Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Insisting On The Possibility Of New Hope Even As Ignorant Armies Tweet By Night

The new atheism that was given a name in the 'noughts' of this millenium have had a result unexpected by the mostly scientists (Dawkins, Coyne, Carroll) and pseudo-scientists (Sam Harris and the rest of the soc-sci figures in it) and really crappy philosophers (Dennett, the Churchlands) and what passes as a "public intellectual" these days (Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer, etc. ) who fueled the popular attack on religion.   I felt that result myself in having to uncomfortably and finally confront the atheism I didn't have much of a concern about in a fundamental way.  For me it was on a then popular lefty political blog when one of the regulars made the declaration that "science proves that free will is a myth" and the gathered, largely infidel lefties didn't immediately see that that was a huge problem for the validity of democracy and the status of human beings as what the philosopher Paul Weiss defined as "a locus of rights".   It's no shocking surprise that a loudmouth barroom style atheist on a mid-brow lefty blog would make such an assertion, you can read essentially that claim made all over the atheist websites, from atheist scientists, it would seem to be one of the foundational ideological bases of neuro-science, cognative-science (if people still use that term) and huge numbers of associated and  allied "sciences" and the kind of philosophers who have the same relationship with science credentials that Freud claimed women had for men's penises.

If people are not capable of free thought, of free choice, of making up their own minds in a way that transcended the pedestrian, meaningless status of a chemical reaction then all of the basis of democracy is not only invalid, it is a futile delusion.  So is any claim that there is any moral imperative for equality or any kind of change in economic hierarchy.   That is blatantly and from the beginning a feature of the scientific literature of Darwinism which, itself was founded on the economic assertion of the British class system found in Malthus - ironically a man who had "his living" as a parson of the government subsidized  and degraded 18-early 19th century Anglican church.*

I think I may have sensed the trouble before that pivotal event, I'd read scads and scads of atheists going on about such stuff.   I'd read Sartre and Nietzsche and dear old Bertrand Russell, afterall.  I harbored a disgust of those only for Nietzsche because, looking back on them, he was the one who was most honest about the consequences of the widespread disbelief in God and the significance of morality and the inescapable demotion of human thought on the basis of materialism.   He lacked the inhibitions of politeness and the pretenses and respect for social norms that led more respectable intellectual atheists to not drive their claims to their logical ends or even the ends that we could expect from that claim of materialist atheism.   Nietzsche was inhibited enough to understand what that meant for all of human thought, including the science that was the motivating force of the "enlightenment" that led inevitably only into the darkness and despair of "ignorant armies clashing by night".

The consequences of a belief that "science proves that free will is a myth" are the kind of total disaster that Nietzsche presented - I think you can see that all over the place online, the "manosphere" which inspire a growing number of mass murder terror incidents is largely a place of scientistic, materialist atheism of the "new atheist" variety.   And I do think it's necessary to go there because what was tolerable when held by a bunch of contented cattle in academia quickly turns intolerable when it spreads to people with marginal social habits and emotional problems that are exacerbated when they get together online and feed each other's feelings of aggrieved entitlement and resentment and their TV-movie-videogame violent amorality.  I'm tempted to go into the atheist reaction to one of their own, Rebecca Watson, from the lowest dregs of Youtube  manosphere(Thunderf00t) to the somewhat fallen Pope of neo atheism, Richard Dawkins, to so many in between and wonder why an atheist of any intellectual rigor would have expected anything better of a movement that has within its intellectual foundation the perfect reason to negate anyone's status as a holder of rights and anyone elses moral obligation to respect their rights even to the most basic of self-determination and a right to society inhibiting or punishing those who feel a desire to violate their rights.**

Needing to "go there" in so many ways is a direct product of the new atheist agitation of the 1990s and 'naughts' because those pending questions of the consequences of materialist atheism were finally pushed to the fore.  When lots of guys really do buy the consequences of a belief in scientism, materialism and atheism the results will be a lot closer to the conclusions of Nietzsche than they will the clean-handed, clean nailed, socially adroit visions of a Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayers.   Even the brave attempt of the existentialists to find a replacement for a morality based in religion are doomed to fail because, relieved of even a pretense of intellectual engagement by the universal acid of materialist atheism, only the tiniest and least effective of minorities of people in the world will even know such ideas exist.

That is the result of that "enlightenment" which  is held up as the great salvation, the great liberation of a largely mythical and imaginary past - most of the college-credentialed people I've ever heard on the topic are pretty deficient if not entirely ignorant of the actual history, knowing only ideological polemical cartoon versions of it.  I have come to see the later day version of that as a revision to a pagan past with the material gods being subject to the forces of nature and fate and, eventually, mortality which are quite similar in both their conception and, to an extent, a belief in materialism.  I certainly think the status of equal rights and equality, especially economic justice under both is quite similar in social and political and legal effect.  Our present day law has a lot in common with the Imperial Roman system, it is ever farther from the Law of Moses, even as the neo-pagan pseudo-Christianity that is called "evangelical Christianity" has more in common with the state religion of Rome than it does the Gospel, the Law and, especially, The Prophets.

And it was always so.  The very Hebrew tradition, including Christianity and arguably Islam, was an alternative to those paganisms.   In "An Unsettling God," Walter Brueggemann continues from where I left off yesterday.

Israelite Hope Verses Enlightenment Despair

At the culmination of Israel's portrayal of reality is a certitude and a vision of newness, a full restoration to well-being that runs beyond any old well-being.  This culmination in well-being, assumed by the resolve of YHWH, is articulated in the conclusion of most psalms of complaint and in prophetic promises that eventuate in messianic and apocalyptic expectations.  Israel's speech witnesses to profound hope, based in the promise-maker and promise-keeper for whom all things are possible.

Israel refuses to accept that any context of nullity - exile, death, chaos - is a permanent conclusion to reality.  Israel, in such circumstance, articulated hope rooted not in any discernible signs in the circumstance, but in the character of YHWH (based on old experience), who was not a prisoner of circumstance but was able to override circumstance in order to implement promises.  This hope is not incidental in Israel's life;  it is a bedrock, identity-giving conviction, nurtured in nullity, that YHWH's good intentions have not and will not be defeated.  As a consequence, complainers anticipate well-being and praise.  Israel awaits home-coming, the dead look at new life, creation expects reordering.

All of this requires confidence in an agent outside the system of defeat.  Enlightenment liberalism, which sets the liberated, self-sufficient human agent at the center of reality, can entertain or credit no such agent outside the system.  Without such an agent who exists in and through Israel's core testimony, there are no new gifts to be given and no new possibilities to be received.  Thus, put simply, the alternative to Israelite hope is Enlightenment despair.  In such a metanarrative, when human capacity is exhausted, all is exhausted.  Ultimate trust is placed in human capacity, human ingenuity, and human technology.  It is self-evident that such a trust cannot deliver, and so ends in despair, for self-sufficiency is only a whisker away from despair.  Such a reading of reality engenders fear and hate, self-hate, and brutality.  But Israel, inside its peculiar testimony, refuses such a reading.

I state the contrast as boldy and sweeping as I know how.  The drama of brokenness and restoration, which has YHWH as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.   The primary alternative now available to us features scarcity, denial, and despair, surely the ingredients of nihilisim.

To be sure, for all its venturesome witness, Israel did not always choose cleanly.  Israel accommodated and compromised.  It practiced scarcity as much as it trusted generosity.  it engaged occasionally in denial, for all its embrace of brokenness.  It lived close to despair, for all its resources of hope.  The amazing thing, in my judgment, is not that Israel compromised;  it is that Israel kept its testimony as sustained as it did amid the pressures and demands of its circumstance.  It kept its testimony enough of a coherent assertion that it was able to say, in the voice of YHWH, to itself, to its children, and to any others who would listen.

"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to ther gods and serve them,  I declare to you today that you shall perish;  you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death,  blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;  for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob"  (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

I will point out to you that those three men mentioned in that last sentence were a pretty rhum lot.  Abraham in such episodes as his forays into Egypt where he denied his wife was his wife because Pharaoh was attracted to her, having an out of wedlock child with his wife's slave Hagar, only to send her and the child away when Sarah became jealous,  Jacob in how he hoodwinked his brother and father into giving him the birthright that was intended for Easu, among numerous other incidence, he wrestled with an angel sent by God, so he contested with God, in effect.   Wrestling with God and God's message is as monotheistic as that story.  It is not a stained glass view of conventional piety, it is a sweaty, sometimes bloody struggle full of every emotion from the depths of despair but also with the promise of eventual fulfillment.

This Deuteronomic assertion,derivative from the vision of Moses, provided durable enough for Israel that in its season of rehabilitation, Ezra could still affirm:  "Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God" (Nehemiah 9:31).  The choosing between construals of reality is something Israel always had to do again.  And the choosing is not finished yet. 

In the book Brueggemann points out that none of that is a guarantee and that since what is guaranteed is that people will not be consistent in keeping up with their end of it, all of the human institutions that are created, even those intended to be dedicated to doing that, will, at times fail and at times fail disastrously.   Every accusation and charge against religion, against churches, though, are a result of them failing to live up to the morality that they, themselves, hold to be true but which other systems and ideologies deny.  The promise isn't a guarantee of perfection, it is an assertion that better is possible. Change is possible, that people deserve that change because they have rights given them by God.  Atheism has nothing in it that makes such an absolute assertion of people having rights and moral obligations to respect the rights of other people and after so many centuries of they being able to find them in atheism if they were there, they have come up with nothing.

*  Typing that out, I'm struck at how Darwin's bulldog, Thomas Huxley had it as one of his foremost aims to kick out the religious figures who were prominent in the science and, especially, scientific societies of his day, a few decades after Malthus.   It is ironic that the very concept of natural selection he pushed as part of that and his wider ideological campaign against religion was founded on the assertions of such a parson-scientist, and from the most dismal of the sciences, economics.

It is also an irony that the myth of his confrontation with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce wasn't as is almost universally believed today, between an ignorant cleric and a crusading scientist, Wilberforce was a member of the Royal Society and a noted scholar of science.  In contradiction to the myth which was launched decades after the event on the basis of "recollections" of the atheists and agnostics and the reports of second-hand assertions,  Charles Darwin noted in Comeyian contemporaneous notes of the event that Wilberforce had, in fact, found every one of the major weaknesses in the first edition of On the Origin of Species.   If I had a dollar for every college-grad I've heard on the topic who misrepresents what it was and 10 for every time I'd heard it repeated in a BBC-PBS costume documentary I suspect I'd be able to afford a new laptop.

** LGBT people, Women, members of racial minorities, etc.  who think that atheism has anything to add to their campaigns for equality are mistaken.   There is nothing in atheism from which to construct any kind of durable claim for equality, for non-discrimination, for any articulation of equality.   Among the things I have had to face with the new atheism it is the fact that atheists have, in fact, argued against the status of human beings and morality that are the only basis of an assertion of equal rights and a moral obligation to observe the rights of other people when you don't want to.

The denial of equality is a guaranteed  result of any intellectual claim of biological determinism which, like the static social order of paganism, of Pharaoh, contains an excuse for inequality as it is even as it denies that moral obligations require equality or that such equality is even possible.   It really is all connected, among the foremost reasons for that is that materialism is a monist intellectual system.

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