of untreated syphilis in poor black men, and so on: all of this required the scientific mind to move outside or ‘beyond’ Christian superstitions regarding the soul and the image of God within it.” (p 232)

Crematorium at Dachau

Hart’s contention is that precisely as societies have freed themselves from religious constraint have we witnessed the growth of mass murders, ethnic cleansing, racial extermination, on a level that no religious society was ever capable of doing.  Watch the UTube video on the Japanese Unit 731 during WW II.  Their emperor, thought of as a god, was trained in biological science, and it is to science that he turns to conduct some of the worst cases of mass human torture and murder under the guise of science ever conceived.  Some claim more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason, but it was science in the 20th Century that enabled the killing of more people than ever had been previously possible.   More Christians were known to have been killed under the Fascists and Communists than were killed in the first 300 years of Christian history – a time period in which the Church was outlawed by the Roman Empire and persecuted.  Rome lacked the scientific means to kill the Christians on a massive scale.

In the end, Hart waxes philosophical about what happens to human beings when scientific progress makes life easier and enables homo sapiens to have more leisure time and not to have to worry about the difficulties of life which used to cause people to turn to religion and gods for help:

 “… perhaps that is simply what happens when human beings are liberated from want and worry, and we should therefore gratefully embrace the triviality of a world that revolves around television, shopping, and the Internet as a kind of blessedness that our ancestors, oppressed by miseries we can scarcely now imagine, never even hoped to enjoy in this world. … When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape, and then become contented with his lot, and ultimately even rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment.” (p 230)

Some of us cannot imagine what difference it makes whether we can calculate let alone use in math the concept of “the square root of negative one” nor are we impressed that it helps solve certain algebraic formulae.    Some of us are hostile to let alone cannot believe in the existence of a God, nor can we see any purpose served by such an imaginary being.  The fact that our imaginations do not permit us to appreciate  certain concepts does not mean the concepts themselves are unreal or unimportant.  One of the greatest evolutionary gifts to humans is the ability to think and to know abstractly – this has made possible an understanding of the universe which goes beyond what we can normally perceive or experience.  Or as Hart contends perhaps we really will cease to aspire for things beyond our human limits and will settle for an ape’s contentment in life.

Next:  Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology?  (3)

Descent into Hell

FatelessnessI began reading Imre Kertesz’s   FATELESSNESS – it is a story told from the viewpoint of a 14 year old Hungarian Jewish boy, Georg Koves, who is sent to Auschwitz about 1944.   I found the book after visiting the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum a couple of years ago.  I have myself visited only one of the Nazi Death Camps – the one at Dachau (see my blog  Jesus Christ the Conqueror of Death).   I found the Holocaust Museum every bit as emotionally gut wrenching as I found Dachau.  What humans are willing to inflict on other humans is unconscionable and yet it is consciously and deliberately done. 

I am neither a great TV or movie watcher – one reason you rarely see me comment on TV on this blog.  I find human torture and suffering to be repugnant and yet our society has an insatiable desire to be entertained by it – the more violence and torture in a movie the more people flock to them voyeurishly  hoping to see some form of excruciating cruelty they previously could not imagine.   For my part I just don’t put the TV on all that often, and I am much happier for it.   I will also admit that I found our country’s willingness to use torture on our enemies to be barbaric and immoral.  Whatever “intelligence” we may have gained by torture, we proved we had already lost our intelligence through our willingness to torture.   Allowing ourselves to become inhuman (no matter how justified we think it is to do so) ever lowers the bar of our own humanity.  We lose as a society and we become increasingly accepting of lower forms of barbarism and indecency as shown by the media entertainment we purchase.

Kertesz was himself imprisoned in Buchenwald as a youth.  He writes his novel in a fascinating style of looking through the eyes of a young man who believes the world is to make sense, and he tries to find the sense and sensibility of whatever horrors he encounters. 

He arrives at Auschwitz in the same frame of mind – thinking he has now arrived at the work camp where he does expect to be given a job.  He is frightened by the “convicts” in their prison garments who unload them from the cattle car – the prisoners who work as guards.  He assumes the barbed wire and armed soldiers are there to guard the “convicts” and keep people like himself safe.  He wonders what crimes these convicts must have committed but has no sense that they are guilty of the same thing for which he has been sent to Auschwitz – being Jewish. 

Kertesz has Georg seeing the unimaginable but saying to himself, “which was understandable, of course, if I thought about it.”  Always trying not just to make sense of what he sees, but even to impose a moral goodness on it because it DachauIcon2was after all such an ordered world – this world of no God, no boundaries, no morality, no humanity.

“Everything was in motion, everything functioning, everyone in their place and doing what they had to do, precisely, cheerfully, in a well-oiled fashion.  I saw smiles on many of the faces, timid or more self confident, some with no doubts and some already with an inkling of the outcome in advance, yet still essentially all uniform, roughly the same as the one I has sensed in myself just before. … It was all very clean, tidy, and pretty—truly…”

In the world of a Nazi death camp – a world gone insane, a world in which the expulsion of God made everything permissible – there was total Teutonic order, precision, perfection.     All is tidy, orderly, clean.   Order masking the chaos of the abyss into which Georg and his companions were being forced to descend as their humanity was stripped from they; and into which their tormentors willfully abandoned their own humanity to enter.

Next blog:  The Holocaust: Not Hell, but Human

Deliver us from Suffering and Torture

In the summer of 2007, my 16 year old daughter had her first active and debilitating flare of Lupus which then developed into a much more life threatening Lupus Nephritis.   I wrote this meditation in the fall of 2007.

Watching my daughter suffer of course made me think a great deal about human suffering in general. I think about the Genesis 3 description of the Fall of humans and the consequence of that Fall. In Genesis the direct result to the humans of sinning against God is expulsion from Paradise and a life of suffering which ends in death. But mercifully, there is no mention at all in Genesis of suffering beyond the grave. No hell, no eternal or permanent punishment is envisioned. Death in Genesis is the final punishment. And in the New Testament, God in Christ saves us from sin and death. Death is the final enemy according to St. Paul. Thus we sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” The merciful God spares us from the ultimate consequence of human sin – He saves us from death.

Notions of hell and eternal punishment emerged much later in Judaism and in early Christian thinking. But the New Testament is Good News of God’s love for us and plan of salvation for us. The New Testament’s message is not – life is full of sickness, sorrow, suffering, after which you die and are then judged and eternally damned by God. The New Testament is good news for all, not just for Jews, or the rich – God loves us and saves us from eternal punishment by forgiving our sins, by Christ dying for us, by Christ’s resurrection which shows the separation from God has come to an end. Eternal hell is reserved for a special class of people who refuse God’s love and who refuse to love others.

Of course I write all of this while I am wearied of human suffering – while I am praying that God will forgive our sins and deliver us from the sickness, sorrow and sighing of this present world. Enough suffering already.

I am not writing any dogmatic statement, but really writing from my heart about existence itself.

St. Gorazd of Prague, Martyred by the Nazis

I have had a chance to read a few things as I passed away the hours in the hospital. I’ve read a series of sermons by St. John Chrysostom on the Martyrs. I also read a book on the Nazi Heydrich, “the face of evil” as he was called by the Czechoslovaks whose protectorate he ruled in 1941-1942. Hitler said Heydrich had a heart of iron (which even caused Hitler some consternation). Many felt Heydrich was Hitler’s chosen successor and the man perhaps most responsible for the death camps in Nazi Germany. Those who knew him said he had no human empathy and thus was willing to inflict all manners of suffering on others. He thought anyone who was not purely Aryan was not really human and so could be treated inhumanly and inhumanely.

Chrysostom in his sermons in the 390’s AD described the terrible tortures which the Roman government had inflicted on the Christians in the first three centuries of Christianity. Evil is ingenious when it comes to torture. One method of torture Chrysostom describes (he gave these sermons to the church in general, and one has to wonder whether people in our churches today would be too squeamish about such gore in a sermon) is that the Christians were made to stand before an idol, their upper arms bound to their sides with their lower arms and hands tied in front of them. The soldiers then forcibly dumped hot burning coals and incense into their hands (like dumping the censor in church into someone’s hands, or taking hot coals from the grill and placing them in their hands). If the Christian dropped the burning coals before the idol they were declared a pagan for making an offering to the idol. If they tried not to “make the offering” their hands were seriously burned and then after being left to suffer the excruciating pain of third degree burns which rendered their hands useless, later they were executed.

So staying awake long hours with my suffering daughter, reading about the torture of Christians, reading about the torture of humans under the Nazis, has also made me think that torturing other human beings, no matter who they are is wrong. Chrysostom even says that “no pious emperor (meaning a Christian emperor) ever chose to punish or torture a non-Christian man, forcing him to desist from his error.” St. John Chrysostom cannot even imagine that a Christian ruler would resort to torture of a non-Christian man. He sees torture as purely the work of the godless ruler. I know today many of us Americans are tempted to justify the use of torture in order to attain our goals as a nation. But if one reads the writings of the great Christian bishop John Chrysostom, and then reads the anti-Christian tirades of Heydrich (he hated Christianity) who accepts torture of non-Aryans as totally justified to protect the Nazi state and to achieve Nazi goals of world domination, then one has to really think very carefully about our own justification of the use of torture and which philosophy we are really following in this world.

I know some of you will find these last words “politically incorrect.” I offer them not as the dogma of the church, but as my own meditation on the suffering in this world.