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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Evangelical Atheism

I ran accross the phrase "evangelical atheist" in an article as a descriptor of a certain type of believer who not only thinks that atheism is true but that it is good news and is active in persuading others to discover and apply it. It reminded me that I once met a brilliant undergraduate student in philosophy who told me that she was an evangelical atheist. I have also met students who were devoted, active followers of Ayn Rand. Atheism is not just an opinion, its a message.

In this post I am not going to quibble much about the atheist/agnostic distinction. In practice, it involves only a difference in degree of belief and circumspection. Academic agnosticism may not know if God exists but it remains convinced the theistic philosophy is a waste of time and an abuse of reason. So I will use "evangelical atheists" to cover active self-styled agnostics as well.
What is an evangelical atheism (hence forth 'EA')? Clearly there are fundamentalist atheists around (often they are the "foaming at the mouth" or "village" atheists for whom atheism is doing other work than providing a rational framework or philosophy of life. And they usually are atheists fully, rejecting even the agnostic view of religion. This is atheism in obvious unhealthiness.

In contrast, EA is robustly healthy. It captures the highest powers of the human psyche and focuses them in productive ways. It is associated with, but not exclusively with, youth and captures the interest of those aspiring in society who have the greatest intellectual and aesthetic potential, as well as moral passion in behalf of liberty and human rights. EA is not ionly naturalistic in ideology but is pulled into the intelectual aesthticism and contemplative mysticism of the idea of a world completely homogenuous. One recalls the picture of Watson and Crick, in the PBS movie adaptation of Watson's account of the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule; that of the two young 'scientists' jumping back on their heels saying "No, no, no! Nature is beautiful, harmonmious" where the issue was beauty of the algorithmic pattern of a crystal. In such a state they are swept away out of themselves in raptuous contemplation as much as the mystic beholding the Beatific Vision.

The also have a palpable sense of Epicurius' discovery of the relief from oppressive guilt one receives if one gives up the notion of the gods and of immortality. If death is the end, there is no need to be weighted down with the oppressive sense of an impending judgement beyond life whether of a personal throne of judgement or a rational principle of karma. We need only tend to the wise cultivation of all our pleasures as whatever workd best. This is the atheist counterpart to justification by faith in protestantism -- a doctrine which removes the sting of death by removing the guilt of sin, which only has power when it is accepted and internalized.

There is also the zeal of a moral crusade. The leveredge of atheism provides the foundation of extracting all the balliwick of dogma that keeps mankind bound and gagged. Sure traditional morality is removed but that is a good thing. What remains are the minimalist obligations on us that impose themselves in virtue of there not being any real power to choose otherwise such as doing things that seek ultimately our own happiness. Consequently, things that stand in the way of this, like anti-sodomy laws or scruples, or ant-abortion laws, etc. get scraped off with a strong new broom. On the other hand no scruple keeps us from using force to redistribute wealth to everyone egalitarianly. Sure quibbles are still possible about what the best way to promote pleasure is, but once the arbirary dictates of tradition are either set aside or muted through complete parity of cultures, there is nothing stopping us from getting down to the buisness of doing the only thing we could possible be attracted to.

So we should try to discover if we can even more exotic and traditionally transgressive pleasures if we can, but yet there is also a sacred canon of truth which cannot be violated, namely science. And science is the excercise of construing our concept of the universe to as much as possible conform to the image of a homogenious aggregated unit, absolutely and explicitly intelligible to our concept forming abilities and data aquiring capacities. Whatever satisfies Ockham's Razor (wielded with Sweeney-Todd-like fury) is what we settle on as truth. Of course, we must have solid research to establish any particular point but in the meantime, the most remote unsupported explanation that conforms to the homogenuous concept of the universe as a closed system is better than any otherwise plausible and sense-making one that does not.

Summing up, it seems that point for point we can come up with an evangelical model of atheism that resembles an evangelical model of Christianity. Both have their sacred canon; Christianity has the Holy Scripture, atheism has Science. Both have their Messiah; Christianity has Christ, atheism has Matter. Both have their proclamation; Christianity has justification by faith in Christ, atheism has the insight that sin and judgement are not possible in the first place. Both have their spirituality; Christianity has absolute dependence on the Power of the Holy Spirit, atheism has the self-distancing and mystical encounter of the idea of homegenuous nature. Both have their ideas of the necessity of conversion; Christianity has the necessity of turning from sin and trusting in Christ, atheism has the necessity of turning from dogma and trusting in human calculation. Finally, both have their mission; Christianity to preach the good news of forgiveness of sins to all nations, atheism to liberate all mankind from the throes of prejudice and tradition.

This seems to show that the differentiation between fundamentalist, evangelical, and mainline not only applies to Christianity and other religions, it also applies to secular philosophies as philosophies of life. It seems clear that we can abstract the form of life called evangelical from its particular instances in Christianity, other religions, and atheism for consideration in its own right. For starters, the evangelical mood is one that combines sincere activistic commitment and belief with a healthy commitment to reason, balance and tolerance. It also represents humanity in one of its most productive modes, it is reform minded but not unduly violent and it is effective. Everybody should be an evangelical version of something or another, all other things being equal and we have good reason to aspire to an evangelical mood for its own sake.

But evangelicalism has its problems. Since one could be an evangelical Christian, or an evangelical Hindu, or an evangelical atheist, or an evangelical communist. Such exclusive commitments will necessarily come to loggerheads in society, they will fight for their views in the courts, they will insist on their rights to fair hearing and fair treatment. It may be necessary for different sides to recognize the "evangelical character" of the other side as a point of sympathetic contact.

But the most crucial implication of such an analysis is this; Being an evangelical is not a sufficient condition for being a Christian, it is possible to be evangelical robustly and not be a Christian. Further, if we admit that at least some Fundamentalists and Mainliners are geneuinely saved and Christian, then being an evangelical is not a necessary condition of being a Christian either. Christianity is not evangelicalism.

The Gnu

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