Embracing ambiguity: Philosopher Pete Rollins. Photo: Fiona Morris
Open arms embrace the benefits of doubt
by Barney Zwartz, Religion Editor
November 4, 2013
Most visiting evangelists want to convert people to faith, but postmodern Christian philosopher Pete Rollins wants to encourage people to doubt.
''I want us to embrace doubt, complexity and ambiguity. If we don't do that we project our insecurities onto someone else,'' said the 40-year-old New York-based Irishman, in Australia for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas that ends on Monday. ''My dangerous idea is to examine ourselves honestly.''
On Sunday in Sydney his topic was ''to believe is human, to doubt divine'' and on Saturday he debated atheist polemicist Lawrence Krauss - ''it felt like I was invited to a papal audience. He didn't do a presentation or engage with me. He just wanted me to say what I believe so he could contradict it.''
Krauss, like many within the church, represents the certainty that Rollins, the apostle of doubt, wants to diminish, believing it is a carapace used to hide brokenness and insecurity even from the self.
Religion, he told Fairfax Media, was often about what people believe - if they can affirm a certain set of doctrines they will get to heaven.
''I'm more interested in how belief functions. Two people can believe the same things, and it might make one joyful and compassionate and the other angry and aggressive. I don't say people should doubt, I say we already are and don't want to admit it. We are full of unknowing and we suppress it.''
Doubt was natural to all, he said, but the church at its worst promised guaranteed satisfaction - ''we can make you whole and complete'' - and just looked like every other product.
''The world is a huge vending machine, and the church is one product among many. But Christianity is a sledgehammer that smashes the vending machine - God is found in brokenness, unknowing and doubt.''
Rollins said the church demanded people believe 100 per cent, but most ministers were full of doubts that they could not share.
Converted at 17, an Anglican, he became an evangelist. ''I would go out and convert people, and I was good at it. It was easy to get people to believe, because they want to, but we have to get them to doubt.''
He creates ''pop-up'' churches where people start to deconstruct their beliefs helped by poetry, art, music and reflection. Atheists and agnostics are welcome too.
Rollins, who has spent three weeks in Australia talking at churches and universities as well as the festival, says there is no point worrying about a looming crisis because we are already living in ''apocalyptic end-times''.
Is Fundamentalism a Problem or the Solution to a problem:
A debate with Lawrence Krauss
by Peter Rollins
posted March 11, 2013
Recently I engaged in a debate with Lawrence Krauss at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas under the title “New Religion vs. New Atheism,” (terms that neither of us felt comfortable with). My primary interest in this debate was to begin to test whether some of the tools I use when working in religious circles to break open fundamentalism might be of use in the context of New Atheism. The video will probably appear at some point, but for now I’ll give you the text of the argument I gave in my opening address (this differs a little from what I actually said as this is slightly shortened and I was extrapolating from notes on the day). I should also say that Krauss was bemused by my approach and felt that my arguments below were an exercise in “empty talk.”
I’m not here to beat Lawrence in some debate or win cheap points. Nor am I here to build an alternative fortress to New Atheism from which to lob flaming rocks. Or to be an apologist for some outdated religious worldview.
I’m here because I bleed, because we all bleed. I’m here because we are all a little like that perennial philosopher Winnie-the-Pooh who we are introduced to in the following way,
"... Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it...."
Like this bear it can often feel like we’re all bumping our heads as we journey through life. Not sure we’re doing it right and trying to find a slightly less painful way to journey.
So what has this to do with New Atheism?
Well I want to argue that religious beliefs are often used to cover over our anxiety and prevent an encounter with this disturbing feeling, and that, while New Atheism is better than the fundamentalism it critiques, it is ultimately caught up in some of the same problems as that which it attacks, acting as a new means of creating a sense of mastery, solidifying tribal identity, and ultimately hiding from us an experience of our unknowing.
To explore this I wish to make three interconnected points.
Point 1: New Atheism is a shadow of the fundamentalism it attacks - [moving from a critique of a system to a system in its own right]
Firstly, I want to argue that New Atheism treats fundamentalism as a problem rather than as the solution to a problem.
To understand this we can look at how alcohol abuse functions [in a person, or in society]. Excessive alcohol consumption is not the problem, but an attempt at self-cure, it is then the solution to a problem. If the person doesn’t deal with the problem for which the alcohol is the solution they will always struggle. Even if they do manage to stop drinking another symptom will simply arise whether that be chain smoking, excessive fitness or bouts of aggression.
In a structurally similar way, instead of seeing fundamentalism as a problem it is more helpful to see it as a defense mechanism that is providing a psychological service to the individual. Because of this, if someone gives up their religious fundamentalism and adopts a new system, without addressing why they embraced religious fundamentalism in the first place, the new system will simply function in the same way as the old one.
For example, in Northern Ireland, it is not uncommon to see a former paramilitary join the church. But generally the type of religious commitment they adopt has the same belligerence, intolerance and tribal signifiers/markers as their previous political fundamentalism. Why? Because their new found religious belief is functioning in the same way as their political fundamentalism. Namely protecting the person from dealing with a complex set of personal and political antagonisms.
In response to this, the New Atheist will point out that they are not advocating another system, but rather are offering the critique of a system. They claim that atheism is a religion in the same way that baldness is a hairstyle or health is a disease i.e. it isn’t.
However this answer fails to address the way in which even the rejection of a system can itself operate in structurally the same way as a system. In other words, “Nothing” can be given a positive charge and can act as a tribal identity.
This is captured beautifully in a joke that Derrida would tell of a Rabbi walking into a synagogue and publically saying, “I am dust, I am nothing.” Then a priest came in and did the same. Followed by an Imam. Finally the caretaker of the building entered and also said, “I am dust, I am nothing.” On hearing this the three religious leaders turn to each other and whisper, “who does he think he is, saying that he’s nothing?”
The simple point here is that even a negation can take on a substantive form for the one holding it, and thus can become a new form of protection mechanism. It is this that we can see in New Atheism, where its rejection of a religious system takes on [its own] religious texture and tone.
In contrast, the “New Religion” that I am advocating doesn’t operate at the level of what one believes (offering a new system), but rather asks how our various beliefs function. Inviting us to ask ourselves whether our various beliefs (and even our professed non-beliefs… “I’m not like them”) function.
Point 2: New Atheism strengthens the fundamentalism it critiques by directly attacking it
Secondly, it can be argued that, by directly attacking fundamentalism, New Atheism only strengthens its power. This is because fundamentalism, as a defense mechanism, is strengthened by direct attack. A defense mechanism, like the dark force in The Fifth Element, only becomes stronger when directly attacked.
Imagine that you have just had an argument with your mum. If I see this and berate you for what you said you’re more likely to defend yourself, even if you feel that you might have acted badly. In contrast, if I buy you a drink, have some small talk, and then ask how you felt about the argument, you’re more likely to admit to having overreacted.
The point here is that my direct assault on your actions naturally evokes a defense and ends up doing the opposite of what I want. Instead I must find an indirect means of bringing the issue up.
This, of course, presupposes that you have doubts over the position you’re defending, and this brings me to another problem with New Atheism: it treats fundamentalists as if they naively believe what they’re saying and thus the mere supplying of information will be sufficient.
However one of the weaknesses of fundamentalism is precisely found in its seeming strength, i.e. its aggressive overconfidence when directly confronted hints at the existence of a repressed or disavowed insecurity. The more aggressive someone is at being contradicted the more insecure they generally are. Someone who is genuinely secure in her position will not be angry when challenged, but rather indifferent.
The point then is that the more attacked a fundamentalist feels the more they will hold onto their belief, but the more they are given space in a non-aggressive atmosphere the more likely they are, with the right prompts, to begin to admit to their doubts.
The approach that I advocate uses parables, stories and the Christian tradition itself to create non-aggressive prompts that help people with repressive religious beliefs to glimpse the undying traumas hidden by those beliefs in a way that they can deal with.
This approach thus operates from within religious discourse, drawing out those central elements that break open new possibilities and allow us to glimpse the reasons why a person might be holding onto an unhealthy and morally problematic system.
Point 3: New Atheism isn’t well equipped to help people experience the humility it proclaims
By this I mean that we embrace a more humble comportment to the world, not through a change in worldview, but through rituals and communities that help us face our struggles and narcissism.
Take the example of breaking up with someone. If we complain to a friend about all the times our ex did something wrong and, in the midst of this our friend stops us to correct our interpretation, we might tell them that we already know that our interpretation is wrong. That we are well aware that we are not taking into consideration the other person’s perspective etc. The point is that we need to rant and rave a little so that we can come to accept that. In other words, we need the space to shout in order to get a better perspective on the situation, a perspective that we already are dimly aware of. More than that we also need certain activities to help in gaining a better perspective. Perhaps listening to certain songs, burying shared things, or just having a drink with someone who’ll listen to us.
Here we come to embrace the fact that we are not the center of our own universe at a deeply personal level. We can easily understand that we are not the center of the universe in a cosmological sense while still acting in a way that betrays our embedded belief that we are the center of the universe. In contrast, the approach being called here “New Religion” doesn’t seek to bring about a sense of humility by giving people the “correct” way of seeing ones place in the universe, but rather by helping people encounter their own violence and encourage concern for the other through the use of various rituals.
The “what” of our belief is important, however we need spaces were we explore how our beliefs function. Indeed often we can use the debates over what we believe to avoid the more difficult question of asking whether they are a symptom.
Take the example of Batman. He might look brave; going out and taking on the criminal underworld. However this activity actually comes from his fear of dealing with the death of his parents. His seeming bravery covers over a cowardly refusal to deal with issues. One might want to say that the result is still good, however the point is that Batman could make a far bigger impact on Gotham city if he spent his money on after schools programs, health care and job training, than on high tech military hardware.
In an analogous way fighting and dying for ones metaphysical beliefs can be the activity of someone who is unwilling to do the really difficult work of looking at why they hold them in the first place. It becomes easier to fight for them than question them.
So then, by directly attacking fundamentalism New Atheists end up taking on the same form (albeit as an antithesis) of that which they oppose. In addition to this they also strengthen their enemy by directly feeding it. Instead, what we need are places were people can lay down their various weapons and ask themselves what all the fighting covers up. It is at the level of the how that “New religion" (as it is being called here) operates.