To Postmodern and Back

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies,
dissensions, and quarrels about the law,
for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
(Tit 3:9-11)

To Postmodern and Back

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The influence of postmodernism on each of us is pervasive and ongoing because it provides the context within which we perceive our world. Yet, as a young person I identified with postmodernism as a movement with origins in the 1960s and liberal opposition to the Vietnam War. As an emotional influence, I started to realize that I was mistaken when I drove along the Berlin Wall in 1978 and noted the crosses marking where someone had been shot to death attempting to escape the “workers’ paradise” in East Germany. At that point, I realized that America stood for human rights not found anywhere else in the world, especially the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The contrast between the U.S. attitude about human rights and that of the communists could not have been greater. The U.S. Constitution, which had been modeled after the governance system of the Presbyterian Church, recognized the Bible’s teaching that:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

In God’s eyes, human life has intrinsic value because humans are created in the image of God. This Christian teaching is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. attitude about human rights. For the communists, who were officially atheistic following Marx, human rights consisted of only the rights conferred by the state and God had nothing to do with it.

The source of rights matters because people attempting to flee from communist rule were considered enemies of the state who had no rights and, if they were not shot, they were sent to work camps never to be heard from again. So, the crosses on the Berlin Wall evoked a strong and very basic emotional reaction in me. Rights conferred by the state can be rescinded by the state; rights conferred by God are eternal.

Later, traveling with my family through East Germany on the autobahn to Berlin reinforced this point; when I attempted to speak with an East German family in a restaurant, they were so frightened by prospect of visiting with an American that they shook visibly with fear. I returned from my year in Germany with a new attitude about America and a profound skepticism of any political movement influenced by leftist thought.

My emotional transition in Germany did not immediately influence other aspects of my thinking. After Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s right legislation in the 1960s, I came to believe that the world was fundamentally different from the world that my parents had grown up in, a view reinforced by popular culture—particularly music and the arts. This idea that the world had changed influenced especially my attitude in my studies as a economist. I thought—why do I need to learn all these old ideas because everything is now different? Naive as that idea seems to me now, at the time it was a huge influence.

As I proceeded in my doctoral studies, I began to realize that the world was not so fundamentally changed as I had assumed. Logic was still logic; English was still English; mathematics was still mathematics. Old ideas, especially about religion and human sexuality, were not suddenly null and void. In fact, in the context of a rapidly changing world, many ideas were being questioned that were really quite important. My having dismissed so many really important ideas was not only naive; it set me back in my studies and stunted my relational development. Intellectual flexibility (pragmatism) was good; ethical relativism was not so good.

At a very basic level, I started to notice, especially in my work as an economist, how many people did not do their homework in approaching problem solving and research. The assumption that the world had fundamentally changed in the postmodern era prompted a new kind of subjectivism that was highly destructive of good relationships among people and of quality research in economics—if everything is relative, why can’t the world just revolve among me? Faith in God works quite differently because God’s view may not be like my own and, if I am to evangelize my neighbor, I need desperately to understand my neighbor’s point of view. In a godless, secular society, no such objectivity is required.

In a very real sense, those crosses on the Berlin Wall reminded me of the one cross that really matters.

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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A defining moment in my understanding of my home country occurred in February 1979 when I visited Berlin and saw the Berlin Wall[1]. Driving through East Germany on the autobahn, we stopped at a rest stop for lunch. When I attempted to engage an East German traveler in conversation, he began to shake and could hardly speak. When I later saw the crosses on the wall where people had been shot trying to escape, I understood with deadly seriousness why the man was afraid—I was a American and he could be imprisoned for nothing more than talking with me.

McGrath tells the story of the rise of atheism, in part, through biographical sketches. Let me highlight three: Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

Karl Marx. Marx famously referred to religion as the “opium of the people”. He opposed religion and advocated its abolishment because:

“Religion…dulls the pain of an unjust world, enabling the downtrodden people to cope with its sorrows and distress, and indirectly encouraging them to collude with the existing order” (66).

Today’s overwhelming preoccupation with the material world is, in part, a reflection of Marx’s belief that “ideas and values are determined by the material realities of life.” (63) Marx’s cynicism had a very personal root. His father enthusiastically converted from Judaism to Protestantism after moving to a different village in Germany because it was good for business. Marx’s father insisted that he do the same (62).

While only 11 people attended Marx’s funeral with Friedrich Engels delivering the eulogy, millions died in Russia, China, and elsewhere over the next century as communist governments attempted to implement his ideas[2].

Sigmund Freud. Freud thought of religion as wishful thinking, an illusion (74). He is best known as the father of modern psychoanalysis. McGrath reports that he was an atheist before he became a psychoanalyst and became a psychoanalyst precisely because he was an atheist—for Freud, his atheism was a presupposition[3]. McGrath writes:

“His infatigable harrying of religion reflects his fundamental belief that religion is dangerous, not least because it constitutes a threat to the advance of the Enlightenment and the natural sciences. Freud’s approach to religion rests upon the perceived need to explain why anyone would wish to take the extraordinary step of believing in God, when there is obviously no God to believe in…Freud declared that religion was basically a distorted form of an obsessional neurosis. The key elements in all religions, he argues, are the veneration of the father figure (such as God or Jesus Christ), faith in the power of spirits, and a concern for proper rituals.” (70-71)

Interestingly, Freud drew his impression of religion, not from scientific study, but from an adaption of Ludwig Feuerbach idea that: “the concept of God was fundamentally a human construction, based on the ‘projection’ of fundamental human longings and desires” (68). Feuerbach was himself, like Marx, a student of Hegel and also a student of Schleiermacher (53)—the patron saint of theological liberalism in the 19th century. Feuerbach was largely unemployable as a theologian, in part, because he “lampooned Christianity as ‘some kind of insurance company.’” (54)

Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is best known for the will to power which has become the core principle of deconstructionism. For example, Vanhoozer (1998, 57) writes that “Nietzche, a non-realist, contends that meaning, truth, and the world itself are human constructions.”  This implies that those in power determine the construction of meaning and truth. McGrath (151) writes of Nietzsche: “If there is no God, or if God has become a culturally discredited notion, then there is no absolute values or truths.”  The death of God is accordingly the death also of meaning and the beginning of nihilism (149).

McGrath has a more sympathetic view of Nietzsche than many commentators. He sees atheism losing its appeal ironically because it has discredited its opponent—the church.  If religion is no longer a credible, cultural alternative, then its protagonist—in this case, atheism—likewise loses its relevance. This insight McGrath credits to Nietzsche (219).

Nietzsche, though a darling of many postmoderns, is usually panned by commentators because Nazi Germany put his ideals to direct use.  In a nation of equals, a person of supreme ability (übermensch or superman) can arise to assume leadership. Nietzsche’s will to power accordingly provided the intellectual bona fides for the idea of a führer (leader) which was employed directly by Adolf Hitler[4].  Death and destruction quickly followed.

Although the death toll due to Nazi death camps (circa 3 million by one account[5]) looks small relative to the deaths precipitated by the communists, the point is that atheism in its official manifestations has been a plague on humanity. So why have today’s secular culture and even the postmodern church so readily embraced the ideas that led to these horrors?

If God is dead, then we cannot have been created in his image and human rights are an anachronism, not an inalienable right. Without the existence of God, the intellectual underpinning of social justice is vapor in the wind. The Berlin Wall was a tangible reminder of how different life can become when God’s presence is not acknowledged—I will never forget[6].

Alister McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, is a helpful book to spend time with.  As my review suggests, interpreting McGrath requires background in modern and postmodern history and philosophy. Here in part 2 of this review, I have focuses on the some of the personalities of the High Noon of atheism.  In part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s argument for the Twilight of atheism.

[1] I was a foreign exchange student in 1978/79 at Göttingen University (www.uni-goettingen.de).

[2] Estimates are cited in the range from 85 to 100 million people killed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_killings_under_Communist_regimes).

[3] Jung, a Christian and student of Freud, was more sensitive to the needs of human beings for God in maintaining the careful balance between order and chaos.  He writes: “This is why the medicine-man is also a priest; he is the savior of the body as well as of the soul, and religions are systems of healing for psychic illness.” (Jung 1955, 240).

[4] For example, Metazas (2010, 168) writes:  “Hilter worshiped power while [he viewed] truth [as] a phantasm to be ignored.”

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extermination_camp

[6] East and West Berlin were separated by only about 100 yards, but they were night and day different. West Berlin was busy and loud, a lot like visiting Manhattan, New York during the day. East Berlin was deserted and silent like visiting a graveyard at night.

REFERENCES

Jung, Carl G. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933).  Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York:  Harcourt, Inc.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile Versus The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 2

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McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism

Alister McGrath. 2004.  The Twilight of Atheism:  The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.  New York:  DoubleDay. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Religion is composed of our core beliefs.  Just like every house must begin with a foundation, these core beliefs, hence religion, are not optional—everyone has them. Atheism, which means no gods[1], is a particularly curious religion because it is defined by what it is not. In this sense, it is parasitic drawing its strength from its host [2].  Because the line of argumentation in atheism is much longer than for traditional religions, atheism requires more intellectual energy to maintain. Nevertheless, atheism is popular because it makes fewer practical demands of its followers than traditional religions [3].  For that reason new flavors of atheism keep popping up like ticks on a dog.

Introduction

Alister McGrath begins his book, Twilight of Atheism, with a citation from Winston Churchill:  “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Atheism is one of these empires which McGrath defines as: “rejection of any divinities, supernatural powers, or transcendent realities limiting the development and achievements of humanity.” (xi)[4].

McGrath states his purpose in writing as:

“To tell something of the story of the rise and fall of a great empire of the mind and what can be learned from it.  What brought it into existence?  What gave it such credibility and attractiveness for so long?  And why does it seem to have lost so much of its potency in recent years?” (vii).

Official State Atheism in Decline

McGrath has in view, not every form of atheism, but rather official state atheism that began its ascent with the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and crashed with the Berlin Wall in 1989. McGrath goes on to write:

“The fall of the Bastille became a symbol of the viability and creativity of a godless world, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall later symbolized a growing recognition of the uninhabilitability of such a place.” (1)

Whis is Alister McGrath?

Dr. Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and, most recently, the new Gresham Professor of Divinity [5].  The Twilight of Atheism is an expansion of a speech given at Oxford Union in February 2002 (xiii).  He writes in 11 chapters divided into two parts—The High Noon of Atheism (chapters 2-6 and Twilight (chapters 7-11).  The chapters are:

    1. The Dawn of the Golden Age of Atheism,
    2. The French Revolution,
    3. The Intellectual Foundations: Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud,
    4. Warfare: The Natural Sciences and the Advancement of Atheism,
    5. A Failure of the Religious Imagination: The Victorian Crisis of Faith,
    6. The Death of God: The Dream of a Godless Culture,
    7. The Unexpected Resurgence of Religion,
    8. Disconnection from the Sacred: Protestantism and Atheism,
    9. Postmodernity: Atheism and Radical Cultural Change,
    10. The Atheist’s Revolt: Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Others, and
    11. End of Empire: The Fading Appeal of Atheism (v-vii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a list of references and an index.

The Priests of Atheism

Like another other religion, atheism has its priests. McGrath writes:

“Intellectuals became a secular priesthood, unfettered by the dogmas of the religious past, addressing a growing audience who were becoming increasingly impatient with the moral failures and cultural unsophistication of their clergy.  At some point, perhaps one that can never be determined with historical accuracy, Western society came to believe that it should look elsewhere than to its clergy for guidance.  Instead, they turned to the intellectuals, who were able to portray their clerical opponents as lazy fools who could do no more than unthinkingly repeat the slogans and nostrums of an increasingly distant past.” (49)

Ouch!  My guess is that the Scopes Trial in 1925[6] was probably a tipping point for American characterization of clergy as unsophisticated.

Atheistic Religions

The idea in my mind that atheism was a real religion was planted by McGrath’s discussion here .  McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.”(179-180)

In other words, atheism is a religion.  The reason why we care about this characterization is that religions dressed up as something other than what they really are has important implications for other atheistic religions that followed and transformed postmodern culture. For example, a non-religion, religion can be taught in public schools while a formal religion cannot be taught. Unmasking the priests of an informal religion is a critical point in responding to their claims.

Assessment

Alister McGrath’s book, Twilight of Atheism, is an erudite but accessible and fascinating read. It is refreshing to see such clear and logical writing. In part 2 I will focus on McGrath’s High Noon of atheism in terms of 3 key personalities—Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.  Then, in part 3, I will turn to McGrath’s view of the Twilight of Atheism.

Footnotes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

[2] McGrath writes:  “Voltaire’s insight is of fundamental importance to our study of the emergence of atheism.  His argument is simple: the attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions.  Reform those institutions and the plausibility of atheism is dramatically reduced.” (27)

[3] This is unlike Christianity, for example, which requires that believers model their lives after Christ.  Following a review of the sadistic and salacious work of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), McGrath notes that “Atheism made sexual experimentation legitimate and interesting.” (35)  In other words, rather than making demands of its followers, atheism offers them a kinky sort of freedom.

[4] Limiting is the key word here because a brief survey of any television guide will leave one in awe of the number of supernatural illusions referenced.  However, like other pagan gods before them, zombies, ghosts, witches, wizards, werewolves, and vampires make no particular demands on those that believe in them and model their lives after them.  Instead, they offer the illusion of eternal life and supernatural power without accountability.

[5] http://alistermcgrath.weebly.com

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial

 

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 1

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