Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Atheist Imagination/Imaginary

[Originally extended February 19, 2006 at the old BrainMortgage offices.]

Rereading Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity* for my ethics seminar, I came across a pithy articulation of the nature of cultural change:

What the Romantics expressed as the claim that imagination, rather than reason, is the central human faculty was the realization that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument for cultural change.(7)
Now, we could take this and apply it to any number of ways liberals and leftists consistently employ vocabularies of disdain and denigration with respect to conservatives, particularly the lower class they so often see themselves as fighting for. But I want to think more specifically about religious belief and its place in the world, theism being one of those things about which many leftists and liberals are particularly disdainful, even vitriolic. They can no more understand religionists' belief in God or rejection of evolution than they can comprehend lower-class conservatives voting for W.

The problem with atheism is not that it's wrong as a religious position, but rather that it suffers from a two-fold failure of imagination. First, there seems to be (and I admit I am generalizing) a tendency among atheists to understand science as "disproving" the existence of a creator God, particularly as that God is represented in the Bible. Unfortunately, this simply reinforces religionist understandings of science by participating in a reading of creation narratives as history or science (which they are not). Evolution only "refutes" the creation account in the Bible if we think they are telling us the same story; of course, that is also the only context in which the Biblical creation account might be understood to "refute" evolution. Better to jettison the literalist/historico-scientific hermeneutic altogether and argue what is much more plausible and more compelling, namely that Biblical creation narratives try to tell us something about how meaning arises in the world, rather than making factual claims (whether we see them as true or false) about the history of the cosmos.

The second failure of imagination within atheism is that atheists haven't found ways of talking about living in the world that are more compelling (more useful to people, more aesthetically pleasing, etc.) than religious ways of talking about living in the world. Should we be surprised, then, that religious people don't adopt an atheist vocabulary? Maybe part of the problem is the naturalist bent of so many atheists: however creative they might be in their scientific or philosophical work (and many of them are . . . although many are surely not), they see atheism precisely as a logical problem instead of as a language game, and religious belief as simply the result of ignorance or misunderstanding, rather than as a failure of atheism to bring anything useful to the table.

The problem arises, it seems to me, when atheists (or theists) are absolutists about the veracity of their language game as opposed to any other, instead of seeing that language game as a means toward the end of a better world. Such people are perhaps more in service of "the Truth" than of justice or equity or even happiness, which seem secondary considerations at best. Maybe that is a good definition of religion?

Of course, this also shows us how the atheist who takes atheism as programmatic actually agrees with the theist/religionist who takes his or her religion programmatically. Both argue that the Truth is out there; they also agree on the kind of truth it is. They disagree only on the means of attaining it. When it comes to a just world, both will say that the (only) foundation for a better, more just, happier world is the Truth, which is only available to us from the perspective of my religious position. Only when we admit that no/my God rules the cosmos will it be possible for humanity to achieve its highest state.

Personally, I don't see the need to impose a vocabulary of atheism before or as part of promoting a vocabulary of justice. To see a discourse of justice as possibly only within a discourse of theism or, conversely, within a discourse of atheism, is to construct a language game that narrows rather than expands the idea of justice, which seems precisely contradictory to the vocabulary of justice itself.

That said, many if not most theists need to adopt more coherent religious vocabularies; specifically, they need to stop talking religion like it's science.

*Love that serial comma.

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