“We should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism...
[God's] intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame,
and is, in a true sense, the soul of the universe.” - John Wesley
Peter Rollins, Lawrence Krauss, The Guardian, Australia
by Peter Rollins
with commentary by R.E. Slater
November 15, 2013
Over the coming weeks I wish to write a few reflections concerning the discussion that took place between myself and Lawrence Krauss. This will be used as a means of getting to the heart of some critiques I have of the New Atheism movement as a whole. The main one mimicking the critique that psychoanalysis has with regards to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (namely that the latter doesn’t deal with the unconscious). Something that become evident in the debate with Krauss when he showed that he simply didn’t understand what is meant by the “death of God” and when he couldn’t fathom the way that fundamentalism was (structurally speaking) not an intellectual position but a means of protection against a trauma.
Anyway, for now I simply wish to publish a discussion Krauss and I had that was originally for The Guardian in Australia (but which wasn’t published because of the different lengths of response). The question that The Guardian asked us to talk about was: "Have the new atheists won the battle of ideas by proving that religion isn’t true?"
PR: This question might help us get to the heart of my problem with “New Atheism” (a term that is as problematic as “New Religion”). For the problem is not that it has gone too far in its critique, but rather that it hasn’t gone anywhere far enough.
I think the first great critic of the approach summed up in “New Atheism” was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who, at the twilight of the nineteenth century wrote a scathing parable attacking the cultural elite who took joy in proclaiming the end of religion.
The story goes that a madman finds himself in a marketplace seeking God. Because he’s surrounded by enlightened nonbelievers he’s ridiculed for his pursuit. But then the madman tells them that the God he seeks is dead and that everyone in the marketplace has killed him. At this point in the parable we find an interesting antagonism, for the madman is telling those who don’t believe what they seem to already know, namely that God is dead as an anchoring point in their lives, that God is an idea whose time has passed: But he is precisely accusing them of not knowing it.
*My limited understanding of the phrase "God is Dead" refers to the historical death of Jesus on the cross... at which point God (through Jesus=God) cedes provisional caretake of the earth and humanity over to the church and His Holy Spirit. This then countermands the normal meaning that "there is no God, never has been a God (or gods), and never will be one" kind of understanding. The first takes the "Death of God" in a deeply theological sense, while the latter in a common vernacular (atheistic) sense. - R.E. Slater
He goes on to say that, like a lightening strike in which we have not yet heard the crash of thunder, the impact of this insight has not yet hit them. They walk around feeling great about their “insight” without actually feeling the mad and horrific consequences of it. Hence, in a different passage, Nietzsche refers to a myth about the shadow of the Buddha remaining on a cave wall after the Buddha had died, commenting that the shadow of God still remains after the death of God and that the task set before us is the removal of the shadow.
*Here too it seems that in the proper sense of being a biblical sinner is one that places us fully in charge of our lives so that as a disbeliever (or atheist) one must fully remove God from very life itself as is possible. From religious holidays to momentous occassions (weddings, death, taking office, graduation, etc), from societal observances to personal tragedies and joys. To as literally remove God from one's life as can be possible while leaving in this space as much nothing, or human godlessness, as can be made. Leaving in its wake "mad and horrific consequences." For this is the truth to every lost sinner's life... that God is dead, and must be dead, so that there is no God found in this life or the next. Of course, as has been demonstrated in this link here, atheology is as fruitless a task as it is impossible task to achieve. Hence, Peter Rollins is pointing out the obvious in his own way. - R.E. Slater
In simple terms we can understand what this means by reflecting upon how none of us really believe that having a bigger house or better car will make us happy, and yet we continue to materially act as if it will. Or we might know that a loved one has died, yet we protect ourselves from the grief of that knowledge through a type of security blanket: such as keeping the room of our beloved exactly as it was.
The bigger house/better car/preserved room act as a fetish in the psychoanalytic sense of the term in that they act as objects that we know are not magical yet treat as if they are. A fetish object does not hide us from some kind of knowledge, but protects us from experiencing the psychological impact of the knowledge we already have. Just like an actual security blanket carried by a child doesn’t prevent them from knowing that they are in a room full of people, but rather protects them for the impact of that knowledge.
The critique then that “New Religion” offers against “New atheism” is a precise one… it has not felt the impact of its own claims, indeed it hides from the horror and madness of its own insights through its often bourgeois, detached elitism.
New Religion admittedly doesn’t sound like a very attractive proposition, for it is the place that one enacts this terrifying insight in a bodily way (through [new] music, poetry, ritual and liturgy). It is for the mad men and women, like Nietzsche, who are ready to hear the crash of the thunder in their lives.
My larger argument is that this experience of the “death of God,” far from being against the insight of faith, is its subversive, scandalous heart. That the event one wishes to experience in the New Religion’s “church” is precisely that cry, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me.” This is not an intellectual atheism [so much as it is] an existential one. It is an atheism that is felt at the core of our being (an experience which is open to those who are, intellectual speaking, theists, atheists and agnostics). However far from being depressing, it is in confronting this experience that leads to a fuller and more enriching life. So the argument of New Religion is not that New atheists have gone too far by proving religion isn’t true in the marketplace of ideas, but that they’ve failed to go all the way.
However, my counter-argument to this line of thinking, is that humanity must always be thought of as visual, symbolic beings always in need of their comforts and supports. To remove them is to remove the very essence of our humanity. Rather than seeing these as things as existential idols I rather see them as evidences (or testaments) to one's God-belief.... The trick is to not replace this Creator-Redeemer God with some lesser god, thing, or even self, as the Bible clearly narrarates time-and-again in the bankrupt lives of castaway believers and nonbelievers alike. Instead of torching everything down, the Christian is commanded to torch down all idols and let Jesus reign as fully as is possible within this life of ours. Which doesn't mean one must become a professional cynic, or monk-like stoic, which projects have been tried time-and-again within both Catholic and Protestant movements. However, even in these wild places the God one seeks can be as far away as our sinful, and proud, hearts will take us. This is the seriousness of the sin/atheism that we bear within our hearts and spirit, and the absolute necessity we correspondingly bear for a Redeemer God to come to us to recreate, rebirth, renew, and resurrect us within the cores of our beings. - R.E. Slater
LK: To the extent that I understand your point, I am a bit surprised. Why would one want to replace an old religion that doesn’t work with a new one that relies on angst? Moreover, at least where I live, the old religion is quite alive even if it is not well in the first world (in the developing world things are quite different. I do agree with you that it is experiencing slow death throes of realization that god simply doesn’t cut it anymore, but the response here is largely to retrench, to fight anything that might further god’s demise, and that fight can be extremely dangerous, and that fight is what many of the new atheists are trying to address. I can’t speak for others, but from my point of view, there are two messages: (1) hey, lighten up, this stuff is as silly as sex or politics, let’s treat it that way and, (2) the real universe is so amazing that we shouldn’t feel the loss of god is a loss, it is a gain, it opens us up to more wonder and awe.
PR: As a brief aside, the point I’m making is not that we need to replace the old religion with a new one but rather to discover the new that exists as a potential within the old religion. In other words, to draw out a liberating kernel operating within the actually existing religion, one that will crack it open like new wine in an old wineskin. While this might seem like splitting hairs the point is an important one. For I would argue that the most effective tools for ridding the world of reactionary religion are found within it.
I will however spend my response reflecting on your concerns over the idea of having a religion that “relies on angst.” This is where I must turn to Kierkegaard and respond that I’m not trying to create angst but rather draw out the way in which we are already full of angst and show how the best way of working through this is in facing it and tarrying with it.
There are broadly two ways to cope with our [existential/spiritual - res] angst: one involves hiding it/projecting it. The other involves making peace with it.
For Kierkegaard, the problem with angst was that it lurked within both everyday happiness and sadness. For him one could be happy and yet still be full of angst. Something we witness in the average nightclub, were one can’t help wondering what would happen if the lights went up and the music went down. Amidst all the pleasure it’s hard not to feel that the lights and the silence, combined with the awkward moment of looking each other in the eyes, would uncover in many an underlying sadness that didn’t just lie beneath their pleasure, but actually motivated their pursuit of it.
But in the same way that angst is deeper than both happiness and sadness, he argued that so too is joy. One can have joy even when facing difficult and sorrowful times. The point of the “New Religion” is to create spaces were people can encounter their angst, not so that they become enslaved by it, but so that they are freed from it just as talking about ones pain doesn’t strengthen it but helps to rob it of its sting.
In terms of the retrenchment you speak about in religion we simply diverge on our interpretation of it. The re-entrenchment of religion as seen in fundamentalism would, to me, signal not a security but precisely an insecurity. For instance, if I say to a friend that I think her partner is having an affair and she kicks me out of the house, telling me that she never wants to speak to me again, that is not evidence that she disagrees with me, but rather that she agrees with me but doesn’t want to directly confront her agreement. If what I said was something she didn’t know in some way her reaction would more likely be mere shock. The violent response is evidence of her own inability to face what she already suspects.
Within the religious world Fundamentalism is more often than not the externalization of an internal crisis. And here, once more, I would say that the most dangerous thing for these communities in crisis is not the position of the new atheist, but of those who attack from within (the “heretic” rather than the “infidel”).
You finish with two points. The first is that religion, like politics and sex, is silly; and the second being that the universe is amazing. I’m not sure I see why the first is necessarily silly while the second is not. Those who are depressed generally can’t place any value on anything while those who embrace life find it all incredible. In theological language, the latter experience a depth dimension in existence.
The majority of people who seek therapy go precisely because their desire is not functioning properly and everything seems pointless. The point of the “New Religion” is to help people face their angst, embrace life in the midst of unknowing and, in so doing, get themselves to the point were they can take seriously all of life.
What opens us up to awe and wonder is not a universe any more than a god: it is love. For those who do not love, the universe is experienced as meaningless even if they believe it is meaningful. While for those who love, the universe is experienced as saturated with meaning even if they believe it is not.
LK: Firstly, I agree there are seeds within the old religion to liberate people, and one can exploit some of the successful tools of religion, ritual, community etc. and we need to replace those positive aspects of religion with other sources when we get rid of it. Secondly, you misunderstand me. I agree the retrenchment is due to insecurity. However I don’t see that embracing that insecurity and that entrenchment will help. I see that ridiculing it will help. Thirdly, I am in awe of the universe, but I also think it is meaningless. Fourthly, the doctrines of religion are silly by any standard I can conceive. Moreover, taking ourselves too seriously is part of the problem, not part of the solution.