… CURSE GOD AND DIE! … Job, 2:9
The title of this reflection is intended less dramatically than it might appear. I’m still trying to understand this thing I have called “neo-atheism.” I realize that I have experienced something of it myself, and I want to explore this important and revealing phenomenon. As with Job’s wife, “theism” can take all sorts of forms; and not all are positive.
In my last communication on this question, I tried to deal with the “pointless” remark of the physicist Steven Weinberg. But Weinberg has written more on the subject than that famous aphorism. The more of him that I read the more I saw my own personal experience reflected in his attitude. For me Weinberg is a key to an understanding of this issue. I want to pursue that connection in this letter. What follows will apply mainly to me. Others can decide whether it applies to them …
In my first letter I used the term neo-atheist. But I sensed from the start that “atheist” was not exactly the right word and “neo-” was an initial attempt to nuance it. As I said there, I have a lot of respect for atheists … and with reference to the absurd supernatural theist “God” of our tradition, I consider myself one. If my own experience is anything of a reliable guide, the phenomenon reveals a paradoxical alternative. Let me explain.
The atheist is not an angry man. In my opinion, the true atheist has determined there is no personal source of the suffering and death that besieges human existence. That awareness doesn’t assuage the primary suffering whatever it might be, but at least it eliminates the secondary anguish, endemic to the religions of the Book, created by the maddening thought that “evil” has been intentionally planned or consciously permitted by a rational “God-person.” This same putative “God” was, furthermore, alleged to have the gall to claim that the suffering we undergo is good for us, or worse, that it is good for him (“his glory”) … and though he could, he will do absolutely nothing about it. Such a thought made me mad as hell. Apparently, it also perplexed someone else about 600 BCE … hence the Book of Job.
Weinberg himself gives evidence of an intense passion in this regard. For he doesn’t say his “atheism” results from the simple fact that “God” does not exist (something he always seems to avoid saying), but that the “God” of his people did nothing to stop the holocaust! Starting from there, the randomness he sees as a physicist persuades him there is no “God” who designed the universe. So I’m suggesting his “atheism,” in the first instance, is a reaction to a betrayal, and that establishes an affect, an “attitude” that doesn’t go away. I feel confirmed in that interpretation when I see that he makes use of his “atheism,” not as a simple fact, but rather as an insult. As if saying “you do not exist!” were the ultimate slap-in-the-face to a “God” who claims His very name is “I am Who am.”
… Am I projecting this onto Weinberg? Let’s listen to the man himself:
Religious people have grappled for millennia with the theodicy, the problem posed by the existence of suffering in a world that is supposed to be ruled by a good God. They have found ingenious solutions in terms of various supposed divine plans. I will not try to argue with these solutions, much less to add one of my own. Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers
— Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory
There is more than a modicum of sarcasm in this quote from Weinberg. It doesn’t sound like a simple declaration of “no, honey, there is no Santa Claus.” What I hear is open derision of “God” for his impotence or his unconcern … or both.
The next passage is from an article of Weinberg’s based on a talk he gave in 1999 at a science Conference in D.C. A link to the article follows. Here I’ll just include this paragraph:
I don’t need to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence that might have shown the hand of a designer. But in fact the perception that God cannot be benevolent is very old. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides make a quite explicit statement that the gods are selfish and cruel, though they expect better behavior from humans. God in the Old Testament tells us to bash the heads of infidels and demands of us that we be willing to sacrifice our children’s lives at His orders, and the God of traditional Christianity and Islam damns us for eternity if we do not worship him in the right manner. Is this a nice way to behave? I know, I know, we are not supposed to judge God according to human standards, but you see the problem here: If we are not yet convinced of His existence, and are looking for signs of His benevolence, then what other standards can we use?
— Steven Weinberg, “A Designer Universe?” A Designer Universe (1).doc
“Not yet convinced”? That phrase is the only reference to atheism in the entire paragraph and it doesn’t quite come across as a resounding declaration that there is simply no “God.” The whole piece is full of smoldering anger embedded in accusatory and disdainful innuendo.
It seems to me that once you decide there is no “God,” there’s no sense being angry, … there’s no one there to get angry at! Well, a lot of persecution has been perpetrated in the name of that “God,” and a lot of false expectation generated, so it’s understandable that there might be some residual anger. But how can Weinberg direct his anger at a “God” that does not exist? The inconsistency here becomes clearer for us if we imagined such anger directed at “Thor” or “Jupiter” ― “gods” that we all agree really don’t exist ― we’d call it nuts! The difference in our reaction corresponds to a difference in the “amount” of non-existence allowed to be there. What does that tell us about Weinberg … and about us?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying Weinberg’s claim to be an atheist, I’m just trying to understand the form it has taken for him … and for those of us who shared his feelings. But I believe it is not peculiar to us as individuals. It is a generalized phenomenon, I believe endemic in our culture. It confirms my allegations about the dysfunctional “theological” inheritance of the “religions of the Book.” An absurd and un-real “God,” in this complicated danse macabre, is alive and well in some strange way and continues to perpetrate deception and injustice.
What ends are served by such a subliminal mechanism? Well, for one thing, it means Weinberg does not have to attack Judaism and the perennial Jewish resistance to abandoning their traditions. Jews cling to “Yahweh” with a tenacity that defines them; their fidelity is the ground of their ethnic identity. So Weinberg is in a bind. He cannot berate his people for being naïve and uncritical. Were they to follow his recommendations, they would immediately stop being Jewish … or they would have to accept that being Jewish was only a biological inheritance ― having “Jewish blood” ― a capitulation to the worst of their racist detractors. As the sharp features of old ethnic Jewry fade into the melting pot of modern nations, such an identity becomes meaningless.
However, as a matter of historical fact, the original “blame” for the “God illusion” falls squarely on the Hebrew Scriptures. It was the Jews that provided the narrative and the anthropomorphic Biblical imagery that underlay Christianity and Islam along with their traditional intolerance. The “heads to be bashed” that he alludes to were the Canaanites whom the Hebrews were supposed to exterminate.
Jews, for Weinberg, are by definition victims. They cannot be considered perpetrators. Duped, maybe, but not the promoters of the illusionary “God” ― the “God” that ordered a holocaust of “heathen” in ancient Israel, justifies the genocide of Palestinians today and permitted the Nazi holocaust 70 years ago … events that are all related ― derived from the original commands in Deuteronomy (2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18). That’s the “God” that Weinberg claims must be exorcized by science.
The “God” of the Hebrew Scriptures atrophied about 200 BCE, and was taken up whole cloth by Christianity and later, Islam. Weinberg attacks that ancient naïve and simplistic imagery, long ago transcended by men of such scientific eminence as Albert Einstein. This following is from paragraph #2 of “A Designer Universe”:
You may tell me that you are thinking of something much more abstract, some cosmic spirit of order and harmony, as Einstein did. You are certainly free to think that way, but then I don’t know why you use words like ‘designer’ or ‘God,’ except perhaps as a form of protective coloration.
That’s the first and last we hear of any alternative “God.” A statement like this tells me that Weinberg is aware there are other ideas out there that exclude the notion of “design” (and “providence”); but he chooses to ignore them and confine himself to one that is intellectually shallow. ( By the way, please note: by not engaging Einstein on this issue, Weinberg is conspicuously passing up an opportunity to say, if he ever wanted to, that the very “sense of the Sacred,” no matter what form it takes, is the carrier of this atavistic “disease.” There is no reference to a “slippery slope” that leads inevitably to the horrors of Auschwitz. )
For my part, I propose that the ancient traditional notions of “God” are anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, naïve and simplistic, absurd and impossible. Those notions must change. Weinberg paradoxically maintains the very imagery that rationality (science) exposes as impossible, and by that, I submit, insures that the absurd “God” will never go away. For by insisting that “God” simply disappear instead of maturing, he foolishly chooses to disregard an ineradicable sense of the Sacred that resides in the human heart, which is the source of the myths of “God” and not the other way around. My guess is that by doing this he maintains both his Jewishness rooted in the ancient “God of the Book” and the exquisite intensity of his anger, justified as a defense of scientific truth.
I can only guess about Weinberg’s subconscious motivations, but I can speak with authority about my own. Chapter III of An Unknown God begins with a sketch of what produced a similar anger in me. I believed that the traditional “God” of naïve providence, being all powerful and all knowing, had to be unimaginably cruel. We may remember that Augustine, overwhelmed by the scope and intensity of human suffering, concluded that “God” must be enraged and implacably hostile to humankind to allow such things to happen. It was the basis of his theory of Original Sin. But even if you don’t believe that “God” is capable of either rage or hostility, you still have to ask yourself: how could “God” ever permit the senseless horrors that people are forced to endure?
If you answer, as I do, that there is no way any provident “God” could possibly permit much less intend these things, you are left with only two alternatives: either there is no “God,” period … or you are forced to rethink your concept of “God” so radically ― specifically to say that “God” is neither provident nor a designer (in any conventional sense of those words) ― that the very word “God” itself, as it has come down to us, can no longer be used. I absolutely agree with Weinberg that in this case to use the words “designer” or “God” is meaningless. So, at the end of the day there is only one outcome for all of us: there is no such “God” … the traditional “God” does not exist. In that sense, I too am an atheist.
But why the anger? Once again, I project from my own experience. Anger is not necessarily an undesireable passion. Rage at injustice is widely recognized as providing a welcome clarity of focus in a world otherwise riddled with complexity, uncertainty, doubt and confusion. From hollywood blockbusters to the justifications of military intervention, we have all been manipulated to a sense of sacred purpose conjured up by acts that “cry out to heaven for vengeance.” Anyone who has enjoyed the uninhibited energy that comes with righteous anger, as I have, is aware of its addictive potential. This kind of anger produces a “permission-to-punish” and an emotional distance from the target-object that allows for a forcefulness that can appear to be courage or clarity of thought. In any case it permits someone immobilized by doubt to act, and to act with power. It gives you a kind of prophetic fury.
My anger at first was directed at “God” for not protecting the victims of human oppression … and for not “moving” Christians in the right direction. But I avoided criticizing Catholicism and Christianity for many years … and ironically that went so far as to prevent me from re-thinking my basic beliefs about “God.” But why was I so protective of my “Church?”
“Catholicism” is distinguished from other “religions” by what is considered its traditional vision and pratice. For these purposes Catholics are not permitted to develop a new imagery about “God” because the recognizable features that serve for “Catholic” identification would be lost. The Catholic “doctrine of God” from this perspective has little to do with what makes sense, given what we know about science, history, politics and people, but is embraced rather for its role in providing shibboleths ― ritual passwords that authenticate membership in an ancient “club.” Beliefs stop being the vehicles of a realistic relationship with “God” and the world and become instead a mark of identity, an instrument of social cohesion, a ghetto glue that keeps the community together (and provides an essential individual and ethnic identity). In my case loyalty to “my people” was something of a sacred trust … and in order to keep me from attacking the foundations of social cohesion and my own self-identity, it pre-emptively kept me from thinking. It was all quite unconscious. I did not permit myself even to imagine alternatives to a dysfunctional theology, much less move in any practical direction that would make me unrecognizable as Catholic.
I was feeding off the continued existence of an intellectually dysfunctional “God” in order to sustain my identity and my “attitude.” I’m saying that I simultaneously asserted both membership and dissent by clinging to an absurd “God” who would not go away. But this “God” could not be permitted to go away; his presence and traditional character were required or the connections disappeared. It’s a “Texas two-step” from which the dissenter draws both identity and independence. All this militates against the re-thinking of “God,” which, to my mind, should be a normal, rational exercise incorporating the new information provided by physics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, political history, etc. But the continuation of the cherished identity and equally cherished anger stemming from a sense of betrayal demanded the continued presence of the traditional absurd “God.” This is a very strange “atheism,” … but, in my experience, a common phenomenon for the “religions of the Book.” Our ideas of “God,” after all, come from the same ancient source. The Book of Job never answered the question it set out to resolve. I know now that it couldn’t … the absurd “God” it took for granted is internally contradictory. It is impotent to do anything but perpetuate the contradictions.
The “God” of the Book: an ancient religious theory with no more claim to accuracy than the equally ancient hypotheses of science and cosmology from which it was derived. But how differently we treat these ideas! Science was allowed to mature and displace its forebears, but the corresponding “theology” was not.
Hence like me, people of the Book don’t begin by confronting the patent absurdities of traditional theodicy. They treat the ancient, pre-scientific “God” of the Book as if it were “God” himself. And so they continue to identify with their traditions and their people and shortly find themselves locked in a room with no exit. We have something in common with the wife of Job, who, unlike us, had no doubt whatsoever of the existence of that “God.” She was convinced that he, like every other powerful “person” she ever knew, was capable of cruel and vindictive behavior. Once this “God-person” had you in His sights, you were finished. There was no appeal, no redress, no one to turn to. She was sick and tired of Job’s pathetic excuses for “God’s” behavior and his expectations for relief. Once things got this bad, the verdict was in: he hates you; he’s going to torture you endlessly. She did not mince words: stop whining, “curse God, and die!“ It was an angry reaction. She was a human being, and could not bear seeing Job grovel before such a “God.” She may have hated “God” … but she was definitely not an “atheist.”
I am persuaded that like Mrs.Job, misotheists cannot conceive of the source and ground of the Universe in any other terms than the traditional designer-creator and autocratic ruler: authoritarian, punitive, micro-managing, whimsical, utterly self-involved, uncaring ― an individual “person” who, despite all claims to the contrary, abandons the poor, blesses the rich and powerful, is easily insulted, and “needs” to have his dignity acknowledged and his commands obeyed. Being human, and far superior to this “God” ― a gross imitation of a self-indulgent Near-Eastern Sheik or ego-obsessed Roman Emperor ― they are angry women and men. Like Mrs.Job, they rightly reject such a “God” and those who give him refuge.
Tony Equale, October 2009