[FoRK] Re: theism & atheism

Malcolm Greenshields < greenshields at uleth.ca > on > Wed Nov 22 13:34:24 PST 2006

Having read many of the posts re theism vs atheism, I guess I am 
mystified by the strange, decontextualized and maybe vain attempt to 
identify the true roots of our present distress. Its passion is pretty 
exciting, but it seems to ignore much of our recent experience. A lot of 
it issues from universities that could be considered among the most 
fertile offspring of the Church.

I have always thought that two of the most violent and destructive 
movements of the past century, Nazism and the various Eastern versions 
of Marxism, were generally considered atheistic if not 
antireligious;certainly their most enthusiastic members thought of 
themselves that way. Much of the opposition to them was distinctly 
religious. While this datum does not necessarily bear on the intrinsic 
merits of atheist and theist positions, it certainly suggests that 
religion as a source of so many ills may be overdrawn. Previous to these 
movements, there was no time in which most persons were not in some way 
religious. (Atheism was much feared and despised even by 
eighteenth-century deists such as Robespierre, although the English 
deist Tom Paine seems to have been less worried about it.) So it is 
difficult honestly to attribute particular episodes of behaviour we 
don't like to an influence whose significant absence cannot be 
estalished for most of history. We just don't have many cases before the 
twentieth century where we can show the effect of "no religion."

A lot of the animus ( although again, not necessarily the intrinsic 
worth of arguments) in the debate seems to depend heavily: a) on the 
acceptance of the barking lunatics and ignoramuses who often pass for 
religious leaders and spokesmen in the U.S., and their Islamic enemies, 
as typical world representatives of religion. This despite the fact that 
the fundamentalist/modernist controversy/scopes trial etc. fuss has been 
historically almost exclusively an American phenomenon since the 
Wilberforce-Huxley debates of the nineteenth century,  b) given that 
acceptance, on the further belief that millions of deperately poor and 
profoundly ignorant people led by powerful demagogues and mountebanks 
are somehow representative of the effects of religion rather than of 
poverty, ignorance, isolation, and abuses of power from all sides.

Currently religion may well sometimes be a sort of pathology, but it is 
probably just as often another tool of pathological impulses, one of 
those trite things that people repeat to sanctify some of the idiocy in 
which they are engaged, part of a popular cultural tendency to try to 
represent oneself with various unexamined pieties, whether patriotic, 
scientific, ethnic or political, that empower. I really enoyed the TV 
show (I think it was the Daily Show) where the faux interviewer was 
talking to a politician who wanted to insert the Ten Commandments into 
his State's laws in some way. Amazingly, or maybe typically, when the 
guy was finally cornered, he had to admit that he didn't really know the 
Ten Commandments.


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